Thursday, September 22, 2011

More Notes from the Road

Some of my favorite things about Provence:

The paella at the market in Aix. French fast food. From the biggest paella pan I've ever seen. Beats the heck out of McDonald's, doesn't it?
Sundown. My favorite time of day anywhere, here the evening light glows golden on stone houses in narrow streets.

 Streets designed for cars and fire engines don't have this charm. Where I live form does not follow function, form follows parking. Everything is designed around the almighty automobile. Or the almighty fire truck. I suppose if your house is on fire and the fire department can't get down your street you'd go for a bit less charm...but only for a moment. 
The B&R picnics. In the most charming locations. One guide was so attentive she took Larry's shoes to the picnic so he wouldn't have to wear his slippery biking shoes.
Only one problem: how is he supposed to get to the picnic?

The red houses of Rousillon. With contrasting car. They may not run but they are clearly what the well-heeled Provencal is driving...or decorating his driveway with... 

The tree-lined streets. Why can't we do this?
The occasional unexpected companion.
As we rode past the goats, Wally took a sniff and said "That explains the cheese!"

I loved the farms...
...and the clusters of dead snails on every weed stalk and fencepost. 
Seems a terrible waste in the land of escargot. But at least they're not eating my garden.

Tasting wine with Dennis McAuliffe, the only American sommalier in France...
...who is very entertaining. 
Did I mention we also learned some stuff?
The music...
...the dancing...
...and the local color. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Most Beautiful Villages Of Provence

Menerbes. Bonnieux. Rousillon. Gordes. La Coste. 
We ride through them all, stopping for coffee, strolling, shopping. And water.
The hills are long but not steep. Think about it - a loaded oxcart couldn't carry your stuff to market if the grade was too steep. And a full cart would run over the ox on the way home. So the climb is gentle.

Still, we're hot and sweaty when we roll into town.
Sometimes it's market day, sometimes's it's just time for coffee and pastry.

It's fashionable to be snarky about these villages: Peter Mayle put them on the "been there done that" list (I heard he'd been run out of Menerbes and has moved to to know the back story on that...) But they are beautiful, charming, quaint, quirky, fun. And well worth the climb.

In Bonnieux...
...we stop for lunch at La Table de Sylvie. A little terrace with the most spectacular views, simple delicious food, and Cat Stephens and Louis Armsrtrong music coming from...
...this. We start dancing and Sylvie joins us, singing "Oh baby. it's a wild world." When she says wild she points at herself. Yup.
Sally finds her favorite singer, Francis Cabrel

Le Ancienne Poste in Menerbes is owned by a former B&R guide, Phillipe Brown, and available to rent. Check out the photos and don't be put off by the cartoon dog at the beginning - this is a seriously sophisticated house. En suite bathrooms - need I say more?Ancient (I'm talking rocks not Romans here) meets modern and spacious. Very different, very cool. Altho the dog in the website intro has got to go...

After all that climbing the pool at Le Coquilade is so inviting...
...Joyce can't wait.
It has been a day well lived.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

On The Road Again

Day two of cycling - we have a short drive to meet our bikes and find Wally's bike. in a compromising position...

...perched in the fountain. There are some disapproving stares from the locals - this fountain is famous for great water, and people come with jars and jugs to get it. Hope they don't mind the footprints...

The muttering of the locals is getting louder as we ride out of town, and I think to myself, "This is how the revolution got started." 

We start the ride thru forests still cool from the evening. As we ride into the shade, it feels like diving into a pool. It's silent except for the morning calls of birds. We know it will be hot later, and of course we'll be going uphill then, but right now a jacket would be nice.

Onto the bike path...
...where even this car can't follow. Just in case the revolution has started. 
We stop in Fourcalquier where it is market day. Halloween not being a French tradition, these Musque de Provence pumpkins are sold by the slice - for eating.
Bright pink radishes share a box with their more modest cousins, the heirloom carrots.
There are plenty of cheesy purses and cheap clothing, but there are some gems mixed in.
Laguiole knives with olive wood handles, hand-forged hinges, jacquard tablecloths, and piles of sunny baskets.
A picnic in an old cloister (do you see a theme here? The aforementioned revolution created a lot of empty convents) then on to a modern perfume institute owned by L'Occitane en Provence for a smelly class (in more ways than one. It was a hot sweaty morning)...
We are given a box of scents...

...a basic recipe, and we make our own custom perfumes. 

You can let me know if you like it when you see me next. And remember, if you can't say anything nice...

More about Dinner in Sardinia later. Those hills were steep and hot, and I'm off to the pool.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Boules, Petanque

Butterfield and Robinson's Provence biking trip begins today! We meet our bikes in a hilltop town. Very smart...
...because there is much less whining if the first ride is a screaming downhill. And the first day's ride is really to give the guides a chance to figure out who the troublemakers are. Who's wobbly, who's fighting, who's mist likely to get lost...
...who can dodge the sheep, and their, ahem, slippery deposits.
The sheepdogs have a tense moment deciding whether to stick to herding sheep or take up bicycle chasing. We have a tense moment too. They make the right choice.

We stop for lunch at Le Bistrot de Pierrerue in a charming one-street town too tiny to have a boulangerie. The French government apparently pays the tiny restaurant to open in the mornings so the locals have someplace to gossip, drink coffee, have pastries...maybe in reverse order. Maybe not.

 Maryvonne and Marc make us an incredible lunch of vegetable tarts, guinea fowl, lime tart with almond crust (I'm gonna try to duplicate this at home and if you're nice I'll invite you to sample it). 

We drink lots of rose. I eat more for lunch than I usually do in a week. So does everyone else. We can barely swing our bloated bodies back onto our bikes. 

We're staying at the fabulous Couvent de Minimes, owned by the same people who own L'Occitane in Provence. The nuns never had it this good.

We gather for a Petanque lesson - after showers of course and a quick nap. (Did I mention the hotel is on top of a hill? again?) Petanque is a bit like bocce but more cut-throat. The French say it came first; the Italians say Bocce did. 

Wally gets into it, in proper professional Petanque attire...
And scores for the boys. Check out his form.
Ann takes to it like a duck to water...
Note the perfect form AND the perfect attire.

Larry is so serious - and knocks the girls' (previously winning) balls into the next county.
Sally takes revenge...note the perfect form.

We have a lovely wine-fueled dinner in the cloister and I wonder about the nuns - this place was founded in the 1600's and the nun's graveyard is right outside our bathroom window.

Off for a well-earned rest I dream of wrinkled faces, each so distinct I could draw it, all a metallic blue. Creepy.

More adventures tomorrow!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

To Market, To Market, to buy a fat fig

We seem to hit every town on market day. In Bedoin Wally refused to wheel our bikes thru the throngs, but in Vaison La Romain we are on foot and we go exploring.

Locals actually do their marketing here - 
It's an odd mix of plastic shoes, cheap souveniers, and the most incredible produce...
Fragrant melons, tempting salumis...
The spices draw us down a side street
...where we find burlap bags of olives...
lined with plastic I hope. Who wants fuzzy olives? 
and a New Orleans-style band. A local couple begin to spin, laughing and twirling. 
What a great idea!

And we finally find out where the star anise that flavors every dish - and I do mean every dish - comes from.
Enough already!