Provence: Places to Explore

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The Alpilles, Arles, and the Camargue

Scoured by the mistral and leveled to prairie flatlands by aeons of earth deposits carried south by the Rhône, this region is Provence in its rawest form. At first glance it is endless space broken only by the occasional gully lined with wildflowers, yet after a few moments it starts to take form as one of the most beautiful and intriguing regions in France.

It is big-sky country here: mysterious, romantic, and colored with a kaleidoscope of lavenders, wheat-yellows, vibrant greens, and burnt reds. Only the giant rock outcrops of the Alpilles interrupt the horizon, dusted with silvery olives and bristling with somber cypress spears. To the west, where the Provençal dialect gives way to Languedoc, the ancient language of the southwest, vineyards swathe the countryside in rows of green and black. Along the southern coast, the Camargue's savage landscape of reeds and cane conceals exotic wildlife—rich-plumed egrets, rare black storks, clownish flamingos—as well as domestic oddities: dappled white horses and lyre-horned bulls descended from ancient, indigenous species.

The scenery is surpassed only by the genuine warmth of the populace and the feisty energy of the cities. In-your-face, tatty Nîmes has a raffish urban lifestyle that surges obliviously through a ramshackle, gritty-chic Old Town and a plethora of Roman architectural marvels. Graceful, artsy Arles, harmonious in Van Gogh hues, mixes culture with a healthy dose of late-night café street life. Chic, luxurious St-Rémy is a gracious retreat for cosmopolitan regulars. Often misleadingly dubbed the Hamptons of Provence, it's not all about luxe, for St-Rémy has an amazingly steady infusion of style, art, and street sass mixed with a love of all things Provençal.

Each of these cities would be fascinating to explore even without its trump card: classical antiquities, superbly preserved, unsurpassed in northern Europe. The Colosseum-like arenas in Nîmes and Arles are virtually intact, solid enough to serve their original purpose as stadiums; they date from the time of Christ. The mausoleum and Arc Triomphal outside St-Rémy are still so richly detailed they look like reproductions, but they're signed by the children of Caesar Augustus. And across the street, the vivid high-relief ruins of Glanum trace back to the Hellenism of the 3rd century BC.

Rich in history and legends, the region is as varied as the people who inhabit it. There are precise and perfect miniature fortress towns, like Aigues Mortes and Les Baux-de-Provence—where it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between bedrock and building—or the wide-open marshlands of the Camargue, dotted with hidden natural treasures. Add to these attractions Romanesque châteaux and abbeys, seaside fortresses that launched crusades, and sun-sharpened landscapes seen through the perceptive eyes of Van Gogh and Gauguin, and you have a region not only worth exploring in depth, but worth savoring every minute.

This is the kind of country that inspires a Latin latitude (if not lassitude), so with all the ruins and châteaux to visit, allow yourself time to wander through food markets and to sit on a shady terrace watching the painterly changes in light. When mapping out your itinerary remember that although Nîmes belongs in spirit to the Languedoc, its proximity to the Camargue and Arles makes it a logical travel package with them. With their rugged hills and rich olive groves, the Alpilles are a world apart, but easily accessible from Arles and environs. You can move from site to site, or choose a central base—say, Arles—and explore them all without driving more than an hour to any one attraction. A couple of days passing through the region allows you to see world-class antiquities; five days allows time to wander the Camargue; a week lets you see the principal sites, enjoy a nature tour, and take a break by the sea. And don't forget that the ravishing old city of Avignon is an hour's easy run up from Arles.

The Alpilles, Arles, and the Camargue at a Glance

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