A French Friday in Fontainebleau Tuesday, Jun 30 2015 

This past weekend, I was in Fontainebleau for the wedding of the daughter of some very dear friends. It was a fabulous event and also a great time to reconnect with this charming French town located about an hour south of Paris. While Fontainebleau is dominated by the royal château of the same name, the town itself is well worth a visit.

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I began the day with petit déjeuner at the Grand Café on Fontainebleau’s pleasant main square…

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It sits next to the historic Fontainebleau hotel the Aigle Noir. Celebrated French poet Jacques Prévert wrote his famous poem “Presque” while staying here.

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After breakfast, I ambled over to Fontainebleau’s lively outdoor food and shopping market that takes place every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday. Residents and visitors alike enjoy the various offerings by local vendors at the Marché St. Louis.

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Of course, I was more tempted by the antiques auction house located nearby. Osenat typically holds les ventes aux enchères in Fontainebleau every Friday and Sunday with viewings the day and morning before. I breezed through the galleries and saw lots of beautiful old French furniture, paintings and objets d’art

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Then I headed across the street to the real historic experience, the Château de Fontainebleau. Situated in the center of the former royal forest of Fontainebleau and nestled up next to the town, the castle showcases 700 years of French monarchs and their history. The various architectural styles of the château invite visitors to meet the successive French kings and queens who lived and sojourned here throughout the centuries.

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The place is so rich historically and visually, I could come here over and over and see something new every time. But the best part is that the Château de Fontainebleau usually has a reasonable amount of visitors, meaning that you can come here and really enjoy what you are seeing…

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For example, I had the stupendous Galerie François Ier (above) – King Francis I had this part of the château constructed from 1528 to 1530 – practically all to myself on Friday, high season in this part of the world. Such a feat would NEVER happen at the galerie des glaces (Hall of Mirrors) at Versailles!

French king Francis I left his mark all over Fontainebleau as did Napoleon. You can visit the French emperor’s extraordinary throne room in the château. Interestingly, it’s the only throne room in France that still retains all its original furniture.

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The Château de Fontainebleau also hosts temporary exhibitions. There was just a terrific one on Napoleon and Pope Pius VII and the pope’s two visits to France during  Napoleon’s reign. It’s the story of an epic power struggle, if there ever was one.

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While small, the exhibition was very well done. The best touch was putting the marble busts of the two ‘rulers’ facing off in the center of the show (below left).

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After visiting the château, you can stroll through the extensive grounds of the royal estate. Part of the gardens were designed by the famous French landscape artist André le Nôtre. You might also see preparations for a special event happening at the château. The day of my visit, party planners were setting up for the big gala that night for the French gendarmes – evening attire required!

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Later that afternoon, I walked up Fontainebleau’s main street la rue Grande to check out the French boutiques and restaurants. It’s a good time to shop in France as the twice-yearly big sales just started last week and run through the beginning of August.

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If shopping and town are not your thing, the area around Fontainebleau is horse country. You can find some stables and go for a ride or check out the numerous equestrian events that often take place in the neighborhood. Hiking and walks are also available due to the abundant walking trails in the beautiful forest of Fontainebleau. And rock climbers are big fans of the large granite rock formations found in the forêt de Fontainebleau.

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All in all, the town of Fontainebleau has a lot going for it and is worth a day or weekend detour from the French capital. Only 45 minutes away by train and about an hour by car, Fontainebleau is a great mix of town, country and history all in one place. Bonne visite!

The French Festival Not to Miss in Provence Sunday, Jun 14 2015 

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This past weekend, I got see one of the best festival traditions in France – the annual fête de la transhumance. If you haven’t come across this earthy term before, transhumance is the annual migration of animal herds from the plains to the mountains and vice versa. (The term itself derives from the Latin ‘trans’ meaning “across” and ‘humus’ meaning “earth.”) As temperatures start to warm up in late May and early June, animal herds in various parts of Europe are moved to higher altitudes for better grazing. Many French villages near mountains celebrate the centuries-old tradition with an animated parade and festival.

The village of Bédoin in the Vaucluse region of Provence held their fête de la transhumance last Sunday and hundreds of spectators turned out to witness the fun event. Bédoin is a picturesque town at the foot of the majestic Mont Ventoux, the 6000-foot peak of Tour de France cycling fame located about 40 minutes northeast of Avignon. Bédoin is also known for its colorful and lively open-air market on Monday mornings.

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But back to the festival. We arrived in the village about 5pm to get a place along the parade route. Of course, things were so relaxed that everyone first headed to the village cafés for a glass of rosé or a beer. Then just a few minutes before the transhumance started at 6pm, we ambled over to the village ring road to get a good view. Loads of kids were running around full of excitement, and adults everywhere were readying cameras to capture the spectacle.

About 6:20pm, a frisson of anticipation swept the crowd as the transhumance festival got underway. Shepherds leading donkeys festooned with fragrant genêt flowers (broom, in English) kicked off the procession. We noticed the shepherds were wearing decidedly casual attire.

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Then the real fun began as a sea of  sheep and goats started flowing through the town. There was plenty of jostling and jockeying for space as the animals trotted along the asphalt. And the sheepdogs weren’t about to miss out as they kept the herd in line. Also notice the shepherd’s t-shirt with the “Non aux loups” logo – he’s part of the group protesting the return of wolves to the natural environment in Europe after near extinction. Somehow I don’t blame him for not wanting his sheep to be eaten by a wild loup.

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For all the crowding, the sheep and goats were a docile bunch as they clipped along. Even the sweet little lambs kept up pretty well with the adult herd. But as you might imagine, the air did start to smell fairly quickly like a nice, well-used barn!

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My favorite moment was when the darling shepherd girl passed by gently keeping her animal friends in line with her walking stick…

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Once the several hundred sheep and goats went past, about ten or so sheepdogs brought up the rear. Their job was to make sure no strays got left behind – or perhaps scooped up by an adoring visitor…

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After the parade, the herd was shuffled off to a nearby field to await their transportation to higher pastures on Mont Ventoux or the Alps. In olden times, the herds would walk the whole way. Today, the animals are shipped by truck for a faster and safer transhumance experience.

Travelers to Provence know that the region is noteworthy for many wonderful things - sun, sea, sunflowers, lavender, perched villages, Roman ruins, markets, olive oil, garlic, rosé wine, cuisine and climate. With the charming fête de la transhumance, we could also add sheep to the Provence pleasures list?! In any case, if you’re traveling there in late May or early June next year, be sure and check local schedules for the festive happening. Especially if you’re bringing the kids!

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