Image: Provence
Rick Steves
Aix-en-Provence bubbles over at its open-air morning market.
By
Tribune Media Services
updated 8/19/2009 12:53:58 PM ET 2009-08-19T16:53:58

Market days are an especially big deal throughout France. No single event better symbolizes the French preoccupation with fresh products and their strong ties to the farmer than the weekly market. And in no other region is it more celebrated than in Provence.

You can find an endless array of products at Provencal markets, from clothing to crafts, art to antiques, pates to picnic fare (produce, meats, cheeses, crusty golden baguettes, and pastries). The best of all market worlds may rest in the picturesque town of Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, where, on Sunday mornings, a brilliant food marche tangles with an active flea market and a good selection of antiques. I like to sip a coffee at a sidewalk table at Cafe de France and enjoy the carnival-like scene.

Arles stands out among Provencal market towns. Here the ring road erupts twice a week into an open-air market of fish, flowers, ready-for-ratatouille baskets of produce, everything but car traffic. Join in. Try the olives, sniff the lavender, and sample the wine. The beauty of Arles' market is its international flavor, reflecting how Provence remains a crossroads of Mediterranean cultures. In addition to local items, you may find spices from Morocco and Tunisia, paella and saffron from Spain, and fresh pasta from Italy.

Markets typically begin at about eight in the morning and end by one in the afternoon. Set-up commences in the pre-dawn hours — a good reason not to stay in a main-square hotel the night before market day. Bigger towns may have two weekly markets, one a bit larger than the other, with more nonperishable goods. The biggest market days are usually on weekends, so that everyone can partake.

Perishable items are sold directly from the producers — no middlemen, no Visa cards — just really delicious, fresh produce. Samples are usually free, including small cups of locally produced wines or ciders. You'll find different items throughout the season. In April and May, shop for asparagus (green, purple, or the prized white — after being cooked, these are hand-dipped in vinegar or homemade mayonnaise).

In late spring, find strawberries, cherries and stone fruits. From July through September, eggplant, tomatoes, zucchinis and peppers come straight from the open fields. In the fall, stands sell game birds, other beasts of the hunt, and a glorious array of wild mushrooms. After November and throughout the winter, look for little (or big, depending on your wallet size) black truffles.

At the root of every good market experience is a sturdy shopping basket or bag. Most baskets are inexpensive, make for fun and colorful souvenirs, and come in handy for odd-shaped or breakable carry-ons for the plane trip home. With basket in hand, shop for your heaviest items first. You don't want to put a kilo of fresh apples on top of your bread.

Most vendors typically follow a weekly circuit of markets they feel works best for them, showing up in the same spot every week, year in and year out — though sometimes, you'll meet the occasional widow selling a dozen eggs, two rabbits and a wad of herbs tied with string. At a favorite market, my family has done business with the same olive merchant and "cookie man" for 18 years.

Merchants take pride in their wares. Generally the rule is "don't touch" — instead, point and let them serve you. Many vendors speak enough English to assist you in your selection. Your total price will be hand-tallied on small scraps of paper and given to you. If you're struggling to find the correct change, just hold out your hand and they will take only what is needed. Vendors are normally honest — still, you're wise to double-check the amount you just paid for that olive tree.

It's bad form to be in a hurry — allow the crowd to set your pace. For locals, market day is as important socially as it is commercially — a weekly chance to resume friendships and get the current gossip. Neighbors can catch up on Henri's barn renovation, see photos of Jacqueline's new grandchild and relax over coffee. Dogs are tethered to cafe tables while friends exchange kisses. Listen carefully and you might hear the Provencal language being spoken between some vendors and buyers. Observe the interaction between them, and notice the joy they find in chatting each other up.

Provencal life is rooted in its countryside, small towns and lively markets. To enjoy any small French town at its vibrant best, it's worth being there on its market day.

(Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at rick@ricksteves.com, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, Wash. 98020.)

© 2009 Rick Steves ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Photos: Perfectly Paris

loading photos...
  1. Mood lighting

    The Eiffel Tower and the Hotel des Invalides are illuminated at dusk with in Paris. (Mike Hewitt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Heart of the Louvre

    The intricate ceiling of the Appolo Gallery at Paris' Louvre Museum is reflected in a display case in the foreground. Built in 1661, the gallery was not fully completed until 1851. In all, over twenty artists worked on the decoration. The Appolo Gallery gallery contains more than two centuries of French art, and houses such wonders as the French Crown Jewels, including the famous Régent (140 carats) and Sancy (53 carats) diamonds, as well as the 105-carat Côte de Bretagne ruby. (Joel Robine / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. To the heavens

    The Sacred Heart Catholic church (Basilique Sacré-Coeur) is seen on Paris' highest point, in Montmartre. The view at the top of the dome is excellent -- 271 feet above Montmartre Hill -- and is the second-highest viewpoint after the Eiffel Tower. (Benoit Tessier / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Looking glass

    This elaborate stained-glass cupola (dome) inside Magasins du Printemps department store is located above the main restaurant in the store. Installed in 1923, it is composed of 3,185 individual pieces of stained glass. (David Lefranc / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Keeping cool

    Tourists soak their feet in a reflecting pool at Place du Trocadero, an area of museums and gardens. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Sights from the Seine

    A "Bateau Mouche" tourist boat travels near the Paris Justice court. These boat tours are a popular, but relaxing way to view the sights of Paris along the Seine River. (Benoit Tessier / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Museum of masterpieces

    Originally a royal fortress for kings, and open to all since 1793, the Louvre is one the world's greatest art museums, housing 35,000 works of ancient and Western art, displayed in over 60,000 square meters of exhibition space. More than 6 million visitors see the Louvre per year. (Mike Hewitt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Shopper's haven

    Local art, food and other goods are sold in passage Jouffroy, across Boulevard Montmartre. Originally designed to protect pedestrians from mud and horse-drawn vehicles, the passages (shopping arcades), arre located between the Grands Boulevards and the Louvre. (Amélie Dupont / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Modern art

    A view of the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Its 1977 factory style architecture contrasts with the surrounding buildings of Paris' oldest district near Notre-Dame cathedral. It has a public library, and the French National Museum of Modern Art. (Loic Venance / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Holy architecture

    One of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture is the Notre Dame Cathedral, attracting 13 million visitors each year. The name Notre Dame means "Our Lady" in French. (Stéphane Querbes / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Practical protectors

    The famous stone statues of Notre Dame. (Amélie Dupont / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Tranquil gardens

    The Jardin des Tuileries is Paris's most central garden. Its fountains, sculptures, cafes, formal gardens, and central location, make it a popular destination for visitors and locals. (Amélie Dupont / Paris Tourist Offi) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Tuileries Palace

    Tuileries Palace encloses the western end of the Louvre and the formal gardens that make up Jardin des Tuileries park, stretching from the Louvre to the Place de Concorde, and bordered by the Seine. (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Moulin Rouge

    The cabaret Moulin Rouge was built in 1889, in Paris' red-light district of Pigalle on Boulevard de Clichy. The Moulin Rouge is best known as the birthplace of the can-can dance. (David Lefranc / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Flowing with history

    The Fontaine des Mers at one of the main public square, Place de la Concorde. At 20 acres, it is the largest square in Paris. (Henri Garat / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Honoring warriors

    The Arc de Triomphe stands in the center of the Place Charles de Gaulle, at the western end of the Champs-Elysees. The arch honors soldiers who fought for France. The names of generals and wars fought can be found on the inside and top of the arc. Underneath, is the tomb of the unknown soldier from World War I . (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Coffee break

    People walk past a boulangerie (bakery) in the Montmartre district in Paris. (Michel Euler / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Paris blues

    A piece of renowned French Roquefort blue cheese is displayed in a shop in Paris. (Philippe Wojazer / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Pricey real estate

    The Place Vendome is an octagonal square located to the north of the Tuileries Gardens and east of the Eglise de la Madeleine. The bronze spiral column at the center of the square was constructed in 1810 by Napoleon to celebrate the French army’s victory at Austerlitz. Within the square are apartments, and posh hotels and high-end retailers, including Cartier, Chanel, and Bulgari. (Benoit Tessier / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. French connection

    The high-speed rail network in France goes to several Parisian train stations, including Gare Du Nord shown here. The name was derived by the idea that travelers would be able to travel to Belgium, Netherlands, Northern Germany and the Scandinavian countries. It is the busiest railway station in Europe, and the third -busiest in the world. (Cate Gillon / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. The grandest address in Paris

    The Pere Lachaise cemetary (Father Lachaise Cemetery) on the eastern edge of the city, is named after the Jesuit Father Lachaise, King Louis XIV's confessor. Many famous people are buried here, including Musset, Chopin, Moliere, Oscar Wilde, Delacroix, Balzac, Jim Morrison. (Amélie Dupont / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Impressive collection

    The Musée d'Orsay is one of Paris' most popular museums, housed in the former railway station, the Gare d'Orsay. The museum houses an extensive collection of sculptures and impressionist masterpieces by Monet, Degas, Renoir, and Cezanne. (David Lefranc / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Grand design

    The Grand Palais (Big Palace) was built for the World Fair of 1900. The building is best known for its enormous glass-domed roof, making it one of Paris’ most recognizable landmarks. The Grand Palais was the work of three different architects, and is currently the largest existing ironwork and glass structure in the world. (Marc Bertrand / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Prestigious avenue

    The Louis Vuitton department store is located on the stunning Champs-Elysees, one of the world's most famous and beautiful streets. (Mike Hewitt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Le Pantheon

    Le Pantheon was originally intended to be a church dedicated to Saint Genevieve to fulfil a vow made by Louis XV while he'd fallen ill. It was used for religious and civil purposes until 1885 and now functions as a famous burial place. (David Lefranc / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments