Month: May 2017

Travel Diary – Private Provence

Every painted window shutter tells a story. The faded blue, pink, grey ones, the broken, closed or open ones. I wonder what lies hidden behind these windows – the private moments and conversations. Naturally as an Australian traveller/ tourist in France, I know how important those private times are away from the crowds and narrow, winding, busy streets. Some seclusion and privacy is needed from the fast paced train platforms and shops, the tourist information, markets and queues.

Strolling around Nimes we encountered a cyclist from Switzerland who rode 66kms from Montpellier. Nicola saw us at the canal and asked if we wanted a photo taken. Sure. That’s so nice of you. He was so friendly and sincere. We started up a private conversation. He’s a piano teacher and this was his day off. Imagine his long ride pedalling hard through the countryside and towns, feeling the freedom and release of work. Here he is and here we are.

Private conversations and unexpected meetings make a trip so interesting I think. You go back in time to their world and discover more about what makes them tick. You learn more about life. When we stayed at Mas Fleurs near Gordes, the private hedges around the Maison kept 2 French girls amused beside the swimming pool doing pilates. Celine showed me some exercises and allowed me into her world. Privacy shared.

Then there’s the private spying on people who do not really notice you with your camera. I seem to do a lot of this in Provence. Hundreds of moments that capture you with excitement and curiosity. Like this private kiss. She was jogging across the street and saw her friend.

This inner circle of privacy extends to private times of sitting and reading the newspaper in cafes, a favourite pastime. Private walks and text messages.

Private conversations and private portraits of cute dogs.

Private romantic strolls with dogs. This couple caught my eyes in Avignon.

 

They look like their world is untouched by pain, yet behind every good looking couple, I am certain there’s a bigger story attached. Being in company involves constant tiny adjustments and compromises, moments when you subtly shift in order to fit in with someone else.

 

Privacy is often distracted. I often see heads down, eyes fixed on a screen or phone to the ear. Heads turned or blank stares. You get the picture. The digital hooking up is constant. The screen swipes all pervasive. I know how much I use my phone for a camera so it’s constantly in my hand ready to capture an image. Privacy of thoughts seems to be a problem as friends switch off and switch on. I wonder if we all need a digital spring clean!

Then there’s the private collections in Provence – too many to name. While in Nimes I viewed the contemporary art collection and wandered through the library. On the walls were these words, ” A collection is built up over a period of years, and remains crucial for any museum institution. The work makes time stand still, they construct stories, establish correspondence, make you think and also dream.” ” In the age of the internet, the play of surfaces and immediacy, they invite us to keep an open mind and listen out for the complexity of the world and contemplation.”

In that private moment of me sitting quietly and reading this, I felt a sense of peace and joy.

Returning to our apartment in Avignon, Bill turned the key to find that our washing had dried and our very own private collection of “stuff” was safe. That evening we had a private celebration of Bill’s home cooking and a Desperado French beer.

 

And behind the scenes of the day. Riding in the square in Arles and ballet in Avignon. 

Some more private glances. La Nuit des Musee – in Arles. Aphrodite, Caesar, Venus.

Dear friends and family, thanks for joining me.

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Poppies, Pots and a Cooking Class in Provence

I am in love with the landscape and light here in Provence. Imagine how Cezanne and Van Gogh revelled in the beauty and light filled skies as they painted their canvases. I now know the difference between Australian sunlight – harsh, strong and vivid; and Provencal light – serene, soft, calm and subtle.

As we travel we see many poppies in Spring – wild ones on the road side, poppies springing out of cracked stones, fields of red poppies and cascading blooms on walls and in pots. Pots with hibiscus, herbs, geraniums, roses. Pots with peonies.

Look at this light around 8.30pm – we were staying in Bonnieux and La Grange Airbnb welcomed us to their beautiful stone Maison with a vineyard in view. I felt drenched in the natural softness of pinks and golden hues in the sky. Don’t you agree that this is something to gaze upon?

The towns of Lourmarin, Bonnieux, Menerbes, Roussillion and Gordes are truly Provencal palettes of colour, whether it is the texture of stones and tiled roofs, the farmer’s markets, painted window shutters or skies. Every shade of green, blue and grey – also pinks and rouge.

In contrast to the soft colours there are the purple irises, red radishes, yellow squash and red strawberries. All so delicious and sweet. While strolling on a Sunday morning in Menerbes ( A Year in Provence written by Peter Mayle) I smelled the most fragrant scent of a red rose. One whiff of this rose intoxicated me and left me drawing breath and smiling.

Did I mention the rows of orchards/ vineyards? The terracotta roof tiles and wonderful door handles.

On the way to Mas Fleuri near Gordes, Bill and I got a little lost – maps are not to scale so we walked a few kilometres to see the hidden pathways, and to our gain, we stumbled across a cherry tree. I picked a handful and while not fully ripe, they were delicious.

So much to say about the colours of Provence, poppies and pots, but the exciting adventure I had was joining up with 4 other travellers to do a cooking class in Maubec with the backdrop of the Luberon National Park out the window. Before leaving Australia, I booked on line to learn from the best – Chef Jean-Marc Villard. He and his wife Alice welcomed me into their beautiful country house in a quiet village tastefully decorated.

On the walls of their contemporary and well designed kitchen were these words – recittes de coeur ( Recipes of the heart) Today I was going to prepare a three course meal, hands on, in English, with Jean-Marc who has international experience in Bombay, Rome, Casablanca, Kuala Lumpur and the USA. He was an instructor for 10 years at Paul Bocuse Institute. His love of cooking is obvious. His flair for personal attention and detail is commendable. His humour is clever. In the beginning we were like shy pups and by the end, hungry wolves!

 

Now I would call myself a creative cook who loves eating; I like looking at photographs in cook books and seeing what I can do to design my own dish. My kitchen at home is well presented and my utensils basic. In Jean-Marc’s professional  kitchen he placed everything with a purpose. I knew that watching closely, like my photographs, I could apply my skills and his wisdom to the special menu he had chosen for us. His knives were razor sharp;  cutting boards, strong, bowls perfectly deep and shiny, his herbs fresh and fragrant. Even Alice placed beautiful flowers on the dining room table.

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Kiyomi Hotta, herself a cook, shows how it is done.

A stolen kiss shows cooking and passion go hand in hand.

Note the banter and gestures taking place at the market.

We first visited the farmer’s market where Jean-Marc bought the freshest ingredients. There’s a friendly vibe here with exchanges and produce in big baskets, handshakes and agreeable nods. It’s good when you know the people personally; organic is best. I watched as our Chef chose the highest quality products.

Back to the kitchen we were provided with full recipes, a red apron with linen tea towel, and all the equipment you could desire. Starting with a dessert we helped make a shortbread cookie with real strawberry jam flavoured with lemon verbena and sorbet.

The main meal consisted of sea bass on fresh garlic puree with green olives, fave beans and sage sauce. The biggest sage leaves I had seen.

We, as a team, Tuula ( from Southern California and married to a Frenchman), Gerry and Kleah ( Colorado, Denver) and Kiyomi ( Tokyo), each worked together to bring this gastronomique delight to completion. Delicate work, precision and timing, cutting and stirring. As well as taste testing along the way. Fun and friendship. A unique experience.

Our entree consisted of goat cheese cromesquis with asparagus and mixed green salad. The goat cheese balls were wrapped in breadcrumbs with egg; roasted pine nuts and herbs. Jean- Marc encouraged us to coat them 3 times in breadcrumbs firmly for the best crunchy bite. Kiyomi and I worked together dipping the balls into egg yolk and into bread crumbs to make eight pieces.

There’s so much more to describe, but the end result was, we did it!! And the lunch outside under the blue sky, lovely garden with a glass of wine, fresh baguettes was magic. I noticed the small portions the French enjoy. Sadly Aussie are becoming greedy with huge servings.

Our sea bass on a mashed potato, roasted garlic, zucchini spaghetti and sage leaf

VOILA! This is a meal I will remember with joy. Bill joined us afterwards for cafe au creme. He also enjoyed his 12 km walk overlooking the Luberon Mountains.

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Curious Provence

The past few days here in Avignon have been fascinating and relaxing within the stone walls of the old city – this medieval vibe is lively with dancing in the town square on arrival. We watched and enjoyed the friendly atmosphere as people and onlookers let themselves go to the sounds of instrumental music and singing.

Avignon is well known for its beautiful bridge and the Palace of the Popes where seven French Popes ruled unchallenged from 1309 until 1377.

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With audio cassette in hand, we wandered through the darkish maze of corridors that were richly decorated by skilled artisans and craftsmen. Back to the 14th century was both curious and overwhelming – art, sculptures, frescoes, history in front of us.

This is a great place to explore traditional French cuisine, also to watch the waiters move, tourists talk, children squeal, musicians play, shoppers smile. A curious place to find all sorts of things. Even Goose joggers ( a joke to amuse my children!!)

Sunshine and blue skies saw us eating out picnic style next to an old church, Ville D’Avignon. I managed to read a chapter of a French memoir that I bought back home. Bill took photos of the gargoyles and church steeple. We watched a woman sketch the ancient arches and fountains. School boys were throwing bread to the pigeons.

A half day tour took us to the hill top town called Gordes where we were almost blown off the mountain – the Mistral winds gusty and chilly. A very popular town with the tourists, Gordes has impressive vaulted, arcaded medieval lanes that tempt any person with a camera and money.

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We explored Les Baux-de-Provence which sits on the spur of the Apilles with views across the Camargue. What a dramatic fortress site and again oh! so windy. Too many tourists for my liking. Bill and I enjoyed an ice cream. Later that afternoon, we headed over to the Post du Gard, built around 40-70AD. A curious and amazing engineering feat, this aqueduct is both spectacular and worth a visit. Glad I wore my comfy boots but I did notice a pair of lovers up on the bridge in black leathers and she wore dangerously slim high heels.

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Provence is full of curious finds – Irish students studying theatre, the street’s homeless with their dogs lying in their trolleys, the two way confusing narrow streets, the single male sweepers vacuuming the cigarette butts and litter, the vendors selling their ripened cherries, the French who try to interpret what we are saying, the men gathered at the bar in Les Halles ( market) who can out talk any women. Curious – a secluded couple flirting with each other making funny, rude gestures and moving from corner to corner while we glanced their way. An unexpected couple. Curious – cash register confusion and a well hidden exit in the local supermarket. These and more make for some entertainment and insight.

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On the way in the bus to Saint Remy, we encountered this Latino group of men playing cabaret style music outside a wonderful cafe called MichelMarshall. Inside having a cafe creme, Bill met a Californian woman who was a journalist for the New York Times. They both had much to say about the Trump government and politics. Her name was also Margaret and she had been invited by her sister whose friend owns a house in St Remy and comes to stay for 6 months of the year. How fortunate! Mmm.

Half your year in another continent! These retirees certainly know how to live the Provencal paradise. I can be tempted to browse through the Real Estate brochures on the stands, but feel certain there’s no place like Mapleton for climate, scenery and life style.

Anyway, I left Bill briefly in conversation with the journalist to purchase a scarf in one of the small boutiques. When I returned 15 minutes later, she was gone and he was sitting reading the New York Times, brought along for the ride from our Hotel. His two back pockets in his jeans carry the map and the free newspaper!

No trip to Provence would leave out Vincent Van Gogh’s sad time spent in Saint Paul hospital during his breakdown. He painted 150 canvases when he spent one year here at the St Paul de mausoleum hospital. There is a tranquility about the place despite the tragic circumstances surrounding Van Gogh’s death. I love his swirling brush strokes, emotion charged canvases and the way he captured the light and natural beauty of the countryside. Have you seen his vivid yellows, blues and shades of green? Looked closely into the luminescent quality of the light. Been touched by the curious idea that while inside the clinic, he painted his best work.

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For now, my dear friends, it is 7.30pm and still much light available. We are opening up a small Cidre de Bretagne ( apple cider) and Cellier des Dauphins ( red wine) with a Rocher Lait ( delicious chocolate) ready for a good night’s sleep after one last stroll down the Main Street of Avignon. Tomorrow, it’s a car trip to Bonnieux.  Exusez-moi.  Au revoir.

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Last Day in Paris

It’s Saturday, still raining and 12 degrees, so you see my warm scarf and rain jacket are essential for comfort. Bill and I catch the Metro right through on line 12 to Pigalle where we step out into the streets of Montmatre. It’s early, too early for the Parisians at 9am, so we climb the steep steps that lead to the Basilica of Sacre- Coeur, designed by Paul Abadie. The view at the top is wonderful, even with the interruption of a film crew and a movie being made. We were asked to stop while the film making was under way.

A little later we enjoyed a cheese and ham omelette with croissant, orange juice and cafe au creme. I am glad the smokers sat outside.

After Monmatre, we caught another train, then walked to the Hop on Hop off bus to enjoy the ride on the top with a different view. There were many tourists taking photos. I glimpsed all sorts of interesting shop windows, cyclists, lovers, families, old couples, and people eating out on the streets – a smorgasbord of the fashion conscious, the beggars on the corners and the groups of tourists huddled together with their guides. You hear the police sirens, and the screeches of fast cars.

After a rest back at the hotel we walked to the Jardin de Luxembourg where we were greeted with open spaces, serenity and the beauty of well kept gardens. I was impressed with the cleanliness and the way people used the spaces to read, talk, walk and find companionship with each other. We took a photo of a bride and groom.

The gardens were created in 1612 by the widow of King Henry 1v who constructed the Palace as her residence. This was the first French garden that was influenced by the Italian baroque.

Our final meal was close to the Hotel de Saint Germain at Le Parisien where Bill ordered Confit de Canard ( duck!) and me the salmon. My favourite dessert creme caramel made me smile. The two beanstalk waiters moved at a speedy pace with poise and precision; their English was not too bad also. A tip for their excellent service made them smile.

Overall, the Paris experience has been great with unique beauty, 37 strong bridges, graceful architecture, cultural diversity, and the loud rumbling sound of the metro as it passes near the Hotel. There’s definitely a gap between the rich and poor. Bill prefers the bigger mugs of coffee in Australia compared to the tiny half filled cups in Paris. He is the map reader; I am the conversationalist. He is the leader guided by me the passenger. He is the reader, I am the writer. He loves cross words, I prefer shopping!

We both agree that even with Google maps we felt disoriented many times in Paris. Bill says it’s the pattern in the streets, confusing and haphazard. I look for the visual cues like a window display or sign. Being lost is OK when you don’t have time restraints.

Tomorrow we leave for Avignon in Provence. I am really looking forward to the contrast between city and country. Au Revoir my friends.

Paris Prattle – travel diary

I pinch myself that we have arrived in Paris to a sea of unknown faces, crowds of locals and tourists everywhere. Cold, wet with grey, misty skies, it’s good to know that I am prepared with my warm clothes and comfy shoes.

There’s a real buzz and energy about the place, traffic constant and fast everything. Hundreds of people walking in all directions. The train to our Hotel de Saint Germain was easy even though I felt awkward at times with all the luggage.

Anyway, enough of this prattle, let’s get down to the business of my photos and the  memories that will weave their way into my life.

 

 

A touch of the master pieces of Picasso and the scent of roses and sweet peas.

Don’t the French know how to present their desserts! Chocolat framboise, petit pots du caramel, gales blanc, les kouignettes. I found myself gazing at the displays and returning to the Artisan Boulanger Patissier. There were croissant aux amandes our beuere ( almond hazelnut croissant) and muffin four au citron ( lemon filled muffins).

 

Here we are sipping a glass of Rose at cafe Branly, (Cote de Provence – 5 euros.)

After walking some distance to arrive at the Museum ( Musee du quai Branly) we were so impressed with the vast displays of Indigenous, African, Asian and Oceanic artefacts, masks and sculptures. Lucky school children found themselves spread out on the floor drawing costumes.

PLUS Picasso exhibits showcasing his diverse work, the quality and quantity of his work amazed us.

 

 

Windows of beautiful macarons tempt any traveller.

A hearty beef bourguignon so delicate and tender it melts in your mouth.

Bill enjoyed the duck as we dined at the La Citrouille with traditional French food at reasonable prices. I practised some French greetings and we talked to the couple next to us who were from Amsterdam.

The Eiffel Tower stands proud and especially glittering at night. We took a cruise down the Seine around 9pm to capture the lights. Here I am in front of the thousands of padlocks attached to the fences on the Post Neuf, the oldest standing bridge across the Seine river.