France Notes: A Real Provence Lunch Thursday, Jun 28 2012 

Everything is leisurely in Provence. Particularly the lunch hour, or hours I should say. Shops, markets and often museums close about 12:30 or 1pm and don’t reopen until 2:30 or 3 in the afternoon. So the best thing to do as the southern French do and find a good spot to enjoy the mid-day meal until everything gets going again.

A few days ago, I went to our nearby village of Maussane-les-Alpilles for a good, long lunch. I was in the mood for a real Provençal repast made up of regional specialties – none of the mod French ‘nouvelle cuisine’ for me on this day. I decided to try a classic restaurant named ‘La Pitchoune’ (expression meaning “the little one”)* there on the town square just across from the village church.

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It was a beautiful day and wonderfully cool in the shade of the large platane tree (sycamore) on the terrace. I approached the owner, put forth the required ‘Bonjour, Monsieur’ and asked for a table for two. Only Monsieur did not hear my initial greeting. So je me suis fait gronder – I got myself a good scolding for not being polite. Like any self-respecting French person, I protested – standing up for oneself is a way of life in France – and let him know that I did in fact greet him properly. Immediately, he excused himself saying that he had not heard me. And that he was so used to les étrangers (foreigners) who neglected good manners. I sympathized. With that, all was forgiven and we sat down to a lovely lunch.

To start, I chose the fleurs de courgette farcies (stuffed zucchini flowers). This very seasonal delicacy features the brilliant yellow-orange blooms of the zucchini plant before they turn into the squash itself. La Pitchoune’s version included the flowers with tiny starts of zucchini squash. The blooms had been stuffed with a light ricotta-type cheese and spices and were served on a tomato coulis. It was a Provence garden on a plate.

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Délicieux (delicious), particularly with a local rosé wine from le Mas de Gourgonnier.

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After this nice entrée (‘starter’ in French), I went on to the main dish of daube à la provençale. Daube is beef bourguignon southern-France style – a rustic and earthy dish of beef cooked long and slow in red wine. It hearkens back to the days when Provence farming families would leave a daubière earthenware pot of inexpensive beef with red wine to cook for hours on the hearth while they worked outdoors. Like beef bourguignon, daube is typically served with tagliatelle pasta. La Pitchoune’s version was wonderful and full of flavor – and the local red wine also from the Mas de Gourgonnier was a great match.

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To wrap up the lunch en plein air (outdoors), I chose the plateau de fromages which was heavy on local chèvre, or goat cheeses. How does the cheese tray work? When it is brought to your table, you serve yourself by cutting a bit from several varieties. On this day, I chose only goat cheeses which  were served along with local olive oil from the Moulin du Mas des Barres – one of my favorites.

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It was 3 or 3:30 in the afternoon by the time we finished our Provence lunch. The meal was just what I wanted – real traditional French food with a southern French flair. And enjoyed with no rush at all. Provence pleasure at its finest.

* La Pitchoune is located at 21, place de l’église (place Laugier de Monblan) in the village of Maussane-les-Alpilles, just a few minutes from Les Baux-de-Provence.

France Notes: Hands-on French History Monday, Jun 18 2012 

I like old things. Places, villages, buildings, castles, antiques, all of it. I think it’s something about la patine du temps (the patina of old age) that makes the object in view more interesting and worth knowing more about.

I remember seeing the enormous Roman aqueduct, the Pont du Gard, in southern France for the first time in the spring of 1985. It was just sitting there in the middle of the dusty Provence countryside west of Avignon. You could approach the 2000-year old stone structure and walk on it and touch it as you wished. There was no tourist center or entrance at that time. My good friend Ann and I ventured out on to the top level of the Pont with the idea of walking all the way across, but the strong mistral wind bearing down the Rhône valley that day convinced us to change our minds. We didn’t want to be blown off the aqueduct into the river valley below. But it was pretty amazing to enjoy the ‘hands-on’ visit while it was still possible.

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Today, the Pont du Gard is surrounded by beautiful visitor entrances on either side of the aqueduct and is as impressive as ever. The Pont was classified as a UNESCO world heritage site in December of 1985. In 2000, the modern visitor complex was completed to help manage the wear and tear of tourists on such a rare and valuable edifice. There is a superb museum and also a lovely restaurant in a former Provencal country house on the monument’s property. The Pont du Gard is now one of the most visited sites in France with more than a million visitors per year. Alas, these days only groups accompanied by official guides and security personnel are allowed on the top of the bridge itself.

But not all historic sites are of the ‘don’t touch’ variety. The other day, my husband and I decided to check out the former Roman aqueduct of Barbegal on our way to Arles. Though listed in various guidebooks, it usually only gets a passing mention. A vrai dire (truth be told), it was like going to the Pont du Gard in 1985 again. We wound our way down a small country road bordered by olive groves and came upon the crumbling aqueduct almost by chance.* We parked behind one other car along the lane and set out on foot.

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Within seconds, we were walking on and around the ancient structure. We were in the middle of France’s Roman Empire with no filter and nothing in our way. It was easy to imagine the aqueduct in its heyday and to get a sense of the work and design that went into building it.

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The sluice that used to carry water is still straight as an arrow. No mistral wind prevented me from walking across the top of the aqueduct on this day…

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The human aspect of the construction was evident everywhere we looked. Fairly uniform stones were laid out in an orderly fashion like bricks. In addition, parts of the aqueduct were made out of flat stones and reinforced by baked red clay tiles. Clearly, a lot of individuals went to considerable effort to put this together.

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Perhaps most étonnant (remarkable) was the part of the sluice that had been cut through the rocky hilltop at one end of the aqueduct. The water had been meant to flow out over the edge down into the fertile plain below.

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Intrigued, I later looked up some history on the aqueduc de Barbegal. Well, it turns out that this site was the most powerful hydraulic engineering system in the ancient world. Barbegal was constructed with two parallel aqueducts - one to carry potable water to the population of Arles (one of the most important Roman cities at the time) and the other to power a large flour mill capable of producing 4.5 tons of flour per day, enough to feed Arles’ population of 12,500 people. Historians believe that the water drove a complex system of 16 wheels and concentrated the power in the large mill’s machinery at the base of the hill. 

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It was hands-down the most fascinating historical experience I’ve had in a long time. For those who love history, I would offer this travel advice: Run, don’t walk, to visit this site before it gets polished up and gentrified. And by all means, take the kids. Hands-on history doesn’t get much better than this!

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* The aqueduct at Barbegal is located near Fontvieille in Provence. Take the country road D33 south of Fontvieille and then follow the D82 slightly east until you reach the site.

France Notes: Provence, A Place in the Sun Tuesday, Jun 12 2012 

Provence and the sun are a match made in heaven. The famous chef Auguste Escoffier born in the south of France called his native region ‘blessed by the gods’ with its lovely climate of over 300 days of sun per year. Indeed, la Provence and the sun are so entwined that Provence without sun would be like French cuisine without wine.

Numerous artists over the years have been mesmerized by the light and color in southern France. Van Gogh, Matisse, Renoir, Picasso, Signac, Cezanne and others captured the magical effects of the sun on the Provencal landscape. One of my favorite images is this painting of the sun and olive trees by Van Gogh. The artist does not hesitate to place the sun in the center framed by olive groves and the Alpilles mountains.

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In addition to les oliviers (olive trees), sunny southern France is notable for tall cypresses and pine trees, for rolling vineyards, for fields of yellow wheat and sunflowers, and for fruit trees such as the abricotier (apricot), cerisier (cherry), prunier (plum), pêchier (peach), figuier (fig), and grenadier (pomegranate). Flowers, herbs and berry vines grow wild and well thanks to the good sun. And of course, summer lavender blooms and Provence have become synonymous. Driving around the countryside, one is almost overwhelmed by the natural abundance everywhere.

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So when visiting Provence, where can one go to really soak up the sun and experience its warm ambiance? Here is a list of some favorite spots and activities that earn Provence’s place in the sun:

1) Sitting at a café on the grand boulevard the Cours Mirabeau in Aix-en-Provence in the afternoon. Be sure to have a glass of the local rosé wine – it’s ‘sunshine in a glass’!

2) The charming port town of Cassis with its sandy beaches and stunning calanques (white limestone cliffs rising out of the Mediterranean).

3) Any of the region’s villages perchés (hilltop villages) in the morning sun, in the hard light of noon or as the sun goes down. Les Baux, Gordes, Bonnieux and Roussillon would be good contenders.

4) Market day in Provence villages in the bright sunshine – it doesn’t get much more festive than that. The vibrant Aix markets take place on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The Wednesday market in St. Rémy is excellent.

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5) The fields and gardens of lavender that start blooming in late June every year. In particular, the Abbaye de Sénanque in the Luberon is famous for its fields of the fragrant purple flower.

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6) Eating fresh fruit of any kind – particularly wild figs or apricots picked on a long walk in the Provence countryside…

Even with all this sun, the climate is quite pleasant. It is warm – sometimes hot – during the day but regularly cools off at night. So sweaters are definitely something to pack with you. A French friend of mine who lives in Provence said it’s been several years since it’s been warm enough in the evening to go without some sort of wrap.

All in all, Provence and le soleil are one of the most memorable aspects of living and being in France. Van Gogh expressed it well in some of his letters from Provence to his brother Theo:

“Ce matin j’ai vu la campagne de ma fenêtre longtemps avant le lever du soleil, avec rien que l’étoile du matin, laquelle paraissait très grande. Mais quel beau pays et quel beau bleu et quel soleil! Et encore je n’ai vu que le jardin et ce que j’aperçois à travers la fenêtre. Tout près d’ici il y a des petites montagnes, grises ou bleues, ayant à leur pied des blés très, très verts et des pins.”*

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“This morning I saw the countryside from my window long before the sun came up, with nothing but the very large morning star in the sky. But what beautiful country and what beautiful blue and what sun! And again I saw only the garden and what I could perceive from my window. Nearby are small mountains, gray or blue, with very, very green wheat fields and pine trees lying at their feet.”

* From Lettres de Provence de Vincent Van Gogh (2007).

France Notes: A 3-for-1 Paris Deal Tuesday, Jun 5 2012 

There’s always so much going on in Paris that it’s sometimes hard to choose what to see or do at any given moment. And on top of the regular Parisian delights, the past few days I’ve found it difficult to pull myself away from watching the Roland-Garros tennis tournament (Americans know it as the “French Open”) on TV. Of course, the tennis complex is not too far – one of these days, I’ll buy some tickets and actually attend – as it is located on the west side of town and is accessible by Metro. In any case, the French television coverage of the event is easy and a win-win for tennis fans; channels 2 and 3 share the job of showing match after match all day long.

Despite the exciting and intense tennis play of this year’s tournament, I decided to take advantage of a cultural threesome a few days ago. I headed to the Musée d’Orsay (Orsay Museum) to see the newly-refurbished Impressionist galleries. It was a Wednesday morning about 10am and wonderfully enough, getting into the museum was a breeze with virtually no one in the ticket line. I bought the “Passeport musée d’Orsay – musée de l’Orangerie,” a special ticket costing 14 euros which allows you to visit the Orsay Museum and its special exhibitions (normally 12 euros per person). In addition, within four days, you can also take in the Orangerie Museum (normally 7.5 euros per person). As an added bonus, the ticket allows you to visit the Paris Opéra Garnier within 8 days for the reduced price of 6 euros instead of the full 9 euros. It’s definitely une bonne affaire (a good deal), as the French say.

On my way to the fifth floor Galerie des Impressionistes, I walked through the special exhibition currently on view Degas et le nu(“Degas and the Nude”). It was a fascinating look at the countless hours Degas spent painting and drawing the (primarily female) nude body. The show is on view until July 1 so do make a point of seeing it if you are in Paris this month. 

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Ensuite (next), I went up the multiple escalators to see the newly redone galleries that house many of the most famous Impressionist paintings in the world. The rooms are now done in a charcoal gray which presumably allows the shimmering colors and painting techniques to show at their best. Just as interesting were the art students with easels copying the Impressionist masters’ works.

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After my Orsay visit, I walked across the Seine on the nearby pedestrian bridge and through the Tuileries gardens to the Musée de l’Orangerie. I showed my “Passport” ticket and entered to view Monet’s gigantic Water Lily panels that he painted at various times of day. It was “Giverny” without leaving Paris. The paintings’ beauty is both obvious and subtle at the same time. With the fullness of color and lack of horizon line, the art might be best seen when in a meditative sort of mood. Or, one can tag along with this French elementary school teacher who was helping her students ‘see’ as Monet did. No red casquette (baseball cap) necessary.

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Though I saved the Opera for another day, the “Passport” ticket was a mini “Paris Museum Pass.” * If you only want to drink in a bit of culture and get a good three-way deal on a Paris visit, it’s definitely the way to go.

* The Paris Museum Pass is available in two-, four- and six-day versions. It offers admission to approximately 60 museums and cultural institutions in and around the Paris area. Click here for more information on the pass.