Read our pocket guide to Provence
Provence: A pocket guide
Few other regions in Europe have so nourished our dreams and sensual demands than France’s Provence. There is, according to James Pope-Hennessy, “an ancient English longing for the south.” He wrote the words 60 years ago, but everyone in the world understands the powerful impulse to be away from the cold and dark, and out among olive trees, lavender and vineyards. It’s an urge to experience clear light pouring from a vast sky, to wander rocky, herby landscapes, and to drink wine under the stars (without wearing a parka!), and Provence succeeds at all of this beautifully.
In fact, the region has been a playground since the Romans scattered arenas and theaters across the landscape and built on Greek settlements. When the 14th-century Popes fled Rome for Avignon, their interests were markedly more licentious than liturgical. (Petrarch described contemporary Avignon as “a thoroughfare of vices where prostitutes swarmed over papal beds.”)
Stretching from the Languedoc Roussillon in the west to the Italian border in the east; from the wild mountainous Rhône-Alpes in the north – hikers and cyclists’ paradise – to the Riviera in the south; Provence is over-abundant in scenic, historical, cultural and gastronomic riches to please all tastes. Art-lovers will be blown away the masterpieces of Picasso, Matisse and Van Gogh, celebrating the light and landscape, history and culture buffs will be drawn to Avignon and its famous theater festival, to Vaison La Romaine and the Roman Theater of Orange which hosts a major opera and theatre festival. Sea-lovers are equally spoiled for choice. The Cote d’Azur is legendary for socialites and night-owls who frequent the cafes and nightclubs of St-Tropez and Cap d’Antibes; seekers of quiet and natural beauty prefer the National Park of the Camargues or the Calanques of Marseilles.
The true backbone of Provence is its collection of some of the most picturesque villages in France, if not all of Europe, from cosy stone houses with terracotta rooftops to astounding castle ruins atop rocky outcrops. Often outshone by the famous cities in the area, these lesser-known villages make amazing holiday destinations for every visitor. There’s Fayence, famous for its china, L’Isle de la Sorgue, a river-town on a little island with waterfront cafes and restaurants, but also Roussillon, Gordes, Uzès and Les Baux de Provence. Stocked up on designer finds and stuffed full of steak tartare, ditch the city in favor of these delightful villages and their quintessentially French country homes.
And for lovers of la dolce far niente and fine dining, Provence is second to none! Wind your way along the Rhône, through the fruit orchards and fields of lavender, to Alain Ducasse’s romantic hillside hideaway, La Bastide de Moustiers, or the legendary L’Oustau de Baumaniere nestled under the Medieval hilltop village of Les Baux de Provence, whose weird craggy rock formations are said to have inspired Dante’s vision of Hell.
Follow Cézanne and hike up the nearby cliffs for dramatic views, then return home to nap in a hammock in the garden before a pastis aperitif on the patio of your restored mas Provencal farmhouse. Spend your days on private food tours of the region and learning to press its famous olive oil. Visit artisan pottery and textile workshops, and join winemakers on private tour and tasting of their vineyards. It won’t take long to slip into the relaxed Provençal lifestyle, especially when holidaying at one of the magical and luxurious villa rentals of our regional experts.