Still here…

No, we haven’t dropped off the face of the earth, just been busy having fun with guests. Suzan and Mike have left, and we are now enjoying ourselves with our neice, Samantha. The  weather is beautiful, and we are filling our days with visiting, eating, and enjoying! I am taking notes, so I hope that I’ll get back to blogging when things slow down a bit – hang in there!

After Samantha leaves, we’ll have one more week to wind down, then we return home on May 3. Stay tuned…

Fun and food!

We are having so much fun with Suzan and Mike! We are going to the market in town daily, including all of our favorite boulangeries, bouchers, fromageries, and legumes et fruits vendors, and loving eating the resulting booty! We’ve had a couple of absolutely fabulous lunches out as well, about which I’ll elaborate herein.

Our first lunch out was at a little restaurant called Le Rendezvous. It’s set back away from the port, so doesn’t need to charge inflated prices, and it’s owned/run by a lovely young couple. He is the chef and she is everything else! They always have some very simple traditional French fare along with some unique inventions of the chef. For example, the day we were there, I had a tomato tart tatin with goat cheese ice cream (yes, I said ice cream) and a little glass of gazpacho with a cappuccino-like foam on top! It was awesome! The tart was tomatoes and caramelized onions on a delicious, buttery crust, the goat cheese ice cream was a complete surprise in terms of its yumminess (a bit sweet, but with that unmistakeable tang of goat cheese), and it melted beautifully on the tart! The gazpacho was delicious as well! I definitely got the prize for lunch! The other dishes were: mini ravioli stuffed with cheese and drenched in a cream sauce with mushrooms and something green, then topped with cheese and baked in the oven until all melty and good; and a pair of little “packets” made of something like spring roll wrappers, filled with potato, ham, and cheese, and baked until all crispy and good. Nobody was disappointed, that’s for sure. Here they are:

Clockwise from bottom: ravioli, cheesy packets, ravioli again, and tomato tatin

Well, you can see for yourself that it was really something to behold, not to mention consume!! Just exquisite!

I’d love to stick around and tell you more about what we’ve been doing together, but it’s time to go put together another delicious meal and  then eat it! I’ll try to write again before too long…

À bientôt!

More friends coming!!

We’re off to Béziers to pick up our friends Suzan and Mike! It’s a three hour ride, so we’re going to make a day of it and stop in Montpellier enroute for lunch and a poke around. Looking forward to it, and can’t wait to share our fun here with Suzan and Mike!! Stay tuned!

Happy Easter!

Happy Easter, everyone! We are experiencing another windy episode here in Bandol, but the citizenry is undaunted! Here are some photos of the square in front of the church this morning. Enjoy!

Life in Provence

We’ve really been enjoying the warmer temperatures around here. Consistently in the mid to upper 60s, sometimes even breaking 70, and lots of sun! Actually, it hasn’t rained since we’ve been here! Well, except for a couple of days ago, when we had a full day of steady, gentle rain – all day! I was actually glad to get it, as it is so very needed!

Mostly, however, the sun shines, and life in this village, and I’d say throughout this area of France, is really geared to being outdoors. You’ve got the outdoor cafés where people sit and sip a coffee, or a glass of wine, or whatever, and you’ve got the outdoor markets, both big and small, that are a daily or weekly occurrence; there are the many shops, both food and other, which are open and have a portion of their business on the sidewalk or pedestrian area, and the fact that people do their shopping and other errands on foot! It all makes for a lively village!

Then there’s the boules, or pétanque, which is the variation in these parts. This is the familiar game where a small ball is thrown and then the larger balls are thrown to try to land closest to the small one. Horshoes with balls, if you will. Every village has their pétanque “court” (not sure what it’s called), and ours is a large, gravelled area just along the port. It is busy every afternoon! I didn’t check the day it rained, but wouldn’t have been surprised to see the stalwarts out there playing anyway. Nothing seems to stop them, and it’s great fun, on a nice, sunny day, to park on a bench and watch one of the games. There are usually five or six different games going on any given afternoon.

Then there are all the special activities on the port. Every Tuesday is our big market here in Bandol, which covers the port with stalls from which people sell everything from clothes to kitchen needs, to fabric, things made out of olive wood, shoes, you name it! There’s even a stall that is like the “dollar store” (it’s a euro store, everything one euro!). Oh yes, and food – whatever you want or think you might want, it’s there!

Additionally, every weekend, or at least every Sunday, there’s something special on the port. This weekend it’s a big pottery market, part of a two-week pottery event in the village that includes workshops, demonstrations, and I’m not sure what all else, but I aim to find out! Last Sunday was a flea market, and that seems to be a pretty regular occurrence, as there’s another one later in the month as well. I see that there’s also a big plant market scheduled for next Sunday. So, special events every weekend! All outdoors.

And every restaurant has a terrace. Every one! Lunch seems to be pretty universally eaten outdoors, but it’s still too chilly in the evenings for all except the smokers to sit out. And they often eat in, but sneak out periodically for a smoke. So glad that’s not a part of our lives any more!!!

Yesterday, we took advantage of the lovely weather and went to the little island just a stone’s throw from here (8 minutes by ferry!) called Bendor. It was developed by Paul Ricard, an artist who envisioned a sort of artists’ colony and tourist attraction, and he did a fantastic job of it! Here’s a clip from their website listing all the attractions:

Ile de Bendor
3 hotels (Le Delos***, Le Palais, Les Petites Villas)
5 restaurants (Le Delos, La Terrasse, Le Delos Plage, Le Soukana Plage and Restaurant Le Grand Large)
La Marina, the smallest port on the Cote d’Azur
Museum of Wines and spitituous liquors (EUVS)
Museum of Ricard Advertising Objects
Gift shops
Artists’ workshops
Exhibitions and Art Gallery
Sports activities: tennis, swimming pool, water sports, hiking…

Unfortunately, it’s still early in the season, and it was pretty deserted; on the other hand, the good part is that it was pretty deserted, and we didn’t have to compete with throngs of tourists! We thoroughly enjoyed a stroll around the island, which is built and planted beautifully, and includes various sculptures throughout. None of the shops or workshops or galleries was open or even set up (just empty rooms), but we were happy to simply take in the natural beauty and views. Our resident photographer has captured some of it for your viewing pleasure!

The Roman legacy

On Thursday we ventured into a part of Provence that has extensive, well-preserved Roman ruins. Well, ruins isn’t really the right word – let’s say, rather, Roman structures. These things are still very much there!

The area in question is west of Avignon, and the countryside is entirely different from what we’ve grown accustomed to here – it’s rural and flat, and pretty much agricultural. Lots of fruit trees in bloom (gorgeous!), and fields of radiant, glowing green (in a good way!).

Our first destination is called the Pont du Gard – a Roman aquaduct that spans the Gardon River. This is the 2nd tallest extant Roman structure (after the colusseum in Rome) at 160 ft. high! It is truly awe-inspiring! And even more so when you consider that it was built 2,000 years ago!! It totally boggles my mind (doesn’t take much). I’ve included a few photos, but you should really go to the website for more extensive information and professional photos: http://www.pontdugard.fr/en. Here are our photos:

Approaching the bridge

A sidelong view showing the three levels

At the top, looking up to the canal that carried the water (not the door, the very top)

Along with the actual aquaduct, our admission included the absolutely fantastic, fascinating museum, which we had to tear ourselves away from so that we could go see the aquaduct. We definitely need to go back – it’s extremely well done, and we both learned a lot!! Those Romans were really something else! But most of you probably already knew that…

The site itself attracts lots of tourists – we encountered more Americans here than we have in all the time we’ve been in France! One large group of young were part of an exchange program from Chicago; we also met a Canadian from Nova Scotia who now lives in France. The whole site is in fact a giant park, with places to swim, boat, picnic, walk, and climb, as well as the educational aspect. Definitely merits another trip – in fact, we bought a year’s pass, as it was 18€ to park, for up to five people, and we know we want to return at least once. A year’s pass is only 24€, so it’s a good deal for us. Plus, I like supporting the site.

Speaking of the Visitors’ Center/Museum (well, I was a second ago!), Roy wanted me to include the following photo, which is a maintenance worker cleaning a trash can with a toothbrush!! Yup, you read it right! See?

See the toothbrush?

 After exhausting ourselves walking all over the site and across the bridge and back, we headed to our car to find the hotel we’d booked in Uzès. This is actually the place where the aquaduct began, but our real mission here was to have a quiet, picturesque town to stay in and visit, and then to go on to Nîmes the next day for more Roman wizardry.

Our hotel in Uzès was a gorgeously restored house an easy stroll from the main square of the town. Here’s the square:

 As you can see from this photo, Uzès was not crowded or busy! Actually, it was disappointingly empty. Although there were plenty of pretty neat shops open, I wasn’t really in the mood to shop, so that held little charm for me. I did, however, want to sit outside at a café and have a beer or something, but the one that looked appealing didn’t sell alcohol! Are we still in France? Are you kidding me? No alcohol? I’d never heard of such a thing!!! So that was foiled as well. 

 We did walk all around the town, and got some nice views of its famous towers. And we did get a great view of the valley showing the early signs of spring. See for yourself:

Uzes

 

Uzes

Uzes

 

Spring is on the way...

 From Uzès, the next morning, we headed to Nîmes, site of the best-preserved Roman arena in the world, along with some other really fine Roman structures. Also the destination of all that water delivered by the aquaduct. Here’s a fun fact to know and tell: did you know that it is also the origin of our blue jeans? That’s where denim gets its name: de Nîmes.  And that’s one of the reasons they needed all that water – for the dying operation.So now you know!

Anyway, we wanted to see the arena, and the Maison Carrée, and the garden (the first public garden in France – built in the mid-1700s). We definitely got what we came for!

The arena was spectacular! It is huge (24,000 seats) and still used today (we’ll take a pass on the bullfights, thanks). We did get to see a demo of gladiators that was being presented to a school group, however:

The arena

It's huge!

 

"Gladiators" talking to schoolchildren

 

Let the games begin!!

 After our time in the arena, we headed over to the Maison Carrée, a beautifully preserved temple, and then on to the gardens. By the time we walked to the gardens we were pretty much done, and hungry, so we didn’t venture far in, but enjoyed the splendid setting, at least. A little early in Spring for much to be in bloom anyway, we rationalized. Here are the temple and the gardens:

Maison Carree

 

The gardens

 At this point, we were ready to find a simple lunch, have some ice cream (yes, the warm weather does bring that out in us!), and head back to Bandol. We’d seen what we came for, and more. We’ll definitely revisit some of it. And we loved it all!

 

A little culture!

On Friday night there was a free concert in the theatre that’s in the basement of the building where the Library is housed. I’d discovered back when we first got here to Bandol, while Kathy and Ron were here, that there’s a Music School here in town, and I’ve kept my eyes and ears open for some performances or activities related to that fact. Well, here was the first.

This concert was billed as a spring concert, and it was to be by the faculty of the School of Music. I’d asked around town, and learned that it would be free – can’t beat that!! Roy and I were concerned about getting seats, so we showed up about 45 minutes early – as it turned out, WAY too early, but at least we got to wait inside, in the vestibule (it gets chilly at night!), and watch all the performers arrive and greet each other.

We were finally allowed into the theatre 10 to 15 minutes before the concert was supposed to begin at 9:00. We got perfect seats! It’s a really nice theatre, seating perhaps 750 or so people, according to Roy’s estimation. Comfy chairs, too!

The hall filled up, and the performers finally came on stage a few minutes after nine. About 8 winds and brass of various sorts, a pianist, percussion, and bass guitar. One gentleman acted as the Master of Ceremonies, announcing the pieces before they played – probably the head of the school. It was informal, in a lovely, “let’s all enjoy doing this together” kind of a way, that also managed to avoid seeming disorganized. It was pretty clear that everyone in the audience knew at least one of the performers (well, except for us…).

The first piece was the theme from Rocky, and next was a movement from Mozart’s symphony #40, arranged for band. It was pretty darned good! And then the large group left, and the night proceeded with various permutations and combinations of performers playing a couple of pieces. Four hand piano, violin, cornet, classical guitar and piano, classical guitar and flute, xylophone, something martial and patriotic with percussion and brass, an esemble, including bongos, playing Dizzy Gilespie’s “Night in Tunisia,” etc. Before each performance the MC (who also played, let’s see, trumpet, various percussion instruments, and even conducted at the end!) would introduce the performers and their pieces. It was a phenominal concert!

The highlight of the night, for me, was at the end, when a young lady came out and sang a couple of Édith Piaf songs – she brought down the house!! She was totally awesome! The evening ended with her singing one last song, with English lyrics, which I didn’t know, but upon further investigation I’ve discovered that it’s called “It’s raining men!” Again, she brought the house down! Phenominal!!!

This concert lasted an hour and 45 minutes – it was free, really fun and good, and very well-attended. Understand that Bandol is a small, one-horse town (had you ever heard of it before we came here?). What a wonderful thing that they are able to have and support an event like this for all to enjoy. We were lucky to find out about it and to have the chance to attend!

Sunday afternoon is the concert (also free) of the local community orchestra! Count us in!!!

A side trip

We have a few weeks before our next guests arrive, and decided to do some more extensive poking about in the region. We looked at a map and decided that Avignon would be a good place to stay for a couple of nights and explore. We’d been there with friends, very briefly, more than ten years ago, but it felt like it had been a mad dash, and we wanted to just park the car, stay in a hotel for a couple of nights, and get to know the town a little.

We found a little hotel, well-located, and highly recommended by Trip Advisor and Rick Steves, and pretty inexpensive. We were able to make reservations by phone, even though the booking.com website said that they didn’t have space available.  The hotel is on a pedestrian street, so we’d have to park the car in a public garage and then walk to the hotel. Not a problem, and glad to have the car out of the way! It turns out that we really got lucky, as the hotel proprieters take 4 months off during the “low” season every year, and they’d just come back after that leave in time for our trip!

Avignon is about two hours away, and the weather was supposed to be sunny and warm, so we took a picnic lunch with us to eat enroute. You know, baguette, cheese, charcouterie, fruit…how bad can that be??? In fact, it was wonderful –  we stopped enroute at one of the rest areas with lots of picnic tables and great views, and had a nice picnic. Not quite as warm as we’d have liked, but getting there…

We easily found the parking garage in Avignon, and also the hotel – a small (12 room) affair owned by a lovely couple who just can’t do enough for you. Very warm, welcoming, and helpful. And the place is spotless! No elevator – so we were quite happy to be installed on the first floor (one floor up, in Europe). Very nice room, everything painted in bright colors, and lots of posters on the walls from art exhibits, plays, and operas, mostly from Poland and Greece. Interesting…Anyway, we were very satisfied.

Roy was feeling a bit under the weather, and it had been getting worse, not better, so with the weekend coming, we decided that it might be prudent to try to see a doctor. We asked our hostess at the hotel, and she told us that her English-speaking doctor wasn’t available on Friday afternoons. So we decided to try at the Tourist Information Office, just a few steps from the hotel.

The very helpful person at the TI made a couple of phone calls, and found us a doctor just down the street. She warned us that he had a two hour wait – but we decided that it still would be prudent to go and check it out. Here’s the building he’s in – not really inspiring confidence!

The door with the posted notice...

As it turned out, after someone showed us how to get in the door, and we took the elevator up to the first floor to the doctor’s office, it was fine. A little dingy, but fine. And the waiting room wasn’t nearly as crowded as we’d feared! No receptionist, nothing to sign, just a room with moulded plastic chairs.

After about 45 minutes, the doctor, who’d been poking his head out for the next patient each time, poked his head out again, and it was our turn! The doctor was a lovely guy, and Roy was able to give him the history, etc., both in general and of the specific complaints of the moment. There was no paperwork to fill out – although he did require Roy’s first and last name for his records and the prescription. After listening and asking questions for about 15 minutes, he took Roy into the examining room. When they came out, he had the diagnosis: colitis caused (probably) by a virus. He wrote a couple of prescriptions, and chatted a bit more, and sent us on our way. €30 ($39)!

We then went next door to a pharmacy to have the prescriptions filled.  We gave the prescriptions to the young lady behind the counter, she scanned them into something, and we paid her €8.50 ($10). She then turned around and took the prescriptions out of a dumb waiter and handed them to us. This all took about 5 minutes, if that. This darned old socialized medecine…inefficient, can’t get in to see a doctor, long waiting times…

 Anyway, with that out of the way, we decided to walk around a bit and also to look ahead to dinner. We had three recommendations from our hotel, promising not to be “touristy”, so we decided to check them out. It was as good an excuse as any to take a walk and have some direction!

The weather was warm and lovely, and the sidewalk cafés were humming! We easily found the two closer restaurants (so far, we’d not left more than about a three block area for the TI, the doctor, pharmacy, and the restaurants!), wrote down the phone numbers, and kept going. Walked up to the clock tower, and around the other side of the main drag, and had a lovely stroll. Here’s the clock tower and some other photos:

Clock tower

 

A charming little courtyard restaurant

 

We seem to find these chocolate shops everywhere, now that we've visited the factory

We ended our walk by sitting at one of the outdoor cafés around the corner of our hotel and having a coffee – just a lovely, warm day, and a lovely way to while away the rest of the afternoon!

Dinner was awesome! The little restaurant, Fou de Fafa, (don’t ask me…) is owned by British expats! We only figured this out after about 30 minutes of speaking French, and me translating for Roy! Who was fooling whom?! Anyway, the wife/hostess/waiter was wonderful, helpful, and fun, and we had delicious food for a very reasonable price. My kind of meal!! We headed home, hoping the medicine would kick in and that Roy would feel better in the morning.

 The next morning I wanted to play “tour guide.” In Rick Steves’ guide book is a “backstreets Avignon” walking tour on which I’d made notes. Fortunately, Roy was feeling slightly better, so after our delicious breakfast (heavily inspired by the Greek influence of our hosts’ off-season home), we set off.

It was a glorious morning, and, although this was Saturday, since it was relatively early, we pretty much had the town to ourselves! Just the way we like it!! We started at the Pope’s Palace (which we’d toured on our last trip to Avignon, so we just admired the exterior this day), and worked our way back to our hotel. It was wonderful! Lots of twisty little cobbled streets that passed under archways and ended up in little squares. Beautiful buildings. And the organ grinder on his way to his gig:

The organ grinder

 But I think the highlight was the MARKET!! Avignon’s open market was enclosed in 1970, and it is huge! It’s a mish-mash of every kind of delicious food you can imagine getting in France, and every ingredient to make it as well!! Here are some shots of the spices on display:

"Salt for red meat"

A tantalizing array!

Anyway, the “tour” was a great success, and we thoroughly enjoyed being out in the beautiful sunshine on the lovely day in Avignon!

After lunch, Roy took a nap while I found a perfect spot in the square across from the hotel to sit and read. It’s so nice to be able to be outside really enjoying the weather now – the chill is gone, babe! It’s just warm lovely sunshine from here!

I gave Roy a couple of hours to nap, then we walked to the Miranda hotel for their “high tea” service. We were the only ones in the place! But they spooled it up for us, and we each had a pot of tea and three lovely samples of their pastry skills: a slice of poppyseed cake (and I mean poppyseed – the thing was practically black with them!) that was kind of nutty, a slice of a kiwi tart, which had both kiwis and pineapples, and was on a crust of buttery goodness, and a slice of lemon meringue pie (need I say more?)!!!!!

We waddled out of there to the square near the hotel, where we kind of half passed out while doing some people-watching.  And we were having dinner in three hours!!

Dinner was unremarkable, perhaps because we were both so stuffed from the “tea.” In any case, food was definitely beside the point at that juncture. We dutifully ate something and fell into bed!

On our way out the next day, our host thanked us for staying, helped me a bit with my French grammar, and we said our goodbyes. What a lovely couple, and what a wonderful town! Definitely a place to revisit!!

Wine and food…food and wine

On Wednesday, another really beautiful, sunny day, we went with Merc and Sarena to the BIG open market in the neighboring village, Sanary sur Mer. They are as interested in food and trying new delights as I am, so I knew they’d enjoy it! Their mission was to find lunch. We planned a picnic-style lunch with cheeses, sausages, etc., and I wanted them to have the opportunity to put it together from the market.

They did an awesome job! We had delicious cheeses, sausages, head cheese, marinated little baby squid, olives, fabulous bread, cherry tomatoes, etc…I’m sure I’m forgetting something, but it was great! And, for the first time, it was so beautiful outside that we were able to eat on our balcony! We even had to roll out the awning! Here’s what it looked like before we dove in:

Lunch on our balcony

It was fabulous!!! Such a delicious variety of yummy things to try and enjoy! Here are a couple of views from the balcony:

Mountains in the distance

 

The water peeking through

 After lunch we planned to do some wine tasting. I knew that I wanted to go with them to Chateau de Pibarnon, the beautiful winery we’d visited with Kathy and Ron. Beyond that, we were going to wing it. There are so many wineries in this region – you drive down the street and are confronted by innumerable signs directing you to this one or that one, so I knew we’d have an easy time finding one to sample.

Indeed, Pibarnon didn’t disappoint. The beautiful drive, view, and tasting room…it was great. We had a different “host” than last time, and it was her first day on the job! I think we were her first customers as well – lucky for her, since we’re so easy! We had fun with her, and enjoyed tasting the wines. Merc and Sarena selected a bottle to take home, and I splurged on a bottle of the best wine for myself! These wine tastings are (usually) free, but they can run into money anyway…

The second vinyard we chose was kind of a bust – although we could taste the wines (I really liked the red), they won’t have any to sell until May. Worse, the “host” only spoke French, and spent the entire time talking, talking, talking, fast, fast, fast, and not anything particularly interesting. Whatever she had to say, it was definitely more than we wanted to know, and I couldn’t fully understand it all anyway…we just wanted to escape at some point, which we did!

For dinner that night, we returned to the site of our best meal with Kathy and Ron, La Table du Vignerons. Although something was lost in the fact that it was dark, so the setting wasn’t part of the event, the dinner didn’t disappoint. The service was again impeccable, and we all had incredible, sumptuous meals. A fine way to end a fabulous day! 

 

Cassis and the Calanques

Tuesday seemed like it would be the best weather of the week for a boat ride, so we chose that day to go to lunch in Cassis at Le Bonaparte and visit the Calanques. We were excited to share one of our (so far) favorite restaurants with Mercer and Sarena, and to finally see the Calanques from the water!

We had 12:00 reservations for lunch, so wanted to get to Cassis around 10:30 or 11:00 to have time to park, walk around a little bit, get our boat tickets, and then have a leisurely lunch before a 2:30 boat ride. As it turned out, it was, as usual, a good idea to leave extra time, as there was still a detour getting into Cassis, and then the parking lot we wanted to use was full, so we had to find an alternate. There is plenty of parking scattered around in lots and on-street, so we quickly found an on-street spot just a little further out of the village.

The weather couldn’t have been more perfect! We walked in the village a bit, walked over to the water, got our tickets, and had plenty of time to do so all in a leisurely fashion. We even had time to sit in an outdoor café and have a coffee before lunch!

We all had delicious lunches at the restaurant! Interestingly, it was not crowded this time – in fact, for most of the meal, we were the only customers! I wonder how much the construction on the street right outside the door accounts for that? Or maybe it was just a slow day. No matter, we had lots of personal service!

Once again, the owner, Jean-Marie, brought out a plate of four fish, showing us what was fresh and available today. He made quite a fuss over the sole – I guess it’s something special that he can’t always get.

Sarena and I split the fish soup as a starter (I’m getting wise in my old age!) – delicious again! I just love that stuff! Then she and Mercer both had Moules Marinières (mussels), Roy had duck breast, and I had the fillet of sole. I definitely had the winning dish again!! It was succulent and fabulous, perfectly poached and drizzled with some really fine olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt. YUM!! Roy, not particularly a fish-eater, was envious!

We had time to wander a little after lunch and let things digest and settle before the boat ride to the Calanques. The Calanques are unique geological formations along the Mediterranean coast. They were originally created by rivers coursing through a faultline in a rocky mountain chain, and resemble the Scandanavian fjords. For those of you who are interested, here’s a link to more extensive information: http://www.marseille-provence.info/marseille-marseilles/what-to-see-tourist-attractions/237-the-calanques.html

What beautiful weather we had, and what a stunning ride and scenery! The wind had picked up a bit, but the captain of the boat did an excellent job of giving us a good ride, and the distances were short in between pulling into the shelter of the massive cliffs. We saw 8 different Calanques, and each had its own character and interest. Some had interesting vegetation, some had beaches, some had people climbing on the cliffs(!), some had arches or holes in the rock formations,  and some were harbors. It was really interesting, and so beautiful.

After the ride we regained our land legs and then walked back to the car. Much more difficult than walking down to the village – all uphill! But we made it! And perhaps walked off a bit of our sumptuous lunch in the process! Anyway, it was a fabulous day, and so much fun to share with Merc and Sarena!!

Here are some photos of Cassis and the Calanques: