Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur

Photo © Morgan McBee

Travel Guide Europe France Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur

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Introduction

Old Town Nice

Old Town Nice

© All Rights Reserved jenniesue

Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur (or PACA) is one of 27 regions in France. It includes the former French province of Provence, the Comté of Nice (acquired in 1860 from the Kingdom of Piedmont Sardinia), the former papal state of Comtat Venaissin, and the South-East part of the province of Dauphiné in the Alps. The region is a major tourist area in France. It is pretty crowded during the summer months on the coast.

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Geography

Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur consists of 6 departments:

  • Alpes-de-Haute-Provence - The mountainous northern part of the historic Provence. The Luberon oriental and the Verdon Gorge are among this department's highlights.
  • Hautes-Alpes - Part of the French Alps, it is among the highest regions in Europe.
  • Alpes-Maritimes - Mostly known for the French Riviera, the Alpes Maritimes boasts 300 days of sunshine per year. The northern part of the region is a part of the French Alps.
  • Bouches-du-Rhône - Vincent van Gogh was inspired by the countryside of this region. It is also home to the wetlands of the Camargue, the rural landscape of the Alpilles, the picturesque village of Cassis and maritime Marseille, France's second city.
  • Var - Seaside resorts, yachts, the rich and famous, wine and Romanesque and medieval architecture.
  • Vaucluse - An inland territory named after Fontaine-de-Vaucluse. It is particularly well-known for the Luberon, an area of picturesque villages much sought after for their laid-back lifestyle.

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Cities

The region's largest cities are:

  • Aix-en-Provence - city of water and art, Paul Cézanne's hometown and a source of inspiration for many of his landscapes.
  • Marseille - with around one million inhabitants, it is the second largest city in France.
  • Nice - major beach resort along the French Riviera with its famous Victorian waterfront, the Promenade des Anglais.
  • Toulon - medium-sized naval city with an historic centre.
  • Avignon - known for its Palace of the Popes, where several popes and antipopes lived between the 14th and 15th centuries, and for its famous folk song-spawning bridge.
  • Cannes - glamorous and expensive seaside town that hosts the annual Film Festival.

Other towns include Antibes, Arles, Aubagne, Brignoles, Draguignan, Fréjus, Grasse, Hyères, La Seyne-sur-Mer, Le Cannet, Mandelieu-la-Napoule, Menton, Mougins, Martigues, Villeneuve-Loubet, Saint Tropez, Manosque, Orange and, in the Alps, Gap, Sisteron, Digne, Briançon.

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Sights and Activities

Provence-Alpes-Côtes d'Azur includes 4 out of 10 French national parks and lot of regional parks.

National Parks

Regional natural Parks

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Events and Festivals

  • The Festival de Cannes, better known as the Film festival of Cannes, is one of the oldest and most prestigious film festivals anywhere in the world. The private festival is held annually (usually in May) at the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès, in the resort town of Cannes, in the south of France. The first festival started in 1930 and in 2012, the 65th edition will be a fact. Every year, a lot of celebrities are getting to Cannes to attend the event, thus making it the place to be during that period.
  • The Chorégies d'Orange are an opera and classical music festival. It takes place every summer in the ancient theater of Orange.
  • The Festival d'Avignon is the largest event of theater and performing arts in France. The festival takes place every summer in July in the courtyard of the Palace of the Popes in Avignon and in multiple theaters and places of the historical center.
  • The Festival international d’art lyrique d’Aix-en-Provence is a festival of opera and classical music that takes place each summer in Aix-en-Provence. This is one of the great European opera festivals, with performances outdoors.
  • Nice Carnival (13 Feb 2015 - 01 Feb 2016) - February/March: After Rio in Brazil, the Nice Carnival is arguably the largest and most colourful in the world, with amazing floats and animations sweeping through the seaside city. It’s an intoxicating scene, drawing crowds of more than one million people who line the streets to catch a glimpse of the giant puppets who appear to dance in the sky overhead. Address: Nice, Phone: +33(0).892.707.407
  • La fête du citron de Menton (13 Feb 2016 - 02 Mar 2016) - La fête du Citron (Lemon festival) is happening every year during the last 2 weeks of February in Menton. Menton is well known for its local production of lemons. This event has been happening for decades. During the festival, visitors can discover giant structures made of citrus and attend the parade. It is also the opportunity to discover local crafts.

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Weather

The weather is usually pretty nice and convenient in the south of France. On the seaside, during winter, the temperature ranges from 10 to 20 °C and during summer, it can get up to 35 °C. Then the region extends up to the Alps where the temperatures are colder during the winter period. You can even get some snow there.

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Getting There

By Plane

Marseille and Nice are the main gateway, located in the west and east of the region respectively. Avignon is a good choice for some flights and has many budget airlines serving the region.

By Train

The region is very well linked to the rest of the country thanks to its extensive train network. The main stations are Marseille, Aix-en-Provence, Toulon, Cannes and Nice. The main interregional trains are the TGV (train a grande vitesse), train Teoz, Corail and Lunea (night trains). Please note that the TGV trains here do not run at their high speed because of inappropriate rails: the high speed TGV line only links Marseille to Aix-en-Provence TGV and then Avignon and Lyon further to the north. The TGV trains that do run between Marseille and Nice only present the advantage of not stopping at all the minor cities and towns, and are therefore slightly quicker.

People under 25 will be able to get a "12-25" price without a railcard. Various railcards are available, but you usually need to be a French resident to get one. For more information on prices, please go to the SNCF website.

By Car

It takes approximately 8 to 10 hours by car to reach the region from Paris through the A6 highway (known as the Sun Highway, "Autoroute du Soleil"). From Lyon, it is closer, 3 hours to reach Marseille and 5 hours to Nice.

By Bus

Eurolines operates a number of lines in the region. The main departing station is Toulon. Popular destinations include Barcelona, Amsterdam and various cities in Germany and Italy. All information about Eurolines' French connections and coaches can be found here

By Boat

Boats depart from Marseille and Toulon. Destinations include Corsica (companies: SNCM and Corsica Ferries) and various Italian and Spanish harbours.

For more information about departures from Marseille, please visit the official website of the harbour.

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Getting Around

By Train

There are several trains a day linking the smaller cities and towns like for example Cassis, Villefranche and Carnoule. Please note that the TGV trains here do not run at their high speed because of inappropriate rails: the high speed TGV line only links Marseille to Aix-en-Provence TGV and then Avignon and Lyon further to the north. The TGV trains that do run between Marseille and Nice only present the advantage of not stopping at all the minor cities and towns, and are therefore slightly quicker. If you are on a budget, the TER (train express regional) is the cheapest way to get around.

People under 25 will be able to get a "12-25" price without a railcard. Various railcards are available, but you usually need to be a French resident to get one. If you are planning to stay in the region for a longer period of time and are under 25, you can apply for a "Carte Jeunes Region PACA" that will give you 50% off all TER trains. This card cannot be used on other trains, especially TGV. But it is worth getting if you can: a train ticket between Toulon and Nice would cost you around €20 without the card, and €10 with the card.

For more information on prices, please go to the SNCF website. For all information about the regional trains within the PACA (Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur) region, please go to the SNCF regional website

By Car

From Marseille to Nice, the distance is approximately 200 kilometres and it takes a bit more than 2 hours by car via the A57 and A8 highways.

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Language

French is of course the official language of this region, but you'll find that many locals have a regional accent. The e at the end of words is often pronounced softly in Provence, whereas in standard French, it is are not pronounced at all.

An example: the word "Provence" in standard French ends with an "s" sound, as "proh-VAHNSS", where in Provence itself, it will often be ended with a sound resembling a short English "eh", as "proh-VEN-seh". Many vowels are changed as well, being pronounced in a manner somewhat closer to the English pronunciation of the written vowels. However, standard French will be understood by the locals.

This accent is largely due to the fact that several generations ago a different language - Occitan or la langue d'Oc - was spoken and so most locals only learned French at school. The dialect of Occitan spoken in Avignon was Provençal, and was the subject of strong preservation attempts in the early 1900s on the part of a group of writers and artists known as the Félibrige. The most famous of these was Frédéric Mistral, winner of the Nobel Prize of Literature in 1908. Despite the efforts of the Félibrige, the language has now largely disappeared, though it is still taught in some regional universities and courses run by non-profit groups. In certain areas, road signs are bilingual, with place-names and some local information being printed in both standard French and Occitan.

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Eat

Each village in the region has a market day. You can buy local fare such as breads, cheeses, sausage, olives and preserves straight from the farmers and take them (the food that is, not the farmersǃ) for a picnic while exploring the countryside.

If you are going out for a sit-down meal, there are three main types of dining experiences to choose from. Restaurants are more formal in France, serving full dinner menus and at a pace that is slower than in, say, North America. You are expected to enjoy the food and it should be the main reason for going out. It is considered inappropriate to request that a dish be prepared in a different way than is stated on the menu. Restaurants usually have a selection of set menus, each with a different price range. You can also choose from a list of à la carte items. A bistrot is more casual and has more individual items, while a café is more casual still, serving press coffee, drinks, sandwiches (such as the ubiquitous croque monsieur) or pizzas.

Provence has a unique cuisine that reflects its Mediterranean history and frequent exchange of cultures. This is an olive-growing region, and there are many varieties, ranging from the tiny peanut size Niçois olives to the large Bouteillan or Aups olives. Other than oil, olives are also enjoyed as spreads either alone (Olivade) or mixed with capers (Tapenade). Many producers offer guided visits of their groves; these can be smallholding-sized plots but some are set in the grounds of real châteaux.

While many products are found all over the region, some are best sampled in certain areas. Let it be known that despite the region's bounty of native fare, the Provence has a highly popular pizzeria culture. OK, now that that announcement is out of the way, let's move on to some real Provençal cuisineǃ

On the coast, most of the cooking is fish-based, with sardines and anchovies being the most popular. For English speakers, the region's two best-known plats are of course bouillabaisse, a fish stew rich in herbs and spices, and the famous salade niçoise, a tunafish salad made with eggs, anchovies, tomatoes, green beans and black olives. While sampling both of these is a must, other lesser-known but equally tasty dishes include anchoiade, which is an anchovy-based apéritif spread, garlicky aioli and a Marseille specialityː grilled sardines. Another wonderful Provençal speciality is the savoury soupe de poissons, which is made with a base of tomatoes, onion, garlic and herbs and often served with croutons, grated gruyère cheese and a very spicy aioli.

In the hills, easily the most famous and best-loved dish is ratatouille, which in real life is even better than a certain Pixar film shows it to be. Though it be but a simple vegetable stew, and a peasant dish to boot, ratatouille is a very special mix of fresh courgette (USː zucchini fruit), mushrooms, aubergine (USː eggplant), bell peppers, tomatoes and onion as well as garlic and Provençal herbs. In season, one can also enjoy stuffed vegetables (farcis) that are typical of rustic cooking. If the thought of all those vegetables is making you queasy, here's one for the carnivores. Daube is a scrumptious beef stew that is often mixed with olives.

For dessert, the tropézienne cake is not to be missed. This fluffy sponge-cake will cool you down nicely in the summer inferno. At the other end of the year, you may experience a unique Christmas ritual that will have pudding lovers salivatingː at the end of the Christmas meal, no fewer than thirteen desserts are servedǃ Which particular thirteen is a hotly-debated question (debate being one of the Provençal people's favourite activities). Despite the disagreement, an official list has been drawn up which encompasses: pompe à huile, the so-called "four beggars" (nuts, dried figs, almonds and raisins), dates, apples, pears, water melon, grapes, both black and white nougat and sorbet.

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Drink

The region is most famous for her rosé wines (Bandol, Cassis, Coteaux de Provence), and for its Pastis. This aniseed-flavoured alcoholic drink is served with water - measurements vary, from very light ( usually teasingly called "the touristic measure" by the locals) to very strong ( locally called a "mummy" due to its colour). The two leading brands are Pastis 51 and Ricard. The pastis is so characteristic of the region that it is the object of several popular songs, including "51, je t'aime".

Most of the wine in this region is of very high quality and must be tastedǃ If this seems like a ludicrous and impractical task for the average holidaymaker, then why not try the locals' favouriteː a good rosé. Totally unlike the sweet, cheap crap many of us remember from the 1970s, traditional Provençal rosé is dry, light and acts as a perfect accompaniment to an afternoon picnic of bread and cheese.

Fancy yourself a super spy at heart? Sampling a Martini ("shaken, not stirred" or however you like) while on a night out in the Riviera is a must.

If alcohol isn't your thing, or if you just fancy a break from all that pastis, the region's excellent range of fruit trees yield a healthy fruit juice crop, and French coffee culture is ubiquitous.

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Sleep

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Contributors

as well as olielo (11%), Alain13 (5%), Peter (1%), anna_relevance (1%)

Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur Travel Helpers

  • Alain13

    Because I am currently living in Provence

    Ask Alain13 a question about Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur
  • MuscoviteVT

    First visited Nice in 2006 and never found a better place for a holiday.
    Not that I am going to stage a Peter Mayle, but through all those years I had piled a lot of experience and even more photos which I am not sure I will have time to upload from my personal site.
    On the contrary, my most easy-going itineraries will appear here as soon as I figure out where to put them up.
    But don’t ask me how to see Cannes, Menton and Grasse in one day, I don’t do non-science fiction!

    Ask MuscoviteVT a question about Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur

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