Granted, Provence lacks Tuscany’s “painted into place” perfection. Its beauty is otherwise — of sensual light softly colouring a life lived hard for centuries. This is a land of lavender, prettily perched villages and old blokes bringing ancestral wisdom to the game of pétanque.
But such postcard slivers of reality disguise a hectic history and geography that render the region rough-edged and turbulent. The villages were, after all, perched for protection. Prettiness is a by-product.
The postcards tell little, either, about a life still dominated by farming, family ties and folk who alternate between public celebrations and bitter disputes. They also ignore pieds et paquets, the tripe-and-trotters dish with which locals stun feeble foreign digestive systems.
Provence is, in short, a proper, rooted place, not an arty summer camp for the chattering classes. Bèn-vengu. (That’s “welcome”, Provençal-wise.)
For tourers: when it comes to coast, Provence has Tuscany over a barrel. Think about the Maures and Estérel corniches, where rocks plunge directly into the briny and humanity hangs on where it can. Here, the Creator was in showman mode.
The Estérel corniche ends at Cannes, a jet-set smudge on the seascape. Nice is just beyond, while, directly behind, the mountains scorn trivial pursuits for tougher concerns. Here, the region rises via forests and ravines to villages sprouting from ragged hilltops. They’ve apparently had a wilder time than their Tuscan counterparts, telling their tale through wriggling streets and ramparts, and old ladies in older doorways who are resolutely unimpressed by anyone, least of all the Beckhams in Bargemon.
Put vertigo on hold for the Verdon Gorges, where, for 13 miles or more, the French Grand Canyon has head-scrambling splendour unmatched in Europe, let alone Tuscany. This is where, unable to control terrified teeth, I join the chattering classes.
For culture fiends: Tuscans may have the Renaissance sewn up, but Provence has hosted playtime for polymaths ever since the Romans scattered theatres and arenas about the place. Later, the Avignon popes chucked up the majestic Papal Palace — which would still rule Christianity, given half a chance.
The Cistercians left purer testimony to medieval faith at Le Thoronet abbey and its sister houses. And in more recent times, Provence has gained ground with an unbeatable bevy of modern artists: Van Gogh in Arles; Matisse, Chagall and Klein in Nice; Cézanne in Aix; Cocteau in Menton; and Picasso pretty much everywhere.
Nor is Provençal culture stored solely in pictures and monuments.
It’s in the fishing boat and the curve of an ancient street, the autumn pursuit of mushrooms and wild boar, the swirl of a bullfighter’s cape. On that score, Provence is cultured to the hilt.
For the explorer: unless you’re on the way to St Tropez, most of Provence is off the beaten track. Between a few well-known spots, you can be out of touch in the turn of a hairpin. Perhaps the next bend will take you up the Dentelles de Montmirail — jagged little peaks that the Provençaux call lace (“dentelle”), though they look more like fangs to me.
From there, skirt the mighty Mont Ventoux along the Nesque Gorges, second only to the Verdon for plunging-into-the-void potential. Beyond, Sault is lavender central, its valley carpeted purple-blue in high summer. To the east, the peak of the Lure rises rocky and increasingly remote; then you’re in the Alpes de Haute-Provence, their elemental toughness apparent from the many abandoned farming hamlets.
On towards the Mercantour National Park, where there is walking, climbing and every other hairy-chested activity. But most of all, there’s soaring space. It may be standing room only back in Gordes or Avignon, but here, believe me, you will stand alone.
For foodies: Aix market is no place for the hungry. You’ll go mad with food lust, seduced by voluptuous fruit and veg, herbs, breads and an entire civilisation of cheeses. Fish lie on the stall as if the tide had just receded. Over there, meat and charcuterie dash vows of vegetarianism. Over here are several zillion versions of olive oil, nuns selling chicken and chaps in hats giving honey tastings.
And it’s all healthy — so tuck in guiltlessly to ratatouille, salade niçoise and the grand-aïoli of salt cod and garlic mayonnaise. Pasta is on the menu, of course, but there’s no Italian-style obsession with the filler material. Why would there be, when Sisteron lamb and beef daube await? Or bouillabaisse from Marseilles? A white from Cassis helps it all down. Meanwhile, reds from the southern Côtes du Rhône and Bandol rival Tuscany’s best, Côtes de Provence pinks are ace in summer, and no Italian aperitif beats the sunny savour of pastis.
For the ultimate trip: Provence invented the top-end sunshine holiday. The grand tour may have whistle-stopped through Tuscany for art’s sake, but when it rolled onto the Riviera, it stayed put, lived high and hired the locals as domestics.
The coast was speckled with palace hotels and outrageous villas — and still is. Nowhere else offers sybarites such choice. The taste-filled decadence of the Negresco, in Nice, sums it up nicely (00 33 4 93 16 64 00, www.hotel-negresco-nice.com; doubles from £200).
Slightly more contemporary — ie, there’s a spa — is the 18th-century farmstead that has been transformed into Le Mas Candille, at Mougins (0845 458 9455, www.aspireholidays.co.uk; seven days from £885pp, including flights). Or go mob-handed and move into a watercress farm, built in the days when watercress farming conferred distinction. The splendidly restored Mas St Estève, near L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, filters a noble Provençal past through present comfort (0845 070 0618, www.abercrombiekent.co.uk; from £6,055 per week, rising to £9,555 at peak times, for up to 12).
Provence in summer is golden and lovely. But Tuscany sets the platinum standard. Europe’s wealthiest region in the Middle Ages, home of the Renaissance and humanism, it has depths that no bucolic bit of France can begin to plumb.
The Tuscans built gorgeous cities, filled them with masterpieces, then invented country villas — which they filled with even more art. And before they downed tools and let what passes for progress carry on elsewhere, they made sure that each tree was planted in just the right place, creating one of the most civilised landscapes on earth.
For tourers: Tuscany earns its crust in the corridor between Florence and Livorno, where the serious industry and agriculture are based. Get beyond its autostrada spaghetti, though, and touring has a magical quality, as if you were progressing through a series of Renaissance frescoes, scooting along behind all those Madonnas and saints.
At its best — in soft, green Chianti, in the hills south and west of Siena — there is a mystic geometry about the landscape. Each hill wears a tiara: perhaps a rugged stone farmhouse, a villa set in a tiered Italian garden, a crumbling castle or a vertical little town. All are built with an intuitive aesthetic, in endless variations of towers and loggias, olive groves, vines and cypresses. Driving takes you past them too quickly, in fact; Tuscany was made for walking, riding or cycling.
For culture fiends: en garde, Provence! Tuscany takes few prisoners when it comes to culture. With Giotto, Donatello, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Botticelli and co, the region has more great art and architecture per square mile than any place on earth.
Although Florence and Siena possess the lion’s share of the masterpieces, almost every one-horse town and roadside chapel has something worth seeing. One of the most striking images in Tuscany, Piero della Francesca’s poignant vision of the pregnant Virgin, the Madonna del Parto, resides in an old school in tiny Monterchi, his mother’s birthplace.
But Tuscan culture isn’t only about dead geniuses. Artists and musicians flock here from around the world, which makes for a lively calendar of events to complement the region’s traditional festivals: the daredevil
Palio in Siena; the tug-of-war Gioco del Ponte in Pisa; down-and-dirty Renaissance football in Florence.
For explorers: 90% of visitors stick to the core sites, leaving the fringes to explorers. If Florence is heaving, for example, take a short drive north into the lush, wooded Mugello (site of the first Medici villa), and you’re practically on your own.
And the wild side of Tuscany, the Garfagnana and the Apuan Alps, where Michelangelo sought out marble to “liberate”, is only half an hour north of Lucca.
Then there is southwest Tuscany, which holds perhaps the juiciest secrets: Massa Marittima’s cathedral on a pedestal; the sword in the stone at San Galgano; the Maremma, home range of Tuscany’s own cowboys, the butteri; and the time-capsule towns of Pitigliano and Sovana, built over and around Etruscan tombs. And in Capalbio, at Tuscany’s southernmost tip, you’ll find the most startling sight of all: Niki de Saint Phalle’s fantastical mosaic sculptures, towering 50ft tall, in the Giardino dei Tarocchi.
For foodies: Catherine de’ Medici introduced haute cuisine to France, but modern Tuscan food is the opposite — simple and wholesome, prepared with superb ingredients. Even the most basic pappa al pomodoro (tomato bread soup), made with sun-ripened tomatoes and locally pressed olive oil, can be an epiphany.
Favourites include hearty bean and vegetable soups, and pasta dishes with white truffles and wild asparagus, along with bistecca alla fiorentina — the perfect T-bone steak. Desserts, however, can be incredibly rich: Siena’s panforte, packed with nuts, honey and candied fruit, must be eaten only in wafer-thin slices.
Tuscan wines need no introduction — Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and white Vernaccia di San Gimignano. But don’t pass up a chance to try the DOC-rule-breaking “super Tuscans”, such as Tignanello and Sassicaia, and a glass of vin santo with dessert.
For the ultimate trip: swanning around with mates in a Tuscan villa is about as good as it gets. San Martino, a 16th-century farmhouse, sleeps 12 and comes with infinity pool, spa area, pizza room, home cinema and pool table. A week starts at £4,410, rising to £7,035 at peak times, through A&K Villas (0845 070 0618, www.abercrombiekent.co.uk).
For sheer romance, Relais La Suvera, near Siena (00 39 0577 960300, www.lasuvera.it; doubles from £258), delivers the goods: a medieval fort, converted into a villa for Pope Julius II and packed with heirlooms and antiques, it offers a spa and blissful tranquillity.
Alternatively, see Tuscany in between luxuriating at one of the world’s top spa retreats: Terme di Saturnia, in the Maremma (00 39 0564 600111, www.termedisaturnia.it; from £1,176 per week for two).