The Provence experience, beyond clichés

The Provence experience… More than easy living, beautiful beaches and cold rosé wine…

You head to the port, sunglasses on, for a coffee on the café terrace. Your friends at the table bubble over with talk of the catch of the day. Intrigued by these spiky little balls that are sold at premium prices, you order 6 sea urchins, the caviar of the Med that you eat with a spoon. Your palate flares up in excitement as the local chefs reinvent Mediterranean cuisine, turning the standards and traditions upside down: Bouillabaisse milkshakes, roasted melon burgers, navette ice cream, or even still, lavender ice cream…

Stroll behind the port where each succeeding civilisation has left traces of its heritage in the narrow streets and houses covered in ochre colours. They stand in contrast to the perfectly balanced modern or contemporary touches from the last generation: architectural feats like Villa Noailles in Hyères (External link) (1925) or the MuCEM in Marseille (2013). The heat sends you to shaded terraces where it is the perfect time to order a glass of rosé wine! Both dry and smooth, with blackcurrant and raspberry notes, the wine offers you the chance to leave everything behind with just one sip and imagine yourself at the foot of Sainte-Victoire Mountain, north of Aix-en-Provence or in the sun-drenched vineyards of Saint-Tropez. You’ll be surprised by the Spider sculpture by Louise Bourgeois and the other art works found among the grape vines.

At the end of the day, on the quay, the sun goes down over the traditional “pointu” boats, which dip and sway on the light swells, the hikers and urban explorers give way to the aperitif crowd, the clubbers and other night owls. It doesn’t take much for the trip, however short, to reignite in you feelings of energy and freedom! You cannot mistake this place for any other. You are in the Mediterranean… Cassis, Marseille, Saint-Tropez, La Ciotat (External link) , Toulon (External link) and the Côte (External link) Bleue (External link) , places for the first entry in your travel journal.

For a safari in a wild, natural area that’s just 1 hour from Marseille, Aix-en-Provence and Avignon, head for the Camargue region. This natural space has unique landscapes filled with reeds, lagoons and tidal marshes where you’ll find wild bulls and horses roaming about. Through your binoculars you’ll see a paradise of 400 species of migratory birds, including the largest colony of flamingos in Europe, truly one of the most well-kept secrets of Provence!

Arriving in Arles (External link) ,youfollow the crowds to the city centre that beats with the rhythm of world music and then you come to the Arènes, the roman amphitheatre set up with projectors,basses and microphones, and as the first notes spring out, the crowd rises up with the music. The amphitheatre showcases a wide range of contemporary music. It’s a timeless moment where Arles vibrates, much like near the Pont du Gard (External link) , during the pyrotechnic show.

The Mistral wind blows and brings cool air with it. You wander through the pedestrian streets of Avignon (External link) that turn into venues for street theatre during the festival. From the front of the majestic and imposing Palace of the Popes, it’s just a short walk up to the Rocher des Doms garden. From this peaceful spot you can see over the rooftops of the city to the Pont Saint Bénézet, the Rhone River and Mont Ventoux (External link) , nicknamed the giant of Provence and star of the Tour de France (External link) ! On the pleasant twisting roads, you come upon hilltop villages, fields of lavender, vines and sunflowers. It’s truly the essence of Provence! You’ve jumped into a postcard and its up to you to raise the sails and intensify the experience: go out to meet the locals with their famous strong characters. Share in their joie de vivre by visiting artisan studios, lavender distilleries and wineries. For example, stop off at l’Isle sur la Sorgue (External link) , to browse through the antique shops or cool down on the terraces next to the Sorgue River. Maybe you’d like to taste a bit of the local peach aperitif, Rinquiquin?

Welcome to the Luberon (Be sure to pronounce it LubEUron! As the locals do). You’ll notice that the cliff sides are painted in yellow, orange and red as you go into the Provençal Colorado. Heading east, the choices multiply: you can go to Digne-les-Bains and weave your way through the trails found in the art of Andy Goldsworthy or respond to the call for adventure and take a canoe, a mountain bike or just go out on foot down into the dizzying Verdon Canyon. But before that, nothing beats a short nap in the poppy fields, surrounded by a live cicada concert…

The adventure continues with even more natural landscapes and stunning views with the ridges of Sainte Baume (External link) in your sights! On the road you come upon the workshop-garage of Edouard Trouin,designed by Le Corbusier. The great architecture of Provence doesn’t have just a few specific sites; it’s everywhere. You start the climb, and once at the top, there’s a panorama of picturesque villages and natural landscapes. To the south are Aubagne and the massif du Garlaban. To the east is “Provence Verte”, an area encompassing Cotignac and its tuff cliff that houses the ancient troglodyte homes as well as the village of Barjols and its tanneries,which are now used as artist residences.

The end of the Provençal odyssey approaches with just one more stop to the southern most point. It’s a dry and rocky landscape filled with the fragrance of thyme and rosemary. The golden colour of the rocks stands in contrast to the turquoise blue of the Mediterranean. Slip on your swim fins and explore the Golden Isles off the coast of Hyères with snorkelling and diving around the islands of Porquerolles and Port-Cros!

There’s no secret to experiencing Provence to its fullest. You just need to know how to slip into nature’s rhythm and follow in the footsteps of the locals. Here, the heat and the parties set the pace, which is sometimes mellow, sometimes up beat. The seasons select the menu, and the men and women, who sometimes seem like a caricature but are absolutely unique, greet you with music in their voices to begin your apprenticeship in the art of Provençal living.