Provence is the Mediterranean region of south-eastern France. It reaches from the Rhône valley to the Italian border and from the wilderness of the southern Alps to vibrant Riviera resorts. Apart from flat, watery Camargue in the west, the landscape is one of dry hills with picturesque old villages, terraced vineyards and fragrant pine forests. Provence has a long history and is rich in well-preserved Roman remains. Ancient but lively inland towns like Orange, Avignon and Aix-en-Provence put on world-famous art and music festivals. The main city is dynamic Marseilles, with a string of resorts stretching east along the coast.
There’s no need to be an expert to enjoy a game of pétanque (boules) on a holiday in Provence. Visit quirky old towns like L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue with its waterwheels, Digne for its perfumiers or Avignon, enclosed by massive medieval fortifications, to dance sur le pont (on the famous bridge). The brilliant red and yellow ochre quarries at Roussillon are dazzling. The coast is the place to relax: the sandiest beaches are west of St Tropez. In the evening, popular outdoor son-et-lumière shows at ancient ruins bring history to life.
Brightly colored fabrics and glazed pottery, fine leather goods and gourmet treats are on sale in narrow backstreets or shaded village squares. Big, busy markets loaded with fine produce and household goods are part of daily life in Provence. Among the best are Aix-en-Provence, Carpentras and Vaison-la-Romaine. It’s worth buying Provençal herbs, lavender-scented toiletries, premium olive oil and local wines. On the coast, you’ll find imaginative glassware in Biot and souvenirs in the lanes of Old Nice.
If your Provence hotel is near Nice or Antibes, you’re close to famous modern art museums devoted to the simple lines of Henri Matisse and dreamy images of Marc Chagall in one town and a huge Picasso collection in the other. Between the two, the village of Biot houses the vivid abstract paintings of Fernand Léger. The Maeght Foundation at inland St Paul de Vence is one of the world’s leading modern art collections. Relax at a concert or opera in the grand 19th-century Nice Opera.
Few places have such distinctive local flavours. Start with a cool glass of aniseed pastis (mix with cold water), then a rosé de Provence or rich Rhône valley red wine. Provençal garlic and herbs – thyme, fennel, rosemary, basil – season baked fish and braised meat. Plentiful ripe tomatoes, courgettes, peppers and aubergines go into vegetarian favourite, ratatouille. Salty goats cheeses are a tangy delight. Salade niçoise is refreshing and filling. Succulent spicy stews of local fish and shellfish – bouillabaisse and bourride – are served especially around Marseilles and Toulon.