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….. 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.
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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.

 

 

Pole-Dancing and Other Autumn Pursuits in Provence

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A view over Saint-Rémy, refreshed after October showers.

Downpours galore this October delivered ducks a red-letter month around Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. I could have used some webbed feet myself to paddle home on more than one occasion when caught sans proper rain gear. But when the skies clear and the sun peeks through, the refreshed region glistens with promise and renewed energy.

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Very-tall-pole-dancing comes second nature to this frisky creature.

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This olive-picker’s whirl-i-ma-gig makes fast work of a late harvest.

After being cooped up during the deluges, how liberating it is to leave the homestead for a hike in the hills. Near the base of the Alpilles, action-packed scenes abound. Hungry hawks swoop across the sky, dive-bombing their prey. Riders tug at the reins of their frisky ponies yearning to trade trot for gallop. Rusty-hued squirrels scamper up and down utility poles and tree trunks in an acorn-hiding frenzy. Late-fall olive-harvesters speed-pick through trees, racing to bring in the last of the fruit before foul weather calls time.

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Cavaillon’s Cathedral of Saint Veran displays eye-popping grandeur.

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Elaborate grillwork adorns the baroque synagogue in Cavaillon.

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A flamboyant costume from Christain Lacroix’s Carmen collection practically flounces on its own.

When it does, as is typical in this tweener season, there are compelling indoor discoveries to be made. One day I joined an international group’s trip to Cavaillon, best known for its sinfully luscious melons, but that’s not all. Though too late in the season for the world-class summer fruit, we did visit several historically-rich museums, such as the spiffy Musée Archéologique de Hôtel-Dieu, as well as the Baroque synagogue, and the eye-popping Cathédral Notre-Dame-et-Saint-Véran. The tour wrapped up at the chapel of the Grand-Couvent. There our eyes feasted on magnificently flamboyant costumes designed for the Bizet opera, Carmen, by the Arles-born designer, Christian Lacroix—exquisitely over-the-top.

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The windows below the wavy facade of Nimes’ new Musée de la Romanité reflect arches from the Roman coliseum.

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The sinister, ghostly figures by Nîmes’ Roman temple, Maison Carrée, are but docile, wrapped-up terrace umbrellas.

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Glamorous Brasserie Napoleon offers an elegant, old world setting, perfect for a leisurely break.

In Nîmes—home of the iconic durable fabric, denim—it was the new contemporary museum, Musée de la Romanité, that dazzled. Designed by Brazilian architect Elizabeth de Portzamparc, the shimmering, wavy facade is meant to suggest a flowing toga, a symbol of Nîmes’ robust Roman heritage. Not only are the Roman displays spectacular, but so is the view from the rooftop terrace, to include the incredibly-preserved Roman coliseum, just next door.

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The rooftop terrace of Nîmes’ Musée de la Romanité offers a new perspective of the incredible Roman coliseum.

After all the scurrying around, it’s wonderful to simply…be. And a perfectly blissful place is right at hand—the Camargue. In the off season, Saintes-Maries-de-Mer offers serene scenes that allow for a deep breath and quiet reflection.

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A sailboat skims the horizon in Saintes-Maries-de-Mer.

And, that peaceful down time comes just in the nick of time, as Santa’s sleigh is nearly on its way.

 

 

 

 

Boating with Bulls, Swinging on the Square and Boules A-blasting…

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Seasoned equestrians escort bulls from Saint-Rémy-de-Provence to Lac Barreau during the Fête Votive.

There’s no rest for Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in late September. The town hums with a variety of events to delight both town and country types, little shavers to seniors.

Bulls huddle together for a swim across Lac Barreau through a gauntlet of small crafts and rafts.

While most of les taureaux are relaxing after an active summer, many are still stomping and charging–and swimming–during the Fête Votive. The bulls trot along a highway from St. Rémy to a nearby lake where they swim across an inlet, hemmed in by colorful rubber rafts and pint-sized boats, to the cheers of hundreds of exuberant onlookers.

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A motorcycle is this tyke’s choice for his spin around the Magic-Land “racetrack” during in the center of Saint-Rémy.

Around L’Église Saint-Martin, the party continues throughout the afternoon and into the night with carnival rides, games and cotton candy for the kids.

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Les Mélomanes muscial group belts out crowd-pleasers from Nick Waterhouse and Leon Bridges’ “She Give Me Katchi All Night Long” to James Brown’s “I Feel Good.”

Around 10 PM, adults gravitate to the historic center for a Las Vegas-style revue, featuring flamboyant dancers outfitted in dramatic costumes. This year the dynamic musical group, Les Mélomanes, wowed the swinging revelers well past minuit.

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Saint-Rémy rocks during the Fête Votive.

A short sleep later—at precisely 9 AM—a shot rings out to announce the grilled “lunch,” is ready to be served from portable BBQs positioned along the péripherique near the main square, Place de la République. After the cowboys have enjoyed a substantial morning meal, they are back in the saddle, accompanying bulls around town. Onlookers are well-advised to seek cover.

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Villagers and visitors gather for a grilled “lunch” for breakfast.

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Dangerous-Bull-Zone warning signs are hard to miss in Saint-Rémy.

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Wherever the bull goeth, so goeth the sanitation convoy.

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Dedicated boules players perfect their technique before the tournament begins.

That afternoon, at a former bull ring, boules replace bulls. There, pétanques players gather to square off, in teams of pairs or triplets. Before dispensing their boules–much like golf pros–players often examine the terrain or squat to size up their preferred trajectory. Then comes an easy roll of the heavy metal boule, a forceful toss or a gentle arc, executed with grace and precision. Occasionally, the boule smashes into an opponent’s ball, blasting it out of the “ballpark”–much like a homerun, French-style.

When the week-long pétanques tournament comes to an end, Saint-Rémy may say au revoir to summer and its shimmering heat–but not with regret. Autumn promises invigorating crisp days and rejuvenating rainfall, not to mention, stark blue skies.  And the olive harvest…