Provence, rediscovered

2021 in Provence. A land of flavours and knowledge, of history and stories. Where the past mixes with the future, nature is imposing but attractive and small villages compete with cities. Where holidays become an experience, a desire for something unusual, an opportunity to find yourself in new places. Where tourists become travellers again.

Art and vineyards

Art in freedom. Art comes to the fore in Provence where no one expects it: in the vineyards. Art can be admired at the Domaine de Peyrassol in Flassans-sur-Issole, with masterpieces and installations by artists such as Folon, Gavin Turk and César in the sculpture park and permanent exhibition. Discover Château La Coste in Puy-Sainte-Réparade: 36 works are scattered across the acres of vineyards that serve as the setting for the futuristic winery designed by Jean Nouvel. You'll find art on the island of Porquerolles too, where Villa Carmignac challenges visitors' imagination with elements of land art and works by Keith Haring and Andy Warhol. Rows of vines inspire walkers with a subliminal message: 'Taste the good wine of Provence and enjoy the art that celebrates it'.

Marseille and Aix-en-Provence

So close, and yet so different: these two compete to seduce travellers seeking the dynamic, urban soul of Provence. Marseille is a vibrant city in constant flux. It's popular in the Panier district; creative in the abandoned industrial zone of the Belle de Mai, now given over to experimental art; foodie in the little restaurants where bouillabaisse, the famous fish soup, is celebrated; and maritime between the lively Vieux Port, the Prado and the calanques with the cliffs overhanging the marvellous turquoise sea.

Thirty kilometres away is Aix-en-Provence. In this medium-sized town you can admire the refined aesthetics of the Mazarin district, marvel at cultural hotspots such as the Vasarely Foundation and the 'Pavillon Noir' choreographic centre, and follow in the footsteps of Cézanne, from his birthplace to the Atelier on the Colline des Lauves and the nearby Sainte-Victoire, the sacred mountain of Provence that features in 87 of his paintings.

How do you choose between the two places? You shouldn't. When travelling between Marseille and Aix, time is a friend, not a foe: it always deserves an extension.

Lavender

A fleeting moment: the flowering of the lavender between mid-June and August creates the quintessential Provence, an ephemeral but emotionally rich spectacle. In the summer, it attracts photographers and travellers who come to admire undulating expanses of precious fine lavender grown between 400 and 800 metres. A breathtaking view between Sault, Forcalquier and the Valensole plateau, a few kilometres from the Gorges du Verdon. In addition to popular festivals celebrating this famous medicinal plant, there are distilleries and workshops where balms, perfumes and essential oils with soothing properties are made. And small hotels that give it as a gift to their guests, with the suggestion: 'Smell it before going to bed - you'll have sweet dreams'.

Hiking and cycling

According to legend, Mary Magdalene took refuge in Provence. Banished from Palestine, she arrived here, as recalled by the grotto with her relics on a cliff of the Sainte-Baume massif near Marseille, a place of Christian worship and popular with hikers. Further north, the Luberon, a rural land more accustomed to the sound of cicadas than the neurosis of big cities, welcomes visitors into a rugged mountain landscape. There are plateaux covered with olive trees and lavender, and hilltop villages adored by artists, filmmakers and writers, now prized by families and ecotourists.

Follow the Grandes Randonnées on foot through the Petit Luberon and Grand Luberon, or by mountain bike on the paths that join Saignon, Gordes, Oppède-Le-Vieux and the ochre cliffs between Roussillon and Rustel, the famous 'Provence Colorado'. Step by step, pedal stroke by pedal stroke, find time for shopping as honey, oil and jams, wine and truffles abound in these lands. Travel tip: fill your backpack on the return, not on the way out.

Contemporary art

Fancy some culture? No problem: in Provence, contemporary art is everywhere. Arles boasts the LUMA Foundation, a cultural beacon and experimental space with a spectacular tower designed by Frank Gehry that dominates the town's skyline. In Apt is the Fondation Blachère, which celebrates African design and talent. The Musée d'Art Contemporain in Marseille is devoted to Nouveau Réalisme, while Avignon's Collection Lambert is inspired by Fauvism and Cubism. Among the latest additions is the MAT (Musée d'Art de Toulon) which creates a dialogue between the art of today and yesterday, a metaphor for a permeable France that likes to make continuous references to different eras.