Among the many professions I fantasized about pursuing as a kid, travel writer seized my interest the longest. The idea that it were possible to be compensated to explore and document the world - in most cases, an extension of one's natural curiosity- appealed to my restless adolescent self. The stories of my parents' honeymoon backpacking through Europe in the 70's rang in memory but at that time, I still hadn't step foot off American soil nor was I in posession of a passport. Hard to envisage a trajectory as an intrepid globetrotter under those circumstances.
My first trip to France proved to be a catalyst, not so much for a writing career but for a future in France. Still, planted in France and on a different path, I greatly admire the work of travel writers. Meeting one writer in particular in January only cemented my admiration for the craft.
In the serried ranks of the travel section of your local bookshop, you're certain to find a selection of Nicola Williams' work. A British freelance travel writer, Nicola got her start in Lithuania, traveling extensively through Eastern Europe, before finding herself more settled in France in 1996 when she began writing for Lonely Planet among other publications. For the last ten years, she's been based in a lakeside village on the southern side of Lake Geneva but travels regularly throughout France, Italy and Switzerland for her work. She effuses about Provence's picture-perfect splendor in one of the many guidebooks she's authored and knows the ins-and-outs of the Côte d'Azur and Languedoc regions.
An erudite Francophile and world traveler, Nicola shares some of her favorites from France.
Describe what you love about France in three words.
Art de vivre.
Your most coveted spot in Paris for savory and sweet?
Tricky, tricky, so many wonderful addresses in Paris and so incredibly varied for someone living like me in a provincial French village. I was thrilled to discover the turbo-powered vegetable juices and salads – so creative – at Nanashi in the Marais this time around; and I can still taste the exquisite mackerel and onions with sweetly caramelized leeks I had for lunch one day at Au Passage – where else can you eat so well in such simple, unpretentious, veg-crates-in-the-window surrounds?! For sweet, it has to be the Maison Georges Larnicol for its outrageously chewy, syrupy kouignettes (mini Breton butter-cake twirls) and miniature glass jars of copper caramel au beurre sale, conveniently sold with a little spoon should you be unable to wait until you get home.
Of all the places you've covered for Lonely Planet, which is the most underrated?
Lyon is massively underrated, essentially because Paris steals the limelight: very few people bother to venture beyond Lyon’s airport (springboard to the Alps) or the A6 to Paris that swings past the city. I lived in the old hilltop quarter of Croix Rouse for eight years and absolutely everyone who came to visit expressed the same unexpected delight in a city which, from away, evokes very little or no expectation. Our apartment was a 19th-century silk weavers’ loft-workshop with fabulous 4m high ceiling, enormous beams strong enough to hang a table from, and a line-up of big windows looking out to the basilica atop Lyon ’s other hill, Fourvière. It was a dreamy outlook and a dreamy existence, completely typical of a city where food shopping is done at the market, the theatre and slow dines entertain after dusk, and Sunday mornings in winter means freshly shucked oysters and a glass of white partaken with friends outside on a pavement terrace.
Best place to relax and recharge in France ?
I’ve spent many years exploring every last nook and cranny of Provence and the south of France, and every time I sail to Porquerolles I crave a return trip to relax rather than work. The island is the ultimate digital detox, positively tropical in its flora and fauna, and slow-paced to the point of being vintage – no motorized vehicles, just pushbikes or your own two feet to get from perfect sand beach to perfect sand beach to fish restaurant.
Most amusing interaction with the French?
Our family has become so integrated in French life over the years – my three children were all born here, flit from English to French without thought, consider themselves ‘French’ – that I’m afraid I don’t have any ‘Merde happens-Stephen Clarkesque’ tales to tell. The kids always get a giggle out of my name (Nicola sans ‘s’) which, in French, is masculin. There have been plenty of embarrassed silences the other end of the phone line when a French person has asked to speak to ‘Monsieur Williams’ only to be told they are indeed speaking to moi! Oops.
Thanks, Nicola! For her updated whereabouts, recommendations and in-the-moment snapshots, follow Nicola on Twitter and her blog Trip Along.