Posts Tagged ‘Provence’


Dine Well, Dine Savvy, in Southern France

April 1, 2009


Peppers at the Provencal Market by Michael Gwyther-Jones
Peppers at the Provencal Market by Michael Gwyther-Jones

Having eaten out every day for the past two weeks (and set to do so for another four), I categorically confirm the following top three tips for dining well, dining happy in southern France:


  1. Do not be bullied into ordering a bottle of water. Even in the most multi-starred Michelin restaurant, it is quite acceptable to ask for une carafe d’eau. A nonchalant ‘une carafe’ will do should you really want to say ‘I know what’s what in this Frenchie neck of the woods, so don’t mess with me!
  2. Go on, be a devil, rip a chunk off that bread and wipe your plate with it. It goes against the best of English table manners but it’s soooo satisfying, honest.
  3. If you’re unsure precisely how to eat something, don’t be afraid to ask for un petit conseil (a little advice). This is something I have done on several occasions with magnificent results (and not only on truffling matters at Chez Bruno). Take last night at the Hotel des Deux Rocs in Seillans: As starter I ordered saumon dans un macaron et salade japonaise. What came was two plates, one displaying a ‘flower’ of raw salmon with a sweet macaroon at its centre, the other an Asian-style patty of flaked raw and cooked salmon, mixed with hazelnuts and Asian spices, and topped with tart rocket and other green. I didn’t even pretend to know which plate to tackle first, to which I was told ‘don’t hesitate to eat them together, the sweetness of the first neutralises the acidity of the second’. And indeed, the orgy of contrasting tastes was fabulous.

Researching a Guidebook Off-Season

March 30, 2009
St-Tropez by Michael Gwyther-Jones

St-Tropez by Michael Gwyther-Jones

In a tourist-hot region like Provence there is one enormous advantage (bar the obvious) of travelling out of season – or rather on the cusp of the season as I have done for the past fortnight. Come Easter, this fabled part of southern France will burst into mad-busy life. But for the moment many hotels and restaurants are in a sleepy state of anticipation – painting woodwork, doing up shop fronts. Or they are simply shut full-stop … zero sign of life.


For me, researching a guidebook, this poses an interesting phenomenon. Instinct says ‘Pain in the neck! Have to come back!’ Selective judgment says ‘Great, easy as pie to spot where people who live here go!’.



Take St-Tropez. All those flashy, high-flyer celebrity addresses – Club 55, La Voile Rouge et al – are shut: summer’s jet set hadn’t arrived yet. Rather, it is down-to-earth, gutsy, simple bars and bistros like Brasserie des Arts, Le Sporting, La Dame de Coeur that are open, busy and buzzing. And have been all winter. That’s where I’ll send you, where the locals are.


Road Trip: Lake Geneva to the Med

March 24, 2009


Col de la Haute Croix, nr Grenoble, by gaetanku

Col de la Haute Croix, nr Grenoble, by gaetanku

Being so fixated on getting to St-Tropez by noon to have a decent afternoon’s work, I somehow managed to ignore the six-hour road trip south … from Lake Geneva to the Med. It was a glorious journey. Fuelled with two pre-departure coffees and four apples to munch en route, I was up with the larks and speeding direction ‘Annecy-Chamonix-Mont Blanc‘ by 6am. My Twingo practically purred as I drove between mountain peaks in the untouched Vercors National Park; snaked up and over the snow-hugged hairpins of the Col de Haute Croix mountain pass; razzed 130km/h past Sisteron’s rock-perched citadel; gave a nod to the monks frozen in stone at Les Mées; glanced wistfully at the ‘Gorges du Verdon’ exit; lusted after all that lavender I wouldn’t get to see around Manosque; motored passed the Luberon turn-off. Up to Aix-en-Provence where I joined the A8, the drive was rather like a slow-motion, cinematic version of a ‘Best of Northern Provence’ movie in fact.


By contrast the A8 was rammed with cars speeding hell for leather towards Nice. Five minutes short of my St-Tropez exit, warning lights flashed and all three lanes screeched to a death-defying halt. To pass the two long hours it took for fire crews to clean up the accident, I read the Provence chapter of Lonely Planet’s France guide, researched in 2008. Excellent tip by Parisian-turned-Londoner co-author Emilie: To avoid the worst of high season traffic (or in my case a crashed flaming lorry full of courgettes, aubergines and other Provencal veg) peel off at Le Cannet des Maures instead and follow the D558 road across the Massif des Maures to La Garde Freinet and Port Grimaud (from where you can sail Signac-style to St-Tropez). 

Joyous was the final approach to St-Tropez. It being March and low season, traffic was as silky smooth and fluid as that huile d’olive every second shop in Provence sells. I dumped the car in the hotel car park, skipped to Place des Lices, plopped myself down at a sun-facing table at Le Café and ordered a nice cup of tea and slab of Tarte Tropézienne. I had arrived.


Co-Authors Hit the Road

March 19, 2009

Massif de l'Estérel by theslaveofjapanapart

Massif de l'Estérel by theslaveofjapanapart

So, the second of my co-authors arrived in Provence today. I follow in two days time and Fran, the fourth on our all-girl power team, arrives in mid-April fresh from penning a guide on Iceland.


Alexis’ arrival in Nice particularly tickled my fancy. First she sent an email: ‘I’ve made it to France and to a computer with no full stops!’ And indeed every sentence ended with an exclamation mark. I sent a welcoming ‘salut copine’ text to the spanking new French mobile number she’d just acquired at the airport and within seconds she replied: ‘Just about to take on the A8. The island on which I live has no cars. Ahh, the adventure…’.


There’s no disputing Lonely Planet authors are a colourful bunch. This Prov & CA 6 team – four fabulous brunettes – is no exception. Alexis is a 30-something artist who lives and works on the Greek island of Hydra. My commissioning editor in London described her as ‘a real inspiration’ and reading the text Alexis sent a couple of hours ago she’s clearly not the only one to think so:

‘Full day: Got hit on by a toothless elder gentleman and I’m speaking atrocious Freek (mélange of French and Greek). But the Vallée de la Roya is incredibly beautiful and I’m about to indulge in a panna cotta after my plat du jour. Cheers!’.

Emilie meanwhile spent the day sprinting along footpaths researching day walks in the Massif de l’Estérel and cursing Sarkozy for the strikes that saw much of France shut up shop. Several of the museums she had planned to visit in Cannes were shut. As a kid Emilie summered from birth on the Côte d’Azur, is a London-based journalist, and is one of just two French people I have ever met in my whole life who speaks flawless English with no accent. Hard to believe but true. It’s also very hard to believe she’s Parisian.


Where would you stay in or around St-Tropez?

March 16, 2009


I leave for Provence in one week, rendering the list of what I have to do before throwing laptop and luggage in Twingo and driving six hours south decidedly daunting:-


  • Finalise Provence book style-sheet with Lonely Planet style guru in Melbourne and send to co-authors
  • Re-read and digest 150pp of map, book and product briefs plus too many related emails to count.
  • Discuss potential new maps with cartographer.
  • Read and make notes on 100-plus readers’ letters.
  • Create list of Provence highlights for images to be sourced.
  • Buy new Michelin Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur road map (one I have dates to 2007 when I updated the last edition).
  • Finalise day-by-day travel itinerary of Leg One: St-Tropez Area.
  • Stop dithering about where to stay, make a decision and book: in St-Trop itself aiming for Hôtel Lou Cagnard (cheap, spitting distance from Place des Lices, has its own – drum roll – free parking. Got a better idea?). Elsewhere must reserve Chez Bruno (eat, sleep, truffle cooking course: this chef’s even on Facebook); sign up for ‘Man & Forest’ hike in the Massif des Maures with the Conservatoire du Patrimoine in La Garde Freinet; keep looking for olive farms/wineries where guests can help with the harvests – any ideas?
  • Continue stuffing freezer with meals to avoid husband @luefkens and two small boys starving in my absence.

Enough chat. Best get on with it.


Researching an LP guidebook: Travel ‘n Talk

March 12, 2009

5th edition

5th edition

It has taken months of same-subject dinner conversations. But husband @luefkens (he is the digital media guru @davos) has finally convinced me. For my 6th edition of Lonely Planet’s Provence & the Côte d’Azur (I wrote the 1st in 1998), I am going the full social-media hog.


Using this blog, Twitter and a spanking new Facebook page I have just created (become a fan!), I hope to get a conversation going with anyone and everyone who has something to say on the region I’m researching: a budget shack to die for, a beach bar that’s the biz, what’s up at E-1027, racy screenings at La Friche, bike routes, lighthouse art showings, organic cuisine on a bull farm … I’m indiscriminative.


I’ll regularly post where I am in Provence, what I am looking for, what fun stuff I’ve found (all those gems I just can’t squeeze into the book), and see what happens. I’ll post in French to catch the local crowd and in Marseille I might just try a Tweetup.


Twitravel with @tripalong: send me tips on Twitter

Twitravel with @tripalong: talk to me on Twitter

As part of my pre-trip research and planning – minimum two desk-heavy weeks aka now – I quiz everyone I know in the region on what’s happening, what’s new, what’s not. On the road I travel intensely: I visit everything, I walk to the end of most streets, I work long and hard and I grill pretty much everyone I meet … in the most charming of manners bien sûr – an English gal speaking French is 99.99% foolproof.

Yet the more conversations I have pre-trip, the more leads I glean, the more potential discoveries I can make in situ. With social media’s gargantuan, eager-to-share and often well-informed audience, it would be churlish not to ask. 

I leave for Provence on 22 March 2009. First leg: St-Tropez area.