After Paris, perhaps the best-known place in France is Provence. Provence is older and was a center of culture, learning and trade long before Paris and Northern France. It was conquered and controlled by many peoples and civilizations, ranging from the Greeks, Romans and Visigoths to the Catalans and Moors -- making its contemporary culture rich and diverse.
Provence encompasses six regions in the southeast, ranging from sandy beaches, snow-capped mountains, flat plains, lush valleys, forests, deep gorges and Jurassic rock formations. Start with the basics and plan to return. Lavender and sunflowers bloom in late June and July; summer is hot and crowded; spring and fall, heavenly; winter, windy and cool.
The best way to experience Provence is to rent lodgings as your base, lease a car and make side trips. Shop in the colorful farmers' markets with their local produce, meat, fish, prepared food, cheese, clothing, antiques and pottery. Unwind in an outdoor cafe, sip Pastis (the anise-flavored liqueur of Provence) and watch the pétanque (boules) players.
Aix-en-Provence and Avignon are the main inland cities. Aix (pronounced "Ex"), a friendly, cosmopolitan town, is noted for its arts scene; its shopping avenue, the Cours Mirabeau, lined with plane trees, similar to American Sycamores; its 100 fountains;
and narrow, winding streets. First settled as Aquae Sextius by the Romans in 122 BC, it's also the hometown of post-Impressionist Paul Cézanne, whose studio can be visited. Dominating Aix is Mont St.-Victoire, painted by Cézanne and Picasso, and worth the round-trip five-hour hike to its summit for the view. The rebuilt hotspring Sextius Baths and Spa date to Roman times, and its famed university was founded in 1409.
Drive on back roads through the mountains and valleys of the Luberon. Some of France's most beautiful villages are here: Menerbes (popularized by Peter Mayle in his bestselling "A Year in Provence"), Lourmarin, Bonnieux and Gordes, first settled in Neolithic times. Perched high on calcareous rock, Gordes and its castle (now a museum) dominate the Valley of the Vaucluse. A stronghold of the French Resistance, Gordes was heavily damaged by the Nazis and has been impeccably restored. Explore its cobblestone streets and take in the breathtaking view.
Outside Gordes are the Bories, 30 igloo-shaped mortarless stone buildings comprising a village that initially dated to the Bronze Age and was probably abandoned and restored several times, most recently in 1977.
Nearby is the still active 12th-century Cisterician Abbey of Notre-Dame de Senanque, with its haunting daily vespers at 6 p.m. Surrounding the Abbey is perhaps the most photographed lavender field in Provence.
Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, the "Venice of Provence," is among the most important antique centers in Europe, with more than 300 dealers, open Saturday to Monday, mainly from April to October. Sunday mornings year-round there's an outdoor market and brocante (antiques fair). Don't anticipate bargains, though haggling is customary. Amble alongside the azure-colored canals with their swans, ducks and moss-covered water wheels, and check out the shops and boutiques. Relax over an outdoor lunch and watch the crowds.
Mont Ventoux, at 6,273 feet, is visible from most of northern Provence. An important stage on the Tour de France, it's one of the toughest climbs in professional cycling. Drive to the top for an awe-inspiring view all the way to the Mediterranean. Also visible for miles are the Dentelles de Montmirail, a long, jagged, Jurassic rock formation. Scattered around Ventoux and the Dentelles are some of the best Côtes-du-Rhône vineyards, all open for wine tastings: Gigondas, Vacqueras, Sablet, Cairanne and Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
The medieval walled city of Avignon lies southwest along the Rhône River. Under the control of the popes from 1309 to 1791, it's now host to a renowned theater festival for two mobbed weeks every summer. The partial remains of its famed bridge, the Pont-St. Bénézet, known from the children's song "Sur le pont d'Avignon," stretch halfway across the Rhône. The glistening splendor of the Palais des Papes is visible as one approaches the city and is a must-visit. Among the largest, most important Gothic structures in Europe, the Palace has interactive multimedia displays, art exhibits and English audio tours. You can visit the popes' living quarters, chapels, kitchen, magnificent frescoes and gardens.
Stroll in the spacious Place de l'Horloge with its antique merry-go-round and terraced cafes. Explore the surrounding quarters with their chic boutiques, shops, restaurants and historic churches.
ST.-RÉMY AND ARLES
To Avignon's south is the charming old town of St.-Rémy, where van Gogh painted some of his best-known canvasses, including "Starry Night." He sought psychiatric care in the still-operating St.-Paul-de-Mausole asylum, whose cloisters and gardens, unchanged since the artist immortalized them, can be visited. Beyond the hospital, are the impressive ruins of Glanum (second century BC-third century AD) with its temples, arches and mausoleum.
Nearby Arles, first settled in 800 BC, had become a crucial city in the Roman Empire by AD 400. The enormous two-tiered AD 90 Arènes (amphitheater) was built for 20,000 to watch gladiator fights and chariot races; today it hosts bullfights, concerts and plays. The ruins of the Roman theater, Baths of Emperor Constantine, Obelisk and others survive. Pause for a drink at the Café Van Gogh, memorialized in his "Café Terrace on the Place Du Forum."
Remember, the pace of Provence is slow and relaxed. Its "cuisine of the sun" is based on olive oil, tomatoes, eggplant, herbs, vegetables, fruit, goat cheese, fish and lamb. When in Provence, do as the Provençaux do: Luxuriate with your senses, bask in all that's healthy and good.
From Paris/Roissy-DeGaulle airport, take the TGV (high-speed train) to Aix or Avignon.
DISCOUNT CAR RENTAL
Arrange ahead for cheaper rates through U.S. companies: Auto France Peugeot Open Europe; Kemwell; Europe by Car; Auto Europe; Renault Eurodrive
-- Paul Cézanne Studio, atelier-cezanne.com/anglais
-- General info, aixenprovencetourism.com/en/
-- Sablet, sablet-wine.com/domaine-boissan
-- Domaine Sang des Cailloux (Vacqueras), sangdescailloux.com
-- Domaine du Grapillon d'Or (Gigondas), domainedugrapillondor.com/en
-- Domaine Brusset (Cairanne), domainebrusset.fr
-- Domaine Roger Sabon (Châteauneuf-du-Pape), roger-sabon.com
-- General info, ot-avignon.fr/home-1-2.html
-- Palais des Papes, palais-des-papes.com/en
ARLES & ST.-RÉMY
-- General info, arlestourisme.com