Provence. Travel to France of Mediterranean light. The cities
Provence. The beloved of the painters
This article launches a tribute to the French South.
We’ll start with Provence, a region of France bathed in the Mediterranean light. Not by accident, the Impressionist painters have spent great intervals here, painting the countryside and its settlements.
Due to a large number of sights, here I will present the cities. In a next article, I will present the villages I happened to visit.
Marseilles. The capital
We start with Marseilles, the capital and the largest city. It’s the second city of France and the second largest port of the Mediterranean after Genoa. A city with a long history, founded by Greek colonists who came from Phocaea of Asia Minor.
Marseilles has all the good and bad things of a big harbour. It depends on the visitor’s mood to ignore the latter, which are inevitable, in order to appreciate the former, which make Marseilles a very special city.
Marseilles. The old harbour (Vieux Port) and at the very top Notre Dame de la Garde. This 19th-century Neo-Byzantine church, which replaced a medieval one, is the most visited spot in Marseilles. Especially at the feast of the Assumption it’s a great pilgrimage
The cathedral of Marseilles, Sainte-Marie-Majeure or Cathédrale de la Major. Also a Neo-Byzantine church built in the place of a medieval one
Vieille Charité, 17th-18th century. Previously an almshouse and now a cultural centre, in the heart of the old town. Of great emotional value for the inhabitants of Marseilles
A very Mediterranean square near the old harbour
The abbey of Saint Victor, in the old town. It was founded in the 5th century, in honour of the homonymous local martyr. Today’s buildings date from the 11th to the 14th century
The city’s tour ends at Notre Dame de la Garde, the symbol of Marseilles
Aix-en-Provence. The old capital
North of Marseilles is Aix-en-Provence or just Aix. Aix was the capital of the county of Provence in the Middle Ages. Especially in the 15th century, it became a great cultural centre. It was the time of the “good King René”, who, through inheritance, apart from Count of Provence, was also King of Naples.
After his death, in 1480, Provence was incorporated into the kingdom of France. Since then Aix has been a provincial town, but with a special nobility, which testifies to the glorious past.
The city hall
The Saint-Sauveur Cathedral of the 12th-18th century
Saint-Jean de Malte (13th century)
The Four Dolphin Fountain (Fontaine des Quatre Dauphins)
Saint-Jean de Malte
The bell tower of the Augustinian monastery (15th – 17th century)
Arles. A wealth of monuments on the banks of the Rhone
Arles is located north-west of Marseilles on the banks of the Rhone. Τhe Rhone is one of the largest rivers in France and separates Provence from Languedoc-Roussillon.
Arles is one of the most beautiful cities in Provence. It also stands out for its Roman and Romanesque (medieval) monuments, which are on the UNESCO list. Don’t miss it for anything!
The Roman Amphitheatre (Arènes) of the 1st century AD, among the best preserved in the world. It’s still used today for various shows and it’s worthwhile to go if you happen to stumble upon one
Remark the tower on the top left. A remnant of the Middle Ages, when the whole amphitheatre had become a fortress and closed the whole city inside it!
The 12th-century Saint Trophime Church, previously a cathedral. One of the most important Romanesque monuments in France. The gigantic ear is, of course, a contemporary artistic intervention
Arles’ city hall
The Roman Thermae of Constantine
One of the many picturesque streets of Arles
Rond Point des Arènes
Tarascon. The city of the overlooked saint
Tarascon, north of Arles and also on the banks of the Rhone, is easy to go unnoticed. And yet, it’s also worth a visit.
Tarascon is the city of an overlooked saint. According to tradition, Saint Martha arrived here when a dragon was destroying the area. Martha tamed it, but then the inhabitants killed it.
Many pilgrims come to the church of Saint Martha. Here are her grave and her relics, in the crypt that was built in the place of her home.
The Romanesque-Gothic church of Saint Martha (12th – 14th century), one of the very few built in her honour
The castle of King René, from the 15th century
Picturesque streets of Tarascon, after a summer storm
Avignon. The former capital of Western Christianity
The history of Avignon was sealed in the 14th century. Then the small town became the seat of the Pope and the capital of Western Christianity. In 1305 the French Clement V was elected Pope and refused to move to Rome . In 1309 he settled in Avignon.
Here remained also his successors, also Frenchmen. Until 1377, when Pope Gregory XI decided to move the seat back to Rome.
Meanwhile, the Popes had bought Avignon from the Kings of Naples, who were also the Counts of Provence. Thus, Avignon was the territory of the Papal State until 1791. At that time, the revolutionary government of France incorporated Avignon into France.
Since then, important monuments have been left in Avignon, the summit being the papal palace.
The Romanesque Cathedral of Our Lady, from the 12th century
The famous bridge of Avignon (Pont Saint-Bénézet), known from the song “Sur le pont d’Avignon”. It was built and crashed many times, due to the Rhone’s force. The remaining arcs belong to the 14th-century bridge
The papal palace of the 14th century. Apart from the works of art, it had the largest library of its time. That made the palace one of the greatest centres of the letters of that era. Many came to consult it, including Petrarch
The facade of the papal palace
The cathedral and the palace
The square in front of the Avignon palace
And, of course, Avignon is the seat of the famous homonymous festival. It’s one of the oldest and most important cultural institutions in Europe and, of course, if you have the opportunity, you shouldn’t miss it!
Orange. The Roman city
North of Avignon is Orange, a very little known town. Unjustly, because it has very important Roman monuments.
Among them, one of the best preserved Roman theatres in the world and the most impressive of Europe. It was built at the beginning of the 1st century AD and is undoubtedly the city’s main attraction.
The cave of the Orange Theatre. You have to imagine the wall covered with marble and the niches filled with statues
The theatre’s facade. That, too, of course, was covered with marble
The Orange triumphal arc
Picturesque streets around the Roman theatre of Orange
Toulon. The overlooked
And we finish the round of Provencal cities turning now to the east. East of Marseilles is Toulon, a city that has been wronged by its military character. It has the largest military port of Mediterranean France.
But beyond that, it’s a beautiful Mediterranean city with a historic centre and a picturesque marina. It’s a pity to miss it, especially since it’s on the way from Marseilles and all the tourist towns of Provence in the west to the Côte d’Azur, located immediately to its east.
Also, its hinterland is probably the most authentic part of Provence. But this is for later …
The marina of Toulon
Place de la Liberté
The old town of Toulon is also a picturesque town of Provence
These are only the main cities of Provence. Stay tuned to get to know also some of the most interesting villages.
About the author
Hello! I am Denis, an architect based in Athens, Greece. I teach history of art and architecture in higher education. That’s one passion of mine. The other one is hiking, in and out of town. If you follow me, I’ll share my discoveries with you.
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