Nestled between the Alps to the East, the ancient mountains of the Massif Central to the west and the “Great Blue” otherwise known as the Mediterranean sea to the South, Provence has for thousand of years been a haven for many civilizations that enjoyed its mild climate plentiful natural resources and its unique topography that confers its special light and character.
Its famous mild micro climate is the result of the protection that the Alps range offers from the blizzards blowing from Siberia affecting more southern regions such as Tuscany. The proximity of the sea helps maintain pleasant temperatures and southern winds its famous blue skies.
Many rivers crisscross the region, cutting deep valleys in the limestone as in the Gorges du Verdon, a spectacular mile deep canyon or in the beautiful Gorges de l’Ardeche. In their violent formation the Alps sprung small ranges creating a beautiful succession of hills, valleys and mountains with spectacular sheer cliffs or barren tops.
Provence is the land of sun and clear skies; as a result it is generally dry but where water is present lush vegetation thrives. The combination of sun and water makes Provence France’s main vegetable garden and orchard. Its colorful outdoor markets attest to the bounty of nature while the hills, covered with the scrub oaks of the garrigue provide some of the best lambs in France and marvelous goat cheeses. The hillsides are the source of a dizzying range of fragrances, from cedar, lavender, thyme, rosemary, bay leaves and, black truffles, the famous diamonds of French cuisine. A walk in the hills is an olfactory experience.
It is not surprising that the area has a perfumes and aromas museum and is a source of many fragrance ingredients.
All areas of France have their own culinary traditions. Provence is no exception. Its cuisine reflects the bounty of its vegetables, seafood, fruit and herbs. The quintessential dish of the area is without question bouillabaisse. It was originally made as an inexpensive family meal by the fishermen using the local small, less marketable fish which also happened to be the most flavorful. Due to high demand they are now the most expensive. The bouillabaisse makes use of local tomatoes, fennel, garlic and herbs. Olive oil is the main ingredient of the “rouille“ a pungent garlic olive oil saffron and cayenne. It is a delicious thick sauce served with the bouillabaisse on dry toasts floated over fish soup.
Because of the abundance of olive trees, Provencal and Mediterranean cooking are defined by the wide spread use of fragrant olive oil as a dressing, ingredient in aioli and most recipes, a cure all medicine or as a lighting fuel in ancient times.
With over 20 millennia of human presence attested by spectacular cave paintings and artifacts Provence has been an ideal human settling area. With many naturally defensible sites, plenty of natural resources, being close to the Rhone and the Mediterranean Sea, Provence has been a major crossroad in southern Europe and a desirable area where many civilizations flourished.
The most visible are of course the remaining major Roman monuments dotting the area attesting of the importance those ancient cities. Roman arenas (Nimes and Arles) capable of seating 50.000 spectators are very much part of the modern cities and are still used for popular events including Spanish bull fights, concerts, operas and the course Camarguaise a traditional bloodless contest between wild bulls and fleet footed men.
A major stone paved road the Via Domitia followed the coast. It connected the major cities along the Mediterranean Sea while linking Italy to Spain. It intersected near Avignon with another Roman Road running parallel to the Rhone River heading to the northern provinces of the empire.
The middle ages and the successive centuries contributed to a remarkable density of spectacular fortified medieval castles as in the king Rene castle on the banks of the Rhone. Abbeys founded over 800 ago are still serving their original purpose and offer a harbor of peace and tranquility for monks as in the beautiful abbey of Senanque. In Arles near the arenas the beautiful Romanesque church of Saint Trophime with its exquisite cloister are used as part of the “Rencontres de la Photo” every July, with the Espace Van Gogh they are a spectacular gallery for this photography festival one of the world largest. In Avignon the Palace of the Popes a massive and imposing architectural complex dominates the city. A visit allows a glimpse at the values and politics of the times when it was constructed over a 30 year period after the Popes sought refuge in Avignon in the early fourteenth century.
Closer to us elegant nobility residences were built often over older castles and reflect the opulence and life style of the 17th and 18th centuries. In a city like Nimes the contemporary sits next side by side with the ancient. A Sir Norman Foster glass library and Arts Center facade reflects the Maison Carree a 2,000 year old roman temple considered one if not the best preserved Roman monument.
Trade and the region’s natural resources allowed the creation of hundreds of beautiful villages and towns. Stone being so plentiful and wood’s limited supply, local masons carrying on the Roman stone building tradition make extensive use of the easy to use local limestone. An Etruscan influence is amply reflected in the use of the stone arch found from the most modest house to magnificent public buildings.
Provence is home to 5 of the 30 French monuments listed on the inventory of world heritage by UNESCO representing a very high density of spectacular sites.
Many villages in Provence are listed as some of the most beautiful villages in France and strolling in them is stepping back in time. Little imagination is needed for one to experience small scale village life and to appreciate its very human size that has shaped the values character and the lives of the people of Provence.
The very special light celebrated by painters like Van Gogh, Matisse, Derain, Bonnard and many others helped popularize the region. The local museums collections are rich and cover the history and art of Provence which has been the home of many artists, either born or attracted by the region such as its most famous painter Paul Cezanne, Joseph Vernet’s or more recently Yves Brayer whose charming museum is in the spectacular village of Les Baux.
Today Provence is the most visited region of France. While very busy in the summer due to the appeal of its beauty, climate and charm, except in the most popular sites, the crowds are rarely a problem. Visitors are widely spread out over thousands of sites and blend in the scenery. One acquires very quickly a sense of the colorful of Provencal life style. Because it is the most laid back area in France, the notion of time is loosely interpreted and is reflected in the way priorities are established. The “Pastis“ a very popular aperitif, is enjoyed before lunch or dinner taken at a café terrace or at a bar counter on the way home. It is a well established social practice and needs to be experienced. It is easy to join in a lively often passionate discussion that is an integral part of life in Provence. Opposing points of views are required and easily adopted for the sake of argument even in the absence of deep seated convictions.
The charm of Provence is to be understood by observing people and adopting the life style. Any modest expression of interest in the culture, profession or products, opens doors, and will engage you. It may result in an invitation to participate in a game of Petanque under the shade of majestic century old sycamores or a wide ranging discussion on the state of the world. By allowing this interaction, you will return home with probably the fondest moments of your visit. The beautiful sites and spectacular scenery will then be the frame of the memories of your tour of Provence.