On my last trip to France, we visited the scenic southwestern area of Provence, famous for its lavender fields, stunning landscape and unbelievable food. Provence has several famous towns you can stay in while travelling, places like Arles, Avignon or Marseille are all very popular with attracting tourists. And while these incredible towns were a joy for us to visit, we decided to make our mainstay in the almost unheard of town of Merindol. But why stay in a small town, that is farther away from all the big sights and doesn't immediately appear to cater to foreign tourists? Well, I'll tell you why and hopefully at the end of this you'll be convinced that a small, unknown town is just right for your next trip to Provence.
Force Interactions = Intimacy
In tourist hubs its easy to just into a chain Supermarket and checkout without ever saying a word or even having to really interact with anyone. But staying in one of these little known villages, compared to the tourist hubs means you'll experience a side of rural France you won't get in the larger cities. Almost no one speaks English here, so you have to get by with French or non-verbal communication. And while this might sound frightening to some, it really makes you interact with the locals at a more intimate level. This extra time involved in interactions means you really get to know them, and them you. Below is our local fruit market. A mother and son were always working the till when we visited and it was great to get to know them as we would stop in for something different everyday.
Staying in a small town means you'll save a ton of money and get a lot more space. We rented an enormous, renovated 17th-century manor house which felt like we were staying in a castle! The house was huge and we had so much fun just wandering around the grounds and discovering new hidden features of the stone edifice. We had our own private pool, 5 bedrooms, a beautiful dining room and outdoor eating area and best of all, an absolutely jaw-dropping view across the Luberon valley. And all of this for under $230 US a night, which worked out to just under $46 per person. While you can definitely find hostels cheaper than this, for the size, amenities and incredible location you really can't find better for the price than in a small town.
Eating at local restaurants, which don't aim to cater to tourists, gives you the chance to eat what the locals eat. The menus are almost all in French but the staff was always incredibly kind in helping us figure out what everything was and what to order. They seemed so happy to have us visiting their restaurant and were so proud of their cuisine and getting the chance to share it with us. I assume that while serving the same people day in and day out is a lovely routine, it must be exciting to show off to some newcomers. Local dishes are astonishingly simple yet tasty since everything they use is grown nearby and the freshness adds to the flavor. Here, you’ll be paying small town prices, you'll find glasses of wine here are almost half as much as they would be only an hour away in Avignon. You might find it hard to pull yourself away from the bar at those prices and the ridiculously good wines this region has to offer. We came to know the restaurant owners by name and when we left they hugged us goodbye. While I LOVE eating at astonishing Michelin star restaurants which you can find in the big cities, I don’t think you’ll ever find the charming kindness which you’ll receive in places like Merindol.
People are Curious
You get a lot of attention being the new person in a town which only has a population of 2,000. While that attention might not be for everyone, we found that we were absolutely dotted on. They knew us right away, even if they hadn't met us before, since we were the only ones in town they didn't recognize. They were keen to show us different parts of village their favourite baked good and even little details about the history of the town.
Small towns have a style of architecture all their own. They never had the finances to hire the best architects or spend thousands on the most expensive materials. But that doesn't mean they were influenced by all those popular styles seen around the world. They brought those trends to their home town, made by local artisans and in a style unique to that maker. Lack of urbanization and modernization also means that many of these towns permanently feel lost in the past, in the most romantic way possible. The same cobblestones which lined the streets when there were horse-drawn carriages are still there today, the indentations of the wagon wheels still apparent if you look close enough.
Peace and Quiet
While a relaxing vacation might not be for everyone, a small town makes you unwind without you even knowing it. Everything there is done at a slower pace and you have to just give in to this atmosphere. I'm someone who loves to go-go-go but I found that here in Merindol, I found myself just wanting to sit out on my balcony, looking out over the valley, enjoying the sunset. Although we did head out of town throughout the week, almost all of us chose one or more days to just stay at the house and enjoy our home-away-from-home. Sitting up on that balcony, reading the antique books I found on the dusty shelves will still be one of the most powerful memories I hold close to my heart from that trip.
A small town in France like Meridol doesn't have a lot of "activities" listed on TripAdvisor nor do they fill chapters in guide books. There isn't even much information online (although I'm working on my own post about this amazing place). This means that it's up to you to discover things for yourself. We found a little path near our house and set off to explore. When we got to the top of the path we were surprised to find a historic site with a plaque in French all about the area. We had to then translate every word to figure out the history of where we were standing and were mesmerized by this incredible story of war and loss which was just a stone's throw from our house.Learning about this piece of history was so exciting since we hadn't read about it before or even knew it existed. This same thing seemed to happen every time we took a walk, we would wander across a stunning vista or find the most charming little church. They might not have been things we knew were but we certainly were thrilled to discover them.
Be Your Own Chef
One of the possible downsides of small towns is that there are very few restaurants and there is always at least one or two days a week when they are closed. But I don't really see this as a true downside, I see it as an opportunity! The lack of places to go out for dinner means you have to cook for yourself! While many of us go on vacation to avoid cooking, there is something exciting about going to the local market and seeing what the seasonal produce is around. Buy whatever looks delicious. I wouldn't worry too much about making a "recipe" per se, instead, buy up items to make a little picnic at home. My favourite foods from Provence were fresh fruit from roadside stalls, a loaf of soft crusty bread from the bakery along with a few of their favourite desserts. Get some cheese from the man down the road who sells it out of his kitchen fridge. Olives and cured sausage from the corner store are a perfect accompaniment. There are shops selling wine from wineries around the region in every small town, stop by and pick up their favourite. Together this makes for a laid back meal you can enjoy in the comfort of your rental home. Kick your feet up and recount your favourite memories from the trip thus far staring out across the vivid landscape.
While staying in a small town on vacation might not be for everyone, you do need to be able to rent a car since most of these tiny towns don’t offer public transport, there is absolutely a delightful charm they hold. The silent streets you’ll have all to yourself will call your name to come back soon. I know they still call my name and I can’t wait to visit them again.