Wednesday, 27 January 2016

The Romans of Southern France

There are impressive examples of Roman architecture in Italy, of course, and Greece, of course, and if you know England very well, you know there is a city called Bath which is named for it’s famous Roman Bath that you can still see filled with hot water today.  But did you know that southern France has some pretty impressive displays of Roman architecture too? 

If you travel to the city of Orange (sounds much fancier if you try to say it the way you think a French person would say it), you will no doubt make your way to the Theatre antique d’Orange, an amazingly huge and well-preserved example of a great Roman theater that dates back some 2000 years.   

Just walking along the outside of this towering theater is enough to impress with its 121-foot tall façade that is longer than a US football field.  But then you go inside, walk through a dark tunnel and emerge through an archway and into this…

Impressive, isn’t it!  The stage is enormous, and the wall behind it rising 121 feet to match the façade outside is littered with signs of what once decorated this great wall; colorful marble mosaics, marble pillars, and niches that once held great statutes.  

The citizens of Orange and the surrounding area loved the theater, spending much of their free time here, and you can’t blame them.  It was free and open to all, and can you imagine the great spectacles of theater that took place here – plays that lasted all day with elaborate sets and special effects that would be sensational even by today's standards.  And there were mimes, pantomimes, and sometimes just the simple reading of poetry that would need no more than it's words spoken in this dramatic setting to render the experience extraordinary. 

It's easy to imagine people hurrying through the cold stone corridors, eager to get to their seats so as not to miss one moment of the action on stage. 

Believe it or not, but this theater is still in use today.  What I wouldn't give to visit Orange in August when this incredible theater plays host to the Choregie d'Orange, a summer opera festival.  Oh, to experience Puccini's Madame Butterfly performed on this great stage.  Could it possibly be any more dramatic than this?   

If you head north from the Theater, after a bit of a walk you will find yourself approaching another great Roman structure - the Triumphal Arch of Orange.  Believed to date back some 2000 years as well, it was once part of the town's wall, guarding the entry into the city during the middle ages.  It was built to honor veterans of the Gallic Wars (which took place from 58 to 50 BC) and the Legio II Augusta, a legion of the Imperial Roman Army.  I'm sure it made an impressive entry into the city of Orange back then because it certainly does now.

That is about all we saw of Orange, except for the whimsical fountain above.  We weren't there for long because the sun was shining and Eric was hoping to catch a glimpse and maybe take some photos of one of the enchanting hill towns that southern France is known for.  The small town of Gordes sitting high on top of it's hill with it's terracotta houses glowing in the light of the later afternoon sun...

Could it be any more charming!  We actually had to make our way back to this little hill town a couple of times as on our first visit, the photographer didn't think the lighting was right.  

Geez - the places I am forced to sit and wait for my husband to take all his darn photos!  The view was spectacular, even on a cloudy day.  

On our first trip to Gordes, we actually missed the road leading into the village and ended up down in the valley on the other side.  Looking for a place to turn around, we pulled into a driveway and soon found ourselves surrounded by these well manicured but interest shaped trees.  

It kind of felt like we were in the pages of a Dr. Seuss book.

We got ourselves turned around and this time we found the road leading into the town.  

Funny, but we had read in a travel book that shall remain nameless that driving by this village in Provence as the sun was setting is a must, that the glow of the late day sun across the terracotta buildings of this hilltop village is mesmerising, and they were right, but this particular author also said not to bother stopping in as there are more charming villages in France to be seen.   

Well, kind travel “expert”, I respectfully disagree.  While we did see some other incredibly entrancing hilltop villages which I will be sharing with you over the next week or two, this little village of Gordes with it's steep, cobblestone streets is full of charm too and worth the stop!   

And the views from inside the village – wow!  Definitely worth the stop.  

These are lucky, lucky people that get to call these streets their home. 

If only I was one of them. 



Saturday, 23 January 2016

France - All About Food

I love food.  Who doesn’t, right?  But when I say I love food, I mean I really love food!  All aspects of it.  I love to cook.  I love eating a delicious meal at a restaurant or visiting family or friend’s homes and enjoying the fruits of their labor.  And I really love knowing where my food comes from.  In fact, I hold a very deep reverence for food that is grown naturally, sustainably, and locally.  Eric would probably say it’s a bit of an obsession - or maybe just a straight up obsession.  Two of my favorite places in the whole world are vegetable gardens and farmer's market.  I grew up on a small farm in Wisconsin watching cows grazing in the green pasture and whose milk I drank for breakfast, lunch and dinner, picking fresh green beans and cucumbers out of the huge vegetable garden behind our house, filling my mouth with fresh strawberries from the field every summer, visiting the apple orchard in the fall, taking trips to the local creamery to stock up on delicious cheeses – these are some of my fondest memories of childhood.  So is it any wonder that now as an adult I love growing my own vegetables, and that every Saturday morning from May until October you will find me filling my basket at the local farmer’s market and having to make two and sometimes three trips back and forth to the car to unload my goods so I can buy more fresh food, or that I travel out of my way a few times a year to get meat from a local farmer who raises the animals on pastures that have been in his family since 1828.  I know how to get my hands on good food, healthy food, sustainable food, but what does this all have to do with visiting France?

It sounds a bit cliché to say the food in France was great.  I expected it to be and perhaps food was the thing I was most excited about experiencing in France.  But, it was so much better than I had even dreamed it could be.  And I’m not taking about prepared food, the French cooking style that Julia Child made so famous in America.  We only ate one, yes you read that correctly, one French meal in a proper French restaurant that was absolutely, mouthwateringly delicious, but there was a good reason we didn’t eat out much in France – and that reason was the big, bountiful farmer’s markets.

The first morning we were in southern France we woke to rain.  Eric donned his raincoat and headed out into the misty morning for a short trip to the local bakery, or boulangerie as it is called in French.   

He would make the delightful short trip through this little town every morning before the girls and I had opened our eyes for the day and by the end of the week, the lady behind the counter recognized him.  One day, he had already made his daily trek, but I wanted to experience it myself, to see what it looked like and felt like to walk the narrow streets and alleys of this beautiful French village every morning to get fresh bread and croissants for the day.  

The cobblestone path we followed took us past stone buildings and under archways whose age I cannot even begin to guess.

We past adorable little cottages with built in birdhouses...

And followed a narrow alley where vines in red and green clung to the old stone walls.  Oh, to live in a place where I could make this lovely walk everyday to collect the food my family would need to sustain us for the day!  Just like most small villages in France, Robion has everything you need right within it's borders.  It has not one, but two bakeries, a butcher that carries locally raised meats, cheeses and eggs, a huge vegetable and fruit market that was open every day save Sunday, a few small mom and pop type restaurants where you could get a fresh meal made with local ingredients, and that is on top of having a small grocery store which incidentally was open in the morning, closed during the middle of the day, and then open again in the late afternoon and evening.  That is just the way they roll in France. 

And on our first morning in southern France, we drank our morning coffee while enjoying some pain au chocolat and croissants so heavenly they needed no butter or jam or anything else to embellish them.  And then, we headed out into the rainy morning to the quaint Provence town of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue to visit their Sunday market.   

Now this wasn’t solely a farmer’s market.  There were lots of other goods for sale too – soaps (lavender scented of course as many fields in this area are filled with row after row of the small shrub-like plant), handmade pottery, jewelry, scarves.  The girls and I had fun perusing the tables for trinkets we could take home to remind us our trip to France, and I bought a bright colorful handmade bowl to add to my growing collection of dishware.   But the crème de la crème of this market was without a doubt the beautiful, bountiful, fresh food.  The market started out on the main street through town but quickly disappeared into the narrow winding alleys lined with tiny shops and cafes.  It rained the entire time, but that did not take away one bit from this experience of a true French market.  We walked and walked and walked through the narrow streets following the flow of the market, sure it was going to end around the next bend, but it just went on and on and on.  We saw the usually suspects, fruits and veggies of course...

and bread.  You would expect to find great bread at a farmer’s market in France.   

But there were also tables bursting with every variety of olives you could imagine...

and bags full of fragrant herbs and spices.   

Cheese - beautiful round blocks of French fromage in all varieties.  

If you wanted some, you just pointed out the size of the wedge of cheese you would like and the cheese seller would hack it off with a machete like knife, wrap it in paper and you were on your way.   

Or you could just get a small round of goat’s cheese tied up and wrapped in fig leaves.   

There was plenty of meat and fish, and we even saw snails being sold out of a giant bucket.   

And dry-cured sausages in such a variety I didn't even know existed.  There was your typical pork and beef, but also goat, stag, duck and if you look closely at the labels in the photo above, you’ll even see donkey sausage.  

If you got hungry along the way and couldn't bare to wait until you got home to prepare a lovely French meal with your purchases, there were plenty of vendors selling prepared food made from scratch to fill you belly.  We bought the most amazing hummus that I could have eaten right out of the container with a spoon from a man who gave Leah a bag full of roasted chickpeas for free that she was more than happy to munch on as we strolled through the market.  And several times we passed an enormous colorful and fragrant pan of paella, filled with prawns and mussels and who knows what other goodies.

In the end, this is the feast we took home from the market in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue:   

a roasted chicken, a couple wedges of cheese, some sausage of the beef variety I assure you (no donkey for this family), a fresh baguette, lettuce and carrots, some grapes, a variety of olives, some dried fruit, and let’s not forget that freshly made hummus that still makes me cry to think I may never taste it’s likes again.   Along with the bottle of local red wine our hosts gave to us as a gift, this was enough to feed us for the first few days in southern France.  It was simple and delicious and fresh food.  What more could you want?
Small town, big town – it doesn’t matter the size.  Good food, unprocessed food, homegrown food is abundant in France, and as you drive around the countryside you will quickly come to understand why these small towns offer everything you need to make a delicious home cooked meal from scratch everyday.  The fields are full of fresh fruits and vegetables in a variety of which I’ve never seen grown in one place before.  Cows, sheep and goats graze on fresh green grass.   Chickens peck away at whatever they can find in the yards and fields.  Even as we walked the street of our little town, we passed trees whose branches hung heavy with olives that would soon be picked and taken to the local oil mill to extra the olive oil that would supply the family for the year.  

And let’s not forget the grapevines – rows and rows of trellised vines, bare of fruit by mid October because the fermented grapes were well on their way to becoming one of the wide variety of delectable wines produced in Provence.  Now I understand why Julia Child was so drawn to learn how to cook during her years in France.  With fresh ingredients like this at your fingertips, how can you resist?

Hmm...Are you beginning to see why Eric might call my interest in finding good food an obsession? While we thoroughly enjoyed eating and looking at food in France, we did actually do a lot of other sightseeing as well - nonfood related.  And despite the fact that our first full day in southern France was threatening to be a washout, after feasting on a lunch of our farmer's market finds, we grabbed the umbrellas and raincoats and headed back out to explore the walled city of Avignon.  And it is with a few eerily beautiful photos of Avignon that I leave you today, such as this...

The Palace of the Popes.  From 1309 through 1377, Avignon, rather than Rome, served as the seat of the Papacy, and it was during this time that this stunning Avignon skyline came to be.  It's now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with this... 

The famous bridged Pont d'Avignon.  Apparently, back in the 1300s when this version of the bridge was constructed, they had a difficult time keeping the great stone arches from collapsing every time the Rhone flooded.  Eventually, they stopped trying to rebuilt it and left it as is with only four of the original arches standing.  The bridge only spans halfway across the Rhone river.  Not very useful, but it is now a famous landmark of Avignon, even inspiring a melodias song called Sur la pont d'Avignon that even my girls can sing as they learned this beautiful little ditty from their French teacher at school.  

It was Sunday afternoon and a steady rain was falling, and as a result, we had the streets of Avignon to ourselves.  The many shops we past were all locked up, but the window displays told the story of what we would find inside if we came back on another day when they were open.  Anyone fancy a dress shirt covered in light bulbs?  Polka dot pigs or brown stags?

If you are really brave, you can even get a shirt covered in cuts of beef, labeled in French of course. 

Thursday, 14 January 2016

France - A Feast for the Senses

Sorry – I’ve been absent for a few weeks.  Christmas and New Year’s and now getting back to our normal routine – those sorts of things.  I know you know what I mean.  But now it is January, a quiet month with less to do because it’s cold and rainy and dark outside, and the inclination to huddle indoors under a blanket while sipping a steaming cup of tea is strong.  What better time to do a little reminiscing and share with you the trip we took to southern France back in mid October, an area called Provence to be exact, an area full of French culture – beautiful food, beautiful architecture, relaxed people, stylish and artsy, rich in history.  It’s bordered on the south by the Mediterranean Sea keeping the climate pleasantly mild in the middle of autumn, and every time you cast your eyes to the northeast, there are the mighty Alps providing a stunning background to an area that doesn’t really need any help being any more spectacular.  And did I mention the language.  Ohh la la, but is there a more lushciously romantic language than French?  If there is one thing I regret about visiting France it is that I did not learn how to speak French before going.  I could have listened to the conversations all around us in French for hours, despite the fact that I could barely understand a word.  It’s like poetry for the ears, soft and pleasant and soothing. 

We had been in southern France for meerly an hour when I felt it safe to say that France is a feast for the senses, where warm earthy colors very pleasing to the eye surround you, stunning food creations and their wonderful smells greet you at every turn, and I already mentioned the allure of the French language. 

As soon as we landed in Marseilles, we picked up our rental car and off into the countryside we drove, heading for the apartment we had rented in a small town called Robion, but we were quickly distracted by the city of Aix-en-Provence which we passed through on the way.  

I don’t need to say much from here on out.  Pictures speak a thousand words.   

We were only is Aix-en-Provence for a couple of hours, just long enough to wander the streets and discover that we had so much more to discover here in southern France.  And long enough to start what would be a week long love affair with French cuisine.  

As we walked the narrow streets, we passed window after window displaying impossibly beautiful food, finally giving in to its call and buying fresh bread and soft, sweet, melt in your mouth beignets which, although we intended to save for later, didn't last in our hands for two minutes.  

We stumbled upon a wedding that was about to take place, the bride arriving in this adorable little old white car that was quickly decorated with flowers after she and her dress had burst out of the tiny backseat and disappeared into the church.  Down the street, we ran into another wedding party.  

It was Saturday after all, the day for weddings, but this time the bride arrived in a sleek black car.  Arriving at weddings in fancy or unique cars seems to be a thing here in Europe.  We see it all the time at the church just up the street from our house in England, and now, here it is again in France. 

We walked around Aix-en-Provence late into the afternoon until it was time to head to the little town of Robion where our home away from home awaited us.  This little Robion apartment would turn out to be one of my favorites out of all the places we have rented while in here Europe.  

A little quirky - you had to use a large spoon to turn on the kitchen light which was in the ceiling...but really it was just perfect, cute and comfortable with a beautifully tiled bathroom...

a master bedroom that had it's own little loft...

and the girls got the loft above the kitchen and living room all to themselves.  

Last but certainly not least was the huge terrace that sat high above the rooftops of the town of Robion, with a magnificent view of the French countryside spreading out for miles and miles beyond.  

The perfect place to sip a glass of French wine and stare at the beautiful French roofs because yes, even the earthy colored French tiled rooftops are exquisite.

We enjoyed some refreshments and snacks out on the terrace as soon as we arrived at our quaint little French apartment...

and Eric wasted no time getting some good shots of the view.  

He took a lot of photos during the trip, like he usually does on all of our trips, but these from France that I'm going to share with you over the next few days, they are some of my favorites.  Like this one of Leah at the end of our first day in southern France...

And this one of the girls together with the view from the beautiful terrace as the backdrop...

And this one...

And one more...

because they are all so darn cute I couldn't pick just one to share.