Turkey Tales and Trails in Provence
Everybody has a turkey tale, so I won’t bore you with mine, except that not everyone has the pleasure of celebrating T-day in Provence! Eat your hearts out! Not only did we pig-out on a dark, juicy French turkey (that cooks in half the time of an average big-breasted American variety) with all the fixin’s that would make anyone swoon (including pumpkin pie), but we had the inordinate pleasure of visiting much of Provence in the process of visiting with Americans who live there.
While the turkey was in the oven, we drove for a bit over an hour from Ansouis to Venasque, through the Parc Naturel Régional du Luberon that takes your breath away. The winding narrow roads made my friend, Lydia, queasy as I imagined myself being Mario Andretti, shifting up and down while sharply turning the wheel and maneuvering the curvy roads. Along one stretch, straighter than most of the route, a rainbow arched through the sky like a prism from heaven. Lydia, who just moved back to Paris after about three years testing the waters in California, kept uttering every few moments, “I’m never moving back,” “I’m never moving back.” We commented on the quality of the roads, the tasteful way they are marked and appointed, with no advertising signage along the way to mar the beauty of the countryside.
Provence is Provence and it’s all a part of France that is endlessly beautiful. The Provençal roads are famous for being tree-lined, and for having been planted by Napoleon to shade the roads for his troops, of which there is no evidence of being the truth. It doesn’t matter; the roads are stunning so one of the greatest pleasures of living in Provence is, in fact, driving from village to village or town to town. And that’s just what we did.
In Venasque, in the Vaucluse department of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, we visited a village house for sale by one of my clients, with other clients wanting to purchase it. The moment the potential buyers entered, they had a “coup de coeur” (love at first sight) as I expected. On three levels with its large private terrace, stone steps, arched stone cave-like bedroom, tomette tile floors, beautiful views, etc., etc., etc., is tough with which to find fault. Plus the village, perched at the summit of a rocky outcropping, is classified amongst one of the 126 most beautiful villages in France. The entire imagined picture of life in this house in this village oozes with charm from beginning to end.
On the way back, Lydia and I detoured to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, a town in the Vaucluse known for its antiques stores and weekend markets and waterwheels on the Sorgue river. The water of the Sorgue was so high from the rains that it was flowing at top speed. The ducks were having a field day, like being on a slide in a water park, being taken down river at the speed of light and clearly loving it. We giggled watching them have their fun, then taking a break on the side, only to start up again!
That evening in Ansouis we set the table, lit the candles, started the fire in the massive fireplace at Barb Westfield’s house, basted the turkey, and prepared the fixin’s for a traditional Thanksgiving Day feast. The invitees were a solid American contingency, four of which were New Orleanians including myself, some living in the region, others visitors. Barb declared the dinner a non-politics event, so the stories that were told for the hours we sat at the table were all about life in France — the ups and downs, the challenges of securing visas, bank accounts, driving licenses, etc., with lots of funny anecdotes designed not to frighten the newcomers, but to prepare them for the worst. Everyone had a story, and we laughed till we cried.
Friday was a whirlwind day starting off with the morning market at Lourmarin, well-known in the region, which takes over the plane tree-lined avenue into the center of the village, as well as the square above it. Barb thought it particularly funny that the “primeur” (fresh produce vendor) was washing lettuce under the fountain in the square — practical if not meant to tickle our funny bones.
Before leaving the town, we had the good fortune of visiting another property for sale by one of my clients, a village house in the heart of Lourmarin that is wedged under a rock, then stacked high into the sky next to the old clock tower. As you wind up its several levels, you discover incomparable views of the town and the area. When you wind down to the layers in the cellars, you discover even more charm and space for housing a large family or a host of visitors.
The same owner, has another house just outside the village, also for sale, that we visited: “Les Olivettes.” Nestled in a grove of olive trees, this expansive luxuriously renovated farmhouse boasts of four double suites, each with a kitchen and terrace. The main house has its own large living/dining room with a cathedral ceiling, and a fully-equipped country kitchen, not to mention a large swimming-pool, private gardens and a spectacular view of the village of Lourmarin and its château. A wing of the home houses the caretaker, but which could easily be converted into two more apartments.
Visits to Provençal abodes didn’t end with these two that day. In Lauris, we visited with friends of Barb’s who had shared turkey with us the night before — an American couple from the south who have lived in the region for many years in yet another converted, renovated farmhouse that is clearly an act of love and pleasure. Alice, a well-known artist in the region, had just come home with a trunk-load of lavender plants ready for her to install at the house, with hopes they would be in full bloom this coming June. During our drives we spotted loads of lavender fields, shorn down, but ready for a rebirth in the summer. It was incentive to return next year just to see their beautiful color and smell their pungent scent.
A visit to Don and Alice’s wasn’t the end of our excursion to see Provençal homes. We continued on to Saint-Remy-de-Provence, battled a bit of traffic gridlock before landing at Le Mas du Cornud, another renovated farmhouse just outside of the city that acted as a home, a bed and breakfast and a cooking school before being recently sold. The owners who also shared turkey with us the night before, are in the midst of packing up, but we had a chance to discover its charm before having to say a final goodbye to it.
Saturday, Lydia’s queasiness developed into a cold and flu, so while she slept soundly at home, Barb and I headed to Aix-en-Provence for a special photo exhibition and Black Friday sales. The Phot’Aix 2019 – Festival of Photography featured the “Regards Croisés Liban-Provence” exhibition (on until December 31st), comparing the work of French and Lebanese photographers. For the past 18 years, Photo’Aix is an event promoting contemporary photography initiated by the association La Fontaine Obscure. This exhibition featured the work of five Lebanese photographers, whose work we found well worth the trip and I’d encourage you to make a stop there if you’re in the “neighborhood.”
In Aix, the fire department had the entire eastern part of the Cour Mirabeau blocked off. The city’s most important avenue, now a wide pedestrian walkway where every Aixois wants to see and be seen. At the eastern end (No. 53) is one of the its most famous cafés — Les Deux Garçons, whose history includes such patrons as Paul Cézanne, Émile Zola and Albert Camus.
Locals call it “Les Deux G,” because of the multiple owners and patrons during it’s long history involving men with names that start with the letter “G.” The building was once called the Auberge du Cheval Blanc, owned by M. Gros. He sold it to M. Gantès who built the mansion known as the Hôtel de Gantès in 1660. In the 18th-century, M. Guion bought the building and created “Le “Grand Cercle” reserved for nobility and the upper middle class. After 1789, the lease passed to M. Guérin, who made the “Café Julien.” Finally, in 1840, two waiters of the café, messieurs Guidoni and Guerini, bought it and gave it its current name. In the 20th-century, following in the tradition, two other waiters played a vital role in the reputation of the brasserie for the reception of artists such as Cézanne, Picasso, Cocteau, Delon, Poulenc and the protagonists of the opera festival of the city.
That morning, the renowned café nearly burned to the ground. We witnessed the shell of what once was and were saddened by what was there now. The fire started at about 6 a.m. Eighty firefighters were on the scene, but it went up in smoke before much could be done to save it. It was empty, but interestingly, the establishment had been placed in bankruptcy last May, before suffering an administrative closure in June. The transfer was to take place in October but the prosecution appealed the decision, and therefore the Court of Appeal of Aix had to re-examine the case in January. Clearly, this disaster should impact the procedure and I can’t help but wonder if it was arson. No one is talking about arson yet, but the cause of the fire is still unknown.
“Black Friday” is a phenomena that has taken France by storm. Not only is it the biggest retail day of the year in the U.S., but now it’s a “must-do” for the French, too…thanks to Apple who popularized it. It marks the beginning of Christmas shopping season — a day when the stores offer discounts and special coupons. We’ve watched it grow almost overnight and now there is nary a store that doesn’t have a Black Friday sign in its window. We joked that the French don’t have a clue what the saying means, but we didn’t either. I always thought it described the merchants’ accounts being “in the black” that day, having been so profitable. But, according to Wikipedia.org, “The earliest evidence of the phrase Black Friday applied to the day after Thanksgiving in a shopping context suggesting that the term originated in Philadelphia, where it was used to describe the heavy and disruptive pedestrian and vehicle traffic. We wanted to cash in, too, and made a few purchases at a big percentage off very happily.
Sunday morning the rains came down big time. We imagined Noah’s Ark on the horizon as we gathered our bags and plowed through the torrents and deep floods toward the train station. Our goal was to drop Lydia and the rental car before Barb and I hopped the Oui Bus (soon to become “BlaBlaBus”) to Nice…for a whopping .99 cents fare each on a special deal. Normally the fare would have been about 19€, so at a buck each, how could we pass that up? The bus had electric plugs and WiFi. The driver had great music playing. I’m writing part of this from the very front seat as we glided along the A8 to Nice in the total comfort of the bus. We landed at the Nice airport 2.5 hours later and from there we took the tram home for another whopping 1€. What a bargain, it couldn’t have been easier!
I return from Nice on December 4th, a day earlier than planned because of the strikes…
HOLIDAY STRIKES IN FRANCE
It happens almost every year, that France has to deal with strikes that interrupt our Holiday Cheer, because they know that’s when they can make the most impact. Don’t panic, just deal with it like we do, as we roll our eyes in resignation!
This year’s starts this Thursday, December 5th, nationwide, affecting transportation and other public service sectors. Expect there to be significant disruptions to rail, air, and local transportation services and that the strike could continue way beyond December 5th. Many trains and flights have already been cancelled. Expect to witness large demonstrations in some of France’s major cities. The “Gilets Jaunes” (Yellow Vests) will likely be out in force. If you are traveling, be sure to check on the status of your flights, and don’t depend on public transport to get you to the airport.
Here’s an informative video to watch.
For information on train and Paris Métro and bus disruptions, please see the links below:
English-language French media can be found at the following: