“Between ourselves and things strange affinities exist.”—Alphonse Daudet
Sunday, September 25, 1988
“…picturesque massing…gateways to the city”
Gare de Lyon. The indoor-outdoorness of a great railway terminus Sunday morning, after spending an hour downstairs in a low-ceilinged empty modern netherworld sandwiched between the Métro and main-line levels, the extension of untold indoor hours of transit in a succession of tight, speeding cylinders relayed from San Francisco—when an escalator from below suddenly propels me into the living world: the relief of immense overhead space and grey daylight and the throng surging in all directions but sensually drawn to the platforms and rails streaming out from the same enormous room under the greenhouse roof of the long train shed towards every southeast destination, the orange high-speed trains snubbed up against a pavement that is continuous with the waiting room floor, with the terrace of a café back under the arch of curving staircases leading up to the second-story and storied Blue Train restaurant whose windows overlook the entire scene.
Unable or willing to sleep in the first hours of feet on foreign ground, a first whiff of cuisine cuts me to the quick, Place des Celestins, an unidentifiable mélange of FOOD, riding a background wave of leeks, seeping right out of the old walls of a narrow, shaded intersection. Just as a mark on the map for the Museum of Printing stirs up Balzac, the gut quivers and the nostrils flare.
This northern sun is white in the south, and even its warmth has the once-removed touch that pronounces lack of sleep.
Presqu’île, pinched off by the Saône flowing into the nearly rhyming Rhône, has the geographical feel of Manhattan. Almost an island, it once was, but the small northern stream silted up and succumbed to city streets.
Dinner at l’Amphytrion, behind the St. Jean cathedral, among the smallest and most maze-like streets in old Lyon. Like sitting in a fish tank that forms a shop window.
Tarte à l’oignon — Ginger(ly)-flavored pâté,
Skirt steak — (Instant) blanquette de veau
Crème caramel — Tarte aux deux pêches
Two pots of Coteaux de Lyon
A city of levels, clouds hanging over the surrounding heights. The facts of life hung out to dry: condom vending machines on a street corner, urinals in full view at the Gare de Lyon.
Monday, September 26
Slept in past all croissants and brioches at the Grand Café des Négociants and settled for bread and butter washed down with the best coffee yet. Figure out the post office, figure out the telephone, figure out the trolley bus. Everything takes paper to make it work, and the paper (tickets) have to be composté (stamped) to make them work.
We thread our way up to the Ruddy Cross (Croix-Rousse) quarter on a hill overlooking town from the north (the hill that works), via a maze of interconnecting passageways and stone staircases—the traboules—through, under, and around buildings that housed the 30,000-person-strong silk industry in the 19th century. The traboules kept the silk dry as it was carried around the quarter in the various stages of the manufacturing process. “Bloody insurrections” by the workers, or canuts, took place among the passages and deep courtyards. At the top, the VW-sized gros caillou, or big pebble, of glacial spoil, behind a street carnival poised in siesta.
Figure out the post office, figure out the telephone, figure out the trolley bus. Everything takes paper to make it work, and the paper (tickets) have to be composté (stamped) to make them work.
On the way back down, the Jardin des Plantes turns out to be a couple of steep brown-green swatches with chestnut trees—maybe the wrong season for the other plants.
Saladier mesclun — Maquereau glacé
Pouleton au vinaigre — Pintadeau roti la raisin
(+lardon & liver-smeared crouton)
Artichokes with mushroom mousse
St. Marcellin ripe
Gâteau au chocolat — Sorbets: peach, pear, melon, boysenberry
1/2 bottle Mâcon Viré
1/2 bottle St. Joseph
A fire in the next block from our hotel brings out small equipment fitted to the narrow streets, plenty of aerial action with ladders plucking people and belongings off balconies, in slow motion, all night long.
Tuesday, September 27
The only evidence in the morning is a bucket-full of burnt rubble on the stoop.
Rue Victor Hugo at lunchtime, scheming to find a sac à bandoulière en cuir, comme tous les hommes. More Victor Hugo, past the statue of Ampère, he of the amp, to Place Carnot, the first leafy green place yet, the famous Place Bellecour a sea of pink cement.
The young green-jumpsuit-clad motorcyclist on a green-and-white bike cruising the park with a hose attachment. He stops to vacuum up the dog turds, one after another.
Funicular to la Fourvière, the hill that prays, via sodas in St. Juste, a neighborhood on the way out of town. View from the ramparts of all Lyon, all roofed in red tiles, the two rivers, the steam from the nuclear facility off in the distance a pointer to the stationary smudge of white on the horizon that is Mont Blanc. Picnic: pure chèvre and a crusty country baguette, two Granny Smiths and a dusty Canadian Grey. A little ecclesiastical village of shops and tea room huddled in the shadow of Our Lady.
Down the steep winding path that must have broken the heart of so many donkeys trudging up from Old Lyon to the fortified church, or further on to the Auvergne.
Experiments with public transit at rush hour prove you can walk faster than a bus.
Chez Tante Paulette (the most intimate eatery yet), who is reveling in her publicity. A hole in the wall with copper bar. The queen of garlic–even the lemon in the vermouth has a hint of it, by thumb? The salad with warm lardons of bacon. The dark brown liquid of the chicken with 40 cloves of garlic. The perfectly flowing St. Marcellin. Light chocolate cake.
Wednesday, September 28
Up at eight after gaps in sleep, trying to shock the biological clock into attention. Cross the Rhône to Val d’Isère, a café of cooks (?) for the best croissants yet—the bartender runs out (to les Halles across the street) for a bag of them when we order. At 9:30 a.m. men are eating meaty composed salads and smoking many cigarettes. The newspaper explains the fire near our hotel resulted from the homeless “infesting” the halls and landings. “We don’t use the intercom. The door’s always open,” says one. The police are very closed mouthed on whether it was criminal or accidental. The stairwell and elevator shaft are destroyed, and access to numerous apartments is limited to the “ballet of the hook and ladder outside.”
Les Halles, picnic supplies: a ripe St. Marcellin, rigottes de Condrieu, a saucisson, baguette ancienne, a bunch of carrots, pâté forestier, a demi of Beaujolais.
Heading south on the Autoroute du Soleil, but we have left the sun in Lyon. The red mosquito of a car keeps getting in everyone’s way. Picnic overlooking Serrières, the Rhône, and its museum of Rhône Mariners, some of whom are still out there windsurfing.
The car fits better on the highland country road over to Vallon Pont d’Arc which plays hide and seek with a railroad laced straight through hillsides and across valleys on masonry viaducts. A world of stone walls and tile roofs, and the first of many stone villages resolving out of the landscape with a slight squint, then fading back into the sere hills. Tractors pull hoppers of small dark grapes. As we approach the Ardèche, more and more camping, pizzas, and discos.
Vallon Pont d’Arc. Hotel Tourisme, for the older set. Pizza at the Exclamation Mark restaurant, with the thinnest of crusts. Crickets in the vineyards, a bat in the courtyard at dusk, the grape harvester driver cruising the old stone streets in his high bright blue boat. A couple of military jets trace the contour of the Plateau des Gras. The church bells toll the hours. Stone-walled streets in yellow moonlight.
The view from the room, through 18-inch thick walls: the last block along the edge of town slopes down to meet the vineyards. And beyond, the hills–notched at one point by the Ardèche.
Thursday, September 29
Market day in Vallon, everything from chainsaws to herbs, mobile cheese stores and butcher shops, wheels onto the square for the morning. A whole subculture of itinerant shopkeepers rolls from town to town on a weekly schedule.
The Gorge of the Ardèche. Pont d’Arc, a gargantuan natural stone bridge. Kayakers heading down river. Our high road follows the rim of the gorge. Pulling in and out of pullouts at the edge for one “Belvedere” after another. The so-called medieval ruins never seem to materialize out of the landscape far below, but the turrets of a 19th century chateau with its spanking green lawn along a tight bend in the river are very fetching–it still looks inaccessible other than by wild kayak.
The Madeleine Grotte with a geological student guide. His flawless French; my 100 percent comprehension, thanks to technical cognates. Les stalactites qui tiennent, les stalagmites qui montent…
St. Sulpice, a 12th-17th century Romanesque bunker of a church out standing in vineyards miles down a cart rut. Little walled-street villages: Bidon, Trignan, St. Marcel. Medieval arched bridge built by the Brotherhood of the Holy Spirit Bridgebuilders across the Rhône–Pont St. Esprit, and a huge high fortress at Suze–the university of wine. La Baume de Transit, ferme auberge Domaine de St. Luc. A walk at twilight in vineyards with farm dogs proudly herding their goats in for the night, chasing us off.
Crustless zucchini quiche
Lapin basilique with livers
Cheeses: fresh chèvre, of the neighborhood?
Pear meringue, chocolate sauce
Friday, September 30
Rain through the night, a very wet mistral (?). Marlene, the chatty American from Noe Valley, whose conversation kept us from talking to our hosts.
The brown farm dog jumps onto the white knit bedspread with its black muddy paws–zut! A walk in fields of millet, maybe, after breakfast. The green that glows under a grey sky.
A first dose of plane-tree-lined streets in Valréas. A drive up to Montjoux in foothills, up the Lez river, the greenest of green scenic stripes on the Michelin map, through Rocher St-Secret, whose secret, despite a Café de la Gare, seems to be the missing gare. Restaurant Mielle on its last day before annual vacation: the elderly couple’s last meal of their pension stay. The pretty young wall-eyed waitress. An honest meal:
Tuna, tomato, olive oil — Salade verte
Grillade, frites — Omelette au truffe
Cerises en sirop
Côte de Rhône
Grignan and its castle, the address of Mme de Sévigné’s letters from Versailles to her daughter. A long spiral road up, the first of many hilltop castles whose ramparts overlook a town that clings to its skirt. Mme’s ugly son-in-law who lost his money letting his guests win at billiards and other games. Her three enemies: the river, the wind, the mosquitoes. The journey from Paris took five weeks! She called her daughter-in-law “necessary dung,” a farmer’s dowry to enrich impoverished nobility. A stunning helicopter-dragon-bird-boat-wagon parked behind the chateau. Till next year’s parade? With this she could have faced her enemies!
More walled towns. Hot chocolate in Richerenches–four corner towers and everything inside the walls falling down or being rebuilt.
Pierrelongue, a valley village whose church sits atop a three-story rock.
Buis-les-Barronnies. On the Ouvèze, the herb market and lime-tree petal capital of France. The Lion d’Or hotel, underneath the medieval Arcades, with its little gold lion statue in upstairs lobby, its modern, empty Eurostyle entrance. Styrofoam bathroom tiles, a little push-button electric flush toilet. Put candles in wine bottles to replace fluorescent light. Directions to pizza–town’s sole restaurant–from a native whose accent practically bubbled through the words, making French sound Portuguese.
Pizzeria de Parois
Mexicana — Completa
Coteaux des Barronnies
Saturday, October 1
Market day in Buis. Five or six merchants set up on tables–the pâté lady; the vegetable lady with hard tomatoes for eating, ripe ones for cooking; the waffle lady; the sausage; etc.
Breakfast in the patisserie/boulangerie, a little table along the wall across from the display case. Pain au chocolat, grand crème, with a continuing parade of (mostly elderly) bread buyers.
Provisioning around town, carrots, apples, banana, figs, bread, Nyons olives. Long conversation with a loquacious old party on the bridge over the Ouvèze: the story of the teacher of seven languages who as a maquis taught the Russian prisoners French in three months during World War II, the olive-killing frosts, the American Indians seen on TV, the Romans repoussés, the Indians remplacés. The bubbly, olivey dialect that tumbles over itself like a mountain stream.
Lavender sachet. Picnic chez Gautières, the winery closed for the weekend, on a pebbly hillside campground. Vaison-la-Romaine, a thriving square, ruins of the wealthy Roman country town: the rented houses’ huge communal provision urn, a tunnel through the hillside opening into the steep amphitheater. The first click of boules. The upper, medieval town across the Roman bridge in a downpour, shelter in a fancy hotel tea room (le Beffroi), then a climb through more cobbled switchbacks to the ruined chateau, totally impregnable, backed by a cliff. On the way back down, a tiny blaze seen through white curtains, an iron resting on the kitchen table.
Lou Canesteou cheese shop with its talky patronne. Her good (widowed) friend who married the (widower) California professor. Her friend’s problem with large size in the United States. Picodon, and one in oil–a Banon (?)–homemade chickpeas and garlic and blue cheese spread. Finally discover “lou” is not short for Louis but Provencal for “le” by reading facing translation of Frederic Mistral verses on a plaque near the Ouvèze.
Drive on to Gigondas in the rain, past pointy Sablet. Les Florets hotel and restaurant, against a piney hillside, rain and dead leaves falling on terrace out front.
Bouillabaisse of cod, rouille
Medaillons de veau — Noisettes d’agneau garlic sauce, 2 peppers
Banon, chèvre aux herbes
Gigondas, Montmirail 1984
Game of miniature scrabble, a glass of marc.
Sunday, October 2
Awake to the sound of the fountain confounded with rain on the terrace. It is rain, and a dent in a plan to walk among the Dentelles. A rainy drive through downtown Gigondas, a café, art galleries, and tasting room. No taste for wine Sunday morning, so a quick push to Orange. The Roman triumphal arch that saw no triumphs. Park near Cours Pourtoulles, and climb to the St. Eutrope hill park to picnic among the moldering ruins of a stupendous 12th-16th century fortress built of the stones plundered from Roman monuments, the fortress in turn pulled down by Louis XIV as he captured the nobility. Fallen cellar arches, a huge well shaft 20 feet across, a dilapidated Parcourse now running through the park.
The best-preserved Roman theater in Christendom, its scene-wall intact, the “greatest wall in the kingdom” said Sun King. Wagner plays here on summer nights. Today just a tourist youth bellowing to buddies in the galleries. Museum across the street favors favorite son impressionist Albert de B., in dingy upper rooms.
On to Roussillon via Carpentras and l’Isle sur la Sorgue, skirting Gordes in the gloom that robs it of its white glow. A cozy garret at the Residence of the Ochres, and a first walk through the red town on cantonal election night, the Maison de Commune ablaze and buzzing.
Dinner at Restaurant David on the edge of the cliff, with the son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter of Julien Vincent, a/k/a Edmond David, whose portrait and culinary diploma occupy the place of honor on a wall of oils depicting Roussillon and Vauclusian natural scenes. We are the only customers, but every table is laid. The bar is incredibly well stocked with expensive liqueurs, liquors, and specialties, many in over-sized bottles. The family table at the other side of the room. “What is beneath is more expensive than what is above,” recites the granddaughter, as we admire the glowing wooden ceiling. Steel piles were sunk in the soft ochre cliffs. “If the earth should fall away, the room would remain standing on stilts.” The granddaughter spent a term at school in Westport, Connecticut, to learn the language of customers.
Fish soup from fisherman — Terrine de la pereaux
Salmis de pintade — Brochette d’agneau
Banon and Camembert
Biscuit–sorbet, meringue, candied fruits.
Mme David, glued to the bar radio, seems displeased (as far as I can tell) as the Communists have made advances. The morning paper will headline a “diluvian absenteeism.”
The streets of Roussillon fade down at night like any small town with a just couple of bars.
Monday, October 3
Sleeping in after thermonuclear nightmare. Arriving home from Europe, and someone is bringing Lily toward us and playing with two sticks of dynamite (our rolled-up wills), when a glow in the next field (my father says, “Oh, yes, someone said something about …”) turns out to be the start of the old mushroom cloud. “Get on top of the baby,” I yell, as Melissa tries. Lily doesn’t want to lie down and I pile on too and wake up, as the clock tolls 4 a.m.
Still cloudy, though brightening. A walk for pain gris. Coffee, tea, and the morning’s last croissant at café #1. German tourists with horses ascend the town, taking over the Place de la Mairie and the café terrace. The horses foul the old boules ground. We retreat to inspect the new school, the notary’s house, and the cliffs looking back at the restaurant David.
The cafétière called it the Mistral, even though it is damp, warm, cloudy and incorporates small rains, thunder. Is all weather here blamed on the Mistral? Maybe it’s the fall version.
A rainy afternoon nap and drive around the hill towns. Goult, in a downpour, diluvian gutters; St. Pantaléon; at Bouillons, a home-made glass museum housed in the former stained glass studio of a graceless stained glass artist–Roualt in chains–but next to an old olive mill with a one-piece, seven-ton oak press that concretizes the olive industry; Ménerbes, moldy old church falling down with a soggy graveyard on a high rampart, a ruin in use. Roussillon makes other towns look sick in their rainy, rotty pallor.
Back at the Ochres, the hotelier recommends the truffle omelet Chez Georgette, but it’s too late in the fall for truffles. The 70-franc dinner:
Salade variée with luscious tomatoes
Entrecôte grillée just right
Small firm lentils
Cheeses / ice cream / coffee
Demi pichet of red
The hotelier pulls down his lower eyelid when we say we’d had a truffle omelet at Montjoux. Georgette’s are one-hundred percent truffle.
Tuesday, October 4
Sunshine over misty valley. Spun honey with baguettes for hotel breakfast. The market at Gordes: honey lollipops, carrots, bread, olives and peppers, pistachios. Picnic in the Borie village, beehive-shaped stone buildings: architecture, in fact, as a bread oven, with a strange confusion over the question of its age—prehistoric or 19th century? Sitting on a stone wall feeding Lou Canesteou’s picodon to a small brown mouse, thinking he’d died and gone to heaven. The best cheese of his life.
Sénanque Abbey, protected by the Simianes, lords of Gordes. Quiet, plain, cool … door to heaven.
Bonnieux, for a galette Provençale, “a sweet pastry tartelet flavored with grated orange zest and filled with praline and almond cream.” And as night falls, down from the hill towns to Apt, thronging at end-of-day market time, its rue piétonnée running right past St. Anne’s Cathedral, and bumper cars at the far end. Hang out for twilight.
Pastis — Suze
Salade variée (more tomatoes)
Blanquette de veau, rice
Coffee, pistachio ice cream
Half of red
Wednesday, October 5
Fog. Hot foot it up to café #1. A penny ante market in town with three rigs spread out: 1 olives and honey, 2 vegetables. A walk to the best cared-for and most ceramic-, fabric-, and beaded-flower-crammed cemetery yet. A living cemetery actually frequented and tended by those left behind. Some brand new grey cement bunkers, with bunk shelves inside, waiting ….
Paths among the ochre quarries. Blindingly lurid, and we are thankful for the relief of the dark green pines. Skin-like folds in the earth reminiscent of madrone branches. A motorcyclist couple in red rainsuits spends a half hour with long Nikons, his and hers.
A living cemetery actually frequented and tended by those left behind. Some brand new grey cement bunkers, with bunk shelves inside, waiting.
The very disappointing fougasse sucré. The astonishingly new and modern Salle des Fêtes, with its WCs, guichet, and cloakroom, bar and stage doors. Upstairs, the new Mairie? The old post office.
FONTAINE DE LA VAUCLUSE
Fontaine de la Vaucluse with jackhammers going at the town square turns out to be the biggest tourist spot yet, with the Underground World of Norbert Casteret’s collection of harvested stalactites, -mites, etc., and other tourist snares to avoid. A long tunnel of crafts vendors stretched alongside the Sorgue, including a river-powered limited-edition paper mill with clomping wooden hammers bashing the pulp. The paper is luxurious but the homespun verses printed on it are far less fetching.
The fontaine, a resurgent spring whose 900-foot-deep shaft was only recently plumbed, despite generations of Sorguonauts, including Cousteau, who failed to reach bottom. A robot finally went where no man has. The “mystery” of the source, which “seems” to drain the entire Vaucluse plateau. We saw it at low water, a deceptively tranquil slime-green pool down a huge rock maw, but photos show it boiling and gushing over the brim in springtime. Its level is scientifically ascertained by the Sorguometer, graduated brass rules affixed to the rock.
Picnic lunch along the shallow Sorgue, downstream from the source, filled with waves and waves of the greenest pickleweed, on a stone bench behind the Petrarch museum. Sonnets to Laura were written here beside the Sorgue, where he lived for 20? years. His father had had to leave Italy for either internecine or intestinal reasons. Friend of Bocaccio, offered the poet’s crown by both Rome and Paris, Petrarch chose Rome.
On the way out of town, a four-inch kitten insists on sitting in the middle of the main street.
The Chateau de Roussan lives up to its description, an 18th-century chateau in its park. The approach is up a long perspective avenue of trees to a false-front facade. The slightly moldering building in fact faces south, over a graveled terrace with fountains, and then unkempt lawns, bushes, and trees, greenhouse, ponds, and sluices stretching off towards a range of small mountains–the Alpilles, known for their lamb. From here on, we clearly head to and face the south, the Mediterranean, the Camargue, looking in the direction of the Mistral and down the Rhône.
Our room is les Abeilles in the southeast corner, floral wall paper, old furniture, high ceilings, red tile floors, and a snug half-size tub. Michelin Red Guides in the library all the way back to 1957. Nostredamus was an uncle of the chateau’s builder.
La Riboto de Taven
Mise en bouche: carrot mousse in butter sauce
Le mesclun simple — Salmon in red wine
Baudroie en coulis de hommard — Noisettes d’agneau des Alpilles
Eggplant, scalloped potatoes
Vrai Banon, Tomme de Camargue
Half bottle 1985 Domaine de Mont Redon Chateauneuf de Pape
Thursday, October 6
Breakfast on the terrace, stone tables in the sun. Hot buttered toast, the only slices in all France. Farmers burning brush in the next field continue the smoky theme we’ve been encountering in the countryside.
Picnic on the crest of the Alpilles on the way to les Baux: another Banon, if not as true and complex as last night’s, then fine and fruity. The Galette from Bonnieux. Dozens of dragonflies, striped black and yellow like bees, buzz the roadside.
Les Baux, another thoroughly touristed spot, a hill town seemingly hewn out of the rock outcropping, with the newer (post-Medieval) streets clutching the hillside and the Medieval ruins up on the flat top. From up here you see the southern spread of Provence, a panorama from Arles on the Rhône in the east, way around south to the Camargue and the sea, all the way around west to Aix and Mt. St. Victoire. But every building houses some kind of tourist retail effort. Buy a small chunk of reddish bauxite for my father.
Back at the chateau, a neighbor’s herd of sheep, goats, dogs, and shepherds moves rapidly past the front, and we follow along walking down the country lane for 45 minutes. Then eat pistachios by candlelight in front of open window as night falls.
Café des Arts
Julienned vegs, beets, pâté
Entrecôte grillée, frites, ratatouille
Tarte aux prunes
2 pichets of red
Friday, October 7
Rain storm in early morning, but dry and warm enough to breakfast on the terrace. Day trip to Tarascon, where “la Révolution Française” is filming at the castle. Heaps of rubber tires on gasoline-soaked rags belch revolutionary smoke that hangs over the rabble storming the bridge across the moat. Under a nearby highway overpass, lunch for the crew and extras is laid out on trestle tables: hundreds of little plastic trays with napkin, plastic fork, and petit pain waiting for the main course.
On through Beaucaire to the Pont de Gard, which, like all monuments, sneaks up fast and seems at first a little too familiar and smaller than its photos. But it grows, particularly from atop, a thoroughly heady walkway, ten to twelve feet wide and 200 feet above the river, with no railings.
“Sauf les Riverains” sounds the familiar theme, for a small road, and magpies continue to be the national bird.
On to Avignon searching for lunch, with a big mistaken detour to Villeneuve-les-Avignon–no café and tricky parking. A struggle to park in Avignon itself, and finally a sandwich saucisson and Orangina at the Café le Cid on the Place de l’Horloge. Pont St. Bénézet and the Place of Popes, both stone disappointments. But a bottle of ’87 Tavel and a sighting of the Auto-Pain cheer me up on the way out of town, the latter a drive-in bread stop where home-bound Frenchmen stock up for supper. Crossing the Durance, a shot of a long, low-arched railroad bridge over the marshes further downstream just before the Durance empties into the Rhône.
Moules aux épinards
Cassoulet à l’oie — Tranche de gigot d’agneau, ail
Fraises, framboises, crme anglaise & framboises purées
Half bottle Cassis
Half bottle 1982 Cahors ! in its inky robe
Saturday, October 8
A madeleine added to the breakfast tray at the Chateau. Other Americans: Harold and Portia, Jeffrey and Susan–the three-star crowd.
A fougasse salé (bacon) from St. Etienne du Grès does not disappoint. Beaucaire again, site of one of the great Medieval fairs, to scope out today’s Foire, which is just getting started. Hard to know if fairgrounds are 1,000 years old or not. No bullfight in the arena till 3, so push on south. Lunch on the steps of St. Gilles church. (Crypt with its spiral staircase closed till 2.) Gateway to the Camargue, with many cafés. Quick shot of a Camarguaise hanging laundry out her window, exotic face, a red dress and purple leggings, bright primary scarf.
And suddenly you’re there, crossing the Petit Rhône and everything is flat, wide open, and grassy. France’s cow and cowboy country crossed with rice delta and southern gypsy mind. The little train at Méjanes winds through a typical patch, past Great Blue Herons, white horses, pink flamingos. Walk around the Marais de Gines ornithological reserve. Great Horned Owls in a cage. Little black bulls.
There is no litter in France except for the occasional flash of a blue Gauloises pack, crumpled by the path, that reads more like a flower in its rarity.
Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer, a working class beach town, where the three Marys (including Magdalene) washed up on a raft with their servant, Sarah, in Biblical times. Tramp around stone roof of fortress church that towers over surrounding tile jobs, jutting prow-like into the lather of smaller buildings. Check into Mas de Rièges (patronne in cowboy boots) and watch sun set over the marsh to Tavel with a salut to A.J. Liebling, a crowned T molded into the bottle’s slim, clear neck.
Crudités vinaigrettes à l’anchois
la Brouille — Bourride (lot & spuds)
Listrel gris (rosé)
cold & spicy
A hip bull town, gypsy blood in cowboy and fisherman veins, flamenco guitarists. The street fête turns out to be a teen blowout: bumper-car go karts raced by amazingly clench-gazed youth, and true electric dodgems driven as the only French could–fast backwards, completely solemn with no yelling, almost shooting for the near miss instead of the bump, and looking slightly pained at actual collisions.
Men: long-haired dark-skinned, faded jeans or leathers, boots, earrings, bright ties, courtly with greetings and smiles.
Women: long hair pulled back, weather-beaten, broad foreheads, tight jeans, U.S. fashions 20 years back, or very Western.
Teens: dungarees rolled up in one four-inch fold.
Teens rule in bright incandescent-lit streets, bouncing up and down in a loud bar. Mobile pizza ovens, tricked out in fake brick, doing a tremendous business. Amusement rides to heavy piper music, accompanied by reverb’d remarks from the operator, whose fingers also play over four buttons of sound effects ranging from squawks and bleeps to a well-synthesized fart.
The Jo Allen Orchestra playing for the ball on the town square–night street thick with the smell of pastis–and no wonder since whole bottles of it sit on trestle tables with pitchers of mixing water. The “orchestra” a young rock band, talky, with puffing blue smoke and colored lights. No one in the crowd is over 18. A small group of girls babysitting at a back table.
Sunday, October 9
Cloudy in the Camargue; breakfast in fleeting sunshine. See inside the Stes. Maries church, statues of them in their boat and the high-flown shrine from which they’re lowered for the annual parade and sea bath, Sarah’s crypt (upstairs/downstairs). Cross a gypsy’s palm and she says I’ll never be a millionaire but won’t starve either.
Bread and fruit picnic in drizzle in car at the Museum of the Camargue. Push on to Aix through ground swarm for an air show over Salon. The French love their jets, which always swing low over the admiring countryside.
A college town since 1409. American junior girls abroad. Tail end of Cours Mirabeau non-profit association festival, one boring booth after another. Is this what the great mercantile fairs have come to? Finally spend three hours in a café, les Deux Garçons, reading, eyeballing–from afternoon tea to evening pastis.
On the prowl for a Daube Provençale. Find a bland one at the touristy Aixoise:
Daube & noodles
Crème caramel (highlight of meal)
1/2 côte de local
Monday, October 10
Park underground in Aix under more gray skies. Pain au chocolat on the hoof, coffee at Deux Garçons. Visit Granet museum for Cézanne room. Portrait of the Missus, whose moue suggests she didn’t enjoy sitting still for it. School of Ingres’ Noses.
Melissa’s big chance to go to church.
Lunch at busy Brasserie Madeleine, poulet, frites. Criss-cross streets. No Pagnol memoirs anywhere to be had. No parking at Cézanne’s studio.
Autoroute to Cotignac.
Practically off the tourist track. Roussillon without ochre, artists, or the Vaucluse. La Falaise de tuf. Place Gambetta. Lou Calen, hotel and restaurant. Pastis on the sidewalk at town bar, almost all riverains. A little girl’s acrobatics on a low wall.
Mushroom, garlic, snails
Salmon, chives, purées — Coquilles St. J, saffron (the whole animal)
Laurent-Perrier for 5th anniversary.
Tuesday, October 11
Sun and clouds in Cotignac for market day. Buy carrots and Perrier. Arrive near siesta time at Thoronet Abbey, the sister of Sénanque, but rougher, ruddier, less pristine. Later, picnic in the corner of a vineyard outside Cabasse.
ST. MAXIMIN LA STE. BAUME
A big basilica to house the small remains of Mary Magdalene (especially her cranium) and St. Max, but it remains unfinished despite building since the 13th century. The work continues on the massive facade, and within–workmen hoist giant puzzle pieces of carved stone Provence Gothic to trundle along wooden catwalks lacing the high scaffolds. Men get to shout in church, at last.
Next door, a recently lapsed Dominican convent, with large crisp photos of monks in white robes in their daily doings in the 40s and 50s among the white stones. Now a conference center with architects conferring that day.
The autoroute, again, to Cassis, through Pagnol’s landscape, somewhat tamed by the concrete flyway, but the mountains endure: Garlaban and Bec Cornu, under big thunderheads and rain that play out the gargantuan drama in the background of his memoirs.
Unwinding down and spilling out into beautiful tiny Cassis, neatly displayed around its Mediterranean harbor, abustle in the late afternoon French bustle. The Hotel Liautaud, with balconies overlooking the boules grounds and the beach, the harbor inside an outstretched arm clutching a diminutive lighthouse in its fist. Walks through falling dusk in a drizzle. An obliging grocer chills a bottle of Domaine du Patournel that helps ease the dark down, as sipped and seen from the balcony to the green flash from the lighthouse, one second in every four.
Le Calendral (after Mistral)
Mussels à pastis — Gambas la Provençal (anis)
Rouget (red mullet)
Le Petit Cassis (= sorbet & crème de c.)
Half bottle of Cassis de quatre vents
Eureka! The waiter reminds us of le principe d’Archimède as the reason behind the floating candle’s behavior on the table. A French education will out. An after-dinner walk around the sloping, curving town, halyards slapping against the sound of surf. A toad-shaped turd about to take the prize for most creative dogwork in all of France … but no, it is the town toad, resting in the lee of a lamppost on the town square. He ambles around to the darker side of the post while we watch.
But no, again. The Western wear store around the corner has set out its terrarium in the gated vestibule, and it’s likely we just saw the store toad taking his nightly constitutional and cocktail at the nearby fountain.
Wednesday, October 12
Thunder, lightning, and motorbikes sawing through the night. Breakers. Café coffee and croissants with postcard activity, followed by extensive market in town park. More lines at the P.O., where the French bank, phone, pay bills, insure life, etc. Endless forms to fill out, official stamps to be bought and applied to forms. The poetry of bureaucracy.
More lines at the P.O., where the French bank, phone, pay bills, insure life, etc. Endless forms to fill out, official stamps to be bought and applied to forms. The poetry of bureaucracy.
A trek among the Calanques, mini-Mediterranean fjords. Drive to Port-Miou Calanque. Picnic in car in drizzle. Pâté forestière, Tomme de Savoie, baguette, fresh green olives. Start off on walk in drizzle along the narrow fjord, crammed with boat slips. Overland to a little beach in the Port-Pin Calanque, then scramble treacherous paths up scree and talus and over the top to l’En-Vau Calanque. Two climbers atop a 150-foot rock needle, just sitting around, way down below us. Another fellow sauntering along high narrow ledges on the wall across the calanque–out for a Sunday stroll with no climbing gear–like a fly on the wall. Below him at sea level a party of tenderfoots edges nervously out a five-foot high ledge to meet their boat from Cassis, slow motion ant file. We straggle back through an old quarry that produced white stone for the quais along the Suez Canal, sun finally shining through as we eat pastries at the car.
Late afternoon in Cassis: boules. Sign:
La Boule Cassidaine. Il est dangereux de traverser.
Bouillabaisse & rouille
Bandol (la Bastide Blanche)
Sit next to same Italian foursome for third meal in a row, three different restaurants.
Thursday, October 13
Blue sky and sun as we prepare to leave. Breakfast again at the Café Français, the one among five in a row that mysteriously does breakfast business. It is all gravitation or do we know something? Small, hard croissants with a touch of glaze. Marseille Herald Tribune says Peary never made it to the North Pole, after all.
Stock up for lunch, drive to Marseille past Pagnol’s mountains again. Fellaheen big city, like upper Broadway painted black with fezzes. The old port filled with “pleasure craft.” The hospital workers on strike, “We are not of the beasts”; pizza slices to benefit the victims of the flood at Nimes; the strike rally at the Hotel de Ville: ”the minister knows nothing about the hospital,” the union sound truck squawks. Most of the strikers have broken for lunch, but the National Police are out in force.
The “Panier” old quarter, and rain drops push us back to St. Charles Station. TGV to Paris, as the trip rewinds up the Rhône, centimeter by centimeter on the large-scale Michelin map that shows every road we cross, every mountain we’ve seen and see once more–St. Victoire, the Alpilles, the Dentelles, the Palace of Popes, the theatre at Orange, the cathedral at Lyon; and in the north, across the green bread basket at truly high speed once the tracks peel off from the Rhône valley. Startling orange sunset over slightly tilted rolling fields, flat after Provence, and calm. Four guys at the back of the car strum and pick out guitar tunes all the way.
Gare de Lyon and a crowded Métro to Bastille and on up into the cool Paris fall evening. Hotel Place des Vosges. The salesgirl at Récidive, where we buy mother and baby hedgehogs for Lily, suggests Hippopotamus for good meat, and we have steak and pommes allumettes with a half bottle of inky ’85 Cahors, piped to transliterated American rock score, red decor.
One night in Paris: walk rue St. Antoine, rue de Rivoli, right bank to the Tuilleries, cross Pont Royal and back the left bank. Mysterious trumpet band assembled in semi-circle down on the lower quai, with sound recording gear and a puny video rig, a boat full of searchlights mid-river, and a quick flash of brilliant light on a woman in red atop a barge moored on the other bank, and incredibly floodlit bateaux mouches that throw daylight onto riverside buildings. The mysteries of Paris.
Alan Bernheimer’s latest collection of poetry is The Spoonlight Institute (Adventures in Poetry), and his translation of Philippe Soupault’s memoir Profils Perdus is forthcoming. In 1988, inspired by Laurence Wylie’s Village in the Vaucluse account of 1950s Roussillon, the films and books of Marcel Pagnol, and Patricia Wells’s Food Lover’s Guide to France, he and his wife explored Provence for several weeks.