Just Like Colorado, though with Castles and Vineyards and Oysters

From Provence we drove west, towards the Languedoc-Roussillon region and our base for the next eight nights, Lagrasse. And west it felt… the wind was blowing fiercely along the A61 (highway), kind of like it can in Colorado and Wyoming (for those who do not know, I was born in Idaho, but moved to northern Colorado at 1 ½ and lived there for most of my life). Then we turned off down the D212 and into the L’Orbieu river valley. The dry vegetation, the gentle gradient of the hills, the coloring all increased the association with Colorado/Wyoming. Then a tumbleweed blew across the road and sealed the deal. Thank goodness for all the vineyards and stunning stone homes and distant ruins or I would have been completely confused.

In all seriousness, this region is stunning. I can’t believe I never got to this part of France before. Elements of the landscape bear a strong resemblance to parts of the arid West I love dearly. But here it includes endless vineyards, stunning in their fall colors. And ancient abbeys. The Abbey de Lagrasse, visible from our apartment, dates from the 8th century with stones laid by Charlemagne. And ruins of Cathar castles atop mountainsides (really, atop them; provisioning them must have been hard enough let alone build them). Oh, and coastline with oysters… So kind of like Colorado, only better in some wonderful ways.

Here as in Provence we rented an apartment for about a week, the Riverside Gite. Also as in Provence, we rented in an old stone building near a river; this one backed right to the Orbieu. Actually a really old stone building, with the back wall dating to the 14th century. And a view down the river to a bridge built in 1303.

A few highlights from the week:

Lagrasse
Another town included in the listing of “The Most Beautiful Villages of France” that is highly deserving of the praise. The view coming into town is stunning, especially with the fall colors (abbey, river, bridges, old stone buildings, winding streets…). The town is fairly central to sights throughout the region, especially the Corbières. Though all roads in and out were windy and some very narrow; never boring driving.

The town has about seven restaurants, though the summer season being over, only about three were open. A couple of small groceries, a wine store with mostly natural wines, an old market place (outside our door) with a Saturday market with great local vendors, and literally right outside our door, two designers with their own stores and several other artisans throughout the town.

The ground floor of our building houses a store run by a husband and wife who do jewelry (she) and made-to-measure clothing (he), some with vintage couture fabrics. EPPO. Next door (and the first place I stepped into when we were totally lost looking for our apartment) is Beverly Smart. Instantly knew I had to return there. As Jeff would tell you I did, several times. Got a lot of great tips about the region from her. And about how to bake a round of Mont D’Or cheese in the oven (poke holes in it, insert slivers of garlic, pour white wine over the whole thing and bake for about 20 minutes). That made an amazing dinner with potatoes and bread to sop up the cheese. Beverly’s store is a beautiful, calm space. All white walls with clothes she designs and makes and jewelry she finds and/or creates in collaboration with female artisans in South Africa (a venture that started when she went to visit a friend, found amazing artisans there and wanted to work with them, so kept going back, sound familiar???). Beverly is quite tall and always made clothes for herself. Her designs are all clothes you would want to wear about anywhere, anytime. Somehow elegant and structured, yet at the same time casual and easy. I’m typing this all in a long-sleeve cape-like wrap top. Hard to describe and hard to take off. She left a high-stress job in her late 20s following a gut instinct to move to France (to Lagrasse) and ultimately found this work. A good sign such bold moves can work out.

My favorite winery? The one next to the car park near our apartment, Domaine Durand. Small garage where a father and son make easy-to-drink, spicy yet light red wines. Made for some good drinking and was fun to say hi to father and son as we saw them around town that week. Close second was the cooperative in Camplong.

Cathar Castles
If you had asked me before about the Cathars, I would have said “Oh yes, I know about them.” If asked to provide any details… We were right in the heart of Cathar country in the Corbières, so a quick trip to Wikipedia, several other sites, and a book in the lobby of our building helped fill in the history. For more information, see Cathar Wiki and Cathar Castles (to see the book go to Lagrasse…). In very brief terms, Catharism was a branch of Christianity that did not follow the Catholic Church and was the subject of the Church’s first crusade against fellow Catholics. From the 13th through the 14th centuries the Catholic Church decimated all those following the religion, thought to be tolerant of those following the religion, etc. etc. And as the Church and political rule was intimately tied together, the wars extended to issues between France and the then separate “Pays D’Oc”.

Today there stand many ruins of Cathar castles, strongholds atop mountains. We visited two, Peyrepetruse and Quéribus. Absolutely stunning and a bit magical. We visited on foggy days, and with the clouds swirling in and amongst the ruins, you could almost imagine being there in any century.

Mediterranean
We made two daytrips to the Mediterranean. The first day was a walk between Leucate Plage and La Franqui, along the bluffs overlooking the sea. Once in La Franqui we had an amazing lunch. We learned you could do the set menus with one person getting an entrée (appetizer) and main dish and the other getting a main dish and a desert, an effort to reduce our gluttony a bit. Here we shared and entrée of mussels with butternut squash ‘fries’, followed by steak for Jeff and white fish in a crab bisque sauce for me, and a molten chocolate cake with caramel center for desert. Paired with excellent local wines. We then walked a bit in the ocean, then put our shoes back on for the return to Leucate and a visit to, hooray, the oyster shacks. Had a dozen on site plus another dozen to take home. Two dozen oysters plus wine for 15 euros… These were good, firm and salty (but I’m still a Normandy oyster gal). And yes, this day was as good as it sounds.

The next beach foray was to Collioure, close to the border with Spain. A quintessential seaside town with brightly colored buildings rising up from the harbors, an old fort/castle, plenty of ice cream, and anchovy processors. Fauvism started here, inspired by the light. Plaques around town show where Matisse and Derain painted. Here another delicious lunch, highlight was a seafood risotto for me and smoky, spicy chorizo risotto for Jeff. Couldn’t resist picking up seashells, rocks and sea glass, but in an effort to keep our load lighter, just took a picture and threw them back at the ocean.

Historical Cities
Day one in the region we visited Carcassonne, a “new” city and an “old” city, the Cité de Carcassonne, a medieval fortress restored in the 1850s. Wandered all over the old city, including around the fortress walls. Never would a tourist site in the US allow people to be up on such unprotected edges. Was fantastic. In the “new” city had lunch at a café in the town center, which it turns out is a well-known and loved place, Chez Félix. Then walked along the Canal du Midi and to the art museum. Check out this man’s shoes.

And in Carcassonne finally found my local beauty product! Walking towards the castle noticed a little shop done up in pale blues. Turns out this blue coloring was made from the woad or pastel plant (scientific name Isatis Tinctoria). Toulouse was famous for production of pastel, exporting “cocagne”, little balls of dried pastel. Production declined in the 1800s and was recently revived. The plant has a long history of cosmetic and medical uses and “Graine de Pastel” has created a line of face and body products, soaps and so much more. As I was about to celebrate a birthday, I bought a few items from the ‘anti-aging’ line. Will see how it does! The store clerk patiently explained all about the history, product and company, answering my many questions. She was obviously a devoted fan (has worked for the company for over four years), and told me they have just started a push to open more stores in France and abroad. So if anyone is interested in opening an outlet, let them know!

Albi
Finally, we made a day trip to Albi, home of Toulouse-Lautrec. This is technically part of the Midi-Pyrénées and is undoubtedly a beautiful city. Unlike the other areas we visited, Albi was built primarily with brick, so it has a very different look and feel. We had an amazing lunch at L’Epicurien, a restaurant recommended by a friend. Three courses starting with lentils and salami, followed by white fish on potatoes with an herbed ‘foam’ sauce, followed by three small cream puffs. Amazing.

After lunch we toured the massive cathedral of Sainte-Cécile. A truly beautiful ceiling and interesting feature in the middle. A highly ornate gate across the middle of the church. Apparently all/most cathedrals had this. Had to keep the commoners on one side and the nobility on another. Did not learn a lot of endearing historical facts about the Church on this trip…

From here we walked across the square and waited for the Toulouse-Lautrec museum to reopen (nearly everything closes for lunch). Housed in the Palais de la Berbie (palace built by the bishops of Albi), it is the largest collection of Toulouse-Lautrec works. I have long been a fan of his works. Too much has been written about his work to add much here, but in a nutshell, for me he captures the anguish and despair of life, while somehow conveying its beauty and wonder. And he does so with such a restrained elegance. A single line, a small sweep of color, and a world of emotion is conveyed. The beauty continued with a walk to the river Tarn. The light was magical, with stunning reflections of the bridges.

There’s so very much more to share about this region and our short time there, but if I don’t stop here this will never go online. But just for the heck of it, here are photos of fabulous mustard in a little to go package, our cassoulet, and perhaps my favorite French food, fromage blanc.

Three Themes in Provence

Provence, just saying the word makes me relax a bit and dream of “the good life”. Countless movies, glasses of rosé wine, and lavender products have probably contributed to that. And the area did not disappoint (though as noted before we missed the lavender fields by a couple of months… one reason among many to return). We were based for a week in the Luberon, perhaps the heart of, and certainly the most well known part of Provence. This is where the movie A Good Year was set and the region about which Peter Mayle wrote.

How to sum up a week there? Every day could be a full blog post, though every day was so full time slipped away for writing here. So here is an overview by recurring themes. Three come to mind: village markets, hill towns, and of course, treasures.

Village Markets
Nearly every town has a market day and we managed to visit at least three – Lourmarin, Apt, and L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. They all feature fabulous food, artisanal products, clothing and more. The one in Lourmarin seemed most geared to tourists (it’s a fantastically beautiful town with an old castle, so it is a top destination in the Luberon). The one in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue had everything other towns have, plus numerous antique stalls as the town is filled with amazing antique stores. The one in Apt was the most “real.” Luckily for us we arrived on a Thursday night in Apt, and with its market day on Saturday, we were able to ‘shop like locals’ to provision our apartment.

Quick aside – this is our apartment in Apt.

I was confused while looking for places, not sure why there were so many apartments, abbreviation “apt” in this one region. Finally figured out there’s a town named Apt. Aha. Decided that although it is not the most charming town in the Luberuon, it looked nice enough and that being based in a slightly larger town/very small city could work well. Plus the place seemed perfect, La Madone. An independent apartment, but within a larger house with local hosts. So we could make meals, have a bit of space, but not be fully on our own to navigate the ins and outs of a rental. Plus every morning the owner Natalie comes to the door and hangs a linen bag filled with chocolate croissant, butter croissant and half baguette. Absolutely spoiled.

Back to the market. All but one photo come from Apt. Special note about the paté from Maison Border. Simply delicious products, all made by Olivier, the grandson of the founder. The four tins we bought served us well for several dinners in the weeks to come. One photo from L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue of what… oysters of course. The vendor clearly thought I was crazy, but he shucked half a dozen oysters from near Marseille, and the kind vegetable vendor next door threw over a lemon (bought some of the best plums I’ve ever tasted from him after).

Hill Towns
Beyond its fame as an epicenter of the ‘good life’, the Luberon is famous for its hill towns. This region (as with so many around the world) was subject to regular warfare. I’m not an expert in the many wars that swept across what is now France, but throughout the centuries, those in power built castles and populations settled in walled towns. In the Luberon, hills abound and many of these towns were built upon hilltops. In the last centuries many fell into ruin. Today the Luberon features these towns in all states, from nearly full restoration to still in decay. We visited numerous little towns: Gordes, Rousillon, Ménerbes, Bonnieux, St-Saturin-les-Apt, Lacoste, Oppede-le-Vieux, Goult. Many of these are registered in the association of “Les Plus Beaux Villages de France”. Never tired of them. Beautiful stones, plants, houses, settings, cafés and on and on. Again, the pictures speak loudest.

Some highlights. Locals all directed us to the town of Goult, and they were not wrong. We visited this next to last and it was the most beautiful of them all. If we return to Provence, we’ll rent a place there. From Goult we did a couple hour hike, getting ourselves a bit lost here and there, but always surrounded by beautiful countryside: ancient ruins, streams, terraced vineyards. One thing with hiking in France, though they terrace vineyards, they don’t seem at all interested in switchbacks. It’s straight up and straight down these hills.

Lacoste was home to a castle owned by the Marquis de Sade. It had rained hard the night before we visited. Still overcast and misty, the town had an eerie feel to it, and on one particularly steep slope Jeff slipped and cut his hand. What should normally have been a little scrape was in fact a pretty deep gouge and took a while to heal, even though we cleaned it and did everything as you should. I’m convinced it was the Marquis continuing his evil ways.

In Bonnieux we managed to land at the ‘locals’ pizzeria. Had a great conversation with two Brits who live there and witnessed an American woman come close to breakdown. Seemed to be a group of father and wife and their son or daughter and his or her husband or wife. All very well dressed, in an expensive car. Upon leaving, the mother asked when the store that advertised sales of “spiritiuex” (hard alcohol) opened (meaning after lunch, everything closes for lunch). The owner said “jamais” (meaning never, because it like so many other places was closed for the season). At this the woman broke down and asked with great exasperation where she could please find a bottle of vodka. Sometimes travel really takes it out of you…

Gordes was simply stunning.

Treasures
Traveling with the expressed purpose of “finding beautiful things made by interesting people” provided full license to explore the many treasures on display in the Luberon. Sure, there is plenty of kitsch and the typical “Provencal” busy fabrics (sorry to those who love them, just not my style). There are also some beautiful and interesting crafts and creations.

Linen. No pictures of his booth, but found a vendor, Les Voiles de Lin, at the Lourmarin market with exquisite linen by the yard, plus some beautiful scarves. I could not resist one in a loose weave made with natural dyes (below I’m wearing it at a café). We also found some elegant (and heavy) table linens at the Apt market. Clever name of “Lin et L’Autre”“Lin et L’Autre” (play on the saying “one and another”). This woman and her partner hand make these classic pieces with contrasting borders.

Pottery. Unfortunately this vendor, Dany of Terre et Soleil, was adamantly opposed to people photographing her wares. I would have bought plenty if we weren’t traveling so much longer. As it is I broke down and bought a coffee mug, the only one with a photo. Her other pieces included bowls of all sizes in a variety of deep and vibrant colors and patterns, plus beautiful jugs and plates and on and on. She was at nearly every market we visited.

Provencial ceramics

Coffee is better in a mug from Provence

Miscellaneous. One stall, Ecolochic Concept, again at all markets, had products made from the type of tabs found on soda cans. All hand-knit together into belts, purses, even halter-tops. Lots of beautiful leather bracelets. Deeply lustrous olivewood bowls, boards, spoons, etc.

Scarves. So hard to restrain myself. I did buy the natural linen one. I was very tempted by these raw silk scarves from Madagascar (the owner of this stall works with a cooperative there that hand looms them).

Raw silk scarves from Madagascar

Raw silk scarves in the Lourmarin market

Olive Oil
From what we heard, there’s been a revival of olive oil production in France. Several small towns showed off their local presses, and this store featured olive oils in three states: young green olives, slightly more mature olives, and matured black olives. You could taste many varieties of all three and really get a good sense of the variety of flavors, all made by “small” producers.

Tea. Amongst the antique stores in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue I found a light and bright tea store, Florel en Provence. Apparently the company has been making teas since 1989 and just opened this flagship store less than a year ago, with a colorful array of organic teas crafted in Provence. The herbal teas are made primarily from plants grown in the south of France.

And one final note… Hospitality
One of the finest things to experience – true hospitality. We were incredibly fortunate to be taken in for an otherwise wet and miserable night by a creative and very interesting couple. It goes like this, through Facebook and a shared love of animals and the protection of their wellbeing, my sister knows an Irish woman who has a home in Provence. When my sister learned we were traveling to France, she sent her a note to say we’d be there and to see if she had any suggestions to help us best experience the region. So on a windy, rainy day, this lovely Irish woman met us in a parking lot and drove us to her stunning “typical” Provencal stone home. A fire was raging in the fireplace and it stayed that way all night. What started out to be a glass of wine and some light snacks turned into a dinner party that lasted until 2 in the morning (with an (accepted) offer to stay the night). Said evening consisted of: Countless bottles of local wines; a long list of what not to miss in the region; delicious salmon; great Irish cheeses (yes we ate Irish cheese in France); wonderful music, including Keith Richards latest album; intellectual and stimulating discussions of art, current events, cultural differences; the lowdown on the ups and downs of living in France; all punctuated by the coming and going of two adorable black Scotties. Note the shaky image is not the result of wine, it’s that somehow the camera was stuck on shutter speed 200… Finally, our hostess finally helped me to find the unique local body products I’d been searching for. Turns out the grocery stores carry a line called Le Petit Olivier. Maybe it’s in the US and I haven’t seen it. But rather than search the little boutiques for my natural local brand, it appears I should have been in the big grocery stores. Fantastic array of products including more than soap… Bought some super cream without spending a fortune. Hoping actually I will find this back home in the supermarket, even if it means it’s been ‘discovered’ already…

VaisonlaRomaine Lion

Vaucluse

It is October and Europe has moved fully into fall, so rather than tarry any longer in the north of France, our plan was to head south. From Paris we made it to Gare de Lyon and a TGV (high speed) train to Avignon. Trains here are such a comfortable and sane way to travel. Like so many others, I will now briefly lament the lack of quality (speed, comfort, reliability) train travel in the US, sigh…. OK done.

Met a very interesting couple from Johannesburg, South Africa traveling for two weeks in Europe with their two small children. Talked about searching for ancestral roots (she turned up on a German farmer’s doorstep who was likely a very distant cousin, but with very limited German they didn’t get much further than a few nods).

Our first stop in southern France was Provence. First in the Vaucluse region at a ‘splurge’ of a place, http://en.leclossaintsaourde.com. It’s a category of hotel known as “Maison d’Hôtes”, basically a B&B. This was recommended by a friend, especially given the super-knowledgeable owner who I had hoped could provide us lots of great tips for wineries, villages, restaurants, and any number of out-of-the-way places that in my imagination he shared with us as we all poured over our beautiful road map. Here is where doing more prior research would have been helpful. Apparently the owner now resides in Canada and hasn’t been there for three years. OK, so the best local guide angle didn’t work out exactly as planned, but the nice and knowledgeable manager was beyond kind and very helpful. We also had the place entirely to ourselves, it was absolutely beautiful, and the location was perfect to visit the region. Here’s a peak at our luxurious start in Provence:

Briefly, the other expectation that was never realized… finding great local face, hair and body products. Not saying this was a catastrophe by any means, more surprising. I looked all over at markets, stores, pharmacies (in France pharmacies carry lots of great body products, one of my guilty pleasures when visiting the country), and more. I asked everyone I could find. I found great soaps. There are some fantastic local soap makers, but almost no lotions and other such potions. If we were ever to move here and start up a business, I might go into making lotion, body oils, and hair conditioner.

Speaking of soaps, Savonnerie des Dentelles is a small company in the town where we stayed. Everyone we talked to in town had great things to say about them, and I got a chance to visit on our last day. The owners, husband and wife, left their first jobs to be in the country and to work with natural fragrances (he had been in the perfume business as I recall). She had worked as a sculptor, but since the recession, that became more difficult. For both, their company is a way to create a healthy product (all natural), and a healthy lifestyle for themselves and their family. I bought a couple of soaps, and have been using one made from donkey milk. It smells great (yarrow) and is definitely more hydrating than other soaps (though not as much as lotion, which they actually are bringing to marking in a couple of months). Their store is a beautiful jumble of colors. And I especially liked that they offer soaps at lower prices (and some for free even, “Servez Vous”) that are the ‘between runs’ in colors, fragrances, or both. This is done especially to provide something of value to the local market.

As opposed to my mostly futile search for body products, we found more than enough wonderful wine. Following an itinerary put together by Rick Steves and our hotel manager, we made it to the town of Gigondas. I’ve always loved that wine, partly because it has complexity and spice, partly because the word is fun to say, “Gigondas”. The town is beautiful:

From here we visited a biodynamic winery, Le Clos du Joncuas and bought more wine than expected. All of it so good, the rosé was outstanding. Light but structured. The winery is run by two sisters, continuing the company their grandfather started. Interestingly, the sister who poured our tastings (and by the way, tastings here in France are easily 2-3 times the size of US tastings and not one winery has charged a penny… When/why did US wineries start charging? Is there an essential etiquette of wine tasting the Americans didn’t get that the French public does?) pointed out that in her grandfather’s time, everyone was using “natural” techniques, there wasn’t any other option. What we consider to be “conventional” techniques with chemical fertilizer and pesticide have only been around since the late 1940s. So it was just their father’s choice to stay “natural”, just one generation, that has allowed them to be “organic” from inception.

Before Gigondas, we spent the morning in Vaison La Romaine at their weekly market (most towns in Provence have a market at least one day during the week with everything from produce to sweaters to fancy vegetable cutters like you see on TV). I had tried to stay in Vaison La Romaine my last time in this region, in 1992. Then it had suffered a devastating flood, just days before my arrival. I couldn’t stay the night, but did walk through the town (there’s history in my family with floods, something for another story). Sitting firmly in my mind’s eye is the image of a bathroom sink, about two feet of flooring around it, clinging to a wall of a house above the river Ouvèze. The rest of the room, and the building, had been swept away. A toothbrush and toothpaste were still on the sink. The town has solidly rebuilt, as has apparently the entire area (they took the flood seriously and invested in many improvements we were told). The first century Roman bridge survived that flood and this time we walked across it and up into the medieval city that sits above the ‘modern’ one (that would be the one sitting between two ancient Roman ruins).

Found some beautiful scarves in the market, from a very animated and enthusiastic man (beyond market days, he has scarves and more at a store in town, Maka, 4 Rue Raspail). Scarves around our neck, we could now feel more French, but had to resist buying just about everything else (especially this umbrella which called out to me for some reason).

Other highlight of Vaucluse? Nature. We got out one day and despite mistral winds up to 70 km/hour did an eight kilometer hike around the “Dentelles de Montmirail”. Way back in 1992, I climbed here, invited by a group of French climbers staying at the same place I found when Vaison was no longer an option. Can’t say I remember where exactly we had climbed, and this 2015 hike took us all around the range, rather than just up one face, but there was a strong sense of déjà vu, in an oddly welcoming way. It’s a striking natural chain of uplifted Jurassic limestone (thanks Wikipedia), surrounded by villages and vineyards.

The next day it was already time to pull up roots and head on to our next destination in Provence, the Luberon. In a decidedly less strenuous, but still beautiful experience, we drove over Mont Ventoux (meant more to Jeff as he follows the Tour de France, apparently an important climb, and one that attracts lots of bikers, even on days like this…). One cyclist, clearly eager to share his achievement, burst out to us that he improved his best time by four minutes, climbing in under two hours. Almost felt like we were back in Boulder… Down then through Sault, which would be spectacular before lavender harvest (instead the fields of lavender looked a bit like shorn sheep). But then a startlingly beautiful set of valleys into the Luberon. You could just sense prehistoric caves around every bend.

Eating well on Ile St. Louis

Paris

Tales from three short but fabulous days in a city I’d gladly stay in for three years and more.

Pomerol a Paris

Fine wine at a fine restaurant.

In a fortuitous synchronicity (lots of big words…) our trip to Paris overlapped with the birthday celebration of Michael, Jeff’s dear childhood friend. So we made a brief stop at our apartment in Paris (second time ever doing Airbnb, worked out well, was great to do laundry even if French washing machines take over an hour per load…), then nearly ran across town to meet Michael and several of his devoted friends. Enjoyed a delicious and entertaining dinner at Les Bouquinistes, complete with great conversation and lots of laughs.

Next day we could barely make it down those same streets, Rue Oberkampf and Filles du Calvaire, as I stopped every other door giving entry to yet another beautiful shop filled with great clothes, housewares, jewelry, etc. Here were a few of my favorites:

Kate Mack (Kate Mack, her Facebook page is also worth seeing) – Made-to-measure clothes in rich colors and textures. A tagline from one of her cards is “Don’t Take Yourself too Seriously… Have a Chic and Funky Attitude!” A jewel box of a store with clothes that reflect that saying. Elegant, fun, daring but wearable. The owner/designer was working in the store that day and seemed as vibrant as her creations.

onze. A seemingly small and intimate store that continues to wind around and around in a very pleasant and open maze of shoes, clothes and accessories. Beautiful prints and colors. Was especially tempted by scarves made in Normandy, different colors/patterns stitched together with embroidery thread.

Nils Avril. Delicate jewelry with a range of colors, almost like pulling open a drawer of pastel crayons in an art store. Especially loved the pieces for hair.

Looked for boots up and down those streets unfortunately without success. Later in the Sixth Arrondisement found “Coup 2 Cour” when we were trying to find a restaurant we’d eaten in years ago (sadly gone). Jeff was fortunately distracted by the resident cat. I found fashionable yet comfortable small black boots to take on the rest of the travels (the larger ones from the garage sale will sadly need to stay here, too big and not the best for walking all day). No website but found at 4 rue Clément, 75006 Paris.

The greatest disappointment in Paris… Years ago I read a novel about Émilie du Châtelet, full name Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet. Sadly if she is known at all it is as Voltaire’s lover. She was an 18th Century physicist and mathematician who translated Newton’s Principia Mathematica (not only from Latin, but apparently from Newton’s purposely obtuse original) and researched the properties of light, among other subjects. She owned a home at the tip of Île Saint-Louis, which I tried to visit in 2006. It was then under restoration, to be completed in 2014. Got there towards the end of 2015 to find this sign… Guess I’ll need to return to Paris in 2018.

Hotel Lambert Paris

Parisian home of Émilie du Châtelet

Hotel Lamber hidden away

Construction clearly not complete

Public works in Paris

Will have to return in 2018… or later

Consolation is that we did find our favorite “tarte au citron” (lemon tart). Mmm.

Best Tarte au Citron in Paris

Tarte au Citron, perfection

Tarte au Citron on Ile St. Louis

Jeff enjoying our tarte

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus a beautiful stroll through Jardin du Luxembourg.

Romance abounds in Paris

Romance at Jardin du Luxembourg

Photo of the photographer

Behind my beautiful Fuji XT10

Les fleurs au Jardin du Luxembourg

Fabulous fall flowers at Jardin du Luxembourg

The best part of Paris… connecting with friends. Sunday we had a long, delicious and enjoyable lunch with a family I’ve known for nearly 25 years. Everything was tasty, and they always spoil me with a great plate of cheeses and superb wine. The Canal St. Martin is one of the most trendy parts of Paris now, and we walked there in the afternoon with the kids biking on closed-to-car streets. Interesting to see it so lively as I used to come here to meet this friend 25 years ago (she worked nearby), and I think she might have been one of about 10 Parisians to ever walk there.

Also had a fantastic time reconnecting with Josep and Geoffrey. Josep’s black patent leather bag that I bought in 2009 (?) in Brussels may well have inspired this venture I’m undertaking (this site, the concept of Art as Artifat). There will be an entire post about him, his store with Geoffrey, and the intersection of crafting beautiful objects without being subsumed by commerce. For now, some pictures of their new Paris store, Amen, his latest creations and their smiling faces.

And that in a nutshell was Paris. Left saying I wish we had had one more day, probably something I’ll say for just about every place we go.

Oh, one final comment. Couldn’t help but notice all the cigarettes, and the butts just thrown everywhere. Talked to our friend about it who said the city has just started a new campaign, fining people who toss out their butts. Not an hour later we see this sign on a dump truck. 350 tons, that is a lot.

Cleaning up Paris

350 tons of butts, that’s a lot

OK, a final, final comment. Best almond croissant in Paris. Perhaps ever. On Rue de Saintonge. Better final image…

Rue de Saintonge

Best almond croissant in Paris?

Belle du Nordet, the best oysters

En fin, les huîtres…

After two nights in Brittany it was time to move on to our next destination, Normandy.

On the way, we stopped at the most-visited spot in France, Mont Saint-Michel. I was there over 20 years ago, but don’t particularly recall the visit. I do know that this approach was not possible then. When it’s not raining or blowing to hard, this has to be the best approach (that is if approach at night on a horse in a cloak is not possible…). Made it past the tourist hoards at the bottom and gave up a bit of money to the Church to tour the (amazing) abbey atop the island. Building this on top of a rock out in the ocean, hard to comprehend. Loved the green hue of the windows. Beyond being the most visited, this must be among the most-photographed spots in the world, so will leave with a few photos to add to the abundance you can find online.

But back to the oysters. Last post was confusing on that point, maybe reflecting the regret I still carried about missing that spot. First, I meant to link to this page, which describes the oyster journey I wished to have had. Second, although it was “only” 250 or so kilometers from our Normandy hotel to Cancale, it had been a somewhat stressful drive over and even for the oysters I wasn’t willing to dedicate a whole day to driving back and forth. Plus Jeff might have mutinied at that point. Finally, I guess I really had, back in the subconscious, a preference for Normandy oysters. Many years ago I had a plate of Normandy oysters in a Parisian restaurant that were the best of my life. Went back a second time, and just as good. On very rare occasion I’ve had oysters from Normandy in the US, and have always considered them to be the best. But, sadly, we apparently weren’t even in the best spot in Normandy for oysters. This I learned from the smart and helpful hotel manager at L’Auberge de la Source (very nice hotel, probably the only 4 star one of our trip, recommended by a friend in Paris). The hotel manager did direct me to a town with oyster potential and suggested I look for the local fish market. This, it turned out, was very good advice.

So our first full day in Normandy, we set off first for Bayeux, to see the Bayeux Tapestry. Frankly astounding to stand in front of this 230(ish) feet long tapestry, made somewhere around 1070. For a piece of embroidered cloth that’s nearly 1000 years old, it’s in remarkably good condition. Basically, it was made/used as a propaganda piece. Most people were illiterate at the time so this tapestry depicted the Norman conquest of England. Wikipedia tells it better, but basically the tapestry starts with King Edward sending Harold (Earl of Essex) to tell William he will be king on Edward’s death, Harold is kidnapped (landed in the wrong place, even farther from oyster heaven), ransomed, goes back to England and claims the throne despite swearing not to do so (on holy relics). So of course William heads over with lots of boats and men and horses and wine, displaces many locals (turning out of a mother and child depicted in tapestry, this kind of thing goes way, way back), and eventually beats Harold. Lots of dead bodies, some being pillaged, at the bottom of the tapestry. Voila, Norman conquest of England.

All this was made even more interesting given Jeff’s heritage. As opposed to me, more or less peasant stock as far back as anyone can tell, Jeff has kings, queens, knights and more in his lineage. This starts with the “Vaux’s” in Normandy. Robert de Vaux (his 26th great-grandfather) and his two brothers from near Falaise, Calvados, lower Normandy, sailed to England with William in 1066 as part of the conquest and were subsequently rewarded with large land holdings in the borderlands (Scotland/England). Sadly no direct relations in castles we can visit today.

And now back to the oyster story. From Bayeux we went to Port-en-Bassin-Huppain. Wandering around we stumbled across its fish market, and very fortunately found one solitary vendor there. One was not many in a space built for at least six, but his array of products and his casual kindness were all we needed. Sadly I didn’t get his name, but I will remember him as the fastest oyster shucker I’ve ever seen. Here we had 25 oysters, on the docks. If only we’d brought a bottle of wine with us, it would have been perfect. Twelve of them were very salty. I asked several times where the oysteres were from and basically got gestures of ‘over there’ (to the right) and ‘over there’ (to the left). The salty ones, which after four or so created a bit of a sensation of being caught in a wave, were from the right. The ones from the left: sweet and meaty and perfect. Number 25 came when Jeff took a picture of me eating an oyster and our vendor decided I needed a “pretty” one. A much happier, if saltier, me left the docks in search of more adventure.

We wandered that day back along the coast, visiting some of the D-Day beaches, trying to visit a cookie factory (no tour as it was closed, but at least we could buy the cookies at a nearby store).

Les Sables D'Asnelles

Closed cookie factory

Then back to a delicious gourmet dinner at our hotel. And this artsy shot of the tile floor…

French tiles

Tile floor, from the floor

Perhaps the best part of our hotel was this amazing breakfast. And the best part of it, a bowl full of the most buttery, delicious caramel sauce. How is this breakfast? How have I never had it on my breakfast table?

And note how well Jeff fits into his environment…

Merging with art

Jeff blends into his new habitat

Our final day in Normandy we visited Honfleur. Known to have a charming and photogenic port. Can’t argue. Plus loved the chairs.

Honfleur harbor

Harbor shot of Honfleur

Honfleur cafe

Great chairs in Honfleur

 

 

 

 

 

 

And as it was so much fun, another fish market. This time it was in full swing, and we had a full “plateau de fruit de mer”. This was my other big desire in Normandy. In Trouville-sur-Mer had our choice of stalls and concocted a satisfyiling delicious one.

From there a bit of adventure taking wrong exits and such to return the car in Rouen, but got there eventually, and in time for the train we wanted to Paris. So next up… the weekend in Paris. À bientôt.

Dinan ramparts

In Which Jeff and Sasha Steal a Sandwich in St. Malo

No, my excuse for not posting is nothing so exciting as being put away for said stolen sandwich (that was put to right). Just go figure, there’s not nearly as much time for all this as I’d thought. Who knew travel would be so time consuming (OK, guess I did know that). Now on the train from Paris to Avignon, so a quiet moment to put down a few words.

Some basics, Jeff arrived on time Sunday the 4th at Charles de Gaulles in Paris. As he arrived in the afternoon, this gave me time to comb through the mile-long garage sale on the street outside our hotel. Found boots for 10 euros and two scarves for three euros. Like garage sales everywhere, lots of junk, some great finds, and lots and lots of people (this photo was from early in the morning, before everything was set up).

To keep Jeff awake, we spent the afternoon and evening walking around town (btw, boots were a great find, but not the best for an eight mile trek through Paris…). Visited with some friends from Belgium (more on them later) and ate, at their suggestion, at a sweet little restaurant, Le Colimaçon on the rue Vieille du Temple. Typical French meal with duck breast, rabbit and plenty of wine. Had two seats at a little bench in the window, perfect for people watching (Jeff, traveling with a thin down-style jacket, was happy to see it is in style in Paris).

Then we were off to Brittany/Normandy. High-speed train travel on the TGV, not a bad way to go…

By the way, my idea of the right amount of luggage would be several steamer trunks and a number of hatboxes. But as our porters backed out last minute, we decided to keep it to an international carry-on piece and backpack/messenger bag each. Here’s our Briggs and Riley carry on’s enjoying their train travel…

Briggs & Riley carry on

Carry on bags traveling to Rennes

Highlights from Brittany:
Mont Dol: Stayed at Le Jardin Des Simples a fantastic “maison d’hotes” (basically a B&B) in the teeny tiny town of Mont Dol in Brittany. Yannick and Corrine could not have been more helpful or fun. Corrine took a special interest in Jeff and did her best to elevate his French in the two days we were there. The property has a small chateau at one end and a house at the other (we were in the house) separated by a beautiful garden. Apparently the house, built in the 1770s, was a run-down wreck several years ago and Yannick renovated it beautifully. Ate dinner there one night and all products (save the fish) came from the garden. Delicious.

Cancale: Shared (only) six delicious oysters, cider and crêpes and got away without paying parking as our ticket was corrupted.

oysters and cider in Cancale

Our six oysters in Cancale

St Malo: Ate a so-so sandwich (the one we stole, realized we never paid and went back; store was closed but one of the workers came out from the bar down the street, refused at first to take our four euros but finally relented, couldn’t have that on our conscious the whole trip!). Avoided being trampled by hordes of students. And even in this late season, hordes of tourists. Ate a fantastic chocolate crêpe. Found a store, Lostmarc’h, with beautifully fragranced body products, produced with local ingredients. Apparently all fragrances inspired by walks the owner takes along the sea. If we had more luggage space, would have bought the soap that looks just like a stone, Savon Galet.

Cap Frehil: Quintessential seaside cliffs, made more quintessential by strong winds and gusting rains.

Cap Frehil Bretagne

Cliffs at the Brittany coast

Brittany coast

Blowing away at Cap Frehil

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dinan: Absolutely charming town dating from way, way back. Many half-timbered houses, stone buildings, winding streets… And a town filled with and proud of artists and artisans. Found Les Sacs de Constance. It’s good we have only a small bag and not the stack of steamer trunks as I wanted just about everything here. Michel Gasnier worked at Christian Lacroix and with custom bridal gowns, before coming back to the area where he grew up. The store and his creations are named for his muse, Constance. About her I need to learn more… Every bag in the store was unique, with a mix of old and new fabrics. I want a bedroom stacked with these pillows in every corner, so many colors and patterns but all coordinated somehow. But best of all were these little capes with ties/scarves, whimsical and perfect.

 

Lowlights from Brittany:
French mobile phone companies… As we’re in France for a month, wanted to get a local SIM card to have Internet and phone access without paying AT&T a fortune. On arrival in France looked at Orly airport, and again at Charles De Gaulle when Jeff arrived. No obvious spots for cards. It seems you have to go to one of the mobile phone stores, and wait in enormous lines with everyone who is buying phones, arguing about their bills, getting their phones fixed, etc. Tried at Gare Montparnasse in Paris, but huge line and impending train departure. Tried at a small mobile phone store in Dol de Bretagne; fresh out of pre-paid cards. On to “La Madeline” in the newer section of St Malo. A shopping mall connected to the big grocery store. Spent well over an hour bouncing around stores in this mall. First place was fast but the card didn’t fit. So on to “Orange” where we stood in line to get our names in the queue. Had to be at least twelve people ahead of us, and everyone seemed to be taking forever. Adding to the joy of the experience was a small toddler screaming in a shopping cart while his mother ignored him. Getting dangerously close to meltdown stage myself, after 30 minutes or so, went to a counter and basically said it was ridiculous to wait hours for such a simple transaction and for whatever reason, Francois took pity on me and within 10 minutes we were out of there. As Jeff pointed out, we’re not here just as tourists but to have a ‘local’ experience, and this was certainly one. Everyone we’ve talked to about it after has sighed in commiseration. Seems stereotypes of French bureaucracy are not all incorrect.

Oysters…. I love oysters. I’ve been dreaming about sitting on the docks and slurping fresh oysters in Brittany and Normandy for years. Apparently, ground zero for oysters in Brittany, and some would say all of northern France, is Cancale. No problem right, we were there. Oh no, we were there at night and ate crepescrêpe. Yes we had a half dozen expensive (and tasty) oysters in that restaurant. But we did not return during the day for the apparently amazing oysters from the shacks on the docks. Nor did we go to the restaurant famed for them. You can read about that experience here in this blog, but sadly not from me. For all the planning, guess that even some of the key experiences will be tantalizingly within reach, but not attained. Thankfully (especially for Jeff who had to put up with me kicking myself) this situation was somewhat redeemed in Normandy. That post next!