Beyond the guidebook: Read these books on Provence

A good trip sparks anticipation. I try to read a few books about a destination to figure out its culture, not just the tourist sites. Guidebooks, of course, have their place.

The Chateau de Cassis is at the top of a long path and has a great view of the harbor.

In the movie ” A Room with a view” Vanessa Redgrave uses her Baedeker to explore monuments in Florence, tearing a page out as she goes. Great way to save on extra luggage weight.

Try to research quirky facts on the Internet or find pertinent blogs. Even uber-positive tourism sites can help you narrow down the towns that will appeal to you.

For a more balanced view, check out TripAdvisor.com or the travel pages of newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post. The problem with reader reviews or comments is that you don’t know whether the person writing is in your “tribe” or not. Do they have the same interests or world view? You’ll have to use your judgment, perhaps by looking up past reviews by the commenter. If a hotel inspires high praise and pans, you can guess that your opinion may fall somewhere in the middle.

Sometimes hotels in Europe, ask guests to write positive reviews in Booking.com and on Yelp. Do not fall for that trap. And if you post your own review, remember that other travelers are relying on your message to decide whether or not to visit a spot. Instead, be honest and mention the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Provence-Alpes-Cotes-d’Azur

For our trip to Provence, I talked to French friends, got tips on what to read, and bought photo books like “One Hundred and One Beautiful Small Towns in Provence.” Published by Rizzoli, New York, this coffee table book includes villages in Provence-Cotes d’Alps as well as other provinces in France. The photographs will inspire you and underscore little-known facts. The pages on Arles, “gateway to the camargue,” show a striking sunlit amphitheater, where the town stages pretend bullfights

We chose that storied city, a favorite of President Macron’s, as our launching point. Some people choose to fly into Paris to take the Train a Grands Vitesse (Known as the TGV ) to Arles, but with limited time, we flew south on Air France to Marseille.

From there, we rented a car and drove west to our first hotel near the center of Cassis. I had been there years ago in the winter. It was a sleepy village then, but now it’s a vital and bustling town. We hit the beach, but the water was ice cold.

In another inspirational book, “the French Riviera for Artists,” the author, uses her watercolors to capture the mood of each town, from

A sample of the books I carried with my snacks and a blanket to sit on. The straw basket called out to me in Cassiss, because it had “Ma Vie en Rose,” embroidered on it.

I don’t just rely on guidebooks. I research quirky facts on the Internet, read blogs and even uber-positive tourism websites to help us narrow down the towns to visit. My husband and I booked hotels for September. I anticipated sunflowers, the Van Goghs in Arles, and the famous sparkling blue waters of the Mediterranean. My husband imagined Roman ruins and colliseums and warming bowls of bouillabaisse. We both counted on warm weather, so I looked up hotels with pools.

Before any trip, I put together a reading list, partly to assess the mood of a destination. Is the region gloomy like the marshes in Jane Austen, or intellectual like Simone deBeauvoir?

It’s important to jot down any hotels, cafes or museums that seem worth a trip, according to bloggers. Don’t forget Rick Steves’ guidebooks. They’re loaded with accurate historical details for travelers to absorb. Long after you’re home, you’ll remember the personality of a place. Take photos, take in the ambience and relax into the scenery, too. Talk to everyone you can.

Author Nancy Pearl, a librarian who says she leans more toward armchair travel, triggered my own book habit with “Book Lust to Go, Recommended Reading for Travelers, Vagabonds and Dreamers,” Sasquatch Books, Seattle, 2010, 270 pages. Several more editions of “Book Lust” have come out since I first discovered Pearl, who thinks books can tell you a lot about the people, culture, and outlines of a new place. I love that she included travelers as well as dreamers in her subtitle!

A geographical index in front of “Book Lust to Go” lets you choose from Afghanistan: Graveyard of the Empires, to Zipping through Zimbabwe/Roaming through Rhodesia. Pearl’s suggestions are mainly fiction books with some nonfiction thrown in. Or maybe I’m just more drawn to fiction.

Marcia DeSanctis writes from the heart

Here’s another one for you, full of unique places to see. Marcia DeSanctis wrote “101 places in France Every Woman should go,” to transmit her love of the country. Published in 2014 by Solos House, Inc, “101 Places” is part of a series on travel. DeSanctis writes beautifully about French landmarks she discovered while teaching high school French in Paris. I stopped at a few of the sights she writes about lovingly: L’hotel Particuliere in Arles and the Calanques of Cassis.

L’hotel Particulière in Arles, a 17th century mansion, was one of the best places we stayed. Recommended by DeSanctis because of “the courtyard so serene, the white sheets so pressed, and the tucked away bar with the wine menu scrawled on a chalkboard so inviting.” A romantic aura and the floral smells made this one so memorable.

In addition, the narrow lap pool and trees bending down onto the patio create a quiet refuge. We stayed on the bottom floor due to the steep steps to the other rooms, not very accessible, but our windowed ground floor porch reminded me of parts of Paris long ago.

Provence from A to Z still holds up

For Provence, we gathered Peter Mayle books from the local library. Once an ad executive, Mayle bought a farm in the South of France with his wife Jennie in 1987 to escape dreary England. His 1988 book, “A Year in Provence,” became an immediate bestseller, and several others followed.

Like Pearl, Mayle starts with an alphabetical theme in “Provence A to Z.” “Toujours Provence,” ” Encore Provence” and”Marseille Caper” among many others.

Marseille, the largest city after Paris, used to have a shady reputation. Now, it’s the kind of place President Emmanuel Macron chose to meet with Angela Merkel, prime minister of Germany. Read about the marvelous Le Petit Nice and Gerard Passedat here.

But when my husband Rich read “Marseille Caper,” I learned a thing or two about provencals. They talk slowly, appreciate a good bottle of wine, and love to socialize. Wine shapes most meals. The restaurant Mayles describes as having the best bouillabaisse is Perron.

You can’t go to France without thinking about food, and Mayle certainly explores the provencal kitchen in all its flavors. Try the bouillabaisse when you can, for example. Mayle talked about the restaurant Peron, the first restaurant we went to when we were in Marseille.

San Juan-Les-Pins – “Cooking with Picasso”

“Cooking with Picasso,” by Camille Aubrey describes a year when Pablo, the great modern artist, rented a house in San Juan- les- Pins. I’m grateful to Karen Bonke, a book club friend who turned me on to this one. It’s whimsical and a mystery. The story unravels from two viewpoints: that of Ondine, the lover and Picasso’s cook, and her granddaughter, who knows there’s a painting of her grandmother somewhere in the south of France.

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