France: Provence, Alps and Cote d’Azur
PACA is the region in the South East of France defined by the Rhone River and Occitanie in the West, the Mediterranean Sea in the South, Italy in the East and the Auvergne, Rhone Alps region in the North. Provence – Alpes – Côte d’Azur, now known as the PACA region, is comprised of six “departements”. Three of them are named after the gigantic massif of mountains which extends through Switzerland, Italy, Germany and Austria: they are called Alps of High Provence to the North, Maritime Alps by the sea, and High Alps along the Italian border. The other three “departements” are the Vaucluse, the Var and the Bouches du Rhône.
Alps of High Provence
The scenic Durance and Bleone rivers flow through the countryside of this area and the fields are full of olive trees, vineyards, and lavender. Do not miss visiting Sisteron with its citadel, Digne-les-Bains, a sunny spa, Manosque, and Moustiers, famous for its faience. Drive along the Lavender Road visiting local markets with long traditions of medicinal and aromatic plants. And don’t miss the dramatic scenery along the Verdon Canyon with its high cliffs and turquoise waters, it is spectacular! The Regional Parks of Luberon and Mercantour are also exceptional. At a higher altitude, several winter resorts attract skiers of all levels to the Vallee de l’Ubaye or the Val d’Allos. If you are there in August, be sure to catch the famous hispano- Mexican festival in picturesque Barcelonnette.
Glaciers, lavender fields, and high peaks here are exposed to both cold snowy winters and gorgeous sunny summers. One third of the territory is over 6000 feet high and the air could not be cleaner and nature more invigorating.
Two large parks, the Ecrins National Park and the Queyras Natural Regional Park attract hikers and alpinists to the challenge of peaks and massifs up to 12,000 feet high. Hamlets and small villages are picturesque and many of the locals work as shepherds. Several of the valley passes are famous for being on the route of the Tour de France, such as the Passes of Galibier, Lautaret, or Izoard (they are generally closed in winter). Alpine skiing started in the thirties in Montgenevre, and other resorts such as Briancon and Serre-Chevalier soon followed up with this new sport. Cross country skiing is also highly appreciated on the trails between France and Italy. Briancon is a town of history and culture, and was fortified in the 17th century by the famous engineer Vauban. Château-Queyras is home to a classic medieval fortress. In Embrun, where the climate is exceptionally mild, you can visit the Lombardian style cathedral and nearby the 12th century Abbaye de Boscodon.
Sea, mountains, mild Mediterranean climate, brilliant light, abundant sunshine, and exotic vegetation make the “Alpes Maritimes” region a place you will surely fall in love with. The coastal road extends from the Italian border westward through upscale beach resort towns from Menton to Monaco, Villefranche, Nice, Antibes, and Cannes.
Palm trees, beaches, luxury palaces and thousands of hotels attract jet set visitors and vacationers from all over the world. The back country with its plethora of hill top perched villages, stone houses, tiled roofs, refreshing fountains and shady squares such as Eze-Village, Vence, Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Gourdon, Mougins, Hauts-de-Cagnes are equally compelling and also attract many visitors. Art lovers will have to plan quite a long stay in order to to follow the steps of the famous artists and visit the places where Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Renoir, Bonnard, and Fernand Leger lived and painted.
Grasse is considered to be the world capital of perfume. MIP Grasse is a new museum of perfumes, where one can experience perfumes of all kinds. Feasts and festivals in this area are world famous: in February we have the Nice Carnival and the Lemon Festival of Menton; the incomparable Cannes Film Festival and the Grand Prix of Monaco take place in May, and mid July is Juan-les-Pins jazz festival.
Ten miles west of Cannes begins the “department” of the Var, with one of the most scenic and beautiful coastal roads in the world linking Cannes with Saint Raphael.The jagged rocks of the bright red porphyry of the Esterel Massif drop into the Mediterranean and the red rocks contrast dramatically with the dark blue of the sea. Choosing any one resort between Sainte Maxime, Cavalaire, Le Lavandou is tough! But, the most famous and chic of all, the kingdom of suntan and farniente, is Saint Tropez, the summer gathering place of movie stars and the jet-set. Don’t be shy… as all beaches are topless and will show the best and the not so good!
Toulon, dominated by Mont Faron, is a beautiful natural harbor and home to France’s second largest naval base. Inland are Saint Maximin with its Basilica built over the tomb of Saint Mary Magdalene in the massif of Sainte Beaume, a center for Christian pilgrimages since the Middle Ages. The austere but beautiful Cistercian Abbey of Le Thoronet was founded in 1136 while St Bernard was still alive.
“Bouches-du-Rhône” means in French the Mouth of the Rhone. This delta is the most western part of the PACA region, bounded in the west by the Rhone River which splits into two arms south of Arles to form the Camargue region, an immense wetland plain which now constitutes a natural Regional Reserve where the local ecosystem is protected and preserved..
Arles and Les-Sainte-Maries-de-la-Mer
These are the two principal towns in the Camargue where local traditions are preserved and where close by you can still find the “Guardians” (horsemen) who care for the “Manades” (herds) and select the bulls for the bullfights. Arles is a Roman city more than 2,500 years old and is the capital of Camargue. It was in Arles that Van Gogh spent some very productive time near the end of his life, and many of his best works portray the landscape around Arles.
Aix has preserved its 17th and 18th century charm with its mansions, the majestic shaded Cours Mirabeau, the old town, and the refreshing fountains. It is a university city famous for the arts with its Granet Museum, the Opera, and the Music Festival. It was also the birthplace and home of Cezanne, and his meticulously preserved studio is well worth a visit.
Then, last but not least, comes Marseille, the third largest French city and one of the biggest harbors in the Mediterranean. It is dominated by Notre-Dame-de-La-Garde, a 19th century basilica sitting high on the hill overlooking the city. The old harbor, the main avenue of La Canebiere, the Corniche along the sea, the Pharo Palace, the fort Saint Jean, and the Chateau d’If on a small island off shore are among the many attractions of this fascinating metropolis. And let us not forget the MUCEM, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations. This is an exceptional contemporary building opened in 2013, the year Marseille was designated as European Capital of Culture. And of course when in Marseille you cannot miss an outing by boat to see the famous “calanques”, mini fjords which are best viewed from the water.
The gastronomy of the region is without equal and you will quickly get accustomed to ordering a Pastis or a Ricard aperitif on a hot sunny day, and sipping a little “Rose de Provence” with your meal will easily become a daily habit. Basil, thyme, rosemary, bay leaves, sage, and olive oil are routinely and subtlety used in almost every meal, and after tasting some of the local specialties you will surely try to reproduce the experience when you return home, cooking your own ratatouille with the colorful vegetables you saw at the Provencal markets, eggplants, red and green peppers, zucchini, tomatoes onions and garlic. The Bouillabaisse of Marseille, the Bourride of Sète, or a Daube Provencale will always provide a festive gourmet experience. The aioli may be too tasty and garlicky to some of you!
As souvenirs for your friends you may return home with Nougats from Montelimar, Calissons from Aix en Provence, and Tapenade little jars. And if food is not for them, a typical soap from Marseille may be a good alternative!
History is evident everywhere in Vaucluse as many superbly engineered Roman buildings such as Arcs of Triumph, arenas, and antique theatres are is still evident in many of the cities such as Orange or Vaison-la -Romaine. Then there was that unique time in the 14th century when the Popes left Rome to settle in the Papal Palace in Avignon. Among the many historical villages, Isle-sur-Sorgue is one of the most famous for it market of antiquities.
To experience fully the fragrance of Provence, you may enjoy the “Chemin de la Lavande”, a three mile trail among the bleu fields of lavender near the village of Sault at the foot of Mont Ventoux. Close by is the beautiful village of Roussillon with its interesting surrounding quarries where ochre colored rocks are present in every possible tone of red, yellow and orange. This ” Sentier de l’Ocre” is an experience not to be missed..
Not far away is the “Natural Regional Park of Luberon”, which expends as far as Haute Provence and includes two Abbeys, Senanques and Saint-Chaffret, water-mills, and “bories”, which are old dry stone dwellings near the perched village of Gordes.
High quality olive oil, black truffles, and smooth wines are readily available in every town market and at the tables of the ubiquitous local restaurants.
Apt is on the wine road. Lourmarin is on top of the list of the most beautiful French Villages. Menerbes has the unexpected museum of the cork screw. Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Beaume-de-Venise are two villages symbolic for the high quality wine which the Cote-du-Rhone produces. Wine tasting in this area should not be missed. The sunny summers produce some of the best fruits and vegetables produced in the whole country such as the melons of Cavaillon or the cherries of Venasque.
Avignon, the Pope City
Made famous by the song known by all French children, “Sous le Pont d’Avignon”, the City of the Pope is extremely popular and certainly worth a visit. The Pont Benazet is close to the Pope Palace, and the scenic view over the Rhone River, the city remparts and the surrounding plain is excellent. Visiting the Palace itself is of great historical interest and helps to recreate the power and the wealth of the Roman Catholic Church in those days. Don’t miss taking one of the informative and interesting tours of palace and grounds.
The Museum of Angladon-Dubrujeaud is for the art lovers of Picasso, Van Gogh, Cezanne and Modigliani. Museum Louis-Vouland is best known for its beautiful furniture and art from Provence. Museum Calvet is for those fond of archeology., and the Petit Palais offers collections of Italian Renaissance and Middle Age artists, as well as the painters of the School of Avignon.