Where to go?
Renowned for its laid-back Mediterranean lifestyle, Provence’s natural treasures range from rocky coastal creeks to the back-country’s chalk outcrops, irrigated by the Rhône and her tributaries. This sun-kissed land, where the scent of rosemary and thyme fills the air, provides the ideal refuge for cicadas, who hum among its garrigues, olive groves and pine forests.
Regions and landscapes
Formation of the Land
Approximately 600–220 million years ago, during a period called the Primary Era, what is now Provence was covered by a sea that surrounded the continent of Tyrrhenia, contemporary with the Massif Central. Tyrrhenia was formed by crystalline rocks. Vestiges of this land mass included the Maures, Corsica, Sardinia and the Balearic Islands.
During the Secondary Era (220–60 million years ago), erosion gradually levelled Tyrrhenia; the Cretaceous Sea covered practically the whole region. Variations in sea level were caused by materials from the Primary strata carried down by rivers and deposited at the bottom of the sea, forming sedimentary deposits composed either of limestone (e.g. from Orgon) or marl and transformed into regular, parallel layers of rock (strata) in a strip of land lying east to west; this was the Durancen Isthmus.
The Tertiary Era (60–2 million years ago) was marked by important tectonic upheavals that uplifted the sedimentary cover and created the young folded mountains of the Alps and Pyrenees. The strata were uplifted and folded in an east–west direction, giving rise to the Provençal secondary mountains north of Marseille, Toulon and Draguignan (Ste-Baume, Ste-Victoire, Mont Ventoux, Baronnies, Alpilles, Luberon). The sea level rose to the present-day Rhône Valley, and while the Alpilles chain was thrust upwards, the Crau plain sank.
During the Quaternary Era (beginning about 2 million years ago) land mass development continued: Tyrrhenia was submerged beneath the present-day Mediterranean Sea leaving the Maures, Esterel and Canaille mountains. The relief adopted the form it has now, the Rhône corridor emerged, widened and became an important travel route.
The subsiding Crau plain modified the course of the River Durance so that it deviated to join the Rhône. Erosion during glaciation and interglacial periods put the final touches to the landscapes (calanques).
The plains, such as the Rhône delta, were formed by the constant deposits of alluvial sediments that reclaimed territory from the sea. These plains first spread over the Rhône’s east bank, Comtat Venaissin, then spread over both banks. On the west side of the river the plains extended to the Lower Languedoc dominated by the garrigues near Nîmes. To the east they became the fertile Petite Crau and Grande Crau.
Romans, medieval monks and small property holders throughout the centuries have improved the land with drainage and irrigation systems.
Two regions, especially, have profited from such systems: Comtat Venaissin and Petite Crau. Market gardens now cover the land creating a fine pattern of tiny plots separated by windbreaks of tall cypress and lower screens of reeds.
The Grande Crau, separated from Camargue by the Grand Rhône, is an immense desert of pebbles and boulders between which grow tufts of grass known locally as coussous. It was used traditionally for the winter pasturing of large flocks of sheep.
The expansion of the industrial zone of Fos and the clearing of the land of stones as well as the irrigation systems have transformed the area; it has lost its pastoral image and with it much of its charm.
Olive groves, almond trees, vineyards and undulating grassland make up the new wealth of these areas.
The Camargue is a man-made delta of recent alluvium or silt formed by the Rhône, which holds the sea back by means of dykes. The wetland thus created is one of France’s most picturesque regions. The sansouires, vast salt marshes, give the area the appearance of an untamed expanse.
Plateaux and mountains
The Provençal plains are flanked or penetrated by folded mountain chains lying east to west that rise quite abruptly, blocking the horizon. The relief often appears confused, presenting an undisciplined alternation of limestone heights and partitioned-off fertile basins: Apt country, Aigues country (south of Luberon), Aix country (irrigated by the Provence canal) where very varied crops (grain, vineyards, fruit, market gardening) are cultivated. East of the Rhône, from north to south, different landscapes follow one after the other.
The western fringe of the Baronnies form a complicated structure of hills and slopes of pure beauty wherein reign olive groves and the hybrid lavandin. Unique to Provence, the rocky summits of the Dentelles de Montmirail display a finely carved-out relief (dentelle means lace) of oak and pine forest with vineyards carpeting the slopes. Backed up against the Baronnies is Mont Ventoux, an imposing limestone massif that dominates the Comtadin plain at a height of 1 912m/6 275ft.
The Vaucluse plateau, also known as the Vaucluse hills, is a vast arid land of karstic relief devoted to raising sheep and to the cultivation of lavender. This limestone countryside is potted with chasms and carved out by gorges. An underground hydrographic network, still largely uncharted, penetrates the limestone and opens out at the Fontaine de Vaucluse.
The Montagne du Luberon stretches over some 60km/37mi. Cut in half north to south by the Lourmarin combe, it culminates in the Grand Luberon at Mourre Nègre (alt 1 125m/3 692ft). This region has some rugged but beautiful mountain sites to which villages cling precariously. There is a striking contrast between its wild, forest-clad north face and its more cultivated south face. In the middle of the Rhône plain stand two picturesque ranges: La Montagnette and Les Alpilles.
East of Aix, Montagne Ste-Victoire, a limestone mass pockmarked with caves and chasms, dominates the Aix basin, whereas to the southeast the Trévaresse and Vitrolles ranges bar it from the Étang de Berre. This lagoon is closed to the south by Chaîne de l’Estaque and is separated from the St-Mitre hills by the Caronte depression.
The Chaîne de l’Étoile, Chaîne St-Cyr, and Massif Marseilleveyre surround Marseille whereas on the horizon looms the long rocky barrier of the Massif de la Ste-Baume, which reaches an altitude of 1 147m/3 764ft at the Ste-Baume signal station.
West of the River Rhône, the Cévennes foothills lie north to south receding in the river’s direction and the vine-carpeted plain via the garrigues of Nîmes. A series of desolate limestone plateaux cut by canyons and gouged out by sometimes huge chasms succeed in tiers; it is an arid, rocky terrain only fit for grazing sheep. In the past, local people earned income by harvesting wild aromatic plants, olives and almonds, and by making goats’ cheese (migou). The countryside is criss-crossed by a multitude of dry-stone enclosures, in the middle of which once stood a modest hut (mazet) or capitelle, similar to the present-day dry-stone huts known as bories. There are, however, a few isolated fertile areas: the Uzès basin, the Vistre plain, and the Vaunage (southwest of Nîmes), which are devoted to growing crops, such as orchards and vineyards.
On its Provençal passage, the Rhône receives water to the west from the Ardèche and Gard rivers, which come down from the Cévennes, and to the east from the Aigues, Ouvèze and Durance rivers, which come down from the Alps. They all have the same appearance: a trickle of water in an oversized stony bed during periods of drought, a torrent of foaming water during rain storms. The Cévennes receive rainfalls of unusual severity – a single downpour can exceed the annual rainfall of Paris. The rivers expand dramatically. The Ardèche has risen 21m/69ft in one day and its flow has increased from 2.5cu m/88.3cu ft per second to 7 500cu m/264 855cu ft; frequently the water rises 10m/33ft and more. The heavy flow of the Ardèche cuts through the Rhône like a rocket, striking the dykes of the left bank across the way. These 5m/16.5ft high flash-floods are known as “the blows of the Ardèche” (les coups de l’Ardèche).
For the tributaries of the east that come down from the Alps, it is the melting snows that multiply the volume of water. The Durance, for example, expands up to 180 times its usual volume. Fortunately these spates occur in the spring, when the Ardèche and Gard rivers are low. On the other hand, the Durance is almost dry in winter and autumn while the rains from the Cévennes expand the tributaries of the west bank.
From the Languedoc coast to the Marseille calanques, the form of the coastline changes often. As far as the Golfe de Fos, the shoreline is marked by vast lagoons separated from the sea by narrow sand bars: the mass of alluvial deposits dropped by the Rhône and shaped by the coastal currents has formed offshore bars closing off the lagoons. The encroachment of sand has pushed old ports like Aigues-Mortes inland.
At the Chaîne de l’Estaque, limestone relief reappears and cuts the coastline. From Marseille to La Ciotat the littoral is cut into a great number of coves of which the deepest and most uneven are called calanques – they are in fact the submerged extremities of the valleys when the sea level rose after the Quaternary Era’s glacial period. Steep cliffs, brown and reddish rocks plunge vertically into the sea from which emerge a number of nearby islands. With small well-sheltered ports and lovely wild creeks, the calanques are nirvana for deep-sea divers and climbers.
The Mediterranean is the bluest of European seas. This deep cobalt, in painters’ parlance, arises from the great limpidity of the water.
The surface water temperature varies by 20°–25°C/68°–77°F in summer, falling to only 12°–13°C/53°–55°F in winter. At a depth of 200 to 4 000m/656 to 13 128ft, the temperature is a constant 13°C/55°F, an important factor in the climate: this great liquid mass cools the area in summer and warms it in winter. As a result of very rapid evaporation, the water is noticeably saltier than that of the Atlantic.
The sea’s tide is very slight, averaging 0.25m/9.8in and yet, strong winds can cause variations in height of as much as 1m/3.3ft. This relative stability has singled out the Mediterranean as base level for all the French coast’s altitudes.
A calm sea, with short, choppy waves, the Mediterranean can suddenly become violent. When the mistral wind rises, often with little or no warning, dangerous storms can surprise unsuspecting yachtsmen.
In addition to its beautiful countryside, backdropped by a luminous sky, Provence possesses a unique natural habitat.
Climate and zones
All vegetation is closely dependent on climatic conditions. In Provence, flowering occurs during the spring, although there is a second blossoming in the autumn that goes on well into winter. The dormant period is during the summer, when the climate’s heat only permits plants that are especially adapted to resist drought to grow, such as those with long taproots, glazed leaves that reduce transpiration, bulbs that act as reservoirs of moisture and a protective perfumed vapour. The olive tree and holm oak mark out the distinctly Mediterranean zones, known as garrigues. In Haute-Provence the garrigues disappear to be replaced by forest cover (downy oak, Scots pine, beech) and moors (broom, lavender, boxwood).
In the Vivarais, chestnut trees add an unusual touch to the landscape.
The Greeks brought olive trees to Provence 2 500 years ago because they grow equally well in limestone or sandy soils. The olive has been called the immortal tree since, grafted or wild, it will continually renew itself. Those grown from cuttings die relatively young, at 300 years of age. Along the coast the trees reach gigantic dimensions attaining 20m/65.6ft in height, their domes of silver foliage 20m/65.6ft in circumference and trunks 4m/13ft round the base. The olive tree – there are more than 60 varieties – will grow at altitudes of up to 600m/1 969ft, mainly on valley floors and hillsides, often mingling with almond and fig trees. Its presence marks the limit of the Mediterranean climate. It begins to bear fruit between 6 and 12 years of age and is in full yield at 20–25 years; it is harvested every two years. Locals cultivate early vegetables in the shade of the light-coloured, evergreen foliage of the olive tree.
There are several varieties of oaks.
The holm oak (Quercus ilex) has a short thick-set trunk with a wide-spreading thick dome. It grows on arid, calcareous soil at less than 1 000m/3 282ft. It is an evergreen oak, the leaves of which remain a fine dark green. In stunted form it is a characteristic element of the garrigues in association with all sorts of shrubs and aromatic plants.
The kermes, or scrub oak, is a bushy evergreen shrub rarely exceeding 1m/3.3ft in height. It has a trunk of grey bark with a thick dome of shiny, tough, ragged and prickly leaves. Its name, kermes, comes from the scale-insect that lives on its branches and from which a bright red dye is obtained. The tree can grow on stone-free dry soil but prefers fertile, cool soil.
The downy oak or pubescent oak (Quercus pubescens) is a deciduous tree; the undersides of the leaves are covered with dense short white hairs. It requires more water than the evergreens noted above. The downy oak can be found in the valleys and on the more humid mountain slopes. It is at times found with the maple, service tree and rowan. In its undergrowth grow a variety of shrubs and flowers, most notably the orchid. Truffles develop around the roots of this tree.
The three types of pine found in the Mediterranean can be easily distinguished by their shape.
The maritime pine (Pinus pinaster) grows on limestone soil; its foliage is dark blue-green, the bark an orange-red.
The umbrella or stone pine (Pinus pinea) is one of the Mediterranean’s most characteristic sights; it owes its name to its easily recognisable shape. It is often found growing alone.
The Aleppo pine (Pinus halepensis) is a Mediterranean species that grows well in the chalky soil along the coast. Its foliage is light and graceful; its grey bark-covered trunk twists as it grows.
Other provençal trees
In towns and villages, the streets and squares are shaded by the smooth-barked plane trees or the dark green canopy of the branching lotus tree (micocoulier), which yields a fruit mentioned by Homer in the Odyssey as inducing a state of dreamy forgetfulness and loss of desire to return home – hence lotus-eaters. Some have identified it as the jujube tree.
The outline of the dark cypress, a coniferous evergreen, marks the Mediterranean landscape with its tapered form pointed towards the sky. It is often planted in serried ranks to form a windbreak.
The cypress variety with scattered branches is used for reforestation.
The rosaceous species, the most common almond tree prevalent in Provence, bears lovely early spring pink blossoms.
The noble elm tree has practically disappeared from the landscape.
There are not many forests in Provence and those that exist grow especially in the mountain ranges below 1 600m/5 251ft.
Fine forests of holm or downy oak grow in Grand Luberon, on Montagne Ste-Victoire, and on the Vaucluse plateau.
Petit Luberon is covered with a cedar forest. Beech tree forests grow on the north face of the Massif de la Ste-Baume. A moor of broom spreads along the limestone peaks.
The designation of the word forest beyond these areas indicates copses carpeting vast areas north of the Durance.
The word comes from the Provençal language – garriga – and defines an area of second-growth vegetation that appears on calcareous soils in the Mediterranean region following the destruction of the forest. Small garrigues can be found in most parts of Provence, but the vast stretch north of Nîmes, carved deeply by the River Gardon, is what most people think of when they hear “garrigue”. Here the low limestone hills are interspersed with minute parcels of land between the outcrops of white calcareous rock; sometimes the rain has washed the soil down into the valleys leaving vast rocky table lands.
The sparse vegetation is mostly composed of holm oaks, stunted downy oaks, thistles, gorse and cistus, as well as lavender, thyme and rosemary. Short dry grass also provides pasture for flocks of sheep.
In addition to the wild aromatic plants that grow in the garrigues, herbs such as basil, marjoram, savory, sage, melissa, mint, laurel and absinth are cultivated commercially.
The natural habitat of Provence is under constant attack due to the influx of tourists, and to industrial and urban development.
The Provençal forest is particularly vulnerable to fires (those of 1979, 1985, and 1986 were catastrophic), the majority of which are due to negligence or arson (most recently in 2005). Over time, these fires gradually disrupt the ecological balance. The oak forests are receding and the soil remains barren for a long period of time. Fire prevention and public awareness (especially that of tourists) will best help combat this devastating problem.
The fast-developing urbanisation and industrialisation programmes in Provence have dealt a heavy blow to the beauty of many natural sites.
The Fos-sur-Mer industrial complex spreads out over the Plaine de la Crau; the area around Étang de Berre, especially its eastern side, has become the bustling suburb (airport, refineries, etc.) of Marseille. In 1957, owing to the high level of polluted water, fishing was strictly forbidden in the lagoon. Discharge of used water from the surrounding towns, St-Martin-de-Crau’s rubbish tip and Marseille’s main sewer flow into the Calanque Cortiou were all harmful.
Sadly, increased traffic in the region has necessarily resulted in the construction of more and more road networks that are cutting up the countryside and diminishing natural land.
Caves and chasms
In contrast to the deeply dissected green valleys with their settlements, the Bas Vivarais limestone plateaux roll away to the far horizon, grey and deserted. The calcareous nature of the rock absorbs rain like a sponge and makes the soil very dry.
At the end of the last century, the methodical, scientific exploration of the underground world, with which the name of Édouard-Alfred Martel is associated, led to the discovery of a number of caves, which have become a tourist attraction.
In 1935 Robert de Joly explored Aven d’Orgnac and encountered its wealth of cave formations. Later on, the discovery of a gaping hole in the chasm led in 1965 to the discovery of a vast network of upper galleries. Our knowledge of the underground system is at present very incomplete and a great many chasms remain unknown to speleologists.
Rainwater, charged with carbonic acid, dissolves the carbonate of lime in the region’s limestone. Depressions then form that are usually circular in shape and small in size and are known as cloups or sotchs. This dissolution of the limestone rocks, containing salt or gypsum, produces rich soil particularly suitable for growing crops. When the cloups increase in size they form large, closed depressions known as dolines. Where rainwater infiltrates deeply through the fissures in the plateau, the hollowing out and dissolution of the calcareous layer produces wells or natural chasms that are called avens or igues. Little by little the chasms lengthen and branch off, communicating with each other and widening out into caves.
The infiltrating waters finally produce underground galleries and collect to form a more or less swift flowing river. The river widens its course and often changes level, falling in cascades. Where the rivers run slowly they form lakes, above natural dams, known as gours, which are raised layer by layer by deposits of carbonate of lime. The dissolution of the limestone also continues above the water level in these subterranean galleries: blocks of stone fall from the roof and domes form, the upper parts pointing towards the surface of the earth. Such is the case with the Upper Chamber at Orgnac, which lies only a few feet beneath the surface of the plateau. When the roof of the dome wears thin it may cave in, revealing the cavity from above and opening the chasm.
As water circulates below ground it deposits the lime it carries, building up concretions of shapes that seem to defy the laws of gravity and equilibrium.
In some caverns, the seeping waters produce calcite (carbonate of lime) deposits that form pendants, pyramids, and draperies. The best known calcite formations are stalactites, stalagmites, and eccentrics.
Stalactites are formed from the cave roof. Each water droplet seeping through to the ceiling deposits on it some of the calcite with which it is charged, before dripping off. Gradually the concretion builds up layer by layer as the drops are attrac²ted and run down its length, depositing particles before falling.
Stalagmites rise from the floor towards the roof. Drops of water, dripping from the roof in the same place, deposit the calcite particles they carry and build up to form a candle-like shape. This rises towards a stalactite with which it ultimately joins to form a pillar linking the cave floor with the ceiling. Concretions form very slowly indeed; the rate of growth in a temperate climate is about 1cm/0.4in every 100 years.
The eccentrics are fine protuberances which seldom exceed 20cm/8in in length. They emerge at any angle, either as slender spikes, or in the shape of small, translucent fans. They are formed by crystallisation and seem to disregard gravity. Aven d’Orgnac, Aven de Marzal and Grotte de la Madeleine contain some remarkable examples.
People in the Camargue work two large salt marshes: one is south of Aigues-Mortes and spreads over 10 000ha/24 700 acres; the other is south of Salin-de-Giraud and covers over 11 000ha/27 170 acres.
Already improved by the monks in the 13C, the salt marshes increased production in the mid-19C, progressed and then decreased. The present-day global annual production is evaluated at c. 850 000 metric tons.
France is split on an administrative level into 22 metropolitan and four overseas régions, which are administered by elected regional councils. These are furthermore divided into 100 départements (equivalent to a district or county), in turn administered by general councils. Provence encompasses an area included in three régions, consisting of six départements: Gard in the Languedoc-Roussillon région to the west; Drôme and Ardèche in the Rhône-Alpes région to the north; and Bouches-du-Rhône, Var and Vaucluse in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur région to the east.
This popular game is emblematic of Provence: long lazy evenings and animated debates. Contests are played between teams of three (triplettes) or four (quadrettes), amid attentive and enthusiastic spectators. The pointeurs have to throw their balls, which are weighted with iron, as near as possible to a smaller ball (cochonnet), which has been set at the end of the bowling ground; the tireurs have then to dislodge the balls of the opposing team by striking them with their own. The most skilful succeed in doing this and in taking the exact place of their adversary (faire le carreau). Over short distances play is à la pétanque, standing within a circle, feet together. Over longer distances, above 10m/33ft, the game is called la longue; the tireurs take a running start and throw their balls after having made three hopping steps from the throwing point.
Among all these shirt-sleeved players, the two Provençal types form a real contrast. One, a native of the mountains, somewhat reserved and distant, shows his pleasure or his disappointment by a smile or frown. The other enacts quite a little drama, which has been happily described:
“Here then is the last ball; it rolls out before the player and you can watch its progress in his face; he broods over it, protects it with his gaze; gives it advice, strives to make it obedient to his voice, hurries or slows its course, encourages it with a gesture or urges it on with a heave of his shoulder, slackens it with his hand; perched on tiptoe, his arm flung out, his face animated by a wealth of varying emotions, he wriggles his body in bizarre undulations; one could almost say that his soul had passed into the ball.”
Play is frequently held up by noisy, heated arguments about the distances separating the various balls from the cochonnet. Play resumes once measurements have been taken, often with small branches or twigs broken off a nearby tree.
The unforgettable scene in the Bar de la Marine, where a group of locals take part in a game of manille, with the colourful dialogue that typified Marcel Pagnol’s work, exemplifies the importance of card games in Provençal society. Provence was the first place in France where playing cards appeared. Minutes drawn up by a Marseille notary, dated 30 August 1381, prohibiting a merchant of the city from playing nahipi or naïbi, a sort of Happy Families card game, attest to the fact. This card game is nowadays considered the ancestor of modern-day tarot. Following their likely origins in the imperial Chinese court, playing cards reached the Occident during the course of the 13C, via Venetian bankers and merchants, or via the hordes of Tartars from central Asia. Venetian artists, hitherto devoted to religious and secular canvases, succumbed to this trend of painting on card and parchment. Marseille was soon drawn to the charms of this new pastime, as was the Comtat Venaissin, with its close ties with Italy. The 15C gave rise to the game cinq cents, also known as the Marseillais. The first “professional” card makers appeared around 1631. With the development of new xylographic and typographic processes, replacing wooden printing moulds with copper ones, card production continued to increase dramatically, reaching a rate of 180 000 packs a year by the end of the 17C. The 18C was for Marseille the epoch of tarot, which originated in Italy. Apart from the set manufactured by Jean Noblet in Paris during the 17C, the oldest tarot cards, said to have been made in Marseille, actually appeared in Avignon in 1713, a city where card makers were exempt from tax.
This privilege was removed in 1754, at which time Marseille established itself as the leading manufacturer. Marseille tarot, the French version of Venetian tarot, from which it copied 78 signs, provided the game with its definitive form, principally under the aegis of the master tarot maker Nicolas Conver, who produced a particularly attractive set of cards in 1760. The Tarot de Marseille, which was adopted by clairvoyants and soothsayers alike, was also to act as a support for another regional game in the 18C, the Portrait de Marseille.
However, the following century the Camoin company, with its exports worldwide, was to distance itself from its competitors by producing over a million sets a year, based on traditional expertise acquired over more than two centuries. The company finally closed its doors in 1974, though its sparkling creations can still be admired in the large collection housed in the Musée du Vieux-Marseille.
Festivals and Costumes
The people of Provence have always had a taste for celebration. In the past it was the men who were in charge of the festivities. The fairs, either secular or religious (remnants of Christian celebrations mixed with pagan tendencies), were numerous. There are the feast days that occur throughout the year, and the larger festivals, more or less traditional, attracting thousands of people in a typically colourful Provençal atmosphere.
In April and September, Nîmes and Arles try to outdo each other with their famous férias, via the corrida (bullfights) or course camarguaise, where men called raseteurs attempt to grab a rosette (cocarde) from between a bull’s horns. The latter continues to take place throughout the summer in arenas across the Camargue.
Also in the Camargue, the Féria du Cheval in July celebrates the region’s four-legged friends – the horse and, of course, the bull.
In canal town Martigues, the Venetian Water Festival includes a nocturnal procession of decorated boats as well as water jousting.
Families will love the Tarasque Festival in Tarascon at the end of June, which celebrates the killing of a mythical medieval monster.
And of course there are the theatre, opera and dance festivals. Be it Avignon, Aix-en-Provence, Orange, Vaison-la-Romaine, Carpentras, Salon-de-Provence or Arles, each of these cities is the venue for an annual artistic festival of top quality.
Most of the festivals are a wonderful opportunity to listen to the fife and tambourin so delightfully characteristic of the Provence region. The farandole is a Mediterranean dance that dates back to the Middle Ages if not to Antiquity, and was danced throughout Arles country. Young men and women, holding either each other’s hands or a handkerchief, dance to a six-beat rhythm. The typically Provençal instruments played by the tambourinaires are the galoubet, a small three-holed flute that produces a piercing sound, and the tambourin, a type of drum 75cm/29.5in high and 35cm/13.8in wide, beaten by a massette held in the right hand while the other hand holds the galoubet. On the drum itself, the head of which is made from calfskin, is stretched the chanterelle, a thin strand of hemp or a violin string that produces a rasping sound, poetically called the “song of the cicada”.
Christmas in Provence
Celebrations surrounding the end of the year begin on 4 December, the feast day of St Barbe, and end at Candlemas on 2 February. The locals start by sowing their “Christmas wheat” (lou blad de Calendo) on 4 December. When it starts to sprout, they place it above the fireplace. Three weeks later, people use it as decoration beside the crib or as a centrepiece for the long banquet table. Preparations for the crib take place on the Sunday before Christmas, but it is only at midnight on 25 December that the infant Jesus is laid in the crib. That same night, the whole family ritually performs Cacho-Fio, a ceremony during which a Christmas log (bûche de Noël) is blessed with a fortified wine and taken round the house three times, before being burned. The family may then be seated to begin their Christmas feast. The table, covered with three overlapping tablecloths, is laid with three chandeliers and three saucers containing the Christmas wheat, as well as 13 loaves of bread. The meal ends with the traditional 13 desserts (mendiants:walnuts and hazelnuts, figs, almonds and raisins; fresh fruit; black and white nougat; pompe à huile,a flat, brittle loaf made with olive oil). Midnight Mass starts with lou Pastrage: the shepherd, the miller and the ancestors enter the church, where the priest lays the infant Jesus in the crib. Then the bells are rung, inviting the procession of shepherds to enter the church: they draw a small cart with a lamb, an offering made to the Infant Jesus. Mass continues with a series of Christmas songs and carols, which retraces the steps of Joseph who was seeking refuge for the night. On 31 December, Provençal people always celebrate the New Year (an nou) together as a family. On the first Sunday in January, they pay tribute to the Magi and throughout the month of January, in honour of the Three Wise Men, they eat Twelfth Night cake (galette des rois), a crown-shaped bun decorated with crystallised fruit and containing a lucky charm (fève). These Christmas festivities end on 2 February with Candlemas (Chandeleur), the feast marking the Purification of the Virgin Mary and the presentation of Christ in the Temple 40 days after his birth. Celebrations involve a procession of green church candles. In Marseille, one also eats navettes, small boat-shaped biscuits that evoke the arrival of the Saintes Maries in Provence.
It was thanks to the commercial relationship between Marseille and the Mediterranean ports of the Levant that Provence discovered Oriental fabrics. Since the end of the 17C, it has made these its own by adopting printed floral calicos and stitching and quilting techniques. The characteristic patterns of colourful motifs now known as “Provençal prints” are the result of a long evolution of methods and fashions.
Traditional costume in Arles is but one of several different costumes worn all over Provence. It is a reminder of the diversity of the clothing worn by the various social milieux of days gone by: the fisherman’s wife of the Vieux Port of Marseille, with the flaps of her coif blowing about in the wind; the flowergirl; the country farmer’s wife; the washerwoman; or the peasant woman with her striped underskirts, her huge apron of deep purple canvas and the capuch or capelino, which envelops her head.
In their traditional festive costume (there is an excellent collection in the Museon Arlaten in Arles), women from Arles wear long colourful skirts and a black under-blouse (eso) with tight sleeves; on top a pleated shirt is covered with a shawl either made of white lace or matching the skirt. There are different varieties of headdress, all worn on top of a high bun: à la cravate (white percale knotted like rabbits’ ears); à ruban (with a lace-trimmed velvet ribbon); or en ailes de papillon (“butterfly wings” of lace).
The men’s costume is less colourful. They wear a white shirt knotted at the collar by a thin tie or ribbon, sometimes covered by a dark-coloured vest upon which hangs a watch chain; canvas trousers are held at the waist by a wide red or black woollen belt. They wear black felt hats with a wide, tilted brim.
Food and Wine
A succulent cuisine
Provençal cooking is characterised by garlic and food fried in oil. Garlic was praised by many poets as the “truffle of Provence”, the “divine condiment”, this “friend of man.” Oil (preferably olive oil) replaced butter in all the Provençal dishes.
An old Provençal saying goes, “A fish lives in water and dies in hot oil.”
This famous Provençal dish traditionally comprises “the three fishes”: the spiny red hog-fish, gurnet and conger eel (rascasse, grondin, congre). Cooks add as many other fish as are available: sea bass (loup), turbot, sole, red mullet (rouget), monkfish (lotte) and crustaceans such as crabs, spider crabs (araignées de mer), mussels (moules) and sometimes, spiny lobsters (langoustes) or crawfish.
These sea delights are cooked together very rapidly in a bouillon, emulsified with a small quantity of olive oil and seasoned with salt, pepper, onion, tomato, saffron, garlic, thyme, bay leaf, sage, fennel, orange peel, and maybe a glass of white wine or Cognac – the magic of the results depends on the seasoning.
A rouille (pronounced roo-EE), or paste, of Spanish peppers, served at the same time, sharpens the sauce and gives it colour.
In a restaurant one is usually presented with a soup plate and toast with which to line it. Some people then spread some of the toast with the rouille; others mix it directly into the thickened bouillon soup that arrives in a tureen. To your plateful of toast, rouille and soup, you then add bits of the assorted cooked fish and crustaceans. Bouillabaisse is a main dish. The fish must be fresh and the dish freshly prepared. It is not a stew: the actual cooking time is only ten minutes.
The other great Provençal speciality is a mayonnaise made with garlic, egg yolks, lemon juice, olive oil and sometimes mustard. It is served with hors-d’œuvres, asparagus and other vegetables, and also as a sauce with bourride, the fish soup made from angler fish (baudroie), sea bass (loup) and whiting (merlan). It is also the name of a complete dish consisting of boiled vegetables (carrots, potatoes and green beans), boiled fish (cod) and boiled eggs served with the mayonnaise.
Fish and crustaceans
Local fish dishes include red mullet (rouget) cooked whole, sea bass (loup) grilled with fennel or vine shoots, and brandade de morue, a thick and creamy mash of pounded cod, olive oil and milk, seasoned with crushed garlic.
Fish specialities are associated with individual towns. For Marseille, in addition to bouillabaisse, there are clams (clovisses), ascidia or iodine-rich sea-squirts (violets), mussels (moules) and sea urchins (oursins), all of which you will find easily in the small restaurants around the Vieux Port. In St-Rémy you will encounter the catigau, a dish of grilled or smoked Rhône eel in sauce. In the Camargue, look for tellines (edible moluscs) served with a pungent sauce.
Fruit and vegetables
Raw onion and tomatoes, common favourites among vegetables, are followed closely by cardoons (vegetable related to the artichoke, served in white sauce), fennel, peppers, courgettes and aubergines. The art of Provençal cuisine resides in the wide variety of its cooking methods: gratin dishes baked in the oven (tians), soups, salads, stews, fritters, stuffed vegetables, and the like. The most popular fruit is the small green fig or Marseille fig: a juicy, sweet fruit. Peaches, apricots, strawberries, cherries, and grapes are all top quality, not to mention the deliciously fragrant melons from Cavaillon and also watermelons.
Local olives are both the small, meaty green and black varieties, which are left whole, pitted or stuffed. There is the green olive, picked early then marinated, which comes from Nîmes, and the black olive of Nyons preserved in brine. Nyons and Carpentras are the main olive producing centres.
Provençal artisinal cheeses abound in the weekly markets throughout the region, as well as in speciality shops (fromagerie) and covered markets, such as Les Halles in Avignon. Provence is renowned for its sheep- (brebis) and goats’ milk cheeses, which often come in the form of small, palm-sized packages: firm, semi-soft and soft. These cheeses impart the flavours of the hillside aromatic plants upon which the sheep and goats grazed, enriching their milk. A must-taste salad is salade de Chèvre Chaud: the well-dressed greens are topped with toasted slices of baguette covered in melting goat’s cheese and herbs.
Among the numerous Provençal specialities are the pieds-et-paquets (sheep tripe and feet) from Marseille; Arles’ sausages (saucissons),often made from bull meat; gardianne de taureau, bull stew from the Camargue; Avignon’s preserved melons; Aix’s calissons (almond paste sweets with sugar icing); and berlingots, hard candies from Carpentras. In Nîmes try brandade de morue (cod fish mash); in Apt, crystallised fruits; Sault’s nougat; Nyons’ black olives; and Modane’s special bread, which is split and stuffed with crystallised fruit.
It was the Greeks who first cultivated vines in Provence on the hills around Massalia (present-day Marseille) and the lower Rhône Valley.
During the Middle Ages, it was the full-bodied red wines of Provence that enjoyed the greatest renown. Only when King René encouraged the production of rosé in the 15C did the red wines’ domination of the area loosen. Following the spread of phylloxera, it was not until after 1918 that the vineyards of Provence regained prominence. Over the past 20 years, winemakers have made huge leaps in quality, largely due to strict selection processes and to a complex blending of grapes. Provençal wines are characterised by the blending of several grape varieties in the same wine. This technique was devised in order to anticipate climatic changes (such as drought, which can be aggravated by the mistral winds) since these, under certain circumstances, can have an unpredictable effect on the ripening of the grape. In the course of time, Mediterranean French stock has been mixed with Spanish and Italian transplants, with the following drawback: the wines occasionally lack consistency and there are doubts about their ability to age.
The fruity rosé wines of Provence, with their sparkling colour, have become immensely popular. Having fully benefited from the introduction of the new vinification process, the wines are now developing greater balance, possess a delightful bouquet and are fresh on the palate, especially when enjoyed young. Compared to rosé wines from other parts of the world, they are dry and vibrant.
The mainly dry whites, with a similarly delicate bouquet, are a perfect accompaniment for fish and seafood dishes.
The contrasting Provençal vineyards have led to a wide variety of rapidly improving reds, ranging from generous and full bodied to supple, delicate wines.
In addition to unique wines, Provence also has its own wine-producing vocabulary: an avis is a wine shoot; a tine is a vat; and a crotte is a cellar.
Southern Côtes du Rhône wines
They feature many prestigious appellations such as Lirac, Tavel, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Rasteau, Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise, Côtes du Ventoux and Côtes du Luberon, as well as the regional Côtes du Rhône-Villages.
The right bank of the Rhône offers some fine wines such as Tavel, one of the most popular French wines sold abroad. This is a smooth, crystalline rosé, described as “sunlight trapped in a bottle” by the poet Ronsard. North of Tavel, the Coteaux de Lirac yield delicate, full-bodied reds and rosés. Listel is a rosé wine (vin gris du sable) from the Aigues-Mortes region.
To the west, the balanced Costières de Nîmes reds are elegant and powerful although they are not technically part of the Côtes du Rhône appellation.
On the left bank, the warm, structured Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation is one of the most famous names in the Côtes du Rhône area. The reds, characterised by a dark robe (colour) as well as spicy, woody and peppery aromas, are definitely wines for laying down. The whites have a bouquet reminiscent of flowers.
Vacqueyras produces well-constructed reds and elegant whites. The Séguret vineyard yields heady, scented wines; those of Cairanne, tannic wines that will improve with age.
Gigondas is a red wine that needs to age in oak casks for a few years; in this respect it can be likened to Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
The Côtes du Lubéron reds are light and should be drunk young whereas the whites tend to be fresh and fine. Red wines from the Côtes du Ventoux are both structured and tannic, made with grapes that have ripened on the exposed slopes of Mont Ventoux; the lighter varieties should be drunk very young, barely a few months after the harvest (vins de primeur).
Dessert wines are represented by Rasteau, with its red or amber robe, and by Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise, renowned for its golden robe and strong bouquet with notes of flower and fruit. They are made by adding alcohol to the the grape juice during the fermentation process, which ensures that the wine is rich in sugar. The Rasteau and Beaumes-de-Venise vineyards are also used to produce red and rosé Côtes du Rhône.
In the hills of southern Provence, the wines of Cassis have a great reputation, particularly the flower-scented dry whites, though the velvety reds are equally exceptional.
The outskirts of Aix-en-Provence are home to the small Palette appellation, a smooth tannic red, often referred to as the “Claret of Provence”. Only two landlords share this vineyard, which features the famous Château Simone.
The Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence produce warm reds and dry, lively whites.
The Baux-de-Provence appellation is used for red, white and rosé wines that may be drunk young.
The Côtes de Provence appellation, on the boundary of this guide around the Massif de la Sainte-Baume, are best represented by its rosés, offering various flavours and textures.
Finally, you can also sample pleasant country wines (vins de pays), including those made in La Petite Crau and the Principality of Orange.