18 Hidden Autumn and Winter Festivals in Provence France
Updated: Dec 15, 2018
One of the glorious truths about Provence, is that the locals will celebrate the seasons all year long. The climate is warm, the food is fresh, and there are always exciting new things to see and places to explore, no matter what time of year it is.
Here’s a guide to 18 of the best annual festivals in Provence that shouldn’t be missed!
Summer in Provence is swell, but the true nature and all the splendors of Provence can only be experienced in Fall. With milder, more bearable temperatures, harvest festivals boasting the best food and wine in Europe, price drops, and fewer crowds, you can enjoy the peaceful countryside of Southern France as it was meant to be.
Flâneries au Miroir
For one weekend each year in September crowds of masked and costumed visitors from all over Europe converge on Martigues for the Flâneries au Miroir, which recreate the spirit of the Venetian carnival.
The Flâneries au Miroir features musicians as well as the costumed guests who can be admired and photographed elegantly posing in the area all around the canal.
Septembre en Mer (September by the Sea)
The entire month of September offers over 200 marine themed events along the coast of Provence. The celebration encompasses everything from seafood feasts and scuba diving lessons to shipyard visits and excursions to the Riou or Frioul Islands in RIBs (rigid inflatable boats) or traditional pointus (fishing boats). The majority of these activities are available during this event only and is a fantastic way to introduce yourself to the rich culture and bounties the Mediterranean has to offer.
Fête de la Gastronomie
This event, the Festival of French Gastronomy, was added to UNESCO's list of "intangible cultural heritage" treasures across the world back in 2010 and is your chance to eat your way through the flavors and culture of Provence. Every town, city, and village has it’s own events, including tastings, cooking workshops, and outdoor banquets.
During this time, another related event is held, Tous au Restaurant, or restaurant tours, in which some of the finest eateries, including Michelin-Star restaurants, offer exclusive discounts and marked down specialties.
Individual festivals celebrating a specific food or crop can be found throughout the region as well, and often include all you can eat tastings, dancing, and music. Celebrated foods include mushrooms and truffles, chestnuts, saffron, grapes, and olives.
This is a big deal in Provence, as vineyards are transformed into a fabulous sight of bronze, golds, and reds. Each region hopes for it to become a vintage year, and the festivities are endless!
Harvesting in each region, Cassis, Avignon, Aix en Provence, and the like, often take place around September and October, but the parties continue well into November. You’ll find outrageously marked down wine, participate in harvests, be supplied with endless tastings and pairings, wine fairs, and as the harvest ends, locals and visitors alike are treated to gorgeous banquets in the vineyards and town squares.
The wine harvest is something anyone interested in Provence should experience at least once in their lives.
You’ll also want to catch the Journées du Patrimoine, or Heritage Days, a once-a-year chance to take part in all sorts of cultural events, many of them unusual - and many of them free.
They are held over one weekend, not just in Provence but all across France and indeed all across Europe. In English-speaking countries they're variously known as European Heritage Days, Doors Open Days or Open Doors Days.
During the Heritage Days, entrance to many museums and galleries is free of charge or at a reduced rate and a number also lay on special extra activities such as tours, concerts, workshops and readings.
The Journées du Patrimoine are not just about museums, though: many towns offer a range of free guided walks and access to all sorts of oddball secret places, exclusively available during this event.
In previous years, visitors were allowed to tour the Mayor's office in Marseille, explored the Hôpital Caroline on the Frioul Islands, taken an historical tour of the Blue Coast train line and had a sneak peek inside the villa in La Ciotat, where the pioneering Lumière Brothers showed their first short films. It's now a private residence.
On another occasion visitors were able to tour the Citernes des Moulins in Marseille's Old Town or Panier: spectacular and enormous, 19th century underground water cisterns. Most of these amazing sites are normally closed to the public.
The exact program varies and there's a different overall focus each year (in 2016 it's "Patrimony and Citizenship"), but you'll find plenty of events and activities not directly linked to the main theme.
You don't have to be in one of the major towns or cities: even quite small villages often have some kind of program.
In many years the SNCF, France's national rail operator, also offers cheap day and weekend tickets during the Journées du Patrimoine, enabling you to explore the region by train at very low cost.
Winter in Provence is a special treat. Winter tourism in Provence began at the end of the 18th century and picked up speed with the arrival of the railway in the mid-19th century. Queen Victoria, Rudyard Kipling, Oscar Wilde and Robert Louis Stevenson were among the aristocrats and notables who over-wintered there because of its gentle and mild climate.
In areas such as St. Remy and Marseille, temperatures can even go up to 12 degrees Celsius / 53 degrees Fahrenheit. Not exactly swimming weather but pleasant enough to have lunch outdoors if you can find a sunny spot. It rarely snows in Southern Provence, though it's more likely further north in the Luberon and Haute Provence.
Of course, the people of Provence have found numerous ways to keep up the festivities even in winter, many of which center around food and wine, and Christmas, known locally as La Calendale, which takes up most of the winter, starting with the Fête de la Sainte Barbe on December 4th and continuing until Candlemas on February 2nd!
With its many festivities and ancient, mysterious and mystical Christmas traditions, Provence in midwinter reveals a hidden and magical side.
Many towns do shut down in the winter, but others like Saint Remy are open year round and are active participants in the annual festivities. You can find some of the best accommodations HERE.
Ban des Truffes
The season starts officially in mid-November with the Ban des Truffes in Richerenches, a solemn and ceremonial Truffle Proclamation, followed by the first truffle market of the season. If you come in mid to late winter you’ll find Provence's black diamonds at their best.
Various towns and villages all across Provence hold regular weekly truffle markets throughout the winter until the season ends in mid-March. Some tourist offices and private individuals organize truffle hunts too.
In Ménerbes, La Maison de la Truffe et du Vin serves truffle-infused lunches; the village's big truffle fair takes place on the last Sunday of December. And Richerenches has another big truffle-themed day on the third Sunday in January.
Also happening around this time of year are the region's olive harvest and olive oil festivals and fairs, with tastings, music, wine, cookery demonstrations, local food (often an aïoli) and general revelry.
Fête du Millésime (wine festival)
Many of Provence's wine festivals are held in autumn to mark either the grape harvest in early September or the first of the new year's vintage in November. But Bandol keeps the party going just a little bit longer with the last major wine festival of the year, the Fête du Millésime, on the first weekend of December. Expect plenty of tastings and street entertainment around a theme that changes yearly.
Fête de la Sainte Barbe (Feast of Saint Barbara)
Exactly as it sounds, this feast kicks off the holiday season in Provence, although there’s more to it than just eating. Wheat or lentil seeds are planted on damp cotton wool in three small saucers, representing the Holy Trinity.
Packets of these seeds are on sale in bakeries, pharmacies and certain banks in aid of the Marseille-based charity Le Blé de l'Espérance (The Wheat of Hope) which aids handicapped and hospitalised children.
Locals rally round to support this excellent cause and, in the run-up to Christmas, little pots of the wheat of Saint Barbara, or le blé de la Sainte Barbe, will be sprouting on shop counters and sunny window sills all over Provence.
On December 24th Christmas ushers in its own gourmet treats known as Réveillon. For a traditional meal, watch out for the Gros Souper (Great upper) and Treize Desserts (13 Desserts). If you're really lucky, you might be invited to one of these rituals by a local family but many villages hold such events which are open to the public.
Those with a sweet tooth will be in heaven: Provence's bakeries are fragrant with orange flower scented pompes à l'huile, navettes cookies and jewel-coloured brioches des rois, not to mention the classic, chocolate covered Christmas logs.
The Christmas Log (Bûche de Noël)
According to this ancient tradition, a log, preferably from a fruit tree, is selected and anointed three times with vin cuit by the oldest member of the family, who then, along with the youngest, consigns it to the flames. It should burn for three days and the ashes kept as a remedy for illness or to bring good fortune.
Some villages and towns still follow an ancient rural ritual called the pastrage, a word derived from the provençal word for shepherd and originating in the fact that Christmas in Provence coincides with the lambing season.
A suckling lamb is placed in a little cart decorated with ribbons, branches and candles and drawn by a ewe, the lamb's mother.
It leads a procession of shepherds to Midnight Mass (which may well in in provençal) on December 24th. The lamb is offered to the priest but is not sacrificed.
The pastrage can be seen today at a number of locations, but one of the best places to catch this unique tradition, is Saint Rémy de Provence. Typically, it features a torchlight procession with fifes, drums and sheep accompanied by their shepherds.
The pastorale is a nativity play with a particular local spin. The best-known version is a five-act opus, that's usually performed by amateur dramatics societies and can last for hours. The tone ranges from broadly comic, at least in the opening acts, to spiritual and uplifting.
Rather than focussing on Biblical characters, its dramatis personae are mainly regional types, such as the village drunkard or simpleton. These same characters also figure as santons in provençal cribs.
The pastorale (in a shortened version) may be performed at Midnight Mass or as a standalone event in its own right. Many towns and cities in Provence continue to put on productions of the pastorale well into January.
The Epiphany Cake
January 6th marks Epiphany, when the brioche des rois, a brightly-coloured cake, is shared among friends and family. A Southern French version of the marzipan galette more common in the North, this cake contains a fève, or broad bean. Whoever ends up with it is the king (or queen) for the day - and has to supply the brioche the following year.
The broad bean is chosen as this symbol for several reasons. In ancient Rome it signified prosperity. It's one of the first seeds to germinate in spring. And its shape, supposedly, recalls that of a foetus! Today a brioche in Provence also sometimes contains a sujet(small porcelain figure), either as well as or instead of the fève.
Picking the king is known in French as tirer les rois. To prevent cheating, the eldest member of the party cuts off slices one by one while the youngest member of the party hides under the table and nominates who is to receive them. As with the pastorale, you'll find Epiphany cakes around well after the festival itself throughout January and sometimes into February.
One of the largest equestrian shows in Europe, Cheval Passion, in mid-January, is a must for horse lovers, with horse and pony rides, demonstrations, sales of riding tack, sporting events and a daily gala spectacle, the Crinières d'Or (Golden Manes).
The Christmas season ends with Candlemas, or Chandeleur, on February 2nd, when the cribs are finally packed away for another year.
The place to celebrate Candlemas in public in Provence is Saint Victor Abbey in Marseille, where the church's Black Virgin, a small statue made of walnut wood and dating from the 12th century, is taken out in a ceremonial procession accompanied by pilgrims bearing long green candles symbolising the eagerly awaited green shoots of spring.
Afterwards, everyone goes to a nearby bakery to buy navettes, long thin biscuits flavoured with orange water and intended to resemble the boat, or navette, that brought Lazarus, Mary Magdalene and other saints to Saintes Maries de la Mer in Provence.
According to another very old tradition, families would get a candle blessed at church on this day, then bring it back while still alight (if the candle went out before they got home, this was a very bad omen).
Once back, the mistress of the house would make the sign of the cross with the candle in front of each window and door to protect the house. Then pancakes (crêpes) would be made.
The first pancake would be tossed while holding a coin in one hand; the coin would be wrapped up in the pancake, which was kept until the following year. Then at the next Candlemas ceremony the old pancake would be discarded and the coin given to charity.
Many provençal families today still eat pancakes on February 2nd, even if they don't observe this ancient custom.
Fête de la Saint Valentin
Some of Saint Valentine's relics are said to be buried in Roquemaure, and that's the inspiration (or excuse) for this festival on the weekend closest to 14 February.
On those dates the whole town takes on a period look and everyone dresses up in ornate 19th century costumes to celebrate the course of true love with a procession, a banquet and dancing.
The Fête de la Saint Valentin is held every two years, on odd years. It has become the main Valentine's Day event in France and attracts thousands of visitors. On even years there's a smaller-scale event too.
In the age of refrigeration, oysters and seafood are now available all year round, even during those months of the year without an ‘r'. But midwinter is the best time to eat oursins, the spiky, creamy sea urchins which are harvested along the Mediterranean coast.
This delicacy is under threat from over-fishing but it still inspires the amazing open-air seafood feasts held every week on the seafront in several villages between mid-January and early March.
It's basically the pretext for a huge outdoor street party with everyone dining on shellfish at long, shared tables, plus craft markets, entertainment and more.
The true magic of Provence can only be experienced during these incredible seasonal holidays and festivals, so don't miss out!