My first trip to Provence and the Côte d’Azur was in late January. I was not sure what the weather would be and I was surprised to find that winter in the south of France is beautiful. My stay was especially enjoyable because the weather was mild and the crowds that overwhelm this popular landscape in summer were completely gone. The Luberon hill towns and Fontaine de Vaucluse, teeming with visitors in the summer, were now quiet. Massive parking areas for the castle at Les Baux de Provence and the Roman ruins near Arles were virtually empty. I stood alone on the Pont du Gard and watched the sunset. This is an area that engulfs all the senses and while the colors, aromas and flavors of Provence during the winter are different than summer, they are no less intense.
France is a land of color and the color of the January landscape in Provence is a rich, intense yellow. Citrus trees loaded with vibrant ripe lemons and mimosa trees with flamboyant cascades of yellow flowers dominate the land. While lavender is the iconic hue associated with this region, the buttery hues of January and February are just as brilliant. The yellow is especially vivid when set against the blue skies that can be clear and intense in the crisp air of a winter morning.
The sweet scent of mimosa blossoms and the soft fruitiness of citrus infuse the air with fragrance. Ripe juniper berries add a bit of spiciness as a complement to the mimosas and citrus. The lavender is still around but not in the open air. It has been harvested and is being sold practically everywhere.
The flavors are intense and earthy. Winter is the season of the truffle with its delicate musky flavor. The wild game of the fall is a still a mainstay of many menus during the winter. The surprisingly subtle flavor of sanglier (wild boar) is my favorite winter dish.
January is a great month for shopping in France. On my January visit, I noticed store windows everywhere blasting the word “soldes” across their windows. I asked a storekeeper what it was all about and she explained to me that in France stores are only allowed to advertise major sales for a few weeks in January and a few weeks in July. So January is clearance sale time. I was able to pick up some classic Provence souvenirs at great prices.
While the weather is generally mild, it can sometimes be unpredictable. Come prepared. Snow crowns the highest hills and, while it is rare in the lowlands, an occasional snowfall can occur. The infamous mistral winds can arise without warning but they can also die down as quickly as they arose.
My favorite home base for a stay in this region is Aix en Provence. It is an energetic college town with good accommodations and fine restaurants. Aix en Provence is famous for its many fountains and Cours Mirabeau, the grand boulevard that runs through the center of the town.
I favor bed and breakfast inns or small hotels and one of the best in this area is Pavillion La Torse.
Pavilion de la Torse
69 cours Gambetta, 13100,
Aix en Provence, France
Major international airports at Nice and Marseilles make it easy to get to this region. A car is necessary to fully experience the area and most major car rental have offices in both airports. Make sure you have a good map of the region since roads crisscross this area and route signage is not always obvious.