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Traveller's Guide: Provence

In the first of a six-part series produced in association with Footprint Travel Guides, Kathryn Tomasetti and Tristan Rutherford reveal the delights of a spectacular region of south-eastern France

Saturday 15 May 2010 00:00 BST

Just remind me where it is

Provence – including its most alluring component, the Côte d'Azur – sits snugly in France's south-east corner. The region takes in mountain peaks, verdant valleys and rugged coastlines over an area a shade larger (and sunnier) than Wales. It's hemmed in by the river Rhône to the west and the Italian frontier to the east.

The region conjures up a volley of sun-kissed images. You can track down lavender fields in the Luberon, Van Gogh locations in Arles and French Connection chase scenes in Marseille. And just about anywhere in the region you can find pétanque players, hilltop villages and pavement cafés. Provence is France at its most beautiful.

Waves of invaders have claimed a piece of the action for over two millennia. The Romans came for the green hills and weather, and left olive trees and a world-class wine industry, plus the best Roman ruins in France (Arles, Fréjus). Contemporary artists made up the most important influx of the 20th century. Arrivistes Picasso, Matisse and Van Gogh – alongside local boy Cézanne – left ateliers dedicated to the Provençal hues that so inspired them.

Where do I start?

The French Riviera – known locally as the Côte d'Azur – is the most visited, as well as the most action-packed, area in the region. Its shimmering seaside and historic hill towns have been showered with more culture than many European capitals. Understated Nice, with its lavender-shuttered Italianate Old Town, has the country's greatest concentration of museums outside Paris. The city is also blessed with the four-mile long promenade des Anglais, a wide esplanade running along a buzzing public beach.

Nice is flanked by more chichi neighbours. Elegant Cannes is home to the Festival de Cannes ( ) along with hip boutiques and clothes markets. The tiny principality of Monaco boasts the Grand Prix ( ), and offers the chance to tour the circuit on foot, on a scooter, or in a Ferrari rented by the quarter hour.

But it's not all bottles of Bolly and Hollywood haunts. This coastal strip is one of the Mediterranean's most relaxed, without the hustle of the Costas, Greek islands or Aegean Turkey. Pretty Eze, perched on a rocky outcrop 430m above the sea, is a bird-watcher's, parascender's and art-lover's paradise. Villefranche-sur-Mer and Cap Ferrat share 10 great beaches and almost as many museums between them. The gallery haven of St-Paul-de-Vence is ringed by thick ramparts. Its best hotel, Le Colombe d'Or (00 33 4 93 32 80 02; ) is lined with canvasses that Picasso et al swapped for their keep. Doubles start at €220, without breakfast.

The almost continuous sentier littoral (coastal path) skirts past beaches, fishing villages and the odd chic resort from Menton to Marseille. This was originally a sentier des douaniers, or custom officers' trail, where local officials on the lookout for smugglers would patrol. Start at the family-friendly beach of Plage Passable, and finish in the fishing village of St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. Allow around four hours to hike the whole of the moderately difficult trail, more if you pack a picnic, swimming costume and snorkel. The route takes in four brilliant beaches – along with acres of palms, figs, Aleppo pines, cacti and wild herbs – along the way.

If the seaside's not your thing, it's just a short, cheap bus ride into the mountains. Resorts such as Auron ( ) and Isola2000 ( ) are packed with skiers throughout the winter, and make a cool escape from the crowds – for a hike or mountain bike – come summer.

Historic Provence?

For history buffs, it's hard to beat Avignon's blend of medieval architecture and religious drama. Defined by a sharp curve in the river Rhône, which flows along its western flank, the city is encircled by giants: Alpine foothills to the east, rocky pinnacles to the west, and one of Europe's most forbidding peaks, the 2,000m Mont Ventoux to the north.

Fleeing Rome, Pope Clement V shifted Catholicism's power base to Avignon in 1309. While both he and his successor, Pope John XXII, were content to bed down in the town bishops' old Episcopal palace (now the Musée du Petit Palais), later leaders Pope Benedict XII and Pope Clement VI dedicated themselves to the construction of a palace worthy of the papacy: Avignon's huge Gothic Palais des Papes at 6 rue Pente Rapide (00 33 4 90 27 50 00; ) is now the city's main draw. Open 9am-7pm daily; admission €9.50.

La Mirande at 4 place de la Mirande (00 33 4 90 85 93 93; ) is the classic Avignon hotel. Set opposite the Papal palace, it boasts a stunning 17th-century stone façade. Luxurious double rooms here start from €310, without breakfast.

The Festival d'Avignon (00 33 4 90 14 14 14; ) has been going since 1947 when the concept was inaugurated by Jean Vilar, an actor with France's Theatre National Populaire. Like Edinburgh's August festivals (albeit with better weather), there is a huge variety of events to choose from.

Art for art's sake?

Provence's quality of light, combined with the intensity of its coastal and countryside colours, has long acted as an irresistible magnet for artists.

In St-Rémy-de-Provence, Van Gogh created an incredible 143 paintings, including his famous Starry Night and The Olive Trees, while residing at the Monastère Saint-Paul de Mausole (00 33 4 90 92 77 00), a psychiatric hospital and monastery now open to the public. Open 9.30am-7pm (April to October) and 10.15am-4.45pm (November to March); admission €3. Alternatively, pick up a Visiting St-Rémy-de-Provence booklet from the Tourist Office ( ) for their "Follow the Footsteps of Van Gogh" walking route.

Cézanne was born, raised and died in Aix-en-Provence. Places painted by the artist are thick on Aix's turf, including his Atelier ( ), where he finished the masterpiece Grandes Baigneuses, former home Jas de Bouffan (route de Galice) and the Bibémus Quarries (chemin de Bibémus). If you plan to visit all three sites, purchase the discounted Cézanne Pass (€13.10, available from the tourist office on 2 place du Général de Gaulle (00 33 4 42 16 11 61; ).

There are plenty more spots well worth seeking out, including the Musée Renoir in Cagnes-sur-Mer, Nice's Musée Biblique Marc Chagall and Musée Matisse, Saint-Tropez's modern art-stuffed Musée de l'Annonciade and the contemporary Fondation Maeght in St-Paul-de-Vence.

What will I eat?

Provence and the Côte d'Azur is not a traditional land of plenty. Instead, the region's cuisine is a mix of peasant dishes and Italian influences. Fruits and vegetables are really the local stars; crunchy raw artichokes, peppers, asparagus and broad beans headline in salade Niçoise. Nice residents favour the same salad in its sandwich version, pan bagnat, as well as on-the-go snacks: savoury chickpea-flour pancake socca and onion-topped tart, pissaladière.

No visitor to Marseille should miss the city's famous bouillabaisse. This fish soup includes at least four different fish (red mullet, John Dory, conger eel, skate or scorpion fish); monkfish and spiny lobster are optional.

Some off-the-beaten-track adventure?

The world's second-largest canyon (over 20km long and 700m deep), the Gorges du Verdon is an arresting sight. It's justifiably famous for hard-core rock-climbing, with scary-sounding routes such as La Demande and Dingomaniaque. The river Verdon is ideal for white-water rafting, and eventually spills into the gentler jade-green Lac de Ste-Croix, great for sailing, kayaking, swimming, fishing or simply pottering round on an electric boat.

World Expeditions (020-8545 9030; ) offers a one-week, self-guided walking trip which explores a scenic trail winding through the banks of the river to the heights of the rim. Prices start at €690 based on two people sharing, including hostel accommodation, breakfast and dinner and luggage transfers; flights not included.

On the south-west coast, the Parc Naturel Régional de Camargue is Western Europe's largest river delta. It's home to vast étangs (shallow saline lakes), fresh water reed beds and salt marshes, as well as hundreds of bird species, indigenous bulls and whitish-grey Camargue horses. Mostly flat, the area is a delight to discover by bike or from the saddle.

The Enlightened Traveller (0870 020 99 00; ) offers a one-week, self-guided hike of the area. Prices start at €555 which includes hotel accommodation, breakfast and entrance to two Natural Reserve sites. Flights not included. Alternatively, Camarquaise de Tourisme Equestre (00 33 4 90 97 10 40; ) offers horseback tours of the region. Prices start at €35 for a day.

Can I see Provence on a budget?

With scores of free museums and public beaches, combined with great value hotels and transport options in the region, you certainly can. Travelling outside July and August, booking in advance and camping are obvious ways in which to slash your budget. There are cheap V C hostels in most cities with beds for around €16 per night: these even exist in millionaires' playgrounds, on the seafront at Cap d'Ail or by Elton John's house on Mont Boron ( ).

The South of France is also an ideal picnic ground. Hit the region's produce markets, such as Nice's cours Saleya (Tue-Sat) or Marseille's organic cours Julien (Wed), where small producers sell charcuterie (cured meats) and olives.

How do I get there?

Three three airports serving Provence. Nice Côte d'Azur ( ) receives over 50 flights a day from nearly 20 airports in the UK and Ireland in summer. From here, it's a €4, 20-minute ride into Nice, or a train ride away from the entire Provençal coast.

BA, easyJet and Ryanair fly to Marseille Provence ( ). Midway between Marseille and Aix, it is best suited for those exploring the Camargue wetlands and the vineyards, art trails and walled cities of the real Year in Provence country.

Little Toulon-Hyères ( ), right on the beach, receives several Ryanair flights from Stansted each week. Fly in and you can be on the paradise islands Iles d'Hyères half an hour later.

The rumblings from Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull will push many of us towards rail this summer. Fortunately, train travel from London St Pancras to Provence on the high speed TGV makes for a delightful six- to eight-hour journey.

From 10 July until 4 September, Eurostar runs direct trains on Saturdays from London and Ashford to Avignon Centre. The journey takes about six hours. Alternatively, you can book a through trip to Nice, Marseille, Antibes, Arles or any major town in Provence for just a touch more than a return ticket to Paris.

By road, London to Aix-en-Provence is a 750km journey, with a drive time of around 10 hours via Reims. The motorways are excellent, but drivers will clock up around €80 of tolls on the way. Allow another two hours and another €20 to get to Nice.

And get around?

Provence's high-speed and local rail network is extensive, inexpensive and mightily efficient. Tickets can be reserved in advance from the station, at an SNCF boutique or online ( ). The best bits include the Riviera's coastal train service, which stops at 27 stations from Grasse to the Italian border – via Antibes, Juan les Pins, Monaco and Menton – every half hour or so. A one-day pass (Carte Isabelle, available Jun-Sep, €12) grants unlimited access along this route.

The region is also well serviced by buses. Unbelievably, bus prices are fixed at just €1 for a ride of any distance in the Riviera, be it up to the ski slopes or into the hills. In neighbouring Var region, buses are €2 a pop.

If you want to explore further, there are plenty of car-hire options dotted around Provence, renting everything from a Ferrari to a 50cc scooter. The cheapest method is to book a vehicle before you go (try , or ) and pick it up at the airport or train station upon arrival.

Where will I stay?

Provence has many hundreds of hotels, ranging from cheap one-star affairs to grande luxe properties. But there is also plenty of alternative accommodation.

Camping and mobile home sites range from family-friendly ones with swimming pools, to tiny, more liberal ones hiding in vineyards by a beach, some with treehouses, others with natural swimming pools. The excellent Camping France ( ) website has a list of, and a link to, almost all of them. A pitch for two people will cost around €15 per night.

Rental apartments offer perhaps the best-value method of holidaying in Provence, especially for families. Prices for a two-person apartment range from around €250 to €500 per week, with six-person apartments for around €500 to €1,000 per week.

A search on or holiday will distil the best results according to budget, number or rooms or amenities. French-run Gîtes de France ( ) is recommended for rural accommodation, while Riviera Pebbles ( ) rents more than 50 apartments along the Côte d'Azur. Book in advance, as the best ones fill up fast.

Additional research by Tom Watts

Shore leave: Five of the best beaches

The new Footprint guide lists about 30 beaches along Provence's 100 miles of coast: some locals-only, some show-off, some clothes-off, some family-friendly, some a must for snorkellers or sea kayakers. These five are our absolute favourites:

1 Plage Gigaro, St Tropez peninsula

Soft sand and minimal tourists, linked by a coastal path to even more select stretches of sand. Great camping nearby.

2 Plage d'Argent Porquerolles Island

Kilometres of white sand lapped by a Thai-style azure sea, bobbing just outside a national park.

3 Plage Saint-Laurent, between Eze-sur-Mer and Cap d'Ail

Total seclusion just three miles from Monaco.

4 Plage des Ondes, Cap d'Antibes

A chilled mix of sun-seekers and millionaires on the Cap's western side.

5 Plage de la Darse, Villefranche-sur-mer

Clear blue water and the chance to swim (or kayak) southwards up Villefranche's protected bay.

Vine time: Wine tourism

The South of France's climate – sunny, mild and dry – makes for fertile earth and plentiful vines. Almost all vineyards are open to the public. Just park up and start tasting. Provence's premier AOCs include:

* Bellet One of France's smallest appellations, in the hills just north of Nice. The unique folle noire ("crazy black") grape is crushed to create excellent reds and rosés. ( )

* Bandol Around 60 vineyards radiate northwards around Bandol. Of particular note are their tasty rosés. ( )

* Cassis Sandwiched between Marseille and Bandol, Cassis's 12 vineyards are renowned for their crisp white wines – perfect cool nectar to accompany local sea urchins. ( )

* Châteauneuf-du-Pape Strong, pricey, delicious reds fit for a pope. Produced in the picturesque former papal vineyards north of Avignon. ( )

* Côte de Provence The Riviera's most widespread wine, produced from Marseille to Saint-Raphaël. Vineyards include Château Minuty ( ) near Saint-Tropez and Domaine de la Courtade ( ) on the island of Porquerolles.

Kathryn Tomasetti and Tristan Rutherford are the authors of Footprint's new guide to Provence and the Côte d'Azur, which is out now. To purchase any of the Footprint France series at a special rate of just £10 including P&P, visit and enter Inde01 in the coupon code at checkout.

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