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Favourite Squares of Provence – Place Richelme, Aix
This is the first of an occasional series on our favourite squares in Provence – for a market, a cafe, or watching the world go by, and preferably all three. One of the best squares in Provence for letting the hours slip by and the blood pressure drop is Place Richelme in Aix-en-Provence. Place Richelme is a gorgeous setting with the high golden facades and wooden shutters so typical of Aix, and the towering plane trees that bring welcome shade in the summer – you feel you are right at the heart of the town here. Place Richelme has two distinct personalities, by day and by night. Its daily food market is one of the key attractions of the old part of Aix, and yet it is not overrun with tourists. This is where the locals shop as they have done for centuries, from the elderly down to students pulling together a picnic lunch to munch on a sunny step. It is this demographic smorgasbord that makes Place Richelme so great for people-watching, and the best place to do that is at one of the cafe tables on the square, where the colours and sounds of the market and its […]
Provence in the movies
There’s no better way to get in the mood for a trip to Provence, or indeed to reminisce upon your return home, than through the medium of the movie. Here are our favourite films set in Provence to whet your appetite. To Catch a Thief (1955) Cary Grant & Grace Kelly (Côte d’Azur) Classic Hitchcock crime caper on the Côte d’Azur in the golden era, with Cary Grant and Grace Kelly messing about on the Riviera. It was while promoting this film that she met the prince of Monaco, who would quickly make her his Princess Grace. And God Created Woman (1956) Brigitte Bardot (St Tropez) The film that launched Brigitte Bardot and put St Tropez on the map, taking it from sleepy little fishing village to the place to be seen. Jean de Florette & Manon des Sources (1986) Gerard Dépardieu, Daniel Auteuil, Yves Montand (Aubagne, Vaugines, Ansouis, Mirabeau) A wonderful pair of films, faithful to the books of Marcel Pagnol, that made quite a splash on release in the 1980s – these films forged the idealised image of Provence and the region has never looked more beautiful on film. La Gloire de mon Père (1990) […]
Flea markets in Provence
One of the best ways to feel instantly immersed in Provence life is to wander round a flea market on a Sunday morning. Even if you plan to keep your wallet firmly in your pocket, it’s worth going for the sights: tables piled high with antique linens, silverware and glasses, giant spools of colourful thread, curious garden and farming tools, memorabilia of a bygone age, and a mysterious number of huge iron locks and keys that surely belong to a nearby chateau… A popular find is the linen – heavy, hand-embroidered and frequently monogrammed. You just may be in luck and find your initials. Also fun to take home are old French school posters and encyclopaedias – charming reminders of pre-internet schooling. Other good souvenirs are vintage promotional items from classic French brands such as Pastis 54 and Citroen, while metal advertising plaques are still easy to find. Doorknobs, handles and boxes of chandelier crystals are plentiful; old iron cots, weathered shutters and elaborate mirrors whisper of their past. Some of our favourite finds have been shoe lasts and heavy flat irons (they make great door stops), industrial lamps, delicate glass perfume bottles and intriguing faded postcards. Brocante is the […]
The magic of Cezanne’s studio
Visit the studio where Cezanne painted his masterpieces, his actual coat and bowler hat still hanging on their hook, and you may feel like Cezanne has just popped out for a coffee. The spirit of Cezanne is everywhere in Provence, but one of the most moving places to visit is the Lauves Studio (L’Atelier de Cezanne) in his beloved home town of Aix-en-Provence. He painted here every single day during the last years of his life, producing the ground-breaking work that earned him the title ‘the father of modern art’. This is a very special place – all around are the easels, canvas satchels and umbrellas he used to paint on location, along with objects that crop up again and again in his still lifes: ginger jars, olive pots, fruit bowls, a plaster cupid. The drawers of an old wooden cabinet open to reveal mementoes, photographs, letters – even one written to Monet. The studio, or ‘atelier’ was built on land that had views of the city to the south and Cézanne’s revered Mont Sainte-Victoire to the north. Don’t expect the same view today – his garden has matured and trees now shield the house from the outside world. Though […]
Mwa! mwa! mwa!
If you stay long enough in Provence to make friends, you are going to be doing a lot of kissing. Because if you turn up at some sort of gathering you may find yourself kissing everyone there on arrival and departure. If you sneak off without the kissing thing, that is known as an ‘English departure’. Although this type of kissing is French it should under no circumstances be confused with French kissing – it is called ‘faire la bise’ and means a mwa on the cheeks. The complication is how many cheeks? Even within Provence there are variations. Rule of thumb is 3 kisses in the north and 2 everywhere else. See the map for kissing precision. If you think 3 is exaggerated, bear in mind there are parts of Corsica where FIVE is the norm. And while it may seem like all that kissing is really eating in to your day, think of it as a moment where time slows as you pay your dues to friendship – the important stuff in life. This is the slow lane, after all.
Remember the Ice Saints!
Saint Mamert, Saint Servais, Saint Pancrace, de leur passage laissent souvent trace (Saint Mamert, Saint Servais, Saint Pancrace often leave their mark) The weather is always a major topic of conversation in Provence and during April and early May when the sun is shining and the temperatures seem more appropriate to June, you might well hear a local say ‘Remember, the Ice Saints haven’t been yet!’ This is normally accompanied by a gloomy shake of the head and a little ‘tut tut’ of the tongue clicking against the roof of the mouth which always signifies disapprobation. This means that until the feast days of Saint Mamertus, Saint Pancras and Saint Servatius (called the Ice Saints) on 11, 12 and 13 May have passed there could still be frosts. ‘Avant Saint Servais, point d’été, après Saint Servais, plus de gelée’. (Before the feast of Saint Servais, no summer, after Saint Servais, no frost.) Of these three, apart from the fact that his feast day marks the end of frost, Saint Servatius might be the most useful in day-to-day life as he’s the one to invoke against rats and mice as well as ‘foot troubles, lameness, rheumatism’. It’s not clear what the […]
Cavaillon melons & how to choose one
‘Marriage is like a melon, it’s a question of luck’ (Provençal proverb) Melons are notoriously difficult to choose but, in summer in Provence, your chances are actually quite high of finding perfect, sun-drenched, sweet, succulent, scented melons. Eaten with raw ham, filled with Muscat de Beaumes de Venise (a sweet local wine) or simply just as they are, they are one of the highlights of a summer meal in Provence. When you come off the A7 autroute at Cavaillon, gateway to the Luberon, you can hardly fail to miss the huge sculpture of a melon beside the first roundabout. Weighing in at 9 tonnes, this enormous melon indicates that you’re entering the Melon Capital of Provence. Melons have been grown in the region since the Popes were in Avignon in the 14th century but the renown of melons from Cavaillon started in the mid 19th century when it became possible to ship produce rapidly to the Paris markets by train. In the 1950s melon production in Cavaillon accounted for 64% of the melons grown in France. This figure has diminished but the region still produces more than any other in France with an annual production of about 130,000 tonnes. There’s […]
A Provence Christmas
You won’t get carol singers but Provence has its own intriguing Christmas traditions and rituals that reach far back in time. Christmas in Provence starts on 4th December on Saint Barbara’s day, and goes through all the way to Candlemas on February 2nd, when you should take your Christmas lights down. That whole Christmas period is known as la calendale. St Barbara’s day Traditionally on St Barbara’s day (la Fête de la Sainte Barbe) you should put a handful of wheat on some damp cotton wool on a saucer. Many bakers sell little sachets of wheat for germinating. Keep the cotton wool damp and if, when it germinates, it is bright green and upright, the following year will be a prosperous one. You then keep the saucer of germinated wheat to decorate your crèche. If you happen to be a farmer, after Christmas you would plant the wheat in your field to ensure a good harvest. Provence Christmas crèche The crèche (nativity scene or crib) is a big part of a traditional Provençal Christmas. Today’s crèche has its roots in the Middle Ages when religious plays were performed portraying the birth of Christ. During the French Revolution, religious […]
Come and taste the Black Diamond of Provence!
“Food-lovers of all eras have never been able to utter the word ‘truffle’ without tipping their hat” – Alexandre Dumas It’s winter in Provence, and one of the consolations of colder days and longer nights is that it is also truffle season. France produces more truffles than any other country, and 80% of them come from Provence. So if you love truffles there is no better place to be at this time of year. In the middle ages, monks were banned from eating truffles due to their apparent aphrodisiac effect. Today you are free to indulge. Pigs, dogs and goats are used to hunt for the truffles, though small flies may also mark the spot. The Ancient Greeks believed that a strike of lightning on damp soil created a truffle. In fact they are fungi that grow around the right sort of tree, like an oak, but they were right about the dampness of the soil, as truffles grow best after rain. The location of fertile truffle grounds is highly secretive, you will never be told where to go and look, unless you are being deliberately sent in the wrong direction. Fortunately you can buy truffles more easily than finding […]
One of the joys of being in Provence is a day-trip to Marseille. Already a dazzling city, the €7 billion spending spree to prepare it for European City of Culture status has transformed it into a must-see destination – in fact the New Yorker magazine has ranked Marseille at no. 2 in the list of ‘must-see’ cities of the world. Marseille used to have a reputation as lively but run-down, intriguing but risky. That view has now changed… “it has just about everything a visitor could ask for. Until Marseille was made European Capital of Culture for 2013, it may have been one of the most under-appreciated cities on the continent” New York Times “brimming with cutting-edge architecture and art” Conde Nast Traveler “Marseille now feels richer and not at all dicey, but it has something in its character that wealth can’t wash away. I don’t think it’s nostalgia that makes me love it like this. I just think I was right all along” Zoe Williams, travel writer “tremendous beauty and culture… a picture-book seaport, bathed in light of blinding clarity, crowned by larger-than-life neo-Byzantine churches, and framed by massive fortifications” Fodor’s Travel “one of the most invigorating, exciting and […]