There’s no blooming lavender in sight. The Cavaillon melons won’t be ripe until summer, and the waters of the Mediterranean are a little chilly for swimming.
So why visit Provence in the off-season?
After visiting Provence in December, I can list many reasons that the region is a great destination year-round. Our trip was a whirlwind, 8 days in 9 different cities and villages, but that gave us a wonderful introduction to two of the region’s major areas: Bouches-du-Rhône and Vaucluse. It also left us with many activities to anticipate on future trips. We were pleasantly surprised by the wealth of cultural activities and historic sites that we discovered. We also had the opportunity to indulge in many delicious meals — hearty beef dishes, fresh seafood, decadent desserts, fine wines and since it was the Christmas holidays, traditional seasonal specialties. We even experienced the Mistral (strong winds from the north that occur most often in winter) in Marseille and it was quite exciting. Hurrying late to our lunch meeting, we experienced gusts that momentarily stopped us in our tracks.
Although we only scratched the surface of what Provence offers (in any season), our trip was a fulfilling experience that gave us incentive to explore more in the future. Here’s a look at our general itinerary and some highlights we experienced to give you ideas to put on your agenda when you visit Provence. There will be more to come later about the individual cities and villages we visited.
Our Provence highlights
- Walk in the footsteps of artist Paul Cézanne following the markers in the cobblestones that lead you to each of his homes and other places of importance in his life. We loved touring the Cézanne Atelier up a hill outside of the old town district. Many artifacts led us to contemplate Cezanne’s creative process and in the late afternoon sun, it was easy to feel Cezanne’s inspiration.
- Walk through the markets that cover the Cours Mirabeau (Aix’s central tree-lined boulevard) in the mornings, admire the architecture of its building in the afternoon, and enjoy regional food and wine at its bistros and cafés.
- Count the fountains in this “city of a thousand fountains”. I don’t think there are quite that many, but it would be fun to find out. Large and small, the fountains we saw are of many shapes and designs.
- Admire the fine art of the Granet Museum located in the Chapel of the Penitents-Blancs with exhibits that include the works by Cézanne, Picasso, and other renowned artists.
- Take in a ballet or other performance at the Grand Theatre de Provence. We saw a fantastic ballet performance of Blanche-Neige(Snow White) by famed choreographer Angelin Preljocaj with costumes designed by Jean Paul Gaultier.
- Have a café or just take a peek inside Les Deux Garçons, the brasserie where Cezanne and Emile Zola enjoyed conversation and apéritifs. We hear that nearby Le Grillon is also a great choice for hanging out with friends.
- Get immersed in history at the UNESCO World Heritage sites dating back to the 1st century BC:
- Imagine the gladiators in the Roman Arena which is still in use today for bullfights (an example of the Spanish influence in Provence) and concerts.
- Go underground into the Cryptoportico (the foundation of the ancient Roman Forum) which has survived intact for over 2 millennia.
- See a modern concert or play in the ancient Roman Theatre.
- Awaken your artistic spirit by walking this medieval city that inspired its famous resident, Vincent Van Gogh.
- Stroll around the city and hike in surrounding areas to get inside the world of writer and filmmaker Marcel Pagnol whose works were set in and Aubagne.
- Attend a festival – Music, art, dance, and international film.
- Browse the numerous ceramics shops.
- Visit Le Cite de l’art Santonnier for ceramics exhibits from around the world and learn about the woman credited as “founder of modern santonniers”, Thérèse Neveu.
- Explore the Palais des Papes, one of the largest Gothic palace in Europe, a UNESCO World Heritage site, where the popes lived in the 14th century,
- Visit the Pont d’Avignon (Bridge St. Benezet built in the 12th century) and walk along the Rhône River.
- Shop at Les Halles covered market for fresh produce, herbs, spices, olive oil and other Provençal specialties.
- Take a few minutes for contemplation at the Basilique Saint-Pierre and admire its 14th – 16th century architecture, gorgeous wooden doors, and sculptures.
- Tour the vineyards and enjoy the crisp distinctive white wines. (There are wonderful red and rosé wines here, too.)
- Stop in the shops of the old town as you meander the picturesque streets.
- Smell the fragrances at L’eau de Cassis Parfumeur Créateur, Cassis manufacturer of fine perfumes and soaps since 1851.
- Sail in the Calanques (small coastal inlets) on tour boats that operate year-round.
- Explore, hike above, or climb the highest sea cliffs in Europe, the Cap Canaille.
Cavaillon (and nearby)
- Explore the Medieval Cathedral St-Véran and cloister.
- Although you won’t see any of Cavaillon’s famous melons in the fields in the off seasons, the countryside around the city is still beautiful for a drive.
- Visit the boulangeries and pâtisseries and roam around the town.
- In nearby Gordes, take in the scenery of olive groves and visit an olive mill. We visited Le Clos des Jeannons where we tasted olive oils tasting and toured the mill.
- If you are a film buff, La Ciotat will be a highlight. It’s called “the cradle of cinema”. Here is where the Lumiere Brothers made their first film, Train Pulling into a Station in 1895. La Ciotat also has one of the oldest motion picture theaters – the Eden Theater.
- Walk along the promenade and stop to gaze at the Mediterranean (you might see a few surfers, even in winter).
- Find out why Marseille-Provence was honored with recognition as the 2013 European Capital of Culture.
- Take a walk around the MuCEM (Museum of the Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean), inside and out. The architecture is stunning.
- Visit the Musée Regards de Provence for a historic look at this old immigration health inspection station and visit the galleries that feature Provençal artistic, cultural, and musical heritage.
- Stroll the old historic district, Le Panier, and visit its shops and art galleries.
- Take a walk through the exterior corridors and courtyard of the Vieille Charité. Once a brutal workhouse for the poor, it is now a cultural center and museum.
- Capture the stunning views from the Basilica Notre Dame de la Garde, standing tall over the city.
- Discover more early Provençal history at the Château de l’Empéri and its museum (the 9th-century castle built on the rock of Puech).
- Visit the home and museum of Nostradamus.
- Visit the diverse exhibits of Musée Grévin, including those depicting notables of Provence, such as Fredéric Mistral and Marcel Pagnol.
- Explore the Medieval city with buildings embedded in the old wall.
- Step inside the 13th century Church of Saint-Michel. One of the many crèches of Salon is located in this church during the Christmas season.
Where we stayed, what we ate, more about our Provence highlights — coming soon!
Merci beaucoup to Comité Régional de Tourisme Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, Vaucluse Tourisme en Provence, and Bouches-du-Rhône Tourisme for making our Christmas in Provence tour possible.