Our Excellent Adventure in Provence

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In November I was the proud owner of two tickets from a major city in the USA to Nice after being the winning bidder on an auction site. Not free, of course, but very bon marché. After my husband turned down his ticket, I contemplated a likely replacement and remembered a new friend who might be footloose for a few days. Miraculously, we were both available the same week.   My friend and I arrived at Newark airport from opposite directions…I from the north and my friend from the south. She arrived normally, around two hours before her overseas flight. I arrived with fifteen minutes to spare, thanks to a lively Bonjour Paris Get Together in NYC, which was very, very hard to leave.   In a minute or so we were off to our first stop, which was Munich. We arrived in the dark, but as we boarded our commuter plane to Nice, the sun rose in a spectacular manner. We enjoyed a breakfast of German delicacies as we crossed over black forests and dark green meadows to the Alps, where eventually our plane was enveloped by clouds. Soon we descended into Nice, which wasn’t looking very lively at 7:30 a.m. on a cloudy, drizzly day. The Nice airport, almost right in the city, was a breeze to check through, and soon we were in our rental car.   Our next destination was Bandol, where there would be a fabric marché the next morning. This trip is normally 1-1/2 hours on the Autoroute, but feeling too jet lagged to deal with a superhighway, I took to the French equivalent of US Route 1, a lovely but totally inappropriate choice for a drowsy driver. The trip—including a massive traffic jam in Toulon—took around 11 hours, with at least as many stops.    Finding an open hotel on a Riviera is somewhat difficult in the winter. With the help of an Internet hotel booking service, I was able to find a hotel that was surrounded by water: the Hotel Le Delos (http://www.hoteldelos.com/), on the Isle de Bendor, a sort of manufactured but Fabulous Island, which is owned by Pastis magnate Paul Ricard. Our mission was to eat dinner and catch the last ferry out to the island.  There were a few restaurants open, enough to give us a choice—seafood, seafood or seafood, which was perfect. We chose our fish from a cart of gleaming specimens, and it was whisked away. Time passed quickly while we drank rosé wine from the area, and munched on little delicacies, such as foie gras on baby lettuce and wonderfully fresh tiny and salty mussels. Our fish arrived, looking quite different, and the waiter explained that the fish had been encased in a salt crust before baking. He then deftly broke open the crust, revealing a moist and perfectly delicious fish. Suddenly, as were about to leave the restaurant, the skies opened, with such fury that the rain came through the roof. The waiters scurried about placing wine buckets under the drips.   We still had to park the car before boarding the ferry, and some waiters grasping huge umbrellas rushed us across the street to the car. We quickly jumped in and began to contemplate our dilemma Then the rain stopped. We decided to leave my friend, with a ton of luggage (I tried to warn her!), on the dark and wind-swept wharf, next to the ferry landing, while I parked the car. It really didn’t seem dangerous at all. Then I went to the dark, empty parking garage, and ran back through the dark empty streets to the wharf. Strangely, I felt pretty safe the whole time. I love this town!   The boat was just arriving as I ran up and we jumped on, along with two giggly Japanese gentlemen. The swells were three to four feet high on the bouncy ride to the hotel. Everything on the island was dark, but romantically lit with gas lamps. It was clear that the Japanese and we could be the only people staying there tonight.   The hotel was quite beautiful, but I was especially impressed by the stairways, which were quite ornate, filled with gorgeous stained glass and oriental carpeting. Both of our rooms had tiny balconies that faced out onto the now totally black but wonderfully crashing sea.   After some phone calls and rehashing of the day, we finally settled down slept deeply. The next morning it rained a little then the clouds and fog broke to reveal the beautiful Mediterranean and the lovely village of Bandol, where we could see the vendors setting up the marché. We regretfully left the island and ferried to shore.   The ferry dropped us off right in front of the marché, just as the sun broke through the clouds. The marché was smaller than expected, but still quite nice. We made our purchases, including some choice bits for lunch and some Bandol wines, from the nice lady with a kiosk-type place right on the waterfront. (Caveau des Vins de Bandol…Allées Alfred Vivien- B.P.N# 55-83150 Bandol-Tél. 04.94.29.60.45)   Our next stop was Moustiers-Ste-Marie, but first we headed for Manosque, so I could show my friend the lovely old town with its numerous shops. The ancient village of Manosque is quite impressive, with brick-paved walkways winding through old buildings, under lovely arches and gas lamps. The shops are small, numerous, and usually bustling. There are some great patisseries with fabulously fancy cakes and tartes, as well as all the usual delights. I particularly enjoy a boulangerie that has all its pastries in miniature, so one doesn’t have to decide on just one. The poissonière is excellent and the propriétaire quite generous. Clothing, shoes, and gifts are all there as well, so I refer to this area as my mall ancien. On Saturday mornings, one can add a huge marché to the equation.   After this little diversion, we were a little late starting out for Moustiers-Ste.-Marie. The windy road leading to Moustiers can be daunting in the daytime and even worse at night but being familiar with the road, we made the trip without problems. I had made reservations at a small two-star hotel, Le Relais. My husband and I stayed there before and I knew it to be clean and reasonable. We arrived quite starved, so we checked in, got ourselves ready, and went downstairs to the restaurant. One has the choice that which sits over a rushing stream. We…
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