Let’s attempt to sketch a small region’s character (granted, each aspect lightly touched hereafter, is worth much more attention).
The region’s limits are somewhat arbitrary, or mostly a matter of feelings.
It extends around Les Alpilles with Les-Baux-de-Provence and its small valley, includes the Saint-Remy-de-Provence plain, to the North, part of the plain traversed by the Rhône river on the West with the cities of Tarascon, Beaucaire and of course Arles, extends South from Arles to include the Camargue, and to the East from Arles, the whole Crau valley to Salon-de-Provence.
Les Alpilles, a small but spectacular mountain range, are truly a lesson in geology: you can actually see the rock layers fold, undulate and break down. The range culminates at almost 400 m, just north of La Vallée des Baux, which is almost at sea level.
Around Les Baux, the earth is often red, from the iron oxide-rich mineral, well-known as an aluminum ore, and named “Bauxite” (worldwide) after that place.
Otherwise, Les Alpilles are mostly white limestone, which has been exploited for centuries.
That has left, in the peak under the castle of Les Baux, strange caves shaped after the huge blocks that have been carved out of the mountain. Some of these caves are still being used for wine aging.
The castle and tiny medieval village on top of the peak are what makes Les Baux famous today. From the castle, the sight extends to the sea if the haze allows.
For water is everywhere in the Vallée des Baux, which is irrigated by small canals and aqueducts actually dating back to the Roman empire.
Traces of the Roman presence abound, most famously in Glanum, just north of the range, near Saint-Remy-de-Provence.
So the Vallée des Baux is very green, but a wide palette of greens ranging from the olive tree to bamboos to cypresses and almond trees and mimosas, plus many fruit trees and the ubiquitous vine. Many people travel just to see the almond trees in full blossoming.
The region most famous product may be its olive oil, which some find superior to the best oils from Tuscany.
The olive fruit itself, and many products derived from olive and not just food, such as olive-scented soap for instance, are to be found on open air markets everywhere.
Also on these markets: a range of cotton materials printed with beautiful patterns of ancient tradition, with the recurring symbols of the olive branch and the cicada. The animal itself plays an important part in the summer concert, together with the cricket.
The cicada is of particular meaning to the guardians: the cow boys of Camargue, who wear cicadas all over their magnificent shirts.
Most difficult to describe is the gentleness of the lights in which the whole Vallée des Baux is basking.
Well known artists have been in love with the Vallée: the writer Alphonse Daudet, the painter Vincent Van Gogh.
The weather in the Vallée is one of the nicest in Europe, sunny except for a few days a year.
It remains rather mild in the summer whereas, less than 20 km away, it can be torrid in Camargue.
In winter however, the wind called Mistral, which builds up southwards along the Rhône valley, can be chilly.
Arles is the gateway to La Camargue, a very special piece of land and swamps, famous for its black bulls and white horses.
One cannot separate the Camargue and Arles from the bull fighting tradition, and certain (curious) cultural links with distant Spain.
Bull fighting is what once attracted to Arles no less than Hemingway and Picasso, Ava Garner, Peter Beard, not to mention the French celebrities: Yves Montant and Simone Signoret, Jean Cocteau. Arles’ amphitheatre still is on the circuit for spanish matadors … and flamenco players and singers.
Yet another link is maintained by the Gipsies, or Gitans, for whom one of the biggest yearly celebrations is the one being held in Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, between the Camargue swamps and a sandy Mediterranean beach.