I recently returned from a month in the south of France. Peter Mayle spun a year’s worth of adventures into A Year in Provence, which spawned several sequels. I found that with “only” four weeks in Provence, one can easily amass as many fascinating experiences and meet countless memorable real-life characters.
Provence is a massive region. There’s spirited dispute about its boundaries as well as where the true heart lies. And so I set out to discover for myself the mix of landscapes, smells, tastes and, of course, the markets. I shifted my base six times within those four weeks to steep in different microclimates, both geographically and culturally.
I started in Aix-en-Provence where I initiated my trip with a café crème at Les Deux Garçons overlooking the elegant Cours Mirabeau, lined with trimmed plane trees. I poked around squares and narrower streets bustling with activity. Early the next morning I drove to the Mediterranean coast and discovered a completely opposite world populated by few humans but plenty of wild horses and pink flamingos. I rode horseback through the utterly magical Camargue and tasted local wines. It was un rêve réalisé.
Each day led me to a new set of destinations and adventures. Despite the combination of GPS and “map-in-the-lap” driving, I often ended up in unexpected places—including accidentally ending up on a car ferry headed toward ports unknown. I took these surprises as invitations to explore more.
I touched down for several nights in six different towns. They were jumping off points for visiting the region’s cities as well as many small villages. Some are perched high on cliffs and others nestled deep in the valleys. Regardless of where I drove, I never went a day without passing rows of grapevines, olive trees, and cherry orchards.
Mostly I kept my ramblings in the countryside. I visited picturesque towns dotting the Vaucluse and Bouche-du-Rhône departments, and I ventured into the Gard and the Alpes de Haute Provence on a few occasions. I had so many incredible experiences! I’m looking forward to going through the gobs of notes and photos that I collected along the way. But here are a few broad highlights:
The markets. Every day of the week there are spectacular markets. Antique markets and brocantes occur regularly in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue and elsewhere.
The local agricultural bounty is on display everyday at the markets. I enjoyed fresh asparagus, strawberries and cherries, as well as breads, cheeses, and Mediterranean fish. Prepared foods such as rôtisserie chicken or pizza from a food truck are bare bones at even the smallest markets. There’s a smattering of clothing to crafts, and fabrics to soaps and olive wood. Some markets are large and seem to take over the entire town, while others are confined to a single village square. There are different types of markets–many with a mix of vendors, and others where only local producers are allowed to sell. Going from place to place exploring the different types and locations of markets is a glorious way to enjoy Provence.
The local specialties. Anyone who appreciates local foods can have a field day every day in the south of France. Goat cheeses, olives oils, wines, and honeys abound. Some of the world’s tastiest strawberries, cherries, melons, apricots, asparagus, and figs are grown there. There’s a sausage maker in Arles who still abides by a recipe that was written down in 1655.
There are chocolate makers turning out some of the finest confections, often incorporating locally grown nuts and fruits. Spelt and other ancient grains grow in higher altitudes near fields of lavender. Other local food highlights include nougats, candied fruits (banish thoughts of that foul artificially colored and flavored crap; this was a different taste sensation altogether). And the list goes on.
The people. I met so many interesting people–and animals. I was smitten by a herd of goats. And eternally grateful to the horse I rode in the Camargue for sparing me any neck-breaking gallops. Life there is certainly not always easy for its inhabitants, and economic stability can be especially hard to come by in these times of financial crisis. But what struck me–and I know this is a broad generalization but I stand by it–is how content most people are who live there. I talked with older farmers who have been farming their entire lives. Younger farmers who are taking over the tilling of land with great enthusiasm and new ideas. Goat farmers who fled the city to live in the country.
Merchants who drive to different markets every day of the week to sell hats or handbags or herb grinders. Shopkeepers who are continuing the family business into the third, fourth, and fifth generation. I talked with chefs who are passionate about using local ingredients and whose greatest satisfaction is seeing their customers happy. And shoppers who derive enjoyment from supporting the local markets, farmers, restaurants, and shops. I met tour guides and people at local tourism offices who are extremely knowledgeable and well-prepared to help others discover the best that Provence has to offer. The impressions made by the people I met run just as deep as the memories of the breathtaking landscape.
I’ll write more about these experiences over the coming months. Hope you’ll stay tuned. But in the meantime, I’m curious about your experiences. Have you ever been to Provence? If so, what were some of your favorite moments or markets? I’d love to hear!