‘Provence still has hidden corners to explore’

American food journalist Julie Mautner, 53, took a holiday to Provence 14 years ago and she's still living there now. As part of The Local's My France series she guides us round some of the best attractions and restaurants in the idyllic region of southern France.

'Provence still has hidden corners to explore'
Photo: Julie Mautner. Photo (right): K. Hurley

What brought you to Provence?

The first time I came here was for a holiday. I think it was on my third day, after the jet lag had started to ease, that I realized two weeks wasn't going to be anywhere near long enough.

I returned again, about a year later, and that's when reality hit: my long marriage to New York was pretty much over and my romance with Provence was in full bloom. I never really moved to France. I just came here for a while and stayed.

What made you stay?

As a freelance food and travel writer, I can’t think of any better place to live and work than Provence.  And now that I’m working as a travel planner as well, I’m finding—as I expected I would—no shortage of people who want to visit Provence but need a little help planning the best trip possible. I have a wonderful group of friends here, not to mention a pretty house, a career I adore and a happy life in the charming village of St Rémy de Provence.

I love the climate, the architecture, the history, the food and wine, the lifestyle, the geography, the mountains, the valleys, the rivers, the sea and all the different types of interesting people who come here from all over the world. And I absolutely love the Provençal sense of humour.

What’s the Provençal sense of humour like?

People here are always saying that Provence is paradise and that Provençal people are somehow more intelligent, more handsome, better cooks and better lovers than anyone else – but the truth is that they can also be self-deprecating. My experience is that they’re quick to laugh at situations and at themselves.

Was it difficult to settle in?

Yes! I did everything wrong. I had no idea how anything worked and I didn't speak a word of French. I had to find a house, buy a car, furniture and appliances. I also had to find the right providers for phone, cable, internet and TV and sign up for electricity and gas, none of which are easy to do let alone in your own language in your own country!

And of course I had to make friends and there weren't that many English speakers around when I first came to St. Remy. Once I’d found some great friends though, everything sort of fell into place and it became much easier and more fun.

What’s the first place you take visitors?

The Pont du Gard is a must. It’s a 2,000-year-old Roman aqueduct on a stunningly beautiful site. If the river below is high enough, I take visitors for a swim or take out canoes. Sometimes we go to the city of Arles to take a little stroll through Roman history – there’s so much of it – plus around the great galleries, museums and shops.

During the summer, we might go to see an exhibition at the annual Rencontres d’Arles Photography Festival, which gets better and bigger each year. Arles has a wonderful market on Saturday mornings, so sometimes we’ll start our day there. For a fabulous lunch or dinner in Arles, I love L’Atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel – although the food is so good you always end up eating too much. Or we’ll eat at À Côté, Rabanel’s more casual restaurant next door.

Any more good bars or eateries you can recommend?

For casual dining, I love Le Mirabeau in my hometown of St-Rémy-de-Provence. The owners and staff are very friendly and the food is always good. I also hang out at Le Café de la Place for the same reasons. Plus, they make a great iced coffee – not so easy to find in Provence.

In the evening, I also like to go to La Cantina, an Italian-style restaurant that serves wonderful pizzas, salads and specials such as ossobuco. For a more special night out, I go to Le Mas du Capoun in Mollégès, where the food, service and setting are divine and the prices extremely reasonable.

Provence has been a tourist destination for years – are there any secrets left?

Of course! Provence is huge, and no matter how much time you spend here, there are always more hidden corners to explore. Even in the height of summer, when the most popular towns are thronged with tourists, it’s possible to find areas of completely unspoiled nature and tranquility that aren’t far off the beaten path.

What advice would you give someone thinking of moving to Provence?

Come and stay for a while – especially in the winter. Many French villages close up in the evening and are dead in the winter months, so you need to experience what it’s like. If I had to do it again, I would have paid a professional to help me get settled, buy furniture, buy a car, open a bank account, pay bills and generally learn the ropes.

Julie Mautner has her own website “For anyone who lives in, travels to, or even just dreams of visiting the South of France” and also runs Provence Post Travel, which helps couples, families and groups of all sizes plan holidays in Provence and on the Côte d’Azur.

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Property taxes: How much will it cost to extend your French home?

Installing a swimming pool, building a garden shed, or adding a conservatory to your French home has become more expensive in 2023.

Property taxes: How much will it cost to extend your French home?

If you are planning a renovation project in 2023 you’re likely looking at rising cost for materials and labour due to inflation – but there is one other cost to consider; taxes. 

In France there is a one-off tax that has to be paid on certain building works, and the government has raised the rate for this.

The taxe d’aménagement, sometimes referred to as the garden shed tax, applies to all property development – construction, reconstruction and extension – of buildings that require planning permission or a building permit.

Garden sheds, swimming pools or extensions with a surface area of more than 5 square metres are subject to the development tax – although a 50 percent reduction is applied to the flat-rate values of certain buildings, particularly the first 100 square metres of main residences.

READ ALSO Everything you need to know about installing a swimming pool at your French property

The tax is collected by local councils, who set their own percentage rates for the tax, working off the base rate set by the government.

A decree published in the Journal Officiel set the base figures for 2023 at the following rates: 

  • €1,004 per square metre in Île-de-France (up from €929 per square metre in 2022);
  • €886 per square metre outside Île-de-France (€820 per square metre in 2022).

The flat-rate values per square metre of building space, which constitute the basis for the development tax, are revised on January 1st of each year according to the latest construction cost index published by national statistics body Insee. 

Additionally, specific rates are set for:

  • €250 per square metre  for a swimming pool (up from €200 in 2022);
  • €12 per square metre of ground-fixed solar panels (up from €10 in 2022);
  • €3,000 per wind turbine more than 12 metres high;
  • €3,000 per pitch for tents, caravans and mobile leisure homes;
  • €10,000 per pitch for a holiday chalet or bungalow.

The amount of the tax is calculated according to the following formula: 

(Taxable area multiplied by the government-set base figure) multiplied by the percentage tax rate set by the local authorities. This gives the total to be paid in cents. Bills are rounded down.

So, the tax for a 30 square metre extension in an area where the combined local and departmental tax rates total 6.25 percent would be calculated like this:

30 (the size of the development) x 886 (the base tax rate outside Ile-de-France) = 26,580

6.25 (local and departmental tax) x 26,580 = 166,125 cents, more usually expressed as €1,661. 

If the total payable is less than €1,500, you will receive a bill in the six months after planning permission was granted, with details of how to pay.

Otherwise, it is paid in two instalments, 12 months and 24 months after authorisation, with a 10 percent surcharge applied in cases of late payments.

READ ALSO The hidden costs of owning property in France