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Shopping Scene: Provence

Posted on 2007.03.27 at 02:58
I spent the first half of 2006 living in Marseille, the second largest city in France and the largest city by far in the region of Provence. Provence is home to its own culture which grew up quite apart from the somewhat colder culture which Americans often think of when they think of France, that of Paris and Northern France, where the weather isn't quite as warm and sunny. Provence has its own ethnicity, language (Provencale, though it's almost dead) and thick accent.

Marseille itself offers what you would expect from any major European city. It is home to large shopping boulevards and malls which host everything from celebrated French stores like Les Galleries Lafayette to international and American brands. Le Canebiere is a major thoroughfare which hosts crepe shops, currency exchanges, the local tourism office and the official store of the Olympique de Marseille, Marseille's football (soccer) team. ALLEZ OM!

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Typical OM merchandise

It is also the site of a very large, yellow and happy-looking biscuiterie, a store dedicated entirely to cookies and candy, situated directly in front of a shopping mall. This biscuiterie has a wide selection of cookies including traditional treats like a leaf-shaped buttercookie called a navette and realistic-looking olives made of chocolate.

Le Rue St. Ferreol, a major pedestrian shopping street (though unkind to stiletto heels one is apt to wear while in France with its large cobblestones instead of pavement) is flanked by numerous shoe stores and sandwich shops as well as recognizable shops like Sephora, Claire's and H&M.

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Le Rue St. Ferreol

Le Rue St. Ferreol begins at a gorgeous, domed baroque government building and the city's major police station and ends where it intersects Le Canebiere at Le Centre Bourse, the city's large shopping mall located directly in the middle of the "centre ville" at the division between more affluent areas populated by native French-persons and the Arab quarter.

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Le Centre Bourse

Interestingly, in laying the foundation for Le Centre Bourse construction workers found the very large leftovers of some ancient Greco-Roman ruins. Marseille (ancient name Masillia) was founded to celebrate a marriage between a member of Greek family and the daughter a local Provencale tribe leader. Apparently stumbling upon ruins by accident happens a lot around there. No worries; they let the ruins be in a garden-type area which can still be viewed from inside the mall, a major portion of which is dedicated to a museum about Marseille's vivid history and ongoing tradition of internationalism.

Speaking of internationalism, Marseille's prime location on the Mediterranean leaves it a very traditional spot for international commerce and immigration. While waves of Italian immigration occurred in the past few centuries, the most recent immigration waves come from Arab North-Africa, leaving Marseille home to large Arab quarters which also boast large, Arab and Mediterranean markets. At certain points Marseille no longer even resembles France, its shops offering fragrant Middle-eastern spices by the pound, massive olives, Arab pastries, belly-dancing costumes, Halal meats, amazingly cheap produce, Halvah, hookahs. Unfortunately I have not been able to locate my photos dedicated to these vibrant sections of town.

Another distinctive marketplace in Marseille is its fish market, located right on the vieux port, centre ville. Marseille's fishing population is traditionally Italian and fish are sold literally feet away from the boat, often still moving.

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Fishermen selling their fresh catches at Le Vieux Port

A traditional product still sold in Marseille is the celebratedly Savon de Marseille or soap of Marseille, an olive-oil based soap known for its softness and ability to not irritate the most sensitive skin. My host mother and host brother were both very sensitive to soaps, fabric softeners and detergents. Savon de Marseille is all she was willing to use.

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Savon de Marseille for sale

Marseille also offers plenty of good boutique shopping as any major French city should, especially along Le Rue Paradis, the ritzier "old money" area road which runs parallel to Rue St. Ferreol and is home to one of the most incredible florists I've ever encountered. I could kick myself for forgetting the name, but not only does the inside of this quite delightful smelling little shop look like a rainforrest with cut flowers sometimes towering taller than myself, but it is home to a little dog who often sits in the window on a bed of moss under a ceiling of lush greenery as though he is a moving part of the window display. Also of note is a boutique dedicated entirely to the selling of white, tailored blouses and dress-shirts for women starting around 150 Euro.

But boutiques and tiny shops are all the more specialized outside of Marseille. My absolute favorite small finds were located in Cassis and Roussillon, the latter located in neighboring Languedoc. l'Eau de Cassis is a small store selling a variety of types of eau de toilette and eau de parfum made entirely out of ingredients found in and around the small and delightful town of Cassis. It is truly one-of-a-kind and intrinsically linked because of the ingredients to the geographic region. I picked up an eau de toilette titled "soir d'ete"- summer evening- which really does have the fresh and almost grassy smell of a walk through down a dirt path in June at 7 PM. They also offer raw scents such as violet, rose and mimosa, soaps, and a variety of floral or musky concoctions.

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Eau de Cassis, label and store interior

Luckily for you, you don't have to go all the way to Cassis to pick some up as their perfumes are available to order online at leaudecassis.com. Unfortunately, you do have to go all the way to France to smell the perfume before you buy. Still, it's easier to get to than the much larger Fragonard, whose factory and factory store are located up a misty mountain in Eze near Monaco and whose products are worth their own article.

My other favorite place to buy products completely unique and tied to the geography of the region is the pigment factory in Roussillon. Rousillon is a beautiful little area to spend an afternoon, unique because of the bright red, yellow and white sediments of the earth on which it is situated. These pigments are then extracted and made into powders which, mixed with water and gum arabic, become extremely thick, extremely bold paints. I adore the earthy colors, if only because my host mother had her entire kitchen and bathroom done up in bright ochre yellow and terracotta red using these very colors.

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pigments from Roussillon

And because these pigments are abundant throughout the region, there was plenty to coat the entire town, which glows a deep red in the afternoon sunlight on its hill overlooking the whole of the Luberon valley which strikes a deep, contrasting green.

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Typical buildings in Roussillon

Painted shutters like the ones you see above are also a typical feature in Provence. The lightish blue on the left is made from lavender. Roussillon is also a great place for thyme and lavender flavored ice cream if you stop by.

But what would Provence be without its famed open-air markets?

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Soaps for sale at the market in Apt

The most fragrant and delicious soaps in the world are a staple product at any Provencale market. You can get a taste for them here by hitting up a local L'Occitane (or L'Occitane.com) but at a much greater price- still, almost worth it, especially if you happen to be an American urbanite desperate to return to the leisurely agrarian lifestyle of southern France and almost able to do so over a whiff of Verbena hand-lotion or lavender soap. Apt is a charming and rather ancient town in the Luberon valley. It is also home to a massive open-air market offering a wide selection of produce, olive oils which come in a number of varieties and tastes, much like wine, and provencale textiles like these:

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The yellow-and-blue prints that typify French table linens

Another city definitely worth going to is Avignon, home to the papal palace from when the popes lived in France. Go to Avignon for the palace (a giant, medieval fortress of a place which looks much more like a "fairytale castle" than monarchs' palaces such as Chambord or Versailles- it is here that you truly realize the papacy was at one point the most powerful government in all of Europe), but stay for the market, which is quaint, urban and somewhat more high end and antiquish than other more agricultural-based markets in other cities.
Even so, it is still home to a fragrant flower market and a fish market- watch out for dripping water.

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Fish for sale in Avignon

Aix-en-Provence is the French version of a college-town and is often what Americans tend to think of when they hear the word "Provence." Its market is famous for long rows of sunflowers, mimosa and lavendar though it is also home to a variety of agrarian products and Provencale textiles.

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A market stall in Aix

One more product, of course, comes to mind when we think of France. Wine, of course! Southern France is not as celebrated for its wine as other regions such as Champagne (yes, it's a region, and sparkling wine is NOT champagne unless it is actually from Champagne), Bordeaux and Alsace. The southern regions do, however, specialize in great rose, and are a great place to find wonderful table wines at much more moderate prices, mainly because its weather is conducive to healthy vines.

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Bandol is one town of many that produce a variety of wines, including rose

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An American friend sampling wines at a small vineyard we passed just outside Cassis

Shopping is certainly only the tip of the iceberg in terms of things to do and see while visiting Provence, but it is not to be missed because Provence is home to so many unique products that cannot be replicated elsewhere at the same quality and prices. Additionally, the bright, airy and colorful nature of the Provencale shopping experience is accurately representative of Provencale people and culture. Southern France is a laid back, relaxed, leisurely, bright, sunny kind of place with friendly people in touch with their roots. The shopping mimics this; it is less a mission and more a cultural experience.

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