A sunny lavender field in Provence
What makes something “French?” Simply originating from France isn’t quite enough. For most people, there’s an indescribable attitude to the idea, a certain quality of je-ne-sais-quoi suggesting perfection of the art of living. Many pilgrims in search of this quality find themselves on the doorstep of Paris. They’re dazzled by the art and glamour of the City of Lights. But when Parisians think of warmth and simple comforts – of living the “French” experience – they think of Provence
Provence is a province of southeastern France, bordered by the Rhone River, the Mediterranean Sea and Italy. It was the first Roman province beyond the Alps (hence the name) and formed the seat of the Languedoc region. For centuries it was self-governed by the Counts of Provence from their capitol in Aix-en-Provence before finally merging with the rest of France in 1481. As such, it has a distinct cultural and linguistic identity that makes it a popular destination for both national and international tourists. Not sure where to start? Check out the Top 10 Villages in Provence.
Sadly, every trip must end. But you can bring a little bit of Provence with you when you go, a few key items to inspire those quiet memories of the sun, air, and the sense that somewhere life’s secrets have been figured out.
Calissons & Other Sweets
Calissons are a traditional Provencal candy. They’re candied fruits and almonds, rather like melon-flavored marzipan. About two inches in length, they’re usually almond-shaped and topped with a thin layer of royal icing. Calissons are historically associated with the town of Aix-en-Provence, and as such that is where some of the best in the world can be found. While they can be stored at room temperature and preserve well, they are best served cold. Just driving through? See what else you can do in Aix-en-Provence in under 48 hours.
Herbes de Provence & Olive Oil
The component parts infused in Herbes de Provence olive oil
Every chef knows that olive oil is the king of oils when it comes to health, flavor and cooking ability. But not content with being the best, artisans in Provence sought perfection in their oils. This led to the development of “Herbes de Provence,” a fine-grade olive oil infused with thyme, lavender and garden herbs. World-renowned chefs swear by it when cooking roasted chicken, lamb, potatoes, soup, stews, grilled meats, or goat cheese. Our favorite use? As a dipping sauce for a crusty loaf of fresh-baked bread. Find out more about famous dishes in the south of France
But don’t just buy a bottle to take home – one of the major benefits of being in a new place is to cook native dishes with local ingredients. However, most hotels don’t offer cooking facilities. If you’re visiting for under one month, consider staying in one of our vacation rental apartments and villas. If you’ll be in Provence more long-term, take a peek at our furnished apartments and villas.
Scented bars of the best soap in the world: Savon de Marseille
French milled or triple milled Provencal soap has a reputation for being among the best in the world. It’s made by shredding cold-processed soap, drying it, then running the shreds through a series of rollers three times to remove all traces of lye. This process makes the resulting bar much harder than normal soap, and is less harmful to the skin. It’s a great choice for those with delicate skin, and the lack of lye means all the perfume notes of scented bars can shine through. The resulting lather is much richer and creamier as well. Another famous French soap is Savon de Marseille. Savon de Marseille is made via a time-proven method from the middle ages where olive oil is heated for ten days before being poured into molds and cut. Many little boutiques in Provence sell both Savon de Marseille and French milled soap, so be sure to pick up several bars in your favorite scents!
Dried lavender bunches from Provence perfume the air and soothe aches and pains
Fields of lavender are almost synonymous with Provence at this point, and some of the most beautiful photographs of the region feature abundant hills of swaying purple reeds. The smell of lavender is reputed to have holistic healing properties as well, soothing joint pain and promoting cleansing and renewal. As such, lavender is heavily incorporated into many aspects of life in Provence, from teas to sachets to potpourri and even ice cream. It’s also used widely as an air freshener and deodorizer, and many French people tuck it in drawers and wardrobes for lovely-smelling clothes. It’s considered good luck to have a bunch of lavender drying on or near the front door of a house, so make sure you don’t leave Provence without it!
There are as many different kinds of wine as there are kinds of people, and quality can vary even from one acre to another. Wine grapes can be incredibly temperamental, and quality depends on everything from the soil to the amount of rain in a given year. Fortunately, the rich land and consistent climate make Provence one of the best producers of wine in the country, and it supplies a whopping 40% of all French wine. Red wine is the most common from this region, but the unique rosés from around Aix-en-Provence are certainly worth trying.
Yes, the bugs. But not really. Unlike in the United States where cicadas come out every ten or even seventeen years, cicadas in France are an annual affair. Notable for their large bodies and loud chirping, their ubiquitous presence in Provence has inspired locals to turn them into something of a folk art form. Throughout Provence you can find decorative plastic or glass painted cicadas. Locals hang them up around the house and some of them have hollow insides to hold flowers or dried lavender. Not sure where to get one? Try the little boutiques around Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.
Faience and Potteries
Few things are more emblematic of Provence than brightly colored stoneware scattered casually over well-loved tables. Faience pottery is among the most famous kinds of pottery in Provence, and is characterized by vibrant designs painted against a stark white background. The white color is the key marker of these ceramic pieces – back when the art was first developing in the seventeenth century kilns had to heat to over 1000 degrees Celsius to achieve the desired result. Faience blanche is the term for stoneware that has been fired white but left undecorated. The most popular type of faience dish is a large serving bowl, but many potters in Provence sell a wide variety of faience goods.
The perfume factory of world-class perfumer Fragonard
If you’re looking for perfume, you can’t do better than Grasse. Grasse is widely acknowledged to be the perfume capitol of the world, and has had a prospering perfume industry since the end of the 18th century. World-famous “noses” are trained in Grasse to distinguish over 2,000 different scents, and Grasse produces over two-thirds of France’s perfumes and food flavorings. Visit the perfume factory of famous perfumer Fragonard on your visit or create your own scent at one of perfumer Galimard’s workshops in Grasse or Eze. Even the air in the town smells distantly floral, thanks to abundant jasmine and honeysuckle, making it a great destination for romantics.
Olive Wood Utensils
Forget your stainless steel salad spoons and worn plastic serving bowls. Not only are olive wood utensils more beautiful and earth-friendly, they’re also extremely durable. A good set of olive utensils will last a lifetime. The grain of the wood is extremely tight, which discourages bacteria, and the light and dark contrast of the wood’s natural swirl makes it one of the most desirable woods in the world. Fortunately olive wood grows in abundance in Provence, so you should have no difficulty getting a nice set of beautiful utensils.
Provencal textiles: it once was actually illegal for this cloth to be so pretty
What’s the natural reaction to fabrics so popular they’re putting other cloths out of business? Banning them of course! In 1686 the colorful cotton textiles from Provence – modeled after the originals from India – were banned from production and trade. Crafty merchants tried to evade the law by relocating to Comtat Venaissin near Avignon, which as a Papal enclave was not subject to the ruling. (Curious about Avignon? Find out more about the historic city of Avignon
) Thus a thriving black market trade was born, only to be shut down thirty-eight years later when the law caught up with the town. It took until the 19th century for those ancient factories to reappear and begin printing fabrics based on the original revolutionary designs. You can buy one for yourself when you visit Aix-en-Provence, and see just what it was that made Provencal textiles so popular they were actually illegal.
What are your favorite souvenirs from Provence? Would you recommend any not on this list? Let us know in the comments!