Things to Do in Provence
Calanques National Park (Parc national des Calanques) sits in the south of France between Marseille and Cassis. The area boasts dramatic rocky inlets, azure waters and pebble beaches, making it a popular destination for tourists looking to hike, swim and sail.
The park is relatively large and composed of nearly 20 acres (8,500 hectares) by land and more than 100 acres (42,000 hectares) by sea. Visitors can spend their time keeping an eye out for some of the 140 land animal species and 60 marine species that live here. These creatures are protected in the park, which is the only one in Europe to contain land, marine and semi-urban areas. The calanques themselves are also main attractions and include Calanque de Sormiou, Calanque de Morgiou, Calanque d'En-Vau, Calanque de Port-Pin and Calanque de Sugiton.
Everywhere you go in Marseille, you'll see the golden statue of the Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde, the Romano-Byzantine basilica rising up from the city's highest hill, La Garde (530ft/162m). Built between 1853 and 1864, the domed basilica is ornamented with colored marble, murals, and intricate mosaics, which were superbly restored in 2006 after suffering damage from the atmosphere, candle smoke and war. Bullet marks and vivid shrapnel scars on the cathedral's northern façade mark the fierce fighting that took place during Marseille's Battle of Liberation in August 1944.
Its bell tower is crowned by a 30 ft (9.7m) tall gilded statue of the Virgin Mary on a 40 ft (12m) high pedestal. Locals see her as the guardian of their city and call her 'la bonne mere' or the good mother. Each year on August 15th, there is a popular Assumption Day pilgrimage to the church. From the dome you get a 360-degree panorama of the city's sea of terracotta rooves below.
Wouldn't it be nice to be a prince, to be able to go to seaside town, decide you liked it and wouldn't mind having a little holiday home there, then have the city give you the prime location on the waterfront to build your palace? Welcome to the mid-19th century world of Prince-President Louis-Napoleon. In September 1852, he visited Marseille, said he liked it, was given the Pharo headland overlooking Vieux Port and Ile d'If, built the magnificent Palais du Pharo, then never even stayed there. Luckily his wife seems to have had a more generous nature and the Empress Eugenie gave it back to the city.
In 1904, the city of Marseille turned the building into a medical school. This necessitated some architectural changes and the balance of the building's appearance was altered losing some of its beauty. Since then, the building has been again modified to become a modern conference centre, with many of the auditoriums skillfully concealed underground below the forecourt.
Located in the dreamy, medieval and semi-ruined Provençal village of Les Baux-de-Provence in the Alpilles Natural Regional Park, the Carrières de Lumières is a multi-media attraction featuring the works of world-famous artists such as Klimt, Gauguin and Van Gogh. Making use of a former quarry with huge, bare galleries held up by massive columns, art-based images are projected onto the surrounding rock accompanied by stirring music in an amazing son et lumière show that lasts for 40 minutes. The current show (due to end in January 2016) features the spectacular works of Italian Renaissance artists Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael in a totally immersive experience backed by the use of numerous video projectors and 3D audio. In between shows, the quarry walls are illuminated with ever-changing colors to reveal glittering minerals in the walls.
Visitors to Provence understandably concentrate on Avignon, Arles, and the charming towns, villages and vineyards in the region. And if you stick to that, you'll have a great time! But just as understandable is that while beautiful, these towns can all seem to blend together after a while. If that's the case, then you should head to the Camargue.
Located in the southwest corner of Provence, the Camargue is a stretch of wetlands that also include salt fields and rice paddies as well as vineyards. The main town and jumping-off point for exploring the Camargue is Aigues-Mortes, a medieval walled town that is a great lunchtime spot – and you'll want to fuel up, as the Camargue is largely untouched.
Although it is protected land, there are pockets of population that tend to the lands and work hard to protect its pristine geographical features. These include the famous wild horses of the Camargue, white horses largely allowed to roam free, although French cowboys.
Marseilles has grown from being a tiny trading port established by the Greeks in 600 BC to being France’s second largest city. Topped by the hilltop Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde cathedral, it rises from the lovely harbor front of the Vieux Port or Old Harbor out into a sprawling, modern metropolis.
Given its role as France’s major port and its proximity to Africa and the Mediterranean, it is not surprising that Marseilles is an extremely culturally diverse city with great transport links to most of the country. Marseilles is the gateway to Provence, an area famed for its cooking and its artists.
As well as being an important port and industrial city, Marseilles is also an important center for culture with the Opera de Marseille and the Ballet Nationale de Marseille housed in the historic Opera House. It has also attracted many famous artists over the years, including Renoir and Cezanne, and spawned much of France’s hip hop music.
The heart and soul of the Vieil Aix (Old Town) the historic Cours Mirabeau is the main thoroughfare of Aix en Provence, passing between the ring roads that mark the boundaries of the old medieval center and the new town. A broad tree-lined avenue crammed with shops, restaurants and cafés, Cours Mirabeau runs from the iconic statue of King Rene (Fontaine du Roi René) in Place Forbin, to the stately Place du General de Gaulle.
Simply strolling the wide avenue – a spacious 42 meters wide - is enough to unveil many of its charms. Elegant 17th-century mansions, walled gardens and ornamental fountains line the sidewalks and a pit stop at one of the many alfresco cafés is the perfect way to take in the scenery. Once home to the city’s elite, Cours Mirabeau boasts one-time residents like a young Cezanne and architectural highlights include the monumental entrance of Hotel de Villiers and the regal Hôtel d'Arbod Jouques.
The Pont du Gard is a 50 kilometer (31 miles) aqueduct that stretches between Uzès and Nîmes. It is located in Vers-Pont-du-Gard commune in the South of France, and UNESCO made the aqueduct a World Heritage Site in 1985.
The famous aqueduct was constructed by the Roman Empire in the mid first century, before the dawn of the Christian era. The bridge is almost 50 meters high (164 feet) and has 3 levels, the longest being 275 meters (902 feet). Its first level carries a road and its third level carries a water conduit.
The Pont du Gard is currently one of the most visited attractions in all of France.
More Things to Do in Provence
The Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes) is one of the largest Gothic buildings in all of Europe and was classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1995. Avignon became the residence of the Popes in 1309 during the period of the Avignon Papacy. It was then expanded and grew to occupy an area of 11,000 m² (2.6 acres). The papacy spent a large amount of money on the building during construction. The interiors are no less grand than the exteriors; the rooms were luxuriously decorated with expensive frescos, tapestries, paintings, sculptures and wooden ceilings.
The palais deteriorated for the next couple of hundred years despite restoration efforts and was then sacked during the Revolutionary period. The Palais was eventually taken over by the Napoleonic government for military use during which time it further deteriorated. It finally became a national museum in 1906, and most of the Palais is now open to the public.
Marseille Cathedral is a Roman Catholic cathedral and basilica minor located in the Old-Port of Marseilles and a national monument of France. Far from being just a run-of-the-mill church, it is the seat of the Archdiocese of Marseille and the hobbyhorse of Prince Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, who laid the first stone of the new building in 1852. The foundations, commonly referred to as the Old Major, date back to the 12th century and correspond to a sober Romanesque style. Only the choir and one bay of the nave persist today, as a new, more opulent cathedral was built next to the remains in 1852. The new Marseilles Cathedral was built on a gigantic scale in the Byzantine-Roman style from 1852 to 1896.
Winding along the Mediterranean coast along the South of France, La Corniche is a waterfront roadway that stretches five kilometers through Marseille. As both a walkway and a road for cars, it offers wonderful views of the sea and coastline. It was a particularly popular promenade for residents of Marseille in the 1920s. From there you can also see the Iles du Frioul, elegant villas of the late 19th century, and the Prado beaches. The Chateau d’If (of the Count of Monte Cristo fame) is also visible.
Along the way sits the Maregraph Building, which took measurements over thirteen years to determine France’s sea level elevation. The bench of La Corniche runs three kilometers between the Pont de la Fausse-Monnaie and Hotel Sofitel Palm Beach, making it the longest bench in the world. Part of the roadway is named after President Kennedy, who was assassinated during its construction.
Immortalized in a number of famous paintings by local resident Cézanne, the towering peak of Montagne Sainte Victoire (Sainte-Victoire Mountain) is one of the most iconic symbols of Provence. Looming 1,011 meters on the horizon of Aix-en-Provence, Montagne Sainte Victoire is a picturesque sight, framed by the idyllic vineyards of Provence and changing its hues with the sunset.
A hugely popular spot for hikers, Sainte Victoire offers a striking backdrop for walking and climbing expeditions, with the bright red clay of its foothills giving way to a stark white limestone ridge. A number of trails run around the mountain side and from its peak, the views are the best in the Aix region – a breathtaking panorama that takes in the rolling plains, lush river valleys and hilltop villages that inspired so much of Cézanne’s work. Whether you’re exploring on foot or by car, there are a number of points of interest dotted around the mountain.
The Lavender Museum in Coustellet is at the farm where this brilliantly colored, fragrant plant is grown, harvested and processed into all kinds of products. But far from being a factory or simply a museum, it's a family-run business dating back five generations, and the pride in their work is immediately apparent to visitors.
Included in the museum is a large collection of vintage distilling machines and other implements used as far back as the 17th century; this was the hobby of one of the Lincelé sons. There is also a film about the distilling process and guided tours as well. It's a wonderful, in-depth look at how lavender is used, and even better, it's open even when the fields are not in bloom!
The Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations (MuCEM; Musée des Civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée) is a national museum in Marseille, France. It was inaugurated in 2013, the same year Marseille was designated as the ‘European Capital of Culture,’ and is dedicated to showcasing the multifaceted history of the Mediterranean and its different landscapes, cities, and shores.
The museum is built on reclaimed land at the entrance to Marseille’s harbour. Its exhibits are devoted to European and Mediterranean civilizations in the Mediterranean basin, taking an interdisciplinary approach to presenting the different societies who have called this area home throughout the ages and in modern times. It is the first museum in the world to focus entirely on the cultures of the Mediterranean, and it includes all the social sciences: anthropology, political science, sociology, history, archaeology, and art history.
The lands on either side of the Rhone River in western Provence have some of the most fertile terroir in France, giving rise to the prestige of the Rhone Valley Region of over 1,000 vineyards. If you're visiting France and want to explore a wine region that also has plenty of history and beautiful villages to boot, then you want to come to the Rhone Valley.
Because the long region runs north to south along the river's path, there are two separate sub-regions. The northern of the two are greatly affected by the Massif Central mountain range, and this the soil is tougher and the temperature swings are greater from season to season. The southern sub-region, on the other hand, is generally more mild throughout the year, but daily temperature swings are a factor in the terroir; its pebbly soil helps to retain the heat of the day to protect the vines at night.
The 12th-century Sénanque Abbey, which to this day is the home and worshiping place of Cistercian monks, has no great history. There are no iconic frescoes or statues to see, and while pretty, it isn't especially notable architecturally. So why is it on every visitor's must-see list when visiting Provence?
One word: lavender. The monks here grow, harvest and process lavender from the surrounding fields, which means that come June visitors have a front-row seat to one of the most gorgeous photo ops of all time. Whether passing by in a car or stopping to smell the flowers, the Sénanque Abbey, near Gordes, is a summertime treat.
The calanques are narrow and steep inlets along the limestone coast of southern France, the most impressive ones being located along the little stretch of coastline between Marseilles and Cassis. They are romantic, wild and, being surrounded by huge cliffs, often protrude fjord-like into the landscape. While many calanques require hours of hiking or kayaking to reach, the Calanque de Sormiou is more easily accessible and still provides a true visual spectacle for visitors.
After a 15 minute drive or 45 minute walk from the main road down the hills, a sandy beach awaits next to the bright blue Mediterranean water. A couple weekend homes dot the landscape and then there is Le Château, the modest but immensely popular bouillabaisse restaurant that requires a phone reservation well ahead of time to snag a seat. As sparse as the landscape might appear, Sormiou actually serves as a habitat for a rich flora and fauna.
When you stand at the precipice of the precariously perched Gordes in Provence and look into the valley below, you'll see a road leading away towards Apt. See it? That road is thousands of years old, built by the Romans. So in case the town itself doesn't knock your socks off – and if it doesn't, check your pulse – then the sight of that road should make you realize just how much history there is in this area of France. And the history of Gordes doesn't stop with the Romans; from fortifications against Arabs in the first millennium to the 12th century Sénanque Abbey surrounded by lavender to its eventual addition as a French royal provence in the Middle Ages and a Resistance stronghold during WWII, this is not your run-of-the-mill charming village.
Things to do near Provence
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