On to Gigondas and Paris

@font-face { font-family: “Times New Roman”; }@font-face { font-family: “TimesNewRomanPSMT”; }p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }a:link, span.MsoHyperlink { color: blue; text-decoration: underline; }a:visited, span.MsoHyperlinkFollowed { color: purple; text-decoration: underline; }table.MsoNormalTable { font-size: 10pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; Saturday, October 16, 2010. Today we pack up for one more Provencal destination, the lovely Rhone Valley village of Gigondas. But first, the drive over the mountain, which is quite spectacular and a diversion from the kind of terrain by which we’ve been surrounded. We began by loading our two cars at Fontaine du Faucon and heading toward Apt. All week, we’ve been “heading toward Apt”, and never quite get there because our real daily destinations are elsewhere, but this morning, we were able to actually drive into that small city, and found that but for the village center, it was just an ordinary town, with light industry on the outskirts and the usual lovely Provence architecture in the center.

Our first stop was perhaps 20 minutes past Apt, in the village of Sault, known as the

Lavender Capital of Provence. I’d surely love to be here in late July, when the lavender harvest is in full swing, because what we could see as we drove were fields and fields and fields (get the picture) of cut la

vender mounds. I can only imagine the gorgeous vistas of purple during the summer.

As is our group habit each time I visit this area, we park the cars just in the center of town, walk to one of the two very available bakeries, grab the sweets of our choice, and take them to the Tabac across the street, where we can sit with coffee and our goodies for a nice break. Today we met a delightful young French woman who grew up in this town and is at university in Marseilles, but was home for the weekend. H

er parents are lavender farmers, and they are preparing some housing for visitors which might be completed by next summer. Hmmmmm . . .

After wandering through the little shops, purchasing lavender sachets, lavender honey, etc., we are back on the road again, headed over Mont Ventoux. There are many bicyclists on this road toward the top of the Mont, which is always baffling, because the hill is so steep, the terrain becoming more and more ghostly, but there are hardy folk around here, apparently. Thus the Tour de France . . . On the way to the top, there is an eerie forest, and then Sommet Mont Ventoux, 1912 meters. One would think we’d arrived in Alaska or the Arctic Circle. But we are only one hour from the lush fall foliage in the Luberon Valley, Provence.

After a stop for a few photos, and a chance to watch the cheering cyclists as their buddies arrived at the summit, we got back into our cars and headed down the Mont. Another stop in Malecene for lunch and then on to Gigondas.

And to be accurate, we’re not really going to the village of Gigondas, we’re going THROUGH the village to our next eating-and-sleeping stop: Les Florets. See http://www.hotel-lesflorets.com

Our hosts, Thierry and Dominique, are always so welcoming, and their inn is enhanced by a beautiful stone area (it’s too large to just be called a patio), with tables, a dry well (cats and kittens are often found there, playing together in the sun), and a most magnificent view of the valley below. Thierry’s family grows grapes, makes delicious Rhone wines, and we choose one or two of them to accompany our exquisite dinners. You read the superlatives in this post, but it is because Les Florets and its charms are hard to describe without those words . . . delicious, beautiful, exquisite, magnificent . . . (and yes, I’m using photos from 2008, because our arrival this year was not accompanied by sunshine. It was a bit cloudy and darker than last time, but you get the picture!)

We began the “routine”, if you can call anything in Provence routine . . . we parked the cars, checked into our rooms, took a breath, and headed to the dining room for what we knew would be another mouth-watering meal. Only one wrinkle for me . . . a tiny detail . . . the TGV trains were on strike, so our planned car rental return the next day to Avignon and what we had hoped would be a long and leisurely train ride through the countryside to Paris was now disrupted by the strike, and though one in three or one in four trains were still running, ours was not, with no alternative times that made sense. So that little wrinkle cost me four hours of phone conversations and exploration of alternate plans with Travel Guard throughout the night.

Sunday, October 17, 2010. Our final “best plan” was to keep our cars, drive to Orly airport on the south edge of Paris, and have our ATS Paris shuttle driver pick us up there, rather than at Gare de Lyon. A much more nerve-wracking proposition, but better than sitting at the Avignon train station all day hoping to get out. As it stood, the drive was relatively uneventful for both cars, though of course as soon as we were off the A road, we lost the signs to Orly and wandered through two towns past our destination. But after all of that, we arrived at our Hotel Muguet only three hours later than originally planned.

I have never been more grateful for Travel Guard insurance than I was during that weekend. Leslie at the Concierge Services for TG called me over and over, checking to see that we were doing well on the roads, making sure we got to our hotel, and offering all manner of other help as we determined how best to get out of Provence. Thanks, Leslie!


Last days in Provence

Friday, October 15. Today was a day to stay near the villa town and its neighbors, do short visits here and there, do laundry, pack up and get ready to move on to the second half of our France adventure.

We slept in, made breakfast and headed out toward Roussillion again to check out the color, the shops, and the countryside. Gordes was also on our list, a beautiful hill town north of our village of Goult. Again, walking the town, stopping into bakeries and lavender shops, gathering fresh bags of herbs de Provence, and finally lunch at a little cafe, L’Estaminet Cave a Vin, where we ate outside in the glorious sunshine. I had the most delicious pate foie gras, buttery and rich, accompanied by toast points, a fresh Mesclun green salad, and sweet onion chutney, chased down my throat with lots of water and a delicious glass of local red wine! YUM . . .

My car, with Kay, Ellen and Gena as my passengers, then nosed its way down the hillside to the Village des Bories, a renovated ancient stone site, with the most amazing dwellings, all out of stacked stone without any mortar.

A final stop to LaCoste, where Gena was determined to see the Marquis de Sade’s castle, and though we couldn’t drive to it, no matter what the signs said, we parked and she took her determined self up the hill to get more than a glimpse of the crumbling facade. Pierre Cardin is said to be restoring the castle to its original sadistic brilliance, and we’ll see how long THAT takes!

Back to the villa, everyone was finishing the last of the soup, cheeses, olives, and all manner of bread goodies. We have to be up and out of the villa before 10:00, headed north over Mont Ventoux to our next stop, Gigondas, in the Rhone Valley.

More of Our Villa Week in Provence

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Ah, the best laid plans . . . I know, I’m behind on my Provence details, because we’ve been having such a lovely time, though the weather hasn’t been as warm as we had hoped. Yes, we’ve been eating, drinking, talking, reading, walking, laughing, etc. Wonderful villages, beautiful countryside, not any real progress learning any French. We try, but it’s a hilarious effort!

I left you in St. Remy on Monday, walking around with the Van Gogh “stations of the cross”. Tuesday, we drove to Aix-en-Provence to the market, met our Chef Daniel and walked around the mouth-watering stalls of food, while he carefully chose the ingredients for our dinner that night. Small shiny aubergine, my favorite color. (Eggplant, that is). And zucchini. Girolles and sep (mushrooms to die for), some sea bass, goat cheeses, pears, and honey. Then he went off to the villa to begin preparation for our evening meal while we found a lovely restaurant for lunch (I’ll get the card from my stash and enter the name here soon) and agreed to do a bit more market looking/shopping before we met at the cars at 3:30 to return to the villa.

Later that afternoon, Daniel set out cutting boards and sharp knives for each of us and we chopped and sliced, stirred and tasted, according to his direction, finally sitting down to our evening meal, accompanied by sparkling wine, white, rose, and red.

Of course we again went to our bedrooms stuffed to the gills, I with a cup of tea in my hand.

Wednesday, October 13. The winery St. Esteve de Neri, owned and operated by our villa hosts, Allan and Alexandra (Alex) Wilson, was our destination today. This morning we didn’t have to leave very early, and we took the opportunity to lounge around the kitchen table in our pajamas before heading to St. Esteve. The winery is located outside Ansouis, so we drove through a charming two-level village called Bonnieux, then Lourmarin, and finally approached Ansouis and turned into the vineyard property.

Allan was awaiting our arrival and we got a short tour of the lower levels, where the enormous stainless steel vats hold the wine before it is bottled. We then had a bit of a lesson in tasting, with one white wine, one rose, and three reds. Just as we finished our tasting, Helen, Alex’s sister and our chef from last Saturday evening, rang the tasting room to say that our lunch was waiting for us on the patio of the Wilsons’ home.

Walking from tasting room to home patio, we passed the vineyard again, complete with turning leaves, garden cats, and that smell of the countryside nothing else can duplicate. Our table was set with delicious fresh tomatoes from the garden, olives, fish cakes, roasted chicken and fingerling potatoes, and the richest chocolate mousse I’ve ever tasted. Since I’m not a chocolate fan (I know, I know . . . ) I bestowed my portion of dessert on a chocoholic fellow traveler!

Later in the afternoon we stopped in Rousillon for a short visit, and marveled at the red and ochre cliffs surrounding this picturesque village. We decided we’ll have to return tomorrow.

Dinner on this night was light, since our lunch stuck to our ribs nearly until bedtime. Sle
ep and a new day of adventures tomorrow, this time to the seacoast!

Thursday, October 14, all but one of our group headed south again, this time in brilliant sunlight, toward Cassis, a small town on the French Riviera. The coastline is gifted with calanques, the fjords of this area. You can take a boat ride to visit the calanques or just sit on the boardwalk at a restaurant and watch the water. I chose to do the latter because I’ve seen the calanques from the water, and I’m a bit motion sick to say the least. So while the women embarked on a five-calanque ride, I sat at an outside table with a delicious plate of boef tartare, its presentation deserving of a photo or painting, but alas, I dug into it before I remembered that I had a camera.

I took out my Kindle, sipped my red wine, and savored the most delicious tartare I’ve ever eaten. It came as a ground up raw patty of beef, with a trio of minced onions, capers and parsley surrounding it. A raw egg topped the beef and I mixed all the ingredients into a most tempting mess on the plate. Then lovingly slathered bits of the tartare on fresh crusty bread and closed my eyes, savoring every bit of my light lunch. The waiter asked about dessert and I began to shake my head, but then asked what he had to offer. In the list of possibilities, the words “flan caramel” caught my attention and I ordered a slice. Exquisite!!! With a generous dollop of fresh whipped cream, drizzled with the same caramel sauce that bathed the flan.

When my traveling companions returned on their boat, THEY were hungry, though I was now completely stuffed, and happy. So I sat with all of them while they had their share of real French Fries, crepes, and salads. Another hour of exploring shops through the harbor walk, a cafe au lait with Kay, and we were back in our cars, negotiating the roads from Cassis through Aix to our sleepy town of Goult and down the long dirt road toward our villa.

No one was famished that evening, but I made a huge pot of chicken vegetable soup, with herbs de Provence right from the source! Salad and some of that incredible crusty bread and we were full, warm and happy.

More later.

Bon nuit!

A Bit of Van Gogh

Monday, October 11, 2010 – Provence

Today is a rainy day, hazy, a bit cold, not pouring, but certainly not sunny, as we are promised it will be tomorrow. So we opt to go to St. Remy to see what I call the Van Gogh Stations of the Cross. Eighteen reproductions of Van Gogh’s paintings on panels outside, throughout a walk down the pathways he wandered when he committed himself to the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum. In about a year, he created over 100 paintings, and you can walk through the eighteen outside panels, enter the asylum and walk up a flight of stairs to Van Gogh’s bedroom, his sitting room, the room in which he was administered his shock treatments, etc.

Reading some of the information, in one case exquisitely written by a psychiatrist at the hospital, I feel as though I am almost there, watching Van Gogh paint as he gazes out his barred windows. The courtyard in the back of the hospital has a beautiful lavender garden, bordered by flowering rosemary bushes. Two small stone structures are nestled against the stone walls of the property.

Returning to the “centre ville” of the town, walking past modern shops in the ancient buildings, one could almost forget the man who spent a tormented and yet productive year in a mental hospital over a century ago.

A wonderful way to soak up some of the Provencal art history!


Sunday, October 10, 2010

Well, our France Women’s trip has begun, and we are settled into our wonderful villa, Fontaine du Faucon, just outside of the lovely village of Goult in the Luberon Valley in Provence!

We all met at the Denver airport on Friday morning, and amazingly enough, our check-in, boarding, flights, connections, customs drill in Paris, luggage collection (NO ONE lost a bag!), and Rail Pass validation went off without a hitch! In fact it was such a smooth transition from one thing to another that we actually had too much time in the TGV terminal, waiting for the train.

We boarded the “fast train” at 11:30, wrestling our luggage up and down the few platform steps, and settled in. Despite the beautiful sunny day and the spectacular scenery in the countryside, most of us slept all the way through the rail journey to Avignon. But we laughingly reminded ourselves and one another that we will be able to pay more attention on the way back to Paris.

At the Avignon rail station, we rented our two cars and again, without a hitch, found our way to this amazing villa. Helen, the owner’s sister, greeted us with a warm kiss on each cheek, while the smells of dinner comforted our senses. The herbal mixtures for sauce, and the sauteed garlic made my mouth water, and I was so thankful that we arranged for Helen to prepare our first meal here, rather than going to a restaurant somewhere or cooking ourselves. We’re all still cheery but very tired, and I’m sure we’ll be happy to settle in for the week.

I gave the women a tour of the bedrooms, let them arm wrestle one another for choices, and settled into my “apartment” across the small courtyard. Ellen took first advantage of the swimming pool and it must have looked more inviting to Sue and Marie than to me, because they soon were wet and laughing with Ellen, while I drove Kay and Gena up to the village of Goult, where we laid in a few supplies for breakfast this morning.

By 7:00 p.m. last evening, Helen had set out some cheeses and tapenade on toasted baguettes, accompanied by sparkling wine. We draped ourselves across couches and chairs in the living room and rested, talking, sipping, crunching until we were called to the main meal in the formal dining room. No, it was too tiring to even think of pictures, but I surely wish I had had a photo of the Wild Mushroom Crostini (chanterelles, sep, and something else) and arugula slightly wilted in olive oil. Next came Duck with Balsamic Sauce, Green Beans and Roasted Potatoes. And as we grazed over our plates, Helen was preparing a mouth-watering dessert of Red Wine Poached Figs with Panna Cotta and Almond biscuits. the Balsamic Sauce even had black cherries, and the entire sumptuous meal, accompanied by red, rose and white wines from the owners’ vineyard (St. Esteve de Neri), coffee, tea, and chocolate truffles. Now don’t all of you feel SO sorry for us???

This group, already connected by couples and trios, melted into instant friendships, and we finally made our way to our respective rooms by 10:00 p.m., having traveled many many hours across the globe. This morning, I walked across the courtyard to the main house by about 8:30 to make our first breakfast, and found only Ellen and Sue awake, talking over tea in the living room. Bit by bit the others came alive while I mixed up batches of scramble with mushrooms, peppers, onions and herbs. Coupled with fresh baguettes from the local bakery, fruit and cheeses from the village grocer, and apple pastry, we began our week here, lazy at first, but it will fill with activities soon.

Today we’ll all go into Goult and explore the little streets, cameras in hand,and I’ll try to post some photos along the way. Later we will drive to Isle de sur la Sorgue for Sunday Antique Market. Our first full day in Provence begins and ends with eating delicious food, sandwiched with the local color and the sound of our own laughter.

France, here we come!

It’s nearly 1:00 a.m. and in a bit more than four hours, I will be up again, departing for Denver International Airport with seven women. Tomorrow afternoon we will be driving from Avignon to our villa, Fontaine du Faucon, near Goult, in Provence.

For the next two weeks, we’ll relax and soak in all that we can of the Provencal countryside and the magnificence of Paris. We hope you will enjoy your third-party ride with us!

Bon nuit!