Getting Oriented

What many visitors remember best about Provence is the light. The vibrant sun here bathes vineyards, olive groves, fields full of lavender, and tall stands of sunflowers with an intensity that captivated Cézanne and Van Gogh. Bordering the Mediterranean and flanked by the Alps and the Rhône River, Provence attracts hordes of visitors. Fortunately, many of them are siphoned off to the resorts along the Riviera, which is part of Provence but whose jet-set image doesn't fit in with the tranquil charm of the rest of the region.

  • Nîmes, Arles, and the Camargue. Still haunted by the genius of Van Gogh, Arles remains fiercely Provençal and is famed for its folklore events. A bus ride away and bracketed by the towns of Aigues-Mortes and Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer, the vast Camargue nature park is one of France's most remarkable terrains, complete with cowboys, horseback rides, and exclusive mas (converted farmhouse) hotels.
  • The Alpilles. These spiky mountains guard treasures like Les Baux-de-Provence, where the lively tangle of medieval streets and the atmospheric ville morte (dead town) are equally bewitching. Nearby is ritzy St-Rémy-de-Provence, Van Gogh's famous retreat.
  • Avignon and the Vaucluse. This area is the heart of Provençal delights. Presided over by its medieval Palais des Papes, Avignon is an ideal gateway for exploring the Roman ruins at Pont du Gard. About 16 km (10 miles) east of Avignon is the Sorgue Valley, where everybody goes "flea"-ing in the famous antiques market at L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. Just east are the Luberon's hilltop villages (globalized by Peter Mayle), such as picture-perfect Gordes. South lies Roussillon, set like a ruby in its red cliffs.
  • Aix-en-Provence and the Mediterranean Coast. For one day, join all those fashionable folk for whom café-sitting, people-watching, and boutique-shopping are a way of life in Aix-en-Provence. Enjoy the elegant 18th-century streets, then channel the spirit of Cézanne by visiting his studio and nearby Mont Ste-Victoire, one of his favorite subjects. Head south to become a Calanques castaway before diving into Marseille, which ranks among France's most multicultural and vibrant cities.

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