Thursday, July 23, 2015

A Glimpse into our Life in Provence

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.

That’s it for now. There’ll be much much more coming up later.

For better viewing, click photos to enlarge.

This will be shared with Foodie Friday at Rattlebridge Farm, Miz Helen’s Country Kitchen Full Plate Thursday and Food on Friday at Carole's Chatter.
Have a great weekend everyone.


  1. Heavenly! The house is gorgeous.



  2. Welcome home Sam, it's looks like you had an amazing trip:@)

  3. It's good to have you home again. I've been waiting to hear all about your stay in Provence, and your first posting back was marvelous. I can almost taste a wonderful Cavaillon melon again.

  4. What a wonderful way to immerse yourself into French life. I am passing along your post to a friend of mine who is retired and spends the winter in Europe. This year it is Italy but maybe France next year.

  5. What a wonderful post! I feel like I've gone on a mini vacation. I look forward to more posts about this trip of yours.

    Thank you for sharing ~ FlowerLady

  6. I'm looking forward to reading all about the trip.

  7. I have goosebumps for you and this trip:)
    What a place! I would gladly live there for my trip.. but I think too big for us as we would travel alone next question about that.
    Your photos are wonderful and everyone is ..Jolie!

  8. Welcome back, Sam. I am so glad that you had a wonderful time in France and Maillane seems like a very lovely place.

  9. What a nice read this morning while sipping my coffee Sam. What an experience, everything about your trip sounds wonderful, what memories you'll always have! Can't wait for more future posts.

  10. Welcome back! And how nice to share in your wonderful experience! What a beautiful place!

  11. Welcome back Sam. I love reading about your trip. You put a lot of effort into this informative post and I thank you so much. Your rental house is perfect in every way. Looking forward to reading more. Now I am off to check out your links. Merci beaucoup!

  12. Sam,
    I did not realize you were away for 2 whole months! How wonderful.
    You gave such great travel tips regarding car leasing and euros, etc.
    I love the saying "travel makes you richer". So true.
    xo Stacey

  13. Well, Sam - have been waiting for months for these posts to start showing up. Glorious posting of such a wonderful part of the world. Love the travel tips - did not know that about Facebook. My French (mispronounced) allows me to say most things but does not allow me to understand what is said back to me! (The perils of learning a foreign language in the U.S.A. - taught to read it - not to listen to it). Love your farmhouse that you called home and all the glorious photos. Welcome back!

  14. Sam, I loved this post! I spent some time in the area you stayed a few years ago, though we were on a tour and didn't get to experience it like you have. It brought wonderful memories back. I am looking forward to hearing about the rest of your trip.

  15. Sam, Looks like a terrific trip and life experience! Love, love, love that farmhouse... I am intimidated by other languages but if I were running our school systems here in the USA, becoming conversant in a foreign language would be a requirement to graduate. Americans are generally too insular... I did take French in Prep School but I never really learned to actually converse in it...still know those niceties though. GPS is a wonder, wherever we travel! I would go off the rail for sure in a boulangerie. It's hard to beat French breads and pastries. Great photos!! Take Care, Big Daddy Dave

  16. Looks like a wonderful fulfilling trip.. I loved the house.. it looks like a great place to be.. I only learned a few words in fourth grade of French.. I always wanted to learn but never seem to have the time raising five children.. I have thought of though a few time in my older age.. So maybe I will take a class ... I enjoyed your post thank you with love Janice

  17. I forgot to tell you..we have that soap..on our wall in the powder room.. above the sink..bought refills too..when I's coming with me;)

  18. Glad that you are home. I can't wait to see how France influences your food. I hope you have recipes.

  19. How glorious! I was just wondering where you had disappeared. What I miss about Europe are all those little shops. Thanks for sharing and have a safe trip home.

  20. Wow the house looks lovely and you seem to have had such an interesting time. The French are good at meeting you 1/2 way when it comes to talking. My accent just floors them and although I often know the words they are not understood! Our French neighbour who learnt some English in the States tells me my English is terrible. LOL The South African accent just throw him completely. Good Job Nigel's French is pretty good and we do not have a problem, but since he has been here I have got lazy and my French has gone backwards.
    So glad you had a great time France is a wonderful country. Hope all is well back home Diane

  21. I just think it sounds like the most amazing adventure, Sam. I love seeing all of your images and am dying to hear more…welcome back!!

  22. This all sounds/looks so fantastic to me! I have read a few books about moving to France. I would love to have an extended visit some day!

  23. Great post, Sam. I so enjoy reading your blog. You have a wonderful gift for painting word pictures, and I now have lovely visions dancing in my head to go along with your great pictures. I am looking forward to all the rest!

  24. I had to wait to read your post until I could savor every word--and, now, I have! What a lovely house in a lovely area! And what lovely memories you have. So glad all went well. Thanks for sharing.


  25. What a fabulous adventure you had Sam! Thanks for sharing your trip and also all the great tips for traveling in Provence. That's next on our list so I feel like I already have a head start with your great post!

  26. Welcome home Sam! What a wonderful trip! Love the quote.

  27. And suddenly I'm craving village life, French bread, and the chance to mispronounce all kinds of things<3. Welcome home!

  28. What a fabulous dream vacation you had, Sam! I enjoyed reading about your experiences on this post and also following along on facebook while you were away. I'm sure you will cherish the memories of this trip and relive it in your mind and hearts often. Welcome back and enjoy the rest of the summer!

  29. Hi Sam! Wow, what a beautiful trip! All I could think of was Julia Child and all her stories about living in France! The pictures of your Mas were beautiful; it was just as I've always imagined a country French home would look like. Thank you for taking us along with you.

    I see you also had a chance to visit with Larry in TN - what fun!

    Thank you for visiting my blog too!

  30. Well, look who's back! And Welcome. I've been anxiously awaiting a post from you about your trip and wow, thanks for sharing all the photos and tips. That's time consuming. What an absolutely picture perfect lovely place you stayed. And don't tell anyone from Colorado, but I think those Tuscan variety of melons are tastier than Rocky Fords here. And I love fresh cracked pepper on cantaloupe.

  31. What an amazing adventure and charming beautiful home that you rented. Isn't it wonderful to be retired?( I'm making an assumption) My husband speaks French fluently ( it's his native tongue) and we have vacationed in some of the more touristy places like Venice, Neice, Caan, Florence for a 2 week at a time vacation.. I love your idea of an extended stay in a home.

  32. Sam, I love this post. My husband and I for years have talked about renting for an extended amount of time in Europe. This post set my notions into over drive. Love, love it. I can't think of a better way to experience a culture than to spend time living within a local community.

    Always, Velva

  33. What a wonderful post, Sam. It brought back many memories of our recent visit to Provence. You have shared many excellent travel tips that we will remember for our next trip. I do miss those wonderful pastries with my morning coffee. Thanks for taking us along on your trip. It must have been wonderful to be there for two months.

  34. What a wonderful post, Sam. It brought back many memories of our recent visit to Provence. You have shared many excellent travel tips that we will remember for our next trip. I do miss those wonderful pastries with my morning coffee. Thanks for taking us along on your trip. It must have been wonderful to be there for two months.

  35. You are back??!! So glad you had such a good time. I have rented houses in France and agree with you that it's quite an enriching experience. However, you have to do it with the right attitude, not expecting that everything will be the way it is here, for it's not. It is radically different. As for manners, you'd better be on your toes. I still remember the ONE time I rushed into a store to ask the price of something in the window and forgot to say Bonjour!. I will say the one thing that caught my fancy in your photos are the Cavaillon melons. so sweet. Our melons are fantastic this year. Go get some, canteloupe or honeydew. Welcome back!

  36. I'm sure it must be bittersweet for you to write about such a wonderful trip. What a beautiful house you rented and so many wonderful travel tips. I love that the people you met last time still remembered you. That's the great part about traveling to a small village and not a large city. I can't wait for the next installment. Welcome home, Sam!

  37. I'm totally enchanted! What a fabulous vacation, Sam! Wonderful photos and I hope you keep posting more. No doubt you both have mixed feeling about being home again.
    When my daughter lived in Paris, I visited for a month every year. My French is not the greatest....and they were not quite as polite about correcting in Paris as they were to you, but my high school French got me by when my daughter was not around. Traveling is such a delight, I'm so grateful I have a daughter who loves it more than I and is able to go with me.

  38. what a wonderful vacation and love how you embrace the culture like locals

  39. It's good to be able to welcome you home again. Your trip sounds like it was fabulous and I'm sure it was hard to leave. I know I will be enjoying all your posts and photos in the weeks ahead.

  40. I found you through your feature at rattlebridge farm! I really really enjoyed this thorough and thoughtful post about life in Provence. I look forward to more... Adding you to my bloglovin feed.

  41. Ah Provence, one of my very favorite places to spend a month or two or whatever. It sounds like you've made the most of your time there and the memories will linger.

  42. How wonderful! I miss Europe and its charm.

  43. Oh La la...comme j'aime le Provence! J'ai habité Aix en Provence. C'est si bon!
    Provence is my favorite european place! I loved living there. Most folks get hooked on the Provencal way of life.

    1. oh I forgot to say. The way words are pronounced in Provence are not always the way they are pronounced in northern France. Yes...there is southern French. I was a college student in Aix, being fairly fluent before arrival. But each day we had a class with our speech prof...who was native to Provence. Anyway...she made us pronounce just like she did. So...a group of friends and I went to Geneve, and since I was the most fluent I was nominated to be our spokesperson. I trotted up to this Swiss businesman to ask directions. Il me dit...Where did you learn to speak French. Je reponds...en Provence. Il dit...ah mais oui. He almost laughed at me because of my southern pronunciation. I was taken down a peg or two with that encounter. ha! Sheila

  44. Hi Sam,
    Welcome Home!! I so enjoyed your stay in France, and followed along with you on Face Book. I had book marked this post when it posted and hoped that you would share it with us at Full Plate Thursday. This is truly a fantastic opportunity that I am so excited you are sharing with us, as only you can do so beautifully! Hope you are enjoying being back home!
    Come Back Soon,
    Miz Helen

  45. What a beautiful place to stay! Cheers

  46. Hello Sam,

    I just saw this lovely post! I don't know how I missed it...

    It was such a wonderful lunch with you and Meakin... thank you again,

    have a wonderful holiday season and sending much love to you both, xxv

  47. A fabulous post and great photos. My French is still useless and pronunciation terrible but we have no English speaking people in our hamlet, never the less we all understand each other most of the time!! It is a lovely country and I will never tire of it. Keep well Diane


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