I have a passion for Provence which began many years ago. I was living in France (in Toulouse in the South West) working as an assistante in a lycée for the third year of my French degree. The brother and sister in law of one of my best friends lived in Sanary sur Mer in the Var, and we went to spend the weekend with them. I fell in love with the spectacular scenery we saw as we travelled from Marseille – and then Sanary was a complete revelation. When I eventually decided to buy a flat in Provence I returned to Sanary and was delighted to find that the town was much the same – a lively little port, brimming with interesting shops and restaurants. It was the ideal location for a second home and in the course of my journey round Provence I made a list of my top five places.
I think Provence really does have something to stimulate all the senses. I love the sound of the cicadas in full chant in the afternoon heat; the deep blue sky contrasting against the dark green hills with their jagged rocky outcrops; the intoxicating smell of rosemary and lavender; sitting in a harbour cafe watching the world go by with the warmth of the sun on your face. It’s absolutely perfect! And Provence has so much variety – from the hilltop villages in the Lubéron to the glamorous resorts on the Cote d’Azur; from the beautiful Calanques near Cassis to the marshlands of the Camargue.
I’m a great fan of the department of Vaucluse. But not so much the Lubéron area which has become so overrun with tourists in the last few years – partly as a result of Peter Mayle and his books. I much prefer the area around Avignon. Avignon is my favourite large town in Provence. And if you arrive there on a warm spring day with the roofs of the medieval buildings outlined against the wonderful blue Provence sky – I think you’ll understand why. There are plenty of historic places to visit (including the fabulous Palais des Papes) plus medieval streets to explore, gorgeous boutiques to browse in, and plentiful restaurants and cafes.
I also love the gorgeous and picturesque area around the Dentelles de Montmirail – and the various Rhône villages such as Gigondas, Séguret and Vacquéras – sleepy villages known for their wine.
The Calanques in between Cassis and Marseille take my third spot – these limestone fjords with their crystal clear, turquoise water and surrounded by Mediterranean pines are simply breathtaking. And if you’re in the area, you shouldn’t miss a visit to Cassis – a quaint little port with upmarket boutiques and a great selection of restaurants.
Aix en Provence takes fourth place on my list. Whilst the shopping has gone downhill in recent years, with fewer independent boutiques than there used to be and more international chain stores – it’s still a lovely town to stroll around and has a fabulous colourful market.
Finally, Le Castellet – a small hilltop in the Var, a short drive from Bandol. Surrounded by the Bandol vineyards and with views across to the sea on one side and the mountains on the other – this picturesque little village is definitely worth a visit. I always take visitors here – and it doesn’t matter how often I visit, the views are still breathtaking and the village still hasn’t lost its charm for me.
On to food now…Provençal cuisine is tasty and fresh. As you’d expect with its Mediterranean situation, cooking uses olive oil rather than butter, and garlic and herbs such as rosemary and thyme are used plentifully. Olives, peppers and tomatoes are found in the majority of sauces labelled “Provençal”, but there’s much more to Provencal cooking than this. Good restaurants are to be found everywhere, and many in some of the popular tourist destinations have (to my mind) over complicated their offer with fusion menus and over-engineered recipes. I don’t think you can go far wrong if you look for smaller, family-run restaurants that prepare simple, tasty dishes in the old Provençal tradition.
Whatever you do, don’t leave Provence without trying at least one Soupe de Poissons – an absolutely delicious pureed soup always served with a DIY garnish of croutons, garlic and saffron mayonnaise (rouille) and grated cheese. You grate a garlic clove on the croûtons, spread on some rouille, float a few croûtons in the soup and then sprinkle on the grated cheese. It’s a great ritual – and the result is absolutely delicious. Other traditional provençal specialities include Daube de Boeuf à la Provençale (rich beef casserole cooked in red wine with olives and tomatoes), Moules Sètoise (steamed mussels with a saffron and cream sauce) and Lamb Provençale (leg of lamb with a breadcrumb crust flavoured with rosemary, thyme and garlic).
Finally, there’s the question of what to buy when you’re visiting Provence. To my mind, the three areas where Provence excels are fabrics, pottery and soaps.
Provençal fabrics – or indiennes – were first produced during the seventeenth century imitating designs of imported fabrics from India. These fabrics, which originally served as women’s shawls, are now mostly used for interior decoration, and are brilliantly multi-coloured prints in kaleidoscopic floral and geometric patterns. You’ll see tablecloths, bread baskets and bags in all the markets and home boutiques – all made with inimitable Provence style. Just make sure that you’re not buying fabric that originated in China – my rule of thumb is that if it’s cheap, it’s not made in Provence. Marseille is famous for its soaps – and you’ll be amazed at the array of different fragrances available in the various gift boutiques around Provence. From rosemary or thyme to cinnamon or chocolate orange, these always make great gifts. Last, but not least, Provençal pottery is justly famous around the world. Artisan, pottery – from traditional, muted tones of earthenware to the brightly-coloured, more modern designs of producers such as Festin Coquin – is available everywhere. Just beware that you’re not falling for Chinese imports that you occasionally find on the markets.
By Sue Aitken, Provence fan…