The splendour of Provence was enhanced this summer by the unbridled enthusiasm and joyfulness of two interior designers who hailed from their hometown, Montgomery, Alabama for an Antiques Diva tour. Their gusto for this corner of the world was infectious and their appreciation and wonder of all things French made their three-day antiquing foray into the south a delight for vendors and clients alike.
I am always a little nervous when visitors come on buying tours to Provence, given the relaxed way of life here. It is the smaller, simpler things that matter. People in general are not interested in the trappings of wealth. They are far more interested in what they will be having for lunch, which wine will be a good accompaniment, what their neighbours are up to and what ailments their dogs have.
And so with antiquing, my concerns vary from, for example, whether the clients understand that the French break two hours for lunch, come what may, or if another client happens to be with the vendor that we have driven 100 kilometres to meet, we must wait our turn; if there is someone in front of us, we will be completely ignored until it is our turn. But these ladies took to the French way of life like ducks to water.
“When was the last time you actually stopped for lunch back home?” I asked them. They couldn’t remember. Sometime before the children were born, one of them thought.
We spent three days exploring Provence. We found antique doors that had once adorned the very fashionable Royal Hotel in Vichy before the Second World War. The door seller still had 68 of them left. His father, who had inherited the business from his father before him, had bought every door in the hotel. My clients bought 24 of them. This doorstop is like a museum. While rummaging, we came across a door from the 1600s that was once a cell door in the prison in Draguignan. The door was so heavy, and had been located so deep in the dungeon, that it took two men and a great deal of rope to bring it up to the surface.
Don’t be fooled. Although the majority of antiques here hail from Provence, the sellers scour the French countryside as far as Normandy and Brittany, as well as the neighbouring countries of Italy and Spain, so there is a wonderful choice of items to be had here. Everything from the typical provincial furniture, with wonderful patinas, to fountains and chimney places. And the brocante markets offer a wealth of smaller treasures.
Smelling the lavender or tasting the wine? There is no contest. As far as I’m concerned, antiquing is the nicest possible way to spend the day in Provence. There’s so much history in all the wonderful treasures you can find and unlike a museum, you can touch, you can learn about the history and you can buy. And in Provence, the vistas, the food and the choice of antiques cannot be surpassed anywhere else. Just ask my clients.
By the end of the tour, their lives were changed. As one of them so aptly put it. “I’m spending all my summers here from now on. Where can the kids go to take French classes? How easy is it to rent a house for the summer? Should we rent by the beach or in the hills? My husband doesn’t know it yet … but it won’t be long before we’re back.”
The best-known destination to indulge one’s antique fancies is Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, the third largest brocante in Europe. It boasts more than 300 antique outlets and for many pilgrims who arrive here, the anticipation of the hunt for a new item is almost overwhelming, especially during the biannual Grand Déballage – the “Great Unpacking” – held four days around Easter and mid-August. See www.foire-islesurlasorgue.com
Caren Trafford is our Antique Diva for Provence. She also writes children’s books (www.planetkids.biz) and lives with her two dogs and husband in a mas covered with bougainvillea that overlooks the azure blue waters of the Mediterranean.