Vines MontmirailAutumn is surely the best time of year to visit Provence. Here are five great reasons to come here then, and some of the annual fall highlights in September, October and November.

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Click here for our companion guides to spring in Provence, to summer in Provence and to winter in Provence.

Provence empties very suddenly at the end of August. Most of the visitors - both from abroad and from elsewhere in France - have gone home. Yet the climate can still be glorious, with warm days and mild nights continuing well into the autumn.

Daytime temperatures in (for example) Marseille can reach highs of 25 degrees Celsius / 77 degrees Fahrenheit in September and 15 degrees Celsius / 59 degrees Fahrenheit, even as late as November.

You may run into heavy rains and thunderstorms around the Equinox in mid-September. But, generally speaking, autumns are significantly warmer than in Northern Europe. In fact, it's often as warm here as an English summer.

For many in Provence, the tourist season continues right up to the autumn college break, Halloween and the Toussaint (All Saints' Day, 1 November, which is a public holiday in France). After that date, though, many attractions close down until Easter.

view from rougonUp till then it's still really pleasant to be outside and there are plenty of lively and unusual events aimed at the locals back from their summer vacation. And there's no reason why visitors shouldn't join in the fun.

Or why not visit the classic tourist spots at your leisure? We drove round the Gorges de Verdon, pictured, during a glorious weekend in early September, when we took this photo, and, instead of crawling along the road in a crocodile of camper vans, virtually had the place to ourselves.

The same will apply to other top sights such as the Gorges de la Nesque, Mont Ventoux, the Camargue and the Pont du Gard. We always make a point of heading for these in the autumn or spring.

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Below we give an overview of just some of the fantastic things to do in Provence in the autumn, grouped loosely under five headings: outdoor activities and sports, food, wine, cultural events and general festivals. Click on the links for more detailed information. And bonne visite!

THE GREAT OUTDOORS

Septembre en Mer (September by the Sea) offers a month of over 200 marine-themed events all along the coast around La Ciotat, Cassis, Marseille and points west as far as Port Saint Louis.

The programme encompasses everything from seafood feasts and scuba diving lessons to shipyard visits and excursions to the Riou or Frioul Islands in RIBs (rigid inflatable boats) or traditional pointus (fishing boats). Many of these activities are available during this period only.

During a three-day weekend in mid-September Marseille celebrates the wind (for a change) with the Fête du Vent. This is a huge and long-established kite festival on the city's Prado beaches with hundreds of international kite creators and crack kite flyers, plus children's workshops and many other events.

Over in the Var, in the little hill village of Le Castellet, the Paul Ricard racetrack hosts the Bol d'Or in mid-September. Not just a terrific spectator sport event, this 24 hour motorcycle race is also an all-round weekend party with lots of fun, family-friendly activities around it.

Autumn is an ideal time for hiking and cycling. In summer Provence's beauty spots, such as the calanques on the coast, the hills of Aubagne, pictured, or the forested areas further north, can often be closed to visitors because of fire risk.

aubagne walk2This is highly unlikely from September onwards. Parking in these areas will be much easier too.

Activities such as the extraordinary Marcel Pagnol themed walks / theatrical performances in Aubagne - impossible in the summer - resume in October for a brief autumn season.

In late October there's the enormously popular Marseille-Cassis half-marathon through one of the most beautiful settings in the world for a running race. From mid-August onwards, football / soccer fans can watch Marseille's team, Olympique de Marseille playing at home at its shiny renovated Vélodrome Stadium.

And locals on the coast plausibly insist that, if the sun is shining and the wind not up, it's still possible to go swimming in the sea right up until 1 November.

THE FOOD

Gourmets in Provence (and France as a whole) are in luck in late September when France celebrates the Fête de la Gastronomie. In 2010 French gastronomy was added to UNESCO's list of "intangible cultural heritage" treasures across the world.

This government-sponsored, nationwide celebration was launched the following year, just to make sure no-one forgets the fact. It includes all sorts of special events such as tastings, workshops and open-air banquets in cities, towns and villages across the country.

During the last week in September you'll also find two-for-one restaurant bargains, often at very upmarket, Michelin-starred eateries, under the related event Tous au Restaurant.

Fans of the calisson, the sweet speciality of Aix en Provence, should make a date to be in town on the first Sunday in September for the Fête des Calissons when these tasty little white morsels are blessed at the lovely old church of Saint Jean de Malte in the Mazarin Quarter. Expect dancing, a procession and free samples.

If you're in a forested area, autumn is the time to forage for fungi. You may see illustrated posters of mushrooms and toadstools in pharmacies, where French people will be lining up to get their hauls verified as edible: this is a free service which we've used ourselves on occasion. Cèpes (wild mushrooms) are on sale at markets and in greengroceries and are one of the autumn's most delicious treats.

Chestnuts are in season too and several towns host a festival (une fête de la chataigne). The best-known one is in Collobrières, in the Var east of Saint Tropez, usually on three successive Sundays in late October. There'll be music, dancing, processions and lots of chestnut specialities. In the Alpes de Haute Provence, try the festival in Revest de Bion, also in October.

picking a crocusIn late October and early November you can also see fields of Provence's blue gold. No, not lavender, but crocuses for saffron, the cultivation of which is proving increasingly popular.

Saffron farms are found as far south as the Marseille and Aix area, as far east as Bargemon near Seillans in the Var and as far north as the slopes of Mont Ventoux in Vaucluse and Les Alpes de Haute Provence. Many saffron farms offer tours by appointment.

On a Saturday in mid-November the truffle season officially starts with the Ban des Truffes in Richerenches, a solemn and ceremonial Truffle Proclamation, followed by the first truffle market of the year. But you'll really have to come back in winter to find Provence's black diamonds at their best.

 

THE WINE

Autumn sees the vineyards of Provence transformed into a fabulous blaze of gold, bronze and red, and the towns and villages celebrating the grape harvest and - they hope - a vintage year.

Avignon does so with an all-day festival, the Ban des Vendanges at the beginning of September (or in some years right at the very end of August). It marks the gathering of the grapes from the papal vineyards, with tastings of Côtes du Rhône wines, a farmers' market, picnics, dancing and music.

Cassis has Les Vendanges Etoilées (The Starry Grape Harvest) in late September. The "starry" bit refers to the Michelin-starred chefs who give cookery demonstrations and supervise the food on offer, and there are, needless to say, many opportunities to taste Cassis' delicious wines.

Not to be outdone, wine-makers in the area around Aix en Provence organise an annual fun motor rally, the Rallye Sainte Victoire, in mid-October. It involves a day-long treasure hunt around the region's vineyards and plenty of eating and (for the non-drivers!) drinking. Unsurprisingly it's a sell-out event each year and around a thousand people take part.

millevin avignonProvence doesn't go overboard in celebrating the arrival of the current year's vintage, à la Beaujolais Nouveau. But individual vineyards will have primeur tastings in mid-November.

And Avignon holds another big party called Millévin to mark the new Côtes du Rhône. This welcome early winter warmer, pictured, features tastings, music, illuminations and an open-air supper on the place de l'Horloge in the middle of town.

From late August to mid October, you'll also find France's autumn Foires aux vins (wine fairs or wine sales) at supermarkets across the country, during which wines are on sale at heavily discounted prices. It's a great opportunity to stock up for Christmas and New Year.

If you're in Marseille, be sure to check out SAVIM. This long-established gastronomy fair in late November is the largest of its kind in France (and that includes Paris).

It attracts over 7000 visitors and some 400 wine and gourmet food producers from all over France and Italy who gather to present their wares and let you try and buy their goodies.

And beer-drinkers aren't left out: a new arrival on the scene is a Marseille edition of Munich's legendary Oktoberfest, complete with dirndls and lederhosen, oompah bands, German sausages and plenty of the amber nectar.

 

 

THE ARTS

After the end of the big July music, theatre and photography festivals in Aix, Avignon and Arles respectively, the arts scene shuts down for August while everyone goes off to bake on the beach or chill in the mountains. But in September the action starts up again.

A key event - not just in Provence but all across Europe - is a weekend in mid-September, the Journées du Patrimoine.

It's variously known as European Heritage Days, Doors Open Days or Open Doors Days in English-speaking countries: note that the dates in different countries are not always the same.

Citerne des MoulinsDuring these two days entrance to many museums and galleries is free of charge or at a reduced rate and a number also offer special events such as guided tours, concerts, workshops and readings.

The Journées du Patrimoine is not just about museums, though: all sorts of oddball other places briefly open their doors. In previous years, for example, we've visited the villa in La Ciotat and the Grand Salon, where the pioneering Lumière Brothers showed their first short films (it's now a private residence).

On another occasion the goal was the Citernes des Moulins in Marseille's Old Town or Panier: spectacular and enormous, 19th century underground water cisterns, pictured above. Both these amazing sites are are normally closed to the public.

Insider Tip for the Heritage Days in FranceIn many years the SNCF, France's national rail operator, offers cheap day and weekend tickets during the Journées du Patrimoine, enabling you to explore the region by train at very low cost.

After a summer on tour, Angelin Preljocaj's ballet company at the Pavillon Noir in Aix en Provence is back in town in October and the Opéra de Marseille, pictured, and the Opéra Grand Avignon also reopen their doors for the season.

opera de marseilleMarseille has a wave of varied music festivals throughout the autumn. One of its more eccentric annual musical events is Un Piano à la Mer, which does just what the title says: it offers world music, jazz and classical concerts on the beach performed by musicians on floating platforms. The sea lends their music an unusual, eerie resonance.

Also in September is a new event called MMX (Marseille Music Experience) that specialises in electronic music.

It's followed in October by the Fiesta des Suds, which describes itself as a mix of carnival, local festival, oriental nouba, féria and contemporary music from France and the world and in November by Jazz sur la Ville, a month of jazz in the city.

Still in Marseille, the Abbaye Saint Victor has a very long-established and prestigious series of classical music concerts throughout the autumn in one of the loveliest churches in town. Meanwhile, over in Avignon, there's a reputed blues festival in October.

THE FESTIVALS

Provence loves to party all year round, and that includes autumn and winter. Apart from all the food, wine, music and sports themed events mentioned above, here's a selection of some of the more unusual fall festivals.

Arles is a city that knows how to throw a top party, and one of its two main shindigs of the year is the big Feria du Riz (Rice Festival) in early September. It features a regional gastronomy fair, plus plenty of jolly street music and dramatic bull games.

Celebrating its self-proclaimed Venice connections, Martigues has a Venetian masque in September at which participants stroll the little town's streets and canals in elaborate carnival costumes.

1720 Festival La CiotatMarseille, meanwhile, turns Japanese in early October with an Akimatsuri, or autumn festival, in the Japanese gardens and tea pavillion of the Château Borély.

In October, you can party like it's 1720 in the seaside town of La Ciotat at a super event, pictured, for families in Provence for school break called Il était une fois 1720 (Once Upon a Time in 1720).

At this festival everyone dresses up as pirates, serving wenches and other characters from the period to celebrate La Ciotat's historic role in fighting the bubonic plague.

Provence doesn't really mark Halloween but some family attractions such as the Château de la Barben lay on special spooky-themed events and, as mentioned above, the Toussaint (All Saints' Day) on 1 November is a public holiday.

Not a festival, strictly speaking, but an attraction nonetheless, Provence Prestige, le salon de l'art de vivre en Provence (The Art of Living in Provence) is an annual salon of some 150 provençal artisans and designers.

Teeming with great ideas for interior and exterior decor, furniture, fashion, cosmetics and, of course, gastronomy, it takes place in Arles in late November - just in time for some early Christmas shopping.

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