fabulous heritage of Provence
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.
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.
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
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
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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
(including the remarkably well preserved Maison Carrée at
St Rémy, and Orange),
du Gard and Barbegal)
and other monuments such as La
Trophée des Alpes at La Turbie or villas as at Vaison
Romaine. There are also museums
of antiquity at Vaison, Arles, Marseilles and other places.
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,
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,
are also worth a visit. Less
but highly visible standing as it does in a site
the lower Rhone valley, is the church of St Michel at La
Garde Adhémar, near Orange.
The oldest church in Marseilles,
from the XIth and XIIth centuries.
The most visited mediaeval monument in
Provence is the Palais
des Papes / Palace of the Popes
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
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,