My fellow friends and family looked at me in horror when I said my husband and I would travel to Provence and southern France in March 2022. When we bought the tickets to Paris in January 2022, the omicron virus was still raging in both the US and EU and the border situation was precarious. Regardless, we took a gamble on the tickets. It was our last chance to take a long vacation and go abroad (due to husband’s work duties), and we were itching to travel.
So why France, and Provence in particular?
First, I have been studying French for two years and wanted to put my skills to the test; plus, husband’s French is pas mal.
Second, nearly all of my relatives live in France. Seriously. I should just move there.
Finally, and most importantly, we chose Provence for one reason: the sun. Provence gets over 300 days of sunshine per year, which is like heaven compared to Portland’s paltry 144 days of sun. We were way overdue for some sunshine and a few sunburns.
The City of Avignon: Our Provencal Base
Avignon is most well-known for it’s half-demolished bridge, the Pont d’Avignon, which has been made famous through the famous lullaby song, sur le pont d’Avignon. We chose Avignon as our “base” in Provence thanks to the trusty advice of Rick Steves — and Avignon did not disappoint.
In Europe, the reality of smaller cities can sometimes be shocking due to poor economic circumstances, much like the US. While these smaller cities are heavily promoted through majestic photos of their historic churches and monuments; the reality of stepping foot into shuttered shops and decaying homes can really change the perspective of these historical cities (I often found this in Spain).
Luckily, Avignon was not as run-down as I expected. This smaller city has a tram and bus network, with a massive high-speed rail station near the city center. The core of the city itself is a well-maintained medieval block of buildings, with the famed papal palace at its center. I was shocked to find a slew of ethnic cuisine that include Moroccan, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian and more. On the weekends this city was a bustling hub of activity with department stores, small shops, open produce markets and festivals.
We stayed at the Garland Hotel, which looks like a hostel from the google reviews, but is actually a full blown hotel with the best customer service we had in France. This “real” bed and breakfast is run by an older French couple who love to chat up their customers and dole out Provence travel advice. Our hotel room looked out to a picturesque road of the medieval square and was a mere ten minute walk to the papal palace and train station. If you go to Avignon, you must stay at this hotel. The hotel and its owners were one of the highlights of my trip.
Arles, the the heart of Provence and French Rome
We did a day trip to Arles to see the amphitheater, one of the most well-preserved roman ruins not just in France, but in the world. This thing is really damn old, dating back to 90 AD. This theater sits right smack in the center of the city and acts as the heart of this community. As history nerds, this was a real treat for both myself and husband.
We stopped by a sandwich shop called Saveurs et Terroirs near the coliseum, as it was the only thing open on Sunday in France. A young man wearing a beret happily shuffled us into the tiny shop, comprised of a small counter and two tables. A boisterous, middle-aged gentlemen donning an apron was behind the counter in the “kitchen,” which was literally a small corner that barely fit a cutting board, a sink, and one stove burner. He made us one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever had in my life. My sandwich literally had eight types of cheeses in it. The two of them chatted with us the entire time and even suffered through our bad French. It was wonderful.
The real gem of Arles, to our surprise, was the Museon Arlaten, an “ethnographic museum.” I knew nothing about local Provencal culture, but thanks to this museum I realized that, like China, France has dozens of minority cultures — the most famous being the Celtic hub, Brittany. Provencal is also a strong reigonal culture that even has its own Provencal dialect (or, more broadly, Occitane). Seeing the traditional Provencal dress, festivals, language, stories, and even music was fascinating. This was one of the most well-designed museums I have ever visited.
Cassis, the Calanque, and the Cote d’Azur
Have you heard of the Calanque?
It’s one of France’s crown natural jewels and wow, it was stunning beyond belief. I was ashamed that I had never heard of this national park before coming here, as it was one of the most breathtaking views I’ve seen in all of Europe (and the world!). This limestone hike is easily accessible by foot from the small town of Cassis, which sits on the shoreline of the Cote d’Azur.
We decided to go to Cassis primarily for the Calanque, but were equally shocked by the beauty of Cassis. The moment we stepped out of the train station and onto the (free!!) bus that took us to the Cassis city center, we knew we were in the land of the rich and famous. Cassis is filled with high-end condos, designer shops, sparkling tennis courts and upscale restaurants. This small town on the mediterranean literally sparkles with its scrubbed sidewalks facing the azure sea. This is where James Bond most definitely parks his yacht and drinks a manhattan on the beach.
Aix En Provence: A boring but extremely livable city
For tourists there isn’t much to see in Aix, but since many of the guides recommended visiting Aix, husband and I decided to spend one night in the wealthiest city in Provence.
Husband and I enjoyed the sprawling university, the clean streets, the open markets, the many shops and the wide variety of impeccable dining. I won’t lie, husband and I started to fantasize about living, or retiring in, this lovely yet vivacious city. A clean city with a beach nearby, a young population (thanks to the uni), and 300 days of sun? Sign me up.
What shocked me most about France and Provence?
Before going to France I had many preconceived notions about the country — and even Provence. Although I had been to Paris before as a young girl, going to France as an older adult with some French under my belt was a completely different experience. Here’s what surprised me most.
- French people are surprisingly friendly! French get a really bad rapport for being rude and aloof, but I was continually stunned by their passion and polite manner. I was greeted with a “bonjour” everywhere I went, and no conversation ended without someone telling me to have a “bonne journée.” This friendly demeanor could be a result of husband and I attempting to speak French, but regardless, I was pleasantly surprised by the smiles and warm greetings.
- Holy shit, French food is really good. In my post about Italy I said the food alone was worth the trip, but I have to say that French food took the art of culinary travel to a whole new level. French food offers the entire spectrum from traditional meat and potatoes to haute cuisine topped with seafood foam. I think the creativity and evolution of French cuisine was astounding. In France, I felt like I had five star dining every night — and at half the price as I would pay in the US.
- French people are so chill. I started to question if French people get stressed, because they seemed to shrug off everything. It was eye-opening to speak to my French-Vietnamese relatives who, despite looking Asian, acted very French. Seeing the French take life at a slower, easier pace (and not stress the little things) helped me reset and take a step back from the anxiety of US life.
- Pollution in Cote d’Azur is terrible! When most people imagine a city by the shore, they think of clear, blue skies and rays of sunshine. Well, in Cassis, we had a haze of pollution hang over the city and ocean our entire duration there. Luckily the Calanque was less polluted, but I was shocked to find out that Cote d’Azur’s pollution is second only to Paris due to geographical location, less public transport, and more driving (with diesel fuel). Definitely a bummer.
Without my French relatives, there is no way I would have studied French or taken a trip to France specifically. I have to thank my family for introducing me to a new and fascinating culture that, I must say, I harshly misjudged. After two years of studying French and taking this trip to Provence, I can say with confidence that I (finally) have learned to appreciate French culture and history.
Have you been to France? Any thoughts on the French?