If you are just reading this blog now, you will note that we've already been home for over a month now. This site, however, will stay up for a year, so please feel free to come back to it if you like.
If this is your first time visiting, it is best to scroll through the posts to the beginning of our trip in London first. That way you can enjoy the trip from the start of our adventure!
Since our return, I must admit my mind often drifts back to France, day-dreaming of windswept fields of sunflowers, mile-high gothic steeples, fluffy peaks of soufflé, still, reflective ponds covered in floating green lily pads....
I often look at the clock, quickly calculating the current time in Paris, imagining what I might be doing if I were back there at that moment.
Before we left, a friend sent me an email with the following quote:
"To travel is to live..." - Hans Christian Anderson
My friend was right. I am truly now alive.
I find myself looking up at the sky now more, by day remarking to myself on the majesty of the cloud formations; by night, marveling at the brightness of the stars and shapes of the moon.
I look up and around, rather than down and ahead as before.
My soul is enlightened, more conscious, more humbled by the world around me.
France, mon amour, you have forever changed me, and I will cherish these moments I carry in my heart and mind always.
Driving from Avignon to Aix en Provence was only about an hour, but we had to kill several since we could not check into our villa until 4pm. So we woke late, enjoyed a nice breakfast on the terrace at La Mirande then headed across the street for a tour of Palais des Papes. II hate to admit this, but we looked around this 14th century old castle, palace, fortress, really important historical building marking the beginnings of Catholicism, and said, "ok, let's go!"
Yes, we're pretty done ogling and awing over painstakingly preserved ancient ruins. It's terrible to say, but at this point in the trip all we can think of is getting to the villa. The pool we've been dreaming of, the photos we stared at for months on VRBO promising us a gorgeous provincial style estate, an oasis for the soul.
Not even bothering to shower, we threw on the cleanest of our clothes and started making our way, stopping at little villages en route, most notably L'Isle-sur-la -Sorgue, an adorable little town where the spring-fed Sorgue river runs through its center and into many canals, giving it the feel of little Venice. Its also well-known for its great antique shops.
Our drive also took us on a French tollway! The funny thing about the tollway here is when you first get on you take a ticket, then when you hit the end of it several miles later, you pay.
Coins we didn't have enough of!
An embarrassing moment ensued as cars queued up behind us, David resorting to cramming his credit card in the slot which it would not accept and me shouting, "hit the red button, hit the red button!" Help!
Rescued by a patient french voice on the other end, within seconds a young man was sent, popping out of nowhere with change in hand. We braced ourselves for a reprimand in French. We only got a sympathetic smile.
And not one frustrated honk from behind, I might add.
Before we knew it, we were near the area of the villa. Well, we were pretty sure, anyway.
You see, we had no exact address.
For privacy reasons, we were only given "coordinates" which luckily our GPS accepted, but it only put us in the general area.
Talk about a wild goose chase!
Faithfully following the british commands of our fearless GPS leader, we drove roads and tollways, through urban graphitti covered neighborhoods, then finally past fields of olive trees, vineyards, corn and rolled hay bales. It was finally starting to look like the Provence I had dreamt of. Now we could see the snow capped French alps in the distance, but I kept wondering if we were really in the right place?
Turning down a narrow paved but windy road, it started to feel right. And bumpy.
The road went unpaved, covered in rocks and narrowed more. The trees growing over us, I ducked inside the car. It was a real carnival ride, the dust kicking up around us. We stopped at a fork, which way do we go?
By this time, David had reluctantly called Erwan who runs the villa. Men and directions, you know he must've been desperate. That, and my begging and whining that we were lost.
Erwan told us we were right there. Really? Where?
We turned right, the gravel churning up under our car like a machine gun, drove past a row of mile high trees, and there it was.
Green iron gates opening, cue the fountains. Seriously folks, it was right out of movie as we pulled down the tree lined drive to Villa Fontaine. Erwan, his wife and co-caretaker Cristal, came out to the front steps of the villa to greet us. And then there were two others who we quickly identified as the owners of the home.
Karen and Terri are former New Yorkers whose home base is now in the Caribbean. They purchased and renovated this villa six years ago which took over four years to complete. We were pleasantly surprised to see them here, but apparently it wasnt on our account but rather to say good bye to the person who had checked out that morning, a "well-known" author who had rented the villa for the last month and never left once during his stay.
What a teaser for me. Don't they know authors are more intriguing to me than actors or musicians?
No, they wouldn't tell us, but I have my suspicions.
Karen gave us a tour, the girls running from room to room, proclaiming which one would be theirs for the week. The were very excited to finally get separate rooms, and at this point, they needed a little separation.
The first night we had Chef Michael come to cook for us since we had just arrived, and it was amazing to watch him just single-handedly take over the kitchen, set the table (even walking the property collecting flowers for a centerpiece) , prepare a four course meal AND clean the kitchen!
Erwan and Cristal were wonderful to us, a real godsend in some cases even saving the day a few times when plans needed to change due to weather or we wanted to switch our schedule. When you don't know the language and you are living in a pretty remote area, it can feel a little isolating, but we felt very cared for all week.
The home is stunning, but I will not bore you with descriptions here. The photos may or may not do it justice. Let's just say we were very happy "glampers".
Highlights of our week were:
~ Meeting our new friends, Corey Amaro and her husband, Yann, in Carpentras to go through one the largest and best brocantes (antique flea markets)in the area. With Corey's guidance (and translation) we bought several french treasures, some dating back to the early 18th century. We also enjoyed spending time with them later that evening at the villa where we enjoyed champagne, lovely cheeses and inspiring conversation. Their company was certainly one of the best "treasures" we acquires on this trip.
~A picturesque day on the Mediterranean Sea, boating from the port in Marseille and swimming in the crystal clear aqua blue waters of the Calanques. A very special lunch in the seaside town of Cassis at Chez Gilbert, best known for its Boullibaise, which did not disappoint.
~Watching our girls run, hide, explore and share quiet peaceful moments playing on the park-like grounds of the villa. The aroma of fresh lavender growing on the property.
~Going to the markets in Aix en Provence, buying those fresh baguettes I have been dreaming about for months along with fresh produce, meats and cheeses. The simple act of preparing a dinner at home from items bought fresh that morning.
~Sharing our 20th anniversary with our children in Les Beaux, one of the prettiest towns we saw built on the side of the mountain. Watching a lightening storm from the top as it slowly rolled towards us. Taking cover with an amazing dinner of poached eggs with sliced white truffles, langoustine ravioli and veal at the stunning hotel/restaurant Cabor D'Or.
~Going to Arles to watch the "french rodeo" featuring riding the white Camargue stallions native to the region and black long horned bulls in an ancient arena. We all agreed it was fun, but they have nothing on American rodeo shows we've seen out west.
~Sharing a last evening with our friends from Glenview, Tim and Mary Patronik, and their sons, Andrew and Joey. They were vacationing nearby so it was great to be able to connect with them there. The girls were happy to finally have some English speaking kids to hang with in the pool, and we brought in private chef so no one had to cook or clean!
~Wash all of our clothes in a real laundry room. I never thought I would miss doing laundry!
As I finish this post, we are on the plane heading back to Chicago. I will be writing two more final posts before this travel blog is complete, so even after we return, I hope you will keep reading these:
~One last night in Paris and final thoughts on this trip
~A recap on the top five restaurants we enjoyed. This is for our "foodie" friends, some who recommended these restaurants, helped us with those hard to get reservations and a lot you who just love food and wine.
Chef Michael cooked for us the first evening
Shopping the brocantes in Carpentras with Corey Amaro
Corey and her "French husband" Yann perusing the brocantes.
Some of my brocante treasures
Markets in Aix en Provence
Boat trip from Marseille to the Calanques
David taking advantage of the fresh produce and great kitchen to work in.
Buying pottery in Aix en provence
Arena in Arles
Equestrian show/ rodeo in Arles
View from Les Beaux, watching a lightening storm in the distance
Dinner with the Patronik's
I was the first to awake this morning, and turned over to see if I was alone.
David, still and stoic on his back, like a rock.
How many times have I turned over to see this man beside me, always the same solid, peaceful expression on his face?
20 years today, my love, my rock.
What can I ever give him to commemorate such day?
Something to thank him for all these years of joy, adventure, of love?
I've followed this man, his dreams, our dreams,
through deep dark valleys and
up golden, sun-kissed mountains,
with reckless-abandon, you might say,
But I've never doubted him,
Only myself at moments.
Putting my hand in his through life,
just as he has planned this beautiful trip,
he has led the way,
faithfully and gratefully,
I have followed.
Perhaps that is the best gift I can give.
We spent a lovely last night in Loire Valley with dinner in nearby Le Mans, at its core a charming old medieval city still intact surrounded by a more modern, industrialized version around it. The old city is seemingly trapped in time with narrow cobblestone streets, tiny shops marked with painted wooden signs and a large gothic cathedral standing tall and proud at its center. We were told Le Mans does not actively promote, but is hidden gem as far as movie set locations go, most recently for the film, Pirates of the Caribbean and many others.
On certain summer evenings tourists and locals alike gather to walk the streets of Le Mans to watch as the entire town lights up beginning at 10:00pm until close to 1:00am as colored images move magically across building facades coordinating with ethereal music. It is truly a spectacle for the senses, and the girls wished we could have stayed longer.
Alas, we were to depart the Chateau very early in the morning, make the three hour drive back to Paris and yet again lug our burgeoning suitcases onto the TGV to Avignon. It was another long travel day, but well worth it once we arrived, the hot, moist air feeling almost tropical and more like the vacation destinations we are used to going to.
Avignon is a busy town with tons of touristy shops, street cafes and street performers on every corner along with a gelato bar every three paces. We stayed at La Mirande, a beautiful boutique hotel at the base of Palais des Papes, the first papal residence before the Vatican was established in Rome. We rented a car for the rest of the trip (its imperative to have a car to go anywhere in Provence), and just getting to the hotel through the winding streets of Avignon was an adventure. Thank goodness this car comes with an amazing navigation system!
Our first night here, David was able to check another item off his long bucket list: A cooking class with a real French Chef!
Chef Jean Claude Altmayer runs the cooking school at Le Mirande which offers private cooking classes. Even celebs like Bono and Kim Cattrell have hired Chef Jean Claude to teach them the fine art of french cooking! David reported for duty to the underground 14th century kitchen at 6pm, and learned to clean, dress and cook duck, and make what else? Ratatouille! David says it was well worth his time, and he learned a few new techniques from Chef Jean Claude, as well as few things he had been doing incorrectly before (mainly regarding over-spicing, use of dairy, etc)
The girls and I were invited down to the cavernous but cozy kitchen at 8pm and found the Chefs table set for just the four of us (other guests had signed up for the class that night had cancelled), a mix of popular French and old American music wafting through the stone rooms, and the smell of wood burning in the hundred year old French stove beckoning us down the stone steps. David was apron-clad and all smiles, and the Chef greeted us warmly. We enjoyed the four course meal including sautéed squid, heirloom tomatoes with whipped goat cheese and wine poached apples for dessert. It was a very special night for all.
While in Avignon, we spent a day canoeing to Pont du Gard, a 2000 year old (the oldest in existence) aqueduct. We stopped along the river for a picnic lunch. This is one of the first places the girls noticed the "topless" French women. Lots of giggles and pink cheeks. The girls comment: "Thanks Dad for taking us to France, now we're scarred for life!" Seriously, I really don't see the big deal. In fact, in general French women don't seem to be too worried about covering up at all - even the heaviest of women donning bikinis. While that might not seem appealing, I actually think it's pretty liberating.
Another day, we headed to the Wild West of France and went horseback riding in the Carmague, a swamp-like region known for its pink flamingos, wild white horses and French cowboy lifestyle. After we hit a nearby seaside town for a lunch of mussels and frites and seafood paella and took a quick dip in the Mediterranean sea.
I promised i would write about the good, the bad and the not so wonderful parts of this trip, but thankfully there have been few. However, i must admit at this point the girls had just about hit their limit with hotel rooms, long car or train rides and touring old, historical buildings. They are done. Toast.
And I don't blame them- they have been subjected to more than than most 11 and 13 year olds would be able to endure for a minute let alone 20 days, and they have been real troopers. It's truly been a joy to have this experience with them.
That being said, the next three days were a struggle in civility between the two, crabby from lack of sleep, hot temps, lack of outside social interactions and general homesickness. Not to mention our clothes situation. David washed them once at a laundromat in Paris, half of them shrinking in the process. Now they are just plain old musty and ripe, having been worn and reworn on multiple occasions with underwear becoming a dangerously scarce commodity at this point.
As I write this I am happy to report things are a little better now that we have moved down to Aix en Provence and into a private villa for the week. Complete with two things I've been dreaming about for days: a laundry room and a pool!!
More to come....
Pont du Gard
The streets of Avignon
Horseback riding in the Camargue
Street performer in front of the palace of the popes- her voice was hypnotizing and could be heard for blocks.
The roof opened to the night sky at our restaurant- gorgeous!
Leonardo da Vinci's spent last 3 years of his life here
View from inside castle
Stopping for lunch in Blois
Major roads we traveled in the Loire
Someone Paint this for me!
Weather changes frequently here and it rained often
Tour of porcelain factory in Malicorne
Dinner in Le Mans on our last night
Evening light show in Le Mans- the city was magically lit and music playing everywhere
Boef topped with foie gras
Baked Brie in phyllo
View from chateau
The chateau was fortified. Emily in front of wall.
Cakoo, safely behind bars.
Sophia's secret garden
There are many languages besides French spoken here.
And along with it as many perspectives that come when traveling afar, exposing yourself to others outside your world.
The last few days in the countryside of Loire Valley have given us much more to ponder than what simply meets the eye. More than the beautiful views of quaint medieval villages separated by rolling fields of glimmering wheat or rows of sunflowers, their heads bent in prayer towards the wind or the thick green forests surrounding centuries-old chateaux or even the massive stone manors themselves their bombastic edifices resting on the tree tops like a throne.
We arrived at Chateau De Le Barre in the late afternoon on Saturday after taking a train from Paris to Le Mans, then renting a car and driving the rest of the way.
Three things you MUST have while navigating this part of the country by car with little knowledge of the language:
1. A Garmin for your car (that will consistently pick up a satellite out there)
2. A good map
3. A good sense of humor
If you have one without the other, basically, you are screwed, and there were moments we lacked the third.
The directions given to us by the proprietors of Chateau de Le Barre, Comte and Comtess de Vanssay, or "Marnie and Guy" as they preferred to be addressed, though written in english were a little confusing to say the least. Luckily we navigated our way, David marveling at how well he was doing driving manually (must be just like riding a bike?), and pulled into the single lane road through fields of forest and a herd of sheep to the chateau at the bottom of the hill. Sophia perked up right away at the sight of the two house dogs, Diva and Pomme, trotting out to greet us. The park-like grounds and gardens are incredibly beautiful, and certainly inviting to little ladies that like to explore.
Chateau Le Barre has been in Guy de Vanssay's family since 1404, and yes he is the real deal, from an aristocratic lineage with scores of massive oil portraits on every wall of his stately home to prove it. We were greeted by his wife Marnie and her son Daniel, a handsome young ranking officer in the British military who was visiting his Mum for the week while on holiday.
At first I found Marnie's presence aloof and slightly affected or perhaps it was the fact that she had saw fit to wear her best anti-Obama Tshirt featuring the leader of the free world dressed as chairman Mao as appropriate dress to greet her American guests. David thought it was funny. I saw it as some sort of passive aggressive protest of our presence. What I soon realized was it was neither. Marnie just has a lot of opinions, and isn't afraid to voice them. And as we began to understand, she did have her own legitimate reasons for this.
While I didn't agree on all accounts, I did find her approach refreshing. whether you agree or not, I think we've become too damn nice, sacrificing our personal convictions in favor political correctness, often suppressing first amendment rights we hold so dear.
We were not the only guests invited to the Grand Siècle dinner hosted in their grand dining room that evening. A family of five from Belgium and a couple from the UK were also staying at Le Barre, and we gathered for a tour of the place given by Guy and then moved outside in front of the Chateau for a champagne reception and lite horsd'oeuvres. It was all very civilized- a very Downton-Abbey style evening. I loved it, until....
"Ca-koo", the family parrot perched on Marnie's forearm, was introduced to the group, entertaining us by bobbing his head in rhythm with her voice singing a rendition of Shalom Aleichem, a Jewish greeting song, until Sophia tried to pet him, and Ca-koo abruptly shot around nearly tearing off her finger. I let out an uncontrollable shriek, my champagne now a fountain down the front of my black blouse.
So much for civility.
We were then formally seated for dinner separately, our hosts centered across from each other. The girls were seated at one end of the table with the Belgian children, silently protesting the Vitella Tonato set before them with perplexing grins. I resorted to telepathy and sign language as means of correcting any etiquette mistakes. I'm happy to report Sophia only used the edge of the fine linen tablecloth stamped with the family crest as a napkin once during this meal. Well, that we know about. Unfortunately, the only one to bear witness to this was Guy.
To our relief, he found this endearing.
In between courses, Marnie held court on such safe conversational dinner topics as questionable American politics, how the French government rapes its business owners with high taxes that pay for a myriad of social programs enjoyed only by those who don't work (sound familiar?), her concerns about the burgeoning Muslim population in the south of France sprinkled in with bits about french history, especially WWII. Even the Belgians chimed in on American politics, David and I now shooting looks of concern to each other across the table as we were questioned as to why as a society we were so litigious, why we Americans complain about our gas prices and our taxes. Don't we Americans know how good we have it?
Don't be alarmed. My husband as many of you know, is one smart cookie. He's also got an arsenal of useful and sometimes useless facts at the ready, and soon dominated the rest of the conversation, explaining and enlightening our foreign friends on the American way.
And what we learned is this. We know the US isn't perfect, but no matter how complicated and frustrating our government is, we still live in the greatest nation on earth, and our way of life both fascinates and continues to be the envy of the rest of the world.
David and Guy did bond on two subjects- their mutual appetite for 70s and 80s punk music and fine french wines. This led to one late evening in the drawing room fueled with aged rum listening to Guys colorful playlist at top volume followed by a personal tour of his wine cellar. Guy (pronounced "Gee" with a hard G), it turns out, is a very good-humored playful Frenchman who enjoys life and knows how to have a good time. He and Marnie make a unique couple, and oddly complement eachother. We enjoyed them both, and appreciate the pride they put into preserving traditions and great effort and expense they make in maintaining this historical property. At the end of our stay, we had gained much respect and admiration for the pair and were impressed by their hospitality and experiences afforded us during our time in the Loire Valley.
Here are a few photos of the many beautiful Chateaus we toured and other points of interest we saw this week:
Photos still downloading- will post soon I promise!
We learned something very enlightening about the French the other night while dining with blogger, Corey Amaro, at the loveliest of old bistros in Paris, Jospehine Chez Dumonet, on Wednesday evening.
Some of you may have heard me talk about Corey's blog, Tongue In Cheek (see link under Blog Amour page on this site) which she began writing 8 years ago on a whim (and a bet from friend), and today, has over 5,000 readers every day.
Corey, an American & California native, married her "French husband" 25 years ago and has lived in Provence ever since. Her blog combines rich poetic descriptions of her life in France along with her love for searching the brocantes (French antique/flea markets) for treasures which she offers for sale through her site.
I was immediately drawn to her powerful and often personal insights on life to her readers, and reached out to her. I'm so thankful I did.
Corey explained to us that when the French dine, they consider this a "moment", a special time for friends and family to gather, share a good meal and conversation. That's one reason service in France may seem slow. It has nothing to do with inattentive or rude service, it's that the French simply don't want you to feel rushed and respect your time dining as if it were an event, a celebration of life if you will. And it sort of should be this way, if you think about it.
We Americans often eat alone or rush through our meals to get onto something more important. Here, a meal is a time to cherish those you are with,unplug, appreciate the fine food set before you, the wine poured in your glass and the efforts of the Chefs and waiters serving you. In the traditional bistros and fine dining establishments, great pride is taken by these true professionals who often have an investment in the restaurant, but also understand the importance of creating a special meal, an experience, a moment for their customers that fosters goodwill and a loyal clientele.
Our evening with Corey was more than a moment, it was one of those rare life events we will remember fondly forever. Corey is both an amazing writer and an engaging storyteller. The girls hung on her every word, her facial expressions warm and animated, and listened intently to her stories. Afterwards, they both agreed, "She was really cool!"
We look forward to possibly seeing Corey again in Provence.
Here are a few photos reflecting on the past few days and the many incredible "moments" we've shared as a family. I hope you enjoy them, too!
Opera House in Paris- I can picture the grandest of dinner parties here.
Ceiling in the Opera house
Inspired by the ballet inspired art collection in the Opera House
Day trip to Versailles
A bed fit for a King!
The Claude Monet gardens at Giverney
Imagine this as a wedding aisle...
Claude's kitchen. I love the bright cheery colors he used throughout the home.
The church where Monet was married and was laid to rest.
For Claudette who appreciates my fascination with cemeteries.
Dinner with Corey Amaro
David is writing a separate post on the meals we've enjoyed this week. He is certainly loving all this French food!
The girls were very impressed with Corey's knowledge of the boy band, "One Direction"! This made for quite a discussion between them.
Can you guess this specialty of the house?
Soufflé is a must here! The best we've EVER had!
Another table celebrating a birthday in France
Our plan for Tuesday morning was to race bright and early to get into queue at the side entrance of the most famous cathedral in all of Paris, Notre Dame. This queue is not to get into the church but rather to get to the top of it. I wasn't so sure but David had done the research and was hellbent on climbing the hundreds of narrow spiraling stairs just to get a glimpse of Quasimoto's view of Paris from the tower and belfry. I wasn't so sure about this,with my thighs burning and an acute case of claustrophobia setting in, but by the time we got to the top, it was immediately clear why tourists line up for hours for this special opportunity.
This is on the way down, but the stairs are the same on the way up
A lone gargoyle overlooks all of Paris, guarding this sacred church.
A lovely little garden across the street- I immediately pictured a bridal party taking beautiful photos here.
Light from the heavens seems to shine through the windows of the cathedral
We light candles in memory of my grandfather, Moses, and David's grandfather, Hy and Aunt Tina.
Lunch at a nearby brasserie- Simple salad Lyonnaise and Poulet with ratatouille and Cassoulet.
The joys of a good rainstorm in Paris
Our first full day in Paris began with a lovely breakfast at Angelina's - an absolute must for hot chocolate lovers! We met David's cousin and accomplished commercial photographer, Ron Gould, there who's been teaching photography here in Paris since mid-June to a group of students from Chicago. His photos are amazing! The girls enjoyed their hot chocolat (more like fondue it's so thick)with croissant, but it was hard to finish it since the cafe is not air conditioned. And Paris is one hot place this week!
In the afternoon we met Ryan and Crystal Demay for a private tour of the Louvre museum. Ryan and Crystal have recently moved from NYC to Chicago (Ryan is joining David's team at work) and happen to be on holiday in Paris at the same time. We enjoyed looking at all the masterpieces again through our children's eyes, who were amazed by Mona Lisa, Venus De Milo and Winged Victory to name a few. Our guide Flora reminded us that it could take up to three years to see every piece in the Louvre! I would to spend a day here alone someday just to take my time, sit on the benches and reflect on the mere expanse of the canvases, the meaning and symbolism woven into the portraits.
Ryan and Crystal also met us for dinner at 110 Taillevent, known for its suggested wine pairings for each course. Standouts included: Lobster salad, Crab parfait, Veal T-Bone and for dessert a chocolate sphere that the waiter poured hot molten chocolate over, melting the sphere to reveal a special raspberry ice cream hidden inside. Such a fun treat!
Au revoir for now!
Sophia with Ron at Angelina's!
Entrance to Louvre.
New fun exhibition at the Louvre
The side of Venus no one bothers to look at!