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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…

 

 

 

 

 

Taureaux Time in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence

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Bulls have right away downtown during summer heritage celebrations.

Olé-olé-olé! Les taureaux roam the roads during many summer heritage festivals in Saint-Rémy. The appearance of stacks of metal, industrial-level, protective barriers and pyramids of bales of hay on the main square, Place de la République, signal the Feria events involving hefty four-legged creatures—horses, as well as bulls—are comin’ ‘round the bend. Some residents keep a close eye on the exact dates and times to ensure they see the special events they hold most dear. (Our Belgian neighbors find these events fascinating and see every one they can.) But other residents–like me–who aren’t big bull fans keep track of times for taureaux dans la rue in order to navigate around road closures. Once the barriers are up, the animals trucked in, and the show about to begin, prudence dictates leaving the “stage” completely open to the “weighty” actors.

Saint-Rémy is deeply proud of its patrimoine steeped in cowboy culture, including bull-raising and horsemanship, and shows its respect by devoting a huge amount of resources to staging elaborate traditional celebrations for the public. The one on 15 August, during the Feria, also honors the agricultural dimension of the area. It features a parade with the Carreto Ramado, a foliage-and flower-decorated horse-drawn carriage, and marching locals—from young to old—dressed in authentic period costumes, some simple, some elegant.

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A young girl dressed in a traditional outfit, atop a horse-drawn wagon, offers a gentle smile to onlookers hoping to capture the sweet moment with their various photographic devices.
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Draught horses bedecked with impressive headdresses honor the rich agricultural heritage of Saint-Rémy.

 

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Intricately stitched, delicate parasols protect these fair femmes on parade.

 

 

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These young whippersnappers wield snapping whips that sound like big, bursting firecrackers when “lit.”
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After the demanding festivities, this considerate cheval delivers his master as close to a frosty bière as he can trot.

The bulk of bull-centric festivities in Saint-Rémy take place by the end of August–many in the arena. (Here, after all the excitement, les taureux trot back to their home corrals.) But come September with the rentrée scolaire—back to school—most of les taureaux and tourists (and locals) alike take a breather and rest up for next season.

 

Slices of Summer Life in St. Rémy and… Up the Road.

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Summertime sunflowers bring on busy bees.

Summer in Provence. L’étè in the south of France may mean vast lavender fields, beach breezes, or a vibrant ville en fête. But no mater what scene you gravitate to, typically you can count on increased levels of two elements–heat and tourists.

Visitors are increasing each year, it seems. Recently, tour buses with a “Discover St. Rémy” sign posted in the front dashboard began arriving regularly from the port of Marseilles where cruise ships dock for the day. Luckier tourists stay in a hotel for a few days, and even luckier ones rent an apartment for a week or longer, allowing time to leisurely explore the rich area and soak up la belle vie provençale.

 

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In summer, even peewee visitors get up early to explore Les Alpilles.
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Tourists attempting to conquer the steep road leading to the Roman site of Glanum may be questioning the wisdom of NOT renting electric bikes.

Owners and workers at the boutiques and restaurants are working their chaussettes off,  while residents work around the crowds, keeping close to home to avoid getting caught in a bouchon (traffic jam). We know that just around the corner awaits the rentrée, that glorious time of year when kids return to school, parents return to their jobs and the village returns to us villagers.

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A Romanesque bridge graces Nyons, the famous black olive-producing center, about an hour from St. Rémy, in the Drôme department.

 

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This bustling Bistrot de Pays in Vinsobres (SW of Nyons) offers delicious country meals on an shady terrace.
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Savoring cool gazpacho at the upscale Ferme de Chapouton bistro in Grignan is a perfectly delicious way to beat the heat.
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The Cathédrale Notre Dame de Nazareth in Vaison-la-Romaine offers a respite from the maddening crowds.

While we’re waiting out the tourist season, we’re waiting for record-breaking temperatures—some days inching over 100 F—to subside. Air conditioning or climatisation is available some places, but others not. Our house is nearly new and we have only a single AC unit in the downstairs area. Lots of homes are paired with a pool or bassin (dipping pool), but certainly not all. Our pint-sized piscine won’t accommodate long laps, but it pulls off the cooling trick just fine.

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Flamingo friends stay cool in the pool.

One thing most folks do have in common is a house or apartment equipped with volets (shutters). And folks manage them with precision—opened wide in the cool early hours of the morning, throughout the day barely cracked—just enough to let in a bit of light—-and then around dinnertime, returned to the “wide-open” position.

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A neighbor’s neatly closed shutters preserve the cool interior during the heat of the day.

In addition to volet management throughout the day, hydration is de rigueur. I hadn’t realized my H2O intake program was all wrong until recently. On Sunday, I was at the patisserie for a delicious treat, the ancestrale, (a rustic, chewy loaf), when I ran into an elderly neighbor. We discussed the on-going heat wave (canicule), the main topic of conversation right now. I bid him a bonne journée but before leaving, I reminded him to drink lots of water. Stepping towards me as if to whisper a secret, his expression morphed from cheerful to serious. “And rosé,” he said,three glasses at day—at least!” Might not find that sage advice on WebMD.

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“Doctor’s” orders–each summer’s day, rosé, three cups full.

 

 

 

Summer Celebrations Surround St. Rémy

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Avignon’s impressive Hôtel de Ville, all dressed up for summer visitors.

Summer in the south of France guarantees two things—sweltering temps and heaps of tourists. But, you needn’t get stuck in a never-ending traffic jam or squeeze your towel onto a packed beach. Fun can be found close to home. Some easy-to-access highlights are the Bastille Day celebrations, Avignon Music Festival, Festival les Antiques de Glanum, Tour de France, and this year, the World Cup soccer tournament.

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A local newspaper wishes the French soccer team, “May the force be with you!”

On top of the world. That sums up how France feels since their stellar soccer team, Les Bleus, beat Croatia 4 to 2 to win the every-four-years FIFA World Cup last week. What an event it was–even if you’re not a big foot fan. When you’re living in soccer-centric France, you just can’t help but get caught up in the exhilaration of the Big Win, especially in a packed village bar. Bravo les Bleus!

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The Fête Nationale is family day in St. Rémy.

Though the soccer final took place in Russia on 15 July, across France, celebrations had begun the day before–for a different reason. Fourteen July marks the Fête Nationale, or Bastille Day, as it is known in the US. During the day in St. Rémy, a family-friendly county fair atmosphere takes over with special kiddie rides, cotton candy, and ring tosses.

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The Guy Icard orchestra entertains the locals on Bastille Day.

 

 

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A tot in hot pink takes her color-coordinated toy unicorn for a stroll during the Fête Nationale.
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La Fête Nationale (Bastille Day) fireworks explode over St. Rémy.

Centre ville becomes a pedestrian zone so folks can safely party down all over town. Pre-dusk a band performs the first of two concerts—with prancing back-up singers—on an elevated  stage set up near the main square, Place de la République. Dozens of café tables spill into the street where waiters dodge dancing tots to deliver supper and chilled adult beverages. Around 10 PM, fireworks erupt over the village.

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Go-with-the-Green is this mime’s mantra at the Festival d’Avignon.
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Mimes promote their show in Avignon.

A twenty-minute drive north, the Festival d’Avignon is in full swing. In its 72nd year, this annual event, which transforms the city into one vast theater, lasts three weeks and uses 40 different venues. It includes lectures, expos, films, plays with international stars, like Isabelle Adjani, and lots of colorful street performers. Tickets are required for many spectacles, but others are completely gratuit.

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The Orphée & Eurydice opera is performed at the Roman site of Glanum in St. Rémy de Provence.

Another neat freebie—available to residents of St. Rémy who hold an Ambassadeur du Patrimoine (Heritage Ambassador) card—is an invitation to the annual music festival held at the Roman ruins of Glanum. This year’s spectacle featured the Christoph Glück opera, Orphée et Eurydice. The small orchestra—a grand piano, two violins, one viola, a clarinet and a pair of viola cellos—and singers were terrific, the setting magical, especially at sunset.

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No Tour de France lycra-clad cyclists in sight, but bicycles help folks get around to the numerous venues of the Festival d’Avignon.

The Tour de France has blasted through St. Rémy right around the corner from our house twice in the last few years. Sadly, no elite cycling excitement this year. So on sweltering afternoons, Ralph and I are content to turn on the fan and the télé and follow the cycling cum French countryside travel broadcast from the comfort of our own couch—taking brief breaks for a pool splash and refilling our ice tea tumblers.

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And so goes another non-stop, sunny summer in St. Rémy—hours of watching sports, attending concerts, and marveling at mimes and fancy fireworks—all while keeping ourselves and our jardin hydrated. What’s the answer to the frantic pace? August. When the most mellow month arrives, it’s time to hit the hammock and sway away any energetic impulses.

 

Portugal Perspectives: Porto to Moncarapacho

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Bom dia, Porto

If Porto, Portugal, were a water sports enthusiast, it’d be a daredevil kite surfer executing spectacular loop-de-loops over a heaving sea. Moncarapacho would be a mellow kayaker drifting through calm marshes in a nature park. The two areas—one north of Lisbon and the other on the eastern Algarve—offer a delightful study of cultural and geographic contrasts.

 

Porto, is a metropolis on the move and it’s picking up pace. Fifteen years ago, derelict wrecks on the steep bank overlooking Porto’s rooftops and the Douro River were up for grabs. Now major hotel conglomerates are asking owners to name their price. And name their price the youthful architect-owners of our skillfully renovated property did. The figure was three times what they’d been offered by the same developer the previous year.

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Cranes galore, downtown Porto

Days before the newly enriched young family moved to the suburbs, my husband and I snagged the last reservation. We weren’t just treated to a snazzy accommodation with spiffy Porto views. The studio, with its prized positioning in the Ribeira neighborhood, plus insights from its generous and congenial owners, provided a fascinating experience of a dynamic city swept up in boom mode.

 

The energetic, edgy feel of the city is striking. In addition to the countless innovative renovation projects in progress, jolting juxtapositions meet you at every turn. At outdoor cafes, disheveled university students gather next to elderly matrons in starched blouses and pearls. A tiny mom and pop grocery store shares a wall with a contemporary tapas bar offering trendy mixed drinks. A glamorous boutique hotel faces a boarded up, graffiti-laced, condemned apartment. A late model Porsche roars by a workman in paint-spattered overalls peddling an antiquated bicycle. A dreary shop selling traditional sewing supplies sits opposite an up-market jewelry boutique doubling as a hip wine-tasting room.

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Pateo das Flores wine bar
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O Caracas owner demonstrates proper fish-fileting technique.
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The popular Majestic Cafe

To get a sense of the evolving city—nearly three million inhabitants in the metro area—while discovering some its main attractions, we walked everywhere. Since Porto rests on a series of hills, that meant scaling severe inclines. (Tip: Teetering stilettos don’t mix with Porto—comfy footgear required.) But reaping benefits from a stair master workout every time we left the apartment was useful, as finding flavorful food was a top priority. Highlights in the cozinho category were: O Caraças for a down-home fresh fish dinner; the ultra-elegant Majestic Café, for coffee; Caldeireiros for petiscos,or tapas—the pork sandwich and barely spicy roasted green chilies were delectable. (The waiter talked us out of the renown alheira de caça, a sausage of rabbit and chicken on garlic spinach, explaining he wasn’t a fan. Acquired taste, maybe?); and Candelabro for a light, freshly prepared lunch of homemade soup and sandwiches; and the chic wine bar, Pateo das Flores, or the fanciful A Parte for drinks and people-watching on the colorful Rua das Flores pedestrian street.

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The Gustave Eiffel-inspired Ponte de Dom Luis I, spanning the Douro River

On the tourist sights list, not-to-missed are the Cathedral Sé do Porto and the baroque Torre de Clerigos, both boasting beautiful, expansive Porto views. A walk over the double-decker iron bridge, Ponte de Dom Luís I, designed by a disciple of Gustave Eiffel, brings you to the south side of the River Douro, home to the famous port houses, to include Sandeman’s. Though tours and tastings are on offer, the star of to the “other” side of the Douro is the sweeping Porto cityscape.

 

 

 

Also, the marvelous tile work at São Bento train station is worth a detour, as is the impressive 19th-century, wrought-iron Mercado do Bolhão. While the dilapidated structure awaits its scheduled overhaul, the vibrant market it houses puts on a fast-paced show six days a week. Harry Potter fans will need to pay homage at Livraria Lello, the exquisite old world bookstore with the distinctive, deep red staircase, said to have inspired J.K. Rowlings. (The five-euro ticket required to enter is applied to purchases.) Shoppers won’t want to miss A Vida Portuguesa which offers a vast array of vibrant Portuguese ceramics and house wares. The Feeting Room sells not only footgear but also quirky designer clothes and fun household accessories, as well as bath products like the exclusive Claus soaps.

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Surfers at Matoshinhos on the Atlantic
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The welcome is genuine and the fish fresh at Salto do Muro in Matoshinhos.

Though time didn’t allow for a boat or funicular experience, we hopped on a city bus for a 30-minute ride to the Atlantic coastal town of Matoshinhos. After a choose-your-own-fresh-fish lunch at Salto o Muro, a family-run institution, we strolled down the wide promenade along the vast sandy beach. On one side of the walkway, we admired an art installation in the form of a gargantuan net sculpture, She Changes, by the American artist Janet Echelman, and on the ocean-side, dozens of surfers conquering the curls.

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Sweet dreams, Porto.
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Bike path from Casa Flor de Sal (near Moncarapacho) to Fuseta
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Tavira’s Roman bridge
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View over Tavira
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Striking, see-through facade in Tavira
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An ornate, architectural gem in Tavira
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View from Cacela Velha

Far from bustling and demanding Porto, a two-hour Ryanair flight took us to Faro, on the edge of the serene, relaxed Ria Formosa Natural Park. During our week-long stay in the Avocet House on the lush enclave of Casa Flor de Sal (near Moncarapacho), we took it easy. We biked on a flat bike path through lush marshland to the teensy town of Fuseta—beach-side Bord d’Agua is great for coffee or a light lunch. We strolled through picturesque Tavira with its gracefully sturdy, multi-arched Roman bridge straddling the Rio Gilão, stopping at Pausa for plate-licking garliky gambas and succulent bochecha de porco. In the miniscule, hilltop gem, Cacela Velha, we oohed and ahhed at the spectacular sea view. Disappointment, however, followed in Albufeira. After a decades-long absence, I found the once authentic fishing village and pristine beach have been swallowed by garish development—ouch!

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Prawns at Pausa in Tavira

Back in the nature park, all was well. Birding for Ralph was stellar. He spotted over 50 bird species, including azure magpies, kentish plovers, black winged stilts, hoopoes and a family of storks, residents of our holiday property. Mama and Papa Stork worked hard during the frequent, frantic feedings, without any help from us. Our job was to stay out of the way and watch the action from our rooftop terrace—with crisp, chilled Portuguese vinho branco in hand.

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Stork nest stands tall above the lush grounds of Casa Flor de Sal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hail to the Sheep!

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Pentecôte Monday means party time in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. The highlight of the day’s festivities is the treasured tradition called the transhumance—the spring relocation of thousands of sheep and goats to higher pastures for the summer. Before the animals take on the trek, they mark the occasion by running around the town’s péripherique, which circles the historic center. Herders, young and old, dressed in simple traditional dress, guide the animals as they swiftly execute a pair of laps to the delight of thousands of onlookers, from tots to troisième âge folks, and everybody in between. It’s a genuine, family affair.

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Youthful herders show the sheep how it’s done.

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A modest, unadorned, donkey-driven cart leads the parade.

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Strong and fit, madame shepherd marches with ease.

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Spectacular goat horns and humongous bells stun little sisters.

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A toddler takes advantage of the break between sheep laps to advance his reading skills.

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After the parade, the fun continues on the Place de la République, where you can barter for bells.

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Also, there are objets d’art to discover like this whimsical, brightly striped, six-foot high molded canine.

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In front of the Hôtel de Ville, vendors ply their wares—a variety of fromage, lavender sachets and all manner of chapeaux.

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Admiration is due the boldly hued, cleverly designed, natural fiber containers and purses.

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What sheep celebration would be complete with billowy super hero balloons, squirt pistols and spinners on a stick? They made for a festive and playful 35th transhumance in Saint-Rémy.