Why visit 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.

When to visit

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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Where to go

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 famous as Avignon, Arles might harshly be considered the ugly sister of the three. The major lures are multiple major Roman sites and 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, Night Cafe 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. 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. The new Luma Arles development and associated Frank Gehry building offer a modernist vision for the future of the city. 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

           

Where to Go "2"

The Luberon

Nowhere else in France are there so many picturesque 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

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