The popular and scenic region of Provence in the southeast corner of France has come to worldwide attention thanks in part to the books of—among many others—Peter Mayle, a British expatriate who chronicled its charms and curiosities. Mayle writes about a relatively small section of Provence, called the Luberon, which is considered by many to be the heart of Provence.
True to description, the Luberon section of Provence is breathtaking: purple lavender fields, craggy olive trees, multicolored vineyards, cliffs, gorges and ancient villages. The appeal of Provence goes back much further, however, and artists over the centuries have been captivated by the quality of the light in the countryside. You really have to see it to believe it.
Provence consists of six administrative "departments" which moving from north to south clockwise are the Hautes Alpes, Alpes de Haut Provence, Alpes Maritimes, The Var, Bouches-du-Rhone and Vaucluse. Typically, the two departments on the west side of Provence, the Vaucluse and Bouches-du Rhone, are what tourists associate with Provence, but this region of France is much more varied in scenery, customs, and range of activities than those two departments suggest.
The Hautes Alpes, in the northernmost area of Provence, feature mountains rising to over 9,850 ft/3,000 m, near the Italian border. The Alps here are a renowned ski area, and early summer through fall, alpine hiking is extremely popular, too.
Alpes de Haute Provence is in central Provence; its main town is Digne. The draw of this area is the scenic hill towns, such as Moustiers-Sainte Marie and the Gorges du Verdon, a much-visited dramatic canyon.
The Alpes Maritimes is a coastal region with famous resorts such as Nice, Cannes and Antibes. Small villages close to the sea with well-preserved medieval centers and sweeping views of the Mediterranean include Eze and Saint Paul de Vence. To the northeast of the department is the expansive Parc National de Mercantour, with beautiful alpine scenery and plenty of opportunities for hiking and outdoor activities.
Var, the southernmost department, includes some beautiful coastline and chic resorts such as St. Tropez. The Islands of Hyere are just off the south coast of Var, and nearby are quaint hill towns such as Gassin and Ramatuelle. The interior and north feature many interesting sights, such as the villages of the Cotes du Rhone wine area and the well-preserved 12th-century Thoronet Abbey.
Vaucluse is a landlocked department highlighted by the Luberon area, with its lovely small villages, fragrant meadows and ancient farms. In the west is the famous bridge in Avignon and the Roman ruins in Orange.
Bouches-du-Rhone is the southwest area of Provence, where you'll find the thriving multicultural port city of Marseille, the historic Roman ruins in Arles and the charming market town of Aix-en-Provence. The protected marshes of the Camargue National park are a bird-watching paradise.
The larger cities and towns of Provence—notably Aix-en-Provence, Marseille, Toulon, Nice, Avignon and Arles—all have their merits (we especially like Avignon and Arles), but it's in the region's small towns such as Brignoles, Le Luc and Frejus where the true colors of Provence really shine. Take note, however, that it can be very hot (and touristy) in summer, and the famous mistral wind can be vicious in winter. Spring and fall are the best times to visit.
Don't miss the stunning Le Thoronet Abbey, just 20 minutes north of Le Luc. It is the oldest (founded in 1098) of the three famous abbeys built in the region, known as the "Three Sisters," and is a realistic vision of what a Cistercian monastery was like in the Middle Ages.
If you like dramatic scenery, and if your nerves can stand it, visit the French version of the Grand Canyon, the Gorges du Verdon. The canyon is some 12 mi/18 km long and varies in width from 660 ft/220 m to barely 20 ft/6 m. The roads along its sheer drops are narrow, and many do not have safety barriers. The worst roads are closed in bad weather, and even in full sunshine, the going is pretty scary—but spectacular, if you want to brave it.
The village of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie is one of the most beautiful hilltop villages in Provence. It is in an exceptional setting, surrounded by the Gorges du Verdon, the Lac Sainte-Croix and the lavender fields of Valensole. The village is known for its faience, enjoying a rich history in ceramic craftsmanship since the Middle Ages. Visit the Musee de la Faience as well as the Notre Dame de Beauvoir chapel, which sits high in a notch above the village behind the ruins of the ancient village walls.
At any time of year, you can enjoy a variety of markets, including the Marche des Antiquaires at L'Isle sur la Sorgue (Sundays).
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