Everything you need to know about sunny Provence

With its lavender fields, Herbes de Provence, famous Mediterranean beaches, and (generally) sunny weather, Provence is one of the best-known and most iconic regions of mainland France.

But if you are like most people, you probably don’t know much more about the history, culture and food of this beautiful region of France.

Today, let’s discover Provence together!

Where is Provence?

Provence is a cultural and historical region in the southeastern corner of mainland France. It’s usually defined today as the area within the borders of the southern bank of the Rhone River, the French-Italian border, and the Mediterranean Sea.

The region is a part of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region of France (sometimes abbreviated PACA).

A field of lavender at sunset.

What is the population of Provence?

According to the most recent data available, a little over 5 million people live in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region.  

What language do people speak in Provence?

People in Provence speak French, often with a distinctive accent (more on that in the next section).

There are also several regional languages and dialects that have been a part of the area for centuries. These are usually grouped under the Occitan language, a Romance language that arose around 800-900 AD. Provençal is a major dialect of Occitan.

Probably the most famous Occitan word is òc, which means “yes.” Since Occitan had many more speakers at the time, this was the way the word “yes” was said by French people living south of the Loire River in the Middle Ages. That’s where the term langue d’oc (“oc” language) comes from. Its opposing term, langue d’oïl, refers to how the French people living north of the Loire River in the middle ages pronounced the word “yes.” The langue d’oïl ultimately became the dominant dialect of the French, which is why “yes” in standard modern French is pronounced oui (an evolution of the term oïl).

Although Occitan is still spoken in other areas of Europe, including Monaco, Spain, and Italy, it’s become fairly rare in France. That said, about 600,000 French people claimed to be fluent in an Occitan dialect (as well as in French) in 1999.

You can hear a modern-day speaker of Provençal reading from a newspaper in that language in the video below. As you might notice as you listen, Occitan dialects are closely related to fellow Romance languages like Spanish, Italian, and Catalan.

YouTube video

If you go to Provence today, you’re unlikely to be in a situation where someone only speaks an Occitan dialect, or even speaks one at all. So don’t worry if you don’t know any Occitan words. In fact, using these might just make for confusion.

That said, if you’re a fellow linguistically curious person, there are lots of videos on YouTube and a number of webpages that can help you learn at least a few words in Provençal and other Occitan dialects.

How is the French spoken in Provence different from standard French?

The most notable difference between standard French and the French spoken in Provence is the accent.

Probably the most distinct thing about an accent from Provence (also generally grouped with other French accents from the south, because they usually sound similar) is an increased nasality on “n” sounds, even at some times leading to adding a “g” sound to them.

Another thing that sets many southern French people apart when they speak is that they’re known for being more animated and expressive than French speakers from other regions. This is probably due to their close linguistic and cultural ties with nearby Italy.

You can hear Patrick Bosso, a famous comedian from Marseille, talk about his accent(and try to do a standard French accent) in this clip.

YouTube video

It’s also a good idea to listen to the video of the person reading Provençal that I shared in the previous section, since it shows a way of pronouncing “n” sounds that might explain the origin of the modern-day French southern accent.

Like all accents, the French southern accent comes with its shares of stereotypes — notably, the idea of being overly emotional and expressive. But there are also far more negative stereotypes, as well. As this article points out, people from the south are sometimes stereotyped as lazy, liars, racists, and downright criminals.

Stereotypes are just that – stereotypes. It’s important to be aware of them if you want to understand a culture, but it’s far better to get to know the group being stereotyped than to just believe what you hear. Later on in this article, I’ll give you some ways to get to know the culture of Provence better.

What is the capital of Provence?

View of Marseille, with the church of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde high above it on a hill. The cityscape is dense with pretty features but we can also see a few ugly modern buildings and some grafitti.
A view of Marseille, with the famous Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde basilica watching over the city on top of a limestone hill.

Marseille is the capital and the largest city in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region. Of course, as a part of mainland France, the national capital of Provence is Paris, the capital of France.

Key dates in Provence’s history

Provence has a long and rich history. Even its name is thousands of years old – it comes from the moniker “Provincia romana” (Roman Provence), its name when it was a province of the Roman Empire.

Here are some major dates and events in Provence’s history:

ca. 1 million years ago – First known signs of the area being inhabited.

ca. 27,000 – 19,000 BC – Inhabitants make cave drawings in la Grotte Cosquer (Cosquer Cave), near Marseille.

600 BC – The city of Marseille is founded by Greek settlers. Originally known as Massilia, it will soon become a major ancient trading post.

122 BC – The Romans, who often were asked to help the inhabitants of Massilia and surrounding regions to put down attacks by a local tribe, the Ligurians, decided to establish their own cities and towns in the Provence region. They would also eventually take over the Greek ones.

5th -7th centuries AD – With the fall of Rome at the end of the 4th century, the Empire’s power and influence ceased in Provence. Over the next century, Provence would be invaded by the Visigoths, the Ostrogoths, the Burgundians, and the Franks. Invasions by Arab and Berber tribes occurred in the 7th century. Although these were violent times, each of these groups left their marks on the culture and, in some cases, language, of France.

Also 5th century AD – the Baptistery of Fréjus Cathedral is constructed. Still standing and used today, it’s the oldest existing Christian structure in Provence, and one of the oldest in France.

1309-1423 AD – The Pope, and then Antipopes (after the Schism in the Catholic Church) rule from Avignon.

Mid-14th century – The Black Plague kills a massive part of the population.

1486 – Provence goes from independent region to part of the kingdom of France

1792 – Troops from Marseille popularize a fiery patriotic song (written by an Alsatian), which becomes known as “La Marseillaise”. It’s quickly adopted as an anthem of the French Revolutionary period and, in 1879,is officially made the national anthem of France.

Mid-19th century: Several locations in Provence are connected with Paris by railroad and become top vacation destinations. National and international artists also begin to come in greater numbers to Provence and are inspired by its vivid, sunny landscapes.

1939 – The Cannes Film Festival is founded.

World War II – Provence is initially in Unoccupied France, until 1942. Under the Occupation, many locals were part of the Resistance and even did things like sabotaging their own ships so that the Nazis couldn’t make use of them. Despite their brave efforts, thousands of Jews, political prisoners, and others were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Provence was finally liberated in late August, 1944.

1947 – Le Festival d’Avignon, France’s most celebrated theater festival, is founded.

What is Provence like today?

A young man in a t-shirt and shorts holds a metal pétanque ball and prepares to throw it into the scattered piles of balls already on the sandy playing ground a few feet away.
A man plays pétanque, the region’s iconic pastime, on an unusually overcast day.

Provence is a popular tourist destination, and no wonder; no matter how much time goes by, its striking sunlight and the warmth of its people persist.

Landscapes vary from mountains to gorges to the world-famous beaches of the Cote d’Azur, and you’ll find lots of villages, art, and food to discover along the way, not to mention at least a few actual fields of lavender and sunflowers, and groups of people playing the region’s iconic pastime, pétanque (boules), in parks and squares.

Among other things, Provence today is known for several foods and dishes, including Herbes de Provence, olive oil, ratatouille, bouillabaisse, and the tarte tropézienne, an indulgent, cream-filled cake. You can visit Provence’s Wikipedia page for a list of these and many other notable comestibles, as well as the region’s wines.

As delightful as it is, like any place, Provence does have its downsides. Crime is on the rise (often in the form of burglaries, since the region attracts lots of wealthy visitors, expats, and natives alike).

Marseille and its surrounding area have the fourth-highest crime rate in France (including crimes far worse than burglary). Although that’s not the top of the list, unlike Paris, which has that “honor”, you’ll often hear Marseille spoken about as a dangerous city.

Still, that shouldn’t deter anyone who wants to visit Provence. Its amazing food, landscapes, history, and light are well worth a trip (or even an extended stay), and its influence and contribution to the world of art, culture, and cuisine, are a spot of sunshine.

How can I learn more about Provence?

A view of Verdon Gorge. Two white rock mountains with green scrub come together at an angle. In the middle is a bright blue river, with people languidly floating on rafts or in kyaks. There are other mountainous forms in the distance and the sky is blue and without a cloud.
A view of les gorges du Verdon (Verdon Gorge), a famous natural landmark of the PACA region.

You can learn more about Provence by doing online research. Reading Provence’s Wikipedia page or information on Wikitravel are good places to start for a general overview. This website also offers a brief but good overview of Provence.

You can also get to know Provence through its art and literature. 

Artists have been working in and inspired by this region since prehistoric times. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Provence’s allure took on a more global role, attracting some of the most famous painters and writers of the time (not to mention keeping local artists inspired), including Cezanne, Van Gogh, Renoir, Matisse, and Picasso.

The region had an important role in another form of visual art. Some of the first films, including the infamous L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (“The Arrival of a Train into La Ciotat Station”), were shot here, and movies have been made in and about Provence ever since.

YouTube video

Part of the region’s appeal is its sunlight and the lovely colors of its landscapes (brought out by said sunlight), from green and brownish-red mountains, to the sparkling turquoise of the Mediterranean sea.

Many writers have also been inspired by Provence. Marcel Pagnol is the iconic author of the area, and many of his books, including La Gloire de mon père, a memoir about his childhood in the region, offer insight into life in Provence in the recent past.

If you can’t read French novels yet, Peter Mayle is an English expat resident of Provence whose charming books often provide a fish-out-of-water look at the local culture. A Year in Provence is his most famous book.

French TV shows are another way to learn more about Provence’s culture…or at least, certain aspects of them that are lesser-known internationally.

In fact, two of the most popular shows currently on French TV are tied to the Provence region.

Plus belle la vie is a long-running French soap opera set and filmed in Marseille, although it doesn’t offer a lot of authentic local color.

Les Marseillais and its various spin-offs is a reality TV show that follows a group of young, over-the-top people from the PACA region. Along with its sister series Les Ch’tis (about people from northern France) it’s essentially the French equivalent of Jersey Shore.

Just like Jersey Shore isn’t an accurate representation of what all people from New Jersey are like, watching Les Marseillais won’t give you insight into what most people from Provence are actually like. But the existence of both shows,the way they’re filmed, and what they focus on, do offer some insight into how these cultures/subcultures are perceived by the rest of their respective countries.

If you want a good general overview of Provence and you speak French, you can learn more about the region  (and how French people from other regions view it) in this episode of C pas sorcier, a famous French educational show.

YouTube video

And of course, you can look for documentaries and other resources online and at places like your local library.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this introduction to Provence. Have you been there or do you want to visit? Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments!

Must reads

  1. What are the best French learning apps in 2024?
  2. The 16 best websites and apps for French conversation practice
  3. Duolingo French review: The good, the bad and the ugly

Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg is an American writer, worrier, teacher, and cookie enthusiast who has lived in Paris, France, for more than a decade. She has taught English and French for more than ten years, most notably as an assistante de langue vivante for L'Education Nationale. She recently published her first novel, Hearts at Dawn, a "Beauty and the Beast" retelling that takes place during the 1870 Siege of Paris. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.