Provence - the Arles arena
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France's most popular tourist region
since Peter Mayle's "A Year in Provence" made it into the
international best-sellers list, Provence, the south-eastern region of
continental France, has held a special fascination for travellers from
all over the world.; but to suggest that Mayle somehow "discovered" or
even "rediscovered" Provence, and put it back on the map, would be a
serious overestimation of this book. The book and TV series that
followed merely portrayed, in
a whimsical fashion, the life of a French village that could in many
respects have been located in virtually any region of France. As for
Provence, it has always been very firmly on the map.
While some of the emblematic icons of
Provence - the lavender fields or the Mont Saint Vincent
so often painted by Céz anne - are or seem specifically
attached to this region, others including the olive trees,
the dry rocky coastline with its scented stunted pine
trees, the evening air filled with the chi-chi-chi of a
thousand crickets, and even the villages and vineyards, are actually
characterise large stretches of the Mediterranean coast and its
hinterland, in both France and other countries.
So what is it that distinguishes
Provence from the
rest, and gives it that special stature that it seems to have not just
for foreigners, but even for many of the French themselves ?
- In the beginning
In the beginning there was Provence.
Long before France existed, around 600 B.C., the
Greeks from the city of Phocaea in Asia Minor, established
Mediterranean seaport known as Massilia.
The Phocaeans are not
to be confused with the Phoenicians,
great seafarers who possibly had a
settlement on the same spot even earlier. The
Greek colony of Massilia eventually came under Roman rule,
was the Romans who gave this region the name by which it has been known
for much of the time since then. In the second century, "Gallia
Narbonensis", the Roman province covering the
south of France
from the Pyrenees to the Alps, was so important, and sufficiently close
to Rome that it was known in everyday speech as "Provincia", "the
province". Or as we know it in modern French, "La Provence".
With time, the name became
definitively attached to
the eastern part of Gallia Narbonensis, the area to the east of the
Rhone, whose capital was a town called Aquae Sextiae, the
known as Aix-en-Provence.
Roman civilisation flourished in this
southern France that was not too dissimilar to Latium, the
around Rome; the richness of this region in Classical times cans still
be seen today, and the the area round the lower Rhone valley has fine
classical remains, including the amphitheatre at Orange, the Pont du
Gard aqueduct, the arena at Arles, the
remains at Nimes, just
outside modern-day Provence, and many more sites.
Until the fifteenth century, Provence
belong to France; after the demise of the Roman empire, it was one of
those regions that was fought over continuously;
the coastal areas in particular were occupied in their time by
Visigoths and Ostrogoths, as well as by Catalans and Moors. In
the age of Charlemagne, the great European emperor and contemporary
of England's King Alfred, Provence formed the southern part of the
"middle empire". In
the late Middle Ages, the city of Avignon and the area around it
belonged to the Popes, who established their palace there. Most of
Provence was incorporated into France in 1486.
So in historical terms, Provence is
France itself, and was a centre of culture learning and
long before Paris and northern France acquired the territorial
importance that they have today.
this presentation covers all areas
that are included within the modern administrative region based on
Marseilles, plus the area just to the west of the Rhone that is
historically and culturally attached to Provence.
terms, today's Provence is part
of the "Provence-Alpes-Cote
d'Azur" region, often referred to as PACA,
one of the 21 regions of contenental France, stretching from the
Italian Border to the Rhone. With a population
of 4.7 million, it is
the third most important region in France and one of the top twenty
regions of the European Union. The regional capital, Marseilles, is
France's second city (over 800 000 inhabitants) and most important
port. With 1.6 million inhabitants, greater Marseilles is the
second largest urban area in France. The region is among the major
economic hubs of the Mediterranean, and is particularly important in
the sectors of telecommunications (the biggest
centre in southern Europe), Microelectronics, oil and chemicals,
and of course tourism. This is the most important tourist
The population is concentrated largely
coastal strip and in the Rhone valley. Away from these, into the hills
and the mountains of high Provence, there are no big cities, and even
small towns are few and far between. The largest cities in this region
are Marseilles, Nice, Toulon and Avignon.
here for further details.
Foreign visitors who learned French at
find the language of Provence difficult to understand; many people here
speak French with a strong regional accent, a reminder that the
traditional language of a large part of this region is not French at
all, but Provençal,
a south-European language resembling
or Spanish more closely than it resembles the French spoken in Paris or
the north of the country. In many towns and cities, street names and
other signs are written in both French and Provençal.
In the east of the region, towards Nice
Italian border, local dialects and culture are much closer to Italian .
Overall, the cultural heritage of this
region is profoundly Mediterranean.
Many great French writers and artists
from or lived in Provence; Frederic Mistral is to Provence what Robert
Burns is to Scotland, an iconic national poet who wrote in the local
language - in this case Provençal. Other emblematic
writers include the 19th century heavyweight Alphonse Daudet, author of
the classic "Lettres de
mon Moulin", Marcel Pagnol, and the
twentieth century novelist Jean Giono, whose works portray
life in Provençal Alps. Since the 19th century,
artists have chosen to live in Provence, on account of the light; but
Paul Cézanne, one of the greatest of the Impressionists, was
actually a native of Aix en Provence.