France’s Mediterranean coast and the lands to its north includes the ancient regions of Provence and Languedoc. The vivid colours of the region inspired generations of painters who lived here, including Van Gogh, Cézanne, Renoir, Matisse and Picasso.The region's history is just as rich, with Roman bridges and amphitheatres, medieval castles and fortresses, and cities that blossomed in the 18th and 19th centuries. The landscape varies from mountains to forests to sandy beaches.
The region’s natural beauty includes the great salt marsh of the Camargue, a regional park which is home to wild horses and flamingos. Other parks include the wild and mountainous Cévennes and the great river canyon of the Verdon Gorge.
The many small towns and villages also have lots to offer. The weekly markets are great occasions to discover the regional foods and meet the locals. Many towns put on festivals in the summer, with events taking over the streets. And on quiet days, life in the small towns is just as attractive: take a drink on a café overlooking the village square, dine at a family-run restaurant, or visit shops selling regional crafts and artisanal products.
Marseilles is the oldest city in France, with Greek, Roman, and early Christian heritage. Today its 18th century harbour area is a popular attraction, and is lined with excellent seafood restaurants. Try the bouillabaisse, a well-loved specialty of the region.
Founded by the Romans, Aix-en-Provence has a 16th-18th century old town which is ideal to walk around. Avignon, another Roman town, became vital to European history when a series of popes ruled from here in the 14th century. The Papal Palace is a spectacular feat of Gothic architecture and well worth visiting, but it is just part of a medieval city with ancient ramparts and a famous partly-collapsed bridge. Avignon's annual theatre festival is world-renowned, with cultural events taking place all over the city.
Orange, founded in 35BC by veterans of Rome's Second Legion, has a particularly impressive ancient heritage, with a Roman theatre widely regarded as the finest in Europe. The outdoor theatre, with semicircular ranks of stone seating above a great stage, is still used regularly for operas and plays.
Vaison-la-Romaine has a particularly interesting layout, with the original Roman city on the floor of a valley, and a later medieval city built high above it on a rocky cliff for extra security.
The Côte d’Azur, or Azure Coast, is the popular name for the eastern Mediterranean coastline. This glamouous and glittering setting, familiar from movies, includes the cities of Nice, Cannes, Saint-Trovpez, and the independent city-state of Monaco, home of the famous Monte Carlo casinos.
Near the western end of the Mediterranean coast, Carcassonne is a World Heritage Site. This collossal walls of this medieval citadel rise from the surrounding plain. Inside is a thriving town whose narrow streets are lined with restaurants and shops selling souvenirs, regional specialties, and crafts. Visitors can walk around the city on top of the wide ramparts.
Nîmes is another Roman city, and is home to the best-preserved Roman arena in France. Once used for gladiatorial combat, it now features concerts and events.