Before turning my attention to the wonders that await us here in France this new year, some important words of appreciation to you, dear readers. From the bottom of my heart, a thousand thank yous–mille fois merci!–for your continued support of Passion for Provence: 22 Keys to La Belle Vie. Since its publication, it’s been incredibly gratifying to hear from readers who have connected with the book–which brought this blog to life. It means the world to me. Thank you so much.
And now it’s time to write a follow-on book, The Birdwatcher’s Wife. It’s based on Ralph’s big birding year. Between 1 January 2019 and 1 January 2020, he worked on his goal of spotting 200 species of birds en France. To that end, we spent the year crisscrossing the country from the Camargue on the Mediterranean Sea to the Brittany Coast to St. Jean de Luz in the Basque region, not to mention a couple of forays to the Alps and one to the Jura.
All those treks go a long way to explain the limited blogs I posted last year and the writing of the new book will help explain the undoubtedly few that will pop up this year. But, hopefully, an entertaining and informative book, featuring lots of oixeaux flying through France, will emerge.
I’ll check in from time to time! For now…
Wishing you all the very best for a happy, healthy and hopeful New Year.
Nothing says Happy Holidays like lots of twinkly lights. Here in the south of France, though December decorations may be more subdued than in the U.S., they brighten up dim days and lift hearts with their magical glow. La Rotonde, the famous fountain at the foot of the Cours Mirabeau in Aix-en-Provence, decked out in a stunning, sparkly cape, is a splendid example.
Wherever you are, here’s wishing you a joyful holiday season and a New Year 2020, that’s full of hope, health and happiness.
Seeing the light in St. Jean de Luz is mesmerizing any time of day. But early morning and dusk were our favorites. From our holiday apartment looking west towards the Bay of Biscay, we were captivated by the sun sliding across the surf, illuminating the curling waves, as they crashed against the sand, all the way down the beach. As the sun set, we loved watching the blazing orange ball sink below the horizon, casting an eerily spectacular glow across the sea until it faded into soft moonlight. As if in a hypnotic state, we’d watch the light coming and going, day and night, for a week. For us, the light is the shining star of the St. Jean de Luz show.
But between sun up and sun down, there are many more delights in and around this enchanting enclave, snug against the Spanish border. Not far from St. Jean, there’s charming St. Jean Pied de Port, a major stop for pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela and attractive Cambo les Bains, with its annual Basque cake festival, LaFête de Gâteau, featuring Basque dance performances. Within St. Jean de Luz proper, there are tons of outdoor activities like jogging/walking/strolling the elevated beach walkway or the beach itself. Surfing is a popular sport here, as well as paddle boarding, and aquatic walking—charging waist-deep through the surf. Or you can burn calories by hoofing it around the compact town, filled with specialty shops and lively cafes. I favored the tiny French beret boutique, Maison Laulhère and the Basque textile producers, Jean-Vier and Lartigue 1910, with their signature striped designs. Boutiqes selling espadrilles are ubiquitous, so it won’t come as a surprise that I finally gave in and went in—but I only came out with a single pair! There’s a beautiful indoor market, a cinema (often showing film versions in English) and an active train station. (On a previous visit, we made a day train trip to Biarritz.
North of St. Jean, Ralph found a great nature reserve called Marais d’Orx, where he spotted a couple of cool birds—a snipe and a booted eagle. A dozen griffin vultures made an appearance on top of La Rhune, a mountain on the Spanish border. We reached the nearly 1000-meter high peak by a cute cog train, right out of Disneyland—but it was only as scary as the twirling teacups ride. Before hiking down the daunting rocky path back to the parking lot at the Sare train station, we took in the magnificent views, stretching to the sea and snapped photos of the roaming pottok ponies. Another day, I hopped a bus to Bilbao, Spain, to experience the extraordinary Guggenheim Museum, designed by the Canadian-American architect, Frank Gehry.
St. Jean’s fishing port is busy-busy-busy, so finding fresh fish is easy peasy. We enjoyed the chipirones à la plancha (pan-fried baby squid with beaucoup garlic and parsley) at Le Suisse, but they were astounding at Le Bar Basque, a rustic place overlooking the water in nearby Guéthary. Also, we had a phenomenal fish lunch at Le TTiki (yes, the name begins with a double T) in Hendaye. Highly recommend—as we do St. Jean de Luz, and the whole of the Pays Basque, in fact. Next fall will be our third visit. Unless, we can’t wait that long…
Mexico City was home during my university junior year abroad. When I wasn’t at class in the Museo National de Antropología, I was traipsing around the archeological sites of Mitla and Monte Albán or playing on the pristine playas of Alcapulco. But I haven’t set foot on la tierra mexicana in decades. Yet in mid-August, I found myself in the land of Aztecs. Sombreros to the left of me, piñatas to the right, I was smack in the middle of La Fête Mexicaine in the charming village of Barcelonnette—in the southern French Alps.
The remarkable history of the annual event begins in the early 19th century when some adventurous Ubaye Valley residents left France to seek their fortunes in Mexico. Monumental fortunes were, in fact, racked up—mostly in the textile industry. Between 1880 and 1930, about ten percent of the fifty to sixty thousand folks who’d left for Mexico returned to Barcelonnette, where they built elegant mansions—les maisons mexicaines. Now, to honor the strong Franco-Mexican heritage, every summer the town welcomes Mexican folkloric dance troupes, mariachi bands, and Mexican chefs for ten days of celebration, Mexican style. By day, professional dancers and musicians in authentic costumes roam the streets, entertaining crowds; by night tout le monde parties to lively salsa groups on the main square. Next August, come on down—or rather, come on up to Barcelonnette—and shake your maracas. Ay, chihauhua!
Aztec dancers pose during a break.
Aztec dancers take to the streets.
Folkoric dancers kick up their heels.
Folkoric dancers charm the crowd.
The salsa band brings the crowd to the dance floor.
It’s a wrap! Who woulda thunk Passion for Provence: 22 Keys to La Belle Vie and its author (moi) would make a French TV travel show? But here I am, after the shoot, with charming Nathalie Simon, (tallest blond), the presenter of Chroniques Méditerranéennes, the delightful crew, plus five of my Francophile friends on leafy Place Favier. This segment starring St. Rémy includes interviews with several locals; it’s slotted to air on 22 September 2019, 12:50, Canal France 3 (PACA).
It all started with a phone call that very nearly went unanswered–I didn’t recognize the number. Already behind schedule for a morning walk in the Alpilles, I had no time to chat to a stranger who’d dialed the wrong number or explain to a cell phone provider why I wanted to stay with my current service. But, before my brain connected with my hand, instinctively my index finger swiped my phone and I heard myself saying, “Allô, oui?”
It was a producer from a French TV travel show (France Canal 3) called Chroniques Méditerrannéennes with the presenter, Nathalie Simon, a former windsurfing champ. The Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (PACA) regional program would be doing a segment on St. Rémy soon, and she hoped to include me as the author of Passion for Provence: 22 Keys to La Belle Vie. Would it be possible to meet the following week to discuss it? she asked.
Flabbergasted, I nodded and bobbed my way through the conversation—all en français, unbelievably. The producer came to the house the next week, and the week after that she returned with the director and a logistics guy. On both occasions, I gave a highlights tour of my St. Rémy, giving nods to cafés where Ralph and I like to eat or have an apéro, favorite home décor and clothing boutiques, the expansive St. Rémy Presse (stocks Passion for Provence!), as well as special niches and events.
The producer gently reminded me to avoid talking about boutiques during the filming—the show would focus on history and heritage. But would I be so kind as to point them out to her? “Avec plaisir!” I answered.
Before the filming on 10 and 11 June, I beefed up on St. Rémy’s history and learned some fun facts to know and tell. For example, St. Rémy’s most famous native son, doctor/astrologer/would-be seer, Nostradamus, was born in 1503, in a simple house that was part of the city’s original ramparts. (It’s now a private residence.) His most popular book, The Prophecies, an attempt to predict the future, continues to be controversial to this day. The stately Hôtel de Ville (city hall) on Place Plessier was formerly an Augustine convent. The impressive Fountain of the Four Dolphins—modeled after a similar fountain in Aix en Provence—graced the convent garden.
In 1864 when the now chic Hôtel Gounod was a modest lodging and Charles Gounod was a guest, he wrote the opera, Mireille. It was inspired by a poem by Nobel Prize winner (1904), Frédéric Mistral, born in nearby Maillane.
The day of the filming I was fitted with a mic and given instructions on how the scene would unfold. Take One! I’m sitting on a bench pretending to write in my petit carnet (journal), while the presenter, Nathalie, peddles down a cobblestone street, parks her bike and walks over to greet me. “Bonjour, Gayle!” she says.
“Bonjour, Nathalie!” I respond. We are off to the races.
After the first scene, we moved to the Nostradamus Fountain. It was then the weather decided to stage a temper tantrum. With raindrops beginning to fall and the sun hiding, filming was not possible. We moved over to Place Favier to wait for improved conditions under the huge chestnut trees. The crew took a break, remaining upbeat, congenial and professional. Without missing a beat, the director quickly rewrote the script and explained the changes to me. I just hoped I could keep up with the revised conversation! Soon after my Francophile friends arrived for the planned “buddies” shot, we had a break in the drizzle and were able to finish the filming. We celebrated with a group photo, everyone much relieved Mother Nature allowed us to complete our small portion of the program.
I can honestly say, the shoot was an unforgettable experience. How can I forget what I struggle to remember? Much of it remains a blur–one big, beautiful blur!
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.
Hello Kitty, come back!
A pint-sized clown, and a petit princess pal around with Mickey.
A non-chalant tot shows off his cool chapeau.
Nothing like a vibrant mix of posies to say spring is here!
A playful flower arrangement adorns a village house in the historic center.
A planter of purple pansies greet visitors to the Tourist Office.
St. Rémy’s 2019 Carnaval celebration is now over. And so is the morning mountain bike race. It’s a warm, early spring Sunday afternoon. What to do? See those folks sitting on the terrasse? They know. À table, mes amis, and bon appétit!
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!
A “tinseled” lemon tree.
A cheery Christmas shirt.
Whadaya mean no treat for the photo shoot?
An evening scene feature azure palm trees.
Fun holiday flags adorn Palm Canyon Drive.
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.
An auto all aglow during the Festival of Lights Parade.
A happy gingerbread boy gets to stay up late for the parade.
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 taureauxdans 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 lestaureaux and tourists (and locals) alike take a breather and rest up for next season.