Provence and the Cote d'Azur

One of the main reasons behind France's popularity as a country to explore is the sheer diversity of the kind of holiday that can be had: summer beach destinations, walking expeditions, skiing trips, and château hotels are all features, and the region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur has all of these covered.

Alpes-de-Haute-Provence is in the central-north of Provence itself. Among the more spectacular sights of this departement are the Gorges du Verdon, carving their way through the centre of the region. Within this setting, many lively activities are available; rockclimbing, paragliding and horseriding are popular pursuits. The Verdon Regional Natural Park, National Park of Mercantour and Luberon Regional Natural Park are all partly sited in this area. The town of Sisteron is best known for its citadel, a part of which was dedicated to Napoleon who came through here after his exile in Elba. The little village Annot is unusual in that it features houses built next to odd-shaped sandstone rocks known as the 'Grés d'Annot'. Twelve towns which are classified as 'villages of character', owing to their architecture and setting, are Annot, Castellane, Colmars-les-Alpes, Cruis, Dauphin, Entrevaux, Lurs, Mane, Riez, Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, Seyne-les-Alpes and Simiane-la-Rotonde.

The north-east of Provence is the Haute-Alpes department, with its stunning, often snow-laden scenery. The skiing area of Serre Chevalier, not far from Briancon, offers good winter sport opportunities, but resorts of various sizes elsewhere in the region are plentiful. Some of the Ecrins National Park slots into the west of the department, and to the east in the Regional Parc de Queyras, there is the rocky Col d'Izoard, to Briancon's south-east. The 'L'Argentiere-la-Bessee' silver mines (the French word 'argent' not only means 'money', but 'silver) were used from Roman times up until 1910. They have been re-opened for viewing as part of a museum tour.

Vaucluse, in north-west Provence, features a number of mountainous parts, as well as the city of Avignon. Provence Mountain, near to the Dentelles de Montmirail range, is a breathtaking rocky sight for hikers. Drome-Provence is notable for its mile upon mile of purple lavender-laden landscapes. Avignon is a mediaeval city still surrounded by its fortified walls and now characterised by a profusion of museums. The Palace of the Popes is one of the most exceptional (and exceptionally large) gothic buildings to be found anywhere in Europe with a 52 metre-long chapel and various gothic towers and splendours. Museums include the Musée Requien, dedicated to palaeontology and fossils, the Lapidaire Museum with its ancient Etruscan, Roman and Greek artefacts, and the Musée du Petit Palais, located in a 15th century building and concerning itself with art works related to the very palace.

Bouches-du-Rhône in the west includes France's second largest city, Marseilles. The Camargue is a Natural Park in the south-west, flat, and famous for its vast marshlands and abundant wildlife, which includes the distinctive Camargue horses, wild boar, flamingos and tree frogs, and many species of birds. Elsewhere in this departement, the charming cliffs of Cassis neatly frame the coast of this port town. Aix-en-Provence is not far from Marseilles, and boasts a 600 year-old university. Marseilles itself is a very old city, and has long been an important port. The basilica at Notre Dame de la Garde features a statue of the Virgin Mary on its 60-foot belfry, and some excellent panoramic views. Several markets are worth exploring; a fish market is to be expected, but there are also some ethnic markets with African food a highlight. Marseilles is where the bouillabaisse sauce originated, and a meal in one of the restaurants near the market is to be recommended for this. The crypts of the 11th - 12th century Abbey of Saint Victor can be explored, and the Vieille Charité building has some good galleries, and also houses the Museum of Mediterranean Archaeology . The Museum of Fine Arts is well-renowned, and the Museum of the Roman Docks includes a meticulously-preserved Roman warehouse, which was discovered during the clean-up operation after the ravages of World War II.

Moving eastwards and to central-southern Provence, Var is home to the famous Saint-Tropez, but there is plenty more coastline to be seen, and some nice villages inland. Although Saint-Tropez has long been an 'à la mode' resort, it began as a tranquil fishing village, and the simplicity in style of the almost quaint houses remains to this day. Perhaps this is why it is still a popular destination, as it has not quite all been spoiled by characterless resort hotels. Bandol, with its wines, Sanary-sur-Mer, Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer and mediaeval Port Grimaud ought not to be entirely ignored.

The most south-eastern departement of France is Alpes-Maritimes, widely known for Nice, Cannes and Antibes. As is often the case though, a popular part of a country can feature many less-heralded areas, which are by no means less worthy of inclusion in a description of what there is to see and where there is to stay. Here, these include the Mercantour National Park, with some dazzling uninhabited scenery, ideal for gentle treks in the lowlands, and more strenuous walking higher up. In the Vallée des Merveilles, there are a multitude of 3 millennia-old rock carvings. Elsewhere in this department, thyme and lavender grows, and there are many paths set out for walks. The village of Grasse produces around two-thirds of France's natural aromas for food flavouring and perfumes; it is considered by many the 'perfume capital of the world'. Jasmine was introduced to the country by the Moors in the 16th century, and at the start of August there is a 'Fête du Jasmin' in Grasse. The department also has various limestone caves. Cannes is most known for its huge film festival, which 'makes or breaks' many a movie. There are many designer shops along the main boulevard, but nearby there are also shops with more affordable gear. Antibes is sometimes known as Antibes-Juan-les-Pins, as they are two places which are adjacent to one another. Thus, Juan-les-Pins relates to the beaches, and Antibes refers more to its city area. The narrow streets here are bounded by the old ramparts. The Exflora Park and Eilenroc Villa gardens have some lovely plants. Picasso lived for a period in the area, and the Grimaldi Castle contains a Picasso museum, with around 50 of his works. Nice, familiar to many for its soft blue skies (don't forget that Alpes-Maritimes offers around 300 days of sun each year), has several kilometres of promenade-lined sea front, and many bars and restaurants.