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The Outdoor Markets of Provence

Steve and Linda Jones

As in most European countries, the outdoor markets of France thrive, and they are wonderful for locals and visitors alike. I find the colorful outdoor markets of Provence to be the best of all. Partly it's the fabled sun and light of Provence, but it is also the culture and the agricultural bounty that makes the markets special. As a visitor, this is an accessible and rewarding way to immerse yourself in the lifestyle of the area.

First Impressions

My first introduction to the outdoor markets of Provence was during a short stay in Nice in 1982, in the Cours Saleya. I was dazzled not only by the color and quality of the food presented, but by the whole lively theater of it all. In the old city, under a perfect sky, seasoned vendors were adjusting their displays, quoting prices and making change at a furious pace. Some managed a lively dialogue and a generous smile, even for those of us less efficient with language and currency. Some were curt, expecting expertise and making me feel self conscious and a bit frazzled. I can't remember what I purchased, but I have no doubt that there was some cheese, some fruit and some bread - the classic makings of a fine snack or lunch.

I found myself wishing I had my own little kitchen there, as the spices were so fragrant and so beautifully displayed in Provencal fabric liners. And of course buying flowers for a table would be wonderful.

At this market I can also remember the socca stand, unique to Nice and Marseilles and their African influence. Huge paper thin crepes of chickpea flour were cooked quickly, scraped up, peppered liberally, and served on a paper plate. We found this delicious. Later, we realized this was neither the biggest not the best outdoor market in Provence, but it left us wanting more.

Since then, we've stayed in vacation rentals several times in Provence, and have had the luxury of staying for awhile. With our own little kitchen, we have been able to take full advantage of bountiful outdoor markets.

Spices at a market in Provence

Spices at a market in Provence

What to Expect

The markets travel from town to town, but are easy to find, as locals and tourist offices can give you the schedule. For example, on Mondays it will be Bedoin, on Tuesdays it will be Vaison-la-Romaine, on Wednesday it's Sault, etc. They are predictable and they are never far.

The market will open early, around 8:00am, and it's best to get there then, as parking becomes challenging as the morning progresses. The market is usually located in an old square, in the center part of the village. Sometimes the market lines the main street of town, going for several blocks and closing the street to pedestrian traffic for the morning.

The markets almost always close at 1:00pm, leaving a bit of a mess which is gradually cleaned up, returning the streets to normal by the post-lunch reopening of the stores in mid afternoon.

Ah - the Food!

If you go to a few markets, you start to recognize the vendors - the same enormous fresh seafood truck, the woman with the amazing selection of dried fruit, the man with the lavender honey, the small displays of goat cheese made by local farmers with familiar faces. Most just use folding tables, usually covered with colorful fabric. There are few signs and no advertising, but competition is fierce, with perhaps 10 vendors selling popular local products such as olives.

The food and its artful display speaks for itself. Whatever is in season will be abundant. In June we've seen dozens of vendors selling cherries and apricots, many of them out of the back of their trucks. This is really fresh stuff! I can't imagine that anyone here would be able to sell the produce that I see in my local supermarket - it would be passed over and ignored by knowledgeable shoppers who have a sixth sense about when produce is just right. Vendors too are often very particular, reflecting care and pride. If buying a melon, I've been asked when I will serve it. The perfect melon must be selected. "For tonight? This one!"

Experience taught me that pinching and poking at the produce is frowned upon. The vendor handles the food and makes the selection. Later, I read that this is normal and best practice at the markets.

Yes, a little French helps the experience, but you can get along without it.

Creating a Picnic Lunch from the Market

With growing hunger, we usually assemble a feast, to be eaten on the grass or on a bench. It might look something like this:

  • some thinly sliced ham or sausage
  • a baguette or two
  • perfect fresh tomatoes
  • a container of olives, probably with some herbs and garlic for extra flavor
  • some beautiful fruit, whatever is in season
  • some cheese, the living, breathing kind that is stinky or a little runny
  • maybe some wine, and certainly some bottled water

We always come equipped with a serrated knife, plenty of napkins, a couple of kitchen towels to spread on the grass, some paper cups and a corkscrew.

Dessert? Probably some gelato at a stand, or maybe some nougat.

A picnic lunch from a Provence market

A picnic lunch from a Provence market

Other Foods

The most common carryout specialty is the simple pizza - sold from a truck equipped with a wood burning oven. Sandwiches are submarine style, and made with the freshest vegetables, olive oil, tomatoes, basil and sometimes tuna, ham, or eggs. Sometimes paella is made in a pan so large that it appears to be for giants.

Rotisserie chickens are fragrant and crispy. This is a very popular item, and the poultry selection is often quite sophisticated. The feet are sometimes left on, to establish the pedigree of the chicken. Blue feet are a good sign. They won't be surprised if you ask to have the feet removed.

Beyond the Food

There is more to these Provencal markets than produce and artisanal food. There's always a colorful array of Provencal fabric by the yard, and made into products such as tablecloths and little bags. The soap selection is wonderful, and you will find many of the natural soaps that you see in upscale shops in the US. Lavender is especially popular, in many products. When I was last there, in 2003, huge silk scarves in solid colors were popular at the markets.

Local artists sell their creations. What a great opportunity to get gifts at reasonable prices.

Market Day in Provence

Market Day in Provence

It was the book titled "Markets of Provence, A Culinary Tour of Southern France" by Ruthanne Long, that enticed me to rent in the Luberon region of Provence. We rented in Lourmarin, nesting in the nice apartment owned by Californians, chosen so we'd have an opportunity to explore the markets pictured so beautifully in the book.

Among the markets of that area is the well known Sunday market in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. This huge outdoor market is jam packed with people. Vendors line its picturesque canals. Here, there is a popular antique market, in addition to everything else. We bought some sturdy little pastis glasses and the uniquely shaped old Ricard bottle that is often seen in French bars. Unfortunately, most antiques and bric-a-brac was either too large or too fragile for us to consider! I think that the serious antique collector would find that there isn't enough here, and would probably be better off visiting this town when its many antique shops are open. They are closed during the Sunday market.

I love watching the people at the markets. You see lots of local people and families, as well as visitors from all over. Like a fair, the atmosphere is usually festive and relaxed. Sometimes there is music or a few street performers.

Most shoppers carry large baskets or cloth or string bags with handles, for all of the little plastic sacks that accumulate as you stroll through the market buying a little of this, and a little of that. When I bought my market bag, I knew I'd become a faux resident.

For me, this is one of those travel experiences that is even better than you wanted it to be. It's real, it embodies the essence of the region, and you can very easily become a part of it all.

Resources

Photo Essay - Markets of Provence: My photos of Provence markets.

www.travelswithfriends.com: This site lists the schedule for the main outdoor markets in Provence.

travel.guardian.co.uk: The Guardian (British newspaper) article "My perfect market place", for cheeses, antiques or thongs try Provence's L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue says Julie Davidson.

www.gites-de-france.fr: Gites de France. We've used this government supported vacation rental service a few times, and have been happy with the results.

www.provencewest.com: Provence West. We have rented through this site and have been impressed with the service and information that they provide.

Slow Travel France - Vacation Rental Listings - Provence: Lists of vacation rental agencies for Provence.

Slow Travel France - Hotels: Hotels in France.

Recommended Books

Click to order from Amazon

Markets of Provence: A Culinary Tour of Southern France, Ruthanne Long, Morrow Cookbooks, 1996

Photos, recipes and details of seven market towns in Provence.

Order from Amazon

Click to order from Amazon

Provence: The Collected Traveler, Barrie Kerper, Fodors, 2001

This volume in her wonderful series is indeed "An Inspired Anthology and Travel Resource". The book contains many references to the market culture of Provence.

Order from Amazon

Click to order

Provence Byways - Guidebook to the Luberon Region of Provence, Bob and Sue Winn

Highly recommended by Chris from CA (moderator) and I used it for our 2004 Provence trip.

From their web site: "For five years, from 1997 through 2001, we hosted small groups for a week at a time in the summer in our village of Lourmarin. In the course of preparing for our groups we wrote a guidebook on a variety of subjects of interest to travelers in the Luberon region of Provence. The guidebook is focused, practical, and based on our personal point of view--our experience, our research, our enthusiasm, and our taste. It has been "road tested" and updated during our latest stay in Provence (June, 2008)."

Order from their website: www.provencebyways.com

© Steve and Linda Jones, 2005

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