Book Review: An Insider’s Guide to Provence by Keith Van Sickle

Book Review: An Insider’s Guide to Provence by Keith Van Sickle

Hot off the press this month, An Insider’s Guide to Provence is a great holiday gift suggestion for Francophiles who particularly love Provence — or for those who dream of going there for the first time, and could use a friendly hand to guide them along the way once they get there.

Keith Van Sickle is the author of two previous books — One Sip at a Time and Are We French Yet? — about (and his wife Val’s) part-time life in Provence.

Well aware that some might wonder whether yet another guide to Provence is really necessary, Van Sickle addresses just what his guidebook provides, and what it does not in the Note to the Reader that precedes the main text. This guide, he stresses is not a general guidebook (“…for example it offers no information on lodging…Instead, [it] is a supplement to those general guidebooks…” which includes “the personal favourites of an American couple living in Provence…”) He stresses further that the focus is on the western part of Provence, north of Marseille. Therefore the book focuses on interesting things to see and do in a radius around St. Rémy de Provence, where this couple has their French home, which is the part of Provence they are most familiar with.

Keith Van Sickle at St-Rémy

Keith Van Sickle in St-Rémy

This book may not include information on lodging, but as the author points out, there are a number of other good guidebooks that do that, as well as many online sources of information, many of which included as recommended resources in this book. What it does have is amazingly detailed and very helpful information about a host of practical matters about things like driving in France, parking, the numbers to call in case of emergency (it’s not 911!), being aware of the hours of eating in France, and where to find food for vegetarians, vegans and those on a gluten-free diet.

Along with such practical information there are enthusiastic recommendations for some of the places he and his wife have come to love — from open-air markets to art museums and historic sites — and of course, some favourite restaurants. It also includes information about hiking in the area, along with this helpful remark: “I should tell you that Val and I are in our early 60s. We’re reasonably active, but not what you would call athletes. There’s no danger of us biking to the top of Mont Ventoux! So, when I say that a route is ‘easy,’ for example, it means it is easy for us.”

Melons at the St-Rémy market

Melons at the St-Rémy market. © Keith Van Sickle

There is also some very helpful (and wise) advice about how to be happy in France, by adjusting to the slower pace of life, especially in the south, especially in a small town.

If you go to a shop frequented by the locals, don’t be in a rush. Everyone gets personal attention and takes as long as they want, which can sometimes be a long time. In our butcher shop, for example, the butcher takes the time to chat with the local customers. How’s the family? How are your bunions? How will you prepare the stew? Val and I once walked in and found two customers ahead of us. She turned to me and said, “Ok, this will take about 45 minutes.” This can sometimes be annoying, but on the other hand we’ve gotten great recipes and cooking advice, and once in a while some juicy local gossip.

Strawberries at the St-Rémy market

Strawberries at the St-Rémy market. © Keith Van Sickle

There are also little tidbits of advice you might not get anywhere else, and that could save you potential embarrassment or confusion. For example, did you know you shouldn’t ask for Vaseline in a French pharmacy? (You’ll learn why on page 33.) And how in the world do you use those French grocery charts that are locked together outside supermarchés? (See p. 31 for an explanation of this.) Keith Van Sickle has thought of everything!

Maps of the region, explanations of French road signs, and literally hundreds of links to internet-based resources to find additional information add to the usefulness of this guide. A stunning amount of research has gone into it, but it is certainly not dry. The breezy personal style of the author makes you feel like you’ve found a good friend in Provence who is willing to share a great deal of invaluable information about how you can enjoy being there. And his good sense of humor, perspective, and balance are a model for how to get along well in a foreign country, with all the ups and downs that entails.

Purchase the book on Amazon here.

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Janet Hulstrand is a freelance writer, editor, writing coach and teacher who divides her time between France and the U.S. She is the author of "Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You," and "A Long Way from Iowa: From the Heartland to the Heart of France." She writes frequently about France for Bonjour Paris, France Today, and a variety of other publications, including her blog, Writing from the Heart, Reading for the Road. She has taught “Paris: A Literary Adventure” for education abroad programs of the City University of New York since 1997, and she teaches online classes for Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C. She is currently working on her next book in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in Champagne.

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