Situated in the south-east of France, and with a Mediterranean coastline, spring comes early to Provence, heralded by a veritable carpet of colourful wild flowers. This is truly a region of contrasts, from the commercialised coastal fringe and the famous Camargue marshlands in the delta of the Rhone, to the high mountains of the Alps. Between these extremes, there is another Provence that is not so well known, an area away from the main throng of tourists, where small villages cling to craggy hilltops, and where one can be at peace with the magnificent scenery. This is the charming countryside of the Vaucluse, where the hump-backed range of the Montagne du Luberon rises up parallel to the coastal plain to the south. From here the views are magnificent. To the north, across the high Plateau de Vaucluse, stands the mighty Mont Ventoux, its dark wooded flanks rising to a barren white limestone summit at 1,909 metres; to the west lie the jagged and spectacular rocky crags of the Dentelles de Montmiral.
During this 2-centre holiday we will first stay at a small, family-run hotel, set in a delightful and picturesque village setting, and enjoy tasty local Provençal cuisine. From here we will make daily excursions into the surrounding countryside — as often as possible on foot — in search of flowering plants, butterflies and birds. Our location, in the hills between the coastal plain and the high mountains to the north, will give us the opportunity to sample many different habitats at varying altitudes, all within a relatively small area.
This time of year is the peak flowering period for the extremely rich Mediterranean flora of southern France, with fragrant herbs being particularly numerous in the maquis. Spurges, brooms, tree heathers, thymes, sages and colourful Cistus are all characteristic of this habitat, while many orchids include Provence, Lady, Elder-flowered, Violet Limodore, the very impressive Giant Orchid, and a bewildering variety of early flowering Ophrys species. Amongst the birds of the area, such summer visitors as Hoopoes, Golden Orioles, Bee-eaters, shrikes and warblers should have arrived to join the resident species, and an impressive range of birds of prey is present. Amazingly, over 70 different species of butterfly have also been recorded on the wing in April here. These include such colourful species as Cleopatra, Southern and Scarce Swallowtail and Spanish Festoon, plus others such as Rosy Grizzled Skipper, Chapman’s Green Hairstreak and Provence Chalk-hill Blue which are restricted in France just to this area.
On Mont Ventoux, in effect the most westerly extension of the Alps, we will find a good mountain flora, including alpine sedges (Carex sp.), the rock jasmines Androsace vitaliana and A. chaixii, the exquisite little blue Mount Cenis Violet, an Alpine poppy (Papaver aurantiacum) and the endemic little white candytuft (Iberis candolleana). Birds on these high slopes include Snowfinch, Alpine Accentor, Rock Thrush, Rock Bunting and, on the tree-line, Citril Finch. Lower down, Crossbill, Crested Tit, Siskin and even Hazelhen may be found in the pine woods, whilst Goshawk, Redstart and Black Woodpecker favour the deciduous woodland.
Through the limestone Plateau de Vaucluse, rivers have carved their way through the soft rock to form spectacular gorges over the millennia. These provide nesting sites for many raptors, including Eagle Owl, Peregrine, and Golden, Short-toed, Booted and Bonelli’s Eagles, together with Egyptian, Griffon and, occasionally, Black Vultures. The latter two species are starting to re-colonise this area from elsewhere, and at one particular spot we should be able to (unusually) observe them from above as they glide effortlessly by below us. The flora of these calcareous rocks is also very rich, with typical species including Montpellier Milk Vetch, Martagon Lily, Nodding Star-of-Bethlehem, pink, yellow and white flaxes and various orchids, whilst nearby meadows hold sheets of white Poet’s Eye Narcissus and the little yellow Narcissus requienii.
Across the River Durance, les Alpilles, another lower range of limestone hills, rises up precipitously from the plain, with the picturesque village of les Baux-de-Provence clinging precariously to its flanks. These are also good for birds of prey, Alpine Swift, Crag Martin and Rock Thrush, as well as being a well-known site for the elusive Wallcreeper.
We will spend the second part of our tour exploring the Camargue. With its herds of white horses and black bulls, interesting coastal flora, orchids, and rich selection of wetland bird species, including Greater Flamingoes, Slender-billed Gulls, Temminck’s Stint and Spectacled Warbler, there will be plenty here to occupy us before it is time to return to Marseille for our journey home.
This holiday offers the chance for the all-round naturalist to enjoy a great diversity of species at a leisurely pace, whilst at the same time appreciating the magnificent architecture and scenery of one of the most beautiful and tranquil regions of France.