My mother and I just returned from France celebrating an early Christmas together on a river cruise through Provence. We sailed through France’s legendary wine-growing regions, where we enjoyed tastings of Beaujolais and Côtes du Rhône wines, met local vintners, marveled at ancient Roman ruins in Vienne and took an exclusive private steam train ride from Tournon. We also experienced the local Christmas Markets and watched the cities sparkle in festivities and tradition.
The cities of Provence, France transform every December as they set up markets, hang lights, and prepare delicious regional specialties in preparation for the Christmas season, called Calendale. Some of Europe’s most delightful Christmas Markets can be found in Provence in the South of France. From Lyon to Avignon, these make-shift villages, called “Marchés de Noël,” are full of charm and character.
Stepping into the Christmas Markets of Provence, you can’t help but take in the smells of mulled wine, spices, and pine. The markets are a shopper’s delight. Whether you are looking to treat yourself or a loved one, villages like St. Rémy and Carpentras are the perfect spot to find a gift. Local artisans line the streets and Père Noël, or Santa Claus, is never hard to find.
If you get hungry as you shop, no worries – food is never far! Merchants are happy to offer a taste of the region’s specialties: cheeses, cinnamon cakes, and gingerbread are aplenty. Many vendors are prepared with everything you need to set up for the traditional Provençal Christmas Eve dinner and thirteen desserts.
You will likely see calissons (white almond-shaped candies made of candied fruit, almond flour, and fondant) among these desserts. A Provençal specialty, calissons can be found in most patisserie windows and market stands. In St. Rémy’s small-town market, stretches of the Christmas Market specialize in the Gros Souper and thirteen desserts, providing everything locals need for their Christmas Eve meals. Taste regional sweets from some of the country’s best dessert specialists for yourself during your St. Rémy Christmas Markets excursion.
Every year locals buy new santons to add to their crèches from their Christmas Market. These petite figures are popular collectibles and make for a perfect souvenir. During your included Carpentras Christmas Markets excursion, visit the city’s famously intricate crèche and get a santon for yourself at the festive local Christmas Market!
Building your crèche, a crib or nativity, is a must for the people of Provence. In addition to the traditional biblical figures, crèches are filled with santons, or “little saints.” Originating from the Alpilles region, these tiny terracotta figurines are made to represent the nativity characters and professions, such as bakers, shepherds, and tailors. In 1793, during the French Revolution, nativity scenes and other holiday traditions were banned as an attack on the Church. Craftsmen sculpted the Holy Family in miniature and smuggled the figurines to the villagers so that they could celebrate in secret.
With delicious cuisine, enchanting traditions, and festive markets, Provence certainly knows how to celebrate the Christmas season. Visit the South of France to experience these local delights for yourself!
Favorite Highlights of the River Cruise Through Provence
Les Baux de Provence: a Magical Village
In the heart of the Alpilles, nestled on a rocky plateau, we walked the small hilly streets and explored the charming little squares, shaded terraces, and fountains. The views were beautiful. I could have spent a full day here. And the wine, lavender, and cheese shops were worth the visit alone. In short, this is a must if you visit Provence!
Van Gogh Walking Tour in Arles, France
We strolled through the same squares and cafes that inspired many of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings and we visited a contemporary art museum dedicated to Van Gogh and his influence on the art world.
Hiking up the Vineyards of Tain l’Hermitage
One of my favorite excursions was a hike through the steep vineyards of Tain l’Hermitage. After the guided hike, we visited a local winery’s tasting room and learned about wine making and the area’s unique wine heritage. We were also treated to a special wine tasting where we savored the distinct aroma and flavor of the region’s celebrated Hermitage appellation.
Steam Train Ride
My mother chose to take an exciting and nostalgic steam train ride through the magnificent landscape carved along the Gorge du Doux. The train stopped at the charming little station of Colombier le Vieux-Saint Barthélemy le Plain. She said the views were amazing!
The Local Markets and the Vineyards
Provence is the ideal location for food and wine lovers, with countless opportunities to indulge in some of France’s finest food and drink. Some excursions included tours and tastings at local markets and wineries. From small hilltop villages to the gastronomy capital of the world (Lyon), we enjoyed the best cheese, bread, olive oil, and wine. And the meals prepared for us on the ship were truly distinct gastronomic experiences full of delectable dishes served with unlimited fine wines from the region (all included with the cruise).
We visited a beautiful truffle farm to observe a specially-trained dog in action as she hunted for these treasures. Truffles are so elusive that neither man nor machine can locate them on their own, relying on canines’ keen sense of smell to find the fungus, which grows underground. Then we were treated to a tasting of truffles and wine.
What is so nice about these river cruises is that you only have to unpack once and you get to explore so many amazing destinations. All of the excursions are included and there are up to five different excursions offered in each port, and something for all fitness levels.
For me, my favorite moments were spending quality time with my mother and relaxing on our stateroom’s balcony. We watched the evolving views of the colorful local scenery and castles and fortresses as we floated along the river.
If you’re looking for some relaxation mixed in with adventure, I highly recommend a river cruise.
I believe deeply in the power of travel. Anything I can do to get you out exploring the world makes me happy! So, what are you waiting for? Taylored Tours is on standby to book your next European vacation. I’ll be happy to answer any questions you may have about traveling through Europe by river. All you need to decide is when you want to go and who you’d like to travel with!
Contact me and let’s plan your next river cruise for 2022 or 2023.
Cindi Taylor, Taylored Tours