01 of 07
Five Glorious Areas to Choose from
This beautiful region, stretching from the sparkling Mediterranean sea up into the Alps, is divided into five different departments, all with very different characters.
The westernmost department is the Bouches-du-Rhône (13), a glorious area, painted by Van Gogh and Cézanne. The Romans settled here in cities like Nîmes which has some of the best preserved Roman buildings. Visit Les Arènes, a smaller version of Rome’s Colosseum that echoes today to the roars of the crowds during the Roman games and the bullfights.
The coastal city of Marseille is now a mere and direct 6 hrs 27 minutes away from London. With a renovation that is transforming the city, particularly around the old docks, it’s becoming one of the hottest and most exciting destinations along the Mediterranean coast. From here the Camargue is a short drive away. One of the greatest wildlife reserves in France, it’s famous for the cowboys herding black bulls. And finally gorgeous Aix-en-Provence is a lovely city to visit.
To the north of the Bouches-du-Rhône, the Vaucluse (84), bordered by the Rhône and Durance rivers, offers a charming landscape of rolling countryside and little hilltop villages, once fortified against the enemy. Reached by winding roads, these hamlets offer great hotels, terraces for candlelit dinners and panoramic views. There are small towns like L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, an antique lover’s town. There are major cities like Avignon, reached directly from London in 5 hrs, 49mins. In the 14th and 15th centuries, Avignon was the alternative papal city with a superb palace. The region also saw the building of great Cistercian abbeys like the Abbaye de Sénanque set in lavender fields The fertile region is known for its produce; olives around Nyons, melons from Cavaillon, and great Rhône valley wines from Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
The Var (83), boasts a Mediterranean coastline with towns like Bandol, Fréjus and the most famous of all, glitzy, glamorous St.Tropez. Off the coastline lie the lovely Iles d’Hyères, also called the ‘Golden islands’, well worth a day’s visit. This is a region for gentle wanderings, for trips to the little fortified villages of the Haut Var like Tourtour and Seillans. Everywhere fields of herbs and lavender fill the landscape with colour, most notably around the Cistercian Abbaye du Thoronet.
The air is clear, the landscape full of dramatic gorges like the Gorges du Verdon, France’s answer to the Grand Canyon. The Alpes-de-Haute-Provence (04) border Italy, with skiing resorts in the Tinée and Vésubie valleys. It’s a place for high adrenalin sports in winter and gentle hiking over the rolling hills in summer. The cities are not well known, so cater to locals rather than tourists. Sisteron on the Durance river was once protected by its magnificent fortress; Digne-les-Bains has been a spa town since the Romans settled here - don’t miss its famous lavender festival in August. Moustiers-Ste-Marie, one of the Most Beautiful Villages of France, has an impossibly perched chapel and some of the most distinctive and prettiest (and most expensive) pottery in France.
Riviera and the Alpes-Maritimes
The French Riviera is one of the best known coastal regions of Europe. It's always been the playground of the rich, of painters and writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald who made this part of the world his stamping ground.
Today the coastline and the main cities are wonderful places to visit, with top carnivals and festivals in Nice, the film festival in Cannes and the pleasures of smaller Antibes. Islands off the coast are easy to get to and give you peace from the summer crowds. The Iles de Lerin offer the quiet of a monastery and a bit of literary history: the Man in the Iron Mask was imprisoned here.
The Alpes-Maritimes (06), reach up into the mountains, taking you past the perfume capital of Grasse and up to the Vallée des Merveilles for hiking and climbing on the roof of the Mediterranean world.Continue to 2 of 7 below.
02 of 07
Top Events in Provence in 2016
Here are a few highlights of events in Provence in 2016. There are so many that I advise you to go straight to the local tourist office in the town or village you're visiting. They will be happy to give you information on their events, maps and can help you book tickets.
Feb 12-28, 2016
Nice, Côte d’Azur
This is one of the most famous carnivals in the world. It takes over the streets, parks and squares of the Queen of the Riviera in a riotous assembly of characters, floats and musicians. In 2016, it's the turn of the King of Media.
Menton Lemon Festival
Feb 13-Mar 2, 2016
Menton, Côte d’Azur
This homage to all things citrus is now in its 83rd year. There are street parades, arts and crafts, amazing floats with creatures made up of oranges and lemons and plenty of night time parties.
March 25-28, 2016
The town of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is a real antique lovers destination, where the concentration of antique dealers rivals Paris. Shops and stalls range from brocante to top items, but there’s something for everyone here. Each year, a major fair takes over the town.
Cannes Film Festival
May 11-22, 2016
Cannes, Côte d’Azur
The most famous film festival in the world takes over the glamorous resort of Cannes. It’s not all by invitation; check out the history and information about the events you can see.
UEFA Football Matches
The European Football championship takes place every 4 years. This year it’s the turn of France.
Marseille: Jun 11, 15, 18, 21, 30 (quarter final match), Jul 7 (semi final match)
Nice: Jun 12, 17, 22, 17, 2016
Avignon Les Luminessences d’Avignon
Aug 12-Oct 1, 2016
The fabulous annual 360° video tells the multi-secular life of the Palace and its history. It’s a rollercoaster of derring do and evil deeds. All four facades of the castle are covered. Shows are in French and English.
Nice Jazz Festival
July 13-18, 2016
Nice, Côte d’Azur
One of the big jazz festivals in France, with international names.
Jazz a Juan Festival
July 14-24 2016
Juan-les-Pins, Côte d’Azur
Sitting in the terraced stands with top musicians playing jazz against the backdrop of the Mediterranean is one of the best music experiences you could wish for. Again, all the big names play here, some well-established like Chick Corea and Stevie Wonder; others less well known.
Selected dates in July, August starting with Bastille Day, July 14
Cannes, Côte d’Azur
This is a site to see. The fireworks soar over the Bay at Cannes, visible from a long way, produced each year by a different country.
August 15-21, 2016
The Arles Roman arena comes alive with the thundering chariots drawn by teams of horses, gladiators clashing swords and shields and animal acts in this annual festival taking you back to the ancient Roman games.
Feria au Riz
Sep 10-11, 2016
This may not be for everyone, but if you want to see a bullfight, they don't get much more exciting than in Arles. And after the fans leave the arena, the party continues into the night in this Provence city.
European Heritage Days
Sep 17, 18, 2016
Buildings normally closed to the public open for the 3rd weekend in September. Pick up the detailed list either at the Tourist Office, your hotel or at the sites that are open.
November -December 2016
Major towns and cities
Christmas markets will start to appear at the end of November. I will be posting the major dates when they are set later in the year.Continue to 3 of 7 below.
03 of 07
Major Exhibitions in 2016 in Provence
Mar 4, 2016 to Jan 8, 2017
Les Carrières de Lumières, Les Baux de Provence
The huge quarries just outside Les Baux de Provence put on a new exhibition each year. In 2016 it’s the turn of Marc Chagall (1887-1985). Projected onto the floor and the walls of the quarry will be the masterpieces of the Russian artist from the early 1900s through his time in Paris between 1911 and 1914 where he met the major avant-garde artists of the day, his return to Russia and his permanent move back to Paris in 1923. The eye-popping Chagall exhibition is accompanied by a dramatic soundtrack. The exhibition shows details from various Chagall pictures: La Danse, 1950-52, Songe d’une nuit d’été, 1939, Bella au col blanc, 1917, Le cirque rouge, 1956-60, Les amoureux, 1916, Au-dessus de la ville, 1914-18 and Les amoureux, 1952.
April 27 to August 29, 2016
Museum of the Civilisation of Europe and the Mediterranean, Marseille
Highlighting the parallels between Picasso’s work and how he used different materials, popular art and tradition, the exhibition, Picasso: A Genius without a Pedestal at MuCEM in Marseille also emphasises the artist’s love of Provence.
J. W. Turner
May 4 to Sep 15, 2016
Caumont Centre, Aix-en-Provence
Turner might seem an unlikely exhibition to hold in the Caumont Center until you’re reminded that he’s considered as the precursor of Impressionism. The works by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 - 1857) in Turner and Colour come from Tate London and Turner Contemporary in Margate and are taken from his travels from London to Yorkshire, from France to Italy.
Marilyn Monroe under the photographer's gaze
Oct 22 2016 to Apr 17, 2017
Marilyn Monroe was immortalised by some of the greatest photographers of her day like Richard Avedon, Eve Arnold and Andre de Dienes and inspired artists like Andy Warhol, Willem de Kooning and Salvador Dalí. The exhibition has some of the most important, and best remembered photographs of her including those from The Last Sitting, taken a month before she died by Bert Stern.
Also here permanently is a film about Paul Cezanne, showing the highlights of his life. It centers on the friendship he had as a young man with Emile Zola and his life at l’Estaque with his lover Hortense Figuet who bore him a child, a time which particularly inspired him.
Jacques Henri Lartigue Un Mode Flottant (A Floating World)
Jun 17 to Sep 25 2016
Theatre de la Photographie et de l’Image, Nice
The great French painter and photographer died in Nice in September 1986. The exhibition focuses on the idea of capturing the fleeting moment in photography.Continue to 4 of 7 below.
04 of 07
Photography and Classical Music Festivals in Provence 2016
Provence has always had a reputation for some serious classical music and arts festivals. Many of these are world famous with visitors coming back year after year. If you are thinking of going, book a hotel well in advance, particularly if you want to stay in the heart of the city.
International Festival of Lyric Art of Aix-en-Provence
June 30 to July 17 2016
This is one of France’s major music festivals, with top international names. Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte opens the festival; Stravinskys’s Oedipus Rex is conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen; the Czech composer Ondrej Adámek has his work Seven Stones from the Tower of Babel premiered here.
It’s an expensive festival but there are many free and low-cost performance. Check out Le PASS from the Festival box-office for free access to most 50 events. Free for under 30 years; €15 for those over 30 years old.
Musique Cordiale Festivale
July 30-August 13 2016
This delightful festival is run by an English musician. Classical music, song, oratoria and opera is performed in churches and in the open air in the medieval hilltop town of Seillans and others nearby. The festival also runs an Academy (Summer strings with Levon Chilingirian, July 28-August 6) and a Choral course with Graham Ross (August 5-14).
Aug 3-11, 2016
This international choral event takes place every three years. It's huge with 4,000 singers, 400 volunteers, 140 concerts, 37 singing workshops and classes. You can join in communal singing, and listen to music in the Roman theater.Continue to 5 of 7 below.
05 of 07
Eating and Drinking in Provence
Provence has always been a magnet for anybody interested in that sunny southern French cooking, using olives and olive oil, fragrant herbs, an abundance of shellfish and tender, sweet lamb.
- More about Food of Provence
What to look out for in 2016
Provence is well known for truffle with 80% of France's output produced here. There are special festivals and markets all over the region. In Richerenches near Nyons in the Vaucluse, the Brotherhood of the Knights of the Black Diamond celebrate the 'black diamond' with a special Mass on the 3rd Saturday of January.
There's a special Saturday morning market from November to March from 9am to 1pm in the village.
New Top Restaurants
In Avignon, book at the new Carré du Palais. It's more than a gourmet restaurant; it also has a wine school, wine bar and a bistro, all showcasing wines of the Côte du Rhône. It’s right in the heart of Avignon between the Place de l’Horloge and the Palais des Papes and you can also stay here.
In Nice, book at Passion'elle at 14 rue Maccarani, where Laurie Sionetti cooks up a Mediterranean dream using local, seasonal ingredients.
There's also a new vegan restaurant, called somewhat ironically Vegan Gorilla. It's at 7 rue du Lycée and is open Thursday to Saturday.
The Comptoir des Terroirs Nice Vallées at 31 rue de Lépante is a chic restaurant and wine bar, where you can sup on oysters and sip on good wines.
And check out the daily open-air markets of Provence, full of local, seasonal fruit and vegetables, charcuterie and cheeses.Continue to 6 of 7 below.
06 of 07
Hilltop Villages of Provence
The hilltop or 'perched' villages of Provence make some of the most iconic images of the region. Once defensive, and often with a castle defying the enemy, they cling to the rocky summits, their streets and houses seeming to tumble down the hillsides. Today they are delightful places to wander around. It's even better to stay in one of the many boutique hotels that have taken over old mansions, giving you refreshing breezes even in the height of summer and fabulous views over the surrounding countryside.
If you're staying on the coast near the Italian border, make your way to Eze, between Beaulieu-sur-Mer and Cap d'Ail. From the top on a clear day you look towards Italy, Corsica and St. Tropez. It's particularly known for its extraordinary garden, full of tropical plants that thrive in the Mediterranean climate.
St-Paul-de-Vence is unbelievably chic, the favorite village for past stars like Yves Montand and Simone Signoret and still the place for Hollywood royalty to come, stay and eat at the famous Colombe d'Or hotel. It's near the Fondation Maeght, one of the top contemporary art museums in France and it's also the village where Marc Chagall is buried.
Biot has a delightful center with squares, arcades, boutiques and restaurants and bars. It's known for La Verrerie de Biot and its distinctive glassware. Partially destroyed by storms in October, 2015, the new ovens should be up and running by May 2016. In the meantime, you can visit the shop and buy the beautifully coloured glassware. The other major attractions is the Fernand Leger museum.
Inland the villages perch happily in the landscape. Many of them are designated among the Most Beautiful Villages of France (Plus Beaux Villages de France) and you see why as you wander past ruined castles, and up narrow cobbled streets with stone built houses.Continue to 7 of 7 below.
07 of 07
If you visit Provence...
There's almost too much choice of hotels in Provence, so here are some recommendations.
If you want to be ahead of the game, try some of the new hotels that have opened recently, and look at those that are opening in 2016.
New hotels to check out include the 4-star Grand Hôtel Henri in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. It’s in the heart of the antique dealer district in this small town that has the highest number of antique dealers outside Paris.
The 5-star Mas des Herbes Blanches Relais & Chateaux hotel has added to its charms with new bedrooms and suites, a new spa and a second casual restaurant for salad and grill menus. It’s near the pretty hilltop village of Gordes in the small village of Joucas.
The Domaine de Fontenille is a new hotel and restaurant in Lauris, just 25 minutes from Aix-en-Provence. It’s a gorgeous property, with a new wine estate devoted to organic methods. In 2016 they are introducing wine courses.
Stay right in the middle of a vineyard in the Luberon at the mini estate of La Coquillade 5-star Village. Fabulous views from the stone hilltop hotel, plus spa facilities and luxury surroundings complete the package in this hotel in Gargas.
There are plenty of hotels in Marseille, but the major renovation of the city in the past few years, plus the new service from London St. Pancras to Marseille in 6 hours 27 minutes, is encouraging more new hotels.
The Amédée-Armand house, used by Napoleon and his family from 1794 to 1979, is a former huge 18th-century mansion being converted into a 4-star Accor hotel. It will open in 2016 as part of the Marriott MGallery brand in Rue Lafon joining the other boutique hotels in the group around the world
Also in Marseille, but in a different area, the Ac Marriott Stade Velodrome opens in January 2016 just near the spectacular football stadium. It's just the place if you’ve got tickets for any of the six UEFA Euro 2016 football matches being played here between June 10 and July 10, 2016.
Getting to Provence
Here is a quick reference guide to getting to different cities in Provence.
If you're coming from the USA, you can fly directly to Nice-Côte d'Azur Airport. You can fly into Marseille-Provence Airport from the USA with one stop-over.
From the UK, most budget airlines fly to the two major airports. CityJet flies from London city Airport twice weekly to Avignon from Jun 29 to Aug 31. CityJet will fly to Toulon three times a week from June 23 to September 6.