My wife and I live part of the year in the charming town St-Rémy-de-Provence, famous as the place where Vincent van Gogh painted masterpieces like The Starry Night. Friends who visit us often ask for advice on touring the area, and it has happened so often that I finally wrote a book, An Insider’s Guide to Provence. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.
Some vacations are for seeing the sights. Who can visit Paris without gawking at the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Versailles, and all the rest? When you go to a place like that, you rush around a lot, and that’s ok. But that’s not how you should visit Provence.
Sure, there are must-see sights in Provence, but what makes it special is the ambiance, the slow pace, the pleasure of small things. In Provence, start your day with a leisurely coffee and croissant at the local café. Then go to an outdoor market and poke around, tasting here and sampling there. Or perhaps spend the day in a charming little village, lingering over lunch and having that extra glass of wine.
I like to say that Provence moves at the pace of the seasons rather than the speed of the Internet. Things often take longer than planned, and a day with several activities rarely happens. So, minimize your expectations and be open to the unexpected!
The Best Time to Visit
For the French, vacations are sacred, right up there with God and motherhood. And summer is vacation season, when many français head south in search of sun and sand. They’re not alone: people come to the South of France from all over the world.
Provence is glorious in the summer, with the lavender in bloom and the cigales chanting. And if you like hot weather, summertime is definitely for you. But I suggest coming during one of the shoulder seasons—in the spring from early April to mid-June, and in the fall from late August to early October. The weather is cooler then, there are fewer people, and prices are lower.
Pro tip: Summer is the busiest time in Provence, and the fall tourist season picks up in September. Because the French school year starts at the beginning of September, the French finish their summer vacations about a week earlier. This creates a quiet period during the last week of August, ideal for a visit.
The Outdoor Markets
Outdoor markets are one of the glories of France, and Provence has some of the best. Every town has a weekly market, even the smallest village, so you are spoiled for choice. Do you want a big, sprawling market, a cozy little one, or maybe an afternoon market where farmers bring their produce directly from the fields? Do you want food, crafts, clothing, or would you perhaps like to do some antique shopping? You can find everything you want in Provence. There’s nothing better than wandering through a Provençal market, taking in the sights and smells…and don’t forget to taste!
Prepare to Wait
If you go to a shop frequented by the locals, don’t be in a rush. Everyone gets personal attention and takes as long as they want, which can sometimes be a long time.
In our butcher shop, for example, the butcher takes the time to chat with the local customers. How’s the family? How are your bunions? How will you prepare the stew?
Val and I once walked in and found two customers ahead of us. She turned to me and said, “Ok, this will take about 45 minutes.” This can sometimes be annoying, but on the other hand we’ve gotten great recipes and cooking advice, and once in a while some juicy local gossip.
Don’t Miss the Specialties
Every region of France has its special foods and Provence is no different. Here are some of my favorites.
This classic fish stew originated in Marseille and now is famous all over the world. But you have to be careful when you make it, because it can explode.
Le Grand Aïoli
Aïoli is a garlicky mayonnaise and Le Grand Aïoli is a tempting spread of fish, hard boiled eggs, potatoes, and steamed vegetables, served with a generous dollop of aïoli.
Olives and Olive Oil
Provence is an important center of olive growing and you’ll see olive groves everywhere. Local olive oils have won several world championships.
With so many olives in Provence, every market offers olive-based spreads that are delicious on bread or crackers. Don’t miss tapenade (black or green olives with a bit of anchovy) and pistounade (green olives with pesto). If you are brave, you can try anchoïade (lots of anchovies, so this isn’t for everyone.)
The best lamb in France comes from Provence and a favorite preparation is gigot d’agneau (leg of lamb), traditionally served at Easter but delicious all year round.
Socca is a kind of thin, crispy crêpe made out of chickpeas, sprinkled with salt and drizzled with olive oil. It’s the sort of thing you munch on while enjoying a glass of wine with friends.
Originally from Nice, ratatouille combines some of the fresh produce that Provence is famous for, like tomato, eggplant, zucchini, garlic, and onion.
Melon de Cavaillon
There are lots of melons in France but the best and most famous come from the town of Cavaillon. The citizens of Cavaillon are so proud of them that they’ve erected a giant melon statue at the entrance to town!
Ok, this isn’t for everyone, but if you like black licorice, you have to try pastis. It’s the ultimate Provençal drink, the one you see the old fellows drinking while they play pétanque.
Provence is so beautiful that it practically begs you to go on a picnic (or as the French say, un pique-nique.) And with all the outdoor markets full of good things to eat, it’s easy to put together a memorable meal.
How do the locals like to picnic? They usually keep things simple, typically with just an aperitif, a main course, and dessert. And they never forget the holy trinity of French food: bread, cheese, and wine. Picnics can be as elaborate as you want, but sometimes simple is enough!
Keith Van Sickle splits his time between Provence and California. Read more at Life in Provence