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The charms of Provence
Publication Date : 09-10-2013
Southern France offers art festival, lavender in full bloom and scenic view of historic Europe to visitors
Southern France is a sacred place for those who long for romance and remoteness. It attracts numerous visitors from around the world every year because of its picturesque scenery, fragrant lavender, good wine, and local hospitality.
In just a one-week vacation, you can experience the leisurely lifestyle of Provence and the delicious cuisine that British author Peter Mayle described in his series of books about the area.
Every July, the old town of Avignon attracts numerous artists and art fans from all over the world to its annual theatre festival--the Avignon Festival. You can enjoy traditional theatrical events, dance, music and street performances from different countries.
The instant I stepped into the old town, I was overwhelmed by the ubiquitous colourful theatre posters on the city's walls and iron railings.
To attract audiences, artists dress up to distribute leaflets and sketch action art on the street. Don't be surprised when you see a giant bear, played by a person standing out of a blue vintage car's skylight, wave its hands at you.
Besides the plays and dramas, you mustn't miss the Unesco World Heritage Site--Historic Centre of Avignon: Papal Palace, Episcopal Ensemble and Avignon Bridge.
The Papal Place, an austere-looking medieval Gothic fortress, was the seat of Western Christianity in the 14th century. The papal residence witnessed six papal conclaves. During the Avignon Festival, there are excellent performances in the palace's honour Courtyard.
The Avignon Bridge, built in the 12th century, won world fame from the French children's song On the Bridge of Avignon. The bridge was rebuilt several times due to frequent collapses during floods. Only four arches out of the original 22 remain.
After a day's tour in the old town, it's best to leave Avignon and visit nearby Provence towns such as Arles and Valensole, and other scenic spots during the day. You can rent a car to drive on your own or make a one-day trip with a local tour agency, saving a lot of time and energy.
Another well-known bridge is the nearby Pont du Gard in Nimes. With about 2,000 years of history, it stands nearly 50 metres high with three tiers of arches. The Unesco World Heritage Site is one of the few well-preserved ancient Roman aqueducts.
The bridge, a significant ancient artistic masterpiece, is represented on the 5-euro bill.
Provence towns are of different types. The best way to enjoy their tranquility is to stroll on the street, to see the architecture, cultural heritage and small shops.
For example, Les Baux de Provence offers a breathtaking panoramic view over the Camargue region because it's located on a rocky plateau of the Alpilles. You can visit the medieval castle, the Renaissance Saint Vincent's Church, and some museums that explain the local history and culture.
About 10 minutes' walk from the town is Carrieres de Lumieres (Careers of Enlightenment), which is hosting the audio visual show Monet, Renoir Chagall: Journeys around the Mediterranean until Jan 5. The place used to be an unused quarry, and the 35-minute show exhibits works of about 16 well-known French artists.
With beautiful music and projections of celebrated paintings on the ancient quarry's huge walls, I felt as if I was in these paintings. While I was walking slowly to enjoy my fascinating voyage, the images were also moving.
Lost in impressionism and fauvism masterpieces, I was dancing with Parisians from the late 19th century in Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette and sailing with British sailors on the Isle of Wight in Raoul Dufy's Regatta at Cowes.
Driving a car to these picturesque towns, you will see large lavender fields on both sides of the road. You can stop for a while to take some photos, but be cautious of the high-speed cars whizzing by.
Immersed in these purple flowers, I felt drunk by the fragrant smells. Summer is the best time to enjoy lavenders in Provence because they're in full blossom. As a necessity for Provence residents, lavenders are often used to make culinary herbs, essence oils, perfumes and tea.
Other popular places to watch lavenders are Sault village and Senanque Abbey. In front of the abbey are fields of lavender planted by monks.
It takes about three hours to get from Avignon to Nice by the TGV, France's high-speed rail system. Located on the country's southeast coast on the Mediterranean Sea, Nice is the second-biggest city in the Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur region after Marseille. It's also a popular resort with the French in summer.
It's the best place to run away from the hustle and bustle of the city, and to relax a bit. You can either enjoy the clear sky, the blue sea, and the natural sunshine, or the views of luxurious cars, yachts, and blondes.
Near the seaside is Castle Hill, which has the ruins of a medieval castle with crumbling walls. You can take the free elevator or stairs to the top to overlook the city's old town, the sea and the Bay of Angels, about 90 metres high.
Besides having museums and old architecture, Nice is a heaven for shopaholics due to various shopping centres, including Galeries Lafayette, especially the discount seasons in January and July. On the old Cours Saleya Market, there are antiques, flowers, fruits, and seafood markets, depending on the day.
I was lucky to be in the city on Bastille Day, or French National Day, July 14. At 1pm, crowds of people, together with their dogs, gathered on the English Walkway, the famous promenade of the Mediterranean Sea, to enjoy the annual fireworks celebration.
The 30-minute show was impressive. Beautiful fireworks burst in the sky above the sea, with shining and colourful sparks. In Paris, there was a firework display near the Eiffel Tower at the same time.
It's convenient to take a bus or train to have a one-day trip in the surrounding cities and towns, such as Antibes, Cannes, and Grasse, and even the principality of Monaco.
On the Number 100 bus to Monaco, I sat on the right side so I could enjoy the beautiful sea views. It's better to arrive early, to see the changing of the guard in front of the Prince's Palace at 11:55am.
There are ancient batteries on the palace square, where you can have a bird's-eye view of the Monte Carlo harbour. Rows of buildings dwarf the white ships at the port, with their reflections on the sea.
After that, I visited the magnificent palace and Museum of Napoleon Souvenirs. In the museum is former property of French Emperor Napoleon I, including documents and letters, and clothing and toys of his son, Napoleon II.
Monaco is the second-smallest country in the world, after Vatican City. You can take a sightseeing train to see the scenic spots, such as its Formula One circuit, the Monte Carlo Casino, the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco, and the Prince of Monaco's private vintage car collection.
Provence and the Cote d'Azur are places that you'll never got tired of. Although the journey ended, my willingness to make a second visit has never faded.
Small towns offer beauty, variety
It's one of the best places to watch lavenders. Be careful of bees when you're in the lavender field, and don't damage the flowers. Villagers have grown lavender for generations and earn a living by lavender planting and lavender-essence oil making. They hold the annual Lavender Festival on the third Sunday of July, when the villagers dress up in traditional costumes and parade on the street with lavender produce. As is the case in other Provence towns, you can buy perfume, essence oil, and soap made of lavender.
Sparkling with red colours under the blue sky, Roussillon is like a pretty painting. It's probably the best village to take photos. The villagers built their houses out of the local ochre and decorated the outside walls with different colours. When they build new houses, they will paint them red, to go with the village's unique style. Don't be surprised to see various colours of doors, windows and potted plants on the street. Numerous people used to work in Roussillon's quarries until the middle of the 20th century.
It looks like a pretty city in midair, with layers of white stone houses rooted in a sharp cliff. The narrow cobbled streets lead the way through tall houses.
Many artists have stayed in the village, including Andre Lhote, Marc Chagall and Victor Vasarely. There are various cultural events in summer such as concerts and exhibitions.
Just 2 km away is Senanque Abbey, where the monks grow lavender and tend honeybees for a living.
It takes about 20 minutes by high-speed rail to get from Avignon to Arles. The village became famous after inspiring artists Vincent Van Gogh and Pablo Picasso. Van Gogh finished more than 300 artworks during his 15 months here. It was his most productive time. Beside ancient Roman heritage, you can visit the scenery depicted in Van Gogh paintings such as Cafe Terrace at Night and Sunflowers.
Museum tells true story of lavender
Just a few kilometres from Gordes, the Lavender Museum tells the story of "true lavender" (a jargon used by growers), with exhibitions of objects related to it, such as different tools to distill essence oil. The Lincele family, founder and owner of the museum, has been growing and distilling lavender for five generations.
The museum's staff says it's essential to identify true lavender, which is more precious than the regular kind and has medical uses such as a disinfectant and an anti-parasite product.
According to the museum, true lavender grows only in the arid Provencal hills in altitudes above 800 metres. It's a small cluster, with only one flower on each stem. It takes about 130 kg of lavender flowers to distill 1 litre of essential oils.
Spike lavender, however, is in large clusters, with several spikes on a stem. Its scent is very strong. Another type of lavender is the hybrid of the two, which is often used to flavour detergent and make lavender sachets.