Au Revoir, Belle Provence

I hope, rather, it’s a bientot.  It is hard (and a little sad) to believe that our Provencal adventure is coming to an end.  On Sunday we leave, after having spent almost four months in this beautiful southeastern corner of France.   We feel so fortunate to have had this wonderful experience.  Here are some of the things that have made our time most memorable :

The Locals

The Postmistress:  The first time I mailed something at our local post office, I needed and asked for a  receipt ( not usually given). It being our second day in France and my being giddy with excitement, I promptly forgot it.  The next time I appeared (four weeks later), the darling postmistress said, “Madame, I think you forgot this the last time” and handed me the receipt.

The Housekeeper:  A lovely woman came every two weeks to clean our house, and she spoke not a word of English.  She, however, was very patient with my pathetic French, and kindly and slowly corrected the pronunciation of every single word I uttered – the best way to learn.

The Shopkeeper:  I stopped at a lovely store in Isle sur la Sorgue that had beautiful scarves and throws.  The owner was a charming woman, and we chatted for quite some time while I selected my purchases.  Three weeks later, I returned and she held up my favorite pair of gloves (pale olive!), which I had thought had been lost in some unknown place and were forever gone, and said “I think you left these the last time you were here.”

The Innkeeper:  We had dinner at a wondeful auberge and remarked upon a poster displayed there.  We asked Marc, the owner, where we could find one.   He said, “Give me your phone number.”  Two days later he called and said he had it and I could pick it up that evening.  “C’est mon cadeau pour vous.”  (“It’s my gift to you.”)

Just About Everyone You Meet Anywhere:  Make an attempt to chat, even in ungrammatical and halting French, and the Provencal are invariably polite, helpful and, believe it or not, complimentary.  “Mais vous parlez bien!  Je vous comprends!”  (“But you speak well!  I understand you!”)

The Cheeses:

Several hundred local varieties, including the marvelous Banon that is cured in chestnut leaves, and the fromage frais that is a mild goat’s milk cheese fresh from the farm.  There is nothing else to say, except perhaps to mention the cheese man in our local market who, when asked about a particular kind, said firmly and disdainfully, “Madame, c’est la vache.”  (It was a cow’s milk cheese, which he definitely considered inferior to the goat’s milk cheese so favored in these parts.)

The Wine:

Vineyards and wineries everywhere you look (just ring the bell for degustation!), as well as well-stocked and edited caves in every town.  While these are not the famous fines wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy, a tasty (and frequently delicious)  red, white or Provencal pink can be had for about 5 euros a bottle.

All the Little Towns and Sights that I Haven’t Mentioned Yet:

Oppede le Vieux, Lourmarin, Fontaine de Vaucluse, Mourre Negre, Arles, Aix en Provence, St. Remy, Lagnes, Les Beaumettes, Goult, Les Baux, Nimes – any and all of these are worth a visit for either the history buff or the charm-seeker.  I forgot to mention the Pont Julien, a tiny bridge at the base of our town built by the Caesar’s brigade.

The Auberges:

Le Petit Ecole, Le Chene:  This little restaurant is housed in the tiniest old school house that might at one time have accommodated ten students.  The proprietor and his wife (the cook) live upstairs.  The first time we went, the truffle harvest had just come in.  The cook was so excited about the first truffles of the season that she brought a huge mason jar filled with them, still damp from the earth, to our table and commanded us to smell them.  Dinner came covered with those same fragrant truffles shaved generously over the plate.

Le Fiacre, Lumieres:  Another small auberge run by husband and wife.  He cooks, she serves.  Fantastically prepared seasonal food.  In the fall, specialties from le chasse have pride of place on the menu.

Auberge de Lagnes, Lagnes:  A modern twist on Provencal cooking, managed by Marc (of poster fame,) with the kitchen run by Stew.   Marc has personality to spare, and makes it a point to shake hands with every incoming guest.  The menu is seasonal, light, beautifully presented, and delicious.

Lou Pebre d’Ai, Lauris:  Our very favorite.  Enter under the weather-beaten awning and find yourself in a beautiful dining room, ancient stone walls scrubbed white, dark wood tables set with comfortable chairs.  For an unbelievable 21 euros enjoy local olives, salads with micro greens (not lettuces, but tiny beet greens and chard!), tomato tart, rack of lamb, platters of dried ham, squid and olive salad, a memorable cheese course and tarte tatin.  Again, a young couple helm this lovely place tucked away in a small unassuming town in the middle of the Luberon valley.  We are having our farewell dinner there tonight.

Friends, Family and Laughs:

Our memories would be less vivid indeed if we had not shared them with the friends and family who made the trek to visit.  Thank you for the shared adventure, and the priceless moments of hilarity and sublime ridiculousness which will always be the brightest highlights when we think back to this special time.  For those who were not able to come this time, don’t worry – we plan on finding another adventure as soon as we can and all are welcome!  Venez nombreuses! 

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Happy Birthday, C.D.

I can’t let the day pass without wishing a happy 200th birthday to my beloved Mr. Dickens.  Though I’ve mentioned the brief and less than Dickens-worthy comments Charles made on his first visit to Paris, I’m celebrating his birthday by taking the opportunity to begin a couple of posts I’ve wanted to write for quite some time — basically free-form riffs on some of the books and commentary I’ve found most useful, interesting, pithy, thought-provoking, entertaining, and sometimes just nutty, about France.  There is no pattern or order to their appearance.  These are just some suggestions you might find worthwhile, enlightening or fun before your next travels.

I am compelled to start with my favorites, Henry James and Edith Wharton.  Not everyone’s cup of tea, I know, but bear with me.  Henry and Edith spent quite a bit of time travelling about the continent, sometimes together (when Mrs. Wharton would foot the bill for the always cash-strapped Henry.)  She was a rabid fan of motoring, and detailed at least three lengthy car trips throughout France, one of which included Mr. James.   I will return to her later but, first, my favorite curmudgeon.

James is at his cranky best in A Little Tour in France.  He has lots to say about the chateaux of the Loire, mostly complimentary, though he does find the rounded towers of Chambord “stupid.”  He adores Chenonceaux, proclaiming it more villa than chateau – and, to Henry, all things Italian are the standard by which all else is measured.  He gets around – to Bourges, to Tours, to Nantes, to Toulouse.  His observations on the Roman ruins at Nimes are surprisingly contemporary and generally laudatory, although he can’t resist his habit of judging most Roman ruins, including the miraculous Pont du Gard, “in some way brutal and stupid” and “somewhat ridiculous.”   Hmmmm.  

He barges westward, through Beaucaire and Tarascon toward Arles, where he admits to his contrary nature;  in describing the inadequacy of his lodging place, he writes:  “I suppose I had better mention that I am well-aware of the inconsistency of a person who dislikes the modern caravansary, yet grumbles when he finds a hotel of the superannuated sort.”

In Arles, Henry and his compatriots scale a wall in the moonlight (quite a feat for our rotund correspondent!)  In the quiet of the Roman arena, James chooses not to think of the clamor of “the smashing blows, of riven armor, of howling victims and roaring beasts,” but of the “intonations and cadences” of the Roman theatre, the ruined columns evoking, for him, silent moon-lit actors.  He found this spot “one of the sweetest legacies of the ancient world.”

Not to be missed is James’ excursion to Vaucluse (the town is now called Fontaine de Vaucluse.)  It was here that Petrach wooed Laura, and where the origins of the river Sorgue spring from the cliffs.  What James viewed as a “hideous paper mill” despoiling the landscape is now a big tourist draw.  His diatribe against souvenir shops (“dreadful little booths”) is priceless. “It is not only we in America, therefore, who besmirch our scenery; the practice exists, in a more organized form (like everything else in France), in the country of good taste.”  His conclusion:  “Vaucluse is indeed, cockneyfied, but … I should have been a fool, all the same, not to have come.”

I greatly enjoyed this book, as much for James’ s quite grumpy grumbles on the discomforts and inconveniences of travel as for his observations of people met and places seen.  He cannot contain his annoyance at the French railway system:  “The express from Marseilles, which I took at Orange, was full to overflowing; and the only refuge I could find was an inside angle in a carriage laden with Germans, who had command of the windows, which they occupied as strongly as they have been known to occupy other strategical positions.  [This in 1884!]  I scarcely know, however, why I linger on this particular discomfort, for it was but a single item in a considerable list of grievances – grievances dispersed through six weeks of constant railway travel in France….This form of locomotion…is attended with a dozen discomforts; almost all the conditions of the business are detestable.  They force the sentimental tourist again and again to ask himself whether, in consideration of such mortal annoyances, the game is worth the candle.  Fortunately, a railway journey is a good deal like a sea voyage; its miseries fade from the mind as soon as you arrive…. let this small effusion of ill-nature be my first and last tribute to the whole despotic gare; the deadly salle d’attente, the insufferable delays over one’s luggage, the porterless platorm, the overcrowded and illiberal train.”

Substitute “plane” for “train” and there you have it.  (And who says dead writers aren’t relevant?)   Next up, Edith’s much less cranky views.

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A Place Not to Miss… (but we almost did!)

Several year-round Provencals have recommended that we not miss the Fort de Buoux, located only twenty minutes from our little town.  It is a fantastic piece of history – inhabited without lengthy  interruption from prehistoric times until the 17th century, when its destruction was ordered by Louis XIV.  Isolated on a rocky spur in the Luberon, the Fort has provided safety and sanctuary throughout the centuries, its last inhabitants Huguenots fleeing persecution during the Wars of Religion of the 16th and early 17th centuries.   What is so unusual about the site is the abundant remnants of civilizations through the centuries, not just one century piled on top of the other as we often see, but here jumbled and tumbled longitudinally against each other – neolithic cave dwellings next to a 13th century church, whose walls incorporate Gallo-Roman and Celtic-Ligurian ruins.

Robb and I made an ill-fated previous attempt to visit on December 31.  We’ve purchased several very detailed hiking books and the ridiculously expensive IGN maps for the area yet, still, our hikes have often veered off course.  (Which is not necessarily a bad thing – we’ve ended up in some very interesting places, just not those we had originally set off to see!)  Perhaps it’s because the maps look like this:

Or perhaps it’s because hiking routes are marked randomly by various clubs or organizations, each with their own particular slash, dot, square or right angle of yellow, white, red or blue painted on random rocks or trees (sometimes colors and symbols in pairs, trios and quads – and frequently hidden by overgrowth) leading to much confusion.  (“I think it’s this way…..”) 

If you are lucky, you might find an arrow to point you in a direction, but don’t count on it.

At any rate, for our first outing to the Fort de Buoux we identified a hike rated “moderate.”  When we found ourselves climbing an almost vertical falaise, we suspected that, once again, our map-reading and direction-following skills had been found wanting.  Any doubt was lifted when we noticed the group in front of us was using ropes to proceed further.  (This area is hugely popular with rock climbers from all over the world.)    The route up was surprisingly easier than the route down – lots of sitting, sliding and shrub-clutching.

The second attempt to visit Fort de Buoux was much more successful, and so worth it.  In mid January, I had Portland visitors and thought I’d try again to get to the Fort.  Skipping the huge climb in, we drove to the visitors’ parking lot and walked a very civilized path up to the “Guardienne’s” house, first passing the one of the largest “baumes” in Europe – a neolithic cave created by a monstrous overhanging rock.  Next to the baume is a 9th century necropolis, tumbled tombs of various sizes, each tomb’s size suggesting the age of its inhabitant.

At the Guardienne’s house, one pays 4 euros to obtain entry to the Fort itself.  The entire area is surrounded by amazing cliffs, striated in a vertical rather than horizontal fashion. 

Up a path of rugged stairs hewn from the rock, the first sight of the Fort is a watchtower – the lowest point of the Fort.

A few steps beyond is evidence of first line fortifications – deep trenches and walls, and also evidence of habitation – cisterns and dry rock huts.   The moutaintop is large, and you can wander for hours among the centuries.  We were there for three hours, and could have stayed for three more.  Everywhere was something new to see, each new thing provoking imaginings of what life was like in the cave, in the church or in the castle.It was amazing to walk from the front of the spur to the back, watching the fortifications grow more significant as you approached the donjon, or inner tower, of the castle.

There was a 13th century churchAnd stone age caves

And a series of medieval towers

Arrow-slitted fortifications

All leading up to an amazing ruin of a castle with more fortifications – and a moat!

The descent was surprising similar to our first visit to the Fort.  It was recommended we take the “hidden staircase.”

What was not mentioned was that each stair is about two feet high, cut from the side of the cliff.  More sitting and sliding, but no shrubs to grab!!!

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We’ll Always Have Paris

I’ve delayed writing my Paris post because I’ve been struggling to find something clever and original to say about the City of Lights; this has proven an impossible task.  My own intellectual resources a failure, I searched around for some pithy quotes from real writers, but it seems that the business of finding a new and unique way to describe Paris has bedevilled not just your humble correspondent but many adroit and astute writers throughout the centuries.  One of the most trenchant and witty (IMHO) of them all seemed at a loss for a real bon mot when trying to describe the city.  After his first visit,  Charles Dickens wrote: “I cannot tell you what an immense impression Paris made on me.  It is the most extraordinary place in the world.”   The usually dazzling Mr. Dickens seems to have been so overwhelmed by his experience that his prodigious facility for words failed but, there it is – not brilliant, not sparkling, not sprightly, but true.

Everyone’s favorite Francophile Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson, no sluggard with a pen, summed up a visit to Paris pretty well:  “A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of life.”    Amen to that, TJ, especially the last part.  James Thurber gives it a pretty good shot, too: “The whole of Paris is a vast university of Art, Literature and Music…it is worth anyone’s while to dally here for years. Paris is a seminar, a post-graduate course in Everything.”

So, yes, Paris is every superlative you can think of – and a visitor frequently finds himself standing dumbstruck, agog and agape, slack-jawed yokel-like (I’ll credit The Simpsons for that phrase) in front of  one wonder or another.  As I sit here writing this, I’m trying to figure out how I can wrangle another trip there before I leave.

The biggest treat of my December trip to Paris was the opportunity to share Daughter No. 1’s first visit there.  (The only thing missing was Daughter No. 2, who was busy with school.  Next time, for sure.)

Here’s what we did.  Monday, December 11: I took the TGV from Avignon to Paris, which is an amazingly short 2.5 hour ride.  (It would have taken 8 hours or so to drive.) Liz arrived a few hours before me and, after her 19 hour trip from Portland, I was sure I would find her asleep in the hotel room.  Surprise – she was showered, dressed and ready to go, not wanting to waste a minute of our four-day pre-Christmas ramble.  (That’s my girl!)  Her passion is vintage everything, so she wanted to hit one of the famous Paris flea markets.  As the big ones are only open on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, this was our only chance, so we rode Metro Line 9 to the far eastern edge and went to the final stop, Montreiull.  This was definitely not the high end antique market, but more of a free-for-all of bric-a-brac, lots of cheap and horrible new stuff, and a little cool old stuff.  We strolled, looked a bit, and were ready to leave when Liz found a treasure she just had to have – a very old taxidermied weasel or ferret or fuene, a weasel-like animal that crawls into cars’ engines (they have a penchant for old Renaults) and eats the wires – the French hate them.  Its face was strangely compelling, and for ten euros it was hers.  I guess that is a more unique souvenir of Paris than another set of  coasters with Toulouse-Lautrec prints …. and where would you find a fuene but in France?

Next stop, Pere Lachaise Cemetiere, probably the most famous cemetery in the world.  Some may not place cemeteries high on their list of places to visit, but this one is amazing.  The architecture and design of the various tombs, mauseoleums and statuary is incredible.  Art Nouveau and Art Deco motifs abound.  The interior roads wind in random patterns, and it’s fun just to stroll quietly and see who you (literally) stumble upon.  If you are more ambitious, you can search for some of the famous artists, musicians, writers, actors and statesmen buried here.  They include the artists Corot, Pisarro, Delacroix, Seurat and Ingres.  Sarah Bernhardt, Isadora Duncan and Marcel Marceau are here, as are American writers Gertrude Stein and Richard Wright.  Chopin, Bizet and Maria Callas share space with Balzac, Collette and Proust.  Oscar Wilde famously said “When good Americans die they go to Paris,” but apparently Englishmen do as well, as his final resting place is in Pere Lachaise.  The most “popular” grave continues to be that of Jim Morrison, famously decorated with several bottles of Jack Daniels.

We left as it was getting dark, and the guards needed to herd the fairly large crowd of youngsters gathered around Jim Morrison’s grave – funny, but he did seem to be the most popular attraction.

The next morning we headed to the Ile de la Cite – first stop, Ste. Chappelle, built in the mid-13th century by Louis IX (later St. Louis) to house holy relics.  For those who cry, “No more churches!” when wandering through Europe, this one is definitely very different and worth a stop.  It’s quite small,  and walking inside is like walking into a jewelbox – the entire inside of the upstairs chapel is stained glass windows, ribbed with golden bands.

 Next door to Ste. Chappelle is the Conciergerie, which is my favorite building in all of Paris.  Its three iconic towers, rounded with conical roofs, hovering over the Seine are one of the most beautiful silhouettes in the Paris cityscape.  Unfortunately, two were being rehabilitated and were wrapped, so I have no cool pictures to show.  The building originated as a palace in the 10th century, and continued as such until the mid 14th century when Charles V  moved the court to the Louvre.  La Conciergerie evolved and grew through the centuries from palace to prison. During the Revolution, Marie Antoinette and Robespierre were both imprisoned here before their trips to the guillotine.  A permanent exhibit on the Revolution is on view at the Conciergerie, and several rooms have been recompositioned as Marie Antoinette’s cell.  The main hall of the old palace, which is a beautiful, ribbed and vaulted medieval cavern, is an exhibition space.  We were totally enthralled by the installation that was there when we visited.  Betes Off (sorry, I can’t get the accent over the e), was an amazing exhibit of animal/environment-based art dotted through the hall.  I generally am not fan of “installation” art.  (The last straw was this past summer, when a large group of family members was subjected to one Lee Ifans, who took up the ENTIRE Guggenheim with cotton balls and rocks!!!  Peggy would have been rolling over in her grave.  Never again, we said!   But I digress…..)    This was really cool – the contrast between the spare modernity of the installation and the soaring Gothic vaults was incredible.

Anyhow, then we went to Notre Dame, which was everything Notre Dame is supposed to be – beautiful, inspiring, incredible.  We spent a lot of time outside dissecting the various layers of gargoyles, statues, embellishments – fascinating!

Everyone loves a Gothic nave:

And gargoyles:

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Paris, Two

Well, I think I went over the wordpress limit in the last post, so I’m going to try to finish up quickly.

Anyway, the nave, the gargoyles, the buttresses (picture posted at the end of this entry because I am so frustrated trying to get them in the right place.  Damn you, WordPress!!)

The next day (Wednesday), we went to an amazing exhibit at the Petit Palais of the Stein Collection.  This was the first time the works collected by Gertrude, her two brothers and her sister-in-law had been brought together in one exhibition.  Picasso and Matisse featured prominently.  Not only is there a lot of great art, there were many photos of the  Stein clan, their atelier, and much information about that unparalleled time in history where art, literature and music exploded into “the new.”

That afternoon, on the recommendation of a friend, we discovered a new museum, the Jacquemart Andre, which is an old (fantastic) mansion,former home of Madame and Monsieur Jacquemart Andre.  They were huge collectors of Italian art, and it is beautifully displayed throughout their elegant Beaux Arts mansion.  The Winter Garden in the home is worth the trip. The exhibit itself was of one of my very artists,  Fra Angelico.  So beautiful.

Then there was even more running around – Champs Elysee, Arc de Triomphe, I think we clocked twelve miles.  That wasn’t all.  That evening we went to the Louvre, galleried a bit, and had a lovely supper at the museum’s Cafe Marly in the sculpture court.

Thursday we did the Seine cruise – so touristy but I would not leave Paris without doing it every single time. Great views of so many parts of the city, particularly long views along the banks of the river, as well as the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay.  Then a jaunt through the Swiss Village by the Eiffel Tower where the Fetes de Noel were in full swing – plenty of vin chaud to warm you up.  We tried several varieties!  Then an evening stop at Sacre Coeur (more vin chaud – it was cold!) and a stroll through Montmartre.  Phew – train back to Avignon on Friday.  Au revoir, Paris.  Je t’aime!

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Happy Holidays!

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year

to one and all …and apologies from a slacking blogger. The holiday ship set sail for Paris on December 11 and has yet to find its home port.  I had thought we were safely berthed back in Provence this week, but find myself, Flying Dutchman-like, compelled to Les Trois Valles on Tuesday for a few days of skiing with the Tarpeys of France. Sadly, the Big Man must make his way back to Portland, so I’ll drop him in Marseille Tuesday morning then drive to the TGV station in Avignon to make my way north.

Where to begin?  The holidays started with a Paris Meet-Up with Daughter No.1.   We spent an incredible four days there, which must be the subject of their own blog post – to follow.  The only thing missing was Daughter No. 2, who is having her own amazing adventure in NYC.

Robb, Liz and I headed up to Geneva on December 23 to spend the holidays with John, Dona, Jack and Harry.  (Robb and I had spent a wonderful Thanksgiving weekend with them, full of wine tasting and Indian food – which, for me anyway, is infinitely preferable to turkey.  We hoped a return visit in such quick succession wouldn’t label us “The Things That Wouldn’t Leave” or, even worse, “The Things Who Kept Coming Back.”)

We were greeted by the Majestic Miss Maggie (here she is) who welcomed us with a holiday prance and her stuffed quail.  Stockings were hung, larders were larded, champagne was chilling and all was ready for the arrival of St. Nick.  We took some delightful walks in the lovely town of Divonne, including one to the cheese shop, where John spent an hour in consultation with M. Fromage.  A fine selection was made, including a Brillat-Savarin with truffles.  Oh my. Christmas Eve was spent walking through Geneva old and new, enjoying the lights and bustle, and searching for a little vin chaud to stave off the cold.  Delightful.

Post-Christmas activities included a visit to the thermal baths – quite different from the ramshackle wooden hot tub variety we’ve experienced in Oregon.  Like Canadians, the French take their “cures” seriously.  Water is piped into several massive pools and bubbles away.  Just so you don’t get bored, there are a variety of activities, including my favorite, “The Escargot,” which is basically a gale-force current that sweeps you around a spiral with lot of other people. To escape, you need to grasp a steel bar as you are swept by.  Sometimes it takes a few tries…  You’ve got to be there, I know, but it’s hilariously fun.

The next day, we skied in the shadow of Mt. Blanc, at a place called Les Contamines.  We were intrigued by the name, sure that it had something to do with the plague or at the very least a tuberculosis sanitarium.  I looked the word up in the French dictionary I keep in the car, and all I could find was “contaminer,” a verb which means to infect or contaminate.  This provoked further discussion (dare I say excitement?)  about the possible former life of this lovely 19th century town at the top of the Alps.  We debated all day as we skied, and looked for clues throughout the town, with no luck.  Our imaginations ran wild with speculation.  When we returned that evening we looked to Wikipedia to provide an answer.  That answer was sadly pedestrian – the Latin root of the word is the same as condominium, and the name of the town had something to do with landowners rather than the victims of pestilence we had conjured up.  Why the plague is so fascinating, I don’t know, but, determined to find some evidence of it, Robb and I spent today, New Year’s Day, hiking along “La Mur de la Peste,”  the Plague Wall in Fontaine de Vaucluse that will be the subject of my next post.

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