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July 10, 2006

Back Home in the Luberon

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The swimming pool and our view of Bonnieux

After two perfect days in Burgundy, this morning we began our drive to Provence. We wound our way on smaller roads east to Lyon, then hit the autoroute and headed south. The autoroute was packed today, making me very nervous. There were more trucks than I ever remember seeing on the French roads, and every fourth vehicle seemed to be a camper of some sort. Most drivers seemed to be very much in a hurry. I was anxious to get to Provence, but I didn't want to spend the next few hours with my heart racing in fear.

“Please slow down,” I begged Charley. “I don’t want to wreck before we get to Provence!” He's always an extremely careful driver, but I appreciated that he backed off a bit and moved into the right lane. I relaxed and enjoyed the drive again.

Later we learned that the trucks had been restricted from the autoroute over what was a peak travel weekend in July. Instead they all joined us on the autoroute today.

The scenery became more mountainous and then more rugged. France is so beautiful and there is so much dramatic variety in the landscape. And then finally—Provence! Home! We were less than an hour away. We all perked up, paying attention to the Drôme, a part of Provence we haven’t visited yet. (We plan to come back on a day trip in a few weeks.) At Avignon we paid our toll and left the autoroute—we were back in very familiar territory… less than 30 minutes to go.

Finally we made the turnoff to Bonnieux (there it was on the hill!), and a few minutes later we were bouncing down the gravel road to our friends’ house. Our friends’ daughter came running out to greet Kelly and then us. Kiss, kiss, kiss. We were back in the Luberon.

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July 11, 2006

Love that Lavender!

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The 12th century Abbaye de Sénanque, the most recognizable image of Provence

For all that we love the Luberon, until this week we’ve never really seen the lavender.

We first visited Provence in early June 2003. As we left Saignon headed toward our final night on the Côte d’Azur, we saw just a hint of distinctive color on the tips of the lavender plants on the plateau above Saignon.

We’ve seen many fields of lavender in the autumn, winter and spring: rounded clumps of pale green in long manicured rows, often in very isolated, mountainous spots. But we’d never seen the lavender fields of Provence in full bloom: those dramatic masses of bright purple that captivate so many of us in guidebooks, coffee table books, and picture postcards.

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Field near Murs

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July 13, 2006

My Day as a French Washerwoman

Charley drove our friends to the airport in Marseille at 7:30 am, and I began my long, hot day as a French washerwoman.

Our friends have a laundry room in a “cave,” down through a narrow courtyard between two sections of the house and right next to the other cave that houses their wine cellar. As European laundry facilities go, I definitely can’t complain. “Notre buanderie est superbe”: a large and cool stone room, a relatively-new washing machine, an equally new dryer (unusual in Europe!), a stone sink, a table for folding clothes, an iron and ironing board, and (important!) a large drying rack.

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Hard at work in la buanderie

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July 17, 2006

A Weekend with Friends

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A leisurely breakfast with Dennis and Gloria

A month or so after we came to Provence for our long stay in 2004/2005, we went walking in the Colorado Rustrel with our friend Kevin, his son, and his parents who were visiting from America.

“How do you know Kevin?” his mother asked, as she and I walked together through colorful ochre pathways of the Rustrel. It was clear that our two families were already very good friends.

“I met him on the Internet,” I replied.

His mother did a double take, shocked I’m sure that her married son in France had hooked up with a married woman in America on the internet—and that our spouses approved. As the words came out of my mouth, I realized I felt a bit uncomfortable too. It sounded like something a teenager would say, or a pathetic lonely heart, or someone pursuing a secret life.

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July 19, 2006

An Afternoon around the Grand Luberon

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The north slope of the Grand Luberon (east of Apt)

We’ve come to Provence this time with a list of things we want to do, some new places to see, another layer to uncover. This area is so rich with opportunities for new experiences, especially in the summertime.

Today we placed a partial check against one of the items on our list: “See more of the Grand Luberon.”

We know much of the Calavon valley well: the valley between the Luberon mountains and the Vaucluse Plateau to the north. We’ve visited many of the villages on the northwest side of the Petit Luberon numerous times: Bonnieux, Lacoste, Menerbes, Oppède, Goult, Roussillon, Gordes, St. Saturnin, and Saignon. Because of our walking, we also know many of the lesser-known villages and small hameaus (hamlets) in this area. But we’ve explored the area east of Apt only a couple of times. It’s a different landscape, a narrower space, dominated by the massive Grand Luberon mountain. Today we decided to head that way to see another part of Provence.

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July 22, 2006

A Memorable Birthday

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Kelly, Michel and the birthday cake

Charley and I are now the proud parents of a beautiful teenage daughter.

Today is Kelly’s 13th birthday. People always tell her what a lucky girl she is, and her last three birthdays tell the story: her 11th birthday in England, her 12th birthday in Austria, and now her 13th birthday in Provence. This is her tenth trip to Europe.

In our family the birthday person gets to plan the activities and meals for their day. Charley and I liked Kelly’s plan for today, since she picked exactly the things we wanted to do too.

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July 24, 2006

The Velleron Market

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An abundance of freshly-picked fruits and vegetables

Charley, Kelly and I love the markets of Provence: a sensory delight of colors, sounds, tastes, aromas and happy people. This evening we went to a very different kind of market—the “Marché Paysan” (Farmers’ Market) at Velleron, considered by many “foodies” to be one of the best food markets in France. Velleron is a village of about 2800 people, a few miles north of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue and about 20 miles from our base in Bonnieux.

A “Marché Paysan” includes only farmers selling produce they’ve personally raised and harvested. At these markets you won’t find any tablecloths, lavender sachets, handmade jewelry, olivewood cutting boards, scarves, straw hats or other products intended for the tourists. And there aren’t discount goods like clothes, shoes, cosmetics, kitchen utensils, toys, and hardware gadgets for the locals either. Just locally-raised farm products sold by real farmers: an abundance of fresh vegetables, fruits, olive oil and wine, honey, goat cheese, and flowers. We estimate there were 80-100 sellers when we visited on this Monday evening, all operating from very simple stands set up in front of their trucks.

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July 26, 2006

An Excursion to Aix

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At the Musée Granet

Aix-en-Provence is one of our favorite day-trip destinations from the Luberon, a place we’ve now visited about ten times. It’s a beautiful drive and one that we enjoy, just an hour from Bonnieux now that we’re familiar with the route. We follow the Winns’ guidebook directions for the scenic back way to Aix through Puyricard. Once in Aix, we park in the Parking Pasteur, another excellent Winn suggestion.

Today we traveled to Aix to see the Cézanne exhibition, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the artist’s death. Cézanne lived most of his life in Aix, and this exhibit—called Cézanne en Provence—features 120 watercolors and paintings he completed in Aix and its surroundings. Although many famous artists painted in Provence (Van Gogh, Renoir, Picasso, Matisse), it was always Cézanne’s home.

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July 28, 2006

Lunch at Le Castelas (or A Rainy Day in the Luberon)

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Ferme-Auberge Le Castelas near Sivergues

The day began as a pleasant one. Charley made his usual bread run into the village, and we had our breakfast of croissants and a sacristan on the terrace, sharing a coffee with the housekeeper Laurence. She comes two mornings a week; during our stay, she’s here primarily to do annual cleaning projects for our friends.

“Nous allons à Sivergues aujourd’hui,” I told her. “La ferme de chevre.” We go to Sivergues today. The goat farm. (My life in the French language is always in the present tense.)

Laurence is an outgoing and enthusiastic woman who lives nearby in Lacoste. We like her a lot. She speaks French very quickly with lots of hand motions, somehow not realizing that we are working hard to follow her conversation.

“Laurence s’il vous plaît, lentement,” Charley asked her the first time we talked with her alone. “Nous parlons français seulement un peu.” Laurence please, slowly. We speak French only a little.

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July 30, 2006

Early Morning Hiking (Saignon and Sénanque)

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Borie on Plateau de Claparèdes

During our three years visiting and living in this area, we’ve done much of our exploration on foot, discovering the hidden Luberon that most visitors never see: the woods, the gorges, the mountain tops, the ruins. There are so many special and secret places. During our six months in the Luberon in 2004/2005, Charley and I went on over 30 hikes, many of them with Kelly. When we were here for two weeks in March, we hiked six times. Our two blue IGN maps are worn and tearing, each of our routes marked with a yellow highlighter. We have a “to do” list of future hikes, but we also have our favorites we’re happy to do again or share with a friend.

But now we’re here in the summertime, and it’s hot… much hotter than we expected. Most days the temperature reaches the upper 90’s. The trails are calling us, and we want to hike—but then we don’t! There’s something about the languid days of summer in Provence that make us want to take it easy: sleep in, sit in the shade with a book, float on a raft in the pool, and drink rose wine with ice. Life here in the summertime shifts into a lower, much more leisurely gear.

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July 31, 2006

Another Day Beyond the Luberon

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Looking east toward the Durance and the Alps from the plateau at Ganagobie

Today we ventured further beyond the Luberon, once again to the Alpes de Haute Provence.

Our day began in the town of Forcalquier, about an hour east of Apt on the N100, in an area dotted with fruit orchards and olive trees. The village of Banon—known for its cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves—is not too far away.

We've driven through Forcalquier several times and spent several hours here in 2005 on our way to go skiing in the French Alps. We’ve always considered it an impressive town with the ruins of a castle and chapel on the top of a rounded hill. In 2005 we climbed to the top after lunch. (We actually ate outside in January!) The views from the top are superb, extending west to the snow-covered Alps and back to the Luberon in the east.

Forcalquier was once a very important place—an independent state and capital of the region. Today it comes alive primarily on Mondays—market day—and that was the reason for our visit today. The Forcalquier market is considered one of the best markets in this part of Provence. Our friends’ housekeeper Laurence used to live in a neighboring village; she said this is the major market for people living in the surrounding area and that even in summertime, there will be more locals than tourists.

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August 1, 2006

A Windy Day

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Sunset over Lacoste

Windy today and a bit cooler! Perhaps the Mistral, the famous wind of Provence? It’s supposed to come from the north, though I can never seem to tell the direction. Rosa Tomas (Henri's wife, from the boulangerie) says yes, it is the Mistral.

This morning we made a quick trip to the market at Gordes. The wind whipped noisily across the top of the village, jerking the umbrellas and threatening some of the merchandise. A wine glass blew off of a merchant’s stand and shattered. A large cardboard poster slapped across the main square. Bits of lavender flew out of their sacks. Charley picked up two small potted trees that had blown over at a restaurant.

The sellers played a strong defense, hanging onto their umbrellas and awnings and trying to make their sales to the many anxious tourists. I’m sure they deal with the wind several times a year; they know what to do.

The wind cleared the skies, and at the end of the day we were rewarded with a perfect clarity, accentuating every farmhouse, villages, hill, canyon, ridge, and mountaintop from here to Mont Ventoux.

And the best reward of all: a breathtaking sunset that began behind Bonnieux and spread across the entire valley... a riotous explosion of pink, red, orange, gold and grey… all across a midnight blue sky, perfectly illuminating Lacoste and its famous castle.

I ran down to the vineyard to enjoy the spectacle, the highlight of another summer's day in Provence.

August 2, 2006

Cassis and the Calanques

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The calanque at Port-Miou near Cassis

Today we drove south to the Mediterranean Sea. Our destination was Cassis, a beautiful fishing village about an hour and a half drive from Bonnieux. This is a trip we’ve been saving, and one that was truly a delight.

It was another lovely drive (but then they’re all lovely drives), just in another direction. We made the familiar trek to Aix, passed the limestone peaks of Mont St. Victoire (3297 feet) and Mont St. Baume (3763 feet), and then headed south to Aubagne and Toulon. I was interested to see the area around Aubagne, the home of Marcel Pagnol, the famous Provençal writer and filmmaker. In preparation for our trip this year we watched two films based on his boyhood years: La Gloire de Mon Père and La Château de Ma Mère. And yes, the landscape around Aubagne—bare and very dramatic limestone mountains—was the scenery we had enjoyed so much in the films. It’s a different Provence than our Luberon.

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August 3, 2006

On My Own in Lacoste

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Bonnieux and the plain, from the Cafe de France in Lacoste

The wind is the Mistral. Local friends tell us that when the Mistral comes, it always stays an uneven number of days: one, three, five… Today is Day Three of the Mistral-- a much cooler day, though still beautifully sunny.

The wind blew even more fiercely last night. We closed the windows and fastened the metal shutters, but we could still hear the wind beating against the house. The cushions on the wicker furniture on the upstairs porch blew off the couch and chair, then lay huddled in a corner, waiting to be rescued. A potted plant blew off a second story windowsill, shattering on the ground below. We laid the pool umbrella under a chair after we noticed the large blow-up pool toys flat against the garden shed halfway across the yard.

This big stone house is built to withstand the wind—and it has for hundreds of years-- providing us shelter on the sunny back terrace as the Mistral whips past on either side. Most of the houses here are built with their main windows facing south, to provide shelter from the Mistral.

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August 4, 2006

Among the Vines in the Luberon (a post by Charley)

Charley recently had a day of his own too... visiting several of the local wineries. He and Kelly visited a few of these spots again this afternoon to take photos for this post.

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Vineyards at Domaine de la Coquillade (photo by Kelly)

For one whose “hobby” for the last thirty-five years has been wine, the opportunity to actually live in a big wine producing area is a dream (fantasy) come true. I’ve collected wines, amassed a respectable library of books on wine, and even written a newspaper column for a couple of years. But never, until our stay in the south of France, have I actually lived among the vines.

I drive through the vineyards daily. I pass wineries on the way to the village, on the way to the grocery, and in just about any direction I can go from our old stone house. I can hear the tractors of the grape growers droning in the neighboring vineyards, mixing their bass notes with the chorus of cicadas. I can leave the house and in five minutes be at our local cooperative and watch the village residents getting their wine containers filled from something that looks remarkably like a gasoline hose. Decent, drinkable, everyday table wine at a euro per litre!

There’s box wines too: five litre and ten litre cardboard cubes with plastic liners. The delicious liquid inside is less expensive than soda, but oh, so much better. With the price and convenience of this package, wine becomes the everyday beverage of choice, and the most agreeable of health foods.

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August 5, 2006

Buoux and Sivergues

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The rugged countryside near Buoux

This morning we hiked around two of the smallest, highest and most isolated villages in the Luberon: Buoux and Sivergues. This rocky and remote area has been inhabited since prehistoric times—perhaps for over 50,000 years.

Buoux—at 1542 feet—has a reported population of 117. It’s located just down from the Claparèdes Plateau, above the valley of the Aiguebrun, the only permanent stream in the Luberon mountains. It sits above the Combe de Lourmarin, which is the only break through the Luberon mountains.

Sivergues (the highest village in the Luberon at 1867 feet) has 25 or 41 people, depending on the information source. It’s located on the other side of the Aiguebrun Valley from Buoux, on the slopes of the Grand Luberon mountain. According to legend, the village was founded when a convent was established here in the 5th century—by six virgins… hence the name. Sivergues actually has its own website.

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August 6, 2006

Red, Red and More Red: An Early Morning at L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue

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We were among the first at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue this morning. We parked on the road leading into the town, just four or five cars from the roundabout. Our plan was to come early, have breakfast, enjoy the market before it got too crowded, and then head home with the makings for a picnic lunch.

At 8:30 the sellers were still setting up, chatting with each other, arranging their stands, some sipping coffee in one of the cafes. We walked quickly to the inside of the town, settling on the Café de France for our coffee and croissants.

We wandered the market in the early morning… just a few things on our list today. I love just looking at the stands, seeing what’s for sale, soaking in the colors. Does it mean anything that the color that most caught my attention today was red??

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August 7, 2006

Are We Having Fun Yet? (Canoeing down the River Sorgue)

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The peaceful Sorgue (before the arrival of the Wood family)

The mistral has subsided and it’s a beautiful sunny afternoon. The three of us are standing next to the River Sorgue, but we’re not shopping at the market today. We’re at “Kayak Vert” in Fontaine de Vaucluse… wearing bathing suits and life jackets, holding paddles, and clutching a little map of the river. Our towels and some clothes are stored in a big waterproof canister the ticket woman called a “bidon.” A young man is waving a paddle and talking in rapid French, telling about ten of us how to paddle a canoe. The canoes are plastic and there are different sizes for one, two, three and four people. The first family hops into their canoe, and he pushes them down the bank and smack! into the water they go.

The launches are happening quickly. Soon it will be our turn. Kelly’s very excited—this was her idea of something fun to do. I’m starting to feel nervous. What if our canoe tips over when he pushes us down into the water? While all these other people are watching?

Our canoe is a bright lime green. We line up to hop in. The young man arranges us, differently than we had planned. I’m in the front—to Kelly’s disappointment. Charley is in the back, where the young man instructed us that the man usually rides. None of us are really happy with our places. The bidon is strapped into the back of the canoe behind Charley.

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August 8, 2006

Around Les Dentelles de Montmirail

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Les Dentelles de Montmirail from Suzette

We ventured today to yet another Provence, this time beyond the Luberon to the Haut Vaucluse. Our destination was the countryside west of Le Mont Ventoux and around another distinctive mountain chain called Les Dentelles de Montmirail in the northernmost area of the departément of the Vaucluse.

Our route took us past L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue to Carpentras (an interesting and very busy town of about 25,000 people), where we headed east toward the massive Mont Ventoux (6263 feet), viewed now from a different perspective than our normal view from the south. My plan was to pursue a somewhat-circular driving route, going counterclockwise around the Dentelles. Charley and I have visited this area just once before—a day trip to Vaison-la-Romaine—but it is much beloved by several of my Slow Travel friends. We thought we would try to stop and walk around in as many of the villages as possible, to gain an appreciation not always evident from the road. Our target for lunch—and a wine tasting and purchase—was Gigondas, known for its red Grenache wine.

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August 9, 2006

Our Month as Housesitters

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A house worth sitting for! (from the back)

For the last month we have lived another family’s life.

We’ve slept in their beds, eaten off their dishes, read their books, collected their mail, cuddled their cats, mowed their grass, and watered their flowers. We are housesitters, taking care of a beautiful home. And the best part of all-- it hasn't cost us a thing.

During our long trip we rented 20 different houses and apartments, so we’ve lived in other people’s houses before. But most of these places were second homes or rental properties. With one awful exception, the owners really weren’t that visible. Their clothes and personal possesions were gone. The refrigerator was empty. Most of them weren’t even people we met personally. And we didn’t have any chores to do other than cleaning up after ourselves—after all, we were paying to stay there.

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August 10, 2006

Dinner with Friends

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Our friends Rosa and Henri Tomas

One of the advantages of coming back to the Luberon and being able to spend some long periods of time here is that we’ve made some good friends—quite a few of them, actually. We seem to have as active a social life in Provence as we do at home in the USA.

Our friend, Janice lives on the plateau above the village with her two daughters. Janice is British (part Jamaican), went to school in the USA, and married a Frenchman from this area. She’s lived in Bonnieux for 21 years. We were invited to her house for “soupe au pistou,” a Provençal speciality that’s designed for large group meals in the summertime. (It’s a vegetable and bean soup that you top with the “pistou”—a mix of garlic, basil and olive oil.) From the discussion that evening, it seems every Provençal cook has his or her own recipe. There were 12 guests around the table, born in seven different countries!

On Wednesday of this week we had a small “Slow Travel Get-Together” at our house. Kevin and Elisabeth own a B&B—the Mas Perreal—in St. Saturnin. They’ve become very good friends over the past three years. Elisabeth was our French teacher, and we’ve enjoyed several hikes with Kevin. We were anxious to connect Kevin and Elisabeth with David and Marianne, who own the Mas Pomona in Cheval Blanc on the western end of the Luberon. We had lunch at David and Marianne’s place when we were here in the spring. We were interested in getting these two sets of B&B owners together, and we really enjoyed hearing their stories and getting a glimpse into their busy lives, where the line between home and work is very blurred.

But our most memorable dinner with friends was tonight…

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August 13, 2006

À Bientôt Provence!

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Pumpkins near the house this morning (note the borie on the hill)

For us, another summer in Europe has come to an end.

We’ve watched the passing of summer in the land around us over the past five weeks. The sunflowers—vibrant and dancing when we arrived—are now dry and brown, bowing their heavy heads beneath the sun. The lavender that delighted in mid-July in masses of purple has been harvested. The grapes on the vines have turned from green to purple, awaiting their own harvesting time. And the pumpkins in the field down the road have grown daily, now filling the ground with their large orange globes.

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June 3, 2007

Coming Soon - Another Summer in Provence

It’s been more than nine months since our last blog posting, written as our Summer 2006 trip was coming to an end. Our family has traveled back to Europe, but we just haven’t posted about it. Now we're getting ready for another summer in Provence.

Charley and I were back in Bonnieux last September and May for our Luberon Experience groups. We returned from our May trips just two weeks ago and really enjoyed our two groups. The flowers were wonderful at this time of year—irises, roses, broom, wildflowers, and especially the poppies. The poppy fields around Bonnieux were truly spectacular. One of the highlights of our weeks was a private tour at Chateau la Canorgue led by Nathalie Margan. Everyone also enjoyed our tour and lunch at Domaine Faverot with our friends François and Sallie Faverot.

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Poppy field near Bonnieux

We use two vehicles for our Luberon Experience trips, and Charley and I both drive. This gives us more flexibilty with the groups, including the ability to split into smaller groups based on interests. Our first May week we had three people who were eager to do some hiking, and I was happy to help make this happen. We hiked at the Fôret de Cédres, from Bonnieux to Lacoste, from Gordes to the Abbaye, and up to the very top of the ruins at Fort de Buoux. The second week I took two couples to the old village at Oppède, and we climbed up among the castle ruins way above the village. I’m anxious to share this with Kelly, as the castle ruins weren’t accessible during our previous visits.

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The chateau ruins at Oppède-le-Vieux (that's me there)

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June 16, 2007

On My Own in Provence

I’ve spent about a year in Provence over the past four years, but this is the first time here on my own. Actually, this is the first time I’ve ever traveled to Europe alone. I’ve traveled many, many times on business alone, and back in the days when I was single, occasionally I added a few personal days to a couple of business trips. I’ve been to a health spa for a week by myself three times, a very comfortable solo vacation. But I’ve never been in Europe alone. This is a very different experience for me, and I’m more than a little apprehensive.

My trip to Provence was uneventful-- just very long. It was 25 hours from the time I left home to the time I arrived at my B&B here in Aix-en-Provence. I flew Continental, through Newark to Paris—the least expensive option at a time of year that is incredibly expensive. I chatted with a very nice woman from North Carolina while waiting in Newark. We were surprised to discover our family trips were just the reverse. She was going to France to meet up with her husband and daughter who were finishing a French course in Sancerre, and in three weeks my husband and daughter will fly over to meet up with me after my French course. On the plane I sat next to a very interesting man who is a dean at the law school at the University of Pennsylvania, the school where I got my MBA. He was on his way to Russia for an alumni meeting.

I didn’t sleep much on the plane, but I never do. The worse part of the trip was the long wait between my arrival and my train to Aix-en-Provence—over four hours. It was very difficult to stay awake, and I shifted to various waiting spots in the station just to keep alert. I did sleep a little on the train. At the Aix TGV station, I wandered around a bit before I finally discovered where to catch the navette (shuttle), but then it was an easy trip to the Gare Routière (bus station) in Aix. I had planned to try to get a taxi from there, but it was horribly busy on a Friday afternoon and I never saw any taxis. I ended up walking to my B&B, about 15 minutes away. This was when I was very glad I had packed light!

I spent my first two nights at a chambre d’hôtes—La Maison de Carlotta—in the beautiful Quartier Mazarin, just a block or so from the fountain with the four dolphins. The B&B is actually a large two-story apartment in a big old building, the home of a delightful woman named Aline and her equally delightful daughter Carlotta. Aline has two B&B rooms, each with a private bath on the upper floor of the building, with the surprise of a tiny outdoor terrace just off the landing. Aline speaks very good English and was so much fun to visit with. Her home is both elegant and friendly, decorated with antiques. This has been a pleasant place to begin my stay in Aix.

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La Fontaine des quatre dauphins

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June 19, 2007

A Student Again

Today I’m going to write about my first two days at the French language school. Next time I’ll write about my experience living in a French home. There’s just too much to tell to put it all in one post. This has been a very intense couple of days!

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Statue of Good King René on the Cours Mirabeau

I do know more French than the majority of Americans, but I really do not know much French at all. I can understand, speak and read a little French—enough to function as a tourist, but not enough to make friends with people who don’t speak English and have a real conversation. I need and want to make a major improvement, and that’s why I decided to go to a school. This was an ideal time for me to come, since Kelly is at a three week summer program of her own. And since our focus is Provence, I wanted to study in Provence. I considered a school in the Luberon, but I thought it would be better to be in a different place and to experience another part of Provence. Eventually I settled on IS Aix-en-Provence.

I took four years of high school French—goodness, that’s 35 years ago. We took some French lessons as a family before our long trip. And we took some lessons with our friend Elisabeth Widrow while we lived in Provence. Spending lots of time in Provence, and interacting with people in daily situations has helped me with my understanding, reading and speaking skills. But my knowledge and skills are very elementary and somewhat limited to tourist situations (restaurants, hotels, market shopping). My accent isn’t very good and my communication is all in the present tense. Hopefully all this will change in the next three weeks.

The school is located just outside the péripherique in a big old house on a quiet street. It’s a ten-minute walk from where I’m staying and a five-minute walk to the Place de Précheurs, one of the main market squares in the center of Aix.

At any given time, the IS school has about 120 students. Some come as a group and have their own classes. (There is a group here now from Princeton University.) Some come for three to nine months—for a major French study. Others—like me—come for a couple of weeks. The ages seem to run from older teenagers/college students to retired people. Some adults are here for their work, and others are here just for pleasure and to learn. Some are quite advanced in their French skills, and others come not knowing a word. Added to this diversity, people are here from many, many countries. Last year, the most students came from Switzerland. I was also surprised that many came from Sweden. The majority of students are not from the English-speaking countries of Great Britain, America, Canada, and Australia. Because everyone’s first language is different, ALL the instruction is done in French. We are learning French IN FRENCH!

Continue reading "A Student Again" »

June 22, 2007

Living at Isabelle's

It’s Friday afternoon, and I’ve survived my first week of French class. I had a nice lunch at La Brocherie with my friend Patricia, and then wandered back to the Carrefour Bar. This is an enjoyable spot to spend a sunny afternoon, sipping on a Badoit and using their free WIFI. I’m not really near the school, but when I arrived and started to sit down, I heard my name called, and another friend from the school (Annalise—Swedish) was finishing lunch at one of the tables. So I visited with her for a while before moving over here by the side of the building where the signal is strong. I like the feeling of belonging to a group here and having a connection with other people.

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My view of Aix from my spot at le Carrefour Bar

So! (Or should I say, “alors”…) I wanted to tell something about my living arrangement, which is a different aspect of my immersion experience here in Aix. The IS school offers a couple of different options. You can stay at a hotel or rent an apartment (either on your own or through the school). You can live in some sort of student accommodation. Or you can stay with a French family—with no meals, with kitchen priviledges, with breakfast only, or with breakfast and dinner.

Staying with a family was the least expensive option, and adding breakfast and dinner didn’t add much to the cost. The school does recommend the family option, since this gives you another environment in which to speak French and to connect with the local culture. I decided to board with a family and to include both le petit déjeuner and le dîner. This more economical approach enabled me to come to the school for three weeks instead of two, but it was also the part I was most apprehensive about since it it had a lot of unknowns.

Continue reading "Living at Isabelle's" »

June 24, 2007

Excursions and Activities

Sunday morning back at the Carrefour Bar…. I can smell the chickens roasting down the street, and people are out enjoying a beautiful day and picking up some groceries for their Sunday meal. I just finished doing my laundry at a little place down the street and have settled in here at “my” café for a couple of hours before my trip to Bonnieux.

Each week the IS language school offers a variety of optional activities and excursions. This has turned out to be a very enjoyable supplement to the program—a way to get to know other students away from the school, see some of the surrounding area, experience more of the local culture… and of course, to practice French.

This past week I participated in three activities through the school program: a hike on the Bibémus plateau, an evening of pétanque and a BBQ, and a trip to St. Tropez and Cap Taillat.

Eight students from the school went on the “randonnée” on Thursday. We met our guide Lionel in front of the tourism office, and then boarded a public bus. Lionel has a little business to take people on hiking excursions around Aix. I don’t think any of us really knew what to expect. I thought it was a hike on Mont Sainte Victoire. George from Scotland was really confused. He thought it was a walk around Aix! He arrived in street clothes and shoes (including a long-sleeved shirt) and didn’t bring any water. (Fortunately I had brought four bottles of water and was able to give him one—I really needed the other three bottles as it was very hot!) Our group included two Swedes, two Swiss, one Spaniard, two Americans and one Scot. We did our best to talk mostly in French, and Lionel’s commentary was all in French. Occasionally we talked among ourselves in English, which seems to be the common language everyone is proficient in.

The hike had a theme of Paul Cézanne, the famous Impressionist painter associated with Aix-en-Provence. We took the bus to Le Tholonet, a small village a few miles outside the city, passing through a beautiful alley of plane trees and catching just a glimpse of the chateau. Our route took us up on the plateau de Bibémus on a fairly steep and rocky path that took us up through red-tinged rocks and pine trees. This was a favorite place for Cézanne to paint, and when I went to the Cézanne exhibit in Aix last summer, I saw an entire room of paintings from Bibémus. Eventually we arrived at a beautiful viewpoint looking out to the end of Mont Sainte Victoire and the isolated reservoir at its base. We rested and enjoyed the view while Lionel told us more about Cézanne’s painting in that area. Eventually we emerged on a forest road, and I have to say that we were all shocked—after our hour of exertion—to spot a woman pushing a baby in a buggy on the road! Apparently the plateau can also be reached by a car and is a favorite place for people to come for a shady walk.

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Our view of Monte St. Victoire

Continue reading "Excursions and Activities" »

The colorful market at St. Tropez

In my khaki capris and practical walking sandals, I’m definitely not a jet-setter. Despite this, St. Tropez really appealed to me! On Saturday we were lucky to be there for the big weekly market at the Places des Lices with its rows of shady plane trees. The stalls were arranged in aisles in a grid pattern. On this hot summer morning, the market was absolutely teeming with people, and we were glad a helpful man in a jewelry shop had suggested we carry our backpacks in the front.

Many stalls sold the usual produce and other food items, and the red fruit was especially vibrant at this time of year-- cherries, peaches, plums, nectarines. Yum! But there were also lots and lots of stands selling clothes, beachware, and other accessories. As always, I adored the colors of the market of Provence.

See for yourself!


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Continue reading "The colorful market at St. Tropez" »

June 25, 2007

Le monde est petit!

It’s a small world… un petit monde!

It’s Monday afternoon and I'm writing from-- where else-- the Carrefour Bar at the Place d'Arménie in Aix-en-Provence. I just had lunch with Trishmael from Slow Travel and her husband Gary who are here in Aix for a conference, and now the café has become "mon bureau" (my office) for the afternoon.. The waiters are getting to know me, and I do like the feeling of having a regular place to come and enjoy "la joie de vivre" in France.

I was here at this same café on Sunday, staked out at a table by the side of the building, catching up on e-mail. I had started a load of laundry at a “laverie” just around the corner, and it was about time to hustle back and move my clothes to the dryer. There was another woman, blonde and a bit older than me, by herself at another table. I had noticed her here earlier in the week and thought then that she was maybe British. But then on Sunday morning I heard her talking on a cell phone and she was American. So as I was getting ready to run back to the laverie, I thought I would ask her to watch my things and preserve my table.

I approached her and asked if she was American. And could she watch my things for a minute?

Of course, she was happy to. She introduced herself with her first name.

I said, “I’m Kathy. I’m here for three weeks studying French.”

And she said... “Are you Kathy Wood?”

Mon Dieu! What a shock! At first I thought she might be someone from Slow Travel who might even be reading my blog. But even stranger, she is a woman from the Knoxville area who a mutual acquaintance at home had been trying to connect me with. She used to live in Aix and occasionally bases here for some international work. In our e-mail that very morning we both had a message from this mutual friend giving us each other’s contact information!! And there she was at the same café at the next table at the very same time—in this city of over 130,000 people!

Wow.

June 26, 2007

Back to Bonnieux

On Sunday afternoon I drove back to Bonnieux for the night. Our friend Pierre, owner of Le Clos du Buis, had invited us to a big party, and we were actually very honored to be included. The party was to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Le Clos du Buis, which is one of the B&Bs we use for our Luberon Experience weeks and a very special place. We like Pierre and his assistant Sophie very much, and since I was not too far away in Aix, Charley and I thought I should make a special effort to attend. Sophie is a neighbor of the friends we housesit for. They were also invited to the party and invited me to spend the night.

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The Clos du Buis in Bonnieux

I left Aix about 2:30 pm for the beautiful drive to Bonnieux. As usual, I took the back route described by the Winns in their Provence Byways book. It was absolutely peaceful and beautiful, especially the section through the vineyards near Rognes.

Continue reading "Back to Bonnieux" »

Week two in the classroom

We’ve started into our second week of French lessons. A few of last week’s students have left and a few new people have arrived, but my group of five remains intact: Urs, Karl-Heinz, Lydia, Suzanne and me. And our teachers are still Christine and Sonia, who alternate every other day.

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Karl-Heinz, Lydia and Urs... three of my four classmates

We are each talking more in class and talking longer. At the beginning of last week we were introduced to the “passé compose” and then on Friday the “imparfait.” So now we can talk correctly about things that happened in the past. Instead of saying “I go to Bonnieux and it is beautiful,” I can conceivably offer a more intelligent comment like “I went to Bonnieux and it was beautiful.” The challenge is to be able to put all the right words together when you are talking spontaneously. C’est très difficile!

The focus at this school is on conversation and pronunciation… at least on my level, not much on the writing, spelling, accent marks etc. In my class (elementaire), our goals are fairly simple: to be able to talk about our activities, our backgrounds and experiences; to express ourselves using some sense of time; to understand similar communications from others; and to read and understand some simple texts.

Continue reading "Week two in the classroom" »

June 27, 2007

Living Outside My Comfort Zone

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Another one of the beautiful fountains in Aix

During our long trip, we met a man—a retired psychologist from Scotland—who lived in the small village in the Corrèze where we stayed for two weeks. James came to France not speaking any French and not knowing anyone. He told us that he wanted to put himself in a situation that was “uncomfortable.” I think that his objective was to stretch himself, to grow, to make sure life wasn’t too easy. It was an interesting way to approach retirement, and Charley and I have discussed James and his philosophy several times since the time we spent with him.

Now I find myself in a situation that is very much outside my comfort zone for these few weeks here in Aix. I’m far away from my precious husband and daughter, in a city where I have only a few recent acquaintances, living as a boarder in someone else’s apartment, in an environment where absolutely no English is spoken. Going to the school is a very positive experience, but the living experience is definitely stretching me. It’s not a bad experience—it’s just… well, definitely uncomfortable!

I’ve also kind of found myself this week without a “friend” at the school. Patricia—my Canadian friend—was just here for one week and flew home on Sunday morning. Markus—my fellow-boarder at Isabelle’s house—is back in Switzerland, surely enjoying gourmet food and wine. George—the Scottish man who was unprepared for the hike—was also here for just one week. I’m a bit adrift at this point without a “buddy” to team up with for lunches and activities. The truth is that I’m feeling a bit lonely!

Continue reading "Living Outside My Comfort Zone" »

June 28, 2007

An Afternoon with Annalise

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Annalise at L'Atelier de Cézanne

On Wednesday morning another student at the school-- Annalise from Sweden-- suggested that we visit ,the L'Atelier de Cézanne that afternoon. I like Annalise very much, and I'd been wanting to visit Cézanne's studio, so this sounded like a good plan to me. We took a bus from the school, which wound up through apartment complexes into a part of Aix we hadn't seen before. An older woman showed us the right stop to get off the bus.

L'Atelier de Cézanne is a quiet spot just up the hill from the centre ville of Aix, now set among much more modern buildings. But here in the early part of the 20th century, in the last few years of his life, Cézanne came to paint and create his final masterpieces.

Our teacher Sonia told us that for many tourists, the L'Atelier is the biggest disappointment of Aix. They go expecting to see works of art by Cézanne, and find something very different. So Annalise and I weren't disappointed-- we had no such expectation. Instead, on the second floor of a small building, there is a big room full of light. Around the room are pieces of furniture and a variety of objects, just as they were left by Cézanne. Many of these same objects-- a table, a vase, a small statue of a cherub, a bowl-- were incorporated into his paintings. There was some fruit... but I can't imagine that these are the same pieces of fruit from 100 years ago!

When we first arrived, we just looked around and read a laminated paper about the studio. A woman was giving a very energetic talk to another group of visitors. We looked at the objects and flipped through a display of reproductions of some of Cézanne's works that were painted here. An American man came in, looked around, rolled his eyes, and said, "Okay, fine...check this off the list."

Fortunately Annalise and I hung in there. When the woman finished her presentation, we approached her with a question about something we had heard her say, and soon she had launched into another very discussion and attracted another group of visitors around her. Her talk was all in French, though illustrated by the paintings and the objects. Annalise is two classes above me in French (she speaks perfect English as well), and I think she followed much of the discussion. Perhaps I understood about half. But most of all I understood and very much appreciated the passion of this woman for her subject matter. Afterwards, we followed some paths through the gardens, where apparently Cézanne got some inspiration for the background of a few of his paintings. The gardens weren't very interesting, I'm afraid.

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The entrance to L'Atelier (photos not permitted inside)

Would I recommend L'Atelier de Cézanne for visitors to Aix? If you are very interested in Cézanne and understand a reasonable amount of French, I would say yes. Go, look at the objects, and most definitely, hang around to listen to the guide. If you have very limited understanding of French, this is not a good use of your 5.5 euro. You will be finished there in less than 30 minutes.

Continue reading "An Afternoon with Annalise " »

June 29, 2007

Trishmael, Gary and the Carrefour Bar

This past Monday I met a virtual friend from Slow Travel-- Trishmael from Baton Rouge-- and her husband Gary here at the Carrefour Bar. Trish is no longer just a virtual friend-- she's one of many wonderful people from Slow Travel that I've met in person here in Europe and in the USA. Trish is here to sample Provence while attending a conference, and they're staying just a few blocks away at La Maison de Carlotta where I spent my first two nights. I really enjoyed our visit-- just too short. And they brought me a big bag of pecans! We're thinking of hosting some French friends for an American dinner one night, so perhaps a pecan pie will be on our menu.

Thursday afternoon I was here once again at the Carrefour Bar. When I arrived. I wondered how the rest of Trish and Gary's week had gone. It would have been good to see them again, but I knew they had much less time than me-- and much of Provence to experience for the first time. A few minutes later I looked up from my ordinateur... and voila! There were Trish and Gary! They sat down and ordered coffees, and we finished up our visit. I asked Gary to take this photo of Trish and me:

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Trishmael and Kaydee at the Carrefour Bar

Trish said this was the first time Gary had ever taken a picture with a digital camera... he did great, didn't he? I think Trish and Gary will definitely come back to France, and I foresee much more travel in their future.

I like running into people I know here in Aix!

The End of the First Term

The IS school organizes their basic program around two week terms. Every other Monday they start a new term and new students arrive and are sorted into the proper classes. Although a few people (like my friend Patricia from the first week) come for just a week and some come for longer, it seems like most people come for two weeks. The classes stay more-or-less intact for the two weeks and with the same two alternating teachers. Today was the last day of the term.

Our class of five has been a great group, and we’ve had a lot of fun together. We really liked the two teachers Sonia and Christine, and II like the approach of having the two teachers who alternate. They’ve coordinated well together, and we get the benefit of two perspectives. All the teachers have been excellent. They're technically good, and they make the learning fun.

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Notre professeur Sonia

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Et notre professeur Christine

Continue reading "The End of the First Term" »

June 30, 2007

The Couscous Party

Isabelle had a dinner party last night, for thirteen people, one of which was me. This was a special meal requested by Christine, who is leaving on Sunday to go first to New York and then back to St. Barts.

When Isabelle first mentioned the couscous dinner, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go. Actually, I was dreading it, especially after the dinner the other night with Christine, her friend Sabrina, and the ex-mairie. I was beginning to cast about for possible alternate social plans that would enable me to excuse myself from the dinner, even if I just had dinner on my own at the Carrefour Bar and perhaps went to a movie afterwards. But then Isabelle told me her friend Catherine would be there, the one who was so warm and friendly to me the night I arrived, and I felt I would at least have one friend. The evening was important to Isabelle, and I knew it was also a unique opportunity to be part of a French social gathering.

When I arrived at the apartment that evening, the dining room was already prepared. I brought Isabelle a small potted plant as a hostess gift, trying hard to be a thoughtful guest. Isabelle had extended the dining table and brought in another smaller table at one end and it was all very festive. She had set a really beautiful table, with decorations that included leaves and long green peppers.

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Isabelle's beautiful table

The group began gathering about 7:30 pm, and I came out of my room to join the others. I wore my only “good” outfit—a brown top with a matching, long flowing shirt. Much to my surprise, Isabelle had complimented me on this outfit earlier in the week and also the brown wooden watch I'd bought at a market this past May for only five euro. I hoped I wouldn’t die of heat. Fortunately Isabelle turned on the ceiling fan about halfway through the dinner, the first time it’s been used during my stay.

Continue reading "The Couscous Party" »

A Wonderful Interlude in Bandol

On Thursday I e-mailed our friends Cynthia and Ian, who recently moved to the town of Bandol on the Mediterranean coast.

“Any chance you’d like some company on Saturday or Sunday?” I wrote. I closed my eyes and prayed, “Please let them say yes, please let them say yes….”.

The truth was that I needed the company of good friends... a change of scenery… the opportunity to speak English over a leisurely meal… croissants for breakfast… and perhaps even a long, hot shower.

Lucky, lucky me. My prayers were answered. After the strange and very awkward experience of Friday’s couscous dinner, I had a wonderful weekend with Cynthia and Ian in Bandol.

Cynthia and Ian are the now former owners of La Bastide Vieille, the very special house that our family rented when we lived in Provence during our long trip to Europe. I first met Cynthia in the fall of 2003 when we began corresponding about our six month rental, and we stayed overnight with them in the house when we arrived on October 2, 2004. They quickly became good friends, a relationship that deepened when our family assumed temporary care of Cynthia’s dog Juno, a very sweet blind poodle. We’ve managed to be together several times over these years, and keep in touch by e-mail. Last September they hosted lunches for our Luberon Experience groups at La Bastide Vieille, a highlights of those autumn weeks. We were surprised when they wrote us a month or two later to say that they had decided to sell the house. The ownership of such an old house in the country had become way too much work, and for their retirement years they wanted a change, an apartment on the coast, right in a town.

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Cynthia and Ian enjoying their new life in Bandol

The house sold all-too-quickly (and it’s still available for rent, by the way), and less than a month ago Cynthia and Ian moved into an apartment in Bandol, a town of about 8000 between Marseille and Toulon, further east around the coast from Cassis. It’s in the department of the Var, still Provence but a very different Provence.

Continue reading "A Wonderful Interlude in Bandol" »

July 1, 2007

Day Two in Bandol

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Enjoying my wonderful interlude in Bandol (on the isle of Bendor)

I was up early and watched the sun rise over the sea before I tested that wonderful shower. I walked down with Ian to the fish market to buy oysters for lunch. Everything in Bandol is so convenient, and all the little shops were open this morning. They have found a great little fish shop selling all kinds of fresh fish and shellfish. We decided that the fish shop lady definitely has a difficult job. Ian picked out three kinds of oysters, and we also got a bag of ice and some shellfish.

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At the fish shop with Ian

We carried everything the five minutes back up to the apartment and then Cynthia and I went back down to one of the many waterfront cafes on the broad main street to satisfy my craving for croissants. Since I have been croissant-deprived, I had two.

Continue reading "Day Two in Bandol" »

July 3, 2007

The third week of school

It’s the third and final week of my language program, and now I’m a returning student. Pas de probleme! I know what to expect, and I even have friends. I’ve settled into a comfortable routine that I like.

New students have arrived—many of them, since it’s now July and the beginning of “les vacances” in Europe. In addition to French, there are many many languages spoken around the school and out front where students congregate at the mid-morning break.

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Students outside the IS school

Every other Monday when a new two-week term begins, the returning students like me come at 11:00 am. This week there are “debutantes”-- people who don’t know any French at all. Our teachers told us that they were expecting 70 people in the main program this week, compared to perhaps 30 the two-week term before.

On Monday morning, after breakfast at Isabelle’s, I headed to the Carrefour Bar to check e-mail and have a coffee before going to school. I ran into Sally, the American woman I met last week. We both like the free WIFI. Although Aix is a good-sized city, I have the feeling of also being in much smaller community, as I’ve often encountered people I know around town. (The next day I ran into Sally again—in a totally different part of Aix.) I love the rhythm of life in France, and I feel very much at home now in Aix. If only Charley and Kelly were here too… but perhaps that can happen another year.

Susanne and Urs were at the school when I arrived on Monday. Urs is taking private lessons this week and next, now focusing on learning the French language of banking. Like me, Susanne is here just one more week. On Monday morning there was a list posted on the board, organizing the fifteen or so returning students into a few small groups… to do what, we didn’t know. Susanne and I returned to our old classroom where we were joined by an older American named Paul and a very young and shy British girl. The session was sort of a test, I think. The teacher was Claire, a very enthusiastic young woman who had just returned from her “voyage des noces” (honeymoon). We spent the hour and a half talking about ourselves, listening to Claire, and making conversation. I could definitely see the progress that Susanne has made since we started our classes two weeks ago, and I felt much more confident too. Our French skills were much more advanced than Paul and the British girl… surely we wouldn’t be placed in the same class with them. Claire told us to come back at 2 and check the board again. There were going to be nine classes, and the four of us would be in class 1, 2 or 3.

Continue reading "The third week of school" »

And the third week at Isabelle's....

I’m sitting here at the Carrefour Bar, and Isabelle just walked by on the Rue d’Italie. She didn’t see me. Perhaps she’s going out to do some marketing for dinner. On the way here I stopped at a store down the street and bought a bottle of rose wine that I’ll contribute for tonight’s dinner. This morning Isabelle told me that her friend Catherine who I like so much is coming to dinner tonight. I’m looking forward to seeing Catherine again, and I sense this will be a much more comfortable evening than the couscous dinner.

In addition to enjoying the routine at school, this week I also find I’m much more comfortable at Isabelle’s. Now that her daughter Christine has left, I feel much better about my living situation. And since I know I can have Henri Tomas’ croissants in Bonnieux every day for the next five weeks beginning on Sunday, I’ve even accepted having yoghurt and toast for breakfast in the morning. I plan to continue my daily yoghurt diet, but I’ll be substituting croissants for the toast next week!

There’s another student at Isabelle’s this week, a young Italian man named Fillippo. He is 19 years old, from near Bologna, very tall and very handsome. The first night I didn’t think he understood or spoke French well at all, but he has turned out to be in class 6, so maybe he's just shy. Fillippo doesn’t eat any vegetables or fruit, which Isabelle finds shocking, since fresh farm produce is so plentiful and important in the Provençal diet. This has given her a new challenge in her dinner preparations. Isabelle seems to have bonded with Fillippo though, perhaps a motherly thing. I’ve been away the last two nights for dinner, and when I came home last night late, she and Fillippo were sitting in the dark in the living room, watching television together.

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Isabelle and le grand Fillippo

Continue reading "And the third week at Isabelle's...." »

July 5, 2007

Cours de Cuisine Provençale (Provençal cooking class)

Each week the IS school offers a variety of other activities and excursions, which provide a different kind of opportunity to interact in the French language and to learn more about the culture and history of this area.

This week I signed up for the “Cours de Cuisine”—a cooking class—at the home of Madame Catherine Plan. The class cost 25 euro, a good investment since the evening also included an excellent meal. My friends Urs and Susanne also went to the class, and we walked there together from the school at the end of the afternoon. Urs had attended a class with Madame Plan the week before and highly recommended it to us. Madame Plan and her husband live about 20 minutes from the school, at the other end of the Cours Mirabeau and just past the train station. There were three other people at the class. Rupert is a tall older man from Norway, very friendly, who owns a house in Forcalquier, a town about 45 minutes east of Apt. He is commuting to the school each day in an effort to improve his French. He is in class 4 at the school. I didn’t learn the names of the other two people: a woman also from Norway and a man from Sweden. I don’t think either of them spoke or understood much French.

We began our evening at 5:30 pm, grouped around the counter of Madame Plan’s kitchen. She gave us each a little booklet with the evening’s menu and recipes and started immediately into the preparation. The first thing she made was an apricot tart. The preparation of the pastry (pate) really impressed me. She had a piece of baking paper that she had already used several times. Instead of using a bowl, she made her pastry right on the paper, measuring the flour, margarine, sugar, salt and water right onto the paper and then mixing them together with her hands. Then she rolled the pastry out with a rolling pin. Since the paper had already been used, she could tell exactly the shape for her pastry. Finally she just slid the crust into her tart pan, paper and all. The whole process of making the crust took about five minutes. She sprinkled some almond powder (poudre d'amande) in the bottom of the pan.

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Madame Plan mixing her tarte crust on paper

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July 6, 2007

Another dinner at Isabelle's...

… and I’m happy to report that it was a very special evening!

Tonight was a very different experience from the couscous dinner. Isabelle invited Catherine (her friend that I like so much) and another friend Claud for dinner tonight, so with Isabelle, Fillippo and me, there were five at the table. Claud is a retired professor from the University of Aix, and he was very friendly and easy to talk to. Isabelle had told me he was a “copain,” (which can mean a romantic companion), but when I asked her more about this, she confirmed that he was just a friend whose wife was out of town.

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A great dinner party (photo taken by Claude) - note the paintings in the back

The meal was very good: apertifis and little snacks to begin; long chicken legs cooked in a cream sauce with pasta (in honor of Fillippo), a salad after the main course, a cheese course with an especially good Cambembert, and another peach in raspberry coulis with some little wafer cookies. She served good wine (including the bottle of wine I brought) and had some fabulous cherries in liquor as a digestif. (The cherries are called griottines and they’re preserved in kirsch…. I’ll definitely be looking for some of these!)

Continue reading "Another dinner at Isabelle's..." »

J'ai fini!

I finished my French program today and was even awarded a certificate that documents my level of language skill. Susanne and I were both rated as an A2, though Christine said we were very close to being an B1.

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Receiving my certificate from Christine

I definitely want to come back to the IS school in Aix for more French study-- maybe next year after our Luberon Experience trip-- and I also plan to be much more diligent about continuing some French studies during the next year. I've made progress, but I'm a long long way from where I want to be.

I was sorry to say goodbye to my classmates from this week. The five women had an especially good relationship, and I really enjoyed our lunches together. I'll be seeing Susanne in Bonnieux next Friday, and I'm planning to connect with Sarah in Paris when Kelly and I are there in August. I really met some great people from all over the world during my stay in Aix.

July 7, 2007

Reunited with the ones I love

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My wonderful family: Charley and Kelly in Sault

I didn't sleep well last night... much too excited about seeing my precious family again and thinking about them on their overnight flight. This is the longest I've been separated from my husband and daughter, and finally today we'd be together again!

I was up at the regular time this morning, my last morning at Isabelle's. The bathroom routine now seems normal, but I was happy this is the last day for the quirky shower procedure. I had a last breakfast with Fillippo and Isabelle, and then he was off to meet the school's excursion for the day to the Gorge du Verdon. I would have enjoyed staying here longer with him.

I finished my packing and just barely managed to cram everything into my rolling bag, my carry on shoulder bag and my little backpack, but the suitcase was now much heavier. I like to collect booklets and free literature when I travel, and this adds a lot of weight. I also had three English language books to drop off at Paradox, an international bookstore in Aix. (Another English bookshop in Aix is Book in Bar, just a block away.)

I had booked the TGV from Aix-en-Provence to Avignon at 3:44, so I had several hours to spend enjoying Aix. It was market day and I headed out to walk the streets and hopefully check out the "soldes" (sales). The French government regulates sales, and they are just held two times a year-- in summer and winter. The dates vary by departément. Here in the Bouches-du-Rhône, the soldes started on July 4 and will run six weeks until August 14. I had three hours to browse the markets and the stores. I didn't come away with much, but I had a really good time. There were lots of people out shopping. I bought a pair of cute sandals for myself and a small birthday gift for Kelly. She will be 14 years old on July 22.

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July 8, 2007

Our second annual lavender day

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Below Bonnieux... looking toward the Petit Luberon and Lacoste

We're housesitting for our friends who have a beautiful home just outside Bonnieux, a family we met when we lived here for six months in 2004-2005. This is the second year that we've had this opportunity, and we're thrilled to be back. We planned our visit so we had a couple of days of overlap... a chance to visit a little and also get up to speed on anything we need to know about the house. While our friends are still here, our family is staying in a rustic guest annex. We're trying to be very sensitive that they're getting ready to go on a six week trip and we don't want to be in the way. So just as we did last year on the day after we arrived, we headed out today on a lavender drive. We just had a general plan to drive up to Lagarde d'Apt and then over to Sault and then we'd see where we went from there.

It was hot today, and just a little overcast. We ended up driving about 160 kilometers (about 100 miles) and making a big circle of Mont Ventoux, the largest mountain in this area at 6,263 feet. Mont Ventoux is very distinctive-- first, because it stands alone... not really part of a group of mountains. And second because the top is barren, without vegetation, and is covered with a white limestone. Mont Ventoux actually seems to be covered with snow year-round.

I'll let the photos tell the story of our day in the lavender around Mont Ventoux...

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Near Lagarde d'Apt, the highest village in the Vaucluse (3609 feet)

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Sault, Montbrun-les-Bains and Brantes

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Kelly in Montbrun-les-Bains

I have more to show and tell about our Sunday drive around Mont Ventoux, this time about the villages… not the lavender. We stopped in three different villages, each very different: Sault (which we’ve visited several times before), Montbrun-les-Bains and Brantes. Some of the photos in this post were taken by Kelly with her new digital camera.

Sault is a famous village in the Vaucluse, southeast of Mont Ventoux, especially popular when the lavender is in bloom. The village (at 2546 feet) sits at the edge of the Plateau d’Albion and overlooks a broad agricultural plain where lavender and a type of wheat called “épeautre” are grown, forming a very colorful patchwork quilt at this time of year. “Épeautre” is similar to a grain known as “spelt” in English. Although Mont Ventoux is nearby, you can’t actually see if from the main part of the village. Sault has 1100 residents, so it’s a bit smaller than Bonnieux, when the lavender is blooming there are many, many tourists. The village is flat, so it’s easy to get around. It also seems to have everything needed for daily life: boulangeries, a small grocery, butcher, pharmacie, quincaillerie (hardware store), and a market on Wednesday. There’s a big community terrace overlooking the beautiful plain, with benches for a do-it-yourself picnic as well as several outdoor cafes. Nearby, in the older part of the village, we were very attracted to a beautiful square with outdoor dining for several restaurants. I would have loved to eat on this square on Sunday, but we arrived late, and all the restaurants seemed to be “complet.” We ended up having pizza and salads out on the other square, along with mostly other tourists. Charley and Kelly’s pizza wasn’t the greatest, but my hot goat cheese salad with honey was very good.

Sault has an excellent tourist office with lots of free information, a variety of booklets and guides for sale, and some beautiful posters. The poster I bought last year is on the home page of the tourist office website; it now hangs in my office at the university, so I can dream of Provence always! You can see all the posters and books on their website, and it looks like you may even be able to order them online. The woman on duty Sunday was originally from England, now married to a Frenchman and living in the area. She was extremely helpful.

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July 9, 2007

An afternoon at Salagon

This afternoon we finally took a little trip to visit Salagon, a beautiful 12th century priory that is now an historic monument, educational garden and museum. Salagon is located just outside the village of Mane, about four kilometers west of Forcalquier, in a very peaceful setting. We like the drive on the N100 to this part of Provence very much, and we really enjoyed our three hours at Salagon. I think it's well worth a visit, especially for people with an interest in gardens.

The history of Salagon dates back almost 2000 years. Archaelogists have discovered the remains of a farm and a Gallo-Roman villa underneath the current structure, as well as a 5th century basilica and cemetery. Some parts of these earlier structures can be seen from inside the church, looking down through grates. During the French Revolution, the priory shifted to private ownershiph, though it later returned to the Church. In 1910 Salagon was sold to a farmer and then was occupied by the Italian army in World War II. Finally, in 1981, the property was bought by the commune of Mane who began the extensive resoration. Today Salagon is owned by the département of the Alpes de Haut-Provence. There is a small admission charge, and Charley turned over his driver’s license so we could check out three audioguides in English.

It was overcast when we arrived, so we decided to explore the gardens first in case we were forced inside later by rain. There are six different theme gardens at Salagon, including about 2000 different plants. I love plants and flowers, and I especially enjoyed the gardens.

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The priory at Salagon

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July 11, 2007

The Magic Hour

We had dinner with our friends on Monday night, just a simple meal here at home, since they’re leaving on their six-week trip to California in the morning. We stayed in the rustic guest wing of the house for the first three nights after we arrived on Saturday, moving into the main house and our friends’ bedrooms on Tuesday morning after Charley took them to the airport. We’ve known this family now for three years, and we’re good friends with a history together. Their daughter—who’s Kelly’s age—visited us for a week in Tennessee this past spring.

On Monday night the four adults sat outside, sheltered from the growing wind by the protection of the old stone mas. The terrace has a view across the vineyards and orchards, looking up toward Bonnieux. Suddenly Bonnieux seemed to shine with light.

“It’s the magic hour,” our friend said.

It was that hour before sunset, when the light changes and softens, sharpening the outlines of villages, mountains, old stone houses, grapevines and cherry trees. What a wonderful place to be… that night, those friends, this place.

Tonight-- now on our own-- our family ventured out during the Magic Hour, an after-dinner stroll on the quiet farm lanes near the house. We walked down through the orchards on the old track that our friend says was once a Roman road, scooted down to a small paved road near a stream, circled back on a newly-marked trail through the woods, and wandered up through another orchard. We know this little part of Provence so well. All these photos from that Magic Hour walk are taken within ten minutes of our house, most of them by Kelly.

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Bonnieux from the house, in that crisp light just before sunset (photo by Kelly)

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July 12, 2007

Lazy Days in the Luberon

Time takes a different shape when your travels take you often to the same place and you have the luxury of staying for several weeks. There’s no sense of urgency to get out every day, to follow a guidebook, to check sights and activities off a list, to make sure you don’t leave some wonderful place undiscovered. You can have a special time just having a quiet day at home. We’ve already had several of these.

We do actually have a list of places to go and things to do, but considering we’re here for five weeks, our list this summer isn’t terribly long, and we’re happy to pursue just two or three items on that list each week. It helps to be staying in such a pretty and comfortable house where we can spend relaxing and very enjoyable days, and it also helps that we all love to read. Our friends have a large and interesting library and DVD collection. Last week we went to the Bonnieux biblioteque and signed up for a temporary family card; there’s a surprisingly extensive collection of books in English. (And Kelly and I both checked our books in French.)

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The back terrace where we spend much of our time

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The Other Side of Paradise

After that last soaring love song, I need to present the other side of paradise. Life is not all a fairy tale here in Provence, and in addition to the simple pleasures, living here has its complexities and interesting moments. No beautiful photos to illustrate this post, I'm afraid!

Some examples:

• One afternoon while you’re happily working away, the wireless goes out for some unknown reason. You try everything you know to do… unplug and replug the power cable several times, push the reset button, run the repair functions on the laptop… finally e-mail your friend. Strangely, you have an excellent wireless signal but no data. Life without the internet for the next month will be very difficult! You can use the phone line, but it’s slow and expensive… and this forces you inside instead the house of being able to work outside on the terrace. Your new challenge: trying to get hold of a man in Lacoste who can hopefully help fix the problem.

• The tractor is broken, and your husband must mow the lawn every week and the two big fields every other week with a push mower and empty the basket each time it fills. When he goes to the village to buy more gas from the little service station that was supposed to open at 8, he waits until after 8:30 and it still doesn’t open. In the afternoon, fortunately, the man is there, but the sun is hot. Maybe a man will come to fix the tractor. Or maybe not.

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July 14, 2007

A Class Reunion

Tonight was a very special evening: a reunion of three of the five members of my first class at the IS language school in Aix. Susanne and her boyfriend Rico have still been in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue this past week, and they drove over to join us for dinner. And Lydia and her boyfriend Earl came all the way from Basel, Switzerland to spend a long weekend with us. At one point it seemed like a fourth classmate, Urs, would also be able to join us. Today was the last day of his four-week program in Aix, and he had planned to stay on a few days and drive over this evening. But his two little boys wanted their papa back in Switzerland as quickly as possible, and of course the rest of us undertstood.

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Our class reunion in the Luberon: Susanne, Kathy and Lydia

Everyone arrived about 5 pm. Lydia and Earl had a long drive due to heavy traffic. The weather was perfect, and of course they all loved the house.

“It’s something out of a magazine,” Susanne said.

“Now I need to go home and work hard, so I can one day have a house like this,” said Rico. He and Susanne are both accountants with KPMG in Freiburg, Germany.

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July 16, 2007

We Hit the Jackpot with Lydia and Earl

Lydia was my classmate at the IS school for two weeks, a beautiful and very sweet young woman originally from Athens, Greece.

From our discussions in class, my four classmates and my two teachers knew that I had a special connection with the Luberon. The Sunday between our two weeks of class, Lydia went on an excursion to the Luberon through the school. The group visited the market at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, Gordes, the Abbey de Senanque, and Roussillon. She came into class the next morning very excited.

“Kathy, I just loved the Luberon,” she told me in French. “I really liked it so very much. It was so beautiful. I told my boyfriend I want to visit again.” Her pleasure was so genuine and real. I didn’t think about this very long. Our friends, the owners of this house, have encouraged us to have guests. At the break I invited her to come and stay with us during our time in the Luberon, along with her boyfriend. Lydia and I talked about possibilities during our final week together, and after she returned to Switzerland, she e-mailed me to confirm a visit for the weekend of July 13.

Lydia and Earl were with us for three nights, sleeping in the little guest wing that our friends call the “gîte,” where our family slept when we first arrived. They were absolutely wonderful houseguests, and we really enjoyed our weekend together.

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Our wonderful houseguests, Earl and Lydia

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At the Marquis de Sade's castle in Lacoste... quelle surprise!

The ruined castle at the top of the nearby village of Lacoste is one of our favorite spots in the Luberon, and we took our friends Lydia and Earl there on our way to dinner Sunday night. The castle dates back to the 11th century and is best known as the home of the notorious Marquis de Sade in the late 1700's. In 2001 the castle was bought by fashion designer Pierre Cardin, and we've watched its restoration over the four years we've been coming to this area.

Although the castle is private property, it's possible to climb up from the village and walk around in the moat or to drive up and observe the castle close-up from outside. The views from the castle grounds are wonderful.

Here's how the castle looked on Sunday evening:

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We love the view across to Bonnieux, with the Grand Luberon rising above:

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And here's the view out across the countryside toward Apt. I love the pattern of the farms and orchards in this plain. If you look closely, you'll even see some splashes of lavender.

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But we didn't expect to find "Eros Thanatos" at the castle tonight. Read on!

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July 17, 2007

L'Enclos des Bories

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A new view of Bonnieux

In October 2004, a few weeks after we arrived in Bonnieux to live here for 6-1/2 months, we went hiking with our new friend Kevin, who owns Le Mas Perreal, a beautiful B&B in St. Saturnin. Kevin suggested we drive up toward the Fôret de Cèdres, where he knew a place we could see lots of bories. We were intrigued by the bories and liked this plan.

In the year since, we’ve come across many bories in the Luberon (perhaps 100), especially on our hikes in the woods and on the mountains. (The photo at the top of our blog is of a borie we discovered in a field on the Plateau de Claparèdes near Saignon.) Bories are old stone huts, made by stacking dry stone slabs in just a certain way, not using any mortar. Bories are found in abundance here in the Luberon, some 3,000 of them. Stone is the primary building material in this area, and the bories were made using stones gathered from the immediate area. The bories were normally used by farmers… perhaps a place to live with their sheep or goats high in the hills or to store tools or to provide protection for a well. They’re built in a variety of styles. Some bories are may be more than 1,000 years old, but others date to just the 18th or 19th century. Some bories are perfectly intact (some have been restored), while others have crumpled into a mass of stone. They have been catalogued and are protected here in the Parc Naturel Régional du Luberon.

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One of the many bories at L'Enclos des Bories

Anyway, back to that October day a few years ago… we drove up above Bonnieux to the Fôret de Cèdres road and then turned down a small dirt road. We had just started on our way when we encountered another vehicle. Kevin got out to talk to the man and came back to the car disappointed.

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On the falaise at Lioux again

Finally—nine days after our arrival in the Luberon—we’ve managed to go on our first hike of the summer.

We think the Luberon is one of the best hiking areas in Europe, with a substantial network of marked trails. Every route seems to be different with a new vantage point on the spectacular scenery, much of which is often hidden from the road. We came here as a family this past spring for two weeks, primarily to hike.

But hiking here in the summer is different… quite difficult, actually. It’s so hot, hot, hot! In July and August the government even restricts hiking in some areas. You’re not allowed to be in the forest of the Luberon mountains or on the Vaucluse Plateau after 11 am, due to risk of fire. But you wouldn’t want to be there after 11 anyway, because it’s just so hot. So hiking at this time of year involves getting up very early and planning a walk that isn’t too far away and isn’t too long.

This morning we hiked in one of our favorite areas, on the Falaise de la Madeleine, west of St. Saturnin-lès-Apt. “Falaise” means “cliff,” and this is an incredible cliff… a solid rock wall stretching above the village of Lioux, almost half a mile long and rising 320 feet from the ground. What’s so unique about the falaise is that it’s totally invisible from the southern side, where a sloping hillside covered with low trees and scrub rises up from the valley. You have absolutely no sense that there's a cliff on the other side! But from the northern perspective (especially on the road coming down from Murs), the cliff is massive, a long expanse of grey limestone… truly magnificent.

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The magnificent Falaise de la Madeleine

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July 18, 2007

Finally-- Le Tour de France!

I need to say that the photos from our day at the tour aren't very good. In the excitement of getting ready to go, I didn't remember to charge my camera battery, and as luck would have it, my battery died just before the actual Tour passed by. Kelly took video with her new camera, but we need a little more time to figure out how to post these in the blog... and we need the high-speed wireless back. We promise we'll post her video on the blog, as it's really quite good!

Charley has been quite interested in the Tour de France for several years. In 2003—after our two week trip to France—I think he watched almost every minute of the race on cable television. Later he read several books about the Tour, including French Revolutions by Tim Moore, which he especially enjoyed.

Last summer we were in Normandy when the Tour passed through. We weren’t sure of the logistics, and we hated to take a day away from the rest of Normandy when we were just there for a week…. especially since we would have watched them whiz by on a totally flat stretch of road. And a week or so later just after we arrived in Provence, the Tour passed within two hours of us… again, we talked about going, but it just didn’t work out.

This summer we looked at the Tour map again and saw that the route would take the Tour within two hours of Bonnieux on Stage 10 (Tallard to Marseille) and Stage 11 (Marseille to Montpellier). We wrote it on our list of things to do. And then I saw this post on Slow Travel from our friend Kevin Widrow, suggesting that a group get together to see the Tour on Stage 10. I responded quickly—the Wood family was was definitely interested. Finally-- we were going to Le Tour de France!

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Kelly back home after our Tour de France adventure

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The Vignerons Dinner at Domaine Faverot

Wednesday was a big day for us. In addition to the Tour de France, we also went to a special wine dinner at Domaine Faverot.

Domaine Faverot is a small wine estate owned by Francois and Sally Faverot de Kerbrech. Despite François’ name (and an ancestry that is both French and German), he is extremely British… as is Sally. They have long had a dream to move to France, buy a vineyard, and make wine, and that dream became a reality a few years ago when they bought and restored this small wine estate at the foot of the Petit Luberon. The U-shaped building includes the winery, their own home, and four attractive rental apartments.

We spent several hours at Domaine Faverot with our Luberon Experience groups this May for a tour, tasting, and wonderful lunch in the courtyard. It was a highlight of our week, in large part because François and Sally are such welcoming hosts. Everyone enjoyed the opportunity to get an inside look at a small, family-owned winery. François is a great storyteller and very funny. Before they moved to France, they owned a restaurant in England for many years, and Sally prepares a beautiful meal.

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The vineyards at Domaine Faverot (photo taken May 2007)

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July 20, 2007

Oppède-le-Vieux and a day with friends

I loved today… just the right balance of activity and relaxation… and best of all, we shared it with friends.

We planned to do an interesting morning hike with our friends the McConnells today-- something with some excitement that teenagers would enjoy. But after our recent experience on the Falaise at Lioux, we decided it was too hot for a major hike and we would have to start way too early to make it a fun experience for the kids. Instead we suggested that our families meet in Bonnieux at 9:00, drive down to Oppède-le-Vieux and explore the village and the castle ruins, and then come back here for lunch and swimming. We invited our new friends the Hamids (Farris, Kit and Olivia from our Tour de France excursion) to join us after lunch for swimming.

The McConnells are from Pennsylvania, and we met Christine and two of her sons during our stay in Bonnieux last summer. We joke and say that Charley “picked her up at the boulangerie,” since Charley and Christine were introduced by our baker-friend Henri Tomas, and Charley invited the family over to swim the next afternoon. Christine and her husband Jeff bought a sweet little village house near the top of Bonnieux last spring… the place our family rented when we were here this past March. Now Christine is in Bonnieux for most of July. Her stay has involved various combinations of family members: first her mom and a friend, then just her mom, then the three boys, then the arrival of husband Jeff, and when Jeff leaves on Sunday, just the three boys again for the last few days. The boys—Cameron, Curt, and Collin—are 16, 14 and 12, which is a nice combination with Kelly. We’ve gotten together several times these last few weeks to share meals and to swim and play at this big country house. We really enjoy having friends in Provence!

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The McConnell family outside the Oppède church (Jeff, Curt, Cameron, Christine and Collin)

Today we were excited to share Oppède-le-Vieux with the McConnells. It’s one of my favorite places in the Luberon… a ruined village that dates back to the Middle Ages, seemingly hanging almost half-way up the side of the Petit Luberon. Sometimes—depending on the light—it’s almost camouflaged on the mountainside. The village was once a very important place with about 900 residents inside the old walls during its peak in the 14th century. But beginning in the 16th century, people began moving down to the plain to be closer to their farming activities. Life was much easier on the level ground, and by the early 20th century the old village was deserted. After World War II a small group of artists returned to the old village, and little-by-little it is returning to life… but in a way that really preserves the magic of this old and very special place.

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Collin, Curt and Kelly pause for a photo

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July 22, 2007

Maintenant, Kelly a quatorze ans!

Our little girl is now 14 years old! And she has just celebrated her fourth consecutive birthday in Europe:

11 - Yorkshire, England.
12 - Salzkammergut, Austria.
13 - Provence, France.
14 - Provence, France.

What a life she has had already! And I feel sure that next year on July 22nd we’ll be back in Europe somewhere…

Kelly’s big birthday celebration was Saturday night: a group dinner at our little café in Bonnieux, Le Terrail. We really like the environment and the staff: our waiter-friend Michel and the waitress Nathalie. This summer we brought Michel, Nathalie and the owner Patrick ball caps from the University of Tennessee. (Though I noticed no one was wearing theirs tonight!)

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Our beautiful daughter-- now 14 years old

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July 23, 2007

Kevin again (and again... and again!)

Some 150,000 people live in the Luberon, a number that swells dramatically in the summertime. Maybe we know 100 people? One of our best friends here is Kevin Widrow, who lives outside the village of St. Saturnin-lès-Apt, about 20 minutes from Bonnieux. We met Kevin through the Slow Travel website, and we always enjoy spending time with him when we are are in the Luberon.

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With Kevin in the Colorado Rustrel (photo taken November 2004)

Last Wednesday we went with Kevin to see Le Tour de France.

The next day Kelly and I went to the Leclerc supermarché in Apt to do some grocery shopping. And there we ran into Kevin, buying various things in bulk for the bountiful breakfast he and Elisabeth serve at Le Mas Perreal.

Late Sunday morning at the Coustellet market, Kelly and I ran into Kevin again. He was buying produce in bulk from the farmers there. This was only the second time we’ve ever been to the Coustellet market...

And THEN—on Monday—Kelly and I were back at Leclerc getting groceries for the next couple of days. And THERE was Kevin again!

How strange is this?????

July 26, 2007

A Vacation from our Vacation (Bandol)

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At Cynthia and Ian's apartment in Bandol (photo by Cynthia Gillespie-Smith

I visited the town of Bandol on the Mediterranean Sea a few weeks ago when I was going to French school in Aix-en-Provence. Our friends Cynthia and Ian (the former owners of La Bastide Vieille, the house we rented when we lived in Provence) now have an apartment there and were so great to take me in for a weekend. I loved Bandol so much that I wanted Charley and Kelly to see it too. Even though we're housesitting, it isn't a problem to have a night away once or twice, and we decided we'd like to make the trip down to the sea. Cynthia found a little hotel for us right on the ocean.

And so off we went on Wednesday morning-- a vacation from our vacation! Bandol was about two hours from our house... I think it might have been less if we had taken a slightly different route, as traffic was slow through Pertuis. But Bandol is very easy to get to... just a couple of miles off the autoroute. We arrived at the Splendid Hotel right at 11 am. This is a little two star hotel on the Anse de Rènecros, a pretty circular cove off the Baie de Bandol lined with beach.

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The beach at Rènecros. The Hotel Splendid is the tall white building on the left.

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La Route des Crêtes (La Ciotat to Cassis)

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Looking down toward Cassis (photo by Kelly)

We were in no hurry to get home from Bandol, so we decided to take a little detour and take a scenic drive up along the cliffs between La Ciotat to Cassis. We had tried to do this drive last summer when we visited Cassis, but the road was closed due to high winds.

This year we did the drive in the other direction, beginning at the big beach town of La Ciotat. La Ciotat was an interesting place with several busy beaches, an attractive old port, and a big shipbuilding yard on the west end of the town. We struggled a bit to find the beginning of the Route des Crêtes, but there were several signs and then suddenly we were out of the town, making our way up a steep and narrow road.

The road is only about 12 miles long, but it takes you up to some of the tallest seaside cliffs in France (1188 feet at Cap Canaille and 1310 feet at Le Grand Tête. The scenery was spectacular, and there are several places to stop and look. Our first stop looked out over Le Ciotat, which got smaller and smaller as we climbed. We passed some very unusual rock formations. We must have stopped about six times, including a detour out to the Coastguard Station. At Cap Canaille I climbed out on a rocky point to look at the sea almost straight below. And at another stopping point, we looked out to the west to several small inlets, vineyards, and Cassis far below. We could see the boats heading out to the calanques.

A hiking trail wound along the cliffs. I'm sure this would be a breathtaking hike.

La Route des Crêtes is an absolutely fabulous drive, though not for the fainthearted, as the road is narrow and there were quite a few cars. We took our time and enjoyed the stops, finally winding our way back down toward Cassis and then on home to Bonnieux.

Enjoy the view!

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July 29, 2007

New friends, donkey races and Tilley hats

At the end of April I received an unexpected e-mail from a woman named Carol, from Winnipeg, Canada.

"I hope this is okay to email you. I have been lurking on the Slow Travel Forum for sometime. I have made a few posts, but not as many as I should have. My husband and I will be in France this summer from July 22 to August 16.... We will have two weeks in Christine's house in Bonniuex, actually thanks to you and your recommendation. I had been following the "best beach in Provence" thread and noticed that you will be in Provence around the same time as us, and if it is not too bold of me could we perhaps meet for a GTG."

We always enjoy getting together with people from Slow Travel, in the USA and in Europe. Over the last three years, I've actually met over sixty message board members! I like meeting people in person that I've "talked" to on the message board, and some of my/our closest friends are people I've met through Slow Travel.

But this GTG would be a little different... Carol knew me from the website, but since she had only posted a few times, I didn't know her! This would be sort of a blind date.

We talked by phone a few days ago, and I invited Carol and her husband Doug to meet us for our regular Saturday dinner at Le Terrail. Although they just arrived in Bonnieux late that afternoon after a long drive from Alsace, they walked down the steep streets of the village to meet us on the terrace at 8:00 pm. We had aperitifs and toasted to new friends.

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New friends Doug and Carol from Winnipeg

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July 30, 2007

Le Sentier des Ocres at Roussillon

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The beautiful, unique village of Roussillon

We think Roussillon is the most unique village in the Luberon. It's colors are distinctive-- various shades and combinations of reds, browns and yellows, resulting from the building materials that came from the earth. The village is built on a high hill between the Luberon mountains and the Vaucluse Plateau along the world's biggest vein of ochre, a mineral that was once mined extensively in this area for its colors. Other ochre villages in the Luberon are Gargas, Villars, Rustrel, and Gignac. Roussillon is by far the best known, and because of it's exceptional and very colorful environment, today it's an appealing location for artists and photographers. The buildings all draw on the various colors and shades of ochre, accented by other colors for doors and shutters. The places is magical-- and as a result, it's a major attraction for tourists. We prefer to go early in the day, in the evening or on the off-season.

Although ochre is no longer an active industrial pursuit in this area, the old quarries have resulted in some distinctly unusual landscape-- part natural and part the result of man's work. We've enjoyed walking and hiking in the Colorado Rustrel, a large ochre area northeast of Apt. And we've come to Roussillon many times before to wander up the streets to the lookout point up above the church and have a good meal. But somehow we had never managed to visit Le Sentier des Ocres, a walking trail through the old ochre quarres of Roussillon. That was our destination today.

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Entering Le Sentier des Ocres

Continue reading "Le Sentier des Ocres at Roussillon" »

Lesson learned: when NOT to go to the supermarché!

I normally love shopping at the E. Leclerc supermarché in Apt. It's a big store and just a couple of years old... perhaps not quite a hypermarché (superstore), though there are some clothes, housewares, office supplies, and hardware. I like looking at all the food and the way it's displayed... the differences in what is sold here vs. what we'd find at our Kroger's at home. I even have a customer card at Leclerc, that earns me a bit of cash back every time I shop.

After our little trip to the Sentier des Ocres in Roussillon, Charley remembered that he had to go to Bricomarché, a do-it-yourself home improvement store. (He's building a new pantry for our friends to thank them for letting us stay at their house this summer.) And then I decided that since we were in Apt, we could go ahead and make a quick trip to Leclerc, avoiding another trip tomorrow. It was going on 12 noon, and we've often found lunchtime a good time to go... while everyone else is eating.

BUT NOT TODAY! Leclerc was a madhouse!! The aisles were jammed, people were lined up at the fish and cheese counters, and there was a mob of people at the cash registers. The cash register lines extended back into the aisles. Many people had children, and we heard lots of people speaking languages other than French. People were filling their carts with cases of bottled water, soft drinks, beer, toilet paper, and even some food.

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The mass of shoppers at Leclerc

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July 31, 2007

A morning in St. Saturnin-lès-Apt

We've visited the nearby village of St. Saturnin-lès-Apt several times, mainly in connection with our hiking. We've met our friend Kevin there for coffee before beginning a walk or had our normal after-hike beer at one of the three cafes. Once we had lunch there with Kelly. We felt like we knew the village well, and what we knew, we liked. But strangely, we'd never been up to the big château ruins above the village, and it was a "must" on our list for this trip.

St. Saturnin is one of the larger village in the Luberon with a population of almost 2400 people. More recently-constructed houses cluster around the old village, but they harmonize well with the environment, mostly stained in ochre colors. The full name of the village is St. Saturnin-lès-Apt, which differentiates it from a fairly large number of other towns named for Saint Saturninus (also known as Saint Sernin), including another village in the Vaucluse, St. Saturnin-lès-Avignon.

This morning we decided to go over early and have our breakfast at one of the cafes. I also wanted to visit a local artisan's workshop to make a purchase for a friend We crossed the N100 and took the road that connects Gordes and St. Saturnin, passing by the turn for the hamlet of Croagnes where we'd started our walk to the Falaise de Lioux. The Mistral wind we've had for the last three days had cleared, the temperatures were extremely pleasant, and the sky was again that clear, clear blue. Another gorgeous day in the Luberon!

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Looking down on the village from the chateau ruins

We spotted the workshop of Martine Guimet on the west side of the village, but decided we first needed breakfast and headed toward the main square. Much to our surprise, today (Tuesday) was market day. We were interested to see what sort of market St. Saturnin had. We also wondered if we would run into Kevin again, but I'll go ahead and end the suspense... here in his very own village, we didn't see him!

The market sellers were still setting up. We stopped in the boulangerie by the little bronze horse sculpture, bought croissants and a baguette, and sat down at a table at the St. Hubert. If a cafe doesn't sell bread (and many don't), it's perfectly okay to buy your bread elsewhere and eat it there. I thought I remembered this particular boulangerie having a broader selection, but it didn't have the beignets I wanted, so I wandered down the street a few doors and found the other (better) boulangerie/patisserie, and bought tiny sugary beignets (donuts) and two chocolate sacristans. We devoured almost everything, eating much more breakfast than we had planned.

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August 1, 2007

Dinner at L’Arôme

Tonight was one of our special dinners out for this trip. We went to L’Arôme, a restaurant in Bonnieux that just opened this spring. Charley and I ate there in May and really, really liked it. It's special. There was actually something on the menu that we thought Kelly would like too. We called our new Slow Travel friends Doug and Carol and invited them to join us. Doug and Charley didn't wear their Tilley hats this time!

L’Arôme is located on a tiny, tiny street called the Rue Lucien Blanc, which stretches between the Rue Victor Hugo and the Place Gambetta. It is owned by a couple, Clara and Jean-Michel. Jean-Michel is the chef and Clara manages the service. We were attended by Clara, a woman (who may have been Clara's mother, and a young man. The service was attentive and helpful. We interacted in French, so I'm not sure about English... though I believe they may have English menus available.

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Outside the L’Arôme

The setting is quite special-- built into the hillside in two adjoining caves of beautiful limestone. There are three intimate and very attractive dining rooms and two small terraces out on the street for outdoor dining. The kitchen is open to one of the dining rooms.

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August 3, 2007

On the Petit Luberon

Our family time in Provence this summer is coming to an end, Kelly and I take the train to Paris on Thursday morning, so we have less than a week to go. I keep reminding myself that many people come here and just spend a week, but for me, a month really isn't enough. I'm not ready to go yet!!!

We've laid out a plan for the days in this final week, going back to review the list we made when we first arrived. We've eliminated several items (we'll check out Carpentras some other time) and tried to make sure that the priorities for each of us are included.

My personal priorities are hiking, eating, and some down time as a family. This has been a leisurely summer for us, and I don't want to rush around too much the last several days. Also, we're all sensitive that we won't be together as a family again until September 30. Charley is staying in Europe when Kelly and I go home, and I'll meet him back here for The Luberon Experience trips in mid-September. But he and Kelly will be apart for about seven weeks-- by far the longest they've ever been separated. Yesterday they made a Father-Daughter trip to Marseille, mainly to visit the Chateau d'If. (I was in Marseille for a Luberon Experience day trip in May, so I stayed at home to catch up on some projects.) Charley says he will write a little something about their experience in Marseille, and Kelly has some great photos.

This morning we did a hike that was on my list-- from Bonnieux up the Petit Luberon and then back down another route. This is actually only the third time we've hiked up the Petit Luberon, though we've done a lot of hiking on and around it. Somehow-- looking up at the mountain-- I find it intimidating to think about going from the bottom straight up to the top, but today we found it wasn't really all that difficult. The Petit Luberon isn't a huge mountain-- only 2358 feet at the peak-- but it's just the idea of it! The spectacular vistas make it well-worth the effort.

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On the way back down to Bonnieux

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The Best Lunch: A Market Picnic with Friends

Friday is market day in Bonnieux, and after our hike we went up to do some shopping. We had invited our new friends Doug and Carol to come to our house for lunch after the market, and we needed to buy our provisions. We told them we'd meet them at 12 noon in front of Le Terrail, and then we'd drive together down to the house.

The Bonnieux market isn't big like Apt or L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, but we're partial to it because it's our village and it's convenient and it's festive. Most of the market takes place on the Place Gambetta (where Le Terrail and several other restaurants are located), but it also spills down several smaller streets. There's always a couple singing in front of Le Terrail, which makes it fun, and we always see sellers we know and friends from the village. The first person Kelly and I saw was our waiter friend Michel, and then we saw Doug and Carol. This was their first market in Provence, and they were having a great time.

I think a market picnic is just about the best lunch you can have in Provence... a casual meal that requires very little work, with everything bought fresh that morning. Charley parked the car, went to the boulangerie, and then had a coffee at Le Terrail where he ran into our friend Janice. Kelly and I did the more serious shopping, making the rounds of our usual stands.

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Our market picnic on the terrace: Kelly, Carol, Doug and Charley

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A Father-Daughter Day in Marseille (post by Charley)

Our family has been in Provence now for about four weeks: housesitting, hiking, sightseeing, visiting with friends, and enjoying the rustic Provençal food and wine. Our summer idyll is coming to an end, though, with Kathy and Kelly returning home to America for the start of a new school year for both—Kelly the student and Kathy the professor.

Since they have planned a mother-daughter foray into Paris on the way home—and the fact that I wouldn’t see Kelly for about seven weeks, it seemed a good idea to have a father-daughter time, at least a day, before they departed.

One of Kelly’s eighth grade English assignments was to read Alexander Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo.” She loved the book and convinced me that I should also read it. It’s wonderful. It’s quite obvious why books like this are called “classics.” A crucial part of the plot is centered in Marseille and its island prison, the Château d’If.

So Marseille and the Château d’If it was. A visit to France’s oldest and second-largest city; combined with a literary element, seemed the ideal father-daughter outing. The fact that Marseille is a beautiful city on the stunning Mediterranean Sea made it all the better.

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The Château d’If

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August 4, 2007

The Apt Market (the summer story)

Our family really enjoys the outdoor Provençal markets, an important part of the cultural experience in this area. When you are living here for a period of time or have a vacation rental, you're not just shopping for tablecloths or pottery or soap to take home... you're buying cheese, tomatoes, potatoes, maybe even a potato peeler.

Our favorite market is the Saturday morning market in the nearby town of Apt, considered one of the best markets in all of France. In 2005 I wrote a piece about the Apt market for the Slow Travel website. This was based on our experiences at the market from October until mid-April, the off-season. Now I'll tell the summer story...

The Apt market is busy and active year-round because it's the major market town for this area of the Luberon. But in the summer the market is much larger: more sellers, more shoppers, more traffic, more street performers... and more heat. The local shoppers may be outnumbered by the tourists, and they even run shuttle buses from remote parking at the old train station. Despite the crowds and the heat, we went to the Apt market all four Saturdays of this summer's stay in Provence.

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Summer shoppers at the Apt market

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August 8, 2007

Guests for dinner

We always seem to have an active social life when we come to Provence... actually much busier than our social calendar at home in Tennessee. We've made quite a few local friends-- some are French, some are expatriates who live here permanently, and some are regular visitors like us.

Sometimes we connect with friends at a restaurant, or we meet for a hike. We've been invited to friends' homes, and we also like to invite people here. This summer we decided we wanted to invite several of our local friends here for dinner, a way to thank them for everything they've done for us. We decided to do small dinners instead of mixing people up. This has been another high point of our summer in the Luberon.

It's an interesting challenge to prepare and host a meal for French friends or even for expats who have socialized to the French lifestyle. What to fix? The French truly are a culture that cares about food and doing things right, and it's easy for a relative newcomer like me to be intimidated. Although I feel very comfortable cooking French dishes for my American friends at home, I sure didn't want to flub a meal for our French friends by trying too hard to "be" French. Instead I decided that for each dinner I would prepare a more typical American meal but following the French pattern for a meal: aperitif, entree, main course, cheese, and dessert. Kelly was my assistant chef and handled the desserts on her own. I brought over a secret ingredient-- a big bottle of barbeque sauce-- that I planned to use in at least a few meals, creating a bit of a southern flair.

Our first visitors were Henri Tomas, his wife Rosa, and Rosa's sister Sylvia, visiting from Argentina. We had been invited to their home last summer. for a very special evening. This was an interesting multi-cultural experience because Henri doesn't speak really any English, Rosa speaks just a little English, and Sylvia speaks quite good English-- but no French... oh, and then our family's French is of varying proficiency. There was not one common language for all, so we conversed in a mix of French, English and Spanish.

Far beyond the language challenges, this meal ended up having the most challenges. It was too cool to eat outside, at the last minute the grill didn't work... and then we learned that Henri couldn't eat spicy food since it impacted his ability to taste the sweet delicacies in his patisserie. Fortunately I hadn't yet covered all the chicken in barbeque sauce and was able to saute two breasts in olive oil with some herbes de Provence. The rest of the chicken I ended up panfrying in olive oil and then sauteeing in barbeque sauce... quite an interesting variation actually. Henri then decided he could probably eat the barbeque sauce after all, mixed it with creme fraiche and poured it on his herbes de Provence chicken. We also had baked beans (not very good... difficult with the local ingredients) and corn-on-the cob. Henri and Rosa brought a tart for dessert, and Kelly served fresh fruit.

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Henri, Sylvia, Rosa and Kelly

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The sun sets on another summer in the Luberon...

We had some great plans for our last couple of days in the Luberon: dinner with Doug and Carol at Domaine de Layaude Basse, another hike, a day trip to the Ardeche.

Unfortunately, I was sick the last three days. We had company for dinner Sunday and Monday, and I got sick during the dinner on Monday. After our trip to the Coustellet market on Sunday morning, I didn't leave the house until we left for the train station on Thursday morning! On Tuesday I barely even left the bedroom.

I did read one very good book (Almost French: Love and a New Life in Paris by Sarah Turnbull), but other than that, my last several days are a blur.

This was definitely a disappointing way to end my summer in Provence. I'm almost never sick!! And I really wanted to go to the Ardeche! Charley and Kelly ran a few errands in the village and got some medicine for me at the pharmacy. I felt badly that my problems impacted their last couple of days too. I had a little rice for dinner on Tuesday and some chicken on Wednesday... and I slowly started to feel better. I was worried at one point that I wouldn't be able to make the trip up to Paris, but on Thursday morning I was feeling better. Not great, but well enough.

The Mistral wind returned this week, bringing with it very clear crisp skies and cooler temperatures. On Tuesday night I looked up out the bedroom window and saw this beautiful sunset. I called Kelly to come take some pictures. It was one of the best sunsets we've seen. On Wednesday afternoon we even had some very heavy rain. The weather has been very different this summer.

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Beautiful sunset on Tuesday night (photo by Kelly)

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August 31, 2008

Experiences in the Luberon

Our family travel blog has been out of commission for a while. We did go to Europe this summer, but I decided to take a vacation from the blog.

Right now I'm testing ways to incorporate a slide show into our Luberon Experience website. These photos come from the nine trips we've led so far and give you a look at a typical week with our groups. We're leaving in ten days for groups ten and eleven.

(Just click on the photo below to move through the show.)


February 19, 2009

My Secret Spot in the Luberon

Have you ever wondered about the stone structure in the photo on my blog header? This is a place that's very special to us, and I thought I would tell its story today-- at least as it relates to us.

The building is a "borie," a type of stone hut that is found throughout the Luberon area of Provence. The huts were constructed of stones cleared from the surrounding fields, made without mortar, the stones stacked a certain way to make them sturdy against the Mistral winds. Some of the bories were used as shepherds' dwellings, a place to shelter while they were tending to sheep or goats in remote areas. Others were used as animal pens, to store tools, or to protect a water source. Many bories stand alone, but some bories are clustered in settlements. (See this blog post about L'Enclos des Bories near Bonnieux.)

We've spotted many bories in our travels around Provence, especially while hiking. I'm not sure why, but I have a real fascination with bories. I've read that the earliest bories date to the Neolithic Age. (I'm sure these are now just piles of stone.) Most of the bories that still remain are from the 18th and 19th century, when there was a big emphasis on agricultural development and new fields were cleared of stone. There are a few thousand bories in Provence, and they are protected and catalogued in the Parc Naturel Regional du Luberon as an important part of the patrimoine. The Parc's logo is a borie.

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We discovered the borie in my blog header photo while hiking near the village of Saignon in July 2006. Our trail emerged from the woods into a field, and there on the right at the end of a field was this beautiful borie. It was almost a magical moment

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The first time we saw the borie

I'd actually admired this borie before-- on calendars and postcards, surrounded by lavender. Although there was some lavender nearby the first time we saw the borie, there's not much lavender in the field these days... just wildflowers. We visit the borie a couple times a year and I always take photos. It's just is a short walk off a little road in an isolated area, but you have to know that it's there. You can't see it from the road and there's definitely not a sign. The borie seems different depending on the season, the weather and even the time of day. The photo at the top of my blog was taken in May, the field dotted with colorful wildflowers; by September the field is dry and brown. I want visit the borie in winter, to see it in a field of snow. Sometime I will live in Provence again in winter.

I'd love to know the story of this borie. When was it built? Has it been restored? It's so perfectly constructed, with its pointed spike at the top. There's a sizeable well and a bit of a wall. Did a shepherd make his home here a few hundred years ago, tending to his sheep in solitude? Who owns the field now? I wish I could let them know how much this special place means to me.

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