Provence is the scene of many an American's daydreams, thanks to the recent Peter Mayle book, A Year in Provence. As he explains, the region is picturesque and offers excellent food and an easy, relaxed tempo. The area is also rich in history, cuisine, and culture.
History pf Provence
Provence, located along the Mediterranean Sea in south central France, has been inhabited since pre-historic times. It was first settled by the Ligurians and later the Celts. Around 600 BC, the Greeks and Phoencians created a trading port at Marseille and shared many of their art, cuisine, and customs with the region. In fact, it was the ancient Greeks who introduced winemaking to the French.
The Provencal city of Avignon became important in the 14th century when Pope Clement chose the city as the home of the papacy after the seige of Rome by Sicily. Seven popes would live in the Pope's Palace at Avignon until the Holy See returned to Rome in 1377. The Roman Catholic Church owned the city until 1791, when the forces of the French Revolution returned it to French rule.
Provencal cuisine is famous throughout the world and draws its strength from the bountiful Mediterranean produce and the fruits of the sea. The food from this region is easily distinguished by its use of garlic, black olives and olive oil, lemons, and produce such as tomatos, zucchini, eggplant, and green beans. Seafood, from whitefish to lobsters, is another trademark of Provencal cuisine. One of the most famous dishes from this region is boulliabaisse, the rich fish and saffron stew made famous by the fishermen of Marseille. Another signature Provencal dish is ratatouille, a sauteed mixture of eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, and onions.Provence is known for its dry rose wines, called Cotes de Provence. Ideally served well chilled, this delightful libation is an excellent accompaniment to the spicy food of the region. Another Provencal product is Chateauneuf-de-Pape, the universally-treasured smooth red wine, named for the 14th century Papal presence in Provence.
Art and Architecture
Provence has been a center of art, architecture, and literature for centuries. The Roman aquaduct and amphitheater at Nimes still stand as monuments to that culture's excellent design skills. More recently, Impressionist and post-Impressionist painters, such as Paul Cezanne and Vincent van Gogh, created some of their best work in the region. Authors Alphonse Daudet and Albert Camus are just two examples of the dozens of authors who have made Provence their home.
- Aix-en-Provence - Founded by the Romans in 123 BC, Aix-en-Provence, today, is a sprawling city of approximately 137,000 residents. Known for its hot springs (aix), university, and Roman and Medieval architecture, Aix is a favorite of young tourists.
- Arles - Arles, located in central Provence along the Rhone River, was a favorite city of the Romans and the town still boasts excellent examples of Roman architecture, including the Roman Theater there. Arles was also a favorite of painter, Vincent van Gogh, who painted over 300 canvases there, including his "Starry Night." Other sights include the Romanesque Church of St. Trophine. The Roman Theater at Arles hosts periodic events, such as bullfights and rock concerts.
- Marseille - Marseille, a major port since the time of the Greeks and Phoencians, is known for its colorful waterfront, quaint old town, and Gothic 19th century cathedral. This large metropolis still retains the feel of a small seaside village.
- Avignon - Avignon, located northeast of Marseille, is a bustling town of approximately 85,000 residents. Sights there include the Pope's Palace, the 14th century residence of the head of the Roman Catholic Church as well as the Pont d'Avignon (the Avignon Bridge), the Medieval structure immortalized by the children's song.