Le splendide voyage

Reflections on exploration & travel


2 Comments

Merry Christmas and Goodbye ma belle Dijon!

Today, Dijon is adorned with lights and bright decorations. The Christmas market continues to bring excitement in the air. As I walk through the streets a giant Ferris wheel at the place de la Republic, the ice-skating rink at the place de la Liberation, and manger scenes around town welcoming the birth of Christ added to my enthusiasm for the season. Walking around with friends, I have enjoyed warm wine concoctions, churros and other Christmas delights. Yet, this time of celebration is also a time of nostalgic and heartfelt goodbyes. I am leaving Dijon today at the height of the Christmas season. This gives me a chance to pause and reminisce the past few years.
As a citizen of a country where everything moves at the speed of light…my experience in France was a prismatic adjustment. Business endeavors could be at times exasperating and yet, I fell in love with Dijon, glorious Burgundy and France. In my two hours lunch, I learned not to talk about business but instead make lasting friendships while learning to recognize the beauty of the local gastronomy and wine culture. I have learned to smell the roses while walking through a park on my way to work and truly appreciate all the seasons. The French are also worth getting to know. Their wit, remarkable style, friendship and humor have made my experience memorable. In addition, the country from north to south, east to west is simply delightful and is splendidly paired with a fascinating history and literature. Truly, this is one of the most beautiful countries I have had the pleasure to live.
I chose to share in this blog a superb video done by Elimitage (it can also be seen at Vimeo). I believe it was done to promote Dijon and the development of “Cite de la Gastronomie”, which will be a whole complex dedicated to Burgundy’s gastronomy and its finest wines. I cannot wait until this project becomes a reality because it will be an incredible place. The video moves me because it shows all of the atmosphere and sights that made me fall in love with this city and region, including the song at the end, “Dijon,” interpreted by Yves Jamait. Dijon, Burgundy and France are now permanently set in my heart and in my opinion that is a most perfect Christmas gift!

Joyeux Noël et meilleurs vœux à vous et à vos proches ! Aller de l’avant et faites de 2015 une année encore meilleure!

Merry Christmas and a Joyous 2015!

Advertisements


Leave a comment

Sous Le Ciel de Paris : Under the Paris Sky

Edith Piaf, one of France’s most acclaimed performers, sang with passion about Paris’ cherished commonplace experiences in “Sous Le Ciel de Paris (Under the Paris Sky).” Parisian life seem to elicit added appeal when private steps are steered toward trendy streets, sidewalk cafés, classy façades of haute-couture shops and moments of ordinary life happening across the boulevards.

I heartily embrace the notion that walking is the only way to become acquainted with one of the world’s most beautiful capitals. A stroll along the Seine, allows the blissful visitor to witness the grandeur of the Pont Alexandre III (bridge) which was built to honor the Russian Tsar Alexander III and the Franco-Russian Alliance in 1892. Meanwhile, the narrow Pont de l’ Archevêché, is a tribute to lovers who have engraved padlocks with their initials and after, have fastened them to the bridge’s rail. Hundreds of these chained locks toast an enduring moment in Paris. As the stroll unfolds, I reflect on the timeless everyday images captured by master photographers: Robert Doisneau and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Their work have inspired me to reframe my camera lenses while seizing luminous mundane details around Paris. Photography workshops may also facilitate the development of one’s unique Parisian narrative. One such workshops is delivered by Valérie Jardin Photography who provides outstanding photographic and cultural trip/workshops through the streets of Paris. In the same manner, two travel-expat-essay books have encouraged me to value Paris & France’s attributes: “Paris to the Moon” and “The Table Comes First: Family, France and the Meaning of Food” both by New Yorker magazine’s writer Adam Gopnick.

There are multiple and diverse neighborhoods in Paris. A lofty cultural exercise consists of learning the culture of different Parisian neighborhoods and then choosing one to call home. In my case, the place that I call home when in Paris is: Saint-Germain-des-Prés on the 6th arrondissement of Paris. Although it has become much-frequented by vacationers, it was previously regarded as the epicenter for writers and ideas’ protagonists. Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Luc Godard made their home here. Till this day, this neighborhood bolsters a spirited exchange of ideas within cafés and bookstores. During the spring season, I often unwind on the grounds of the Luxembourg Gardens with an enjoyable book. Celebrated cafes in Saint-Germain are: the Café Les Deux Magots, frequented by Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Hemingway while Picasso preferred Café de Flore. Then, at 13 rue de l’Ancienne Comédie, a prized restaurant in a historical location: le Procope. At the Procope, I have enjoyed a delectable authentic French cuisine feast together with great décor, service and presentation.

The film industry has always been enamored with a Paris setting. Poetic passionate love stories as well as intense action films persistently crisscross alongside its backdrop: An American in Paris (1951), Breathless by Jean-Luc Godard (1960), Charade (1963), Sabrina (1954, remake 1995) Ronin (1998), Moulin Rouge! (2001), and Woody Allen’s, Midnight in Paris (2011). Cinéma enthusiasts, will also treasure the “Cinéma au Clair de Lune/Movies by Moonlight” experience. This end of summer affair offers French film screenings “under the stars” at various Parisian parks and gardens including: the Paris Buttes Montmartre, the Montsouris Park or the Esplanade des Invalides. My own experience beneath a “starry night” at Parc Montsouris transported me into the fascinating world of: “The extraordinary adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec” a film by Luc Besson. This collective outdoor activity uncovered another auspicious facet of Paris that was unfamiliar to me.

A film enthusiast in Paris will easily recognize certain neighborhoods and streets that have become iconic images of Paris. A prized film street is: rue Foyatier, located in Montmartre, 18th arrondissement of Paris. Its prominent and outspread flights of stairs lead to the summit where the Sacré-Cœur Basilica graciously stands. On this spot, another breathtaking view of Paris can be enjoyed. Similarly, the Montmartre neighborhood is also recognized for having sheltered the art-studios of ingenious artists including Amedeo Modigliani, Claude Monet, Picasso, and Vincent van Gogh. Till this day, proximate to the basilica, amateur portrait artists arrange their easels/stalls and sketch portraits of tourists at Place du Tertre, Montmartre’s old main square.

Without a doubt, a paced stroll “under the Paris sky” will foster the discovery of a surprising never-ending story.


Leave a comment

“Paris is always a good idea.” ― Audrey Hepburn

A great advantage of living in Dijon is its straightforward access to interesting travel locations. France has one of the best rail systems in Europe. One can take a direct train from Dijon to Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG) or simply take a TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse, high-speed train) operated by SNCF voyages to a major station in Paris, “Gare de Lyon.” This particular trip takes about 1 hour and 35 minutes and: “Voilà, you are in Paris!”

Paris, “the city of lights,” has always inspired great accolades of love and wonder. Compositions and lyrics have been written by an array of composers and musicians including Gershwin, Offenbach and Louis Armstrong. Gifted authors as Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Scott Fitzgerald and one of my favorite poets, the Prague-born poet Rainer Maria Rilke visited Paris. A classic account depicts that Rilke came to Paris to write a monograph on the artist Auguste Rodin. After, Rilke became Rodin’s secretary while Rilke’s wife, the sculptor Clara Westhoff, became the great master’s pupil. All of these architects of excellence shared an enduring attachment to Paris whilst becoming immersed within its ethos. As result, they stayed for longer engagements with some lasting quite a few years.

Initially, it is important to experience Paris as a tourist. Incomparable monuments welcome the visitor throughout its city-center famously designed by Baron Haussmann. This visionary and extravagant prefect of the Seine Department was chosen by Emperor Napoleon III to beautify the city with boulevards and parks, museums, bridges and so much more. Certain places should be a priority when visiting Paris such as the symbol of glories past: the Arc de Triomphe, followed by a stroll across the bustling Avenue des Champs-Élysées where trendy shops and cafés serve the tourist crowds. Next in the agenda: the Louvre Museum. This renowned art museum is one of the oldest in the world and the place where Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” dwells. Staying with the fine-arts motif, one cannot miss the Musée d’Orsay. This unique museum, is located in the interior of the former Orsay railway station and holds one of the finest Impressionists collection in the world. Thereafter, one should steer toward the most recognizable emblem of the city: the Eiffel Tower, built by Dijon’s native, Gustave Eiffel. Often, the Eiffel Tower has long moving lines. Still, it offers one of the best topographic views of the city. Another splendid and perhaps less crowded vista is located at the observation deck on top of the Arc de Triomphe. There, one can behold the impressive panoramic spectrum of La Defense, the Avenue Champs-Élysées and the Sacré-Coeur Basilica.

An additional museum is the Musée Rodin. This museum displays the superb works of the celebrated master, Auguste Rodin, at the Hôtel Biron. Historically, this mansion and garden museum was occupied by several artists since 1905 including the painter Henri Matisse and the dancer Isadora Duncan. In 1908, Rodin establish his sculpting studios within a few rooms. By 1911, he occupied the entire building. Rodin also adorned the outside gardens with some of his work. Today, in the midst of roses and shrubberies, some prominent pieces grace the grounds including the Thinker (1903), the Burghers of Calais (1889), Gates of Hell (1917) and the Three Shades (before 1886). The shades appear in Dante’s Divine Comedy and represent the souls of the dammed standing at the gates of hell whispering: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” Inside the mansion, several acclaimed pieces can be viewed such as The Kiss (1882) and the Cathedral (1908). Moreover, distinguished pieces of Rodin’s assistant-artist-muse-mistress, the talented and tragic Camille Claudel are exhibited.

The Parisian experience is multidimensional! Last year alone, I was able to dissect the Louvre Museum, by visiting one wing at a time over an eight-month period which allow me to fall in love with its collections. I have also relished noteworthy events: the sumptuous version of Rudolf Nureyev’s ballet “La Belle au bois dormant/The sleeping beauty (composer Tchaikovsky)” by the Paris Opera Ballet at the Bastille Opera in Paris; and the outstanding exhibit of the Jewish-Russian-French artist Marc Chagall: “Chagall between War and Peace” at the Paris’ Musée de Luxembourg. Additionally, a smaller museum, the Jacquemart-André museum, displayed a delightful exhibit of Eugène Boudin, Claude Monet’s master-teacher. Thematic classes/workshops are taught throughout the city for short periods or even during weekend breaks including: the gratifying “travel sketchbooking” with Pauline Fraisse Art & Culture; and “Un Dimanche à Paris” where I spend diverting weekends learning to make scrumptious chocolate morsels, the famous macaroons and French pastries in the heart of the Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

Unique pursuits also flourish in Paris. Chocolate aficionados will be delighted to visit the “Salon du Chocolat” exposition. It usually runs for 5 days in autumn around October/November. Visitors step into the marvelous world of cocoa while observing the work of internationally renowned chefs and pastry chefs. Victor Hugo’s fans will appreciate the elegantly designed Place des Vosgues, Paris oldest public square in Marais where Victor Hugo lived between 1832 and 1848. The Maison de Victor Hugo and museum is housed here and it provides a glimpse into the author’s quotidian life. Similarly, riverside admirers will welcome a river cruise along the Seine passing through historical sites and bridges while savoring a refined French cuisine feast and enjoying live music performances.

Paris is always a good idea. The French capital will always welcome guests desiring to unveil its social and cultural assets.


Leave a comment

Floating along the Burgundy Canal….

One of the most delightful travel ventures in Burgundy is to float on a graceful vessel along the Burgundy canal.  This waterway excursion may include short trips (around 3 hours) or for travelers inclined to uncover a sumptuous spell, exclusive hotel-barges are a splendid way to experience a canal cruise for a week or so while visiting many sites and charming villages along the way.  The cruise docks at multiple quays along the canal and visitors can explore the region via bicycle tours or hiking expeditions through distinctive areas.  Professional guided tours on comfortable air-conditioned vans are also an option which can be easily arranged.

Historically some of the canal’s construction’s preparations began around 1605.  However, it was Louis XV who signed a decree for the canal’s official construction in 1773.  Upon completion around 1882, the Burgundy canal was considered to be an engineering achievement with its 242 km (150 mi) of length and virtually 190 locks. The canal converges the Yonne and Saône valleys following a spectacular stretch towards Burgundy’ boundaries through a 3300m tunnel.  This marvelous river exploit will generate incredible views of Burgundy’s glistening vineyards, historical sites and communities, and wonderful outdoor markets on weekends.

My river cruise experience included visits to lovely places such as the beautiful Ancy-le-Franc château.  In the 16th century, Antoine III de Clermont chose the renowned Italian architect, Sebastiano Serlio, to design and build this fetching structure.  The château sits on the canal’s embankment and presents a magnificent collection of Renaissance murals and paintings by Flemish and local French artists from the 16th and 17th centuries.   Continuing along the canal, we stopped and cycled to another incredible place:  Abbaye de Fontenay.  Its historical background has an element of the divine: at age 23, Bernard de Claivaux, a wealthy aristocrat, decided to abandon the “world” and join the monastic life of the Cistercians.  He was a strict follower of the Benedictine Rules which comprised of an atmosphere of prayer, hard work and studies, community living, economic self-sufficiency and a spirit of moderation.   In 1118, he founded the Fontenay Abbey with a group of Cistercian monks. The abbey is the ultimate architecture legacy of Cistercian originality.  Built in Romanesque style with understated warm sandstone, the structure allows for ample natural light to saturate its buildings thus fostering a sense of serenity and beauty. A visitor may leisurely walk through its immaculate landscape gardens nestled over 1,200 hectares.  The abbey nurtures such an inspirational atmosphere that a variety of film productions have use this location as a backdrop including the award winning “Cyrano de Bergerac,” with Gérard Depardieu.

Our water-based holidays continued. After our next docking, we climbed into a minibus for a visit to a medieval gem: Flavigny-sur-Ozerain.  Stepping through its massive city gates, we arrived into a serene chocolate-box medieval city-center with narrow winding streets. Around 52 BC, a Roman soldier Flavinius received from Caesar a stretch of land situated on a hill as reward for the victory over the Gaul.  Thus, the area was named name Flaviniacum and later Flavigny.  In addition, the Romans also brought with them an excellent supplement to the local flora: aniseeds.  Anise (Pimpinella anisum), also called aniseed, is a flowering plant in the Apiaceae (parsley) family.  The Romans believed that tea made from its flower was a powerful elixir for their troops in the treatment of colds and influenza.  For years, the factory of the famous “Les Anis de Flavigny, un bien bon bonbon” (candy-drop mints), housed at an ancient abbey in town, produces these wonderful mints sold in elegant boxes or painted tin containers.  It is said that when a strong West wind overtakes the factory, the entire village smells as fragrant as the scent from the anise plant.  The village is scenic with ancient architectural design, gates and fortifications, and ancient shops.   The church in the center of town, Saint Geneste, is a marvelous site including its carved artwork. Proximate to the church is the store front for the film “Chocolat” with Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp filmed mostly in Flavigny and surrounding areas.

From the Burgundy Canal, gazing towards rolling green fields speckled with white steers, one cannot help to notice a small village sitting on top of an inconspicuous hill: Châteauneuf-en-Auxois.  As we ascended into its gate, we were welcome by an imposing 15th century fortress: the Château de Châteauneuf-en-Auxois with a tall round keep.  Around the 12th century, this village began to flourish.  A stroll through its curving streets is like striding into a storybook especially since most houses date back to the 12th – 15th centuries.  An assortment of crafts shops and window panes bursting with colorful and fragrant flowers adorned the village. On the trail, we promenaded further into the edge of town to discover a congregation of trees and a cross overlooking a spectacular view of the valley and the intertwining Burgundy canal below. Breathtaking!

Our next stop included a morning in Semur-en-Auxois.  This fortified village is bordered by the river Armaçon. Its medieval centre-ville (town center) remains virtually unspoiled after hundreds of years and the area is a prime location for panoramic photography.  After Semur-en-Auxois, we visited the village of Époisses where one of my favorite cheeses of Burgundy originates: the Époisses, king of cheeses!  That evening on our boat we shared our discoveries and cheeses while the captain introduced: Kir Royale.  Blackcurrants, one of the main ingredients in this drink, were brought from northern Europe and Asia to be cultivated in Burgundy’s monasteries.  There, the monks used this fruit to prepare traditional remedies to alleviate sore-throats and fever.  In 1836, Auguste Denis Lagoute had the idea to start a liqueur factory using blackcurrants since the plant thrived in the region. Eventually, he and his partner developed the Crème de Cassis: blackcurrant berries soaked in clear alcohol and later, its juice is sweetened with a sugar glacé.  This new liqueur progressed to another creation, the blanc-cassis, as white wine was added to its blend.  Blanc-cassis became quite famous in the mid-1900s when Canon Felix Kir, WWII pioneer resistance fighter and deputy mayor of Dijon allowed this trendy apéritif to be named after him, Le Kir.  Felix Kir further popularized this drink by serving it to visiting foreign and local dignitaries on multiple official and social events. The Kir Royale is made with Crème of Cassis plus champagne and served in champagne flute glasses.  This drink also rose to fame in the novels of mystery writer Agatha Christie.  Her fictional character Hercule Poirot favored this delectable aperitif on various occasions.

One of our last adventures was rising at dawn to experience the thrill of a hot air balloon ride.  Floating and moving with the wind, our hot-air balloon flew over: the resplendent vineyard rows of Chablis; the stunning medieval village of Vezelay resting peacefully on a hill; glazed tile roofs; smaller quaint villages and nature reserves. We also followed from above parts of the marvelous watercourses of the canal, its locks and rivers which were simply awe-inspiring.  I have to say that the canal cruise was an excellent way to travel and marvel at the remarkable beauty of Burgundy!


Leave a comment

Warm Mediterranean breezes: From Camargue to Nice

Having lived in Texas, USA and Argentina, I am quite familiar with cowboys galloping across the Texan prairies and “gauchos” riding their horses while working the cattle along the Argentinian pampas (plains).  Still, I was not able to transfer this image to France until I went to visit the Camargue region located in the south of France resting in the midst of the largest river delta in Europe.  There the “gardians” (French cowboys) manage the local cattle herds and the Camargue’s wild horses through the marshes.

Bathed by the Rhône river delta and the Mediterranean Sea, the capital of Camargue, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (Saint Marys of the Sea) is rich in folklore.  This tradition embodies a perfect concoction of legends, culture and religious rituals blended within historical accounts.  The most common legend conveys the story of the 3 Marys: Mary Magdalene, Mary Salome and Mary Jacobe, believed to be the first witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection and his empty tomb. Anecdotes describe their flight from Jerusalem to Alexandria, Egypt to escape persecution. Later, they set sail from Alexandria with Mary Magdalene’s uncle Joseph of Arimathea arriving on the French coast around this area.  There are at least 3 different versions to this story and a further personage was added, Saint Sarah who welcomed the 3 Marys into this region.  The dark-skinned Sarah, dressed in a multicolored dress and jewels, is venerated by the Roma (Gypsies).  Every May, they come from afar to celebrate their beloved saint in a colorful musical festival.   Throughout the years, the festival has attracted different artists including Bob Dylan who composed the song “One more cup of coffee” while attending the Roma celebrations. Artist such as Vincent Van Gogh was also intrigue by the area and painted the Three White Cottages in Saintes-Maries during his visit in 1888.

Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer atmosphere is low key and perhaps less fashionable than other Mediterranean enclaves. Still, it exudes charm with great possibilities and activities.  There are hiking and biking routes, paragliding, deep sea fishing, sailing and horseback riding. The food products in the area enhance the gastronomic experience:  Camargue’s red rice grown in local rice fields and marshes has become a popular souvenir to take home. Meanwhile, the famous Sel de Camargue (Salt of Camargue) has an exquisite and fresh flavor that makes any raw vegetable taste deliciously savory.  Another interesting place to visit especially by bird lovers is: the Parc Naturel Régional de Camargue.  There thousands of pink rose feathered flamingos can be “watched” especially during spring and autumn.  Also, Camargue’s wild white horses, nomadic throughout the region, are one of the oldest breeds in the world and beloved by locals.  Upon entering Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, the first sculpture standing prominent within its square is the white and wild Camargue horse.  Its story was told in a popular French film called Crin-Blanc, (English title White Mane, 1953).

Moving along the Mediterranean coast, warm breezes takes the traveler to the fashionable and somewhat upscale city of Nice la Belle (Nice the beautiful).  The Greeks first settle in the area around 350 BC.  They named the city Nikaia (hence Nice) after the goddess of victory Nike.  Across the centuries, the city and region belonged to different nobles and crests, until finally it was annexed to France in 1860. Since then, the mild and pleasant Mediterranean climate of the area has also attracted visitors from all corners of the world. The British in particularly, often visit Nice to try to escape harsh winters and rainy seasons. Thus, the best known walkway by the sea is called Promenade des Anglais (The walkway of the British).  Artists and painters such as Marc Chagall and Henry Matisse have loved the area for its natural beauty and till this day their works can be seen at the Musée Marc Chagall and Musée Matisse and of course the prominent Musée des Beaux-Arts in Nice.

The public beaches in Nice are thoroughly populated during high season. These beaches are rocky with pebbles that can scorch unprotected soles during warm weather.  Yet, Nice offers an array of private beaches that are quite lovely.  One of my favorites hotels, Hotel Negresco for example, an amazing architectural structure, cloaked with fine art and overlooking the Promenade des Anglais, provides access to the absolutely bright and picturesque Neptune Plage (Neptune Beach).  Other great private beaches are: Plage Beau Rivage, Opéra Plage, Castel Plage and the Blue Beach (open year round).  These beaches are well-maintained, offering proper walkways to avoid the sizzling pebbles in the summer, great lounge chairs, parasols, lockers and towels for a reasonable cost.  Some of the beaches also offer first-rate dining and watersports activities.

Nice has a vibrant gastronomic scene.  One of my favorite restaurant is Le Chantecler, in the Negresco hotel.   This is truly a fine dining experience within an elegant atmosphere and exquisite presentation.  The sommelier and service staff are excellent making it a superb experience.  Another favorite restaurant is: La Terrasse, a rooftop restaurant on 1 La Promenade des Anglais. The view of the placid Mediterranean sea below enfolded by projecting hills create a subtle perception of elegance and the dishes follow the same refinement. Nice has its share of quaint coffee houses and brasseries.  However, in my opinion the best coffee is found at “Caffe Vergnano 1882.”  Located in a very small street, rue Halevy 11, just behind the Meridien Hotel, they offer high-quality Italian espressos, macchiato, lattes and cappuccinos.  In addition, they have an assortment of pastries including a scrumptious croissant.  During my stay, I visited this café on a daily basis and after sipping their cappuccino, I was always ready to peruse a new section of Nice.


2 Comments

Roman landmarks, violet blue tufts, spices and other subtle nuances: Provence

After a lingering winter season, the easiest way to improve one’s disposition is to travel toward blue skies and a sun-blessed climate.  From Dijon and then going south on A-31-E17→A6-E15→A7-E15 (passing Lyon), one of the most splendid regions in France emerges in the horizon: Provence, “toujours Provence (Always Provence/Peter Mayle) …”   In Provence everything exudes natural beauty coupled with a native environment rich in regional tastes, bright sceneries and stimulating fragrances. It’s irresistible!

In ancient times, the area was a province of the Roman Empire. As result, the name “Provence” endured virtually intact throughout the centuries. Unsurprisingly, Rome’s historical testament has been permanently interwoven within the region’s landscape.  Hence, Provence should be visited unhurriedly and with a flexible itinerary since there is so much to be absorbed.

I usually try to visit Provence during the spring and summer seasons. My last itinerary started at the city of Orange, a Roman colony founded around 35 BC by soldiers of Caesar’s Second Gallic regiment. In the city center, the Théâtre Antique d’Orange/Ancient Theatre of Orange stands majestically. Built during the 1st century AD, this Roman monument is astonishingly well-preserved and climbing through its semi-circled arena is a notable exercise even as the statue of the Roman emperor observes and guards its realm. A tribute to Roman ingenuity was the removable head of the statue: it changed with each succeeding Roman emperor. During the summer, dramatic performances can be enjoyed as the theater presents an opera festival, the Chorégies d’Orange.  Meanwhile, among trendy local restaurants, the statue of a prominent crusader knight stands alone bearing witness of another time. For history lovers, a rather interesting monument is the Arc de triomphe d’Orange/Triumphal Arch of Orange. Conceivably built during the reign of Augustus (27 BC – AD 14), this monument is fascinating because it chronicles via engravings, prominent military and navel battles scenes including Roman victories over: the Gaul region in France and the Germanic tribes in the Rhineland.  Indeed, a fine historical account!

After, spending a couple of days in Orange, my next stop was the amazing walled city of the popes: Avignon.  Yes, there was a period in history, from 1309 -1378, when the papacy was moved from Rome to Avignon.  Clement V, a French pope was elected in 1305 and decided not to move to Rome. Thus, he moved his papal court to Avignon in 1309. Although Avignon did not belong to France at that time, a total of seven French popes reigned in Avignon (about 67 years) whilst remaining under complete subservience to the ambitious French crown.  Finally in 1376, Gregory XI moved his court to Rome ending the Avignon papacy.  The papal palace is an epic bastion having an imposing presence even from afar. This fortress is the largest Gothic palace from the Middle Ages as it comprises two major segments: the Palais Vieux (Old Palace) and Palais Neuf (New Palace).  Tours can be scheduled with multilingual guides or with an audio-tour device included in the price of admissions.  Another interesting site is the Pont Saint-Bénézet/Pont d’Avignon (the Avignon Bridge), a 12th century structure which was for many seasons the only bridge over the Rhône River south to Lyon.  However, the arches collapsed frequently when the Rhône flooded or when the city came under siege.  Thus, the rebuilding of the bridge stopped around the 17th century and today, only 4 arches remain.  However, the bridge as one of Avignon’s landmarks holds the central theme of a popular song “Sur le Pont d’Avignon”: “Sur le Pont d’Avignon; L’on y danse, l’on y danse; Sur le Pont d’Avignon; L’on y danse tous en rond (On the bridge of Avignon, We all dance there, we all dance there, On the bridge of Avignon, We all dance there in a ring).

In the summer, Avignon becomes the center of artistic expression as it sponsors the Festival d’Avignon/Avignon Festival.  For nearly 3 weeks, theatrical performances command the city while musicians and other gifted performers adorn its streets. The productions commence at the center court of the papal palace and extend to unique performance venues within the city’s walls.  Not far from Avignon (about 35 min), there is an ancient structure that should not be missed: the Pont du Gard (Guard Bridge). Built in the 1st century, this 50 km long (31 miles) Roman Aqueduct Bridge, was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1985. The Pont du Gard was created to carry water from the springs near the village of Uzès to the Roman colony of Nemausus, Nîmes.  The structure was built with aqueduct stones weighing up to 6 tons which were bonded together with iron clamps. Every day until the 4th century (lesser amount up to the 6th century), the Pont du Gard delivered around 44 million gallons of water to the citizens of Nîmes. After, it suffered accumulating mineral deposits due to the lack of maintenance and eventually the flow of water was obstructed.  The bridge has a wonderful museum with all its history plus you can hike, cycle and stroll through the park and its grand surroundings.

Last July, after losing myself in the hindmost roads of Provence, I finally ended up in an unfamiliar town.   As I open my car door, I became mystified by a subtle fruity fragrance arising from the center of town.  Walking towards “the source,” I found a town decorated with melon signs, melon arrangements, melon tastings, melon pastries and melon “everything.” It was the famous melon festival in the Melon capital of France, Cavaillon!  The warm sun and rich terrain of Provence ensures that the melons from this area have an exquisite taste and aroma.  As a matter of fact, a local anecdote recounts this story: “In 1864, a new library at Cavaillon asked a group of French authors to donate some of their works to the library’s collection. Alexander Dumas (The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, Queen Margot, Twenty years after, etc.),responded by donating 194 of his published works. He also promised to send subsequent works on one condition: Cavaillon should send him 12 of these succulent melons every a year.  The town honored his request and Alexandre Dumas received his beloved ‘melons de Cavaillon’ every summer until his death.”

Going back to the main road, I followed a country road leading to a village nestled in the Alpilles mountains and listed as “one of the most beautiful villages in France,” les Baux-de-Provence.  At first sight, the ruins of a castle parade on the mountain’s ridge. After, curiosity intensifies as the climb to its gates progresses.  Traces of civilization in this area date back to 6000 BC and during the Middle Ages, the lords of Baux pursued the control of this entire region. Later, the troops of Cardinal Richelieu’s besiege the city as rebels sought refuge within its walls. Afterwards, the town and nobility title was presented to Hercule Grimaldi by King Louis XIII in gratitude for services rendered to the French Crown. Hercule’s title of Marquis des Baux has been passed down through the Grimaldi’s dynasty and currently, the title holder is Prince Albert of Monaco.  In addition to its great historical past, the town is charming with its narrow cobblestone streets, coffee shops providing great views of the valley below, attractive shops, historical churches that give the impression of a beautiful unhurried life. During the summer months, you may also enjoy the rhythmic chant of the “cigales (cicadas)” in the afternoon.  This singing insect signifies happiness in Provence and is often represented in local pottery and textiles. Thus, les Baux-de-Provence is always a delightful village to visit whenever I am in the region.

My next stop is usually the city of Arles. The city of Arles has as appealing history as the vibrant colors of its residences, windowpanes and rooftops. The Romans for instance had their eyes on Arles when it was the Greek colony Arelete.  However, it was Julius Caesar that made Arles a prosperous port town and trade route on the Rhône River, rivalled only by Marseilles.  Once the railroad arrived, its efficacy declined and the town suffered a depression.  Yet, this unusual setting welcomed in 1888 Vincent Van Gogh, the Dutch post-impressionist painter. One of his most prolific artistic periods came to pass in Arles where his creativity depicted scenes in and around the city with raw beauty and bold colors.  The visitor’s center in Arles has a walking tour map showing the places where most likely the painter placed his easels to create his masterpieces. Arles has an impressive Roman amphitheater, Les Arènes, which can be seen in the movie Ronin, with Robert De Niro and Jean Reno.  The theater stages different events throughout the year including the férias with bullfights.

On a normal week day, Arles may appear subdued.  Still, on Saturday mornings, Market day (also on Wednesday but smaller), the city creates a vibrant and unforgettable atmosphere.  This market runs for more than 2 km along the Boulevard of Lices while extending through smaller streets in the south border of the old city of Arles. When I walk through this market, I usually vow never to enter a supermarket again.  Farmers and vendors all around the city welcome you with broad smiles, samples and great expertise about their products comprising of: a variety of seasonal fruits, olives and olive oils, cheese & meats, incredible spices, breads, sweets, honey, ceramics, wooden kitchenware & knives, perfumed soaps & oils from Provence’s flowers, clothing and so much more. An amusing fact is that in the market, you will often hear the Occitan dialect language spoken in Provence: the Provençal. Perhaps it is a concoction of Catalan, Italian, Spanish, French and Provence’s inherent flavor.  Though I cannot exactly define it, my ears thoroughly enjoy its intensity and melodious resonances.  In Arles, there is an inscription by Frederic Mistral using the Provençal language.  This well-known Provençal writer-poet devoted his life to defend Provence’s language and culture. Moreover, he wrote the lyrics of Provence’s anthem: Coupo Santo (holy cup). Additionally, the region has a well-developed viticulture with one of my favorite’s wines being the Provençal Rosé paired beautifully with the Banon cheese from Provence.  This age-old cheese recipe goes back to Gallo-Roman times consisting mainly of goat’s milk with a touch of cow’s milk. The cheese matures for two weeks followed by a dip in a local eau-de-vie (marc), then wrapped in boiled and sterilized (water & vinegar) chestnut leafs, and ultimately tied with raffia or straw. This process creates a creamy cheese with a slight chestnut scent. A delicious flavor indeed!

From Arles, I suggest a drive to the Grand Canyon of France: Les Gorges du Verdon.  This river canyon possessing an astonishing turquoise hue is considered one of the most beautiful in Europe as it cuts through the gorge for about 25 km.  The area of the canyon between Castellane and Moustiers Sainte Marie is particularly amazing due to its huge drop and dramatic views of the valley. There are many activities facilitating the exploration of this marvelous ecological wonder including: hiking, kayaking, canoeing, rock-climbing, paragliding, horseback-riding, fishing and fly-fishing.  The visit to the Gorges of Verdon is a breathtaking experience that should be included in the Provence’s itinerary especially during the warmer months.

Lastly, whenever I think of Provence, I imagine sweet-scented fields embraced with violet-blue lavender tufts, speckled with orange poppies accents and even bright yellow sunflowers.  Lavender has been a cherished plant since ancient Egypt.  The Romans brought it to the region and soon fields of lavender covered the area.  Monasteries planted lavender in their medicinal gardens since the plant was used to aid relaxation, headaches, insomnia and a state of well-being. Today, the fragrant plant is use for massages because it provides a calming-effect via oils in aromatherapy.  It can be added to herbal teas in hot or cold infusions.  Their glorious bloom can be seen from June through August cresting in July. Their trail can be followed in the “lavender road “on the Plateau of Claparèdes, with lavender fields and dry-stone wall houses “bories,” perfect for panoramic photographs.  Then, on to the Luberon valley where you can  stop at the Musée de la Lavande (Lavender Museum) in the heart of the Luberon Regional Natural Park where the history of the lavender industry in Provence is conveyed in an appealing manner.

The sheer diversity of sites, terrains and historical destinations make Provence an exquisite region to be uncovered.  In my opinion, the best way to experience Provence is to rent a residence for a few weeks and then spend time exploring different villages and natural wonders.  Day-trips crisscrossing themes and directions can be an original way to encounter the fullness of local culture, language, flavors, backdrops and natural ecosystem.


Leave a comment

For the love of French cheese and the Jura Mountains!

In France, the celebrated French love affair with cheese will in due course infuse the atmosphere of an expatriate’s everyday life.  As a matter of fact, a French cheese tray is a permanent fixture in home meal gatherings and restaurants. It is usually served after the main course and before dessert.

The author John Baxter, reveals a well-known narrative in his book “The Perfect Meal:” once, the legendary French general, Charles de Gaulle, while rejecting the idea of France being ruled solely by the communist party, made the following statement: “How can any one party govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheeses?” In reality, food and nutrition data chronicle that the variety of French cheeses seem to run between 350 and 400.  Still, some of my dear French friends love to say that: “There are 365 type cheeses in France: one for each day of the year!”

Whenever I visit a new region in France, I make a point to try one of their local cheeses. Apparently the commanding general and emperor of France, Napoléon Bonaparte, followed the same practice. In Burgundy, after learning to bypass the robust whiff of local cheeses, I fell in love with Époisses a cheese referred as the “king of all cheeses” and one of Napoléon’s favorites.  Historically, these cheeses were often produced in monasteries. Hence, it was our “friends,” the Cistercian monks of Citeaux who started the Époisses’ production in the 16th century and later handed the recipe to local families. Thenceforth, between Dijon and Auxerre at the village of Époise, this recipe has been followed whilst creating a most delightful orange/yellow rind cheese washed in marc de Bourgogne and that has a delicious ivory creamy center with rich and uniform taste. It sells inside a charming wooden box and it goes well with Burgundy’s red wines.

In the Loire valley, I tasted an exquisite goat cheese called Valençay.  By tradition, the cheeses of the Loire Valley use ash as a coating. The bluish-gray rind on the Valençay is no exception.  This cheese used to be molded in a perfectly shaped pyramid. However, a local anecdote describes that when Napoléon returned from his unsuccessful campaigns in Egypt, he stopped at the chateaux of Valençay.  When he was served this cheese, he was overcome with indignation by its pyramid silhouette, and so, he chopped off the tip of the pyramid. As result, the cheese has kept this cut-off-tip shape ever since.  Still, Napoléon continued to love this cheese as I do because its taste is slightly citric and it pairs superbly with Valençay Blanc (white) wine also from the Loire region. Another favorite cheese endorsed by Napoléon and Charles de Gaulle is the Mimolette from Lille area, Nord-Pas-de-Calais.  This is a very interesting looking cheese. It has the form of a ripe cantaloupe with a wrinkly crust on the outside and a bright ripe orange color in the inside. Its distinct taste is similar to the Dutch Edam.  A familiar historical account conveys that in the 17th century, Louis XIV, the Sun King, loved the taste of Edam yet he could not tolerate that it was produced in the Netherlands. Thus, he banned Edam from France and besieged his loyal cheese artisans to create the Mimolette. Since then, this new creation has a distinctively stouter appetizing taste plus it looks dashing on a cheese tray while pairing remarkably well with a Bordeaux red.

One of my favorite’s weekend retreats year-round is the region of Franche-Comté. On the ancient salt-trade route, I have routinely visited the quaint Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne village in the department of Doubs. This rural community clings to the widely forested woodlands in the Jura Mountains, a mountain range spreading predominantly from France to Switzerland whilst infiltrating Germany at a lower altitude. The village is idyllic and reserved for countryside lovers while generously offering health-boosting attributes like fresh air, tranquility and beauty just as the visitor’s senses are stimulated to a renewed vitality. Reasonably priced, private and comfortable loft style apartments can be found at “La Maison Rose” at 11 rue du Château.  These facilities present panoramic views of the hillside and cliffs. Another charming place in town is the “Residence de Vaux,” at 29 Grande Rue, an elegant bed & breakfast with period’s rooms and fresh baked breakfast.  Both are excellent based locations to explore the region’s attractions such as: the source of the River Lison (about 20 minutes from the city center) where you will find the cavern of its emerging birth even as the river cascades through a deep wooded gorge.  Well-marked hiking routes provide for a spectacular experience. On the other side of the village, up in the cliffs lies another equally beautiful source of water: the River Verneau with its own waterfalls and nature trails.  Also along the cliffs is a fixed climbing route, the Via Ferrata, a rather popular route with climbers. At Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne there is also opportunity during spring, summer and autumn for: horseback riding, canoeing, cycling, climbing, fishing, hiking, hang and para-gliding.  In the winter not very far from the city center, one can cross-country ski and for downhill skiing leisure pursuits, the ski trails of Métabief are less than one hour away. Other cultural centers nearby is the vilage of Arbois home of renown scientist Louis Pasteur.  You can visit his home and museum where the early experiments of pasteurization were performed on the wines of his own vineyard. Another interesting town is Ornans, where the river Loue runs through it and it is also the home of the French realist painter Gustave Courbet.  His riverside home in Ornans is a delightful place to visit.  Also, Nans (for short) is within a few hours from Geneva, Lausanne, Strasburg and even the Black Forest in Germany.

Once my friends invited me to a Franche-Comté fondue party in Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne. Subsequently, my visit to the Jura Mountains became a deliberate commission bolstering my quest to learn about French cheeses. For many centuries the Jura Massif’s cheese dairies known as fromageries or fruitières have produced one of the most popular cheeses in France: Comté.  You can easily plan a visit to these fromageries and fruitières in the region.  In Nans’ city center, there is such a facility where you can view the production of Comté (usually early in the morning). The cheese is produced exclusively from the milk of Montbéliarde and French Simmental breeds of cattle, grazing at no less than 400 meters of altitude. The Comté is a related to the Swiss Gruyère and is predictably aromatic with an array of subtle tastes such as the “fruitè” Comté which is more elastic to “salé” Comté more brittle.  After production, these cheeses are taken to climate-controlled maturing cellars to age for at least 4 to 18 months.  Certainly, this intricate process create a delicious cheese loved by chefs and gourmands all over the world. Comté also pairs perfectly with a vine from the Massif du Jura:  the regional Vin Jaune (yellow wine). This wine made from Savagnin grapes has a distinct nutty bouquet, with hints of almonds, citrus, salt and even anise and like the Comté cheese it is also aged in cellars in the Jura region.

Another superb unpasteurized cheese from the Haute-Doubs, Franche-Comté region is: Mont d’Or. This cheese was created in the 18th century to make use of the Autumn-Winter milk.  As such, Mont d’Or cheeses are usually produced from the 15th of August to 15th of March and sold during September 10th to May 10th.  This type of cheese is also exclusively obtained from grass and hay-fed Montbéliarde cows grazing at no less than 700 meters above sea level. Hence, when spending time in the region, a visitor will be able to observe these marvelous animals going through town and making their ascent into the hills… and it is beautiful!  Mont d’Or, quickly climbed to my list of beloved cheeses due to its creamy texture, Epicea pine tree scent and its yellow undulated rind, sold in a round wood resinous box.  It can be baked with cloves of garlic thus creating a superb first course. Once again, I recommend pairing this fine cheese with the Vin Jaune of Jura and equally established products of the region.

Traveling throughout distinctive provinces in France and learning about local cheeses can be a pleasurable task. Since an impeccable French meal with all of its many courses cannot be complete without the cheese platter, it is a worthwhile activity to discover how a traditional cheese tray should be displayed.  The tray should present and assortment of types of cheeses, consistencies, color, aroma, milk origin (cow, goat, ewe), and firmness.  Depending on the season it should also include side options such as:  dried fruits, fresh fruits like figs and grapes, nuts, sliced baguette, honey, dried meats, smoked sausages, Dijon mustard and local sauces.  Last but not least, pairing your handiwork with favorite regional wines…  voilà… a splendid cheese presentation will take center stage and delight your guests!