Why go to Provence?
Consider the words. Provence. Côte-d’Azur. Roll them round the tongue. Already you’re feeling a slightly sensual charge. You’re feeling the warmth. You’re feeling the Mediterranean sun biting into your skin.
You’re on the Côte-d’Azur – in Nice or Cannes or some hidden creek beyond. You’re seeing Europe’s loveliest coast, mountains plunging direct to a sea sparkling in crystal-clear light. You’re tasting, perhaps, lamb with herbs on a restaurant terrace. Before you is a bottle of rosé wine beaded with condensation, and the promise of an evening under the stars.
Then your mind’s eye turns inland to Provence proper and a landscape of lavender, luxury and licentiousness. Provence has been France’s playground since the Romans scattered arenas and amphitheatres about the place.
Rocky and reckless
It still is, with hills and torrents to roam and ancient villages to return to. But, despite the soft-focus image, this is no theme park. Away from civilised centres, the country rises rocky, reckless and remote.
It is the work of minutes to leave the madding crowd behind for wild uplands where life has been lived tough for centuries. It is also exhilarating beyond measure. During the theatre festival, for instance, it might be standing-room-only in Avignon but, on the Lure mountain, you will stand alone. You will reflect that there are few other places where the culture of man and the grandeur of the natural world have struck up such a relationship.
And you will conclude, as I did long ago, that Provence is among the finest lands on earth.
Only two decisions now remain: When to go to Provence and where exactly to make for.
Beauty, glamour and luxury
It may be one of the headline spots on the coast, like Nice or Cannes, where the rich, the noble and the beautiful have been rolling in for generations. They’ve coated the natural beauty with a veneer of glamour which, seen from the Promenade des Anglais or La Croisette, seems right and fitting.
Palace hotels, frothy villas and world-class art tell the story of wealth, style and gilt-edged decadence. If you wish to join in, it helps to have a hedge fund, but it’s by no means vital.
The Côte d’Azur has long been democratised. easyJet flies there, for heaven’s sake. So you can get by on a reasonable budget - even (though it’s harder) in Monaco.
Europe’s most extraordinary independent state crams a full royal family, five casinos, two ports, countless luxury hotels, rich and famous folk by the limo-load … into a space significantly smaller than Lytham-St-Annes.
The principality is an object lesson in how to marry fortunes and bling with depth and a certain dignity. And, believe me, there’s a frisson about the place which you don’t get in Lytham.
Then again, you could opt for St-Tropez – the junior and most risqué of the coastal stars: the starlet, if you like, ever prepared to unhook her top and uncork someone else’s Champagne.
Notoriety descended upon this fishing village in the sublime shape of Brigitte Bardot. Other fans of footloose luxury followed her in. With the summer control set at “simmer”, Europe had a new HQ of hedonism.
And, despite the crowds and gibes of cynics, it still fulfils this role pretty well. (If you don’t believe me, look around you in Les Caves-du-Roy – France’s trendiest nightclub. If you can get in.)
But the headline spots are only part of the Côte tale. We shouldn’t skip over Menton, Eze and Antibes – or splendid little towns just inland, like Grasse and St Paul-de-Vence. We might call this the other Côte-d’Azur.
Concrete without end?
It is a truism these days that all these places are way too popular and overwhelmed with cement from end to end. It is also nonsense.
Of course, there is development. And the French haven't always resisted their taste for slotting apartment blocks into beauty spots. But did you really expect to have this glorious sea-scape all to yourself?
The truth is that much of the development is good development. (Take a look at the villas and terraced gardens on the slopes of Menton and tell me otherwise.) And to suggest that building could wreck such natural splendour is presumptuous indeed. You could no more concrete over this mountainous coast than glass in the Rockies.
For confirmation, try the Corniche-de-l’Esterel between Cannes and St Raphaël. Here, porphyry red rocks drop to the sea in a stunning display of elemental strength and beauty. Nature has granted little creeks and beaches but the road, and humanity in general, hang on where they can. The idea of over-development is laughable.
As it is beyond St-Tropez, where the Côte-d’Azur becomes the Provençal coast and the Corniche-des-Maures is quite as inebriating as the Esterel.
This coast is marginally less fashionable than the spangled stretch further east, but has great beauty to share, not least on the barely-touched Iles d’Hyères. This is where you go to see what the French Riviera was like before it became the Riviera.
Soccer and cigarettes
You go to Marseille, by contrast, for the beat of a big port city, a football match and black market cigarettes. Also, more surprisingly, for the magnificent white-rock creeks within the city limits.
The boisterous old place has been going cultured recently, renovating its docks and filling itself with designer hotels and wine bars, trams, fashion and art exhibitions.
All well and good. But the music remains loud, the girlie bars are central and stark sunlight still, thank heavens, creates shadows enough for skulduggery. There is no more engrossing mini-break destination in France.
Just up the road, Aix-en-Provence is Marseilles’ brainier little brother, the one with spectacles and a superior smile. Aix has been a cultural centre for centuries. In in the tree-lined, fountain-studded Cours Mirabeau it has southern France’s loveliest avenue.
But it also knows how to live. The throbbing old town hosts not only France’s best market but also an entire scurrying civilisation of restaurants, bars and bistros. Friends of mine who live in Marseille – itself not exactly short of leisure possibilities – always spend their weekend evenings in Aix.
Aix’s rival as Provence’s capital of culture is, of course, Avignon (see my guide Aix-en-Provence vs Avignon for more on this) – which has a pretty decent track record in the role. When the papacy moved here from Rome in the 14th century, the city effectively became capital of the western world.
The great Popes’ Palace rises magisterial in the centre, as a reminder. It would be running Christendom still, given half a chance.
Within its ramparts, the city itself remains elevated and buoyant – notably during the summer theatre festival. A sort of Edinburgh-on-Rhône, it’s probably the liveliest and most important of its kind in continental Europe.
As le pont d’ is probably the most famous ruined bridge in the world. Have a look, not so much for the bridge as for the grandeur of the River Rhône as it sweeps by Avignon.
To the south of france, the river splits into two branches. These enfold the wild, apparently desolate and altogether wonderful Camargue flatlands of black bulls, white horses and pink flamingos. Not to mention other birdlife. Pretty much every feathered item on the move uses the estuarine marshes as a transport hub.
Luberon and Peter Mayle
This is a vibrant natural world, sparsely populated by those who thrive on the margins.
All this life, and more, spills into Camargue capital Arles, the most Provençal town of all. After 2,000 years or more, the place still has a marked tendency to song, dance and fiery festivities, whether or not there’s a bullfight on.
Perhaps, though, you might be tempted by the Luberon, where Peter Mayle wrote A Year In Provence. (Take no notice of literary snobs: it’s a first-class book.)
This region, east of Avignon, is also favoured by the Parisian chattering classes. TV producers, actors and higher-profile politicians all have bijou little homes in old-stone villages – or villas hidden on the hills beyond.
The Luberon - frantically popular
Consequently, the Luberon has become frantically popular. Renting a gîte or a cottage there is quite the thing.
But don't worry. It would take a lot more than tourism to compromise the appeal of the area’s superb perched villages or the wildness of the long, low Luberon mountain.
Wilder still is the Haut-Var, roughly north of a line between Aix and Fréjus. In the sunlit lowlands, some of Provence’s finest vineyards slot in among the pine forests and herb-scented scrub.
But then the hairpins swing you to a tougher, rockier country of gorges, ravines and lost valleys. It’s utterly inebriating. Nice and St-Tropez could be in a different dimension. Indeed, I know people from the more isolated villages up here who have never been to either, who have ever even seen the sea.
Why would they want to? They’ve got their hands – and their lives – full with quite enough natural splendour right on their doorsteps. The joys of a holiday here are, to my mind, having a soft time in a hard country.
And nowhere harder than at the Verdon gorges, where nature takes on a supernatural dimension. Nothing in Europe can compare with the might of gorges which run for 15 miles with sheer drops of 800 metres or more, straight down.
If you suffer from vertigo, you’ll have your senses scrambled. If you don’t, you’ll have them filled. Provence and the Côte-d’Azur really are quite good at that.