Provence 90210

One of the best things about visiting France in the fall and winter months is the absence of summer throngs.  Often, I’ll go to a little hill town and not see another soul for hours, especially if it is between twelve and two, the lunching hours.  Once the summer tourists have left, many of the smaller towns simply close their doors and batten their shutters for the winter.  Restaurants turn off the stove and gift shops hibernate, especially during late October and November, opening again when holiday visitors arrive.

The more popular towns, though, never go in to shutdown mode.  One of those is Gordes, an official “Most Beautiful Village in France.”  And, indeed, it is.  The town itself looks like it was carved from the cliff on which it perches, rather than built on it.  It’s spectacular, and provides a unique opportunity to see buildings evolving in place over centuries.

It you take a look at the picture above, you can see how the town grows downward, from the chateau at the top of the hill.  Most of the houses below have existed for centuries, but all have been modernized to accommodate present day residents.  This part of Gordes is a great example of an ancient town restored with consideration both to historic preservation and modern day comfort.

Here is a close up look of some of those lower terraces and streets below.  One of the most amazing features to me is the incredible gardens attached to some of the houses:

Across the valley, you can see modern houses built on the remnants of walls and windows centuries old.

 (Tried to crop that but for some reason it didn’t work…..) Anyway…..

Up above the town is a different story.  You get the idea that things might be changing when all of a sudden the cars racing down the hill are no longer those funny, skinny Renaults and Citroens with tires six inches wide but, rather, really shiny Porsches and Mercedes (most with very young and fancy gals behind the wheel.)  Up above the town is the first development of McMansions we’ve seen in France.  We went for a hike up and out of the village and as we left the borders of the old town, we came upon a jarring  blend of pink create-a-stone houses, large pools and huge triple garages.  Definitely the first we’ve seen of this kind of concentrated brand new, over the top building – something you’d expect in LA but just really strange to see it growing out of the roots of a medieval town.

We turned around and ended our hike through the ancient cemetery – inhabitants definitely resting in peace with the best view in town…

… and found a guy there whose picture just about says it all.

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It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

I just wanted to do a quick post about our immediate neighborhood.  On any given day, there are lots of things to do within walking distance.  Just a mile down the road is the Abbaye de St. Hilaire, a monastery built by the Carmelite Friars in the 13th century.  Like most structures here, it has been “built upon” in ensuing centuries, and incorporates both Romanesque and Gothic elements.  The Abbaye is a fantastic example of private philanthropy.  It was bought by a couple, Rene and Anne Marie Bride, in 1961, after it had languished untended for centuries.  Through a slow, careful and totally privately funded effort, the Brides have restore the Abbaye and opened it to the public.

About a half a mile beyond the Abbaye is a lovely vineyard, Domaines des Cancelades.  The late afternoon light on the fall vines is so beautiful;  I wanted to post a picture before those autumn colors are replaced with bare winter branches.  (Following that, just a couple of pictures of those vines up close and the massive French oaks everywhere along the path.)

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Wine, of course

Wine is one of France’s loveliest attractions, and the Rhone is one of France’s biggest wine producing regions.  The Rhone originates in the glaciers of the Swiss Alps and runs south, emptying into the Mediterranean at the towns of the Bouches-du-Rhone.  All along the way, vineyards sip and flourish.  Cotes-du-Rhone is perhaps the most well-known name, but countless other towns along the Rhone’s banks create fantastic wines – Gigondas, Vacqueras, and Chateauneuf-de-Papes.  We couldn’t wait to get out there and start tasting but, following our plan, we thought we’d start small and local.

Our local river, the Durance, is an off shoot of the Rhone, and waters many of our local Luberon vineyards.  Barrels of local wine have been produced here for centuries, but since Provence-mania hit in the 70s and 80s, Luberon has had its own appellation of origin (AOC) from the French government, “Cotes du Luberon.”  The French are crazy about “le patronomie,” and have to be given credit for taking serious steps to allow regional producers to control the quality of their product and the right to use the regional name.  (see also champagne.)  So we set out to find some delicious examples of fine “Cotes du Luberon.”

Our first stop was the local wine co-op, Le Cave de Bonnieux.  Caves are generally open six days a week, and offer you the opportunity to taste a variety local wines, both multi-vineyard blends and individual domaines.  (If you feel like wine tasting at 10 in the morning, there you go.  Chances are you won’t be the first one there.)  Rose, the classic “Provence pink” of the summer months, is generally sold out by the fall.  Viognier is a favorite fall quaff in these parts.  The most recent bottlings of red are also available for sampling.  We tasted several, had a nice chat with the mademoiselle du cave, bought some, and moved on to the Chateau la Canorgue.  If you want to bypass the co-op route, you can choose to head straight to the individual tasting room of a chateau or domaine.  Canorgue, just a few miles down the road from our house, had been recommended to us as one of the best producers in the area, and we weren’t disappointed.  First of all, it was beautiful.The Chateau itself is not open to the public, but just a view of the outside is satisfying enough.  Beautifully wrought of local limestone, huge terraces spread into the landscape and two story French doors open onto patios balustraded in more limestone, darkened by centuries of wear.  Allees of chestnuts and cypress lead to the vineyards and the tasting room.  The Chateau was the setting for a Russell Crowe/Marion Cotillard movie that no one has ever heard of, A Good Year, released in 2006.  Director Ridley Scott has a house in the area, and I guess he felt like spending a summer at home.  The movie itself got mediocre reviews, but it is apparently a visual delight.  I think I’ll check it out when I’m coming down from my Provence high in Portland.

Back to the Chateau, the wine is a delight.  Neither RC nor I pretend to be wine experts, but we know what we like, and we liked this.  A little bit of fruit, a little bit of spice, not too heavy, not too light, as Goldilocks said, it was just right.  Because so many of the local vineyards have very small production, bottlings sell out quickly.  We were fortunate enough to snatch a case of their 2009 Cotes du Luberon and we very much look forward to sharing it with you!

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Just Some Random Pics, Part Deux

(My last post seems to have overextended itself, space-wise, so let me continue.  I hope I’m not the guy who won’t shut up at the party!)

The last picture in that post was of Les Beaumettes, which is an amazing place where houses are literally built in the wall.  We were just driving along and did a double take – wait, that looks like a window in a rock, and there’s a door.  Yes, in fact people are living in these rocks, and enjoying every modern convenience.  There are satellite dishes discreetly tucked away, and Peugeots parked out from!

Below is a picture of a view you can enjoy from any hilltop town of your choice:

And here is the Moulin de Jerusalem, an olive mill in the town of Goult that dates back to the 12th century.

And, finally, a dark and stormy chateau.  These are the only clouds we’ve seen in the two weeks we’ve been here, but they were something!

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Just Some Random Pics You Might Enjoy

 Above is the town of Menerbes, famous as the village featured in Peter Mayles’ A Year in Provence. Menerbes is three miles west of our house.  The most stunning structure in Menerbes is an amazing Italianate villa that perches at the top of the hill, three stories high, and looks out onto the valley below.  Picasso bought it as a “goodbye gift” for his mistress, Dora Maar, and she lived there until she died in 1997.This is just a lovely house festooned with fall ivy in the charming village of Saignon, about 20 minutes from us.

Molly, the picture above is for you!  French puppies abound.

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Roussillon Pics (Text in Previous Post)

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Ravishing Roussillon

Roussillon is perhaps the most stunning of all the Luberon villages, achieving that superlative perhaps partly because it is so unexpected.  Jutting ochre cliffs of red, gold, yellow and white cut through the dense green of the surrounding forest as you view the town from a distance.  Coming closer, you see that the town itself has taken on the warm, rich hues of the ochre cliffs, all the buildings painted from local pigments.  Roussillon became the world’s most important supplier of ochre pigments in the 18th and 19th centuries, shipping to India, China and North America.   By the 20th century, more cost-effective regional suppliers overtook the market; Roussillon’s industry shrank,  and the town with it.  During the second World War, Roussillon was inconsequential enough to serve as a safe hide-out for the French Resistance.  Samuel Beckett, who had joined the Resistance, was marooned in Roussillon for a miserable two years, and vowed never to return.

Today, Roussillon’s fortunes have returned.  Its Sentier des Ochres is one of the favorite destinations for the French and tourists alike.  There is also a fascinating museum (Conservatoire des Ochres et Pigments) that displays a huge collection of pigments and offers day long courses.  The artistically inclined can also buy Roussillon pigments for use in their own artistic endeavors.

Walking through the Sentier des Ochres is incredible; you are surrounded by soaring walls of surprising colors.  There is no rhyme nor reason to the mosaic of colors, and some walls are so filled with different hues and shapes that they are reminiscent of faded frescoes.

The formations are striking, as well.  Cones, cliffs, jutting promontories.  I think the one below looks like a chicken.

The houses in the town are painted in the colors of the cliffs.

Sometimes you have to have a picture of an amazing door:

And sometimes of a beautiful window with grapes left on the vine:

 And the obligatory French cat:

I’m going to re-post all the photos (well, all except the cat) below in larger format so they are easier to see. (Sorry, couldn’t figure out how to edit them once they were in the blog!)

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