A winter's tale

Provence may be beautiful in the summer but winter is the best time to visit to enjoy traditions that go back centuries, says Jon Bryant

Provence is the most celebrated summer holiday destination in the world, yet the region became popular as a place to spend the winter. A glance up from the shop-fronts in Nice reveals elegant mansion blocks with names such as Winter Home and Winter Residence carved in marble above the front door. The Riviera was, for the aristocrats, royalty, entrepreneurs and politicians of the 19th century, the only place to be when the nights started drawing in.Queen Victoria spent the winter on the Riviera with a staff of more than 100. There can’t have been many places that could accommodate them all but she occupied an entire wing of the Excelsior H�tel Regina in Cimiez, north of Nice during the 1880s. All along the coast are statues of her and avenues named after her. In the Place Victoria in Menton, her statue was thrown into the sea by the Italians when they took over the town in World War II. Menton’s local council replaced it in 1960.Victoria also stayed in Cannes, Grasse and Hy�res and loved to take her carriage along to Villefranche and Beaulieu. The Prince of Wales was usually there too, although never in the same resort as his mother and mainly for other reasons, notably the American heiresses who were taking villas on the coast as part of a Grand Tour of Europe. His wife was not amused.The idea of spending winter in Provence however had started some time before on the recommendation of the ever-complaining Scottish writer Tobias Smollett. In the 1760s, he wrote Travels Through France and Italy, a series of letters about the places he was visiting, the weather, the food, local customs, the unpleasant people he encountered and his fluctuating state of health. Letter 24, written from Nice says, you will see that there is less rain and wind at Nice, than in any other part of the world that I know; and such is the serenity of the air, that you see nothing above your head for several months together, but a charming blue expanse, without cloud or speck.’He wasn’t quite so complimentary about Aix-en-Provence: I know instances of some English valetudinarians, who have passed the winter at Aix, on the supposition that there was little or no difference between that air and the climate of Nice: but this is a very great mistake, which may be attended with fatal consequences.’On their way to the marvels of Italy, the Riviera became a favourite port of call for British travellers, keen to compose their travelogues and spend some time away from the grey and cold of the British winter. At that time it would have taken about three weeks to reach Nice by boat, horse, carriage and barge. Eventually the railway extension from Marseille to Nice in 1864 opened up the length of the French Riviera to normal’ people and the winter-only resorts were gradually replaced by seaside villas, private pools, beachfront apartments, casinos and sunbathing. The Riviera has an average temperature of 10�C in December (compared with 4�C in London). You still need sunglasses in the bright mornings, you can eat your turkey on the terrace at lunchtime and be skiing in the Alps the same afternoon.Spectacular seasonSince Provence was – and still is – essentially agricultural, the whole winter period is much less about Christmas and more about the changes to the land and crops and the movement of animals. A long, spectacular season of events runs from the end of the harvest in November to the blooming of the mimosa flowers in February and most of it is managed by people wearing traditional costume.Traditional winter celebrations start with the day of Sainte Barbe on 4 December when schoolchildren plant wheat seeds on a damp paper towel in a saucer and hope they sprout. Every boulangerie sells them. If they grow green and tall, the next year will be prosperous and if they shrivel and fade, then the harvest may be a little light next year and possibly time to turn your farmhouse into a g�te.Accompanying Sainte Barbe day is the arrival in the supermarkets of rows and rows of Bresse chickens, jars of yellow foie gras and bottles of cr�mant and champagne. In the markets, it’s still courgette, pumpkin and squash time but more than anything else in Provence, winter means truffles.Truffle season kicks off in November with the truffle fairs in Carpentras and Rognes and later in Aups. Men carrying brown paper bags full of truffles and earth mingle among the stallholders looking for a suitable buyer. The high price, some-times over €1,200 a kilo, makes it an expensive delicacy but generally the black gold,’ as it’s known in Provence, has become less of a mystery in the last decade. People still talk about them in hushed tones but many villages have created truffle associations which hold open days, hand out recipe sheets and offer truffle hunting days with dogs and occasionally an old pig. Dealers wear gloves not because it’s cold but to protect the delicate truffle.If the summer has been long and hot there aren’t usually enough truffles to fill a fair so market stalls are covered in bottles of virgin oil from the first pressing of the year’s olives and hampers of vin cuit presented by ladies in aprons and bonnets. Most Proven�al of all are the pastorales, the re-enactment mystery plays of the nativity that are traditionally performed partly in the Proven�al dialect. Villagers can play the same part for their entire lives and the same role may have been played by their parents a generation ago and handed down. The pastorales merge biblical characters with local trades and townsfolk much like the arrangements of figures in the nativity scenes. There is always a shepherd, a comic bandit and plenty of animals and a slightly mystified audience who go very quiet when the Proven�al dialogue starts. Continuing another tradition, local shepherds, accompanied by a fife and drum, process up the church aisle and present a lamb to the priest at Midnight Mass on 24 December in what is known as the pastrage. Once the lamb has been given, other visitors bring up their own offerings, which might include some fish, pigeons, goats, more lambs and, occasionally, a bull decorated with ribbons. It used to be a tradition that the local seigneur provided a cow for his villagers to eat, but over time, this changed to be a little bird caught by some local hunters. Customs have transformed over the decades and the reason for something taking place is often forgotten. Some festivals died out centuries ago only to be rekindled by local heritage groups and performed by a new generation of villagers such as the F�te de la Belle �toile in Pertuis.At Saint-Martin-de-Crau on the last Sunday of January, a small flock of sheep is left outside the front of the church and there’s a party throughout the town with shepherds’ processions and cowboys on horseback. Also in the Camargue at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, cowboys from the region’s ranches gather for the annual Abrivado festival in November where more than 1,000 horses and 200 bulls and their owners meet on the beach and have tournaments, races and a huge barbeque lunch.At Barjols in the Var on the closest Sunday to 17 January, locals hold the F�te des Tripettes, where a bull decked in traditional red and yellow, is led through the town. Traditionally he is killed and the ladies of the town wash his tripe. The festival celebrates the arrival of the relics of Saint Marcel in 1350 and also that the town was saved from famine by the sudden appearance of a bull (which they presumably ate).Truffle auctionOn the same day, Richerenches, a small village in the Vaucluse, celebrates with a Truffle Mass in the local church. Every year since 1948, truffles are brought up to the altar, blessed, sung about and then sold off by auction after the service. In a good year, they can receive ten kilos of black truffles. A much more recent invention, which is slowly turning into a tradition, happens on New Year’s Day when families (mostly ex-pats) in the Lub�ron walk up to the highest point in the region for a picnic and chat. It’s too far to carry the customary New Year’s Day feast; Proven�al traditionalists should eat a roasted cockerel (representing the year) surrounded by 12 partridges (the months), 30 truffles (the nights) and 30 eggs (the days). For dessert, there’s traditional oil bread from Marseille.Being a port, Marseille was always the best place to find nuts, dates, oranges and the exotic fruits for the 13 desserts which are eaten at the end of the traditional Christmas Eve meal in Provence. You always feel you could see or buy anything in Marseille. For the F�te des Chandelles (Candlemas), the city’s bakers make little pastries scented with orange blossom in the shape of boats called navettes. They represent the boat of Saint Victor (patron saint of Marseille) which brought ashore the Marys to Provence.King for a dayAt Epiphany on 6 January, the same bakers have to make the galette des rois, which, here in Provence, takes the shape of a wreath-shaped brioche about the size of a dinner plate covered in sticky, crystallised fruit. Hidden inside is a small porcelain figurine (known as a f�ve as it used to be a dried bean). Back home, the youngest member of the family goes under the table and decides who will receive each slice of the cake by calling out their names. Whoever bites on the tooth-cracking porcelain figure becomes king for the day and has to wear a golden crown – also supplied by the baker.From early December, the large towns of the region, Marseille, Aix, Toulon, Avignon and Nice all have their most picturesque roads lined with wooden chalets selling gifts and Christmas fare. In Aix, there are about 60 cabins along the Cours Mirabeau selling candles, calisson sweets, fountain pens, candyfloss, toffee apples, pink quartz with a light inside and, of course, santons. Tiny, clay figurines known as santons represent a little piece of Christmas quite untouched by commercialism. Two hundred years ago, the santons, which take their name from the Proven�al santoun’, meaning little saint’, were minutely carved replicas of Mary, Joseph and those gathering in the stable. Today, there are hundreds of santon characters and they adorn not just churches and village halls but almost every house in Provence. You can buy clothed or painted santons and competition is fierce. Aix-based maker Santons Fouque recently added a collection of 24-carat gold santons to its array of lawyers, teachers, shepherds, garlic sellers, boules players and choristers. The smallest characters traditionally produced are just 2cm tall with the infant Jesus the size of a lentil. Civic decorations, Christmas lights, city centre merry-go-rounds and the thousands of plastic Santas clinging to rope ladders on window ledges all hang around until 2 February. In fact some Santas keep hanging on until the summer, their owners having abandoned them to the Mistral wind and a reindeerless life outdoors.Just as Christmas and New Year subside, the ten-day F�te du Mimosa begins in Mandelieu-la-Napoule; Nice starts to prepare for its carnival; Menton for its lemon festival; fishermen gather sea urchins for the oursinade in Carry-le-Rouet and lambs across the region breathe a sigh of relief, at least until Easter.