Shopping in Provence
Where to shop in Provence
There are millions of visitors seeking souvenirs in Provence and the Côte-d’Azur every year. Many of them, it seems, favour king-sized pottery cicadas, olive-wood lamp-stands and dinkily useless little bags of herbs.
They must. Otherwise gift shops all over the region, from Nice to the remotest hill village, wouldn’t be selling them. Nor would we ever see again those olive-green oil’n’vinegar sets which don’t look great in Avignon and will look truly silly once you’re back home in Birmingham (West Midlands or Alabama: it doesn’t matter). They’ll be slung to the back of a cupboard, there to join those sticky yellow liqueurs and shell sculptures which you picked up on previous holiday souvenir forays.
Things to look out for
But you don’t have to buy a model cicada. There are other things to look out for. Large insects aside, there is some rather fine pottery. Potters are all over the place. Many have moved into the prettiest villages. There is, though, a particularly fine tradition in Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, at the western end of the Verdon gorges.
Provence is also celebrated for its high-coloured fabrics, a technique they pinched from the Indians. In the 18th century, they saw all these splendid printed fabrics being imported through Marseille, and thought it would be cheaper if they did the job themselves. So they did. Lively table linen and, especially women’s, clothes have been the result. The Souleiado company has a lovely contemporary take on the tradition. It has outlets in Aix, Avignon and elsewhere across western Provence.
With flowers, lavender and herbs by the field-full, Provence is also pretty sharp on perfumery and associated subjects. Grasse, north of Cannes, is the HQ. In 2008, the town opened its new look International Museum of Perfumery at 2 Rue Mirabeau. It’s a useful place to start.
You will, though, find shops selling regional fragrances in most bigger towns – and a lot of the famous savon de Marseille (Marseille soap) both in Marseille and elsewhere. The soap - a mix of vegetable oils, alkaline ash from sea plants and seawater – has been caressing delicate Provençal skins for 600 years or more. If it’s white, it’s mainly made from palm oil. If green, it’s at least 50% olive oil. The white dusting on the surface is sea salt. So now you know.
Nicely clean, you may go in search of art. Provence’s light, warmth and loose living have proved irresistible to artists for 150 years or more. Cézanne was born here (in Aix), so he doesn’t count. But Matisse, Chagall, Picasso, Leger and many other headline names chose to come.
And they’ve been followed in by pretty much anyone anywhere who ever picked up a paint brush. Every town, village and hamlet has galleries - so you must be selective or risk overdosing. So I’d start in St Paul-de-Vence – where the nearby (and brilliant) Maeght Foundation Modern Art Museum ensures that artists in the village try that little bit harder. I’m not sure if they’re art or not, but Provençal santons have their fans. These are terra-cotta figures first (and still) made to populate Provençal Christmas crèches, or nativity scenes. Clothed in the traditional dress, they’re now also mainstream ornaments and available almost everywhere. So if you require a six-inch Provençal shepherd, baker or washerwoman on your mantelpiece, you’re very much in luck.
As you are if you’re an antiques enthusiast and bound for L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. East of Avignon, this delightful little spot is awash with waterways. It is also an antiques centre to rival Paris and London – especially during its international fairs from April 2-5 and August 12-15. Provence elsewhere, and especially in Nice and Marseille, isn’t short of antiquaries, but this small town is the trade’s epicentre.
And so to foodstuffs – which can be difficult to bring home, especially if you like your fish fresh. If you insist, I’d go for sweetmeats. Nougat has its headquarters in Montelimar, but crops up everywhere. In Aix, they have the calisson – a sweet of melon, almonds and candied orange. It travels well, as do the candied fruits of Apt. If you’re in a car or feel like risking it in the hold luggage, the olive oil from Maussane and other villages in the lee of the Alpilles hills is among the best in France. Truffle conserves might tempt you in the Vaucluse department around the Mont Ventoux. But the real Provençal food shopping experience is to be had on the markets – the daily or weekly invitations to unbridled carnal pleasures. The locals put up no resistance at all, and neither should you. You’ll not get much of it home on the plane, of course. Then again, if you’re like me, you won’t get much of it beyond the confines of the market. Food-lust is a terrible affliction.