Guide to Packing for Provence

Winter in Provence is a time to bundle-up, grab your raclette machine and fire up some tasty cheese-laden potatoes, and start dreaming of the spring and summer months to come. At least that’s what gets us through the winters here… given it was a tender 7°C today (with a biting Mistral wind nipping at our heels!) compared to a whopping 28 °C (84°F) at my home town in California. Oh woe is me…

So to help y’all get prepared for your South-of-France vacays, I thought it would be a good idea to include a list of some “essentials” to get you packin’.  Of course you can buy a lot of these items when you arrive in Provence, but hey, I’m American, and if it’s one thing we like, it’s to be prepared! And how…

Packing for Provence – 12 Essential items:

1. Sunscreen & a hat (sunglasses too)

Sunscreen is a funny thing in the south; some people are all about it, while others spray on only a fine mist of oil in pursuit of the perfect tan. All a big advancement from the days (many moons ago) when, according to our neighbor, they used to coat themselves with olive oil before hitting la plage… oh wow oh wow. But make no mistake, you need a decent sunblock all year round (even hot, sunny days can catch you by surprise in the winter). Hats are very helpful, especially in the summer, and if you’d don’t have an umbrella to take to the beach, a hat goes a long way to protecting you in the summer months.

2. Sandals (men & women)

Another must-do for the hot months (late spring through  early fall) is a good pair of sandals, or flip-flops as they’re actually called in French (!). I’ve tried socks & shoes along the beach (the die-hard American in me) and believe me, when the temps soar they’re far from très comfortable.

3. Cotton clothes or other “breathable” fabrics

Staying on the “hot” theme, packing for late spring, summer, and early fall requires bringing a good many “breathable” clothing items – things that are certain to keep you cool especially in June, July & August.  I remember last summer we experienced a heat wave from early June through September and I all but lived in cotton shorts and a tank top…and of course a bathing suit for soaking in those cool Mediterranean waters.

4. Shorts, shorts, and more shorts (late spring, summer & early fall)

A pretty obvious one, but can also substitute dresses and skirts for the ladies.

5. For the ladies… 2-3 multi-use scarves (springtime, fall or winter)

This is definitely one thing you can buy in France, and if you’re into scarves, you’ll find a great selection here.  All quite useful for dressing up an outfit, keeping you warm if the Mistral wind starts whipping up, or even spreading out as a make-shift picnic blanket if the mood strikes (believe me, it can happen!).

6. Layers (springtime, fall or winter)

Outside of the hot months, French people tend to dress in layers.  For a fall day, I usually start out with a blouse (or t-shirt) covered by a light button-up sweater, further covered by a light jacket, and topped with a long, sheer scarf. This might sound a lot more elaborate than it really is because you only need to bring 2-3 sweaters and a few tops and keep rotating them as you go.  As the mornings tend to be cool at that time of year, and then can turn surprisingly warmer in the mid-afternoon, I just peel the layers off as I go and then put everything back on as evening rolls around.

7. Sturdy shoes

Provence is a big place, with lots of hills, and lots of hilltop villages.  Chances are you’ll do a decent amount of walking on both. And contrary to popular belief, French people do wear tennis shoes… they just usually happen to be très-chic and somewhat “glittery”…

8. Portable shopping sacks

Another thing you can pick up in France, but if you have a trusted one you travel with, I’d bring it along.  These are usually super lightweight, cost about €1 if you purchase them here, and are perfect for stashing in your purse, backpack or even back pocket.  They come in handy when shopping at the outdoor markets or really anywhere that isn’t a boutique in France.

9. A French-English Dictionary/Phrasebook

This one should probably be at the top of the list because one thing I can guarantee is that if you come to Provence and try to speak French (even a few phrases!) it will greatly improve your travel experience. Even when my French was downright terrible (not so long ago…) I found that people were quite “impressed” or even, dare I say, flattered, that I attempted to communicate in their language.  It will get you a long way to “making friends” and you’ll probably receive better service to boot.

10. For foodies (& food allergies!) …a French Food Phrasebook

Just what is lurking in the sauce covering your magret de canard?  And just what the heckola is magret de canard in the first place? Navigating a French menu can be an exercise in hope and prayer if you’re not familiar with French food terms. Also, being able to speak about food with French people can also enrich your trip, let alone keep you “safe” if you have any food intolerances or follow a special diet.

11. A trusted camera

Another obvious one, but you don’t want to come unprepared with all the beautiful places you’ll see around the south… ie. bring back-up photo cards!

12. A sense of humor

Some of the ways French people do things – like pastries, bread, fashion, food, art, etc – will completely knock-your-socks-off.  Other things, um, not so much… Shops aren’t always open when you’d like them to be, secondhand smoke is a fact of life, and your waiter might possibly forget you exist for a good half an hour. That being said, if you come with a sense of humor you’ll see that some of the most baffling things about French culture also lend a lot, surprisingly, to its charm. And can also make for some funny stories in hindsight… I remember my first trip to France when I wanted to buy a train ticket from Paris to Rouen to visit Monet’s house at Giverny.  I must have tried 10 different ways to pronounce Rouen to the young Frenchman at the ticket window when finally a light bulb clicked on and he literally shouted back at me, “Oh, you mean RO-UUENNN! RO-UUEENN! RO-UUEENNNN!!” His eyes glistened and he face flushed an alarming shade of red as he yelled the name again and again… At the time I thought he was incredibly rude and I vowed to never speak a word of French again. But in hindsight I realize I was probably the umpteenth person that day, let alone that week, to butcher the name and he was mostly likely at his wits end… which, I must concede, I was so far away from the correct pronunciation I could have ended up anywhere but RO-UUEENN!

Things you may need, but can buy in France…

-Picnic supplies

-Beach towel

-Mosquito repellant (absolutely essential in summer)

-First-aid supplies, aspirin, cold medicine

If you’re really ambitious…

-Bubble-wrap for all those wine bottles you’ll want to lug home!

I hope this list is helpful for your trip-planning, and please feel free to add any items that you’ve found essential on past travels to France / Provence in the comment section below.

Bon voyage!