By Rick Steves and Steve Smith
To learn more about France past and present, and specifically Provence and the French Riviera, check out a few of these books and films.
For a good introduction to French culture and people, read French or Foe (Polly Platt) and Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong (Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow). The latter is a must-read for anyone serious about understanding French culture, contemporary politics, and what makes the French tick.
In A Distant Mirror, respected historian Barbara Tuchman takes readers back to medieval France. The Course of French History (Pierre Goubert) is a concise and readable summary. Ina Caro’s The Road from the Past is filled with enjoyable essays on her travels through France, with an accent on history. And The Yellow House (Martin Gayford) vividly recounts Van Gogh and Gauguin’s tumultuous stay in Arles.
Peter Mayle’s bestselling memoirs, A Year in Provence and Toujours Provence, offer an evocative view of life in southern France. The travelogue Portraits of France (Robert Daley) includes chapters on Provence. In At Home in France (Ann Barry), an American author describes her visits to her country house. Postcards from France (Megan McNeill Libby) was written by an observant foreign exchange student. A mix of writers explores French culture in Travelers’ Tales: Provence (edited by Tara Austen Weaver and James O’Reilly).
La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life (Elaine Sciolino) gives travelers a fun, insightful, and tantalizing peek into how seduction has been used in all aspects of French life from small villages to the halls of government.
A Goose in Toulouse (Mort Rosenblum) provides keen insights on rural France through its focus on cuisine. Foodies may also enjoy From Here, You Can’t See Paris (Michael S. Sanders), about a local restaurant where foie gras is always on the menu.
Da Vinci Code fans will enjoy reading that book’s inspiration, Holy Blood, Holy Grail (Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln), which takes place mostly in southern France. Labyrinth (Kate Mosse) is an intriguing tale partly set in medieval southern France during the Cathar crusade.
If you’ll be enjoying an extended stay in France, consider Living Abroad in France (Terry Link) or Almost French (Sarah Turnbull), a funny take on living as a French native. The most complete (and priciest) menu reader around is A to Z of French Food, a French to English Dictionary of Culinary Terms (G. de Temmerman). Travelers seeking green and vegetarian options in France could consider Traveling Naturally in France (Dorian Yates).
Written in the 1930s, Joy of Man’s Desiring captures the charm of rural France. (The author, Jean Giono, also wrote the Johnny Appleseed eco-fable set in Provence, The Man Who Planted Trees.) The Fly-Truffler (Gustaf Sobin) features a character who studies the Provençal dialect. Peter Mayle, whose nonfiction books are recommended above, also writes fiction set in Provence, including Hotel Pastis and A Good Year.
Alfred Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief (1955) features both the French Riviera and crackling performances by Grace Kelly and Cary Grant. In La Grande Vadrouille (1966), set during World War II, two French civilians aid the crew of a downed Allied bomber in crossing the demarcation line into southern France. The Return of Martin Guerre (1982) takes place during the Middle Ages.
Jean de Florette (1986), a marvelous tale of greed and intolerance, is about a city hunchback who inherits a valuable piece of property in rural France, only to have his efforts thwarted by his villainous neighbor. Its sequel, Manon des Sources (1986), continues the story, focusing on the hunchback’s beautiful daughter.
Two films based on the memoirs of writer/filmmaker Marcel Pagnol show his early life in Provence: My Father’s Glory (1991) and My Mother’s Castle (1991).
The crime-thriller Ronin with Robert De Niro (1998) was filmed in Nice, Villefranche-sur-Mer, and Arles, and the hilarious Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, with Steve Martin and Michael Caine (1988), was filmed in and around Villefranche-sur-Mer.
Cyrano de Bergerac (1990), about a romantic poet with a large nose, has scenes filmed at the Abbaye de Fontenay. French Kiss (1995) includes scenes in the French countryside and Cannes, as well as Paris. Chocolat (2000), which was filmed in the Dordogne region, shows Juliette Binoche opening a chocolate shop and stirring up a tiny town. (The Horseman on the Roof, from 1995, is also set in southern France and also features the beautiful Binoche.) The Chorus (2004), filled with angelic choir music, tells the story of a schoolteacher and the boys he brings together.
Steve Smith is the co-author of the Rick Steves' Provence & the French Riviera guidebook.