cherry trees in provence smallForget Paris! Provence in springtime offers just as many equally tempting attractions - and much better weather. Here are five fine reasons to come to the South of France in March, April and May.

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Click here for our companion guides to summer in Provence, to autumn / fall in Provence and to winter in Provence.

In spring the South of France sleepily emerges from its long hibernation. Easter marks the watershed when many of the main tourist sights open up again - minus the crowds.

Airlines, the Eurostar and other train lines will be introducing more frequent services. And hotels will be welcoming visitors at off-peak rates.

There will be glorious sunny days, when you can have a drink and even a meal outside. Make no mistake: it can still be quite chilly here in spring. Average temperatures in March hover around 15 degrees Celsius / 59 degrees Fahrenheit.

You may hear locals here talking about the Saints de Glace (Ice Saints): the saints' days which signal the last likelihood of frost that might wreck the crops. The exact dates vary depending on where you live. But (though you can never fully count on the climate in Provence) by May the warm sunny weather should certainly be here to stay.

However, if you are planning a trip to France in May, be aware that this month includes an endless stream of public holidays: 1 May (Labour Day) and 8 May (VE Days) are fixed feasts. Ascension Day and - in some years - Whitsun also fall in May.

Factor in school holidays as well and you can expect French roads to be busy, flights full and destinations jam-packed with locals throughout the month.

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THE FLOWERS AND GARDENS

irises van gogh saint paul de mausoleIf your heart is set on seeing lavender and sunflowers, you will need to schedule your visit to Provence in the summer.

But in spring the garrigue (moor or scrubland) along the coast is rich with the scents of rosemary, wild thyme and Mediterranean pine, and the bright colours of purple-pink centranthus, yellow broom and red poppies. All these wildflowers will later wither away in the fierce midsummer sun so this is the best time to see them.

In Saint Rémy de Provence, the banks of irises are just as Vincent van Gogh painted them when he spent a year in the asylum of Saint Paul de Mausole over a century ago. Pictured: a tribute to van Gogh in the gardens of Saint Paul.

All over Provence the hills will be covered with creamy drifts of almond blossom and, in Venasque and the other villages of the Luberon, the cherry and soft fruit trees will be in full bloom.

Each year in late May, or sometimes early June, France holds a nationwide three-day festival called Rendez-Vous aux Jardins. Thousands of parks and gardens all across the country - many of them normally closed to the public - open their doors. Website for the Rendez-Vous aux Jardins.

alterarosa avignon palais des papesThere are many other one-off events in Provence to tempt garden enthusiasts. In Avignon the Palais des Papes hosts Alterarosa, pictured, a festival devoted to the rose, with thousands of rose bushes blooming in its cloisters. It is biennial and held in even-numbered years.

And, just outside Aix en Provence, the Jardins d'Albertas hold the Journées des plantes, a major fair of rare and Mediterranean plants featuring over 150 exhibitors. Both these events take place in May.

THE GREAT OUTDOORS

Spring is a perfect time for outdoor activities in Provence. We're still a long way from the sweaty summer heatwaves which make any physical effort exhausting. And hiking trails and parks are highly unlikely to be closed off because of risk of forest fires.

aubagne walk2There are several superb opportunities to go hiking in the magnificent hills of Aubagne, pictured, as immortalised in the books and films of Marcel Pagnol.

Each year to mark the anniversary of the writer's death (on 18 April 1974), the Aubagne Tourist Office organises celebratory guided walks in Pagnol's footsteps.

Just after that the same town's annual Festival des Randonnées in early May offers dozens of different themed walks for all levels of ability. And in spring and autumn, a theatrical troupe stages weekly performances of Pagnol's stories.

But these aren't conventional sit-down plays. Instead, you're taken on a day-long walk deep into the countryside of Aubagne, stopping every now and then to discover actors playing out Pagnol's scenes - in the very landscapes where the stories were set.

It's a delightful and unique experience and the handful of weekly performances sell out quickly. You can read more about them here. And, if you can't make any of these specific dates, click here to read about self-guided hikes in Pagnol country.

It goes without saying that spring is also a great season for cycling in Provence. If you're a mountain bike (VTT or vélo tout terrain) enthusiast, mark your diary for late March, when there's a major VTT Coupe de France rally in Provence.

flamingos bird park camargueUp on the Ubaye river in Haute Provence, the white-water rafting season begins in late March and, swollen with freshly melted snow, the rapids are at their most satisfyingly challenging at this time of year.

On the coast, meanwhile, the boating season opens in La Ciotat in early April with Les Nauticales, one of the first major boat shows of the year: over 30,000 visitors are expected.

Also in La Ciotat are two regattas of traditional sailing vessels and tall ships, Les Calanques Classiques and Acampado dei Vieio Careno, both in May.

Bird-watchers should head straight to the Camargue to catch many species, including the famous flamingos, pictured, on their various migratory paths. The Festival de la Camargue, a big celebration of the region's natural treasures, is held in early June.

THE FOOD AND WINE

If you're here in March, you'll just catch the end of the black truffle season. But provençal food really comes into its own in the next couple of months, when the market stalls will be simply groaning with local goodies.

castellane market1Pictured, even this street market on the avenue du Prado right in the heart of Marseille is a rich source of farm-fresh produce. Note the sign in the van window advertising suckling lamb and kid goat.

There are food festivals everywhere too: strawberries in Carpentras or asparagus in Mormoiron (April) and cherries in Venasque (late May / early June), to name but a few.

Wine, as usual, is on the agenda too. France's nationwide Foires aux Vins start up in March: these are month-long supermarket wine fairs offering bottles at heavy discounts.

The spring fairs are smaller than the autumn ones, but you should still find some good bargains and be able to stock up on rosé de Provence for the summer.

The town of Brignolles in the Var holds one of the oldest and largest wine festivals in Provence in early April. You'll also find local produce and crafts but the vino is the main thing and over three hundred exhibitors will be there with their latest offerings.

In late May much of Provence has an informal wine-themed festival, the Fête de la Vigne et du Vin (the Festival of Vine and Wine), during which wine producers stage special events and tastings at their vineyards.

 

 

CARNIVAL AND EASTER

One of the quirks of Provence is that - apart from a very big carnival along the coast in Nice - many towns here just don't celebrate Mardi Gras on Shrove Tuesday. Instead they prefer to wait for the warmer weather in the spring.

In fact carnival in Provence is very much a secular event. Some processions include the grotesque figure of Caramentran. This name derives from the old French for "entering Lent" - despite the fact that most carnivals are actually held at the end of Lent, shortly before Easter!

The festivities climax with the ritual judgment and burning of Caramentran, symbolising the laying to rest of all the misfortunes of the previous year.

Pâques (Easter) itself isn't accompanied by the many ancient traditions that mark a provençal Christmas. You won't find Spanish-style Holy Week processions of penitents, for instance, apart from to a limited extent in the Nice area.

The faithful celebrate Palm Sunday, often bearing olive or bay-tree branches instead of palms. The branches are kept and hung up to protect the household over the following year and must be either burned or buried the following Easter.

Simple peasant food is served in the run-up to Easter. Some families eat chick peas on Palm Sunday and it's a widespread tradition to make an aïoli for the Good Friday supper.

easter eggsThe Easter Sunday meal is usually lamb, preferably from Sisteron in the Alpes de Haute Provence, accompanied by haricot beans, new vegetables and sometimes pain pascal, an aniseed-flavoured Easter bread. English visitors, don't even think about mint sauce!

It's followed by a Corsican speciality, campanile, a sweet brioche in the shape of a ring studded with whole, hard-boiled eggs.

On Easter Monday, the secular tradition of the Easter egg hunt is very widespread, especially at kid-friendly venues such as the Château de la Barben. If the weather is fine (and it very often is), many families like to go out for a picnic.

Whitsun or Pentecost brings along another edible treat that's only available at this time of year: the Colombier, a rich fruity cake flavoured with almonds, melon, apricot and preserved orange (the exact recipe can vary slightly).

The story goes that it was invented in Marseille at the beginning of the 20th century to take to the beach or seaside cabin for the long weekend (the Monday is a public holiday in France). No fridge needed!

Inside is a fève (small porcelain figure) in the shape of a dove: whoever gets it will be married within the year.

THE FESTIVALS

Summer is the main arts season in Provence, with the heavyweight Aix Music Festival and Avignon Theatre Festival attracting thousands of visitors. But the culture scene is just as vibrant in spring.

One of Provence's flagship arts events is the Festival de Pâques, Aix's Easter festival of classical music. First launched in 2013, this has grown at an incredible pace and now attracts world-class performers.

Marseille has its own series of music festivals starting in March with Mars en Baroque, a lively multi-media programme dedicated to the spirit of the baroque in the 21st century. Cutting-edge world music is showcased in the Bab el Med festival, also in March.

If you're in Avignon in early March, you may be in time for the tail end of Les Hivernales, the city's crisp and lively late-winter / early spring dance festival. Website for Les Hivernales

Also starting in late March / early April and sprawling on into mid-May is the huge Festival de Bande Dessinée in Aix en Provence. Bandes dessinées, or BD for short, are comic books - or graphic novels as the French prefer to call them. This is a much revered artform and the Aix shindig is the most ambitious in the region. Website for the Festival de Bande Dessinée

Or check out the très glamorous and glitzy Festival de mode et de photographie in Hyères. In late April the sleek Art Deco Villa Noailles plays host to some of the biggest names and hottest newcomers in haute couture and photography, and entrance to many events and parties is free.

route des artistesSpring is when contemporary art fairs and markets pop up all over Provence. In Aix, SM'ART, a very large market which draws some 20,000 visitors to see and buy the work of painters, sculptors, photographers, writers and designers.

In Saint Rémy de Provence, the Route des Artists, pictured, is held in the streets of the Old Town over several weekends in the spring and summer. In Marseille the Printemps de l'Art Contemporain kicks off.

Also worth looking out for in mid-May: the Nuit des Musées, or Night of the Museums, a pan-European event when galleries and museums stay open late with special activities. Website for the Nuit des Musées in France

 

On the non-arts front, L'Isle sur la Sorgue has two huge events for lovers of antiques: one of Europe's biggest antiques and arts fairs on the Easter weekend and a brocante (bric à brac) market at Whitsun.

Watch out, too, for Camerone Day in Aubagne, a curious, colourful, highly ceremonial parade of the French Foreign Legion which is based there. It's on 30 April.

transhumance-saint-remy-provenceIf you are based in Arles and the Camargue, you'll find the festival season in this region starts on the Easter weekend with the first of a series of Ferias.

Bull-fighting is at the centre of the programme, but there are other, more benign bull-related games and activities. Also, fireworks, processions, pop-up bodegas (bars) and plenty of music. Basically it's one huge street party.

Pictured, the Fête de la Transhumance is held in Saint Rémy de Provence every year on Whit Monday (Pentecôte) in late May or early June. It marks the moment when, at the end of spring, sheep and other livestock travel to the lusher grazing in the high mountains. Thousands of animals swirl through the streets to celebrate this age-old tradition.

 

 

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