Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur is the most popular holiday region in the south of France. It covers a large area from the Mediterranean Sea in the south up to the French Alps in the north and extends east-west along the coast from the river Rhône all the way to the Italian border. Its identity as a geographical region being a legacy of the Roman Empire, the Provence includes the French Riviera and is famous for its sunny weather, colourful countryside, long-standing traditions and local language (Provençal). The region's favourable climate makes the variety of available local produce second to none. Flowers, fruits and vegetables all grow in abundance, the sea's fish and shellfish stocks are rich and who could forget those two most Provençal of cottage industriesː wine-making and perfumery.
Perhaps best known for the many fashionable resorts along the Côte d'Azur, the Provence's other main attractions include the ancient cities of Aix-en-Provence and Avignon, as well as a plethora of sun-baked villages and mountaintop towns. The region can be easily explored by car or bicycle, using the dense network of country roads and highways. So why not follow in the footsteps of Vincent Van Gogh and see for yourself why Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur is such a special and inspirational destination.
| Alpes-de-Haute-Provence |
The mountainous northern part of the historic Provence. The Luberon oriental and the Verdon Gorge are among this department's highlights.
| Alpes-Maritimes |
Mostly known for the French Riviera, the Alpes Maritimes boasts 300 days of sunshine per year. The northern part of the region is a part of the French Alps.
| Bouches-du-Rhône |
Vincent van Gogh was inspired by the countryside of this region. It is also home to the wetlands of the Camargue, the rural landscape of the Alpilles, the picturesque village of Cassis and maritime Marseille, France's second city.
| Hautes-Alpes |
Part of the French Alps, it is among the highest regions in Europe.
| Var |
Seaside resorts, yachts, the rich and famous, wine and Romanesque and medieval architecture.
| Vaucluse |
An inland territory named after Fontaine-de-Vaucluse. It is particularly well-known for the Luberon, an area of picturesque villages much sought after for their laid-back lifestyle.
- Marseille — with around one million inhabitants, it is the second largest city in France
- Aix-en-Provence — city of water and art, Paul Cézanne's hometown and a source of inspiration for many of his landscapes
- Arles — an inspiration for Vincent van Gogh, as well as the site of numerous Roman remains
- Avignon — known for its Palace of the Popes, where several popes and antipopes lived between the 14th and 15th centuries, and for its famous folk song-spawning bridge.
- Briançon — at an altitude of 1,326 metres, this is the highest town in the European Union
- Cannes — glamorous and expensive seaside town that hosts the annual Film Festival
- Digne-les-Bains — natural beauty and supposedly curative thermal springs
- Nice — major beach resort along the French Riviera with its famous Victorian waterfront, the Promenade des Anglais
- Toulon — medium-sized naval city with an historic centre
- Alpilles — a low range of mountains whose pretty villages both inspired and haunted the imagination of Van Gogh
- Camargue — one of Europe's largest river deltas and wetlands, and one of the few places on the continent where you can see wild flamingos
- French Alps — snow-capped mountains ideal for thrilling snowsports and après-ski elegance
- French Riviera — sunny beaches, yachts and the super-wealthy.
- Grasse — known as the world's perfume capital, this is a must for any fragrance-lovers
- Îles d'Hyères — Caribbean-esque islands in the south of the Var
- Luberon — the stereotypical rural Provence of sleepy villages, joie de vivre and wine (these last two not necessarily being linked)
- Mercantour National Park — seven uninhabited mountain valleys with hiking trails, this is where the Provence shows its wild side. Lucky travellers may catch glimpses of chamois, ibex, golden eagles and even wolves.
- Mont Ventoux — the largest mountain in the region has been nicknamed the "Giant of Provence" or "The Bald Mountain"
- Verdon Gorge — beautiful turquoise-green river canyon, great for kayaking, hiking, rock-climbing or just driving around the limestone cliffs
Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur covers all the original territory of Provence, together with what used to be the county of Nice. The low-lying parts of this region are generally dry and warm for most of the year, but the higher parts stretching up into the Alps, though still dry, can be quite cool. This southern-most part of the Alps is the sunniest in the range.
Provence is now a part of the official administrative region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, but the region's identity is associated more closely with its history and culture. Although a bit stereotyped now (those lavender fields all over postcards and guidebooks that you'll have a hard time finding!), contemporary Provençal life is rooted in a long heritage of lively regional culture and language.
Provence is a vast and beautiful region, and merits a long trip, not just a few days or a week. To truly appreciate this region, you must be the type of traveller who likes food, wine and local crafts. It is recommended that you plan your own itinerary, and make it flexible enough so you can linger at an outdoor café or appreciate a Roman ruin when the moment takes you. There is a joie de vivre attitude throughout the region that is contagious, especially after a picnic of cheese and sausage bought direct from local farmers and two glasses of a good rosé.
Most French cities have their own visitor websites and tourist offices which offer a wealth of information in many languages, allowing anyone interested the means to find what they are looking for.
Those interested in literary interpretations of Provençal life should look up the works of Marcel Pagnol and Peter Mayle, the latter only if wealthy British expats are your cup of tea. Specifically, Mayle's "French Lessons: Adventures with Knife, Fork, and Corkscrew" also gives a bunch of practical tips and recommendations for every district of Provence, as well as which areas to visit for their gastronomy.
French is of course the official language of this region, but you'll find that many locals have a regional accent. The e at the end of words is often pronounced softly in Provence, whereas in standard French, it is are not pronounced at all.
An example: the word "Provence" in standard French ends with an "s" sound, as "proh-VAHNSS", where in Provence itself, it will often be ended with a sound resembling a short English "eh", as "proh-VEN-seh". Many vowels are changed as well, being pronounced in a manner somewhat closer to the English pronunciation of the written vowels. However, standard French will be understood by the locals.
This accent is largely due to the fact that several generations ago a different language - Occitan or la langue d'Oc - was spoken and so most locals only learned French at school. The dialect of Occitan spoken in Avignon was Provençal, and was the subject of strong preservation attempts in the early 1900s on the part of a group of writers and artists known as the Félibrige. The most famous of these was Frédéric Mistral, winner of the Nobel Prize of Literature in 1908. Despite the efforts of the Félibrige, the language has now largely disappeared, though it is still taught in some regional universities and courses run by non-profit groups. In certain areas, road signs are bilingual, with place-names and some local information being printed in both standard French and Occitan.
The two major airports for the region are Marseille-Provence and Nice-Côte d'Azur. Most Transatlantic flights to France land at Paris Charles de Gaulle, from where it is possible to travel to the Provence either by catching a connecting flight, using the high speed TGV train, or hiring a car and driving.
Rail connections from Lyon and Paris are excellent. The TGV (high speed train) gets you down to the Mediterranean sun in about three hours from Paris. Typical gateway cities include Aix-en-Provence, Avignon, Marseille and Valence. You can easily use one of these cities as a base for exploring the region. Since May 2015, Eurostar has operated direct services from London St Pancras to Avignon (5h49m) and Marseille (6h27m), via Lyon. In July and August, trains run five times a week from the British capital; from April to June and September to October, the service operates three times a week and from November to March it runs once weekly (on Saturdays). At other times, travellers coming from the UK may catch the Eurostar to Lille or Paris and make the connection onto the TGV network.
France has an extensive and comprehensive motorway network; it's well-maintained and often free of congestion. If you're travelling from elsewhere in the country, or from nearby Italy or Spain, driving may be the way to go. However, because of the price of petrol and most of the motorways being toll roads, visitors coming from the UK and northern Europe may think twice before getting behind the wheel. At any rate, with typical (non-stop) driving times from the Eurotunnel terminal and the English Channel ports being around 10 hours, the journey is long but do-able.
For loads more information about driving in France, read this handy Wikivoyage guide.
The best way to explore is by car or bicycle. The network of country roads and highways are easily navigated. With a village every ten minutes by car, and something interesting around every corner, Provence is one of those places where getting lost can work in your favour.
The main lines operated by the national company SNCF are:
- Along the coast between Marseille and the Italian border, with both local and TGV trains (though all the trains runs at normal speed).
- From Marseille and Aix into the Alps (Digne-les-Bains, Gap).
- From Marseille to the western parts (Nîmes, Avignon), going to the south-west of France and along the Rhône river.
Note that the region is the one that is the most impacted in the country by the strikes which happen every few months. Usually the long-distance TGV trains are not impacted, and the strike only lasts one day, with a few number of trains (packed with commuters). Also, the local trains are prone to delays, so plan some margin if you have to change for a TGV or a flight.
There is also a small line from Nice to Digne-les-Bains operated by the region.
A full map of services in the region can be downloaded from the SNCF website.
- Chateau des Baux-de-Provence
- Musée Océanographique de Monaco
- Villa Eprhussi de Rothschild
- Villa Grecque Kérylos
- Théâtre Antique d'Orange
- Roman Nîmes: Arenas, amphitheatre, the Maison Carrée et Tour Magne
- The Pont du Gard is an aqueduct constructed by the Romans to supply water to Nîmes.
Don't miss out on the marchés hebdomadaires (or weekly markets), laden with an enormous array of produce. Expect to see everything from wonderfully local breads to meats and cheeses, fresh seafood as well as herbs, citrus fruits, olives and figs, not to mention artisan crafts and the ubiquitous lavender. As in much of France, locals are fiercely proud of their region's produce, and with such a diverse repertoire, you can hardly blame themǃ
What's the most Provençal sport you can think of? Go to any town square or public park in the region and chances are you'll see groups of older men playing Pétanque. The aim of this southern French variation of Boules is to roll one's own metal balls as close to the cochonnet (a little wooden ball known in English as a "Jack", although cochonnet actually means "piglet"!) as possible, knocking out other players' ball in the process; the player whose ball is closest to the cochonnet at the end wins the game. Visitors wishing to try it out can usually find a cheap set on sale in supermarkets and larger towns even have their own pétanque courts. More adventurous travellers may even volunteer to join a locals' game. If you are friendly and polite, the other players will most likely jump at the chance to share their sport with a foreigner and this can be a great way to try out your French on the locals. But be warnedː despite the game's relaxed reputation, competition can get quite fierce among more seasoned playersǃ
Centuries of intense study of the culinary arts has produced a country where the food is almost invariably excellent. It is difficult to have a bad meal because French standards are so high. Nonetheless, in tourist traps there are places where standards slip, but to avoid this the classic tip is to choose restaurants that are busy with locals.
Each village in the region has a market day. You can buy local fare such as breads, cheeses, sausage, olives and preserves straight from the farmers and take them (the food that is, not the farmersǃ) for a picnic while exploring the countryside.
If you are going out for a sit-down meal, there are three main types of dining experiences to choose from. Restaurants are more formal in France, serving full dinner menus and at a pace that is slower than in, say, North America. You are expected to enjoy the food and it should be the main reason for going out. It is considered inappropriate to request that a dish be prepared in a different way than is stated on the menu. Restaurants usually have a selection of set menus, each with a different price range. You can also choose from a list of à la carte items. A bistrot is more casual and has more individual items, while a café is more casual still, serving press coffee, drinks, sandwiches (such as the ubiquitous croque monsieur) or pizzas.
Provence has a unique cuisine that reflects its Mediterranean history and frequent exchange of cultures. This is an olive-growing region, and there are many varieties, ranging from the tiny peanut size Niçois olives to the large Bouteillan or Aups olives. Other than oil, olives are also enjoyed as spreads either alone (Olivade) or mixed with capers (Tapenade). Many producers offer guided visits of their groves; these can be smallholding-sized plots but some are set in the grounds of real châteaux.
While many products are found all over the region, some are best sampled in certain areas. Let it be known that despite the region's bounty of native fare, the Provence has a highly popular pizzeria culture. OK, now that that announcement is out of the way, let's move on to some real Provençal cuisineǃ
On the coast, most of the cooking is fish-based, with sardines and anchovies being the most popular. For English speakers, the region's two best-known plats are of course bouillabaisse, a fish stew rich in herbs and spices, and the famous salade niçoise, a tunafish salad made with eggs, anchovies, tomatoes, green beans and black olives. While sampling both of these is a must, other lesser-known but equally tasty dishes include anchoiade, which is an anchovy-based apéritif spread, garlicky aioli and a Marseille specialityː grilled sardines. Another wonderful Provençal speciality is the savoury soupe de poissons, which is made with a base of tomatoes, onion, garlic and herbs and often served with croutons, grated gruyère cheese and a very spicy aioli.
In the hills, easily the most famous and best-loved dish is ratatouille, which in real life is even better than a certain Pixar film shows it to be. Though it be but a simple vegetable stew, and a peasant dish to boot, ratatouille is a very special mix of fresh courgette (USː zucchini fruit), mushrooms, aubergine (USː eggplant), bell peppers, tomatoes and onion as well as garlic and Provençal herbs. In season, one can also enjoy stuffed vegetables (farcis) that are typical of rustic cooking. If the thought of all those vegetables is making you queasy, here's one for the carnivores. Daube is a scrumptious beef stew that is often mixed with olives.
For dessert, the tropézienne cake is not to be missed. This fluffy sponge-cake will cool you down nicely in the summer inferno. At the other end of the year, you may experience a unique Christmas ritual that will have pudding lovers salivatingː at the end of the Christmas meal, no fewer than thirteen desserts are servedǃ Which particular thirteen is a hotly-debated question (debate being one of the Provençal people's favourite activities). Despite the disagreement, an official list has been drawn up which encompasses: pompe à huile, the so-called "four beggars" (nuts, dried figs, almonds and raisins), dates, apples, pears, water melon, grapes, both black and white nougat and sorbet.
Most of the wine in this region is of very high quality and must be tastedǃ If this seems like a ludicrous and impractical task for the average holidaymaker, then why not try the locals' favouriteː a good rosé. Totally unlike the sweet, cheap crap many of us remember from the 1970s, traditional Provençal rosé is dry, light and acts as a perfect accompaniment to an afternoon picnic of bread and cheese.
Viticulture aside, the drink most endeared to the Provençal psyche is pastis, an apéritif liqueur made from anise. The many brands may be indistinguishable to outsiders but each one has a devoted local following, similar to sports teams and their fans. With an average alcohol content of 40-45%, this is strong stuff and will likely lead to some memorable nights (or not, depending on how much you indulge inǃ)
Fancy yourself a super spy at heart? Sampling a Martini ("shaken, not stirred" or however you like) while on a night out in the Riviera is a must.
If alcohol isn't your thing, or if you just fancy a break from all that pastis, the region's excellent range of fruit trees yield a healthy fruit juice crop, and French coffee culture is ubiquitous.
In an emergency, dial 112.
If you decide that the Provence is your place to stay, you might as well stay safe. The last 10 years have seen a sharp rise in the crime rate on Côte d'Azur, with many houses burgled. Help and information for victims of burglary and those who want to check or improve the security of their property is best done with the assistance of the local police chief. If you decide to make the Provence your base and you are looking to buy a property, you should be just as cautious as in anywhere else. Don't just buy your property without doing the necessary research. Make sure you buy your property through a listed agent who is in possession of a "permit".
- Monaco is a sovereign country completely surrounded by the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur. It can easily be visited as a day trip.
- Catch a ferry from Nice, Toulon or Marseille to Corsica, known in French as "L'île de Beauté" (the "Island of Beauty").
- Go north to Rhône-Alpes, and explore landscapes as diverse as the upper Rhone valley and the high French Alps.
- Go west to Languedoc-Roussillon, a region which curves along the coast until it collides with the Pyrenees and Spanish Catalonia.
- Go east into Italy, where the wealthy regions of Liguria and Piedmont await you.