Summer - a great time to visit Provence

Shutterstock15412996_Ingrid Petitjean

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 Mediterranean to the south and covered in year-round snow to the north.

The region comes into its full, festive stride in early summer. Along the coast in early May, locals wake up to one extraordinarily hot and sunny day. It will suddenly jump to 25°C, rather than hovering around winter’s 15°C, and five months of summer will be here to stay. Inland, the earth is carpeted with wild flowers, already basking in the long daylight hours. This is the best time for hiking, biking, kayaking and camping from the Gorges du Verdon to the Camargue. Visitors can tour any of Provence’s still quiet towns on foot with a cheap bag of strawberries, or laze by the sea from a freshly opened beach bar. And getting around is a cinch: buses, trains and boats are geared up for the season. The only thing still missing is the crowds. 

Culturally, the region is at its wildest. Europe’s gypsies converge on Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer to parade the statue of Black Sarah, their patron saint, down to the sea. Wine festivals cover Châteauneuf-du-Pape, photography festivals Hyères and flower festivals Grasse. The region’s two biggies, the Cannes Film Festival and Monaco Grand Prix, coincide for a week of glitzy debauchery in late May. The season culminates in the pan-French Fête de la Musique on June 21st, the longest day of the year. Started by the government in 1982, this all-night free music festival takes place in almost every town, street corners throbbing with jazz, ska, classical, hip hop, techno, metal and soul. 

In high summer, a heap of amazing attractions draw visitors from around the world. Every day is hot and sunny so bring shorts, a hat, sunscreen and water bottle, and plan the day efficiently. Provence’s beaches are blessed with sea breezes and azure waters, both offering a flop-down follow-on from a day spent museum-hopping, market shopping or driving. Some sandy stretches throng with picnic blankets, volleyball tournaments and lifeguards; others offer Robinson Crusoe-style desolation, if you know where to look. The season is also celebrated with fireworks displays along the entire coast.

There are plenty of cultural events in summer, particularly in the west. There’s opera in Seillans, Lacoste and Orange, street theatre in Avignon and Arles, and floating festivals in Martigues and L’Isle-sur-la-Sourge. Back east are hopping jazz festivals in Nice and Juan-les-Pins – Jazz à Juan is an awesome event and one of the best music festivals in France. 

With so much going on, an advance hotel reservation is a necessity. If inland, try and pick a place that has a pool, as many do. Believe us, it’s a huge bonus.  Roads become very busy in summer, but fear not, Provence’s world-class public transport system comes into its own, with boats departing from Le Lavandou, St-Tropez, Cannes, Menton and most places in between, plus trains running in air-conditioned serenity throughout the region. Unlike the rest of the region, much of Marseille empties onto the surrounding coast or over to North Africa, as the city’s ethnically diverse population summers in the old country. It’s the one city you can have to yourself in summer.

Summer is also the time to enjoy the purple lavender-cloaked hills, one of Provence’s most enduring symbols. Enthusiasts can hit the Musée de la Lavande, a shrine to the fragrant purple blossom. Or drive deep into the Luberon to Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque, a 12th-century Cistercian abbey where visitors can buy the monks’ home-made lavender oil, soap and honey.

Tristan Rutherford is the co-author of Provence & Côte d’Azur, a full-colour guide that will have you falling in love with the region before you’ve even left home.

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