The Complete Guide To Provence

From the Riviera to the Rhône, this sun-drenched ancient region of France has all the architectural, culinary and scenic treasures you could wish for. Harriet O'Brien reports


AH, PROVENCE: ALL HERBS AND SUNSHINE...

And indeed there's much more. Provence is, of course, also celebrated for its dazzling lavender fields, its cuisine, its artists, its sheer pizzazz. It's a vast chunk of the country, stretching from the Hautes-Alpes in the north to the Mediterranean coast in the south, and from Arles in the west to Monaco and Italy in the east. And what a chunk it is: snowy peaks, sandy beaches, pine groves, villages perching on impossibly craggy slopes, Michelin-starred restaurants - and more than a good dollop of style. Strangely, today there is no official region of that name, though Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur (PACA) is one of France's 22 administrative areas.

TAKE ME TO THE GLAMOUR

From Marseille to Monaco, the glittering "Azure Coast" has been the playground of the rich and famous for a good century and a half. One theory holds that visitors started to arrive at the Côte d'Azur in significant numbers in the early 19th century after a phylloxera outbreak in Provençal vineyards. The locals needed another form of employment; tourism was the answer.

Cannes became a haven for hedonistic Brits after Lord Brougham bought an estate there in the 1830s. Nice was partly transformed by Russian as well as British aristocrats, as the splendid Orthodox Church testifies. Indeed, you can play out the life of a Russian aristocrat at Prince Alexei Lobanov Rostowsky's former home, Château des Ollières (39 Avenue des Baumettes, 00 33 4 92 15 77 99), where doubles start at around €200 (£130), excluding breakfast.

It was after the Second World War that the area really acquired a glitzy image. In 1946 the first Cannes Film Festival was held (featuring Dumbo along with Vincente Minelli's Ziegfeld Follies) and through this the town became the European capital of glamour. Ten years later St-Tropez shot to fame - and fortune - as the setting for Roger Vadim's And God Created Woman, starring Brigitte Bardot.

By the 1990s the built-up eastern end of the Côte d'Azur, known also as the French Riviera, had acquired something of a tacky reputation. Yet recently the area has been making a comeback, fuelled in part by the arrival of low-cost airlines. Wealthy Russians are back; property and business magnates from Italy, Germany, Britain, India and more descend every summer. It's now cool to be seen on St-Tropez's Pampelonne beach or at Plage de Tahiti - the more scantily dressed, the better. Meanwhile from today Nice will attract floods of visitors, with carnival festivities to the end of the month. You can find out more by calling the city's tourist office (at 5 Promenade des Anglais) on 00 33 8 92 70 74 07, or by visiting www.nicetourisme.com.

WHERE CAN I LAY MY LOUIS VUITTON?

The grandes dames of Provençal hotels have rarely been more sought-after. Choose from the refurbished Grand-Hotel du Cap-Ferrat (00 33 4 93 76 50 50; www.grand-hotel-cap-ferrat.com - closed until March, doubles from €205/£146, room only); the gracious Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc, near Antibes (00 33 4 93 61 39 01; www.edenroc-hotel.fr - closed * * until April, doubles from €360/£257 room only, no credit cards); or Nice's Hôtel Negresco (00 33 4 93 16 64 00; www.hotel-negresco-nice.com - doubles from €250/£179 room only), a palatial 1912 residence with a private beach. Meantime, the hip crowd heads for Le Byblos in St-Tropez (00 33 4 94 56 68 00; www.byblos.com - doubles from €370/£264 room only), and its legendary Caves du Roy nightclub; while the savvy make for the sleek and relatively inexpensive Hôtel Windsor in Nice (00 33 4 93 88 59 35; www.hotelwindsornice.com - doubles from €80/£57 room only).

OFF THE BEATEN TRACK?

For all the crowds on the coast, there's a wealth of choice inland if you want to get away from it all. For many, essential Provence is the (as yet) little visited Luberon region to the west, a glorious area of limestone hills and villages such as Mirabeau where Jean de Florette was shot. For others there's nothing like the mountains around the Verdon river.

A good way to venture into little-trodden territory is on a walking trip. Explore (0870 333 4001; www.explore.co.uk) offers a seven-night trip in the summer pastures of the Hautes-Alpes near St-Andre-les-Alpes, the market town of Castellane, and the stunning Gorges de Verdon. It costs from £685, including flights, transfers, accommodation with breakfast, five lunches and three dinners, and guide. Departures are in May, June, July, August and September.

Over to the west, Inntravel (01653 617949; www.inntravel.co.uk) has a six-night independent walking trip in the Luberon. The route takes you into a land of aromatic rosemary and rosé wine, through rolling hills and sleepy villages. The cost, from £678, covers flights, transfers, B&B accommodation, dinners, picnic lunches, map and walking notes (prices for rail travel or self-drive are also available).

Other companies with walking trips in Provence include On Foot Holidays (01722 322 652; www.onfootholidays.co.uk) and Belle France (0870 405 4056; www.bellefrance.co.uk).

I'D LIKE A PLACE OF MY OWN

There is still reasonable availability for summer holiday villa rentals, but you'll need to start looking soon if you want a good choice. Inevitably, properties near the coast get booked up quickly - and are far more expensive than those inland. A&K Villas (0845 0700 618; www.abercrombiekent.co.uk) has several properties around the Côte d'Azur. Le Clos, for example, is a spacious hillside villa with pool and fabulous views across to Pampelonne beach. It is a 10-minute drive from St-Tropez yet a world away from the beachside bustle. It sleeps up to nine and costs £5,180 a week in May and June, rising to £9,205 in peak season. Flights not included.

Dominique's Villas (020-7738 8772; www.dominiquesvillas.co.uk) offers 47 properties with pools across the south-east of Provence. One of the prettiest is La Croix du Gey, a traditional stone house with its own vineyard near the Luberon mountains. It is within easy reach of the market town of Cavaillon and is about 35km from Avignon. It sleeps up to eight people and costs £1,835 for seven nights during May, rising to £3,135 peak season. The price includes a short Channel crossing for one car and passengers.

Meanwhile VFB Holidays (01242 240 340; www.vfbholidays.co.uk) has everything from simple gîtes to large villas with pools. Combining rustic charm with a great setting is a cottage on the edge of La Tour d'Aigues, 26km from Aix-en-Provence. This former farm building with pool has been sympathetically converted and sleeps up to four people. It costs from £464 per week, rising to £1,177 in peak season, for accommodation only. Self-drive packages with return Channel crossings can also be arranged: until 5 May accommodation with a crossing from Folkestone or Dover to Calais costs from £564. Other companies offering rentals in Provence include French Country Cottages (08700 781 500; www.french-country-cottages.co.uk) and Brittany Ferries (08703 665 333; www.brittanyferries.co.uk).

ANYTHING CHEAP AND CHEERFUL NEAR THE COAST?

Head for one of the campsites around the Côte d'Azur. In true French style, these are remarkably comfortable and provide a host of family entertainments. Among the holiday parks run by Eurocamp (0870 366 7552; www.eurocamp.co.uk) is the L'Etoile d'Argens near Fréjus. The site is in a rural setting with an attractive pool complex, while the nearby beach at St-Aygulf is accessible by free riverboat. A two-bedroom mobile home here costs £499 in June, rising to £726 in August. Flights and car hire can be organised at extra cost. Eurocamp is currently offering a 20 per cent discount on accommodation for families with children of up to three years old travelling before 13 July.

Further south, about 17km from St-Tropez, is the Pachacaid site whose facilities include a waterpark with five swimming pools. The campsite is set in wooded countryside about 10km from the beach at Canadel. During April, Canvas Holidays (0870 192 1154; www.canvasholidays.co.uk) can arrange seven-night holidays here for £253 for a family of two adults and up to four children. The price includes return midweek ferry crossing from Dover to Calais and accommodation in a mobile home. The same holiday costs £1,012 in peak season.

FOR GOURMET LIVING?

From olives and garlic to fish and seafood, Provençal cuisine combines the best of the mountains and the coast. Indeed, the region presents a feast of legendary restaurants: Montpellier's Le Jardin des Sens (00 33 4 99 58 38 38; www.jardin-des-sens.com), whose twin-brother chefs Jacques and Laurent Pourcel have won it three Michelin stars; Avignon's elegant La Mirande (00 33 4 90 14 20 20; www.la-mirande.fr); Château de la Chèvre d'Or (00 33 4 92 10 66 66; www.chevre dor.com) in the hillside village of Eze; La Colombe d'Or in the walled village of Saint Paul de Vence (00 33 4 93 32 80 02; www.la-colombe-dor.com) where you can enjoy your bouillabaisse amid a fine-art collection of Picasso, Miro and more.

You can also learn how to conjure the tastes and textures yourself on a gourmet cookery course. On the Menu Holidays (020-7371 1113; www.holidayonthemenu.com) offers a six-night holiday at Hostellerie Bérard, an elegant, family-run hotel in the Bandol vineyards about 45 minutes' drive from Marseille airport. Here Rene Bérard introduces guests to Provençal cooking using fresh, local produce. The holidays run from 19 February and cost £875, which covers accommodation, breakfasts and lunches plus a welcome dinner, visits to olive farms and markets, wine tasting and four cooking sessions (the price for non-cooks is £525). Flights and transfers need to be arranged separately.

Meanwhile, Gourmet on Tour (020-7871 0848; www.gourmetontour.com) has a four-day holiday at Le Cagnard near Nice, with two cookery courses led by Michelin-starred chef Jean-Yves Johany. The small and stylish hotel and restaurant is at a medieval fort and is well positioned for the beaches of the Riviera or visits into the hills around the perfume town of Grasse. The trip costs from €790 (£564) including accommodation, breakfasts and lunches, classes, and wine tasting. Flights and car hire are excluded.

HOW ABOUT PROVENÇAL PRODUCE?

Every summer, wide sweeps of Provence burst into colour as the lavender flowers. A member of the mint family, lavender is an integral part of Provençal culture and since 1981 the oil produced from plants in the Haute-Provence area has had its own AOC (appellation d'origine contrôlée). You will find all you might ever want to know about Provence's lavender at www.routes-lavande.com which provides downloadable road maps of lavender routes.

The vines of Provence grow at lower altitudes, so the region produces about half of France's rosé production. Much of this is under the Côtes de Provence appellation, from a wide corridor along the Côte d'Azur between Marseille and Nice. Other notable appellations include Côteaux d'Aix en Provence, producing rosé and strong reds; the small Vignoble de Cassis with dry whites; Côtes de Luberon near Cavaillon; and Bandol, one of the oldest vineyards in France, producing deep reds, rosé and light whites.

The wine tour specialist Arblaster & Clarke (01730 893344; www.winetours.co.uk) organises independent gourmet holidays in Provence for groups of six or more. The cost from £1,649 per person includes flights from Gatwick to Marseille, transport, four nights at the wine-estate hotel Château de Berne, two cookery sessions there, excursions to markets, wine tastings and vineyard visits.

HOW ABOUT A SHORT BREAK?

At this time of year, escaping to the warmth and colour of the south of France sounds supremely attractive. And if you can avoid Valentine's Day and the February half-term, air fares are very low. The main gateway by air is Nice, which is served from many UK airports, including Belfast, Bristol, Gatwick, Liverpool, Luton and Newcastle on easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com), Birmingham on Bmi baby (0870 224 0224; www.bmibaby.com), and Gatwick and Heathrow on British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com). Other airports for Provence include Marseille (from Gatwick on BA and easyJet) and Nimes, served from Stansted on Ryanair (0906 270 5656; www.ryanair.com).

If you are starting in south-east England, rail is a worthwhile alternative even for a short trip. The TGV line south from Paris is excellent, covering the 500 miles to Marseille in three hours flat. There are also good same-station connections at Lille from Eurostar (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com) trains from London Waterloo. (In summer, direct trains run from London to Avignon.)

Plenty of tour operators will sell you a package. Kirker Holidays (0870 112 3333; www.kirkerholidays.com) offers breaks in Aix-en-Provence, Cannes, Nice, Vence and more. Until 20 March, a three-night trip to Avignon, for example, costs £390 per person, covering flights from Gatwick, car hire and B&B accommodation at the Superior de L'Horloge in the heart of the old town.

French Travel Service (08702 414243; www.frenchtravelservice.co.uk) has three-night breaks to Marseille from £348 per person including travel on Eurostar to Lille or Paris and onward TGV connections to Marseille, and accommodation with breakfast at the three-star Hotel Residence du Vieux Port, set in a prime position in the old harbour.

If you're looking for a romantic retreat, head for the hills north of Avignon and the tiny village of Crillon le Brave. Here the eponymous Hostellerie occupies seven medieval houses clustered among cobbled alleyways at the top of a hill. The views are terrific and the creature comforts extensive. Abercrombie & Kent (0845 0700 612; www.abercrombiekent.co.uk) offers three nights at Hostellerie Crillon le Brave on a B&B basis from £435 per person inclusive of flights from Gatwick to Marseille and car hire.

WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?

Maison de la France, the French Government tourist office, is at 178 Piccadilly, London W1J 9AL (09068 244 123 a premium-rated number; www.franceguide.com/uk). Other helpful websites include www.visitprovence.com, www.crt-paca.fr/eng and www.guideriviera.com.

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