Excursions and attractions in PROVENCE-ALPES-COTE D AZUR close to AIX-EN PROVENCE Roussillon: 'LE COLORADO PROVENCAL'
Provence... the name conjures up images of lavender fieldsing in the wind, dazzling sunshine and pretty, flower-covered limestone houses with blue shutters and vines trailing from windowsills. This is not tourist board fiction. It's what life and living is really like in the south west corner of France. With an almost perfect climate, hot summers, mild winters and a sense of history in every Medieval village and town, it is evident why Peter Mayle's book 'A Year in Provence' was a best-seller. The author, who wrote of his trials to restore a dilapidated farmhouse in the Lubéron Valley, fell in love with the area's traditions and its people. It's not surprising he has penned three books to date about life in the region's sleepy backwaters: Provence is a feast for all the senses. From the all-pervading scent of lavender in the summer to its perfume industry (the nearby town of Grasse is France's perfume capital), from its garlic marinated olives to its colourful garden blooms, the warm soils of Provence stir the imagination. Its warm, intense light, reflected by the waters of the Mediterannean, inspired painters such as Van Gogh, Cézanne and Picasso to create some of their finest work here. The French know how to take it easy and nowhere is this more evident than in the south. Locals spend a great deal of their lives outdoors, sipping 'pastis' (a liquorice flavoured aperitif) in cafés or playing 'pétanque' (French bowls) in the shade of the plane trees. Villages, many of them perched unfeasibly on steep hillsides, are a mass of red tiled roofs and church steeples, surrounded by olive trees and almond groves. The celebrated Chateauneuf-du-Pape vineyards are also found here. This is a land where people know how to enjoy themselves. The region practically overflows with festivals and cultural events. The world-famous Avignon Festival attracts thousands of people to the 300 plus events held each day. During the four weeks it takes over the city from early July to early August. Outside festival time, this walled city does not lose its buzz. With its famous bridge (actually only half a bridge the other half washed away in the mid-1600s) and the majestic Rhone river flowing through its centre, it makes an enticing destination for a day trip. A boat trip down the Rhone to Arles with its huge bullfighting arena is one of the more enjoyable ways to soak up the atmosphere. The coastline of the Var is unlike any other. It consists of almost 430 klms of shoreline with sandy beaches, tranquil bays and umbrella pines. The rich and famous come here to enjoy the convivial atmosphere. Aix-en-Provence is one of France's most graceful cities and an important market town. Sit and watch the world go by from a cafe on one of its ornate public squares or stand back and gaze in awe at the 200 plus Renaissance mansions which line the city's avenues. The fusion of colours, sounds and smells of a Provencale market will stay in your memory long after your holiday is over. Seek out the local specialities like truffles, olives (prepared in 101 different ways) and lavender flavoured marmalade. Countless artists have helped to make the region famous, simply by setting up their easels : Signac, Matisse, Marquet, Bonnard and many others came to Saint-Tropez to find inspiration and provide the Post-Impressionist movement with some of its most important works. The poet Aragon, also came at the end of the 70's and stayed regularly in Toulon, as indeed the writers Thomas Mann and Robert Louis Stevenson. Marseille is a bustling and cosmopolitan city as well as an important seaport with a daily fresh fish market. Founded by the Greeks in 600BC, it is also France's oldest city. Further east on the Cote d'Azur (the name is taken from the coastline's brilliant blue waters), also known as the French Riviera, the coast fills up with glamorous, upmarket resorts. Cannes, hosts the international film festival and is the place to go if you want to see how the other half live. A good vantage point from which to do this are its long, sandy beaches. Or take a stroll along Boulevard de la Croisette and ogle at the five star hotels and exclusive boutiques, then head for the harbour to gawp at yachts as big as ocean liners. The former fishing village of St Tropez, immortalised by the actress Brigitte Bardot in the film 'And God Created Woman', and the tiny principality of Monaco, are equally exclusive. If after all that people-watching you want to let your hair down, Nice is the place to party. This fashionable but relaxed city, the capital of the Riviera, has a young population and an emphasis on fun and nightlife. In the background, the Alpes rise like an overblown picture postcard. Rich in scenic hiking trails, they come alive in the winter months when skiers head for some of the best slopes in the world.