Provence: natural & cultural heritage

About Provence - France's Mediterranean heartland

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Provence heritage 

About Provence - France's Mediterranean heartland


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The fabulous heritage of Provence
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It is hardly surprising that Provence is the most popular region in France for tourists and holidaymakers; it is a region that has it all! While some regions have just a great seaside, others have a great natural environment, and others have a great cultural heritage, Provence is a region that has all three.
    Many travellers might indeed be hard-pressed to find a downside to this magnificent region in the south of France; but in all fairness, Provence should not be thought of as a sort of Heaven on Earth; drivers stuck in a motorway traffic jam on a Saturday afternoon in mid summer might be forgiven for thinking that Provence is Hell on Earth. Overcrowded resorts and beaches, expensive facilities, high temperatures, traffic jams – all of these can be considered as the downside to holidays in Provence and the Riviera, specially in July and August. But as far as heritage is concerned, this is a region that has it all.

Provence's Natural Heritage

    Like California, the Provence - Riviera region is one which not only has beaches where people can be seen stretched out on the sand even in winter; it also has high Alpine peaks where the snow still lies even in summer; and the two are less than 100 km. apart.
    Surprisingly for a country its size, continental France only has seven National Parks; but four of these are in Provence. The region also has  four very different regional nature parks or natural reserves (called Parcs naturels régionaux in French), plus a couple of other sites of  great environmental interest. Over and above this, other large expanses of the Provece countryside, notably in the hills, are designated as environmental protection areas under the European Natura 2000 programme. The region also has three of the seven UNESCO biosphere reserves in France.
     The three national parks are all situated on the very edge of the region, two of them along the Italian border, and one on the coast.  The Parc National du Mercantour (website) is a high alpine park, culminating at the Cime du Gélas - 3143 metres - on the Italian border. The park runs for 80 km from Sospel in the south, to Meyronnes in the north. The park is very popular with hikers and ramblers, and like most such areas has a network of well signed footpaths. It is rich in wildlife, both flora and fauna, and among the more unusual creatures to be found (or perhaps not found) are wolves. Though local shepherds keep protesting at the loss of sheep, there have been no reported incidents of humans being attacked. Other less daunting creatures to be seen in the Mercantour include marmots, chamois, wild goats and - in the sky - golden eagles and Egyptian vultures.
     The Parc national des Ecrins is partly in Provence, partly in the Rhone-alpes region to the north. Like the Mercantour, it is a high Alpine park, popular with hikers. there are over 700 kilometres of marked paths. The area is also popular with mountaineers, thanks to its high peaks, the highest of which , La Barre des Ecrins, reaches an altitude of 4101 metres (13,455 ft).
     The Parc National de Port Cros is France's only coastal national park, and includes small areas on the mainland, and a couple of islands just off the shore. It is located near Saint Tropez, where the Esterel hills come down to the shore. The park, which of course has an interesting visitor centre, includes not just the land, but the coastal waters offshore.
    The fourth National Park is new. Designated in 2012, the Park National des Calanques covers the remarkable rocky arid coastline just east of Marseilles. The calanques themselves are narrow inlets like small fijords along the coast.
     

Regional Natural parks

     The Camargue is one of the major wetlands of Europe; located in the rhone delta, it is on the migratory path for hundreds of thousands of birds each year, and consequently is very popular with birdwatchers. Over 400 species of bird can be seen in the Camargue, and the most popular of these are undoubtedly the pink flamingos; the Camargue is, the only area in France where these Mediterranean birds can be seen. The area is also famous for its white Camaguais horses, and for the black bulls that are raised here. About a third of the area is marsh or lake. Other parts are used for agriculture, including the cultivation of rice. The Camargueis one of seven UNESCO biosphere reserves in France.
     The Luberon; this dry hilly area stretches for some sixty kilometres east of the Rhone valley. It includes traditional Provençal countryside, with fields and orchards, as well as picturesque villages and dry hillsides. The area is popular with artists, and also has many kilometres of hiking trails. The Luberon is also a UNESCO biosphere reserve.
     The Queyras: this regional natural park is situated between the Ecrins national park and the Italian border. It is similar in nature to the two Alpine national parks.
     The Verdon : this is a spectacular area of dry mountains and steep valleys and gorges. The Verdon canyon is the biggest canyon in Europe, and almost 1000 ft deep in places. The surging torrents at the foot of steep gorges are popular for adventure sports, such as rafting, kayaking and canyoning.

Provence's historic heritage

Classical antiquity. With a civilisation stretching back further than that of northern France, Provence offers a remarkable cultural heritage, and one of the finest collections of Roman remains to be found anywhere in Europe. Taking into account modern Provence plus the area around Nimes, the sector boasts a variety of Roman remains, including arenas (Nimes, Arles), amphitheatres (Orange, Arles), temples (including the remarkably well preserved Maison Carrée at Nimes),  triumphal arches (Glanum, St Rémy, and Orange), aqueducts (Pont du Gard and Barbegal) and other monuments such as La Trophée des Alpes at La Turbie or villas as at Vaison la Romaine. There are also museums of antiquity at Vaison, Arles, Marseilles and other places.

Mediaeval: as a key location on the interface between the civilisations of northern Europe and those of the Mediterranean basin, Provence has been a strategically important region throughout its history, and different eras have left their mark. Among the most interesting medieval monuments in this region are the church and cloisters of Saint Trophime, in Arles, which are among the finest decorated romanesque monuments in the south of France. Not far from Arles, the church and cloister of Saint Paul de Mausolle, at Saint-Rémy, are also worth a visit.  Less spectacular, but highly visible standing as it does in a site overlooking  the lower Rhone valley, is the church of St Michel at La Garde Adhémar, near Orange. The oldest church in Marseilles, Saint Victor, dates from the XIth and XIIth centuries.
     The most visited mediaeval monument in Provence is the Palais des Papes / Palace of the Popes in Avignon, once the seat of the papacy at a time when Rome was too dangerous; for centuries, the area around Avignon was a papal enclave, belonging to the Holy See.
     Another much visited site is the historic city of Les Baux de Provence: standing at the edge of the Alpilles hills, overlooking the Rhone delta, Les Baux was once a small thriving city.  Over the centuries, it  fell into abandon and was, until the 1960's, largely a ruined ghost town. Since then it has been partly renovated, and partly preserved as a historic monument
     Apart from that, the Provence Alpes Côte d'Azur region offers a wealth of old towns and villages, with narrow streets and buildings dating back to the Middle Ages; the old city of Aix en Provence is a jewel in this crown, as is the hill town of Saint Paul de Vence, near Nice.

   Provence Regional guide
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Map of Provence region
Provence region , covering the French Riviera, the Provence Alps, historic Provence and the area historically linked to Provence
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Gites and villas in Provence
Regional tourist office
Bed and breakfast in Provence
Rural camping in the south of France

photo by piercoop - licence CC
Flamingoes in the Camargue

by Conor Lawless - licence CC
In the Mercantour national park..

Provence roofs
Provençal roofs

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