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Last updated : Nov 2009
Provence
Provence - TravelPuppy.com
Spectacular weather is one of the major attractions of Provence, whose départements comprise of Hautes Alpes, Alpes de Haute Provence, Var, Vaucluse and Bouches du Rhône. The deep blue skies of summer are seldom clouded, although there is some rain during the spring and autumn. The only inhospitable element is the mistral, a wind that sometimes roars down the Rhône Valley, often unrelenting for three or four days. When the Romans arrived in Gaul, they were so delighted with the climate of the Bouches du Rhône that they made it a province rather than a colony, which was more usual.

The varied flora that has taken root in this land has given it the hues of pewter, bronze, dark green and vibrant green. The sun has baked the dwellings to shades of ochre and rose while the deep red soil has provided tiles that remain red, defying the searing rays of the Midi sunshine.

The towns, their architecture, stones and tiles all blend subtly throughout Provence with the majestic plane trees in the streets and squares. Their long heavy trunks of mottled greys and the graceful vaulting of the heavily leafed branches create a peculiar atmosphere not found anywhere else. These are the principal adornments of most of the cities, villages and market towns, casting a deep blue shade on the inhabitants, the mossy fountains, cafe terraces and games of pétanque. The eras of Greek and Roman domination of Provence have left monuments scattered across the countryside. They include walled hill towns, theatres, triumphal arches, colosseums, arenas, bridges and aqueducts. Christianity brought the Palace of the Popes in Avignon, many churches and hundreds of roadside shrines or ‘oratories’ which have given the name oradour to many communities along the Rhône. Close to Avignon is Orange with its stunning Roman ampitheatre and Roman ruins.

Christian art of the highest quality is scattered throughout the region from Notre-Dame-des-Doms in Avignon to Notre-Dame-du-Bourg in Digne in the centre of the lower alps. The pilgrims throughout the territory built wonderful churches typified by graceful semi-circular arches, round rose windows, statues of Christ surrounded by evangelists, saints, the damned in chains and processions of the faithful. These are carved in stone, so worn by sun and wind they almost have the quality of flesh. Many of the towns and villages are marked by fortified castles and watchtowers to guard against the coming of the Saracens, the Corsairs of the Rhône and marauding bands. For this was the invasion route, by land from Provence and by sea from the south. Tarascon, Beauclair, Villeneuve, Gourdon, Entrevaux, Sisteron and many others had their ‘close’ and tower situated high above the river or overlooking the sea.

Marseille
was founded by the Greeks (they called it Massalia) and used as a base for their colonisation of the Rhône Valley. Today, it is France’s most important commercial port on the Mediterranean and consequently many people, often who have never been, dismiss it is an ugly port city. This does Marseille no justice at all as it actually offers a huge mass of things to do, a vibrant cosmopolitan ambience and some top-class culinary experiences. Marseille is France’s most energetic city, a living, throbbing mass of cultures – far more melting pot than salad bowl – unlike many of the country’s other major cities. The TGV Sud line from Paris, and a regular budget airline route from London have both helped to bring the city the recognition it has long deserved.

There are many sites of interest in Marseille including, the old port, the hilltop church of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde, several museums, Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation, the Hospice de la Vieille Charité and, of course, the Château d’If, one of the most notorious of France’s historic island fortresses. Vast oil refineries and depots dominate the sparsely populated salt flats and marshes to the north and west of the city, but the land is not yet dead. It is the perfect habitat for several species of birds found in only a few other places in Eastern Europe, including nightjars and bustards.

On the far side of the Rhône is the wild, marshy area known as the Camargue, long used for the breeding of beef cattle and horses, for the evaporation of sea water to make salt, and more recently for growing rice. The cattle breeders, or cowboys, are armed with lances instead of lassos. Vast flocks of waterbirds nest here in a national bird reserve, among them snow-white egrets and pink flamingos. When, in 123 BC, Consul Sextias Calvinus established a camp beside some warm springs in the broad lower Rhône Valley, it was named Aquae Sextiae and today is known as Aix-en-Provence.

Interesting ancient sites are the ruined Roman aqueduct at Pont du Gard and the amphitheatre in Arles. This whole region is also fascinating since it was frequently painted by the great Post-Impressionist painters Cézanne and Van Gogh. The combination of gentle light and breathtaking scenery finds echoes throughout the art galleries of the world. Near Arles is Les Baux, a haunting medieval hilltop village.

The many olive trees found throughout Provence provide a popular fruit and one of the important staples of the local cuisine, a fine olive oil used extensively in the cooking of the local food. Garlic, though not exclusively associated with Provence, is used more here than in any other part of France. It is sometimes called ‘the truffle of Provence’. A third element, the tomato, seems to get into most of the delicious Provençal concoctions as well. The cooking here varies from region to region. In the Camargue a characteristic dish is estouffade de boeuf. Marseille is noted for a dish called pieds et paquets (‘feet and packages’) which consists of sheep’s tripe stuffed with salt pork and cooked overnight in white wine with onions, garlic and parsley. Trie à la Niçoise is similar, but nonetheless unique. Perhaps the most typical dish, and one found in most parts of Provence, is tomates provençales, a heavenly concoction with all the Provençal specialities, olive oil, garlic and parsley baked in and on a tomato. This combination can also be applied to courgettes and aubergines. All of these vegetables, along with sweet peppers, are found in the most famous Provençal vegetable ragoût known, for some long lost reason, as ratatouille, this too being well laced with garlic and of course cooked in olive oil. Mayonnaise, also, well mixed with Provençal garlic, becomes aioli, which is served with boiled vegetables and/or fish. Gigot, leg of lamb, is a more common local speciality. Surviving into the era of nouvelle cuisine and still the pride of the Provençal coast is the famous fish stew called bouillabaisse. Like cassoulet in Languedoc, there are several versions, each claiming to be the ‘authentic’ one. The ingredients are not vastly different – having to do with the amount of saffron used or the inclusion or exclusion of certain fish.

Few wines are grown in Provence, although some are quite good, especially those originating in the Lubéron. The four districts that have been granted recognition are best known for their rosé wines and are: Cassis, Bandol, Bellet and la Palette. They are all on the coast, except la Palette which is near Aix.