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!
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!
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.
Although I am reveling in my new life in France I am actually also working. As part of that I am involved in a great deal of social media engagement for Integratis, finding things of value and interest to share. My motivation and interest is driven by trying to contribute to helping others improve performance…not just from the goodness of my heart, hopefully potential customers will like what we do and pay us to help them achieve their goals!
So why am I even writing this? Well I just posted on our business Twitter and Facebook pages something which I also decided to share on my personal Facebook wall. Why? Because it comes from my heart, it is what I believe, applicable to both work and home, in all we do; it is how I try to live my life and living my life has drawn me to France.
“People might forget what you said or did but they will never forget how you made them feel”.
I hope that I always make others feel that I care about them, about living a life of peace andjoy, which might well include listening and crying together but also hopefully dancing on the coffee table!
To me, life is all about people, my Daddy taught me that. No matter what we have or strive for, we can’t take ‘things’ with us but the memories we create with others and through the life choices we make, live on in our hearts forever. I then pondered on this irony, why then have I repeatedly chosen to move far away from those I love? Maybe it is that same depth of feeling I have for those I care about that also drives me to follow my passions. Living in France has long been a true passion of mine. To discover whether life here is nothing more than a ‘shutters and sunflowers dream’. I still can’t really define exactly what it is that fills my soul about this beautiful, ancient, mystical part of the world, it just does and maybe that is good enough.
Yesterday, sitting outside having lunch with Chris, under the glorious splendor of the Palais du Papes in Avignon, ‘ancient’ and ‘mystical’ were everywhere.
The might and power of the medieval Catholic Church, the magnificence of the buildings created from the painstaking blood, sweat and toil of others.
The incredible architectural feats, from a time when technology was so little understood, a time riddled with suspicion of science and progress, when all labour was exactly that, labour; excruciating, backbreaking effort. Yet men created buildings that even today, regardless of your religious affiliation, make you gasp with wonder. I must re-read ‘Pillars of the Earth’, Ken Follet’s amazing tribute to such buildings!
Did I say ‘sit outside’…..yes it is finally warmer. The squares, once deserted, windswept voids, are filling with bistro tables, chairs and enormous market umbrellas…. a sign of even sunnier days to come and I love it!! We ate a long, leisurely lunch of roasted aubergines and artichokes, steak frites, followed by a splendid chocolate covered pear for Chris and the most divine crepe ‘pour mois’…..(well the day before, was pancake day!!), all washed down with an excellent local red vintage, calories, work worry, all temporarily forgotten, we were living our life, living our dream, what could be better?
It is wonderful when you spend time with friends whom you met many years ago, before children, mortgages, health care issues and all the messy things called ‘life’ have deposited their debris upon you. Friends, you sadly don’t see enough of, in our case because of a little thing called the Atlantic Ocean, yet when you do the years that have passed and the distance that has separated us just melt away and there is ohh so very much to chat about! I have just spent such a week with my friend, Nadine. Together we have explored the countryside, walked the towns, sampled the local delicacies, soaked up the culture but most of all drunk delicious French wine and just enjoyed being together!
We had a fun rendezvous with some equally dear English friends, Philppa, Kevin and my handsome, quite delightful godson Nicky. We all met in Aix-en-Provence, when finally the biting chill began to recede and we could actually walk with coats undone! Aix is a sophisticated, charming city, 70 miles south of Uzès, energized by hurrying students, elegant shoppers and people like us, wandering aimlessly though its winding streets catching up on our lives, finding ourselves still absorbed in conversation over lunch and coffee, good friends, happy memories…………….
The following day, Valentines Day, it felt like the warmth of the occasion had forbidden anything other than blue skies and a golden glow for young lovers to sit outside and sip their espressos, she pouting and he holding her hand, whispering to her softly and adoringly! No pouting or crooning for us but instead a wonderful, lazy lunch on the terrace basking in the sunshine pouring through Avignon’s ancient splendid buildings. Together we window shopped and ‘pooufed’ at the tiny little sweaters, priced at several hundred euros, wondering how they would ever fit anyone other than members of the ‘impossibly thin club’, certainly not us! We arrived at twilight at the stunning Palais du Papes, (it looked like the back drop of a movie set) having experienced the French vendeurs strutting across their chic, petite boutiques looking like they had just stepped straight from the Rodeo Drive scene in ‘Pretty Woman’, eyeing us up, deciding we were unlikely to purchase and then continuing with their pouting and strutting. So far from the normal, California smiles, welcomes and helpfulness (well apart from Rodeo Drive of course!!)….. Later in the week in Uzès, in an equally chic boutique we were met with a California style warmth and our looking became buying, it never costs anything to be nice to people!!
Our exploring took us 70 km east of Uzès to the Haute Vaulcuse, tiny villages nestled under the shadow of Mount Ventoux, proudly wearing its seasonal mantle of snow. We meandered through the medieval towns of Bedoin, Caromb and Carianne, lunching in Vaison la Romaine. Perched high up over the gorge, we sampled au feu de bois pizzas enjoying our two charming and attentive French waiters, one for each of us!! With ‘Arabella’s’ help, we followed the twisting roads west through fields of vines protruding in rows like ancient, gnarled, bony fingers, impossible to believe the abundance they would produce within a few months. The flat terrain gave way to gentle rolling hills as we wound our way into Chateauneuf du Pape and marveled beneath the windswept ruins of the chateau at the magnificence of the Rhone and Avignon beyond it.
After a final déjeuner, now outside in Uzès, It was with sadness I pulled my faithful Clio from the curbside at Nimes airport and headed back alone. However, radio blaring to keep spirits high, as I turned onto the AutoRoute and saw the signs for Toulouse, Lyon and Avignon my heart warmed as I marveled, how could I be here, in the ‘sud de la France’, this wonderful place. Albeit alone again but only for 24 hours when finally I would return to another arrivals destination, this time the TGV station in Avignon to meet my Chris, safely returned to me from business in Asia, yes, life is good. I thought over my lovely week, a week of laughter and reminiscing over all that has been and all that has yet to come reveling in the thing that matters most in the world, people, love and friendship.
Last night I had my first dinner party in Uzès, une belle soirée avec de nouveaux amis y de la Suède, qui j’ai rencontré dans ma classe de français! (a lovely evening with my new friends from Sweden, whom I met in French class!)
Maybe this evening would have been a better night to entertain following all the shopping opportunities at the Uzès Saturday market. This morning Uzès definitely came alive. Many of the smaller specialty shops & restaurants, which had seemed firmly closed, flung back their shutters, braved the still chilly weather and spilled their goods onto the bustling cobbles. Tables and chairs, complete with blankets and offerings of ‘vin chaud’ appeared and a few hearty locals were seduced! Not me, I was ensconced inside with a frothing cappuccino, surrounded by exotic olive oils, an impressive array of salts, confitures and mustards, most of which I would dearly have loved to sample!!
The Uzès market is not just confined to the infamous Place aux Herbes. It twines itself under archways and around corners, sprawling like a tumbling ball of yarn so as you turn a new corner you find the last few strands, a store selling table cloths, a man with sausages, an unexpected additional baker. How any boulanger competes with the existing permanent competition in the town is hard to tell. I haven’t counted yet, but there must be at least 12 boulangeries, a wonderful one just 10 paces from our front door…all those carbs and hardly a chubby person in sight! Could it be that wine, bread and cheese makes you thin? Ummm a diet I need to experiment with!
More likely the only way to try to cope with all the gourmet temptation I am surrounded by is to exercise. Steps from ‘la maison’ are charming, if not uneven footpaths, flanked with crumbling stone walls and olive trees.
A mysterious doorway romantically luring me towards an enchanting ‘Mas’, tempting me hurry to a local immobilier and inquire ‘combien?’!
We have begun to explore! Kate and I whizzed through several of the local perched villages, guided by ‘Arabella’ through, up and down tiny narrow streets. The type that you find yourself screwing up your eyes and sucking your shoulders in (as if that will somehow make a difference to the width or lack of width of the road!!) Berated by the Mistral and the cold we became very adept and speedy at what Kate called ‘drive by tourism’. Lots to revisit! We have braved the elements in at least three of Provence’s entrancing cities, again we will return to each. The pictures, I hope speak for themselves.
Avignon encased like the ribbon around a cake with a well-preserved city wall built in 1403, was the center of one of the richest courts in Europe in the 14th century. It is still referred to as the ‘city of the Popes’, being home to the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. Avignon boasts magnificent Papal palaces and ancient buildings from its glorious past. We marveled at it all, one could not fail to be impressed!
Arles, often referred to as southern France’s loveliest cities, sun kissed and golden, despite the Mistral, has a welcoming small town atmosphere. Like Avignon, 25 miles to the north, it is splendidly situated on the banks of the Rhone, nestled by the Camargue, infamous for its majestic white horses and bulls. It is a region and a city much painted by Van Gogh, who lived here for a year. The tragic brilliance of this great artist is well-celebrated aswell as the many that resided here centuries before. Originally a Celtic settlement and then capital to the Roman Empire of Gaul, Britain and Spain, the jewel in its center is Les Arénes, one of the oldest and most well preserved Roman amphitheatres in existence. We loved it here and might even look for the next rental in this spot!
Marseilles, after Paris and Lyons, Marseilles is France’s 3rd largest city; it has been a major trading center and port since ancient times. Greeks from Phocaea, the first outsiders to arrive in Provence, originally settled Marseilles. It has both prospered and been ransacked over the ages. It has strong military connections, home of the French air force’s flying school and the French Foreign Legion. So many revolutionaries marched from here to Paris in 1792, that the Hymn of that army became the French national anthem, La Marseillaise. Although predominantly an industrial city it sits within deserted mountainous countryside and boasts a shoreline of mostly untouched jagged inlets and sandy shores. Recently it has undergone many improvements to draw visitors to its heart, we were surprised and delighted by the ‘Vieux Port’, both it vibrancy and attractiveness, we will be sure to return!
Well the wonderful, ‘Love Actually Moment’ happened on arrival but was not nearly so wonderful yesterday back at the Terminal in Marseille Airport! However both the house and Uzès were met with a great deal more enthusiasm than just smiles and grins despite the 20-hour journey to get here, quite a result!!
More perched villages and Roman cities have been visited in the meantime, (see my following blog). My intrepid travelling partner, daughter is safely
returned to Bristol, my first French lesson has been completed; the gentle French professeur could not be more patient or encouraging! As a result I have a dinner rendezvous with one of my classmates tonight. An American lady who went to UCLA, is the world shrinking by the day?!!
So now I am here alone and wondering how did this come about? I have no words to define my love of this area. The ancient cobbled streets, the worn stone buildings, the faded shutters, the vineyards and olive groves, the azure sky, things that reach out to my soul but why am I here, miles from all I love and alone and freezing!!! This total uncharacteristic chill is like nothing I have ever experienced. The Mistral, blowing at 80 miles an hour is fierce, unrelenting and angry. Fountains and rivers are frozen, animals shudder in the fields and no one goes outside unless they have to. That said ‘le soleil brille’ and determined market stallholders are not dissuaded from delivering their abundance in the Uzès Saturday Market.
Much diminished than in summer, but still overflowing with local produce and the tempting smells of roasting chickens, cheeses and my favourite, wine from the local convent, made by the nuns who smile benevolently at all who pass, their habits whipping around their legs as they proudly see to all
their very many clientele! The best goat cheese is to be found from a virtually toothless, smiling man with hairy ears (a name bestowed by our house manager!) who grins and nods and wraps his delicacies carefully in white paper before reaching out with worn ‘Fagin hands’ for his 5 euros!
Today I had a little break through as I walked determinedly and briskly through town. In the 3 shops I visited no one replied to me in English and although on at least one occasion I received a response which was completely incomprehensible to me, I nodded and smiled “Ahh Oui’ and if they thought I was a nutter they actually made me feel like a local! Not that I looked like one, with 2 North Face fleeces, a bright fuchsia pink headband, Oakley sunglasses and a pashmina wound tightly about me!!! I also experienced the delights of parallel parking on a busy street. I guess I am rubbish at it. It seems that unless you can maneuver into space on a sixpence ‘tres rapidement’ then you are toast! Not too much of ‘la patience’ in evidence, but at least it gets me warmed up…well hot and bothered anyway!!
So here I am alone but not lost with much to contemplate upon and work to keep me occupied. As my friends in California just begin to wake up I am joining my family and friends in England for a nice restoring, not to mention warming cup of tea..a bientôt mes amis!!
Tomorrow there will be, what our family calls, a ‘Love Actually moment’. Kate and I will brave the snow and the biting cold to journey to Marseilles Airport to collect someone very special. He will only be able to be here for a few days before work schedules demand his presence elsewhere but at least we will have him with us for a while. I hope he is as enchanted with Uzès and the house as I …. Well of course he won’t be, but I will know by the degree of his grin and smile whether he at least likes it……
Airports are strange places, where you say good-bye with sadness (or sometimes relief!) and meet people with excited expectation. When I stand in an arrivals terminal, wherever it maybe in the world, (normally at SFO) in my mind I am always at LHR, the place where all my travels started. I always wonder at the marvel as you stand there surrounded by complete strangers, all waiting for complete strangers but each one of those strangers is special to someone. Somehow, for a few seconds, you share in each others anticipation. It never fails to evoke emotion as tears get fiercely blinked away. Watching as a small child gets scooped up into the arms of a parent or as a traveling student suddenly reverts to being a five year old in the joyful embrace of his mother or a grandma comes round ‘the corner’, her anxious face lighting up with joy once a familiar face is recognized. As the Richard Curtis movie told us, ‘Love, actually, is all around’ and nowhere is it more evident, as it will be tomorrow once more for us, than at an airport arrivals lounge.
Things are different here, as you would expect. However, in terms of my daily routine, doing what I need to do, it is similar, well sort of. Most mornings at home I run or walk under a cornflower coloured sky, (well for the most part!) along what was an old railway line and what is now is a well maintained trail, flanked either side with trees and shrubs, a place that I am inordinately fond of. Here, still trying to exercise, I see the same blue sky but to one side of me is a stunning thousand-year-old castle, a place where people have lived for centuries, before the trees at home had even begun to grow. I am running on a somewhat chaotic gravel path (doing my best to avoid the evidence of ‘les chiens’) and am filled with wonder, thinking of all the secrets those stone walls must hold, of all the people it has wrapped in its fold. As I do my loop and return to jog back through the sleepy town I realize in 40 minutes I have seen no one else exercising, just people scurrying about. Teenagers off to school, mothers dragging reluctant tired, small children, people hurrying to work and others rushing home with their baguettes for breakfast. Despite the biting chill there are people sitting at the street cafes all bundled up sipping their espressos. There is also a seemingly abundance of elderly men shuffling along, alone and sad, looking quite cross and barely grunting when I, vision of unloveliness, bounce past them with my enthusiastic ‘bonjour monsieur’. What I would do if any of them tried to engage with me in rapid French I am not quite sure!! As I turn down my beautiful street I think how lucky I am to be here. I turn the key and know that my day will continue much as at home, several hours working at my lap top, except that here, to find my lap top, I will be treading up a winding Rapunzel stair case, twisting inside this delightful house which has already enfolded me in its embrace making me feel happy and at home.
This gallery contains 8 photos.
The house in Uzès is really lovely, take a peek at our our pictures taken this morning. You can also see it from the website: maisonsept!
On Friday 27th January 2012, we left England in our newly acquired, left-hand drive, Renault Clio (not much bigger than an American golf cart!) with some degree of anxiety. Would this fourteen year old, so far unknown, fairly well used (100 000 miles on the clock!) prove to be reliable? Visions of standing on a french autoroute with a broken, steaming engine, trying to ask for help in my stumbling french, whirled in my mind….. However the first challenge had been met with Kate’s superb packing of 6 months luggage, our faithful ‘Arabella’ (Kate’s name for her GPS) was programed, even the weather was cheering us on, we had been blessed with a beautiful, bright, crisp morning. It felt as if nothing could impede our journey and nothing did.
We arrived at the ‘Chunnel’ 50 minutes ahead of schedule and caught and earlier crossing, so before I knew it I was gingerly steering us aboard, we were really doing this!
On the ‘other side’ our little Clio sped through the wintry, french countryside and 300 km later we were pulling up at our ‘très chic et moderne’, now highly recommended, Accor hotel! Like 2 excited children we continued on the next morning, slightly less anxious about ‘Clio’, who had to battle driving rain and fog, never mention all the french cars who obviously thought she had a cute ‘postérieure’ as a never ending stream of them insisted on getting as close as they could to get a good look!!
At the first sign for Marseilles I gasped and when Avignon was sign posted, I tightly squeezed Kate’s hand. 40 mins later when we saw a sign for our destination, Uzès, we both laughed and yelled, it was an ‘ahhhh’ moment!! On leaving the autoroute behind, the winding country road, flanked on both sides with vines and olive groves, left us both speechless and near to tears. However emotions had to be held in check as practical matters still needed to be attended to in the form of a lightening visit to ‘Carrefour’!
Clio, then even more loaded up with wine, cheese and baguettes, gently took us on our last 6 km to Uzès. Everything seemed to be bathed in a honey glow welcoming us, the sun setting on the warm sandstone coloured buildings, the remenants of the flower market, Kate gasping with wonder and delight, me trying to see through my tears, we had arrived, it felt like coming home……….