Postcards from a Travel Writer’s Journal: France

I spent springtime researching Provence and the Côte d’Azur for a new book, getting lost on back roads as often as time allowed. As a travel journalist, I rarely have time to linger at the most beautiful places I’m paid to cover.  So I snap pics to remind myself where I’d like to return, once I’m no longer on deadline.

The Luberon Mountains, just after a driving rain. The clouds broke and a rainbow exploded over the vineyards of Joucas. This is the land that Peter Mayle fetishized in A Year in Provence.

The classic plâteau de fruits de mer. Near the salt marshes of the Camargue (where fleur de sel originates), nothing beats the fish stand in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer – the one with the rickety tables, right across from the Mediterranean. It’s called Cabane aux Coquillages (“shellfish shack”), and six oysters and a glass of white cost a mere €5.50, just what you want to spend  when you’ve sand between your toes.

Marseille reeks of garlic. They put it in everything – olives in aperitif, anchovy pizzas, and the city’s signature dish, supions – sliced squid pan fried with olive oil and parsley. In the ancient Panier district (pictured), the streets are too narrow for cars. Even locals get lost in the labyrinthine alleys, lined with candy-colored houses strung together with clotheslines. When it rains, the whole city shutters.

Locals whisper about the mafia, and speculate on the extent to which it does or does not run Marseille, but the city’s French Connection days have long since past. Now all eyes are on 2013, the year Marseille will be the European Capital of Culture and officially becomes gentrified. You’ll probably not meet a gangster here – unless of course you open a nightclub, or hang out at Au Son des Guitars.

The most forward-looking viewpoint from musty Aix-en-Provence lies at the city’s fringe, at La Fondation Vasarely, where the optical-art master Victor Vasarely‘s vast, floor-to-ceiling canvases permanently hang in six, purpose-built hexagonal galleries – even the ceiling glass is honeycombed. The place made me wish I still did acid. When I walked outside, my reset button firmly hit, I was disappointed to find myself still in uptight Aix. God, that town needs a good enema. I’ll take gangsters any day.