When to go to Provence

As far as our rich and noble forefathers were concerned, this was a no-brainer. They went to the Côte-d’Azur in winter. Summer? Out of the question. It was far too hot for delicate northern European constitutions. Worse still, they risked getting a sun-tan and thus being mistaken for peasants or outdoor proles.

Summer wasn’t established as the high season until the inter-war years, when movie stars and artists replaced proper aristocrats as the coast’s headline clients. These friskier folk liked the sun, they liked to bathe in the sea and they liked to see beautiful women in swimsuits. (They also liked to drink, but that’s another story.) So they came from late June through early September. And they still do, along with everybody else and his wife, his countess, his inspiration or his supermodel.

Here comes summer

As a result, it has become commonplace to advise people to avoid the months of July and August as too hopelessly crowded. But I’m not so sure. It depends what you want. Granted hotel prices will be higher and you may encounter a crush in the casinos, traffic jams (especially into St-Tropez) and a queue for the beach shower. But there will usually at least be space on the beaches: they are numerous and some are very big. Good weather is virtually assured and, as importantly, you’re experiencing the region at full throttle. Everything – bars, restaurants, beach-clubs – is open and generally buzzing.

Nights can be as hot as the days. There’s electricity in the air. And July, especially, is also the time for some of the main festivalsjazz in Nice (July 17-24 this year), drama in Avignon (July 7-27) and lyrical arts in Aix-en-Provence (June 26-July 21.)

Then again, if you like the warmth but not the frenzy, it’s ridiculously easy to get away. Beach-lovers might make for the Provençal coast around the Corniche-de-l’Esterel or the Hyères islands. Others should head for the hills inland, the Provençal Big Country where you outstrip the throngs in the twist of a hair-pin. And in July the lavender will be at its best, just before harvest. Have a look at the area around Sault, in the lee of the Mont Ventoux or the Valensole plateau south of Digne, where the stuff comes in gorgeous waves of purple-blue.

Spring into autumn

Spring is a pretty good season, too. The lavender won’t be out, but lots of other flowers will be – on the coast, in the mountains and in some of France’s most arresting public gardens. Less scorching heat means that this is prime time for more active holidays. You can walk and bike, climb and hike without also melting.

The same is true of autumn, of course. Both seasons are, though, usually warm enough for shrugging off the cardigan. And, as there are fewer people about, so there’s less pressure. People will have more time to smile and talk – rather than chucking the hotel keys, or the fish soup, vaguely in your direction. One word of warning, though: think twice before tackling the Côte-d’Azur in mid-May. The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 12-23, which period also sees the Monaco Grand Prix (May 13-16, including practices). These are the two key events in the Côte’s calendar. Consequently hotel prices rocket, not only in Cannes and Monaco but also right along the coast. Unless you’re an unconditional Formula 1 fan or really need to stand by the steps of Cannes Palais des Festivals hoping for a wave from Will Smith, I’d steer clear.

In the deep mild winter

What of following the 19th-century aristos’ lead and going in winter? Well, unless you’re a lunatic, you won’t be swimming in the sea. (Our forebears weren’t the slightest interested in bathing). And up-country Provence can be pretty rugged. Many hotels and restaurants will be shut and those which are open will be puzzled to see you. But also delighted. There’s an enhanced off-season friendliness. It’s like being back-stage after the main show is over. Bigger towns and cities - Nice, Marseille, Aix, Avignon, Cannes - continue functioning, of course.

And this may be a good time to consider a short break thither. With luck, it will be mild enough to eat at least lunch outside and to stroll unhampered by thermal underwear. Museums and cultural sites will be open, concert halls and theatres will be in full flow and the shops have sales in January. And with fewer visitors about, you may very well end up being treated as an insider. It’s rather rewarding.

For further expert advice, see my pages on Cannes, Marseille, Monaco, Nice and St-Tropez.