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Lured by the Birds, Paused for the Ponies: Camargue Marvel

Here come the ponies racing by the beach in the Camargue.

Feeding flamingos to the left of me, rampaging ponies to the right of me. Here I was, stuck in the middle—in the middle of the Camargue, the vast, magical delta where the Rhône meets the Med.

Flamingos sifting for snacks in a lagoon near Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in the Camargue.

It’s Lady Luck I have to thank for ending up in this surprising scenario. That morning the sun was shining, the winds were fairly calm, and no pluie threatened the horizon. In short, it was the perfect recipe for a little beach-birding getaway. So Ralph and I took to the road and within an hour arrived at the capital of the Camargue, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. From the center of town, we headed to the plage est area. Here you can bet pretty Little Egrets will be sunning themselves by the small water treatment plant, their pristine white feathers rippling in the breeze of the gushing waters. This is where we usually park and begin our trek inland to scan the marshy expanses and canals for flamingos and other feathered friends like Kentish and Ringed Plovers.

A Little Egret catching some rays outside Saints-Maries-de-la-Mer in the Camargue.

But a hundred meters from our destination, a blockade stopped us, manned by some rather intimidating, beefy guys. We wondered if this was strike-related, as possible grêves across several sectors had been recently reported in the media. Yet not a banner or a picket was to be seen. We parked and walked, loaded down with the spotting scope on a tripod, binoculars and backpacks.

A flock of flamingos provide a pretty patch of pink in the flat expanse of the Camargue wetlands.

When we reached the water treatment area we saw loads of people shoulder to shoulder staring at an elevated path running east parallel to the beach. A pair of ambulances was on hand. Obviously, an “event” was anticipated, and they were prepared for casualties.

November in Provence: a solitary gull patrols the pristine beach outside Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer on the Med.

Binoculars up. As far as we could see into the distance with our jumelles, hoards of people lined the pathway. What was happening? We asked some fellow onlookers but they had no idea. New arrivals queried us, but all we could do was offer the iconic Gallic shrug. Soon we all had the answer. A mass of about a dozen horses mounted by both gals and guys, youthful and more mature—all clumped together—came galloping directly towards us at a bend in the road. The stampede approached at breakneck speed and though we didn’t recoil violently—we were safely tucked behind some sturdy metal barriers—the roar of all those hefty hooves and the billowing dust clouds they kicked up was daunting. Surely these equestrians had mastered the skill of slowing at a curve? Of course they did, I told myself. Most likely all the riders had grown up on this sandy range and been horseback riding since they could waddle. Indeed, this expert bunch reined in the barreling broncos, allowing them to glide gracefully ‘round the bend as if they’d been Baryshnikov-trained.

Ponies on parade–at breakneck speed!

At intervals of a few minutes, several other equine posses roared by. It was fast and furious for a while and then suddenly quiet as cyclists and walkers reclaimed the space. As the crowds dispersed, and we moseyed on our way to gaze at whatever feathered friends we could find, I marveled at our dumb luck at witnessing such an impressive authentic spectacle in such a wildly wondrous beachfront setting under such flawless sapphire blue skies. Perhaps it was ordinary event for local residents, but for us it was another extraordinary example of the fascinating layers of life in Provence.

Before I sign off, a special greeting for US readers for the 24th: Happy Thanksgiving!

We’ll be in Spain next week so no dinde for dinner on Thursday but possibly pavo. And, we’ll be giving thanks just the same. Gobble-gobble!

Stay safe, well, and hopeful.

Bises, Gayle

Note: We found out later a two-day fête was in full swing—the Festival d’Abrivado celebrates the Camargue’s bull and horse heritage and the manadiers, those dedicated to raising the impressive animals.

PS

With the gift-giving holiday season around the corner, you might need a nifty idea. Why not pick up some fun reads: Passion for Provence: 22 Keys to La Belle Vie and The Birdwatcher’s Wife (A True French adventure) for your Francophile family and friends?!

Passion for Provence: 22 Keys to La Belle Vie

The Birdwatcher’s Wife (A True French Adventure)

Cavorting in Charismatic Cotignac

Cotignac is one of the most beautiful villages in France

It’s official—the petit Provençal bijou of Cotignac has joined the distinguished list of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, the most beautiful villages in France. In short, this honor is bestowed only on very special rural villages—with a population under two thousand—that boast a compelling cultural heritage or unique architecture.

Crag Martins and Jackdaws buzzed all around the cliff housing looming over Cotignac

But it wasn’t Cotignac’s troglodyte dwellings carved into the porous rock cliffs that loom over the town or its famous pilgrimage sites that inspired us to spend a few days there. Nor was it to be a dedicated birding expedition though our binoculars would most certainly tag along. And it wasn’t an attempt to fulfill my fantasy of bumping into George Clooney who owns an estate in the area. (He was spotted recently at the posh resto, the Secret Garden—part of the luxe property Lou Calen—perhaps sipping a luscious pale rosé from nearby Domaine Mirabeau?)

La belle vue from the terrace of La Picotte restaurant

The fact is we were hankering for a uncomplicated autumn mini-break but with gasoline shortages plaguing France, exploring our own backyard made perfect sense. Plus, for eons we’ve been curious about this tucked-away village—under two hours from Saint-Rémy. Years ago before we moved to Provence, it was a Cotignac property I’d seen online that had captured my imagination. The proprieté was utterly impractical because it consisted of a swimming pool with no more than a tiny cabanon for shelter. But, oh là là, the belle vue over the verdant valley sent my heart aflutter.

And there was one other source of inspiration for our brief sortie of discovery. Lovely local entrepreneur Susana Iwase (provencelivingcotignac.com), a fellow University of California grad—she from Berkeley and me from UCLA—was free to get together so that clinched it. We packed our bags for Cotignac.

And the picturesque village exceeded our expectations. First of all, the terra cotta tile-roofed enclave enjoys a striking setting tucked into the base of 80-meter high escarpments. Numerous lively cafes, stylish boutiques, art galleries, and restaurants offering tantalizing menus flank the plane tree-shaded main street, le Cours Gambetta.

Faded ochre-toned structures with fancifully colorful doors and shutters cram the maze of narrow, winding passageways that open on to spacious squares with graceful fountains. Stopping constantly for snaps was de rigueur, especially from on high where the panoramic view over the valley was captivating. And let’s not forget the vibrant Tuesday marché where locals greeted each other with cheek kisses (yes, contact is making a comeback), often pausing for a chat over a mid-morning espresso. Clearly, shopping was secondary in this convivial ambiance.

Our Cotignac escape may have been brief, allowing us only to scratch the surface of this historic town with heart, but it was exceedingly memorable —even though Monsieur Clooney was a no-show. Maybe next time?

Pristine waterfall outside Sillans-la-Cascade, close to Cotignac

Stay safe and well.

Bises, Gayle

A bucket of bounty from our single olive tree

PS

It’s olive harvest time in Provence. We have but one olive tree in our small yard so we’re hardly self-sufficient in the golden nectar arena. But luckily, olive producing experts like the fabulous Domaine Castelas are at hand—just on the other side of les Alpilles in les Baux-de-Provence, a 15-minute ride away.

Gourmet Escapade in the Boonies Beyond Saint-Rémy-Provence

Finding Félines-Minervois on a map might require a magnifying glass. This speck of a village, about 30 kilometers northeast of the medieval marvel of Carcassonne, is home to fewer than five hundred residents, but I knew Ralph and I were going there—and bientôt too! After reading food writer Tim Hayward’s gushing review (Financial Times, 9/10 July 2022) of the Grand Café Occitan in this tiny country enclave, I immediately launched into researching the establishment. The dazzling menu with approachable prices prompted me to strategize how soon we could enjoy a meal created by the acclaimed young English chef Tristram Bowden.

It wasn’t practical to travel the three hours to Félines-Minervois in July or August—peak tourist season—but after a sweltering, mostly stay-at-home summer, a destination dining jaunt in autumn had great appeal. Perfect timing for this low key getaway would be after the rentrée. This is the marvelous time of year when kids return to school (1 September this fall) and the bulk of tourists vanish from the autoroutes.

We wouldn’t merely dine, however. There would be riding along the Canal du Midi on our foldable bikes, catching up with buddies who live in the area, exploring the vast wine-growing region—arguably among the most extensive in the world. And birding, of course. Our feathered friends are everywhere and we’d keep our binoculars at the ready to see what we could see.

The trip to our holiday rental Eloi Merle in Olonzac—fun Tuesday market—was a snap. From there, it was a short bike ride to Homps on the Canal du Midi. With friends based in Carcassonne, we enjoyed a delicious lunch at the canal-side Auberge de la Croisade, and had another yummy meal with amis living near Toulouse. We met halfway in the quaint outpost of Montolieu, nicknamed le village du livre. The moniker is apt considering the population is a mere 821, yet boasts a dozen second hand book stores!

And then there was the Grand Café Occitan—utterly delightful from the exceptionally warm welcome to the wistful waves good-bye. But what transpired in between was show-stopping though in a very unassuming manner. Take the humble beet. Even if you’re not a fan, I’d wager Chef Bowden’s zesty-creamy beet and goat cheese starter would set your taste buds aflutter. And the grilled fish. Oh, goodness, sheer perfection, and served with the most yummy braised endives and roasted cherry tomatoes ever. The textures and ultra fresh flavors were astonishing—full stop. Surely some culinary magic was happening in the cuisine. A return visit is definitely on our radar.

The last two days were spent moseying around popular Capestang, with its slow stream of canal-cruisers, and exploring the adorable village of Assignan, where many buildings are accented with eye-popping pinks and purples. In Minerve, one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, Ralph spotted a swarm of House Martins under an arch of the grand stone bridge spanning the gorge of the Cesse River. They flew around helter skelter for about fifteen minutes and then vanished.

But in the wine town of St. Chinian, a single snow-white Little Egret with its bright yellow feet waded slowly in the shallow Vernazobre river flowing through the center of town. The graceful bird was in no hurry at all, posing graciously for photos. I could have lingered longer watching the elegant bird with its sleek body, slender beak, long legs, and strands of plumage trailing behind its delicately-shaped head, but I too yearned for a dip. After all the trekking around, a leisurely swim in the heated pool at our apartment beckoned and would end this day on a blissful note.

On the way home, we stopped at the wine co-op, Domaine de L’Ormarine, in the village of Pinet of Picpoul de Pinet fame. This delightfully drinkable crisp white wine has long been a staple in our household, but we’d never sought out its namesake town, even though we’d been going to nearby Mèze for years. There was no doubt the vendange was in full swing. Massive trucks loaded with mounds of freshly picked grapes trundled in, deposited the fruit, and dutifully returned to the vineyards to tackle another hectare. It’s a large scale operation to be sure, but the resulting product is what the wine writer Dan Keeling describes as a “friendly session wine,”* which often is exactly what fits the bill. To the hard-working harvesters after my own heart, merci and bon courage!

Stay safe, well, and hopeful.

Bises, Gayle

Salute to Mas du Capoun–we’ll miss you!

PS

On 16 September, after nearly twenty years, our beloved restaurant Mas du Capoun, in the tiny enclave of Mollégès—twenty minutes from St. Rémy—closed its doors indefinitely. We will always treasure the exceptional memories we made over many years at this superb establishment. Michèle’s exuberant welcome, the capable and friendly staff, refined décor, convivial ambiance, and of course, the extraordinary cuisine—thanks to Chef Michaël—made it uniquely marvelous. How we will miss them! But there’s some happy news too. In the near future, the pair is planning to open another—smaller—restaurant in the neighborhood. In the meantime, we wish them all the very, very best in realizing their new endeavor. Stay tuned!

*Dan Keeling’s article, Sourcing a good house wine is a restaurant’s holiest of grails,” which appeared in the weekend edition of the Financial Times, 6/7 August 2022, refers to the 2021 Cave de L’Ormarine Picpoul de Pinet.

Seductive Saint-Rémy to Charismatic Mèze

Twilight in Meze

Saint-Rémy’s powers of seduction may be irresistible in all seasons. But summer attracts admirers like no other. Throughout the hot months, auto license plates indicate visitors hail from countless European countries and the UK, not to mention many of the far-flung French overseas territories to include Guadeloupe (#971, Caribbean Sea) and La Réunion (#974, Indian Ocean).

So for locals who feel a bit overwhelmed by the sudden over-population, it’s a good time to fly the coop for some breathing room, if only for a few days. And that’s what we did. Off we dashed to quiet, charismatic Mèze on the Étang de Thau, a large lake adjacent to the Med.

Knowing full well that we were tempting fate to join the hoards on the highway, we expected a bouchon (traffic jam) or two. So what was normally a two-hour drive became three. But, we made lunch!

Our destination restaurant outside the oyster capital of Bouzigues (near Mèze) sits right on the lagoon with Sète in the distance. Sadly, our first choice for our seaside seafood repast, Les Desmoiselles Dupuy, was full, but at a neighboring enterprise, Benvenu’ Thau, we enjoyed a satisfying assortment of grilled huitres (oysters) four, ways—two each sprinkled with Parmesan, leek, hazelnuts and parsley, respectively. And, we also devoured the natural type. By the way, I’ll go out on a limb here and declare, “Never say never when it comes to raw oysters.” Never-ever was I a fan of these bivalve mollusks but the Bouzigues variety splashed with a magical vinaigrette with minced shallots made me a believer!

Before checking in to our B&B, we backtracked a bit to delightful Balaruc-les-Bains to birdwatch along the boardwalk. Only some very common Yellow-legged Gulls made an appearance, but it was lovely to press our binoculars into service while strolling in such a serene setting. We also made a run by a favorite home décor store called Proventes Meubles located in a bleak industrial zone. Its inauspicious location belies the fact that it’s a charming store with gems galore. Much like discovering beautiful birds by a dismal water treatment facility, finding a treasure here is especially rewarding.

Next stop, splendid Mèze Maison overlooking the town’s chateau and pretty gardens. There are four rooms to pick from—all stylishly decorated and each a bit different. I love the one now called Ellington with the sleek, free-standing oval tub and Italian shower. On another visit, maybe we’ll try out the one with a terrace, big lagoon views, and outdoor shower. British owners Rob and Jason with their mischievous grins always provide an exceedingly warm welcome and lots of laughs, typically accompanied by a verre du bon vin!

Nautical jousting event at the leisure port
Oyster nets with Sete in the background
In the cool of the night, gals gather for a game of boules…

Though the normally calm, authentic village was more active than in off-season, there was plenty of room to roam. For the next couple of days we rode our foldable bikes all around town, witnessed a nautical jousting event at the leisure port, strolled the vibrant Sunday market, and birded at a marshy area outside of town where we spotted Grey Herons, Stilts, and Little Egrets—to name a few feathered friends. And we enjoyed multiple meals with views of the water.

Plus, I fit in a couple of sessions of much needed exercise by sea-walking known here as longe-côte. The lagoon was so warm, I just drifted right in—bliss!

Wherever this summer finds you, stay safe, well, and hopeful.

Bises, Gayle

PS

The intense heat subsided last week, and we even got some much-needed rain!

Scenes, Scents, and Sounds of Summer in the South of France

Gorgeous Plage l’Estagnol near Hyères

 

From here to Hyères, and pretty much everywhere across France, the hottest summer topic has to be … heat. With the temperature gauge regularly ramping up to 38C (100.4F) or beyond—and with most houses lacking aircon throughout, including ours—thoughts tend to veer toward how to escape the toasty temps, how to beat them, and eventually, how to embrace them.

Opting for the escape approach first, recently Ralph and I spent a week on the Presqu’île de Giens (Giens Penninsula) east of Toulon in the hopes of basking in cool Med breezes. And spotting birdlife—the skinny peninsula composed of two ribbons of land with marshes in between is a magnet for birds, especially flamingos. As a base, we chose a commune outside of Hyères proper called Les Salins, conveniently located next to a saltpan-filled nature park, Les Salins d’Hyères. Though the enclave is teeny-tiny, it boasts several seafood restaurants, a leisure boat port, and an expansive beach—a short stroll from our rental.

To make the most of our time away, en route to our destination, we stopped to explore the seaside resort of Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer and the Plage des Lecques. And on our return, we popped into the postcard-perfect village of La-Cardière-d’Azur, where we enjoyed a coffee break with delightful Canadian author ML Longworth of Murder in Provence fame. (The TV series, based on some of her mysteries, is now out on ITV.)

Beautiful Bormes les Mimosas

During the week in between, we searched for birds, walked the sandy shores and rocky coastal paths, splashed through the gentle Mediterranean waves, cycled on our foldable bikes, and made a valiant attempt at eating our weight in fresh grilled fish. We roamed around beautiful Bormes-les-Mimosas and also toured Hyères, following the tips listed in one of my favorite design/travel magazines, Côté Sud.

On our first full day, we gave ourselves an overview of the peninsula by driving the length to the picturesque village of Giens situated at the most southerly point. The views were magnificent as were the flocks of flamingos feeding in the marshes (albeit at a distance) and the kite surfers zipping across the zone especially designated for them on the west side of the peninsula.

But far and away, the highlight of the week was—thanks to our wonderful next door neighbor who knew the area from his childhood—the incredible beach called L’Estagnol and the seafood déjeuner at Restaurant L’Estagnol, (run by welcoming Patrick and Geneviève Cruché), located above the graceful arc-of-a-plage. Both beach and lunch were incroyable! Definitely worth a detour for a special outing, but beware, reservations are a must, particularly in high season. Parking is paid upon entry—11 euros—but the expansive lot is filled with tall shade trees and WCs with outdoor showers are available.

Ralph kidding around at the nature reserve Les Salins d’Hyeres

Few remarkable birds flew our way during the week though we circled the nature park multiple times and scoured the coast. Some Stilts with their flashy long red legs, and elegant Little Egrets sporting their yellow feet made brief appearances but, alas, only a single, lanky Grey Heron showed up. At least the prehistoric-looking oiseau posed close to us and remained still—two rare bird behaviors that were much appreciated.

Back in Saint-Rémy, after our beach escape, we entered the heat-coping phase. So while we manage the volets (shutters)—making sure they are open in the early hours, but just a crack during the day—we listen to the chanting cicadas, pause to appreciate the golden fields of sunflowers and inhale the intoxicating lavender aroma that permeates the weekly market. We enjoy special summer events like the rousing 14 July Fête Nationale concert en ville and greedily consume gobs of rosy, ripe apricots, courtesy of a generous neighbor who left a flat of the fruit by our door. Blended with foraged blackberries, they make quite the healthy and colorful smoothy.*

I sip the vibrant concoction from a frosty tumbler, while relaxing on a chaise longue on our elevated terrace, in the shade of a big umbrella, with a summer read at the ready. Oh wait, could it be that without realizing it, I’m inching toward the embrace-the-heat stage? Well, honestly, I doubt I’m ready to announce, “Vive l’été!” when that means melting for many hours a day. But, appreciating the perks of summer is a step in a promising direction, n’est ce pas?

Before I sign off, some words of deep gratitude for the courageous and brave pompiers here in France battling wildfires near Bordeaux and to all firefighters around the ever-warming globe who are facing unprecedented challenges of increasing numbers and intensity of fires. We hail their heroism every day.

And to you, dear readers, above all, stay safe and well, and as comfortable as possible–whichever hemisphere you’re in at the moment.

Amitiés, Gayle

PS

Tuula Rampont and yours truly near Toulon

On our trip, I met with spirited journalist Tuula Rampont of Belle Provence Travels who writes for International Living Magazine. She suggested an enticing idea—that together we tape a video about how Passion for Provence and The Birdwatcher’s Wife came to be and our expat life in France. We’re planning on that—you guessed it—when it’s a tad cooler.

*I had the where-with-all to wash, pit, and freeze the bushel of fresh apricots, so I’ll be set for smoothy material for some time and won’t even need ice cubes!

Provence to Portugal (Part II): Waves-Baby-Waves 

Waves breaking on Nazare beach

For the second half of our Portuguese adventure, we headed ninety minutes north of Lisbon to the charming fishing village of Nazaré. Due to the magnificent waves that crash on its shores, the town is renown as a surfing mecca—not that we intended to climb on board any surf boards any time soon. Cruising through these curls—sometimes rising to one hundred feet in winter—was not on our agenda. Oh, no, such daring endeavors we’d leave to the fearless daredevils. (For more on this, check out the book of thrilling photos—Nazaré—by Portuguese photographer Ricardo Bravo.) After the hustle bustle of the buzzing metropolis that was Lisbon, chilling out was just the ticket.

Fishing boats of by-gone days now rest quietly on Nazare beach

Topping our go-slow agenda for the popular Silver Coast resort were low-key activities like meandering around the old village, birdwatching along the coast, and beach walking with a vivacious buddy who recently moved to the area with her pair of feisty pups—plus enjoying the local wine and food specialties, of course.

Jagged cliffs of Peniche, south of Nazare

But before Nazaré, our adorable Fiat 500 whisked us to a birding area at Peniche, a rocky peninsula that juts dramatically into the Atlantic. Ralph hoped to see low-flying sheerwaters or petrels (a smallish seabird, which only lands to nest), but surfers and Shags, (a type of cormorant), Black Redstarts, and Yellow-legged Gulls had to suffice. After tromping around the cliffs and exploring the town, lunch beckoned. Thanks to my pal Google, we found a gem of an eatery called Marisqueira Mirandum. There was no sea view but the grilled dorade was outstanding and the staff was incredibly welcoming.

Our Nazaré apartment, which practically sat on the sand across from the colorful iconic fishing boats, was exactly as advertised. And what a vista—we could see all the way to the castle topped by a crimson beacon set high on the cliffs. And from the vantage point of our friend’s huge terrace perched above the town, we took in another stunning view—this one revealed a sweeping panorama of the terracotta-roofed village and the gently arched beach stretching to the horizon.

As fresh as it gets
The talented and welcoming team at Rosa dos Ventos

Dinner at a traditional family-run bistro called Rosa dos Ventos was divine. There we dined on more delicious fresh-from-the-sea grilled fish. Again, the service was extraordinary.

Poster of the world-famous gargantuan waves seen from the castle
Ralph birding from the castle

Without pushing too hard, we squeezed in a lot during the rest of our short stay, including a tour of Óbidos, the ancient town crowned with a citadel dating to 713. Nearby, we marched around a nature park on serene Lake Óbidos, and enjoyed a yummy snack at Bar Regional O Covao Dos Musaranhos, a rustic café on a tranquil inlet. But the highlight was spotting a flock of at least a hundred flying flamingos—spectacular!

The super steep observation tower on Lake Obidos
A vast wild beach, a short drive north from Nazare

Strolling with our intrepid chum and her romping canines on a seemingly unending, wild beach north of Nazaré—mostly deserted except for a few fishermen—was marvelously surreal. And what fun to hop on the funicular that swooshed us up from the village to the attractive neighborhood of Sitio, home to the beacon-bedecked fortress overlooking the north beach where in winter the humongous waves crash. We opted to skip the return ride in favor of hoofing down the stairway back to the beach in preparation for yet another fab seafood meal.

Our good-bye dinner with our spirited friend at Taverna do 8 Ó 80 did not disappoint. The delightful company and the delectable cuisine at the contemporary beachfront restaurant, starring the exuberant waiter Paolo—Mr. Personality-Plus—was the perfect finale to our memorable city-to-shore Portuguese escapade.

Stay safe, well, and hopeful.

Bises, Gayle

PS

Over the weekend, here in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, temps rose to the low 90s, and seem to be inching upward. So we’re especially pleased a beach getaway is in the works. Waves on the Med won’t match those of Nazaré by any stretch, but hopefully cool sea breezes will knock a few degrees off the thermometer. Stay tuned!

Provence to Portugal: Let’s eat!

At Lisbon Airport, a mural of the capital

From the Mediterranean Sea to the English Channel, the Alps to the Pyrenees, France offers magnificent diversity on many levels to include landscapes, cuisines, and traditions. And with a hop, skip and a brief flight, even more variety awaits across the border.

Take Portugal, for example. The small country that ruled much of the world at one point in history, has topped our must-visit list for a couple of years now and we finally made it after a mere two-and-a-quarter-hour flight from Marseille, a sixty-minute drive from Saint-Rémy.

First stop, vibrant Lisbon, and afterward, via an adorable Fiat 500, north to the fishing village of Nazaré, known for its 100-foot waves.

Cruising cities docked in Lisbon

Bustling Lisbon was heaving with tourists, many arriving by ship—the humongous type that transports thousands. From our fourth floor apartment (82 steps, no elevator) overlooking the city—in the charming and wonderfully-located Chiado neighborhood—we observed Common Swifts and bats jetting by, and in the distance, the arrival of the floating cities.

Popular Tram #28 typically has standing room only

So it should not have been a surprise that on a sunny Saturday, the line for a train ticket to the popular seaside enclave of Casçais stretched to eternity. So instead, we focused on the city, huffing and puffing up and down all the very steep hills. To give our feet a break, we hopped aboard the quaint, old-world yellow tram #28 that rumbles through many of the neighborhoods—an efficient way to get an overview of the sprawling city. (Hint: Snagging a seat on this popular tram requires luck—unless you board at the beginning of one of its tours.)

With just five days in the metropolis, we limited our main objective to getting a feel for the Portuguese capital, or more precisely, a “taste” of it. Ralph had never visited and my last trip was decades ago when I’d been hauling a backpack and considered food as fuel. This time would be different—we were on a foodie tour, of sorts—relying on a Financial Times article (My Lovely Lisboa by Ajesh Patalay) about the fave culinary spots of Lisbon’s native son, Nuno Mendes, who earned a Michelin star for one of his restaurants in London. (His latest is the recently-opened Lisboeta, that he calls his “love letter to Lisbon.”).

Following in the famous chef’s footsteps, we found the hole in the wall called As Bifanas do Afonso. I ordered one of the acclaimed pork sandwiches served up by Afonso himself. He scooped up the marinating meat chunks from a huge pan fit for paella and deftly piled the succulent pieces on a soft, puffy bun, followed by squirts of a special sauce—extraordinarily delicious! Then onward we pushed across town to the huge covered market and the “oldest and only privately-owned kiosk in Lisbon,” Quiosque Sao Paulo. There we enjoyed more typical sandwiches—one with fried squid, which was marvelous!—plus a beer (1 euro) and a glass of local white wine (2 euros). The young wait staff was extremely welcoming and congenial, like nearly everyone we encountered in the frenetic city.

And we found visitors to be very friendly, as well. While waiting in line at tiny Taberna da rua das Flores at 5:30 PM!—the only way to get on the list to have half a chance of being seated—we met a like-minded foodie from Montreal who raved about a traditional place that he’d tried the previous evening—Principe do Calhariz. Both were fab.

We skipped Feitoria, the ultra contemporary and expensive restaurant—100 euros per person for the 9-course menu, drinks not included—and opted instead for Fidalgo, a down to earth, family-run eatery with tables on the street. The octopus with white bean stew was sensational.

When our trip to Casçais was thwarted for a second time—this day due to a train strike—we hopped on a ferry for the short ride to other side of the Tagus River. We walked around the weathered village of Cacilhas, had a coffee, and then, guess what, it was lunch time! Unprepared for this spontaneous side trip, I had no restaurant ideas, but Google came to the rescue. We walked along the river boardwalk past blocks of graffiti and the occasional fisherman until around noon when we arrived at our destination, Ponto Final. The restaurant staff was busy setting the tables, preparing for the 12:30 opening. One helpful guy paused to inform us that without a reservation, we’d need to queue up behind the three ladies seated on the nearby cement steps and hope for the best; at 12:30, they’d begin compiling a waiting list. Surprised at the formality at this out of the way, casual nook, we followed orders. We were soon enlightened by an Israeli tour guide who joined the dining hopefuls. She explained that a few years ago the place had been featured on the TV series, Somebody Feed Phil. Mystery solved! The grilled fish was excellent and the view of Lisbon outstanding!

On our last night, we ate next door to our apartment at a contemporary wine bar named someone with a wry sense of humor: Wine Not? Tapas ruled and that was a fine finale.

Next up, our stay in the surfing mecca, Nazaré—Provence to Portugal: Waves-Baby-Waves!

Until then, stay safe, well, and hopeful—Gayle

PS

Before our Portugal trip, I so pleased and honored to make a presentation about The Birdwatcher’s Wife at the beloved independent, international bookstore/cafe in Aix-en-Provence called Book in Bar. If you get to Aix, pop by for a coffee and a good read—it’s opposite the stunning Caumont Art Center, a couple of blocks from the Cours Mirabeau: https://www.bookinbar.com/

Take a Seat in St. Rémy de Provence

The sun’s shining on Chez Lucien on the ring road.

Printemps has arrived and so have boatloads of tourists. Masks are off, the cafes are open, and when the soleil is shining, the terraces will fill up fast.

These stylish black and white classic bistro chairs won’t be vacant for long.

It’s the perfect time to take a seat and watch the world go by. People watching is always a fun pastime here in St. Rémy, but now with the warm weather and so many coming out of their cocoons–from far and wide–the town is a veritable beehive of activity.

So why not take a pause, pull up a chair and enjoy the show? Of course, there’s the dilemma of which seat suits you best–a woven classic, a stone fountain bench or a colorful Bentwood? With dozens of possibilities to chose from, the choice seems endless.

Before I bid you adieu until next time, I’d like to pause for a moment to consider those struggling to survive in Ukraine. There are so many ways to support them, but many experts suggest donating may be the best. A lot of information is available about trusted institutions to donate to, but the International Committee of the Red Cross typically ranks highly.

As our hearts go out to Ukraine, we count our blessings for the peace we are so fortunate to enjoy.

Peaceful Place Favier

Stay safe and well.

Bises, Gayle

PS 

Update on The Birdwatcher’s Wife. Last month, I gave a talk on the book at the lovely Manoir de L’Étang in enticing Mougins and next week I’ll do another at Book in Bar, the independent, international bookstore in Aix-en-Provence. Here’s the page from their newsletter. If you’re in the neighborhood, pop in and say hello!

https://www.bookinbar.com/agenda.php

Hiding in Plain Sight Around Saint-Rémy-de-Provence: Delightful Design Elements

Picturesque Baisse de Raillon, encircled by a wide trail, is a haven for birds and walkers alike. Surprisingly, it’s situated next to a massive logistics center, fifteen minutes from St. Rémy, near St. Martin de Crau.

Birds, birds, birds. We’re always keeping an eye out for them on our forays in and around Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, binoculars at the ready. But, more often than not, those winged creatures are too far away or don’t pose long enough to get their picture taken. And that’s when I happen to notice the spaces near the spots that our feathered friends have just commandeered as a runway.

As if for the first time, I’m struck by the delightful variety of some architectural and landscaping design elements hiding in plain sight.

Knock-knock, who’s there? Who needs a harsh buzzer when you can tap-tap-tap melodiously to announce your arrival?

You’ve Got Mail! An iron box, a splintered wood container, or a slot carved in stone–these boîte aux lettres are here to deliver news to you.

Fence Me In. Colorful and creative, these enticing enclosures are everywhere. Just look!

Push me Pull Me. Elaborate or plain, polished and gleaming or tarnished and dull, these door pulls will get you in.

Happy Spring to all!

Stay well and hopeful.

Bises, Gayle

PS

Passion for Provence and The Birdwatcher’s Wife were featured in the March edition of the UK magazine, French Property News. You can read it here!

A Bicycle Balade in Saint-Rémy-de Provence

A sign announcing the new bicycle path.

Smooth and wide, Saint-Rémy’s brand-spanking-new bicycle path is a winner!

The new path is smooth, wide, and protected…

On a whim, Ralph and I recently tested out the section that runs east from Saint-Rémy between a canal and the D99 highway, dipping inland here and there to the cut-off to the sweet village of Mollégès, a little over ten kilometers.

This portion of the piste cyclable called Le Méditerranée en vélo, The Meditarranean by Bike, is completely flat with a few sweeping turns, so it was easy to go mindless and take in the scenery. Surprisingly, on a sunny day without a whiff of breeze, we had it mostly to ourselves. We sailed along at a good clip, stopping along the way to investigate new perspectives. At first we came to a pen of very shaggy brown cows, which, I imagine, are going to be the stars of many an Instagram post, once the spring cyclists arrive. At a gardening center, we saw sturdy century-old olive trees on offer and, on a side trail, we found snails for sale. Signs to some prestigious wineries like Domaine Romanin and Terres Blances tempted us. Maybe next time, we’ll pop in for a tasting!   

Oops, the end of the line…

Much to our dismay, the path stopped abruptly about two hundred meters before the round-about, where we planned to take a left and ride the two kilometers on the road to Mollégès. We tried to continue on the bumpy undeveloped terrain, but we soon lost interest with the bobble-head action. So we ducked onto the busy D99 and peddled like mad because there is little room for cars to pass. Luckily, no auto, or worse yet, a transport truck, tried to overtake us before we reached our turn-off—whew!

Conveniently, there is a boulangerie right there, so we picked up a tasty sandwich de poulet made from a baguette de graines for our déjeuner before continuing on. But not before popping into one of my very favorite consignment shops across the street.

A terrific consignment store–always fun to browse.

No treasures did I find, but was fun to browse for a few minutes. (I could have returned in the car for pick-up!) And I was happy to learn from one of the owners that the path would, indeed, be continued—yay!

Then it was back in the saddle to continue the two kilometers to Mollégès. In a small park by the post office, we sat on a stone wall and munched our lunch, watching Redstarts flit between the grass and trees. Then we cycled through the charming village and onward to Saint-Rémy via some back roads through the fields. Guessing where to make a left to return to the cycle path, we moseyed along until eventually we got it in our sights. We cruised into our driveway two and a half hours after we began our spontaneous mini adventure–a mere warm-up ride for serious cyclists–thoroughly delighted with our discoveries so close to home. Mille fois merci, Départment Bouches de Rhône!

Happy St. Valentine’s Day or Saint-Valentin in these parts!

PS

If you should take a peek at The Birdwatcher’s Wife–available from booksellers, including Amazon–I’d love to hear your comments or read them on Amazon or Goodreads!

You can get it here: The Birdwatchers Wife on Amazon