Know About Provence
hat makes Provence one of the most enchanting destinations in the world? It’s not just about the glamorous beaches, the vine-covered hillsides or the fields of lavender. This gorgeous tumbling countryside in the South of France has witnessed millennia of human history, adding depth and intrigue to all the splendid scenery and sophistication. Curious to learn more about Provence’s cultural legacy, we rounded up the top eight things you need to know about the region, from ancient Roman ruins to modern art legends.
A big reason why Provence has been such a hotbed of conquest, supporting the rise and fall of several civilizations, is that the Rhône River runs right through it. Descending from the Alps to the Mediterranean, the Rhône has blessed Provence with swift trade routes, power for its mills and factories, and some of the most fertile land in the world.
The name Provence is an echo of its time in the Roman Empire, when it was known as Provincia Romana. The Romans built up many of Provence’s cities, leaving behind impressive municipal structures—many preserved as well as their Italian counterparts. Visit Arles for instance, and you can watch a bullfight in a 2000-year-old gladiator arena. Or go to Nîmes, where the Maison Carrée, a temple dedicated to the sons of Emperor Augustus, rivals the Pantheon as the most complete building that survives from the Roman Empire.
In France, wine isn’t labeled for the grape, it’s named for its location (or in oenophile terms, its terroir). And one of the most famous labels you can find comes from right here in Cote du Rhône. Grapes and olives have been thriving on the sunny, gentle slopes of the Rhône valley since the 4th century BC, when they were first planted by the ancient Greeks.
One of the most impressive Roman ruins in Provence is best experienced by kayak. A magnificent arched stone bridge crossing a sleepy stretch of the Gardon River, in Roman times the Pont du Gard was part of an aqueduct that carried enough water to bathe and hydrate the entire city of Nîmes. After the fall of the empire, Medieval lords preserved the bridge as a toll collection point, allowing it to remain intact for almost 2000 years.
In the Middle Ages Provence briefly became a place of power and prestige once again. It was 1309 and the Roman Catholic Church had selected its first French leader. Pope Clement V felt Rome was becoming a bit unruly and expected Avignon would make a much nicer headquarters—especially when updated with the latest fortifications, new mansions for the bishops, residences for all officials, snazzy town squares and a sprawling Gothic palace for the Pope himself. When nearly a century later, an Italian Pope decided to head back home, Avignon elected their own Pope, ushering in a short era known as “the Schism.” When a church-wide vote gave legitimacy to the Roman Pope, Avignon finally gave up its claim, but was greatly enriched by the experience.
If you thought denim was all American—think again. The word actually comes from the French “De Nîmes,” meaning “of Nîmes.” In the early 1700s the city began a canal project to bring in water for its growing textile industry. When a Roman temple was discovered, the King funneled extra money to create a lavish Versailles-Style park around the canals of Nîmes. Les Jardins de la Fontaine were the first of their kind built for public use—and all thanks to the success of denim.
Before cameras could capture vivid color, the beauty of Provence was shown through the eyes of Europe’s great impressionist painters and modern artists. Legends like Van Gogh, Renoir, Monet, Matisse and Picasso all fell in love with the region and were inspired to paint its scenic landscapes, cafe-filled squares and gorgeous locals.
Every French child learns the nursery rhyme about the St. Bénezet Bridge, better known as Le Pont D’Avignon. It comes from a 15th century folk song describing a traditional Provençal dance happening atop the bridge: “Sur le Pont de L’Avignon / On y dance, on y dance.” First built in the 12th century, this troublesome stone structure was for hundreds of years one of the only available river crossings. Unfortunately it would collapse every time the Rhône flooded and eventually the town of Avignon gave up on rebuilding it, leaving behind four of 22 original arches.