Some Words of Introduction
Written in August 2000
Updated in August 2014
The Romans knew a good thing when they came, saw, and conquered Provincia Gallia Transalpina. The southeast corner of France was (and is) a land of abundant sunshine, well suited for producing wine and olive oil. And, as the first provincia outside Italy, it was an important first step in their subsequent conquest of much of Europe. Visitors interested in Roman antiquities (the earliest from around 125 BCE) will find plenty to choose from (along with remnants of the Greek colonists who got there first, in the 5th century BCE). Those not so interested in history will nonetheless marvel at the many surviving examples of Roman civil engineering prowess.
As with any place that has a storied past, Provence has numerous jumbled layers. The larger cities preserve parts of their original orderly Roman layout, surrounded by the tangled sprawl of later growth. But elsewhere you’ll find bucolic countryside dotted with villages and towns that arose in the centuries after Rome fell. They stand out as white islands in a sea of green farms and vineyards. Their stone buildings and warrens of narrow cobblestoned streets huddle around the dominating village church in an enduring reflection of medieval society. It’s easy to find views that seem unchanged since the 14th century.
The Renaissance and the 18th century “Enlightenment” added ornate
public buildings to the mix as well as hôtels
particuliers, the ornate mansions of wealthy citizens. Some of
these mansions are now actual hotels that retain their period
ambiance. Somewhere in the 19th century, people started painting more
ordinary buildings in brash, sunny colors. The modern era provides a
distinctive cuisine, excellent roads, and a state-of-the-art telephone
system (something a visitor rapidly comes to appreciate when booking
lodgings or keeping in touch with loved ones back home). And, of
course, there are oodles of poodles. In Provence, as in most of
France, people love their dogs and take them everywhere, including
While Provence is a wonderful place to visit, there are a few practicalities and frustrations I have to mention. The most troublesome is driving. You definitely need a car to explore all the rural delights. But as I described in the previous section, cities, towns, and villages in Provence (as in most of Europe) evolved well before the invention of the automobile. So driving in any of these places means trying to find your way through a bewildering and traffic-clotted maze of narrow one-way streets. Sometimes you can’t avoid getting caught up in dead ends that challenge you to extricate your car. And you need endless vigilance to avoid hitting the pedestrians who fearlessly walk in the same place as cars because there’s nowhere else to walk.
Worse than driving in cities is parking. Or, more accurately, the lack thereof. Even if you can find a space near where you want to go, you have to figure out the rules and restrictions. And have the proper change for the horodateurs, machines that sell timed parking permits. So your best bet is to park in one of the large public lots and walk. The old and interesting parts of the larger cities are human sized, and walking is no problem. (But do look out for cars, which are guaranteed to emerge without warning— and at full speed— from the most unexpected places.) Then go back to your car when you’re ready to leave town.
Once you get out of town, it’s possible to relax and enjoy the
scenery— after you’ve become accustomed to the ronds points,
what Americans call “traffic circles” and the British call
“roundabouts.” In France they’re as common as goat cheese. After the
sheer misery of driving in town, it’s true paradise to drive on the
innumerable small roads (they’re all paved, and clearly indicated on
the Michelin maps). This is where you’ll find unexpected treasures
that aren’t in the guidebooks. And since you usually have the road all
to yourself, there’s no problem pulling over for a photograph. Or for a
leisurely picnic lunch of crusty bread from a village
boulangerie, and cheese, yogurt, and locally-grown fruits from
the épicerie. (But American-style supermarkets are, alas,
increasingly supplanting the traditional specialized food stores.)
A picnic lunch should at best be a money-saving (and calorie-saving) alternative to spending a few mid-day hours as the locals do: In a restaurant where leisurely service is a traditional way of life. It’s probably a good idea to have your main meal of the day at lunch. For one thing, a mid-day menu (fixed-price meal) is often significantly cheaper than dinner, so that’s the best way to enjoy good food without breaking your budget. Also, if you don’t have a reasonably substantial lunch you’ll probably be quite hungry by the time restaurants open for dinner at 19h30. That’s 7:30 pm on the French 24-hour clock. The French like to eat dinner rather late by American standards, and you might not leave the restaurant before 22h00 (10 pm). A good lunch and a picnic dinner in your hotel room may be the best option for both your wallet and your waistline (although I did see signs in some hotels prohibiting any food in rooms).
Unfortunately, this way of life that values two-hour meals may be headed for extinction. For example, McDonald’s is rapidly metastasizing throughout France, and seems to appeal to more than just the homesick American tourist. Arriving in Salon de Provence at lunch time, I saw hordes of students from a lycée (high school) wolfing down fast food American style at the McDonald’s across the street. It’s not hard to predict what sort of preferences they’ll have when they reach adulthood. It’s enough to make an American feel embarrassed about how this imported culinary kudzu is strangling French culture.
Admittedly, for the tired traveller, McDonald’s offers clean toilets. And cold “Coca-Cola Light.” This and “Pepsi Max” were unexpected delights— these French versions of diet cola taste much better than their American counterparts. Perhaps this fact offers a glimmer of hope that the French will adapt American culture in their own way rather than allowing the American “Borg” juggernaut to assimilate them outright.
I should also mention another noteworthy culinary import,
this time a British one. It’s a truly sinful pleasure called
Magnum Double Chocolate. It’s a chocolate ice cream bar covered first with
a layer of chocolate syrup, and then with a thick chocolate shell. Sheer
bliss for any chocoholic, though it probably packs enough fat, sugar,
and calories to make coronary arteries tremble at the sound of its name. If
you’re lacking in willpower, beware! These diet-busters can be found
everywhere, in grocery stores, tobacco shops, souvenir stands, and
pushcarts. Magnum Double is immensely popular throughout Europe, South
America, and even India. For many years, Unilever, the multinational purveyor of
this temptation, would not even consider selling them in the United
States. But they’re now available in American supermarkets.
The other travel concern is theft. Southern France has always had a dubious reputation for automobile break-ins, and the current high unemployment in the region has only made such larceny more attractive. Common sense, such as leaving anything remotely valuable out of view, will reduce the risk. The operative word should be “wary” rather than “worry.”
I visited Provence in the spring, which by all accounts is the best time to go. The countryside is green, flowers are blooming everywhere, and there are relatively few tourists. If you go in July or August the riot of flowers will be replaced with hordes of tourists, and driving will become sheer hell rather than mere misery. But Nature does provide some compensation: The lavender will be in bloom.
I was perhaps exceptionally lucky with the weather in late May
and early June 2000: Sunshine just about every day, with only two elephant-gray
overcast days and one rainy morning. But the weather in Provence can be
unpredictable at any time of year. When I was originally preparing this page in
early August 2000, the weather forecast at
France (it’s all in French) called for rain and unseasonably cool
temperatures. August is usually parched and unbearably hot. As always,
“you pays your money, you takes your chances.”
Provence is most definitely not a place for anyone intent on filling in checklists of mandatory sights, or for adhering to a minute-by-minute planned itinerary. Such an agenda misses the whole point of visiting Provence. You’ll be happiest if you leave the stopwatch at home.
On the map, Provence looks like a compact region. But it’s quite amazing how much variety there is. If you haven’t got a year or more to spend exploring from a rented château, the best approach is to spend several days each in “base” cities, where accommodations and food are plentiful and inexpensive. Spend a day or so just walking around, and then venture forth to the surrounding area. I have divided these pages around six major areas, with the Mediterranean Côte d’Azur cities of Nice and Cannes (which aren’t strictly in Provence) as a bonus. If you’re not visiting other parts of France, flying directly into Nice and renting a car there is a good way to start and end a trip to Provence.
I can recommend the three guidebooks I used for planning the trip (and as references for writing these pages). The Michelin Guides are essential for any trip to France. The Green Provence guide is an encyclopedic catalogue of sights and history, while the Red France guide lists hotels and restaurants. Travelling in May, just before the tourist season, I only had advance reservations for the first three nights in Nice. Then I used the Michelin Red guide to telephone for reservations once I determined where the next stop would be. For a trip in crowded July or August, it’s probably best to book the entire itinerary as far in advance as possible. Michelin also publishes a comprehensive set of road maps that are available in just about any bookstore in France.
The other very useful guidebook was the Lonely Planet Provence. This book complements the two Michelin guides, since it’s geared toward younger or lower-budget travellers. The writing style is more informal— the Michelin Green Guides tend to get a bit stodgy and heavy on historical details— and it features lower-priced restaurants than the Michelin Red Guide.
On the Internet, I found the
rec.travel.europe newsgroup a valuable resource for
getting answers to specific questions and soliciting recommendations. Now that
Usenet has gone the way of the typewriter and the rotary telephone, the user forums
on the Web sites for major guidebooks (Frommer’s, Fodors, Lonely Planet) are
comparable if not superior resources. As always, filter the advice through the
sieve of common sense and add a few grains of salt to taste.
Provence is one place where you don’t have to hunt for pictures. Just open your eyes, avoid hurrying, and they’ll come running up to you like so many friendly poodles. The hard part is winnowing a manageable number of images once you get home. Some of the pictures I chose for these pages are my take on standard postcard shots. The beauty of the scenes all but compels them. But others represent, I hope, unique views that you won’t see in travel brochures.
I used Kodak Supra 400 color negative film for all the pictures I took in 2000. Supra 400 was a “professional” all-purpose ISO 400 color negative film with fine grain, high sharpness, and vivid color, which made it ideal for travel photography. Film with those characteristics is no longer available. Three of the pictures— the two pictures of the Pont du Gard and the view from the theatre in Orange— are Kodachrome slides I took in 1976. I included them because they’re nice pictures, and because inclement weather prevented me from taking new versions in 2000.
The fine print: All pictures and text are copyright © 2000 and 2014 by Ted R. Marcus and may not be reproduced without permission. For information about licensing any of these images for Web, print, stock, or other uses, contact me.