(Actually, I'm resuming this now on Ste. Prudence' Day)
Speaking of Saints and Saintes, we recently had a divine visitation ourselves: my sister Kate. She polished up her French (it was nice to have someone fluent around), got all dressed up (Not really. She didn't have to because she's ALWAYS all dressed up!) and came down from the mist-shrouded hills of western North Carolina to come see us. We took her to some of our favorite destinations, places which we've taken other guests to, like Cassis and Roussillion. Just like we all have lists of spots at home to take visitors to, we've evolved a similar list here. Except that this time we explored a little further than usual. We started at the waterfront in Cassis. That's 2/3 of the Mathews kids in the picture, and the third is there in spirit. Who'd a thunk it when we were scrabbling in the dirt of Florissant, Missouri? Hey, "Florissant" is French, isn't it? Obviously our destinies were determined at an early age.
In addition to the usual coffee-drinking, waterfront-strolling and shopping, we headed out of town on the nearest and shortest calanque walk. Calanques are these narrow inlets bounded by sheer limestone cliffs which form much of the coastline between Marseilles and Cassis. Boat rides are a popular way to see them and, in fact, Lois, Mike and the Cohens went on one of these cruises during their visit. The picture below shows just the upper end of the calanque nearest to town. As you can see, it makes a perfect moorage for boats, sheltered as it is from Mediterranean storms.
These are more shots of Cassis. Incidentally, some of Kate's pictures are included in this blog.
Lois has gradually extended her daily walk out from the throbbing city center of Eguilles into the more pastoral rural environs. She and Kate took this walk and Kate took some pictures.
This is the house Lois and I agree we would like to live in if we had to stay here. It's in the middle of downtown Eguilles and you can see forever out the living room windows.
Below is a shot of St. Cannat, which may actually be the closest village to our house, if you're a crow. If not, you have to drive way out of the way, much further than from here to Eguilles, which is a straight shot down a good road. All of Mike's and my recent bike rides have somehow mysteriously ended up here. We emerge from the woods all disoriented and tired and, invariably, after a while of pedaling one of us says, "Hey! This looks familiar. Oh, yeah, there's the way to St. Cannat." I took this picture after one of these rides. While Kate was here, we discovered a truly superior bakery while driving through the village so we'll probably be spending more time here than we have so far.
The poppies (coquelicots) are blooming and the fields look just like the one portrayed in the painting by Monet, Les Coquelicots.
Mike was back in school during Kate's visit after having spent a week on Porquerolles, one of the Isles d'Or off the coast near Toulon, east of here. They went sea kayaking every morning after breakfast, did a lot of swimming among the jellyfish, hiked and explored old fortresses. The first two days were rainy, just like here, but after that the sun came out and he returned to us brown as a berry, as the phrase has it (although I personally have never seen a brown berry that wasn't rotten and mushy). So we had to make sure to return from our excursions in time to pick him up after school. On one of the days we went to Roussillion, which I've mentioned before as having been described by Rick Steves as having all the charm of Santa Fe on a hilltop. Again we added something to the usual itinerary by taking a hike through the ochre mines. I see what Rick means - it looks like one of those national parks in Utah or someplace.
And it was market day, which always adds excitement to these visits, even if we don't buy anything.
Kate took the following picture in Aix. The outdoor cafes are beginning to spread their wings after the winter and tables are appearing in the squares. The plane trees, which are pruned back heavily every year or two (pollarding), are leafing out and cigarette smoke fills the air. Ah, it must be spring.
On Saturday afternoon we went on a long hike through the neighboring countryside, much of which we think our landlord owns. The field below is kind of our front yard. It's at the bottom of the driveway to our house and the vast majority of our walks, jogs and bike rides begin here. We've seen it change from season to season and it's in its glory now. Since the picture was taken two weeks ago the poppies have blossomed and the field is now studded with red blooms. The green stuff is wheat, by the way, and very faint and far off in the middle is Mt. St. Victoire.
Then, Saturday night, we went to dinner at the home of some friends. Ingrid is German but has lived here for almost 30 years and Francis is French. There were 9 people at the party in their apartment, including our friends Monique and Alain at whose home we'd met our hosts. The apartment is the perfect size for 2 people but a little crowded for 9. There were never fewer than 3 conversations being conducted at any given moment, in any one or a mixture of 3 languages, and the, uh, coziness of the space made it feel at times like a pressure cooker reaching full boil, but it was a great fete. In the continental fashion, things didn't get under way until 8:30 or so and the French do NOT hurry themselves in these situations, so it got pretty late before it was all over. Even Alain, bon-vivant and battle-hardened veteran of a lifetime of French dinners, was visibly weakening, hoarse and yawning by midnight. The food and joie de vivre were wonderful, and our enjoyment was enhanced by the knowledge that we could sleep late the following morning.
Another nearby village is Lambesc, pictured below. We had gone to see a place our realtor/friend had mentioned as being quite impressive, a sort of park in a mountainous region just a couple kilometers north of the town which is a popular hiking area. It's named after a chapel, Ste. Anne's, which is up there somewhere and which we'll try to visit next time, but I got some panoramic shots from the summit of one of the hills. We can actually see that very hill and the tower atop it from our house. After our descent we stopped in Lambesc for coffee, tea, Coke (guess who!) and dessert at the Full Moon Cafe, which appeared to be the only business open on a Sunday afternoon.
The nightingales, or what we assume to be nightingales - rossignols en Francais - have begun their all-night serenades. I've never heard them before and am fascinated - they're so weird! But beautiful. We're looking forward to welcoming more friends next week, and we hope the nightingales are still singing and the poppies are still in bloom for their visit.
Oh, and Nicolas Sarkozy (he of the plummeting popularity) went on national TV and admitted he'd made mistakes and asked for patience and forgiveness. I wonder if this will inspire other chief executives to make similar mea culpas. I don't think I'll hold my breath.
And the Champions' League final is being played by two English teams - Chelsea and Manchester United - in Moscow. (Chelsea is owned by Roman Abramowicz, one of Russia's leading billionaire oligarchs and a crony of Vladimir I.) The Russian government announced today that visa requirements would be waived for English fans so that ticketholders could make the trip without going through all the paperwork, which I'm sure wouldn't be completed by game-time anyway, thereby clearing the way for 30- or 40,000 lager-fueled Brits to interact with a like number of vodka-swilling Russkis in a large enclosed bowl-like structure surrounded by armed security forces. Sounds like the glory days of Rome. I hope it's on TV.
We who are about to say "Bye!" salute you!
Until next time, Au Revoir!