Provence is a geographical region and historical province of southeastern France. It extends from the left bank of the lower Rhône in the west to the Italian border to the east; it is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to the south. The largest city of the region and its modern-day capital is Marseille. The Romans made the region the first Roman province beyond the Alps and called it Provincia Romana, which evolved into the present name. Until 1481 it was ruled by the Counts of Provence from their capital in Aix-en-Provence, then became a province of the Kings of France. While it has been part of France for more than 500 years, it still retains a distinct cultural and linguistic identity.
La Cité des Papes
In 1309, Pope Clément V, who was originally from Bordeaux, moved the Papal Curia to Avignon, a period known as the Avignon Papacy. From 1309 until 1423, ten popes reigned in Avignon before the papacy finally returned to Rome. Between 1334 and 1363 the old and new Papal Palaces of Avignon were built by Popes Benedict XII and Clément VI respectively; the two buildings together are knowed as the Palais des Papes, the largest Gothic palace in Europe.
The Black Plague (1348–1350)
The 14th century was a terrible time in Provence, and across all of Europe. The Black Plague killed fifteen thousand people just in the city of Arles, half the population of the city, and greatly reduced the population of the whole region.
The French Revolution (1789-1799)
Most of Provence, with the exception of the cities of Marseille, Aix, and Avignon, was rural, conservative and largely royalist, but it produced some memorable figures in the French Revolution. There was Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, Comte de Mirabeau from Aix, who tried to moderate the Revolution and turn France into a constitutional monarchy like England; the Marquis de Sade, famous libertine writer and Deputy from the far left in the National Assembly; Charles Barbaroux, a politician who sent a battalion of volunteers to Paris to fight in the French Revolutionary Army; and Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, an abbe, essayist and political leader, who was one of the chief theorists of the French Revolution and instigator of the coup d'état which brought Napoléon to power.
A railroad was constructed that connected Paris with Marseille (1848) and then with Toulon and Nice (1864), which caused the region to grow as a tourist destination. Nice, Antibes and Hyères became popular winter resorts for European royalty, including Queen Victoria. Under Napoléon III, Marseille grew to a population of 250,000, including a very large Italian community. Toulon had a population of 80,000. The large cities like Marseille and Toulon saw the building of churches, opera houses, grand boulevards, and parks. The second half of the 19th century saw a revival of the Provençal language and culture, particularly traditional rural values which was driven by a movement of writers and poets called the Félibrige led by poet Frédéric Mistral.
Second World War
After the defeat of France by Germany in June 1940, France was divided into an occupied zone and unoccupied zone with Provence in the latter. The Germans began a systematic rounding-up of French Jews and refugees from Nice and Marseille. Many thousands were taken to concentration camps, and few survived. A large quarter around the port of Marseille was emptied of inhabitants and dynamited so it would not serve as a base for the resistance.
From the Reconstruction to Today
After the end of the war, Provence faced an enormous task of reconstruction, particularly with regards to ports and railroads which were destroyed during the war. As part of this effort, the first modern concrete apartment block, the Unité d'habitation of Corbusier, was built in Marseille from 1947–52. In 1962, Provence absorbed a large number of French citizens who left Algeria after its independence. Since that time, large North African communities settled in and around the big cities, particularly Marseille and Toulon. In the 1940s, Provence underwent a cultural renewal, with the founding of the Avignon Theater Festival (1947), the reopening of the Cannes Film Festival (begun in 1939), and many other major events. With the building of new highways, particularly the Paris-Marseille autoroute which opened in 1970, Provence became a destination for mass tourism from all over Europe. Many Europeans, particularly from Britain, bought summer houses in Provence. The arrival of the TGV high-speed trains shortened the trip from Paris to Marseille to less than four hours.
Historically, the language spoken in Provence was Provençal, a dialect of the Occitan language, also known as langue d'oc, and closely related to Catalan. Provençal was widely spoken in Provence until the beginning of the 20th century, when the French government launched an intensive and largely successful effort to replace regional languages with French. Today, Provençal is taught in schools and universities in the region, but is spoken regularly by a small number of people, probably less than 500,000, mostly elderly.
Provence is home to a lot of artists such as Alphonse Daudet, Marcel Pagnol, Colette and Paul Cézanne. The region was one of the meeting points of the French Impressionist Movement.
The cuisine of Provence is the result of the warm, dry Mediterranean climate. The basic ingredients are olives and olive oil, garlic, sardines, rockfish, sea urchins, rouget, octopus, lamb, goat, chickpeas, and local fruit, such as grapes, peaches, apricots, strawberries, cherries, and the famous melons of Cavaillon.
Wine was probably introduced into Provence around 600 BC by the Greek Phoceans who founded Marseille and Nice. Today the region is known predominantly for its rosé wine. Rosé currently accounts for more than half of the production of Provençal wine, with red wine accounting for about a third of the region's production. White wine is also produced in small quantities throughout the region with the Appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) region of Cassis specializing in white wine production. The Côtes de Provence is the largest AOC followed by the Coteaux d'Aix-en-Provence. The Bandol region near Toulon is one of the more internationally recognized Provençal wine regions. To learn more about Provence wine and food, join us on Thursday, April 28!
Have you ever been to the Provence region? What’s your favorite spot?
Cultural Programs Manager / Office Manager
Clémence has a Master’s degree in Cultural Projects Management. She worked in Paris for several years for theater companies. She likes discovering new cultures, people and places, which is why she crossed the ocean to start a new experience in Boston. She is glad to be part of the French Library to promote French culture and language. In her free time, she enjoys cooking, hiking, kayaking and all forms of art!