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Guide to Provence and the Cote d'Azur / French Riviera, France
Provence is a fascinating land of romance, history and great beauty. It is celebrated for its excellent climate, attractive scenery, fine beaches, suberb food and fashionable resorts. Provence is one of the most exclusive areas of France and few places in Europe can compete with its ambience and allure, glamorous resorts and beautiful people.
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Provence Alps Cote d'Azur
Provence owes its special charm to its warm climate, clear light and varied landscape. The region lies in the far south of France, stretching along the Mediterranean coast from the Italian border at Menton to just the other side of Marseilles, then north to the Haute-Alpes. The Cote d'Azur is a long succession of fashionable resorts, marinas and beaches, with a huge choice of activities for all tastes, which can be enjoyed in both winter and summer.
A little north of Cannes is the old town of Grasse, whose mild climate makes it a popular winter resort. It is the centre of the perfume industry in France and famous for its fields of roses, jasmine, lavender, which are harvested and distilled to make scent and essences. Not far from Marseilles is the beautiful university town of Aix-en-Provence. The old capital of Provence, it is still the intellectual heart of the region. Because of its thermal springs, it has been used as a spa since it was founded by the Romans. The International Music Festival is held in July and August and the Saison d'Aix is from June until the beginning of September, with open-air performances. The painter Paul Cezanne was born and died here and a few kilometres from Aix is the Foundation Vasarely, a modern architectural complex with works by the artist.
The ancient city of Arles founded by the Greeks, has much to offer. There are many associations with Vincent Van Gogh, who lived and worked here for a short while and the art collection of the painter Realth is housed in the museum that bears his name. It makes an excellent base from which to explore the Camargue. A vast wetland reserve, almost treeless with narrow lanes lined by deep-water channels and curtains of reeds, it is a resting/nesting place for a huge variety of birds including thousands of pink flamingos. It is well known for its herds of wild horses and black bulls, though large parts of the reserve are restricted, you may be lucky enough to see them.
Avignon and its bridge made famous by the nursery rhyme, was the residence of the Popes until they returned to Rome and there are many architectural legacies from that period. It makes an ideal place from which to explore the surrounding countryside. The Luberon National Park stretches from the plains of the Vaucluse to the Alpes, its rural way of life protected from development and its fields of lavender and clustered villages forming a natural mosaic in the landscape. Good walking and cycling country. The landscape changes as you reach the foothills of Alpes-de-Haute Provence. Villages huddle in the contours of alpine valleys, or perch precariously on rocky outcrops, the steeply sloping streets leading to a central square. This is truffle and olive country, the altitude giving the olives a particularly fruity taste.
The icy emerald waters of the Verdon river spring from high in the Alpes and run through the gorges of the Grand Canyon into a series of lakes, where you can sail, water-ski, fish, or go white water rafting.
Provencal food is perhaps best described as a series of exquisitely prepared dishes using seasonal local produce; a plate of olives with a sprinkling of thyme, an onion and anchovy tart, a bowl of green figs, farm cured mountain ham with sweet butter, a dish of artichokes, lamb cooked slowly on a spit, Arles sausage and Banons, ewe's milk cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves.
The natural caves near the ochre and red village of Roussillon are used for the cultivation of mushrooms, the town of Le Thor supplies the region with grapes and Carpentras is the centre of the lively market for black truffles. The proximity of Provence to Italy has had an influence and there are excellent pizzas, drizzled with chili oil to bring out the taste. In the mountain areas there is fresh water fish grilled or baked with herbs and in the south bouillabaisse, a fish soup that belongs to Marseilles.
Almost everywhere in the countryside is excellent for walking, riding and cycling. In the Alpes de Hautes-Provence there are well marked hiking routes for short walks lasting between one and four hours, or walks lasting for several days accompanied by a mountain guide. If you are a rock climbing enthusiast there are more than seventy canyons to choose from, on the Ubaye or Verdon river systems and qualified and experienced instructors on hand to ensure safety. There is a beginners school for children from about the age of three.
This is outstanding gliding country and there are several bases that provide beginner and intermediate courses with qualified intstructors. More experienced pilots fly towards the Alpes as far as Mont Blanc or Mont Viso. The thermals provide excellent conditions for hang-gliding, paragliding and ballooning.
At Saint-Michel Observatory, you can take part in observation sessions and use professional equipment.
Good fishing in the lakes, perch, carp, char, gudgeon and in the mountain streams, wild Fario trout.
In winter, the combination of sun and exceptional snow cover make excellent skiing and there are many resorts to choose from. Pra-Loup and Foux d'Allos are linked together to form one of the largest ski areas in the southern Alpes. Chabanon, Grand-Puy, Soleilhas-Vauplane and others are more family orientated.
There are good markets throughout the region on various days, Forcalquier in particular is worth a visit and is open every Monday. Lavender honey and olive oil is still produced in the traditional way and you can see how they are made, buy and taste. Moustier chinaware first appeared in the seventeenth century, it has a distinctive delicate blue and white design and is well worth looking for. And there are festivals, concerts, exhibitions, dance and theatre throughout Provence for most of the year.
Long warm summers with temperatures reaching 35C and mild winters. From June onwards there is practically no rain. The only unfriendly aspect is the mistral, a dry cold wind from the north, which can last from three to nine days at any time in spring or autumn, bringing sharp falls in temperature.
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Getting to Provence - Cote d'Azur
The region is easily accessable by air from most countries. The main international airports are Marseilles and Nice. Low cost airlines operate to both from the UK
Calais to Marseilles is approx 1175 km and will take about 9.5 hours. Nice is approx 1230 km and will take about 11 hours. Roads along the Cote d'Azur do become very busy in the summer months.
High speed TGV trains take about 3 hours from Paris to Marseilles and also serve Toulon, Cannes and Nice.
The Rough Guide to Provence and the Cote D'Azur (Rough Guide Travel Guides S.)
Provence and the Cote D'Azur (Lonely Planet Regional Guides S.)
Provence and the Cote D'Azur (Eyewitness Travel Guides S.)