Provence is a southeastern province of France, which extends from the left bank of the lower Rhone River on the west to the Italian border on the east, and is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea on the south.
Think about Provence and what comes to mind? Fields of lavender, sunflowers and olive trees? A slower pace of life, a Sunday lunch under the shade of plane trees in a village square, a café crème at a sidewalk café, or a long walk through a forest of oak and chestnut trees?
The Côte d’Azur, often known in English as the French Riviera, is the Mediterranean coastline of the southeast corner of France, also including the sovereign state of Monaco. This coastline was one of the first modern resort areas. It began as a winter health resort for the British upper class at the end of the 18th century. With the arrival of the railway in the mid-19th century, it became the vacation spot of British, Russian, and other aristocrats, such as Queen Victoria and King Edward VII, when he was Prince of Wales. In the summer, it also was the home of many members of the Rothschild family.
After World War II it became a popular tourist destination. Many celebrities, such as Elton John and Brigitte Bardot, have homes in the region.
The Artists in the South of France
Not surprisingly, its beauty has inspired a number of artists, from Cézanne and Van Gogh to Monet and Picasso. The south of France is without doubt, Picasso country. Pablo Picasso was born in Malaga in Spain in 1881, but he spent much of his life on the French Mediterranean Sea establishing Cubism. The Château Grimaldi, in the town of Antibes, was built in the 12th century and now houses the Musée Picasso. In 1946, the artist was given the Grimaldi Palace to use as a studio. In gratitude, he donated all 150 works completed during his stay, including The Goat.
The impressionists were fascinated by the effects of light.
Henri Matisse spent almost 40 years of his life in the French Riviera, enchanted by the quality of the light and the vivid colours that the light reflected. He lived in Nice for 27 years, and thereafter spent time in Eze, Saint Jean Cap Ferrat, Villefranche sur Mer, Beaulieu sur Mer and Cagnes sur Mer.
Paul Cezanne is probably Provence’s most famous artist. It is said that his works straddle the divide between Impressionism and Cubism. He was born into a bourgeois family – his father was a banker – in Aix en Provence on January 19, 1839 and grew up with his younger sister in town. As a teenager he explored the surrounding countryside with his friend Emile Zola, and began to paint at the local art school.
Paul Signac (1863–1935) visited St. Tropez in 1892, and bought a villa, La Hune, at the foot of citadel in 1897. It was at his villa that his friend, Henri Matisse, painted his famous Luxe, Calme et Volupté in 1904. Signac made numerous paintings along the coast.
One of the most famous French Impressionist artists, Pierre-Auguste Renoir spent the final years of his life in the Riviera. Renoir moved to Cagnes sur Mer in 1907 when he was 66 years old after his rheumatoidal arthritis began to impact his abilities. He bought a farm (Domaine des Collettes) with land containing three acres of olive and orange trees which featured in his paintings. The warmer climates of the south allowed better movement of his joints and he continued to paint here until his death in 1919. Despite his confinement in a wheel chair, he worked with a young artist Richard Guino to create sculptures during this time. His farm, the Domaine des Collettes is now a museum dedicated to his life, perfectly preserved with it’s original decoration and furnishings. Both of Renoir’s studios can be visited, and there are 11 original paintings from the nacre and Cagnes periods on display, along with his sculptures, sketches, lithographs, and personal possessions.
Post-Impressionists Van Gogh and Gauguin arrived in 1988, attracted by the region’s rich colors.
This sun-drenched southeastern region is France’s most popular vacation destination.
The Côte d’Azur has a Mediterranean climate, with sunny, hot, dry summers and mild winters. Winter temperatures are moderated by the Mediterranean; days of frost are rare. The average daily low temperature in Nice in January is 5.4 °C (41.7 °F); the January average daily low temperature in Toulon is 6.2 °C (43.2 °F)}. The average high temperature in August in Nice is 28.6 °C (83.5 °F); in Toulon the average daily high temperature is 29.7 °C (85.5 °F)
The Côte d’Azur receives more rainfall than Paris annually, but the rainy days are much less frequent; 111 rainy days a year in Paris compared with 61 days in Toulon and 63 in Nice. Toulon has 2,793 hours of sunshine a year, Nice has 2,668 hours.
Micro-climates exist in these coastal regions, and there can be great differences in the weather between various locations. Strong winds such as the Mistral, a cold dry wind from the northwest or from the east, are another characteristic, particularly in the winter.
Events and festivals
Several major events take place:
- Monaco and southeast France: Rally Automobile Monte-Carlo, January
The Monte Carlo Rally or Rally Monte Carlo (officially Rallye Automobile Monte Carlo) is a rallying event organized each year by the Automobile Club de Monaco which also organizes the Formula One Monaco Grand Prix and the Rallye Monte-Carlo Historique. The rally now takes place along the French Riviera in the Principality of Monaco and southeast France. Previously, competitors would set off from all four corners of Europe and ‘rally’, in other words, meet, in Monaco to celebrate the end of a unique event. From its inception in 1911 by Prince Albert I, this rally, under difficult and demanding conditions, was an important means of testing the latest improvements and innovations to automobiles. Winning the rally gave the car a great deal of credibility and publicity.
- Monaco: International Circus Festival of Monte-Carlo, January / February
The Festival International du Cirque de Monte-Carlo (International Circus Festival de Monte-Carlo) was created in 1974 by S.A.S. Prince Rainier III of Monaco (1923-2005) to promote circus arts—for which he had a lifelong passion. The first Festival was held from December 26 to 30, 1974 under the big top of the French circus Bouglione, installed on what was then the Esplanade de Fontvielle.
- Nice: Carnival, February
- Menton: Lemon Festival, February
The Lemon Festival, an event quite unique in the world, attracts each year more than 230,000 visitors – a constantly increasing attendance. It’s the second biggest event on the Riviera after the Carnival of Nice and before the Formula 1 Grand Prix in Monaco.
Just imagine… Designs up to 10 meters tall, incredible decorations, floats requiring over 140 tons of oranges and lemons. For three weeks, the Jardins Biovès and the streets are given over to these citrus giants.
- Tourrettes-sur-Loup: Violet Festival, March
A medieval village which has preserved much of its original architecture. Tourretes-sur-Loup is called the “City of violets,” because the surrounding area is covered in a terraced landscape of violets. The special violets have grown here for over 150 years. Every March they have a Violet Festival which marks the end of violet season and the beginning of Spring.
- Monaco: Monaco Grand Prix, May 2014/05/22 – 2014/05/25
The Monaco Grand Prix is a mythical race and all pilots dream to win on the circuit of the Principality. It is the slowest and the most difficult of all circuits in the Formula 1 World Championship. Coming to the Formula 1 Grand Prix in Monaco is an unforgettable moment that must be anticipated and prepared.
Created in 1997, the Historical Grand Prix of Monaco takes place on the same circuit as the Formula 1 Grand Prix. Nostalgic people of previous times and lovers of beautiful cars dream to look at the race of charming old cars. This Historical Grand Prix happens every 2 years two weeks before Monaco Grand Prix.
- Grasse: Rose Festival, May
Every year a small town in Provence called Grasse hosts a 5 day festival dedicated exclusively to Roses. The festival is held every May with the main prize going to the most beautiful and sweetest-smelling rose.
- Cannes: Cannes Film Festival and Cannes Film Market, May
Le Festival de Cannes is an annual film festival held in Cannes, France, which previews new films of all genres, including documentaries, from around the world. Founded in 1946, it is one of the most prestigious and publicized film festivals in the world.The invitation-only festival is held annually (usually in May) at the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès.
- Nice: Jazz Festival, July
- Grasse: Jasmine Festival, August
In early August, Grasse celebrates the jasmine flower. On flowered floats bearing the Festival Queen and her Dauphines, the event sparkles with fanfares and entertainment by culture ensembles from around France and Europe – from flag throwers to kazoo orchestras – showered with thousands upon thousands of flowers thrown out to spectators. The city’s firemen and women even join in the fun by cascading jasmine water over the crowd from old-fashioned fire trucks. It is a joyous, fragrant rendezvous not to be missed in the exciting summer line-up on the Cote d’Azur.
Exploring Provence and Côte d’Azur
In the 14th century, this city in the South of France was the seat of the papacy. The Palais des Papes, an austere-looking fortress lavishly decorated by Simone Martini and Matteo Giovanetti, dominates the city, the surrounding ramparts and the remains of a 12th-century bridge over the Rhone. Beneath this outstanding example of Gothic architecture, the Petit Palais and the Romanesque Cathedral of Notre-Dame-des-Doms complete an exceptional group of monuments that testify to the leading role played by Avignon in 14th-century Christian Europe.
Avignon and culture have been closely intertwined since before the 14th century, and the arrival of the Papacy and the thriving artistic activity which surrounded the pontifical court added to its renown.
The beauty of the medieval past in Avignon never ceases to delight. The ramparts, the magnificent Palace of the Popes, the sea of red-tiled roofs, clock-towers and steeples, and of course the graceful Pont d’Avignon create a magical setting.
Culture remains dynamic and forward-looking, with the international theatre festival each summer, the rich and varied museums, the most permanent theatre companies of any city in the provinces, the Lambert foundation for contemporary art, and many other offerings.
A popular tourist destination is the Place du Palais, just next to the Place de L’horloge. Within a short distance in just about any direction are the smaller squares frequented by the locals. Recommended is the Place Pie, with its covered market (open 6AM to 1PM everyday) which sells fresh produce, cheeses, wines, and produits du pays.
Le Pont Saint-Benezet is a ruined bridge not far from the Palais des Papes. The bridge was built in the 12th century, and was often damaged by the raging flood waters of the Rhone river. As of the 17th century, it was no longer rebuilt after flood damage.
Originally, the bridge had 22 arches, reaching across to the tower of Philippe le Bel via the mid-stream île de la Barthelasse. Only 4 of the 22 arches now remain. A multilingual audio tour of the bridge explains some of the local history.
The legend of the bridge’s building is that a local shepherd, Benezet (a dialect form of Benedict) was inspired by angels to build a bridge. When his appeals to the town authorities proved fruitless, he picked up a vast block of stone and hurled it into the river, to be the bridge’s foundation stone. Convinced by this demonstration of divine will, the bridge was swiftly built. The poor shepherd boy was canonized, and his chapel remains on the surviving portion of the bridge.
The well-known song “Sur Le Pont D’Avignon” (on the bridge at Avignon) refers to the bridge. The bridge itself is far too narrow for dancing or festivals – the original text of the song was “Sous (under) le pont d’Avignon”, referring to the festivals and entertainments staged on the île de la Barthelasse. The current version was popularized by a 19th century operetta, whose librettist clearly assumed that ‘sous le pont d’Avignon’ would have meant in the river.
The Palace of the Popes was built starting in 1335, and took less than 20 years to complete. The palace was primarily built by two of the Popes who lived here, Pope Benedict XII, and his successor, Pope Clement VI.
The Palace of the Popes is the biggest Gothic palace in the world. There are 15,000 square meters of living space, which is the equivalent of 4 Gothic cathedrals. The visitor can see more than 20 rooms in the palace, including the Papal apartments with their priceless frescoes painted by the Italian artist Matteo Giovannetti.
Nestled along the French Riveria and a short drive from Nice or Cannes, St. Tropez is one of the liveliest towns along the coast during the summer.
Originally a fisherman town and a spot where sailors would stop to spend the night, Saint Tropez has developed into a must-see for chic European travelers. Frequented by artists and writers in the early 20th century, Saint Tropez remains a magical part of the South of France.
In 1956, Brigitte Bardot‘s famous film, And God Created Woman, was shot in St. Tropez by her new husband, Roger Vadim and transformed the peaceful fishing village overnight into a jet-set favorite.
A legend gave St-Tropez its name in AD 68. After beheading a Roman officer named Torpes for becoming a Christian, the emperor Nero packed the decapitated body into a small boat, along with a dog and a rooster who were to devour his remains. Miraculously, the body came ashore in St-Tropez uneaten, and the village adopted the headless Torpes as its saint.
The harbor is a great place to start your exploration of Saint-Tropez. It is filled with magnificent sail regattas and luxurious yachts.
The Beach Pampelonne is located about 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the town of St. Tropez, and features beautiful white sand and clear blue water. Along this beach you’ll find many of the famous St. Tropez clubs and private beaches.
Port Grimaud is a seaside town located just seven kilometers (four miles) west of Saint Tropez. Port Grimaud is often called the “Venice of the South of France”. The town is designed with charming canals. There are many great shops and bars all around, so you can enjoy a long afternoon exploring Port Grimaud.
The village Ramatuelle, which lies to the south from Saint Tropez, was built on a mountain to defend itself against enemies. The viIlage is closed in by ramparts and you can see the rooftops of pink tiles and the ancient stone houses lined along the narrow streets.
Across the bay from Saint Tropez lies the City of Sainte-Maxime. This bigger town offers lots of attractions in summertime. There are markets held along the harbor every night, and many restaurants and stores stay open until late. Some of the medieval aspects of Sainte Maxime have been retained. The town hall is still visibly a 15th-century chateau, and the defensive Tour Carrée dates from the 16th century.
Cradled by the hills, with views of the sea, Grasse is surrounded by fields of flowers such as lavender, mimosa, jasmine and roses. Grasse has been the center of the world’s perfume industry since the 16th century, when Catherine of Medici set the fashion for scented leather gloves. At that time, Grasse was also known as the center for leather tanning.
By the 17th century, perfumers and apothecaries began settling here, and in 1729, the perfumers published their official statutes. The tanneries have now gone, but the perfume houses founded in the 18th and 19th centuries are still in business.
The industrial side of the perfume business is located in the countryside and villages surrounding Grasse. The perfume industry now relies more on the chemical process than on flowers, and there are hundreds or thousands of products in our daily lives, other than soap and perfume, that require a “scent”.
Some of the ancient factories, now abandoned, can be seen along the southern edges of the old town, recognizable by the high, brick smokestacks for their distilleries.
The public side of the perfume business can be seen through guided visits of the principal perfumeries. Three perfumeries, Fragonard, Molinard and Galimard opened their doors to the public and offer tours that explain the processes of producing a perfume. It is possible to create one’s own perfume, eau de parfum or eau de toilette and participate in all stages of manufacture from picking flowers to bottling. The visits are free, show the process of making perfume, include their own little museums, and finish in the sales room where you can buy their products.
Grasse’s main attraction is the Cathedral, dedicated to Notre Dame du Puy and founded in the 11th century. In the interior, are three works by Rubens and one by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, a French painter native of the town.by