Our Excellent Adventure in Provence

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 went for the stream. Our dinner was quite rollicking, as, a couple
of waiters mistook my friend’s Southern friendliness for… well…
something else. The service was exemplary and the food was quite nice
too. This town is a great place to eat trout. We were still lagged, so,
instead of driving away with the waiters, we retired and fell asleep to
water again, this time the rushing stream.

 

The
next morning dawned and we walked around Moustiers, after enjoying the
petite déjeuner at Le Relais. One of my favorite glimpses of life in
the village was a potter working on her faience in a little studio over
the mountain stream. Quel vie! Also sighted were the largest cat and
smallest dog I have ever seen.

 

We left
Moustiers and headed for Lac St-Croix, a huge, man-made turquoise lake
that is at the foot of the Gorge du Verdon. This is a great place for
family fun, with many hotels, chambre d’hôtes and camping grounds right
on the lake, which offers many types of boating experiences. Electric
boats putt-putt quietly through the gorge and on the lake, along with
pedalos, kayaks, canoes and sailboats. Gasoline motorboats are a no-no,
as well as wave runners (I believe). The lake was absolutely quiet and
serene in November.

 

We decided against taking
the gorge road to Castellane this time, but it is very impressive and
worth checking out. One must be very careful on that road, as it is
very winding and narrow at times. The beautiful light green
creamy-looking river rushes right along next to you, and in some places
you drive right under huge overhanging rocks.

 

Our
next stop was St-Rémy-de-Provence, and we could have headed southwest
at this point, but I wanted to show my friend a wonderful town called
Forcalquier; so we headed back towards Manosque, then cut over to Mane.
Traveling east from Mane on Rt 100 one comes to Forcalquier, an ancient
town that was part of a major trade route hundreds of years ago and was
probably a stop on the Via Domitia, in Roman times. Forcalquier depends
these days on the tourist industry for its main income, but it is
still, year round, a bustling town.

 

One of my
favorite aspects of Forcalquier is the very extensive marché that is
held on Mondays. One can spend hours looking at great clothing, fabric,
and of course all types of delicacies of the region. Last November, we
tasted an absolutely dreamy foie gras, sold on the street by the man
who created it. There are many organic foods available, as the
Forcalquier area is the seat of the Longo Mai (which means Long Life),
a community that promotes back-to-the-earth lifestyles.

Olivier
Baussan, the man who founded Occitane, resides in this town and has an
outlet there for olive oil.  He has now expanded his olive oil
business to a chain, with stores all over the world—we saw stores in
Paris, Avignon, Forcalquier, and Isle Sur la Sorgue. There is also one
in New York’s Grand Central Station. The store in Forcalquier was
interesting, because, in addition to numerous olive oils and vinegars,
there are spices, brought from the Far East by the spice master, Gérard
Vives. (Gérard owns a restaurant in Forcalquier called Le Lapin Tant
Pis, translated loosely to mean the rabbit too bad). I was especially
impressed with the variety of peppercorns, including a long one from
Thailand.

 

After our quick visit to
Forcalquier, we headed west on Route 100. This is a lovely winding road
with spectacular views for most of the way. One needs to keep heads up
for drivers on the wrong side of the road from time to time, but
basically, it is a breeze. There are many opportunities to drive into
the hills from this road, to towns like Gordes, Rousillion, Bonnieux
and La Coste. A much larger town, Apt, is right on Route 100 and offers
some of the best confections in France, made from fresh fruit. On
Saturdays, the marché is fantastic, winding through the ancient
streets-St-Rémy, however, so we continued on to our lovely hotel, which
was nestled at the foot of the fortress Les Baux. This hotel, Le Mas
d’Aigret, is the subject of another one of my articles in Bonjour Paris.

 

After
getting settled in our rooms, we took a quick run to the top of Les
Baux to enjoy the sunset as seen through the natural “picture window
conveniently carved into part of the crumbling fortress. The valley
below had been transformed into a pinkish golden paradise, comfortably
held in the arms of the Alpilles hills. The groves of olive trees were
bursting with olives this time of the year and were being harvested by
hand.

 

The next morning we were off to Avignon
to the indoor marché. I had heard of some possible wine festivities in
Avignon at this time of year, but I was unprepared for the extent of
the celebration. After getting lost in the maze of streets inside the
ramparts, we finally found Les Halles, a large parking structure that
houses the marché on the street-level floor. We found a spot eventually
and headed down. Opening the door to the marché, we were hit with a
blast of lively music. Set up near us was a cool little band with
accordion, drums and guitar. Right in front of the band was a small
café, filled with revelers. It was still quite early, and my friend and
I had breakfast and coffee in mind. We strolled the entire marché,
marveling at the array of fresh produce, including fabulous wild
mushrooms, breads, cheeses, fish–you name it! Oh, yes…and setting up
everywhere…. lots of wine merchants.

 

We made a
few purchases for our breakfast, went to the café in front of the band,
and ordered two cafés. As we unwrapped our goodies, two gentlemen sat
down near us. After a few minutes I noticed them smiling at us, and
they offered us some of their wine. I had already lectured my friend
about men after the incident with the waiters! Oh, no I said, we are
having our petite déjeuner! Then I realized they were offering us a
taste of the primeur… the first wine of the season… ooo la la! We
accepted their offer and thus officially became part of the
festivities. As the morning continued we were treated to plates full of
hors d’oeuvre, more wine, and introductions to various dignitaries of
Avignon, one of whom was the manager of Les Halles. He made sure we
were aware of the events of the day, which included a parade and
fireworks.  As the closing of the market began, we went back to
our hotel and prepared ourselves for the evening.

When
we returned to Avignon, it was obvious that people had been celebrating
all afternoon long. Stalls were set up in the streets with free wine
for all takers. We took our places along Rue de la République and
waited for the parade to begin. The excitement was contagious. Various
vintners appeared, dressed in long velvet robes and carrying signs from
their vineyards. Cheers went up from people in the crowd as their
favorite wine makers paraded past. Goofy chefs in costumes and finally
Père Noel in all his glory followed the solemn vintners.  The
French people surrounding us made sure that we attended the fireworks,
which were nearby on the old Avignon bridge, which almost crosses (but
not quite) the Rhône. Afterwards, the restaurants welcomed the hungry
revelers with special dinners and, of course, the primeur wines.

 

Two
years later, my husband and I attended the festival. We went to the
same café in the marché and sat down with our treats from the market.
Next to us were five gentlemen who all had their personal knives out,
cutting various types of sausage. Before long we were all trading food
and wine conversing the best we could in our fractured languages.
Eventually the manager, Michel, showed up and remembered me from two
years ago. Some sadness had passed since then; September 11th and then
something more personal, the flooding of the area from heavy rains;
some lives had been lost. The celebration went on, but with some
alterations. All of the wine had been labeled with the names of
illustrious persons, such as writers, actors and sports figures, and
all the proceeds from these wines went to the victims of the floods.
The parade and fireworks were cancelled. It was still a warm and
memorable experience.

 

My friend and I left
Provence the day after the festival, lugging our primeur wines and
other goodies to the TGV for a final three days in Paris… and that is…
Another Story!

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