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PROVENCE




Welcome to the land of sunshine!

P
rovence! Land of sunshine! Advertisements tout the wines of the Sun, the freeway of the Sun, the fabrics of the Sun... The city of Nice brags of 299 sunny days a year. “Oh, those who don't believe in the sun here are real infidels,” wrote Vincent Van Gogh, whose discovery of Provençal light changed his life and the history of painting. The bright, hot Mediterranean summers make aromatic herbs more pungent, give wines a higher degree of alcohol, and draw vacationers from all over the world.

Outsiders have been traveling to Provence since Greek merchants began to set up trading posts around 600 BC, buying metals from tribes settled there in Paleolithic times. Prehistoric sites and caverns remain near Nice and Monaco, Greek vestiges survive at Antibes and in the Hellenes' most powerful center, Marseille. A Greek ship lifted from this city's harbor by Jacques Cousteau's team stands proud in the History Museum on Rue Neuve Saint-Martin. The Roman chronicler Tacitus once described Marseille as “a happy mixture of Greek urbanity combined with Gallic temperance.” This spirit produced Marseille's most famous culinary specialty, the fish soup sunny with saffron, called bouillabaisse.

Next to come were Celtic tribes from the north, fierce headhunters whose capital city stood near Aix-en-Provence. They were conquered in the second century BC by the Romans, who left their mark on everything in Provence for centuries after: the language, the legal system, agricultural methods and tools, architecture. Orange, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Arles, and Fréjus still have impressive and beautifully preserved Roman monuments, and Arles's new archaeological museum is one of the most fascinating in Europe.

In medieval times, the picturesque perched villages of Provence came into being, houses clustered high up around a church and fortified castle: Gordes, Oppède, and Peter Mayle's Lacoste in the Luberon, Moustiers-Sainte-Marie and Biot on the Riviera among them. Les Baux-de-Provence remains one of the most striking of these vertiginous villages, especially at sunset when one can almost hear the voices of former lords throwing captives off the castle's battlements, or the songs of troubadours courting Alix of the golden hair. In the fourteenth century, Avignon became one of Europe's major cities when a series of seven popes chose to live there instead of in Rome, building the majestic Papal Palace where theater festivals are held now every summer. From this time, too, dates the famous Pont d'Avignon, of which only a graceful fragment remains—enough to dance on still, however... Fifteenth-century Provence was dominated by the powerful personality of Good King René; a poet and musician of talent, patron of the arts and an innovative gardener, René lost almost every battle he ever fought. Shortly after his death, Provence became the property of the French Crown.

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were prosperous in Provence: the cities filled up with fountains and elegant town houses with wrought-iron balconies. Aix-en-Provence provides one of the most exquisite examples: its summer opera festival is held in the former archbishop's palace. The Riviera mountain town of Grasse was also rebuilt in the eighteenth century, though it was already famous for its flowers and perfumes. In that era too, Tarascon, Avignon, and Orange began manufacturing Indian-inspired fabrics with great success. The Souleïado company in Tarascon and the Olivades in nearby Saint-Étienne-du-Grès are the two leading examples that remain today.


The birth of the Riviera

Provence takes its name from the Romans' affectionate nickname for the region, nostra provincial, “another Italy,” as Pliny called it. In Roman times Provence extended all the way to Spain! The western boundary is for most people marked by the Rhône River—but Arles, on the far side, somehow always finds itself included in Provence. Frédéric Mistral, a nineteenth-century Nobel Prize--winning poet who championed the area's regional culture, established his Provençal museum in Arles. It still has one of the best collections of local antiques, though for antique shopping, the weekend and holiday fairs at Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, east of Avignon, have achieved great renown.

The Camargue, just south of Arles, offers yet another landscape, another world, another cuisine. This is the delta land of the Rhône, a magic blend of fresh and salt water similar to the lower Mississippi. There is nothing else like it anywhere in Europe. Here houses made of mud and straw are surrounded by expansive rice paddies. Here rare birds migrate, shellfish abound, and cowboys called gardians herd small, tough bulls around groves of wild tamarisk. These bulls are not killed in the local arenas, where they return to fight many times to the public's enthusiastic applause. But they do sometimes end up as bull stew, with black olives in a heavy, dark sauce.

The northern limit of Provence corresponds roughly to the realm of the olive tree in the west, this symbol of eternity which has nourished the people of Provence since the Greeks showed them how to graft it productively. In the east, however, the Alpes de Haute Provence's high, wild valleys are no longer Mediterranean but mountain country, with good ski resorts. Here, too, nestles the hill town of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, a producer of colorful faience since the eighteenth century. Nearby, the Verdon River Canyon offers untamed, breathtaking landscapes.

The eastern boundary, the Italian border, was set by the treaty of 1860. Menton, which snuggles up to the frontier, is friendly and picturesque, with an ocher-tinted old town, a lively market, and a lemon festival in February. The sheltered Bay of Garavan at Menton benefits from one of Europe's mildest climates, a boon for the city's famed Belle Époque gardens.

The southern limit of Provence alone poses no problems: it is the great inland sea—media terra. Major ports like Marseille and Toulon brim with bustling energy, but there are dozens of smaller fishing villages such as Cassis (famous for its white wine), Le Lavandou, or Saint-Tropez which has lured so many generations of artists and film-makers. Despite problems of overfishing and pollution, the Mediterranean continues to supply an amazing variety of seafood and fish: sea bass (bar or more commonly loup de mer), red mullet (rouget barbet), and sculpin (rascasse, indispensable in bouillabaisse), sea bream (dorade), and the “poor man's lobster,” the densely fleshed monkfish or anglerfish (baudroie or lotte).

Enchanted landscapes


Though the coast has much to offer, inland Provence above all has charmed the world with its legendary scenery: “the familiar prospects of vines, olives, cypresses” as British writer Lawrence Durrell puts it, “enchanted landscapes of the European heart.”

In the backcountry of course, there is little fresh fish, but dried salt cod has been a staple for centuries, used in dishes like the grand aïoli still served in most villages on feast days: platters of poached salt cod surrounded by colorful vegetables with a garlicky mayonnaise. Codfish also appears at Christmas Eve supper...followed by the Thirteen Desserts of Provence, which symbolize Christ and the twelve apostles.

These inland regions where wild limestone ridges contrast with manicured farms and small cities have much diversity: the Var départment between Nice and Marseille produces charming wines, and is still largely unexplored. On Mont Ventoux, north of Avignon, lavender fields melt into the sky in mid-summer. The lower slopes are decked with vineyards, cherry and apricot orchards, fields of wheat and the winter wheat known as épeautre, which local chefs turn into a gourmet treat. The Ventoux is also famous for its truffles, sold at the market town of Carpentras.

Between Saint-Rémy-de-Provence and Arles rise Van Gogh's beloved Alpilles hills. Here a patchwork of irrigation canals and cypress hedging enclose plots of artichokes, oak-leaf and batavia lettuce, early strawberries, zucchini, tomatoes and eggplant, artichokes, melons, asparagus, or pear and apple cordons. On the scrubby hills, redolent of thyme, rosemary, and sage, placid sheep still graze. Today the opulent country life of these vivid valleys proves so attractive to footloose cosmopolitans that Saint-Rémy has supplanted the Riviera and the Luberon hills as the most fashionable place to live in southern France.

The keynote of life in Provence today is rustic refinement, a sensual ideal of good yet simple living which has inspired a whole generation of cooks all over France. Chefs from Alsace, Lille, and Brittany are slipping little rougets aux olives in among their local specialties, catering to a clientele more and more insistent on the fresh fish, herbs, and young vegetables which have characterized Provençal cuisine for centuries. Olive oil often replaces butter and cream in Lyon, goose fat in Alsace and the Southwest, as the most elegant—and above all most healthful—enrichment. At a time when many Americans consider French cooking over-elaborate, looking rather to Italy for inspiration, Provence offers the best of both worlds: it combines Mediterranean country roots with French savoir vivre.


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