“We decided not to go to Europe this year but come to Santa Barbara instead” Oucch! Just the type of comment that the cynical Brit loves to exploit when grumbling about their maybe somewhat less travelled American cousins……………. But having spent a delightful evening meandering the streets of Santa Barbara, striking architecture everywhere you look, people spilling onto the sidewalks, music filling the air, life still vibrant even after 11pm, I think perhaps that comment can be forgiven, for Santa Barbara truly has an authentic European ambience.
Even the history is respectfully old. The stunning Santa Barbara Mission, often aptly called the ‘Queen of the Missions’ was founded on the feast of St Barbara, December 4th 1786. It was the tenth of the 21 Californian Missions established by the Spanish Franciscans. Padre Juniper Serra who established 9 of the missions, envisaged its building but sadly died before work commenced. His successor Padre Fermin Francisco de Lasuen, raised the cross here and placed Padre Antonio Paterna, a companion of Serra, in charge. The Mission’s original purpose was to bring Christianity to the local Chumash Indians, the original inhabitants of the coastline from Malibu to San Luis Obispo. The Chumash were hunters and gatherers oriented to the sea, their manufacturing abilities were regarded highly by early explorers and their skilled handiwork greatly contributed to the Mission’s success. Over the years the Mission has been used for schooling, as a seminary and as a base for Friar’s work in various apostolates in the western states. The Mission church today is used by the Parish of St. Barbara.
The first time I was charmed by Santa Barbara, nearly 30 years ago, I remember my very first impression was that it did indeed feel like being in Europe. A charming, beautiful, small town, stretching along a main street, reminiscent of places I had visited far away. I fell in love with it then and it’s appeal has never faded. So hey, why not experience ‘Europe in California’, without the cost of the plane ticket and even better no jet lag, the bane of my life!!
A short drive away there one can be forgiven for thinking you are in Denmark, the somewhat Disney style ‘charms’ of Solvang await you! Despite it’s somewhat gauche appearance, Solvang is genuinely Danish and was actually settled by a group of Danes in 1911, wishing to escape the harsh midwestern winters. Its architecture is traditional Danish in style and there is both a copy of Copenhagen’s famous Little Mermaid Statue and a bust of Hans Christian Anderson, the author of so many beloved children’s stories
The journey to get to Solvang, through the Santa Ynez Valley, rivals many I have done on the other side of the ‘Pond’. As you climb the twisting curves up into the hills, the breathtaking, sweeping views across the ocean and over lush vineyards provide a true cornice Riviera experience. And what could be more delightful after your 30 minute ‘Grace Kelley, scarf blowing in the wind experience’ than then beguiling small town of Los Olivos. Straight out of an American picture book! Quite entrancing with its numerous vintners offering you generous samples from their local vines, gorgeous little gift stores selling a multitude of tasteful temptations, scrumptious restaurants enticing places to stay…ohh for more time to meander!
This tiny house in Belmont Shore is where our life in California began. A pretty, Mediterranean style, beach community near Long Beach. One way streets, packed with brightly stuccoed, terracotta tiled, ‘dolls house’ sized homes, sandwiched between Ocean Avenue, with its miles of deep, seemingly endless, sundrenched beaches and the vibrant shopping and dining community of 2nd Street. Both a five minute stroll away, and which 28 years later seemed little changed and just as charming. We meandered and reminisced for a while then continued our drive east, preparing to embrace the scorching temperatures of the Inland Empire and Palm Desert.
As we left the quaintness of Belmont Shore behind us, the massive petticoats of Los Angeles seemed to fan further than ever, like a huge crinoline, encompassing the ribbons of freeways and densely built up suburbs beneath its vast folds. The L.A. metropolis billowing outwards, almost to Palm Springs itself.
As the landscape gradually became more barren and desolate it was initially hard to understand how or why the Palm Springs, Palm Desert region had ever developed. The baked up earth seemed incapable of farming anything other than pristine, white windmills which dominated the terrain either side of the freeway. They stretched for miles and miles in immaculate, sentry like rows, as if over the years they had self-seeded. Their 40 or so foot blades twirling furiously, producing energy in defiance of the relentless heat, whose all encompassing aura seemed incapable of nurturing anything from this dry, exhausted land! Yet this region, its climate so harsh in summer had developed and thrived.
Native Americans discovered the sparkling waters of the area’s tree-lined canyons over a thousand years ago. They learned to cope with the climate extremities and survived from the multitude of its desert plants. In the 1800’s the region was named after one of these tribes, the Agua Caliente, whose association with the white people led to the their near total demise from smallpox by the turn of the twentieth century. At a similar time, as the area became an important stage stop enroute to Arizona it stared to expand and grow. Old town La Quinta provides a little of the history of this bygone era.
However, it was its popularity with the Hollywood elite, years later which allowed it to really flourish and turned it into a destination.
Today, many of its street names attest to its famous residences, Bob Hope Drive, Gene Autry Trail, Frank Sinatra Drive, to name but a few. From the freeway edges you can see the clear demarcation of where man’s irrigation and landscaping begins ~ one side a barren desert, the other lush and green. A testament to how the life giving miracle of water has turned a desolate, tumbleweed dustbowl into a beautifully manicured, palm tree clad, winter playground, often favoured by the rich and famous. Pristine golf courses, gated communities and vacation resorts, set against an almost moonscape like backdrop of the stunning, pale pink, Santa Rosa Mountains, bathing themselves just below an azure blue sky. A winter haven to escape to, although in August with temperatures well over 110 degrees, perhaps a place to escape from!! However, as we approached this fascinating, fearsome, yet fragile region, the last remnants of day light disappearing, its strange beauty and allure was not difficult to embrace.
Why would anyone be reduced to tears in the hazy, virtually standstill, 6 lanes of gas guzzling 405, San Diego Freeway? A Los Angeles freeway that I always think of as ‘mine’. A road full of so many memories and where my California love affair began 28 years ago.
‘If’, ‘what’ and ‘maybe’, all put together have the power to change your life, they certainly changed ours. They bought us to Los Angeles where our eyes were opened to a different way of life; a sundrenched, carefree, beach existence full of ‘beautiful people’…….. The opportunity to shop 24 hours, where you never paid to park your car, where you could drive through to do almost everything ~ to eat, deposit your money, collect your laundry; in a time when this was not the ‘American norm’ but certainly the Californian norm! A crazy place where you thought nothing of sitting in traffic for 2 hours and driving 70 miles to go to dinner. A world so unlike England, so unreal, that it actually felt sometimes that we were living in a sort of Disneyland. A world which could be both intoxicating and yet repugnant in its excesses, (‘he who dies with the most toys wins’, ughhhhh!) but a world where ‘dreams really can come true’ and an experience that changed the course of our lives forever.
Despite living back in England for 7 years, it was a world that we never really left, that we yearned to experience again and when the opportunity arose to live in its more sober, more ‘real’ neighbor, Northern California, in1993, now with 2 small children in tow, we grasped at it eagerly. There we found a different life, still Californian with all that we loved but a life that was more tangible. The gentle, leafy suburbs of Danville, 30 miles east of the dazzling city of San Francisco, became home. Within one to three hours of the stunning destinations of the Napa Valley, Carmel and Lake Tahoe…Places which have all become a treasured part of our lives.
So now stuck in bumper to bumper LA traffic what is all my emotion about? It is remembering how it felt to be here when my Californian story began, on the 405 freeway, arriving at LAX in July 1984. Naive, green, young, carefree, with no children and few complications. Where already in love, we fell in love together with California. A place where in 2005 our lovely girl chose to go to university; UCLA, where the streets of Westwood, Wilshire and Santa Monica became her home. UCLA, a place of academic prowess and learning where she was able to excel and then be able to secure a highly
sought after position at Bristol University, UK to study for her PhD.
A place you sought of love to hate or hate to love …….but a place where both my Kate, now older than I when I first arrived in 1984 has enfolded us into its embrace. And those tears, what where they about? Sentimental ties, the agony and the ecstasy of a Brit living overseas, loving bits of it all and wondering what exactly she is looking for and where is home…………..
Cars have always featured heavily in my life, or more to the point in the lives of the men in my life.
So imagine an event brimming with exotic cars, historic cars, luxury cars, concourse ‘trailered’ cars ~ by that I mean cars, which are trailered in to special events, whose engines rarely turn but sparkle beneath their bonnets like the well-cared for pristine ‘jewels’ that they are!! And all these cars displayed in one of the most beautiful locations in California, arguably in the entire US and possibly in my opinion, in the words of Jeremy Clarkson ‘in the world’ ~ Carmel California. An event full of beautiful people displaying their even more beautiful prized pocessions……….affluence spilling onto the pavement, sexy, glamorous and alluring……..even if you are not into cars it is a heady atmosphere.
For me however beyond the ‘glitter and gold’ what is more intoxicating is the shared passion and enthusiasm. Something that could be found at an entirely different venue, an equestrian event, an antiques show, an art museum but here the passion is for the automobile. Pure delight and avid interest whipped into a frenzy, when a group of people gather from all corners of the globe to froth and exude like a bubbling cocktail, their combined fervor becomes quite intoxicating. And no one could be more enthused, eyes glowing, than my lovely son James, aided and abetted by his Dad!
How lucky am I to share in their pure unadulterated, joy and passion. In one year to have watched their delight at the Monaco F1 Grand Prix, ‘24 heures du Mans’, the Sonoma Raceway where James squealed round the corners in his Mazda Miata race car and now strolling the ever picturesque streets of Carmel.
A stunning backdrop for an amazing collection of simply stunning automobiles! An event peppered with all sorts of ‘car meets’ and excitement, including the music, margaritas and engine roars at the Baja Cantina car display near Carmel Valley.
James’ knowledge and passion secured him a job working at the auctioneers Bonhams. Bonhams had coordinated a splendid collection of automobile temptations. A pre-auction display of automoblia magnificence, hoping to entice the most reluctant of notes from our wallets….
The eloquent authority of the auctioneer “do hurry up ladies and gentlemen, this car will sell to night………..and do I have 2 million? Ahhh yes, 2 million, sold over there, gentleman on the telephone!!!”
For us, our bank notes safely secure, once the hubbub had faded we were able to gasp once again at the simple but breathtaking beauty of the Carmel coastline. A beauty that never fades or tires but always succeeds in captivating that part of my heart that didn’t get left behind on the cobblestones of France or within the enfolds of an English village………….the gift and joy of travel, lucky lucky me!
Another Saturday, another farmer’s market in the vibrant but somewhat sleepy suburb which we call home, Danville, 30 miles east of San Francisco. In the shadows of the old railway station, market holders have gathered. More sunflowers, lavender, olive oil and a wide array of luscious orchard fruit, exotic orchids, field grown flowers, which look as they have just been gathered from the meadow, ripe local corn and a splendid assortment of vegetables.
To the strumming’s of a local guitarist, people wander happily down the aisles, trailing an assortment of baskets and packages, toddlers, buggies and brightly coloured plastic tricycles. Small children, and sometimes not so small children, are treated to freshly popped kettle corn as their parents try to avoid the temptations of the bakeries, home baked pot pies and buttery pastry enfolded bri cheeses!! Friends gather on corners and happy shoppers meander away in to the small town’s streets to share a coffee and catch up on the week’s events.
The old station looks proudly on, the bustle of its former steam train life long since gone, replaced with the different rhythms of market days and exhibitions. Now a local museum, it proudly displays constantly changing and fascinating stories of the region’s historical heritage. Elementary school children chattering excitedly, scribbling answers on worksheets which haphazardly hang off their clip boards, small groups of pensioners listening intently to the local curator and people like us, casually wandering by gathering information about the excitement of the Californian Gold Rush, the museum’s current exhibit.
Laden with orchids, sunflowers and heirloom tomatoes we also seek our morning coffee, avoiding the hubub surrounding one favorite spot, clearly the meeting place for ‘The Tour de France’, or so it seems! Grubby faced, somewhat weary cyclists of all ages, awkward in their too tight pants and bike shoes, clip clop their way across the courtyard to rest over steaming coffees, cappuccinos, lattes, non-fat this and low-fat that! We sit outside ‘La Boulange’…..French in name and sort of French in style. Resisting all the pastries and baked delights we smile at each other thinking of different coffee shops far away but agree this isn’t such a bad place to be after all!!!
Cars, speed, racing and male testosterone………those same components that consumed the atmosphere at ’24 Heures du Mans’, were just as effervescent when I watched my lovely son, James, racing in the Sports Club of America, (SCCA), Mazda Spec Miata, series at Sonoma Raceway, California.
About 70 specially spec Mazda Miatas, growling like hungry tigers, eagerly snarling on the starting grid. Impatiently reeving their engines, waiting for the flag to drop, signaling their permission to screech onto the track.
Ready to scream up through the gears, ‘pedal to the metal’ and hurtle themselves into the chicanes. Jostling for position, daring to take the ‘racing line’ into the corners as tightly as possible……
Roaring engines, gears shifting, clouds of brake dust and complete exhilaration!
People across the globe love an outdoor market, to purchase hand grown, freshly picked flowers and produce. Lavender, sunflowers and hydrangeas, beautiful wherever they are displayed for sale. These were at last Saturday’s San Francisco, Ferry Building, Farmers Market. Standing beside my dear friend Michelle, we remembered fondly the last time we stood together at a market, 4 months earlier, 5000 miles away in our beloved Provence.
Lusciously ripe tomatoes, lemons, peaches, plums, cherries, strawberries, the sort that squirt their delicious flavor of summer into your mouth, all temptingly displayed and soon weighing down my market basket.
The sun warming our backs, tantalizing smells of coffee and freshly cooked hot sandwich fillings, a gentle breeze coming off the Bay, we were enfolded as part of the bustling crowd, shuffling down each market aisle.
Canopied under a cornflower blue, cloudless sky, set against a backdrop of the breathtaking San Francisco skyline. On one side, the gently lapping waters of the Bay dominated by the Bay Bridge and on the other, the proud soaring, skyscrapers of the city.
The Ferry building opened in 1898 becoming the transportation focal point for anyone arriving by train to the city. From the Gold Rush until the 1930s, arrival by ferryboat became the only way travelers and commuters—except those coming from the Peninsula—could reach the city. Surviving two earthquakes (1906 and1989), the Ferry Building has been restored to its original grandeur as one of San Francisco’s most cherished landmarks. Inside it is a marvel of tempting produce; from small olive oil producers, mushroom growers, bespoke cheese makers, charcuteries and bakery products to name but a few. So inspiring to look at the hard work and craft from artisans who succeed in making a living by following their passion, producing the highest quality of specialist culinary delights.
Seemingly so far away from the broad, leafy shadows of the trees shading the market sellers in Place aux Herbes, Uzès, yet actually not so far. People who appreciate sumptious, fresh produce mingling together in markets across many different continents, including San Francisco and Uzès, joined by a shared desire to savor and create superb flavors and taste. What a lovely way to spend a Saturday morning, wherever you may be!
I called my blog ‘sunflowers and shutters’ because they are a few of the images embedded in my heart when I think of southern France. In my 6 months there I actually never saw any sunflowers but I did yesterday, not in Provence but in the beautiful Napa Valley, California.
sipping my favourite bold, oakey, buttery and I realize very passé Californian Chardonnay (a deliciousness you can only get here!) – with special friends, I remembered why we moved to California so long ago.
True, no shutters or medieval streets, 1874 was as old as it got yesterday, (but still impressive!), it really gives you pause for thought!
The lush and bountiful vineyards of the Napa Valley, flanked either side by the rolling golden Californian hills are just a 45 minute drive from my Californian home. As I sat there discussing plans to visit Carmel, another very much beloved Californian stunner, I could see my lovely daughter’s smiling face……”Yes Mummy it is pretty special here!”
It doesn’t in any way dilute my passion for those ancient cobbled streets guarding their age old secrets between the shutters. Neither can that unique beguiling atmosphere be found here, it belongs there………
but where do I belong……….?
What a question to ponder, I’ll keep you posted!!!
This is the day that Americans remember gaining their independence from the British in 1776. Had history unfolded differently maybe today they would still be more officially joined to us as part of the Commonwealth. There are many Americans who, like their Canadian neighbours would love to claim our Queen as theirs too. Having lived in this amazing country for over a third of my life I am always so touched by the American’s love and support of our wonderful monarch and their love of we Brits.
Thank you America for always making me feel special (well apart from at Immigration and the DMV!) I will never tire of being asked “oh are you English or “where in England are you from?” Thank you for your positive attitude, your warmth, your generosity and your greetings full of smiles, thank you for making me feel welcome in your country. ‘Home’ for me will always be England, as much as I love both France and California but how lucky am I to be made to feel so loved and special in this my ‘adopted country’.
On July 4th God Bless America, I am so glad that since 1776 we have become each others greatest friends!
What exactly is it that lures people to follow sport? Is it the thrill of the event, the camaraderie, the anticipation of victory, the rekindling of childhood dreams? All of my life I have been surrounded by men with a craving for motorsport. Restoring and nurturing their own prized Austin Healey’s, MG’s, E-types, Triumph Spitfires and Porsches, or trailing round enthusiasts car ‘meets’ and visiting the circuits and infamous events at Goodwood, Thruxton, Brandshatch, Silverstone, Bonneville, Nurburgring, Spa, Monaco, Daytona, Nazareth, Laguna Seca, Thunder Hill or Infineon. Enjoying track days, racing Mazda Miata’s and loyally being avidly glued to each and every Formula One event of every season since as far back as I can remember, at least 1975!
All of the men in my life have shared this passion for cars and especially racing cars. Top of the list of their favourite events has to be ‘24 Heures du Mans’. An event testing the speed and endurance of both the car, its drivers and their team. Attracting a larger global crowd than any other racing event, made even more famous in the 1970’s by Steve McQueen and this year celebrating its 80th year. An almost annual pilgrimage since 1987, this year I was invited to be part of it, my 3rd time although not for sixteen years! And despite the rain and ‘brrrr’ would I, francophile that I am, refuse the opportunity to return on the Chunnel to the Loire Valley barely 2 weeks after having left it?
Glamorous, sexy, and alluring, the smell of brake dust, oil and petrol pervading your nostrils, male testosterone rippling its muscles amongst the crowd, the roar and screech of high performance
engines, the anticipation and the thrill. An entire weekend dedicated to the motorcar and twenty four hours of power, of speed, of skill, of fortitude, durability and survival that is ‘24 Heures du Mans’.
Spending the event with specially treasured friends, being plied with champagne,
the experience was romanticized by the charmingly cosy ‘Petit Potager’ where we rested our weary selves each night.
More than anything how can you not be beguiled by the joy of the man you love glued to his Le Mans radio, relishing every single second of this experience,
screaming engines, shared passion and exhilaration for racing, speed and cars!
Life’s twists and turns, call them coincidences or serendipities never cease to amaze. In May I had stood by the harbor in Genoa, Italy, the birth place of the infamous explorer, Christopher Columbus. Three weeks later, quite unintentionally, I found myself standing before Captain James Cook, Whitby’s most famous seaman and Columbus’ predecessor by several hundred years but an equally renowned voyager.
In 1766, as commander of HMS Endeavour, (built in Whitby), Cook sailed for the first of three Pacific voyages. Navigating thousands of miles across largely uncharted areas, he mapped lands from New Zealand to Hawaii in the Pacific, in a detail and scale not previously achieved. Although killed in Hawaii in 1779, he left an unprecedented legacy of scientific and geographical knowledge.
I was nearly a thousand miles north of Genoa on the bleak, english, north yorkshire coast. I had arrived in both places unaware of the pieces of history awaiting me and was enthralled.
As you stare out to the North Sea, cold and threatening even in mid June, you cannot help but admire the courage and determination of such men. Wedded to the vast unpredictable ocean, battling ferocious weather systems in appalling, cramped living conditions on their tiny fragile vessels it is a wonder they survived, returning to share their incredibly brave discoveries which changed history forever.
Beside my sister and our husbands we stood and marveled at Cook’s statue, dominate above the small fishing town of Whitby. Steeped in history, dating back to 684, across the harbor, the ruins of the Abbey, referred to as ‘Dracula’s castle by the locals, quivered menacingly, clinging to its fragile spot on the cliff side.
Hundreds of years of people living sparsely and simply, surviving from the bounties of the forbidding waters, crashing forebodingly in a never-ending rhythm of timelessness. Casting their fishing nets and hauling in their days toil as they were tossed and thrown at the mercy of Poseidon. Once the 3rd biggest ship building town in England and a center for the the Whaling fishing industry from 1753 to 1831 Whitby is proud of its historical links to the sea. I shivered in admiration and a silent thankfulness that we earned our living in a different way.
Journeying across the Moors to Whitby, the ghostly wails of Bronte’s ‘Heathcliff’ screeching in the scrawls of the seagulls, I marveled at how the ravages of the centuries had left this stunningly beautiful yet desolate landscape unchanged. Rolling moors carpeted in low-lying heather and gorse stretching for miles, frequently to be shrouded in swirling coastal fog. Although north of the Bronte sister’s yorkshire home, the terrain was similar. It was easy to imagine Jane Eyre stumbling, blindly lost in both body and mind.
Delighted we watched a small spiral of ‘cloud’ come towards us from the far distance as the north yorkshire steam train puffed and shunted into view. Once a main transport link now full of tourists reminiscing over a time past.
Yorkshire is deservedly deemed as one of Britain’s areas of outstanding natural beauty. From the dales in the south to these northern moors the scenery is spectacular. The golden stone architecture is reminiscent of England’s southern Cotswold’s, the area is also rich in history. Just over a hundred miles south of the sixth century Viking settlements at Lindisfarne, there are castles, monasteries and ruins of dwellings also dating back to the Vikings and before. Dominated by Mills and the late eighteenth century wool industry, powerful industrialists and landowners peppered the area with magnificent stately mansions. Castle Howard, Nunnington Hall, Scampston Hall, Newby Hall and Burton Agnes to name but a few, the latter of which we visited.
Burton Agnes, an imposing country seat, originally a Norman dwelling, still in existence today beside the main house, dates back to Tudor times
Like many similar properties, it is enveloped deep within the countryside and one wonders about the past difficulties of travelling to and fro via horse and carriage.
The immense wealth required to run such an estate is also hard to envisage; the heating, cleaning, clothing and
feeding of such a household. How the staff, both inside and out must have toiled, especially on the occasion of a royal visitor such as Burton Agnes had in 1602, the bed of James 1st, who stayed here on route from Sotland to London, still proudly displayed today.
Outside we were dazed by the beauty and tranquility of the property’s immaculate grounds and delightful walled garden. Here time seemed to have been captured and held, plants and shrubs of all varieties, lovingly tended over many years to still display both their grandeur and simplicity. Such special, treasured moments spending time with those you care about yet seldom see, surrounded by the exquisiteness of mother nature’s bounty, gently revealing all its loveliness.
As you leave the vineyards and olive groves behind, speeding northwards, the countryside gradually begins to change. Golden, clay tiles roofs are replaced with slate, church spires seem thinner, reaching higher, the trees and plants become more deciduous and gradually the skies dull and are full of clouds. The cities of Montelimar, Valence, Lyons and Mâcon are all sped by and after 500 km, tired and travel weary you pull into the sleepy, historic town of Avallon in Burgandy, France.
Once on the main coaching route from Paris to Lyon, Avallon is now sadly mostly forgotten by travellers hurtling down the autoroute. Wandering it’s ancient cobbled streets, they are missing a treat!
We had spent a night in Avallon’s most impressive coaching inn, Hostellierie de la Poste, 30 years earlier returning from the south on our honeymoon. We had stayed in the quarters frequented by one of the inn’s most illustrious guests, Napoleon Bonaparte, who on March 16th 1815 had spent a night here on route north from Elba………
Somewhat worn but with the same warm welcome and sumptious dinner we were just as enchanted and for a small, relatively, simple abode surprised to learn more it’s incredible story. Since 1707 it has welcomed many important guests, including the King of Prussia, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Ernest Hemmingway and Presidents Kennedy and Eisenhower. Its fortunes over the years have risen and fallen. It was mentioned in the first edition of the Michelin Guide in 1900 and was proud to be one of the first restaurants ever to earn one Michelin star in 1948 followed by two in 1953. Certainly today the restaurants doesn’t disappoint, nor does this charming town.
Dating from 1120, Avallon’s medieval walls and turrets are still largely in place. An array of historical architecture span the centuries, a magnificent clock tower and imposing church, wide doors invitingly left open which when explored leave you speechless with wonder as you stare up at the arches spanning the ceiling and wonder how masons over 800 years ago developed the understanding to successfully construct such timeless majesty.
We were sad to have to continue our journey the following morning but having enjoyed the little town so much decided to sample a little more of the area rather than retuning immediately to the Autoroute. This was the Burgandy region of France, the home of Chablis wine and epoisse cheese, none of which we had time to sample but whose picturesque villages and sweeping lush countryside were stored as a region to return to.
By 4pm we were pulling into Calais and the Chunnel back to England.
‘Clio’ had taken care of us for over 12 000 km, I could not believe that our sourjorn in ‘La Belle France’ was over. Creeping forward onto the Chunnel I remembered the nervous anticipation I had felt steering myself in the opposite direction 5 months ago. All that had occurred since then, all that we had experienced and seen, indelible memories in my heart. I had followed a dream, scared and frightened to start with but in following a passion had fulfilled and found a joy, an elation I had believed existed and was waiting for me amongst the cobbled streets, the history, the worn shutters and still to bloom sunflowers. A contentment which would forever be part of my soul, which I wanted to continue to be part of my life’s story, a joy I knew I would soon be returning to.
“Parlez-vous français?” – “Oui, un petit peu” – was my response when I arrived in Uzès in January. By the time I left at the end of May I was able to truthfully answer the same question a little differently: “Oui, je parle français, si vous parlez lentement” – ‘Yes, if you speak slowly!!’
The improvement, (although there is still much work required!) is in large part due to my delightful and endlessly patient French teacher, Maryse, who more than anything gave me the confidence to speak, however incorrectly and however terrible my pronunciation! Twice weekly, 3 of us struggling students gathered in her petit salon where we were gently encouraged to listen, repeat and often just share whatever came to mind. Maybe that was the key to our progress, no worrying about conjugating verbs or whether the noun required a ‘le’ or a ‘la’, we just chatted, searching our limited vocabulary for a word that would fit, stumbling often but conversing none the less and laughing as we did so. My fellow classmates, as anxious as I to improve their skills, became my new friends. Interesting people with different life journeys, from California, Sweden, Australia and Britain, bound together by our shared love of France and our joy at being able to live there, even if just for a moment.
It was with great sadness I bade then ‘au revoir’, yet I knew it was just that, an ‘au revoir’ for I would certainly be returning to this beautiful region and to Uzès. Uzès, the “Premier Duchy of France,” in the Gard region of Languedoc Rousillon, southern France, just 45 km west of the magnificent and now much beloved medieval papal city of Avignon and 25 km north of the Roman stronghold of Nimes. Uzès, this enchanting bastide rooted in history had seduced me with its charm and authenticity. Its ancient, winding cobbled streets, its elegant squares, shaded by gently worn, golden, stone, shuttered buildings.
The glorious Ducal Castle, cathedral, and renaissance mansions. At its heart, Place-aux-Herbes, dominated and sheltered by the broad leaves of long ago established sycamore trees. Place-aux-Herbes fringed with its splendid arches, offering an array of enticing restaurants, many now old favorites, ‘Pizza du duche’, ‘A Cote’, ‘Le Terroir’ and ‘Zanelli’, where one could sit and enjoy the chatter and bustle and gentle sound of the Places’ glorious fountain. Place-aux-Herbes, host to carnival, the annual truffle fare, art fares, pottery exhibitions, brocants and renowned twice-weekly regional markets. Marchés, which had become such a part of my routine; smiling locals with linens, ribbons, baskets, and flowers, cheese makers, olive growers, and an abundance of fresh produce.
Nice, the capital of the Cote d’Azur, vibrant and exciting with its splendid shopping streets, famous beachfront Promenade d’ Anglais, its charming old town and stunning flower market.
The ancient history of Nice dates back to the Greeks, 350 BC, boasting one of the oldest settlements in Europe. It has been ruled by the Romans, returned to be part of Provence and then taken over by Italy and later Switzerland in the Middle Ages. In the mid-nineteenth century Nice was sold to Napoleon III in exchange for french financial and military assistance. Shortly after it became much frequented and much beloved by the English aristocracy. Beguiled by its beautiful setting and the warmth of the sunshine, the English brought a prosperity to the area previously unknown. They built luxurious, bougainvillea-covered villas, impressive churches and a walkway by the sparkling Mediterranean – Promenade des Anglais.
In the early twentieth century when the railway from Marseilles was extended, Nice became a destination, developing a tourist based economy with people travelling for the first time just for pleasure. Its picturesque surroundings also attracted those seeking inspiration – artists such as Chagall, Matisse and Arman, whose work is commemorated in the city’s fine museums. Today Nice remains the most visited city in France after Paris, attracting four million visitors every year.
While our boys soaked up the excitement and atmosphere of Formula One in nearby Monaco, we girls strolled Nice’s avenues, old town and seafront. We sampled some of the culinary abundance from the plentiful restaurants, pampered ourselves on private beaches, choose delicious fruits and vegetables for the evening’s dinner and gathered arms full of freshly picked blooms in the flower market. It was not hard to see why Nice has been and remains today such a favourite destination from visitors all over the world!
Within a moment you have sped along the AutoRoute and it becomes the Autostrade and voilà France is behind you and you are in Italy! No passport control, no douane, no barricades, no police, just a dark blue square signpost with the familiar circle of gold stars and the words ‘France’ replaced by ‘Italy’. You are now in a different country! The roads are the same, the trees and plants but quick glimpses of the architecture reminds you that you are somewhere else.
Taller buildings, more compact, with longer, somewhat tattier looking shutters, the provencal ochre, blues and lavenders replaced with duller, more austere shades. The Autostrade hugs the coastline and twines its way along the Italian Rivera, close to the sparkling, beguiling Mediterranean. Small beach towns and fishing villages are frequently signposted, visited along twisting, winding switchbacks, bathed in sunlight beckoning you to sample their espressos, gelatos and pizzas closer to the water. You feel you should be in a convertible car with large sunglasses and a Hermes scarf neatly tied under your chin containing your beautifully coiffured locks, à la Grace Kelly!!
Within 90 minutes you are pulling up outside a smart Italian hotel in the city of Genoa, a bell boy anxiously rushing to relieve you of your luggage as you mutter ‘merci’, stammer and replace it with a ‘grazie’, one of the only 5 words of Italian you know, maybe your French isn’t so feeble after all!!!!
Genoa, sprawling strades, with a tempting indoor food hall, parmesan,
fresh pasta, luscious fruits and vegetables! Bustling cafes and
stylish people hurrying across magnificent piazzas and Vespas everywhere!
Hundreds and thousands of people gathered together in London, June 2nd-5th 2012 to celebrate Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. On June 4th the venue was on the River Thames for the Royal Pageant. Undeterred by inclement weather, torrential rain showers, bitter wind blasts and almost constant drizzle the crowds cheered, laughed and sang, full of patriotism and pride for the woman they hold dear to their hearts, their Queen.
Standing in amidst the excited, flag waving multitude one could not fail to be swept up by the enthusiasm and festive atmosphere. Our place secured at 7.30am by the hardcore younger members of our party on the Chelsea embankment, no one minded the eight-hour wait as the numbers swelled around us and the rain battered our brollies and raincoats! Warmed by Pimms and champers, a large screen TV kept us updated on the royal party’s progress.
Eventually the first of over one thousand boats participating in the pageant began to appear. From Hammersmith, they proudly sailed past in a grand procession to eventually disperse at Tower Bridge. Stunningly dressed for the occasion, adorned with flags, flowers and streamers, people and vessels alike attired in their most splendid rig.
One of the largest flotillas ever assembled we waved and applauded the rowing boats, working boats, cruisers, fire and police, boats from the armed forces, historic boats, steamers and wooden launches.
A spectacle to behold, the floating celebration enhanced by chiming bells, stirring bands and the voices of choirs singing to her Majesty. The majestic, timeless River Thames jubilantly bought to life reminiscent of its working history and splendid royal heritage, a perfect stage for a perfect celebration!
Gracious, dignified, poised, respected and admired by millions across the globe. Queen Elizabeth II, the Queen of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth might only be a figurehead with no ‘real power’ but few others have set a more exemplary example of leadership. Her dedication and tireless commitment to duty demonstrate a work ethic seldom seen by even the most successful of leaders.
As we celebrate with pride, 60 years of this great leader’s reign, there are many lessons to be learned from her steadfastness, loyalty, determination and unwavering dedication to her responsibilities.
Nations across the world, people from different cultures and backgrounds, share a common connection with this incredible woman.
For many, Her Majesty is upheld as a timeless illustration of integrity and leadership – someone to look up to and emulate.
Congratulations to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II on her Diamond Jubilee, 60 years of leading her people; an inspiring example to us all.
Have you ever wondered what is behind ‘that door’, who lives or works there?
It is funny how the events of a day that you had not particularly been looking forward to can take an unexpected turn that fills your heart with joy. I left my Kate at the tiny airport of Béziers, a further 50 km south from Montpellier, where we normally have our ‘Love Actually’ moments; departing from there as she could get a flight directly to Bristol and save much travelling time in UK. Having left the sunshine of Uzès it was cloudy further south, closer to the coast and as I pulled away from the airport, not much bigger that an airfield really, the clouds reflected my mood, I felt a bit flat and sad to see Kate go.
I raced back up the Autoroute into the sunshine and then on a whim decided to turn off just after Montepellier to explore the Medieval city of Aigues-Mortes. I had seen it sign posted each time I had driven to the airport and had also noticed that it was the place where the famous hand raked and harvested ‘Fleur De Sel de Camargue‘ came from. The salt to use if you are going to use any, hugely expensive and hard to find in USA but just 3 euros here! More than that I didn’t know what to expect.
I had actually thought that the crumbling small cluster of ramparts, visible from the autoroute, was where I was headed and so was surprised after 5 minutes to see a sign post informing me that I had 20 km to reach my destination. The landscape was very flat, I was in the Carmague, fields of white horses and a sense that the sea was hiding just over the horizon.
As soon as I reached Aigues-Mortes I knew my unscheduled meandering was an excellent decision. A walled bastide right in one of the largest wet lands in Europe. A wild and protected environment of marshes, sand and water. Home to unique flora and fauna which are protected through the natural production of salt using principally renewable energy, the sun and the wind.
A spectacular sight made more incredible as the original city walls are still in tact! It looked somewhat incongruous with the surrounding area but that is also what made it so bewitching. As if someone had placed a Disney castle in the middle of a vast flat terrain!!
Aigues-Mortes was built in 1240, by Louis IX, who decided to build a city close to his kingdom in order to have a direct access to the Mediterranean Sea. Crusades were planned and led from here and the Knights Templar imrpisoned within its shadows. This unique medieval fortification, which one can explore from the top of its ramparts, offers magnificent views over the city, the lake, the vineyards and the salt!
Salt has been mined from this area since neolithic time. In the 8th century Benedictine monks settled at the Abbey of Psalmody, to exploit this valuable commodity. In more modern times water is pumped into the sea travelling more than 70 km. The salt is harvested mechanically, piled up in the twinkling “camelles” before being packaged, fascinating!!
Over Seven centuries later, salt mining and the fortification of Aigues-Mortes still dominates the Camargue as one of the most well preserved medieval French buildings. So on a Wednesday afternoon here I was roaming around these enchanting cobbled streets! Discovering charming buildings, coffee spots and restaurants.
Also many tempting treasures to buy.
How can 7 hours on a plane take you to a place that is so utterly different from the one you left? I guess we have all pondered this following a flight overseas. I remember thinking exactly the same thing as a seven year old child first visiting France. I was awestruck by how strange and foreign Cherbourg seemed from Southampton, the architecture, the people, the food, the language, driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road……………..I also thought I was thousands of miles from England having spent 6 hours on a cross channel ferry, the Townsend Thoresen rolling across the grey Englsih channel, a recipe for nausea if ever there was one!!
Last week we were working in Dubai, a hundred million miles from the gentle, sun kissed, golden stone bastide of Uzès! Like any large metropolis, loud, vibrant, bustling, traffic clogging the roads in every direction, with sky scrappers towering overhead competing for domination of the horizon. Commonalities with the cities in Europe or America I am more used to visiting but also distinctly different. Palm tress and mosques peppered in amongst the buildings, people speeding past in shining luxury SUV’s, in full Arab dress, the wailing of the call to pray, each skyscraper more architecturally bizarre than its neighbor, challenging to be the most unique building around, spouting at all angles bearing all shapes. Opulence on every corner be it high end luxury car
dealerships, immense shopping malls with retail temptations from across the globe, complete with indoor aquariums, ice rinks, ski runs and hotels all trying to out do each other in offering their guests the best of everything. Then there is the searing unrelenting heat which when you step into makes you feel it will possibly vaporize you!
Part of me wanted to be vaporized in this artificial Middle Eastern mirage; as you sat by the pool conscious that the salad you had just ordered for lunch was probably the equivalent of the weekly salary for the person bringing it to you…..It makes for feeling very uncomfortable, despite the indulgence which I was privileged enough to be able to enjoy, all designed to pamper but threatening to consume!
Yes, a long way from Uzès, a long from anywhere, but how fortunate to be able to experience the differences that the world has to offer. For me also a further chance to reflect on what life is all about. How being born into which ever culture and part of the world you arrive in offers such varied experiences depending on where that place is. Of course there are people everywhere, in every corner of the globe born with the ‘silver spoon’, just as there are many more born into abject poverty. The gift of travel helps to open your eyes to others’ lives and situations. Visiting Dubai for 4 days, just as being in Uzès for 4 months, in totally diverse ways, has shown me how life can be incredibly different.
It isn’t about what is right or wrong or better or worse it is about making the best choice for you.
Back in Uzès, my lovely Kate was pretty happy with her decision to return with me and help me move into the new ‘bachelor pad’! Tiny, minimalistic, ‘très chic’, still right in the throng of everything with a great west facing deck overlooking a scattering of clay tiled roof tops. The perfect setting for the end of the day…… a setting perfect for us!
France, and especially southern France is famous for its perched villages. Stone bastides, which cling, seemingly quite precariously, to the hillside. Mostly built in the Middle Ages on carefully chosen prominent rock faces, offering the best vantage point for protection from potential invaders. Once immersed in the enfold of ancient stone buildings and winding cobbled streets the modern day visitor cannot fail to be both impressed and charmed.
Nestled on a magnificent 804 feet high rocky escarpment, (in provençal, “bau” means ‘rocky escarpment) standing high above the caves of the surrounding Alpilles hills it is utterly captivating. Les Baux’ strategic position meant it was settled early, both by Celts and by Romans but the height of its power was in the early Middle Ages, when it was dominated by the fiercely ambitious princes of Les Baux, who controlled 79 towns and villages in the region.They claimed to be the descendants of Balthazar, one of the Three Wise Men, and the 16-pointed silver star which guided the kings to Bethlehem is still on the municipal flag.
Fragrant smells of lavender and cooking, the atmosphere is magical.
In 1642 the town was granted to the Grimaldi
family, of Monaco, as a French marquisiate, the title of Marquis des Baux remains with them. The family have visited the tiny 12th century church, Saint Vincent’s, a ‘troglodyte building’ i.e. it’s partly carved into the rock. It is spellbinding in its quiet simplicity.
Les Baux is postioned high above the surrounding flatlands, ‘Le Crau’, an important stretch of the Via Aurelia, the Roman road connecting Arles and Aix en Provence. It commands a splendid vista over acres of olive groves and vineyards, offering a view of Provence that dreams are made of. It is almost possible to see the ocean on a clear day and the distant sights of Nimes and far off Marseilles.
I found this wonderful extract written by André Suarez, (1868-1948) a French writer and poet from Marseille, whose love and passion for of Provence, a bit like mine, was deeply rooted in his soul. He was buried in Les Baux de Provence, July 8,1950. For me it is an excellent description of this enchanting place: “…I longed for the pine trees and olive groves […] Everything here speaks of families and eternity.” “I know of no place more admirable than Les Baux. The countryside separates us from all that we find offensive […] It reveals all that we have which is great, all that is real; it turns this inner greatness into a vocation […] In Les Baux, grandeur has charm and charm is filled with a sense of grandeur.”
Now that I have established that there are some great places to eat in France, I thought I should stay on the subject of food.
We were happy shoppers at a Sunday ‘marche’, especially when they served us wine! This prepared us nicely for the Olive oil ‘cave’.
A shopping spree in a restored 18th century bastide tempted us. Lilacs and lemons added to the ambience amongst the somewhat overpriced T shirts, ready to be purchased by ‘beautiful people’ with sagging wallets!
These figs, which were just beginning to make their boughs slightly bend, a promise of summer ‘luciousness’ beckoning.
Herbs and spices, their fragrance wafting in the warm spring air in Uzès’ wonderful Saturday market……
Provence a haven for the taste buds and all things really ‘délicieux’
For many years I have thought that the reputation that the French have for their cooking is highly overrated……..
People who visit France, or even people who have never visited France, rave about French restaurants, about French chefs and indeed all things food related ‘en France’ but ‘pas mois’. I have always felt somewhat confused that whilst the variety and standard of fresh produce available to purchase is excellent this is not always reflected when you eat out.
As someone who loves to cook and enjoys food I am often disappointed when I eat out, regardless of where I am. I admit, I am not a great fan of small, overpriced portions, even when they are presented as small works of art! At the risk of sounding like a certain Mr Ramsy (who I am also not a fan of!!!), what I enjoy the most is fresh, flavourful food which I wouldn’t perhaps cook myself…
So to get to the point, can the French cook? I have always enjoyed excellent pizzas in France, cooked to near delicious perfection ‘au feu de bois’ (in a wood fired oven) and I adore their moules, with frites of course, infact most things avec les frites are pretty good, even ‘tartare de bœuf’!! However in general I have found French cuisine to be overly concerned with parts of the animal most of us would prefer not to know about, over fussed with and lacking in fresh vegetables … until now!
We didn’t eat in any Michelin starred restaurants (where, when you are paying a fortune you should be impressed), we ate in moderately priced, local restaurants. Ambience and service ‘par excellence’ not a strange body part, pizza or frite insight, where taste, flavor, presentation and value were all ‘très délicieux’!
They say a picture speaks a thousand words so I am not going to attempt to do better than show you… But do the French know how to cook, ‘masi oui’! Maybe I had just been going to the wrong places…………..peut-être!
Uzès is bursting into life. The new leaves have gently uncurled, already beginning to form their natural canopy of shade along the streets and in Place aux Herbs. Shops and restaurants, previously closed are opening everywhere and there has been an influx of people for the Easter weekend. It is fun to watch them stroll across the Place aux Herbs, so obviously tourists with their ‘holiday garb’, clutching cameras with that familiar look of curiosity and exploration. Probably looking just as I did when I arrived and probably to the real locals still look!
We have a whole weekend to enjoy together. Chris’ recovery from surgery has been excellent and smooth, right from when the ambulance drove him home and the nightmare of the previous 3 weeks has begun to fade. As so often in life when you are immersed in a drama it seems never ending and then almost as quickly as it turned you life upside down it is over and things gradually resume to normal leaving you with some scars and bruises, the lesson being that nothing lasts forever, good or bad.
Our dear friend Kristen, from California, has come and gone. For 5 days she sprinkled her joy and friendship arriving with her grandmother’s WW11 nurses uniform to help tend the patient!
Together, in-between ‘hospital duty’ we revisited many of my favorite spots, Les Baux en Provence, Pont du Gard and Avignon. Seeing these sights through others eyes, what they notice and comment upon and equally what they don’t see is fascinating.
Pondereing this whilst sipping a coffee outside the Palais des Papes as Kristin was doing the tour, (I declined, a 3rd time in one month seemed excessive!!) As I stirred by cappuccino I first reflected on the very many different ways the French served their coffee. Each time I thought I was ordering the same thing and each time ‘quelle surprise’, so many different interpretations! Café crème, café au-lait, café longue, never mind espressos, americanos, cappuccinos, all presented in a myriad of ways depending on where you ordered and yet not a Starbucks in sight, phew ‘quelle délivrance’! Café crème for instance could come with frothed milk, too much milk, too little milk, with whipped cream, without, in a tall glass, in a mug, or in a cup with a saucer. A plethora of different presentations. In some regard a bit like the people I was watching in the square in front of me. All the same and yet all uniquely different. Many clad in the ‘uniform’ of jeans, but adorned slightly differently, sneakers, ballet flats, boots and heels. With scarves, without, sporting hats or not, smiling, scowling, looking absorbed or perplexed or bored or just exhausted.
Most posing for photos outside a world famous landmark, which they had travelled far and wide to marvel at. A moment held in time to be secreted away, uploaded, downloaded and stored in a private collection of memories. Some to be printed and lovingly mounted, included in a carefully crafted album of vacation reminiscences along with the ticket admission stubs, postcards and other vignettes of treasured travels. Others merely stored within in the bowels of a personal PC, photo collections maybe to be glanced at once or maybe not at all. People doing the same thing but all so different, just like my coffee experiences all different but yet the same. Different people on different days, playing the tourist. Relishing the experience or letting it pass by like a dandelion puff that blows almost unseen in the air right in front of our eyes, sometimes to be captured and noticed sometimes not. The rich tapestry of an every day tourist day unfolding in front of my eyes……
Yesterday as I went to see Chris after his surgery my journey again took me along tree lined vineyards carpeted in a soft kiss of white blossom petals. Tractors slowly churning the rich soil, men toiling alone, bedecked in large hats to protect themselves from the intensifying sunshine as they pruned the vines and fruit trees. I meandered through a gorge and approached a medieval bridge, which zigzagged its way across the ‘Rive Gardon’ just a few miles downstream for the Pont du Gard. I remembered Kate’s recent comments when we drove this road together, that as she looked down over the parapets she could almost see the Roman centurions sitting in the dusty, dried up riverbed lacing their sandals. Yes, time in this sleepy, unspoiled part of France seems in many respects to have stood still. Crops to be planted, tended to and nurtured, people working the fields to earn a living. Little has changed over the centuries or been touched by ‘progress’. Only the occasional road sign and the sudden pathway of electric pylons reminded me that I had not stepped into the past.
Of course the incessant car screeching up behind me desperate to overtake on an almost blind corner helped to jolt me into reality but most of the time I just marveled at the peacefulness of all I beheld. The beauty of the spires of a medieval village suddenly coming into view as I turned a corner. All of it so soothing to my anxious, fretting mind as I drove to a hospital hoping that all was well. A reminder that the basic, simple things in life are and always have been the most important, your health first and foremost.
I pondered on what happened to people before the miracles of modern medicine when having beavered in the fields and labored to build the villages so beloved by myself and many others, people injured themselves. I imagined a life with unrelenting pain and agony, pain I had recently witnessed in Chris’ face and felt grateful that in that respect it was good to be alive now where science could mend our broken bodies. I thought how life is so much about balance. How fortunate we are to live in a time where medical intervention can restore us to health. Yet ironically an age which drives us all to meet so many deadlines; answer phones, respond to emails and texts, to tweet and post and all manner of other things. How so much of life balance is out of kilter, how within this connected, global village we all exist in we are expected to be responsive ‘24/7’. How we are all striving to get to this ‘somewhere’ that doesn’t actually exist, this goal post or place when ‘things will be calmer’. I reflected on my own morning, sending emails to 3 different continents, putting out fires with clients who faked concern for Chris but then in the next sentence were demanding answers from him regardless of the fact that today he was having surgery.
I thought of the words of a poem I hold so dear ‘The Station’ by Robert Hastings. For so many of us our life is like the train journey of this poem. We travel along cheered on by waving people as we whizz through each of life’s station consuming ourselves with life’s busyness looking forward to getting ‘there’. Only we never get ‘there’ because the journey is the ‘now’, this very moment, the joys, the tears and all the messy bits in between called ‘life’. It reminded me why I had come to this beautiful part of France in the first place. In truth partly to escape, because in my heart I truly believe that life is not about the destination but the journey. Having the time and more importantly taking the time to stop and notice the vines, the blossoms and the church spires.
When I got to my journey’s end and was sitting by the side of the man I have loved for over 34 years, slowly waking from surgery I gave thanks for his recovery and held his hand with renewed determination that we were going to slow down and take the time we had together to smell those cherry blossoms and very soon I hoped.
I never expected to have to learn such french words as ‘infirmière’, ‘douleur’, ‘ordonnance’, ‘chirurgie’ – nurse, pain, prescription, surgery… There are of course other words which have a much easier translation – ‘agonie’, ‘hôpital’, ‘le médecin’.
The distressing reason for my newly acquired increased vocabulary is that ‘mon pauvre mari’ was admitted to hospital with a slipped disc. The hospital has been fine and we have managed to understand each other with our combined ‘franglais’. Today he moves to a private clinic for possible surgery. Although very upsetting and worrying and not an experience we would ever have sought, we have faith in the care he is receiving and trust all will be well.
Even this horrid turn of events has not been able to dampen our enthusiasm for life here. The fact that your own life is in crisis yet life around you continues, provides calm and reassurance that ‘this too will pass’. The children’s carnvial, laughing, chattering, excited voices, went ahead as scheduled in ‘Place aux Herbes’. The winding streets basking in the golden light, as more shops and businesses sping to life with the approach of Easter and the beginning of the influx of tourists.
Driving to the hospital, albeit following an ambulance, stirred the heart. Field after field of vines still showing no evidence of spring growth and silvery, green olive trees softened with the pink blossoms of cherry and almond orchards now in full bloom.
Spring has arrived in southern France, shutters have been flung back, windows opened, thick coats been replaced with shirts and blouses, sweaters tied carefully over shoulders and scarves everywhere! The streets have become even more crowded with chairs and people embracing the warmth of the spring sunshine.
‘Clio’ and I have discovered many ways to navigate the 45km journey to the hospital and have abandoned the AutoRoute for the gentler calm of the country lanes that twist and turn through the fields and actually get us there just as quickly but feeling calmer and more relaxed
My poor friend Michelle, having braved the long journey from California, was here throughout this crisis. Although a real disappointment for her, I was so grateful of her support and to have a smiling face and an open bottle of wine to return home to each night from the hospital. Michelle even succeeded in making my birthday special despite everything, whisking me away to a stunning boutique hotel, a welcome evening of escape! Most of our plans were abandoned replaced with different unwelcomed ones but those that constitute ‘real life’. Together we experienced the efficiencies of the French health system, nurses and doctors visiting the house, helpful pharmacists explaining drug procedures and everyone encouraging me on with their smiles and stoic words of encouragement ‘bon courage’, could there be a more appropriate phrase for me right now?
According to legend, the infamous Pont d’Avignon was built In 1185 as a result of a miracle. An angel led a shepherd called Bénézet to Avignon and told him to tell the town to build the bridge. Initially ridiculed, when Bénézet lifted an enormous rock before the town’s leaders they became convinced that this was a divine order and set about the construction. Sadly Bénézet died before the bridge’s completion, but he played a significant role as a fund raiser, providing money for the building and for the establishment of a local hospital nearby.
The 2950 feet long bridge was finally put out of use by a catastrophic flood in 1668, which swept away much of the structure. Since then, its surviving arches have successively collapsed or been demolished.
Our lovely daughter Kate, back in the fold to enjoy ‘La Belle France’ with us again! Happily posing with a T-shirt from Daddy, recently purchased in some far off Asian Market! Very appropriate for we Richard Curtiss, ‘Four Weddings & a Funeral’ ‘Notting Hill’and ‘Love Actually’ fans!
We were soon rewarded, a family once again reunited! The following day, in Avignon, cool beer, local vin rosé, 4 smiling faces soon a glow in the mid afternoon Provencal sun, ready for the grand tour of Les Palais des Papes.
Another World Unesco site, it is the largest Gothic Palace in the world, equivalent in volume to 4 gothic cathedrals and includes the private apartments of the Pope, fantastically adorned with fabulous Italian frescoes.
It was not a disappointing experience. Among the ramparts and cloisters, memories of Papal power, prestige and fear lingered. Hushed tones of whispered intrigue, soft choral voices practicing for evensong, men dedicated in a life long service to God. A bygone era, when the might of the Holy Catholic Church dominated peoples’ lives, their ambition, their destiny and their demise.
As I woke on Wednesday morning, contemplating the day ahead, I thought that to celebrate the year’ s extra day, February 29th I should be doing something special, other than focusing on work. Then I remembered with a quick thrill that today was market day. Not the all consuming bustle of Saturday but a smaller affair, still overflowing with the abundances of the local area. That my reaction to a stroll round a market, filled me with such joy made me smile. The truth is though, that for me, every day here seems special, some more special than others, but isn’t that how life should be? Living in the ‘now’ enjoying the
gift of each day as it enfolds, rather than rushing through it and wishing it were ‘a few days time’ to the day ahead where we have made ‘plans’ to ‘fill our hearts with joy’. Actually we can fill our hearts with joy even momentarily, each and every day, looking at the bough of newly open blossom, the smell of freshly cut grass, when someone we don’t know smiles at us……… if we only have the time to notice. Maybe my delight in the market is that here, where the pace is slower, there is time to contemplate the ‘ordinary’. Hardly fair though to label ‘ordinary’, a market set within the walls of an ancient bastide, surrounded by the seeing eyes of worn sash windows and shutters, afterwards to sip coffee outside in the ever warming sunshine, in February!
Last Saturday we ambled our way through the beautiful Luberon Valley, about 40 miles east of Uzès, retracing our steps of three years ago through the charming town of St Rémy de Provence, Bonnieux, Ménerbes, Gordes (The Peter Mayle country) and finally twisting to the southern side of this breathtaking vine laden area to the small village of Lourmarin. I had fallen in love with this delightful little “Belle Ville de France” on my fist visit and I was not disappointed. It’s south facing aspect, nestling under the hills of the Luberon gave it a warm glow of contentment as it basked in the late afternoon sunshine. Restaurants overflowing with people laughing, enjoying a late lunch or a coffee out with friends, we wound through the delightful cobbled streets and I contemplated how I might get some of the treasure from the ‘petite magazines’ into my suitcase! A skilled master at cramming things into my travel bags I realized that perhaps this was a place to return to with an encouraging girlfriend rather than face ‘mon mari’s’ dumbfounded look and shake of the head as he muttered to me in complete despair ‘well why do we need that and where on earth are you going to put it?’ Is that ever even a consideration when we are tempted by some absolute ‘must have’ treasure’?!!!!!
Sunday took us on a different and quite magnificent stroll to the Pont du Gard. Guided by well posted footpath signs we abandoned ‘Clio’ in a field and set off through the trees. As we meandered through an olive grove and scrub oaks, we could have been in California and hoped we were heading the right way. The walk took about 30 minutes and eventually tipped us out by the river and ‘voilà, there was the Pont du Gard quite breathtakingly unexpected even though it was actually what we were expecting to reach! A Unesco World Heritage site since 1995 and deservedly so. The highest known Roman aqueduct in the world, spanning the Gardon, it was built around 500 AD and carried water from the hills behind Uzès to the vibrant Roman city of Nimes, some 20 miles away, for nearly 600 years. In the Middle Ages the batteries were cut in the second floor and it was used as a road bridge. During the 16th century a degree of restoration work was competed to preserve its integrity. A road bridge was attached to it 1743- 1747 and finally in 1840 it was classified as an historic monument. It is a site to be beheld.