For many visitors to Provence, recollections of gastronomic delights may linger in the memory for at least as long as thoughts of lavender or impressions of Cezanne’s brushstrokes. I must admit that I too am often struck by these salivation-inducing memories; a tender steak larger than my head and croissants that practically melted in my mouth being two particular favorites. However for me, many of my favorite culinary experiences weren’t delicate morsels creatively crafted by clever chefs in charming city cafés; instead, they were simple meals that I enjoyed in some incredible places. I’ve always thought that food tastes better when you've earned it and that a great view gives any meal that much more flavor, and I took every opportunity to test this theory when I was in France. I’ll finally wrap up this stomach-driven introduction and get to the point: Southern France has some killer places to picnic.
For those who look to the outdoors for reasons beyond the desire for landscapes that serve chiefly as a grand amphitheater for a sublime snack, Provence has you covered. The French are better-fit and more adventurous than you for good reason—they live in an amazingly beautiful country full of opportunities for outdoor recreation. This was readily apparent as I flew over France and forced my bleary travel-weary eyes to take in the landscapes spread below the airplane window. I spent the next four months eating bread and cheese on as many outdoor adventures as I could. Here are a few of my favorite places:
It would be difficult not to become at least somewhat fond of Mt. Sainte-Victoire while living in Aix. The mountain was beloved by Aix’s favorite son Paul Cezanne, and its distinct profile can be seen from all over the city. It’s rocky flanks rise dramatically out of the rolling landscape, and the whole area is crisscrossed by a spiderweb of trails. After about a 15 minute ride on the city bus, the magnificently blue waters of Lac Bimont mark the beginning of an ascent up the mountain, where 900 vertical meters of climbing on a rocky, steep trail provides a challenge to hikers of all levels, but expansive views of the Provencal countryside (the Alps are visible on a clear day) help keep your mind off your burning quads. An iconic cross marks the top, and just below it a 13th-century chapel and its courtyard provides shelter from the elements and a prime place to dig into the picnic you hauled up the mountain. I did this hike the first and last weekends of my time in France, and the bread, cheese and rosé I shared with my new friends was some of the best I’ve ever tasted. Turning back downhill, Lac Bimont is an emerald beacon that promises rest for spent legs—and the bus that will shuttle you back to town for a warm crepe.
A series of narrow inlets with rock walls rising steeply out of the brilliantly blue water, the Calanques are arguably the best and most unique way to access the Mediterranean from Aix. Entry from Marseille reveals towering cathedrals of rock formations (providing favorite routes for local rock climbers), whereas the charming beach town of Cassis on the other side offers a variety of intimate and sheltered coves. The whole area is a newly formed national park, and while hikers and swimmers fill the trails and pools in the spring or summer, visiting earlier in the year makes for chillier swimming but rewards you with a much quieter and emptier landscape. Pack sunscreen, good shoes and a bathing suit, get on an early bus out of Aix, pick up fresh bread, good salami, strawberries and chocolate at the market in Cassis, and spend a day wandering around the marvelous Calanques. You won’t be disappointed—I was always planning my next visit before the bus even got back to Aix.
Though technically a bit further afield than quintessential Provence, the Alps is a must-see for anyone in France with even a minor interest in the outdoors. I was lucky enough to make both a winter and summer trip to these legendary mountains, and neither experience is one I’ll soon forget. The first was a day trip on a ski bus from Aix to the little resort of Pra Loup. The drive itself would have made the whole day worth it as the bus wound up skinny mountain roads with stunning vistas on both sides—until white-out snow conditions brought visibility to zero but incredible powder to the slopes. Not only was it exuberantly fun and extremely affordable compared to American ski resorts; but a day smashing runs in some of the best snow I’ve ever skied made that bag of pain au lait and wheel of camembert from Monoprix taste like food fit for a king.
The culmination of my European adventures—and the holy grail of outdoor recreation in my life so far—came in the Alps a bit further to the northeast. I was across the border in Switzerland, but only a couple hour train ride from Aix (and the trains in Switzerland really do run like clockwork). Late May in Switzerland was like a scene from a fairytale; hiking and mountain biking through wildflower-filled meadows and fresh higher snowdrifts felt like I was living a dream. It was a landscape like no other I had seen before, and all just a train ride from the warm Mediterranean and my beloved Aix.
So whether you want to swim, hike, climb, cycle, ski or more, Provence offers abundant access to outdoor opportunities. Get out and explore, and I think you’ll love what you find—and let me know your favorite picnic supplies.
Satchel Cronk is an Alumni Ambassador at CEA Study Abroad, he is currently a student at University of California, Santa Barbara and studied abroad in Aix-en-Provence, France.