Fragrant lavender fields, cobbled streets and sizzling coastlines - Provence’s endless charms have inspired writers, painters and travellers galore. This bewitching corner of southern France combines lively coastal cities and quaint, whisper-quiet villages, making it a favourite destination for everyone from jetsetters to laidback retirees. In such a diverse region, designing an itinerary can be tricky: delve into the delights of Provence with these pointers, and plan your perfect trip.
When should I go?
The famed lavender fields bloom in summer, so travel in June to August for violet-tinged views. But weigh up your desire for purple passion against the crowds: you’ll be sharing the view with plenty of other travellers. Summer also sees the arrival of Le Festival d’Avignon (www.festival-avignon.com) - whether or not you’re a fan of avant-garde theatre, you’ll need to book ahead for July stays in the area.
Autumn is usually warm; travel then for hints of orange and gold in the rolling hills (and freedom from the school holiday crowds). Winter in Provence also has its charms, but you might want to stick with the major cities - plenty of small-town restaurants and hotels close up after the summer.
You could also time your visit for a spring festival: the Fête des Gardians sets bull-herders strutting in Arles, and Roma gather from all over Europe for the Camargue’s Pèlerinage des Gitans (www.camargue.fr - French only) (both in May).
Where should I go?
Choosing Provence favourites is a tough job, but here are some big hitters and unsung jewels to start you off:
The classic view of postcard-purple Provence is found at the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque during the summer (www.senanque.fr). The sight and scent of lavender fields will also knock you sideways at the Plateau de Valensole. Learn more on Routes de la Lavande (www.routes-lavande.com).
2. Natural wonders
The Camargue’s National Park in Provence’s southwest has acres of marshland teeming with birdlife: head straight for the Parc Ornithologique du Pont de Gau to see blushing flamingos (www.parc-ornithologique.camargue.fr). For rocky views and crystal waters, trace your way along the Gorges du Verdon (www.lesgorgesduverdon.fr). And visitors to tiny Roussillon will be rewarded with the sight of blazing orange and red rocks; be dazzled by the Martian landscape along the Sentier des Ocres (Ochre Pathway) (www.roussillon-provence.com).
3. Small-town charm
Throw away your map. However you explore Provence, you’ll encounter sleepy villages in stunning locations. Try L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue and Fontaine de Vaucluse in western Provence for a refreshing break from Avignon (www.oti-delasorgue.fr). Coastal charmer Les Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer has beach views, Spanish flavours and enough fragrant ice creams to keep your tastebuds popping for weeks (www.saintesmaries.com). And if you want to catch a mountain view, don’t miss the dizzily situated Moustiers Ste-Marie (www.moustiers.fr).
4. Roman ruins
For history, hit Arles and Orange (www.otorange.fr). The Théâtre Antique in Orange is undoubtedly the more showstopping Roman arena between the two towns, and Orange also boasts an intricate triumphal arch. Arles also has a cluster of Roman sights (and its winding streets inspired many a Vincent van Gogh painting).
5. Food and drink
Foodies could argue for hours over where to eat in Provence. Wherever you travel, you’ll never starve for herb-strewn dishes and excellent cheese. Stop at roadside stalls for seasonal fruit and make a beeline for farmer’s markets for pâtés, jams and pastries. Consider a pilgrimage to the vineyards surrounding Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where one of France’s most famous wines is produced (www.chateauneuf.com). Marseille is a great spot for seafood - don’t leave without sampling a steaming bouillabaisse (a saffron-tinged fish delicacy). And why not dessert on the intensely almond-flavoured calissons d’Aix sweets in their hometown of Aix-en-Provence?
How do I get around?
By car: this gives you great freedom to explore and immunity to French transport strikes. Expansive sights like the Camargue benefit from a little road tripping and visiting villages is a breeze, as you won’t be a slave to bus timetables. Be prepared for a bit of parking frustration: Arles is a particular pain, with few spaces to be found and narrow streets. And plenty of towns only have parking out of the centre, so hiring a vehicle might not excuse you from steep pathways and stairs.
By bike: if the weather is fine, two wheels are plenty to get around. Plan a bike-friendly journey on Véloroutes (www.af3v.org ) or join a cycling tour if you’re feeling sociable.
By public transport: plan ahead, as smaller villages are sometimes only served by infrequent buses. Base yourself in one or two key cities and take day trips to the region’s highlights. Avignon is a great base for trips to stunning villages like L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue and Fontaine de Vaucluse, and Arles is close to the wetlands of the Camargue.
This article was first published in February 2012 and was republished in April and July 2012.