Ever since improved railway connections brought France's Mediterranean coast within (fairly) easy reach from Paris and London, Provence has been one of Europe's holiday hotspots.
Its long, balmy summers and warm water made it an easy winner over the colder Channel and North Sea coasts that had been the most popular getaways until then. We spent a long weekend in September exploring the southeastern corner of this sunny region.
The easternmost portion of Provence's long coastline, known to everyone as the Côte d'Azur, is an uninterrupted string of glitzy resort towns whose names sound like a roll-call from a tabloid newspaper of dubious quality. We did not expect much of Cannes, the city at the Côte d'Azur's western end, other than the decidedly tacky knock-off "Walk of Fame" associated with the city's famous film festival.
We were pleasantly surprised: it turns out Cannes is actually a nicely laid-back seaside city centred on an (admittedly yacht-filled) old harbour and picture-postcard old town. The latter offers very nice views of the former. If you were looking for the perfect spot for a pastis on a terrace in the sun, this is it.
Our base during our stay in Provence were the twin hilltop towns of Vence and Saint-Paul-de-Vence: prior to 1860, the border between France and Sardinia (Italy's precursor kingdom) ran between the two towns. The two towns and the surrounding countryside are now mainly famous as the preferred summer residences of the cream of Modernist art: perenially penniless, the local restaurants (especially La Colombe d'Or) are hung with the artworks Picasso and others donated in lieu of payment for their bills.
On a slightly more organised note, many of their works can be seen at the Maeght Foundation. Vence is also known as the town where Henri Matisse spent his old age in the care of a local nun, Monique Bourgeois (known to the orders as Sister Jacques-Marie): in gratitude, he gave the local monastery its Rosary Chapel. The chapel is beautiful, though when we visited, we got the distinct impression that Sister Jacques-Marie's present-day counterparts were perhaps a little too much interested in visiting tourists' money.
While in Provence, we ventured west on a day-trip to the sleepy towns of the Fayence Country: we had heard the towns of Fayence and Seillans were not only nice to explore, but were also ruled by a cuddly feline aristocracy. As you can see, we were not disappointed: not only are the local rulers cute, they also know where to go for the best Provençal food in the area.
Of course, who says Provence, says pétanque. The game (similar to lawn bowling, played with heavy metal balls on a sandy surface) is played in the middle of any square of any size in the region, by players of all ages, though apparently most avidly by the active middle-aged.
A long weekend was clearly too short to enjoy all that Provence has to offer: we closed off our visit with a day in Nice, the Côte d'Azur's largest city. Here, too, we were pleasantly surprised with attractions ranging from the Matisse Museum to the wooded Castle Hill (the castle itself was destroyed by the French army in 1706 - the city was Italian at the time) with grand views across the city's coastline.
Near the charming old town, the Paillon Promenade offers a refreshing piece of summer greenery, where the grass is highly inviting for an afternoon nap. Even more inviting, though, was the city's culinary speciality, Salade Niçoise, followed by a dip in the still-warm Mediterranean right off the city centre's waterfront promenade.
We'll definitely be returning to Provence soon: how about you?