Friday, July 8, 2011

France, part three: Provence!

This is the last installment of my photos from France.

Anna and I spent five days exploring Provence.  We stayed in the beautiful city of Aix-en-Provence, in the heart of the old part of the city.  The narrow street and stone houses were beautiful.  We enjoyed walking the winding alleys, finding surprises around each bend.

Aix is a city of fountains.  There were dozens in the streets we walked, sometimes in a corner, but more frequently where two or more streets intersected.  The main street, the Cours Mirabeau, has a large one at the top of the street.  This one, the quatre dauphins, was my favorite.

Flowers were in bloom everywhere- we saw a lot of this pink oleander.

One of the evenings we were there, we were fortunate to enjoy a free public concert, inaugurating the upcoming opera festival in town.  The London Symphony Orchestra and soloists performed highlights from the opera La Traviata.  Earlier in the evening we scoped out the venue at the top of the Cours Mirabeau.  The seats were available by prior arrangement (which we hadn't made).

And here is what it looked like just as the concert was starting.  The area was packed and the audience listened with rapt attention.

One morning we stumbled on this market.  So colorful!  Anna bought us strawberries and cherries for our picnic lunch that day.

We spent a full day driving down along the coast of the impossibly blue Mediterranean sea.  This cliff is along the coast near the small resort town of Cassis.

Along the wharf in Cassis.

In Cassis, we went on a chartered boat tour of the calenques or creek inlets, fragile, beautiful areas.  Here is Anna aboard the boat.

On our way back to Aix, we drove along the Route des Cretes, which scales the cliff to the east of Cassis and affords wonderful views from above of the town and sea.

Another full day we spent exploring two ancient ruins.  The first was at Les Baux de Provence.  This medieval settlement, built on a promontory of les Alpilles mountains, was originally constructed to defend the area from invaders.  The village is quite charming and the fort settlement very interesting to explore.

Provence is famous for growing many beautiful things- olive groves, sunflowers, and of course lavender.  It grows everywhere, and on a windy day like we had as the mistral wind gusted, the scent is unmistakeable.

Set against blinding white gravel paths, the purple flowers are stunning.

In Les Baux, they even pave the streets with it.

Just north of Les Baux, near the outskirts of the town of St. Remy is the excavated Roman settlement Glanum.  Our visit was a bit of an afterthought, but I had a feeling that it might be interesting.  We ended up spending two hours exploring the site.

Amidst the remaining stone walls were remnants of capitals, culverts, sculpture, baths and cisterns.

And so I bid adieux with a glass of my favorite afternoon refreshment while we were in Provence, pastis, or liquid Good-n-Plenty as my brother-in-law calls it.

One warm afternoon in Aix we even had the pleasure of enjoying our cool drinks (pastis for me, iced chai latte for Anna) at a cafe with some live jazz.

France, part two: FOOD

For part two of my pictures from France, I thought I would highlight some of the food we enjoyed.

In general, meal time- lunch and dinner- were enjoyed at a relaxed pace, at least an hour for lunch, more like two or three for dinner.  Much of the conversation centered on, naturally enough, food and wine.  Anna's host dad said to me that other than eating food, the Frenchman enjoys talking about food.  What we are eating, what we have eaten, what we will eat.  And of course many other topics!

So here is a taste of France!  Once again, feel free to click on the pictures to see them at a more mouth-watering size.

Part one featured a photo of the cheese plate.  Here it is again.  Coming at the end of the meal, it was usually accompanied by fruit and/or a fresh salad with vinaigrette and, of course, bread.  Here in addition to a Menetou-Salon red, Denis had a treat for me- a bottle of 1999 Ch√Ęteauneuf-du-Pape from his cellar.  Duskier and smokier than the newer local wine, both were delicious.

Our favorite dinner during our week in Aix-en-Provence.  In the evening we would stroll the streets of the old town, looking at menus and deciding on a whim what looked like the best choice for dinner.  Cafe Terminus we really stumbled on.  It was a lurker- I normally wouldn't pause at a restaurant in France that had a Ben & Jerry's ice cream menu- but the clientele looked like they were enjoying the place, the tabled food looked good, so we gave it a try.  We were delightfully surprised.  Here I'm having the chef's daily special of roast lamb chops with fig/honey sauce, ratatouille, potato and salad.  Anna had gnocchi with pistou (pesto) sauce.  (She also had the Ben & Jerry's!)  We only returned to one restaurant during our week in Aix: Le Terminus. (for canard magret [Anna] and flank steak [me])

Not a meal, but a scene from a street market.  Sausage!

My favorite meal from the trip was with Anna's family at the cozy traditional village restaurant in Menetou-Salon, C'heu L'Zib.  Anna's family is well known by the owners of this place, which is now in the third generation.  When we arrived, in the company of another family who dined with us, bisous were warmly exchanged all around.

At the long table in the cozy dining room, as we wait for our aperitif.

My starter course was delicate smoked salmon, served simply with lemon.  Anna had melon.  (And some of my salmon!)  Wine was a local white from Domaine Jean Tellier.

The courses were served family style.  This is the fish course, which I believe is a house specialty.  It is poached pike served in a cream sauce.  The fish was perfectly firm/tender and the sauce smooth.  I was trying to pace myself, but I went back for a small helping of seconds on this one.  Anna warned me about this dish, and she was right.  Heavenly.

The fish course plated.

The meat course was roast lamb, served with small potatoes and ratatouille veg.  The roast was thinly sliced and nicely medium rare.   The potatoes were parboiled then deep fried with a crispy exterior.  The ratatouille was simple and delicious.

Mid-meal conversation.

Next was salad and cheese.  My plate here is starting with the important stuff.

This large cheese, which Jean-Jacques is holding up for the picture, was left on the table for us to enjoy.

I did not photograph the dessert, a baked Charlotte cake. The food coma must have already set in.  We arrived at the restaurant at 8pm and said goodbye to walk home at midnight- four hours of good company and good food.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

France, part one

I recently had the good fortune to travel to France, where I spent ten days with Anna, met her AFS host family at the end of her stay and traveled with her.

Since I've got quite a few photos to share, I'll do so in parts, arranged somewhat thematically. Part one features Menetou-Salon, the village where Anna spent her AFS experience, from January to July, 2011, and a few photos of Bourges, the city where her school was located. And so, on to the pictures! (click on the images to see a larger version.)

There are not many street signs pointing to Menetou-Salon since it is quite small.  I'm glad I found this one!

Rue de Paradis indeed: this is along Menetou-Salon's main street, and has surely been paradise for Anna (not to mention the patissier!)

My first evening there we took a walk through town and the adjoining countryside.  Within minutes from home we were in wheat fields and vineyards.  This is the view across a field of the church steeple.

Later in my stay, Anna's family arranged for us to climb up to the top of the bell tower.  Here we are amidst the bronze, very tight quarters.  I don't believe many make the climb other than the annual setting out of the Christmas lights.  Access to the upper balcony level was by way of a tall hand-hewn ladder.

At the balcony, Anna and her sister Claire.

Bell tower balcony, Denis and Anna enjoying the view.

The view south along the Route du Bourges, where Anna lived.

The view east, with the chateau on the hill.

Anna's host father arranged for us to visit one of the many local vintners, Jean-Jacques Tellier of Domaine Jean Tellier, only two streets over.  His production facility is right next to his family's home.

The tanks were modern and gleaming.  He explained the whole process to us- fascinating!

In the cave, some crated vintages.

We also had some delicious samples!  His family is rightfully proud of their product.  (Anna and her friend Laura.)

Back at home, we had a light lunch in the garden.  Time spent at the table with good food, good wine, and good conversation was a staple!

Another staple was cheese!  Denis and Marie-Helene always had a generous plate for the end of the meal with salad and fruit.  My favorites were the local chevre, at the bottom and bottom right of this picture.  Delicious!

Marie-Helene's green thumb was everywhere in evidence.

Anna relaxing in the garden.

Anna proudly showed me around the big city of Bourges as well.  We walked the downtown shopping area on a busy Saturday, and explored the impressive and beautiful cathedral with its high, vaulted ceilings and colorful stained glass windows.

I loved the astrological clock with its many complications.  Recently renovated, it is a mechanical marvel.

We climbed this bell tower as well- 400 steps.  Here is the view of the public gardens below and the countryside in the distance.

One evening we went to a friend's house "in the country" for dinner.  It turned out to be a rather large picnic hosted by a local gamekeeper.  It couldn't have been more stereotypically French- long plain tables with bench seating, pot-luck food supplied by the host and guests, much fun and conversation.  Here are Denis and Anna.

It wouldn't be a meal without bread!