One of the many joys of visiting France is the opportunity to shop for things not easy to find here in the U.S.—or to find at all, in some cases. So I always take a foldable suitcase (and rolls of bubble wrap) with for shopping, because years ago I learned the Traveler’s Axiom: buy it when you find it, because chances are you’ll never see it again.
My first experience with that Shopping Law came in Rome. My husband and I were examining the Coliseum when a vendor came up with a tray of beautiful cameos, one of which called my name. Unfortunately, my husband was deaf to the call and convinced that we’d find even more beautiful ones elsewhere during our trip. Not! So now I whip out the credit card when I see something I must have.
Most of my shopping takes place in Provence, often in the large supermarkets (hypermarchÃ©s) where fine bargains are to be had in food and household items. Since I am a compulsive collector of pretty paper napkins and plates, some of those always return home with me. Sometimes blue flatware accompanies the paper goods, and occasionally I find pretty little ceramic jars for such things as coarse salt. Always I buy lavender sachets.
I always bring back assorted sizes of freezer bags that are hard to find at home—some large enough for an entire baguette, some small enough for just a croissant or two. Those bags are also useful for holding glass jars wrapped in bubblewrap.
Then there are the foodstuffs: little jars of sauces and pâtÃ©s, country jams (I especially love the Haute Provence cassis), exotic cat food (yes!), BIG jars of Nutella, black and green tapenade (more about that later), jars of aioli, herbal teas in uncommon flavors, lavender honey, regional wines seldom imported into the U.S., my husband’s favorite Pastis, soaps and shower gels from Roger et Gallet…the list goes on and on.
One prime purchase is always olive oil. When time allows, we go to the Cooperative du Nyonsais in Nyons to buy the fine appellation-controlÃ©e oil, olives in sealed packets, tapenade, dehydrated olive chips, and olive-oil soap. At other times we buy local olive oil from the regions we visit; the oils of Les Baux and Maussane-les-Alpilles are particularly fine.
Also in Nyons is an excellent little gift shop up the street from the main square and off to the right in a little pedestrian allÃ©e. The shop has beautiful olive-wood products, Provençal fabrics and clothing of high quality, and santons. I crave santons, those little figurines of villagers that surround the Christmas crèches in Provençal households during December. They come in all sizes and are either small and painted or larger, painted, and clothed in charming costumes. I cannot get enough of them. Hint: the finer artisinal santons will have faces and hands of the same color.
In Nice I always head for the old part of town, Vieux Nice, to check out napkins and placemats in those gorgeous Provençal fabrics and colors. My first stop is usually Perle d’Azur, right on the Cours SalÃ©ya, which has a good selection. Next is a small shop, toward the back of the warren of narrow, winding streets of the old town, that carries fabrics by the meter and all kinds of ready-made items: handbags, tote bags, little purses, tablecloths, napkins, placemats, folding baskets for bread…all wonderful for gifts. Finally, I check out the small gift shop across from our favorite restaurant, L’Ecurie (4, rue du MarchÃ©), for lovely tablecloths with a finish that repels liquids and stains.
Then I resume my hunt for the perfect santons to add to my collection. Vieux Nice and the adjacent streets are excellent hunting grounds, and along the way I’ve found shops that offer lovely little water-colors of Niçois scenes.
Finally, I head to the Alziari shop for delectable olive oils—most come in cans, ready to tuck into a suitcase. The shop also has pistou sauce to die for, as well as soaps and other gift items. Nearby is a store that features ceramics with a lavender theme: spoon-holders, napkin holders, mugs…and many, many more, all at very reasonable prices: a good spot to load up on gifts.
In Paris I usually don’t have much time for shopping, but one stop is essential: Mariage Frères for fine teas, especially French Breakfast. That unusual tea smells like chocolate but doesn’t taste like it at all. Rather, it has a slightly smoky flavor, and my husband is addicted to it.
My other Paris shopping takes place at the Charles de Gaulle airport: last-minute purchases of chocolates, sometimes gift perfumes and cosmetics.
When I get home and spread all my treasures on the table I always wish I had had room for more. Next time…