Arguably the most irresistible region in France, Provence ranges from the snow-capped mountains of the southern Alps to the delta plains of the Camargue, and boasts Europe’s greatest canyon, the Gorges du Verdon. Fortified towns guard its ancient borders; countless villages perch defensively on hilltops; and great cities like Arles, Aix and Avignon are full of cultural glories. The sensual inducements of Provence include sunshine, food and wine, and the heady perfumes of Mediterranean vegetation. Small wonder it has for so long attracted the rich and famous, the artistic and reclusive, and throngs of summer visitors.
The Mediterranean shoreline of Provence is covered separately in our Côte d’Azur chapter. Away from the coastal resorts, inland Provence remains remarkably unscathed. Evidence of its many inhabitants – Greeks, Romans, raiding Saracens, schismatic popes, and an endless succession of competing counts and princes – remains everywhere apparent. Provence only became fully integrated into France in the nineteenth century and, though just a tiny minority speak the Provençal language, the accent is distinctive even to a foreign ear. In the east, the rhythms of speech become clearly Italian.
The main difficulty in visiting Provence is choosing where to go. In the west, along the Rhône valley, are the Roman cities of Orange, Vaison-la-Romaine and Arles, and the papal city of Avignon, with its fantastic summer festival. Aix-en-Provence, the mini-Paris of the region, was home to Cézanne, for whom the Mont Ste-Victoire was an enduring subject, while Van Gogh is forever linked with St-Rémy and Arles. The Gorges du Verdon, the Parc National du Mercantour along the Italian border, Mont Ventoux northeast of Carpentras, and the flamingo-filled lagoons of the Camargue offer stunning and widely disparate landscapes.