Cities and Towns
The two big cities (one of which you will probably arrive in, if you are arriving by air) are Marseilles and Nice. Of the two, I prefer Nice. It has more international flights, and is by far the prettier city.
Major attractions in Nice are:
- Promenade des Anglais: Nice used to be a winter resort, which attracted English travelers starved for the sun. The Promenade is basically what we would call the boardwalk (although much nicer). The beach is quite beautiful, although pebbly instead of sandy.
- Chagall museum: Contains a series of large-sized canvasses of Chagall’s Old Testament works. Not to be missed.
- Matisse museum: Moderately interesting, in that it was converted from the house where Matisse actually lived, but not all that interesting as an art collection.
- Russian cathedral: Where the Czars and the Russian aristocrats came to worship when they were “wintering” in Nice. Hard to see one of these outside Russia.
- Hotel Negresco: Miami Beach meets the Belle Epoque, all pink and turquoise. Stay there if money is no object, but even if you don’t stay, be sure to visit the lobby with its magnificent Tiffany ceiling.
- Cours Saleya: outstanding food market in the old part of town near the water; go for the atmosphere. Every day except Monday (when it’s an antique market).
If you happen to find yourself in Marseilles, go to the old port and order bouillabaisse. Any place will do. The city is 2500 years old (it goes back to the Greeks, like Nice) but it wears its history lightly – not much is old there. Sites include the Chateau D’If, on a small offshore island (where the Man in the Iron Mask was held). There’s also a relatively modern church (19thC), called Notre-Dame de la Garde, that you can hike up to and that has nice views. Otherwise, there’s not much to see.
Other towns near the coast
Antibes: Outstanding old section, including ramparts (old walls) that parallel the sea. There is a Picasso Museum here; we’ve never been.
Vence/St. Paul de Vence: Hill towns on opposing sides of a canyon not far from Nice. One of the few places you can see modern art is at the Fondation Maeght, in St. Paul. (One of the irritating things about Provence is that, although a lot of artists lived there, most of their art is elsewhere.) St. Paul also has some wonderful art galleries. There is a small chapel on the road between Vence and St. Paul that has stained glass by Matisse (easy to find — lots of signs).
Cannes: Skip it; wall-to-wall hotels.
Beaulieu/Cap Ferrat: On a peninsula between Nice and Monte Carlo. Cap Ferrat offers Villa Rothschild (famous for its gardens) and a wonderful panoramic walk around the beach. Some of the richest people in the world live here, behind walled villas, but France has beach access laws so you can walk on the beach. (Note the coast is very rocky here).
Monaco: Skip it, even worse than Cannes.
Corniche: Unless it’s raining, do not miss the wonderful drive out of Nice on the Corniche., for some of the most spectacular coastal scenery on earth. Be sure to take the middle (moyenne) corniche for the best views.
Eze: Tourist trap along the Corniche. The “exotic gardens” are “exotic” by French standards, not ours (i.e., cactus and agapanthus). The gardens do have some spectacular views, though.
St. Tropez: The beach is spectacular, but the town is crowded and touristy. I would skip it. Be warned — some of the beaches are not only topless (as they all are in this part of France), but bottomless too.
Cassis: Coast town on the other side of Marseilles that I really like. Smaller and quieter than most of the Cote d’Azur towns, with a spectacular cliff you can drive around. There are also boat trips to the calanques (think fjords), which we’ve never done, but understand is quite interesting.
Bandol: Down the beach a ways from Cassis; famous for its wine.
La Ciotat: Between Cassis and Marseilles; famous as the place the Lumiere brothers shot the first moving picture (train arriving at La Ciotat). Not very nice today, unfortunately.
Towns further inland
Avignon: Avignon was the center of the Papacy, and therefore an important center of Europe, during the 14th C. Since the Popes moved back to Rome, however, Avignon has gone back to backwater status, which is all to the good. The Papal Palace is mostly empty, but the gardens overlooking the Rhone are quite lovely.
Avignon is a good entry point for Provence if you’re coming by train. The TGV (very fast train) from Paris takes a little under 3 hours, and from there you can rent a car.
Arles: Some spectacular Roman ruins (including an arena), a medieval cloister and lots of Provencal charm. Recommended.
Aix en Provence: Cezanne lived here, but hated it, and the city returned the favor. Draw your own conclusions. The Cours Mirabeau (main drag) is quite nice, though.
Les Baux de Provence: You can visit the ruins of this medieval fortified town, complete with chronologically incorrect full scale replicas of catapults and other siege engines. The modern town huddles around the middle of the bauxite cliffs for which the site is named. The town is small, and can be very crowded in summer. On the other side of the hill is Mausanne, a relatively small, quiet town which is one of my favorite spots in Provence. Mausanne is a center for olive oil production, and you can buy oil from the local cooperative in town.
Nimes: Surprisingly nice. Even more spectacular Roman ruins than Arles (including both an arena and a 1st C temple), but not as much charm. (Technically, Nimes is in the Gard, not Provence, a distinction which will mean more to you once you’re there.) Go if you have time.
Pont de Gard: Not far from Nimes is this spectacular 1st C Roman aqueduct. You used to be able to climb into the water ducts, but I don’t think you can do that anymore. This aqueduct supplied local residents with 100 gallons of water per person per day, a rate not re-achieved until the 19th C. It’s a stunning achievement of Roman engineering.
St. Remy de Provence: Touristy, but nice nevertheless. Nearby are the Roman ruins of Glanum (which has been partially reconstructed so that you can see the layout of the entire town; I prefer this site to the other Roman town ruins at Vaison-la-Romaine) and the abbey/sanitarium where Vincent Van Gogh painted sunflowers (sometimes you can get in).
Hill Towns: Provence is full of charming hill towns too numerous to count. My personal favorites are Rousillon(built on an ochre cliff, most of the streets are red), TourTour(at 2800 feet, cool even in the warmest weather) and Bonnieux. Venasque, Gordes, Apt and Sault are nice too. If you find yourself in Sault, be sure to sample the Andre Boyer nougat (and bring some back for me).
If you go in the spring, do not miss the wonderful cherries.
A local specialty is loup au fenouil, local sea bass cooked over fennel branches. I like it, but Ted finds it kind of bland. Other fish specialties include rouget (red mullet), daurade (not sure how to translate), rascasse (scorpion fish, usually found in bouillabaisse), and sardine grilles (grilled sardines, sometimes eaten head and all).
If you are in Nice, you should try the soupe de poissons, a rich fish broth that, unlike bouillabaisse, does not contain pieces of seafood. It is usually served with rouille (red-pepper and garlic-flavored mayonnaise). Also in Nice, but nowhere else, you can sometimes get socca, a crisp flat cake reminiscent of the Indian papadum, but made out of of chickpea flour. You can sometimes buy these at the Cours Saleya on market day.
Nice has Italian-style food (including pizza, pasta and really good espresso). That probably has something to do with the fact that Nice was part of Piedmont for 400 years, and only became part of France as part of a deal reached during the unification of Italy. Once you hit Antibes, you’re back in France, and potatoes replace pasta.
Pizza is actually available all over Provence, although you may find it somewhat different than what you are used to. In Vence, for example, pizza often is served with a fried egg on top. Other places, it often comes with olives. Pissaladiere (an open face onion tart) is a distant relative of pizza.
Soupe au pistou is a vegetable bean soup served with the local variant of pesto (hence the name).
Another specialty is salade Nicoise (despite the name, available all along the coast) — tuna, green beans, potatoes and olives. Quite tasty.
Outside of Nice, you might find bourride (a fish soup thickened with egg) and the famous bouillabaisse, which is best in Marseille but sometimes found in other coastal towns (we’ve eaten it in Antibes).
Most of the local cheeses are goat cheeses, sometimes served marinated in olive oil. I like them.
Note that pate (with the circonflex accent on the “A”) is to be distinguished from pate (with an accent on the “E”). The former, pronounced with one syllable, is pasta. The latter, with the “e” pronounced, is a ground meat spread.
The people of Provence used to speak their own language, Provencal, which is a Romance language similar to Catalan. Provencal was a thriving language in the Middle Ages (it was the language of the troubadours), but hasn’t been commonly spoken since the 19th C. There are some half-hearted attempts to bring it back. (mostly in the road signs). Use of the article “Lou” instead of “Les” is Provencal, as are many words ending in “ou” (Le Paradou). But for the most part Provencal is noted only in the locals’ strange accents.
Provence is a good place for table linens (wonderful printed cotton fabrics), ceramics, perfume (including perfumed soaps) and olive oil. French olive oil is lighter and less fruity than the Italian versions, particularly well suited to the goat cheese salads it is often served with. Unfortunately, bringing back olive oil is much harder these days since you have to put it in your checked luggage.
Santons (small figurines of local peasants in 18th C dress) are widely available, with many different quality levels.
Do try and visit the local outdoor food markets — they are one of the wonders of some of these small French towns. Most towns have markets once or twice a week (ask at your hotel). Along the coast, the fish is sometimes so fresh it’s still flopping around in the bin.
The weather in Provence is similar to that of Northern California, with hot dry summers and cooler winters. It can sometimes get very hot in the summer, and sometimes there is frost in the winter (except along the coast, which is mild).