mardi 27 août 2013

Escape to Provence

I have been very fortunate to have met the charming Catherine through the Homelink home exchange network. She has kindly accommodated me for 4 weeks both in Vaucluse, Provence as well as Paris when my original travel plans for France fell through. Usually I would stay with my very good Parisian friend, VV, but unfortunately she was away. 

Catherine has a beautiful, ivy-cladded house with mauve shutters, situated only 3km from the ultra-friendly provençal village of Sarrians. My first comment on seeing La Sarriane, her picturesque home, was how it reminded me of Monet's house at Giverny. She confirmed that she had this in mind when she started her 10 year renovation project of the house that she bought 17 years ago. The house fulfilled a long-held desire to live in Vaucluse. She now spends her summers at La Sarriane and winter in her Paris apartment. La Sarriane is surrounded by vineyards that come right up to the edge of the property and has its own olive trees. Mont Ventoux and Les Dentelles are visible from the garden and are easily accessed.   
La Sarriane

The kitchen
Imagine my delight when I found myself in the dream country kitchen, tastefully decorated in blue and yellow, with copper cooking utensils hung on the walls. This is kitchen for a serious cook which has the benefit of an arrière cuisine (butler's kitchen). The 12 seater table was specially commissioned and had to be assembled in the kitchen due to its enormous size. What would be a country kitchen without a fireplace and a double oven with 5 burners stove top? I can appreciate these things even if I NEVER cook! This may change however. I have now attended 2 cooking classses with Catherine and I can now see that it is possible to easily cook delicious dishes that are not only suitable for everyday meals but also for special dinners with guests. My reportoire now includes: gelée de tomates au caviar d'aubergine, tarte tatin de tomates, filet de rouget et basilic and tiramisu de pêches. I have learnt the importance of removing the centre of the garlic before using it, as well as why you never cut the same piece of a herb a second time. I am sure that my cooking knowledge will continue to expand as tomorrow I travel to stay with VV in Paris. In addition to offering cooking classes, Catherine writes recipe books. She is also about to start a regular spot on radio where she will talk about food in Provence and will record a segment for French television.
My bedroom

La Sarriane has 8 bedrooms, which includes one with 4 beds for children, which makes it ideal for welcoming not only couples, but also families, in the bed and breakfast business she operates. Catherine offers table d'hôte so guests can enjoy first-hand her cooking expertise. On fine summer days, dinner is eaten under the cedar trees or next to the swimming pool to the song of the cicadas. Difficult to imagine a more idyllic setting.

Kicking back next to the pool

La Sarriane - surrounded by vines
Each day I would tear myself away from La Sarriane and head off in Catherine's convertible to discover the wineries, towns and villages of the area: Vacqueyras, Gigondas, Séguret, Venasque, Châteauneuf du Pape, Les Baux de Provence, Saint Rémy de Provence, Gordes, Vaison-la-Romaine, Fontaine de Vaucluse, L'Ilse sur la Sorgue, Orange and Avignon. Ideally, I should have blogged about this daily, but to be honest, I have been too busy discovering, eating and drinking.

The great news is that if you would like to make this lifestyle yours, Catherine has put her labour of love on the market for sale as she prepares for the next part of her life with lots of travel. I am so tempted!!!

Cooking with Catherine

Chambre d'hôte

vendredi 23 août 2013

Marseille - Reputation deserved or undeserved?

Marseille being only 37 minutes by fast train ( Train Grande Vitesse - TGV)  from Avignon provided me with the opportunity to spend a day visiting this famous large French port. I had been reluctant to visit it following lengthy discussions in a French class many years ago. We talked about Marseille having the highest crime rate of all cities in France. Since then, I have heard stories of people being robbed whilst they are in their car or walking in the street. Of course these things can happen anywhere but for some reason these negative images remained. French friends warned me to remove all jewellery, apart from costume jewellery, prior to visiting as I would risk having it forcibly removed.  Marseille is one of the two 2013 European Cultural Capitals, so time to face my prejudices and visit.
Marseille - 2013 European Cultural Capital
Arriving at Saint-Charles railway station, I found it easy to navigate the metro (only 2 lines) to the old port ( Le Vieux Port ). Guidebooks and friends suggest it is a good place to start any visit to Marseille. It is only 10.30am but sweat is running down my neck. I am eager to visit the Musée des civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée, MuCEM for short. I understand that the exhibitions are poorly curated and being on a limited timeframe I decide to just visit the buildings and grounds. An added bonus is that it is free. MuCEM is made up of 3 buildings, 2 of which are at Le Vieux Port. components. Fort Saint-Jean, the 12th century fort, is joined to the architectural marvel, J4, by an external walkway which goes across the sea. It looks rather box-like to start with and then you start to see its true beauty with the play on light and shade. It is topped by a Mediterranean garden and the open cement work allow the sea breezes to cool the ramps that spiral around the building. They also allow visitors to enjoy the views.
Footbridge connecting Fort Saint-Jean and J4
MuCEM - J4 (left) and Fort Saint-Jean (right) - sorry about the heads in the photo!
Unfortunately the signage from Le Vieux Port for pedestrians doesn't indicate the path to take to enter via the fort. It was only the mass of people crossing the road to mount some steps that gave me any clue. The fort offers views over the old port which is now predominantly filled with pleasure craft that range from small modest traditional wooden boats to large yachts and sailing. The port is much much larger than I was expecting. The port is lined with restaurants and cafes that seem to all offer almost identical menus. Surely a tourist trap? I tried to find a café with locals in it. A group of business people with their lunch tickets seemed to be a reasonable indicator of people eating locally. The moules (mussels) marinières were very tasty but the glass of rosé was disappointing.
Le Vieux Port
From the port I took a 2 hour Calanques Essentials boat trip. For some reason they require people to arrive 45 minutes early. We all dutifully lined up in the sun until shortly before the designated time we were allowed to board. The commentary is only provided in French but booklets are handed out in a variety of languages. Unfortunately it is not very clear to non French speakers the locations making it very difficult to know which information in the booklet is relevant. The commentary in French  however was very interesting and well presented. The boat trip was very reasonable at only 22 Euros and probably the highlight of the day.  
One of the Calanques
The last bit of tourism I managed to squeeze in was to visit the basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde. This church perched high on the hilltop is hard to miss from just about anywhere in the main city area. It looked too high and too far for me to manage accessing by foot. It is the most visited site in Marseille according to the tourism office. The 360 degrees view is outstanding so even if you are starting to feel churched out it is worthwhile. If not 'churched' out, you will enjoy the beautiful decoration within the church. I would recommend taking bus number 60 rather than Le Petit Train (tourist train that goes through the streets) to visit the church. There were long queues to get on Le Petit Train at Le Vieux Port, and again at the church. People were getting rather impatient standing in hot weather as train after train arrived but there was inadequate room to take all of the waiting passengars. You do of course miss out on the commentary.
Notre-Dame de la Garde seen from Le Vieux Port 
View from Notre-Dame de la Garde
Whilst waiting for my train to go back to Avignon, I called into a neighbourhood cafe. Cafés around railway stations often leave something to be desired. This one was even worse than usual. The photo below shows the powerpoint that they suggested I could use to recharge my phone. Yes, it worked. Rather desperate, I decided to use their toilet facilities as I thought they would be cleaner than those at the railway station. WRONG!! No photos for this.

Unfortunately my day didn't quite end as I planned. I missed the last train to where I parked the car. This meant a train to another station and then a bus. What should have taken 37 minutes took more than 2 hours. I will certainly be more careful next time.

Would I go back to Marseille?  Yes, I would. I feel that there is a lot more to see and that I was trying to squeeze too much in to the one day. I really would like to explore the areas around the city and to swim in the Calanques etc.

Musée des civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée

1, esplanade du J4
13002 Marseille
Tel: 04 84 35 13 13

Croisieres Marseilles - Les Calanques
Angle du Quai du Port et du Quai des Belges (face à la brasserie La Samaritaine) 
13001 Marseille
Tel: 04 91 58 50 57

Basilica Notre-Dame de la Garde

Rue Fort du Sanctuaire
Tel : 04 91 13 40 80

jeudi 22 août 2013

French Gastronomy has a New Star

L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is well known by Australian francophiles for its legendary antiques and second-hand goods market on a Sunday morning. Not so well-known is the Restaurant A Table run by Anne and Clément. This will change, as I am certain this couple and their restaurant are going to be the next big thing in French gastronomy.

Roasted langoustine with horseradish, tartar of tomato and basil spaghetti
I knew when my friend, food expert and writer Catherine said that this restaurant was something special that I was going to be in for a real treat. The restaurant has a simple understated decor which provides a perfect balm to the frantic pace of the markets that spill on to the neighbouring streets. I love the markets here but by the end I am suffering sensory overload.
Sea bream almonds and rosemary
I am warmly greeted by Anne who apologises for having to turn me away the night before as they are fully booked. Anne moves effortlessly between French and English as she talks with the diners. She radiates a genuine charm and warmth and is rightfully very proud of the restaurant and the dishes lovingly and creatively prepared by Clém. For dinner there is a 3 course menu for 30 Euros with 2 choices per course. Whilst some may suggest this is too limited, I can only reply that the result is dishes made from the very best and freshest ingredients. The wording in the menus does not provide a hint as to just how wonderful the dishes are. The quality of the dishes exceeds even the highest of expectations. I have been fortunate to eat in Michelin starred restaurants in France and Spain but Clém's dishes exceed these in every way. Minute attention to detail in terms of combinations of flavours, textures, smells and presentation result in dishes that are light and yet have a complexity that rewards the senses.
Nectarine, raspberry and verbena

I highly recommend this restaurant for those who are looking for gourmet fresh creative French cuisine. 

Restaurant "A Table"
52-54 rue Carnot
84800 ISLE sur SORGUE
Tél. : 04 90 24 86 62

mercredi 21 août 2013

Provence: Expect the Unexpected

Last week I returned to Catherine's large home near the village of Sarrians in Provence having spent a week in her Paris apartment. I met Catherine earlier this year to arrange a home exchange for 2014. I consider myself extremely fortunate to house and cat sit for her.

Catherine picked me up from the very modern Avignon TGV railway station; reminds me more of an airport than a railway station, and we drove directly to the village of Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux. I was looking forward to exploring the village's picturesque historic centre. Arriving earlier than expected, we had time for a drink at the local café. Whilst debating whether to sit in the sun or the shade a group of men brandishing guns rushed forward only a couple of metres us. Yelling loudly, they threw a customer to the ground, jumping on him. "Don't move" screamed one of them as he pointed his gun at us. The short double-barrelled gun looked like a toy and I thought it may be a prank or a film being made. It was all very surreal and at odds with the relaxed atmosphere on the sunny terrace of the café. The armed men then pulled on masks and slapped on armbands revealing that they were in fact gendarmes (police). Phones were pulled out and shortly after about a dozen police vehicles with uniformed police arrived. The masked gendarmes placed the man in one of the vehicles and whisked him off. The gendarmes disappeared back down the sidestreets as the uniformed police formed a loose cordon around the square. Gradually the uniformed officer got back into their vehicles one at a time and drove off. 
Scene of the violent arrest
The whole incident struck me as quite ironic given that only days before I had been in the Saint-Denis area visiting the basilica. Saint-Denis is considered a rough area of Paris. My time there was free from any 'incidents' and yet when I was in the idyllic village setting of Saint-Paul -Trois-Châteaux I had a gun pointed at me. The whole event was so unreal that I don't think I was really as frightened as I would have expected, given the circumstances. A woman and her toddler sat down for a drink at the next table some time after the event. She commented to me about the number of police in the area. If only she knew what had just happened.

mercredi 14 août 2013

Dreams do come true - Cycling in Paris

People who know me, know that I don't go in for exercise apart from the occasional sprint from one shop to another.  This didn't stop me from finally deciding to try something that I had always wanted to do - cycle in Paris. Thousands, millions do it and think nothing of it. My lack of fitness plus fear for my life had kept me off a bike in Paris until last Sunday. If you are going to cycle in Paris and are nervous about doing it, I can highly recommend doing it on Sunday in August. As Aussie in France points out in her post Paris in August – where have all the people gone? Paris is relatively devoid of people at the moment.

Lack of people at Arc de Triomphe
My friend, Olivia, who has just moved to Paris from the Vaucluse was to be my guide and provided my briefing on rules for cycling in Paris. Not owning a bike is not a problem in Paris. Vélib stations with their racks of bikes are to be found even more frequently than metro stops. These bikes are available for hire by residents and visitors alike. You can register online for a day, week or year. Short-term rentals can also be done at the automated kiosks located at the stations. The process is very quick and easy and the rates very cheap. A one day registration is 1,70 euro. If you during this 24 hr period you take a bike out each time for a period of less than 30 minutes there is no additional fee payable.  The secret is to return the bike after 29 minutes to any of the 1800 Vélib stations.  A short 2 minute wait and you can take it or another one out again. Even if you exceed the 30 minutes the fees are very low.

Me and my Velib in the deserted Place de la Concorde

Of course being in France no helmet is needed so no dreaded helmet hair. I am reliably informed that Parisiennes ride in high heals with short dresses in the middle of the road. Not me, inelegantly in my cropped pants and Birkenstock-like sandals no-one would confuse me with being a Parisienne. Even less so when I stopped to take a photo and fell off the bike. Oh the embarrassment!!! A young couple kindly helped pick me and the bike back up and even gave me a wet towelette to clean myself.

Olivia had worked out our route. Seeing I had always wanted to ride in Paris then it had to be the rue Saint-Honoré past l'Elysée; Place Vendome, Place de la Concorde and along the rue de Rivoli and of course the Champs Elysée. Olivia was a wonderful guide keeping an eye out for me and finding routes that I could manage. I thought I would be puffed and exhausted - instead I was exhilarated and felt rejuvenated. The wine and dinner we had partway through our tour may have contributed to these feelings. Monday morning, the bruises and aches and pains started to appear. French friends recommended a homeopathic remedy, arnica granules and gel. I cannot speak highly enough of these. The gel provided instant relief for my knee that smashed into the bitumen with my full weight plus that of my bike. Monday night, I collapsed into my bed not to wake until 9.00am. Unfortunately there are only a limited number of Sundays in August but I am determined to try it again.  

For more information on hiring Vélib bikes: (French, English and Spanish)
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