Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Eating out in Southern France - Part 1

Eating really is a national sport in France.  I'm not sure there are any other nations that enjoy eating out as much as the French.  It's serious business over here!

Americans visiting France are often puzzled when they walk into a French restaurant and are immediately greeted in English. "How do they know I'm American?" is a popular refrain. If this bothers you and you would like to fit in more with the locals, here are a few tips that may help in that department and some other hopefully useful information that will make your repas more enjoyable.
Don't show up at a nice restaurant like this dude sporting NB's and black socks.

Dress - Nothing gives your origin away faster than your clothing. While you may think you look quite natty in khakis, white running shoes and a ball cap, you may as well be wearing a large neon sign that says "I'm an American". Leave your Dockers and your New Balance at home.  While you're at it, ditch the fanny pack you wear on your waist. If you must carry stuff, man up and buy a man purse, it's guaranteed to give you that euro look.
For the complete Euro look, get a man purse like this gent
Smoking - One of the most enjoyable aspects of the climate in Provence is that one tends to take every meal outside.  Unfortunately almost everyone here appears to smoke and though smoking is not permitted inside a restaurant or bar in France, it is very much de riguer when eating outside.  You are virtually guaranteed that most of the tables around you will be lighting up frequently throughout their meal and will pay zero attention to the fact that you are coughing and spluttering through yours.  You do get used to it but be prepared.

Noise - Americans are a gregarious people and enjoy having a good time but in the tight confines of most French restaurants, it is often easy to spot, actually hear, a group from the US :)

Café étiquette - Café culture is deeply engrained in French society.  In smaller towns and villages it may be the central meeting place for all the locals, here you catch up on the local gossip and events of the town.  You can go up to the bar and order a coffee and drink it there or sit at a table.  Drinking at the bar will always be less expensive.
Cafés are a great place to meet, drink and hang out.
Reservations - This is simple, if you want to eat lunch or dinner at any reasonably good restaurant in Provence during July and August, you MUST make a reservation or likely be disappointed.  Most days you can make the reservation the day of but for some of the more popular spots you may need to reserve several days in advance. I actually think that some restauranteurs take a perverse pleasure in turning away folks without reservations, don't give them the satisfaction :)  Another good reason to call ahead is to make sure the restaurant is actually open.  Many restaurants have somewhat unusual (by American standards) hours of business.  Here it's not unusual for a restaurant to be closed say, Sunday night, all day Monday and Wednesday lunch, so always call ahead.

Don't be in a rush - The good news is that once you have your reservation, your table is yours for as long as you want it.  Lunch and dinner are leisurely affairs here and should be enjoyed and savored.  The restaurants do not expect to turn over tables at lunch or dinner so there is never a wait when you get to the restaurant, your table will always be ready for you. American restaurant owners might cringe at the potential loss of revenue but I think it's brilliant!  Also service will be laid back and slow compared to the US, enjoy it, talk to your dining companions, people watch, have another glass of wine and soak it all in.  Oh yes and don't call the waiter/waitress a garçon unless he really is a little boy :)

The check - When you want to leave, you must ask for the l'addition, your waitperson will not bring it to you until you ask.  Checks always include the tip but if you want, you can leave a few extra coins if the service has been good.

Breakfast - unlike lunch and dinner, breakfast is not the time to experience the gastronomic marvels of French cuisine. As in most of Europe, the French typically have a very simple breakfast, normally just coffee and a pastry or piece of baguette with butter and jam.  If you are staying in a hotel there will most probably be a buffet that includes yoghurt, ham, cheese, fruit, cereal etc.  But honestly, why stay in your boring hotel, go to a café and watch the world go by and save your appetite for lunch!!  One other tip, many cafés do not have food and it is quite normal to stop at a Boulangerie/Patisserie and pick up bread/croissants and take them to the café.  Also there are no such things as free refills in France, so if you want another coffee you will have to order and pay for one.  If you normally have your coffee with half and half, order a café crème.  This will be an expresso coffee with hot steamed milk, it's delicious!  If you have to, in many places you can order a Café Americain but why give the game away? :)

In part 2 we will explore the delights of lunch!!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Giant of Provence

The first time I heard the word Ventoux, it was not in context of the famed mountain often ridden in the Tour de France but rather a region that was producing bright, light and fruity wines, particularly roses with the Cotes du Ventoux AOC designation.

As I got into cycling a couple of years ago, I started hearing about Mont Ventoux, a mountain of near mythical status amongst cyclists.  Along with Tourmalet, Galibier and Alpe D'Huez it is regarded as sacred ground and has produced some of the highest drama in the Tour de France.  To many it is the hardest single climb on the Tour due to it's length, steepness and weather conditions. But more on that later.....

Shortly before I arrived in Avignon by TGV almost two months ago, I got my first glimpse of Ventoux, her brilliant white top rising to a peak of more than 6,200 ft, she dominates the landscape towering  4,000 ft higher than any of the nearest peaks.  As I made my way from the train station to the village of Menerbes, she was a constant companion and during my travels around the Luberon her ubiquitous presence became a source of comfort .................. and a challenge.
Ventoux, she dominates the landscape
Like a siren she has called to me every day, one day I even ventured up her slopes by car to see what lay ahead, it was formidable but I felt that I had cheated her in some way.  It was then that I resolved the next time we met I would be au vélo.  

So I ramped up my hill climbing training and decided that Aug 15th was the day.  There are three roads that ascend Ventoux, one each from the towns of Sault, Bedoin and Malaucene.  For the statisticians among you, the climb from Sault is the easiest but the longest at 16.2 miles and an elevation gain of 4,002 ft. The Malaucene route is 13 miles and 5,151ft climbing and Bedoin, regarded as the hardest, is 13.4 miles and 5,282ft climbing. The Bedoin route is the one used in the Tour de France and is regarded by many to be one of the hardest if not the hardest used on the Tour. As mentioned above, the reasons for this are not only the length and grade of the climb but also the weather conditions. At any of the starting points it can be very hot, often hitting 100 deg by mid morning which can dehydrate you fast.  Then there is the wind.......... Ventoux derives it's name from the french for windy and the wind almost always blows and blows hard. Wind speeds over 200mph have been recorded on the mountain and it blows at more than 56mph over 240 days in the year on average.  This can make ascents and descents extremely hard and often dangerous.

My plan was to ride my bike over to the closest of the start points, Sault, a mere 26 miles away and begin my climb from there.  Although sounding good in theory,  I didn't realize just how hilly a ride it was.  The first 21 miles were all uphill and by the time I got to Sault I had already registered over 3,800 ft of climbing, oh well.  Leaving my house at 7:00 I took a route that went up past Goult and between Joucas and Gordes weaving my way through lovely vineyards burgeoning with ripening grapes.  Near Joucas I was treated to the sight of several hot air balloons majestically flying overhead,  I wasn't the only one up early at least :)
Hot air balloons drifting over the vineyards
The ride up toward Joucas was pleasant enough but as I went passed the town of Lioux, the road started to climb significantly.  The next 15 miles were a slog climbing up through the Bois de Lioux and the Combe de Sigalière with no interruption to the climb until I reached the town of St. Jean.  It was a tough but beautiful climb with virtually no cars or people in sight.  After 2 1/2 hours I reached the town of Sault.  As a popular start point for the climb, the town was already buzzing with cyclists ready to take on the Le Montagne.  I stopped at a Boulangerie on the main square and picked up some croissants and then popped round to a cafe to enjoy them with a cafe creme. Nourished, I refilled my water bottles and set off to meet the mountain.
The beautiful climb out of Lioux
The first mile or two was an easy descent from Sault and then the next 2-3 miles were a gentle climb that could easily lull you into a false sense of security. A sharp bend in the road introduced a much steeper incline and Ventoux began to show her teeth. The air temperature was climbing quickly now and was already at 92 deg at 10:00 am.  I was riding through a forested area so was mainly shielded from the wind but every so often a gust came through the trees a portend of things to come.  I was feeling quite good and got into a nice easy rhythm.  Dozens of cyclists who had already made the ascent came flying down, many yelling "bonne journée" or "bon courage". For some reason this further spurred me on and shortly the road began to level out, a sign that I was approaching the famous Chalet Reynard.  This little outpost, sitting alone on the south face of Ventoux is a popular spot to stop and recharge your drinks on the ascent or rest and enjoy a nice lunch after reaching the  top.  It is the biker bar of biker bars :)  There was great energy here, both the euphoria of riders who had already summited and were on the way down and others that were anxiously preparing for the tough last 4 miles of the climb.
The Chalet Reynard, the biker bar of biker bars!!
After enjoying a few minutes of people watching, a quick espresso and refilling my water bottles it was time to push on for the summit. The Chalet Reynard signifies  a change in both the difficulty of the climb and the terrain itself.  Now out of the forest, the final ascent is the steepest part of the climb and the most exposed.  No trees or vegetation of any kind just the limestone rocks that give the mountain its snow capped look from a distance but up close resembles more a moonscape.  The rocks help reflect the heat of the sun making you even hotter and the wind blows with a malicious ferocity. These last few miles were tough with an average grade of 8% and many sections that were 15-20%, I was trying to keep my rhythm up the steep incline but at the same time grabbing the handlebars with a death grip to keep from being blown off the road.  A few kilometers below I had passed a sign that said "Col Ouvert" and now I realized what that was about.  There must be many days in the year when this road is just impassable due to high winds.  
I should bloody well hope so!!
My speed hovered between 4.5-5 mph but I managed to keep upright and with a last push, rounded the bend for the summit.  It was a glorious moment.  The pain and effort of the past few hours and disappeared, replaced by a sense of achievement and agape at the tremendous views. You can see the Alps and the Mediterranean from the summit and virtually the whole of Provence lays below you.  It was a heady feeling.  I had ridden a total of 45 miles and climbed almost 8,000 ft a tough ride by any standard.
Not far to go now
At the summit, happy and feeling great!
After a lot of picture taking and some banter with other cyclists it was time for the descent and the 45 mile ride home.  But first things first, my stomach told me it was time for lunch!  I decided to stop for lunch at Chalet Reynard on my way back.  

The climb up Ventoux has seen a lot of drama and sadly this included the death of an English cyclist, Tom Simpson, at that point the most successful British cyclist ever, in 1967.  Simpson collapsed and died a few hundred meters from the summit due to dehydration and the fact that he had taken methamphetamine and brandy prior to the race.  There is a memorial to Simpson at the spot of his death and I stopped there to pay my respects on the way down. It was a somber moment.
Memorial to fallen cyclist Tom Simpson
At Chalet Reynard I was revived by an Omelet Ventoux et Frites or egg and chips to the rest of you :)  I laid off the wine as I still had 40 miles to ride but a large coffee got me ready for the hopefully swift journey home.

The bright side of suffering up a climb is that one is always rewarded with a descent.  Now I may not be the best descender in the world but I enjoy going downhill fast on a bike and have no qualms even at speeds of 50-60 mph. So as I left Chalet Reynard I was relishing the descent into Sault.  However, in many ways this turned out to be the toughest part of the entire ride and certainly the most nerve racking.  You see the road surface to Sault is incredibly poor, filled with potholes, ruts, humps and bumps that threaten a broken spoke or flat tire at any moment.  Add to this the fact that the wind was now blowing hard, a steady 30 mph with gusts that must have been over 50 and you have a hair-raising scenario.  Indeed by the time I arrived back in Sault my hands and wrists were so fatigued from gripping the handlebars and the brakes that they were actually numb.  I barely reached 40 mph on the descent and even that was probably foolish.  Why oh why can't the government re-pave such an iconic road?

After Sault there was a brief climb to the Sault plateau and then a nice 20 mile descent all the way to Menerbes.  I arrived home tired but elated, 90 miles and 10 hours after leaving.  I had finally met Ventoux properly and she had shared herself with me.  I will climb her again soon but that is the subject of another blog entry.  À bientôt ma cherie!!

You can see more photos from my ride to Ventoux here

Monday, August 6, 2012

Autour de Petit Luberon

Cyclo-tourism is alive and well in Provence judging by the number of pannier laden cyclists I have seen on the roads.  And why not?  This may be some of the best cycling to be had anywhere in the world.  Gorgeous landscape? Check.  Phenomenal weather? Check. Hundreds of picturesque and historic villages often separated by just a few kilometers? Check.  Loads of small backroads with very little traffic that meander through vineyards, olive groves and fruit orchards?  Double check!!
The lovely vineyards of the Luberon
Add this to the wonderful provencal cuisine and the bright, light and fruity wines of the region and it's not hard to work out why it's so popular.  Never one to miss a revenue enhancing possibility, the French government has pounced on the the concept and has been busy building, or more accurately, mapping out what they call veloroutes to please and entice the legions of cycle-touristes they hope will visit and spend their hard earned euros.

One such route called the Autour du Luberon en vélo is a 238km journée around the luberon region from Cavaillon in the west to Forcalquier and Manosque in the east and encompassing both the Petit and Grand Luberon mountain ranges.  The route cleverly plots it's way through many of the most picturesque and famous villages in the area and takes one on some very rural backroads.

I think some of these roads may have been built by the Romans and I don't think they've been resurfaced since!!  So caution if you are on a road bike there are some bad sections and sections that are dirt or crushed rock.  My Cervélo has skinny 23c tires and it meant a pretty rough ride at times and I was continually worrying about flatting.  My Gitane is a touring bike with Hybrid 35c tires, much better suited to this type of terrain.

238km is too long for a day trip so I mapped out a ride I call the Autour du Petit Luberon which is about an 80km ride that completely encircles the Petit Luberon range.  It has some hilly bits but lots of flats and some fun downhills too.

I started in Ménerbes and the first 15 miles or so includes a couple of big climbs, the first up to the picturesque town of Lacoste and then up to Bonnieux, an equally comely village.  Unlike Lacoste, Bonnieux has some great restaurants and a lovely market on Fridays.
After ascending to the top of the hill above Bonnieux you begin the long, winding and very entertaining (read fast) downhill through the Combe de Lourmarin to the town of Lourmarin.  According to my Garmin I hit 52.7mph going down the hill, like I said, VERY entertaining :)
Fast downhill through the Combe de Lourmarin
Lourmarin is another attractively situated town, not a village perché like Ménerbes, Lacoste or Bonnieux but lovely all the same.  I stopped and had a coffee here, did a little sightseeing and then a marvelous lunch at restaurant L'Oustelet, sitting on the terrace with a nice view of the Chateau de Lourmarin.
Chateau de Lourmarin
After lunch it was a long, most flat journey west through the towns of Lauris, Puget and Merindol where the route picks up a bike path that runs along a canal.  Easy cycling here except that going west heads against the usual wind direction.  It was not blowing too hard this day but was still a steady 10-15 mph which made the terrain a lot harder.
Riding along the canal path 
From Cheval Blanc the route heads north towards Les Taillades and gets a bit hillier too.  Then it was a matter of swinging eastward through Robion and Oppede and finally back up the hill to Ménerbes. A fabulous ride that you can ride fast or better still take your time and enjoy all that the Luberon has to offer.

You can view other photos from my ride here

Friday, July 27, 2012

There's still life in the old fella

I have been on a bit of a holiday this last week and have been lax updating my blog. To those very kind souls who have asked if I'm still alive and kicking, the answer is yes.........as far as I know, thanks so much for asking :)

I have stacks of new stuff to write about and as soon as I get a free moment I'll post away.

Á bientôt!!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Monday, July 16, 2012

Le Tour de France

My alarm jolted me awake at 6am, I was still tired due to my 1am bedtime and beaucoup du vin at the Grand Aïoli the night before.  Although I could have very easily just rolled over and resumed my slumber, I was excited to get the day underway.

Today was Bastille Day, France's independence day but more importantly Le Tour de France was passing by just 60 miles from my house.  I had decided to ride my bike over to a vantage point on the race and experience Le Tour first hand.

After dressing and getting my bike prepared, I went down to the boulangerie and picked up a brioche and a pain au chocolat and headed over to the Café du Progrès for a grand café crème to go with my breakfast.  Energized by breakfast and madame Carmen's terrific coffee, I got underway, seen off with shouts of "Bon courage!!" from the regulars at the café.

It was a cool morning and for the first time since arriving here, the skies were overcast.  Luckily traffic was light because of the national holiday and my outbound journey which took me west past Cavaillon and skirting Avignon to the south went by without any problems. After crossing the Rhone river near Aramon, I headed Northwest to the town of Uzès.

Uzès was hopping as it was market day and the tour was also coming through town later that day.  Crowds of people were already lining the streets, staking out their spots with picnic tables and chairs.  Food and wine were being enjoyed in a festive spirit even though it was only 10am.  I didn't spend any time in Uzès but may return as it looked like an interesting little town.

From Uzès I rode the actual race route (though in the opposite direction) to Saint Laurent La Vernède where I planned to await the riders.  Although just 13km in length, this part of the ride was a lot of fun as it was lined with thousands of people, many of whom were happy to cheer me on with shouts of "allez, allez" and "bon courage" as well as a few wry "autre direction!!" ( your going the wrong way).  I thoroughly enjoyed this bonhomie and felt a little more connected to the race and what it means to the French.

After reaching Saint Laurent I circled back along the route and spotted a motorhome with British and English flags flying.  It had a great vantage point to watch the race so I thought I'd stop and say hello to the couple that were sitting outside.

Tony and Sharon were from Liverpool and welcomed me to join them, pulling out another chair for me and offering me a cup of tea, even though it was 85 degrees.  I gratefully accepted and enjoyed a smart cup of PG Tips with some tasty madeleines.

Tony and Sharon had been following the tour for about a week and were full of stories about each stage and all the people they had met along the way.  The days in the alps sounded particularly fun.
After a while we were treated to the spectacle of Le Caravane, essentially a parade of cars and trucks that have been converted into carnival like floats that whizz by and whip up the crowds.

The vehicles each have a different advertising message and are manned by singing and dancing staff who throw out all kinds of goodies to the crowds along the route.  It is fun and crazy at the same time and serves as a great warm up for the race itself.

Two hours later we heard the helicopters that announced the arrival of the riders.  First up were a group that had broken away from the peleton.  The group contained several French riders who were going for glory on Bastille Day!

About 5 minutes later the main group came by.  I managed to snap a few shots capturing Wiggins and Cavendish and then just like that they were gone.

All that riding and waiting and the peleton was by in a few seconds.
Within 10 minutes, everyone was packing up and heading home.  I said my goodbyes to Tony and Sharon and pushed off for return trip taking an easterly route that would take me home via Chateaneuf du Pape where I planned to stop for a late lunch and something red.

It was a really beautiful ride back as I stayed on very minor roads through vineyards of the Cotes du Rhones with virtually no traffic at all.

I had a simple meal on the main square in Chateauneuf and a couple of glasses of Vieux Telegraphe just what I needed for the final 35km back to the house.

I arrived home about 11 hours after I had left, tired but happy.  Almost 120 miles of cycling under my belt and lots of memories to treasure.  It's been a great day.

You can see more of photos from this ride here

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Grand Aïoli

Aïoli is the marvelously garlicky mayonnaise that is wildly popular in the Luberon where it is applied liberally on all manner of food.  It is wickedly addictive stuff but be warned you will smell of garlic for at least 3 days after consuming this delicious treat.

So it was a bit of a surprise when I was in the local Pharmacy talking to Norman and his wife Sophie, the two Pharmaciens and Norman asked if I'd like to go to the Grand Aïoli? Go to the big mayonnaise? Whatever did he mean?  As it turned out Un Grand Aïoli is a fête, a party thrown by most of the villages in Provence at some time during the summer. All the village gathers just off the square to eat, drink and socialize together and then dance the night away.  I said oui.

I was advised that I needed to bring my own plate and knife and fork and so armed I nipped down to join the festivities.  The evening started with that delicious aperitif, Kir, a blend of white wine and creme de cassis. All the village seemed to have showed up and the few that I had already met introduced me to many others that I had not.  It was wonderful and very welcoming.

After an hour of socializing and listening to typical french accordion music we were advised to sit at the communal dining tables and attack!!

The Grand Aïoli had arrived.  Heaping platters of boiled vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, green beans, beets, onions etc alongside steamed mussels, shimp, de-salted salt cod and a giant bowl of the aforementioned aïoli, reeking with garlicky goodness. Freshly baked baguettes were placed on every table and the assault on the platters began in earnest.  Of course no meal in France would be complete without wine and so bottles of the local vin rouge were on hand to accompany our feast.  After laying waste to the Grand Aïoli, the platters were cleared away to be replaced by platters of cheeses and finally a variety of desserts.  It was a feast of epic proportions.

Eating is a national sport in France and I think that I acquitted my self fairly well, refilling my plate from the aïoli platters several times, consuming artery choking amounts of cheese and finally calling it quits on my second round of dessert to the modest consternation of the grand-mère in charge of the food service.

The tables were quickly cleared, wine bottles recharged and the disco lights came on as we were introduced to Jean-Pierre our DJ for the night.  Jean-Pierre was a highly energetic fellow who seemed to be capable of having a party all on his own.  Think of a cross between Jane Fonda and Muhammed Ali dressed in MC Hammer-esque pantaloons, he strutted back and forth across the stage inciting the crowd to dance.  "He is from Marseille" said Madame Carmen knowingly, which I'm sure explained everything.

Jean-Pierre was either extremely good at his trade or the wine had worked it's magic because before long the entire village was gyrating to YMCA on the dance floor, a sight to behold I can assure you.

At around 1am I made my exit and toddled back to the house having thoroughly enjoyed the fête and meeting so many new and interesting neighbours.  I smiled as I closed my windows, thinking of Norman, Sophie, Madame Carmen and Patrick boogieing away to the Gap band in the streets below.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Marquis de Sade

When I cycled through the nearby town of Lacoste, I noticed the ruins of what must have once been a large castle sitting above the town.

The old and the new, the ruins and a modern sculpture of the Marquis

It didn't take too long to work out who the castle had belonged to as there were signs of the Marquis de Sade adorning almost every street and attached to every cafe in town.

A sad Marquis de Sade

My recollection about the Marquis was sketchy to say the least but I did recall some of his more salacious moments.  I toured around the lovely village of Lacoste and had a tasty café at the Café de Sade before heading up the cobblestones to the castle on the beast.

The narrow cobbled streets of Lacoste

The fashion designer Pierre Cardin now owns the chateau as well as several other properties in Lacoste and he has spent a small fortune renovating it and also making it a centre for arts and music, holding a very successful concert series throughout the summer months, held in the old quarry that has now been turned into a marvelous amphitheater.  I purchased tickets for the July 21st concert featuring the music of Charles Trenet and very much look forward to the event.

amphitheater seating in the old quarry

The chateau was largely destroyed by angry citizens during the French revolution and has stayed in various states of dis-repair until Cardin acquired the property in 2001.  Cardin almost suffered a similar revolt when his plans to build a golf course (really?) near the chateau were met with mass demonstrations by local residents.  Plus ça change!!

There is a modest amount to see when touring the ruins, especially considering the fairly hefty 10 euro admission fee but there are marvelous views of Bonnieux and of course the ever present Mont Ventoux.  Cardin has elected to add some very strange modern art, sculpture like pieces of African animals, quite what the connection is to Lacoste or the Marquis escapes me?

Ruins and some bizarre african animal art

The old part of the village is tiny and quite charming and well worth skunking around with a perfect photo op around every corner.

There also happened to be a market in Lacoste that day (Tuesday) a very small affair though I did see some of the same vendors that were at the Bonniuex market on Friday.  Apart from the cafés there are no significant restaurants in town so eat in nearby Bonnieux or Mènerbes if you want a decent lunch.

You can see the rest of my photos from Lacoste here

Wednesday, July 11, 2012


Voilà, is such a fantastically versatile word in the french language. As an adverb it means many things such as here or there or this or that is, etc. but it is the use of voilà as an interjection, usually meaning that's it! where it comes in particularly useful, especially when you have no idea what you are saying!!  You hear in punctuating conversation perhaps more than any other word in France.

For instance, the other day I was in St. Saturnin Les Apt and asked for directions to a mas that was just outside of town.  The chap I asked really didn't know exactly where it was but that didn't stop him from giving me assured directions using a variety of hand signals, whistles, clucking signs and the coup de grâce, a voilà at the end.  The voilà is very important in this sequence as it has two meanings, a) please don't ask me any more stupid questions b) if you didn't understand this then you are an idiot.

So the conversation went something like this.

Monsieur savez-vous où se trouve le Mas Perréal?

The Monsieur: 
Le Mas Perréal? Ah bon (said while scratching his chin)

Descendez là (pointing to a road going downhill and accompanied by a short whistle)

A la croisse, tak (the tak sound is accompanied by a right turn hand signal)

Et tak, tak, (a left then right turn hand signal)

Et (a long warbling whistle and a hand motion resembling a fish swimming, indicating a windy road)

Et voilà le mas!! (accompanied by upturned hands and a shrug)

The preferred response to these um precise directions is either a curt merci monsieur or a slightly suspicious ah bon? if choosing the latter, some eyebrow gymnastics help add emphasis.

Then you have a decision to make, either trust that his directions will get you into the right general area or discreetly ask someone else but watch out if they say voilà!!

So remember, if in doubt, shrug your shoulders, wave your arms frantically and perform a pas de deux with your eyebrows and last but not least say et voilà!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Market day in Isle sur la Sorgue

Everyone has told me that market day in Isle sur la Sorgue is not to be missed. This small town is unusual in that the town centre is completely encircled by the Sorgue river turning into a charming island full of narrow streets and alleyways that beckon exploration and discovery.

The Sorgue river encircles the town

It is located just 20km from my house so last Sunday I hopped on the Beast and enjoyed a relaxing ride there through the Luberon valley.

Hundreds of vendors set up their stalls throughout the town and everything you could need seems to be available for sale, including wonderful fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, fish, spices and also clothing, linens, pottery, art, jewelry, luggage, antiques................ well you get the drift. As if that wasn't enough to capture one's attention, all the shops in town are also open providing a shopping orgy for the thousands of visitors.

Market is packed with thousands of visitors

I stopped at the marvelously named and situated Café de France for a restorative café crème and to do some serious people watching. Big fun!!

Café de France - all you could want in a French café

An absolute textbook café, replete with accordion music and a handlebar moustache clad waiter. It would not be hard to imagine Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman meeting there for a drink.
After an hour of people watching and dreaming, I forced myself to walk around town and see what was  on offer.
I have been to many farmer's markets in the states but none of them have anywhere near the quality of produce that is on hand here.  It is next to impossible to find bruised fruit or anything but the freshest meat and fish.

The freshest fish, most caught that morning and brought in from Marseille

Perfect fruit

Here you do not choose your fruit but allow the vendor to pick for you, it is considered a bit rude to do otherwise.  When I bought a local melon, the vendor asked me when I wanted to eat it and based on my answer, picked out an appropriate example. There are a number of vendors that also cook onsite, roasting chickens, making paella, pizzas and salads and sandwiches of all kinds.  It would be a simple thing to buy a grand lunch and sit in the park by the river and eat, with a bottle of vin rosé of course!!

I wasn't interested in the non food offerings but there is a wide range of stuff available with widely varying levels of quality.  Also there was lots of live music in various parts of the town which made for a pleasant diversion from the hustle and bustle of the market. You could easily spend the entire morning looking around the stalls and shops, that and all the enticing aromas meant just one thing, lunch!!

When I first got to town I popped into La Prèvoté, a michelin 1* restaurant and made a reservation for lunch.  It is vital in Provence to make reservations for lunch or dinner at all of the better restaurants, I can't tell you how many people were turned away while I happily ate my lunch.  Quelle domage!!.

An amazing entrée

The food and service at La Prèvoté was superb, each course was artfully presented, perfectly seasoned and made my mouth water with each bite.  There was a decent wine list but you will pay dearly for any wine from outside the local area.

Delicious main course

By the time I finished lunch the market was over and most of the stalls had already miraculously disappeared and the crowds thinned out.  I used this time to walk around the river taking in the neat old water wheels that still function and watching people cools their heels in the swiftly flowing water.

One of the town's working water wheels

After wandering around for a while, I hopped back on The Beast and pedaled back to Mènerbes, happy and fully sated.

You can see more photos of my day in Isle sur la Sorgue here

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Slow in the mornings, not too fast in the afternoons

That's the local saying here in Provence and what a marvelous anecdote it is!  As I continue to get acclimated here, my pulse has slowed and life appears actually simpler.  Some friends have asked "what do you do there?" Here's a look at a typical day.

My pre-ride morning routine now encompasses popping down to the Boulangerie to pick up a croissant or a pain au chocolat (sometimes both :) )

My local Boulangerie

and heading over to the Café du Progrès where I either sit at the bar and chat to the colorful locals or head out to the terrace to enjoy my grand café crème with my croissant.  The marvelous view from the terrace looks like this.

The view from the terrace at Café du Progrès

After breakfast I normally take a ride on my bike and try to visit somewhere new each day.  I'm normally back by 10-11 am and I sit and write for 2-3 hours.  Lunchtime is a big occasion in Provence and I have taken to it rather well, reserving at least 2-3 hours for the French national sport of eating!

Amazing appetizer at La Prèvoté

After lunch I spend a mostly ponderous though sometimes inspired couple of hours writing before popping a bottle of rosé and nibbling on some cheese, olives etc.

Snacking Provençal style

Dinner is around 8:30-9:00 and I usually pop back in to Café du Progrès for a convivial Pastis with the owners Patrick and Carmen before bed.

Carmen and Patrick owners of Café du Progrès

All the windows in the house are open 24/7 and I am entertained by the sounds of children laughing, neighbours chatting and the fountain of the winter church which is outside my bedroom window and provides a continuous, yet soothing background soundtrack.

The fountain of the winter church

No TV but of course I have music from my iPod, its a grand existence.

Simple, laid back but productive. La vie en France!