The sultry south of France isn’t just a string of seductive resorts and swanky beach clubs (but it is that, too) – but an ancient land of maritime forests, craggy mountains, misty waterways and towering gorges. If you’re looking for drama, the Cannes Film Festival has got nothing on the Riviera and Provence’s real stars…
The beautiful and spectacular Verdon Gorge – 15 miles long and 2,000 feet down! – is definitely worth the visit – aside from marvelling at the views of France’s ‘Grand Canyon’, you can also take part in various activities including fly fishing, hiking, canoeing, rafting and climbing. The nearby Castillon Lake offers many and varied possibilities for watersports and is a stunning area in its own right. The dammed Lake of Chaudanne is very deep and so is a haven for anglers, too.
The fascinating Roman Mediterranean town of Fréjus hides a warren of ancient alleyways, opening out into cobbled, cafe-lined squares. It’s a place that’s steeped in history, and rich in treasures – while also being a vibrant, modern holiday resort too. In town, you can visit the Parc Zoologique – set in 50 acres of natural Mediterranean woodland, and home to exotic mammals and birds basking in the Cote d’Azure sunshine.
Avignon’s medieval walls protect this once Papal city (it was, briefly, the seat of the Holy Roman Empire) through a gate in the city walls you’ll discover an ecclesiastical set piece of cathedrals, closes, cobbled lanes and galleries. There are boutiques and cafes aplenty too, in this – the spiritual heart of Provence.
Van Gogh’s legacy looms large over Arles. This town on the Rhône River is famed for inspiring the ear-cutting one. And you can see a great deal of his work at the the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh (as well as his Yellow House and the view that inspired his Starry Night). Once an important seat of Roman power, Arles has many remains from that era, including the stupendous Arles Amphitheatre, now alive with plays and performances (and bullfights, sadly). Elesewhere, the town’s higgledy-piggledy lanes hide a plethora of tempting bistros and shops. Next stop, the flamingoes and white horses of the bewitching Camargue region. Its waterways, delta flatlands and remote and wonderful beaches a real tonic.
Le Paradou is a Provencal gem, with its beautifully restored houses and vibrant gardens, its narrow, winding streets and its fabulous restaurants. There’s a good selection of stores selling local crafts and art and a scatter of trendy boutiques. Well worth a day trip.
Aix en Provence’s old town (Vieille Ville), ringed by a circle of boulevards and squares, is where you’ll spend most of your time. This photogenic quarter is crammed with shops, markets, museums, religious and architectural sites and historical sites. The terrace cafés on the Place des Précheurs (by the flower market) offer welcome respite. Wander, also, along the main thoroughfare, the Cours Mirabeau – a beautiful tree-lined avenue, with cafés and bookshops galore and pop into Cézanne’s studio, appropriately enough on Avenue Paul Cézanne (wonder if that’s why he moved here?), which has been recreated just as he left it.
Cannes is a trim, stylish seaside town with a handsome promenade lined with restaurants and bars. The old town’s warren of streets is a pleasure to get lost in – with chic boutiques, art galleries and bistros. The covered market is probably the best place to head for lunch, after which a stroll on La Croisette— Cannes promenade catwalk – is a must. And that Côte d’Azur light, reflected off the blue Mediterranean, is just incredible.
St Tropez is a similarly seductive Cote d’Azure town, with a network of twisting streets at its core, and a stately promenade lined with elite boutiques, bars and restaurants. We recommend you eat a couple of streets away from the water, where the prices will be more palatable (as will the food, usually).
It’s all about the Lavender in Provence – great, purple, billowing fields of it. The heady aroma wafts on the warm breeze, and it’s really rather intoxicating. Actually, don’t breathe in too deeply, it’ll have you falling asleep at the wheel (lavender’s scientifically proven to have you in the land of nod in no time). Instead, visit the growers – try L’Abbey de Senanque, a monestary-come-lavender farm (senanque.fr) or the charming old-school distillery of Vallon Des Lavandes for exquisite essential oil (facebook.com/vallondeslavandes).
Inland, Roquebrune Sur Argens is a pretty village built on a rocky peak around the year 975. Although most of the village was destroyed in the sixteenth century, Roquebrune has retained a lot of its charm and there are numerous restaurants and cafés to enjoy.
Grasse is a handsome town of ochre coloured villas clinging to a steep hillside, and home to many fine perfumeries (it’s the world’s perfume capital!). You can visit historic perfumiers in the old town, such as L’Usine Historique, 20 Boulevard Fragonard. Kids will love the bright yellow tourist train that huffs its way up the steep city streets from the Cours Honoré Cresp plaza (across from the Palais des Congrès and main tourist office).
Six Fours les Plages, a picture-perfect resort between the maritime pine forests and the sea, enjoys 18kms of sandy beaches, little harbours and secret coves. The village itself harbours a handful of historic and fascinating buildings, including the Collegiate Church of St. Pierre XI near Fort de Six Fours, and the pre-Romanesque chapel Notre Dame de Pepiole (6th c.) Sanary Sur is another delightful coastal village worth a day’s exploration. Climb to the top of Notre Dame de Pitié for a terrific view of the islands Embiez, Rouveau, Pointe Negre (and the French Presidential summer palace), and the ochre rocks of the La Cride cliffs. The town bursts into life every summer with carnavals, evening crafts markets and gastronomic celebrations such as its famous bouillabaisse and sardine days.
Nice is one of the oldest continually inhabited spots in Europe. And it’s well worth a visit for its “Promenade of the English” is a promenade along the Baie des Anges (“Bay of the Angels”), lined with elegant villas and restaurants (and French and Italian fashion houses). Twenty kilometres further takes you to the tiny principality of Monaco, where kids will love the aquarium set up by non other than Jacques Cousteau, especially for children (Avenue Saint-Martin).
For a really wild day out, head to the Mercantour national park – a wilderness of craggy peaks, pine forests and sun-warmed lakes. Humans have called this place home for over 6,000 years. In Valley of Wonders hide caves daubed with thousands of prehistoric paintings. But you’ll spend most of your time above ground, in the network of fabulous hiking trails and lofty vantage points. And make time to visit the mountain villages, such as pretty Belvedere.