Provence’s countryside & various landforms
France’s most diversified region
Provence boasts more than 10,000 km (6,000 mi) of marked trails, on a territory whose diversity is exceptional : more than 400 km of coastline, every topographic level from the sea to snow-capped mountains, including several peaks above 3,000 meters.
Provence covers a large area, occupying the southeasternmost corner of France. Even in its non-Alpine portion, which represents more than a half of the total surface, its terrain is mainly rugged and often steep and rocky. Apart from the extreme southwestern area, where the Rhone river winds its way to the Mediterranean Sea, plains, such as the Durance river valley, are rare and not very large, especially in their upper portions. They are often penetrated and flanked by steep hills and mountains which can rise abruptly : the most obvious example is probably Mont Sainte Victoire, so dear to Paul Cézanne, that stands up 800 meters above the Arc valley, 9 km to the east of Aix-en-Provence. Vineyard-lined slopes and olive groves are crowned with crests rising several hundred feet above. Plateaus also are a significant element of non-Alpine Provence’s land relief.
Another spectacular trait of Provence’s landscapes is the presence of countless canyons, among which Europe’s greatest one, carved out by an Alpine river : the Verdon Gorge. The region boasts several beautiful lakes, as well, such as Serre-Ponçon and Sainte Croix.
An average of some 7 ½ hrs of sunshine a day
Its varied and beautiful landscapes are emphasized by the intense light giving birth to bright colors and contrasts. This special light is due to the Mediterranean climate that dominates, except in the Alpine area where the mountain climate becomes predominant as the height above sea level increases.
A great number of these days when the vast open sky is deep blue is due to the mistral wind, which is an essential element of the Provençal climate. First parallel to the Rhône river valley, where it is quite frequent, this dry north wind then blows eastward along the Mediterranean. It can be strong and cold, and may persist for several days.
An extraordinary diversity of plants and trees
Provence boasts some four-fifths of French flora on less than one fifth of the country’s surface. In order to adapt dryness, most of plants and trees have small and persistent leaves, often glossy on top to reflect the solar radiation and reduce heating, and hairy underneath to keep moisture. They bloom early, sometimes in winter, mainly in the spring. Few blossom in summer which is a season when vegetals are at rest because of an intense heat and long draughts, lasting sometimes more than three months.
A vegetation closely dependent on the climatic conditions and on the elevation
At low altitude, if the original forest is the evergreen (or holm) oak, forests are today dominated by pine trees. But a great part of hills are covered by shrubland caracterized by small, evergreen and mainly prickly trees. The areas lying higher can be covered by different types of vegetation : first of all, the downy oak forest where oaks are at times associated with several species of maple or rowan ; then, the scotch pine or black pine forest. From about 1,000 meters above sea level, as the mountain climate dominates, the Mediterranean species become less present : the beech tree forest is the most common, associated with conifers such as fir, larch and mountain pine.
On cultivated lands, olive trees are the most widespread trees. But some areas, especially in the wide valleys of the Rhône and Durance rivers, have been substancially planted with fruit trees (apple, peach, apricot, cherry, plum, fig, etc) since the 1970s thanks to the expansion of irrigation. The major agriculture activity in Provence remain wine growing, which provides, as well as cereals cultivation and sheep/goat breeding, open landscapes.