Photo: CRT PACA
The region of Provence has a view of the Mediterranean Sea and the Alps that is as wide as the history of the region known as Occitania in the ancient past. Even earlier than that, Provence was the first Roman province outside Italy.
Occitania is the region spreading along the eastern border from Côte d' Azur, and on the west to Gascogne and then all the way to the Alps, encompassing the southern third of France. Home of the troubadours, French lyric poets, was a pleasant and tolerant society that lived in harmony with nature, run by women. The unique culture, with its own language, poetry school and religion, remains a mystery because there are not many traces of it left. For a few centuries in the early Middle Ages, Occitania was home of the Cathari (from the Greek word Katharoi – meaning “the pure ones”), who lived in asceticism and were dualistic. In the 20-year military campaign called the Albigensian Crusade, Pope Innocent III destroyed all heretics, evident from the words of the Papal legate: “Kill them [all]! Surely the Lord discerns which [ones] are his!”
Today, this is the French region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, the second most popular tourist destination, right after Paris. It spreads from the Maritime Alps on the east to the Rhône valley in the west, towards the open Mediterranean Sea, from Toulon to the Rhône estuary. Described and celebrated in song, painted and photographed, it shows its Mediterranean identity and leaves quite an impression on most people. There is something elusive here, but something that goes beyond geographical and historic boundaries – its atmosphere. The climate is ideal for wild flowers and aromatic herbs – rosemary, thyme, marjoram, oregano, basil and lavender.
Provence was settled since the prehistoric times. The Greek seafarers from Asia Minor have been coming to these coasts since 7th century BC, building trading posts (emporia). The first permanent Greek settlement was Massalia near today’s Marseille, established around 546 BC by colonists from the town of Phocaea (today Foça in Turkey) on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor, running before the Persian invasion. Massalia was one of the chief centers of commerce in the Ancient world. The Greeks also established other colonies in the location of today’s towns of Nice, Arles, Antibes and others further to the hinterland.
`Eze is a “nest” above the Mediterranean sea on the road from Monte Carlo to Nice, full of fragrances, gardens and atmospheric corners, with steep and narrow streets, and is one of the towns that embraces the traveller. It is not so much touted, but it has a unique spirit and picturesqueness, with studios and bookstores that seem like they are from some other era. Those who have travelled through southern France and haven’t stopped there, can say that they have not seen all of the Côte d'Azur, because the views that `Eze has, no one else does. They resemble the meditation offered by the experience of the desert.
The nearby Grasse is often called the world capital of perfumes, but that is a too ordinary name for a place full of atmosphere and tranquility. Its winning feature is the fragrance coming from various flowers. Its gardens and parks are captivating. Narrow streets and passages preserved the atmosphere of the times long gone. Grasse was also often called “the most beautiful balcony on the French Riviera”, and that perhaps best describes its beauty. “You’ve been to Grasse?” was a thrilled reply to one of our hosts in Monte Carlo, where we went afterwards. “That’s wonderful.” Aix-en-Provence (Occitan: Ais de Provença) is a town north of Marseille. It dates back from Roman times, just like many other towns in the south of France. The first Gothic cathedral in Provence was built there, as well as one of the oldest universities in the country (1409). It was the center of the region from the 12th century until the revolution in the 18th century. It lost influence and importance thanks to the expansion of Marseille. It is a modern university center, a picturesque town with historical landmarks, like the complex of 17th century houses, La Cour Mirabeau, artistic corners and places, as well as the La Rotonde square with its fountains. All around town in numerous olive groves on what can often be called the tropical heat of the continent, the town masters are the crickets. The town is also known as the birthplace of the famous impressionist painter Paul Cézanne, something you will be reminded by a modest single story building, converted into a painter’s studio.
Arles (Occitan: Arle) is one of the most appealing town in this region, where the ancient and medieval history is combined. It was founded by Greek merchants, and in the days of Cesar it became one of the most important towns of the Roman Empire in Gaul. The traces of this famous age can be found all over the narrow streets – ruins of the 4th century imperial palace, remains of the Roman circus and one of the best preserved arenas in the world. As one of the most impressive Roman monuments in Provence, it has 20.000 spectator seats on two tier arcades. The arena was intended for bloody gladiator games that the Romans enjoyed, and today it is a bull fighting venue. While residing in Arles, Vincent van Gogh made his most passionate canvases in such an environment. Poet Fréderic Mistral was also born in this region.
The capital and traffic crossroads of the region is Avignon (Occitan: Avinhon) – one of the most picturesque and richest urban complexes in the French south. Located on the ancient merchant road, the city was in the 14th century surrounded by ramparts with towers, a fortification system that is considered the most complete example of French medieval fortification construction. Avignon became a Papal city in early Middle Ages. Pope Clement V moved in 1309 the seat to France, running away from the political mess in Rome, so in the next 68 years the city was the religious, political and cultural seat of Christianity.
Building of the Papal palace started in 1335 and was completed in 20 years. Pope Benedict XII is to be credited for the Cistercian architecture, while his successor, Clement VI built an annex to the new palace with a complex of towers and walls that rise 50 meters above the city, a proof of Papal might and wealth at the time. The city was annexed to France by King Louis XV, while the Pope awarded it sovereignty during the Revolution. Avignon is located on the left bank of Rhône, in the area that is not overly populated or urbanized, so it has some sort of ancient patina, and it seems like it is stuck in time, permeated with history painted in its parks and gardens. Walking around its city streets, you will come across the Saint-Bénezet Bridge from the 7th century. The city is full of old houses. Throughout the year, it is home to many festivals, so Avignon has a status of a historical and artistic city.
The chief vine growing regions are Côtes de Provence, Coteaux d' Aix-en-Provence and Les Beux de Provence, and the somewhat more rustic Coteaux Varois. They say that this is where some of the finest red wines come from. These strong and fragrant wines pair excellently with spicy food and pair well with classic Mediterranean flavors. This region has 300 days of sun per year, and there are vineyards everywhere. Not far from Avignon is the Châteauneuf-de-Pape, the summer residence of the Popes. On this estate, they still produce the wines as they used to. They are not cheap, the prices start at around 50 euro, but it would be a shame not to buy a few bottles in the cellar.
In Provence, lavender is some sort of a trademark. There are many products made from it, from soaps, oils and creams to what is perhaps the most interesting – food. It is added to fruits and vegetables, compotes, sugar or fried potatoes, just like rosemary is added. Corsica has its biscuits made of oranges and chestnut flour, while Provence has its lavender biscuits.
Provence is home to Aigues-Morts (Occitan: Aigas Mňrtas, “dead waters”). On the road to the Riviera, as it was dubbed by the English, who made it into a tourist destination on their quest for the sun, there is the “salt valley” that used to be filled with sea and rice fields. The entire region is “overlooked” by Chateau Aigues-Morts, a well preserved fort of the former port where the ships docked within the walls. The sea is now kilometers away from it. It was founded in 102 BC by Marius Caius (although there are claims that Phoenicians came here even before that), and the first document that mentions the settlement calls it Ayga Mortas. It was “dormant” for ten centuries, and the port was renovated by Louis IX in the 13th century, as the only French port on the Mediterranean at the time. It was an important part of the route in the seventh (1248) and the eight crusade (1270). Between 1575 and 1622, it provided a safe haven to the Huguenots, heretics at the time. The Protestants long resisted Pope’s attempts to destroy them, but they were overcome and broken in a repression of 1685.
One of the towers was a prison for the heretics who would not be converted back to Catholicism. In the 19th century, this was the center of French-Italian clashes (there are a lot of Italians on Corsica, Azure Coast and the hinterland), but also a great junction on the road to Nîmes. Aigues-Morts offers its visitors a breath of history, of a time when it changed many hands, of the peace and silence of the times past, the smell of salt and of the long views of the sea.
South of France is a place where the roofs have with different shades of roofs, field textures, olive garlands and verticals of cypresses, smell of flowers, aromatic oils and French cuisine. Grilled fish, olive oil over toasted bread covered with garlic, pumpkin flower fritters, eggplant pâté, tomatoes under the lid, seasoned with Provence herbs and coarse sea salt... They might be unusual dishes, but here they seem like you were raised on them. Provence is like a glass pearl playing with sunlight, showing us its unique beauty with a rich past and thousands of stories. One, two days, and the entire life, you say in yourself, leaving Southern France with your eyes smiling, only to return to it.