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Prayers and Plagues

Prayers and Plagues

As we’ve guided our guests through the beautiful town of Aix en Provence for the past 17 years, we’ve pointed out the many niches,

filled with Madonnas and saints, on corners of buildings, explaining that “in medieval times these comforting icons were installed during the plague so that the quarantined residents, unable to attend mass,  could instead pray to these figures that they could see from their windows”.

Did we ever imagine that, once again, the world would be confined to their homes as we are today? France is currently on a 15-day lockdown in a bid to halt the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
We can see the cathedral bell tower from Ambiance d’Aix, our home in Aix en Provence – do you think that would “count” as a prayer niche?!

One of the things we love about our French home is the sound of those church bells. On Wednesday last week church bells rang out throughout France for 10 minutes, beginning at 7:30 pm, as an act of solidarity and hope, and people were encouraged to light candles in their windows at the same time.
In secularized France, I wonder if many now look out their windows to the Madonnas and pray?

Even if not, those peaceful Mother and Child statues

seem to bless the lively squares below (can you spy the figure on the corner?).

I think of this one as the market Madonna.

A rare snow draped the shoulders of this one a few years ago.

Just around the corner from our home is this unusual Black Madonna,

on the corner of  “scrape your elbows” lane – a cobbled path so narrow you have to hold your arms against your body as you walk through.
Pray we will, that this virus will soon be conquered,

and the calm Madonnas can smile down on busy-once-again squares!

Learning to Love Burgundy’s Complexities – One Step at a Time

Learning to Love Burgundy’s Complexities – One Step at a Time

Over the last decade or so, I’ve gotten a pretty good grasp of the wine growing regions of France and Italy. I can stare at the wine labels at a wine shop reminiscing about meeting wine-makers and walking among the vines – then leave the shop with an old familiar friend.  And though we’ve visited Burgundy vineyards before, I’m not familiar enough with this complex region to even explain it to a third grader. So we’re back in Burgundy again today, staying in Beaune and visiting all the major villages in Burgundy’s Côte de Beaune sub-region. It’s not too hard to do in one day because the farthest one away, Santenay, is only 10 miles south of Beaune. In addition to improving our knowledge and appreciation for the wines of Burgundy, we also had our eyes open to the beauty of daily life on a January day in the country.First stop was actually a little to the north of Beaune. The obsolete moat bed still surrounds one of the castles in Savigny-lès-Beaune. The owner’s collection of fighter jets is a bit of a shocker.

Peaceful morning among the endless miles of vines. It’s the time of year for trimming all of the fall’s post-harvest growth back to just the trunk and in some cases, just a single whip for next fall’s clusters to grow on. Some of the vineyards were dotted with workers pruning and burning the extraneous branches.
Mobile bottler comes to the barn door, fills empty bottles with wine pumped from the vats, IMG_9977 (video)  corks them and delivers pallets full of unlabeled bottles back to the winemaker. All the winemaker has to do is label and box them for delivery to the wine shops. Could you pick up six full bottles at a time?

The near constant mist and cloudiness turns the tops of the 1,000 year old stone walls into an ecosystem for all sorts of mosses and succulents.This Meursault wine retailer lists on his window, the names of the individual winemakers from the sub-region that are available in his shop. I’d would take quite a while to get acquainted with the 80+ producers just in this shop.Some of the best architecture was in Meursault.Backyard of Meursault’s City Château. Could have been a watchtower on a now disappeared wall; now just another outbuilding.Another architectural feature along Meursault’s old city wall.Finally, we compared four of France’s finest whites – Montrachet from the tiny village of Chassagne-Montrachet. Each the same vintage -2017 – from a different parcel within yards of the tasting room. Each was distinctly different. We liked the second bottle from the right the most. Fresh with bright minerality.The first bottle on the right, the Champs Gan, was from this plot-maybe 10 acres total.Last stop, the southernmost village, Santenay. This sign points to the farms and producers (called Climats here but terroirs elsewhere) that can use the name Santenay on their labels.On the way home we passed through Volnay, happy to have moved the needle a bit on the dial of our understanding of the people and place that produce this prized wine.

Villages and Vines in the Languedoc

Villages and Vines in the Languedoc

Interested in a Music and Markets Tour? We’d love to hear from you!  How about an unforgettable holiday with us at  New Years’ Jazz in Italy?

Our to-do list for La Belle Cour our village house near the Mediterranean in the Languedoc (recently re-named Occitanie), is never-ending – but sometimes you’ve just got to take a break and enjoy the surrounding beauty! So after a morning meeting with the water company in the village, we’re off to the arriere-pays – the lesser-known inland villages, hills and valleys of the region. From the heights of Béziers, the closest city, 30 minutes inland from Vias, our gaze encompasses vineyards, the Canal du Midi, villages and winding roads blanketing the plain to the Montagne Noir in the distance. Cazouls-les-Béziers, our first stop, is one of the many places that include the big city in their name. It’s a quiet village (we don’t see a soul as we walk around!) set in the middle of vineyards, with a pretty church, St. Saturnin.
Scents of  the garrigue – scrub covering the uncultivated hills – wild rosemary, thyme, and other aromatic herbs – waft into the car (we’ve rented a convertible for this trip – perfect weather to ride al fresco!) as we slowly meander the narrowest roads we can find, traversing vineyards, vines heavy with grapes ready for harvest.
Puisserguier is our next stop, a circulade (walled circular village) with abundant flowers throughout.
We’ve noticed several of these delightful murals in Beziers and surrounding villages – wonderful trompe l’oeil details that make you want to walk right in!
The Languedoc cross flies over the chateau, dating from the 1200s,  atop the village. We’re invited to pause for a tour, but decide to wander the rest of the village and continue on to St. Chinian, a respected wine town where we sample a few local tipples, and come away with a few bottles for our cave in Aix. The harvest is in full swing around here, and nearly everyone is out in the vineyards. Chateau La Dournie, on the edge of town, has been woman-owned and operated for six generations, and Mme. Etienne (whose daughter is the current winemaker) is kind enough to take time away from her post in the office to show us the winery, fragrant with crushed grapes. Whites and reds await the magic of the winemaker – sweet to the taste, right off the vine. Dropping a light down into a vat, she shows us the grapes beginning to bubble and ferment – on their way to becoming a valued wine.
We’ll definitely want to try one of their vintages when we return to Vias!
Last stop today is Murviel-les-Béziers, another circular village surrounded by ramparts. The elegant Chateau de Mus sits atop the town, with expansive views. Intricately carved portals, doors and mullioned windows are a testament to the importance of the town in centuries past. Today, it quietly surveys the acres of vineyards carpeting the valley of the Orb River.
We’ve had just a sampling of the many villages and views awaiting exploration in the quieter interior of our area of Occitanie – and we look forward to discovering more!

 

A Marseille Celebration

A Marseille Celebration

14 juillet – Bastille Day, 2018
Marseille, France

Interested in a Music and Markets Tour? We’d love to hear from you!  How about an unforgettable holiday with us at  New Years’ Jazz in Italy?

“Where can we see some great Bastille Day fireworks near Aix?” we asked our in-the-know French friends…and Marseille was the top reply – now we know why! In addition to festive fun (Kirk’s birthday happens to be the same day as France’s National Holiday, you may remember!) we were looking forward to an air conditioned respite from the oppressive heat, and a swimming pool thrown in for good measure! Right on the historic Vieux Port, the Radisson Blu was a perfect choice – with a fabulous view from our 4th floor windows! Although we were tempted to stay in the marvelously cool room (you don’t know how much you miss air conditioning until you live without it for a while!), we decided to relax poolside instead – cooled with a refreshing dip and breezes as we basked in the sun, the 17th century Fort St. Nicolas looming beyond. Since Marseille is such a big city, I always imagined it as hotter than Aix – but no, it’s seaside location tempers the heat nicely – it’s bearable to stroll around near the water, unlike on those 89 degree afternoons in Aix. Enjoying the beautiful architecture as we seek out a restaurant for an early (for France, that is – around 8) dinner, we find many well-recommended spots right near the Vieux Port, and request an outdoor table at L’Oliveraie, on restaurant-lined Place aux Huiles. Jazz from the restaurant next-door entertains us as we relish a delicious dinner under the olive trees – we do recommend this place!
Police and Emergency Medical Teams are setting up all around the Vieux Port in preparation for the fireworks at 10, and early arrivers are claiming their spots chosen for the best view. After a sunset stroll along the water, we head up to our room, waiting for the show. Just after ten, the streetlights surrounding the port turn off, music booms from the speakers, and here we go! 16 pontoons are lined up down the middle,

and flare in unison with beautiful firework displays, while to our left, above Fort St. Nicolas, more fireworks fill the sky – what a show! Happy Birthday Kirk!
The celebrations  continue on Sunday – France is in the World Cup! But the day starts quietly, with a walk around the port (check out the mermaids!)  after the delicious buffet breakfast at the Radisson Blu.
You’ve heard of Savon de Marseille, I’m sure – now available worldwide, and one of the most popular booths at any south of France market – well why not buy fragrant olive oil soap right here in Marseille, IN the Vieux Port?One more delicious Marseille meal – fresh seafood -with-a-view at Caravelle – thanks, Corey of French La Vie for the recommendation!
Then under the so-cool reflective canopy we walk, snap a photo of ourselves, metro to the station, and bus back to Aix with revelers ready to watch the big game – yes, Les Bleus are World Champions again! Last time was 1998, and we were in Paris for that unforgettable revelry. Aix celebrates more calmly, we’re glad to say 🙂
What fun this second-largest city of France, Marseille, has been – we’ll be back!

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!

 

 

 

Melodies in the Vines

Melodies in the Vines

September 20-23, 2017
The Final Orpheus and Bacchus Festival
Gensac, France

Interested in a Music and Markets Tour? We’d love to hear from you!  How about an unforgettable holiday with us at  New Years’ Jazz in Italy?

Nestled in the prime vineyards of the Bordeaux region, Orpheus and Bacchus, a unique musical experience, presented its final festival this fall. We met the visionary founder, Ian Christians, in 2003, and have had the pleasure of joining him in the beautiful setting of La Musique for these matchless events several times since then. Once again the marvelous Wihan Quartet (whose artistry we enjoyed last year at the festival and also at Taunton Castle Hotel in England) delighted us and our Music and Markets guests in the intimate setting of La Musique each evening, but Ian did not join us for his much-loved festival. He let us know in the spring that he was suffering from cancer, and hoped to be here, but that was not to be. Shortly after we arrived we talked with his lovely wife Sharon and found that he had just passed on – a week ago. Sharon welcomed us all with an aperitif before the first concert, and shared that this last festival would be in honor of Ian, and would be filled with many of his favorite pieces, then returned to the UK. I pause as I write, thinking of all that she and Ian’s son, Alex, and their friends did to make this festival a magnificent success, truly worthy of Ian. Alex, a lawyer in London, was the chef for the many superb meals we enjoyed, in addition to organizing all of the details to enable the festival to proceed. Yes, a busy lawyer from London took time away from his practice and his family and created the best meals we’ve ever had at Orpheus and Bacchus – what a gift for his father!
Each morning our breakfast was followed with a concert featuring outstanding young musicians, such as pianist Ben Comeau and cellist William-Clark Maxwell. Where else can you sit on comfortable sofas, relaxing as you’re surrounded with marvelous music?!One of Ian’s passions was encouraging and supporting many of these talented young performers, often by including them in the programs of the festival.
Hilltop chateaus such as Monbazillac, and enticing villages, such as St. Emilion,  filled our afternoons. The closest hamlet to the Orpheus and Bacchus property is Gensac – we walked through the quiet lanes after picking up a delayed suitcase for one of our clients. The airline-arranged delivery person couldn’t find our hidden-in-the-vines estate, so left it at the sole pharmacy in town for us 😉
St. Emilion is our favorite village in the area. Crowned by a majestic church that rises out of the rock, It’s steep lanes (the steepest are called tertres, only in St. Emilion) are lined with enticing boutiques – many filled with wine, of course! To complete a delicious lunch at Les Bistrot des Vignobles we introduced our guests to my favorite dessert – Café Gourmand  – and they continued to order it, when available, throughout the trip – can you blame them?!
The town was as full as we’ve ever seen it – the closest parking spot was a mile away! But the walk to get there (Kirk and I walked to pick up the car) took us by some autumn charmers. For yet one more view, we drove uphill from our usual parking spot on the edge of town to an overlook near the renowned Ausone vineyards. Don’t miss St. Emilion if you’re in the area!
After another evening of fabulous music – Hummel, Janacek and Bruckner,  the performers joined us for dinner, as they did each night. What a pleasure to hear their thoughts on the music, and appreciate their chance to relax and listen themselves as we all enjoyed some more music in a more casual ambiance. Alessandro Commellato, who played the Hummel piano concerto, was eager to try out the Pleyel duo-clave, a rare double piano with a keyboard on both ends, so a few guys pulled it out and got it ready. Remember when I played a tune with another pianist on this intriguing instrument last year? When we finally went to bed, we fell asleep with more beautiful music drifting down from upstairs.
Saturday was the final day of the final festival (and happened to be my birthday as well!), and the young performer’s concert was scheduled for the afternoon so those who wanted to could go to the market town of St. Foy la Grande. Driving through the mist hovering over the vineyards,  we parked by the river, then walked to the market stalls – feeling more mysterious than usual in the fog. Oh if we only had more room in our suitcase – so many delicious specialties of the region. My favorite booth is the one with foie-gras stuffed dried figs – somehow they taste better than when I make them at home! The town itself is well worth a wander, with its arcaded central square and many half-timbered houses. Follow the Vanilla Vendor around as he calls out his wares and you’ll see a nice lane or two.
We had time for a quick stop at Monbazillac before returning to La Musique, and after posing in front of the vineyard surrounded chateau (above) we took in the glorious views and sampled the sweet wine (excellent with dessert or foie gras). A simple inn in the town served a nice lunch in the garden, and I was pleasantly surprised with a couple of thoughtful and beautiful birthday gifts from our guests – I’m putting on golden tassel earrings here.Back to the loft of La Musique for more music – where we’re absolutely blown away by young Ben’s artistry at the piano – spanning the centuries from Bach to Beethoven, Chopin to Irving Berlin. I’ve never heard anyone improvise as he does – from medieval tunes to jazz standards. Amazing! And then someone called out for Nigel, who emceed the festival in Ian’s absence, to sing – and Ben accompanied him as he serenaded us with “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.”
Yet more delights awaited us on this final day – Alex invited us to Ian’s legendary cellar for a tasting! An uninvited guest caused a few gasps, until Monsieur Bat settled down and hung from the stone vaults above. From ’95 to ’05 we sampled Chateau du Moulin from St. Emilion – which year was the best? Schubert, Dvorak and Beethoven delighted our ears one last time, and then Alex pulled out all the stops for a grand feast – including decanting a massive Saint Emilion Grand Cru. The bottle was then passed from table to table for all to sign – voila! Alex was gifted with a basket full of Southwest France treats – just the thing for this lawyer-chef! And as dessert, créme brulée, came out, I was serenaded by the room and presented with a super-size birthday brulée – what a surprise! What a day it’s been – filled with a marvelous market, a chateau, presents in the garden, music galore, and a musical serenade. Can any birthday top this one?!?
The joy and delight of these four days were a constant tribute to Ian Christians, founder of Orpheus and Bacchus – we’ll always treasure the times we’ve spent here through the years, and be thankful for the opportunity we’ve had to know him and share such wonderful music with him.