Off the Beaten Path in Provence, France

Provence in France. Saying its name evokes memories of sun-drenched hills, starry nights, and the scent of sea-salted rosemary and thyme. Birds sing in olive groves, bees drone in vineyards, flowers spill from terracotta pots. In villages with crinkly-tiled roofs, lizards scurry into niches just as their lizard ancestors did in the Middle Ages.

A visit always makes me want to take up painting, get serious about photography, and go on coastal hikes. Yet, whether the attraction is traditional villages or the Riviera’s balmy climate, Provençal living is usually perceived as only for the seriously wealthy.

Think again. In one riverbank village with a Crusader castle, a refurbished house of 85 square meters (915 square feet) is $178,000. With storybook, mountain views from its garden, a pastel-colored heartbreaker of a traditional Provençal house is $267,000. Monthly rentals in many locations cost under $760. And a couple can have a three-course meal with wine and still get change from $38.

The key to affordable Provence is location. There are the vaunted places everyone knows about…and those hidden under the vacationers’ radar.

Provence covers a lot of territory. With its northern bastion the Hautes-Alpes, it stretches from the river Rhône in the west to the Italian border in the east. South lies the Big Blue—the Mediterranean.

To be accurate, Provence is a region of the mind. In administrative language, it’s PACA—an acronym for Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. With Marseille its principal city, it’s divided into six départements: Alpes-de-Haute Provence, Hautes Alpes, Alpes-Maritimes, Bouches-du-Rhône, Var, and Vaucluse.

Most visitors, understandably, follow well-trodden paths. Riviera resorts such as Saint-Tropez and Cannes aren’t to everyone’s taste, but it’s senseless to ignore highlights such as arty Saint-Paul-de-Vence, perfumed Grasse, and the coastal cities of Antibes and Nice.

Add Chateauneuf-du-Pape’s vineyards and the cultural treasures of Avignon, Arles, and Aix, and vacation time rapidly gets used up. Never straying far from tourist honeypots can leave the impression that Provence isn’t a viable living option. But investigate below the gilded veneer, and you’ll find an earthier Provence that’s just as desirable, but far less expensive…

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