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From purple-hued lavender fields and Riviera beaches to the rocky slopes of Montagne Sainte-Victoire – forever immortalised by the canvases of Paul Cézanne – Provence is perhaps France’s most picture-perfect region. Little wonder it has attracted, or been the birthplace of, a raft of the last two centuries’ most prolific artists – Cézanne, Pablo Picasso and Vincent Van Gogh among them. For the world traveller it offers plenty more than just good views, though – from art-filled hotels, picturesque villages and a bustling stretch of Meditteranean coastline, Provence is not a place to be explored in a hurry.
Base your trip around a stay in La Colombe D’Or, the simple family-run auberge in the medieval hilltop village of Saint-Paul de Vence – a short drive from Nice airport, and the Antibes coastline – once frequented by a who’s who of modern art, from Picasso to Henri Matisse. In exchange for a room and board in the picturesque surrounds – several Modernist painters fled Paris for the south during the war – each left a piece of artwork, which now line La Colombe D’Or’s walls. It makes for a hotel stay like few others, where you might dine under a Joan Miró or a Georges Braque, or, most memorably, swim in the hotel’s green-hued pool under a fluttering Alexander Calder mobile. In the summer, guests spread out on to the terrace to dine on a menu of local Provençal cuisine in the sun-dappled courtyard.
It will likely leave you hard-pressed to want leave the hotel’s tranquil four walls – those who do manage, follow the art trail just ten minutes walk northwards to Fondation Maeght, an impressive Modernist construction designed by Josep-Lluis Sert, made in collaboration with Miró, Braque, Calder and Alberto Giacometti. Their works can be found dotted around the museum’s shaded gardens – an oasis of calm in comparison to the nearby Riviera coastline – alongside more recent artists on show in the interior galleries. But perhaps the greatest draw are the meditative architectural lines of the building itself, so aesthetically pleasing – and Instagrammable – they provided a backdrop for a recent Louis Vuitton cruise collection (Nicolas Ghesquière, the house’s creative director, is a longtime devotee of Modernist architecture).
Moving westwards you will arrive at the picturesque Aix-en-Provence, which has links to art all its own: Impressionist Cézanne was born in the town, and continued to work there throughout his life. A walking trail connects his childhood home, Jas de Bouffan, with his studio Atelier Cézanne. Otherwise, stroll the tree-lined Cours Mirabeau, the town’s central thoroughfare and heart of Aix, where locals gather in the cafés which line its edges (try Café de Deux Garçons, a haunt for artists and writers since it opened its doors in 1880). An hour or so westwards still is the ancient Roman town of Arles, known best for its a brief but eventful year-long residency by Van Gogh, which would prove the most productive of his career (Bedroom in Arles is the most known work from this time) but ended in the notorious loss of one of his ears. A creative spirit remains on Arles’ ancient streets: each year, the photography fair Les Rencontres d’Arles attracts the world’s most famed image-makers.
Fondation Maeght gardens with sculptures by Joan Miro. Photo courtesy ‘qwesy qwesy’.
For a true Provençal escape, head into the bucolic Parc Naturel de Regional des Alpilles, when sun-soaked rocky outcrops meet shaded woodland pathways – hiking, bike and riding trails have a suitably off-grid feel. Within the park is Le Château des Alpilles, a grand 19th-century manor house hidden among plane trees, which was once frequented by politicians and men of letters holidaying from Paris at the turn of the century. Now, guests can enjoy an extensive list of pursuits and pleasures – whether exploring local vineyards or simply whiling away the hours poolside. You’ll never want to leave.
Aix-en-Provence offers a typically French slice of life; walk from Cézanne’s childhood home to his studio, or along the grand Cours Mirabeau.
Head west to Arles, where Van Gogh created his most famous works – stop for a drink at Place Lamartine, the setting for Cafe Terrace at Night.
Food is religion in Provence. A short drive from Arles is the humble Bistrot du Paradou, which serves the very best – from roast Bresse chicken to pommes dauphinoise, and its famed local cheese boards.