My co-author and frequent collaborator, Cameron Hewitt, is well-traveled, smart, and insightful. And, while he and I are in perfect sync in our travel styles and priorities, he gives voice to the next generation of "Rick Steves travelers." Join me in enjoying his reports right here. —Rick

Thanksgiving in Tuscany: A Treasured Travel Memory

Eight months later, our world remains upside-down. And it’s becoming clear that nobody will (or should) be going anywhere this winter. If we ever want to “get back to normal” and travel again, it’s time to hunker down and relive favorite memories. For me, that means reminiscing about one of my favorite Thanksgivings ever…spent in beautiful Tuscany. I hope this little bit of armchair travel helps you get through another gloomy day, and reminds you of the fun that awaits us all on the other side of this pandemic.


A few years ago at this time, I was getting ready to head to Tuscany for Thanksgiving with my wife’s family. The trip created some of the most vivid travel memories of my life: rolling hills, pretty as a painting, tufted with sprigs of vivid-green winter wheat; stony hill towns, normally jammed with tourists, instead buzzing with bundled-up Italians; amazing meals — featuring chestnuts, mushrooms, and persimmons — that redefined my sense of seasonal Italian cuisine.


We stayed a full week at Agriturismo Cretaiole, perched on a ridge just outside of Pienza and wonderfully run by Isabella and Carlo. Isabella has a knack for understanding what her American clientele are looking for in a trip to Tuscany. So she set up three entirely different — and equally enjoyable — cooking classes: preparing a blowout feast in an Italian mama’s house; shadowing a Michelin chef in his restaurant’s kitchen; and rolling our own pasta back home at our agriturismo. (Meanwhile, Carlo’s dad, Luciano, kept us well-lubricated with nightly doses of grappa and Vin Santo.)

Montepulciano — my favorite Tuscan hill town — was quieter than usual, giving us a chance to linger over visits with  its colorful cast of craftsmen: Adamo, who’s evangelical about the local red wine; Cesare, a coppersmith who takes more joy these days in getting to know tourists than he does in creating pots and pans; and Guilio, whose steakhouse turns a chunk of beef into a work of art.

We also ventured into the autumnal countryside. Brown leaves crunching underfoot, we followed a talented dog as she sniffed out truffles. And then we had a truffle feast at a nearby restaurant. 

And, in general, we fully enjoyed being in the foodie paradise of Tuscany.

Finally, at the end of the week, we did a little “Black Friday” shopping in Tuscan hill towns, and enjoyed the first of Italy’s holiday lights.

The high point of our week was Thanksgiving dinner. When I tell people I was in Tuscany for Thanksgiving, their first question is — with a note of concern — “Did you have turkey?”

Americans love their Thanksgiving dinner. And many of us simply can’t fathom counting our blessings without an oversized portion of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and gravy. Our agriturismo host, Isabella, understands this, so very early in the planning stages she reassured her nervous American guests: “And of course we will celebrate Thanksgiving with a special Thanksgiving meal — one with a Tuscan twist.” Well, phew!


In typically thoughtful fashion, Isabella had arranged a fantastic feast, which happened to be at one of my favorite restaurants in the region (Ristorante Daria, in the tiny hill town of Monticchiello). Months before, Isabella had conspired with the owner/chef, Daria, over a list of traditional Thanksgiving dishes. And the gang at the restaurant had come up with a delicious mashup of American and Tuscan.



The first two courses were the most Tuscan, but cleverly informed by “our” Thanksgiving ingredients: a delicate pumpkin soufflé, topped with creamy pecorino cheese sauce and fresh-grated truffle. And a dish of pillowy sweet potato gnocchi, gently nestled in a subtle citrus cream. Both dishes were, at once, explosively flavorful and intensely comforting. I would not mind seeing either of these on my Thanksgiving table for many years to come.


Then it was time for the main event. The waitstaff loaded all of the turkey onto a tray and ceremonially paraded it through the restaurant, like proud hunters with their kill. Then they took it back into the kitchen and re-emerged with beautiful — and very traditional — plates of turkey, green beans, Brussels sprouts, and mashed potatoes…with, in a delicious Italian twist, a trickle of fresh-pressed olive oil.


They also brought out some fantastic gravy and surprisingly traditional cranberry sauce. Daria explained that she’d asked some American friends to ship her some cranberries, which are completely unknown in Italy. (Pretend for a moment you’re an acclaimed Italian chef. And imagine your shock — and maybe disgust — upon taking your first-ever bite into a raw cranberry: sour and astringent, wrapped in a tough little shell and infused with a blood-red dye. How on earth do Americans eat this stuff? The answer: Lots and lots and lots of sugar. Even on her first try, Daria nailed it.)

Things are different for the holidays this year. And they were different that year, too. But one thing I’ve learned from that Thanksgiving in Tuscany — and other holidays that found me in  unusual places — is that, while traditions have their place, the really memorable holidays are the ones that are different. We’re all exhausted from trying to find a positive spin on these trying times. But perhaps you can forge some new traditions and make some new memories this year. It might not be sweet potato gnocchi, but one thing’s for sure: You’ll never forget it.

What are some of your favorite European memories to get through this long, dark winter?

Jams Are Fun: Making the Most of a Bad Situation

As we head into a long, dark winter, I find myself thinking about my travel motto: “Jams Are Fun.” That means making the most of a bad situation, rolling with the unexpected, and finding humor, joy, and meaning in the chaos. Here’s one example, from a recent trip to Croatia.

One time, in the scenic beach town of Rovinj, I parked my car at one of the big lots just outside the historic center. When I went to get my car a few days later,  the parking lot had become a huge outdoor market and carnival zone for the town’s big patron saint festival. The space where I’d left my car was home to a rickety tilt-a-whirl.

At the parking booth, I showed the attendant my ticket. He shuffled some papers around and asked for my license-plate number. Then he said, matter-of-factly, “OK, so we moved your car.”

“What?! But you don’t have my keys. Did you tow me?”

“No,” he said, shaking his head and wagging his finger. “Not tow. Not tow. We pick up your car… with…” And he pantomimed a crane lifting up my car and placing it gently on the back of a flatbed truck.

“Where is it now?” I asked. He pointed at the overflow lot, all the way across the bay. “Over there,” he said.

I protested that I had no idea there was a festival planned. “Don’t worry,” he reassured me. “You already pay for the parking. We just have to move your car. You can just go and get it, and drive away.”

I trudged 15 minutes along the grubby waterfront to the overflow lot — packed with hundreds of cars in town for the big festival — and started pressing the lock/unlock button on my key fob. Finally I heard my locks click. Sure enough, there was my car, none the worse for wear, just waiting for me… about a half-mile from where I’d parked it.

By the time I drove back into town to pick up my wife and our luggage, I was already chuckling about all of this. “What took so long?” she asked.

“Well, you know how it goes,” I said. I laughed and shook my head. “Jams are fun.”

My wife’s Great Aunt Mildred was a remarkable soul. She traveled far and wide, at time when such a thing was unheard of for a single woman. And after seeing more of the planet than everyone else in her small Ohio hometown combined, she penned a travelogue about her experiences. The title: Jams Are Fun. What really stuck with Aunt Mildred wasn’t the castles and cathedrals; it wasn’t the museums and the monuments; it wasn’t the grand scenery and the fine meals. It was when trips went sideways — memorable snags in perfectly laid plans, which forced her to scramble for creative solutions.

When I encounter fellow travelers on the road, the ones who impress me the most are those who have this same “Jams Are Fun” approach to life. They come alive as they tell long, meandering stories about a missed connection or a canceled reservation or getting hopelessly lost. Athletes call this “playing loose” — being prepared, but willing to improvise and respond to the situation as it unfolds (or unravels). Problems aren’t problems. They’re opportunities to create vivid memories.

Thinking back on this — many months into a pandemic, and more than a year since I last set foot in Europe — it strikes me that “Jams Are Fun” isn’t just a good philosophy for travel. It’s a helpful attitude for dealing with whatever life throws at you, including and especially during a crisis. This doesn’t mean minimizing or trivializing real problems. It means looking for silver linings.

My personal challenge through all of the anxiety, sadness, and disappointment has been to find moments of peace and joy: making progress on those do-it-yourself projects; mastering some new recipes; finally writing that book. I find that I’m in better touch with faraway friends than ever before. And one of my favorite work-from-home perks is when my friend and his seven-year-old ride their bikes by my house every afternoon so we can hang out on the front steps.

We’re entering what experts agree will be an especially challenging phase of this pandemic. We’re all fatigued. We’ve had enough. Those fun little things we did early on — putting teddy bears in our windows and doing Zoom happy hours with co-workers — aren’t quite so fun anymore. But now more than ever, it’s important to stay the course, stay positive, and try to find the fun in the jams. Like Sisyphus rolling his rock up the hill, we’re in this whether we like it or not. So we might as well make the most of it.

I’ve been collecting my own “Jams Are Fun” travel stories for the last few years on my blog. If you need a little inspiration (or just a few laughs at another traveler’s misfortune), check some of these out. And in the Comments, share your own favorite “Jams Are Fun” stories.

One time, in the North Atlantic waters around Norway, my cruise ship hit some incredibly rough seas. I lived to tell the tale.

On the back roads of Bosnia-Herzegovina, I got pulled over by a pair of corrupt cops and shaken down for a bribe.

Researching a guidebook on Italy’s Cinque Terre, I found myself embroiled in a community-wide dispute between rival gelato makers. I managed to escape, but the crossfire was delicious.

Finishing up a busy trip in Rome, and very ready to get to the airport and fly home, I discovered how hard it is to get a taxi when it rains.

When producing a TV episode in Bucharest, the Romanian Parliament told us that we could film inside. Then they changed their minds. And then…they changed their minds again.

In Salzburg, my guidebook research responsibilities required me to take two back-to-back Sound of Music sightseeing tours. Not one of my favorite things.

In a bizarre sequence of events, I made plans to meet up with an old friend at what we expected to be a quiet rural airport…only to find it was hosting a Europe-wide air show that very afternoon.

As a very light sleeper, I worry a lot about nighttime noise. So imagine my joy when I showed up at a hotel just as a wedding band was setting up in the lobby.

On Scotland’s remote North Coast, my fuel gauge dipped to “empty” just as I was pulling up at the only gas station for many, many miles in either direction…which had just closed for the day.

And, really, the entire experience of driving in Sicily. (Pro tip: Just go numb.)

What about you? What are some of your favorite “Jams Are Fun” memories?

Is It Safe to Fly During the Coronavirus? One Traveler’s Risk Assessment

UPDATE as of November 23: In the nearly two months since I wrote this post, the situation has changed dramatically. While it’s still “relatively safe” to fly — assuming you wear a high-quality mask the entire time you’re in the airport and on the plane — it’s far from foolproof. And especially with the massive spike in COVID-19 cases nationwide, and the airport crowds around holiday travel, I would never set foot on an airplane under current circumstances. This decision involves two major considerations: Whether you’ll get sick from being on the plane (which is primarily what’s addressed in this post); and whether you may already be infected, but not yet symptomatic, and will be carrying a deadly disease to a new place — worsening a pandemic that is already stretching our heath care system to its limits.  For the trip described here, my wife and I traveled in the late summer, when cases were much lower, and we were careful to self-isolate for an extended period between landing and seeing our relatives. I would never make this trip today. Someone who flies cross-country, and immediately enters the home of a vulnerable loved one, is taking both of their lives in their hands. Please: Unless it’s an emergency, stay home. Safe and effective vaccines are right around the corner. Skip in-person Thanksgiving and Christmas get-togethers, for just this one year, and have one hell of an Easter or Fourth of July reunion (depending on when your family is fully vaccinated.) The end is in sight. We’re almost there. Let’s stay safe and look out for each other!

I recently got on a plane for the first time in eight months. Leading up to the trip, I thought long and hard about whether air travel was advisable with a deadly pandemic still raging. We live in an age of high-stakes judgment calls, and this one felt especially tricky. Is it safe to fly during the coronavirus?

I am not a medical professional, nor am I qualified to give hard advice about what’s “safe.” What I can offer is one traveler’s decision-making process about whether to get on that plane. You may think I’m crazy for flying. Or you may think I’m crazy for overthinking this decision. You’re both right…for you. Here’s what was right for me. If you have a different (science-based) perspective…let me know in the Comments.

My wife and I were debating whether to make a cross-country trip to check in on close relatives we haven’t seen in many months. The first question was, simply: Is flying safe? So we did some homework.

At this point, it appears rare for travelers to become infected during a plane flight. There have been a few documented cases, but these were very early in the pandemic (February and March), before airlines and travelers began taking precautions. (Meanwhile, there are also reports of coughing, infected people who apparently caused no spread at all.) In fact, airlines claim that flight crews have lower rates of COVID-19 infection than the general population. You can parse that data in various ways, but I take it as an encouraging sign about the strict guidelines that now govern commercial flights. To be clear: This doesn’t mean that on-board transmission has not happened. But if it’s happening regularly, I’d imagine experts would have identified that pattern over the last six months.

Why is on-board infection seemingly so rare? The transmission of COVID-19 is primarily through respiratory droplets that can linger (and, quite possibly, recirculate) in the air. You may have heard about cases where one infected person in a café or on a bus has spread the virus to many others. But airplane air is filtered at a high rate, using HEPA filters to screen out 99.97% of airborne particulates, and fully replenishing the entire plane’s air supply every two to four minutes.

Considering the high air filtration standards, the biggest risk in commercial air travel seems to be the people in your immediate vicinity. You can’t socially distance on an airplane, and those early airplane outbreaks were traced to a small section of the plane. But wearing a good mask greatly reduces your risk, as do thoroughly washing your hands as often as you can, using sanitizer between hand-washings, and refraining from touching your face. Some models suggest that booking with a carrier that keeps middle seats open reduces your potential exposure to an infected seatmate.

This information gave us peace of mind about the risk of flying to us. But what about the risk we might introduce to others? The fact is, air travel spreads COVID — not necessarily by infecting people while they’re on the plane, but by transporting infected people to new areas. Through social distancing, wearing masks when appropriate, and self-isolating, my wife and I were fairly confident of reducing our exposure to others both at home and at our destination. (In fact, we self-isolated for a lengthy period on either end just to make sure.) If our daily lives required a higher degree of interaction, or had the purpose of our trip been a gathering — such as a family reunion or a wedding — we would not have taken that flight.

With a clear understanding of the risks, our next question was: Were we willing to take those risks? I find it helpful to consider these decisions in terms of “risk budgeting.” This begins with the idea that risk isn’t a binary condition. It’s a spectrum. We all take risks every day — some big, some small. The goal is to have a finite sense of how much risk you’re willing to take, overall, and then “spend” that risk thoughtfully. For example, several weeks ago, I went in for a long-overdue dental appointment. I knew I was exposing myself (and others) to more than my usual risk — so I was especially careful before and after that visit to reduce my contact with others. It’s human nature for one risky activity to embolden you to engage in another, then another. Risk budgeting helps keep you honest and responsible.

Obviously, different people have different risk budgets. Before making any of these decisions, each person ought to make an honest and realistic assessment of their own risk. I’m a generally healthy person in my mid-40s, with no major pre-existing conditions. I’m reasonably fit, but I’m hardly a decathlete. Statistically, if I contracted COVID-19, I would likely have a mild to moderate case. My odds of ending up in an ICU (or worse) are small, but they’re not zero. And any COVID case comes with a strong possibility of long-term damage. Knowing all of this makes me more cautious than careless. If I were 10 or 15 years older, and/or if I had underlying conditions that put me at higher risk, I’d have a much smaller risk budget to spend — and I would not have taken this flight, period. If I were 10 or 15 years younger, and an ultramarathon swimmer, I might have a little more risk budget to spend — but I’d do so mindful of the risk I’d pose to others.

Another consideration is to weigh the risks you’re taking against the benefits. For example, a few months into the pandemic, my wife and I desperately wanted to see my parents (who live a short and safe car ride away). We’d been very careful, and so had they, but there was still a possibility of exposing each other — and their age put them in a higher-risk group than us. I consulted with a family friend who’s also a trauma surgeon, and she suggested that the relatively small risk might be outweighed by the very large positive impact the visit would have on all of our mental health during such a troubled time. Because we were all being so careful, we chose to “expand our social bubble” to include each other…and have been glad we did.

And so, with all of this in mind, my wife and decided to get on that plane. We took several precautions to further reduce our risk (and read up on lots of advice, including from the CDC). We booked a direct flight (limiting our time in airports and exposure to fellow passengers) and took advantage of a deal that guaranteed us our own row to ourselves (expanding our ability to social distance on board). We chose a carrier — Alaska Airlines — with a particularly strict face-covering policy, which requires all passengers to wear masks at all times, no exceptions.

On the day of travel, we brought plenty of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, which we used liberally. And we wore masks from the moment we entered the airport at one end until the moment we exited the airport at the other end. And for good measure, since I was sitting on the aisle, I also wore a face shield on board. Sure, I looked a bit strange, and I was the only person I saw who was taking these “belt and suspenders” measures. But I didn’t feel silly. I felt safe. (Well, safer.) Vanity has no place in a pandemic.

Deciding how to get to the airport proved to be another exercise in risk budgeting — in this case, measured against actual budget. The free and easy option would be to ask a friend for a ride. But we realized that would mean being in a car with someone we’ve been careful to socially distance from — potentially exposing us or him. So that left two options: Uber or parking at the airport. While the Uber rides both ways would have been a bit cheaper, we chose to splurge on parking at the airport — to conserve our risk budget, to avoid potentially exposing yet another person to our germs (and vice-versa), and to buy a little more peace of mind.

We were definitely nervous leading up to the flight. But the reality was less scary than we expected. The airport was virtually empty. So was the airplane — fewer than half of the seats were occupied. Everyone wore masks, and on the rare occasion that a mask slipped under someone’s nose, the situation was quickly, politely, and firmly remedied.

The day after we arrived, we put on our masks and went for a walk in the neighborhood, where we saw scores of unmasked people eating and drinking in bars and restaurants. Knowing what I know now, personally, I’d rather spend a few careful hours on an airplane than eat inside at a restaurant. It’s that old “fear/risk” assessment — often the things that frighten us are less risky than we might think, and vice-versa. Understanding the science helps make those decisions clearer.

I want to stress that I’m not going to make a habit of flying for the time being. I will personally not fly to see family at Thanksgiving or Christmas. It’s likely that I won’t see the inside of another airplane until 2021; I intend to strictly limit my long-distance travel until this pandemic is more under control (and, ideally, a safe and effective vaccine has been distributed). And I would not recommend flying to just anybody — someone in a higher risk category should think long and hard about engaging in any activity with a potential for exposure. But if I were in a pinch and felt I needed to fly, I have more confidence now than I did before this trip.

What about you? Have you taken any flights since the outbreak began — and how did it go? Also, how are you making these kinds of stressful decisions during the pandemic? Does the “risk budgeting” approach work for you — or is there another helpful way of thinking about it?

There may be no easy answers these days — but we travelers can learn from each other.

Provençal Markets for Aficionados: 7 Markets in 7 Days

We didn’t have a year in Provence. But we had a week. And that was enough for seven entirely different, but equally enjoyable, Provençal markets. Mountains of plump produce, glistening olives, and fragrant spices. Neatly stacked piles of salamis and gigantic wheels of mountain cheese. Colorful fabrics — tea towels, tablecloths, bolts of vivid patterns — flapping like flags in the warm breeze. Fishmongers, butchers, cheesemakers. All under a generous canopy of plane trees, warmed by the autumn sun. The marché provençal is, simply, one of the great experiences of European travel.

In September of 2019 — not long before the world changed — my wife and I took some time off in Provence. We set ourselves a goal: Visit a different market for each day of the week. Some were new to us; others were oldies-but-goodies. But all of them were memorable. If you’re desperate for a little vicarious travel, settle in for a lazy weeklong tour of seven different markets — with tips mixed in for your next trip to France.

Le Marché Provençal: A Crash Course

Traditionally, the people of Provence — as throughout France — do their shopping at market day (jour du marché), a sprawling, once- or twice-weekly celebration of local produce and other products that take over the entire town center. From anyplace in Provence, there’s a market (or several) within a 30-minute drive, any day of the week. My wife and I scheduled our itinerary specifically to hit a few markets in particular, but serendipity works like a charm, too.

The best market is the classic marché provençal — a combination farmers, craft, and clothing market — which begins around 8:30 in the morning, peaking around 11:00. By 12:30, they begin to run out of goods; at 13:00, the producers are packing up. (Stands selling non-perishable items may stay open longer.) That’s when shoppers settle into cafés for the obligatory après-marché debrief and chill session. It’s all so…civilized. Pro tip: Prebook a table at a café or restaurant of your choice, for a memorable après-marché meal — ideally out on a sun-dappled square, with a view of the goods being crated up and carted away. Those who wing it have to scramble for whatever they can get.

Browsers wander from stand to stand, propelled by a lazy curiosity, just seeing what’s available. Meanwhile, other shoppers hone in with laser precision on just the items and producers they’re after. Bring plenty of cash and a shopping bag…or buy a big straw market basket, the perfect souvenir to take home and never use again. (We have two dusty ones in our basement, and, inexplicably, very nearly bought a third.)

Full disclosure: I am not much of a shopper. Local taste treats and picnic supplies constitute the vast majority of what I buy. But even if you don’t spend a dime, Provençal markets are a glorious, and quintessentially French, travel experience.

Saturday: Uzès

On our first day in Provence, we were staying in the mellow small town of St-Rémy — famous for its ties to Van Gogh. We’d chosen St-Rémy partly for its proximity to one of our favorite market towns, Uzès.

Getting a later start than we should have (blame the jet lag), we arrived in Uzès around 11:00. Parking along the ring road and following the trail of shoppers into the town center, we realized that things were already on the verge of winding down.

Reaching the main square — a cozy plaza under artfully gnarled plane trees — we surveyed the bewildering array of vendors. Cheesemongers whittled delicate little curls from giant wheels of cheese, offering them for a taste. Butchers and fishmongers held court over refrigerated cases showing off their wares. The luscious pyramids of olives and fragrant mounds of tapenade were irresistible.

Dappled sunshine, breaking through the leafy canopy, illuminated jars of golden honey. Each one was a slightly different shade of yellow, and you got the sense that the seller knew the bees personally…perhaps by name. Tables groaned under the weight of bowls, platters, and spoons carved from local olive wood. Bulging bags of spices were each artfully identified in cursive script on a miniature chalkboard.

At each produce stand, locals filled little plastic tubs with carefully selected items: Carrots so perfect they belonged in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Green-and-purple artichokes. Heads of yellow and green lettuce — shaped like a colorful starburst — that could have been crafted in an artisan workshop. Heirloom tomatoes — red, orange, purple, and green — that must’ve come from that same workshop. Monster shallots, unblemished heads of garlic, muscat grapes with explosive sweetness encased in tough skins.

Everything in sun-drenched Provence just tastes better. Tomatoes really taste like tomatoes. Strawberries really taste like strawberries. Apricots really taste like apricots. Raspberries and figs are explosive. The sundried tomato tapenade we bought in Uzès redefined our sense of what tomato can taste like. For Americans raised on fruits and veggies trucked thousands of miles to the local supermarket — often in the dead of winter — tasting Provençal produce, fresh from the harvest, is a revelation. A local person once told me she observed a visitor weeping upon biting into a strawberry…and truly tasting one for the very first time.

We were getting peckish. The stand with the slowly turning rotisserie chickens tempted us, but we weren’t ready for such a big meal. We saw a line forming at a stand with little deep-fried chickpea fritters. At a Provençal market, if you see a line…get it in it. After waiting for our turn among the well-organized scrum, we purchased a steaming paper cone filled with these delicious little savory bites. It was just the thing to take the edge off our mid-morning hunger.

While tasty, those fritters had sidetracked us from our main goal: sniffing out what we’d heard was the local specialty, fougasse d’Aigues-Mortes. This is a puffy, cake-like bread gently infused with the essence of orange blossom, and sprinkled with coarse sea salt from the Camargue. Our guidebook told us that this sold out quickly, and we were late as it was, so we scoured the market, eyes peeled. Finally we spotted a baker’s table, two aisles over. But by the time we got there, we watched in horror as the very last piece of fougasse was bagged up and sold before our eyes. We pointed to the one giant chunk that was set aside, and the baker shook her head apologetically — this piece, she conveyed with a shrug, was being saved for a fellow vendor.

Dejected — but buoyed by a shopping bag bulging with tapenade, cheese, and red peppers — we headed back to the car. On the way, we passed a bakery selling the fougasse we’d missed out on. And it was, indeed, heavenly.

This turned out to be a teachable moment about Provençal markets: When we thought we’d missed out on that fougasse, we reassured each other that we’d find it somewhere else. Surely, in a full week in Provence, fougasse d’Aigues-Mortes would cross our path repeatedly. But we never saw a single piece after we left Uzès. “Local” specialties in Provence are truly local. Don’t wait.

Sunday: Coustellet and l’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue

Heading from St-Rémy up to our next stop, in the Côtes du Rhône, our route took us past two very different markets. Doing our homework, we decided to double up for a day of market contrasts: Tiny and local, then big and famous.

First up, we stopped by the humble and proudly local market in the dusty crossroads village of Coustellet, just a 15-minute drive south of l’Ilse-sur-la-Sorgue. The least visually appealing market we explored, this was clearly the choice for purists — not tourists. Filling the town parking lot were many of the usual market stalls: fabrics, kitchenware, nonperishable goods, and so on.

But it was the produce that caught our eye. On this autumn Sunday, the tables were piled high with ruby-red heirloom tomatoes, gigantic leeks, huge gnarled peppers as red as a fire engine, fragrant and perfectly shaped basil plants pulled from the pages of a botany textbook, mounds of skinny multicolored beans, and three different kinds of eggplants — purple, white, and Thai.

While the stands in Uzès had felt dressed up, here in Coustellet, the farmers simply backed up a van and dumped their harvest onto a rickety table. One exception were the adorably composed baskets of tiny fall squash (coloquintes), painted a variegated rainbow of yellow, orange, and green.

This being early in our trip, we could not resist buying one of those gigantic bouquets of sunflowers to decorate our hotel room. After spending the rest of the day in a hot car, by that afternoon the flowers had already begun to wilt, their pockmarked faces — heavy with seeds — slumping over in a melancholy pose. In a few hours, they had gone from an explosively colorful celebration of Provençal life to a haunting reminder of mortality…Van Gogh on his last leg. (When we asked our B&B host that evening if she had a vase we could borrow, she gently chided us, “Why do tourists always think buying sunflowers is such a great idea?”)

Before leaving the Coustellet market, we stocked up on picnic supplies. At one stand, we taste-tested various salamis and other cured meats. We settled on a delectable smoked pork loin — tender as prosciutto, flavorful as brisket — that would become the main feature of several picnics. We also picked up a couple of tiny wheels of soft, young, local goat cheese, one encrusted with chopped shallots and the other with peppercorns.

From Coustellet, we drove a few minutes up the road to the granddaddy of all Provençal markets: l’Ilse-sur-la-Sorgue, a workaday town surrounded by gently gurgling canals. Finding parking here on market day — especially in the late morning — is a challenge. But, after striking out at the lots near the town center, we eventually found a space to wedge our car alongside the road about a 10-minute walk from town.

l’Ilse-sur-la-Sorgue’s market is impressively comprehensive and justifiably famous — basically the polar opposite of Coustellet. It’s also exhausting. The canalfront embankments were hopelessly clogged, and the main lanes leading through the twisty old town to the main square — lined with market stalls and tables laden with wares and produce — were not much better. We found ourselves taking shortcuts between the main market streets by spelunking down narrow back lanes, forging our own path through deserted alleys. While l’Ilse-sur-la-Sorgue’s market is one of those things “you have to do once”…on this, our third time, we finally recognized that once is enough.

However, l’Ilse-sur-la-Sorgue had one of our favorite culinary discoveries of any market in Provence: Delicate macarons sold by a husband-and-wife couple. He’s French, she’s Japanese, and their delectable little merengue sandwich cookies were the perfect embodiment of their marriage — with a mix of pungent Provençal fruits and berries, combined with mellow and exotic Asian flavors. They were the best macarons we had in Provence; I regret only that I never got the name of their stand. But I guess that’s la vie du marché. There are few European experiences more living-in-the-moment than following your nose through a Provençal market.

Needing lunch and discovering that all of the town’s restaurants were chockablock full, we made our way to a pizza truck we had seen earlier. Ordering our pepperoni pie, we also asked for a bottle of water. The pizza chef was a bit offended: “I do not sell water! I make only pizza!” While I appreciate the French propensity to do just one thing, and do it the best, this refusal to carry beverages seemed bold for a guy who turns out what is, by any reasonable assessment, a pretty subpar pizza. We found drinks at a different stand and ate our pizza in a sweet little canalside park…a peaceful eddy just steps away from the market crowds.

The next day — Monday — is a relatively sleepy day for Provençal markets, and we’d doubled up the day before. So, rather than drive into Cavaillon for their market, we decided to linger in the Côtes du Rhône region, doing a fun little driving loop, enjoying grand views, and dropping in for some wine tastings. But the next day…

Tuesday: Vaison-la-Romaine (Côtes du Rhône)

Before moving on from the Côtes du Rhône, we headed into the region’s main town — Vaison-la-Romaine — for its big weekly market. We were not disappointed.

Vaison is a simple, user-friendly town that’s more practical than cute. But that’s exactly its charm: It feels like a place where real people live, and have lived for a very long time. The market here has been going strong for 600 years…which would seem impressive, if not for the 2,000-year-old Roman ruins that sprawl through the center of town.

Vaison was one of the more local-feeling markets we encountered: We heard far more French spoken than English — the opposite of our experience in l’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, or even Uzès. It has a few touristy stands, yes, but more of the market’s footprint is devoted to practical goods: clothing, kitchenware, textiles, plants, and so on. We tend to be more browsers than buyers, but in Vaison, we picked up some placemats to match our patio umbrella.

We also stopped by a stand (which we’d already seen at another market) selling every kind of pocketknife imaginable. We chose one, and the vendor demonstrated its sharpness by slicing little curls off a piece of paper. I bought it as a birthday present for my dad, a pocketknife connoisseur. It came with a certificate of authenticity and a leather sheath, and before we left, the vendor pulled us in close with some advice: Don’t keep it in the sheath for more than a few days at a time, or it might discolor the handle. In Provence, even knives are treated with the respect of delicate produce.

In addition to the market stalls, Vaison has some excellent little hole-in-the-wall shops. Our guidebooks directed us to Peyrerol Gilles, an artisanal chocolaterie with a tempting array of truffles and macarons. And the tiny but tempting fromagerie Lou Canesteou had display cases crammed with cheesy delights. I only wished I knew a bit more about French cheeses to be a more informed shopper. (The next day, I got my wish…read on.)

After the market, having learned our lesson, we’d made a reservation at a restaurant that had come highly recommended by our Provence guidebook co-author, Steve Smith. Bistro du’O, in the quiet upper town just across the old Roman bridge from the market action, turned out to be one of the best meals of our trip: exquisitely crafted modern French cuisine served by a well-trained staff that’s clearly gunning for a Michelin star.

Wednesday: Aix-en-Provence

Our next stop was Provence’s stunning Luberon region, with endless picturesque hill towns and bucolic scenery. However, it turned out that Wednesday was a sleepy market day in our neck of the Luberon. So we side-tripped about an hour to the elegant city of Aix-en-Provence.

While the Aix markets are bigger on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, the daily produce market on Place Richelme enlivened the old center with just the right marché ambience — all the usual suspects selling gloriously colorful fruits, veggies, and berries.

Coming on a quieter day also gave us a better chance to explore Aix. In fact, we met up for a stroll with Mathilde, a guide from Taste of Provence, which does market tours and cooking classes in Aix. It turns out Aix is an ideal city for browsing, whether or not there’s a full-blown market going on.

We began at the produce market on Place Richelme, generously shaded by towering plane trees and ringed by stay-a-while cafés. Surveying the various fruit and veggie stands, Mathilde quizzed us: “How do you tell the difference between a farmer and a produce reseller?” Seeing our shrugs, she gave us a crash course: If the producer specializes in a narrow range of items — say, only berries, or just tomatoes and peppers, or just apples and apricots — that’s a good sign. If they sell bananas, pineapples, mangoes, or other tropical fruit — which don’t grow here — they’re probably a reseller. (Produce with stickers is also a sure sign of a reseller.)

Buying from a reseller isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Mathilde stressed, and the produce can still be quality. But knowing the difference can help you choose produce more carefully. “A farmer picks their produce only when it’s perfectly ripe, to sell today at the market,” Mathilde explained. “When picking for a reseller, they tend to pick it a bit before it’s ripe, to give it more time to be transported.” Connoisseurs shopping for today seek out farmers first; if they don’t find what they need, they turn to the resellers. This also means showing up early: The farmers come to the market first thing, then head out to their fields, while resellers stick around later.

Another tip: For top quality, watch for a stand selling only one item: Plums. Tomatoes. Jams. Goat cheese. Strawberries. The expression “jack of all trades, master of none” probably did not originate in Provence…but it might as well have.

From here, Mathilde took us on a meandering stroll through town, as if following breadcrumbs between perfect little Provençal shops. First up: cheese. We stepped into Fromagerie Savelli, air heavy with the pungent aroma of a hundred types of cheese. We surveyed the remarkable variety, from tiny mini-bouchon (“mini-plugs”) of goat cheese, to giant wheels of mountain cheese. We wouldn’t know where to begin…but Mathilde did, buying a representative sampling of three cheeses for us to taste: goat, sheep, and cow’s milk.

Cutting into a wheel of cheese and watching the inside ooze out, Mathilde pointed out casually that, of course, French cheeses are not pasteurized. The decadent creaminess comes with a subtle tingle on the tongue. Mathilde explained, “Pasteurization kills bacteria, both good and bad. When cheese is pasteurized, it no longer ripens or matures. We choose flavor over safety.” I think back on the last couple of times I’ve gotten food poisoning in Europe — in both cases, after having American-style fast food. But I’ve never had a sore stomach from French cheese. Mathilde and I reach quick agreement that the risk is minimal…and well worth taking.

Biting into a tiny wheel of local goat cheese with a sprig of rosemary mounted on top, Mathilde explains, “What grows together, goes together. Both the chèvre and the rosemary are from La Garrigue, the arid rugged countryside around Provence. So they taste perfect together.”

The cow’s milk she presents us with — Trappe d’Échourgnac, soaked in walnut liqueur until it forms an explosively flavorful brown rind, which encases a luxuriously mild cheese with tiny bubbles — comes from far away, in the Dordogne. “This is not local, but I wanted you to try a cow’s milk cheese. And you may have noticed that we don’t have many cows in Provence.” Mathilde explained that, within France, cow’s milk cheese predominates in cooler, wetter areas, where grass grows green. Warmer climates — like Provence — produce more goat and sheep’s cheese, often rubbed in olive oil.

As we nibbled, Mathilde explained that the role of a fromagerie is not simply to sell cheese, but to age it properly. They buy raw cheeses, then mature them to perfection. In fact, it’s the mastery of aging that is the expertise of a great fromager. A key term when shopping for French cheese is mois d’affinage — “months aged.”

Mathilde began chattering in French with the shop clerk, both of them gesturing toward their feet. Excitedly, she translated for us: “They have offered for us to visit the aging cellar. This is a great honor!” We followed the clerk behind the counter, then through a maze of narrow hallways to a steep staircase. Arriving in the cellar, we were surrounded by priceless mold. Big wheels of cheese sat upon wooden shelves, and small wheels of cheese were neatly stacked on wooden trays. Some of the cheeses were fuzzy, as if flocked with cotton. All of them awaited that perfect moment of ripeness.

Our feet crunched on the gravel floor. Mathilde explained how that floor is designed to allow in just the right amount of humidity to help ripen the cheese — and the temperature had to remain a steady 12 degrees Celsius (54 Fahrenheit).

As if leaving a secret hideout, we twisted our way back out to the shop entrance, and carried along our way.

Mathilde next took us past a high-end, venerable pâtisserie called Weibel. Increasingly, pâtisseries (dessert shops) are being combined with boulangeries (bakeries) to create a one-stop shop. But purists believe that it’s supremely difficult — or impossible — for one shop to properly execute both boulangerie and pâtisserie. And, in fact, even within the goodies of a pâtisserie, things can be hit-or-miss. Mathilde explained, “A pâtisserie does some combination of four things: cakes, chocolates, candies, and ice cream. It is very rare for one pâtisserie to do all four things well. But this one does.”

We sampled the local specialty, calisson d’Aix — a delectable candy made of almond paste and candied fruit, topped with a delicate layer of icing (“representing purity,” she explained). Locals say it tastes like a communion wafer, but sweeter. In all of Aix, there are only seven authorized calisson makers, who are — no joking — blessed by the local bishop each year.

For another treat, Mathilde took us even deeper into the city streets, winding us through movie-set squares and sandstone townhouses until we reached a nondescript back street. Here we found Macarons de Caroline, a hole-in-the-wall shop where sweet Caroline makes fresh macarons with seasonal flavors. Apricot and fresh verbena. Strawberry and basil. Lavender and lemon confit. Strawberry and essence of rose.

Enough sweets. Finally, it was time for a true artisanal boulangerie. The people of Provence — and especially Aix — are aficionados in everything. And for the crème de la crème of bread snobs, Le Farinoman Fou is tops. “The Mad Flour Man” (as its name means) doesn’t crank out your standard-issue baguette rustique; this bakery experiments with a wide variety of grains, including “old grains” that aren’t commonly used in modern cooking. Because their offerings change by the day, they post a weekly schedule in their window for connoisseurs. We sampled a luscious olive loaf with beefy multigrains. I can still taste it.

Bidding Mathilde adieu and driving back over the Luberon Mountains to our home base — leaving Aix and the shimmering Mediterranean in our rearview mirror — we appreciated having an urbane break from our week of French village life. But tomorrow…it’s back to small-town Provence.

Thursday: Roussillon

We were staying near the little pastel hamlet of Roussillon, perched on its orange hilltop overlooking the lush Luberon. We were nearly marché-d out, so Roussillon’s pint-sized market was an ideal antidote. It was like other markets we’d browsed, but in miniature: Just a few stalls filling a parking lot and some nearby lanes, covering the essential bases. One new feature we appreciated was the gingerbread man, carving off wedges of tasty gingerbread flavored either with lemon or with lavender.

We finished our browse in a matter of minutes, then went for an easy hike along the ochre cliffs just below town. We enjoyed the hike so much, we decided to drive 40 minutes to an area that came highly recommended by our Provence guidebook co-author, Steve Smith: Le Colorado Provençal, a compact, user-friendly hiking area as ruggedly beautiful as its American namesake (if much, much smaller). After a parking-lot picnic assembled from the spoils of several days’ worth of markets, we set off on an easy and rewarding hike through a landscape so vivid it almost hurt our eyes: soaring orange and white cliffs, green trees, azure sky, and big, puffy clouds. It’s no wonder that so many artists have found inspiration in Provence.

Friday: Lourmarin

After our palate-cleansing stops in Aix and Roussillon, we were ready to end strong with a classic marché provençal. And our final market town turned out to be one of our favorites: lovely Lourmarin, tucked among the foothills of the Luberon Mountains, separating the inland and coastal parts of Provence.

The roads approaching Lourmarin were lined with parked cars under plane trees. We carried on close to the town’s outskirts and pulled off into the big grassy park-turned-parking lot just below the town château. From here, it was just steps from one of many traffic-free roads that radiate out from the town center — each one lined with market stalls.

Stationed at the edge of the market was a little stand where you could pet adorable baby pigs and goats. At first I thought this was a vegetarian guilt trip — “How could you eat something so cuuuute?” — but it turned out to be an organization that rescues sick animals and nurses them back to health. They sell lozenges (at a big mark-up — one box for €7) for those who want to support their work. After getting to know a baby goat, I suddenly felt a tickle in my throat…

Continuing deeper into Lourmarin, we found the town to be a delightful sprawl of market stands — including several vendors who were by now familiar to us from a variety of other jours du marché. Lourmarin’s market felt like a “greatest hits” collection: Technicolor produce, big bundles of lavender lashed like wheat stalks, fragrant soaps stacked in neat piles, olives overflowing rustic wooden buckets, straw baskets in every shape and size, stacks of sausages and wheels of cheese, display racks draped in vivid fabrics, and on, and on, and on, and on.

Of the markets we’d visited, Lourmarin felt like the best balance between local and touristy…the Goldilocks of the marché provençal. It all felt very easygoing and user-friendly — big enough not to be overwhelmed by crowds, but small enough to encourage exploration. The town center is a snail-shaped curl of interlocking streets, making our market meanderings even more rewarding. It’s one of those towns that feel designed to get lost in, only to find yourself a few steps later when you pop out into a familiar square or next to those adorable piglets.

In addition to all of the tourist-pleasing beauty, we saw old-fashioned hucksters fast-talking as they demonstrated the newest miracle product or gadget. At one stand, a salesman demonstrated how his magic solution could instantly remove scratches from your car. At another, we were treated to an “it slices! it dices!” kitchen tool demo. We picked up a couple of handy silicon caps for opened bottles of wine, keeping them sealed and drip-free for the next day…and wished we’d discovered this little invention five days ago.

Lourmarin reminded us of the sensory delights of Provençal markets. At one stand, a lavender vendor poured a few fragrant seeds into my palm to demonstrate how pungent they were. At another, we sampled explosively flavorful jams. At another, we felt a crispy macaron break into little sheets of merengue on our tongue — like an ice floe entering warm waters — then slowly dissolve like a sweet bath bomb.

We took advantage of this last-chance shopping — on our way out of Provence — to stock up on a few items still on our list: another bar of that incredible-smelling bath soap; a little container of tiny-but-mighty strawberries to snack on in the car; a few lavender sachets for a cheap souvenir that also freshens up your luggage; and a jar of raspberry jam that really tasted like raspberries. (We hoped it would be as good as the homemade jam at our B&B…and, amazingly, it was.)

After a couple of hours of wandering Lourmarin’s stage-set streets, we found ourselves daydreaming about renting an apartment here for our next visit to Provence. You can’t really say you’ve been to Provence until you’ve contemplated coming back…for a vacation, if not for the rest of your life. Peter Mayle had the right idea.

Pulling out of Lourmarin and heading for Marseille’s airport — and our flight home — it was striking how quickly we re-entered the world of traffic-clogged superhighways, smoggy air, and hypermarchés (France’s answer to big-box stores, and the antithesis of a marché provençal). Already our idyllic memories of Provence were fading into a happy haze — as if it had all just been a very pleasant dream. But it was real, and I have the lavender sachets to prove it. We’ll be back in Provence someday. And even if we wind up going to seven entirely different Provençal markets the next time, I know that the experience will be vivid and rewarding all the same.

What am I missing? In the Comments, suggest your favorite Provençal markets, things to buy at them, and tips for navigating them.

For my week exploring Provençal markets, we had two key resources: In our Rick Steves’ Provence & the Riviera guidebook, co-author Steve Smith offers listings of the most appealing markets in the region, and ample practical tips for exploring them. We supplemented that with Marjorie R. Williams’ Markets of Provence, a vividly written, deeply insightful, and highly informative guide that explains local markets day-by-day. And we learned several tips about how to shop a Provençal market from Mathilde at Taste of Provence, which offers guided market tours and cooking classes in lovely Aix-en-Provence.

One of my favorite French markets isn’t in Provence — it’s in Sarlat, in the Dordogne region. Wherever you go in France, tune into market-day opportunities. You won’t regret it.

What Do You Miss About Traveling in Europe?

With my 2020 travel plans grounded, it’s now been about 10 months since I set foot in Europe. And I’m itching for a fix. I find the things I miss most aren’t the glitzy cities and the famous sights. For those of us fortunate enough to travel frequently, what we really miss is our traveling lifestyle — those everyday joys of being fully in the moment. We crave the freedom of leaving the office headaches and the household chores behind, and having a span of unstructured time to play, explore, learn, and discover. For travelers, there’s something about life on the road that’s simply magic. Here are a few of those quirky little things that I’m missing fiercely right now.

I miss that “Hey, I’m in Europe!” moment that appears out of the jet-lag haze on the afternoon of arrival. It’s that moment when you feel the cobbles underfoot, hear the swirl of other languages, and realize that foregoing sleep for 20-plus hours — half of which was spent jammed into an economy airline seat — has a huge payoff.

I miss the exhilaration of near-miss connections. Hopping on the train seconds before the doors hiss shut. Driving onto the ferry moments before it pulls out into a dreamy Norwegian fjord. Slipping in the door of a museum just before they lock it behind you.

I miss beautiful doorways, pretty as a picture.

I miss communicating with Italians. I miss telling them that I don’t speak Italian, only to have them brush aside my protests and launch into an impassioned monologue…which I can, somehow, actually understand.

I miss that moment, about a week or two into your trip, where everything starts to fit into your bag perfectly. You’ve got the system down, able to pack up at a moment’s notice and hop a train to the next adventure.

I miss stunning sunsets from the top of a castle, earned by way of a sturdy hike.

I miss the many smells of a busy big-city metro station. Yes, all of them. (But some more than others.)

I miss meeting Europeans who have dedicated their lives to doing one thing and doing it right: Nicola the gelato master.  Tina, who knows the Slovenian Alps like she was born for it (and she was). Gianluca the zero-kilometer Tuscan farmer. And Naomi, who geeks out about Scottish candies.

I miss when a local friend gives me a hot tip for a truly untouristy discovery — the kind of place where you can eat real local dishes, with real locals, for pennies on the euro. That hidden milk bar in Kraków. That back-streets bakery in Mykonos. That amazing fish house in Tangier.

I miss colorful boats serenely bobbing in tidy pastel harbors.

I miss road trips: Figuring out the controls and sound system on a new rental car…and inevitably stalling a few times that first day as I fumble with the stick shift. Scrutinizing maps the night before a long journey to make sure I have the best route chosen, and any worthwhile detours plotted out. And then…hitting the open road, with limitless potential for exploration.

I miss learning some historical tidbit that instantly brings great meaning to what, until that moment, had been just another boring church, castle, or museum. I love how it makes my brain tingle.

I miss bustling market halls.

I miss lifts that zip you up to the top of a mountain in moments…depositing you at the doorstep of a glorious day of hiking above the clouds and the crowds.

I miss hearing an insistently catchy pop song by a band I’ve never heard of — over and over and over again, incessantly, everywhere I go. And then, coming home and realizing nobody stateside has ever heard about it. Until a few months later, when suddenly, it becomes ubiquitous here, too.

I miss Icelandic waterfalls. The blast of cold air, the mist speckling my glasses, the pure, unbridled magnificence of nature.

I miss savoring an entirely new flavor. In Greece, discovering mastica — the sweet natural resin that tastes a bit like licorice, but not quite. In Portugal’s Alentejo, discovering that the unlikely combination of clams and pork is surprisingly delicious. In Moscow, going to a Georgian restaurant for a tarkhun (tarragon soda) and doughy dumplings dipped in a sweet, tart, explosively flavorful plum sauce.

I miss adorable stray cats sunning themselves on a scenic perch.

I miss those cultural epiphanies that unlock not just a new custom, but an entirely fresh way of perceiving the world. Italians scoff at cappuccino in the afternoon…because they believe that consuming too much milk late in the day hinders digestion. Seemingly “unfriendly” French clerks become kind and welcoming when you simply say, “Bonjour, Monsieur” or “Bonjour, Madame.” And all across Europe, after a few weeks, I actually begin to believe that “slow” service is good and polite service — it’s how a restaurant encourages the diner to take their time and savor the experience.

I miss funny signs in Britain.

I miss those little serendipities that make a trip. Stumbling upon a harvest festival in a wine-growing village…and, if you’re lucky, stomping some grapes. Checking into your B&B and learning that the next town over is hosting a Highland Games tomorrow. That time I was in Eger, Hungary, and a hot-air balloon decided to land right in the middle of the main square.

And I miss that perfect trifecta of running out of deodorant, toothpaste, and shampoo on my last morning of a long trip.

What about you? What are you missing about Europe?