Senanque with lavender fieldsDid you really still need convincing? Provence in summer is - despite the heat, the crowds and the soaring prices - the place to be! Here are five fabulous reasons to come here in June, July and August.

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

For many people the big draw of Provence in summer is the prospect of relaxing and not doing very much at all, apart from possibly a leisurely stroll round the local market. Life moves slowly in this part of the world at any time of year, and now it virtually comes to a halt.

In terms of climate, June, with its low rainfall, mild temperatures and light evenings, is perhaps the most pleasant month, especially if you're looking for a slightly more active holiday, though the weather can still be unpredictable in the early summer.

Not so in July, the hottest month of the year in Provence, when the thermometer regularly soars to well over 30 degrees Celsius / 86 degrees Fahrenheit in the middle of the day. It effectively rules out anything much more energetic than a very long lunch.

But, after mid August, things begin to cool down again and you may even experience some early autumnal rainstorms. The fierce Mistral wind can blow up at any time: it isn't just a winter phenomenon. In a summer heatwave, though, it comes as a welcome relief.

In the past it seemed like practically the whole of France used to shut down for the summer as everyone rushed to the coast for weeks on end for the grandes vacances. But since the economic downturn of 2008 - la crise, as locals call it - the French take much shorter vacations.

Even so, many businesses, shops and restaurants still close down in summer for their annual holidays, though this is truer of Paris than the South of France.

Today the French talk about two breeds of tourists: the juilletistes (people who vacation in July) and the aoûtiens (those who take their holidays in August). The July crowd is more likely to be composed of middle-class professionals, possibly self-employed. The August vacationers tend to be employees, often with school-age children.

la plage doree in sanary sur mer.jpgAnd you'll find this reflected in what's going on in Provence in summer. July is the time of the big, prestigious arts festivals (read more about them below). In August the emphasis falls on beaches, sun, relaxation, sports and family entertainment.

There are two public holidays in summer. Bastille Day, 14 July, is the French national holiday which commemorates the beginning of the revolution and the storming of the Bastille prison on 14 July 1789.

Expect lavish fireworks in Marseille, Aix en Provence, Arles, Avignon, Toulon and the larger towns.

On 15 August, the Feast of the Assumption is marked by religious celebrations including the biggest procession in the South of France, in Marseille.

The 14-15 August is also the anniversary of the Allied landings in Provence in 1944 and the beginning of the liberation of the south of France from the Nazis. It's likely to be marked with fireworks and possibly a patriotic aerial display by the Patrouille de France in the two main ports of Marseille and Toulon. Tourist hotspots empty quickly after that date.

Although today the French go on holiday for shorter periods and not everyone goes away at the same time, you'll still need to plan your travel carefully to avoid enormous air or rail fares or packed motorways. Click here to read our tips on driving in Provence and how to dodge the traffic jams.

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In short, Provence in summer sells itself. But here are some suggestions of what's on offer here for when (if ever) the idea of a glass of rosé wine in the sun begins to pall.

THE LAVENDER

Lavender continues to be one of Provence's biggest attractions, in spite of several severe recent crises: click here to read about them. And one of the regular questions is, when is the best time to see it?

beehivesinlavenderfieldThere's no easy answer here. It very much depends on that year's weather, as well as on the location: the higher the altitude of the lavender fields, the later the peak flowering time will be.

The period from late June to the end of July is the safest bet, though some fields should still be in bloom well into August.

This helpful website provides a map and a rough guide - though to be sure of seeing lavender, you'll need to check with the local tourist office where you happen to be staying.

Another of Provence's iconic summer sights, its sunflower fields, will also be in bloom: again, this can vary but you should be able to see plenty of those joyous big yellow flowers in July.

THE FOOD AND WINE

melon deguiseDining and wining are never really out of season in Provence! But at this time of year the market stalls will be simply groaning with fresh produce.

And, while the main food and wine festivals happen in spring and autumn, you'll be able to celebrate the succulent, outsize cherries of Venasque, in the Luberon, at that elegant little village's cherry fest in late May or early June. Cavaillon's aromatic Charentais melons, pictured in disguise, inspire a lively fiesta in July.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of summer (and actually even winter as well!) is the open-air collective "feasts" organised by local cities, towns and villages.

At these, hundreds of people gather at long trestle tables to tuck into a simple communal meal, usually a barbecue washed down with plenty of wine: watch out for sardinades (sardine BBQs), thonades (tuna), bouillabaisses or simply grillades (grilled meats). There's a small charge for these - usually raucous - parties, which are pretty much open to all comers.

 

THE GREAT OUTDOORS

Provence's beaches are at their most crowded, of course, but the upside is that the larger ones will have lifeguards on duty in July and August and some will offer organised sports, often at a modest cost.

raftingSummer is the optimum time to enjoy the attractions of water sports such as white water rafting, diving, kayaking or sailing, or to watch Marseille's amazing Monte Cristo swimming race, inspired by Edmund Dantès' daring escape from the Château d'If in Alexandre Dumas' classic novel.

Near Avignon, Splashworld Provence is Europe's biggest water park. It opens for the summer in early June.

Or you can enjoy the curious art of marine jousting, though probably just as a spectator. The big tournaments are held between July and early September.

The traditional provençal sport of pétanque is always a suitably sedate activity, preferably accompanied by an ice-cold glass of pastis or rosé wine.

On the other hand midsummer, especially July, is not the ideal month to go cycling or hiking, except in mountain areas.

Apart from the discomfort of the blazing heat, much of Provence is vulnerable to devastating forest fires at this time, especially if the Mistral wind is up, and some parks and walking trails can be closed at short notice if the risk is elevated.

THE ARTS

Four of the most important arts festivals in Provence - and indeed in Europe - were founded decades ago and continue to run concurrently throughout July.

Parades aixIf opera and classical music is your passion, then head for Aix en Provence, whose Festival international d'art lyrique (to give it its full name) is world renowned and continues to grow in stature. Pictured: a free open-air concert on Aix's Cours Mirabeau.

And / or go up to Orange in Northern Provence, which holds one of France's most prestigious and oldest opera festivals, the Chorégies, in the magnificent setting of its Roman amphitheatre.

Avignon becomes the world capital of theatre in July, with its "In" and "Off" festivals. The fourth of Provence's "big four" festivals is in Arles, whose highly reputed photography festival, the Rencontres d'Arles, runs from early July to mid-September.

But, aside from these major-league events, the whole of Provence is Festival Central throughout the summer. Open-air music is everywhere. Midsummer's Day, 21 June, marks the Fête de la Musique (World Music Day), a concept invented in France and later adopted by many other countries, with free concerts and street music in cities, towns and villages everywhere.

The Aix music festival now spills over into June at one end and August at the other, with more informal spin-off concerts and events: click here to read about them.

La Roque d'Anthéron has a notable month-long international piano festival, starting in late July - and a Country and Western weekend (called, inevitably, Country Roque) at the beginning of the month.

And there are very many more smaller-scale events such as the informal Musique Cordiale in the village of Seillans, in the Var, or the Soirées d'Été, in Gordes in Vaucluse, both in August.

Provence abounds with jazz festivals, often featuring leading international names lured by the southern sun: the Palais Longchamp in Marseille, Juan les Pins and Toulon are among the most notable.

Rock and pop fans are well-served too, with events such as the Festival Yeah! in Lourmarin in early July. But don't expect big clubbing parties on the scale of Ibzia.

Summer is a good time for art too in Provence. Major museums, such as the Musée Granet in Aix, the Collection Lambert in Avignon or the new Fondation Vincent van Gogh in Arles, tend to hold their blockbuster shows at this time of year.

For modern art, check out the newcomer on the block, the a-part Festival of Contemporary Art, which places cutting edge installations in some of the most beautiful villages and landscape of the Alpilles throughout July and August.

 

 

OTHER FESTIVALS

It's not just about the arts! Provence folklore is vibrant in summer, with a glorious array of colourful traditions. One of the first of the season is the Fête de la Transhumance in Saint Rémy de Provence, pictured. It's held each year on Whit Monday (Pentecôte) in late May or early June, when thousands of sheep swirl through the centre of town

transhumanceIn mid June, the Fête de la Saint Jean originated as a pagan celebration of the summer solstice but now marks the feast of Saint John the Baptist.

Around this time, all across Provence you'll find folk dancing, drinks parties, a ceremonial bonfire, the blessing of animals by the village priest, craft fairs, a provençal mass and more.

Another saint is in the spotlight at the end of June: Saint Peter, the patron of fishermen. On the coast, in towns such as Cassis or Sanary sur Mer, he is honoured during La Fête de la Saint Pierre, which usually also involves regattas, water jousting - and very likely some more of those open-air fish feasts.

L'Isle sur la Sorge has a flotilla of traditional events based on its river in July and August, including a water carnival and a floating market at which costumed vendors revive the ancient practice of selling market produce from their boats.

As you move west through Provence, the culture becomes increasingly influenced by Spain, and you will find bull-themed festivities throughout the summer in this part of the region.

These include traditional, Spanish-style corridas at which the bull is killed, but there is also a more benign local game called the course camarguaise where the bull is the star (and often comes back to fight another day).

arelateThe town of Istres, west of Marseille, holds its Feria in mid-June, while Saint Rémy has a series of big events - a procession, the Carreto Ramado, a corrida and a dramatic running of white Camargue horses through the streets - in mid-August.

The Camargue itself has a continuous wave of bull and horse themed celebrations.

Most towns and villages also hold their own local festival in summer. While these are rarely worth making a special detour for, they can be very good fun if you're on the spot.

Finally, one oddball festival, pictured, that's ideal for children: at the end of August Arelate, named after the Roman name for Arles, explores that city's ancient past with gladiators, games and lots of other activities.

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