Provence Experiences
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Provence Experiences
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Why Provence?

Provence offers one of the most complete holiday experiences/lifestyles available in the world.

The scenery is stunning with the Luberon national park, Les Alpilles region, and Les Calanques (between Cassis and Marseille) offering amazing walking and cycling territory. For the more sedate, Provence has a seemingly endless supply of enchanting villages to discover. Never have cafe terraces been so enticing. It's possible to lose entire afternoons just sitting and watching the world go by.

For culture vultures Provence has an unrivaled artistic heritage, with its celebrated light inspiring artists such as Van Gogh and Cezanne. Today their work, and that of other world famous artists is celebrated in the major cultural centres of Aix en Provence, Arles and Avignon.

Still need a reason to visit? The seaside is simply stunning with ports such as Cassis competing with better known Riviera destinations such as St Tropez for easiness on the eye. Nature lovers will adore the wilderness of the Camargue, and getting off the beaten track by taking a horse ride into the flamingo filled salt marshes.

For the gastronomic Provence has the cuisine of numerous Michelin starred restaurants offering their take on classic Provencal dishes. And of course Provence is filled with the most marvelous vineyards. The quality of Provencal wine gets better with each passing year. There are plenty of Provence wine tours available, or visitors can choose to just explore by themselves.

Golfers will find plenty of courses to delight them in and around Aix en Provence and Avignon. In particular the Seve Ballesteros designed Pont Royal is a great challenge as well as being scenically spectacular. Near the antique centre of L'Isle Sur La Sorgue, the Provence Country Club is a mature and challenging park land course. With stunning views of the Les Baux de Provence medieval citadel and conveniently located for Saint Remy de Provence, Domaine de Manville is the latest 18 hole addition to the region. Located in the grounds of a 5 star hotel, there are villa and golf lodge rentals available as well as hotel rooms. Just up the road outside the village of Mouries is the Golf du Servannes, a long established course set in the rocky heart of Les Alpilles. Near Manosque Golf du Luberon is an undulating scenic park land course. In Winter, Spring and Late Autumn, there are often stunning views of the snow capped Alps in the distance.

           

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Provence Experiences
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When to visit

Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring

The climate means that year round people can plan vacations and tours of Provence. The majority of tourists visit Provence during the months of July and August. The weather is normally warm and sunny with an average temperature of around 35 degrees. Hotels are full, as are rental villas. There is a full program of festivities in the cities and villages. Market days are so busy it can be hard to find a parking space. Life is lived to a distinct rhythm dictated by the heat. It's best to rise early to fully enjoy Provence before the sun becomes to fierce. In the afternoon take a siesta or relax by the pool. Then an aperitif at dusk in a village bar listening to the fading beat of the cicadas. It's a wonderful time to visit this wonderful corner of the world.

Spring and Autumn offer a much overlooked alternative. The weather is cooler but sunny days still abound with the temperature hovering around 28 degrees. Swimming pools are still open, shops and restaurants busy, but there is a gentler pace to life. For those who can watch the weather forecast and book late, out of season is a truly magnificent time to visit Provence. Spring offers a bounty of fresh fruit and a countryside filled with cherry and almond blossom. Autumn, the dramatic site of the vines turning golden. Electric bikes are an ever more popular way of exploring the landscape.

A winter visit to Provence is a joy. The skies are often a clear blue and the air cold and crisp. Around Christmas times towns and villages put on festive Christmas markets and the illuminations in places such as Aix en Provence compete with the best in the world. A winter trip to Provence can be combined with a few days skiing in the southern Alps.

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Provence wine

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Top tip for Wine Lovers

On the Provence Guru wine page you will find all the information you need to plan a perfect vineyard visit. We have provided an Insider Guide to some of the best wines and vineyards in Provence, including driving tours with lunchtime restaurant recommendations and vineyard reviews. There is also a map of the main wine regions and details of the grape varieties in use in each area. We also provides tips on how to best source your holiday wine and a low down on how to choose your holiday pink.

Aix Arles and Avignon

The golden triangle of Provence

Aix, Arles and Avignon are the three cities in Provence most visited by tourists. But if you only had time to take a tour of one, which would it be? The three golden cities of Provence have very different feels, here's a run down to help you pick which to visit.

Aix en Provence

Known only half jokingly as the Paris of the south, Aix en Provence is the most visually attractive of the three cities. Grand streets like the Cours Mirabeau and the attendant cafe society call to mind the boulevards of the capital. But it is not just the look of the place that recalls Paris, it's the inhabitants as well. Nowhere else in Provence will you encounter people who dress so smartly. There's an old saying about the Aixoise, their wardrobes are full but their fridges are empty. And while it's certainly possible to buy excellent food in Aix, the city is given over to clothes shopping. You can find designer brands that only usually bother with capital cities, as well as small boho boutiques. The city is a mecca for shoppers. Partners who don't share the retail impulses of their spouse can easily pass the time viewing major exhibitions at the Musee Granet. Beware the unusual opening time of midday. Eating well in Aix requires a little pre-planning. The restaurants on the Cours Mirabeau rely on their location and the food can be sub-standard. Locals tend to head for hidden and out of the way restaurants, which offer great food at very competitive prices. As night falls Aix has a thriving bar scene. The university attracts students from across France and the world. For further information on Aix en Provence visit the Aix tourist office website

Arles

Not as pretty as Aix, not as packed full of sights as Avignon, Arles might harshly be considered the ugly sister of the three. The major lure is the link with Van Gogh and the foundation where his work, and that of modernist painters following in his footsteps can be viewed. Famous Van Gogh works completed in Arles include, Cafe Terrace at Night and Le Jardin de La Maison de Sante. The later is where he was cared for after cutting off part of his ear after a row with Paul Gauguin. There's also the stunning Roman arena, second only to that of Nimes, in its state of preservation and glory. The streets of Arles are tight and cobbled, there are plenty of appealing cafes and restaurants, there's also the sense that the city is a gateway, standing as it does between inland Provence and the Camargue, with its gypsy history and cowboy bull herders. It's a city that tries very hard to be liked, attracting visitors with its annual summer international photography festival. For further information on Arles visit the Arles tourist office website

Avignon

First impressions are that it takes a long long time to get to the walled centre of Avignon. The outskirts seemingly go on for ever with roundabout after roundabout, but even if the traffic is routinely dreadful its worth persevering. Built in the 14 century during the papal schism, the Palais du Pape, is an absolute must see, a brutal monolith of a building that above all exudes power, and hides secrets. The golden dome shining over the city hints at the wealth hidden within the Palais. The pedestrian centre around the Palais is enjoyable to explore. The cafes and restaurants are notably more given over to the tourist trade than those in Aix. Small hidden museums such as the Collection Lambert offer respite from the sun and the often crowded streets. Shopping in Avignon is good but not as good as Aix. It's worth a wander out onto the famous Pont D'Avignon. Originally built in 1177, the bridge had 22 arches before most of them were washed away in the floods of 1668. Avignon is also a good base from which to explore the famous Rhone vineyards, in particular the village of Chateauneuf de Pape. For further information on Avignon visit the Avignon tourist office website

           
Provence Experiences
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Top tip for great places to stay

Provence Guru's stay page features some of the best secret places to stay in Provence. We have concentrated on small boutique hotels offering luxury and also an intimate experience. They are based in and around some of the most well known Provencal villages, such as Saint Remy de Provence, Lourmarin and Gordes. We particularly like hotels which while in the countryside are also only a short walk from the village. There are vineyard stays and stays in townhouses all the hotels featured over a genuine Provencal experience. None of them have paid to be featured in this guide. We have selected them because we love what they offer. Our villa rental page is full of the very best villa rentals in Provence. The search engine allows you to select precisely what you want from vacation rentals with heated swimming pools to specific villages.

The Luberon, Les Alpilles, the Camargue

The Luberon

Nowhere else in France are there so many delightful villages in such close proximity to each other. Drive through the hills, between the vines and the lavender fields and wherever you decide to stop you are bound to be delighted. There are the show stopping villages such as Gordes, Bonnieux, Menerbes, Roussillon and Lourmarin, but even their lesser siblings like Goult, Cucuron, Oppede, and Lacoste, have plenty to offer. To wake up on a sunny day in the Luberon is to have the world at your feet. Geographically the Luberon is divided between the south and the north. The southern Luberon centred around the village of Lourmarin has a more Mediterranean feel and a milder climate. The difference is particularly noticeable in winter, when the oaks on the northern face of the Luberon lose their leaves, in contrast with the pines on the southern face. Countless trails and tracks crisscross the wild heart of the Luberon, where boars roam freely and eagles float on thermals. To get a taste of the real natural park, visit the Foret de Cedre just outside Bonnieux. Wine and olive farming dominate the agriculture of the region. The quality of both varies but at the high end the Luberon now produces very good quality wines and olive oils. Get further tourist information here

Les Alpilles

Harsher, hotter and more arid than the Luberon, the Les Alpilles region is centred around the delightful town of Saint Remy de Provence. A busy ring road preserves the charming pedestrian interior filled with art galleries, restaurants, and boutiques. A visit to the nearby medieval fortress town of Les Baux de Provence is a must, but arrive early in the morning to avoid the crowds and the heat. Maussane Les Alpilles is the most charming and chic village in the Les Alpilles region, it's a mini Saint Remy, surrounded by expensive villas hidden between the rocks. Nearby Mouries and Fontveille are picturesque alternatives. The region is also home to one of the finest spa and gastronomic hotels in the world the L'Oustau de Baumaniere. If your pockets are deep enough you are unlikely to be disappointed. Like the Luberon, the local agriculture is dominated by wine and olive oil production. Particularly noteworthy for its red wine is Domaine de Trevallon. Get further tourist information here

The Camargue

To enter the Camargue is to enter a different world. These salty marsh lands stretch from south of Arles to south of Nimes and cover some 85,000 hectares. They are filled with flamingos, bulls and the world famous white horses, which are born with dark coats. To experience the wildness of the Camargue properly its imperative to take a tour, preferably on horse back. Keen birdwatchers should visit the ornithological park which has marked trails laid out through the marshes. The Camargue is a harsh landscape, home to possibly the biggest mosquitoes known to man, and strange biblical legends, such as the supposed landing of Mary Magdalene in France, celebrated every year at Saint Maries de La Mer. Legend has it that this was Mary Magdalene's final journey and that she was buried inland in Provence at St Maximin le Sainte Baume. For further tourist information click here

           
Provence Experiences
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Provence Food

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Top tip for cooks

Provence Food is based upon seasonality, buying fresh produce from the markets and creating simple recipes. Our Provence Food section is one of the best guides available to Provence cookery. It is written by a local Marseillaise chef, and there is even a downloadable pdf of all the recipes. If you really want to get into the spirit of a vacation in Provence then try some of Claude's recipes, they really are sensational.

The Seaside

Most people when they think of Provence and the seaside, call to mind the Riviera, cities such as Nice and Cannes, and resorts such as Eze, Villefranche sur Mer, Beaulieu, and St Tropez. Residents however make a distinction between the Riviera, and the actual Provencal coast which, the Camargue aside, roughly stretches from Marseille to Toulon.

The most famous and most photographed resort is Cassis, a pretty fishing village, from which you can take boat tours to see Les Calanques, a series of coves with lagoony blue water. Most of the Calanques can be accessed on foot, some such as Mugel Calanque and Calanque de Sourmiou can be reached by car.

The beach at Cassis is pebble and there is a steep shelf just metres into the sea. It is therefore not recommended for young children.

The resort of La Ciotat offers the best beach clubs and an open bay which can have impressively large waves. The beach is sandy and there are supervised swimming areas. The most child friendly resort is Saint Cyr Sur Mer which has a sandy half moon bay and plenty of restaurants and seaside shops. Out of season the long paved promenade is ideal for a bracing walk or rollerblading.

The next resort along from Saint Cyr is Bandol. The town is famed for its wines, particularly the red and pink. Vines dominate the hinterland behind the resort. Bandol itself is large and buzzy. There are a couple of sandy beaches near the main port area, but the pick of the bunch is up around the headland near the Hotel du Golf . Further on along the coast Sanary Sur Mer is a popular port with plenty of restaurants for seaside dining. Nearby Six Four Les Plages is popular with locals for its sandy beaches.

For a quick dip before getting on or off a plane, try Carry Le Rouet the closest resort to Marseille Airport. Slightly further along the headland La Couronne has better beaches and restaurants where you can eat with your 'feet in the water'. If you are prepared for a rollercoaster ride on narrow winding roads then just along from Carry-le-Rouet are a number of relatively unknown Calanques, reachable by road. The Guru's favourite is Calanque de Mejean, which has an excellent restaurant, and good swimming off rocks. There is also a coastal path offering stunning views out to sea.

           

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Driving Tours

Experience some of the most beautiful roads and villages in Provence

North Luberon driving tour

Leave Bonnieux on the D3 towards Menerbes. This beautiful road splits the Luberon countryside. To the north views of Mont Ventoux are sensational. Closer to the road is the hill village of Lacoste, once made famous by the Marquis de Sade and now almost entirely owned by fashion mogul Pierre Cardin. Just before Menerbes on the left hand side is the house lived in by Peter Mayle when he wrote A Year in Provence.

Keeping Menerbes on your left, continue on the D3 and stop for a wine tasting and tour of the corkscrew museum at Domaine de La Citadelle. From Domaine de La Citadelle take the D218 north towards Goult. Park and enjoy a wander through this typical village, making sure to take in the view from the windmill at its highest point. Continue from Goult on the D104 towards Roussillon. The landscape gradually turns a vibrant reddy orange as you enter the lands of the ochre mines.

Pause in Roussillon for a coffee and to admire the red cliffs. Continue on the D104 direction Apt, looking out for signs for Domaine de La Coquillade, a luxury hotel which offers a competitive lunch time menu. After lunch head on the D900 direction Cavaillon until the intersection with the D108. Here get out and enjoy the view of the Pont Julien, an old Roman bridge. A paddle in the water is an excellent way to cool down. Take the D149 back towards Bonnieux, stopping at Chateau La Canorgue, the location for the film A Good Year, for a final tasting.

South Luberon to Saint Remy de Provence driving tour

Ask google maps the way and you'll be directed on the main road through Cavaillon and the on towards Saint Remy. Yes it might be quicker, but it's a lot less scenic than the Provence Guru back route. At Merindol turn off the D973 onto the D32 direction Lamanon. At Eyguieres turn north on to the D569 and then west on to the D25 direction Eygalieres. This is a spectacular minor road favoured by cyclists. It winds through pine forests and rocks before arriving at the picturesque village of Eygalieres. Enjoy a coffee and a wander before a wine tasting at nearby Domaine Vallongue. The sensuous red wine tastes and smells of the wild summer herbs of Provence. Take the D24 and then the D78 towards Mausanne Les Alpilles. Book lunch and celebrity spot at the famous Bistrot du Paradou. Finally take the D5 north to Saint Remy de Provence, detouring to visit the stunning multimedia art exhibition at Carrieres de Lumieres, Les Baux de Provence.

Mont Saint Victoire circular

Leave Aix en Provence on the D14 direction Le Puy Sainte Reparade. Stop at Chateau Lacoste for a 'installation art' themed walk through the Provencal countryside. Work up a thirst for some wine tasting.

Continue on the D15 and then D561 towards Jouques. Enjoy a hearty and traditional lunch in the Souvenirs d'Avenir restaurant. Head south on the D11 towards the village of Vauvenargues. Stop and enjoy the views and visit the Chateau which was once owned by Picasso.

Take the D10 towards Puyloubier and then head on the D17 towards Le Tholonet. Just before Le Tholonet turn off at Saint Antonin Sur Bayon for a wine tasting at Domaine des Masques. Take the dirt road which leads onto the belt (lower level of rock) of Mont Saint Victoire. Enjoy the sensational view and of course the wine before returning to Aix.

           
Provence Experiences
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Peter Mayle and Provence

Love the books or hate the books, if you hang out in Provence long enough someone is sure to mention Peter Mayle's best selling work A Year in Provence which was first published in 1989. A former advertising executive Peter introduced the world to the concept of taking time out to enjoy the pleasures of rural life in the South of France. The book and the sequels, Encore Provence, and Toujours Provence, were so successful that tourists have been flocking to the Luberon region where it was set ever since. Some naysayers blame Peter for ruining the authentic lifestyle that was once available in the area. The French government has taken a much more positive and realistic view awarding Peter the country's highest award The Legion D'Honneur for his services promoting the region. If you love wine, food and France, then any of Peter's books are well worth a read. Since writing A Year in Provence, Peter has written a series of successful novels set in the south of France, including A Good Year, which has recently been made into a film starring Russell Crowe. Peter now lives in the Southern Luberon and is actively writing yet more books. Those interested in the history of life abroad books might also consider reading Perfume from Provence by Lady Fortescue, a turn of the 20th century travelogue which it is often argued was the inspiration for Peter's later work.

On the literary theme Jean de Florette and Manon de Source both by Marcel Pagnol, are another most read before a trip to Provence. Jean and his daughter Manon arrive from Aubagne to take up an inheritance in a Provencal country village. To drive them away the locals hide the water source on their land...

           
Provence Experiences
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Must see and do

Sometimes it’s hard to tear yourself away from the poolside, but in Provence it’s always worth making the time for an excursion, here are some sights and experiences you shouldn’t miss.

Senanque Abbey

The image that has graced thousands of picture postcards. Founded in 1148 by Cistercian monks and still home to a community today, the Abbey surrounded by Lavender in full bloom is an image to behold. To avoid the crowds and see the lavender at its best visit early one July morning. The road out of Gordes to the Abbey, is narrow with a vertiginous drop, and the odd corkscrew turn not suitable for the faint-hearted. For more information click here

Fontaine de Vaucluse

A miracle of nature has been created where the Source river emerges from its rocky tomb. In summer it’s possible to climb down into the cave cut by the bubbling water. After heavy rain in spring, the spray created by the gushing water is reminiscent of Victoria Falls. For more information click here

Carrieres de Lumieres, Les Baux de Provence

Never has an old stone quarry been put to such dramatic use. The vast stone halls are used for a multimedia art display. Projections are displayed with accompanying music onto the rocky walls and even across the floor. The experience is unlike any other. The art comes alive with figures in the paintings moving with the audience. Combine with a visit to the ancient fortress of Les Baux de Provence. For more information click here

Foret de Cedre

High, high in the heart of the Luberon is the Foret de Cedre. In the summer it’s a refuge for many, a place to escape the fierce heat of the sun. The tall pine trees trap the cool air under their branches making a midday walk followed by a picnic a pleasure. The fit can follow trails that lead all the way down to the southern Luberon, taking walkers out onto high rocky outcrops, from where on clear days the Mediterranean can be seen. In hunting season it is wise to wear a luminous top to be sure of being spotted by the wild boar hunters. For more information click here

Provence Markets

Provence is rightly famed for its markets. The quality of the produce is far superior to that on offer in supermarkets and the price often cheaper. Most Provencal villages have a weekly market, in some towns like Aix en Provence there is a daily food market. In the summer you can often find evening farmers' markets or craft markets. Summer markets are often crowded and it is best to arrive early and shop before the day becomes to hot. Watch out for traders who seem to be specifically targeting tourists rather than locals, the price of what they are selling can often come as a shock. In particular traders selling nougat or mountain cheeses. Both products come in enormous circular blocks, which traders cut with large knives. Often they will give you far more than you anticipated, and the price per kilo of nougat and mountain cheese is extremely high! You have been warned. For a list of market days see our Provence living section

Provence Food

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