Under the Provençal sun

Under the Provençal sun

Sarah Duff discovers the meaning of joie de vivre while wandering through
France’s most enchanting region

Shaped like a wedge of quiche in the very south of the country, Provence offers something for just about every traveller – fantastic food and wine, art and culture in the captivating cities of Arles, Avignon and Aix-en-Provence and the postcard-perfect settings of medieval villages perched on hilltops.

There is also plenty of opportunity for cycling and hiking in some of Europe’s loveliest scenery: lush green meadows and valleys, orchards of olive and cherry trees, rolling hills covered in vines, rows of cypress trees, fields of purple lavender and forested mountains.

The most difficult part of any trip to Provence is deciding where to go: the region is jam-packed with things to do, see, eat and drink, and it’s impossible to cover all of them on a single trip. Instead, slip into slow Provençal time, meander around beautiful roads without a map, havelong, lazy meals, and savour each moment as if you are a sipping a fine wine.


Village hopping

Several villages in Provence have been declared the most beautiful in France, and you could easily fill a whole week of your stay in the region just driving from one to another to wander around, soaking up the charming atmosphere, having coffee or lunch in the inevitably quaint village square cafe and exploring medieval ruins, dilapidated castles and old churches. While the villages have similar ingredients, each has its own distinctive character. Do not miss out on the russet- and orange-hued Roussilon, positioned high up ochre cliffs; Les Baux-de-Provence, a half-ruined fortified village in the Alpilles Mountains with spectacular views; Gordes, the quintessential medieval hilltop village; or Cassis, a picturesque coastal fishing village with fjord-like
creeks nearby.


A gourmand’s getaway

A big highlight of any trip to Provence is undoubtedly the food. Cuisine – and eating it – is a big part of French culture, and the Provençal region, home to dishes such as ratatouille, bouillabaisse, aioli and Niçoise salad, is no exception. Here, it’s all about artisanal goods, such as the exceptional fresh produce, which is on offer at weekly markets in villages and towns across the region. Make a truly unforgettable gourmet picnic by filling a basket with cheeses, breads, olives stuffed with garlic and herbs, marinated artichokes, tapenade, pistachio nougat, lavender honey and seasonal fruits and vegetables, from juicy cherries and crisp radishes to giant heirloom tomatoes and sweet plums. Pizza trucks parked in village squares dish out hot pies with creamy goat’s cheese, roasted Provençal veggies and herbs; casual bistros and cafes serve simple, delicious dishes, such as savoury galettes, pastas, gratins, omelettes and sweet crêpes (pair with chestnut cream or moreish salted-butter caramel); while upmarket Michelin-starred restaurants such as Ze Bistro in Aix-en-Provence and Le Patio in Arles for haute cuisine.

Provence was the first area in France to be planted with grapes by the ancient Greeks more than 2 500 years ago, and today, the region is renowned for its wines (particularly reds and rosés – only a tiny amount of the wine produced is white), so oenophiles will be in tasting paradise. While there are a few award-winning vineyards scattered all around offering tastings, and many wine shops in villages where you can sample the best local bottles, two particular places are worth visiting: the minute, ancient village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which is surrounded by vineyards producing world-famous full-bodied red wines, and Tavel – north-east of Avignon – which produces the best rosés in the whole of Provence.


The great outdoors

In between feasting and wine drinking, you can burn off a couple of calories by heading outside and taking advantage of the numerous great hiking trails in the region – there are 3 000 km of paths to choose from. The Luberon area, with a national park and wild mountains, has some of the region’s best hikes, and one not to miss is just outside the village of Rustrel, where there is an easy hike of a few hours that takes you through an old ochre quarry – a unique landscape in Provence. On the other hand, if you want to see the archetypal Provençal lavender fields, go to the lavender capital of Sault and hike the four-kilometre loop out of town through purple meadows (the flowers are in bloom from late June to August). To the south-west, the Alpilles mountain range has some really beautiful hikes through a landscape of rocks, caves and forests.

Cycling has always been popular in Provence, and you are never far from lycra-clad cyclists cruising along the narrow winding roads. Rent a bike and explore the cyclist-friendly area, or hop on a mountain bike to tackle some hilly gravel paths and mountain tracks.


Art history lesson

Provence has a number of historical gems, telling the story of its centuries of inhabitants, from the ancient Greeks and Romans, to popes, counts and even princes. Go to Avignon for the medieval fortifications of the grand former Palais des Papes and a beautiful 12th-century cathedral, discover Roman ruins all over the town of Arles, and stop off at the foothills of the Alpilles Mountains to see Glanum, the ruins of a city that’s over two millennia old and one of Europe’s most ancient archaeological sites.

Aix-en-Provence was the capital of Provence in the Middle Ages, and today is the region’s cultural capital, with a wealth of architectural treasures and some wonderful history museums.

The region has long attracted artists who were inspired by the light and landscapes, such as Cézanne, who was born in Aix. You can visit his family mansion and studio, which still looks the way he left it when he died more than a century ago.

Van Gogh is one of Provence’s most famous resident artists, and you can’t travel around the region’s spectacular countryside without recalling his vibrant paintings of cypresses, olive groves and pastoral scenes. He was hospitalised for the last year of his life in Saint-Paul de Mausole, a former monastery outside the town of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, where some of his very best known works were painted, for example The Starry Night. A one-kilometre walk leads from the town centre to the sanatorium, with placards of Van Gogh’s paintings situated in the places where he painted them. Saint-Paul de Mausole is serene and beautiful, with lovely gardens and old buildings to explore, as well as Van Gogh’s bedroom. The artist also lived in Arles, and you can walk the city to discover the places he captured on canvas, such as the tiny bistro featured in The Night Café.

Photography: Gallo/GettyImages, Greatstock/Masterfile, iStockphoto
August/September 2016


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