French Corner: Discover Provence! (May 2016)

Welcome to the "French Corner", the Consulate’s monthly rendez-vous dedicated to the promotion of France’s culture and patrimony in video! This month discover what is arguably the most irresistible region in France: Provence! Provence ranges from the snow-capped mountains of the southern Alps to the delta plains of the Camargue, and boasts Europe’s greatest canyon, the Gorges du Verdon. Fortified towns guard its ancient borders; countless villages perch defensively on hilltops; and great cities like Arles, Aix and Avignon are full of cultural glories. The sensual inducements of Provence include sunshine, food and wine, and the heady perfumes of Mediterranean vegetation. No wonder it has for so long attracted the rich and famous, the artistic and reclusive, and ever-growing throngs of summer visitors.

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Provence: Some Geography

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Provence is a geographical region and historical province of southeastern France, which extends from the left bank of the lower Rhône River on the west to the Italian border on the east, and is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea on the south. It largely corresponds with the modern administrative region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, and includes the départements of Var, Bouches-du-Rhônes, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence and parts of Alpes-Maritimes and Vaucluse. The largest city of the region is Marseille.

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The Romans made the region into the first Roman province beyond the Alps and called it Provincia Romana, which evolved into the present name. It was ruled but the Counts of Provence from their capital in Aix-en-Provence until 1481, when it became a province of the Kings of France. While it has been part of France for mon than five hundred years, it still retains a distinct cultural and linguistic identity, particularly in the interior of the region.

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"The ancient Provençal version of Genesis maintains that prior to introducing Adam to the world, the Creator realized that he had several materials left over; large expanses of celestial blue; rocks of all kinds, shapes and colors; rich soil that was bursting with seeds; and a full spectrum of as-yet unused tastes and smells that ranged from the subtlest and most delicate to the most powerful. “Well,” He thought, “why don’t I make a beautiful résumé of my world, my own special paradise?” And so it was that Provence came into being – according to the legend, of course.

This paradise encompasses the snow-peaked lower Alps and their foothills, which in the east descend right to the sea, and to the west extend almost to the Rhône. In central Provence, the wild, high plateaux are cut by the deepest gorge in all Europe – the Grand Canyon du Verdon. The coastal hinterland is made up of range after range of steep, forested hills, while the shore is an ever-changing series of geometric bays giving way to chaotic outcrops of glimmering rock and deep, narrow inlets, like miniature fjords – the calanques. All these elements would count for nothing, however, were it not for the magical Mediterranean light. At its best in spring and autumn, it is both soft and brightly theatrical, as if some expert had rigged the lighting for each landscape for maximum color and definition with minimum glare." (The Rough Guide to Provence & the Côte d’Azur)

A Short History of Provence

“With the establishment of Greek colonies (among them Massilia [modern Marseille]) in the area by the beginning of the 6th century bc, Provence was first oriented toward the civilization of the Mediterranean. In 125 bc the Massiliots appealed to the Romans for help against a coalition of neighbouring Celts and Ligurians. The Romans defeated the coalition but remained in occupation of the region. Thus, by the end of the 2nd century bc, Provence formed part of Gallia Transalpina, the first Roman provincia beyond the Alps, from which the area took its name. By the 4th century ad, Arles, an important meeting place for merchants, was the seat of the prefecture of all Gaul, and Marseille was the main centre of Greek studies in the west.

With the breakdown of the Roman Empire in the late 5th century, Provence was successively invaded by the Visigoths, Burgundians, and Ostrogoths. The region came under the rule of the Franks in about 536 and was subsequently ruled by their Merovingian dynasty, though it was not integrated with the rest of France.

The great Carolingian rulers made Frankish rule effective in Provence, but, after the collapse of Carolingian rule, Provence formed part of a series of kingdoms set up between France and Germany: the first kingdom of Provence from 855 to 863; the second kingdom of Provence from 879 to about 934; and Burgundy-Provence, the kingdom of Arles, which was nominally attached to the Holy Roman Empire in 1032. By the end of the 10th century, a local dynasty (which had led the region’s defense against invasions by the Muslims) dominated the area and had acquired the title of count of Provence. With the end of this dynasty in 1113, the house of Barcelona gained the title, and Provence was ruled by the Spanish from Catalonia for more than a century.

In the 12th century, Provençal cities flourished from trade with the Levant and set up autonomous governments called consulates. At the same time, the civilization of the province—in which a language close to Latin was spoken and of which troubadour poetry and examples of early Romanesque architecture were among the outstanding cultural achievements—was at its height.

The Albigensian Crusade of the early 13th century, in which the Roman Catholic church suppressed the Cathari sect of southern France, introduced into Provence the influence of the papacy and northern France (although Provence, not being a stronghold of the Cathari, escaped devastation). The popes acquired Comtat Venaissin (in northern Provence, along the Rhône River) in the early 13th century and took up residence in Avignon from 1309 to 1377. Northern French influence in Provence dates from 1246, when Provence passed to the Angevin ruler Charles of Anjou, brother of King Louis IX. The province was at first subordinated to the Italian interests of these Angevin counts of Provence, who were also kings of Naples, but their reign witnessed the development of many of the region’s characteristic political institutions, notably its Estates (assembly), which had the power to approve taxes and to help govern the province in times of disorder in the late 14th century.

In 1481 Provence was willed to the king of France, and its union to the crown was effected on the condition that Provence keep its administrative autonomy. From the 16th to the 18th century, however, control by the king grew. In 1673 the généralité of Aix was established as the seat of an intendant (royal governor), while the Estates of Provence were not convened between 1639 and 1787, until just prior to the French Revolution.

With the Revolution, the province completely lost its own political institutions and in 1790 was divided into the départements of Bouches-du-Rhône, Var, and Basses-Alpes (now Alpes-de-Haute-Provence). (The département of Vaucluse was added after the annexation of Comtat Venaissin in 1791 and that of Alpes-Maritimes with the annexation of the countship of Nice in 1860.)

The region comprises the Mediterranean coastline of southeastern France and its immediate (predominantly hilly or mountainous) hinterland. Provence is mostly Roman Catholic, though there are sizable Protestant enclaves around Marseille and in Vaucluse around Lourmarin and Merindol. Repatriated émigrés from North Africa have greatly increased the number of Jews in Provence. Occitan continues to be spoken in the Comtat Venaissin.” (Provence. 2016. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. http://www.britannica.com/place/Provence-region-France)

Provence’s Main Cities

Marseille

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"Popular myths and a fishy reputation have led Marseille to be unfairly maligned as dirty urban sprawl plagued with impoverished immigrant neighborhoods and slightly louche politics. It is often given wide berth by travelers in search of a Provençal idyll. A huge mistake. Marseille, even its earliest history, has maintained its contradictions with a kind of fierce and independent pride. Yes, there are scary neighborhoods, some modern eyesores, even a high crime rate—but there is also tremendous beauty and culture. Cubist jumbles of white stone rise up over a picture-book seaport, bathed in light of blinding clarity, crowned by larger-than-life neo-Byzantine churches, and framed by massive fortifications; neighborhoods teem with multiethnic life; souklike African markets reek deliciously of spices and coffees; and the labyrinthine Old Town radiates pastel shades of saffron, marigold, and robin’s-egg blue. Called Massalia, this was the most important Continental shipping port in antiquity. The port flourished for some 500 years as a typical Greek city, enjoying the full flush of classical culture, its gods, its democratic political system, its sports and theater, and its naval prowess. Caesar changed all that, besieging the city in 49 BC and seizing most of its colonies. In 1214 Marseille was seized again, this time by Charles d’Anjou, and was later annexed to France by Henri IV in 1481, but it was not until Louis XIV took the throne that the biggest transformations of the port began; he pulled down the city walls in 1666 and expanded the port to the Rive Neuve (New Riverbank). The city was devastated by plague in 1720, losing more than half its population. By the time of the Revolution, Marseille was on the rebound once again, with industries of soap manufacturing and oil processing flourishing, encouraging a wave of immigration from Provence and Italy. With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Marseille became the greatest boomtown in 19th-century Europe. With a large influx of immigrants from areas as exotic as Tangiers, the city quickly acquired the multicultural population it maintains to this day." (Fodor’s)

Aix-en-Provence

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"Longtime rival of edgier, more exotic Marseille, the lovely town of Aix-en-Provence (pronounced ex) is gracious, cultivated, and made all the more cosmopolitan by the presence of some 40,000 university students. In keeping with its aristocratic heritage, Aix quietly exudes well-bred suavity and elegance—indeed, it is now one of the 10 richest townships in France. The influence and power it once had as the old capital of Provence—fine art, noble architecture, and graceful urban design—remain equally important to the city today. And, although it is true that Aix owns up to a few modern-day eyesores, the overall impression is one of beautifully preserved stone monuments, quietly sophisticated nightlife, leafy plane trees, and gently splashing fountains. With its thriving market, vibrant café life, spectacularly chic shops, and superlative music festival, it’s one Provence town that really should not be missed. Aix’s artistic roots go back to the 15th century, when the town became a center of Renaissance arts and letters. A poet himself and patron of the arts, the king encouraged a veritable army of artists to flourish here. At the height of its political, judicial, and ecclesiastical power in the 17th and 18th centuries, Aix profited from a surge of private building, each grand hôtel particulier meant to outdo its neighbor. It was into this exalted elegance that artist Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) was born, though he drew much of his inspiration not from the city itself but from the raw countryside around it, often painting scenes of Montagne Ste-Victoire. A schoolmate of Cézanne’s made equal inroads on modern society: the journalist and novelist Émile Zola (1840–1902) attended the Collège Bourbon with Cézanne and described their friendship as well as Aix itself in several of his works. You can sense something of the vibrancy that nurtured these two geniuses in the streets of modern Aix. The city’s famous Festival d’Aix (International Opera Festival) has imported and created world-class opera productions as well as related concerts and recitals since 1948. Most of the performances take place in elegant, old Aix settings, and during this time the cafés, restaurants, and hotels spill over with the beau monde who’ve come to Aix especially for the July event." (Fodor’s)

Avignon

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"Of all the monuments in France—cathedrals, châteaux, fortresses—the ancient city of Avignon (pronounced ah-veen-yonh) is one of the most dramatic. Wrapped in a crenellated wall punctuated by towers and Gothic slit windows, its old center stands distinct from modern extensions, crowned by the Palais des Papes, a 14th-century fortress-castle that’s nothing short of spectacular. Standing on the Place du Palais under the gaze of the gigantic Virgin that reigns from the cathedral tower, with the palace sprawling to one side, the bishops’ Petit Palais to the other, and the long, low bridge of childhood-song fame stretching over the river ("Sur le pont d’Avignon on y danse tous en rond . . ."), you can beam yourself briefly into the 14th century, so complete is the context, so evocative the setting. Yet you’ll soon be brought back to the present with a jolt by the skateboarders leaping over the smooth-paved square. Avignon is anything but a museum; it surges with modern ideas and energy and thrives within its ramparts as it did in the heyday of the popes—like those radical church lords, sensual, cultivated, and cosmopolitan, with a taste for lay pleasures. For the French, Avignon is almost synonymous with its theater festival in July—thousands pack the city’s hotels to bursting for the official festival and le Festival OFF, the fringe festival with an incredible 1,300 performances each day. If your French isn’t up to a radical take on Molière, look for the English-language productions, or try the circus and mime—there are plenty of shows for children, and street performers abound." (Fodor’s)

Nîmes

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"If you have come to the south to seek out Roman treasures, you need look no farther than Nîmes (pronounced neem), for the Arènes and Maison Carrée are among Continental Europe’s best-preserved antiquities. But if you have come to seek out a more modern mythology—of lazy, graceful Provence—give Nîmes a wide berth. It’s a feisty town in transition. Its medieval Old Town has none of the gentrified grace of those in Arles or St-Rémy. Yet its rumpled and rebellious ways trace directly back to its Roman incarnation, when its population swelled with soldiers, arrogant and newly victorious after their conquest of Egypt in 31 BC. A 24,000-seat coliseum, a thriving forum with a magnificent temple patterned after Rome’s temple of Apollo, and a public water network fed by the Pont du Gard attest to its classical prosperity. Nîmes has opted against becoming a lazy, atmospheric Provençal market town and has invested in progressive modern architecture. Smack-dab across from the Maison Carrée stands the city’s contemporary answer, the modern-art museum dubbed the Carré d’Art (Art Square) after its ruthlessly modernist four-square form—a pillared, symmetrical glass reflection of its ancient twin." (Fodor’s)

Arles

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"If you were obliged to choose just one city to visit in Provence, lovely little Arles would give Avignon and Aix a run for their money. It’s too charming to become museumlike yet has a wealth of classical antiquities and Romanesque stonework; quarried-stone edifices and shuttered town houses shading graceful Old Town streets and squares; and pageantry, festivals, and cutting-edge arts events. Its atmospheric restaurants and picturesque small hotels make it the ideal headquarters for forays into the Alpilles and the Camargue. It wasn’t always such a mellow site. A Greek colony since the 6th century BC, little Arles took a giant step forward when Julius Caesar defeated Marseille in the 1st century BC, transforming it into a formidable civilization—by some accounts, the Rome of the north. Fed by aqueducts, canals, and solid roads, it profited from all the Romans’ modern conveniences: straight paved streets and sidewalks, sewers and latrines, thermal baths, a forum, a hippodrome, a theater, and an arena. It became an international crossroads by sea and land and a market to the world. The emperor Constantine himself moved to Arles and brought with him Christianity." (Fodor’s)

Cassis

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"Surrounded by vineyards, flanked by monumental cliffs, guarded by the ruins of a medieval castle, and nestled around a picture-perfect fishing port, Cassis is the prettiest coastal town in Provence. Best known for its delicate white wines and wild Calanques, it is a quiet fishing village out of season and inundated with sun-worshippers in the summer. The pastel houses at rakish angles framing the port and harbor attracted early 20th-century artists including Dufy and Matisse. Even the mild rash of parking-garage architecture in the outer neighborhoods can’t spoil the effect of unadulterated charm. Stylish without being too recherché, Cassis’s picture-perfect harbor provides shelter to numerous pleasure-boaters, who restock their galleys at its market, replenish their Saint James nautical duds in its boutiques, and relax with a bottle of local wine and a platter of sea urchins in one of its numerous waterfront cafés." (Fodor’s)

Orange

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"Cradled in northern Provence in the land of Côte du Rhône vineyards, Orange really isn’t very big, but when compared with the sleepy wine villages that surround it, it’s a thriving metropolis. In many ways, Orange captures the essence of the region: the Provençal accent here is quite thick, and savory food and wine can be had—for a price. Come to see its two ancient Roman monuments, the Théâtre Antique and the Arc de Triomphe, spectacular vestiges of history that seem transported from a different world." (Fodor’s)

Provence: Architectural Landmarks

The Architecture of Provence includes a rich collection of monuments from the Roman Empire; Cistercian monasteries from the Romanesque Period, medieval palaces and churches; fortifications from the time of Louis XIV, as well as numerous hilltop villages and fine churches. Provence was a very poor region after the 18th century, but in the 20th century it had an economic revival and become the site of one of the most influential buildings of the 20th century, the Unité d’Habitation of the architect Le Corbusier in Marseille.

Roman monuments in Provence (20 BC to 476 AD)

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The Roman aqueduct of Pont du Gard (1st century AD), built during the reign of Emperor Claudius, is one of the most impressive examples of Roman civil engineering. Fifty meters above the River Gard, it is the highest existing Roman aqueduct. It carried water a distance of fifty kilometers.

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The Triumphal Arch of Orange in Orange (Vaucluse) was probably built to honor the veterans of the 11th legion around 20 BC, during the reign of Emperor Augustus. It was later dedicated to Emperor Tiberius. It was designed to show travelers the superiority and power of Rome.

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The triumphal arch near the Roman town of Glanum, just outside Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, shows Roman soldiers leading away defeated prisoners. It was constructed between 10 and 25 AD, sometime after the Romans had conquered the town, which was inhabited by Celto-Ligurians. Glanum was destroyed in 260 AD by the Alamanni, a Germanic tribe, as the Roman Empire began to crumble.

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The Roman theater in Orange (Vaucluse) was constructed by Emperor Augustus early in the 1st century BC. It is the best-preserved Roman theater in Europe. It was closed by the authorities of the Christian Church in 391 because of its “barbaric spectacles”, and not re-opened until the 19th century. Today, it is the home of music and theater festivals.

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The Arles amphitheater was built in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, when Arles was the capital of Roman Provence. It was used for combat by gladiators and other spectacles. It has a diameter of 102 meters and had a capacity of 12,000 spectators.

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The Maison Carrée in Nîmes, built in 16-19 BC, is one of the best-preserved Roman temples of the former Roman Empire. Its survival is bound to the fact that it was concerted into a Christian church in the 4th century AD. It was built according to the principles of Vitruvius, the main theoretician of Roman architecture. In the early 19th century, it served as model for the Eglise de la Madeleine in Paris.

Romanesque architecture in Provence

In 380 AD Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and Christian churches, cathedrals and monasteries were founded all across Provence. Sometimes Roman temples, such as the temple at Nîmes, were turned into churches. Often churches were built on the sites of Roman temples or fora (Arles and Aix-en-Provence) and used columns, such as the columns in the baptistery at Frejus, and other elements of Roman temples.

Many of the churches were built in a new style, later called Romanesque, which combined Gallo-Roman architectural elements with elements of a new style coming from Lombardy in Italy. It was particularly influenced by the new churches in Byzantine style constructed in Ravenna.

The Romanesque style in Provence and in the Rhône Valley features some regional decorative elements, borrowed from the Gallo-Romans; particularly the use of eagles and busts, traditional ancient Roman elements, to decorate the capitals of Corinthian columns.

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The Baptistry of the Cathedral of Saint-Léonce in Frejus (406-409 AD), built shortly before the fall of the Roman Empire, is the oldest Christian structure in Provence, and one of the oldest buildings in France. The octagonal building is covered by a dome set on arches supported by columns. At the center of the building there is an octagonal baptismal font, large enough for the person baptized to be immersed in the water.

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Montmajour Abbey (Abbaye Notre Dame de Montmajour) is a fortified Benedictine monastery built between the 10th and 13th century on what was then an island five kilometers north of Arles, in the Bouches-du-Rhône département.
The Abbey is famous for its 11th-14th century graves, carved in the rock, its subterranean crypt, and its massive unfinished church. It was an important pilgrimage site during the Middle Ages, and in the 18th century it was the site of a large Maurist Monastery, now in ruins.

In the 12th century, monks of the Benedictine Order broke away to form a new order, the Cistercians, who adhered strictly to the rules of St. Benedict. Cistercian monasteries were located in remote valleys next to rivers, were devoted to prayer, meditation and manual labor, and were built following religious principles to avoid anything that would distract the monks from their prayers.

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Sénanque Abbey was the first Cistercian monastery founded in Provence, in 1148. The church was finished in 1178. A small community of monks still lives in the Abbey. The lavender fields around the Abbey make it one of the most photographed spots in Provence.

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Le Thoronet Abbey, in a remote valley near Draguignan, in the Var department, was founded in 1160. The cloister is among the oldest Cistercian cloisters. Le Corbusier visited the monastery in 1953, and imitated the play of light and shadow in his priory of Sainte Marie de La Tourette, near Lyon. It also influenced the modern monastery by John Pawson at Novy Dvur, in the Czech Republic. Thoronet is now a museum, open to visitors.

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The Church of St. Trophime (Trophimus) is a Roman Catholic church and former cathedral built between the 12th century and the 15th century in the city of Arles, in the Bouches-du-Rhône Department. The sculptures over the portal, particularly the Last Judgement, and the columns in the adjacent cloister, are considered some of the finest examples of Romanesque sculpture. The church was built upon the site of the 5th century basilica of Arles, named for St. Stephen. In the 15th century a gothic choir was added to the Romanesque nave.

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Aix Cathedral (Cathédrale Saint-Sauveur d’Aix) in Aix-en-Provence, shows the transition from Romanesque to Gothic. It was built on the site of the 1st century Roman forum of Aix, and was re-built from the 12th until the 19th century. It features Romanesque, Gothic and Neo-Gothic elements, as well as Roman columns and some parts of a baptistery from a 6th-century Christian church.

Gothic architecture in Provence (12th-14th century)

The Gothic architecture style was invented in the middle of the 12th century (Basilique Saint-Denis in Paris), and spread rapidly to England and Germany, but did not arrive in Provence until the late 13th century.

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The finest gothic building in Provence, and the largest gothic structure in Europe, is the Palace of the Popes in Avignon, constructed between 1334 and 1364, during the brief period (1309 to 1377) when Avignon was the seat of the papal curia. Construction began under Pope Benedict XIII, and was continued by his successors. It served as the residence of two antipopes, Clement VII and Benedict XIII, before the papacy finally returned permanently to Rome. While the outside of the palace looked like a fortress, the inside was lavishly decorated with tapestries, sculptures, and decorated wooden ceilings.

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The pont d’Avignon, also known as the Pont Saint-Bénézet, which crossed the Rhone River between Avignon and Villeneuve-lès-Avignon became one of the wonders of the medieval world. The Romans had built a wooden bridge across the Rhone at the same point, which was replaced by a stone Romanesque bridge built between 1177 and 1185. That bridge, except for four arches, was swept away by a flood in 1226. A new bridge was constructed in gothic style between 1234 and 1237, which was 900 meters long, resting on 22 arches. A chapel to Saint Nicholas, with two chapels, one Romanesque and the other gothic, was located on the bridge fourth arch, where a toll was collected from voyagers, in the form of a donation to the Saint. During the Middle Ages the Avignon bridge was the only bridge across the Rhone between Lyon and the mouth of the Rhone. It was also located on one of the main pilgrimage routes, between Italy and Saint-Jacques-Compostelle. The bridge began to collapse in the 17th century; first one arch in 1603, then three more in 1605. These were repaired, but in 1669 a new flood carried away most of the bridge, leaving only four arches.

Hilltop villages (2nd century to 17th century)

As Roman authority crumbled in Provence, the region was flooded with invaders: Visigoths in the 5th century, Franks in the 6th century and Arabs in the 8th century, and raids by Berber pirates and slavers. Rule eventually passed to the Counts of Toulouse, and the Counts of Barcelona (later Kings of Aragon). Because of the repeated invasions, Provençal architecture was designed to resist attack. Monasteries were surrounded by towers and walls, and even the bishop’s residence in Frejus resembled a fortress. Castles on hilltops surrounded by walled towns became the characteristic architectural feature of Provence. Only in the 17th century, after the wars of religion had ended and the French king had established his authority, were the towns of Provence safe from outside attack.

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The village of Roussillon (Vaucluse), in the Luberon area, has vestiges of a 10th-century château and an 11th-century church. It is famous for its pinkish and yellow stone; in the 18th century, mines around the town produced pigment to make the color ochre.

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Les Baux-de-Provence, on a high rocky hilltop in the Bouches-du-Rhône Department, was inhabited as early as 6000 BC and had a Celtic fort in the 2nd century AD. In the Middle Ages, the Lords of Les Baux, who claimed ancestry back to Balthazar, one of the Three Kings of the Nativity, ruled over a domain of 79 towns and villages. The Counts were deposed in the 12th century, the last princess died in the 15th century, and the town became part of France. In 1632, when the town became a Protestant stronghold, Cardinal Richelieu ordered to destroy the castle and town walls.

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Gordes, in the Vaucluse, was originally a hilltop fort of the Celtic tribe of the Vordenses, then a Roman fort guarding the Roman road between Carpentras and Apt. A castle was built by Guillaume d’Agoult in the 9th century which dominated the valley. In the 13th century, the town joined Savoye in a war against France. In the 14th century, during the Hundred Years’ War, the whole town was encircled by strong walls. In 1481, after the death of René I of Naples, Gordes was incorporated into France.

Castles and fortresses (15th-16th centuries)

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After Marseille was annexed to France by François I in 1481, the Château d’if (1527–1529) was built on one of the islands of the Frioul Archipelago in the Bay of Marseille to protect the city from attacks from the sea. It was soon turned into a prison. During the Wars of Religion (1562–1598) it held some 3500 Huguenots, or French Protestant prisoners. It is best known as the prison of the fictional Count of Monte Cristo of Alexandre Dumas.

The Neo-Byzantine style (19th century)

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The Basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde in Marseille was built between 1853 and 1864 on the highest point of the city in the neo-Byzantine style. It was finished ten years before the construction of its famous sister, the Basilica of Sacré-Coeur in Paris, had begun. It was designed by the architect Henri-Jacques Espérandieu. The main feature of the church is a 197 foot (60 m) belfry with a statue of the Virgin and Child, visible miles out to sea.

Le Corbusier in Provence (20th century)

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The Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, also known as the Cité Radieuse, designed by the architect Le Corbusier in 1946-1952, became one of the most influential buildings of the 20th century. Built with unfinished concrete (steel was not available because of the war), it has nineteen stories with 330 apartments of twenty different designs, along with shops, a restaurant, a hotel, clinic, sports facilities, a roof terrace, an outdoor auditorium and a kindergarten. It was meant to be "a machine for living," with everything needed under a single roof. Le Corbusier built five versions of the Unité d’Habitation, and it inspired similar buildings in other parts of France, Germany and in Britain, and became a model for new apartment buildings and public housing projects in the 1950s. It was praised as well as criticized as the first example of brutalist architecture.

Gastronomy and Wine

Cuisine of Provence

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The cuisine of Provence is the result of the warm, dry Mediterranean climate; the rugged landscape, good for grazing sheep and goats but, outside the Rhône Valley, with poor soil for large-agriculture; and the abundant seafood on the coast. The basic ingredients are olives and olive oil; garlic; sardines, rockfish, sea urchins and octopus; lamb and goat; chickpeas; local fruits, such as grapes, peaches, apricots, strawberries, cherries, and the famous melons of Cavaillon.

Some of Provence’s best specialties:
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  • Aoïli: a thick emulsion sauce made from olive oil flavored with crushed garlic. It often accompanies a bourride, a fish soup, or is served with potatoes and cod.

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  • Bouillabaisse: the classic seafood dish from Marseille. The traditional version is made with three different fish: scorpionfish, sea robin, and European conger, plus an assortment of other fish and shellfish, such as John Dory, monkfish, sea urchins, crabs and sea spiders. Seasoning is as important as fish: salt, pepper, onion, tomato, saffron, fennel, sage, thyme, bay laurel, sometimes orange peel and a cup of white wine or cognac. In Marseille, fish and broth are served separately – the broth is served over thick slices of bread with rouille.

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  • Brandade de morue is a thick purée of salt cod, olive oil, milk, and garlic, usually spread on toast.

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  • Escabeche is another popular seafood dish; the fish (usually sardines) are either poached or fried after being marinated overnight in vinegar or citrus juice.

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  • Fougasse is the traditional bread of Provence, round and flat with holes cut out by the baker. Modern versions are baked with olives or nuts inside.

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  • La pissaladière is a specialty of Nice. Though it resembles a pizza, it is made with bread dough and the traditional variety never has a tomato topping. It is usually sold in bakeries, and is topped with a bed of onions, lightly browned, and a kind of paste, called pissalat, made from sardines and anchovies, and the small black olives of Nice, called caillettes.

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  • Ratatouille is a traditional dish of stewed vegetables, which originated in Nice.
  • Rouille is a mayonnaise with red pimentos, often spread onto bread and added to fish soups.

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  • Tapenade is a relish consisting of pureed or finely chopped olives, capers, and olive oil, usually spread onto bread and served as an hors d’œuvre.

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  • The calisson is the traditional confection of Aix-en-Provence, made from a base of almond paste flavored with confit of melon and orange. They have been made in Aix-en-Provence since the 17th century.
  • The gâteau des Rois is a type of epiphany cake found all over France; the Provençal version is different because it is made of brioche in a ring, flavored with the essence of orange flowers and covered with sugar and fruit confit.

Provence’s Wines

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The wines of Provence were probably introduced in Provence around 600 BC by the Greek Phoceans who founded Marseille and Nice. After the Roman occupation, in 120 BC the Roman Senate forbade the growing of vines and olives in Provence, to protect the profitable trade in exporting Italian wines, but in the late Roman empire retired soldiers from Roman Legions settled in Provence and were allowed to grow grapes.
The Romans complained about the competition from and poor quality of the wines of Provence. In the 1st century AD the Roman poet Martial condemned the wines of Marseille as “terrible poisons, and never sold at a good price.”

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As recently as the 1970s the wines of Provence had the reputation of being rather ordinary. In 1971, the wine critic Hugh Jonhson wrote: “The whites are dry and can lack the acidity to be refreshing; the reds are straightforward, strong and a trifle dull; it is usually the rosés, often orange-tinted, which have most appeal.” He added, “Cassis and Bandol distinguish themselves for their white and red wines respectively. Cassis (no relation of the blackcurrant syrup) is livelier than the run of Provençal white wine, and Bando leads the read in much the same way.”

Since that time, cultivation of poorer varieties has been reduced and new technologies and methods have improved the quality considerably.

The wines of Provence are grown under demanding conditions; hot weather and abundant sunshine (Toulon, near Bandol, has the most sunshine of any city in France) which ripens the grapes quickly; little rain, and the mistral.

The great majority of wines produced in Provence are rosés. The most characteristic grape is mourvèdre, used most famously in the red wines of Bandol. Cassis is the only area in Provence known for its white wines.

Two Prestigious Provence Vineyards

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"Provence’s red wines and especially those of the Gigondas vineyards, some 15 km east of Orange, have gained cult status among wine aficionados worldwide. This bijou Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC; trademark body) produces reds known for their robust, full-bodied character, which is due to the combination of an exceptionally dry, chilly mistral wind and an equally exceptional, hot, ripening sun. The tiny slow-paced medieval village of Gigondas is well worth a gander in its own right. Perched on a hilltop, it features a ruined castle and a campanile, both affording superb vistas over the vineyards that ribbon the hillsides around the village." (Lonely Planet Provence & Côte d’Azur)

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"Another prestigious vintage is red Châteauneuf-du-Pape (AOC), which covers just 32 sq km between Avignon and Orange. This earthy, well-structured wine has a high alcohol level (between 12.5% and 15%) and is a traditional accompaniment to game and sauced meats." (Lonely Planet Provence & Côte d’Azur)

What Would Be Provence Without Pastis?

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Pastis is the traditional liqueur of Provence, flavored with anise and typically containing 40-45% alcohol by volume. When absinthe was banned in France in 1915, the major absinthe producers (then Pernod Fils and Ricard, who have since merged as Pernod Ricard) reformulated their drink without the banned wormwood and with more aniseed flavor, coming from star anise, sugar and a lower alcohol content, creating pastis. It is usually drunk diluted with water. It is especially popular in and around Marseille.

The Arts

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Since the late nineteenth century, Provence has been home and inspiration to some of the greatest names of modern art – Van Gogh, Chagall, Cézanne, Renoir, Matisse and Picasso among them. The brilliant southern light was one of the most influential factors in their work here, with Matisse remarking that, had he gone on painting in the north, “there would have been cloudiness, greys, colors shading off into the distance…”. Instead, during his time in Nice he produced some of his most famous, colorful works, such as Interior with Egyptian Curtains (Le Rideau égyptien) and Icarus (Icare). It was in Provence too, in Arles and St-Rémy, that Van Gogh fully developed his distinct style of bright, contrasting colors. His landscapes of live trees, cypresses and harvest scenes, such as La Sieste and Cham de Blé et Cyprès (Wheat Field with Cypresses), all pay tribute to the intensity of Provençal sun. The painters in turn had a major impact on the region. Hand-in-hand with the writers and socialites who flocked to the Côte-d’Azur during the interwar years (Colette, Fitzgerald, Wharton, etc.), their artistic, and touristic, legacy helped to shape the Provence that exists today.
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Not to Miss: Provence’s Highlights

The Calanques

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The Calanques, also known as the Massif des Calanques, are a dramatic feature of the Provence coast, a 20-km long series of narrow inlets in the cliffs of the coastline between Marseille on the west and Cassis on the east. The highest peak in the massif is Mont Puget, 565 metres high. The best known calanques of the Massif des Calanques include the Calanque de Sormiou, the Calanque de Morgiou, the Calanque d’En-Vau, the Calanque de Port-Pin and the Calanque de Sugiton. The Calanques are remains of ancient river mouths formed mostly during Tertiary. Later, during quaternary glaciations, as glaciers swept by, they further deepened those valleys which would eventually (at the end of the last glaciation) be invaded with sea and become calanques.

The perched village of Simiane la Rotonde

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One of the loveliest of the region’s villages-perchés – medieval villages originally built for defence and now much admired for their maze of streets, mellow stone houses and spectacular settings. (Rough Guide to Provence & the Côte-d’Azur)

The Camargue

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"For 570 square miles, the vast alluvial delta of the Rhône River known as the Camargue stretches to the horizon, an austere marshland unrelievedly flat, scoured by the mistral, swarmed over by mosquitoes. Between the endless flow of sediment from the Rhône and the erosive force of the sea, its shape is constantly changing. Even the Provençal poet Frédéric Mistral described it in bleak terms: "Ni arbre, ni ombre, ni âme" ("Neither tree, nor shade, nor soul"). Yet its harsh landscape harbors a concentration of exotic wildlife unique in Europe, and its isolation has given birth to an ascetic and ancient way of life that transcends national stereotype. It is a strange region, one worth discovering slowly, either on foot or on horseback—especially as its wildest reaches are inaccessible by car. If people find the Camargue interesting, birds find it irresistible. Its protected marshes lure some 400 species, including more than 160 in migration—little egrets, gray herons, spoonbills, bitterns, cormorants, redshanks, and grebes, and the famous flamingos. All this nature surrounds a few far-flung villages, rich in the region’s odd history and all good launching points for forays into the marshlands." (Fodor’s)

Grand Canyon du Verdon

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"Europe’s largest canyon offers stunning scenery and plenty of scope for activities, from cycling to bungee-jumping." (Rough Guide to Provence & the Côte-d’Azur)

Festival d’Avignon

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"July and early August are the best months to visit Avignon, when its ancient monuments provide the backdrop to a riot of theatre, music and dance." (Rough Guide to Provence & the Côte-d’Azur)

Mont Ste-Victoire

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"Walk up to the top of the mountain that inspired so much of Cézanne’s work." (Rough Guide to Provence & the Côte-d’Azur)

Mont Ventoux

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"The tallest mountain in the region (Vaucluse), Mont Ventoux has a majestic presence that dominates the sweeping vistas and landscapes of northwestern Provence. The mountain’s limestone peaks—often mistaken for snow cover—reach nearly 6,000 feet and harbor a unique wind-buffeted ecosystem recognized by UNESCO and strictly protected by France. Perhaps best known for its foreboding role in the Tour de France bike race, if you can summit the "Beast of Provence" you’ll be amply rewarded with some truly breathtaking views." (Fodor’s)

French Corner is our monthly rendez-vous where we showcase a French region and introduce you to its highlights and secrets, appeal to your palate and culinary talents with our local recipe of the month and fspotlight France’s scientific and educational competitiveness with school and universities of the region! We use also this opportunity to interview one of our expats’ of New England

Dernière modification : 13/05/2016

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