We all know France is beautiful, chic and more than a little sexy. We look to the French for fashion trends, for food inspiration and for an iconic landscape which drapes girls drinking red wine in black dresses against the backdrop of the twinkling Eiffel Tower. Perhaps most importantly, the unfathomable French resilience that has this proud nation standing tall in the face of all adversity is more than a little inspirational.
Most of our attention gets lauded on Paris, where we can shop high-end designers and take in a famous landmark at every corner, or the Cote D’Azur where beautiful people strut the streets of Cannes and Nice shoulder-to-shoulder with film stars and socialites.
Sleepy, balmy Provence, however, can be overlooked – but the tantalizing mix of sun, cheap wine, stunning landscapes and a sense of real, under-the-radar coolness make it the perfect destination for your next getaway.
When it comes down to it, Provence is different to the rest of France – and the rest of Europe. Its charms lie not in the hectic lifestyle of stylish Parisian millennials, the edgy underground vibes of Berlin, or the buzzing streets of Amsterdam, but in its lethargic slowness. The streets are busy, the cafes overflow onto the streets and roads and squares, the terraces of restaurants and bars are lively late into the night, but there is never a sense of urgency. To visit Provence is to take a deep breath, to soak up the irresistible atmosphere that finds stores closed between 12 and 2 as their owners eat lunch with their neighbouring shop-keepers, a bottle of cold wine on a warm evening never far away. Pack your sunglasses, your camera, a good book and shorts with an elasticated waistband. You’ll need them as you cover the seven best ways to spend your time in Provence.
1) Graze the local markets
Nothing feels quite as French as visiting one of the many, many markets which span the length and width of Provence in the summer months. Pick up a brightly coloured basket from a cheery stall vendor and stroll the shady, winding streets of pretty market towns teeming with locals and tourists alike. If you play your cards right, you could eat a full meal just by trying the free samples alone, but you’re unlikely to escape without indulging in some kind of super fresh, authentically-French fare.
2) Create your own picture-perfect postcard by visiting the lavender fields
If you can, plan your visit to the area to coincide with the bloom of the lavender fields. The end of June through to the beginning of July is the best time to see, photograph and frolic in the fields of endless purple which embody Provence. The fields in front of 12th century monastery Abbie du Semanque are possibly the most famous in the region, but they can be crowded with coach trips, and after 11am official tour guides are required to explore the grounds. Head to the Abbey early, then head on through the winding roads of Luberon, where you’ll happen upon countless roadside fields which offer incredible views without the danger of having a selfie-stick shoved up your nose. Never has the term ‘Instagram worthy’ been so appropriate.
3) Eat like a local
You probably already know that the French are passionate about their food, but in Provence this passion becomes an all-out love affair. For the best croissants, follow the locals to any boulangerie early in the day, where the pastries are freshly made throughout the morning. You might have to wait a couple of minutes, but your breakfast will be flaky, fresh and warm from the oven.
Grab a Provence style baguette – a thin, crusty loaf which usually costs less than a euro – and some local cheese from the supermarket and have lunch al fresco in a bustling square.
If sitting down with cutlery and napkins is more your style, try Ginette and Marcel in Avignon for tartines (open-faced sandwiches) with a side of people watching, or for an upmarket dinner check out seriously-foodie St Remy de Provence where there are any number of gourmet restaurants to tempt you. If all else fails, most patisseries do a wide range of mini desserts from eclairs to mille feulle to macarons, so you can have your cake and eat it too, or cool off from the steamy heat with an ice cream from any of the artisan glaciers which line the streets.
4) Embrace French cafe culture
One thing you should know before setting foot in a cafe in Provence – ‘to go’ is not an option here. Rather than your extra hot, no foam, sugar-free, hazelnut skinny latte poured into a Styrofoam cup sending you on your caffeinated way in less than two minutes flat, in France – and the south especially – coffee (or tea, hot chocolate, juice) is an event to be celebrated. Spend an hour on a sun-drenched terrace sipping espresso (“cafe” if you feel like being truly French) or a “grand creme” which will still be smaller (and tastier) than any coffee you’d find in Starbucks. Settle in for the morning, make friends with your waiter and watch the world go by.
image by 1xklima via flickr
5) Get bargain hunting
There’s no nation as chic as the French, and Provence is no exception. You’ll find most of the big chain stores in the larger cities, but give them a miss and hunt down the fabulous boutiques, jewellery shops and antique arcades which permeate the region. You can’t beat the riverside town of Isle Sur La Sorgue which boasts shops on every corner and an antiques market that runs on most Saturdays. Alongside the more upmarket stores you’ll find smaller shops which sell everything from quirky homeware to delicate jewellery.
6) Soak up some history
If you’re a culture buff, look no further. Provence has everything from the ruins of ancient Roman towns and amphitheatres, to world class museums, to a palace which once housed the Pope. If you love art, you can visit the asylum where Vincent Van Gogh stayed, have lunch in the the square in Arles which features in one of his most famous ‘Starry Night’ paintings and take in the paintings themselves at the Van Gogh exhibition. If history is your thing, visit Avignon where you can take in the Palais De Pape (where the Catholic church was based for nearly a century) and the ruins of the famous bridge. All together now: sur la pont, d’Avignon…
7) Explore the area
There are any number of ways you could spend your days in Provence, from beaches to cities, from vineyards to sleepy one-horse villages, but honestly, there’s no greater way to spend a Provencal afternoon than by exploring the diverse towns and villages. No two days need ever be the same. Head to Les Baux, a hilltop village where the shops are carved into the walls and you’ll feel like a Disney princess roaming an enchanted town. If you’re in the Luberon area, check out Rousillon, a village nestled amongst red rock which gives the streets a strangely captivating unique orange glow. Avignon is good for culture (and transport links: the trains and buses go all over France from the station here) while St Remy de Provence offers a walled, bustling town with more ice cream shops and artisan patisseries than you could ever hope to eat your way through. There’s always next time…
Provence is a beautiful, diverse region that makes the perfect chilled-out getaway – whatever you want out of your trip. Do yourself a favour and book a ticket asap to enjoy everything it has to offer.
This is a guest post by Sarah James.
Sarah is a journalism student and freelance writer currently based in London, England. She loves travelling and exploring by eating her way around new destinations. You can follow her travels on Instagram @sarahj1257.