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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.

 

 

 

 

Provence to Palm Springs…and back

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View to the south at a Palm Springs, California, golf course

Magenta bougainvillea blossoms shot willy-nilly across the warm cement tennis court like sanderlings skittering along tide foam on a sandy beach. As the temperature edged toward 90F in Palm Springs, California, where my husband and I were playing a few sets last month, my thoughts catapulted over the San Jacinto mountains to the sea. How I needed a splash of cool just then.

With the Pacific Ocean over two hours away, a swimming pool would fit the bill. In my hometown, Palm Springs, pools are not tough to find. At the complex where we’d rented a small condo for March, there were two huge pools, plus two Jacuzzis. Pool stats vary, but the town boasts more per capita than anywhere else in the country—probably to the tune of 50K in greater Palm Springs.

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Palm Springs’ acquatic Center

Back when I was in high school, we didn’t have a pool. Heck, we didn’t even have AC! On our recent visit, I discussed this topic, among others from the “dark ages” with my high school French teacher. Mais oui, not only is my beloved French teacher still enjoying the desert, she’s as vibrant, spirited, and inspirational as ever!

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Visitor Center at Sunnylands, the Annenberg Estate near Palm Springs, California

When she found out neither Ralph nor I had visited the nearby famed Walter Annenberg estate—frequented by a million heads of state from Nixon to Obama, she invited us to meet her for coffee there. The sleek, high-tech architecture is amazing and the grounds superb, as was the French press coffee we sipped on the large terrace overlooking the magnificent gardens.

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The newly completed Rowan Hotel, downtown Palm Springs

Another wonderful surprise was that downtown Palm Springs is positively thriving. The Rowan hotel with its impressive soaring lobby, rooftop pool and terrific mountain views is smack downtown. A park will soon follow between the hotel and the main art museum, which featured an Andy Warhol expo, starring none other than Marilyn Monroe, which is quite fitting since she was practically discovered in PS. The story goes that the photographs snapped while she was lounging at Charlie Farrell’s Racquet Club really set her career on fire.

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Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol, Palm Springs Art Museum, March 2018

The bank where I had a savings account as a kid, designed by renown mid-century architect E. Stewart Williams, is now the town’s architecture museum. In the vault, converted into a gift store, you’re likely to find a book by the French photographer, Robert Doisneau, who visited Palm Springs in the1960. While on assignment to capture golf courses in-the-making in the middle of the vast desert, he couldn’t resist including many Mid-Century Modern homes. Over time, Mid-Century Modern architecture has gained traction. Now it even has its own festival, which takes place in February. The two-week event is so popular, its allure has spread to distant shores. In fact, the Côté Sud magazine featured the Palm Springs Mid-Century Architecture Week in its February 2018 edition.

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Designed by E. Stewart Williams–formerly a bank.

Everywhere we turned, a bit of France appeared. The owner of the popular Peninsula Pastries hails from Paris. (The secret to her fab baguettes may be that she imports her flour from France.) The young Frenchman who runs a gift store on North Palm Canyon Drive is from Aix-en-Provence. (I actually knew him when we lived in Aix. His attractive boutique on Rue Gaston de Saporta was my go-to shop for gifts.) A young couple from Paris run the typically-packed  L’Atelier Café on The Plaza. Rumor has it that a trumpeter who tours with the renown French singer Véronique Sanson lives in Palm Desert. You can even find a pétanque game in Ruth Hardy Park on Sunday mornings. Bring along your own boules and arrive early—before it heats up.

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Peninsula Pastries offers first rate baguettes, croissants and lots more.

While in Palm Springs, it was terrific to experience so many French touches. It reminded us (as if we needed reminding!) how much we adore La Belle Vie in Provence. It’s good to be back home—back in Saint-Rémy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Honey, I shrunk the marché!

If marketers opted not to hunker down in front of the ol’ homestead hearth, they definitely did need to bundle up, tête to pie, for the Saint Rémy marché this chilly last week of February. Braving 40 degrees (tops) and an icy mistral, the vendors were not peddling breezy linen frocks, wide-rimmed Panama hats or neon-striped pool towels. Instead, the few tables set up on Place de la République, typically packed when inviting temps prevailed, appealed to the promise of protection with mounds of knitted caps, wool scarves and puffy vests in a kaleidoscope of hues.

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A cheerful vendor beckons customers with her colorful array of neck warmer-cap combos called cagoules–every trip to the marché is a language lesson.

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Typically, snagging an outdoor seat at Café de la Place on market day is a formidable challenge. Today, patrons have their pick.

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A dapper couple neatly decked out in zipped-up coats, caps, scarves, and shades strides through the sparse market, most likely in search of missing mittens. Never leave home without ’em.

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Olives, olives, olives, a thousand ways olives. Choice is tough. In spring, madame may take her time deciding, but in February monsieur hopes she makes it snappy. His frigid fingers need a flannel pocket break.

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While madame searches her bag for correct change, Avocado Man takes a micro snooze, envisioning his comfy chair, feet propped on the ottoman, a verre of rouge warming his hand.  Ahhh…

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Baby in Blue, on the other hand, is way ahead of the game. In full snooze, snug in stroller, he has Avocado Man beat by a mile. Well, minus the vin rouge, that is. But he’s more of a warm milk kinda guy, anyway.

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Milk? Did someone say milk? Come and get it! From the market, walk up past Hôtel Valrugues, keep on going a bit, and look right. Bring a bucket.

 

 

 

 

Winter Rhythm in Saint-Remy

Peace embraces Saint-Rémy in winter like a comforting hug. In town, restaurants and popular venues take their congé annuel. A primary rue in centre ville is empty at noon. Traffic jams and lines at the boulangerie are shorter. Trimmed plane trees reveal the town’s distinctive architectural features. Panama hats disappear and puffy coats are par tout.

At home, activity retreats from the terrace to the fireplace. Soups replace salads. Vin rosé gives way to rouge. Walks in Les Alpilles begin later. The garden is browner, the pool greener. The cinema beckons more, the tennis court less.

Tourists have flown the coop. Nobody’s here but us chickens, leisurely bob-bobbing around the ol’ barnyard. Unless you count…

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A renovation reviving an ancient stone house.

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Cows catching some rays.

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Grape growers pruning their precious crop. (Keep up the good work, guys!)

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Pooches pausing after boar-chasing.

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Almond trees blossoming on the Petit Crau.

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Upscale Soleido redesigning–in preparation for the spring collection.

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School kids abandoning their bikes on the cool concrete for bouillabaisse in a warm interior.

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Trimmers having come and gone, leaving a tidy canal path for winter walkers.

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A newly planted tree quietly taking root—while overseeing Saint- Rémy, a town not hybernating but calmly humming along.

Salute to Peter Mayle

It is with deep sorrow that I offer this salute to Peter Mayle, who passed away on 18 January in Aix-en-Provence. The author of A Year in Provence, along with many other notable titles that celebrated Provence, held a special place in my heart. Perhaps the following excerpt from the introduction of my book, Passion for Provence: 22 Keys to La Belle Vie, offers the best explanation.

“Falling for France is as easy as sipping a glass of pale rosé on a sun-dappled terrasse overlooking a shimmering Mediterranean cove. Moving to France is more complicated.

Peter Mayle did it, famously recounting his French adventures in A Year in Provence, published in 1989. I read the memoir over twenty-five years ago while sitting on a Mediterranean beach at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. It was magical to be in luscious Provence on my honeymoon, but enjoying A Year in Provence while in Provence made the special event even more memorable.

In the years that followed, I eagerly awaited each of Mr. Mayle’s delightful publications. In fact, he signed one of them for me at my local bookstore in Virginia. I was charmed by his warmth and wit, as well as his scarlet socks. While I was writing this book, a recollection of those spirited chaussettes prompted me to send him a long-overdue fan letter. As his birthday was imminent, I tucked my note inside a fanciful birthday card. To my delight, he wrote back. Not only was his response a gracious thank-you for a thank-you, but it included sage publishing advice. I framed the letter—it inspires me every day.”

Soon after Passion for Provence was published last November, I sent Monsieur Mayle a copy, which he received in early December. Though I don’t know if he was able to read it, it’s my hope that during his final days, he held the book he helped inspire, and that it brought him joy.

 

 

Music of the Night

No phantom tenor crooned from opera house rafters. No symphony orchestra performed an Andrew Lloyd Weber score. But there was a lyrical angel perched in a treetop and an Italian quartet of English-singing impersonators. The celestial being and the troubadours may belong to opposite ends of the musical spectrum, but during a pair of pre-Christmas events, they delighted toe-tapping, music-loving locals in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.

On Friday, 15 December, The Beatbox, a Beatles tribute band, put in a hard day’s night belting out the Liverpool group’s greatest hits for devoted French fans. The English language school, English for French, sponsored the free event at the inviting wine bar, Le Divin, which was packed. Judging by the enthusiastic applause and dreamy-eyed expressions across the audience, the terrific group wowed the crowd with their refined, Beatles-like harmonization and delivery. Before the quartet reminded us of Yesterday, Ralph and I, (non-night owls), called it a night—just before tomorrow.

The next day, with “Michèlle, ma belle …” still swirling in my head, we were treated to another musical event—of the traditional type. It wouldn’t be Noël in Saint-Rémy without the locals-only staging of La Pastorale, a provençal version of the nativity story, written by Yvan Audouard in 1960, with music by Paul Durand. The free double performances (6 PM & 8 PM) took place in centre ville, on Place Favier, which boasts a perfectly positioned plane tree, the outpost for the story-telling angel-narrator. The amateur actors, from tiny tots to pensioners, who lip-synch their lines and melodies, are expertly made up and dressed up—the vibrant costumes are dazzling. It’s an authentic, annual spectacle not to be missed.

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Le Bar Divin, all dolled up for Christmas, hosted The Beatox, a terrific Beatles tribute band.

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Before The Beatbox made their grand entrance, the all-important sound check.

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“George,” aka Guido Cinelli, gives a pre-performance thumb’s up.

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The Beatbox in action at Le Bar Divin, in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.

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Another thumb’s up is offered by a delighted French couple who drove over Les Alpilles from Maussane for the concert.

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The angel hovering above the manger narrates La Pastorale, a Christmas tradition in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.

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A happy Wise Man flashes a smile as he winds his way through the back streets of Saint-Rémy.

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A pair of Wise Men hustle along young Pastorale performers to make their entrance on cue.

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Adorable young angels with their delicate cardboard wings hydrate as they wait their turn to join La Pastorale.

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Authentically costumed townspeople gather before the manger in the last half of La Pastorale.

From The Beatbox to La Pastoral, Saint-Rémy pays tribute–in fine form–to a wide range of music and tradition. Who knows what entertaining surprises are in store for Noël 2018?