France: Provence

Inland Provence

Côtes de Provence and Coteaux Varois Wines from the Hillsides
By Elizabeth Gabay MW

This Guide was last updated on 12 February 2010
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Main towns and villages


A medieval town with the local museum housed in the former palace of the Counts of Provence, it has benefited from the recent construction of a by-pass. A turbulent history of wars and plagues during the 16th century destroyed some of its medieval heritage, but prosperity since Louis XIV (who visited with his musketeers) has allowed the town to retain its commercial position. As well as trade in leather, silk, soap and bauxite, Brignoles was famed for its plums.

Saint Maximin-La Sainte Baume

With a new ring road constructed around the town the congestion has eased considerably, the atmosphere of this town is quite different from many other Provencal towns, largely due to the very large medieval basilica in the centre of town. It is rare to find gothic architecture on this scale in the region, which gives a feeling of northern France, transferred to the south!Prosperous from centuries of pilgrimage and with a big basilica, crypt, ‘couvent royale’ and roads lined with houses  similar in style to those of Aix-en-Provence. This town has remained an important cultural hub for many of the small rural communities scattered for many kilometres in all directions – a large Wednesday market, hotels and restaurants make it an attractive base for visiting the region.


Only a few years ago this was a sleepy medieval market town clustered round the large church in the centre, but recent urban policies have encouraged rapid expansion. The Tuesday market is big and often very crowded. Luckily the old narrow streets are too small for much traffic, so once inside the town it is still a pleasant place to explore. Pick up a leaflet for the guided walk around the fountains and lavoirs (washing-places) including a rare, old well used for market garden irrigation. For a more strenuous walk climb the hill marked by the Stations of the Cross to the chapel and circle back following the line of the now forgotten local railway.

Vence and Saint Paul de Vence

Vence is a traditional hilltop town, preserved by tourism. A big emphasis on Matisse who came to live there and other artists who followed suit – the town makes an interesting and artistic break from visiting the vineyards. However, to my mind, both towns suffer overly from tourism, especially in the summer season. The Matisse Museum is in Cimiez, Nice.


THE town to go to for perfume. Tours of the factories and vast perfume shops for the main houses of Galimard, Fragonard and Molinard. Sniffing perfume is a completely different art to sniffing wine! All three big perfume houses are very well sign-posted in town and the shops can be very crowded with coach loads of tourists – tours are available in most languages including Russian and Japanese. To be quite honest, each factory visit and perfume shop is very similar and the first place you find usually receives the visit – hence the competitive sign-posting. Fragonard also has a perfume museum in Boulevard Fragonard and a separate clothes and jewellery museum in Rue Jean Ossola.


Once the prefecture of Var, this rapidly developing city is an administrative and military centre (it is home to the French artillery school, who use the plateau de Canjuers to the north as a training ground) as well as a tourist and cultural attraction, with several museums, theatres, markets and summer events. The old town is a pedestrian zone, with two of the towns medieval gates and parts of the city walls still standing; a 17th century clock tower dominates the skyline. Avenues lined with plane trees were laid out by Haussman during the 19th century. A pleasant suburb to the south is Trans en Provence, a pretty old village which straddles the river Nartuby. To the west of Trans, (Montée de la Cotte, just behind the former station) lies the Puit Aerien (Aerial Well) built by the Belgian engineer Achille Knapen in 1930. He aimed to demonstrate that the moisture in the air could be captured from the hot air as it cooled in the evening and retained to provide much needed water. Sadly there is very little aerian moisture and if you visit today there is scarcely even any damp or mould on the building.

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