My wife and I live part of the year in the charming village of St-Rémy-de-Provence, not far from Avignon. It’s famous as the place where Vincent Van Gogh spent a year in a mental asylum, and as the birthplace of Nostradamus, who made so many eerily accurate prophesies. And it has one of the best outdoor markets in Provence.
Outdoor markets are one of the glories of France, and especially Provence, where so much of France’s produce is grown. Nearly every Provençal town and village has a weekly outdoor market, and St-Rémy’s is my favourite. Here’s an excerpt from my new guidebook, An Insider’s Guide to St-Rémy-de-Provence and the Surrounding Area, where I share my advice on how to make the most of a visit.
If you love outdoor markets, don’t miss St-Rémy’s. It has everything you want in a Provençal market, from fruits and vegetables to olives and cheeses to colourful crafts. It starts early on Wednesday morning and finishes around noon, and you should go early because the market gets crowded. There’s another market on Saturday morning but it’s very small.
The market is spread all over town and has three main sections — in front of the church, in the main square, and in the parking lot across from the church.
I suggest starting in front of the church because it’s easy to find. If you get there early, you’ll see the paëlla man stirring his steaming paëlla in a big round pan nearly three feet across. Paëlla is a Spanish dish made of seasoned rice with seafood, chorizo and sometimes chicken, and is popular in Provençal markets. The locals line up to get some for lunch and it’s really good — try it!
Nearby is a boulangerie and a place to get newspapers (both to the left as you face the church), plus a stand that specialises in fruits. I love seeing how the fruit changes with the seasons, starting with strawberries in the spring, then later cherries, and in the summer it’s stone fruits and melons.
Start With a Coffee and Croissant
If you feel like having a coffee and a croissant to start your day, one of my favorite spots is the Grand Café Riche to the right of the church as you face it. It’s got a very old-timey look, like something out of Paris in the 1800s.
When you are ready to move on, Rue Lafayette will take you to the center of town and the heart of the market. Along the way you’ll pass a vendor selling honey and another selling jam — I like to take little jars of honey home as gifts. There’s usually someone selling sachets of lavender, another nice gift. One vendor sells cans of foie gras and confit de canard (duck leg confit), two French specialties I love. And there are always nice flowers on offer.
Rue Lafayette ends at the town’s main square, Place Jules Pelissier, in front of the mayor’s office. My favourite olive vendor is there, with more than a dozen kinds of olives. He also has spreads like tapenade (made from olives and anchovies), pistounade (olives and basil), and caviar d’aubergine (eggplant) — tasty things to put on bread or crackers at aperitif time. Try some! Pick out what you want and the vendor will fill up a container until you tell him to stop.
Roast Chicken for Lunch?
Nearby is a big rotisserie with chickens turning on the spit. If you don’t see it, just follow your nose. There’s nothing better than a hot and juicy roast chicken, especially a French one. And the potatoes! They roast them at the bottom of the rotisserie with chicken fat dripping on them. Totally decadent. Chicken and potatoes are great for a casual lunch but be sure to have plenty of napkins.
Near the chicken man is the cheese lady, with lots and lots of cheeses. Sample a few! Charles de Gaulle once complained about the fractious French by asking, “How do you govern a country with 246 kinds of cheese?” There is also a vendor selling sliced ham and another selling sausages and salamis.
More Than Just Food!
You’ll find more vendors on some of the streets that radiate out from the square, and still more on the ring road that encircles the central part of St-Rémy. The ring road is where you will find many of the crafts and jewelry you are looking for. If you follow the Rue de la Commune from the square out to the ring road, just a few steps to your left is another one of my favourite places for a coffee, the Bar-Tabac des Alpilles at 21 Boulevard Victor Hugo. It’s also a good place for lunch or dinner or an afternoon drink.
Head back to the church and look across the street to find the third main section of the market, held in the town’s central parking lot. There’s a carousel in one corner, which is great for young kids. This part of the market has clothing, colorful tablecloths, kitchenware, lavender, and more. There’s also a small brocante (flea market) with fun items from the old days — you can wander through it to find a memento to take home.
At the back of the parking lot is another favourite spot for a coffee, the Café de la Place. The food is excellent if you’d like to eat there — take a look at their chalkboard to see what’s on the menu.
Enjoy the Music
Later in the morning, a small musical group sets up at the intersection in front of the church. Grab a seat at any of the cafés lining the road to enjoy the music.
Most vendors at the market speak some English, but not all. If you’d like help finding the best vendors or dealing with the language barrier, you might consider a market tour organized by Ashley Tinker, a Canadian lady who lives nearby and is an expert on the local markets.
If you’d like to have lunch after your visit to the market, be sure to make a reservation or arrive early because they fill up fast on market days.