A one-time seat of papal power and a long-time magnet for artists, Caroline Crutchley discovers that despite a huge influx of tourists to the region, Provence remains as captivating and beautiful as ever.

The clear, sweet-scented morning air mingled with the aroma of fresh coffee.

The shady tree-lined avenues enticed me to linger over another croissant, perhaps captured in an artist’s sketch for immortality- Caroline Crutchley

I had arrived the previous evening at Marseille airport thanks to Ryanair, collected my hire car, and headed for the nearby Hotel Comfort.

I was fortified with breakfast and ready to explore Provence, the region that became popular due to Peter Mayle’s book, A Year in Provence. Had it been spoilt? Had the hordes moved on?

Aix en Provence was my first stop and this provincial city epitomises the French south. Twee shops and street cafes cater for tourists.

Cours Mirabeau is a long, tree-lined boulevard; a place to walk, be seen, and sip coffee. And that has not changed much since its inception in the mid 17th century.

The city’s most famous son is Paul Cezanne, born in 1839, and the legacy of this post-impressionist painter draws visitors from far and wide. A tour of his studio containing easels, paints and canvasses was an eerie experience. Time seemed to have stood still.

After many intense arguments with his father, he was sent to a Paris art school. There he met Pissarro, Renoir and Monet, developed his style and returned to his hometown a star.

Before his death in 1906, many young artists visited Aix en Provence to learn from the master. Cezanne’s works captured the sunny and serene countryside and lifestyle of Provence.

Small-scale rural agriculture in the region today provides some of the best food France can offer. Soft rain and the southerly sun have blessed each natural ingredient. Vines bask on gentle slopes, producing top rated wines.

The old town was a pleasure to wander around, enjoying the leisurely pace of life. Medieval alleys in the Bourg Saint Saveur area were a particular favourite, as was the Cathedral of the Holy Saviour, which evolved over centuries and boasts a blend of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque architecture.

From the treasures of the Archbishop’s Palace to the clock tower and Four Seasons fountain, the shady tree-lined avenues enticed me to linger over another croissant, perhaps captured in an artist’s sketch for immortality, before driving northwards towards Avignon.

Tucked into a bend on the River Rhône, my first sight of a road sign to Avignon brought back childhood memories of the nursery rhyme Sur le Pont d’ Avignon. With that in mind, it could only be a happy visit and a chance to try out my atrocious school French.

Avignon was known as Avenio in Roman times, meaning the town of violent winds. Parking under the shade of a tree, I crossed the busy road to the visitors’ centre of the famous bridge.

Climbing the stone steps, I found myself within the portcullis where I learnt the history of this mammoth bridge, built all those years ago. The actual name is Pont St Bénézet, in honour of the saint, and just four of the original 22 arches remain.

I stepped outside onto the slippery cobbled area, into the teeth of the ‘violent wind’ there to greet me, making my coat billow.

I struggled to make headway towards the end of the 12th century bridge, and turned eastwards towards the stark, grey walled town.

An audio tour provided an in-depth history of this place of papal power and its importance as a crossing point. It seemed that much drinking and dancing took place in bawdy taverns under the spans of the bridge.

There is a free shuttle boat over to the Îsle de la Barthelasse. The green marsh area is an ideal place to stroll and picnic on warm summer days.

Once I had safely returned to the bank I walked around this well-preserved town, just one-hour drive from Marseilles airport.

The austere Gothic Palais des Papes dominated the town as surely the Popes did during the 14th century. A tour took me through secret passageways, wardrobe chapels and bedchambers.

The cellars back then would have been full of top quality Cote de Rhone wines to compliment the fine food, Châteauneuf du Pape being the most famous. This was grown especially for the popes that made Avignon their base. French Pope Clement V in 1308 was the first to do so.

The Petit Palais and Cathedral of Notre Dame completed the stunning group of Unesco World Heritage buildings.

It is so easy to get lost in the cobbled streets, but with plenty of cafes to while away the time, it is a place to savour at a slow pace.

French bakeries emit an aromatic waft, drawing visitors to their doors. Wandering under the striped market canopies of the daily stalls was a great way to work up an appetite for lunch.

Culture has a strong base in this town, with a summer festival in July. Many a famous artist passed through on their Provence tours.

The Rochers des Doms Park nestles behind the palace and I walked up the ramp that took me onto the only walkable section of the ramparts.

Avignon has always had a reputation for being a lively place where farmers came to make merry, and that has prevailed.

During the summer months, the Provence countryside becomes enveloped in a blue haze, with endless fields of blooming lavender. The heady perfume wafts on the southerly breeze and lingers everywhere.

Village festivals and lavender oil distilleries open for the harvest. Not only will your nose be assailed, the lavender oil also finds its way into ham, cheese and honey.

Taking a trip outside the summer season is the best way to enjoy the peaceful unspoilt, rolling countryside. The brightness of the colours creates a rich palate of green, yellow and blue.

I understand why so many artists love to paint Provence, it is still so unspoilt.

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