Ahhhhhh vive la France!!
I’m not sure how many of you have traveled to France, but my journey – from the very first time I visited to this last vacation – has been an interesting one.
Over a decade ago, I traveled to Paris with a friend of mine. She was a pharmacist and was going to a pharmaceutical convention in France. My job, along with another girlfriend, was to keep her daughter company while she worked. We had a ton of fun for 4 days, but I’m not going to lie…I was less than enamored with the people in Paris. It’s not that they were a terrible group, but it was just so much work to get them to “like” us. I’ve been to other parts of Europe where the laid back lifestyle and warmth in people’s hearts always made you want to trade in your passport and buy a house there. But, France was different. The people I encountered the first time I visited seemed to be annoyed with visitors…and I get it. The people of France live in one of the most romantic places on the planet and they must bombarded, daily with a bunch of North Americans who do everything way too fast and want “happiness” in a pill form. But we live differently here and most of us just don’t get the “laissez faire” life you need to adopt to get to that point of happiness. But when tourism is part of your “bread and butter”, they should at least try to understand that.
Fast forward a few years ago, when I was trying to plan a trip to France for my husband’s 50th birthday. This was pretty soon after the very first terrorist attacks in the city and my hubby had no interest in going to a potential terrorist hub (at least that’s what he thought it was).
Now, really fast forward to last month, when I finally convinced him that France was no different that any other part of the world in terms of safety (and since those first attacks, we have unfortunately seen many more of them all over the world). Plus, the biggest selling feature was that the south of France is a road cyclist’s dream (and, yes, he is one of them!). So, the vacation was planned and off we went to re-discover the beauty of France!
We began our journey with a few days in London…because if you can go to London, you absolutely should. It’s one of my favourite places to visit, partly because you get to experience all of the culture with no language barrier. I could tell you a million things about my love of London (and the surrounding areas), but you can just visit this blog post I did about London and Manchester !!
Our first stop in France was to Paris (we took the train from London, which is a great way to get there!)….and this time, Paris was awesome! The friends I traveled with had never been to Paris, so we visited the way most tourists visit…with trips to the Eiffel Tower, The Louvre (because everyone should see the Mona Lisa!), the beautiful town of Montmarte (known as the village of artists), Versailles (and it’s stunning gardens), Notre Dame, and all of the deliciousness that went along with Paris. We ate beef tartar, luscious sardines, lots of bread (and croissants), profiteroles, a ton of bordeaux and ended most evenings with a noisette (the French version of an espresso macchiato).
But, what I really want to focus on in this post is all of the beauty in the south of France. We rented a car a drove, from Paris, to our house in Carpentras, which would be our home for a week. This lovely home is a 9th century converted convent called Mas de La Quintine. The main house has been sympathetically restored and is filled with original features including old beams, two-feet thick walls and very high ceilings. There is also another “annex” off to the side that is like another apartment. There were only 6 of us, but the house sleeps 10, so it ended up being cheaper and less hectic than packing up everyday and finding a new hotel.
The beautiful town of Carpentras is known for it’s truffles and for it’s market every Friday. But, the town’s biggest attractions is it’s synagogue, built in 1367 and is the oldest one still used in France. The city has had a Jewish community since 1276 when the Jews were expelled from France, so the synagogue is a must see.
But, back to our lovely villa! The homeowners, a lovely British couple, left us this beautiful basket of goodies to welcome us…talk about European charm! We cracked open the wine and made a small charcuterie board with the goodies in the basket as well as some local cheese they left in the fridge for us!
It made us re-think our time in the south of France, and we all decided that coming back each day and creating a snack board would be the most “French” thing we could do!
Below are some examples of some of the boards we made!!
There are a multitude of cheeses in the south of France but most of the local cheeses we picked up at the market were made from goat milk. This gentleman below was a local cheese monger and he brought his homemade goat cheese to the market every day!!
And, even though you can find the variety of goat cheese we are used to getting at the grocers here in North America (the soft variety sold in logs), most of the goat cheese we bought in Provence was aged and looked more like brie (see our go-to goat cheese on the board below).
If you talk about cheese, you can’t forget to talk about bread and all the other carby goodness, right? I knew that while I was in France, I would get my fill of croissants. Wherever you went, there were croissants of all varieties. But the other breakfast treats we had often were chouquettes…
This pastry is a type of choux pastry made of dough sprinkled with pearl sugar and then baked to puffy perfection!! It was literally a calorie-free breakfast…because they were hollow…so, they were empty…so void of calories…right?
Please say right…
Anyhow, I digress. We were talking all things bread! So, we now know croissants are definitely a french thing, but so is bread! The bread, whether is was found at a market, in a restaurant or even at the grocers, was all exceptional!
I mean, we got this little sandwich at the market, just amazing soft and crunchy bread with 3 pieces of prosciutto, and it was only 1 euro!!!
When we were in Montmarte, we were busy trying to see all the “things” and realized we hadn’t had lunch so we stopped into a tiny bakery. It had a line up going out the door (always a good sign) so we waited a few minutes and grabbed a sandwich.
SERIOUSLY! Just 2 kinds of cheese, tomato and arugula …nothing else. It was extraordinary! I think one of my take-aways from this trip (and realizing I’ve always felt the same when I travel to Europe) is that too much of a good thing is always a bad thing. We, as North Americans, have a hard time with this concept.
Case in point…
The bread “station” below was from a restaurant we went to in Bedoin (more about that town later). It was a small table stacked with baskets for each guest table and on the board was the most amazing bread ever. I’m sure if a basket of this bread was brought to our table from the kitchen we would have thought it was great. But, the romanticism of seeing someone go to the bread station, where every patron can see it, and watch him cut the bread and bring it to your table…it just doesn’t get better than that!
Years ago, when I was in culinary school, I learned that bad bread at the beginning of your meal and/or bad coffee at the end of your meal can leave guests who have had a decent meal with so much dissatisfaction that they may never return. So, get the beginning and end right and you can be granted some forgiveness throughout the middle of the meal.
Well, these guys got this right for sure!
Now, we can’t talk about France without talking about wine, can we?
If you are a wine lover, France is definitely the place for you to vacation. But, like Italy, it can be overwhelming to try and get everything in. We could have gone to Bordeaux, Champagne, or even Châteauneuf-du-Pape (which was so close to us). But, we had so many things we wanted to see, we chose to do a tasting in our own small town of Carpentras. The place we visited was called Domaine de Marotte, a small winery run by dutch vintners since 1997. It was a lovely place bustling with young kids working the fields as they were in the middle of the harvest!!
And speaking of fields, you’d be disappointed if you went all the way to the south of France and saw no lavender fields. Well, we never saw lavender in the fields (it was just past the lavender harvest) so, at first we were disappointed. But then we were told it’s better to be here at this time of year because all of the lavender you buy is at it’s freshest!! So optimistic, right?
Well, you can bet I bought lots of little packets to give away, but I also bought lavender soap and we had the most incredible lavender tea in Gordes!!
Speaking of herbs, have you ever had herbes de provence? It is a mixture of dried herbs typical of the Provence region in France. The blends are often different, but most often they contain savory, marjoram, rosemary, thyme, and oregano.
If you are going to drink any local specialties, you must have cassis, a liqueur made from blackcurrants (originally from Cassis, a fishing port in the south of France) as well as the lesser known pastis, an anise-flavoured spirit that is amber in colour but turns cloudy when water and ice are added!
Need some sweet in your life while you travel? Well, don’t miss out on the amazing nougat you can find almost anywhere in France. We found this nougat at the market!!
And how about some glace aux fruit? Found at your local bakery or candy shop, it is real fruit that is placed in heated sugar syrup, where it absorbs the moisture from within the fruit and eventually preserves it. Excellent with a cheese board!!!!
And you can’t leave France without pate (which we saw in chunks at the market, in bottles [below] as well as a millions kinds of pate served in slabs at the grocery store!).
You also cannot serve a proper charcuterie board without some tapenade. The olive paste that hails from France is exceptional!!
Other foods that you shouldn’t miss are ratatouille (a stew of peppers, eggplant, onions and tomatoes...my recipe is here if you’d like to try your hand at it), salad nicoise (my version with salmon instead of tuna is here), bouillabaisse (which is a hearty fish stew), daube (which is France’s take on a beef stew), soupe au pistou (France’s version of a vegetable soup – always topped with pesto), and pissaladiere (a pizza made with caramelised onions, black olives, and anchovies)!!!
Now that I’ve told you the things you should eat, I want to leave you with a few little towns that I found to be hidden gems with rustic (but always delish) food…
In the town of Orange, there is a Roman theatre that was built early in the 1st century AD. It is really impressive and is smack dab in the middle of town. Of course we stopped to make sure we had enough food in our bellies to carry on to the next town…and this was one of the best salads I had on the trip! (NOTE: when travelling in France, dishes tend not to be vegetable heavy, so be cognizant of getting as many veg in as you can!!)
Mont Ventoux in Bedoin is the highest peak in France so of course it is a paradise for cyclists from all over the world (my husband and another gentleman that traveled with us rented bikes and cycled every morning…they said it is the best place to cycle!!!). And if you want spectacular food in a small town, you must visit Restaurant Lily et Paul (that’s where I snapped the pic of the bread station above!!). It’s also a walkers dream as the streets are lined with the most epic trees I have ever seen!
Although every town in the south has a market day (you can find a market open every day of the week and every day of the year in Provence!), the market in L’Isle Sur La Sorgues was the best…
…and one of the most beautiful hotels I’ve seen was La Bastide de Gordes …we just had drinks on the patio to admire the view, but it is definitely a stop you don’t want to miss!
Avignon, which is one of the biggest cities in the south of France, was the seat of the Catholic popes from 1309 to 1377 and remained under papal rule until becoming part of France in 1791. If you visit the Palais des Papes (Popes’ Palace) in the city center, you can see the history in all of it’s glory (the incredible thing here is that they give you virtual reality tablets so you can swipe them around each room as you enter and it will show you what it would have looked like centuries ago!!)
Finally, nothing rounds out a trip to the south of France like a visit to Nice! The beauty of Nice as a holiday town strikes you the minute you arrive. The smell of the sea and the sunbathers all around remind you that vacationing in France is also about slowing down and taking in some rays…
You’ll find much more grilled fish here as it is a coastal town (we ate grilled sardines right on the beach!!)…
And, as you walk around town, you’ll see the political strife that was once all about the beauty of the sea (many of the buildings have fake windows painted on the sides of buildings – seen below on the left – as a political stand against the government when they taxed anyone who had a view of the sea).
And, finally, to cool off after a hot day, a maron glace (candied chestnut) ice cream is in order…an absolute must!
So, that is it…in a proverbial nutshell. A taste of France in a short post. I realized that giving people (and countries) a second chance is a must when exploring the world. If I had never returned to France after my first trip years ago, I would have always thought that the people of France were not welcoming…and now I know that this idea couldn’t be farther from the truth.
I know the beauty of France and all of it’s incredible villages will send me “nudges” to get back there and finish exploring. Plus, I believe there is a cheese monger calling my name saying “hey, madame, you miss my stall at the market!!”
A bientot France…