Aix en Provence – Marseilles, France Munich – Freising, Germany Dulles, USA
Cours Mirabeau, Aix’s mostly pedestrian friendly broadway with wide sidewalks and two rows of maturing plane trees was all mine before when I crossed it on foot to get the car. This walk - across a sun soaked, tourist-packed Cours and down the side of the movie theatre - I’ve made many times getting a car from the underground parking and driving it to the Hotel des Augustins. This dawn, I didn’t have to sweat the minor traffic infractions I have to commit each time to get from parking lot to hotel without having to drive around the whole town. Nor did I have to worry about flattening a tourist when backing into the Cours from one-way Rue de Masse. For downtown hotel guests, the gendarmes make exceptions for these infractions, and we were on our way out of town to the airport in Marseilles.
Saying good bye to the lovely hotel with its ancient stone arches, remnants of the historic monastery, we load the car and are on our way to the nearby Marseilles airport.
We hadn’t used enough gas to fill up on the way into Aix yesterday, but as we neared the airport, we had about three quarters of a tank left. No worry, we’d thoroughly checked out the gas station at the airport last time and confirmed it was open 24 hours and they take credit cards and cash. All true this time except now they only take domestic (French) credit cards and no cash. So we cringed and turned it in without filling it up, knowing they will charge us pretty much whatever they want to top it off for the next customer.
We had time to sit down and savor our last grand crème and croissant before taking off for Munich. When we arrived at the Lufthansa gate for the Brussels flight at the Munich airport, we heard an announcement that the flight was overbooked and they were looking for volunteers who could afford to get to Brussels on a later flight. We quickly volunteered, because we just wanted to get to Dulles and didn’t want to go to Brussels anyway. Because we already had Economy Plus seats for the trans Atlantic flight, we said we’d take Economy Plus or better seats from Munich to Dulles on United but not on Lufthansa since they do not have a Economy Plus class of service. We would only accept Business class seats on Lufthansa. This offer did not seem unreasonable to them and they began a frantic search with their fingers on the keyboard for a way to get us off the Brussels flight and on a flight to Dulles from Munich. The eventual offer was to wait 6 hours in Munich (ugh) for a flight to Dulles in Business Class (yippee) on Lufthansa. The nice Canadian Lufthansa desk agent arranged for our luggage to be put on the later flight and agreed that spending the mid day in the nearby town of Friesing would be a good idea.
She also gave us vouchers for 20 euros so we had a late breakfast of shrimp prepared six different ways from an Asian buffet style restaurant in the airport.
We found out at the information desk that a bus to Friesing leaves every 20 minutes from the front of the terminal at bus stop number six and that we could buy tickets from the driver. Within minutes of leaving the terminal we’re out in the lush green countryside in our big, air conditioned, Mercedes Benz bus passing farms, gladiola and sunflower pick-your-own meadows, a wide river, and rows of corn.
We’d done this years ago during a long layover in Munich, but after over three weeks in Italy and France, the sights and sounds of a small German town were a pretty abrupt culture shock. Friesing is a darling town with painted historic buildings, cobbled streets, and tons of geraniums in window boxes – but we’re definitely not in France anymore.
We walked all the way down one side of the main street then all the way back down the other side. We made an obligatory stop at a pastry shop for an apple strudel and cappuccino while we were thinking about what to have for lunch. We eventually found our way back to where the bus let us off and got back to the airport in plenty of time. There were signs at the airport directing us to the Lufthansa Business Lounge. We’d tried to get into a United Business Lounge on previous trips but were rebuffed because we are not members. But Anne tried Lufthansa anyway; they looked at our Business Class tickets and said of course we could use the Lounge. So we found a comfortable seat, grabbed a glass of champagne and some nibbles, watched a little Tour de France, and answered a few emails using their WIFI.
We boarded early and started getting acquainted with Lufthansa’s Business seats, compared to those of United. Lufthansa’s are much more human friendly with lie flat seats and a bigger personal movie screen. There are several pre-set positions for the seat where you push one button and the back moves, then the seat moves, then the leg and feet support moves. And after setting the seat at a custom setting, there’s a memory button to return the seat to that position after a meal. In addition to being comfortable the seats are lots of fun just to play with – Anne laughed as I moved up and down beside her, trying out the buttons. Also there’s personal storage space, a place for shoes, and a little privacy wing to put up if you don’t want your seatmate to see you drooling while you sleep. All this and good food and a wide wine selection, too. We couldn’t decide which of the four desserts we preferred, so our flight attendant suggested we have a little taste of all four. She delivered four small glasses with a mini-cone of passion fruit ice cream, a luscious dark chocolate mousse, fresh fruit, and a tart lime mousse with green tea on pineapple rice pudding.
We’re a little anxious to get back home to friends and work and to see what damage the three weeks of drought have done to our yard. But we’re a little more positive this time about spending time in Europe - not as tourists but as residents. The possibilities are not near term but are many and interesting and involve maintaining our valuable existing relationships by continuing to be residents of Virginia also.
The snack shop with the good-looking sacristans and coffee, turned out to be disappointing. The pastry was floppy like rubber and tasteless. We’re spoiled by the crisp, flaky, intensely tasty ones we get in Saint Remy. And the coffee was not even worth drinking – guess I’ll have to do what William, one of our Music and Markets guests does – only drink coffee in Italy.
With our laptop we found free WIFI in the Place du Forum - Anne posted the blog while I found some better coffee. Several Asian tour groups came and clicked hundreds of photos of the yellow awning featured in Van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night painted on this spot in September 1888.
We spent an enjoyable hour by the pool before checking out of the Hotel Jules Cesar. It’s a nice hotel, but I wouldn’t agree that it’s a luxury hotel. For first impressions, there’s no ramp up the front stairs from the street for rolling luggage. And the only way to get in is through a cramped revolving door – nearly impossible with two pieces of luggage. Also we couldn’t make our room dark because a missing window handle prevented us from closing the shutters. The service is attentive and friendly, the lobby is vast, and the view of the cloister garden from many rooms is a plus.
We waited until we got to Aix to eat lunch at Le Passage, a converted 19th century candy factory. Their slogan is “Le Gout de Plaisir” or the Taste of Pleasure. We both got the two course lunch that includes wine and coffee for 22 euro. In addition to an inventive and successful chef, Frank Dumont, the staff is very pleasant and engaging. I got a slice of smoked salmon rolled around crème of goat cheese like a cannelloni and Anne got a carpaccio of duck with walnut oil with a fluff of salad and shreds of parmigiano. These starters were followed by a filet of grondin (white fish) grilled with baked fennel and roast pork “melted in the fire" with polenta and mascarpone ( creamy and delicious - we'll have to try that at home). We were too hungry to take pictures of the dishes, but we highly recommend this place in downtown Aix.
All along the wide south sidewalk of the Cours Mirabeau were antique and brocante sellers. We ran into a couple from Houston visiting their daughter who is studying in Aix this summer. They’d just bought a nice pot a confit, an old glazed earthenware pot used to store goose meat in its own fat for preparing a goose confit.
We’d been anticipating attending the English service of the evangelical church that meets at 5:30 on Sunday nights since we were here last. They meet in the Reformed Christian Church across the street from the Hotel des Augustins on Rue de Masse. The church that owns the building and meets on Sunday mornings was founded in 1557. In May, 1561 John Calvin wrote this persecuted church an encouraging letter. The lively group that conducts the Sunday evening services also conducts camps for kids and outreaches to women and professional groups of English speakers and expats in Aix. They’re a multigenerational group whose leaders are Americans in their late 20s and early 30s. We met Suede Andersen there who’d just arrived from an evangelistic campaign in Albania. He told us about a daily vespers service at Saint John de Malta church where they just sing passages from the Psalms without comment. If we were staying in town another day, we’d like to check this out but that will have to wait for the next visit to Aix.
We strolled around the familiar streets of Aix then back to the hotel for the night. Of all the places in the world we’ve visited this is the town where we’d like to spend big blocks of time. It really suits us. We’ll just keep letting life unfold in front of us one day at a time, hoping we’ll be able to let it unfold right in Aix someday.
Today we have to leave the house ready for guests arriving this afternoon; so Anne washes the sheets and takes them to the laundry for drying, does the final cleaning of each room, and mops us out the door. This darling place does make us smile and it’s fun to hear from those who rent it how much they enjoy the village of Vias and La Belle Cour.
Just when we’re about to commit to the ramp to go north to the interstate to head east to Arles, we see a LOOOOONG back up of cars ahead, so we quickly decide to go west toward Beziers instead and catch the autoroute at the next exit west. Saturday is not only a big day for French tourists going to the beach for the day, but it is also the day for leaving a weekly rental from the previous week and for beginning a weekly rental for the next week; so the roads coming in and out of Vias are jammed at 11:30 am. Beziers is not at all a beach town so without any traffic, we quickly get on the A-9 heading east from there.
We’ve driven to Arles at least three times before but I didn’t really have the lay of the land enough to picture how to get to the places I remember going to before. I remembered the dots but wasn’t confident of how to connect them. First we had to find the Hotel Jules Cesar, which sounds rather imperial - and it does have a “Small Luxury Hotel” designation - and it’s right in the middle of the weekly outdoor market. The vendors are collapsing their tarps and stuffing them into their vans for a market somewhere else tomorrow. We explain to a traffic controller that we’re going to check in to the Hotel Jules Cesar and he lets us through the barriers to weave through the last remaining vendors.
The hotel is really marvelous former Carmelite convent complete with a cloister. Its spacious lobby is appointed with a blend of antique furnishings, large and small santons (Provençal figurines), and bright Provençal fabrics. And around the back, shielded by a giant arborvitae hedge, a refreshing swimming pool. The rooms are converted nuns’ cells with the original stone interior walls. It is right on the main drag and an easy walk to all the interesting points on the walking map we got from the hotel’s front desk.
We picked up sandwiches at a snack shop and made a mental note for breakfast tomorrow that they had pastries - even good looking sacristans with slivered almonds on top- AND a coffee machine - usually you find just one or the other. First stop is a short cooling swim and a relaxing sit by the pool.
Then we walk to Cathedral St. Trophime to see their celebrated 12th century cloister. It was not as pleasing as many other cloisters but it did have a second floor gallery to walk around. A bride and her entourage of photographers, wedding planners, lights, and the husband came in with us and took some photos for her wedding book.
In Place Republique, the main square outside the cathedral, a troupe of Provençal dancers in traditional costumes was engaging the passers-by, including them in some of the circle dances.
The dances were accompanied by two pipe players and two drummers. The effect of Frederick Mistral’s efforts to preserve and promote the Provençal language and culture can be felt in Arles much stronger than in other parts of Provence.
We walked to the ancient Roman theatre and the big oval Roman arena - much like the Coliseum in Rome, and then found the old site of the Roman forum. The forum site is made more famous as the scene Van Gogh painted in his almost ubiquitous “The Night Café” with the yellow awning. A statue of Frederick Mistral guards all the café tables and chairs covering the square in the summer.
Near the Place du Forum, Anne found a licorice gelato but when we sat down to enjoy it, she discovered it tasted awful. The proprietor proudly explained that this ice cream is made from the woody stems of the anise plant, not the fringy leafy part. It tasted weedy, grassy, and woody - the worst ever.
Downhill from the arena at the end of Rue La Cavaliere are two short round towers with an ancient gate between. Through this gate on the other side of Place Lamartine is the site of Van Gogh’s yellow house where he attempted to establish an enclave for impressionists.
We had dinner on the quiet terrace behind the little Jardin de Manon restaurant, recommended in our French Guide Routard as well as in Time Out, on Avenue Alyscamps. Near here is a double row of Roman sarcophagi which Van Gogh also made famous by painting.
On the way back to the hotel, we saw a bus full of Celtic-Latin band members with Celtic uniforms and instruments congregating on the sidewalk. We followed them across the street through the Jardin d’Ete, up the stairs, and down to the arena where they were to perform in what the billboards touted as a Celtic-Latin show. Those Celts really got around and spread the use of bagpipes and plaid kilts over much of Western Europe. We stood on the street by the arena at a spot where we could see the lights in the arena and performers coming out to the makeup and rehearsal trailers. When we got tired of that, we took a mostly pleasant downhill stroll back to the hotel.
The wall behind chairs for our dinning room table has been taking some hits over the last couple of years so we planned to set aside this whole day to find, purchase, and put up a chair rail moulding for the chairs to bump into. We’d already determined that the wall is brique, a 4 inch wide red clay hollow block which is being used lately for some wall construction. Our exterior walls are ancient and 2 foot thick stone, but some of our interior walls were built with brique as part of a recent renovation. It’s better than 2X4 wood stud construction and a different type of hardware is required to attach anything to it. I’ve learned that knowing what the wall is made of saves multiple trips to the hardware store. So with a tape measure, a dictionary, and a notepad upon which I’d jotted the length and several translated words like “molding” and “chair,” I took off for the new BricoMan in Villeneuve le Beziers. This place obviously took its design tips from Home Depot (or maybe vice-versa) and a helpful employee pointed me toward the “moulure.” I had to show the word to him on my notepad since no matter how far I stuck my lips out, he couldn’t understand what I was looking for. It came in several materials of 200 cm (69 inch) lengths. I took a rough finished oak piece, found the attaching hardware, and asked another helpful BricoMan employee what kind of apparatus I needed to attach this board to “brique”? He had a good snicker at my baby talk and pointed to a screw/molly combination and said, “That’s the best.” I was asking another question in the paint department and the only answer I got was “It’s time for lunch, we’re closing.” So I paid for all my stuff at the counter, said “bon appetite” to the nice lady and came home to put it up.
First I beveled each end, then sanded the rough spots and put two coats of white paint on it. Then I drilled three holes in the molding and got the height right and drilled the three holes in the wall. The drill bit went through the front face of the brique and into the hollow spot. I found I had to drill through the back face of the brique to get the molly to go in far enough. The big thing I learned is that I had to use a flashlight to find the interior hole and then hammer the molly into it or the whole principle of the molly wouldn’t work. It has to expand against the back hole, not the front hole. I got all the mollys inserted perfectly, put up the molding and tightened the three screws. If the molding is still on the wall when I get up tomorrow morning I will declare it a major victory.
After cleaning up the trail I’d left from the courtyard to the dining room, we went over to the Bruno’s at for aperitifs with cold Muscat de Rivesaltes. Alain pointed out a window sill on the front of the house that he said was from the 1600’s. He assured us that most of our house was built during that time also.
We had a late dinner of leftover gazpacho and couscous in the courtyard then got a good seat at L’Amandine in the center of town for the regular summer Friday night Bal Musette (dance). We ordered a drink and an ice cream and jumped right in spinning and dipping and twirling across the town square. If our friends Clay and Suzanne were here they could teach us some cool moves, but we were obviously faking it. Grape farmers from Vias’ surrounding farms got dressed up with their wives and made this a serious event. I don’t know when or where they learned to dance, but those couples moved together like they’ve been doing this for a lot of Fridays. The band (keyboard and accordion) also played some line dances that everyone but us knew – the town square was totally filled with dancers of all ages. The whole evening makes me wonder in how many other little villages all over France these regular multigenerational social gatherings are a normal part of summer life.
Afterwards we were walking through the town and heard fireworks from the beach, so we walked to where we thought we could see them. The amusement park (Europark) at ViasBeach does a professional fireworks show every Friday night in the summertime. We just stood there in the parking lot of the seniors’ center until the grand finale, enjoying the finale to our last night in Vias.
As the village of Eygaliers is rubbing its eyes and stretching awake, we park in front of the patisserie and walk up to its highest point, then on the way back, peek into the small and plain church. Yesterday, when we came through we couldn’t have parked in the village if we had wanted to, this morning it’s no problem. We got a regional specialty, sacristans, from the patisserie. They’re pastries about a foot long, twisted with almond paste. The best ones are topped with toasted sliced almonds. Two grand crèmes on the shady sidewalk tables of the bar next door go real good with the sacristans.
A smiling white haired gentleman walks with his cane up the sidewalk and sits down at the table next to ours. He shakes hands with one of the denizens at the bar and we can hear he’s an American. He tells us he’s Dudley; and for his wife’s 70th birthday, they rented an old farmhouse for a month and invited all the kids and grandkids to spend as much time as they could with them while they were there. At one time they had 19 people staying there. The French guy at the bar, he said, was the caretaker of the rental house. His wife was doing what we just did: buying pastries at the bakery and bringing them next door to the bar to enjoy with coffee. They were both very nice. They were a little weary from all the entertaining; Dudley said two weeks would have been a better length of time. I think they were eager to get back home.
We were eager to get back to La Bastide’s pool before checkout time. It’s really an unostentatiously comfortable place. The name suggests it was a farm that was at one time fortified for defensive purposes but it has long since lost any military feel. It's full of inviting spots to relax and enjoy.
After we’ve had enough sun and swimming, we enjoy a delicious lunch on the terrace,
then drive off through the plane tree allees (one of our favorite sights in the south of France, and this area has some of the most extensive) toward the Cathedral des Images at Le Baux.
Each year the 30 foot high cubes left under the mountain by bauxite miners are covered with images from strategically placed projectors, using the massive white walls as projection screens.
This year’s theme is visions of Venice with Vivaldi music and much bigger than life photographs and videos of gondolas, shimmering water, interiors and exteriors of villas, frescoes, a carnival at La Fenice by night.
We join the mostly French tourists who are unhurriedly taking in the music and images.
As we head south past Le Baux's ruined mountain top castle, we’re hoping to avoid the Tour de France bikers racing through Mausanne. But as we approach, there are cars on both sides of the street.We don’t make a U-turn until we see hoards of people in the street craning their necks looking westward. So back we go 4 kilometers to Le Baux. As we were passing through Le Baux this time we see the Tour de France helicopter circling the ruined castle for one of those shots designed to show viewers some of the countryside the racers are winding through. I think the top of our car was on international television. When we get a chance to watch the daily Tour coverage, we always hope for more helicopter shots - love to see the countryside.
We get to the highway to the Languedoc by going up to Tarrascon and Beaucaire. A quick stop at a supermarket in Nimes for supplies for dinner tonight with Tony and Carole and we’re heading for Vias.
The courtyard floor is still a little sticky after over 36 hours of uninterrupted drying and we’re having guests in an hour. I quickly start thinning the stickiest spots with mineral spirits and that helps. We'll just tell Tony and Carole not to stand in one place very long or they might not be able to move when it’s time to go. Anne made us an awesome appetizer of dates, parmesan, and walnuts to go with a sparkling mango sangria. We had some perfectly crunchy gazpacho before walking to L’Amandine for our main course, then back to La Belle Cour for a berry crème fraiche napoleon extravaganza. Tony and Carole's daughter, Mirada, who lives in our next-door studio popped in for a bite before going out. We got more ideas from them later about some improvements to the charm-starved studio that will make it more desirable to renters.
We chatted on the cool breezy courtyard till midnight.
I got up early enough to seal the entire courtyard with linseed oil – one tile at a time – with a 2 inch paintbrush. Anne goes out the door then I paint myself out the door so that while we’re gone to Provence it will dry without anyone stepping on it. An hour later we decide to pull in to the Nimes airport to see if they have a car with air conditioning they will trade for the one we have without. A half-hour later we’re driving out with a brand new Ford Fusion with 3 kilometers on it and air conditioning. This little side trip made us a half hour late for our reservation at Le Bistro du Paradou, my absolute favorite restaurant in the world – we called and they assured us that our table would be waiting. At 12:30 PM we find a few people sitting at tables under the plane trees out front but since we’re already a half hour late, we go right in to our regular marble topped bistro table and find we’re the first ones there. Nobody actually comes in until 12:45, so I guess we’ve learned that next time we’ll sit out front like everyone else, and wait until the proper time, then come in so we won’t feel out of place. These tiny cultural clues are easy to miss and easy to forget but when we find ourselves all alone; it’s usually because we’ve missed one and we’re just doing what comes naturally for a person steeped in American culture. Today they’re serving provençal grilled aubergine (eggplant) with a dollop of rich tomato conserve, then rabbit with rosemary and fresh pasta with tomatoes and garlic. The cheese plate is next with about ten choices (we especially liked the Saint Marcellin), then dessert, then coffee. The price has gone up to 42 euros but by 1:15 every table is taken and I don’t see anybody complaining. There are no extras for cover charge or water or wine so our bill is as simple as the rest of the experience: 84 euros. Sure that’s a lot for two lunches but we’ve been coming here for nine years now and we just love it; besides this is another of Anne’s birthday presents to me so what do I care what it costs, right? We seem to be one of the few guests today who are not being treated by chef Jean Louis as long time buddies or relatives – he comes in from the kitchen to sit at tables of friends several times during our lunch.
Here are some observations about this place that I wrote down while we were there: Unpretentious and unassuming… no subtle sigh from a sommelier who knows you’ve ordered the wrong wine for the main course. They’ve already decided what wine goes with the only main course being served and there’s an open bottle of it on the table when you sit down. There are so many stories here; some made up, others more obvious, of multigenerational tables, of obese tourists in tennis shoes, white socks, and shorts. Of natural redheads, of blondes from other parts of Europe, of people who fork with the left hand and of people who fork with the right. This is a man’s place made famous by a man with a man’s colors, a man’s pace, and furnishings and framed artwork definitely chosen by a man. An informal daily meeting of the local men’s club happens at the far end of the bar and men’s conversations dominate the din. Of the eight employees, only three are women and they stay back in the kitchen. Jean Louis greets his friends with 3 kisses and shakes hands with strangers. Often he pulls up a chair at a table full of friends or family and joins their celebration.
We’re the first to leave and we wind our way through the Alpilles and the Le Baux region through rocky passes and miles of silvery green olive trees. They’re the source of the oil that has been awarded the title of best in the world. We’ve often brought some home for our own use or for gifts.
We check in at La Bastide outside Eygalieres. It’s an old stone estate (a bastide is a fortified farmhouse) with a regal entry way with stairs and decorative wrought iron banisters going left and right. Anne is thrilled to find a French Erard piano in the lobby and plays a bit of Beethoven.
The Bastide has a lovely pool and we took full advantage of it.
Our cool white room, looking out on the jagged Alpilles beyond the garden and pool, has a slanting 12 to 15 foot ceiling with pale blue beams holding up the roof - tres provençal!
In the late evening we drove a short distance to Saint Remy to walk around a bit. We’ve been there frequently when the weekly market was in full swing and now it feels like an entirely different town. Whole squares with wall to wall booths and tarps are now adorned only with the beautiful doors, clock towers, and carved facades that are so difficult to appreciate during the chaos of the market.
We were drawn to Gousse d’Ail by their live music and had a really light dinner on the terrace canopied with leaves. Kids at an adjacent table quickly ate so they could hang out inside amid the restaurant's huge collection of early 1950s carnival rides and children’s toys. The keyboardist and chanteuse (female singer) were enjoyable. They sang French, Italian, and English songs while we ate. Then what a pleasure to return to the lovely bastide and our cool room for the night.
Stopped at a patisserie near our hotel for breakfast-to-go then went back to Vieux Nice (old town) to the coffee roasting shop we found last night. The matron said we wouldn’t bother her if we ate our pastries in her coffee shop. We picked up a bag of fresh roasted coffee from Cuba and walked through the colorful Cours Saleya market. After picking up a car at the train station, we headed west and before long got off the autoroute at Mougins. We’d heard from good friends Ed and Sandy that the town was interesting and worth a stop. We stopped at the first restaurant we saw, apologized for not making a reservation and asked if they might have a table for us. “Of course,” the proprietor said, “I can give you a very nice table.” We got the last of the four best tables by the picture windows with views over the sea and little gated communities below. The upper crust Sunday lunch crowd started arriving soon with the collars on their pink polo shirts flipped up in the back. Four ladies way past a certain age took the table beside us. Each brought her well behaved dog; and each dog spent the meal under the table at his owner’s feet. One of the ladies ordered a bottle of bubbly water for the table and a pitcher of water from the tap for “les betes” (the beasts).
La Terrasse is definitely a step above our usual fare, but since everybody had to order off the special 3 course Sunday menu, we quickly got used to the attentive service and uncommonly good food. After an amuse bouche (chef’s welcome gift) of vegetable chutney, Anne got a millefeuille of faiselle of goatcheese (like a creamy ricotta) with sundried tomatoes and tender fevettes (baby lima beans). Kirk had a dish of shrimp with olives and pesto. Then Anne enjoyed a confit of lamb with beignets of zucchini flowers while Kirk had the fish of the day, a whole haddock with swiss chard and a dollop of tapenade. And finally, Anne had a strawberry rhubarb napoleon with verveine (verbena) ice cream; Kirk had orange soufflé atop a spiral of chocolate with mandarin ice cream. We certainly love Italian food, but I think French food agrees with our systems better. It sure sounds more glamorous and the tastes are more evolved. We took a quick walk around the snail-shaped hilltop village admiring the bougainvillea covered cliff-side homes. We saw all the other restaurants in the charming town, were glad weé made the choice we had - such good prices for delicious food and view-then went back to the expressway.
After Nimes, knowing the grocery stores would be closed in Vias on Sunday night, we stopped at a rest stop and got basic supplies at the gas station including milk, bread, a rosé and a couple of nice carry-out salads. What a country! As we get closer to Vias the temperature drops, and it’s a cool 25 C at 6:45 PM. It’s exactly 400 kilometers (248 miles) from the Nice train station. We unload and go across the lane to surprise the Brunos. They’re all three there for dinner -Mamie, Alain, and Annie- who asked me if I got my birthday card. I told her it’s in Virginia but I’m here, so I’ll have to wait until I get home to see it. Multiple kisses for everybody, then we spend a couple of hours pruning the wayward bougainvillea and lavender and sweeping bird droppings from our terra cotta courtyard floor. The windows were left open upstairs so everything has a layer of grit on it. Anne unpacks, puts a load of sheets in the washer, changes the bed, and before we know it, we’ve got the place in good enough shape to eat dinner in the courtyard.
Monday, 16 July 2007 Vias, France More greeting of neighbors as we do some errands. Kassem’s internet shop is expanding with more stations and two new employees. We chill on the beach and take a long walk, then stop at the supermarket for more supplies. It’s almost manic at Hyper-U – the isles are packed like Italian streets during passegiata and it’s hard to concentrate on what we need and to remember where it is in this giant grocery store. A new development since we were here in April. Picard Surgeles opened a stand alone shop adjacent to the Agde Hyper-U. Here are scores of freezers filled with their own brand of prepared foods including perfect soufflés, casseroles, and ratatouilles as well as ice creams and other frozen desserts. Doesn’t sound like serious French food? It is and after a few minutes in the microwave, we have high quality, good tasting dinners without buying all the ingredients and dirtying lots of pans. We prefer picking up fresh ingredients for hearty salads at the open air market, but for short timers who’d rather not stock enough spices and other things to make a nice dinner, Picard is a good place to get a reasonable priced meal in a box for a treat in our own courtyard - or even in the States! Several years ago, when Anne was in Paris for a long weekend, she brought home a Picard frozen French dinner and a bottle of wine from the airport and had a delicious French dinner waiting for me when I got home from work that night. In the evening we knock on the studio door and meet Miranda, our just-out- of -highschool tenant who’s working at a Vias Plage (beach) trailer camping site as a receptionist this summer. Her parents are our friends, Tony and Carole, who are British and she spent last summer as a nanny in Connecticut. So she’s very valuable to her current employers for greeting new English speaking guests and handling their complaints. We’ve put together a list of things we need Yannick, our fix-it man to take a look at. He said he’ll come for a visit tomorrow, so we can get started on some repairs then.
Tuesday, 17 July 2007 Vias, France Yannick comes and gets the water heater going again and shows us how to avoid having clothes sit in standing water in the washer when they’re finished washing; and as we’re brainstorming about securing the door to the studio, we come up with a good solution that he will implement when he gets a new lock. We need a way to keep the door partially open for air circulation while maintaining security. We devised a plan to put multiple locking positions on the sliding glass door so Miranda can keep it open a couple of inches but no one can get in. More beach time, more Hyper-U time – today it’s much calmer. We’re having chicken couscous with our neighbors in the courtyard tonight so Anne got a pine nut tart for dessert. Afterwards we walked to the center and made a reservation with Olivier and Evelyne at L’Amandine for dinner Thursday night with Tony and Carole. We’d heard about but never seen the Tuesday night artisan market in the palm lined square in front of the Town Hall. There were about ten tables set up with crafts and a team of magicians providing laughs and wonder for the children. Since we’ll be gone most of the day tomorrow and Thursday, I get the courtyard floor prepared for its annual linseed oil treatment, then treat the two balconies and stairs.
Friday, 14 July 2007 La Spezia, Italy – Nice, France
We found the place to return the car we picked up last week in Salerno. We got there just as the sole Hertz employee was opening the shop at 9 AM. I was impressed the little office had several matted and framed original Hertz advertisements from early 1950’s magazines. The people’s faces are gleaming with what appear now to be plastic smiles while the copy touts the novel concept of flying somewhere and renting a car at the destination airport. You could arrange everything just by using your telephone to contact your nearest agent. Cuba was listed among the countries where you could take advantage of this world-changing idea. These ads reminded me what a really good an idea the rental car business was at the time – and now with the added convenience of scheduling 3 cars in two countries over these three weeks using a rental car broker’s website – we can see we’ve come a long way in the last 50 years. So now we have to walk a couple of kilometers back to “My Hotel” – no problem on this beautiful summer morning. Anne had read that in Italy, we should be on the look-out for a new ice cream bar, and we spotted a sidewalk stand-up sign advertising the new Perugino Nero coffee ice cream on a stick. The dark bittersweet chocolate covers and overpowers the espresso flavored ice cream. Now that was worth a stop. All along the walk the street trees are orange trees pollarded square and brimming with bright, ripe oranges. For my second birthday present, Anne got me a couple of really cool Italian fountain pens. I really like using them at meetings at work, but I might as well just give them away on the first day, they’ll end up in someone else’s desk drawer within a couple of weeks anyway. But they’ll last at least a little longer than the ice cream bar and I’ll enjoy the memory of the walk through La Spezia, with its colorful facades, to our hotel from the Hertz shop through them while they last. We checked out of “My Hotel” then went searching for the central market where, nearby, we’d read in the Slow Food book, there was a restaurant named Al’Inferno. We strolled through the fish section, the meat section and finally found it on the corner of Via Costa and the market square, only to discover it wouldn’t open for another half-hour. So we strolled down one block, then another. The open door of the church of Santa Maria Assunta was our invitation to go inside. Anne spied a della Robbia (she’s always on the lookout for these) ceramic of the assumption of Mary. Though there was a mass in progress, she snapped a quick photo without a flash so we wouldn’t forget its gorgeous detail. In the below-ground restaurant, we were seated by the man we believe was the fourth generation proprietor. Our waiter, who dashed in with us when the hosteria opened, tells us what’s cooking today with several choices for each course. Anne got one last plate of pesto on pasta – this time tagliatelli – and, because of the crunch from the pignoli, the best she’d had on this trip; and I chose the house specialty, mesciua (which we’d never heard of) a soup of ceci, faro, and fagioli (chick peas, spelt, and white beans). We shared a plate of sliced roast pork before heading for the train to France - I'm flashing 55 as I come out the jasmine-surrounded doorway. The first leg to Genoa is cool and comfortable but the tunnels and bridges are like traveling on a dotted line. Dot, dash, dot, dash… the dashes are pitch black tunnels through the mountains whose fingers dip into the sea while the dots are brilliant little villages. Many are memory-packed. We jump through all five of the Cinque Terra – we walked from the first one to the last one in a mere 8 hours in 1999, then through Chiavari where we stopped once and asked someone where there was a good place to eat in town. The person said there were none. And Zoagli with its tiny beach so close to the railway viaduct that it seems we could jump in. Santa Margherita Ligure where we stayed in a delightful little place where we slept amid scents of roses and jasmine. Here we listened to a local band concert on the seaside promenade while sipping a delicious thick hot chocolate. Then Camogli, where dinner was all seafood from the waters below. We awaken from our reverie in Genoa where in sight of the train station, a brick castle stands out against the bluest sky. The train to Nice is not so comfortable and not as cool as before; AND things slow down considerably. We have several stops of more than 15 minutes but we pass more towns with memories. We photo Ventimiglia through the train’s windows and take several shots of places where there’s nothing below the train tracks but the Mediterranean Sea.
Arriving in Nice about an hour late, we're just in
time for the birthday (France and Kirk’s) fireworks. We find a front row seat on the boardwalk over a restaurant on the beach and the fireworks are blasting off from a ship in the harbor. Very cool celebration! What a country! We trek to old town which is still hopping at 10:30 and find a sidewalk table at Le Resto on the corner of Rue Rossetti and Rue Benoit Bonizo. It’s right on a main pedestrian throughway and the people-watching is rich. Three guys who’ve been doing too much Bastille Day celebrating sit down at the table beside Anne and catch everyone’s eye. They drank a coffee, tried unsuccessfully to roll and light a cigarette and moved on. Several men let me know with a glance that if they bothered Anne, they’d join me in ejecting them. The waiter was diplomatic rather than confrontational and French diplomacy proved, once more, more effective than what this American had in mind. We were able, with the help of our map to find our way back to our hotel just as my birthday was ending.
Friday, 13 July 2007 Monte San Savino – Florence – La Spezia, Portovenere, Italy
We make an early airport run to Florence and wish Gerri and Betty safety on their way back to San Francisco. Then we point our car westward toward the Mediterranean and the coastal town of La Spezia in the Liguria region.
We always enjoy the miles and miles of nurseries with flowering ornamental perennials planted row upon row for sale in the retail market. Then a turn north brings several marble cutters into view. Each has a 20 foot overhead apparatus that can pick up a giant cube of marble for cutting into 2 inch slabs and stacking them like books on a library shelf to fill orders. Off in the distance we can see Carrara and the mountain range from which the chunks of marble have been extracted – including the piece from which Michelangelo liberated the statue of David. We dropped off our luggage at the sleek and modern “My Hotel” on the edge of a cliff overlooking the old town of La Spezia. From the lobby, 5 floors down the elevator, we emerge into a bustling city scene - first sight is laundry fluttering high above the typically colorful houses of the region – we’re not in Tuscany anymore! Walking parallel to the harbor, we find the local dive, Antica Osteria de Gianni, that’s been serving the needs of fishermen for over 100 years. We expected better, but got fair food at a fair price. Anne decides on Lunigiana testarollo, pesto on a different kind of pasta – one inch squares of whole wheat crepe. I also got a different kind of pasta – bucatini – long like spaghetti but with a long hole inside- covered with a tomato sauce. We checked our maps and decided to venture out to the end of another peninsula while we still had the car, to the little seaside village of Portovenere. We found a new place we’d like to go back to. Lots of colorful tall houses stacked side by side.
And upon entering the old town from the port, every curve in a lane opens up a new photo-op.
From above a lane, a terracotta mini-Mary calmly looks down on strollers.
A beautifully restored door hides secrets within.
There are lots of people, but everyone seems good natured, with not many non-Italian tourists.
We found a foccacia baker and bought an onion one and a unique sweet mini foccacia sandwich with fresh strawberries and dark chocolate.
The shops and shopkeepers are interesting, offering homemade pasta, pesto, and local crafts.
A glimpse of deep blue sea beckons down a steep vaulted stairway. There was even a comedic street theatre in the little piazza by the three towers. Portovenere is only about 11 kilometers from La Spezia but in a different world. The kind of world that makes you start planning a longer return trip. Back in La Spezia we’re on a hunt for trofie - little twists of chewy pasta served locally with cubes of potato and skinny green beans in a fragrant pesto. We find it on a menu at La Tavernetta. We followed the delicious pasta with a whole grilled orata and a fritto misto – all surprisingly good. On our walk back to “My Hotel” we have to slow down to conform to the passegiatta which is in full swing – at 10:30 pm! Many stores and even two museums that were closed when we walked by this way to dinner are now open and very busy. It seems the latest style for the 20 something girls is a cool strap summer top with short skirt and cowboy boots. Maybe it’s been around a while and we just missed it; but I don’t think it’s a trend we’ll be jumping on.
Today is our whirlwind tour of Florence. Even though the driving is all on the autostrada, the countryside gets greener and more typically Tuscan as we go north. We begin to see huge palazzos belonging to formerly wealthy Florentines as we leave the rural areas and near suburban Florence. It’s so nice to know where to park and how to get there since we meticulously wrote it down last time. Making a wrong turn in Florence can sentence us to a one-way inferno from which it will take many tickets to emerge. We’ve gotten bills from car rental agencies for tickets issued when traffic cameras in urban areas caught us inadvertently driving where we were not supposed to – and didn’t want to! After trading our auto for more appropriate Florentine mode of transportation – our walking shoes – we let them take us to the Santa Maria Novella shop for lotions and potions. A new wing for displaying the ancient implements of helping people look younger than they are is open. One of the items displayed seems incongruent but very interesting: a bound set of Leonardo’s notebooks. Most of the originals are in Milan, but about a quarter of them are in the library of the University of Washington. There’s also a tiny chapel turned into a book store. The books are about making perfume out of flowers, the fresco cycle on the ceiling features scenes from the life of Christ. The monk’s shop offering potions at Monte Oliveto Maggiore yesterday is a mere roadside stand compared to this gourmet food boutique – a pharmacy office formerly operated by the nuns in the convent connected with the church of Santa Maria Novella. More walking through the outdoor market of San Lorenzo to the Mercato Centrale (this is part of the "Markets" we provide in Music and Markets) where we sample some excellent sun-dried tomatoes and meet with Daniele Conti. He’s quick to tell us he’s opening a branch of his high-end fresh vegetables/olive oil/balsamic vinegar/wine shop in San Francisco this fall. He also offers a tasting of balsamic vinegar ranging from 15 to 25 years old and another tasting of several types of olive oil for the education of our palates. They have a new brand of flavored balsamics (they taste nothing like vinegar at this level, so I’m avoiding calling them vinegars) including cherry, coffee, fig. We can imagine drizzling some of these on ice cream. Betty imagines her son’s reaction to the offer of vinegar on ice cream as, "Mom, you’ve been in Italy too long." Maybe so, but they do enjoy using simple quality ingredients to make delightfully tasty and satisfying meals. We wind down narrow sidewalks, avoiding mo-peds, buses, taxis, and tour groups to the east side of town to the Teatro del Sale. Here the famous Cibreo tradition continues but across the street with a fun twist. In a converted theatre, happy cooks prepare, then present dish after dish on a table where diners gather and fill their plates buffet style. Each new offering is shouted out from the kitchen and described with pride and sometimes a warning to be careful the serving dish is hot. The stuffiness of serious food in a serious restaurant is modified just a tad to be serious food in a totally entertaining environment. Here are SOME of the dishes on the buffet table: Pappa al pomodoro – puree of tomato, basil and bread drizzled in EVOO Spiedini (skewer) of chicken and sausage, and roasted potatoes – sizzling from the open wood fire Panzanella (a delicious bread, tomato, onion, and cucumber salad) Stuffed eggplant Sformatone (a soufflé – like casserole) of zucchini Crispy thin strips of foccacia drizzled with more EVOO Foot long dog bones of bread for the kids to enjoy Bite-sized diamond shaped flourless chocolate cakes dusted with powdered sugar Casks of red and white wine by the spigot Photos are not allowed, (we did get one of the kitchen before being reprimanded) else we’d have spent more time taking pictures than eating. Then we toured the church at Santa Croce where some of the Renaissance luminaries such as Dante, Galileo, Michelangelo and Alberti are buried. Michelangelo designed his own tomb and even designated where it should be in the church – by the front doors so that on resurrection day, the first thing he’d see would be the dome of Florence’s cathedral. Outside in the bright sunshine, an art class tries to capture history on canvas. On the way to the Piazza Signore, a smart leather jacket reached out and grabbed Gerri. We sat on comfy red leather chairs while she was showed every jacket in the store – and some from the store next door – by a most helpful and friendly attendant. Through Florence’s main piazza admiring the copy of David to the Ponte Vecchio for a glimpse of the Ponte Trinita considered by some to be the most beautiful bridge in the world, we finally reached the Duomo and the statue of its designer and builder, Filippo Brunelleschi, stopping for a "We came, we shopped, we conquered" shot. Two more stops on the way to the car included one at the Santa Trinita church to see the Ghirlandaio Nativity scene and the church at Ognissanti for the dueling saints – Girolamo by Ghirlandaio and Agostino by Botticelli. We only saw about 1 percent, if that, of the world-class art in Florence, but ready to call it a day, we turned south to Monte San Savino for dinner at La Terrace, owned by the brother of Manuela who owns the hotel where we’re staying. At our last meal with our guests on the Tuscan Extension to the Amalfi Coast Music Festival tour, we enjoyed tortelloni with pumpkin cream sauce, another composée of appetizers and pork slices with apple and prune sauce, and a sformatone of cauliflower. It was really fun to introduce so many new places and things to all our guests these two weeks, but we consider it a special privilege to introduce a whole new world of curiosities, food, architecture, landscape, smells, and flavors to Betty, a first time international traveler.
Slip into the window seat in our aisle and join us on our search for a symphony of views, flavors, culture, sounds, and friends. We'll let you know when we hear the harmony we seek - whether in a WOW classical concert, an awesome night of jazz, a magical vineyard or olive farm, or an outstanding bistro, trattoria, wine, garden, or experience. From our delightful maison de village near a Languedoc beach* to a canal-side string ensemble in Amsterdam, you'll read and feel like a real local.
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The best way to describe us (Kirk and Anne Woodyard) is that we're interested in the stories that make the places we visit come alive. We've visited Europe more times than we can count, learned some entertaining stories there, and met some warm and helpful people who also enjoy the wonders of music and life in Europe. Between our music-related travels, we split our time between our homes near Washington DC and in the the south of France.
We look forward to sharing these stories and friends and experiences with you.
While both of us have experience in organizing travel and music groups Kirk's background is in project management and competitive writing, and Anne is an accomplished pianist with over thirty years of teaching experience, and a travel and food writer specializing in France and Italy.