Bordered on the west by the Rhône river, which forms a natural frontier with neighboring Languedoc, Provence stetches about 150 miles (240km) to the Italian border in the east. From Serre-Poncon in the north of Alpes-de-Haute Provence to the islands south of Hyères, the southernmost islets off the Var mainland, is a distance of 100 miles (160km).
The broad Rhône is a fast-flowing frontier river, industrialized and impersonal, while the Durance, once a seasonally destructive torrent but now tamed by dams, is the true artery of Provence, as its coils snake-like and sluggishly past gravel islets along a broad valley.
Provence offers a landscape of many distinct characters and contrasts. There are lush river valleys, though Provence is usually associated with less fertile vegetation. Alluvial plains follow along the sides of major rivers, especially the Rhône. The Camargue offers a dramatic landscape where the distinction between land and sea is often blurred, and some of its wildlife resembles that of an African environment.
The meeting of water and land in parts of Provence has carved caves beneath the surface of the limestone rock, the larger and more accessible of these being among the best show caves in Europe. The rivers have also cut deeply into the limestone to form gorges, none more famous than the breathtaking Verdon Gorge in Haute Provence.
West of the Gorge are a complicated range of mountains, where the Pyrennean and Alpine folds meet. Here is Mont Ventoux, the highest peak in Provence (6,260ft, 1,909m). Further to the south appear the buckled ridges of Montagne Ste Victoire, one of painter Paul Cézanne's favorite perspectives. To the east and north of the Verdon are other mountain ranges, such as the beautiful Maures and Estel, as well as the mountain wall of the pre-Alps that separate this area from true Alpine France.
Provence's coastal scenery offers nearly as many contrasts as inland. Stretching eastwards from Marseille are the Calanques, beautiful bays with sculpted limestone cliffs. Further east are the well-sheltered harbors near Toulon, and the Presqu'ile de Giens (presqu'ile means nearly island), where pink flamingoes occasionally may be viewed against the backdrop of the French Navy. The mountains meet the sea at the Maures Coast, and after the wide bays around Antibes begins the Riviera coast. There, with roads running along ledges cut out of the rock of the Alps, you will find the turquoise sea of the Côte d'Azur, a name coined in the late 19th century by poet Stephen Liégard.
THE VERDON GORGE
Although nothing in Europe can match Arizona's Grand Canyon, the Verdon Gorges are nonetheless spectacular. Over countless years, the Verdon River, a tributary of the Durance, has cut a deep, clean gorge into the limestone plateau, with narrow cliffs plunging 2300ft (700m) amid wild scenery. The Verdon derives its name from its jade green waters which add to the beauty.
Both the northern and southern edges of the gorge may be followed by car. The Corniche Sublime (D71) was hewn from the rock on the south side in 1947. On the other side, the D952 offers many vantage points, but the best one is generally acknowledged to be at L'Escalès. A footpath, named after explorer Edouard-Alfred Martel, should only be attempted by the hardy and well-prepared, but offers stupendous views.
Provence obeys the rhythms of the Mediterranean climate, with seasons that change in abrupt succession. Sudden autumn rains end the panting heat of summer. Winters, particularly along the sheltered parts of the coast, tend to be mild. The year's most sustained rainfall occurs in spring, when the plant life explodes into growth, and the scent of resins and herbs fills the air.
Summer can be brutally hot in Provence. This is because, to put it in rather dramatic terms, this area is the most northerly perimeter of the Sahara Desert. Without the Mediterranean, that almost tideless and strongly salted inland sea, Provence would be literally Saharan. As hot air expands northward from the Sahara, crossing the sea, it reduces from its norm of six months without rain in Algeria to three months in Provence. This tropical air can collide with more frigid air coming from the Alps, resulting in occasional, but violent, downpours of summer. Sometimes, Africa's sirocco -- high, gusting winds carrying clouds of sand particles -- will refract the sun's rays to produce a landscape of intense yellow or purple. In winter, cold continental air pressing into Provence forces a retreat of the tropical air masses, while the warmth of the sea tempers the climate. Vegetation in Provence has adapted to this climate, in ways designed to retain moisture: small leaves, sometimes reduced to mere thorns; trees with thick and roughened bark.
One of the weather phenomena for which Provence is perhaps best known is the mistral, a cold, dry, northwesterly wind created when air from an inland high-pressure zone passes through the Alps-Pyrénees gap and funnels down the Rhône Valley toward a low-pressure area in the northwestern Mediterranean Sea. The wind velocity, strengthened because of the funneling effect, often reaches 100 km/hr (60 mph), and can drop temperatures by 20°F. Called a bora on the Adriatic coast, the mistral is strongest and most frequent in the winter and spring, when it may blow for several days at a time, sometimes causing severe crop damage and reaching heights of up to 3 km (2 mi).
The people of Avignon and Marseille, who receive the fiercest lashings, say that the freezing winter mistral is "enough to pull the tail off a donkey". Farmers plant rows of stately cypresses or bamboo to serve as windbreaks for the tender crops. Old farmhouses were built to withstand the onslaught of the mistral : squat and massive, northern sides often blank, windows covered with hefty shutters, and heavy roofs weighted with rocks. In the towns, narrow winding streets were designed with the same purpose. Despite the best defenses, the wind manages to whistle through every crevice and cranny. Interestingly, the mistral brings with it a purity of light so remarkable that distant hills, almost invisible at other times, come into startling detail.