Provence is the France of our imagination, where the sun always shines, the food tastes more vivid than anywhere else, and the wine is rich and plentiful. It is the landscape of a painting by Paul Cézanne or the words of a novel by Marcel Pagnol; it is that languid dreamy place where pastis is drunk in the shade of plane trees, where cypresses bend with the force of the mistral, and where the sun, that huge, throbbing yellow orb that Vincent van Gogh painted so intensely, shines some three hundred days of the year from a deep azure sky.
From the rugged uplands of Les Alpilles to the glistening sea of the Côte d’Azur; from the windswept Camargue to the stony wine hills of Châteauneuf-du-Pape; and from Nice to Avignon – our two bases for this tour – Provence is a region of great contrasts, artistically, historically and gastronomically. What unites it above all is a sense of warmth, generosity and abundance.
The gastronomy of Provence is truly cuisine du soleil – cuisine of the sun. Stroll through markets in Nice, Aigues-Mortes or Avignon, and you will be assaulted with colourful visions and scents: huge, pregnant aubergines, piles of fine haricots verts, and at least a dozen types of lettuce laid out in the morning light slanting through canopies lining the broad avenues.
Such seasonal abundance has traditionally required preserving methods for leaner times. Fish may be salted, pork transformed into charcuterie, milk from the goats that graze on the scrubby garrigues made into discs of cheese, sometimes covered in fines herbes de Provence. And the seasonal glut of fruits for which Provence is so famous is still, in a few traditional places only, transformed by slow poaching in sugar syrup into fruits confits that are virtually works of art in themselves.
Both land and sea yield so many good things and this is reflected in a generous cuisine that is rarely over-complicated. Fishing villages along the fabled Côte d’Azur are the source of an extraordinary Mediterranean catch, while typical inland dishes reflect the harsher terrain of Provence, where meat is scarce and everything must be utilised. La gardiane is a rich stew made from the meat of bulls raised on the Camargue and the petits farcis of Nice stretch out abundant fresh vegetables with delicious morsels of ground meat.
A discovery of the wines of Provence is an equally important part of our pursuit. The pretty, pale rosés are a delightful theme, but there are also less frequently encountered vintages to slake the thirst; Cassis, a forceful white from vineyards above the eponymous fishing village, is the perfect accompaniment to the equally full-flavoured bouillabaisse. We dip into the Rhône’s southern flanks at Châteauneuf-du-Pape, as well as for the lighter vins de sable produced from pre-phylloxera grapes planted in the sandy dunes of the Camargue.
For the Romans, this corner of France, the province of Gallia Narbonensis, was one of the most important and strategic in the Empire. The Aurelian Way leading from Rome to Arles left notable Roman remains including the ancient Glanum at St-Rémy and the triumphal theatre at Orange. However, perhaps the greatest Roman legacy is found not in bricks and mortar, but in the values of Roman civilisation, which remained after the fall of the Empire and had a profound effect on present-day Provençal attitudes to food, wine, and easy good living.
Fly at c. 11.30am from London Heathrow to Nice (British Airways). An afternoon walk to a ruined citadel strategically positioned at the highest point of Old Nice with spectacular views of the city. An introductory lecture precedes dinner at two Michelin-starred Flaveur. The chefs, brothers Mickaël and Gaël Tourteaux, who earned their second star in 2018, create characterful, delicate dishes. First of three nights in Nice.
A guided food walk through Nice is an opportunity to sample local delicacies such as socca, chickpea batter baked in a ferociously hot oven, and pissaladière, a sort of Provençal pizza. In the afternoon visit the Musée Matisse, which unites a wide range of the artist’s work; sculpture, ceramics and stained glass as well as painting. In the steep wine hills above the city, the urban appellation of Bellet produces a rare wine in the tiniest quantities. A tasting here before continuing to dinner. Second of three nights in Nice.
Cagnes-sur-Mer, Vence, St-Paul-de-Vence. Drive to Renoir’s house set amidst olive groves; a memorial to the only major Impressionist to settle in the south. The group is joined by MRT lecturer, Mary Lynn Riley, resident of the Côte d’Azur and specialist in modern art. Continue to the Chapelle du Rosaire, a Dominican chapel designed by Matisse, before lunch at La Colombe d’Or in St-Paul-de-Vence, long famous for the artistic crowd that it attracts as well as its fresh regional cuisine. In the afternoon visit the Maeght Foundation, renowned for its collections (Picasso, Hepworth, Miró, Arp, Giacometti, but not all works are shown at once) and for its architecture and setting. Final night in Nice.
Cassis, Avignon. An early departure from Nice for the pretty port of Cassis. Accessible only by boat, visit the hidden bays of the calanques that are home to the bony rock fish traditionally thrown into the fisherman’s pot. Afterwards, overlooking the water, feast on that amazing festival of the sea, la bouillabaisse. Continue to Avignon, where the following four nights are spent. An evening wine tasting in the hotel (situated in a former 16th-century residence) celebrates the wines of the Rhône, a mighty river of wine since the times of the Greeks and Romans.
Avignon, Orange, Châteauneuf-du-Pape. A morning guided tour of Palais des Papes, principal monument of the Avignon papacy, one-time site of the papal curia and the most significant 14th-century building to survive in southern France. Drive to Orange, site of the greatest of all Roman theatres to survive in the West, before continuing to Châteauneuf-du-Pape for a tour and wine-tasting at a respected family-run vineyard. Return to Avignon for dinner at La Vieille Fontaine within the hotel. Chef Pascal Auger creates refined, beautiful dishes paying particular attention to seasonality.
Les Baux, St-Rémy-de-Provence. In the morning drive to an olive oil producer in the heart of the Alpilles. The mill, dating to the 12th century, has been run by the same family for ten generations. A wine-tasting at a vineyard immortalised by Van Gogh in 1889 precedes a visit to the delightful medieval and Renaissance town of Les Baux, whose citadel sits on top of a rocky spur. We are joined here by MRT lecturer, Dr Alexandra Gajewski, specialist in medieval architecture and resident of the Languedoc. Continue to St-Rémy, Glanum of old, and proud possessor of one of the truly great funerary memorials of the Roman world. Visit a traditional producer of prized fruits confits before returning to Avignon.
Aigues-Mortes, Avignon. An excursion to the Camargue, where wild horses and pink flamingos make their home. Visit the salt flats, which have been harvested in this region for thousands of years, before lunch within the medieval city walls of Aigues-Mortes. Return to Avignon for a final dinner at Michelin-starred Maison Christian Étienne. Chef Guilhem Sevin, who worked with Étienne for nearly two decades before taking over the restaurant in 2016, creates modern menus in a striking historical setting in the shadow of the Palais des Papes.
Avignon. An early departure from Avignon for Marseille airport. Fly to London Heathrow arriving c. 12.00 noon.
Price, per person
Two sharing, superior garden view room in Nice: £3,720 or £3,610 without flights.
Two sharing, superior sea view room in Nice: £3,800 or £3,690 without flights.
Single occupancy, classic room in Nice: £4,160 or £4,050 without flights.
Single occupancy, superior sea view room in Nice: £4,300 or £4,190 without flights.
Flights (Euro Traveller) with British Airways (Airbus 319); travel by private coach for airport transfers and excursions; boat travel as indicated in the itinerary; hotel accommodation; breakfasts, 4 lunches and 4 dinners with wine, water and coffee; all wine and food tastings; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
Hotel La Pérouse, Nice: 4-star hotel partially built into the cliff and overlooking the Promenade des Anglais. Rooms are furnished in modern Provençal style. Hôtel d’Europe, Avignon: central 5-star hotel in a former 16th-century residence close to the river Rhône with a pleasant courtyard; all rooms in Avignon are in the Classic category (both single and double occupancy).
There is a lot of walking and standing on this tour (some of it over uneven ground), and it would not be suitable for anyone who has difficulties with everyday walking or stair-climbing. One day involves a lot of driving. Average distance by coach per day: 68 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.