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How to plan an art-lovers road trip through Provence

Take a road trip through southern France’s beautiful towns and discover the light, colours and lifestyle that inspired some of the world’s greatest artists.

The likes of Picasso, Renoir and Cezanne all produced a rich, influential body of work during their time in southeast France.

Photograph by Getty Images
By Sarah Lavigne
Published 15 Jun 2022, 06:11 BST

Sunny southeast France has been the home of several illustrious artists who revelled in its light and landscapes. There are various reasons why the likes of Picasso, Renoir and Cezanne loved this corner of the country, be it for the quiet pace of life or warm climes, but they all produced a rich, influential body of work during their time here. The enduring scenes — intense Mediterranean blues, terracotta roofs, green pines, cypresses and olive groves — were immortalised by these artists, whose works hang in museums across France and around the world today.

This artistic heritage can be explored on a 200-mile road trip under the Provençal sun, stopping in the towns and villages where these maestros lived. From Arles, on the western edge of the region, weave your way through to the glittering French Riviera, hopping just across the Provence border to finish in Nice. But don’t rush; take one or two days to explore every stop, delving into centuries of history, rummaging through markets and sipping pastis on sun-dappled terraces, just as the artists might have done themselves.

1. Arles

Begin in Arles, where Van Gogh spent a prolific 15 months between 1888 and 1889, painting some of his best-known masterpieces, including Sunflowers. Retrace his footsteps through the pretty, sunny backstreets and past the Roman amphitheatre to discover the locations that inspired his work: Le Café de Van Gogh on Place du Forum; the starry night-time riverbank; and Place Lamartine, the site of the yellow house in his painting of the same name, which was sadly destroyed by bombing in the Second World War. Finish with a stroll around the flowery Espace Van Gogh, the former hospital that admitted him when he infamously severed his ear in 1888. 

2. Aix-en-Provence

Next, head to historic Aix-en-Provence, where the ochre townhouses and baroque facades would have been familiar to post-Impressionist Paul Cézanne, born in the city in 1839. Seek out the nearby Bibémus quarry, one of his favourite beauty spots, before heading to the Atelier de Cezanne, the light-filled workshop where he crafted some of his most famous works, including The Bathers. Don’t forget to visit Musée Granet, home to 10 Cezanne paintings, including an early still life and a portrait of his contemporary, writer Émile Zola — a recent addition to the museum’s collection.

3. Marseille (l’Estaque)

In the early 20th century, cubism pioneer Georges Braque travelled to l’Estaque, a village-like neighbourhood in west Marseille with a fishing and industrial past. From the harbour, which Braque depicted in characteristically intense fauvist hues, follow the signposted ‘Chemin des Peintres’ art trail through sun-soaked residential backstreets. Along the way, you’ll spot the views that inspired Braque’s work, such as the arcs of the towering viaduct and the geometric patchwork of tiled roofs, whose shapes are believed to have given the cubist movement its name. 

Van Gogh spent 15 months in Arles, between 1888 and 1889, painting some of his best-known masterpieces.

Photograph by Getty Images

4. Vallauris

Head east to Vallauris, a small town perched on a hill, known for its oranges and enduring tradition of ceramics. Pablo Picasso lived here between 1948 and 1955 and became involved in local life, creating pieces in partnership with the local Madoura studio and participating in yearly exhibitions. Traces of his contributions are everywhere in Vallauris, so follow a trail of the master’s work, encompassing the bronze statue L’Homme au Mouton; the Picasso National Museum; a romanesque chapel adorned with the masterpiece La Guerre et la Paix; and the former premises of the artist’s hairdresser, Eugenio Arias, now the Salle d’Exposition Arias-Picasso, an exhibition space for local ceramicists.

5. Cagnes-sur-Mer

Just 10 miles from Vallauris is the Domaine des Collettes in Cagnes-sur-Mer, where Pierre-Auguste Renoir spent his final 12 winters, overlooking the ancient olive, orange and linden trees of the vast garden. Inside the villa, now repurposed as a museum, walls are adorned with photos of the artist in his later years, surrounded by family and friends. Despite advanced rheumatoid arthritis, he continued to paint nudes, landscapes and family portraits, some of which still hang on the walls. Perhaps less expected are the sculptures, many of which Renoir, weakened by illness, co-created with sculptor Richard Guino.

6. Nice

Hop over the border of Provence to Nice to pay homage to Henri Matisse, who moved here in 1917 to recuperate from bronchitis. Standing between a centuries-old olive grove and the Cemenelum archaeological site, the Musée Matisse has one of the world’s largest collections of the artist’s work, including paintings, photographs and decorative objects from his personal collection that hint at his various inspirations and creative processes. Afterwards, head to the Colline du Chateau (Castle Hill) and enjoy the beautiful views of the harbour where the artist used to row.

Top tip

Recharge along the way with traditional, regional sweet treats: almondy calissons from Aix-en-Provence; chichi frégis fritters from l’Estaque; Nice’s moreish tourte de blettes (chard tart) or the bitter orange jam from Vallauris.

Published in the Jul/Aug 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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