The architecture of Provence is hugely varied and spans many centuries. Here’s a brief introduction to the different sorts of buildings you can find, from Roman remains to 20th century Brutalist architecture.
Perhaps one of the most famous aqueducts in the world, Pont du Gard, just outside Avignon, is a firm favourite with everyone who visits. It was built in the first century to carry water between Uzès and Nimes. It’s a great place to go wild swimming or kayaking and is seen as a major engineering triumph of the time.
Provence was often attacked by invading armies and much of the architecture in the region was designed to withstand a good battle. Often churches have towers and fortress-type structures, whilst many villages were built on the side of hills, with a good view of the surrounding countryside. The villages of Les Baux-de-Provence, Gordes and Roussillon are beautiful examples.
12th Century – Medieval – Pont Saint-Bénézet, Avignon
It’s the famous bridge that doesn’t go anywhere and stops halfway across the River Rhône. Between 1177 and 1185, a wooden bridge was allegedly built to cross the river after a shepherd boy heard a call from God. It was destroyed when Avignon was invaded and later rebuilt in stone, but it was so expensive that building work was eventually abandoned. It features in the song Sur le pont d’Avignon, which means “on the bridge”, but apparently the dancing took place underneath.
In the 12th century, a group of Monks broke away from the Benedictine order and founded the Cistercian order. They were more devout – building monasteries near rivers and in remote valleys, so they wouldn’t be distracted from prayer. The Sénanque Abbey is one amazing example. People flock here to see the abbey every summer, because the lavender is so beautiful. A small group of monks still live here.
The transfer from Roman architecture to Gothic architecture is best seen with the Popes’ Palace in Avignon. It was built over the entire 14th century by various different popes who had left Rome and set up home in Avignon because of in-fighting. They returned to Italy at the beginning of the 15th century but not before leaving behind a giant monument to Catholicism in the centre of town. It is the largest Gothic building in Europe.
During the 17th century, many towns began to build big civic buildings on a grand scale. The Town Hall (or “mairie”) in Arles is a good example. It was a time when the middle classes were increasing in power and confidence and wanted to show that they could compete with the religious buildings that had been built before. It was also the time when royal power was established and it was no longer necessary to build things that had to defend against attack.
Bories are small stone huts, built in the 18th and 19th centuries near the town of Gordes in Provence. People decided to build stone huts from local limestone in the fields after they were pushed out of the towns by a royal edict. They were made national monuments and became protected in the 1970s.
The “mas” is a traditional farmhouse found throughout Provence. It’s a poor version of the “bastide” which is more often grander in nature, built for wealthier families. The “mas” residents were often self-sufficient, growing everything they needed. The houses are typically found with blue shutters and facing south to avoid the heavy Mistral wind that blows down from the Alps.
20th Century – La Belle Époque – Hotel Carlton, Cannes
The Hotel Carlton in Cannes is a prime example of beautiful architecture built in “La Belle Époque”, a period of time between the 1870s (and the Franco Prussian war) and World War One in 1914. It was a defining time for France, when anything was believed to be possible and her confidence grew; the buildings symbolised this and became grander and more ornate. The Carlton was finished in 1911 and has been a magnet for high society ever since (Hitchcock filmed To Catch A Thief here in the 1950s). Its two domes are said to be modelled on the breasts of a famous local courtesan of the time.
Marseille is home to one of the biggest architectural shake-ups after World War Two. To house lots of people at speed and at minimum cost after the war had finished, Corbusier was commissioned to create a space that could meet the needs of everyone. He designed the Cité Radieuse – a self-contained complex offering schools, doctors, shops and leisure facilities, overlooking the sea. It was the first time that housing had been made out of concrete – for cost reasons – but the overall look left a defining impression on architecture around the world.