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Café like a local
If your school French has long faded, but you want to make some kind of effort when you stop for a coffee, here’s our guide to getting by… Never feel bad about just having a single coffee in a bar, it’s perfectly normal. The most important rule is the simple “Bonjour”. Launching into any kind of request before saying hello is considered impolite. In the morning many cafes will have a basket of croissants to choose from, if not, it’s usually OK to bring your own from the bakery. Busy cafes will ask you to pay up front, others will leave the bill when they deliver. Leftover change is the ideal tip. You don’t tip as much here as in the USA or UK for example. The French tend to drink a coffee in the morning and one after lunch. This means an espresso: small, black, simple. If you expect anything else when you ask for a coffee you will be disappointed with what is brought to you. Here are some useful terms: Un café a small espressoUne noisette a small espresso with a dash of milk (macchiato)Un café allongé a long coffee (americano)Un grand crème a coffee with heated, […]
Christmas in Provence
Winter in Provence is a well-kept secret: you can visit popular attractions and feel like you have the place to yourself, the skies are still blue and some days lunch can be eaten outside in the sun. And though it may feel unseasonal to eat Christmas lunch outside, Provence is decidedly festive over the winter months. The region is steeped in Christmas customs and traditions, making for a magical holiday. Here are a few of our favourite things when we spend Christmas in Provence: Christmas markets Yes, Provence has Christmas markets too, beautifully lit, with wooden chalets selling arts & crafts and Christmas gifts, with traditional carousels for the little ones and mulled wine for the grown-ups. Some even have a skating rink. The bigger Provence Christmas markets can be found at: Aix-en-Provence: mid-November to end December, Cours Mirabeau. Christmas village/market, children’s rides, carousels.Carpentras: December, centre of town. Christmas market, free shows, lights, skating rink.Marseille: mid-November to end December, on the old port. Including the 142nd local Santons Fair (Foire aux Santons de Marseille).Monaco: December 2 – January 2, on the port. Christmas village/market, skating rink, activities.Nice: December 3 – January 1, Jardin Albert 1er. Christmas village, skating rink, big […]
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.
September in Provence
September is a glorious month to visit Provence. The heat of summer has passed, and most of the visitors have gone home, leaving cafés, restaurants, markets and roads relatively empty. In Provence in September you are more likely to be held up by a tractor and trailer taking harvested grapes to the local co-operative than anything else. Here are some of our favourite things to do at this time of year. Wine time You’ll notice aisles in the supermarkets full of stationery, books and backpacks for ‘La Rentrée’ (the start of the new school year). If you do find yourself in a supermarket, steer clear of harassed mothers checking lists as they fill their trolleys with shiny new exercise books, pencils and pens, and head to the wine section. Most of the major supermarkets have a ‘Foire aux Vins’ (a wine sale) in September or October and you should be able to pick up a few interesting bottles. The grape harvest in Provence takes place in September, although thanks to a warm spring and a very dry summer, harvest in parts of Provence started about two weeks early this year, in August. It’s a busy time for wine makers […]
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 […]
It’s asparagus time in Provence
There is no surer sign of spring in Provence than the arrival of the first tender asparagus spears on market stalls. Appreciated by both the ancient Greeks and Romans – Pliny the Elder recommended it as an aphrodisiac – asparagus has been cultivated in France since the 15th century. Madame de Pompadour, mistress of King Louis XV, also valued asparagus for its aphrodisiac potential, and in the 18th century French court the tips were called ‘pointes d’amour’ (which roughly translates as ‘arrows of love’). At that time in France, green asparagus was rare and favoured by the bourgeoisie. The white stems were for ‘the people’. Nowadays, the situation is more or less reversed and white asparagus is highly prized for its sweetness. The Provence region is the third biggest producer of asparagus in France and the sandy soil found along the Durance river is particularly favourable. The main season for asparagus lasts about two months – principally April and May – although some producers prolong the season from mid-February through to mid-June. White, violet or green? The white are sweet and delicate, the violet have a slightly more pronounced flavour and the green are fruitier. France is also home to […]
The wind that cleans the air
The Mistral is a local wind which hurtles down the Rhone valley from the north, veering to north west by the time it gets to Marseille and coming from the west on the Cote d’Azur and over Corsica. It’s a strong, cold, normally dry, wind. As its name suggests (Mistral means masterly in the local language of Occitan), it’s fierce, with gusts sometimes reaching speeds of more than 100km (62 miles) per hour. It’s more frequent in spring and winter but can occur at any time of year. Legend has it that it blows for either 3, 6 or 9 days but it can just as easily blow for one day or one week. Legend also has it that it can induce madness. The consolation of the Mistral is that it normally scours the sky and leaves the air crystal clear – an effect that is unique to Provence. Painters such as Cezanne, Van Gogh, de Stael, Gaugin, Picasso and Matisse all came to Provence for the special quality of the light. And it’s mostly thanks to the Mistral that Marseille has an average of 2800 hours of sunshine per year. The Mistral is an integral part of Provence: next […]
Riding the Beast on Bastille Day
Taking on the legendary Mont Ventoux for the 10th time in its history, the Tour de France will reach the summit on France’s National Day – Bastille Day, the 14th of July, 2016. The Mont Ventoux is known as the Beast of Provence, it is one of the most feared mountains in cycling – the climb to the 1,912m summit finish is a punishing 21 km (13 miles) with long stretches at almost 10° gradient. The real killer is that there is no respite, no flat bits, it’s just uphill all the time. But if they’re looking, the cyclists will have the most dramatic views across Provence! How to watch the Tour Real cycling fanatics will no doubt want to watch the tour on the Mont Ventoux itself, but that means getting there well in advance. If you just want to experience the tour, pick any spot along the 115-mile route for that day. Bring a picnic or have lunch before in a nearby village and then walk away from the crowds when the time comes. When and where to see the Tour Assuming an average speed, on July 14th the Tour will reach Tarascon at about 2.10pm, St Remy […]