Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Mini Cooper Madness

Under a fraying tarp at my home in Carmichael sleeps an old Mini Cooper.  That Mini Cooper belongs to my dear son, Seth.  It has been "in residence" for a few years now waiting for its real home somewhere closer to San Francisco. Today in Perpignan, France, what should I find on the block where we parked the car but two--not one--Mini Coopers?

Is this a sign that the car at home has been transported to the south of France?  

Monday, September 29, 2014

Les Collettes

Our last day on the Cote d'Azur included a trip to the Renoir Museum in Cagnes-sur-Mer.  Les Collettes was built in 1907 when Pierre-Auguste Renoir purchased the property and where he spent his summers with his wife, children and friends until his death in 1919.
Haut Cagnes in the distance

The house sits on a substantial piece of property littered with olive trees and grassy spaces to enjoy a picnic or just a rest--or to set up an easel and create something beautiful. We arrived with about 45 minutes before the midday break to see the house and as much time as we wished to linger on the grounds--a perfect way to do the visit.  There were very few others "in residence" with us at the time.
Renoir's bather among the lime trees

One of his large "bather" sculptures is in the garden in front of the house.

In addition to the house, there is a ceramics studio where Renoir worked with his friend, sculptor Richard Guino. Guino worked with the clay per Renoir's instructions since Renoir's rheumatoid arthritis was so debilitating late in his life that he couldn't do it himself.
Renoir's painting of the ceramics studio
Ceramics studio

The house is simple in architecture and, I'm sure, comfortable in its time.
The rooms have high ceilings and the largest of those have linen wallpaper--either beautifully restored or beautifully replicated.
Main sitting room with views to the Mediterranean
The scenes from the windows and the photographs taken inside show how true to the original the house has been maintained.

The studio where Renoir worked is the largest room in the house and contains an easel, his wheelchair and little else.
Renoir's main studio
A smaller studio elsewhere in the house has another smaller wheelchair and easel.

There are at least 14 original paintings and several sculptures by Renoir and his friends--many of the paintings done while in residence at Les Collettes.

Claude Renoir

The property is the location of the first film done by his second son, Jean Renoir, whose career in filmmaking was lauded in the industry.  The third son, Claude, model for several of Renoir's work, became a famous ceramicist in his own right.  Renoir's wife and children were often the models for his art.

In the winter, Renoir and his family made their home in Essoyes in the Champagne region of France where his wife grew up.  That home is also open to the public.

The property, the house and the art have been cared for beautifully making the visit most pleasurable.  I once read a review of this museum from someone who complained that there was so little to see and that Renoir's studio contained only an easel and his chair. I cannot for the life of me comprehend the reviewer's evident blindness to the richness of Renoir's home on this enormous property in the tightly-built town of Cagnes and the fine display of his and his friends' art.  If I return again, it'll be 45 minutes before the midday meal and with a picnic lunch. I recommend any of you do the same thing.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Mediterranean Hill Towns

We leave the Dordogne and head to the Cote d'Azur.   Not that we had planned to go there, but we have a few days left between Montauban and our rendezvous with the owners of an apartment in Canet-Plage--near Perpignan.   France's road system makes it easy to travel considerable distances without much hastle--though not without cost.  The autoroute exacts a toll and the cost of travel from Montauban to Nice adds up to approximately 50 Euros. Not a paltry sum.  And that, of course, doesn't include gas.  But we are longing to be in familiar territory for a few days, and besides, there are things to be seen that we haven't yet seen despite our multiple trips to the area.

We find a hotel in Sophia-Antipolis, France's equivalent to the Silicone Valley of California.  We arrive around time for the evening meal.  The hotel is, not surprisingly, full of people in the area for business reasons.  It isn't a touristic area and is out of the way of the hot sites.

In the morning, we make our way up to the hill towns behind Nice.
Blowing glass in Biot
Biot is famous for its glassworks and has several glass-blowing studies, including a studio specifically for the purpose of receiving great busloads of tourists and shepherding them through a tour, a museum and a shop. We visit this place for the first time.  In previous years, we visited a small studio and shop where we purchased several glass pieces that we continue to enjoy.  We move on to the old town high above the glass studios to see Biot's quaint heart.

Driving through Grasse, we arrive in Fayence for the first time. As a rule, we walk along the streets and alleys to enjoy these towns.
Going upstairs in Fayence
Here, however, instead of walking along from one block to another here, we walk up and down the stairs.  At the end of each block, the sidewalk ends and the clear message is "Go up the stairs to the next block."  

Market is over in Fayence.
The market is just in the process of breaking down but provides the clear central square to see the church and the view of the large flat valley, including the aerodrome famous for gliders because of the lift provided by the geographic configuration.
The aerodrome from the main plaza

Eggplant salad with ham, walnuts, goat cheese

We find a nice place for lunch and enjoy a delicious meal of eggplant salad with dry ham, pomegranite seeds, goat cheese, arugula and walnuts--not to mention the extraordinary chocolate mousse.  
Mousse au chocolat

We then go in search of Terre Blanche, a highly-rated golf course in the area.  We approach the front entrance of the golf course while passing by a metal fence that surroundeds the entire course.  The bottom of the fence is concrete to prevent digging under it.  The top of the fence holds both cameras and motion sensing devices.  Overkill?  I believe so.  The guard at the gate instructs us to go to the hotel entrance where his colleague will be informed about our arrival.  As we arrive at the hotel entrance, we think better of the visit and tell the "colleague" that we have decided to leave, thank you very much.  We turn around and exit--feeling utterly unwelcome and somewhat nefarious.   

St. Andrews is probably the most famous golf course in the world followed closely by Pebble Beach.  (You notice I don't feel the need to describe where Pebble Beach is located.) Fences?  Motion detectors?  Colleagues?  I think not.  Terre Blanche displays an astonishing and oppressive level of security.  I'll admit the cars in the parking lot do not resemble our humble little Peugeot.  But really?  And the chateau on the property was owned by Sean Connery for 20 years or so.  But again, really?

We head for the clean, cool water of the Mediterranean for a cleansing.
Hello from La Napoule
We feel welcome at the beach in La Napoule where we have visited on several occasions. The beach is surprisingly busy for a Thursday afternoon. Families, singles and couples.  Some fish off the breakwater.  A yacht is anchored in the bay. Sailboats litter the water in the distance. We park and put our feet in the water--or at least I put my feet in the water --without raising any eyebrows or calls to colleagues to make sure our motives are pure.  We are refreshed and cleansed and head back into the hills, stopping on the way at the Carrefour for some good wine and take-out food for dinner.  

Good day and validation for our decision to visit.      

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Albi--Bricks over the Tarn

We drove into the center of the town and were awestruck by the size of the cathedral. We've seen other churches that are bigger--the cathedral in Seville, Spain, and Saint Peter's in Rome.  But Albi was built in the 1100s specifically to deliver a lesson to the non- or not-so-sure-believers that the Catholic church was serious.  And there's no getting around the clarity of that message--in either 1265 or 2014.
Cathedral de Ste-Cecile, Albi

We began our visit searching for the Toulouse-Lautrec museum.  On the street, I stopped a woman to ask for directions.  She pointed the way and said that she had never actually visited the museum despite her Albigensian residency and that for the weekend, admission was free. It was the weekend recognizing France's heritage all over France.  Widely advertised, most French historic sites were free to the public. Lucky us.

Toulouse-Lautrec was born in Albi of a privileged family.  His parents encouraged his artistic talent--especially during his long periods of convalescence.  The museum had many of his pieces, including some of the initial drawings in preparation for the posters about the bawdy Parisian nightclub life and prostituion for which he became famous worldwide.  He also had a fondness for horses and painted many images--both realistic and impressionistic during his short career.

While in the basement of the museum looking a collection of regional artisan pieces, I gazed through a glass case to find the Madame who had given us direction.  I said, "Vous etes arrivee, Madame!"  (You came.)  She admitted that it was only because we asked for directions.  And she said she was glad she did.  A nice exchange.

We left the museum for Cathedral de Ste-Cecile.

Approaching the structure, I was careful to photograph it when people were walking by to provide the perspective needed when comparing the person to the building.  Built using the red brick of the area, it is an imposing size.  Inside, the ceiling appears to be miles away, the walls soaring above.  It was impossible to honestly capture but it remains fixed in my memory.
Without flash, not perfect.  But the size!

Outside, we visited the Bishop's sculpted garden overlooking the Tarn, which was red as the brick, the bridge in the background.
From the Bishop's garden, view of the Tarn

Weirs on the Tarn taken from the old bridge, Albi
The cathedral stands at the top of the hill overlooking the small city like a guard standing over the vulnerable.  

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Truffles and Wine

Cahors is famous for both truffles and wine--both available at the local market. While those are consumable products, the historical sites are more permanent.
The Pont Valentre, which spans the Lot River, was built between 1308 and 1360.  You can't eat it, but the view is stunning.

On the road to Compostela de Santiago in Spain, we found many pilgrims from whose backpacks hung an identifying cockle shell
and whose hands gripped walking sticks--a pretty important accoutrement when walking over 1000 kilometers (638 miles) in the name of faith.

While on the bridge, we watched a pleasure boat in the canal.  Six people on the boat took turns at the locks.

One peed off the back, two turned the cranks to let the water out.  Another two turned the cranks to open the lock once the water level had stabilized.  One held the rope the entire time to keep the boat from bumping around and so others could get back on the boat.  One steered when the time to move arrived.

All but one person had a purpose.  The one purposeless participant simply enjoyed the entire circus.  On they went down the river to the next lock.  I wish them some automated locks from time to time.  Those cranks did not look easy to turn.

At the end of the bridge is a "secret vineyard" where wine grapes are planted.  It appears to be a "token" vineyard, not the real thing, which is not found in the same profusion as I remember.
Corn, as I've mentioned before, has overtaken the production of wine grapes.  And judging by the paucity of wine in the supermarket, I'd say the corn producers have won.  We are accustomed to three and four solid aisles of wine.  Now there is one in all the supermarkets we have visited.  What the h***?  We are crossing our fingers for vineyards in the most southern areas.  I will report.     

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Hundred Foot Journey

Months ago, I read the book The Hundred Foot Journey by Richard Morais.  A hard-core francophile and foodie, I loved it.  When it became a movie, I headed for the theatre the day it opened.  I went back a week later to see it again.

Yesterday, we made a detour to see St.-Antonin-Noble-Var to witness for ourselves the town where some of the film was shot. We drove from Albi to St.-Antonin along the crest of the chain of low mountains above the Aveyron river at the confluence with La Bonnette.  We descended into St.-Antonin at the river and crossed the bridge into the town itself.

The medieval town is at the heart of the Gorges de l'Aveyron on the edge of the Quercy region.  A limestone ridge--le Roc d'Anglars--dominates the town from above.
Le Roc d'Anglars

The bridge across the river is lined with flowers as are so many bridges in France.

Across the bridge is the old town where the movie was filmed in the little alleys and streets. The town can be traversed on foot in about ten minutes.

 Many of the streets are only accessible by pedestrians--not that this fact ever prevented a Frenchman on a mission to arrive at the other end of the street in a car.  

St. Antonin was built around a Benedictine Abbey from the 8th century.  The Roman house, which was built in 1150, is one of the oldest in France.  It is now the city hall. Tanneries began in the 12th century because of the availability of water from the two rivers.
On the edge of L'Aveyron. 
The town is at the meeting point of three ancient departments--Quercy, Albigeois and Rouergue.  Thermal baths from the 20th century offer respite from aching bones and healthy cures.  

It's hard for me to separate the movie from the town and the local theatre makes the most of it with posters and photos promoting the film whose title is translated to Les Recettes du Bonheur--Recipes for Happiness.
Advertising at the theatre
The town, however, is a lovely place in its own right.  Stone buildings, half-timbered houses, cobbled streets, a beautiful river and tree-lined streets make a visit a pleasure.    

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Perigord--Land of Ancient People and Tasty Geese

Perigord is inland from the Atlantic and north of the Pyrenees. Archeological digs here have uncovered many cave sites carved into the rocks along the river, including the ancient Lascaux cave with its prehistoric paintings.  We installed ourselves in Perigueux to explore the area better.

We headed out to Sarlat to its weekly Saturday market and encountered the largest mass of tourists I remember outside of Paris.  French, German, American, Dutch and more.  It was one of the most overwhelmingly touristic experiences of my travels and completely unexpected.
The cheese and sausage truck
Of course, blended in with the tourists were the ever-patient residents of Sarlat struggling to buy their fruits, vegetables and what-have-you necessary for their daily lives.
Garlic for sale in Sarlat
The high point for me was a taste of the local foie gras. Lovely.  We ended our stay there with a delicious coffee and pastry and headed off to partly retrace our steps to Sarlot from Perigueux.

Stopping at La-Roque-Gageac along the Dordogne River, we discovered the town is just as it's portrayed in many a photo--houses built into the hill and above, what appear to be holes in the rocks where families lived in ancient times--and some not so ancient times.
La Roque-Gageac on the Dordogne
Birds have found homes there and as I looked up above the houses, they soared around in great numbers.
Birds and caves in La Roque-Gageac
Groups enjoyed the river in canoes and kayaks as well as a boat that accommodated many people motoring up the river and down.  It looked most inviting in the heat.

From La-Roque-Gageac, we climbed up to Beynac, one of the finest chateaux in the area.
Beynac Chateau
During the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453), this chateau was alternately occupied by the English and the French. Starting in 1429 Joan of Arc was able to rally the troops; and though she was burned at the stake in 1431, the momentum of the French had taken hold and the war ended in 1453.
The Dordogne River from Chateau de Beynac

Across the valley from Beynac is a chateau that had been owned by Josephine Baker who lived there with her 12 adopted children of global origin (Korea, Venezuela, Morocco, France, Japan, Colombia, Israel, Algeria, Ivory Coast and Finland) until she moved to Roquebrune, near Monaco.

Driving back to Perigueux, we passed through Les Eyzies and St. Christopher to Thenon.  Our final stop was a goose farm where we watched the flocks move around after their leader like a flock of sheep or the gaggle of geese that they were.  What a kick.
They were probably on their way back to the barn to be force fed so their livers would fatten up to be eaten later by the likes of me and other foie-gras appreciators. Gory as it sounds, it didn't appear to me that these animals were under any stress in the process.

This area is where we have to remind each other that it's impossible to see everything there is to see and that it's a damned good excuse to have to return.  We'll be returning. . .    

Friday, September 19, 2014

France Observations

Travel is adventure and discovery of things new and even after multiple trips to France, there is still something new.   

The last time we were here, we watched the confused election of the leader of the center-right party, Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (union for a popular movement) or UMP, the party of the former president, Nicolas Sarkozy.  It was an entertaining election as the winning candidate was not clear for weeks--and it was never clear--period--to many. But it was amusing to watch from an outsider's perspective--an outsider who was spotty in the language but understanding enough to be entertained by it.  Each trip promises a political diversion.  This time, Nicolas Sarkozy is making a bid for the same leadership of the UMP. His return into the fray, so to speak. 

In northwestern France, it appears that all the vines have been pulled up and replaced with corn.  Corn fields are everywhere.  Whatever happened to the wine grapes?  As we head more to the south, we hope we find the vineyards of old rather than the fields of cattle feed and ethanol.  

As I may have mentioned in previous posts from the last trip, I hear more and more English--not that I hear people actually holding conversations in English, but English phrases here and there.  On the radio, I heard a woman say, "pas trop, pas too much."  Translated that is "not too much, not too much," half in French and sort of half in English.  The t.v. commercials are replete with English words and expressions--in print, on radio and on television.
Century 21!  Nothing French about that.  Taken from outside my hotel window.

In the supermarket, I see more shopping carts with bags of chips, bottles of soda, prepared meals.  Said carts are more often pushed by women who have long ago passed the lithe/obese balance--and many are accompanied by children who have seen a little too much of the inside of a candy bar wrapper.  

I see more signs that prohibit the four-legged variety of friend from entry.  That includes supermarkets, the occasional restaurant, even at a hotel.  

Who could deny entrance to these three?
From what seems like time immemorial, dogs have been welcomed in restaurants, museums, stores and anywhere else their human companions go.

Speed cameras have grown completely out of control. They are everywhere.  Small roads, highways, city streets, country lanes.  First there's the warning:  Speed cameras ahead.  Then there's the actual speed camera looking like something out of a Stephen Spielberg movie--daring you to exceed the speed limit.  And what's more surprising is that the French are obeying the speed limit and its constant changes.  I picture some bureaucrat sitting with a map and a stylus:  "Here's a long stretch, let's make it 90 kph.  But here's a little corner so let's stick 70 kph there."  It's like a game.  In the town, it suddenly changes to 50, then 30 where there's a speed bump.  A 100 kilometer trip is a lesson in vigilance.  I've become obsessive about finding the speed limit signs.  Without them, I'm lost--and edgy.

As a constant reminder, every evening, I have seen an hour-long program featuring accidents, their victims, the emergency responders, the consequences both to the victims and the perpetrators.  It's like sitting in traffic school every evening--not that I've ever been to traffic school, but I can imagine.  

But some things remain the same.  
France loves its flowers and gardens.  
In great profusion--winter or summer, the roundabouts, the flower boxes, the planters, the bouquets are artfully arranged like a beautiful artist's palette of contrast and blending that occurs in nature.   
Concarneau old city
Thank goodness for adventure.  May it never end.