Dusty olive trees and rows of lavender against a background of hill top villages; days filled basking in bright sunlight ... this is the picture-postcard Provence that continues to draw so many tourists as a summertime destination.
And at the end of a wonderful holiday, saturated with brilliant colours and intense flavours, what is more natural than to want to take home a memento of your stay to enjoy over those long winter months, when the darkness descends just after lunchtime, and you have to battle public transport home through the sleet and rain just to hit the highlight of your evening, Britain’s Got Talent? No wonder visitors want to keep alive that idyllic interlude in Provence.
The easy souvenir picks are the mandatory perfumed sachets of lavender or a ribboned packet of rose-scented Marseille soap. For the gourmands, there’s a host of herbs and spices, olive oils and speciality cakes and biscuits. A shopping list for those a little more adventurous could include perfume from Grasse or a bottle of rosé from a visited vineyard.
Then there are the holiday-makers who arrive with more space in their luggage. They are thinking on a larger scale with the aim of taking home – literally – a piece of Provence. I am speaking of the antique market enthusiasts.
Not difficult to spot, but you have to be up with the sun to head to the local Saturday morning brocante market and see these early birds, the ones with boundless enthusiasm. They are looking for something special and it’s not the weekly discount at the local supermarket.
Antiquing in the South of France is a holiday in itself. And those who are good at it have it well planned out. The rewards are worth the preparation but there is such a vast choice it’s difficult to know exactly where to start.
In Provence, it’s impossible to travel far without tripping over a gold mine (or two) of great bric-a-brac. And because French Provençal design is so attractive, many city dwellers will spend their summer vacation hunting for that piece of spectacular vintage that they can enjoy at home.
The antique sellers welcome these chercheurs with open arms. At our local Saturday market, veteran brocante-seller Monsieur Herve is no exception. A man in his sixties and an expert of all things antique.
Ask him anything. He will be able to tell you the history of every treasure that he has for sale. And as any sales person will tell you, half the sale is in the story. “You like this milk pail? It’s at least 100 years old. I discovered it in the ruins of a farmhouse, way up in the hills above Aubagne in the land of French filmmaker and writer, Marcel Pagnol.”
The brocante-seekers nod wisely, lapping up this wonderful tale. “In fact, Pagnol may even have drunk milk from this very pail.”
The wonderful thing about Provence is that you may well be looking at a milk pail that Pagnol drank from. There are so many artifacts to be found here, and each one has a history, which sellers have researched. And if it wasn’t Monsieur Pagnol who drank from this very milk pail, it is likely to have been one of his neighbours.
But look out! Recently, a new kind of tourist has arrived in Provence, ready to claim a piece of it. Not content with a small table or a zinc tray, they think bigger. Much bigger. The result? More of Provence is finding its way overseas, and not always in a suitcase.
Today, some of the biggest draw cards are the old, pre-loved pieces of masonry, stone, wood, marble, iron and zinc. The choice is almost limitless for this area has been a playground since the Romans arrived and built their arenas and amphitheatres. This means there is a huge choice for antique hunters looking for something monumental. The finest in 17th- and 18th-century French antiques, hand-carved French limestone fountains, garden accoutrements, and antique French olive jars designed from the classical patterns of antiquity, lie waiting and for sale.
To be able to find a home for long-forgotten pieces that have been left to crumble away at the back of some distant, unploughed field is highly satisfying.
Recently a visitor from the US gave me a brief. “Find me a stone or marble fireplace,” she said. “It must be from the time of the Napoleonic Empire. It is to be the crowning glory of my new home and it must be original.”
So what a challenge! And yet, Provence is the very place to find the very piece she was looking for. Monumental pieces, ignored and overlooked for decades are now in vogue and this region is filled with architectural and colossal antiques from the 15th through to the 19th century, waiting to be reclaimed. Aged limestone flooring, architectural elements such as stone surrounds, enormous doors and gates are here, all waiting to be re-discovered and loved by new owners.
These days, Provence offers so much more than just a Kodak moment. As antique collectors will tell you, if you’re not lucky enough to live the dream, as we are lucky enough to do, the next best thing is to be able to take a piece of its iconic history home.
As a matchmaker of antiques, I couldn’t be happier than when some aged architectural element finds a new home, perhaps on the other side of the planet. Once there, I imagine these aged treasures standing proud once more and reminding the rest of the world what living in Provence is all about.
Caren Trafford writes environmental books for kids – see www.planetkids.biz – and lives in Provence. She is happy to find architectural pieces of interest for you in Provence.