Belle Provence Travels

A South of France Blog

What to do in Provence… in the Spring

April 23, 2017

Greetings dear readers and friends. What an absolutely lovely time of year in Provence! We managed to make it to the beach in Bandol this morning at around 9am (a small miracle) and there was not another soul around. We spent a peaceful hour or so before a few families showed up, and what a difference from the “high season” crowds. Plus, the weather was gorgeous – not a cloud in the sky and full of that famous South-of-France sunshine.

Today, I’m sharing a few of my favorite ways to spend the spring season in Provence… bon voyage!

-Visit the Gorges du Verdon

Have I mentioned before just how gorgeous the Gorges du Verdon is? Wow, this place will take your breath away. And truth be told, I’ve only ever visited the Gorges du Verdon on the off-season because it gets really, really busy during the summer months. Spring is a great time to visit. You can go camping, kayak down the river itself, and mainly just revel in the natural beauty that is this beautiful corner of Provence. There are great restaurants and hotels nearby (like Alain Ducasse’s at La Bastide de Moustiers), charming villages to visit, and tours offered around the region by companies like Getaway in Provence.

A Saturday morning in April at the Aix-en-Provence market.

-Go market-hopping

I admit that I say this almost every season, but what a wonderful time of year to visit the outdoor markets of Provence! For one, everything is just green, green, green. Artichokes, asparagus, green beans, fava beans, lettuce of all varieties – they all make their star appearance in the spring. I have more recipes saved in my “recipe file” than I can find time to make, but I can’t wait to get out to the market each spring to try my hand at a new dish.

-Picnic by the sea

I had a day off in the middle of this week and just happened to pop-down to our local beach around 10am… and found it almost empty. A few people playing with their kids in the sand, and some retired folks on their beach chairs, but beyond that, my friend and I were quite alone. And what a place! Warm enough to wear our sandals (and put our toes in the water) but not too hot at all- the calm crystal-blue waters of the Mediterranean right at our feet.  I’m looking forward to returning with a big picnic basket and enjoying this beautiful time of year.

Our “All about Asparagus” cooking class with Chef Simone.

-Take a cooking class

If you’re anything like me, you might get a kick out of taking your cooking skills to the next level with a cooking class. I remember several springs ago, we were fortunate enough to attend a class were the theme was “all about” asparagus. I still use the cooking techniques we learned that day, plus I learned many new ways to enjoy this springtime veggie – in salads, soups, and simply well-seasoned.

-Attend a springtime festival

As in summer and fall, spring festivals abound in Provence. There are festivals to celebrate the arrival of spring, nature festivals (complete with a balade gourmande, gourmet “walk”), and of course, the ever-present food festivals (& a rosé wine festival, Just’ Rosé , in Sanary-sur-Mer: April 29 – May 1st). One thing I noticed recently was the number of festivals / parties taking place at vineyards. This is a great way to discover different vineyards around the area while enjoying a day out with lunch / activities. Two useful sites for finding out which festivals are happening during your travels are Visit Var and Provence Guide.

A seat in the sunshine, Le Castellet village.

-Take a hilltop-village road trip

Sunlit, cobblestoned-streets and alleyways that have flowers popping out of every village-terraced house… what could be prettier than a Provençal hilltop-village in the spring? You can pick a few of your favorites, and make a road trip out of it… picnicking along the way. It’s no secret that our absolute favorite is Le Castellet village; about a 30-minute drive from Aix-en-Provence.

A visit to St. Tropez in May.

-Get a little glitzy in St. Tropez

St. Tropez is actually a very beautiful, charming town to visit in the South of France. Unfortunately, it loses a bit of its “quaintness” during the peak summer months – where you can wait literally hours in a line of cars trying to get into town. I remember we thought we’d do a quick St. Trop “pop-in” one weekend in late June and quickly did an about-face when we saw the line into town. That being said, I have the absolute fondest memory of visiting the weekend market around Easter-time last year. Simply gorgeous.

-Go camping in Provence Verte

While running around the markets and soaking up the sun along the coast, it’s easy to overlook one of the most beautiful spots in Provence – Provence Verte, or “Green Provence”. This area is quite close to us in the Var region (further out if you’re traveling in the Vaucluse or the Luberon) and has some of the prettiest villages around, like Barjols, Correns, and Cotignac. Think total nature surrounded by flowing rivers (perfect for kayaking, which we tried one time on the Argens river), vineyards, and hiking trails. Many of the villages have camping areas right next to, or just outside of, town. A very relaxing introduction to this gorgeous Provençal “backcountry”. Check out the website, Provence Verte for planning tips.

A weekend trip to Aix… you’ll still need a sweater, but look at all that sunshine.

-Soak up a little café-culture in Aix-en-Provence

A visit to Aix at any time of the year is a wonderful experience, and when the “beaux jours” (beautiful days) arrive, it’s all the better. It’s hard to think of a better way to spend the afternoon than having a long, relaxing lunch on Cours Mirabeau and watching the world go by. Or you can simply post-up in any of the sidewalk cafés and enjoy some of the finest “café culture” in all of France. You’ll see people lingering over their coffees (you can stay as long as you like), but don’t be afraid to try a traditional Pastis or the Provençal drink du jour, an ice-cold glass of rosé.

-Take a bike tour

Spring is also a great time to go cycling around Provence. Everything is in bloom… not to mention that a lot of bike tours take you through the vineyards where the first signs of tiny, green buds are just appearing on the vines – a very pretty sight to see and also a nice excuse to pop-in for some wine-tasting along the way.

 

How to Use French while Traveling… no matter what your level

January 29, 2017

Greetings dear readers and friends. Well, I’m writing this post from a very chilly South of France. Even though the snow hasn’t reached us yet, many towns to the north have had more than a bit of a white-dusting.

Today’s post comes from a comment I received on the blog that really got me thinking about speaking French while traveling in Provence (or the rest of France for that matter). And although I don’t claim to be an expert, it’s true that by trial and error (a lot of error), I’ve come to feel more at ease using French and hope I can provide some positive feedback to future travelers.  Here is a snippet of the original comment as I think a lot of readers might have the same questions in mind:

“I am curious how the locals treat people who are not fluent in French. I took two years of French in college, but I am always hesitant to use it and mess up! Should I still try, or will it annoy people there? Will it annoy them more if I *don’t* try?”

Well, first of all, I say you absolutely should try – no matter what your level. And in my opinion, if you sprinkle around the 3 “magic words”- bonjour (bonsoir in the evening), s’il vous plait, and merci, you are sure to impress the French and most likely be treated a bit better. And hopefully you’ll have a more enriching travel experience.

Because, when it comes down to it, the one thing that the French value almost above all else is politeness. And the more polite you are, the more likely you are to receive the service you desire. That being said, *bad* service exists in France, but, in my opinion, it has nothing to do with speaking the language. It’s simply the people working / running the place.

In shops and boutiques, or even at the market, I used to wait for someone to say “bonjour” before I felt obligated to respond. Sometimes, the American in me, just wanted to get “in & out” with my purchases so I would make a beeline for what I needed and then quietly walk to the cash register. Well, over time, I learned that when you enter a shop, boutique, restaurant, or approach a market stand, etc, a greeting of “bonjour” is absolutely essential. I still have to remind myself, but now I make a point of saying Bonjour Madame or Bonjour Monsieur in my daily routine. You can think of “bonjour” as your proverbial “foot in the door” with French people, and from there the exchange is indeed usually very pleasant.

Pâtisserie Béchard in Aix-en-Provence, a friendly place to try out your French

Pâtisserie Béchard in Aix-en-Provence, a friendly place to try out your French

And if you don’t speak a lot of French, it doesn’t matter! Think of yourself walking into a bakery (I myself am thinking of lovely Pâtisserie Béchard in Aix-en-Provence) and you would like to sample some of their tasty breads or pastries. All you need is your “bonjour”, and then you ask for what you would like. Bonjour, une baguette s’il vous plait.  Hello, a baguette please.

Then you can add on the final touch, a nice “merci” at the end of the exchange and, equally important, a simple “au revoir” when leaving. Often, people will wish you a “bonne journée” (Have a good day) which is another easy way to be polite. Au revoir Madame / Monsieur, bonne journée. The most important thing here is that you’ve got to have the guts to do it! Believe me, it took me more than a few tries… but the result was well-worth it.

Of course, if you are a more advanced speaker of French, this may only serve as the start of a longer conversation, but these standard phrases are a perfect door-opener and also allow basic speakers to have simple, pleasant interactions on their travels.

Honestly, I feel like I spend half my day just using this few phrases. I’ll ask for something at the bakery, cheese shop, or the market, and then usually I’m on my way. Occasionally someone might ask where my accent is from or perhaps make a comment on what I’m buying, but generally this is as far as it goes. And I find I get treated much better than my previous “duck & cover” method.

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If you do want to go a bit further in your exchanges, here are a few more helpful phrases to use around town:

-Excusez-moi… Excuse me…

-C’est combien s’il vous plait?    How much is it please?

-Je voudrais deux (trois, quatre,…) s’il vous plait.     I’d like two (three, four, …) please.

-Vous prenez les cartes de crédit ?  Do you take credit cards?

-Un sac s’il vous plait.    A bag please.

-Avez-vous… ?   Do you have… a table for four, (un table pour quatre) a restroom (une toilette), a double room (une chambre double), etc.

-Comment allez vous? How are you (formal)?

-Bonne journée Have a good day.

-Bonne soirée Have a good evening.

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Of course there are many more French expressions that are helpful, more than I even have space to list, but I hope this will give you a good start… and a boost of confidence in your travels.

 

Have you used French while traveling? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below!

 

What to do in Provence… in the Summer

July 1, 2016

Greetings dear readers and friends. Summer is here! And let me just say, thank goodness… this is by far the most exciting time of the year in the south of France. In our little corner of Toulon, the beaches are not full yet, which makes for great strolls along the seaside and early-morning dips in the Med for the brave of heart!  Plus, festival season is up and running. This is my absolute favorite thing about living in Provence… the food festivals.  In past years, we’ve attended several summer food festivals – many in Toulon but also in neighboring Saint Mandrier-sur-Mer, an Aïoli festival in the village of La Crau, a soupe au pistou festival in Ollioules, and by far my favorite… a rosé wine festival in Pierrefeu (August 6th this year). These are only a small sampling of festivals taking place around the region, and I’ve included several others below, plus links for where to find other fêtes taking place around Provence.

Whether you’re a seasoned south-of-France traveler, or this is your first trip “down south” I hope this list will give you a few ideas of how to best spend your summer in la belle Provence!

 

What to do in Provence in the Summer:

1. Take a ferry to the Île de Porquerolles and spend the day hiking, biking, or simply lying around la plage

2. Make a picnic from goodies bought at the market and take it to the sea – good spots for this are Toulon, Bandol, Sanary-sur-Mer, & Cassis…just to name a few!

3. Attend a lavender festival, dates available from Routes de la Lavande.

4. Attend any number of village festivals… each one with a different “foodie” theme, including fish, soupe au pistou, and rosé wine. Find a list of festivals at Visit Var  and Provence Guide.

5. Spend the afternoon on Cours Mirabeau in Aix-en-Provence… enjoying a glass of wine and doing absolutely nothing.

6. Visit the Calanques at Cassis and treat yourself to a gelato along the port at Amorino.

7. Take the train from Marseille to Nice for fantastic scenery – or cut it short and have lunch in Antibes, taking in the views of old town and the giant yachts parked along the quay.

8. Eat a heaping bowl of bouillabaisse, or the catch of the day, at the Vieux Port in Marseille.

9. Take in a theatre performance, or two, at the Festival d’ Avignon.

10. Go on an antiques splurge, or just browse till your heart’s content in picture-perfect Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. The bi-annual antique fair takes place the weekend of August 12-15, find all the details here.

11. Visit the Provençal markets as much as possible… they’re at their absolute prettiest during the spring and summer months. (Don’t forget to arrive early!)

Market Sanary

Summer markets, not to be missed…

12. Splurge and get a “thalasso” (spa) treatment at the Hotel Ile Rousse in Bandol.

13. Escape the heat in the “Tivoli of Provence”, Barjols – the village of “100 fountains” and a stone’s throw away from beautiful vineyards where you can visit and sample local wines. 

14. Attend the Toulon Jazz Festival – a series of free concerts hosted all around the city.

15. Visit the “garden of the Mediterranean” at Domaine du Rayol.

16. Do nothing at all (far niente) … spend your days at any of the beautiful beaches along the coast.

17. Cool off with a visit to  Fountain de Vaucluse.

18. Pick-up your favorite guidebook and do any number of self-guided walking tours – my favorites are in Aix-en-Provence, St. Rémy de Provence, & Nice.

19. Dig into a plate of Aïoli, a regional summer specialty… for fish and garlic-lovers only!

Mourillon beach

Or simply do nothing at all…

These are only a few of the fun ways to spend your summer in Provence… please feel free to share your own ideas in the comments below and, as always, bon voyage!