Saturday, March 8, 2008

Rendez-Vous in the French Riviera

The southeast corner of France known as Provence – called the French Riviera for its maritime area between Toulon and Nice - is a romantic location with a little bit of everything to offer the traveler.

Provence stretches from Cap Nègre on the Maures ledge, to Cap Brun in the Esteral area, and from Cap Roux near Toulon to the Iles d'Or (the Golden Isles) out in the Mediterranean Sea. Inland, the area runs as far as the Argens and the Verdon River to the north.

The region of Provence is so called because it was one of the first outlying provinces established by the Romans. They called it "Provincia Romana" and it was one of the jewels of the Roman Empire. Gradually, over hundreds of years, the word Provincia changed to Provence. "Provencal" is a dialect still spoken here by many people.

Remnants of the ancient empire still abound. There is the Pont duGard aqueduct that towers 160 feet above your head and a Roman arena still used for bullfights and concerts in Avignon. Arles, with its famous Roman arena, and Frejus (a city named and built by Julius Caesar) still has traces of the port where Caesar's navy once docked.

Everywhere you go, historical sites abound with majestic stone castles sitting regally just off the side of country roads, and you might find the remnants of a pagan temple next to an austere Catholic church with tall spires and towers that took decades to build.

The rich and famous flocks to the Riviera every year, much like the swallows to Capistrano. Walk along the city streets in the spring, or one of the many bustling open-air fruit and vegetable markets, and you might just find yourself passing a famous movie star or fashion model.

Even the names of some of the Riviera's most famous cities bring to mind pictures of white sandy beaches, a turquoise sea, and endless days under a tropical sun -- St. Tropez, Monaco, Nice, Cannes.

Do you enjoy biking and hiking? Swimming? Boating? How about taking a walking tour along narrow cobblestone streets in tiny villages that date back to mediaeval times? A romantic river cruise? Swimming in the Mediterranean Sea? You'll find all of this and more in Provence.

And of course, there are numerous opportunities for experiencing French cooking at its best. Dining in France is almost a religious experience! When dining at someone's home, it's not unusual for dinner to last three to four hours. If the occasion is an especially memorable one, dinner can go until two or three in the morning!

When eating at a French restaurant, it won't matter if you choose a four star restaurant, or a tiny sidewalk café. Your experience is sure to be a gastronomic delight for your palette. And don't even think of rushing through your meal! Each course is presented with a certain formality and ceremony that makes dining a pleasure. And you are always given plenty of time to savor each course and never made to feel as if you must vacate your table quickly for the next diners.

The Mediterranean Sea is breathtaking, whether you're seeing it from the air for the first time as your plane lands in Nice, or while walking along the rocky beaches at Cannes. Its colors change with its moods – turquoise, emerald, and sapphire – and the water is clear and warm for 6 months of the year. In the winter, although it's too cold to swim (except for the most hardy of souls), the Med's mood and color matches the steel gray clouds, and you'll enjoy the practically deserted beaches and the bracing wind as you walk along the shore.

You have many choices for lodging in Provence. Stay at a four-star hotel, and you may find yourself sleeping on crisp Egyptian cotton sheets, in a bed once used by kings and queens. There are charming bed and breakfast cottages, where you'll be served your meals family-style and learn the history behind the best places in the area to visit from your hostess. Or choose a former monastery, where you'll find peace and tranquility, staying in small, quiet rooms with thick stone walls and enjoy walking through outdoor gardens with large fountains where wild rosemary and thyme grow abundantly.

The people of Provence are friendly and helpful. They won't mind if your French is a little rusty, and will go out of their way to talk to you, and answer your questions.

Each season has its own charms. Spring, when the mimosa trees are bursting with the delicate yellow blooms, red poppies grow wild alongside the autoroute and there are fields of tulips to rival those in Holland.

Summer, when succulent fruits are abundant everywhere, the leaves of the grapevines become an endless "sea of green" when viewed from the road, and the Mediterranean sea offers a respite from the tropical heat.

Fall, when the grapevines are heavy and full with their harvest, the red, yellow and oranges leaves clothe the trees in splendid cloaks and community festivals happen almost every weekend.
Winter, when the weather is mild and sunny days are plentiful, but tourists are not.

Provence is an ideal spot for the perfect vacation at any time of year. The area is so spectacular that even visitors who are just "passing through" find it hard to say good-bye.

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