Provence… just the name conjures up images of rolling fields of purple lavender, colourful markets, gorgeous hill top villages awash with the heat of the southern French summer sun. Provence is a magnet for foreign visitors and rightly so, it consistently appears in the top 5 most loved destinations in France, the world’s most visited destination. Provence expert Sue Aitken of Boutique Provencal shares her top tips for the best things to do in Provence for visitors…
Get the timing of your visit to Provence right
Don’t visit in August if you can possibly avoid it. August is the month when the whole of Paris descends on Provence (at least it feels like it). The roads are congested, most places you visit will be really crowded (even those that you think are off the tourist track) and you’ll probably need to book for even the most unassuming of restaurants. In my view, Provence is at its best in May, June and September, when the weather is good and you won’t be sharing this wonderful region with so many other visitors.
Pace yourself – Provence covers a big area
Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Provence covers a wide area and – although there’s a good road network, and motorways that allow you to clock up the kilometres in a reasonable amount of time – my advice is to focus on one area at a time and really explore it at a leisurely pace. For a week or a fortnight’s holiday, I’d suggest choosing two main centres – say Aix en Provence and Avignon. Take your time discovering the cities and then hire a car and venture out to the surrounding countryside and villages in the vicinity.
Provence markets are a must-see
Visit at least one market. There are daily food markets in many towns and weekly larger markets where there’s always a good selection of local handicrafts to tempt you – whether it’s Provençal tablecloths or artisan pottery. My favourite market is in St Remy on a Wednesday – to my mind it definitely beats the more famous market in Aix en Provence.
Gorgeous villages and churches in Provence
Go and see at least one of Provence’s many hilltop villages or “villages perchés”. My personal favourite is Le Castellet, about a 15 minute drive from Bandol. But the whole of the Provence region is scattered with historic and picturesque villages clinging to the tops of the hills – so wherever you’re staying, you’re likely to find one in the vicinity.
Try and fit in a visit to one of the grand Cistercian abbeys – named les Trois Soeurs (Three Sisters). Sénanque, Silvacane and Thoronet were all founded in the 12th Century and are definitely worth a detour. Sénanque is probably the best known (and most visited) as it’s just outside the tourist hot spot of Gordes in the Luberon. But I’ve been to both of the other abbeys, and they’re equally as impressive.
Cuisine and wine of Provence
Don’t leave Provence without trying at least one Soupe de Poissons – an absolutely delicious pureéd fish and shellfish soup always served with a DIY garnish of croutons, garlic and saffron mayonnaise (rouille) and grated cheese. It’s a great ritual – and the result is very tasty.
Sample the local wines. There’s a great choice of wines in the region that you may not have come across back home. But it’s not a great wine growing area if you’re a white wine lover. If you’re in the Vaucluse, make sure you sample some of the named Côte du Rhône wines – such as Gigondas and Vacquéras – lovely, full bodied reds. If you’re further south in the Var, you can’t go wrong with a Bandol red or rosé (rosé would always be my preference in the hot summer months). If you’re really looking to sample a decent white, try a bottle of Cassis – it’s quite expensive, but is crisp and refreshing. And don’t be put off by its slightly greenish tinge.
Shopping in Provence
Treat yourself to at least one piece of local pottery. Provençal pottery is justly famous around the world. Hand painted 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. (See: shopping in Provence).
Bugs in Provence!
If you’re visiting Provence from May to October (and unless everywhere you’re staying is air conditioned and you won’t have to open the windows) invest in a mosquito plug from a local chemist or supermarket. They’re really efficient at repelling mosquitoes and you can leave your windows open at night without fear. A truly great invention!
Fall in love with Provence
Finally, make sure you allow yourself enough time just to sit and take it all in. Some of my most memorable moments have been sitting in the glorious sunshine, being serenaded by chirping cicadas with a glass of rosé in my hand watching the world go (slowly) by.
By Sue Aitken, Provence fan…