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  • Starr Wlodarski

Embrace the French Joie de Vivre in Provence

Ask any travel expert, what one region a visitor to France should visit outside of Paris, and the answer is almost universal: Provence.

Boasting so many great sights, sounds and tastes, the only difficult part about deciding to take a trip to Provence could very well be deciding where to go and what to see.

It is a sun-soaked region marked by azure Mediterranean waters and cobalt blue skies, field of deep purple lavender, bright sunflowers, poppies, and olive and lemon trees, and was a famously favored region of impressionist painters Van Gogh and Cezanne, who used the pervasive light and stunning palette of colors to paint their vivid landscapes.

The Provencal countryside and port of Marseille can still be characterized today as they have been for centuries - old men gathered in town squares, people clinking glasses of pastis in the shade of cafe terraces; market stalls with the season's bounty from local farms; fish coming straight from the boat to Marseille's fish market; Roman ruins and medieval cobblestoned villages.

It is no wonder Provence is one of the most popular areas to visit in France. But unlike some places that don't live up to the hype, Provence deserves all the accolades it receives.

Since there is too much to explore on a normal visit to this diverse and colorful region, here is my list of the top 5 things to do and see in Provence to gain a small but special sample for this special place.

Stroll through Marseille's Vieux Port and eat bouillabaisse Marseille, being the second-largest city in France, is certainly not what many people picture when they envision quiet stone villages set among fields of lavender.
It is a big and gritty city, but don't let that discourage you from making a visit. Visitors to Marseille should not miss heading to the Vieux Port area of the city, where you will find market stalls filled with Provencal products, Moroccan-like souks, and a centuries old fish market with wares coming straight off the boats behind it.

In Vieux Port's Le Panier neighborhood, you'll find narrow, winding streets and authentic shops. You'll also find pedestrianized shopping streets such as Rue St-Feereol.

Make sure you stop somewhere and get a steamy bowl of bouillabaisse, a traditional fish stew containing different kinds of fish, shellfish and vegetables, flavored with a variety of herbs and spices such as garlic, orange peel, basil, bay leaf, fennel, and saffron.

Visit the Palais de Papes and the famous the Pont d'Avignon Avignon has long been one of the favorite cities to visit in Provence. It has impressive and amazing well-preserved art and architecture, so it is not only picturesque, but also oozes history.
Papal Palace, which was home to several popes during the 14th century, boasts cavernous halls, beautiful grounds, (a great place for that French picnic you want to do), and is the largest Gothic palace in the world.
While Avignon is probably most noted for its famous bridge, Pont St. Benezet or the Pont d'Avignon, it is a vibrant city with an active student community, lots of history and makes for a great jumping off point for exploring the region.

Check out Roman ruins in the charming village of Saint-Remy-de-Provence

Located just 20 km south of Avignon, Saint Remy de Provence is a quaint, traditional Provencal village.
Marked by Roman ruins (specifically the Triumphant Arch of Glanum), Saint Remy is a sleepy town with a whole lot of history. Not only was it once the site of a Roman city, it was also where Van Gogh was housed at the Monastery de Mausole for his many psychiatric problems. There is a beautiful town square in this usually sleepy town, which has a good selection of hotels, restaurants and shops. On Wednesdays, Saint Remy is home to a popular and bustling market. Stalls of fresh produce, pottery, and other Provencal goods fill the city. The the atmosphere is lively and pleasant and seems to take you back in time.

Visit the ancient stone village of Les Baux Although one of the most visited spots in France, Les Baux is well worth the effort. It's located about 25km south of Avignon just past the small town of Saint Remy de Provence, sitting precariously on a 245-meter-high limestone rocky spur.

This unique, spectacular village has been home to humans since 6000 BCE, and during the Middle Ages was home to the most powerful feudal lords in southern France.

The dramatic rocks and cliffs overlooking a valley full of olive groves and vineyards have long inspired authors and artists and is even said to be the inspiration for Dante's descriptions of Purgatory in the Inferno. It is a truly spectacular spot and should not be missed on a trip to France.

Hang out at the beach and explore the Calanques at Cassis

Although not nearly as famous as its nearby neighbor, Cassis is just as delightful as St. Tropez with an equally beautiful town and beach defined by white limestone cliffs and sheltered inlets called calanques. It also has a lovely, wide sandy beach perfect for getting your tan on in the summer.
Cassis was an ancient fishing port and was rebuilt on the old ruins in the 18th century, resulting in a more regular layout than most other medieval villages.

A walk through the old village streets will reveal well preserved old buildings, some dating back to the 16th century, and some restored with the colorful pastels of Provence.

The picture-perfect harbor is dotted with masts and fishing boats. Although not an undiscovered beach town in France, Cassis tends to be less crowded than other Mediterranean cities and nearby Marseille.

Looking to explore France, beyond Paris give me a call. This is a region that shouldn't be missed.

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