HIGHLIGHTS ON PROVENCE
Scenic roads of Provence
From Avignon to the hilltop villages of the Luberon
Your tour in Provence begins in Avignon; a city that has a lot to offer in history and old stones. After a visit of the Pope’s city and its palace, head East toward the Mountains of the Luberon. On the way, the country of the Sorgue will charm you with its very traditional Provence villages like l’Isle-Sur-la-Sorgue, Saumane-de-Vaucluse and Fontaine-de-Vaucluse. Arriving in the Regional Natural Park of the Luberon, you’ll appreciate the first views of the perched villages, like Gordes, considered one of the most beautiful village of France. Among those stunning hill-top villages, the remarkable Sénanques Abbey and its celebrated lavender fields. Part of the treasures of the Luberon is also the village of Roussillon in the middle of the largest deposit of ocher in Europe; the old village has the colours of the valley. From Roussillon starts the renowned ocher trail, where you walk in what has been renamed the Provençal Colorado!
From Marseille to La Ciotat- a part of the French Riviera
From Marseille, a historic harbour and a modern and cosmopolitan city, discover the beautiful seaport villages of Cassis and Bandol. Don’t miss the town of Aubagne on the way, the native town of Marcel Pagnol. Near Cassis, the famous limestone cliff of the Calanques plunged into the Mediterranean sea. It is a protected area for hiking with magical and enchanting coves on the way. Bandol is a true seaside resort for leisure on wonderful beaches and sailing. Cassis and Bandol are also the names of delicious wine, so don’t miss the vineyards! Further East towards Italy, La Ciotat has kept its provincial authenticity as a small charming port. The road between Cassis and La Ciotat is said to be one of the most scenic and magnificent scenic road of South France.
From Aix en Provence, the Mountain Sainte-Victoire and the Verdon river.
Starting West with Salon-de-Provence, the native city of Nostradamus, and perfectly situated in between many important spots of Provence, the town is famous for its soap industry, dating from the early 17th century. From Salon de Provence and its historic soap museum take the direction of the splendid Aix-en-Provence. Aix is a must-see among the cities of the South; superb architecture and fountains, this buzzing student city is rich with culture and art. It’s in Aix that Paul Cézanne painted his masterpieces, often depicting the illustrious Montagne Sainte-Victoire, that you can see from all over in the area of Aix. This little mountain is an exceptional natural site for the locals and visitors of Provence. You can’t miss it. After appreciating the beauty of the Sainte-Victoire, go on North-East to the Verdon country. The Verdon area is full of colours and perfumes, lavender and vineyards, and the Verdon canyon is a stunning place thousands of years old, said to be one of the most beautiful gorges in Europe.
From the Pont du Gard to Camargue
The Pont du Gard, a most famous roman site of the South of France, classified by Unesco, is worth the detour. This 2000 years old great aqueduct is a good introduction to what Provence has to offer in terms of heritage. Take the direction of the South to enter the Alpilles, an expanse of rugged limestone; those rocky mountains overlook plains covered in olive groves and vineyards. In the Alpilles Baux-de-Provence is a historical village with incredible remains of medieval times. Not far is located Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, renown for being visited by Van Gogh. The village today has beautiful mansions and gardens for the visitors to see. Going on South in your Provence tour, you arrive in Camargue, the town of Arles is notorious for its rich cultural life. From Arles to the Mediterranean sea is the largest river Delta of France, a marshy landscape with lakes and exceptional biodiversity, with wild horses, bulls and pink flamingoes.
Towns and villages
Situated between sea and hills, with 850 000 inhabitants, Marseille is an amazing city that changes with the seasons and passions. The city combines the richness of a unique heritage, an intense cultural life, and an exceptional location. Founded 2600 years ago by the ancient Greeks from Asia Minor, Marseille is one of the oldest cities in France. Marseille was historically the most important trade centre in the region and functioned as the main trade port of the French Empire. Marseille is France's largest city on the Mediterranean coast and kept a strong identity as a port city; it is the largest commercial port as well as a leading cruise port and freight port. The city also held the title of European Capital of Culture in 2013.
Aix-en-Provence lies on the principal routes to Italy and the Alps. Aix has a population of 150 000 and is an agricultural centre, producing olives, almonds and wine.
The city was founded in 123BC. During the Middle-Ages, Aix was the capital of Provence and reached its zenith after the 12th century, when it became an artistic centre and seat of learning. Aix passed to the crown of France with the rest of Provence in the 15th century. This city of the Counts and its many mansion houses make it an open-air history book. With this rich and vibrant thousands of years old heritage, the capital of Provence combines elements from all eras. The city is situated in a plain overlooking the Arc River. The city gently slopes from north to south and the Montagne Sainte-Victoire can easily be seen to the east. This mountain is one of the favourite perspectives of the painter Paul Cézanne, a native of the city and father of the modern painting. The town is also famous for an average of 300 sunny days a year.
Aix-en-Provence is a canvas of delightful impressions, beautiful architecture and baroque splendour, colourful festivals, festivities and traditions, Provencal markets, delicious delicacies, walks and hikes in the countryside and relaxing activities…Make sure to include it in your Provence tour.
Avignon is situated on the left bank of the Rhône river in Vaucluse department, Northwest of Marseille, it is a commercial and industrial centre that manufactures flour, oil, textiles and wine. The population is around 100 000, among which 12 000 inhabitants live in the ancient town centre enclosed by its medieval ramparts. Tourism is very important thanks to famous historical buildings and cultural events. The historical centre, which includes the palace of the popes, the cathedral, and the remains of the ancient bridge of Avignon, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. The grand project of 2015 is the opening of a wine tourism complex like no other – a showcase for the Rhône Valley’s AOC wines on the Pope’s Palace Square.
Between 1309 and 1377 took place the Avignon Papacy, seven successive popes resided in Avignon. Papal control persisted until 1791 when, during the French Revolution, it became part of France. The town is now the capital of the Vaucluse department and one of the few French cities to have preserved its ramparts. Avignon is now a lively student city, its ancient cobbled streets lined with inviting boutiques and its leafy squares overflowing with cafe tables. In July thousands come for the renowned performing-arts festival, one of the most important theatre festival in Europe.
Bandol is a popular coastal town and a wine-growing region in the western part of the Côte d'Azur and to the west of Toulon. As a tourist destination for a Provence tour, Bandol is not a newcomer to the scene: Thomas Mann, Aldous Huxley, Marcel Pagnol, and D.H. Lawrence all spent time here. Bandol is many things to many people. It is a vibrant harbour for boating enthusiasts accommodating about 1500 boats of all sizes at any given time, and to land-based vacationers, Bandol is a beach town and buzzing hub of activity.
A wonderful promenade around the harbour delights the tourists: this is an attractive palm-tree lined walk, backed by some lovely pastel-painted houses. Bandol port has also several bars and restaurants, perfect for people watching and eating, as well as a casino. In addition to the harbour, there are several beaches close to the town centre in Bandol. The centre of the traditional village of Bandol is around a square called the Place du Marché were fountains, a church, shady plane trees and lively cafes combine to make a very attractive traditional Provencal square. The streets around the square are also fascinating to explore with a surprise around every corner like an ancient fountain, a tiny old house and flower boxes or a grand Belle Epoque villa…
Situated about 25 km / 15.5 miles south-east of Marseille, the harbour of Cassis snuggles at the bottom of a steep bowl of land surrounded by lush vines and pine trees. On the south-western side of the town, towards Marseille, several Calanques are at a short distance. The town is dominated by the Cap Canaille to the south-east, at 400m/ 1300 feet one of the highest cliffs in Europe, while the route des Crêtes between Cassis and La Ciotat is one of the most scenic drives in Southern Provence.
Cassis is a very ancient fishing port. In the 18th century, the village was rebuilt on the old ruins, resulting in a more regular layout than most other medieval villages. A walk through the old village streets will reveal old fountains, open-air artists market and some nice old buildings, some dating back to the 16th century, and some restored with the colourful pastels of Provence. A fine old chateau-fort, the 1381 Chateaux de la Maison des Baux, privately owned, dominates the harbour. This little fishing port, tucked between the two exceptional natural sites (Calanques and the Cap Canaille) offers a concentrated version of Provence and the Mediterranean. For ten days at the end of June, the Fêtes de la Mer (sea party) features several sea-themed festivities, including marine jousting, folk dancing, boat races and a regatta, a procession and a sardinade (sardine feast). Cassis is also famous today for its regional wine, mainly whites, but also rosé and red.
Surrounded by the biggest ochre deposits in the world, Roussillon is an enchanting village. In the rock, there is a great mix of different oxides that gives Roussillon's surroundings their distinctive colours; it is used to build the walls of local houses. Visitors paying to follow the Sentier des Ocres ('Ochre Trail') are taken on a journey of discovery passing a breathtaking succession of rocky tunnels and superb sites which have been forged over the centuries by wind, water and man.
Known as one of the most beautiful villages in France, Gordes is captivating. The town is located east of Avignon and just west of Roussillon, and like the latter, it was built on top of a hill. The village’s 2,000 inhabitants live in stone houses with terracotta roofs. Gordes also has an impressive castle, which is open to visitors. The beauty of Gordes on top of the cliff and its panoramic views of the surrounding landscape were not lost on the many famous artists who frequented the village, such as Marc Chagall. A Provence tour usually includes this charming village. The surrounding countryside is also worth exploring: besides expansive fields of poppies and lavender, you’ll find attractions such as the strange village of dry-stone huts called Les Bories, an ancient oil mill, and especially the legendary and picturesque Sénanque Abbey.
Arles has a great situation in Provence, in between Avignon and Marseille, right on top of the Rhône Delta (the beautiful Camargue). This quaint typical town is renowned for its impressive Roman ruins and its association with Van Ghog. Open squares with bustling cafes, linked by narrow streets lined with attractive houses and shops, many looking old and faded and all the more romantic as a result. The centre of Arles is quite compact and easy to explore. One of the greatest monument of Arles is the Roman amphitheatre; a large and substantially intact round structure once used for gladiatorial competitions. The city also has an excellent Museum of Arles and Provence, as well as a very interesting Espace Van Gogh. Arles is one of the French 'secteur sauvegardé' towns and is also listed as a Town of Art and History in France.
Provence stretches from the river Rhône (natural frontier on the west with Languedoc) to Italy on the east, and from the Mont Ventoux in the North to the Mediterranean coast, including the dramatic landscape of Camargue and the historical city of Marseille.
It has varied topographical features, ranging from fertile plains in the Rhône valley to mountains in the east, as well as lush river valleys, like the one of the Durance. Among the breathtaking mountainous landscape of the pre-Alps and the charming villages, flows the many rivers which cut into limestone to form gorges. The most famous being the outstanding Verdon gorges in Haute Provence.
Provence coastal scenery is not to be missed; the Calanques close to Marseille offers beautiful bays with sculpted limestone cliffs that a Provence tour should not miss.
On the border alluvial plains like the Camargue where the distinction between land and sea is often blurred, and some of its wildlife resembles that of an African environment.
The climate of Provence is typically the Mediterranean, warm and dry. However, the legendary Mistral is a strong, cold wind from the north that comes mostly in the winter and spring. The higher regions of Provence get snow in winter. Summer temperatures can be as high as 44°C (111.2°F).
The Camargue Regional Nature Park, created in 1970, covers 100,000 ha of land in three towns, Arles, Les Saintes-Mariesde-la-Mer and Port-Saint-Louis-du-Rhône, with a Park population of 10,000 inhabitants. Its main mission is to conciliate the development of human activities and nature conservation. To discover all of the different Camargue landscapes, you would go from the vineyards in the north to the beaches in the south, through the “sansouires” (saltwort plains) and the salt marshes, go in search of the emblematic Camargue animals, pink flamingos, bulls and Camargue horses.
The Mont Ventoux
Classified by UNESCO as a Biosphere Reserve, the Mount Ventoux is home to over 1,250 species of flora, 120 species of birds and a wide range of animals and insects. It offers visitors many opportunities to enjoy nature: in winter alpine and Nordic skiing, snowboarding, tobogganing, kindergarten with the treadmill, in a protected area. And summer for hiking trails, mountain biking, go-karting, grass scooter, grass skiing, horseback riding, pony, donkey or carriage.
The Calanques, these emeralds fingers between the rocks, were created 12 000 years ago when gradual warming after the ice ages made the sea rise to flood the valleys.
The sunny, windy and dry climate gave life to very diverse plants and some rare and fragile species that are protected today. Man, in the past centuries, let herds of goats graze here and built pens and lime kilns, of which the ruins can still be seen.
Today, those Calanques extended from Marseille to Cassis; they represent a long stretch of coastline indented by a series of narrow inlets walled by limestone cliffs. The Calanques stand for a delightful hike on 20km of marked trails. This classified site extending over 4000 hectares is worth the visit during your Provence tour. Magical and enchanting coves are a paradise for scuba diving, climbing, the discovery of the fauna and flora ...
The tourists today are attracted by the narrow bays of fine white sand met by warm cobalt shallows, surrounded by towering pale grey cliffs bearing sparse, precariously sited trees.
Despite its rugged location, the beaches are well accessible. However, to avoid peak season crowds and the strong Mistral wind of spring and winter, visit in June or September, morning or evening to avoid the strong heat of the afternoon.
The Ochre trails of Roussillon
Ochre has become the cornerstone of Roussillon's thriving tourist industry. Today it's the second most popular village in the Luberon after Gordes, beguiling visitors on a Provence tour, thanks to its vivid colours. The ochre of the Luberon fascinates, the former ochre quarries of the Apt valley (Vaucluse) surge from the past, hiking trails have been blazed and panoramic viewpoints opened up. Sculpted by storms, this former ochre deposit today present enchanting scenery which combines men and nature work. Cliffs, earth pillars, ochre-coloured sand hillocks, after being dug out by shovels and picks, are henceforth shaped by the winds and rain.
The Verdon Gorges
Although nothing in Europe can match Arizona's Grand Canyon, the Verdon Gorges are nonetheless spectacular. Over countless years, the Verdon River, a tributary of the Durance, has cut a deep, clean gorge into the limestone plateau, with narrow cliffs plunging 2300ft (700m) amid wild scenery. The Verdon derives its name from its jade-green waters which add to the beauty.
Both the northern and southern edges of the gorge may be followed by car. The Corniche Sublime (D71) was hewn from the rock on the south side in 1947. On the other side, the D952 offers many vantage points, but the best one is generally acknowledged to be at L'Escalès. A footpath, named after explorer Edouard-Alfred Martel, should only be attempted by the hardy and well-prepared but offers stupendous views.