Painters of Provence
Originally from drab northern France, leading Fauvist exponent Henri Matisse (1869–1954) spent his most creative years lapping up the sunlight and vivacity of the coast in and around Nice.
Matisse travelled to southern France on a number of occasions, including a visit to impressionist Paul Signac in St-Tropez, which inspired one of his most famous works: Luxe, Calme et Volupté (Luxury, Calm and Tranquillity; 1904). But it was a trip to Nice to cure bronchitis in 1917 that left Matisse smitten – he never really looked back.
Matisse settled in Cimiez, in the hills north of Nice's centre, and it was here that he started experimenting with his gouaches découpées (collages of painted paper cutouts) in the 1940s, after an operation. The famous Blue Nude series and The Snail epitomise this period.
Matisse's ill health was also a key factor in the creation of his masterpiece, the Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence. The artist had been looked after by a nun during his convalescence and the chapel was his mark of gratitude. Matisse designed everything, from the stained-glass windows to the altar, the structure of the chapel and the robes of the priests. The chapel took four years to complete and was finished in 1951.
Matisse died in Nice in 1954 and is buried in Cimiez' cemetery.
Sidebar: Matisse Sights
- Musée Matisse (Nice)
- Chapelle du Rosaire (Vence)
- Cemetery at Monastère de Cimiez (Nice)
Although Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) moved to the Côte d'Azur rather late in life (the Spanish artist was in his mid-sixties when he moved to Golfe-Juan with his lover Françoise Gilot in 1946), his influence over the region and the region's influence on him were significant.
Vauvenargues & Mougins
In 1959, Picasso bought the Château de Vauvenargues near Aix-en-Provence. The castle slumbered at the foot of the Montagne Ste-Victoire, depicted so often by Cézanne, whom Picasso greatly admired. It was Cézanne's early studies on cubism that had led Picasso and his peers to launch the cubist movement (which seeks to deconstruct the subject into a system of intersecting planes and present various aspects of it simultaneously); Picasso was also an avid collector of Cézanne's works.
In 1961, Picasso moved to Mougins with his second wife, Jacqueline Roque. He had many friends in the area, including photographer André Villers, to whom Picasso gave his first camera and who in turn took numerous portraits of the artist.
Picasso died in Mougins in 1973 and is buried in Château de Vauvenargues, which remains the property of his family.
Antibes & Vallauris
It was following an offer from the curator of Antibes’ Château Grimaldi – now the Musée Picasso – that Picasso set up a studio on the 3rd floor of the historic building. Works from this period are characterised by an extraordinary joie de vivre and a fascination with Mediterranean mythology.
It was that same year that Picasso visited the nearby potters' village of Vallauris and discovered ceramics. Picasso loved the three-dimensional aspect of the art and experimented endlessly. His method was somewhat unorthodox: he melted clay, used unglazed ceramics and decorated various pieces with relief motifs; he also eschewed traditional floral decorations for a bestiary of his favourite mythological creatures.
Picasso settled in Vallauris in 1948, and although he left in 1955, he carried on working with ceramics until his death. His time in Vallauris wasn't only dedicated to ceramics, however; it was here that Picasso got 'his chapel' (arch-rival Matisse had finished his in 1951). It was the chapel of the town's castle, in which he painted War and Peace (1952), the last of his monumental creations dedicated to peace, after Guernica (1937) and Massacre in Korea (1951).
Recent plans have been announced for a new museum dedicated to Picasso in a former chapel in Aix-en-Provence. Run by the artist's step-daughter, Catherine Hutin-Blay, it will house 2000 Picasso works – the largest collection in the world – and is scheduled to open in 2021.
Sidebar: Picasso Sights
- Musée Picasso (Antibes)
- Musée National Picasso 'La Guerre et La Paix' (Vallauris)
- Château de Vauvenargues
- Musée de la Photographie André Villers (Mougins)
Whether it was the search for a refuge, light or more clement weather, it seems that the painters who settled in Provence came here looking for something – and found a lot more than they'd hoped for.
Vincent van Gogh (1853–90) arrived in Arles from Paris in 1888, keen to escape the excesses of the capital. He found inspiration amid the region's landscapes, customs and, above all, the intense quality of the light. By the time he left Arles a year later, he'd completed more than 200 oil paintings – including masterpieces such as Bedroom in Arles (1888) and Still Life: Vase with Twelve Sunflowers (1888).
Throughout his life, Van Gogh was wracked with self-doubt and depression, conditions that were compounded by his lack of commercial success – famously, he sold just a single painting during his entire career, and never received any kind of serious critical acclaim. He was prone to fits of manic depression, including the famous incident in December 1888, when he cut off part of his left ear following a spat with Paul Gauguin.
In May 1889, he voluntarily committed himself to an asylum in St-Rémy-de-Provence; despite his illness, he continued to work at a feverish pace, producing many key works including Starry Night (1889) and several haunting self-portraits. Van Gogh left St-Rémy in May 1890 to join his brother Theo in Auvers-sur-Oise; he shot himself two months later, aged just 37.
Van Gogh is now acknowledged as one of the 20th century's greatest painters. Most of his works now reside in international museums, although a few have stayed in Provence – notably at Musée Angladon in Avignon and Musée Granet in Aix-en-Provence.
Sidebar: Van Gogh
Van Gogh's Ear by Bernadette Murphy traces the truth about the artist's notorious act of self-mutilation, exploring the artist's life and times along the way and characters including his brother Theo and fellow artist Paul Gauguin.
In 1892, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), started to develop rheumatoid arthritis. The condition gradually worsened, and in 1907 doctors ordered Renoir to move to the sunny climes of Cagnes-sur-Mer in a bid to alleviate his pains.
In 1909, Renoir bought a farm in Cagnes-sur-Mer called Les Colettes, where he lived until his death. Far from being a retirement home, however, Renoir enjoyed a new lease of life in the south of France and painted vigorously throughout his twilight years. Although he had to adapt his painting technique – he was wheelchair-bound and suffered from ankylosis in his shoulder – many credit his late works with displaying the same joy and radiance that were the hallmark of his earlier (and most famous) works.
Renoir's house at Les Colettes is now the Musée Renoir, where you can see the artist's studios, his gorgeous garden and several of his works.
Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) is perhaps the most Provençal of all the impressionists. His work is generally credited with providing a transition from 'traditional' 19th-century art to the radical new art forms of the 20th century, notably cubism.
Cézanne was born in Aix-en-Provence and spent most of his life there, save for a decade in Paris and another ferrying between Provence and the capital. He met writer Émile Zola at school in Aix and the pair remained friends for years – until Zola used Cézanne as the main inspiration for his character Claude Lantet, a failed painter, in his novel L'Oeuvre (The Work; 1886).
Provence was Cézanne's chief inspiration: the seaside village of L'Estaque, the Bibémus quarries near Aix (said to have inspired his cubist trials by their geometric character) and the family house, Jas de Bouffan, in Aix appear in dozens of paintings. But it was the Montagne Ste-Victoire that captivated him the most, its radiance, shape and colours depicted in no fewer than 30 oil paintings and 45 watercolours.
Sadly, Cézanne's admiration for Provence was not mutual: few of Aix's conservative bourgeoisie appreciated Cézanne's departure from the creed of classical painting and there were even calls for him to leave the city.
In 1902, Cézanne moved into a purpose-built studio, Les Lauves, from where he did much of his painting until his death in 1906. The studio has been left untouched and is one of the most poignant insights into his art.
Sidebar: Cezanne Sights
- Atelier Cézanne (Aix-en-Provence)
- Le Jas de Bouffan (Aix-en-Provence)
- Carrières de Bibemus (Aix-en-Provence)
School of Nice
Provence and the Côte d'Azur produced a spate of artists at the forefront of modern art in the middle of the 20th century. Most famous perhaps was Nice-born Yves Klein (1928–62), who stood out for his series of daring monochrome paintings, the distinctive blue he used in many of his works (supposedly inspired by the colour of the Mediterranean) and his experiments in paint-application techniques: in his series Anthropométrie, paint was 'applied' by women covered from head to toe in paint and writhing naked on the canvas.
Also making a splash in modern-art circles was native Niçois Arman (1928–2005), who became known for his trash-can portraits, made by framing the litter found in the subject’s rubbish bin, and Martial Raysse, born in Golfe-Juan in 1936, renowned for pioneering the use of neon in art: his 1964 portrait of Nissa Bella (Beautiful Nice) – a flashing blue heart on a human face – is typical.
Klein, Arman and Raysse were among the nine people to found New Realism in 1960. The movement was one of several avant-garde trends of the time and was often perceived as the French interpretation of American pop art. In 1961, another prominent Provençal artist, Marseillais César Baldaccini (1921–98), known for his crushed cars and scrap metal art, joined the New Realists' rank, as did Niki de Saint Phalle (1930–2002), famous for her huge, colourful papier mâché sculptures.
Nice's Musée d'Art Moderne et d'Art Contemporain has one of the best collections of New Realist artists' works; the building itself is a work of art too.
Sidebar: Klein Blue
Yves Klein's famous blue became more than a signature colour: it was actually patented. It is now known in art circles as International Klein Blue (or IKB), a deep, bright hue close to ultramarine.
Belorussian painter Marc Chagall (1887–1985) moved to Paris from Russia in 1922. He was well-known for his dazzling palette and the biblical messages in his later works (inspired by his Jewish upbringing in Russia and trips to Palestine). Chagall managed to escape to the US during WWII, and it was upon his return to France in the early 1950s that he settled in St-Paul de Vence on the Côte d'Azur. Both Matisse and Picasso lived in the area at the time, and many artists regularly visited; it was this sense of 'artistic colony' that attracted Chagall.
Though Provence and the Côte d'Azur never featured explicitly in Chagall's works, he was clearly fascinated by the region's light and colour – something that becomes obvious looking at the luminous works on display at the Musée National Marc Chagall in Nice. Chagall is buried in St-Paul de Vence.
Hungarian-born Victor Vasarely (1908–97), best-known for his bold, colourful geometrical forms and shifting perspectives, had a summer house in Gordes from 1948. He opened a first museum there in 1970 (which closed in 1996) and a second one, Fondation Vasarely, in Aix-en-Provence in 1976, which you can still visit.
The artistic pace in this pocket of southern France has always been fast and furious, fuelled by a constant flux of new arrivals who brought with them new ideas, traditions and artistic know-how. From the novels of Fitzgerald to the films of the Nouvelle Vague (New Wave), this is a region where creativity and inspiration go hand in hand.
Painting & Visual Arts
Contemporary art in the region rides on the back of an extraordinary artistic legacy.
One look at the portfolio of Documents d’Artistes (www.documentsdartistes.org), an association in Marseille that catalogues and diffuses the work of contemporary regional artists around the world, proves that contemporary art is well and truly alive in Provence: be it tracing a line along the surface of the planet, creating sound installations, or producing inflatable or mechanical art, it is all happening here.
There are many galleries where you can admire contemporary art. In Marseille, make a beeline for exhibition space La Friche La Belle de Mai; in Arles, check out the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh; or amble the gallery-lined streets of St-Paul de Vence and Mougins.
Papal Pleasures to Rococo Silliness
Although Provence and the Côte d'Azur are best known for their relatively modern artistic legacy, the region's reputation as a haven for artists goes back centuries.
In the 14th century Sienese, French and Spanish artists thrived at the papal court in Avignon and created an influential style of mural painting to decorate the palace.
Renaissance painter Louis (Ludovico) Bréa (c1450–1523), often dubbed the ‘Fra Angelico Provençal’, is best remembered for his signature burgundy colour known as rouge bréa.
Two centuries later, it was the rococo influences in his landscapes and the playful and often licentious scenes of his paintings that made Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806), a native of Grasse, so popular with French aristocrats.
The strong empathy with nature expressed in watercolour by François Marius Granet (1775–1849), an Aix-en-Provence artist, was a trademark of early-19th-century Provençal painters.
Landscape painting further evolved under Gustave Courbet (1819–77), a frequent visitor to southern France, where he taught Provençal realist Paul Guigou (1834–71). A native of Villars in the Vaucluse, Guigou painted the Durance plains overdrenched in bright sunlight.
Provence’s intensity of light drew the impressionists, among them Alfred Sisley (1839–99) and Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), who lived in Cagnes-sur-Mer from 1903 until his death. Many of his works are displayed in the Musée Renoir, his former home and studio.
Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), celebrated for his still-life and landscape works, spent his entire life in Aix-en-Provence and painted numerous canvases in and around the fountain city.
Southern France was also immortalised by Paul Gauguin (1848–1904). In Arles, Gauguin worked with Vincent van Gogh (1854–90), who spent most of his painting life in Paris and Arles. A brilliant artist, Van Gogh produced haunting self-portraits and landscapes, in which colour assumes an expressive and emotive quality.
Unfortunately, Van Gogh’s talent was largely unrecognised during his lifetime, and just one of his paintings remains in the region (in Avignon’s Musée Angladon).
Pointillism was developed by Georges Seurat (1859–91), who applied paint in small dots or with uniform brush strokes of unmixed colour. His most devout pupil was Paul Signac (1863–1935), who settled in St-Tropez from 1892. Part of the Musée de l’Annonciade in St-Tropez is devoted to pointillist works.
On the Côte d’Azur, leading fauvist exponent Henri Matisse (1869–1954) spent his most creative years lapping up the sunlight and vivacity of the coast in and around Nice, where dozens of his works can be enjoyed. The chapel he designed for nuns in Vence is a particular gem. While in St-Tropez with Signac, Matisse began sketches that produced Luxe, Calme et Volupté (Luxury, Calm and Tranquillity). Pointillism’s signature uniform brush-strokes were still evident, but were also intermingled with splashes of violent colour. His subsequent painting, La Gitane (1906) – displayed in St-Tropez’s Musée de l’Annonciade – is the embodiment of fauvism.
Cubism was launched in 1907 by Spanish prodigy Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), for whom Provence – specifically Antibes and Vallauris – had a tremendous importance. As demonstrated in Picasso’s pioneering Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon), cubism deconstructed the subject into a system of intersecting planes and presented various aspects of it simultaneously. The collage, incorporating bits of cloth, wood, string, newspaper and anything lying around, was a cubist speciality.
After WWI the School of Paris was formed by a group of expressionists, mostly foreign, such as Belarusian Marc Chagall (1887–1985), who lived in France from 1922 and spent his last few years in St-Paul de Vence; his grave can be visited at the town’s cemetery.
Picasso moved permanently to the Côte d’Azur, settling first in Golfe-Juan, then Vallauris and finally Mougins, where he died. In 1946 he set up his studio in Antibes’ Château Grimaldi and later painted a chapel.
Sidebar: Best Art Museums
- MuCEM (Marseille)
- Musée Granet (Aix-en-Provence)
- Hôtel de Caumont (Aix-en-Provence)
- MAMAC (Nice)
- Musée Picasso (Antibes)
- Musée de l’Annonciade (St Tropez)
From old stone villages built on hillocks to cutting-edge glass design: this region covers a fabulous architectural spectrum.
Prehistoric to Villages Perchés
Although there is plenty of evidence suggesting the region was inhabited several thousand years ago, early populations left little in the way of architecture. It was the Massiliots (Greeks) who, from 600 BC, really started building across Provence; the Romans, however, took it to a whole new level. Their colossal architectural legacy includes amphitheatres, aqueducts, arches, temples and baths.
A distinctive feature to look out for in rural Provence are bories, small dome-shaped buildings made of stone and usually used as store-houses and sometimes as dwellings. Their design stretches back into prehistory, but the same essential shape was still being used by local farmers right up to the 20th century. A small village of restored bories can be seen near Gordes in the Luberon.
Romanesque to Renaissance
A religious revival in the 11th century ushered in Romanesque architecture, so-called because of the Gallo-Roman architectural elements it adopted. Round arches, heavy walls with few windows, and a lack of ornamentation were characteristics of this style, Provence’s most famous examples being the 12th-century abbeys in Sénanque and Le Thoronet.
Gothic architecture swapped roundness and simplicity for ribbed vaults, pointed arches, slender verticals, chapels along the nave and chancel, refined decoration and large stained-glass windows. Provence’s most important examples of this period are Avignon’s Palais des Papes and the Chartreuse du Val de Bénédiction in Villeneuve-lès-Avignon.
The French Renaissance scarcely touched the region – unlike mighty citadel architect Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban (1633–1707), who notably reshaped Antibes’ star-shaped Fort Carré and Île Ste Marguerite's Fort Royal.
Classical to Modern
Classical architecture fused with painting and sculpture from the end of the 16th to late 18th centuries to create stunning Baroque structures with interiors of great subtlety, refinement and elegance: Chapelle de la Miséricorde in Nice and Marseille’s Centre de la Vieille Charité are classics.
Neoclassicism came into its own under Napoleon III, the Palais de Justice and Palais Masséna in Nice demonstrating its the renewed interest in classical forms. The true showcase of this era, though, is the 1878 Monte Carlo Casino, designed by French architect Charles Garnier (1825–98). Elegant Aix-en-Provence’s fountains and hôtels particuliers (private mansions) date from this period too, as do the intricate wrought-iron campaniles.
The belle époque heralded an eclecticism of decorative stucco friezes, trompe l’œil paintings, glittering wall mosaics, brightly coloured Moorish minarets and Turkish towers. Anything went.
The three decades following WWII were marked, as in much of Europe, by the rise of modernist architecture – concrete blocks and high-rise towers – partly as a response to pressing housing needs. Marseille's notorious suburbs, Monaco's forest of skyscrapers and the emblematic pyramidal Marina Baie des Anges in Villeneuve-Loubet all date back to this era. Many now bemoan the flurry of postwar construction, often built for speed and cost rather than aesthetic value.
As with every other art form, Provence and the Côte d'Azur have kept innovating in architecture. Mouans-Sartoux’ 2004 lime-green Espace de l'Art Concret, designed by Swiss-based architects Annette Gigon and Mike Guyer to complement the village’s 16th-century château, has to be among the boldest examples.
Another famous contemporary architect to have left his print on Provence–Côte d'Azur is British master Sir Norman Foster, who designed Nîmes’ steel-and-glass Carré d’Art, the Musée de la Préhistoire des Gorges du Verdon in Quinson and the five-storey building for Monaco Yacht Club, which opened in the summer of 2014. His firm is also leading the redevelopment and extension of Marseille's airport.
Renzo Piano has also recently completed a flashy new building in Provence, the sail-topped Château La Coste Art Gallery in a vineyard near Aix-en-Provence.
There are lots more new buildings of note, though their architects aren't quite household names yet – like the Musée Jean Cocteau in Menton by Rudy Ricciotti, who also designed the Pavillon Noir in Aix-en-Provence. The cow-print-like seafront building couldn't contrast more with the old town's Italianate architecture and is an ode to Cocteau's own surrealist style. Contemporary French architects Elisabeth and Christian de Portzamparc are also making waves with their design for the new Musée de la Romanité in Nîmes, the latest in a long line of landmark urban projects for the pair.
Trailing Le Corbusier
It was rather late in life that Swiss-born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (1887–1965), alias Le Corbusier, turned to the south of France. He first came to visit his friends Eileen Gray, an Irish designer, and Romanian-born architect Jean Badovici in the 1930s. Gray and Badovici had a very modern seaside villa, E-1027, on Cap-Martin, and Le Corbusier was a frequent guest.
However, following a spat with Gray in 1938, Le Corbusier built his own holiday pad, Le Cabanon. It remained his summer cabin until his death in 1965 (he died of a heart attack while swimming).
Le Cabanon is unique because it is a project that Le Corbusier built for himself, but his most revolutionary design is undoubtedly the Marseille concrete apartment block L’Unité d’Habitation. Built between 1947 and 1952 as a low-cost housing project, it comprised 337 apartments arranged inside an elongated block on stilts; deeply controversial at the time, it's been protected as a historical monument since 1986.
Le Corbusier is buried with his wife in section J of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin cemetery.
Provence and cinema have had a thing going on for more than a century: one of the world’s first motion pictures, by the Lumière brothers, premiered in La Ciotat (between Marseille and Toulon) in September 1895. The series of two-minute reels, entitled L’Arrivée d’un Train en Gare de La Ciotat (The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station), made the audience leap out of their seats as the steam train rocketed forward.
French film flourished in the 1920s, Nice being catapulted to stardom by Hollywood director Rex Ingram, who bought the city’s Victorine film studios in 1925 and transformed them overnight into the hub of European film-making.
A big name in the 1930s and '40s was Aubagne-born writer and film-maker Marcel Pagnol (1895–1974), whose career kicked off in 1931 with Marius, the first part of his Fanny trilogy, portraying pre-war Marseille. Pagnol's work was famous for his endearing depiction of Provençal people, and he remains a local icon.
Cannes & St Tropez
With the Cannes Film Festival taking off after WWII, French cinema started to diversify. Jean Cocteau (1889–1963) eschewed realism with two masterpieces of cinema: La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast; 1945) and Orphée (Orpheus; 1950). The director's life and work is explored at the fantastic Musée Jean Cocteau Collection Séverin Wunderman in Menton.
Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) directors made films without big budgets, extravagant sets or big-name stars. Roger Vadim turned St-Tropez into the hot spot with his Et Dieu Créa la Femme (And God Created Woman; 1956), starring Brigitte Bardot. Jacques Démy’s La Baie des Anges (The Bay of Angels; 1962) is set in Nice, while François Truffaut filmed part of La Nuit Américaine (The American Night; 1972) in the Victorine studios, the Niçois hinterland and the Vésubie valley.
Provence and the Côte d'Azur continue to inspire and play host to hundreds of films. For a classic vision of sun-dappled Provence, it's hard to beat Claude Berri's dreamy double-bill, Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources, adapted from the classic books by Marcel Pagnol.
More action-packed tales such as The Transporter (starring Jason Statham) and the Taxi trilogy (by Luc Besson, complete with a home-grown rap soundtrack) were set on the Riviera and in Marseille respectively, while James Bond drops by Monaco in GoldenEye. The cult comedy Bienvenu Chez les Ch'tis tells the story of a Provençal public servant being relocated – shock horror – to northern France, and was a huge national hit.
The highlight of the calendar is Cannes' famous film festival, when major stars descend on the town to celebrate la septième art (the '7th art', as the French call cinema). The year's top film is awarded the Palme d'Or.
Sidebar: Chanel on Film
Coco Before Chanel is a 2009 film starring Audrey Tautou as the legendary French designer Coco Chanel and exploring her early life before fashion fame and acclaim.
Sidebar: Marseille on Netflix
Gerard Depardieu took the lead role in Netflix's high-budget drama Marseille, which explores machinations and political intrigue in the Riviera's edgiest city.
Sidebar: Le Gendarme de St-Tropez
Le Gendarme de St-Tropez (1964) is a knockabout comedy caper, worth watching for the period St-Tropez locations.
Sidebar: A Prophet
Jacques Audiard's searing film Un Prophète (2009) explored the world of an Arab prisoner struggling to survive in a southern French jail. Not for the faint-hearted.
Sidebar: Swimming Pool
The 2003 film Swimming Pool stars Charlotte Rampling as crime novelist Sarah Morton, who travels to the south of France, and strikes up an unlikely and tempestuous relationship with wild-child Julie, played by Ludivine Sagnier.
Courtly Love to Sadism
Lyric poems of courtly love, written by troubadours solely in the Occitan language, dominated medieval Provençal literature.
Provençal life featured in the works of Italian poet Petrarch (1304–74), exiled in 1327 to Avignon, where he met Laura, to whom he dedicated his life’s works. Petrarch lived in Fontaine de Vaucluse from 1337 to 1353, where he wrote poems and letters about local shepherds, fishermen he met on the banks of the Sorgue, and his pioneering ascent up Mont Ventoux.
In 1555 the philosopher and visionary writer from St-Rémy-de-Provence, Nostradamus (1503–66), published (in Latin) his prophetic Centuries in Salon de Provence, where he lived until his death (from gout, as he had predicted).
Mistral to Mayle
The 19th century witnessed a revival in Provençal literature, thanks to poet Frédéric Mistral (1830–1914). Mistral set up the literary movement Le Félibrige with six other young Provençal poets in a bid to revive the Provençal dialect and codify its orthography. The result was Provençal dictionary Lou Trésor dou Félibrige.
Numerous writers passed through or settled in Provence over the course of the 20th century. Colette (1873–1954) lived in St-Tropez from 1927 until 1938; her novel La Naissance du Jour (Break of Day) evokes an unspoilt St-Tropez. F Scott Fitzgerald enjoyed several stays in the inter-war years; playwright Samuel Beckett sought refuge in Roussillon during WWII; Lawrence Durrell (1912–90) settled in Somières, near Nîmes; and Graham Greene lived in Antibes for many years and even wrote an incendiary pamphlet about political corruption in the 1980s.
Most famous perhaps is Peter Mayle (1939–2018), whose novels about life as an Englishman in Provence have greatly contributed to the popularity of the region. He wrote a string of highly successful novels, beginning with the bestselling memoir A Year in Provence in 1989, which inspired countless Brits to follow in his footsteps in search of the Provençal good life as well as a string of bestselling sequels. He died aged 78 in 2018.
Sidebar: Murder on the Côte d'Azur
The Mystery of the Blue Train by thriller maestro Agatha Christie places Hercule Poirot aboard the Train Bleu from Calais to Nice; cue mysterious murder.
Sidebar: Stories of Provence
Letters from My Windmill by Alphonse Daudet is a much-loved collection of short stories evoking the landscapes and lives of Provence in the mid-19th century.
Sidebar: Nobel Winner
Frédéric Mistral remains the only minority-language writer so far to have been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature (1904). He won for his work as a Provençal philologist and in recognition of his poetic talent.
Sidebar: JG Ballard
Super Cannes by JG Ballard turns a steely, surreal gaze onto a technology park near Cannes, modelled on the real-life Sophia-Antipolis development.
Sidebar: Graham Greene
Loser Takes All by Graham Greene follows the fortunes of a young couple honeymooning in Monte Carlo who end up risking all at the casino.
Sidebar: The Scent of Murder
Perfume by Patrick Süskind is a chilly, compelling bestseller, charting the life of a nasally gifted perfumier who creates the perfect scent from murdered virgins in 18th-century Grasse.
Sidebar: Edward St Aubyn
Never Mind (Edward St Aubyn; 1992) is the first of five semi-autobiographical books featuring the author's alter-ego Patrick Melrose and his dysfunctional, deeply unpleasant aristocratic English family. Much of the book is set in their country retreat in southern France.
Traditional Provençal music is based on polyphonic chants; as a music form, they have gone out of fashion, although they remain part and parcel of traditional celebrations, notably Christmas and Easter.
Where Provence has really made a contribution to the French contemporary music scene is in rap, jazz and world music, with Marseille's multicultural background proving an inspiration to many artists.
The phenomenal hip-hop lyrics of 1991 smash-hit album, de la Planète Mars (‘From Planet Mars’, Mars being short for Marseille) by rapping legends IAM – France’s best-known rap group from Marseille – nudged rap into the mainstream. IAM have since gone on to collaborate with everyone from Beyoncé to film-director Luc Besson.
Since that time, the city’s music scene has transcended its rap roots. Cheb Khaled, Cheb Aïssa and Cheb Mami – all from Marseille – have contributed hugely to the development of Algerian raï and have encouraged other world-music talents such as Iranian percussionist Bijan Chemiranito, who plays the zarb (Persian goblet drum).
The Riviera has also fostered a special relationship with jazz music over the years. Nice launched its jazz festival in 1948; Antibes-Juan-les-Pins followed in 1960 after legendary saxophonist Sidney Bechet settled there in the 1950s. Numerous jazz greats have played here since – including Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis and Ray Charles, as well as modern artists like Jamie Cullum.
Sidebar: Provençal Polyphony
Traditional Provençal chants form the root of the powerful percussion-accompanied polyphony by Lo Còr de la Plana (www.myspace.com/locordelaplana), a male choir born in Marseille. Their album, Tant deman (2007), is essential listening.
The farandole is a Provençal dance, performed at the close of village festivals in and around Arles since the Middle Ages. Men and women take their partner by the hand or remain linked with a cord or handkerchief as they briskly jig, accompanied by a tambourine and galoubet (shrill flute with three holes).
Long at the forefront of contemporary dance, Aix-en-Provence is home to France’s Centre Chorégraphique National. Also known as the Pavillon Noir, this glass, steel and black-concrete box has a 378-seat auditorium, a roof deck and glass-walled rehearsal studios that allow passers-by to peer in and watch agile dancers at work. At its front end is French-Albanian-born choreographer, Angelin Preljocaj (b 1957) and resident dance company Ballet Preljocaj, one of Europe’s most creative, at times shocking, dance groups, known for pushing dance to its limits.
Avignon meanwhile hosts the annual dance festival, Les Hivernales each February at Hivernales, the other big choreography centre in the region.
Provence’s innovative spirit in contemporary dance echoes the role France played in the development of 19th-century classical ballet – until the centre for innovation shifted to Russia in 1847, taking France’s leading talent, Marius Petipa (1818–1910), a native of Marseille, with it. The Ballet National de Marseille continues in a classical vein today.
It was in Nice in 1927 that modern-dance icon Isadora Duncan (1878–1927), a Paris resident from 1900, died. Her neck was broken in a freak motoring accident on the Riviera when the customary scarf that trailed behind her got caught in the car wheels.
Lyrical Landscapes: Lavender, Cork & Jasmine
A vibrant paintbox of burnt-orange, ochre, russet-red rock, and golden-stone villages, landscapes are the soul of Provence and what gives it colour.
Among its unique and vibrant landscapes are the thick cork-oak forest of the Massif des Maures – a wild maze of chocolate brown, gentle ginger and brick-red tree trunks; the spring-green lavender fields of Haute-Provence and the Luberon, which blaze blue in early summer and sit out autumn in a cropped wash of pale grey-blue; and the flower fields of Grasse that blossom with sweet rose and jasmine, from which perfumes are made.
The Perfume of Provence
If Provence has one defining fragrance, it is the astringent aroma of purple lavender (lavande), which flowers for a month prior to harvesting between mid-June and mid-August, depending on the region. Lavender fields once seen never forgotten include those surrounding Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque near Gordes and the vast farms sweeping the Plateau de Valensole, framing Largarde d’Apt and strewing the arid Sault region.
The sweet purple flower is harvested when it is in full bloom, between 15 July and 15 August. It is mechanically harvested on a hot dry day, following which the lorry-loads of cut lavender, known as paille (straw), are packed tight in a steam still and distilled to extract the sweet essential oils. The process can be watched at the Distillerie du Siron, a traditional, family-run distillery and organic flower farm blazing 20 hectares blue near the medieval village of Thoard, northwest of Digne-les-Bains.
All the rage in 1920s Provence, authentic lavender farms such as this are a dying breed today. Since the 1950s lavandin – a hybrid of fine lavender and aspic, cloned at the turn of the century – has been mass produced for industrial purposes. Both are the same vibrant purple when in flower, but lavandin yields five times more oil than fine lavender (which produces 1kg of oil from 130kg of cut straw). Since 1997, huile essentielle de lavande de Haute Provence – essential lavender oil from Haute-Provence – has been protected by its own Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC).
Approximately 80% of Provence’s 400 lavender farms produce lavandin today. The few remaining traditional lavender farms – like Château du Bois in the Luberon – usually colour higher areas. Wild lavender needs an altitude of 900m to 1300m to blossom (unlike its common sister lavandin, which sprouts anywhere above 800m) and its more concentrated essences linger longer. Some 80% of the essential oils produced in the region’s 150 distilleries is exported. In the kitchen lavender is used to flavour ice cream, chocolate, honey, many a sweet dessert and the odd savoury dish.
For a hand-in-hand stroll through lavender-laced gardens, the 13th-century gardens of the Prieuré de Salagon are a romantic proposition. For a general background, head for the Musée de la Lavande near Gordes, followed by a stroll along a 2km walking trail that wends its way through the lavender fields of the surrounding Château du Bois estate. In Digne-les-Bains, Rando Lavande organises superb lavender hikes. Fêtes de la lavande (lavender festivals) are celebrated to herald the start of the lavender harvest in Valensole (third Sunday in July), Sault (15 August), and Digne-les-Bains and Valréas (both first weekend in August).
Whether you want to paint lavender landscapes, amble with a donkey, visit a lavender farm or distillery, help hand-harvest lavender, learn how to cook it, buy luxurious lavender bath salts and creams, or splash out in a lavender spa, Move Your Alps (www.moveyouralps.com/fr/routes-de-la-lavande) is a great resource.
Sidebar: Mustn't Miss Landscapes
- Les Calanques (Marseille)
- Parc Ornithologique du Pont de Gau (Camargue)
- Colorado Provençal (Rustrel)
- Gorges du Verdon
- Lavender fields (Sault)
- Mont Ventoux
Life in Provence has much in common with the rest of France – not least a love of food, family, wine and good living. But make no mistake: this is a region that's fiercely proud of its history, heritage and culture, and it's important to get to grips with Provençal passions if you want to understand what makes its people tick.
The working week in Provence is much like any working week in any other developed country: plagued with routine, commuting and getting the children to school, albeit with more sunshine than in many places.
The weekend, however, is when living in Provence comes into its own. Going to the local market on Saturday or Sunday morning is a must, not only to pick the finest ingredients for a delicious lunch or dinner, but also to catch up on gossip at the stalls or stop for a coffee at the village cafe.
Sport is another weekend favourite; football, cycling, trekking, sailing, skiing and scuba-diving are all popular in the region. Between April and October many people head to the beach for the afternoon.
Weekends also mean going out, whatever your age. Young people pile into the region's bars and nightclubs (the latter don't open until 11pm, so partying generally finishes in the wee hours of the morning); older generations dress up to go out for dinner at a restaurant or a friend's house, working their way through aperitif, three courses, coffee and digestif.
Young or old, people in the south tend to share a staunch loyalty to the hamlet, village, town or city in which they live. People in Marseille have a particularly passionate attachment to their city, a port known for its stereotyped rough-and-tumble inhabitants, who are famed among the French for their exaggerations and imaginative fancies, such as the tale about the sardine that blocked Marseille port.
Markedly more Latin in outlook and temperament, Niçois exhibit a zest for the good life in common with their Italian neighbours; law-abiding Monégasques dress up to the nines, and don’t break the law or gossip. In rural pastures where family trees go back several generations and occupations remain firmly implanted in the soil, identity is deeply rooted in tradition.
Affluent outsiders buying up the region are prompting some traditional village communities to question their own (shifting) identities. With 20% of privately owned homes being résidences secondaires (second homes), everyday shops in some villages are struggling to stay open year-round, while property prices in many places have spiralled out of reach of local salaries.
The Village Square
If there's one image that sums up the Provençal lifestyle, it's a game of pétanque being played on a patch of dusty ground in the evening sunshine.
Pétanque (known in the rest of France as boules) was invented in La Ciotat, near Marseille, in 1910 when arthritis-crippled Jules Le Noir could no longer take the running strides prior to aiming demanded by the longue boule game. The local champion thus stood with his feet firmly on the ground – a style that became known as pieds tanques (Provençal for ‘tied feet’, from which ‘pétanque’ emerged).
To have a spin yourself (or watch the drama unfold on the village square), here are the rules:
- Two to six people, split into two teams, can play. Each player has three solid metal boules (balls).
- Each team takes it in turn to aim a boule at a tiny wooden ball called a cochonnet (jack), the idea being to land the boule as close as possible to it. The team with the closest boule wins the round; points are allocated by totting up how many boules the winner’s team has closest to the marker (one point for each boule). The first to notch up 13 wins the match.
- The team throwing the cochonnet (initially decided by a coin toss) has to throw it from a small circle scratched in the gravel. It must be hurled 6m to 10m away. Each player aiming a boule must likewise stand in this circle, with both feet planted firmly on the ground.
- Underarm throwing is compulsory. Beyond that, players can roll the boule along the ground (known as pointer, literally ‘to point’) or hurl it high into the air in the hope of its landing smack-bang on top of an opponent’s boule and sending it flying out of position. This flamboyant tactic, called tirer (literally ‘to shoot’), can turn an entire game around in seconds.
Long the stronghold, not to mention heart and soul, of French football, Olympique de Marseille (OM; www.om.net) was national champion for four consecutive years between 1989 and 1992, and in 2010, but the team's fortunes have been mixed since. In 2016, US businessman Frank McCourt – formerly the owner of the LA Dodgers – acquired the club and vowed to restore the club's glory days.
The club has a die-hard fan base and the city has spawned many football greats, chief among them Zinedine Zidane, aka Zizou, who captained France to victory in the 1998 World Cup. The most important match of the year is Le Classique, played against arch-rivals Paris St-Germain.
Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger and star striker Thierry Henry both began their careers with the region’s other strong club, AS Monaco (ASM).
No titles provide better insight into Provençal living, past and present, than these:
Everybody Was So Young (Amanda Vaill; 1998) Beautiful evocation of an American couple and their glam literary friends in the jazzy 1920s.
Côte d’Azur: Inventing the French Riviera (Mary Blume; 1992) Fabulous portrait of Riviera life: fantasy, escapism, pleasure, fame, eccentricity…
Provence A–Z (Peter Mayle; 2006) The best, the quirkiest, the most curious moments of the 20-odd years this best-selling author has spent in Provence.
Provençal Escapes (Caroline Clifton-Mogg; 2005) Image-driven snoop around beautiful homes in Provence.
Words in a French Life: Lessons in Love and Language from the South of France (Kristin Espinasse; 2006) Daily life in Provence through a series of French words.
Sidebar: Famous Riviera Residents
The list of Provence–Côte d'Azur's most famous residents is long and always shifting. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt own Château de Miraval in Correns. The Beckhams have a villa in Bargemon, John Malkovich has one in the Luberon and singer Bono has one in Èze-sur-Mer.
Sidebar: The Southern French Accent
Along with its sing-song quality, L'accent du midi's most distinctive aspects are the addition of a 'g' sound for words ending in nasal sounds (so 'pain' sounds more like 'pang') and a silent 'e' at the end of a word becoming a full-on 'euh'.
Sidebar: Provençal Language
It's estimated that fewer than 100,000 people speak Provençal, the region's traditional language, a remarkable fact considering most locals didn't learn French until the beginning of the 20th century. Universal primary education cemented French as the country's lingua franca. You're most likely to see Provençal used on road signs.
Sidebar: Tastes of Provence
The Provence Cookbook (Patricia Wells; 2004) is one of many books by the popular chef exploring the flavours and ingredients of traditional Provençal cooking.