Our two month adventure into living the good life in Provence could be described in four words – fantastic in every way. We returned again to the Bouches-de-Rhone area where we had visited several years ago, but this time we stayed in Maillane, about 7 km north of Saint-Remy-de-Provence, our absolute hands-down favorite village in all of France. We rented a 200 year old remodeled stone mas (farmhouse) named Volets Bleus, which means blue shutters. The mas was beautifully decorated in shades of white and greige with blue accents and included a great kitchen with all of the comforts of home. It was a 3 bedroom, 2 bath house that sleeps 6, living room, dining room, den, library, breakfast room, a very well equipped new kitchen with American style appliances, a powder room on the first floor, laundry room with a washer & dryer, and a very private flower garden, a couple of seating areas and pool in a gated courtyard completely enclosed by a high stone wall. The property was perfect for us and our guests. Since several of you have asked about the house, I thought you might enjoy a few pictures.
If you have an interest in Volets Bleus in Maillane, you can contact our friend Cornelius Alsen here. He is a delightful gentleman and has been a great help to us during our last two trips to Provence. Cornelius is extremely knowledge about Saint-Remy and the surrounding area and is a pleasure to work with. Tell him you heard about the house from Meakin & Sam Hoffer.
It turns out that we were enchanted with Maillane and the people who live there. It is a very small, rural village compared to Saint-Remy and there were two grocery stores, one café, one (really nice) restaurant and a new one on the way, and a small pizza shop. Don’t fret if they don’t have what you need. You can always pop down to Saint- Remy, where there is a very large modern supermarket and a huge open air Wednesday market, so you won’t have to worry about grocery shopping. The French shop for groceries more often than most of us do. Everything is either fresh and in season or it’s not available. We almost never left home without our straw market basket.
We were a bit worried when we discovered that no one spoke any English in the village. We do speak a bit of French, somewhat broken and mispronounced, and on past trips we have always been able to get by. I can write a grocery list in French and am able to read most of the menus in restaurants, I just don’t pronounce the words well. We usually start any conversation off by asking, “Parlez-vous Anglais?” And quite often the answer has been, “Oui, un peu.” But the answer this trip was “Non.” When first realizing that no one spoke English in the village, I confess it was a bit frightening.
The French are very kind about correcting your French and they do it in subtle ways. For instance I had been mispronouncing the village of Maillane. I said to someone that we were staying in Maillane and pronounced it “My-lane.” “Oh,” they replied, “you’re in My-ane.”
Before long, my darling husband Meakin, who has never met a stranger in his life, was carrying on conversations with the people in this tiny French village, even though he spoke limited French and they didn’t understand English. He devised a way to carry on a conversation by using some French with a few words of English thrown in now and then, adding hand gestures, facial expressions and an occasional Gallic French shrug and, as if by magic, it worked. His French improved as the two months passed and surprisingly a few of them beginning to feel comfortable speaking a little English.
In fact Meakin did so well that we were invited to a French family’s house for aperitifs. The fact that very little English was understood didn’t seem to interfere with our conversation (thank goodness for pads/phones and Google translate). We in turn invited them to dinner at Volets Bleus, which they knew well because the previous owners were friends of theirs. So don’t let language stand in your way of having a good time and getting to know people in a foreign country.
However it’s also very important to know some niceties in French such as bonjour, au revoir, merci, s’il vous plait, and of course how to ask for help, how to make dinner reservations as well as the check in a restaurant. Manners are definitely not dead in France. So much so that it’s expected that when you enter a shop that you say Bonjour Madame or Monsieur and au revoir when you leave. Think about it. You wouldn’t enter a person’s home without saying hello and it’s expected in France that you extend the same courtesies in a shop.
If you are staying longer than a couple of weeks and need a car, which you definitely will if you’re in Provence, it’s more economical to lease a car rather than rent. We always lease a Peugeot in advance to be ready for us when we land in Marseille. When you lease, you can specify everything including the model and color of the car. Don’t expect any car, including rentals, to come with automatic transmission or GPS or air conditioning – you must specify it. The best thing we did was get GPS because it got us everywhere quite easily. Oh, occasionally it was wrong or we made a wrong turn at a round-about, but it was essential. One of our guests brought their own GPS from home with the European maps and it wasn’t nearly as reliable as the one that came with our car. We would never be without GPS in the car again. When we turn our lease car back in, it is then sold as a “gently used” car and used cars as opposed to new cars don’t have the VAT tax, so it is a good deal for us as well as whoever French person purchases the car after we turn it in.
The other tip I can pass along is arrange in advance with your bank at home for you to have some Euros with you when you land. If you have a few, you don’t have to race around to find an ATM to convert your money the minute you get there. Traveler’s checks are passé and a debit card is essential to get cash from a bank or ATM. It’s also smart to tell your credit/debit card company that you will be out of the country so they’ll know it’s you when you use it. If I had known how to tell Facebook I would be abroad, I would have. I didn’t and they blocked my account until they could correspond with me to make sure it was “me.” I had to change my password and that was no big deal, but it was inconvenient to be blocked for a short time. So plan in advance as much as you can.
This interesting Provencal style sink is in the powder room. Notice the soap dispenser, which we found quite unusual. There was another dispenser just like it in the laundry room. The soap is a special soap from Marseille called “Savon de Marseille.”
Savon de Marseille is an olive oil based soap and has been crafted in the South of France since the Middle Ages. In 1688 it became law that only soaps made according to strict ancient methods could bear the famous mark. Only a few savonneries (soap factories) near Marseille still make this soap in the traditional manner, so take care than you don't buy a fake. It takes a soapmaster two weeks to make Savon de Marseille. You can read more about this legendary soap here and also purchase it. One of our guests joked that if the soap ran out, he guessed that they would have to sell the house. But it seems that there is a little shop specializing in regional products in Saint-Remy where you can buy refills as well as the entire dispenser for it as seen below. The small soaps make a nice gift for a friend or yourself. I always bring a few back with me.
If you stay in rural villages, don’t be surprised if you have a farmer for a neighbor and as it turns out we did. Monsieur Bernard was a large scale farmer by French standards and had many fields in various sections outside the village, but his warehouse was directly behind Volets Bleus and sometimes we could hear him and his wife working late into the evening packing their trucks and vans with produce from their farm to take to the markets the next morning. They were very kind neighbors and here is a bouquet of freshly picked artichokes and several Cavaillon melons that he shared with us that were freshly picked that morning.
Melons have been cultivated in the Cavaillon region since at last 1495 and as you might imagine are quite popular in the region. We dined on Cavaillon melons with prosciutto many a day for lunch on our stone terrace. More about the melons here.
When we serve melon, we like to squeeze a little fresh lemon juice over it and crank some freshly ground peppercorns on it before draping with the prosciutto. Here we’ve served the melon with a fresh green salad dressed in Vicki Archer’s (of French Essence fame) favorite balsamic vinaigrette, which she learned from one of the best French cooks she says she knows, Christiane, the wife of their farm manager. Christiane’s secret (and now it will be mine as well) is to let the salt (French fleur de sel sea salt from the Camargue region of Provence is THE best) and pepper dissolve into the balsamic vinegar before adding the olive oil. You’ll find Christiane’s balsamic vinaigrette recipe here on French Essence. If you’re not familiar with French fleur de Sel, it is sea salt that is hand raked and harvested in France. The name Fleur de Sel comes from the aroma of violets that develops as the salt dries and only the premium top layer of the salt bed is used. My favorite Fleur de Sel is the brand I saw most predominately while we were in Provence - Le Saunier de Camargue Fleur de Sel from the Camargue region of Provence near Arles. With its real cork top and eye-catching container, it is available at numerous sources in the US including Amazon, link here. I never leave Provence without several containers of Fleur de Sel in my bag.
As with any visit to France, food plays a big part of your everyday life, starting with a morning stroll to the boulangerie for a fresh baguette and a look around to see if any pastries are “calling your name” that day.
And believe me, there will be many days when a crispy little elephant ear shaped goodie called a palmier or a gorgeous little tart, fresh out of the oven and topped with perfectly cut pears or ripe red juicy raspberries will speak to you while you are peering into the case and say, “Take me home with you.” You are in for a treat with the boulangerie. Meakin met the baker and asked permission to take pictures inside a real French bakery where the baking was actually taking place, so you won't want to miss that upcoming post.
After we’d been up and around for a while, we began planning our day by scrolling down the pages of one of the guide books we brought (most of the guides are computerized now and there’s no need to lug heavy books along when you can read them on your Pad or phone) to decide which village we should see and the best place for dejeuner (lunch). Truly life in Provence was no more hurried than this.
|Open Tuesday - Saturday 7:30 - 12:30 and 3:30 to 7:30. Sunday from 8 until 12. Closed Monday.|
We quickly learned to slow down and take at easy in Provence. No one hurries and most shops close for lunch each day and often aren’t open on Sundays and Mondays, especially in Provence. The sign above is typical of shop hours in small villages.
We enjoyed shopping locally and often while we were there. As I said earlier, Maillane has two small grocery stores. It is amazing how much is available in the small shops and the best part about the small shops is you can get to know the owners. Claudette and Christopher owned the Utile Market, a French retailers cooperative, and part of the pleasure of shopping there was the opportunity to visit with them on a regular basis. They are a charming couple and despite the language barrier we managed to discuss a range of subjects from politics to retirement during our frequent visits to their store. Many, many evenings our meals consisted of foods prepared by Christopher, who is a 6th generation butcher in Maillane. He graciously shared some of his recipes with us, which I’ll tell you much more about later. My philosophy on vacation, especially in France, is if you can buy exquisitely prepared foods made with the freshest of ingredients, why bother cooking. Of course we did cook, because who can resist taking advantage of the abundance of all of the fresh food found in their markets. I admit we ate more than our share of fresh strawberries and cherries while we were there.
We became reacquainted with quite a few old friends who amazingly remembered us from our past trip and also met quite a few new ones. Our friends Claude and Dana above, who owed Bistro Decoverte in Saint-Remy, have since sold the bistro and have opened a new Italian restaurant named La Cantina. Claude makes the best pizza we’ve ever eaten. They are an adorable couple and very interesting people to visit with. You can be sure there will be a post on La Cantina later.
We invited author and Francophile Vicki Archer above to join us for lunch one day at La Cantina, which happens to be one of her favorite restaurants in Saint Remy too. I know many of you know Vicki from her two gorgeous books, My French Life and French Essence and her blog French Essence. She was as charming and lovely as you might expect. We chatted about life in France and what it was like to take on the massive task of their restoring ancient abandoned 17th century mas (farmhouse), Mas de Berard, which she and her husband David remodeled several years ago in Saint Remy. It is the main subject of Vicki’s first book My French Life. Here’s a link from an interview from Cote de Texas with lots of photos of Mas de Berard. You can’t help but be impressed.
Recently Vicki and her husband took on a new project and renovated their new guesthouse in Saint-Remy, Le Petite Bijou. You can read about it in that same interview as well as on Vicki’s website French Essence here. Le Petite Bijou is very tastefully decorated by Vicki and conveniently located in the heart of Saint Remy. Just steps from your door is the very popular do-not-miss weekly Wednesday market, which you’ll see more about on a future post.
Vicki shared some advice with us that she had received from a French friend who explained that the sound of someone trying to speak another language with a foreign accent was charming and she said that it helped here overcome the fear of speaking French and in turn it helped us both be a little braver about speaking. I especially want to thank Vicki for being so helpful to me on planning my wardrobe for our trip. Based on her advice my wardrobe consisted of neutrals in black and white for cooler weather and, as the weather warmed, light colored creams and tans worked well. Here is a link to French Essence with more tips and advice about traveling to Provence.
As always I bought lots and lots of scarves at the Saint-Remy Wednesday market from our friend Kim above, who remembered us from our last trip. It was great to catch up with Kim and she invited us to visit Goult, the lovely perched village where she lives in the Luberon region of Provence. We drove over several times during our visit for their weekly Thursday market and had lunch afterwards in a small bistro that quickly became one of our favorites.
I totally agree that "travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer." I also think travel changes you for the better and makes you a more well rounded and open minded person. But I'll borrow a line from one of John Denver's songs - "Hey, it's good to be back home again." I've missed you all.