The allure of Provence

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Spectacular scenery, glamour and culture are the attractions of this ancient region of southern France, says Aoife O'Riordain

Fragrant lavender fields, bustling markets and sun-drenched beaches: this alluring corner of south-eastern France is the quintessential summer holiday destination. There are the glamorous beach resorts of Saint-Tropez, Nice and Cannes; the honey-coloured hilltop villages and tranquil landscapes of the Luberon Valley depicted in Peter Mayle's novel A Year in Provence; and unspoilt islands such as the Iles d'Hyères near Toulon. Then there are the atmospheric towns and cities of Avignon, Arles, Aix-en-Provence, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence and Grasse, as well as the towering peaks of the Hautes-Alpes and the seemingly horizon-less, waterlogged plains of the Camargue. Provence's charms are rich and varied.

The name Provence derives from the first Roman province beyond the Alps, Provincia Romana, established in around 200BC. The Roman legacy can be found scattered all over the region, from the impressive second-century arena in Arles and the first-century Pont du Gard aqueduct in neighbouring Languedoc, to towns and cities such as Orange and Carpentras.

These days, Provence's modern borders correspond to the French administrative region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, a mosaic of six départements: Var, Bouches-du-Rhône, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, Hautes-Alpes, Alpes-Maritimes and Vaucluse. Provence's western borders start at the River Rhône and extend as far as Italy to the east and the Southern Alps to the north.

Vestiges of Provence's rich and sometimes turbulent history can be seen throughout its landscape. Provence passed through various European royal houses in the Middle Ages, including the Catalans and the Counts of Provence, until it was incorporated into the French royal domain in 1486.

The 12th century also saw the construction of three of its most celebrated Romanesque Cistercian monasteries, known as the Three Sisters of Provence: Sénanque Abbey (www.senanque.fr) in the Vaucluse; Abbaye du Thoronet (thoronet.monuments-nationaux.fr) near Draguignan in the Var; and Abbaye du Silvacane (abbaye-silvacane.com) in Bouches-du-Rhône. In 1309, the Roman Catholic papacy also moved to Avignon where it remained until 1378 and the city's skyline is still dominated by the magnificent Unesco-listed Palais des Papes (00 33 4 32 74 32 74; www.palais-des-papes.com).

Marseille is reputedly France's oldest city, first founded by the Greeks in 600BC. This year it takes centre stage as one of two European Capitals of Culture 2013, along with Kosice in Slovakia. It is staging an ambitious programme of events throughout the year, as well as unveiling several new city landmarks, conceived by a stellar line-up of internationally renowned architects. These include the transformation of its Vieux Port by Norman Foster and new cultural institutions including the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisation (00 33 4 96 13 80 90; mucem.org) which opens on 7 June and its neighbour, the Villa Méditerranée, a spectacular building that appears to float over the water in the renovated docks area by the Vieux Port.

Another highlight is the GR2013, a 360km-walking trail through Provence where people can discover the region's main attractions alongside some of its more off-the-beaten-track gems using traditional maps, videos and social media. For more details see mp2013.fr.

This year, seven stages of the 100th Tour de France (letour.com), which sets off from Porto-Vecchio in Corsica on 29 June, will also take place against the backdrop of Provence's stunning countryside, towns and cities. There are stages in Nice, Marseille and Aix-en-Provence and a challenging ascent of Mont-Ventoux, one of the region's most dramatic peaks in the Vaucluse.

For more information see Tourisme Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur (00 33 4 91 56 47 00; tourismepaca.fr) and the French Tourist Board (rendezvousenfrance.com).

Mountain highs

Outdoor enthusiasts should make for Mercantour National Park, left. A landscape of Alpine peaks, lakes, rivers and forests, it is home to about half of the 4,200 species of flora found in France. Wildlife includes eagles, wild boar and wolves (mercantour.eu).

Alternatively, hop aboard one of France's most spectacular railways to get your mountain highs. The Chemins de Fer de Provence (00 33 4 97 03 80 80; trainprovence.com), also known as the Train des Pignes, travels between Nice and Dignes-les-Bains in Haute-Provence, passing through breathtaking mountain scenery; €23.30 one way.

French Travel Service (0844 848 8843; f-t-s.co.uk) has a six-night Provençal Adventure that takes in St-André-les-Alpes and a trip on the Train des Pignes for £685pp, with rail travel, four nights' half-board and two nights' B&B.

A movable feast

The Provençal table offers the ultimate Mediterranean diet and bountiful fresh fruit and vegetables. Regional dishes make the most of it: ratatouille, hearty stews known as daubes and tapenade, as well as more local specialities such as Nice's pissaladière, above, an onion tart topped with anchovies and black olives. One of the pleasures of a stay in Provence is a being able to buy and cook your own food from local markets. See jours-de-marche.com for locations.

Bouillabaisse is the classic seafood dish of Marseille; L'Epuisette (00 33 4 91 52 17 82; www.l-epuisette.fr) serves one of the best versions using the freshest fish (€69). Gourmets including Sir Terence Conran rave about Le Bistro du Paradou (00 33 4 90 54 32 70) in the village of Paradou near St-Rémy-de-Provence. This pretty, shuttered restaurant serves classic Provençal dishes on its €45 set menu (including wine). Booking is essential.

Riviera redux

The Côte d'Azur has enduring appeal – not to mention glamour. The coastline alternates between pretty, rocky inlets and long, sandy beaches, and Saint-Tropez is one of its most celebrated hot spots. This pastel-coloured fishing village became renowned in the 1950s and continues to thrive thanks to its buzzing social scene.

Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy has just reopened the doors of White 1921 (00 33 4 94 45 50 50; white1921.com), formerly La Maison Blanche, set in an elegant mansion. Doubles from €260, room only.

Also new for this year, Esprit (01483 791919; espritsun.com) is launching family summer holidays with a resort on the Giens peninsula near Toulon. A week at the Riviera Beach Club Family Village costs from £384pp including half-board, drinks, childcare and ferry crossing.

On 27 September, the Port of Toulon is hosting the spectacular Tall Ships Race with a host of events and entertainment over the ensuing four days. For more information see Tourisme Var (visitvar.fr).

For art's sake

Pay a visit to the spectacular renovation of the Château la Coste (00 33 4 42 61 89 98; chateau-la-coste.com), above, which combines two of Provence's pleasures – wine and art – with a more contemporary twist. The grounds, which feature the work of artists and architects from Louise Bourgeois to Jean Prouvé, can be explored via an Art and Architecture walk.

There is also a tasting tour of the winery and a café in the Tadao Ando-designed Art Centre. Admission from €12.

Where to stay

Opening next month near Tourtour, Domaine de la Baume (00 33 4 57 74 74 74; domaine-delabaume.com), above, has views over the Var countryside. Doubles from €400, half board.

The InterContinental Marseille Hotel Dieu (00 33 4 13 42 42 42; ihg.com) opened earlier this month in the city's heritage-listed former hospital; doubles from €250, room only. Mama Shelter (00 33 4 84 35 20 00; mamashelter.com) is more affordable: doubles from €49, room only.

The 14th-century village of Crillon-le-Brave has majestic views of the Vaucluse. The hotel of the same name (00 33 4 90 65 6161; crillonlebrave.com) offers doubles from €280, B&B.

For villa rentals try Villas Worldwide (world-villa.co.uk), CV Travel (cvtravel.co.uk), Wake Up in France (wakeupin france.co.uk), Provence Holiday Houses (provenceholidayhouses.com) and Lagrange Holidays (lagrange-holidays.co.uk).

Travel essentials

Provence is well served by flights from the UK. The main airport is Nice, served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com), Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com), Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com), Monarch (0871 940 5040; monarch.co.uk) and Norwegian (020-8099 7254; norwegian.com) from a wide range of UK airports.

The second gateway is Marseille-Provence, served by BA, easyJet and Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com).

By train, Eurostar (08432 186186; eurostar.com) has a single Saturday-only summer service between London St Pancras and Provence. Until 29 June, the train serves Avignon and Aix-en-Provence; from 6 July to 7 September it will run only to Avignon. At other times, you can connect with high-speed TGV services to Provence at Paris or Lille.

Within Provence, TER Regional Express trains (ter-sncf.com) provide useful services, especially along the coast. Rail is supplemented by buses. Services to isolated towns and villages are cheap but sporadic. Car rental is useful for exploring the interior, although traffic jams along the coast are common in high season.

Provence lends itself to exploration by foot or bike. Headwater (0845 154 5303; headwater.com) has various itineraries including a self-guided eight-night "Landscapes of the Luberon" walking tour from £998 per person, with transfers, accommodation with breakfast and four dinners, but not flights.

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