The scent of candied nuts fills the cold air as I wander into a bustling Christmas market in La Defense, the business district of Paris.
But before I can enter, I hear a gruff voice command: "This way, please."
I had tried to bypass the horde of locals and tourists flocking to the market for their festive shopping by entering through an exit-only lane.
But security checks have been stepped up in the City of Lights after the Nov 13 terrorist attacks in Paris - including stringent checks at outdoor Christmas markets.
Armed officers stand guard at the entrance of shopping centres and hotels, while soldiers patrol the streets and at tourist attractions such as the Eiffel Tower - a marked departure from my last visit in December 2013.
But people are seemingly not bothered by the presence of the security personnel and stand patiently in line waiting for their bags to be checked.
Fortunately, the bonhomie of the French that I experienced on my previous trip to France quickly becomes evident during my nineday journey with tour operator Trafalgar (www.trafalgar.com), mainly in the south of France, away from the capital.
The trip takes me from Paris to Avignon, Aix-en-Provence, SaintTropez, Monaco, Nice and Lyon by coach, save for a trip on the train.
Tourist arrivals have fallen since the terror attacks, says Trafalgar's travel director David Moore, 41.
French newspaper La Tribune reported that in the two weeks following the attacks, the number of occupied rooms in Paris fell by 25 per cent compared with previous days. But Mr Moore is hopeful that the numbers will pick up.
"People forget about things quite quickly and they don't want to be defeated by terrorism. They want to go out as usual," he says, adding that the attacks have had "almost zero impact" in the south of France.
Last week, the United Nations World Tourism Organization announced that France remained the world's most popular tourist destination.
SAINT PAUL DE VENCE
One place of serenity is the scenic hilltop town of Saint Paul de Vence (www.saint-pauldevence.com), near Nice, where art studios abound and the population is a sleepy 3,000.
One can wander into any of the countless art galleries tucked into every corner of the mediaeval village and watch artists and painters work.
Among the pantheon of artists and stars who have stayed at the La Colombe d'Or hotel (www.lacolombe-dor.com) here are Spanish painter and sculptor Pablo Picasso and French actor and singer Yves Montand, says our guide Floriana Djivas.
There is more art to see in Arles, a Roman town in the centre of Provence, about a two-hour drive from Avignon in the south of France.
Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh called the town home and I visit the spots he used to paint at.
One of them is a hospital called Hotel Dieu - literally the hotel of God.
Poverty was widespread during that period, so hospitals were called Hotel Dieu - run by the Catholic Church - to serve the sick and needy. The artist was warded in one after he cut off his left ear in 1888.
Van Gogh painted the hospital courtyard while he was a patient and a picture of his painting hangs there today.
Arles has remained largely the same as it was during van Gogh's days, according to a biography on the artist by British author and van Gogh specialist Martin Bailey.
He wrote in Vincent Van Gogh: Letters From Provence that the artist's three years there were when he produced his greatest paintings.
Indeed, the glistening seascapes and endless horizons that characterise southern France have a calming effect on city dwellers like me.
Panoramic views of the coastline on the way to the Fragonard perfume factory (www.fragonard.com) in Eze, an area in Cote d'Azur, help distract me from the hours spent travelling on the coach from town to town. On average, we spend about four to five hours each day on the coach, but with pitstops for sightseeing and lunch.
Fragonard is a French perfumery house founded in 1926 and was named in honour of French painter Jean-Honore Fragonard (1732- 1806).
Our guide Marielle takes us through the steps of fragrancemaking. It takes three tonnes of fresh flowers soaked in water and steamed to extract just one litre of essential oils, for example.
She adds that it takes a perfumer seven to 10 years to perfect the art of perfume-making.
"You need to be born with a very sensitive nose to do this job. A person who makes perfume is not supposed to eat spicy food, smoke or drink alcohol," she adds.
SIDE TRIP TO MONACO
As Monaco sits on the border of southern France, I make a trip there en route to Nice. Monaco has an area of 202ha, about 350 times smaller than Singapore.
At the Saint Martin Gardens, a public garden in the city, I see seagulls gliding over the calm, turquoise waters of the Mediterranean. The garden opened in 1933 and boasts flora such as Aleppo pine trees, cacti and yellow agave.
A stone's throw away is the grand Monaco Cathedral, where famous actress Grace Kelly, former Princess of Monaco, is buried. She died in 1982.
Mr Moore points out an understated bungalow nearby that Princess Stephanie, Princess Kelly's daughter, calls home. Her brother, Prince Albert, is the reigning monarch of the city-state.
I also get a bird's eye view of Monte Carlo - a district in Monaco - from a spot next to the Prince's Palace of Monaco (www.palais.mc), the official residence of Prince Albert.
Even though the buildings are close together, it does not give a sense of claustrophobia, probably because of the sea view and hills surrounding the properties.
Before the brief detour to Monaco, I am in the glitzy town of Saint-Tropez on the French Riviera, about a two-hour drive from Monaco.
Long known as a playground for the rich and famous, Saint-Tropez is filled with nightclubs, fancy restaurants and branded boutiques such as luxury brand Dior.
But what sticks with me is the serendipity of stumbling into an open-air market at the Place des Lices in the town centre.
The market, which opens only on Tuesday and Saturday, reminds me of Singapore's night markets. There are plenty of booths with sellers peddling their wares and a food section.
Unlike Christmas markets in Paris, where festive decorations and goodies are sold, this nondescript market, where both locals and tourists visit, features books and shoes for a couple of euros, other knick-knacks and oddities such as skinned rabbits.
But being less touristy does not mean everything is cheap. I gingerly return a cardigan to its rack once I find out it is going for €40 (S$62.90).
ST MAXIMIN LA SAINTE BAUME
During the trip in southern France, I visit churches too, a staple in any visit to France.
Hints of France's rich history of Roman Catholicism can be traced in the basilica we visit in the small town of St Maximin la Sainte Baume, a pitstop between Nice and Lyon. The town is about a two-hour drive from Nice.
Displayed in the crypt beneath the basilica are skeletal remains said to belong to biblical figure Mary Magdalene after a sarcophagus believed to be her tomb was discovered in the crypt in the 12th century.
I also visit the Pont du Gard (www.pontdugard.fr), an ancient Roman monument built in the first century in Avignon, about 21/2 hours by the TGV express train from Paris, and a Unesco World Heritage Site.
The bridge is the key part of a 50km-long ancient Roman aqueduct that supplied the city of Nimes with water. Unfortunately, I do not get to try Trafalgar's famed "Be My Guest" experience - in which travellers dine with local families in their homes - as it is Christmas Eve and locals are busy preparing for the next day.
But I still have an unforgettable evening at a Christmas market in L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, near Avignon, where I have oysters, sausages and potatoes coupled with great wine and conversation with my tour group.
The only downside to such an ambitious itinerary packed into just nine days is that my time at each destination is brief.
Nonetheless, I enjoy the myriad sights and sounds and am awed by the rich art and religious history that France has to offer.
Admittedly, I began this trip with some trepidation, the Paris attacks still fresh in my memory.
But I leave impressed by the French strength of character and resolve not to be cowed by terrorists.
• The writer's trip was sponsored by Trafalgar and Emirates.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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