The picture of Mediterranean France as an exotic land subject to a wide range of foreign influences is borne out by a glance at the region’s complex history. This tour traces the wide-ranging influences on Provence and eastern Languedoc throughout the centuries.
Provence was the first province established by the Romans outside Italy and impressive Roman work survives at Nîmes, St-Rémy and Arles. In Arles, as one moves into Late Antiquity, one is also witness to the most significant Early Christian city of Mediterranean Gaul.
This Roman infrastructure is fundamental, and the pre-eminent Romanesque churches of Provence may come as something of a surprise. The sculpture is more skilfully and self-consciously antique than any outside central Italy, and is often organised in a manner designed to evoke either fourth-century sarcophagi or Roman theatres and triumphal arches.
The Italian connection was strengthened when, for much of the fourteenth century, the papacy came to reside in Avignon, one of the loveliest cities in France. We spend five nights here. The complete circuit of walls is an impressive survival from this time, as is the Palais des Papes, perhaps the finest Palace to have survived from the Middle Ages, and several Gothic churches.
Despite the upheavals of the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when Provence lost its independence and the whole region was riven by religious wars, local patrons, such as the Duke of Uzès, began to employ artists capable of creating Italian Renaissance motifs. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, at Nîmes and Aix, Parisian Baroque architecture became the dominant model.
The intensity of the light, the brightness of the colours and the raw beauty of the Midi purified palettes, dissolved form and changed the course of western art. Van Gogh and Gauguin sojourned in Arles in 1888, Cézanne returned to his birthplace, Aix-en-Provence, in 1886. Signac, Matisse, Derain, Marquet, Camoin, Dufy, Bonnard and Braque also set up in productive propinquity along the coast and their art has remained in the region’s collections.
Time is spent in Aix, the attractive old capital of Provence and the new capital, Marseille, handsome and vibrant and at times gritty. Oscillating between small provincial town and big city, Marseille was propelled into the 21st century by Norman Foster, Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid who all contributed to the civic improvements and architecturally striking new museums for its year as European Capital of Culture in 2013.
Fly at c. 1.00pm (British Airways) from London Heathrow to Marseille. Drive to Aix-en-Provence for two nights.
Aix-en-Provence. Morning walk through the old town, including the Cathedral of St Sauveur with 5th-cent. baptistry, cloisters and a 15th-cent. triptych of The Burning Bush by Nicolas Froment. The Musée Granet has a good permanent collection of French painting from the 16th-cent. onwards and a room dedicated to works by Cézanne. Cézanne’s studio remains as he left it on his death in 1906, and a short drive away is a fine view of the Mont Sainte-Victoire, the most recognisable motif in modern art. Overnight Aix-en-Provence.
Les Baux, St Rémy. Morning walk through the delightful mediaeval and Renaissance town of Les Baux, whose citadel sits on top of a rocky spur in the Alpilles. Continue to St Rémy, Glanum of old, and proud possessor of one of the truly great funerary memorials of the Roman world, the cenotaph erected by three Julii brothers in honour of their forebears. See also the former monastery where Van Gogh was hospitalised, including the Romanesque cloister and scenes that he painted. Continue to Avignon for the first of five nights.
Avignon. The Palais des Papes is the principal monument of the Avignon papacy, one-time site of the papal curia and by far the most significant 14th-cent. building to survive in southern France. The collections of late Gothic sculpture and painting in the Petit Palais act as a splendid foil to the work at the papal palace.
Pernes-les-Fontaines, Vaison, Venasque. Gentle stroll through Pernes, a delightful fortified river town with an important Romanesque church and 13th-cent. frescoed tower. Continue over the Dentelles de Montmirail to the stunning early mediaeval baptistery at Venasque. Free afternoon in Avignon.
Nîmes, Uzès, Pont du Gard. Nîmes has two of the most famous of Roman monuments: the amphitheatre and the Maison Carrée, a perfectly preserved temple. The Jardin de la Fontaine is a beautiful 18th-cent. garden around the terminus of an aqueduct – the water brought here across the Pont du Gard, an astonishing feat of engineering over the River Gardon. The Romanesque tower of Uzès cathedral sits against a backdrop of picturesque mediaeval streets and baroque houses. Overnight Avignon.
Arles. The amphitheatre at Arles is a justly famous early 2nd-cent. structure of a type developed from the Colosseum. The Romanesque Cathedral of St-Trophime is home to one of the greatest cloisters of 12th-cent. Europe. The Musée Départmental Arles Antique houses a quite spellbinding collection of classical and early Christian art. Overnight Avignon.
Villeneuve-lez-Avignon, Marseille. In the morning see Pope Innocent VI’s now ruined Charterhouse at Villeneuve-lez-Avignon and the Musée Pierre de Luxembourg, displaying works from the 14th–17th cents. in a former Cardinal’s palace. Continue to Marseille. Visit first the Basilique St Victor, which has a 5th-cent. crypt. First of two nights in Marseille.
Marseille. Morning walk through the Vieux Port and Panier districts, including the remains of the city’s ancient Greek then Roman port at the Jardin des Vestiges and La Vieille Charité, 17–18th cent. almshouses with a fine Baroque chapel. The Musée des Docks Romains illustrates the importance of Marseille in Mediterranean maritime trade. In the afternoon visit the Musée des Beaux Arts, where the highlight is a fine collection of 19th-cent. French art.
Marseille. Free morning. Suggestions include the modern and contemporary collections of the Musée Cantini or the new Musée des Civilisations d’Europe et de la Méditerranée, containing collections previously at the former Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires in Paris. Fly from Marseille, arriving at London Heathrow at c. 5.45pm.
Price – per person
Two sharing: £3,480 or £3,320 without flights. Single occupancy: £4,000 or £3,840 without flights.
Flights (Euro Traveller) with British Airways (aircraft: Airbus A319); travel by private coach throughout; hotel accommodation as described below; breakfasts and seven dinners with wine, water and coffee; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager; hire of radio guides for better audibility of the lecturer.
Grand Hotel Roi René, Aix-en-Provence: 4 star, centrally located. Hôtel d’Europe, Avignon: central 5-star hotel in a former 16th-cent. residence. Grand Hotel Beauvau, Marseille : 4 star in the old port area with sea views.
Quite a lot of walking is involved, particularly in the town centres. The tour is not suitable for anyone who has difficulties with everyday walking and stairclimbing. There are some long days and coach journeys. Average distance by coach per day: 32 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.
'I learned heaps. I slept well. And the sun came out almost every day.'
'The combination of medieval, Roman and pre-Roman was exceptionally interesting.'
'Very well planned and covered a wide range of places and material.'