Friends and Family in Aix en Provence

Friends and Family in Aix en Provence

Thanksgiving Week, 2017
Aix en Provence, France

Interested in a Music and Markets Tour? We’d love to hear from you!
We’re looking ahead to Spring – Aix en Provence for the Easter Festival.

What’s first on the Aix to-do list when we arrive? Flowers, of course! And what a glorious morning we have for our first market foray! The usual produce, flowers, clothes and textiles fill stalls, and the annual Santon Fair is set up beyond the grand Rotonde fountain at the end of Cours Mirabeau – every imaginable figure for your creche scene.Most of the week we’re walking around familiar lanes, but for a couple of days we rent a car to see friends further afield. After a near-freezing morning, we’re off to La Ciotat, where we’re surprised to see hardy souls braving the water – from stand-up paddlers beyond the waves, to swimmers and sunbathers. Our friends Jean-Marc and Kristin (author of one of our favorite blogs, French Word a Day) have recently moved here from a few miles away, and after that chilly start to the day, it’s turned out to be perfect for a garden lunch. Kirk channels Van Gogh in one of Kristin’s hats, and we while away the hours together in the sunshine.After stopping for some big box store supplies outside of Aix while we have the car, we take a side road home and pull off to take in a glorious sunset.One more day with a car, and we’ve invited new friends Jim and Brenda to see more of the area – the lush and varied Luberon north of Aix calls us today, beginning with ochre-toned Roussillon, always a favorite.Rewinding south towards Bonnieux, we pause at Pont Julien, a hearty Roman relic that survived when new bridges perished in floods over the centuries.
Just down the road is bonnie Bonnieux, where we pause for a look across the rooftops and the lower church – to the valley beyond. A few elegant doorways from centuries ago attest to the former wealth of the village, popular again since Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence. Pulling away towards Lourmarin, we’re grabbed with the sight of the village tumbling down its hill, framed in glorious autumn colors – wow!Between Bonnieux and Lourmarin we stop for a half kilometer hike down a path beside an old mill trace to a stone bridge built by the pre-Luther Protestants called Vaudois. They left Italy where they were known as Waldensians and where they developed considerable skill as stone masons. This low, short bridge over the insignificant Aigue Brun stream has as an anchor on the right, a stone concave fan. Those Vaudois cut and laid those stones with such skill that the bridge still stands after about 500 years.
Last stop, chic Lourmarin, with its eye-catching chateau. The guys pause for a coffee while Brenda and I peek in the shops.
Mt. St. Victoire greets us in the sunset as we approach Aix, where a surprise awaits us. Our friend Xavier told us to call him when we got back since he had something to bring us. He’s a collector of contemporary art, but has saved for us a piece from his parent’s estate that he gave to them years ago – of a place he knows we enjoy. Venice! We’ve been looking for something for this corner – how nice to have a piece with a personal connection!
Friends and family make life so delightful….the family arrives tomorrow!




Upstairs and Down in Aix

Upstairs and Down in Aix

Week of  January 16-22, 2017, continued
Aix en Provence, France

Interested in a Music and Markets Tour? We’d love to hear from you!
We’re looking ahead to Spring – Aix en Provence for the Easter Festival.

One of Kirk’s favorite things to do in Aix is visit the vintage and consignment stores – he loves the hunt! Some decades-old wines and yet one more Cezanne book are his finds this time….early Valentine’s Day gifts!
Last night it was Lola, the adorable French bulldog belonging to our neighbors across the street, who came up the stairs for a visit. Today it’s Noelle, who came for coffee with Barbara, whom we “met” online through Kristin. After Kristin posted a photo of us when she and JM were over for lunch a couple of days ago, Barbara, her long-time friend, wanted to know where in Aix we were – so we invited her for coffee! Great ideas and hints flowed back and forth…we’ve now signed up for Scott’s Cheap Flights, and after hearing about the deals Kirk found at Oca Deco (that wine and book!) Barbara wanted to know where it was – “let’s go!” we said! And they both bought a few bottles more.
On the way back home – “Want to join us for our “clean out the frig” lunch?” was our next question – so the fun continued as we put together a yummy meal from all we couldn’t take with us on the train to Paris tomorrow! Kirk had some things to place down in the “cave” – our ancient storage place under the building, so downstairs the three of them went. That rosé from Jean-Marc will stay nice and cool til we’re ready to drink it next summer! Afternoon errands are a foodie’s delight….first find the best dessert to take to Xavier’s for dinner tonight, then select some Provençal cheeses to take to Paris for dinner tomorrow (well-shrink-wrapped so that we don’t scent the entire train!). Up the 90-plus stairs to Xavier’s rooftop apartment, and we’re well-rewarded with a feast of truffled eggs – Brouillade. Xavier made this for us a couple of years ago – I think it may have been the first thing made in our newly-renovated kitchen! “Don’t let a morsel go to waste!” we all urge – and Xavier happily complies. We take the long way home, savoring every last minute in Aix…

Hunting for treasure in the south of France

Hunting for treasure in the south of France

Saturday, January 23, 2010
Aix and Isle-sur-la-Sorgue

Interested in a Music and Markets Tour? We’d love to hear from you!

Our hunts today will take us from the colorful markets of Aix to the remote countryside of the Luberon.
Passing through the Place d’Hôtel de Ville we enjoy the sight of masses of sunny mimosa, a reminder that spring is not far away.
We know just the right merchant to fulfill our first search: my favorite tablecloth booth is close to the Palais des Justice, and this time I’ve remembered to bring our table measurements. It doesn’t take long to choose a lovely linen cloth to take home.
Around 11 Xavier and Gloria pick us up to drive to pursue our next treasure – we’re going truffle hunting in the Luberon countryside about an hour north of Aix.
We’re scheduled to meet the hunter in the afternoon, and have left early enough to have lunch in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, a former mill town with several charming waterwheels remaining, now a renowned antiques center.

Nearly all of our previous visits have been on summer Sundays, the main antique and market day, as part of our Music and Markets Provence tour, and it’s quite different to see the town empty of booths.
The historic Café de France, where we always stop for breakfast, is usually hidden behind a flower sellers booth.
And I didn’t even realize there were arcaded lanes around the main square since they, too, have been hidden behind market stalls.

Lunch is at a Bouchon, a typical restaurant of Lyon, where Xavier and Gloria have eaten previously.
Kirk surprises me by ordering andouillette, a sausage that he tried years ago, and said he was not going to order again, since it was “too close to the barnyard” for him.
He says this one is better, but he really won’t order it again. He’s braver than I am!

We walk around the town, sometimes called the Venice of the Vaucluse (this area of Provence) and admire the little bridges and water wheels around town.
On the edge of the village, where the Sorgue widens, a fanciful holiday decoration still floats in the water.
Then we’re on our way to the hunt, driving out of town to meet our guide, Geo of Truffles of the Luberon, and other treasure seekers. We rendezvous at a roadside picnic area, meet and greet, and get back in our cars to follow Geo down a backroad out into the country.
There are about ten of us, all French except for Kirk, Gloria, and me.
Geo tells us about the fragrant black truffles of the area, prized by restauranteurs and foodies, and his two dogs,
one an Australian shepherd, and the other, who’s just starting to learn the skills of the hunt, a Corsican hound.
The dogs bound off to sniff below the scrub oaks, and soon are scratching at the ground.

Geo hurries over as Beirut begins scratching in earnest, and pulls the dog away as he carefully explores the area with his pick.
It’s a big one!

And the reward?
Lots of affirmation and cuddles for Beirut…

But he does want something more concrete, and sniffs Geo’s pockets. He knows what’s in there! And soon gets his treat.

Geo passes the truffle around – aah – imagine it generously

grated over pasta, or risotto, or tucked under the skin of a roasting chicken.
I’m getting hungry…

What fun it is to tramp around the countryside, enjoying the views and the fresh air.
Across the valley is the pretty village of Saumanes,
tucked up against the cliffs.
One of the ladies, who knows the area well, tells us it’s worth a visit, with a charming square and church.
There are so many beautiful places to explore in France – we could never run out of discoveries!
Another intriguing feature of the Luberon is the old stone shepherd huts, bories, that dot the countryside.
No one knows how old they are, how long they’ve been here, and it’s always a bit like finding another treasure when we spot one.

We all head back to our cars and drive to Geo’s home, where he empties his pockets of today’s “catch” and weighs the truffles. It’s rather a slim haul today, as it has been this season, due to an extremely dry summer. For truffles to grow, there has to be enough rain from June to September, and this year there was almost none.
Back in Aix, we pack our bags to head to Paris tomorrow….where we’ll arrive just in time for the Bonjour Paris gathering at Karen Fawcett’s apartment.
We can’t leave without one more stroll down fountain-
lined Cours Mirabeau,
where the mossy fountain, fed by a thermal spring, steams into the cool night air.

A little further down is the low fountain, designed for the flocks of sheep to take a sip as they passed through town long ago for the tranhumance, when livestock was moved from mountain to plain a couple of times a year.
I’ll be back next week, but Kirk flies home on Monday, so we say au revoir together to evening on the Cours.

Tuscan Footsteps

Tuscan Footsteps

January 2, 2009
Monte San Savino, Cortona, Pienza Italy

Because Jacqueline really identified with the movie version of Under the Tuscan Sun and saw it several times, she was very interested in seeing Bramasole, the home of the book’s author, Francis Mayes, in nearby Cortona.
We took my mother to see Bramasole in 2002 so we knew how to find it but the last time we were here, we couldn’t get manage to retrace our route to it.
In hopes we could figure something out this time, we descended Monte San Savino’s east-side hill and crossed the expressway in the valley and up to the west-facing hills crowned by Cortona.
We were surprised that although there are plenty of parking lots for the summer tourists, they were all filled – even in the dead of winter. We finally grabbed one and began the long steep climb from the tall stone gate to the piazza in the center of town, peeking up and down steep cobbled steps as we went.
We walked down to the edge of the smaller piazza in front of the little church and looked off the edge at the olive farms, vineyards and little villages to the north. Just across the piazza Jacqueline also got a long look at the the famous “Annunciation” by Fra Angelico in the little Museo Diocesano.
We all met for a bathroom break at a bar where we got directions to Bramasole. The bartender said the way we took in 2002 is now mostly pedestrianized so we had to go around the town the opposite direction.

I kept the car running while Anne and Jacqueline ran and snapped a couple of quick photos of the exterior

that looks to me like raspberry and apricot sherbet stirred lightly together.

We used the GPS to get us to lunch in Monticchiello in another valley, the magic Val d’Orcia the site of many battles for Tuscan preeminence first between competing noblemen and finally between Siena and Florence. Other hilltop strongholds turned into towns in the Val d’Orcia have names like Montalcino, Rocca d’Orcia, Radicofani, and Castiglion d’Orcia – high points in a battlefield where resisters could fight their last stand. But we’re here to eat! And to eat at one of our favorite restaurants on earth – La Porta where Daria greets and seats us like family. I was able to show her an email on my cell phone we just received from Ed and Sandy reminding us to give Daria a hug from them. Daria said, “Well, don’t forget!” and gave me another hug for Ed and Sandy. I don’t know how this works but now I get to pass her hug on to Ed and Sandy. How did I get in the middle of this?
I had a plate of sliced Cinta Senese ham with melted pecorino cheese and truffles (we’re getting more chances than ever to enjoy the season’s bounty of truffles this year) to start.

Anne and Jacqueline both had cubes of polenta on melted pecorino with mushrooms. We enjoyed this with sips of the best wine of the trip, a just released 2003 Brunello di Montalcino.
For first courses we had farro risotto with vino nobile and cornmeal gnocchi with pecorino. Then for secondi, I had two fried eggs with sliced truffles,
Anne had a rack of lamb (which she could only eat a bite or two – the first courses were so good she just had to eat every bite!) , and Jacqueline a plate of sliced pecorino with honey. We finished lunch off with two digestivi, one made of verbena, and the other of pear and pomegranate. Daria included a bottle of the latter as a gift. We’ll be proudly sharing it with friends after dinner in Virginia soon.
Long after the medieval battles in this valley, it again became the site of unbelievable hardship, suffering, and even the worst kind of cruelty during the occupation of the Nazis during World War II. One of the sad but triumphant stories is captured on a plaque just outside La Porta in Monticchiello. As we were walking up to read it an old man in a green Ape coasted downhill past us then turned around and drove back uphill when he saw we were reading the memorial plaque. He said he was one of the young partisans whose photos are on an adjacent plaque who secretly resisted the Nazis by sabotaging their efforts and sending valuable military information to the Allies. He asked us where we were from and when we told him the USA, he said, “Those guys helped us beat the Nazis!” Then this hero’s eyes teared up as he remembered, saying “Those were brutal times.” He tried to explain with his hands where he was on the day memorialized on the plaque and where the Nazis were and how it happened. He seemed so happy to be living now in this peaceful valley. When we asked, he said his name is (ironically) Adolfo. We were very happy that he turned his little truck around and are truly privileged to have met a real live hero of the resistance.
Then we wandered over to a fabric shop to see pillowcases and hand towels crafted from beautiful local materials. Letizia Capelleti has run this shop for 60 years. Now her son mans the counter while she charms the visitors.

From the terrace outside the village walls, we spied what looked like a ski run on Monte Amiata.

Next stop, Pienza – gleaming against the sunset across the valley.

In Pienza’s beautiful Renaissance square, there are a couple of huge yule logs burning. It’s difficult to walk by without stopping to warm up our hands.

After the requisite shop in a pecorino cheese boutique (Pienza’s prized local specialty), where the smell is almost overpowering, we pile in the car to return to Monte San Savino.
Jacqueline visited the antique shop again, and the owner took her to a musty dark storeroom so she could see his hundreds of old doors – all in need of restoration.
For dinner today we walk through the huge stone gate of Monte San Savino to Ristorante La Terrasse. Kirk picked a particular wine as a surprise for Jacqueline – Bramasole! It’s a very good syrah from an Antinori vineyard in Cortona.
La Terrasse is owned and managed by a relative of our hotel’s owner, and is well worth a visit – we’ll remember to include it on future trips. Anne’s appetizer, a pear pecorino and truffle tart, brought ooh’s and aah’s and rolled eyes – a worth-the-trip treat!
Kirk’s Extravanza del Chef was a full two plates-full (one hot and one cold) of local delicacies.
Wandering back to our hotel, we thought of taking a post-dinner walk around the town, but lazily fell into bed instead.