Around the region

Diversity is the watchword of Provence and the Côte d’Azur, a vast area of lakes, mountains, rivers and coast. Covering six distinct areas larger than many countries, it’s lapped by the Mediterranean to the south and covered in year-round snow to the north. But delve deeper into each region and differences are even more disparate: in Marseille one can dine on a century-old bouillabaisse recipe or pop round the corner for a bowl of Vietnamese pho. Thanks to its all-encompassing history, Provence is littered with Roman ruins, papal strongholds, Saracen hilltowns, art galleries, untouched beaches and casinos of the belle époque. And best of all, you can flit between all of them in a single afternoon.

The Riviera

A region blessed with a sub-tropical microclimate, it’s no surprise that Europe’s most beautiful bit of coast has been so squabbled over. Saracen invasions pushed locals inland, dodgy politics hacked Nice away from France, and the Grimaldi family robbed Monaco for the Genoese (and have been robbing visitors ever since). The result is an architectural legacy of fairy-tale perched villages, Italianate piazzas and chichi summer playgrounds, all of which are a joy to wander round. The 20th-century arrival of Picasso and pals, coupled with a vast array of writers, royals and bons vivants, has gifted the region more museums, art galleries and fine dining establishments than almost anywhere else in the world. But if the sights and smells get too much, it’s easy to emulate St Honoratus: escape to the monastic silence of the Iles de Lérins, the Côte d’Azur’s tropical islands. Or seek out any of the secret beaches, rooftop bars or botanical gardens listed in this chapter.

Hyères to St-Tropez

This unhurried region is 80% coast, 20% countryside. The former is a delight, covered with deserted beaches and cute, little-known resorts, such as Giens, Rayol-Canadel and Bormes-les-Mimosas. Conversely, St-Tropez is the one place that everyone has heard of. Although few would credit it, Europe’s capital of fun is simply an overgrown fishing village with a great modern art museum and nightly urban street performances where everyone’s invited. On its vine-covered peninsula are some of the most chilled hilltop towns and beaches in Provence, plus more than 50 km of coastal walks. Inland things get rugged, and quickly. The Massif des Maures is one vast forest filled with lonely monasteries and villages that time forgot, with two hair-raising roads corkscrewing through. 

Haute Provence

Wild and under-populated, you’re more likely to see an eagle or a stag than a human being in many parts of Haute Provence. The prehistoric rock carvings in the Vallée des Merveilles attest to the region’s status as the cradle of Provençal civilisation. But mountain ranges have carved the region into distinct valleys each with its own diverse culture, from the Italianate flavour of the Roya River to the ridge of medieval settlements that stretch from Aups to Bargemon. Sprinkled throughout are waterfalls, forests and lakes that serve the kayaking, hiking and rafting excursions detailed later in this guide. Top these outdoor activities with the ultimate theatrical backdrop by hitting the Gorges du Verdon, Europe’s very own Grand Canyon. 

Marseille & the Calanques

A hip urban and appealing rural mix creates this most unique area of Provence. Bookending the region are Marseille and Toulon, two working centres, a blend of ethnic diversity and counter culture. The former is gearing up to become Europe’s Capital of Culture in 2013 and has one of France’s best music, theatre and 21st-century art scenes. The first part of Provence to be colonised by Greek traders in around 600 BC, Marseille has since welcomed Romans, Jews, Spaniards, North Africans, South Americans and Vietnamese. Between Marseille and Toulon is a region so attractively dated that painter Paul Signac or author Virginia Woolf would probably still recognise it if passing through today. Of the scores of villages in the area, perhaps Cassis and Bandol are the most lovely: wines from these two resorts are the shining stars of the coastal wine industry.

Aix-en-Provence & the Lubéron

The Romans discovered a thermal source in Aix and quickly laid a beautiful settlement on top of it. Locals have been taking care of themselves, and their city, ever since. A former capital of Provence, it’s still a staunchly middle-class location, with wide tree-lined boulevards and fountain-filled squares, a far cry from its louche coastal cousins: Marseille, Toulon and Nice. The artist Paul Cézanne was born to a merchant family here in 1839.  He’s now synonymous with the town, taking inspiration from nearby Mont Ste-Victoire which features in dozens of his landscapes. The clean, green Lubéron countryside surrounds this regional capital, its only harsh edge the yearly mistral gales. It would take a year in Provence to fully explore the myriad villages around Gordes and Roussillon. For visitors with just a few days, head to the lavender fields that have made the area famous, starting with those around Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque, where monks still press the purple blossom into oil, soap and liqueurs.

Avignon, Arles & Western Provence

In this region of great contrasts, Avignon stands out as the largest and most orderly city. It owes these attributes to the popes, who relocated here from Rome in 1309, bringing the papacy and all its wealth to Provence. The popes lived in style, as showcased in the must-see Palais des Papes; they also laid out summer châteaux and encouraged vineyards at Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Running southwards, the Rhône forms the western border of Provence, passing through Arles, a gorgeous gastronomic capital that owes its allegiance to a much older Rome. Its amphitheatres and 2000-year-old baths are as renowned as the city’s most famous resident, Vincent Van Gogh. From Arles, the Rhône splits and disperses into the Camargue, a salt marsh cowboy country filled with horses, bulls, and flocks of pink flamingos.

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