Wednesday, April 30, 2008

From Barnardsville to Bouches-du-Rhone

Bonjour and Happy St. Boris' Day!

(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!


Saturday, April 19, 2008

Leapin' Lisbon! It's Carla and the Cohens!

Bonjour Mes Amis! And Happy Ste. Emma's Day!

Since we last spoke what seems like months ago (it's all my fault! Bad blogger!) a new era has dawned in Franco-British (or is that Anglo-French?) relations. And who is responsible for this dramatic breakthrough, you ask? Who else but our Carla! To prepare for her first state visit to London, she just borrowed one of her mother's dresses and a pillbox hat from the Jacqueline Bouvier-Kennedy-Onassis historical museum and, voila!, the Brits fell in love. One of the Times (London) woman columnists grudgingly admitted to finding herself actually kind of liking the Premiere Dame despite her own deeply held political and feminist beliefs, and compared her to a wicked but fascinating countess in a Victorian novel. Looks like Prince Philip agrees. He hasn't been this excited since the opening day of foxhunting season.

"She stoops to conquer."

The Windsors weren't the only ones to welcome jet-setting beautiful people into the bosom of their family. We were visited by some exalted personages, too: 3/4 of the Cohen family from El Cerrito, California: Jeff, Renee (pronounced Rini) and Dapper Dan. Sister Rivkah couldn't make it - something about studying in Latin America or something. We did some of our favorite things - trips to Cassis, the Camargue, Isle sur la Sorgue, etc. We also took in a soccer match pitting the local amateur team, AC Eguilles, against some other guys from I can't remember where now. Our team lost, as usual, but the spectators grinned and bore it.

Sunset in the driveway:

Eguilles civic stadium - artificial turf and everything!

The following shots were taken in Cassis, one of our favorite places on the Mediterranean. Rick Steves calls it "the poor man's St, Tropez." With the current state of the dollar, we qualify, I guess. Heck, we may be OVERqualified!

Baseball season just started and Jeff, a true Oakland A's fan, dressed for the occasion. I could imagine the French passers-by wondering, "Hmmm. Now where do you suppose HE'S from, cherie?"

Below is one of the all-day boules games that go on, even on Sunday, which is when we were there. Look at those spectators. Imagine the pressure. The players drift from one match to another, teams change, people come and go, but the game is eternal. At least until sunset.

The day after the Cohens left for Paris, we flew to Portugal to visit Jim and Barb. Jim and I used to work together at Wilf's. Then he ran off to marry Barb, who is a violist (maybe the principal violist, I'm not sure) in the Gulbenkian orchestra in Lisbon. We loved Lisbon and its environs, which is easy to do as you can see from the photos.

A shadow came over, though. I want to pay loving tribute here to Anne Nofield, of whose peaceful passing I learned when we arrived. She was an important figure in the lives of both Jim and myself, among many others, and an inspiration to all who knew her.

This is the market in Cascais, a suburb.

Tile, in all its manifold forms, is very big in Portugal. There are intricately inlaid sidewalks everywhere you look. This one is outside the tourist office in Estoril, which, incidentally, is where all the spies used to congregate, at the casino, during World War II. (Portugal was neutral.)

Barb got us tickets to the symphony. The cellist, who performed a Dvorak concerto, was the young boy in the movie "From Mao to Mozart", which you may remember if you're of a certain age. Here he is now 35 or so years later, an established virtuoso. That's Barb just beyond his right shoulder.

Calouste Gulbenkian became one of the richest people in the world early in the 20th century by organizing the oil industry in Iraq and taking 5% of the profits. He established a foundation, a museum and an orchestra, and who knows what else, all of which are still functioning. The museum is breathtaking and the orchestra is fabulous.

This is the beach in Sao Joao do Estoril, near St. Pedro where our friends live. Although that's the Atlantic Ocean you're looking at, the climate is mild. You can tell by the palm trees.

More tile. This is how they make their street signs and house numbers.

We were there for 5 days. On one of them Jim took us for a drive to Sintra, where this castle, Pena Palace, is located. It was designed by the same architect who created Mad King Ludwig's extravaganza in Bohemia (or was it Bavaria? No. Bohemia.). It is said that the castle in Disneyland was inspired by these towers.

This is a different palace in Sintra. We didn't go in, just admired it from afar.

On the way to Sintra, we stopped here, at the westernmost point of the European mainland. Cabo something.

The next day, Sunday, we took the train to Belem, which is where all the Portuguese explorers departed from. Two other local items of note are the monastery of Jeronimo (Jerome), which contains the tomb of Vasco de Gama, and the popular custard pastries which were invented here. (See picture of empty plate below).

Portugal was the first European power to have outposts in India and Portuguese art shows that influence. A lot of the sculpture has elephants and the pillars, even those in the monastery church below, look a lot like Hindu examples, with multitudes of busy figures carved on them.

On Monday, when both our hosts were working, we took the train to Lisbon. Lois wanted to buy some small pottery objects and Barb recommended the shop below. I walked around in there VERY carefully!

This is a grand plaza on the river Tagus, which widens into an estuary a mile or two across.
The river is crossed at a narrower point by a bridge which was designed by the same person who designed the Golden Gate bridge, and it (the Lisbon one) looks just like it (the San francisco one).

Here is the Castelo St. George, which sits on top of a high hill overlooking Lisbon. It's the perfect spot for a fortress and has been recognized as such by all of the many overlapping waves of inhabitants, from the neolithic, through Roman, Visigothic and Moorish, to Christians of the reconquista. We hiked up to it. Lisbon reminds me of San Francisco: water, pastel colors, big modern buildings and, not least, really steep hills (not to mention, which I already have, the Golden Gate bridge). The most exciting part of the hike was Lois' thwarting of an attempted purse-picking (hers) by a three-member team of scruffy, vacant-eyed young dudes on a crowded flight of steps. She felt a tug on the latch of her purse, which she was carrying backpack-style (Okay, maybe we should have known better) but the strong magnetic catch didn't open. She whirled around and yelled, then I yelled, and they took off down a side street and disappeared into the crowd. None of the numerous bystanders and pedestrians batted an eye. Maybe they didn't notice.

I just realized that the following was taken looking down the very street which issues out through the arch into the grand plaza shown above, but from the opposite direction, the back side, so to speak.

It was a great visit. Most nights Jim and Michael barbecued, which satisfied both Mike's pyrotechnic tendencies and the Portuguese requirement for meat at every meal. Barb's mother lives in Portland so we'll be seeing them when they visit in August. I've promised to barbecue burgers.

My sister Kate is arriving tomorrow and we felt it our duty as conscientious and concerned hosts to call her to suggest that she bring warm, waterproof clothing. We've had more rain in the previous 2 days than we've ever seen before, but things are looking more promising - today was just beautiful. Although rain is forecast for tomorrow.

Lois and Mike are in bed, and I'd better go too, since we have to get up and drive to the Marseilles airport in the morning.

Until next time, Au revoir!


P.S. This is one of the friendliest dogs we've ever met, despite the (tile) warning sign. There's a little one in there somewhere, too, so there are usually two heads sticking out, like a junior Cerberus.