Provence… the name conjures up images of charming hilltop villages, terraced vineyards, rocky hillsides, pastel meadows, intensely blue skies, windswept seashores, and open-air cafés serving bouillabaisse and rosé.
Made famous by the Impressionist artists Van Gogh, Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso and popularized more recently in America by Peter Mayle's book A Year in Provence, this sun-drenched region is set in the southeastern corner of France, along the Mediterranean Sea.
Provence is roughly 150 miles wide, stretching from the Côte d'Azur in the east (along the Italian border) to the Rhone River valley in the west. It encompasses the cities of Aix-en-Provence, Arles, Avignon, Cannes, Marseille, Nice, and Saint-Tropez.
The Provence landscape is mainly dry and hilly, but it offers striking contrasts, including lush river valleys, limestone gorges, and rich wetlands. In the north, pre-alpine mountains separate the region from the French Alps. The highest peak in Provence is Mont Ventoux (6,270 feet), a frequent climb in the Tour de France bicycle race.
Provence's coastal scenery offers additional contrasts – Mediterranean bays with limestone cliffs, a meeting of mountain and sea at the Maures Coast, the rock-ledged Riviera coast, and the turquoise sea of the Côte d'Azur.
A brief history
Provence in the 2nd century BC was the first Roman province outside of Italy. The Romans called it nostra provincia ("our province"), a name that endures to this day. Provence still displays amphitheaters, aqueducts, and other architectural remnants of the Roman times. The Roman culture dominated the area until the 5th century AD. (Read a New York Times article about France's Roman influences.)
Long before the Roman conquest, however, Greek sailors began setting up trading posts along the Mediterranean coast of today's Provence. The first permanent settlement was the city of Marseille, established around 600 BC It was the Greeks who introduced grapes, wine, and winemaking to the area. See also the history of rosé.
Fast-forward 1,000 years. Now, as Roman power weakened, the area saw a series of invaders come and go. Chaos prevailed. In the Middle Ages, the area was caught in a power struggle between the rulers from Barcelona, Burgundy, the Holy Roman Empire, and France.
In the 14th century the region became the residence of the papacy, as Pope Clement V moved the papal headquarters in Avignon. Provence officially became a part of France in the late 1400s.
By the 17th century the area was primarily rural, growing grapes, olives, and wheat, but had developed significant trading centers along the coast and the Rhone River. Today these cities – Marseille, Toulon, Avignon and Aix-en-Provence – remain key centers of commerce and culture. Provence is one of France's main suppliers of fruits, vegetables, herbs, olives, olive oil, and seafood. Tourism is another key industry, both in the resorts of the Riviera and in the peaceful backcountry.
Provence is known for its intensely blue skies, warm summers, plentiful winds, and abundant sunshine – up to 2,900 hours per year. Its classic Mediterranean climate also brings mild winters and little rainfall.
The region's clear, sapphire skies are a gift of the strong mistral winds, which sweep all clouds and dust from the atmosphere. The mistral can blow for days at a time, and up to 150 days a year. Provençal farmhouses are built with their doors facing south, away from the wind, and village bell towers often have an open design, allowing the winds to past through. The mistral also serves to dry the air and keep the grapevines healthy.
Hot summers are the rule along the Riviera. Inland, temperatures are less balmy and nights are cool, especially at higher elevations. Even so, visitors can count on great weather throughout the region from May through October.
Provence offers the lifestyle many stressed Americans dream of. It's an outdoor lifestyle, flavored with fresh local vegetables, seafood, and olive oil, and food-friendly local wines. People tend to live and eat outside, taking full advantage of their beautiful surroundings – historic villages, terraced hillsides, lush lavender fields, and wild hiking paths. If Provence is calling you, learn about some places to visit.