For souvenirs and gifts I like things that are useful and will last and that say something about the place I'm visiting. It's also nice to get something you can't easily buy on the Internet. It can also be fun to get something silly on occasion.
25.06.1996 - 19.06.2017
We often do our Christmas shopping while on vacation. It's fun for us and we don't have to figure out how to store or display things when we get home because we are going to give them away. I'm definitely not a shop 'til you drop person but I have a weakness for local crafts and for watercolor paintings, Provencal print tablecloths, place mats and napkins. We are getting quite a collection.
What to buy is a good question and it depends on where you are in France and your personal tastes . . . not to mention the person you are buying it for if it’s a gift. I try to find things that are not easily available on the Internet and that becomes more difficult each year.
Hand crafted toys at local markets or craft fairs are great for the kids or grandkids. Museum gift shops are also a fun place to look for things for the little ones. We used to get coloring books from museums and the grandkids loved them and learned a bit of history and geography. For tiny ones, story books in French are great fun. The books are mostly pictures and the kids will pick up a little French in the bargain. As they get older, kits to make castles and abbeys are fun. There are dolls in native costumes of the various parts of France and always knights in shining armor.
Most museums have free hand-out sheets with activities for children so if your kids are with you, get these and use them. The kids will enjoy the museum more because the activities are usually fun games and when they’re done, you have a nice souvenir. Have the kids sign and date them and they can make a trip scrapbook when you get home. Be sure to get pictures of the kids doing the activities.
Each part of France seems to have a specialty and it’s fun to look for souvenirs that emphasize it. For instance, in Provence, we always look for and buy Provençal table cloths for our daughters (and for us). You will also see the beautiful Provençal prints used for aprons, tea cosies, purses and tote bags and are especially nice when made into children’s clothes. Another thing I always get is a scarf. Sometimes I get several. Years ago, this was a very French souvenir. Now you can buy them in Target but somehow the French ones are my favorites. Check the labels to make sure they are made in France if you are getting them as a souvenir.
Crickets are a symbol in Provence so you will see all sorts of things from ceramic crickets to cast iron crickets, including crickets that chirp. Consider packing before you buy a cast iron cricket.
Bowls and things carved from olive wood are very popular. Santons, the little Provençal figures that are brought out at Christmas are great fun and collectors items. There is even a Santon Museum in Paradou near Saint-Remy-de-Provence. The little pottery figures are created to represent any profession you can think of and then a few more you can’t conceive. Really good santons are very expensive, but as a souvenir (not a collector’s item), you can spend a lot less and still get a very nice little figure. La Petite Provence du Paradou web site You will also find very nice pottery in Provence and most other parts of France.
There are different styles of dishes in different parts of the country and some can be very expensive. Budget for this if it's what you want. There are less expensive copies but be careful to read labels because many of the inexpensive copies are not made in France. I like my souvenirs to be made in the country where I'm buying them. It seems to make more sense.
Perfume is another good gift or souvenir and comes in all price ranges. In the town of Grasse both the Molinard and Galimard perfumeries offer courses in perfume making. Our daughters and I took a course once, with two of us taking the short course and one taking the longer course. At the end you have a perfume you have created yourself although I must admit mine is more to look at than to actually wear. The longer course allows you to register your own creation and they will keep it and you can reorder if you like. For the more serious among us, that is a nice perk.
Soaps are another great souvenir or gift idea. In Provence you have the wonderful Marseille soaps and other regions have their own soaps. Our last trip was in the northwest and we got some lovely soaps from Brittany. If you want lovely soaps and don’t want to pay extra, consider buying them in a local hardware store instead of a souvenir store. They’re the same soaps with lower prices. To go with the soaps, there are beautiful woven towels. The Jacquard woven towels are amazing and available in most parts of the country. This is one of those items you can find in local shops including hardware shops and save a bit of money. Again, check labels to make sure you are getting French weaving. We use ours on a regular basis and they last nearly forever. You can also make them into gift pillows for friends.
You’ll find salt as a souvenir in both Provence and along the Atlantic coast. We’ve gotten salt in Aigues-Mortes in Provence and in Guerande in the Loire-Atlantique. You can’t believe the difference until you taste it. In the Loire-Atlantique, most restaurants have a little dish of salt from the area on the table. You will find little bags of salt with cute labels in most souvenir stores in salt-producing areas.
The southwest has a distinct Catalan influence and they have an entirely different kind of weaving so they have very different table linens and apparel. When you get into Brittany and Normandy, they are famous for their lace. This is a lovely gift if you know a bride-to-be and a lovely souvenir if you like lace. If you enjoy tapestry, this is often sold in museum shops and in many other places if you are near a famous tapestry like the Apocalypse Tapestry in Angers.
Chocolates are a nice gift, but if you are traveling in the warmer months, it doesn’t travel well; therefore, you may want to buy some and enjoy it there, but don’t try to pack it or you’ll be disappointed. If you travel in winter, it’s fine but be sure you keep your luggage way from heaters on the trip home.
If you are a wine drinker, wines from different places make great gifts and souvenirs. You may want to have them shipped home if you buy a lot. On the other hand, we have a friend who takes an extra suitcase just to bring home his wine. Just be sure you declare what you have at Customs and know the rules for your country. Whether it is shipped or not, you are still bringing it home.
On that subject, there are various local liqueurs that are very nice too. In Normandy where they don’t make wine, they do make Calvados, an apple liqueur. Provence has pastis; Burgundy has Crème de cassis; there is a walnut liqueur in the Dordogne; Guignolet is found in the western Loire; Izarra is from the Basque regions. There are other more famous French liqueurs but most of those are easily purchased in the USA so I really don’t consider them a souvenir, not when I can go downtown and buy them.
Another great souvenir and one we often buy is a painting. We visit local galleries and studios and if something appeals to us, we buy it. If a painting is too large to pack, have it removed from the frame, roll it up and put it in a tube which can be carried or shipped. If you are talented, create your own paintings. These are wonderful souvenirs although it takes a bit of work. I always take my painting supplies with me.
What to pay: My advice is to budget for what you want and when the budget is spent, stop buying. We’ve only gone over our budget once and that was for a painting. We’ve had it nearly twenty years and thoroughly enjoyed it the entire time so it was worth what we paid for it. For the most part, when you’ve reached your budget, stop buying. You can always send postcards if you haven’t gotten something for everyone on your list. You can keep your costs down by shopping in local markets and hardware stores rather than tourist souvenir shops. We’ve found wonderful gifts in local stationers, bookstores and hardware stores including a nice set of fish knives for friends. Those are hard to find in the USA and really bring back memories when you use them.