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