Niolon in the snowProvence in winter is very different from the tourist clichés of lavender fields and rosé wine. Here are six excellent reasons to explore its undiscovered side in December, January and February.

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

It was once common for wealthy Brits to spend the winter in the South of France. The French Riviera was one of the first modern resorts, prized initially for its health-giving and restorative effects, then later for its VIP visitors.

Winter tourism began at the end of the 18th century and picked up speed with the arrival of the railway in the mid-19th century. Queen Victoria, Rudyard Kipling, Oscar Wilde and Robert Louis Stevenson were among the aristocrats and notables who over-wintered there.

But attention! We're talking about Nice and the Côte d'Azur, which are to the east of Provence proper. Here the weather is a different proposition altogether.

The climate is much more extreme in Western Provence than on the Riviera: hotter in summer and colder in winter, thanks to the Mistral, a fierce, cold, dry wind from the north or north-west which roars down the Rhône Valley towards the coast.

The Mistral can reach speeds of over 90 km / 56 miles an hour, can last for days and is guaranteed to make temperatures plummet. But it is usually accompanied by the kind of bright blue skies and glorious sunshine guaranteed to lift the spirits, despite the cold.

Provence vineyard in the snowWhen the wind isn't up, daytime winter temperatures in (for example) Marseille can edge up to 12 degrees Celsius / 53 degrees Fahrenheit - hardly swimming weather but pleasant enough to have lunch outdoors if you can find a sunny, sheltered spot.

It rarely snows in Southern Provence, though it's highly likely further north in the Luberon and Haute Provence.

The main thing to bear in mind is that the weather can change very suddenly. At the beginning of A Year in Provenceimage!, Peter Mayle - who was living at the time near Ménerbes in the Luberon - amusingly recalls planning his first swim of the year on a sunny New Year's Day, only to find his pipes frozen, then burst, within a few hours.

The further east you go, the less severe the Mistral. Toulon can be quite mild, while leafy Hyères was a popular winter playground for wealthy Victorians. La Ciotat, with the stunning, subtropical gardens of the Parc du Mugel, also enjoys a delicious year-round microclimate.

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CHRISTMAS IN PROVENCE

It's not just about 25 December, you know. The Christmas season in Provence - known locally as La Calendale - takes up most of the winter, starting with the Fête de la Sainte Barbe on 4 December and continuing until Candlemas on 2 February!

With its many festivities and ancient, mysterious and mystical Christmas traditions, Provence in midwinter reveals a hidden and magical side.

Click here to read more about the intricate cribs, nativity plays, shepherds' processions, elaborate meal rituals and other Christmas traditions in Provence.

The cities of Northern and Central Europe are more famous for their Christmas markets. But Provence has some great ones too.

Aix en Provence, pictured, is especially beguiling, with illuminations everywhere, gorgeous displays in all the local shop windows and a constant stream of markets throughout December and into early January from santons (terracotta Christmas crib figures) to sweetmeats.

christmas in aixMany towns and villages such as Saint Rémy de Provence and Cassis have their own Christmas markets and Arles has a fun street arts festival called Drôles de Noëls. Click here to read our guide to Christmas fairs and markets in Provence.

By contrast Provence is frankly not the most exciting of places to see in the New Year. Restaurants, especially in the larger cities, offer long, elaborate and very expensive menus, but many provençaux spend this night quietly at home with the family.

There aren't, generally, big street celebrations, though Marseille often (but not every year) has a fireworks show on the Old Port.

 

THE FESTIVALS

Apart from Christmas, Provence's winter festivals tend to revolve around wining and dining rather than the arts: see below for its truffle, olive oil, seafood and wine celebrations.

In mid-January Barjols, in the Var, celebrates the Fête des Tripettes. One of Provence's oddest festivals, this is a unique mix of entrails and religion! Dating back to the 14th century, the festival marks both the feast day of the village's patron saint, Marcel, and an ox which arrived there one day, putting end to a famine. Every four years (on a Leap Year) a bull is ritually sacrificed to ensure continuing prosperity. Whatever the year, there's a huge street party.

Cheval Passion horse festival in AvignonAvignon has two notable festivals. One of the largest equestrian shows in Europe, Cheval Passion is a must for horse lovers, with horse and pony rides, demonstrations, sales of riding tack, sporting events and a daily gala spectacle, the Crinières d'Or (Golden Manes), pictured. It takes place in mid-January.

At the end of February (or in some years the beginning of March), Les Hivernales, Avignon's crisp and lively dance festival, has become an eagerly-awaited late winter event.

And if you're looking for a romantic and unusual destination for Valentine's Day, try Roquemaure, which is just across the Rhône and upriver from Avignon (it's actually in Languedoc-Roussillon, not Provence, but only just).

Some of Saint Valentine's relics are said to be buried in Roquemaure, and that's the inspiration (or excuse) for this festival on the weekend closest to 14 February.

On those dates the whole town takes on a period look and everyone dresses up in ornate 19th century costumes to celebrate the course of true love with a procession, a banquet and dancing.

The Fête de la Saint Valentin is held every two years, on odd years. It has become the main Valentine's Day event in France and attracts thousands of visitors. On even years there's a smaller-scale event too. Click here to read more about the Saint Valentine's Day Festival in Roquemaure.

Don't come to Provence in search of Mardi Gras carnivals. There's a famous one in Nice on the Côte d'Azur, but most towns in Provence prefer to wait for the warmer weather and hold their carnivals not just before the beginning of Lent but near the end, as Easter approaches.

In fact, the further east you go, the livelier you'll find the South of France in the middle of winter. In the Var in eastern Provence, the mimosa trail, a route mapped out by the Var Tourist Office, takes you along the coast where, from January to March, these spectacular bright yellow trees are blooming. One of the towns on this route, Mandelieu - La Napoule, has a celebrated mimosa festival in mid February.

The hill-top village of Tourrettes sur Loup, near Grasse, has a violet festival in the second half of February, while things really get wild in Menton, near the Italian border, with the flamboyant carnival floats of its lemon festival.

THE FOOD AND WINE

Provence's usual street markets will continue through the winter months with seasonal produce. But the gastronomic star is undoubtedly the black truffle.

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

Various towns and villages all across Provence hold regular weekly truffle markets throughout the winter until the season ends in mid-March. Some tourist offices and private individuals organise truffle hunts too.

In Ménerbes, La Maison de la Truffe et du Vin serves truffle-infused lunches; the village's big truffle fair takes place on the last Sunday of December. And Richerenches has another big truffle-themed day on the third Sunday in January. Click here for our full guide to truffles in Provence.

Also happening around this time of year are the region's olive harvest and olive oil festivals and fairs, with tastings, music, wine, cookery demonstrations, local food (often an aïoli) and general revelry. Click here to read more about them.

brioche des roisChristmas ushers in its own gourmet treats. For a traditional meal, watch out for the Gros Souper and Treize Desserts (13 Desserts). If you're really lucky, you might be invited to one of these rituals by a local family but many villages hold such events which are open to the public.

Those with a sweet tooth will be in heaven: Provence's bakeries are fragrant with orange flower scented pompes à l'huile, navettes cookies and jewel-coloured brioches des rois (pictured), not to mention the classic, chocolate covered Christmas logs. Click here to read our guide to Christmas foods of Provence.

In the age of refrigeration, oysters and seafood are now available all year round, even during those months of the year without an ‘r'. But midwinter is the best time to eat oursins, the spiky, creamy sea urchins which are harvested along the Mediterranean coast.

This delicacy is under threat from over-fishing but it still inspires the amazing open-air seafood feasts held every week on the seafront in several villages between mid-January and early March.

saussetseaurchins2It's basically the pretext for a huge outdoor street party with everyone dining on shellfish at long, shared tables, pictured, plus craft markets, entertainment and more. Click here to read more about them.

When the festivities and all their rich food are past, it's time for comfort eating. Provence's hearty and healthy winter dishes make it worth braving the winter frosts (almost).

Try a daube, the rich beef casserole that's Provence's answer to beef bourguignon, a gardiane de taureau - an even chunkier stew based on Camargue black bull meat and red-purple Costières de Nîmes local wine - or the strangely named alouettes sans têtes. Click here to read more about them and other unusual dishes of Provence.

Many of Provence's wine festivals are held in autumn to mark either the grape harvest in early September or the first of the new year's vintage in November. But Bandol keeps the party going just a little bit longer with the last major wine festival of the year, the Fête du Millésime, on the first weekend of December. Expect plenty of tastings and street entertainment around a theme that changes yearly.

THE WINTER SPORTS

Provence boasts a good range of winter sports resorts in Les Alpes du Sud (Southern Alps) which includes the départements of Alpes de Haute Provence, Alpes Maritimes and Hautes Alpes, They offer all forms of skiing, snow shoeing, ice driving, snowboarding. Some also have cultural actvities.

Skiing in ProvenceThese resorts tend to be smaller, friendlier and more family-oriented than their high-powered, cosmopolitan and ultra-fashionable northern neighbours and many, such as Serre-Chevalier, have the atmosphere of a Mediterranean village rather than an Alpine one.

They have the Mediterranean climate too, with clear blue skies and sunshine almost guaranteed. And they're easy to get to: click here for how to get to these resorts by snow bus or train from Marseille or Aix en Provence.

THE SIGHTS AND ATTRACTIONS

Many visitors worry that provençal villages shut down completely between November and Easter, and this is certainly true up to a point. In some places you will be hard pushed to find a restaurant or place to stay. Note, too, that many tourist attractions also close down during this same period.

But other spots remain busy and certainly winter is the time to come to Provence if you want to avoid the crowds. Les Baux de Provence - one of the region's most spoiled and overrun villages in summer - has activities and arts events thoughout the winter, and is particularly lovely at Christmas.

The nearby Quarries of Lights remain open till early January, after which the site closes for two months to prepare the new show for the coming year.

Thanks mainly to its Château, which remains open throughout the year and has a very busy cultural programme, Lourmarin is one of the liveliest spots in the Luberon, with plenty of bars and restaurants operating in the low season. And towns such as Carry le Rouet, Martigues, Cassis, Saint Rémy de Provence, Aubagne and La Ciotat will be very much open for business.

 

The open-air attractions remain: we've visited the calanques and the Pont du Gard on New Year's Day in previous years and had them to ourselves. No worries about parking!

You can tour the Camargue without constantly running into camper vans, for a change. And, as this region is on the migratory route and as many birds spend the winter there, it's a great time for bird-spotting.

The famous pink flamingos will still be there - and their plumage is at its most vibrant in winter when they prepare for their mating rituals. Click here to read our guide to bird watching in the Camargue.

The Gorges du Verdon aren't going anywhere either, though the hairiest and most spectacular part of the route, the detour along the vertiginous route des Crêtes, is closed in winter, and towns and villages in the area will be very quiet. Or try the more accessible Gorges de la Nesque, near Mont Ventoux, where the truffle season will be in full swing.

You can go along the ochre trail in Roussillon until the end of December, after which it closes until mid-February; the colours are intense in the winter light.

Chateau La Coste winery in winterThe Abbaye de Silvacane is open all year round, except for some public holidays. Its sister-abbey, the iconic Abbaye de Sénanque, closes briefly in the first half of January but after that is back to welcome visitors. The nearby Village des Bories is open in winter too.

Another super destination, pictured, is the Château La Coste winery and art trail near Aix en Provence, which has concerts and wine tastings, while its sculpture park can be visited throughout the year.

In Aix itself, the key Paul Cézanne sites can all be visited in winter, albeit with reduced opening hours. And, though the major mainstream blockbuster art shows tend to take place in summer in Provence, the museums in the main cities will all be busy.

THE WINTER SALES

Sales logoThis may not be most people's reason for visiting Provence in winter, but it's still good to know: the dates of sales (les soldes) in France are strictly regulated by the government.

They take place twice a year and the winter ones (les soldes d'hiver) start at 8.00am on the second Wednesday in January and last for exactly six weeks.

This said, many stores get around the law by organising what they call "private sales" which usually start earlier, and Black Friday sales (on the day after the US Thanksgiving holiday) are now popping up too here in late November.

Marseille in particular has hugely expanded its shopping districts over the last year and is a destination well worth bearing in mind for anyone in need of a little post-Christmas retail therapy. Click here for our guides to shopping in Marseille and in Aix en Provence.

 

 

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