From Aix-en-Provence to Nice, the towns of Provence are charming, lively and full of hidden treasures for those who take the time to discover them.
Dominated by the Sainte Victoire Mountain (1000 meters high), Aix-en-Provence owes its name to the hot springs discovered by the Romans during the founding of the city in 123 BC. Historical capital of the 15th Century Provence, Aix-en-Provence is a pleasant, elegant and dynamic city. Mansions, beautiful town houses, small squares, hidden courtyards, ancient fountains and shady avenues all give the city an undeniable charm and allure. Aix is well known as a city of art and culture and has inspired artists such as Stendhal, Zola and of course Cézanne. It is a destination for several famous cultural institutions, namely the International Opera Festival (every July), the Granet Museum (which has been completely restored), the Black Pavilion (designed by architect Rudy Ricciotti and host of the Ballet Preljocaj), and last but not least, the new Grand Théâtre de Provence.
A bundle of cultural paradoxes, Marseille escapes any attempt of classification, analysis and logic. One would think he understands it only to watch it escape and be reborn, always the same, always different. Like all ports of the Mediterranean, it is smooth talking, colourful and theatrical which can be exasperating and deeply moving at the same time.
Greeks from Phocaea in Asia Minor chose to anchor there in 600 BC for a good reason: its hospitable harbours. One should first discover Marseille from its miles of coastline punctuated by merchant ports, passenger ports, marinas, sandy beaches, coves, levees and island chains. Marseille is a city of hills with breath-taking views. There is no better way to discover this ancient city than to get lost in its hidden passages and back streets that weave mazes up the hills. You must see the beautifully restored Basilica of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde (Bonne Mère), before sitting down for a well-deserved drink at one of the many terraces on the Old Port.
Nestled between the mountains and the deep blue sea, Toulon is the third largest city in the region after Marseille and Nice. Toulon is a city which history is written by the sea; the city’s naval base is the first military port in France (homeport of the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle) and has been a strategic defence site since the Middle Ages. Perched on the heights of Mount Faron, north of the city, it is one of the best views in Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur. Another way to discover the site is to hike the coastal path or the Cap Nègre trail. The old town is also worth seeing, with its colourful markets and beautiful squares shaded by hundred years old plane trees.
In recent years, thanks to the development of Draguignan’s historical heritage, the former capitol of the Var has evolved from a military town into a tourist destination. Take time to stroll through the old town, organized around the rocky outcrop where sits the Clock Tower and surrounded by beautiful shady streets. Stop to admire the porches, carved doors and facades of its old houses. Discover many places with evocative names like Place aux Herbes (Herb Square) or the Place de l’Observance (Observance square). And don’t miss the dolmen of Pierre de la Fée, the memorial of the Rhone and the American Cemetery, the Chapel of Saint-Sauveur, the Clock Tower and finally the Museum of Provencal Arts and Traditions.
The influence of neighbouring Italy gives Nice an elegant Latin soul. With azure waters, the fragrant smell of Mediterranean cooking and ochre and rose facades along the labyrinth of passages in the old centre, you might think you have wandered across the border.
Nice is also famous for its carnival in the winter. Created by the people of the city in the Middle Ages, this is one of the most renowned, lively and colourful carnivals in the world. The festive parade begins with the famous characters Paillassou, Punch and Triboulet.
Nice is of course famous for the Promenade des Anglais, which was originally built in 1820 and created jobs for many of the beggars in Nice. The first version was barely two meters wide! Nice is also proud of its flavourful and varied cuisine where stuffed pissaladière, ravioli and trucha (chard omelette) contribute to the city’s identity. It is also a city of culture: it has been and still is home to many artists and artistic movements and festivals. Among the many museums that are worth visiting is the Villa Arson, an international scene dedicated to contemporary art; it’s an art school, an exhibition centre and a residency for artists.