||Provence over the centuries…
In the Beginning…
Neanderthal roamed around Provence; prehistoric populations hunted and gathered in the tight valleys and canyons, which today are lined with walking trails. You can observe their shelters, provided by the grottos carved out by millions of years of erosion. Being relatively humid and verdant, food was more abundant in these valleys. Flint was carved out of the limestone to use as tools, evidence of which was found in many sites in Provence.
You can visit the famous bronze-age stone etchings of the “Vallée des Merveilles”, set in the mountains near the Italian border; the drawings depict the life and hardships of the tribes that lived in the mountains. It wasn’t until about 10 000 years ago that the human populations, becoming agricultural, were able to settle in the plains and plateaus.
From hunting to forts …
The Celto-Ligurian populations, from central Europe and what now is Italy, arrived before the Romans, some 3000 years ago.
Living in a time of uncertainty, they built forts – called oppidum – perched defiantly atop cliffs.
Visit the Buoux Fort, set high in the Luberon mountains; it was first built by the Celto-Ligurians (and later elaborated by other populations, including the Romans), who mounted protective walls and carved grain silos. The extraordinary fort is perched on a rocky crag, with 500ft drops around its perimeter. You can also descend its 3000 year-old secret staircase, carved vertiginously into the limestone, which allowed the populations to flee in case of attack.
Pont du Gard & the Roman Empire
2000 years ago, the Romans built a thriving and rich culture in Provence, and left many treasures as a witness to their past. Every town in Provence has unearthed Roman vestiges, from simple pottery to entire buried towns.
The Pont du Gard, a monumental aqueduct spanning over the Gardon River, was built to collect water from a spring and bring it, over 50km, to Nîmes. An architectural masterpiece, the aqueduct is still in perfect condition, and at 49m high is the tallest aqueduct bridge ever built by the Romans.
The best conserved Roman amphitheater is also in Provence, in the town of Orange.
You can also visit the Coliseum and Roman museum in Arles, the Roman village in Vaison-la-Romaine, or the Roman town of Glanum, near St. Rémy de Provence.
Perched Provençal Villages and Medieval Architecture…
After centuries of dark ages, the 11th and 12th centuries brought the construction of perched Provençal villages and Romanesque architecture. Using the abundance of regional limestone, magnificent churches and monasteries were built all over Provence during this time. Massive in construction but modest in style, many of these structures have withstood the test of time, and are a marvel to visit.
The Cistercian monasteries of Thoronet, Sénanque, and Silvacane have been the home to orders of Benedictine Monks for centuries. Pace thoughtfully around their cloisters, and admire the light shining in from the open sky, highlighting an architecture of detail and unhurried labour.
Popes & Lords in Avignon …
The Reine Jeanne, born into the powerful Anjou family, was Countess of Provence during the 14th century, though living in Italy. Persecuted in Italy, she took refuge in Provence, where she handed the keys of Avignon (and its neighbouring region) to the Pope.
The Popes reigned in Avignon for 70 years. Avignon and its surrounding region – still called the Comtat Vanaissain – belonged to the Vatican for five centuries, up until the French Revolution. The Pope’s palace in Avignon, still standing, is a reminder of the city’s wealth and power during the times of the Popes. Also still in tact is Avignon’s 4km-long protective wall, built in 1356 during the Popes’ stay.
The Good King René…
Roi René governed many lands including Provence in the 15th century. He was called “the good”, but apparently more interested in culture and the arts than expanding his territory: he lost Provence to Louis XI, his own nephew, without a sword being drawn.
However, he was responsible for bringing the arts in all their forms to his kingdoms, both encouraging and protecting the artists.
He was one of the great minds of his time: he spoke Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, and Catalan. He played and composed music, wrote poetry, was well read in theology, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, geography, and law. He didn’t hesitate to get close to his people, participating and even organizing local festivals and tournaments.
René’s castle, still standing in the town of Tarascon, is set along the Rhône River. It was used as a prison from the 17th century to 1926, and today houses a collection of contemporary art.
Religious Turmoil in Luberon…
The Waldensians (Vaudois) are members of a Christian sect founded in the late 12th century by Pierre Valdo, a rich merchant in Lyon, who gave up his fortune and property to preach poverty and austerity. He condemned the Catholic Church for its affluence and hypocrisy, relying solely on the scriptures as a means to live his life. He and his followers were declared heretics by the Pope, and were persecuted over the centuries.
In Provence, the Luberon mountains were home to many Waldensian communities, brought over from Italy to labour the fields.
The massacre in the Luberon mountains, in 1545, would claim the lives of 3000 Waldensians. It is said that the massacre was catalyzed by a story of failed courtship: The baron d’Opède, President of the Parliament at the time, had proposed marriage to the Dame of Cental, baroness of one of the Luberon villages populated by the Waldensians. At her refusal, the baron d’Opède grew more spiteful of the Waldensians, and orchestrated their massacre. The old village of Mérindol, which has become a symbol of the Waldensian struggle, has recently erected a memorial plaque beside the old medieval village, completely destroyed during the massacre.
Vaucluse, the Garden of France
With its savvy use of channeled water via canals, Provence was and still is the “garden of France”, providing fruits and vegetables to the rest of the country. Its mild climate ensures an early harvest, the tasty fruits and vegetables ripening under the hot Provençal sun are always in demand. The melons of Cavaillon burst with sugar, the cherries of Mont Ventoux as sweet as candy. Provence is still largely agricultural, specializing in the production of wine, lavender, and olive oil.
The Famous Riviera
The Côte D’azur has attracted people to its coastline for centuries. Holiday-makers first arrived in 1750, to take advantage of the wild winters. When the railroad line was established along the coast a century later, the resort towns were established, the rich and famous beginning to dot the coastline with lavish villas and exotic flowers. And endless list of famous people began to choose the Côte d’Azur as a vacation spot, still considered one of the most fashionable of destinations…