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South of France

The south is France’s most popular holiday region, drawing millions of visitors each year to the resorts of the Riviera and the Côte d’Azur, and to the vivid landscape and historic villages of Provence. Painters such as Cézanne, van Gogh, and Picasso have been inspired by the luminous light and brilliant colors of the region. Agriculture is still a mainstay of the economy, but the high-tech industries of Nice also make a significant contribution to the region’s prosperity.

POINTS OF INTEREST

CARCASSONNE

The citadel of Carcassonne is a perfectly restored medieval town. It crowns a steep bank above the Aude River, a fairy-tale vision of turrets and ramparts overlooking the Basse Ville below. The strategic position of the citadel between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean led to its original settlement, consolidated by the Romans in the 2nd century BC. At its zenith in the 12th century, the town was ruled by the Trencavels, who built the château and cathedral. The Cathars, a persecuted Christian sect, were given sanctuary here in 1209 but, after a two-week siege, the town fell to the Crusaders sent to eradicate them. The attentions of architectural historian Violletle- Duc led to Carcassonne’s restoration in the 19th century. Flanked by sandstone towers, the defenses of the Porte Narbonnaise included two portcullises, two iron doors, a moat, and a drawbridge. A fortress within a fortress, the Château Comtal has a surrounding moat and five defensive towers. Within the Romanesque and Gothic Basilique St-Nazaire is the famous Siege Stone, inscribed with scenes said to depict the siege of 1209.

NÎMES

An important crossroads in the ancient world, Nîmes is well known for its bullfights and Roman antiquities. The city has had a turbulent history, and suffered particularly in the 16th-century Wars of Religion, when the Romanesque Cathédrale Notre-Dame et St-Castor was badly damaged. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the town prospered from textile manufacturing, one of the most enduring products being denim, or serge de Nîmes. All roads in the city lead to the amphitheater, Les Arènes. Built at the end of the 1st century AD, it is still in use today as a venue for concerts, sporting events, and bullfights. The Maison Carrée is an elegant Roman temple, the pride of Nîmes. Built by Augustus’ son-in-law Marcus Agrippa, it is one of the best-preserved in the world, with finely fluted Corinthian columns and a sculpted frieze. Set in the Roman wall is the Porte d’Auguste, a gateway built for travelers on the Domitian Way, which passed through the center of Nîmes. Nearby is the Castellum, a tower used for storing water brought in by aqueduct. The water was distributed around the town by a canal system. A display of Roman statues and mosaics can be seen at the Musée Archéologique. Five floors of Nîmes’ controversial arts complex, the Carré d’Art, which stands opposite the Maison Carrée, lie underground. The complex incorporates a library, a roof-terrace restaurant around a huge glass atrium, and the Musée d’Art Contemporain.

To the northeast of the city lies the Pont du Gard, a 2,000-year-old aqueduct. The Romans considered this to be the best testimony to the greatness of their empire, and at 160 ft it was the highest bridge they ever built.

AVIGNON

Massive ramparts enclose this fascinating town. The huge Palais des Papes is the dominant feature, but Avignon contains other riches. To the north of the Palais is the 13th-century Musée du Petit Palais, once the Archbishop of Avignon’s residence. It has received such notorious guests as Cesare Borgia and Louis XIV. Now a museum, it displays Romanesque and Gothic sculpture and paintings of the Avignon and Italian schools, with works by Botticelli and Carpaccio. Avignon boasts some fine churches, such as the 12th-century Cathédrale de Notre-Dame-des-Doms, with its Romanesque cupola and papal tombs, and the 14th-century Eglise St-Didier. The Musée Lapidaire contains statues, mosaics, and carvings from pre-Roman Provence. The Musée Calvet features a superb array of exhibits, including Roman finds. It also gives an overview of French art during the past 500 years, with works by Rodin, Manet, and Dufy. The Place de l’Horloge is the center of Avignon’s social life. Under the town hall’s Gothic clock tower stands a merry-go-round from 1900. Until the 19th century, brightly patterned calicoes called indiennes were printed nearby. These inspired today’s Provençal patterns. From early July for three weeks, the Avignon Festival takes place at the Palais des Papes. France’s largest festival, it includes ballet, drama, and classical concerts. The “Off” festival has street theater and music from folk to jazz. The Pont St-Bénézet, built from 1171–1185, once had 22 arches, but most were destroyed by floods in 1668. One of the remaining arches bears the tiny Chapelle St-Nicolas.

ARLES

Few other towns in Provence combine the region’s many charms as well as Arles. Its position on the Rhône makes it a natural gateway to the Camargue (see p195). Its Roman remains, such as Constantine’s baths and the amphitheater, are complemented by the ochre walls and Roman-tiled roofs of later buildings. Van Gogh spent time here in 1888–9, but Arles is no longer the industrial town he painted. Visitors are now its main business, and entertainment ranges from the Arles Festival to bullfights. A bastion of Provençal tradition and culture, its museums are among the best in the region. For enthusiasts, an inclusive ticket is available giving access to all museums and monuments. All the tourist sites in Arles are within walking distance of the central Place de la République.

The Musée Réattu houses 18th-century and modern art, including Picasso sketches, paintings by local artist Jacques Réattu (1760–1833), sculptures by Russian-born Ossip Zadkine (1890–1967), and photography. The Palais Constantine was once a grand imperial palace. Now only its vast Roman baths remain, dating from the 4th century AD. The Museon Arlaten was founded in 1904 by the Provençal poet Frédéric Mistral with his Nobel Prize money. It is currently closed for renovations, and due to reopen in 2016. Théâtre Antique Once a Roman theater, its stones were later used for other buildings. These last remaining columns are called the “two widows.” Notre-Dame-de-la-Major is dedicated to St. George, patron saint of the Camargue gardians (cowboys). Cloisters of St-Trophime is a fine example of the Romanesque beauty of the cloisters.

CAMARGUE

This flat, sparsely populated land is one of Europe’s major wetland regions and natural history sites. Extensive areas of salt marshes, lakes, pastures, and sand dunes cover a vast 140,000 ha (346,000 acres). The native white horses and black bulls are tended by the region’s cowboys or gardians. Numerous seabirds and wildfowl also occupy the region. Bullfights are advertised in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, the region’s main tourist center, which has a sandy beach with water sports and boat trips. A few kilometers inland, the information center at Pont-de-Gau offers wonderful views over the flat lagoon. Photographs and documents chronicle the history of the Camargue and its diverse flora and fauna. Most of the birds that live in, or migrate within, the region, including thousands of flamingoes that come here to breed, can be seen at the nearby Parc Ornithologique du Pont-de-Gau. In the north of the region, a traditional Provençal mas, or farmhouse, Mas du Pont de Rousty, has been converted to accommodate the fascinating Musée Camarguais. Displays here provide an introduction to the customs and traditions of the Camargue.

AIX-EN-PROVENCE

Provence’s former capital is an international students’ town, with a university that dates back to 1409. The city was transformed in the 17th century, when ramparts, first raised by the Romans in their town of Aquae Sextiae, were pulled down, and the mansion-lined Cours Mirabeau was built. North of the Cours Mirabeau lies the town’s old quarter. Cathédrale St-Sauveur creaks with history. The jewel of the church is the triptych of The Burning Bush (1476) by Nicolas Froment. The modest Atelier Paul Cézanne, a studio designed by Cézanne himself, is much as he left it when he died in 1906. The main museum is the Musée Granet. François Granet (1775–1849) left his collection of French, Italian, and Flemish paintings to Aix. Work by Provençal artists, including Cézanne, is also shown.

MARSEILLE

France’s most important port and the oldest major city is centered on the surprisingly attractive Vieux Port. On the north side are the commercial docks and the old town, rebuilt after World War II. The old town’s finest building is the Vieille Charité, a large 17th-century hospice that houses the Musée d’Archéologie Méditerranéenne and the Musée d’Arts Africains, Océaniens, Amérindiens. The Neo-Byzantine Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde dominates the city, but Marseille’s finest piece of religious architecture is the Abbaye de St-Victor, founded in the 5th century, with crypts containing catacombs, sarcophagi, and the martyr St. Victor’s cave. During postwar rebuilding, the Roman docks were uncovered. The Musée des Docks Romains mainly displays large storage urns once used for wine, grain, and oil. In the Centre Bourse shopping center is the Musée d’Histoire de Marseille. Reconstructions of the city at the height of the Greek period make this a good starting point for a tour.

THE CÔTE D’AZUR

The Côte d’Azur is the most popular destination in France for sun-worshipers, with its seaside vacation towns and long, golden beaches. St-Tropez is currently the trendiest resort; Tahini-Plage is the coast’s showcase for fun, sun, fashion, and glamor. By contrast, the family resort of St-Raphaël is peaceful, with excellent tourist facilities. East of Cannes, at the western edge of the Riviera, Juan-les-Pins is a lively resort. Its all-night bars, nightclubs, and cafés make it popular with teenagers and young adults. Founded by the Greeks, Antibes is one of the oldest towns along this stretch of coast, and home to a large museum of Picasso’s work, donated by the artist himself. Clifftop walks replace seafront promenades around the wooded peninsula of Cap Ferrat, where grand villas and private beaches can be glimpsed between the trees. At the eastern edge of the Riviera, past the glitz of the casinos and hotels of Monaco, the beaches of Menton are the warmest along the coast; sunbathers enjoy a beach climate all year round.

CANNES

The first thing that most people associate with Cannes is its many festivals, especially the International Film Festival. held each May. The first Cannes Film Festival took place in 1946 and, for a while, it remained a small and exclusive affair. The mid- 1950s marked the change from artistic event to media circus, but Cannes remains the international marketplace for moviemakers and distributors. The annual festival is held in the huge Palais des Festivals. There is, however, more to the city than this glittering event. The Old Town is centered in the Le Suquet district, which is dominated by the church of Notre-Dame de l’Espérance, built in the 16th and 17th centuries in the Provençal Gothic style. The famed Boulevard de la Croisette is lined with palm trees. Luxury stores and hotels look out over fine sandy beaches.

NICE

The largest resort on the Mediterranean coast, Nice has the second-busiest airport in France. Its temperate winter climate and verdant subtropical vegetation have long attracted visitors, and today it is also a center for business conferences and package travelers. There are many art museums in Nice, two of which devote themselves to the works of particular artists. The Musée Matisse displays drawings, paintings, bronzes, fabrics, and artifacts. The Musée Chagall holds the largest collection of works by Marc Chagall, with paintings, drawings, sculpture, stained glass, and mosaics. A strikingly original complex of four marble-faced towers linked by glass passageways houses the Musée d’Art Contemporain. The collection is particularly strong in Neorealism and Pop Art. The Musée des Beaux Arts displays works by Dufy, Monet, Renoir, and Sisley. A 19th-century palace, the Palais Masséna is filled with paintings of the Nice school, works by the Impressionists, Provençal ceramics, folk art, and a gold cloak once worn by Napoleon’s beloved Josephine. The onion domes of the Cathédrale Orthodoxe Russe St-Nicolas, completed in 1912, make this building Nice’s most distinctive landmark.

MONACO

Arriving among the towering skyscrapers of Monaco today, it is hard to envisage the turbulence of its history. At first, a Greek settlement, later taken by the Romans, it was bought from the Genoese in 1297 by the Grimaldis who, in spite of bitter family feuds, still rule as the world’s oldest monarchy. Monaco covers 1.9 sq km (0.74 sq miles) and, although its size has increased by one-third in the form of landfills, it still occupies an area smaller than New York’s Central Park. The best-known section of Monaco is Monte Carlo. People flock to the annual car rally held here in January, but the area owes its renown mainly to its Grand Casino. Source of countless legends, it was instituted by Charles III to save himself from bankruptcy in 1856. So successful was this money-making venture that, by 1870, he was able to abolish taxation for his people. Designed in 1878 and set in formal gardens, the casino gives a splendid view over Monaco. Even the most exclusive of the gaming rooms can be visited. Across the harbor lies Monaco- Ville, the seat of government. The interior of the 13th-century Palais Princier, with its priceless furniture and magnificent frescoes, is open to the public from April to September. The aquarium of the Musée Océanographique holds rare species of marine plants and animals. Marine explorer Jacques Cousteau established his research center here.