A mime with false nose and mustache, chalk-white face and top hat follows and impersonates a pedestrian in Avignon's Place de l'Horloge. Patrons of the open-air cafes follow the scene and break into laughter when the mime takes the unwitting stroller's hand, imitating his companion's touch and squeeze.

The pedestrian continues the stroll while pointing out, with his free hand, the ancient Palace of the Popes that looms around the corner. When the pedestrian inevitably turns, the crowd laughs and applauds at his surprised face.

The mime apologizes and, with hurried steps, disappears at the other end of the square, into one of the winding streets that characterize medieval parts of Avignon.

This scene is part of the summer atmosphere that reigns in Avignon, one of the most popular towns in southern France.

Avignon's visitors, as the visitors of other inland cities in the region, seem to prefer the shade of cafe umbrellas and century-old trees to the sun on the nearby Mediterranean.

They follow thousands of French and foreign vacationers who, in increasing numbers, are abandoning crowded beaches of the French coast for inland summer festivals. Theater, dance, opera, classical, modern and folk music, jazz, painting, photography and sculpture shows -- all art forms are played, made or presented during the two-month vacation period at hundreds of festivals. Countless workshops, from pottery making to computer programming, compete to offer useful vacations.

"Comment pas bronzer en idiot" or "how to sunbathe intelligently" is becoming an established custom in southern France.

The "sun, sea and culture" formula of the '80s is becoming increasingly more popular than the "sun, sea and sex" of the '70s.

The best festivals are found in the triangle formed by Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and Arles. Their 2,000-year-old history holds a rich heritage and today's organizers offer visitors and natives -- under the spectacularly translucent blue skies of Provence -- an extraordinarily rich cultural choice.

With the Paris theaters and galleries closed for the holidays and the Louvre and Pompidou Center invaded by French and foreign tourists, the Provence triangle becomes the capital of France.

The most prestigious, the best organized and the most generous is Avignon's 40-year-old theater, dance and music festival. It offers more than 50 different plays, and its offspring, the "Off" Festival, has more than 250 different events and dozen of exhibitions on theater. The four-week festivities draw more than 50,000 visitors, who enjoy the presentations in streets and squares turned into open-air auditoriums and old-fashioned theaters.

This year's star play was Shakespeare's "Tempest," directed by Alfredo Arias of Argentina and presented in the prestigious Court of Honor of the Palace of Popes (it closed yesterday). D.W. Griffith's 1916 film, "Intolerance," in its complete version with live music, will be shown there this week. A dance floor will be installed for the Paul Taylor Dance Company (Aug. 3 to 6). African dancers this week will dance to their native music at the Cloister of Celestins, while a traditional African storyteller will recite his poetic prose at the St. Andre Fortress.

In Arles, the photo festival will last until Aug. 31 with its exhibitions (Graham Nash collection at Atelier de Forges) and workshops. The Aix-en-Provence music festival (which ends July 30) accents Mozart, and the folk music festival this month presents songs and dances from all over the world.

Charley G. Cupic is on the staff of the International Herald Tribune.