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Le Flaneur de la Photographie en Provence (The Traveling Photographer in Provence)

Grimaud is beautiful, but beware the summer traffic as access to this medieval town is limited to only 
one road.

For many Americans, the place in France they most want to visit after Paris is Provence. Whether they have read Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence or another of his bestsellers about the region, or they are old enough to remember Brigitte Bardot and want to see St Tropez, or they have just heard that it is wonderful, Provence is high on their list. Is Provence truly as wonderful as its press? The frank answer is, yes, it is! For the landscape photographer, Provence is very close to paradise.

To quote the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide to France: 

From its herb-scented hills to its yacht-filled harbors, no other region of France fires the imagination as strongly as Provence. The vivid landscape and luminous light have inspired artists from Van Gogh to Picasso, Scott Fitzgerald to Pagnol.

Those same vivid landscapes and that same luminous light will indeed inspire any photographer who visits Provence just as strongly.

Provence is in the southeast corner of France bordered by Italy and the Alps to the east and northeast and the Mediterranean Sea to the south. It stretches west to the Rhône River and north to include the mountainous area known as the Alps Maritimes and the eastern part of the Rhône Valley.

For many the Côte d'Azur, the French Riviera, which is part of Provence, is the ultimate. It is equated with sunshine, the "beautiful people" with their yachts and villas, and, perhaps, the Cannes Film Festival. This azure coast runs from the Italian frontier west toward Marseilles, France's second largest city. There are unquestionably some beautiful spots along this coast, but frankly much of it is also high rise condominiums and other less appealing vistas. In the hills and mountains away from the coast are where the incredible Provencal light is at its best and the scenery is unsurpassed.

Provence is quite a big area, so for this photography tour, I will focus on just a few places that I think are highlights and hidden photographic gems. Some are more out of the way while others are quite well known. Let's start in a very well-known place on the Mediterranean, the beautiful former fishing village of St Tropez.

St Tropez is located on the northern side of a peninsula and is the only north facing town on the coast, which made it quite unpopular until it was "discovered" by Bridget Bardot movies in the late 1950s and it has never been the same. It is a beautiful little town, though most of the fishing boats in the harbor have been replaced by huge yachts.

The best time to take harbor pictures in St Tropez is at sunset, when the harbor and town are bathed in beautiful soft, warm light. Walk out on the small jetty that extends into the harbor on its western end at sunset with your tripod and camera. The view looking back at the yachts, with the town's buildings and church steeple in the background as the sun goes down, is spectacular.

St Tropez also has great people-watching, which means excellent opportunities for candid shots, including those of the many artists at work. The town itself offers some exceptional sights especially the Saturday morning market. Just west of St Tropez is the pretty little medieval town of Grimaud with its ancient buildings and windmill. However, be warned that in summer the St Tropez area is extremely popular and there is only one road in and out; therefore traffic is an absolute nightmare.

But Provence is an area of immense contrasts. Away from the coast northwest of Nice is the wild country of the Gorge du Verdon, which is one of the most dramatic natural sites in Europe. The gorge reaches a depth of 2,300 feet (700m) as it passes through a largely uninhabited area of twisted rock and cone-shaped peaks.

At the western end of the gorge is the town of Moustiers-Ste-Marie set in a deep ravine with a church literally hanging from the cliff on one side. Suspended across the ravine above the church is a chain on which a star is hung that was first put there by the Crusaders centuries ago.

Excellent views of the gorge are available all along the roads that follow the edges and of the town of Moustiers-Ste-Marie from the upper parking lots. It is difficult to believe that such wild country still exists not all that far from the Côte d'Azur beaches.

Another characteristic of Provence is the many fortified hilltop towns that are holdovers from the Middle Ages. Just north of Cannes, St-Paul-de-Vence, near the perfume center of Grasse, is one example. In this area, if you can visit in the late spring and summer when they are in bloom, are the marvelous lavender fields that so many associate with Provence.

Quite a bit further to the northwest, in the Luberon closer to the papal city of Avignon, is the stunning hilltop town of Gordes. Approaching Gordes from the south on the D15 road, there is a turnoff where you can stop and take pictures of the village sitting on the hill to the front. Though quite small, the turnoff is usually crowded with busses full of tourists taking the standard picture of this remarkable sight.

However, there is a better picture just a few yards away -- or meters away, you are in Europe after all. Walk down the short road to the right as you face the town and around the corner where you will find better views of Gordes with flowers and gardens for framing and foreground interest.

Only a few miles east of Gordes is the fascinating red-ochre hilltop town of Roussillon. Roussillon has been designated as one of the most beautiful villages in France and with good reason. Because of the natural stone in the area, almost all the buildings have a red-ochre color giving stunningly colorful photographic opportunities at every turn.

A short distance northwest of these towns is the great wine producing Côte du Rhône Region with famous wine producing towns such as Gigondas, Vacqueyras, and Beaumes-de-Venise, well known for its superb sweet white wine. The best known of all and a bit further west, is Châteauneuf-du-Pape. These are all lovely little towns, but with the possible exception of the last, their wines far outshine their possibilities as photographic subjects. The photographic gems are a bit further east, but if you like wine, visiting these towns and their vineyards is well worth the detour.

Principal among the more photogenic locations to the east is the stunning hilltop town of Vaison-la-Romains on the banks of the Ouvèze River. It takes its name from the five centuries it spent as a Roman enclave. Perched on the top of a hill overlooking the river the old town presents an exceptional morning subject when viewed from the river bank just east of the old Roman bridge as the sun rises.

Just a short distance south of Vaison-la-Romains is another virtually unknown tiny gem of a medieval village called Le Crestet (take the D938 south from Vaison and turn right onto the D79 to reach the town). The cobbled "streets" in Le Crestet are literally just wide enough for two people to walk abreast as they meander up the hill through this picturesque village. There is a small parking lot at the top of the village near the castle (château) ruins, that you can use as a base to explore and photograph this special place. The best time to be here is early morning as the sun starts illuminating its magical sights.

A bit further south is Le Barroux, another hilltop town dominated by a large castle in its center. The hills around Le Barroux offer some outstanding views of the countryside that maintains its natural beauty despite centuries of human habitation. The road through the mountains via the town of Suzette offers wonderful panoramic vistas of the county and its jagged limestone mountain peaks.

North of this area is another exceptional wine growing region, though less well known than the Côte du Rhône, this area is called Côte du Rhône Village and consists of cluster of ten winegrowing villages. My favorite wine from this area is called Chateau Saint Vincent from the not very picturesque village of Visan just a short distance northwest of Vaison-la-Romains. Again this is a wine, not photographic, detour.

Further west one enters the Rhône Valley, an area containing many picturesque sights. The stunning city of Avignon, which was the home of Popes from 1309 until 1376, contains a huge papal castle and numerous parks and tree lined streets and squares. Roman triumphal arches and other ruins can be found in the city of Orange north of Avignon and there is a large Roman amphitheater in Arles further to the west. These, plus the 15th century castle in Tarascon a bit further to the southwest, all make exceptional photographic subjects.

Though not a Roman ruin, the deserted ancient citadel at Les Baux-de-Provence perched on a limestone cliff just south of Avignon is fascinating. The "modern" town (the church dates from the 12th century, but that is much newer than the remains of the citadel) at the base of the cliff offers additional vistas in late morning and afternoon light.

The aqueduct at Pont du Gard  

Technically outside of Provence across the Rhône to the west, but well worth a visit, is the incredible Pont du Gard. Again quoting the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide to France: 

No amount of fame can diminish the first sight of the 2,000-year-old Pont du Gard. The Romans considered it the best testimony to the greatness of their Empire, and at 49m (160feet) it was the highest bridge they ever built.

It is really not a bridge, but an aqueduct designed to carry water to the city of Nîmes. Only a short drive from Avignon along the N100, the images of this spectacular creation taken from the western side of the river in particular are just fantastic. Though guide books may talk about walking across the top of the structure, my understanding is that this is no longer allowed.

There are many, many superb sights in Provence. Those mentioned here just scratch the surface. It is an area that, as a photographer, you will want to return to time and again, just as I do.

Some Practical Information

Cities in Provence such as Orange and Avignon can be reached from Paris by TGV (very fast train) in about 2½ hours and cities along the Côte d'Azur such as Cannes and Nice in about 3½ hours. Both Nice and Marseilles have airports served from Paris and other European cities. 

Touring and photographing Provence requires renting a car and there are car rental locations at airports, train stations and in most major cities. The excellent Michelin maps and guide books make navigation and finding places to stay in Provence relatively easy. 

A good source of information is The Dk Eyewitness Travel Guide France Best Places to Stay & Eat, by Natasha Edwards, Sharon Sutcliffe, Paperback 480 pages, ISBN 0756602998.

It retails for $25 but you can find it for much less in most bookstores.

More information is available at:

Provence Web
The Official Provence Tourism Site 
The Provence & Riviera area on the Frommers Web site.


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