Things to see and do - Provence
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Provence Leisure tips
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Provence is famous the world over for its colourful landscapes and its relaxed way of life, along with its mouthwatering regional produce and cuisine; it’s precisely these desirable attributes that drive a thriving tourist industry. The region still retains a strong cultural identity, most evident in its year-round events calendar, in spite of increased industrialisation and farming.
The beginning of this century has seen Provence posing a familiar question to itself: how to combine modern development and growth, with Marseille being the second-largest city in France, while maintaining their fiercely proud Occitan identity, which has inspired artists and visitors and provided a melting pot for Mediterranean culture throughout its long history.
Provence has a population of around 4.5 million inhabitants, of which 839 000 inhabit the metropolitan area of Marseille; and of which 50% are of working age. The region boasts a growing population with around 55 000 births and around 20 000 marriages per year. Provence also enjoys a higher life expectancy at birth than the rest of the country. Interestingly, it has also become popular with second-home owners, with twice the percentage of second homes than the national average.
The Provençal way of life is synonymous with a tranquil and easygoing charm, epitomised by its Mediterranean climate and alluring scenery. It is fused with bustling markets that can be found on any day of the week in most villages, where the wares of local artisans and fresh farm produce create a forum for communal life, and by the festivals or férias , which bring communities together in celebration.
Roman Catholicism is the religion of the majority of France, where there are also significant minorities who practise Islam, Protestantism and Judaism. Laïcité , the French concept regarding the separation of Church and State, allows citizens the freedom to practice the religion of their choosing. In this context, religion is seen as a private matter and people generally refrain from discussing their beliefs openly.
As well as enjoying France’s passion for sports such as football and cycling, Provence also enjoys regional sports such as pétanque , a form of bowls played with steel boules , which developed from the 17C sport called jeu provençal . Course camarguaise , a bloodless (at least for the bulls!) form of bullfighting where raseteurs snatch rosettes called cocardes from the head of a young bull, is regularly contested in villages as well as during festivals in Arles and Nîmes.
As well as Marseille-based newspapers such as La Provence and La Marseillaise , the region is also served by the France Bleu Provence radio station (101.8–103.6 FM) along with local television stations.
Of all the regions of France, Provence is perhaps the place where the local economy has undergone the greatest changes in the past 50 years. These changes have come about due to the transformation of the agricultural sector, increased industrialisation – especially along the coast – adaptation to large-scale tourism, and runaway urbanisation.
Facets of agriculture
Rural life in the past depended on three crops – wheat, vineyards and olives. These, with sheep raising and a variety of other products gathered locally (herbs, almonds), ensured the existence of small farmers. However, this traditional polyculture has all but disappeared and been replaced by modern speculative agriculture, making the most out of Provence’s natural resources, thus turning it into the garden of France.
The alluvial soil of the Rhône plain, the high mean temperature, and irrigation schemes favoured the development of early market gardening and fruit growing, producing several crops a year in the Comtat Venaissin and Petite Crau. The whole region is now divided up into parcels of land protected from the mistral winds by screens of cypress trees and reeds.
Strawberries, tomatoes and melons from Carpentras, asparagus, new potatoes and melons from Cavaillon, cabbage from Rognonas, asparagus from Lauris, cherries from Remoulins, and peaches, pears and apricots from the Rhône Valley are all sold in markets throughout France and the world.
Early produce, picked in the morning, is either sold to a private packer or sent to a cooperative where it is sorted, graded, packed and conditioned. Cooperatives have been established in places such as St-Rémy, Châteaurenard, Barbentane, Cabannes and St-Andiol, west of Cavaillon, among others.
From the main railway hubs (Châteaurenard, Cavaillon, Carpentras, Barbentane, Avignon), high-speed trains transport the early produce up the Rhône Valley to Paris and other large cities.
Cereals and vineyards
The area between Arles and Tarascon, once the centre for growing wheat in Provence, is now producing maize, rape and rice as well. The windmills so dear to Alphonse Daudet have been replaced by modern milling machinery.
Vineyards occupy some 110 000ha/424sq mi and in the plains produce large quantities of table wine (vin ordinaire) . On the hillside, where the vineyards are cultivated with care, a delicate wine is produced carrying the general name Côtes du Rhône (whose most celebrated vintage is Châteauneuf-du-Pape). It has an estimated 15 000ha/37 050 acres of vineyards that produce high-quality wine.
Lavender and lavandin
The delicate scent of lavender is characteristic of Provence. This plant is well suited to the climate and calcareous soils of Provence and Haute-Provence. Lavandin , a more productive but less fragrant hybrid, is cultivated on the lower slopes (400–700m/1 312–2 297ft) and in the valleys. Today, about 8 400ha/20 748 acres of lavender are cultivated as well as 2 350ha/5 805 acres of lavandin . The harvest takes place from July to September according to the region. Though mostly mechanised, the inaccessible or closely planted older fields are still picked by hand. After drying for two to three days, the picked lavender is sent to a distillery. One hundred kilos (220lb) of lavender blossom are needed to produce one litre (0.2gal) of essence (the same amount of lavandin flowers yields 10l/2.6gal).
Lavender essence is reserved for the perfume and cosmetic industries whereas the hybrid lavandin is for perfumed laundry, soap and cleaning products.
Lavender fields can be spotted on the Vaucluse plateau and in the Drôme and Gard départements , north of Nîmes.
Almonds and olives
Almond trees, which grow all round the shores of the Mediterranean, were first imported into France from Asia in 1548. The development of later-blossoming varieties has led to increased cultivation. The most famous of the local almond confectionery are calissons from Aix, lozenge-shaped almond-based sweets coated in white sugar icing.
The silver-green of the olive groves is a common sight in the country round Salon and Nyons.
Sometimes, in the olive plantations, old trees have been cut low to the ground and four suckers can be seen growing in a crown-like shape; these create handsome new trees. The black olives of Nyons, preserved in brine, are a delicacy.
At the Pont du Gard, a magnificent 1 100 year old olive tree, still bearing fruit, stands sentry as you approach the Roman aqueduct.
The truffle is an edible, subterranean fungus that develops from the mycelium, a network of filaments invisible to the naked eye. They live symbiotically with the root of the downy oak, known in Provence as the white oak. The truffle is harvested in winter when it is ripe and fragrant.
These small, stunted downy oaks are planted in rows in fields called truffières . They are found mainly in south Tricastin, Comtat Venaissin, the Claparèdes plateau and in the Luberon. A superficial breaking-up of the soil and a specified pruning favours the truffle crop, which is harvested from November to April and marketed mostly in Apt, Carpentras, Richerenches, Uzès and Valréas, where several tons of this “black diamond” pass through annually.
Lime trees and herbs
Although found in most parts of France, the lime tree (tilleul) is cultivated mainly in Provence between Buis-les-Baronnies and Carpentras. At the end of the 19C, the lime tree grew alongside most French roads, whereas today it is planted in orchards and pruned.
The flower is picked in June, depending on the blooming, dried in a shaded, airy dry room, then sold in bags or by the ounce for tea. Mixtures of aromatic plants called herbes de Provence have doubled in popularity in recent years. Certain varieties are cultivated traditionally: basil and marjoram are cultivated around St-Rémy-de-Provence, tarragon on the Vaucluse plateau, whereas other varieties such as thyme, rosemary and savory are still gathered from the hillsides where they grow wild, and supply a large proportion of the herbs gathered.
Sheep raising is an essential resource of all Mediterranean rural economies. Wool, no longer profitable, was abandoned and the sheep are now reared for meat.
The merino variety from Arles is predominant in the Bouches-du-Rhône département , however, the area allocated to it diminishes daily. The sheep graze on the meagre coussouls from the Plaine de la Crau from 15 October to 15 June. They are then moved up to Alpine pastures. Once a picturesque procession through villages and rugged countryside (known as transhumance), the transfer of the sheep is now done in trucks. In the garrigues , flocks of sheep graze on the sparse vegetation. They spend the summer in Larzac, or in the Lozère mountains.
The Camargue is famous for the black bulls and white horses who live in semi-liberty in herds called manades .
Fishing is a traditional activity in the ports of Languedoc (Le Grau-du-Roi) and Provence (Port-St-Louis, Martigues, Carry-le-Rouet, Marseille, Cassis). But it frequently suffers from the effects of water pollution. Nevertheless, fishermen in these areas annually catch several thousand tonnes of sardines, anchovies, mackerel and eel. The sight of sailor-fishermen unloading their catch and drying their nets still remains one of the ports’ most attractive scenes.
In Marseille, the port of Saumaty, located at the foot of the Estaque, can shelter as many as 180 trawlers (1 400m/4 593ft of quays) and offers all the necessary equipment for the preservation of fish.
Small fishing boats still supply the fishmongers of Marseille’s Vieux Port. The hustle and bustle and the sing-song cries of the stallholders create a lively, timeless atmosphere that seems to have come straight out of Marcel Pagnol’s novels.
In the 1930s, Provence witnessed spectacular industrial development.
Around Étang de Berre a vast industrial complex was built: oil refineries; and chemical, aeronautic and metal works. Its centre was the Bassins de Fos complex, inaugurated in 1968. From Marseille to Aix, industrial zones have multiplied and offer a vast range of activities: from soap-making plants to the most modern electronics factories.
The hydroelectric installations of the lower valleys of the Rhône and Durance have also contributed to the profound economic upheavals. Hydroelectric production combined with nuclear (Marcoule) production has allowed France to strengthen its energy potential. Moreover, the domestication of the two undisciplined rivers has resulted in the possibility of irrigating an immense agricultural area, until then hindered by drought. All these transformations have made Provence one of France’s great industrial zones juggling between two types of industry:
Ο traditional : minerals (ochre, bauxite, lignite), shipbuilding, foodstuffs, soap-making (Marseille area), building materials, construction and saltworks;
Ο modern : petroleum and its derivatives, aeronautics, electronics, nuclear and chemicals.
Light industries have also developed: packaging in Valréas and Tarascon; confectionery in Aix, Apt and Nyons; fruit preserving, and garment and shoe making in Nîmes.
The Apt-Roussillon area is one of the main mining and treatment regions in France for ochre (an earthy red or yellow, and often impure, iron ore essentially used as a pigment for paints or as a wash applied for its protective value). The mineral beds can at times be 15m/49ft thick. Ochre in its natural state is a mixture of argillaceous sand and iron oxide. To obtain a commercially pure ochre product, the mineral is first washed and the impurities, which tend to be heavier, settle on the bottom. The lighter weight “flower”, which is made of iron oxide and clay, is passed through the filter and into settling tanks. There, after drying, it assumes the look of ochre. It is then cut into blocks. After drying, the ochre is crushed, sifted and at times baked in ovens to darken the pigmentation and obtain a reddish-orange colour. This process is called ochre calcining. The ochre then becomes an unctuous, impalpable powder used commercially. The quality of the ochre from Vaucluse has made France one of its most important producers, with an annual production of about 3 000 metric tons.
Typically, Provençal oil has always been olive oil. Olives are treated when ripe and picked while still green if used for food preservation. The quality of the oil depends on the quality of the fruit and the treatment (number of pressings). Once picked, the olives are crushed whole with the pit, either by a millstone, hammer mill or roller.
The paste obtained is then distributed on a trolley’s nylon discs. The trolley, now loaded, is placed on the sliding piston of a hydraulic press that exerts pressure on the paste, resulting in a mixture of oil and water that is collected in tanks and then pumped into centrifugal machines where the oil and water will be separated. The oil that comes out of the machine is a virgin oil obtained by a first cold-water pressing. The residual pulp (grignon) can be pressed again, yielding more oil, though of a lesser grade and taste.
In the past the olive paste was spread by hand onto coconut mats (scourtins) which were stacked under the press. For a long time the presses were worked by hand and a horse turned the millstone. The residual pulp was remashed with lukewarm water: a mixture of refined and virgin oil was obtained, classed as second quality and called second pressing. Today, as in the past, the residual pulp treated with chemical solvents in Italy produces oil used for cutting or soap-making. Before this last pressing the olive pit can be separated from the pulp: the pit is ground down into powder and is used by the baker and pastry cook; the pulp is used for compost.