Travels in Geology: A taste of Provence

Provence, a region in southern France, is picturesquely nestled between the soaring Alps, the shining Mediterranean Sea, and the historic Rhône River. Credit: top: ©Shutterstock.com/Gordon Bell; bottom: Kathleen Cantner, AGI; globe: AGI/NASA Provence, a region in southern France, is picturesquely nestled between the soaring Alps, the shining Mediterranean Sea, and the historic Rhône River. Credit: top: ©Shutterstock.com/Gordon Bell; bottom: Kathleen Cantner, AGI; globe: AGI/NASA

By Terri Cook

Nestled among the soaring Alps, the shining Mediterranean Sea, and the historic Rhône River, Provence, France — one of the world’s foremost tourist destinations — offers visitors scenic, gourmet, and geologic delights. The region’s rugged mountains, extensive plateaus and vineyard-lined slopes result from the Alpine orogeny, the mountain-building episode that uplifted the Pyrenees and the Alps in southwestern and southeastern France. The land in between was more modestly deformed, then gradually eroded over millions of years, to create the chefs-d’oeuvre — the masterpiece — that we now call Provence.

Like the dappled Provençal canvasses painted by Vincent van Gogh, the region itself is a swirling mosaic of sights, scents, sounds and tastes. Visitors can stroll through lively outdoor markets, sniff fragrant lavender fields, explore Roman ruins and quaint stone villages, and savor the world-renowned flavors and wines of the region. One taste of Provence will not be enough.

The Making of a Masterpiece

The story of Provence begins during the breakup of the supercontinent Pangaea about 200 million years ago, when a rift formed between the ancient landmasses of Laurasia to the north and Gondwana to the south. This rift gradually grew into the ancient Tethys Sea, the floor of which was blanketed with thick piles of predominantly shallow marine carbonates during the Mesozoic.

As Pangaea continued to split apart, Earth’s plates slowly reorganized. Africa moved north, creating a series of subduction zones along the Tethys Sea’s northern edge in which the oceanic crust under the Tethys was gradually subsumed.

The Provençal town of Orange is internationally renowned for its impressive Roman monuments, including the ancient theater, designed to seat 10,000 spectators (upper left), and an arch commemorating the Pax Romana, both built during the reign of Emperor Augustus Caesar. Credit: Terri Cook and Lon Abbott The Provençal town of Orange is internationally renowned for its impressive Roman monuments, including the ancient theater, designed to seat 10,000 spectators (upper left), and an arch commemorating the Pax Romana, both built during the reign of Emperor Augustus Caesar. The Provençal town of Orange is internationally renowned for its impressive Roman monuments, including the ancient theater, designed to seat 10,000 spectators (upper left), and an arch commemorating the Pax Romana, both built during the reign of Emperor Augustus Caesar. Credit: Terri Cook and Lon Abbott

The resulting orogeny when Africa eventually crashed into Europe during the Cenozoic was not a single fender-bender, but rather a messy series of collisions that episodically raised mountain ranges across Europe. The Pyrenees were uplifted when the Iberian microplate slammed into the Eurasian Plate beginning in the Late Cretaceous. And the western Alps resulted from a similar but younger collision between the Eurasian Plate and another African fragment, the Adriatic Plate, hundreds of kilometers to the east.

The three-story Pont du Gard, France’s best-known Roman monument, was built to support a section of the 50-kilometer-long aqueduct that for centuries transported water to the city of Nîmes. The 360-meter-long bridge is a technical and artistic masterpiece that is featured on the 5-euro bill.  Credit: Terri Cook and Lon Abbott The three-story Pont du Gard, France’s best-known Roman monument, was built to support a section of the 50-kilometer-long aqueduct that for centuries transported water to the city of Nîmes. The 360-meter-long bridge is a technical and artistic masterpiece that is featured on the 5-euro bill. Credit: Terri Cook and Lon Abbott

Between these ranges, the southern edge of the Eurasian Plate was concurrently deformed, although to a much lesser extent. Instead of creating towering, Mont Blanc-like peaks, the sedimentary layers in this intervening area were more gently folded and faulted into Provence’s modest ranges, including the east-west trending Luberon Mountains, as well as a series of limestone highlands including the Vaucluse Plateau. West of these uplands, the Rhône River meets Provence just north of the town of Orange. And from there the river flows — through a valley carved into limestone and clay layers deposited after the uplift of the Alps — past steep, vineyard-covered hillsides, Roman ruins, and the cities of Avignon and Arles before lazing its way through the low-lying Camargue Delta en route to the sea.

From the Romans to the Popes

Provence was settled by various groups, including the Ligurians, Greeks and Gauls, before the Romans conquered the area, establishing the province of Gallia Transalpina in the second century B.C. Because the area constituted the first sizeable Roman territory beyond the Italian peninsula, the Romans simply referred to the region as Provincia, the basis for its modern name. While in Provence, the Romans introduced Christianity, planted vineyards, and built scores of stone monuments so large and robust that thousands of years later they are still standing.

In northwestern Provence, the ancient theater of Orange is one of the best-preserved Roman theaters in the world and one of only three with a stage wall still standing, preserving the original acoustics. Designed to seat 10,000 spectators, the theater was built during Augustus Caesar’s reign (which lasted from 27 B.C. to 14 A.D.), and it is still used as a musical venue on summer nights. Orange also hosts an impressive arch also built by Augustus to commemorate the Pax Romana, established following Roman victories over the Gauls in 49 B.C.

On the Rhône’s opposite bank, located just outside Provence’s border, France’s best-known Roman monument, the three-story Pont du Gard, spans the Gardon River, a tributary of the Rhône. Built to support a section of the 50-kilometer-long Nîmes aqueduct, the 360-meter-long bridge is a technical and artistic masterpiece that is featured on the 5-euro bill. Assembled from 45,000 metric tons of soft limestone blocks excavated from a nearby riverside quarry, the bridge carried an estimated 200,000 cubic meters of water to the city of Nîmes each day.

A great place to see the Pont Saint-Bénezet, also known as the Pont d’Avignon, and enjoy a picnic with panoramic views is Avignon’s Rocher des Doms Park. Before you walk up, visit Les Halles, Avignon’s covered market, to select some creamy cheese and crusty bread, then stop at a local sweet shop to buy a Papaline d’Avignon — a handmade pink chocolate ball filled with potent herbal liqueur from nearby Mont Ventoux. Credit: Terri Cook and Lon Abbott A great place to see the Pont Saint-Bénezet, also known as the Pont d’Avignon, and enjoy a picnic with panoramic views is Avignon’s Rocher des Doms Park. Before you walk up, visit Les Halles, Avignon’s covered market, to select some creamy cheese and crusty bread, then stop at a local sweet shop to buy a Papaline d’Avignon — a handmade pink chocolate ball filled with potent herbal liqueur from nearby Mont Ventoux. Credit: Terri Cook and Lon Abbott

Northeast of Orange, the town of Vaison-la-Romaine hosts the largest archaeological site in France: the remains of the Roman city Vasio Vocontiorum, built on the site of a Celtic tribal settlement following Rome’s conquest in 125–118 B.C. Today you can still see the theater, another beautiful stone bridge, noblemen’s homes, the foundations of the public baths, and even an old Roman sewer pipe, as well as a medieval 12th-century château.

In 1309, Pope Clement V, who was originally from Bordeaux, moved the papal seat of power from Rome to Avignon. He and the eight succeeding popes who reigned from there invested huge sums of money building and decorating the Papal Palace, the world’s largest Gothic palace and a UNESCO World Heritage Site well worth the visit. Although Provence became part of France in 1486, Avignon remained under papal control until the French Revolution.

Another famous attraction in this bustling university town is the remnants of the Pont Saint-Bénezet, the famous bridge of Avignon memorialized in a popular children’s rhyme. Completed over the Rhône in 1185, the bridge was washed out and rebuilt multiple times before its final demise in the mid-17th century. If the local mistral wind isn’t howling, Rocher des Doms Park offers a great vantage point from which to see the remains of the bridge and enjoy a picnic with panoramic views.

The Giant of Provence

Rising 1,911 meters above the lowlands of central Provence, Mont Ventoux is the largest mountain in the area. Because it stands alone and has gained notoriety as one of the most grueling climbs in the Tour de France, it is frequently called the Giant of Provence.

Its summit of bare limestone gives the peak a snow-capped appearance year-round and hosts a harsh environment, with cold temperatures and recorded wind gusts up to 320 kilometers per hour. Thanks to its height and central location between the Alps and the Mediterranean, Mont Ventoux hosts a wide range of microclimates with an unusually diverse flora and fauna, including more than 1,000 species of plants, dozens of kinds of raptors and nesting birds, plus wild boars, deer and chamois. This biological uniqueness was internationally recognized in 1990 when UNESCO declared it a Biosphere Reserve.

In 1309, Pope Clement V moved the papal seat of power from Rome to Avignon, where he began to build the world’s largest Gothic palace, today one of the top attractions in France.  Credit: Terri Cook and Lon Abbott In 1309, Pope Clement V moved the papal seat of power from Rome to Avignon, where he began to build the world’s largest Gothic palace, today one of the top attractions in France. Credit: Terri Cook and Lon Abbott

Uplifted along the Nîmes Fault, Mont Ventoux towers above the surrounding vineyard-studded countryside. Its white limestone summit marks the end of a very challenging — and rewarding — bike ride. Credit: Terri Cook and Lon Abbott Uplifted along the Nîmes Fault, Mont Ventoux towers above the surrounding vineyard-studded countryside. Its white limestone summit marks the end of a very challenging — and rewarding — bike ride. Credit: Terri Cook and Lon Abbott

The village of Roussillon is very colorful, thanks to the local abundance of red, yellow and orange ochre, a powdery, natural oxide often used as a pigment, including by the Romans. Today visitors can stroll through one of the Roman quarries along the Ochre Trail.  Credit: Terri Cook and Lon Abbott The village of Roussillon is very colorful, thanks to the local abundance of red, yellow and orange ochre, a powdery, natural oxide often used as a pigment, including by the Romans. Today visitors can stroll through one of the Roman quarries along the Ochre Trail. Credit: Terri Cook and Lon Abbott

Much of the uplift of Mont Ventoux has occurred along the Nîmes Fault, one of southeastern France’s major structures. The asymmetric mountain is steeper on its northern side, along the fault’s trace, but regardless of which side you approach it from, both the hiking and the biking are quite challenging. The classic bike route — featured about every two years in the Tour de France — ascends 22 kilometers up the southern slopes (with an average gradient of 7.1 percent) from the town of Bédoin to the summit. From spring through fall, hundreds of bikers ascend daily.

If you aren’t up for the ride, hiking in the Dentelles de Montmirail near the wine-growing center of Gigondas is another option. Here, the continuation of the Nîmes Fault is thought to disrupt Quaternary-age river terraces in the famous wine-growing area of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, indicating that it has been active within the last 2.5 million years. Paleoseismic evidence indicates earthquakes up to magnitude 6.5 have occurred on subsidiary faults in the last 10,000 to 50,000 years, including a magnitude-6 earthquake in 1909, raising the prospect of future seismic activity in the region. Convergence between Africa and Europe is still continuing in this area at a rate of about 0.8 centimeters a year.

The Luberon

Seventy-five kilometers south of Mont Ventoux, the Luberon mountain range is sliced in half by a narrow river valley, dividing it into the Petit and Grand Luberon. The Luberon is best known for its Lavender Route, among other scenic driving routes, which follows winding roads through breathtaking countryside and, in summer, vast fields carpeted with fragrant purple lavender blossoms. One of the best-known sites in southern France is the stone Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque, which offers a picturesque background to the lavender plants plus a well-stocked gift shop where you can buy everything lavender, from bath items to cookies to cheese.

From the abbey you can walk or drive to the popular medieval village of Gordes, perched on the edge of the Vaucluse Plateau, another limestone highland raised by the Alpine orogeny. The area’s most interesting attraction is the nearby Bories Village, an open-air museum showcasing the remains of an ancient village of beehive-shaped, Bronze Age huts built out of local limestone slabs. It is not known exactly when these particular bories were built, but over the years, they have been modified and used for many purposes, including as wine cellars, homes and workshops.

Left: Gordes is a popular medieval village perched on the edge of the Vaucluse Plateau. Right: The Bories Village is an open-air museum showcasing the remains of an ancient village of beehive-shaped huts built out of local limestone slabs. Credit: Terri Cook and Lon Abbott Left: Gordes is a popular medieval village perched on the edge of the Vaucluse Plateau. Right: The Bories Village is an open-air museum showcasing the remains of an ancient village of beehive-shaped huts built out of local limestone slabs. Credit: Terri Cook and Lon Abbott

The Luberon is home to the international Luberon Geopark, which includes the Saignon Tracksite, one of Europe’s best-studied Paleogene fossil localities. During the Oligocene, the Saignon site was a pond or lake in a seasonal savanna-like setting. The largest tracks were made by the Oligocene rhinoceros Ronzotherium, and tracks by artiodactyls (a mammal similar to a deer in size), hyenas, goats and shorebirds are also common. The geopark also protects many Oligocene fossils — of fish, frogs, leaves and insects — so well preserved that exquisite details remain intact, right down to the individual lenses in an insect’s eye.

The Camargue’s vast wetlands, protected by the extensive Parc Naturel Régional de Camargue, are home to  more than 500 species of birds, the best known of which is the flashy pink flamingo. Credit: Terri Cook and Lon Abbott The Camargue’s vast wetlands, protected by the extensive Parc Naturel Régional de Camargue, are home to more than 500 species of birds, the best known of which is the flashy pink flamingo. Credit: Terri Cook and Lon Abbott

Also in the geopark, the colorful village of Roussillon shows off the local abundance of red, yellow and orange ochre, a powdery, natural oxide often used as a pigment. When the Romans controlled this area, they used the ochre for pottery glazes. Today, visitors can stroll through one of the former quarries along the Ochre Trail, a short path that winds among vibrant cliffs and sand-castle-like sculptures carved out of colorful sandstones deposited about 100 million years ago.

The Camargue

Continuing south, visitors encounter the flat wetlands around the Rhône River Delta, which differ starkly from the rest of Provence’s terrain. Known as the Camargue, this area south of Arles hosts one of the only sandy beaches in the region.

The vast wetlands are protected by the extensive Parc Naturel Régional de Camargue and are home to more than 500 species of birds, including flashy pink flamingos. The best place to see the flamingos, plus dozens of other species, is the Ornithological Park of the Bridge of Gau. You can also explore the wetlands on the back of a white Camargue horse.

In the late 1880s, the beauty of Provence attracted Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, who created about 200 paintings in and near the town of Arles, which also hosts a well-preserved Roman amphitheater.  Credit: Terri Cook and Lon Abbott In the late 1880s, the beauty of Provence attracted Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, who created about 200 paintings in and near the town of Arles, which also hosts a well-preserved Roman amphitheater. Credit: Terri Cook and Lon Abbott

After a fun-filled day near the coast, visit the town of Arles near sunset to get a sense of what Vincent van Gogh experienced and painted in the late 1880s. None of van Gogh’s 200-some paintings of this area are currently displayed in Arles, but the city has developed the Van Gogh Trail, an insightful walking route that visits locations where the artist once set up his easel. Sidewalk plaques, English-language brochures, and interpretive signs with reproductions of the paintings help you to see Arles from van Gogh’s perspective. After your walk, be sure to stop for dinner at the ancient Roman Place du Forum, home of Café la Nuit, thought to be the locale where van Gogh painted Le Café, Le Soir.

For centuries Provence has drawn invaders, pilgrims and artists from afar. Its idyllic location between the Pyrenees and the Alps has created a beautiful and hospitable landscape that, along with its agreeable climate and wealth of attractions, draws visitors over and over again.

Getting There and Getting Around France

Shopping in local markets is one of the best and cheapest ways to appreciate the many flavors and scents of Provence, including these flavorful sausages. Credit: Terri Cook and Lon Abbott Shopping in local markets is one of the best and cheapest ways to appreciate the many flavors and scents of Provence, including these flavorful sausages. Credit: Terri Cook and Lon Abbott

Most flights to France from the U.S. land in Paris. If you are heading directly to Provence, you can fly from Paris to Marseille-Provence Airport. Another option is France’s high-speed TGV train, which zips between the capital and Marseille, Aix-en-Provence, Avignon, and Arles. During the summer, Eurostar trains run directly from London to Avignon, and there are also direct flights from London to Marseille. In addition, ferries sail regularly to Marseille from Sardinia, Corsica, and Tunisia. Although the public transportation system is excellent in France’s urban areas, the most convenient way to explore Provence’s countryside is by car. Most visitors arrive with accommodations already booked, a wise strategy especially during the bustling summer months. Websites such as booking.com offer a wide range of properties throughout Provence. If you are planning on staying at least a week in one location, consider renting a gîte — a small, furnished holiday home typically located in a rural area — through the website http://en.gites-de-france.com. Be aware that you often need to wire a deposit ahead of time to the owner, who may not speak much English. Provence isn’t cheap. Camping is a great way to save money, see some out-of-the-way places, and meet locals and other (usually European) tourists. If you don’t wish to haul camping gear with you, renting a camper van is another option. If you decide to hike on Mont Ventoux, good places to begin are the villages of les Fébriers or les Colombets near Bédoin, or from Chalet Liotard, located on the northwest side much closer to the summit. If you choose to cycle up the giant, the town of Malaucène has several shops, including Ventoux Bikes, where you can rent a reliable bike, as well as some great cafes to catch up on some post-ride calories.

Terri Cook

Terri Cook

Based in Boulder, Colo., and trained as a geologist, Cook is a freelance writer whose career has focused on exploring and explaining the history of our amazing planet, including as a roving correspondent for EARTH. Follow her travels at www.down2earthscience.com. Follow her @GeoTravelTerri.

Monday, February 24, 2014 - 06:00

Southern Rhone wines

The Southern Rhône’s most famous reds are from the appellation of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a gorgeous medieval stone village perched amid a sea of green vines with Mont Ventoux towering in the backdrop. Credit: Terri Cook and Lon Abbott The Southern Rhône’s most famous reds are from the appellation of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a gorgeous medieval stone village perched amid a sea of green vines with Mont Ventoux towering in the backdrop. Credit: Terri Cook and Lon Abbott

The Rhône Valley’s wine-growing regions are divided into two sections, with only its southern portion located in Provence. The Southern Rhône is best known for distinctively spicy red wines, the result of producing extremely low yields from very old vines whose grapes’ sugar content and acidity levels are further concentrated by the region’s fierce winds. The result is unusually dense wines full of earthy flavors.

The Southern Rhône’s most famous reds are from the appellation of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a gorgeous medieval stone village perched amid a sea of green vines with Mont Ventoux towering in the backdrop. As the name suggests, the village was once the location of the popes’ summer home, built by the second Avignon Pope, John XXII. One small section of wall is all that remains after the château was bombed during World War II.

A distinctive characteristic of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape vineyards is the presence of smooth, rounded “pudding stones,” which, after basking in the sun all day, radiate stored heat throughout the night, more evenly warming the grapes and also helping to retain moisture. Credit: Terri Cook and Lon Abbott A distinctive characteristic of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape vineyards is the presence of smooth, rounded “pudding stones,” which, after basking in the sun all day, radiate stored heat throughout the night, more evenly warming the grapes and also helping to retain moisture. Credit: Terri Cook and Lon Abbott

A distinctive characteristic of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape vineyards is the presence of smooth, rounded “pudding stones,” which so completely cover the ground around the vines that the soil can’t be seen. The stones are chunks of rock eroded by rivers from the rapidly rising Alps that were then rounded and polished by a larger, more powerful Rhône River before it shrank and abandoned the rocks on its high terraces. The stones are crucial for the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation; after basking in the sun all day, they radiate their stored heat throughout the night, more evenly warming the grapes and also helping to retain moisture in the ground below.

Winemaking in the Southern Rhône is dominated by small producers, nearly all of whom welcome visitors for tastings and direct sales. 

Terri Cook

Terri Cook

Based in Boulder, Colo., and trained as a geologist, Cook is a freelance writer whose career has focused on exploring and explaining the history of our amazing planet, including as a roving correspondent for EARTH. Follow her travels at www.down2earthscience.com. Follow her @GeoTravelTerri.

Monday, February 24, 2014 - 06:00

Terri Cook

Terri Cook

Based in Boulder, Colo., and trained as a geologist, Cook is a freelance writer whose career has focused on exploring and explaining the history of our amazing planet, including as a roving correspondent for EARTH. Follow her travels at www.down2earthscience.com. Follow her @GeoTravelTerri.

Monday, February 24, 2014 - 06:00