Sunday

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Sunday morning we headed down to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, a town close to the Luberon that’s known for its picturesque waterways and large markets. I was glad that I cajoled Larry into getting up and leaving early, since finding parking by 9 am was a bit of a challenge. The market did not disappoint.

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We bought a bit of cheese, and also some pretty Provencal dishcloths. We had an amusing conversation with a shop owner whose son lives in NYC, and enjoyed wandering around. We stopped back at La Thor to get inside the church, and joined the elderly parishioners for a few minutes to quickly look at the interior, which sadly had been stripped of all interior sculpture. Ah well.

We love finding ferme-auberges in the countryside in France, farms that serve meals sourced from their farm and often rent rooms. A bit of poking on the ferme-auberge website netted two possibilities, one of which was serving a sunday lunch. Les Mas des Vertes Rives is about 10 minutes from L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. We reserved the day before, which was a good idea, as the tables were full. First you get to stroll around to “meet the meat.” (forgive the Douglas Adams reference)

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Lunch took three hours, and was very enjoyable. We were first offered a choice of aperitif, we chose kirs made with homemade fig juice. Served with a tasty olive-ham bread and olives. Then we had delicious eggplant mousse, popette d’aubergine. Got to get a recipe for this. Then a serving of duck rillettes with foie gras pate, amusingly made to look like a goose or swan with a tiny bread-dough head. Tacky, but cute. And very tasty. Served with salad to somewhat lessen the dietary guilt. Some time to digest, and then on to the main course, roasted duck with figs, served with roasted potatoes and a lovely chard and tomato gratin. And of course there was wine, you had to ask? The cheeses were all homemade chevres in various stages of ripeness, one being so strong Larry describe it as tasting like something died. I like the rest of them. And my goodness, finally dessert, which we could only manage a few bites of.

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After lunch we drove over to the hilltop village of Venasque, which has a beautiful 9th century Baptistry that was built on a Roman site, using bits and pieces of the previous buildings. It is nicely maintained and lit, and the desk has some good info in English. The town is lovely for walking around, and also has a fine old church and partially rebuilt Saracen walls and towers.

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Dinner? Don’t think so.

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Up and Down

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On Saturday, we woke up to an amazing sunrise.

We decided to take a drive into the Denetelles, the jagged peaks of which we’d been seeing all week. We drove south on the D138 out of Vaison, passing Crestet (gottta save some villages for the next visit!). We turned right onto the little D90, which quickly turned into a twisting, steep road running alongside sheer drops to the left and a deep ditch to the right. But the views were stunning.

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Suzette is a tiny old village surrounded by vineyards, primarily producing dark red wines, and also the sweet Muscat wines that are used as an aperitif or a dessert wine. There’s a charming old church, a restaurant, and a few places to taste wine.

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We rolled on down to Beaumes-de-Venise, had a fast walk around, and then drove the short distance to find another Romanesque church, Notre Dame d’Aubune. Sadly closed up in spite what the tourist office has said, but it’s an evocative place, with herb gardens and a few stone picnic tables. There are also walking trails leading up to the ruins of, you guessed it, a chateau.

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It was lunchtime, so we had a lovely long lunch at a nearby place, Dolium. It’s in a new building next to the regional tasting room, but what it lacked in weathered charm it made up in food, a wonderful waitress, and the chance to see a large extended family celebrating an anniversary, complete with kids pushing fancy appetizers around their plate and then gobbling down their chocolate moelleux. I started with pate,(don’t tell my doctor) then went to fish, then we shared a “deconstructed tiramisu”. All beautifully made and delicious.

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A bit of a walk, and then back home. Salad for dinner.

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They Grow a Lot of Grapes Here

They Grow a Lot of Grapes Here

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For Friday I had booked a day with Olivier Hickman, a wine importer who also runs wine tours for English-speaking visitors. Olivier is half French-half British, has been in the wine business in various positions, and has an informative website Wine Uncovered. He is also married to Janet who gave us the Vaison walking tour, and like her, is knowledgeable and has a wicked sense of humor.

We met up with Olivier and the two other couples in the group in Sablet. After getting a bit of an info and some written materials, then sorting out who would ride with who, we set off. Our first stop was a winery in Vacqueyras, one of the named Rhone wine villages. We spent some time in a vineyard, learning about Rhone wines, specifically why with these wines its all about the terroir–the specific patch of land the grapes are grown–the soil and mineral content, how deep the roots grow, the effects of mistral, temperature and water. This area does no irrigation at all, which encourages deeply rooted vines and so superior grapes. As Olivier constantly reminded us, poor soil equals good wine. The wines are generally blends of Grenache, Syrah, Mouvedre, and some less well known varieties. As compared to wines made in the US, there is very little manipulation–no additives, just a few wines are aged in oak, and then for very short times.

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We tasted at four wineries in Vacqueyras, Gigondas, and lastly Chateauneuf-de-Pape, though one of the tastings was done during our delicious lunch at a restaurant where the owner’s father owns the winery. Some fabulous wines, largely silky and rich, with soft tannins. Miles and miles of vineyards, with the leaves now golden and turning red.The area mostly produces reds, though there are a few whites. And largely at amazingly low prices as compared to similar quality in California. We bought some excellent value wine at 12-15 euros a bottle, and one higher end one in Chateauneuf-de-Pape for 30 euros.

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Our lunch was at Les Florets, a restaurant-hotel in Gigondas with a beautiful terrace and view. Because it’s no longer considerd terrace weather, we sat inside the pleasant dining room. We had four small courses, each paired with a different wine. The food was elegant and creative, and sometime I’d like to return for the regular menu.

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A very enjoyable day. I highly recommend some time with Olivier when you’re in the area.

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We were invited over for an aperitif with our charming landlords, which turned into an hour and a half of more wine, and me frantically trying to follow French conversation. I learned some new words, go me!

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By 9 we were ready for dinner, so had the lentils and sausage, yum.

Medieval Fragments

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Thursday morning as I was looking over my Google map and notes and considering the options for the day, I chanced into a mention of a medieval tower in Pernes les Fontaines with notable frescoes. According to the web page, the tower was open for individual tours during the Summer, but beginning in September only to school groups. I thought, why not call the town tourist office to see if we could get in? As it happened, they were opening the tower once a week–today.

We drove down to the little town of Pernes les Fontaines, south of Carpenteras. The Mistral was blowing fiercely, whipping the clouds into strange flying-saucer-shaped layers.

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After talking to the friendly woman in the tourist office (who is also the guide) we found free parking and had a coffee and croissant in the little café opposite. At 11 we met up with our guide and two other women. The tour is all in French, although there is a sheet of explanation in English. The tower  was probably built by a relative of Charles d’Anjou, after he participated in the battles to conquer Sicily and Naples. You climb up a narrow, slippery stone stairway worn down by seven centuries of feet. The top floor room  of the three-story tower is covered in frescoes with scenes of the battle, along with legends and some Biblical scenes. Portions have been restored, and its interesting that the lower portions were protected from time and damage while the room was used to store flour when the lower floor was used as a bakery–although a section of fresco was lost when a chimney was built for the oven. It’s a fabulous thing to experience, well worth arranging to see.

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Afterward, we wandered the town. The town is largely known for having over 40 decorative fountains, but also has an interesting ancient market hall and a fabulous old gate. There are two small museums, one of traditional arts and the other of textiles and clothing, sadly both now closed for the season. We largely had the place to ourselves, except for this charming cat who accompanied us.

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We realized it was after one o’clock, so had a simple lunch in an otherwise deserted restaurant, Gallery. Steak-frites for Larry; salmon for me. And yes, wine.

We drove back to Vaison, taking a brief detour to the little town of Le Thor, which has a 12th century Romanesque church, Notre Dame du Lac. The church was closed up tight, so we walked around it admiring the external carvings and its location on the river as the Mistral did its best to knock us over. The tourist office was open however, and we learned that the church should be open in the mornings. Another bookmark.

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For dinner in Vaison, we walked over to Le Bateleur, which seems to be recommended by everyone. With good reason, as it was delightful from start to finish. We weren’t super hungry, so Larry went with the full  menu while I ordered a plat, and we shared his entrée (first course)  and dessert. The entrée was a slice of lamb, pork, and vegetable terrine, served with pickled vegetables and a mustard crème. For the plats, Larry had pork that was cooked to be crispy outside yet meltingly soft within, served with butternut puree and cubes of glazed butternut. I had fish (Loup, perhaps) served over homemade gnocchi with a “paella broth” which included bits of gorgeous seafood. Dessert was fabulous,and sadly the photo does not do it justice as our forks had destroyed it before I remembered the camera. Layers of caramelized apples, thin sheets of crispy pastry, some sort of apple-merengue frothy thing, and caramel ice cream. We restrained ourselves with just glasses of wine, knowing the next day would be all about wine.

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Avignon

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Wednesday morning we drove into Avignon, parking in the Oratoire lot by the river. We walked the short distance to the Palais des Papes, that enormous pile built in the 14th century. Over the centuries most of the elaborate decoration has been lost, but there are still a few frescoed rooms, some evocative stone carvings, and the grand sense of scale remaining. We rented audio guides, which we thought well worth the money. There are also explanatory cards in English and some video in some of the rooms, but the audio guides have a lot of rich detail to help you make sense of what you’re experiencing. There is also a lot of historical explanation, good for those engineers who somehow got through university without a two semester Western Civ course and didn’t know why there was a Pope’s palace in France.

You aren’t allowed to take photos in the frescoed rooms, so here’s some I found online.

And here are some things that caught my fancy. There were very few other people there during our morning visit, I can imagine that’s not the case in July.

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After visiting the Palais, we walked to the nearby park on a hill. The Mistral was blowing hard, and the chill made a walk more of an adventure than I was looking forward to, so we strolled around the streets instead, popping into buildings that caught our eye–and at one point, nearly being hit by falling plaster from some workmen repairing a church window.

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We had made lunch reservations at La Fourchette. It was good that we had, as the place was packed, mostly with local business people and older couples enjoying a late lunch. I started with a plate of pieces of lightly cured salmon surrounding lentils over an herb sauce; and then went to a daube of beef with olives. Larry went for the brandede, very delicate and served with several vegetable salads; and followed that with duck breast. For dessert, I had a profiterole, and Larry a plate of three little chocolate desserts. Wine and coffee, and two hours went by. Very nice place with good food.

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Given the wind, we thought a museum would be a good idea. We had the Petit Palais almost to ourselves, going through rooms of Romanesque sculpture and then Italian art from the middle ages through the Renaissance. It was a lot of repetition of rather dour religious paintings but interesting to see all the different styles and differences in composition and technique. Sadly, all the Botticellis are on loan to one of the museums in Munich. I particularly loved a series of 15th century paintings illustrating Les Amours de Pasiphe, with everyone in Renaissance clothing and fantastic and gory details.

As we were walking back to the car, we spotted an elaborate doorway, and went to peek inside, It turned out to be the Palais du Rhone, a 15th century mansion that was eventually lived in by Jeanne de Flandreysy, who in the 19th century collected pieces to preserve the Provencal culture. It’s a quirky place, with a huge stairway crammed with paintings, and several furnished rooms upstairs.

We enjoyed Avignon, and with its many museums it’s a place we’d like to return to another time.

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We collected the car and drove North. Larry wanted to get some good photos of Mount Ventoux, so we kept going, eventually driving through Le Barroux, getting glimpses of the Chateau on the hill, going past Malaucene and Crestet, and driving along golden-leaved trees lining the road. It was getting close to 6, so we bookmarked the towns for visiting on another day.

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I spent some time cooking the sausages and lentils I had bought but we were so full from lunch we just had a taste. So we have dinner all made for another night.

Vaison and Around

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Tuesday morning is the big market day in Vaison-la-Romaine. We got up early, and wore light jackets and scarves against the morning chill. The temperature was in the mid 50’s, and everyone else was dressed as if they were planning on a hike in the Arctic. As we passed by the ruins, we saw a woman feeding the many stray cats–and I will say, these are the healthiest looking strays I’ve ever seen, plump and with shiny coats. There were even kittens basking in the sun. (Larry had to remind me I can’t take one home)

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The Market stretches through Vaison’s main streets in the center, with loads of housewares, and some tourist stuff like pottery, Provencal tablecloths, soaps and lavender. The central street is the important one, with stands selling produce, cheese, fish, meats, olives, honey, bread, and spices. We loaded up our shopping bag with some cheese, vegetables, gorgeous figs, pate, olives, and sausage. We stopped in at the pastry shop Peyerol, and shared a flaky croissant.

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After putting the food in the apartment, we went over to meet up with Janet Henderson, a British ex-pat who runs historical walking tours of Vaison. We first spent a good amount of time putting the Roman ruins into perspective, hearing about the people who were here before the Romans, and then they why and how Rome established the city here, and how they interacted with the established culture. We then walked alongside the ruins (running into our landlord along the way, so more handshakes and chatting), learning about the Roman city.

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From there, we walked over to the Cathedral of Notre Dame, a Romanesque church with with the foundation of the earliest part built from Roman columns and parts of structures. There’s a lovely interior cloister. (the door is usually closed, look for it or you’ll miss the cloister). Janet talked about the Medieval period, the later developments when the area was under the control of the Pope in Avignon, and the Revolution.

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We crossed the Roman bridge, and walked up the steep cobbled streets of the Haute-Ville, the medieval area at the top of the hill the population would retreat to during stressful periods.

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This area was largely abandoned when the “New Town” was built in the 18th and 19th centuries, and left to crumble. Now it is becoming a popular place for people to refurbish vacation homes, and there are a few restaurants, B&B’s and galleries popping up. It’s a beautiful, evocative place, well worth the climb.

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By the time the walk finished, it was 1:30. The streets were clogged with trucks moving the market stands out, and many of the restaurants were closed. We decided to just eat our leftovers for lunch and relax with some wine at home. Later, we got in the car and drove the short distance to Seguret, a village perched on another hillside. Seguret is another beautiful stone village, and has two restaurants we’d like to try on another day.

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We crossed over to Sablet, the next village, which is more workaday in appearance, with local gentleman hanging out at the Café Sport and kids playing in the quiet street, with older stone buildings tucked in back..

We picked up a baguette and a bottle of Sablet wine, and headed back home for a dinner of cheese, pate, salad, bread and wine. The most flavorful figs I’ve ever had. A glorious sunset, too!

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Paris and South

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Remarkably easy flight over the Pond, what with TSA-Pre and the flight being 70 seats empty. I slept for about 1/2 hour, but got a lot of knitting and reading done. A simple matter of getting on the #4 Air France bus at Charles de Gaulle, and then a five minute walk to the Ibis near Gare d’Lyon. Like all Ibis hotels, it has a friendly staff and clean, plastic-y rooms. Just fine for a night.

Larry and I walked over to the Richard Lenoir market, and enjoyed this first bit of France. We slurped down some fabulously briny oysters at a fish stand (now this at home would make grocery shopping a hella lot appealing), and bought a few things for a late picnic lunch in our room–bread, pate, cheese, tomatoes and figs, and wine.

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Took a short nap, then a venture out for SIM cards and a walk. We wanted a light dinner, so found a neighborhood creperie where we had quite decent galettes and enough wine to make sleeping a given. Les Embrun, 8 Rue de Lyon.

Monday morning we walked over to Gare d’ Lyon and got on the early train to Avignon. Just three hours later, we were in Provence, a trip which would have taken about seven by car. Picked up the rental car, and drove up to Vaison-la-Romaine, passing golden vines and the occasional village and strip of car dealerships.

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We parked in the lot at the Cathedral, and our landlords came to collect us, with triple kisses all around. Colette and Jean-Claude are the French grandparents you never knew you had, warm and charming. The apartment is opposite the Roman ruins, with a killer view down on them from the living room and bedrooms. A good kitchen, new bathrooms, and cute terrace, all decorated in Grandma style, comfortable, a bit fussy, but cute.

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A nice lunch a tLe  Comptoir des Voconces, salad for me, carpaccio for Larry. We shared a chocolate mousse, Larry’s happy place. Vaison has a “modern” town surrounding the Roman bits, and a Medieval area on the hillside over the river. The modern part has many shops, restaurants, and was lively even on a Monday, generally a sleepy day in France. A bunch of tourist-oriented places, but very much a real town, especially now, out of season.

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Ventured out to the grocery store for a few things for dinner, then made a roast chicken with rosemary and garlic, potatoes and salad. A good first day.

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