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How to Celebrate Christmas in Provence France

Spend Christmas in Provence, France. Discover Provence at Christmas. Explore the best places in Provence in winter. Visit Aix-en-Provence & Marsailles
If you're looking for a fabulous holiday getaway, the South of France is tough to beat.  We spent almost two weeks celebrating Christmas in Provence; soaking up the sun and indulging in excellent food and wine. 

Read on to learn more about why you should celebrate Christmas in the South of France.

Getting to Provence 

Marseille Airport offers convenient access to the towns of Provence, France. We arrived in Marseille airport and took a 45 minute bus ride to Aix-en-Provence.

Christmas in Provence: Fountain in Aix-en-Provence

An Introduction to Aix-en-Provence

After dropping off our bags, we wandered into town.  We admired Aix-en-Provence's famous fountains decked out for the holidays. A menorah was lit nearby. 

We dined at Le Cintra, a restaurant that felt decidedly from another time due to the fancily dressed waiters and bright neon signage. The portions were huge.  

We enjoyed chicken and frites with a healthy side salad and beef with noodles served in a cast iron pot. We felt as happy (and full!) as one of Santa's elves as we strolled our way back toward our hotel. 

We were taken by the rather stately faces adorning many of the beige stone buildings. We walked along Cours Mirabeau which was dotted with traffic circles featuring leafy fountains in the center. 

We soon arrived back at funky Hotel Cezanne to rest up and gear up for some farther reaching exploration in the coming days.

Fountains, Food, and Fun in Aix-en-Provence

Fountains, food, and fun; those are the 3 Fs that characterize Aix-en-Provence.  We spotted a sweets shop across the street from Hotel Cezanne and were lured in by the window displays. 

Leonard Parli specialises in calissons (little footballs made from candied fruit and ground almonds). In addition, they sold a variety of chocolates and candied fruits. 

Continuing on into town, we stopped into a lovely patisserie to sample their cookies before sitting down to a sensible breakfast of buttered toast, juice, and coffee. We also shared a lovely croissant.  When in France...

We let ourselves get lost on the narrow cobbled streets of Aix enjoying the small fountains that we saw at almost every turn. Most of the facades were quite pale so I enjoyed seeing a pop of colored flowerpots in a tall residential window. 

We passed a fountain and marveled as staff from some of the nearby cafes came by and filled up their wash buckets.

More opportunities for treats presented themselves at Comtesse du Barry and Goût de Pain. Long lines extended from the boucherie (butcher) as people looked to buy their holiday roast. 

Winding our way up Rue Espariat, we passed lovely fountain squares. We emerged onto Place Richelme and explored the bustling market featuring ripe fruit, sachets of lavender, herbes de provence, and pungent fish. 

We ducked into Le Brûlerie which emitted seductive scents from the coffee roaster. A variety of different beans from all over the world were on offer.

Place de l'Hôtel de Ville and Around

We left Place Richelme and passed two stone busts eyeing each other. Place de l'Hôtel de Ville featured a colorful flower market surrounding the central fountain. 

Intricately carved knockers graced the entrance to l'Hôtel de Ville. We stopped into a sweet shop along the square featuring pate de fruit and navettes. 

A large clock tower graced one corner of the square. Continuing on past yet more fountains, we approached the Place des Martyrs de la Resistance. 

We tuckered in for a bit of lunch at Cafe l'Archevêché. Their mushroom and ham pizza was delicious and filling.

Aix Cathedral

We popped into the Aix Cathedral, an imposing structure. The interior was rather sparse and pale, quite unlike the gothic churches we'd seen recently in Germany and Poland. 

A light-filled dome illuminated the interior. We spotted little cherubs adorning a nearby apartment building. 

As we walked further away from the Cathedral, the gargoyles on the tower came into focus. We reached a busy street which we treated as a northern boundary to the old town of Aix. 

We stopped at a square nearby to soak up the sun and try one of our calissons. We turned around and headed back toward Cours Mirabeau.  

We concluded our ramble with a tour of several more of Aix' signature fountains. The most surprising sight of the day was a kid trying to control a dog larger than he was outside a local confiserie.  

Aix has great people watching!

Aix-en-Provence Christmas Market

Aix-en-Provence featured a lovely Christmas market on Cours Mirabeau. There was a wide assortment of gifts and treats on offer. 

My favorite stall at the Aix-en-Provence Christmas market was a cotton candy (aka candy floss) stand.  They had a ton of different flavors.  The end product was bigger than a kid's head!  

Cours Mirabeau is lined with giant plane trees which adds great atmosphere to the Aix Christmas Market. Provence at Christmas is especially known for Santons de Provence, collectible figurines unique to the region.  Locals go wild for santons, making additions to their nativity scenes each year. 

We're not big into Christmas, but we picked up one santon that looked like a farmer standing next to a barrel with a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine -- the perfect memory of our Christmas trip to Provence.

Wine-Tasting Day Trip to Avignon

We rose before sunrise and caught a train from Aix-en-Provence to Avignon for a tour of regional vineyards. We took a bus from the TGV high speed train station and were deposited just inside the Avignon town wall. 

We walked toward the tourist office to meet our tour guide.  We discovered a small park just outside and since we were a bit early took the opportunity to explore. We met a 1-eyed black cat, jaunty Roman statues, and sooty ruins.

We walked around to the front of the tourist office and were whisked away (along with 4 others) by David from Avignon Wine Tour to the Provençal countryside. The sun shone across the hills and winter vines as we approached our first stop.

Chateau Romanin

We pulled up in our wine-tasting-mobile to admire the vines and our surroundings before heading to the tasting room. I spied an orange-tipped butterfly on a gnarled tree. 

After we'd learned a bit from David about the terroir and methods for trellising the vines, we knocked on the door of Chateau Romanin. A playful sculpture stood outside. 

We walked through the showroom into the heart of the production center. We saw large stainless steel tanks and oak barrels in a dark cave aging the wines to perfection. After stepping us through the various steps of wine production, we got down to the business of tasting wine.

SIDEWALK SAFARI SPOTLIGHT: Looking for other wine regions to visit in France? Why not spend 3 days in Bordeaux and cast your vote on which appellation reigns supreme: Medoc or St. Emilion. You could also consider a Loire Valley road trip featuring spectacular chauteaux in addition to fine wines. Discover things to do in Lyon as you sip Beaujolais or a Cote du Rhone.

How to Taste Wine According to a Sommelier

David was a sommelier for 16 years before joining Avignon Wine Tour and tried to give us a crash course in how to taste wine:
  1. Hold the glass by the stem, not by the bulb.  You don't want to warm the wine with the heat from your hands or leave unsightly fingerprints on the glass. 
  2. Observe the color and judge the vintage.  Clear edges mean the wine is younger; reddish brown edges mean the wine is 4+ years old. 
  3. Describe the 'first nose'. This is the scent of the wine without disturbing the contents of the glass. 
  4. Swirl the glass vigorously and describe the 'second nose'.   Describe the nose in terms of a general class (eg: mineral, fruity, floral) and then describe in more detail (eg: strawberry compote, blackberries, plums, cherries). 
  5. Observe the legs after swirling.  This will tell you if the grapes grew in a cool or warm climate. The cooler it was, the more 'legs' you'll see running down the inside of the glass. 
  6. Take a healthy sip of the wine. Describe the flavors using major categories and then refine further (e.g.: lots of spice; pepper notes, nutmeg and leather) 
  7. Sample the 3rd nose.  
  8. When your glass is empty, wave it up and down 4 times, sniff and describe. 
That's all there is to it! We piled out of the tasting room and back into the sun. Onward to the next winery!

Domaine de Valdition

Next up was Domaine de Valdition. We started with samples of their olive oil taken direct from a spoon. We moved on to more wine tasting.  We continued to ply our rudimentary knowledge to characterize the wine. Sampling complete, we checked out the market on the premises.


We stopped in Eygalieres to check out the local market and have a gourmet bite for lunch. David dropped us off at one end of the market and we ran the gauntlet of fresh foods. 

We were lured in by fabulous looking hand-crafted nougat and bought a slab. Beware!  Nougat is very expensive and can run about 50 euro a kilo. 

We bought a small slab and it was 20 euro. That was more than we really wanted to spend, but hey, what are you going to do?  It was a tasty treat after all. 

The market also featured lovely cheeses, herbes de Provence and lavender, olives, and crockery.
We'd worked up quite an appetite.  We were greeted by two gorgeous felines on the patio at Sous les Micocouliers. 

Culinary delights awaited us inside from bread and crudite to a sampler platter featuring chestnut soup, pate, poached pear, duck, shrimp, and more.  It was great to try a variety of small bites.  

They were all fantastic and it's unlikely I would have ordered many of these items if given a choice as a single entree. A platter of small sugary treats was brought out at the end of the meal with our espresso. 

We also took time for dessert which included a chocolate cake with fruit and sorbet and a poached pear with cream and macarons. The food was delicious but be aware that it's not included in the price of the tour and cost about 31 euro per person including wine.

Mas Sainte Berthe

We continued on our way to Mas Sainte Berthe. We could see Les Baux on a hill in the distance. 

We strolled around the grounds for a bit soaking in the sun before heading inside to taste more wines. The tasting room featured a peep hole into the barrel room and a shelf around the perimeter of the room featuring empty wine bottles of different sizes and shapes. 

My favorite part about Mas Saint Berthe was the petrol-style wine station.  It was possible to buy table wine by the jug. 

While we were there, someone came in with their plastic jug, tapped out a few gallons, and paid by the weight. We sampled our wines the more traditional way: from a bottle into a glass.

Les Baux

Continuing on, we had a chance to stop in Les Baux and admire the views of the surrounding valley. We caught a glimpse of a guy parasailing overhead. 

The village of Les Baux has sat atop this hill for over 1000 years.  We wandered the narrow cobbled streets and admired the architecture of the town buildings.

Chateau Estoublon

David picked us up again and we made our way to our final vineyard of the day, Chateau Estoublon. There was a Christmas market on the premises at the time which was a nice touch. 

I particularly liked the Phileas Fogg (Around the World in 80 Days) carousel on the property. The tasting room was set in a large stone mansion. 

Inside, we went through the wine tasting steps one final time with David. We rounded out our tour with a browse through the surprisingly large market on site.
David dropped us back in Avignon after a very full day of exploration.  Avignon Wine Tour visits a different region each day of the week.  

If we get back to Provence, we'd definitely go on another adventure with David and company - C'est Magnifique!

Avignon Christmas Market

We had a bit of time between the end of the wine tour and our train back to Aix-en-Provence.  We took some time to explore the Avignon Christmas Market. Yum! Macarons! 

The market also featured a vendor selling some gorgeous teas. I liked the lights strung out above the market like a web of stars. 

We stopped in the town hall to see the nativity scene complete with copious amounts of santons. We strolled the winding streets of Avignon which were bathed in street lights. 

The Palais des Papes soon came into view.  The pope was relocated to Avignon in the 1300s when unrest and chaos approached Rome. 

We continued toward the river and the ruined old bridge spanning it. The bridge itself crumbles about halfway across.

We walked back inside the Avignon town walls. I liked the jaunty painted windows on the side of the town hall. 

We decided to grab a bite to eat closer to the bus stop to facilitate our return to Aix-en-Provence.  We stopped into Taverne de Maître Kanter.  

After dark, this stretch along Cours Jean Jaurès seemed a little rough.  There were quite a few vagrants with tough looking dogs hanging out along the road. We never felt threatened but I wouldn't recommend walking here alone at night. 

We opted for a seafood platter and a very thin flatbread pizza. Greens and bread rounded out the meal. 

We had a bit more time to kill before our bus so we indulged in some sorbet covered with fresh whipped cream. 

We boarded the bus and then the high speed train at the TGV station to return to Aix-en-Provence after a long and rewarding day in and around Avignon.

Christmas Eve in Aix-en-Provence

We spent a lazy day in Aix-en-Provence on Christmas Eve; prepping ourselves for the holiday when everything would be closed.  We sat in the lobby of Hotel Cezanne and munched on the nuts and clementines in bowls around the room. 

We ordered coffee and topped it with colorful packets of sugar. We set out into the Mazarin district of Aix-en-Provence, a neighborhood of grid-like but charming residential streets. 

We emerged from the sleepy backstreets onto Rue d'Italie. Shops were bustling with last-minute holiday traffic. We stopped into a Boulangerie on Rue d'Italie and were amazed by the sights and smells inside. 

We selected a loaf of walnut bread (still warm!) and continued on our way. We discovered a produce market on Rue d'Italie and picked up a few healthier items for our Treize Desserts spread.

We were surprised when we stumbled upon a huge Saturday market on Place de Verdun. We saw everything from old toys and antiques, to baskets of spices to endless varieties of mushrooms. 

As usual, a large fountain provided a helpful landmark as we explored the market. Fresh fruits and vegetables spilled from countless stalls. 

We even discovered a cheesemonger decked out for Christmas with Santa's laundry hanging about his stall.

We were surprised to see a man, two dogs, and a donkey roaming the market. 

Sundried tomatoes and various pestos called out to us. Lots of different nuts in shell were on offer. 

We walked back through Mazarin toward Place du General de Gaulle. We stopped for lunch at Le Passage.  We tried lamb with polenta and mushroom risotto. 

The open, airy restaurant was really decked out for the holidays. We concluded our afternoon of exploration across town at Le Pavillon de Vendôme and the surrounding park. 

Despite the season, a few flowers were still in bloom. We admired Le Pavillon de Vendôme from a distance and then went in for a closer look. 

I liked the sculptures outside the entrance.  They seem to be saying 'Sacrebleu!  My head!" And with that, we headed back to our hotel for our own interpretation of a traditional Provence Christmas Eve.

SIDEWALK SAFARI SPOTLIGHT: The Christmas season in Europe is a great time to travel. Looking for some ideas for destinations? I've got you covered.

Treize Desserts of Christmas

One of the best parts about traveling for Christmas is getting to experience local Christmas traditions. Any place that boasts a tradition of eating 13 desserts for the holidays is alright in my book.  

On Christmas Eve in Provence, locals celebrate with Thirteen Desserts.  In Aix-en-Provence, there was even a market dedicated to the tradition. 

We took some time to explore -- I was giddy just looking at all that sugary awesomeness.  Provençal macarons were my favorite. 

They are thicker and chewier than the more traditional macarons you might find in Paris. A jaunty scarecrow in a beekeeper suit was a great spokesmodel for honey. 

We bought some olive oil chocolates. We tried generous samples of jams overflowing with plump fruit. Olive oil cakes were selling like, well, hotcakes.

On Christmas Eve, we took our bounty from the market and elsewhere to put out our own spread of Treize Desserts including:

  1. Olive oil bread 
  2. Clementines
  3. Pears 
  4. Calissons 
  5. Navettes 
  6. Provençal macarons
  7. Marshmallows
  8. Rum Raisin Nougat
  9. Candied melon
  10. Figs
  11. Almonds 
  12. Orange Spice Honey Cake 
  13. Chocolate with dried fruit
In reality, we took the Provençal tradition one step further and Americanized it a bit.  We actually had Quatorze Desserts since we added a special treat that I sourced on my last trip back to San Francisco

14. Sour Gummi Santas!

Christmas Day in Marseille

We decided to take the train to Marseille on Christmas Day.  It was basically a choice between going to Marseille on this trip or saving it for another one. 

We're quite glad we ventured out as Marseille is actually quite a lovely city despite its gritty reputation. We emerged from the train station and descended the steps in the morning sunshine. 

The stairs themselves were decorated with classic sculptures. I liked the little cherubs lounging around and eating grapes. 

A rather svelte Santa made an appearance outside of a local thrift shop. We took some time to admire Marseille's architectural style. A Christmas Market (closed for the day) featured a Ferris Wheel.
We soon reached Marseille's famous port and took a stroll along the blue waters. Is that a serpent emerging from the water?  

No, it's just a spot to tie off your yacht. Some boats were in dry dock for the winter season. 

We passed the Marseille town hall and veered inland. We walked through a deserted square and began our ascent toward Le Panier. 

It was a healthy climb past white-washed churches, sleepy squares, and chilled out cats. We wound our way through the streets of Le Panier past Le Musée de la Vieille Charité.

Marseille Churches

We were quite impressed by the stripes of the Cathédrale de Nouvelle Major. We approached the ornate and bright red door. 

Inside, the high domes were adorned with regional flags. A set of horns protruded from an alcove above. 

I liked a pirate-inspired mural across the street from the cathedral. We passed a more modest church and a statue of a man playing with two bear cubs.

We spotted another of Marseille's iconic churches on the hill on the far side of the port. We descended back toward the waterfront. We decided to eat a Christmas lunch outside.  The weather was reasonably warm and the sun was shining.

Lunch at Le Collins

We initially tried Brasserie la Terrasse but after waiting 15 minutes without so much as a menu in front of us, we decided to move on. We settled on Le Collins. 

The patio tables were open to the sky with views of the apartment building above. We dined on ravioli with chunky tomato sauce and steak and fries. 

The couple at the neighboring table even offered us a coffee.  What a nice Christmas gesture!

SIDEWALK SAFARI SPOTLIGHT: Looking for other ideas for places to visit in France? Check out pictures of France and more in stories about:

Marseille Arab Markets

We took a winding walk with a few purposeful detours on the way back to the train station including a jaunt through the Arab Markets. I liked a small fountain with three or four muses holding a huge weight on their heads. 

We passed a statue of a pair of giraffes which made me smile. A small market offered children a chance to pick a duck and win a prize.

It was soon time to catch our train back to Aix-en-Provence.  We looked up the daunting set of stairs toward the station. 

We stopped to admire our favorite cherubs one last time before leaving Marseille behind.

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Sidewalk Safari | Part-time Travel Blog: How to Celebrate Christmas in Provence France
How to Celebrate Christmas in Provence France
Spend Christmas in Provence, France. Discover Provence at Christmas. Explore the best places in Provence in winter. Visit Aix-en-Provence & Marsailles
Sidewalk Safari | Part-time Travel Blog