The Art of Experiencing Provence

provence If visiting Provence makes you feel like you have stepped into a painting, it’s because this magical French region has yielded so much great art. It has inspired many Impressionists and 20th century artists, including Van Gogh, Picasso and Matisse, who described its amazing light as “soft and tender, despite its brilliance.”

In Aix-en-Provence you can visit the studio of Paul Cézanne, which has been recreated as if he has just left it – as if  taking a break perhaps to walk to a favorite a café or admire Mount Ste Victoire, which he so loved.

Bathed in year-round sunshine, Provence offers an astonishing diversity of landscapes, from beaches to snow-capped mountains, from fields of lavender to ancient olive groves, to Europe’s deepest canyon.

Travellers are wooed by sunbathing, people watching and James Bond-style gambling on the French Riviera, or hiking the rugged interior, exploring caves, sampling superb wines, soaking up culture and history, and feasting on the world’s best cuisine – all enjoyed from the base of a fabulous Provence luxury villa. Away from the flat costal regions of the Côte D’Azur, Provence is a region of magnificent mountains, bordered on the west by the Rhône River and to the east by the Italian border. And from Serre-Poncon in the north of Alpes-de-Haute Provence to the islands south of  Hyères on the Mediterranean.

Dominating western Provence like a stern sentry, Mount Ventoux is the highest peak. Fit and motivated visitors can try to follow in the tracks of  the Tour de France and bike the 25 km rise to the 1,909 meter limestone-scree summit, with its stupendous views to the Alps and Rhône Valley.

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Those who want to discover the France so lovingly evoked in Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence should visit the Luberon, with splendid villages like Gordes and Bonnieux. Not only will you find a playground of the rich and cultured, but a rustic haven of village shopkeepers and gentle landscapes that give way to wild, forested crags. 

The Papal city of Avignon bursts with art, music and culture, and boasts a designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can spend days roaming the narrow streets of this fortified city, stopping to enjoy, perhaps, a terrine of duck foie gras paired with one of the finest wines to come from the Côtes du Rhône – one of its famous rosés.

South of Avignon stretches the Alpilles, a chain of mountains whose light, sunflowers and cypress trees were immortalized by Van Gogh, during his time in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Arles, on the bank of the Rhône is the gateway to Carmargue, the land of gypsies, bullfights and bull runs.

Marseille, France’s second largest city, beckons,  with a history that goes back to the first Greek settlers, in 600 BC.  Fresh off-the-boat catches brought to shore in the Vieux Port make the city the seafood culinary capital of the country, famous especially for its bouillabaisse. Cannes is also centred around an old port. Its fine white-sandybeaches are ideal for celebrity spotting, especially during the Cannes Film Fesitval. Also on the Côte D’Azur, Nice retains its medieval flavor, with narrow, winding streets and closely packed red-tile roofs, balanced by a vibrant nightlife and the legendary Promenade des Anglais, boasting epic sunset views.

Of course, beyond the noted attractions of Provence are the lesser-known wonders. In an interview on the Belle Provence Travels blog, Sue Aitken, owner of Boutique Provençale in Sanary-sur-Mer advises: “I’d suggest getting off the beaten tourist track with some exploration of the countryside in the Vaucluse – around Gigondas and the other villages of the Cotes du Rhone like Seguret – and get into some serious wine tasting!”

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Whether on the ocean or in the mountains, by lavender fields or beachside, there is a fine selection of French luxury villas to serve as a base for a Provence trip. Many have fine chefs who will prepare regional specialties for you, whether fish like grilled rouget or loup, or a snack of fresh baguette dipped in virgin olive oil infused with Herbes de Provence, or a main dish of roasted lamb, agneau de Sisteron, served with a vibrant Châteauneuf-du-Pape red.

Your memories of Provence will be as vivid as a canvas painted by a master painter drunk on light and magic.

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