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From Saint Rémy to all around the globe: BONNE ANNÉE 2020!

Hotel de Ville morning in Jan 2020
With a sharp blue sky overhead, Saint Rémy’s City Hall shines brightly on a crisp January morning.

Before turning my attention to the wonders that await us here in France this new year, some important words of appreciation to you, dear readers. From the bottom of my heart, a thousand thank yous–mille fois merci!–for your continued support of Passion for Provence: 22 Keys to La Belle Vie. Since its publication, it’s been incredibly gratifying to hear from readers who have connected with the book–which brought this blog to life. It means the world to me. Thank you so much.

And now it’s time to write a follow-on book, The Birdwatcher’s Wife. It’s based on Ralph’s big birding year. Between 1 January 2019 and 1 January 2020, he worked on his goal of spotting 200 species of birds en France. To that end, we spent the year crisscrossing the country from the Camargue on the Mediterranean Sea to the Brittany Coast to St. Jean de Luz in the Basque region, not to mention a couple of forays to the Alps and one to the Jura.

All those treks go a long way to explain the limited blogs I posted last year and the writing of the new book will help explain the undoubtedly few that will pop up this year. But, hopefully, an entertaining and informative book, featuring lots of oixeaux flying through France, will emerge.

I’ll check in from time to time! For now…

Wishing you all the very best for a happy, healthy and hopeful New Year.

Bises, Gayle

Stes Maries de Mer dusk
As dusk falls, Ralph finishes his big year at his top birding destination, Saintes Maries de Mer, the capital of the Camargue.

 

 

 

Joyeuses Fêtes de France

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La Rotonde fountain, in Aix-en-Provence, wows with its cape of sparkles.

Nothing says Happy Holidays like lots of twinkly lights. Here in the south of France, though December decorations may be more subdued than in the U.S., they brighten up dim days and lift hearts with their magical glow.  La Rotonde, the famous fountain at the foot of the Cours Mirabeau in Aix-en-Provence, decked out in a stunning, sparkly cape, is a splendid example.

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St. Remy de Provence’s colorful sapin de Noel claims its usual spot next to L’Eglise St. Martin.
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A dolled-up gift shop in St. Remy de Provence greets patrons during the Fete de Lumiere, the first Saturday in December.
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The church in St. Gervais les Bains, in the Haute Savoie, near Mont Blanc, takes on a golden glow as Christmas nears.

Wherever you are, here’s wishing you a joyful holiday season and a New Year 2020, that’s full of hope, health and happiness.

Bises, Gayle

 

….. Basque Beauty ….. St. Jean de Luz, France

Sunset St. J de Luz

Seeing the light in St. Jean de Luz is mesmerizing any time of day. But early morning and dusk were our favorites. From our holiday apartment looking west towards the Bay of Biscay, we were captivated by the sun sliding across the surf, illuminating the curling waves, as they crashed against the sand, all the way down the beach. As the sun set, we loved watching the blazing orange ball sink below the horizon, casting an eerily spectacular glow across the sea until it faded into soft moonlight. As if in a hypnotic state, we’d watch the light coming and going, day and night, for a week. For us, the light is the shining star of the St. Jean de Luz show.

St J de Luz Ocean walkers
Aquatic walking attracts fitness folks of all ages in St. Jean de Luz, France.

But between sun up and sun down, there are many more delights in and around this enchanting enclave, snug against the Spanish border. Not far from St. Jean, there’s charming St. Jean Pied de Port, a major stop for pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela and attractive Cambo les Bains, with its annual Basque cake festival, La Fête de Gâteau, featuring Basque dance performances. Within St. Jean de Luz proper, there are tons of outdoor activities like jogging/walking/strolling the elevated beach walkway or the beach itself. Surfing is a popular sport here, as well as paddle boarding, and aquatic walking—charging waist-deep through the surf. Or you can burn calories by hoofing it around the compact town, filled with specialty shops and lively cafes. I favored the tiny French beret boutique, Maison Laulhère and the Basque textile producers, Jean-Vier  and Lartigue 1910, with their signature striped designs. Boutiqes selling espadrilles are ubiquitous, so it won’t come as a surprise that I finally gave in and went in—but I only came out with a single pair! There’s a beautiful indoor market, a cinema (often showing film versions in English) and an active train station. (On a previous visit, we made a day train trip to Biarritz.

Parade of local producers
A parade of proud Basque producers showcases local specialties.
Singers in square St. J d Luz
A choral group entertains visitors on the main square in St. Jean de Luz.

North of St. Jean, Ralph found a great nature reserve called Marais d’Orx, where he spotted a couple of cool birds—a snipe and a booted eagle. A dozen griffin vultures made an appearance on top of La Rhune, a mountain on the Spanish border. We reached the nearly 1000-meter high peak by a cute cog train, right out of Disneyland—but it was only as scary as the twirling teacups ride. Before hiking down the daunting rocky path back to the parking lot at the Sare train station, we took in the magnificent views, stretching to the sea and snapped photos of the roaming pottok ponies. Another day, I hopped a bus to Bilbao, Spain, to experience the extraordinary Guggenheim Museum, designed by the Canadian-American architect, Frank Gehry.

Puppy corrected Guggenheim
Flower-covered “Puppy” by Jeff Koons guards the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.
Atlantic View from La Rhune
Bay of Biscay view from La Rhune, 905 meters high.
Fishing port St J d Luz
The colorful port of St. Jean de Luz supplies the region with ultra fresh fish.

St. Jean’s fishing port is busy-busy-busy, so finding fresh fish is easy peasy. We enjoyed the chipirones à la plancha (pan-fried baby squid with beaucoup garlic and parsley) at Le Suisse, but they were astounding at Le Bar Basque, a rustic place overlooking the water in nearby Guéthary. Also, we had a phenomenal fish lunch at Le TTiki (yes, the name begins with a double T) in Hendaye. Highly recommend—as we do St. Jean de Luz, and the whole of the Pays Basque, in fact. Next fall will be our third visit. Unless, we can’t wait that long…

 

Mexican Magic dans les Montagnes

An outdoor panel offers a stunning montage of festival photos, commemorating Les Fêtes Latino-Mexicaines de Barcelonnette.

Mexico City was home during my university junior year abroad. When I wasn’t at class in the Museo National de Antropología, I was traipsing around the archeological sites of Mitla and Monte Albán or playing on the pristine playas of Alcapulco. But I haven’t set foot on la tierra mexicana in decades. Yet in mid-August, I found myself in the land of Aztecs. Sombreros to the left of me, piñatas to the right, I was smack in the middle of La Fête Mexicaine in the charming village of Barcelonnette—in the southern French Alps.

The remarkable history of the annual event begins in the early 19th century when some adventurous Ubaye Valley residents left France to seek their fortunes in Mexico. Monumental fortunes were, in fact, racked up—mostly in the textile industry. Between 1880 and 1930, about ten percent of the fifty to sixty thousand folks who’d left for Mexico returned to Barcelonnette, where they built elegant mansions—les maisons mexicaines. Now, to honor the strong Franco-Mexican heritage, every summer the town welcomes Mexican folkloric dance troupes, mariachi bands, and Mexican chefs for ten days of celebration, Mexican style. By day, professional dancers and musicians in authentic costumes roam the streets, entertaining crowds; by night tout le monde parties to lively salsa groups on the main square. Next August, come on down—or rather, come on up to Barcelonnette—and shake your maracas. Ay, chihauhua

 

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Young dancers practice their moves before the main performance.
Taco chef
A Mexican chef prepares tacos with shredded beef in mole sauce–deliciosos!
La Baita
La Baita stocks a variety of colorful Mexican wares.
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In addition to the Mexican festival, outdoor activities abound in the gorgeous Ubaye Valley.

 

 

St. Rémy & Passion for Provence Head for the Small (French) Screen

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Nathalie Simon (in demin shorts) and me (black jacket), the TV crew, and friends on Place Favier.

It’s a wrap! Who woulda thunk Passion for Provence: 22 Keys to La Belle Vie and its author (moi) would make a French TV travel show? But here I am, after the shoot, with charming Nathalie Simon, (tallest blond), the presenter of Chroniques Méditerranéennes, the delightful crew, plus five of my Francophile friends on leafy Place Favier. This segment starring St. Rémy includes interviews with several locals; it’s slotted to air on 22 September 2019, 12:50, Canal France 3 (PACA).

It all started with a phone call that very nearly went unanswered–I didn’t recognize the number. Already behind schedule for a morning walk in the Alpilles, I had no time to chat to a stranger who’d dialed the wrong number or explain to a cell phone provider why I wanted to stay with my current service. But, before my brain connected with my hand, instinctively my index finger swiped my phone and I heard myself saying, “Allô, oui?”

It was a producer from a French TV travel show (France Canal 3) called Chroniques Méditerrannéennes with the presenter, Nathalie Simon, a former windsurfing champ. The Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (PACA) regional program would be doing a segment on St. Rémy soon, and she hoped to include me as the author of Passion for Provence: 22 Keys to La Belle Vie. Would it be possible to meet the following week to discuss it? she asked.

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St. Rémy’s City Hall and the Fountain of the Four Dolfins on shady Place Plessier.

Flabbergasted, I nodded and bobbed my way through the conversation—all en français, unbelievably. The producer came to the house the next week, and the week after that she returned with the director and a logistics guy. On both occasions, I gave a highlights tour of my St. Rémy, giving nods to cafés where Ralph and I like to eat or have an apéro, favorite home décor and clothing boutiques, the expansive St. Rémy Presse (stocks Passion for Provence!), as well as special niches and events.

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A spiffy vintage Deux Cheveux waits for its owner outside the expansive Saint Rémy Presse.

The producer gently reminded me to avoid talking about boutiques during the filming—the show would focus on history and heritage. But would I be so kind as to point them out to her?Avec plaisir!” I answered.

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Nostradamus was born in St. Rémy in 1503.

Before the filming on 10 and 11 June, I beefed up on St. Rémy’s history and learned some fun facts to know and tell. For example, St. Rémy’s most famous native son, doctor/astrologer/would-be seer, Nostradamus, was born in 1503, in a simple house that was part of the city’s original ramparts. (It’s now a private residence.) His most popular book, The Prophecies, an attempt to predict the future, continues to be controversial to this day. The stately Hôtel de Ville (city hall) on Place Plessier was formerly an Augustine convent. The impressive Fountain of the Four Dolphins—modeled after a similar fountain in Aix en Provence—graced the convent garden.

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The now posh Hôtel Gounod boasts a famous former guest, Charles Gounod, author of the opera, Mireille.

In 1864 when the now chic Hôtel Gounod was a modest lodging and Charles Gounod was a guest, he wrote the opera, Mireille. It was inspired by a poem by Nobel Prize winner (1904), Frédéric Mistral, born in nearby Maillane.

The day of the filming I was fitted with a mic and given instructions on how the scene would unfold. Take One! I’m sitting on a bench pretending to write in my petit carnet (journal), while the presenter, Nathalie, peddles down a cobblestone street, parks her bike and walks over to greet me. “Bonjour, Gayle!” she says.

“Bonjour, Nathalie!” I respond. We are off to the races.

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Leafed-out chestnut trees help keep Place Favier cool.

After the first scene, we moved to the Nostradamus Fountain. It was then the weather decided to stage a temper tantrum. With raindrops beginning to fall and the sun hiding, filming was not possible. We moved over to Place Favier to wait for improved conditions under the huge chestnut trees. The crew took a break, remaining upbeat, congenial and professional. Without missing a beat, the director quickly rewrote the script and explained the changes to me. I just hoped I could keep up with the revised conversation! Soon after my Francophile friends arrived for the planned “buddies” shot, we had a break in the drizzle and were able to finish the filming. We celebrated with a group photo, everyone much relieved Mother Nature allowed us to complete our small portion of the program.

I can honestly say, the shoot was an unforgettable experience. How can I forget what I struggle to remember? Much of it remains a blur–one big, beautiful blur!

 

Early Spring Scenes in Saint-Rémy

Elaborate costumes are a big draw to St. Remy's carnaval parade.
The Saint-Rémy Carnaval parade features elaborate costumes.

Au revoir winter, bienvenue spring. Last weekend in Saint-Rémy, the sun came out and the town woke up, giving locals their happy feet back. Many paraded, while others made music. Some danced in the streets or rode bicycles through them. Yes, indeedy, hibernation of hiver is officially over, and the promise of printemps has been put into action. Here is a sampling of Saint-Rémy ville on the move, including Carnaval festivities and conquerers of the Les Alpilles on two wheels.

This sinister figure gives winter the heave-ho, out the door.
This sinister character gives winter the heave-ho, out the door.

This colorful carnaval figure makes a splash without a piscine.
A colorful Carnaval figure makes a splash without a piscine in sight.

A Provencal fife and drum group help send winter on its way.
A Provençal fife and drum group help bid winter adieu.

A crowd watches an effigy of winter going up in smoke.
During the grim Carnaval finale, a crowd watches an effigy of winter go up in smoke.

Bye-bye winter
So long winter and good riddance!

The first peloton crosses the finish line.
After a 118-km trek, the first peloton of the Raid des Alpilles crosses the finish line.

St. Rémy’s 2019 Carnaval celebration is now over. And so is the morning mountain bike race. It’s a warm, early spring Sunday afternoon. What to do? See those folks sitting on the terrasse? They know. À table, mes amis, and bon appétit!

 

 

 

Provence to Palm Springs for the Holidays

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Pooches share their Christmas wish list with Santa.

What December tradition do Saint-Rémy-de-Provence and Palm Springs, California, share? Loading a lemon tree with tinsel? Sipping complimentary bubbly at a luxury boutique? Shopping for a candy cane shirt? Entering a raffle for a gourmet yule log? Give up? La Fête de Lumière, mes amis!

 

In Palm Springs, where we’re spending the holidays this year, the event is known as the Festival of Lights Parade. It features high school marching bands, decked-out floats, jazzed-up celebrity cars and humungous, bouncing, seasonal icons. A giant gingerbread boy had to duck to squeeze under the traffic lights arching over Palm Canyon Drive.

The Palm Springs’ festival salutes all things glittery and goofy, while Saint-Rémy’s version highlights low-key camaraderie, usually involving delicacies and classic vintages. But, at the heart of both events, goodwill beams brightly, lifting spirits and warming souls.

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Happy Holidays!

Whether you’re celebrating the holidays in Provence or elsewhere around the globe, my very best wishes for a joyful, festive season, followed by a healthy, happy and rewarding New Year 2019. Joyeuses Fêtes!

PS

Many thanks for following my blog and for all your support of Passion for Provence: 22 Keys to La Belle Vie. A new book is in the works. On verrá, as they say in La Belle.

PPS

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In the serene Wellness Park, a master watercolorist captures the majesty of the San Jacintos.

I will miss Palm Springs and “my” mountains, but it’s time for adieu PS and bonjour Saint-Rémy and “our” mini-Alps, Les Alpilles.