The ancient Provenal version of Genesis maintains that prior to introducing Adam, the Creator realized he had several materials left over: large expanses of celestial blue, all kinds of rocks, arable soil filled with seeds for a sumptuous flora, and a variety of as yet unused tastes and smells from the most subtle to the most powerful. "Well", He thinks, "why don't I make a beautiful resum of my world, my own special paradise?" And so Provence came into being.
This paradise encompasses the snow-peaked lower Alps and their foothills, which in the east descend to the sea's edge, and to the west extend almost to the Rhne. In central Provence the wild high plateaux are cut by the deepest cleft in the surface of Europe - the Grand Canyon du Verdon. The coastal hinterland is made up of range after range of steep forested hills in which the warm scent of pines, eucalyptus and wild herbs intoxicates the senses. The shore is an everchanging series of geometric bays giving way to chaotic outcrops of glimmering rock and deep, narrow inlets, like miniature Norwegian fjords - the calanques. In the Camargue, the shoreline itself becomes an abstraction as land and sea merge in infinite horizons. Away from the Rhne delta there is nowhere that does not have its frame of hills, or mountains, or strange sudden eruptions of rock.
But all these elements would be nothing without the Mediterranean light, which is at its best in spring and autumn. It is both soft and brightly theatrical, as if each landscape had lighting rigged up by an expert for maximum colour and definition with minimum glare. It is no surprise that of all the arts, painting should be the one that owes so much of its European history over the last hundred years to the beauty and escapism of this world.
Yet Provence and its coast were far from being an earthly paradise for their early inhabitants. As with most mountainous regions, the soil is poor and cultivation difficult away from the rivers. The low-lying areas of the Camargue and Rhne Valley were marshes or rubbly plains subject to inundation. The coast had no natural defences of rough seas and high cliffs to dissuade invaders. So it was that communities clustered on easily defensible hilltops - the village perchs - with their tight labyrinths of medieval streets, passageways and winding stairs leading inexorably up to a chteau fort.
For hundreds of years, Provence remained a prime target for foreign invaders. The ancient Greeks established bases on the coast and on the Rhne, including Massalia and Nikea - modern-day Marseille and Nice - and, later, the Romans cleared a route all along the coast to their cities on the Rhne. Settlers came from all over northern Europe and from across the Mediterranean, and if this wasn't enough, Provence's independence was also contested with France, the Holy Roman Empire, Burgundy, Savoy and the Popes, with internal feuding between rival fiefdoms aggravating the insecurity of daily life. After just fifty years of reunification with France, Provence was again invaded, and within a hundred years was suffering the bloodiest of French civil wars, the Guerres de Religion.
Legacies of this turbulant past include some of the best Roman monuments in France, plus great reminders of the medieval age, such as the palace of the Popes in Avignon; the three great monasteries of Silvacane, Thoronet and Snanque, built by the Cistercian order in the twelfth century; the ruined city of Les Baux; the border fortresses of Tarascon and Sisteron; and the frescoes and paintings in the village churches north of Nice.
By the 1800s, the character of coastal Provence was already beginning to change. Foreign aristocrats and royals, who had already turned Nice into Europe's most fashionable winter watering hole, began to spread their influence east and westwards. Tiny fishing villages such as Cannes, Villefranche, Le Lavandou and St-Tropez began to follow the course that Nice had taken, with avant-gardists in art and lifestyle and successions of celebrities gradually discovered how much simple and sophisticated pleasure this coast could provide. By the 1950s mass tourism on an upmarket scale began to take off in these parts, the Sixties brought the starlets and the hippies in their droves, and in the 1970s the French government began to realize the horror that their greatest tourist asset was threatening to become. Today, the Cte d'Azur is one of the most built-up, overpopulated and expensive stretches of coast anywhere in the world.
Yet between the urban conurbations and the tourist developments there still lies the remarkable scenery that drew artists here in their droves in the decades either side of 1900. Seduced by the light and relative ease of living, they bade farewell to the gloom of northern winters and set themselvers up on the Cte d'Azur, making the region as much a part of the European art scene as Montmartre and Montparnasse. The great names of the Modern period who painted and sculpted on this coast include Matisse, Renoir, Signac, Lger, Dufy, Mir, Bonnard, Chagall, Cocteau, Drain, Modigliani, Soutine and Picasso all of whom came in summer and shocked the natives by swimming in the sea. Many of their works are permanently exhibited in superb museums from St-Tropez to Menton; reason in itself for a visit to the Cte today.
The one great artist native to Provence is Czanne, who was born in Aix in 1839. Many of his canvases were inspired by the landscapes around his home town but very few remain in the region. Because of his relationship with his subjects, a pilgrimage to the Mont Ste-Victoire and other favourite scenes is still compelling. The man whose works on show outnumber any other artist is Hungarian-born Vasarely, who chose Aix and Gordes as centres for his studies into an all-embracing concept of art, science, architecture and social life. In and around Arles and St-Rmy you can follow the sad passage of Van Gogh, but again there are hardly any original paintings to be seen.