Ten reasons to visit Provence before you die
LIKE Italy's Tuscany region, Provence in the South of France has that evocative sound to it.
Stony villages, fields of vines, delicious food, copious wine and a feeling of joie-de-vivre in the air. It's one of those destinations every traveller dreams about. Ann Rickard gives you 10 reasons why she thinks you should go as soon as possible.
1. With more than 300 days of sunshine every year, Provence is France's sunshine capital. The summer months of June, July and August give you guaranteed sunshine.
2. Hill top towns. Menerbes and Bonnieux became famous when Peter Mayle wrote so charmingly about them in A Year in Provence. While they are delightful with their stone houses and narrow lanes, there are no museums or galleries and only a sprinkle of cafes. Like most hill top towns, they are fun to explore and admire, but don't expect to find a lot to do.
3. Les Baux de Provence. In the Alpilles, this village provides plenty of interest. It is a living museum, crowned by castle ruins dating back to the 10th century. Walk over the ruins, climb crumbling towers, go down to the dungeons, be awed by the reproductions of giant medieval weapons, then wander the maze of lanes in the village with their small shops and cafes, stop in a leafy square for lunch.
4. Avignon. For 70 years during the 14th century, this town was the hub of the Roman Catholic world when the popes moved there from Rome and built the Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes.) The walled old town bustles with more shops and cafes than you could get to. Take a ride on the Petit Train which rumbles through the town while a commentary gives you all you need to know about Avignon's rich history.
5. I'isle sur la sorgue: The name means 'Island on the Sorgue River' and it looks so, with canals and water everywhere. Its imposing moss-covered water-wheels have been toiling since the 1200s when they were used to grind flour. It is now famous for its antique and brocante stores. Best to visit on a Sunday, market day, when the town erupts with a festive atmosphere as hundreds of stalls sell everything from French linen to giant wheels of cheese.
6. Markets: Every village, town and city puts on the markets where lanes, squares and streets become clogged with stalls and people. Even if you don't buy a thing (you will), just wandering among the crowds with the sights and sounds of food and laughter gives a true sense of Provence. The markets are also a social occasion, to meet friends for coffee or wine, but be warned, in the bigger towns the crowds are so dense it is shoulder-to-shoulder shuffle - and many of the locals love to take their dogs, adding to the general crush.
7. Food: Fresh fruit and vegetables, olive oil, garlic, quality meat and sublime seafood, Provence is known all over the world for its superior cuisine. In summer, cherry, peach and apricot orchards burst with fruit so sweet you will find it hard to believe. Traditional dishes include daube (beef stew), ratatouille (we know that one). Look for the giant slabs of nougat at the markets, and don't go past the rich tapenades, probably made that morning. Green and black olive tapenade are traditional but try the anchovy tapenade for a bang-in-the-mouth hit.
8. Pont du Gard: This mighty aqueduct built by the Romans 2,000 years ago to transport water from the town of Uzes to Nimes is reason alone to visit Provence. One of France's most popular attractions, the aqueduct crosses the Gardon river. One look and your jaw drops. Best way to see it is to kayak from the nearby town of Collias, picnic on the banks with views to the awesome structure, then kayak under it. Better still, float on your back beneath it.
9. Plane trees, poppies, lavender, sunflowers: Nothing says France more than the rows of plane trees flanking the roads. They create an avenue of leafy shade in summer and make your heart sing. In April and May wild red poppies spring from the ground everywhere, and then come August the sunflowers tilt their yellow heads to the sun to create fields of blazing yellow to the horizon. Lavender begins to bloom in June and by July there are mauve carpets stretching all over the region. But no matter what month you visit Provence the smell of lavender is in the air, with shops, boutiques and markets selling lavender products, from essential oils to little lavender bags to soaps and sprays.
10. Carriers de Lumieres: Below the village of Les Baux is perhaps the most stunning yet low-profile highlight of the region. In a vast dis-used bauxite quarry, unique visual shows are projected on to the immense walls to the accompaniment of stirring music. It is usually the works of the world's most famous artists on display - Van Gogh, Cezanne, Da Vinci in the past, this year it is Picasso. The 45 minute show is continuous, so any time you arrive is a good time. It is a spectacular experience that stays with you long after your visit.