AIX-EN-PROVENCE, France — Even in this country of wine and romance, a little practical sense can make your vacation a lot more fun. Or, to put it another way, why drop $4 on a Coke when you can save it for a concert or great meal instead?
I hope my earlier posts (scroll down on this blog) have given you a sense of the personality and poetry of Provence. This one is for the purely practically minded. Here are some tips on making your money go further:
1. When you sit down for a meal or glass of wine, ask for a “carafe d’eau.” That’s a pitcher of tap water, and it’s free. If you ask for a bottle of water, you’ll pay several dollars, whether it’s carbonated or flat. And Cokes do cost nearly $4 at most cafes, the same, if not more, than as a glass of house wine. The heat of summer builds a big thirst here, and the cost of all those carbonated drinks can add up.
2. Whether you’re eating a big meal at midday or in the evening, consider the plat du jour. It’s often the freshest dish on the menu and it’s considerably less money and considerably better on your waistline than the three-course menus.
3. If you’re planning on a big evening spread, buy your own bread and cheese at lunch. French cheese is divine. The bread is baked daily. Buy a baquette and a slap of something like tome, our favorite cheese (it comes in multiple varieties), and you’ve got a hearty lunch in minutes, complemented perhaps by a plump tomato or whatever fruit is freshest in the region. You’ll also have spent about $10 for two, perhaps 40 percent what you’d pay for a couple of large salads in a restaurant.
4. Don’t eat breakfast in hotels. There, you’ll routinely be charged $12 to $14 for coffee, juice, bread and jam. If instead, you go to an outdoor cafe, you can get a yummy croissant oozing butter and and an espresso for about $3.
5. Speaking of coffee, that espresso costs less than half of an American coffee (with cream). We’ve found that French espresso is, in any case, not just strong, but sweeter and tastier than what you’ll get in the States with the same order.
6. Get regional wine by the pitcher rather than buying by the bottle. Unless you’re a serious wine snob, the wine, typically from the local wine cooperatives, that is served in the open carafes tastes just fine. We found it comparatively better, for example, than what you’d pick up at your local liquor store for about $8 or $10 a bottle. It usually costs less than half the cheapest bottle on the menu.
7. If you go the marketplace, don’t buy at the first stall. Comparison shop. Whether buying cheese for lunch or apricots straight from the tree, prices vary substantially. (If you stay somewhere for awhile, as we did in Aix-en-Provence in 2007, you’ll soon zero in on your favorite vendors.)
8. If you are traveling around France, look for hotels that bear the logo of Logis de France. Most of these seem to be two-star hotels, clean, comfortable and typically — even in tourist areas — under $100 a night, sometimes substantially under.
9. Use your feet. Walking is the best way to see France’s towns and villages.
10. OK, everyone needs to splurge sometimes. These were our two favorite splurges:
a. For Provencal food, make a lunchtime reservation at La Closerie in Ansouis, about an hour from Aix-en-Provence. This charming restaurant prepares the best food we’ve eaten — anywhere. Yes, ANYWHERE. At lunch, a three-course meal costs $60 for two minus whatever you choose to drink. The quality of that meal rivals the $200 meal we ate a decade ago in New York for Kathy’s 50th birthday. It’s that good. We’ve eaten at La Closerie twice, once three years ago, again last week. Both times it was simply amazing. This time the noontime meal was a rabbit terrine, a cut of lamb on a bed of polenta, and a strawberry soup for dessert. The presentation matched to food. And even in the heat of July, the setting was shaded and cool enough to relax and enjoy.
b. Want to stay in a Provencal Mas or farmhouse? We would recommend Mas Perreal, just outside St. Saturnin-les-Apt. Beautiful rooms, sumptuous breakfasts and a pool on the fringe of vineyards and beside several shade trees. The place is run by Kevin, an American, and his French wife Elisabeth. They are low-key and casual, but they also have a clear idea of how to make guests comfortable at a first-class bed and breakfast. At about $170 a night, however, the Mas is a splurge.