A Food Lover's Way Of Exploring Provence

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I'm certainly not unique in my love of the Provence region of France. Nevertheless, it's a truly magical place for me. I've been there for at least a week every year for the last four years, and whenever I leave, I dream of the day I can go back again.

There are so many ways to appreciate Provence; the scenery, the culture, the gorgeous weather, the amazing (if slightly maddeningly white) light. And above all, the fabulous food and wine. Since I'm a food lover, and presumably you are too if you are reading this, I'd like to describe how we arranged our recent trips so that we could immerse ourselves in the glories of Provençal cuisine.

The markets are the stars

If I were to arrange a food-centric visit of Paris or New York for example, I'd make sure that I had enough in my money and time budgets for plenty of restaurant visits. But in Provence, the stars for me are not necessarily the restaurants, though there are many fine ones; they are the gorgeous marchés (open-air markets). I love markets anywhere, but the ones in Provence are art, entertainment, education and social event all at the same time. Above all, the quality of the fresh produce is something to behold.

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When I visited Provence four years ago with my mother and sister, we stayed at a beautiful hotel and ate most of our meals in restaurants. We loved every minute of every meal. But yet, being food lovers and cooks, we couldn't help feeling a bit wistful when we saw the mouthwatering fruits and vegetables and cheeses and charcuterie and such at the markets we visited almost every day. We could buy some wine and cheese and bread and a few tomatoes and have a picnic, of course, but we wanted to try cooking those wonderful ingredients right there too.

For this, we needed a real kitchen to play in.

Renting a house, with character

Last year, we decided to rent a house in Provence. People in Europe seem to be more used to what are called 'self-catering' holiday homes in the UK than Americans are. A self-catering holiday home basically means that a kitchen in which meals can be prepared is provided. These homes can range from modern "holiday cottages" in purpose-built communities that cater to tourists to luxury villas complete with pool and maid service.

My preference is for something with character, and a little history if possible. The internet is a wonderful place to find such places, and I found a restored 16th century townhouse in the quiet village of Grillon, in the region of northern Provence called the Drôme. It was big enough to comfortably sleep 4 adults, beautifully decorated, and had a pool, a full kitchen and even a barbeque grill on the terrace. All for the cost of a 3-star or so hotel.

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This year, we went for another type of house: a gîte, or simple country house, in the middle of the vineyards of another area of Provence called the Vaucluse. No pool this time (we barely used the pool last year) but I loved waking up to a view over the vines, which were literally at our doorstep.

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To me, staying at such places that are unique to the area is just as exciting as staying at a 5-star hotel - even if we have to make our own beds and wash dishes. And of course, there's that kitchen. With all the wonderful ingredients available to me, my creative juices were at full flow whenever I'm in Provence.

We found both places on a French web site called Homelidays. This site (available in multiple languages, including English) lists thousands of holiday properties all over France, with the largest number in Provence. So far we've rented 3 properties through Homelidays, and all met or exceeded our expectations.

(Incidentally, we like to rent homes wherever we travel now. We don't mind the bed-making part at all, and love to stay in what are essentially comfortable people's homes. We've rented apartments in New York and San Francisco, houses in England, and houses in Florida. We've only had one sort of iffy experience out of many. Having a kitchen available not only lets us try out local ingredients, but helps to save money too - so that we can splurge on really nice restaurants if we want to.)

Getting Around

My main co-conspirator is a die-hard public transportation fan, but even he agrees that in Provence, you need a car. Train service is really only practical to get to the main cities such as Avignon, Orange, Aix-en-Provence, Arles and Marseille, and frankly the cities are not where Provence is at, as nice as those places are. Besides, you need a car to transport your market purchases.

For people flying into France, the best option is probably to go from Paris to Avignon via TGV, and to rent a car from there. (Look out for Rail and Car type deals.) If you can afford it, a car with a GPS navigation system is very handy because driving around Provence is a bit tricky for the uninitiated. Be sure to equip yourself with good road maps in any case. When navigating, look at the town that is closest to where you are in the direction you want to go to on the map, and look for that town on the Direction road signs at intersections and roundabouts.

For pre-planning and mapping out road directions, the Via Michelin site is the best (much better for France than the U.S.-centric alternatives like Google Maps, as you might imagine.)

Beyond your car, you will be doing a lot of walking, so be sure to wear comfortable shoes.

The essentials

We've found that there are few things that are essential for travel around Provence in summer.

  • Lots and lots of water. The weather is Mediterranean - that means hot and dry during the day. I normally try to drink around 2 litres (two large bottles) of water a day, but in Provence I think I drink at least 3, if not more, not to mention lots of cool drinks at cafés and such. Water is cheapest if you buy the bulk packs at the supermarkets.
  • Sunblock, sunglasses and hats!
  • A cooler. Our typical day was to go to a market in the morning, have lunch (either a picnic lunch with our market purchases or a simple one at a restaurant) then take off on other adventures in the afternoon. For this to be possible you need a good cooler (with ice packs of course) to keep your market purchases nice and cool. It's also handy for keeping your drinking water cold. Even if you just buy a cooler in France and then leave it behind, it's worthwhile. Coolers are available at the large supermarkets at reasonable prices (the LeClerc supermarkets have some very cute yet inexpensive ones).
  • A lightweight jacket. While during the day it's hot and sunny, it can get quite cool at night and in the mornings.
  • A decent knife and vegetable peeler. The rental homes rarely have good knives, and a vegetable peeler is very handy for processing all those vegetables you'll be buying. (We have a "house-staying kit" with a small cutting board, peeler, salt shaker and pepper mill, a smallish chef's knife and a small fruit knife.)

The language issue

A lot of people who have never visited France are wary of the reputation the French have for being rude and so on. While you may encounter some of that kind of thing in the big cities, especially Paris, on occasion, I think this is much less of an issue in the countryside. The people of Provence are generally extremely friendly and polite. If you go to a store two times you are a regular; if you go three times you're greeted like a long-lost friend and the proprietor comes to shake your hand. (The exception is certain drivers...)

That being said, it does help if you know at least a few French phrases; French people are generally not very comfortable speaking other languages, compared to say the Swiss or Dutch. (I'll never forget the time I was on a TGV train from Geneva to Paris, where a Greek couple were sitting in seats that a French lady thought were hers. They were trying to communicate with her in English, and at one point she screamed out in frustration, "je suis française, parlez avec moi en français!!!" (I'm French, talk to me in French!!)) If you have the time, the best preparation you can make for any trip to France is to take a basic French conversation class. Failing that, bring along a small phrase book, and don't be shy about saying bonjour, merci, au revoir and such. In the past I've found the Rick Steves phrase books, such as the French one, to be quite handy. (Having taken 3 1/2 years of French in college, my own rusty French is sort of enough to get by without totally embarassing myself, and it's quite handy to port along a French-fluent Swiss or two. Unfortunately I can't rent out one to you though...)

Pick a region to concentrate on

We have learned the hard way that driving distances in Provence are much longer than you might think, since many roads wind their way through tiny villages or through mountainous passes. So, when planning where to stay, it's best to pick one region you want to explore the most and plan on spending most of your time there, with occasional forays elsewhere. My favorite areas of Provence are:

  • Drôme Provençal and Vaucluse: The Drôme has vineyards, olive groves, apricot trees, cherry trees, lavendar fields...and mainly small, still relatively untouristy towns. This is my favorite region of Provence. The Vaucluse is to the immediate south and east of the Drôme; it's a large area dominated by rolling vineyards and the Mont Ventoux, made famous as the ultimate challenge on the Tour de France. The famous Côtes du Rhône wines such as Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas come from this area.
  • Bouche-du-Rhône: This is the area south of Avignon, around Arles, St. Remy, and Les Baux. Olive trees dominate here, and there are also vineyards, fields of sunflowers and some spectacular hilly scenery. It also includes the Camargue, a peninsula south of Arles (actually most of it is within the city of Arles in civic terms) that has the famous horses and bulls, rice fields, flamingos and other flora and fauna in protected nature preserves, salt fields, and gorgeous, uncrowded beaches.

Other regions are the Var, Alpes de Haut Provence, Alpes-Maritimes and Haut-Alpes. Also although they are technically in the Languedoc and not in Provence, the Gard and the Ardeches areas are also sort of part of Provence from a touristic point of view.

So that's the introduction to my kind of Provence travel. In upcoming articles I'll get into details about places to see and things to eat - and drink, of course!

Update: Here are the links to the complete series!

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A Food Lover's Way Of Exploring Provence

hi. i randomly came across your blog and just wanted to say i love it! and i love all the gorgeous photos. i'll be back!

cheers

pinknest | 20 June, 2006 - 21:32

A Food Lover's Way Of Exploring Provence

Thanks for visiting, and for your kind words!

maki | 20 June, 2006 - 21:58

A Food Lover's Way Of Exploring Provence

Hi! i like your blog and I come often :)

I felt I had to coment on this. I felt sorry for the French rudeness reputation.
Until I moved to Montmartre...

Tourist would jump at you while you are quitely enjoying a cafe and magazine at a terrasse and ask "WHERE IS THE SACRE COEUR?" like this. No hello, no please, no "do you speak English", no nothing. You wouldn't dare acting like that in your own country.

I must admit that the third guy to act like this found me a bit upset and couldn't understand why.
The fifth I became deaf...The sixth (in an hour or so) I answered in Italian ( I'm sorry) and the seventh I indicated the wrong way (even more sorry).
The eighth I asked "hablas espanol?" And since he did a little I indicated the way in Spanish, for a change. Then I understood and I put my beret back in my bag where it waited to be out of Montmartre.

Now, before one of my delightful beloved American friends goes to a trip in France, I teach them the magic formula to say before talking in English to French people:

"Bonjur, parleeh vu angleeh? "
They all came back very happy of their journey.

please spread the word!
All the best and bon voyage!

del4yo | 20 June, 2006 - 23:26

A Food Lover's Way Of Exploring Provence

Mmmm, reminds me of a month spent in Cannes 12 years ago. A neighbor had a friend in Cannes with an apartment and an invite and asked if I would like to come along. It was a tiny apartment but had a huge terrace and a kitchen. We were three blocks from the beach and a couple of blocks from the smaller of the two public markets. I also hit the larger one.

The kitchen was so small could only buy food for the day but no problem with all the fresh ingredients available. While it was nice to go out to some restaurants all I wanted to do was cook all those ingredients! And I did!

It was a fantastic month (end of Aug to end of September) and included a few side trips to Corsica, Provence and Vaclause. One of these days I'll make it back to Southern France but only if I can stay in an apartment or house. Since I live in a fairly desireable location (centreville) in a fantastic city (Montreal, oui, je parle francais mais je suis un anglophone) I think I could probably do an apartment swap.

Ahh, here's to dreams.....

Patricia
Montreal

Patricia | 21 June, 2006 - 02:44

A Food Lover's Way Of Exploring Provence

Soooo jealous, but soooo happy for you!!!!!! Thanks for such beautiful photos!

julie | 21 June, 2006 - 05:10

A Food Lover's Way Of Exploring Provence

I second your enthusiasm for staying in homes rather than hotels. We were in London last year and opted for an apartment in Kensington, through londonperfect.com, that was less costly than a hotel room less than 1/4 the size where our friends were staying. We loved being able to make our own, leisurely breakfast in our pajamas, instead of having to make ourselves presentable for room service or breakfast out. And we loved being able to come and go as we pleased, without having to accommodate the routine of a housekeeping staff. Most of all, we loved pretending that we lived there, which is impossible to do if your home base is a hotel room.

Ellen | 21 June, 2006 - 17:19

A Food Lover's Way Of Exploring Provence

that is a jealousy-inducing post if ever I saw one.
aaaaaah, provence....

sam | 21 June, 2006 - 21:07

A Food Lover's Way Of Exploring Provence

What a wonderful, poetic description of your time in France. The pictures were enticing, and I am now longing for a trip abroad.

Albany Jane | 22 June, 2006 - 04:32

A Food Lover's Way Of Exploring Provence

del4yo I do agree about the thoughtlessness of some tourists. Though I guess, most peope whose native language is not English just assume that everyone speaks English...which doesn't work too well all the time.

I won't want to make people jealous :P I guess I am lucky in that for me going to Provence just means a few hours' drive. I hope that people reading my accounts can see that it's not this real expensive place to go to in any case...

maki | 22 June, 2006 - 12:27

A Food Lover's Way Of Exploring Provence

Hi,
I've just recently discovered your blog, and I am really enjoying it. I've always thought I wanted to spend some time in Provence (I live in Florida), but after reading your article, I am sure of it. Thanks for the accessible, well-thought-out information. You are lucky Provence is just a few hours drive away!
Julie

Julie | 23 June, 2006 - 19:50

A Food Lover's Way Of Exploring Provence

It sounds as if you had a great trip. It was nice to browse your recent entries, having also returned from a recent trip to the Provence region of France. I am detailing my own experiences at my French Food & Lavender Blog over these next couple of weeks. Since you clearly enjoyed the region, perhaps you'd enjoy a little light reading of another traveler's trip. I intend to add a link to your blog from my own, given that your entries seem very much in tune with my own interests and travel style. I travel to Provence often, finding and importing products for my French food and gift business Splendid Palate.

Kristen | 2 July, 2006 - 22:01

A Food Lover's Way Of Exploring Provence

Kristen, what a lovely site you have! I've added it to my daily links. Please feel free to link away to anything on my site.

maki | 3 July, 2006 - 19:24

Can you recommend book on Provence?

Hi! I’m trying to buy the perfect book for some dear friends who are planning to spend a few weeks at a villa in Provence this June. Can you recommend anything? They love food (eating and cooking) and wine, if that helps. Many thanks!

anon. | 22 May, 2007 - 17:51

books on Provence

There are so many books about Provence but here are few, in different styles

The Most Beautiful Villages of Provence is a lovely coffee table book with lots and lots of photos.

The Michelin Green Guide to Provence is dry and sometimes awkwardly translated, but still probably the most comprehensive guide book to the region. They will need a good Michelin map also since many of the more interesting roads are a bit difficult not to get lost on.

The Provence Cookbook by Patricia Wells is great especially if they will be cooking at least some of the time, and is a joy to cook from at home after the holidays too.

There are lots of travelogues and the like about Provence. Even if it’s old Two Towns In Provence by MFK Fisher is one of my favorites.

Also, it’s impossible to pass up the novels (or the movies made from the novels, which are all excellent, and all available on DVD) by Provence’s favorite son Marcel Pagnol: Jean de Florette, Manon of the Spring, My Father’s Glory, My Mother’s Castle.

maki | 22 May, 2007 - 20:57

For those who like Italian

For those who like Italian cooking. Make sure you use olive oil for cooking and extra virgin olive oil for dressings only; using extra virgin in cooking is a waste of your hard earned money!………..

www.letsgoeat.co.uk.

foodlover | 5 July, 2008 - 21:06

Re: A Food Lover's Way Of Exploring Provence

I love France, or at least, the parts I've been to. I generally stay in the cities, mainly Paris, but after reading this, and your enthusiasm for it, you've convinced me to try out the rural areas. As contrary as this sounds after staying in the big cities, I do personally prefer un-touristy areas when travelling. I'm planning my holidays for next summer at the moment and I particularly like the sound of the Vaucluse area you describe. This may be 4 years late, but thank you so much for your insight into the less touristy areas.

Amber Green | 26 November, 2010 - 15:48

Re: A Food Lover's Way Of Exploring Provence

Hi, I have only recently found your blog of when you moved to France (2010)and were starting to plan your kitchen , bathroom etc. Where can I find subsequent updates of your renovations etc?

Rik | 2 June, 2013 - 10:02

Re: A Food Lover's Way Of Exploring Provence

I would love to just explore Provence and eat the food. I can only imagine how awesome the food is. All of the natural and home grown ingredients would be amazing.

Caleb | 25 October, 2013 - 16:12

Re: A Food Lover's Way Of Exploring Provence

I am very, very late to reading this blog. That said, I noticed that you stayed in an apartment in Grillon -- in fact, it looks familiar. We will be staying in Logis de Bourg in Grillon this coming June for a family/friends event. We will be there a week.

We are familiar with some parts of Provence, but not this particular area. I am a compulsive travel planner and have done a lot of research already, but it is not that easy to find information on Grillon. Any information about Grillon or the surrounding area would be greatly appreciated. We are lovers of food and wine (and exploring towns and villages). How wonderful to find a kindred spirit.

Antonia Dosik | 29 December, 2013 - 19:51

Re: A Food Lover's Way Of Exploring Provence

Hi Antonia. Grillon is a very small village, with just a couple of shops and cafes. There is a small weekly market, but for most of your shopping you will need to go to the supermarkets around Valréas. Valréas has a bigger weekly market, plus Grignan also has a very nice market. The surrounding area is very pretty and not nearly as touristy as the southern parts of Provence. Since I wrote this we've actually moved to Provence and bought a house, although not in Grillon. Have fun in June!

maki | 31 December, 2013 - 08:03

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