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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) […]
A Year in Provence: 30 years on
A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle was written 30 years ago – the book had an initial print run of three thousand copies, and Mayle was assured by his publisher that there would be plenty left over unsold. Since then it has sold over six million copies, in forty languages: an astonishing success for any book. Peter Mayle and his wife moved to Menerbes in the Luberon region of Provence in 1987 with the idea of writing a novel. However he kept being distracted by his new life and these distractions became the subject of A Year in Provence, retold in Mayle’s witty, warm and anecdotal way. A Year in Provence was followed by two more best-selling sequels – Toujours Provence and Encore Provence – but it also accidentally spawned a whole new genre of travel writing, one of relocation and renewal, allowing other best-selling writers like Frances Mayes in Italy (Under the Tuscan Sun) and Chris Stewart in Spain (Driving Over Lemons) to find a huge, ready market. How Provence has changed Since the publication of A Year in Provence, Peter Mayle has been accused of ‘spoiling’ Provence but, living here, it’s hard to see how. It’s true […]
The Most Beautiful Villages of Provence – Officially!
Which are the most beautiful villages of France? It’s a fun discussion to have over a bottle of rosé. Or you could just look it up. Because in France there is an official body that confers on villages the status of being one of the Most Beautiful Villages of France (Les Plus Beaux Villages de France). To earn the status of one of ‘Les Plus Beaux Villages de France’ is not easy. A village is judged on 27 different criteria. For a village to make it on the list, it must have an outstanding heritage as well as a beating heart. Consequently in all of France, with its 30,000+ small villages, there are only 156 that make it on the list of Most Beautiful, and 19 of those are in Provence. They come in all shapes and sizes and given the rather excitable medieval history of this region, most are perched up high, affording a good view from which to spot the next marauding tribe passing through. Some villages stretch along a high ridge, sometimes only a couple of houses wide, offering cool shade on one side while the other basks in the sun. Views of vineyards and fruit orchards […]
Know your lavender
If anything says ‘Provence’ it’s lavender. Snaking, parallel humped lines of glorious scented, purple lavender – the icon of Provence. And if you’ve been lucky enough to be in Provence when it’s in flower it’s a sight (and scent) you’ll never forget. Particularly at the end of the day when the warm evening air is heavily perfumed and vibrating with the hum of a thousand insects hovering over the purple flowers, gathering pollen before nightfall. Lavender flowers from mid/end June to late-July or mid-August depending on the region. Generally speaking, the higher the lavender fields, the later the flowering and harvest. Harvest depends on the weather and the humidity of the air so it can vary. Lavender is grown principally in the Drôme-Diois valley, the Drôme provençale, in the regional national park of Les Baronnies, around the Mt Ventoux, the Luberon and the Lure mountains and in the Verdon region in the Alpes de Haute Provence. Several different varieties of lavender grow in Provence but really only two varieties are cultivated; ‘la lavande fine’ and ‘le lavandin’. ‘La lavande fine’ (or ‘real’ lavender) grows naturally above 700-800 metres (approx. 2,600 ft). It’s very robust and able to cope with conditions […]
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 espresso Une noisette a small espresso with a dash of milk (macchiato) Un café allongé a long coffee (americano) Un grand crème a […]
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.
Another day, another market
Wherever you are in Provence, you’re never far from a market. There are literally hundreds of markets, big ones taking over whole towns and smaller ones consisting of just a few stalls in villages. Some of them have been going for over eight hundred years (there are mentions of Uzès market as long ago as 1226) and each market, big or small, has its own special atmosphere, selling everything from hats to rotisserie chickens, tablecloths, espadrilles, antiques, santons (Provençal crèche figurines), herbs and spices, baskets and, of course, fruit, vegetables, olives and cheeses… Regular markets take place in the mornings from 7 or 8 and start packing up promptly at midday. Evening summer markets normally start at 5 or 6pm for a couple of hours but some go on till 11pm. There are also many specialist seasonal festivals or markets celebrating one product such as truffles, pottery, wine, flowers, goats’ cheese, asparagus, strawberries, cherries, melon, lambs, garlic, lavender, petit épeautre (spelt), apples, lemons… In recent years, Christmas markets have also increased in popularity. Specialist market at Provence lavender festival. Every market is unique but none more so than the farmers’ market at Velleron (near L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue in the Vaucluse). It takes […]
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 […]
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 […]