Hail Hermione: historic tall ship sails to US

Photo by Francis Latreille - Association Hermione La Fayette.

Photo by Francis Latreille – Association Hermione La Fayette.

He took the thin threads in his hand, then twisted and twined the beige hemp fibers with his fingers, again and again, until they resembled a string. In the 17th century, this was the first step in making fat and sturdy rope at this Corderie or rope making factory in Rochefort, France, where the ancient process is demonstrated for visitors. Some 40 men did nothing but twist and twine hemp all day to make the rope used in ship rigging and rope that could carry a ship’s boatbanchors to the bottom of the sea. One of those ships was the Hermione, a French warship that ferried Marquis de Lafayette across the Atlantic in 1780 to help General George Washington and the rebels in the fight for American independence.

The mighty ship has been reborn and is now en route to the U.S., duplicating that voyage of 235 years ago. Craftsmen, artisans and technicians have worked for more than 15 years on a reconstruction of the Hermione. Completed in 2012, the replica Hermione looks every inch like an authentic tall ship. Throughout June and early July it will stop at 12 different ports on the U.S. east coast (See schedule below), before returning to its home port in Rochefort in August where it will be open to visitors.

Francis Latreille - Association Hermione La Fayette

Francis Latreille – Association Hermione La Fayette

I had been invited to Rochefort, a pleasant town on the Charentes River 22 kilometers from the France’s mid-Atlantic coast, for ceremonies celebrating the Hermione’s departure in April. Another journalist and I were even scheduled to go on board and have lunch with the crew on departure day. But, at the last minute, French President Francois Hollande decided to board the vessel and bid the crew farewell on this epic journey. We were bumped. Our dedicated guide tried to convince the ship’s staff that we were as important as Hollande — to no avail.

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Mark Jensen, 57, is one of three lucky Americans who were chosen to be among the crew of 80. I spoke to him on the phone. ”It’s a dream come true for me….It’s very exciting. We are remaking history,” he said. Jensen, who has been working on ships since the age of 12, now has a sailboat in New York City which he charters. “I am looking forward to bringing back to life the story and friendship between Washington and Lafayette, their deep desire for the freedom of individuals,” he said.

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While it was disappointing not to board the ship, it was thrilling to see the magnificent three-masted frigate, the French flag fluttering from its stern, anchored off shore the tiny island of Aix the evening before its departure. Trying for a closer view, all sizes and types of smaller craft surrounded the proud and regal vessel as if paying honor to royalty. On shore a TV crew set up amidst lots of admirers with cameras. Dismal skies did not dampen the excitement.

Pier on the island of Aix.

Pier on the island of Aix.

The original Hermione was equipped with dozens of cannons and could cross the Atlantic in two months. A small group of French enthusiasts spent two decades planning and fundraising for its replica. Construction started in the dry dock at Rochefort in 1997 and dragged on for 15 years due to costs. Money had to be raised while construction was underway. The end product: an almost perfect replica with complicated rigging, multiple sails, impressive paintwork on the hull and numerous other genuine details.

Of course, it’s not an exact replica. “I would say that we have achieved an unprecedented level of authenticity, but we still had to conform to modern health and safety legislation and there are fixed requirements for vessels wanting permission to sail across the Atlantic,” the ship’s captain, Yann Cariou, told a reporter for the newspaper, Connexion. For example, the cannons are

Anchor cables were once made of rope.

Anchor cables were once made of rope.

lightweight and non-functional. The rigging is made of traditional hemp, but the sails are synthetic which makes them stronger and easier to handle. Steel has replaced rope for the anchor cable.

On that legendary voyage in 1780, the Hermione had a crew of between 200 and 240. It took 70 sailors just to raise the anchor. Lafayette was content. “She sails like a bird,” he said.

Fifty-six members of the current crew of 80 are volunteers, with one third being women. All had to achieve fitness levels required to climb the rigging and manage the sails in all weather conditions.

A visit to Rochefort’s Royal Rope Factory (Corderie Royale) is a perfect introduction to the world of ancient warships. After demonstrating hemp twisting, guide Olivier sets a machine in motion that takes the twisted twines and makes a fatter cord. Young members of the audience get a chance to help out with the braiding machine. Nearby his colleague Nicolas shows off his knot tying skills. There are some 3,854 different types of knots, he says. He has mastered 100.rope.1

Jean-Baptiste Colbert, prime minister and adviser to King Louis XIV, chose Rochefort in 1666 as the ideal place to build a shipyard and establish and maintain a navy. The arsenal, which includes the Corderie, grew through the centuries with the addition of other workshops, warehouses, forges and more. Before it was closed in 1927, some 550 warships were constructed at the arsenal. The Corderie, 374 meters in length and the longest factory in Europe, was purpose built to manufacture the vast quantities of rope needed for the rigging of sailing vessels.  Its length enabled it to produce rigging for the length of the frigate’s anchor cable. Because it was constructed during the same time as the Palace of Versailles, it is called “Versailles of the Sea.”bldg.blog.

You can track the Hermione’s progress with a series of videos and webinars at Facebook.com/hermione.voyage and at the official site, hermione2015.com

France’s mid-Atlantic region which includes Rochefort offers numerous other attractions and a wealth of outdoor activities. Bicycle around its offshore islands or through “Green Venice” (Marais Poitevin). Taste and learn about Cognac. Explore other towns such as La Rochelle and Poitiers. Enjoy miles of beaches.

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See below for Hermione’s schedule of US visits.

Yorktown, Va., June 5 – 7

Mount Vernon, Va., June 9

Alexandria, Va., June 10, 11

Annapolis, Md., June 15 – 17

Baltimore, Md., June 19 – 20

Fort Mifflin, Pa.,   June 25

Philadelphia, Pa., June 26 – 28

New York City, July 2 – 4

Greenport, NY, July 6, 7

Newport, RI, July 8, 9

Boston, Mass., July 11, 12

Castine, Ma., July 14, 15

The ship will be back in Rochefort on August 16.

Barcelona — from modernisme to modern

Barcelona — Antonio Gaudi. The city’s artistic son, genius architect and builder, has given the Mediterranean port a host of astonishing edifices admired by millions of tourists every year.

Roof of Gaudi's La Pedrera

Roof of Gaudi’s La Pedrera

I was recently one of them. I have been to this energetic city, the capital of Catalonia, one of the richest and most highly industrialized regions of Spain, several times. This time I met friends from the Ski Club of International Journalists (SCIJ) who had spent a week at the ski resort, Baqueria Beret, before coming to Barcelona.

New design museum, Disseny Hub Barcelona

New design museum, Disseny Hub Barcelona

You never tire of this city where progress and change are on a rapid march with dazzling new architecture and the renovation of old neighborhoods and old treasures. Exuberance is in the air.

This visit focused on both old and new.sagrada.f Gaudi’s masterpieces, especially the still-unfinished Sagrada Familia (Holy Family) church, draw most of the 7.4 million visitors to the city of 1.7 million each year. It’s like no other church you’ve ever seen: bizarre, weird, wonderful. Sagrada Familia was the last and greatest work by Gaudi, who died in 1926 in a streetcar accident before the church was finished. Completion is on the agenda for 2026 – 2028.

Gaudi’s style was known as modernisme, the Catalan version of Art Nouveau or Jugendstil. It’s a decorative, organic style featuring sinuous curves, stylized creatures, floral motifs with an aversion to straight lines and symmetry. Sagrada Familia reminds me of someone gone mad with Play Dough — a facade of sculpted, molten stone, towers, spires topped with sunbursts, symbolic flora and fauna. Giant pillars rise out of turtles’ backs ending as palm trees topped with fronds. An angel swoops out of a green granite fir tree. Not your typical church. Unfortunately this time the lines were long for an interior visit. We chose not to wait, but I will go back to Barcelona.

Facade of Casa Batllo

Facade of Casa Batllo

Husband VR/BB and I did visit the Casa Batllo where, thanks to the audio guide that comes with admission, we learned fascinating details, not just about this apartment residence that Gaudi remodeled, but also about him. From the heating system to the swirling décor, from the furniture to the wood work, Gaudi‘s genius mystifies.

There are numerous theories about Gaudi, an enigma of a man who was very religious and a loner. He gave no interviews and had no close friends. He never married, became a vegetarian and never left Spain.   What influenced his wild, exuberant, puzzling style?

Roofof Casa Batllo

Roof of Casa Batllo

On previous Barcelona visits I marveled at Parc Quell, the Gaudi park that has a Disneyland quality to it with fanciful fairytale gatehouses, a dragon guarding a staircase, a cavern of columns supporting a mosaic ceiling and much more. La Pedrera, a revolutionary house Gaudi designed, is another wonder to visit and reveals Gaudi’s engineering talent. It is supported only by columns – no interior load-bearing walls. The roof with its sci-fi chimney pots is a favorite to photograph.

Facade of Palau de la Musica

Facade of Palau de la Musica

Gaudi was not the only master of modernisme to leave his mark on Barcelona. Lluis Domenech i Montaner, a rival architect, gave the city the Palau de la Musica, my favorite Barcelona treasure. Ceramics, wood and glass were used to create what must be the world’s most original concert hall. The vast ceiling is lavish and complex, a ceramic dream of roses and peacock fans and detailed mosaic tile work dominated by a stained-glass sun encircled by a chorus of angels’ faces. The stage, backed by a relief of 18 muses playing instruments, is flanked by a sculpted stone forest. It’s all gloriously over the top. This time I attended a concert there and had ample time to contemplate the joyous surroundings. blog.5 And, I visited another newly opened work of Domenech i Montaner – the Sant Pau site, a complex of buildings that makes up the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau, until recently a working hospital. I joined friends for a guided tour of

SCIJ apero at Sant Pau

SCIJ apero at Sant Pau

several of the structures all connected by underground passageways. More marvels of modernisme – domes, gabled roofs, decorative panels, sculptures, mosaic murals, stained glass.

Sant Pau

Sant Pau

Our visit also included a stroll through the narrow streets and alleys of Barcelona’s Barri Gotic, the Gothic Quarter. Tucked away in this medieval maze are interesting shops and restaurants. The Picasso Museum is deep within the neighborhood, and since there were no lines, although we had visited it on a prior Barcelona trip,  we decided it was worth a repeat. I am a Picasso fan. This museum’s comprehensive collection of the artist’s early works is enlightening and illustrates his ever-changing styles.blog.23.webjpg The outstanding Gothic cathedral was another repeat visit. I wanted to see if the gaggle of geese was still at home in its leafy cloister.  No doubt different geese, but a few of the big birds still reside there. They are said to be descendents of geese originally kept by Roman soldiers to act as sentinels and make a ruckus if intruders approached.blog.24

We strolled on Las Ramblas, Barcelona’s Champs Elysees, and ducked into La Boqueria, the city’s famous Market which dates to the 13th century and has unfortunately become a top tourist attraction. Tour buses deposit their passengers at the entrance who then pack the aisles between the gorgeous displays of hams, sausages, fish, etc. and stop to take selfies. Stall owners have been complaining that they block the aisles and drive down business. Serious shoppers can’t get through.blog.28.webjpg I made the mistake of buying several packages of pricey vacuum packed Iberian ham and sausage there. The contents were very disappointing. They may have been packaged too long ago, or were of inferior quality for dumb tourists. I won’t shop there on my next visit, but instead buy at the Mercat de Santa Caterina, a newer market but with much of the same.

Mercat de Santa Caterina

Mercat de Santa Caterina

And I will return to two super restaurants, finds of my Finnish friend Terttu who has a friend who has written a Barcelona guidebook.   Details below.

Barcelona’s vibrancy gets under your skin.   It will beckon you back.

Travel Tips

Les Quinze Nits Restaurant. No reservations accepted here, and there is usually a waiting line. No wonder. Three course lunch menu with wine for 20,95 euros per person.   Bob and I chose the “rare tuna with pumpkin puree and olives” — the best tuna I have ever eaten. Located in the Placa Reilal just off Las Ramblas. The restaurant is large. The line moves quickly.blog.seafood Salamanca, seafood restaurant in the Barceloneta area. Bob and I went for paella which was good, but Terttu and Mikko chose the mixed grilled seafood platter. We were envious – a huge quantity of excellent fish and seafood.   Almirall Cervera 34, www.gruposilvestre.com

blog.29.jwebpgShopping. My trip souvenirs are usually edibles. However, in Barcelona I could not resist Desigual, with vibrant, fun and colorful fashion. The popular Spanish clothing manufacturer was founded by a Swiss. There are shops throughout the city.

Be On Guard. Theft, especially of tourists, is rampant in Barcelona. We were continually warned to be cautious and guard all belongings. We were and did. None in our group had any problems.

The Barcelona Tourist Office web site, www.barcelonaturisme.cat, has a wealth of information, including details on

Security patrol

Security patrol

museum and transport passes, on line ticket purchase and more. To avoid long waiting lines, buy tickets to popular attractions on line. Pay a visit to the main office at Placa de Catalunya for more help and information.

Take the Train.There is now service on France’ fast train, the TGV, from many towns in southern France to Barcelona. Aix-en Provence to Barcelona, 4 hours.

For a taste of Barcelona, try the recipe featured in Today’s Taste for Puerros Gratinados al Roquefort (Leeks Au Gratin with Roquefort)

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Keep scrolling down for photos of more of Barcelona’s sights.

Placa Reilal

Placa Reilal

Street entertainment on Las Ramblas

Street entertainment on Las Ramblas

Sant Pau

Sant Pau

Barcelona beach

Barcelona beach

Architect Frank Gehry's fish at the seafront.

Architect Frank Gehry’s fish at the seafront.

Barcelona's huge flea market has moved and is now under a huge mirrored ceiling.

Barcelona’s  flea market has moved and is now under a huge mirrored ceiling.

Spanish ham at La Boqueria

Spanish ham at La Boqueria

Catalans hope for independence and often display their flag.

Catalans hope for independence and often display their flag.

More modern art

More modern art

Cuisine Club Med

Beef filet Wellington, salmon tartare, grilled scampi, mussels, duck à l’orange, scampi papparadelle, involtini di prosciutto con spinace (ham rolls stuffed with spinach), numerous cheeses, at least eight different flavors of ice cream, an assortment of pastries akin to that of a Parisian pastry shop.salmon

And, those were just the highlights of the offerings at a recent Club Med St Moritz dinner. (See recent post, “Club Med St. Moritz,” February 2015) There was more — an assortment of salads, risotto, numerous tempting vegetable concoctions…veggies

Who counts calories at Club Med where the food is truly over the top, and one of the resort’s many attractions?  At St. Moritz, you could eat almost all day, beginning with a breakfast featuring the usual cereals, fresh fruits, freshly squeezed orange juice, breads, omelets, cheeses, cold meats, and eggs cooked to your specifications. One morning a chef was making donuts on the spot. Another morning he was filling freshly made croissants with jams or pastry creams. I indulged, figuring I’d burn up the calories on the ski slopes.food.8

But then came lunch and dinner and more in between. At the club restaurant both lunch and dinner feature copious buffet selections, from several tables laden with cold delicacies, a line of various hot foods, a table of cheeses then on to the gorgeous desserts. At winter Club villages such as St. Moritz, there are usually Club restaurants on the slopes where skiers can have lunch, again a buffet of numerous hearty offerings. Club Med St. Moritz has two mountain restaurants.food.10

Whether at lunch on the mountain or dinner in the club restaurant, will power failed me. I could not resist. I had to try as many different enticing edibles as possible (too many). But, I did take mini portions.  Nonetheless the calories piled up.

Since St. Moritz is a winter club with most guests on the slopes during the day, a hearty après-ski snack awaits every afternoon – mini sandwiches, crepes or waffles, also made on the spot. Then, beginning about 6 p.m. the snack selection is put away and a copious assortment of pre-dinner hors d’oeuvres – and I don’t mean potato chips and peanuts — fills the tables in the lounge.

It’s all so good and tempting. How can you pass up fresh oysters, foie gras, roast suckling pig? I can diet when I get home, I reasoned.food.5

The Club at St. Moritz has a capacity for about 550 guests, and it was at 90 percent occupancy during my February visit. Preparing such an incredible variety of food for all these guests on a daily basis has to be daunting. Giuseppe Apicella, assistant restaurant manager at Club Med St. Moritz, says organization and team work are essential. Each member of his team of 23 cooks, including four fulltime pastry chefs, knows what he or she has to do, he said. “For this reason, all is perfect. We aim for perfection.”

Sandro, left, and Giuseppe.

Sandro, left, and Giuseppe.

Quality ingredients are also a must. “All the products are the best we can get,” said Giuseppe. “The oysters are very fresh and from Holland.” (They were excellent.)food.1

The cuisine of the region is not neglected. Be it Martinique, Mexico, Greece, China or Switzerland, Club restaurants always include local specialties. At St. Moritz, truffle fondue is offered. This required an advance reservation, and there was an extra charge. But, raclette was served one evening — no extra charge.

Swiss Raclette

Swiss Raclette

St. Moritz is close to the Italian border and most of the kitchen staff is Italian.   “I prefer cooks from Italy. They are the most professional in the world,” said Giuseppe, a native of that country who worked at his family’s hotel- restaurant in southern Italy before joining Club Med three years ago.berry

So, it’s no surprise that Italian specials predominate at this mountain club, mainly served in the Italian restaurant adjacent to the main dining room. Fresh pasta with various sauces, pizza and other Italian favorites were on the agenda. You could try these, as well as the buffet in the main restaurant.

clubmed.9Beverages – as much as you want all day. Machines are at your disposal for coffee, soft drinks and juices. Cocktails and wine are offered at the bar. And, wine with dinner – as much as you want.

There is no extra charge for any of the above – all included in the Club Med package price.

“You have to wonder how they can offer all this food for the price,” commented my friend Gerlinde. “I paid 5 Swiss francs ($5.20) in town for just a cup of coffee.”

Indeed mind boggling. And, fattening. Even with the skiing, I gained a few kilos. I am still trying to shed them….but the delectable food adventure was worth every bite.food.7

My all-inclusive ski week at Club Med St.Moritz cost 1,141 euro. Ski and boot rental extra. Gerlinde and I shared a room.

More on Club Med: http://www.clubmed.com. More on St. Moritz: www.stmoritz.ch

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Celebrating Lemons and Bicycles

menton.9.aFruity floats, gigantic citrus creations, fabulous flowers. The annual Menton Lemon Festival (Fête du Citron) is an explosion of color, scents, and scenes in honor of the city’s prized small yellow fruit.menton..13

We were enthralled with it all during a visit many years ago, and returned a few weeks ago to survey the scene of dazzling orange and yellow sculptures once again.menton.15a

This Riviera city, the lemon capital of France on the border with Italy, has been celebrating the lemon with festivities every year since 1929. The festival attracts some 230,000 visitors who come to admire 145 tons of citrus fruits which make up the creations and exhibitions.

This year’s theme, the lemon in China, featured a mammoth dragon, a pagoda, a temple, animals and more all made of lemons and oranges.menton.2a

The exhibits are set up along the Jardin Biovès, a long promenade lined with the colossal fruit constructions. An elevated ramp in the middle is especially popular with the camera crowd who line the steps for overall shots of the scene. Stands selling the fruit, citrus liqueurs, soaps, jams and postcards do a brisk business.menton.17a

Menton’s microclimate with more than 300 sunny, temperate days per year is ideal for growing the tangy fruit. There are some 80 varieties of lemons, but it’s the Menton lemon that is prized by chefs for its perfume, distinctly flavored zest and pulp, and high sugar content. While the lemon gets top billing, oranges play a leading role in the gigantic creations.menton.16.a

We had previously visited Menton, my favorite coastal city, in January. See  post, “French Riviera: Magnifico Menton.” The city, which was originally part of Italy, became the property of Charles Grimaldi, Lord of Monaco, in 1346. In 1848 it broke away from Monaco, becoming a free city, and in 1860 it became part of France. By the late 19th century it was on the map as a popular tourist spot on the French Riviera.menton.1a

This time instead of staying in Menton, we crossed the border and spent three nights in Sanremo on the Italian Riviera. It’s just a 45 minute drive from Menton, and a lovely town on a coastal bike path. That was our plan – get back on the bikes.SR.5

Husband, formerly known as Bicycle Bob (BB), was an avid cyclist. He seems to have lost interest in pedaling, even though he invested in a snazzy, expensive bicycle a few years ago. His passion has become wine, so I call him VR (Vino Roberto). I miss biking and the great rides we have taken over the years — in Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Holland and France.bobbike

Let’s not give in to old age. Let’s get moving again. He agreed and we had a wonderful, easy ride on the bike route from Sanremo to San Lorenzo al Mare, about 18 kilometers, then back to Sanremo and another 4 kilometers in the other direction to Ospedaletti.SR.blog.7.ajpg

Old railroad tracks were converted into the wide coastal trail, used by walkers and roller bladers as well as bicyclists. It meanders through Sanremo then down the coast. No hills. No need to downshift. There are plenty of spots along the route complete with benches where you can rest and enjoy the scenery. And villages (Bussana, Arma di Taggia, Santo Stefano al Mare) for a refreshment stopover.bike

We had a fantastic and bargain lunch at Café Emy by the beach in San Lorenzo al Mare. The insalata frutti di mare (seafood salad) was huge – a meal in itself. My spaghetti frutti di mare was the best I have ever eaten (see photo).spaghetti

A unique aspect to this bike route is tunnels – several. The most famous and longest is the Capo Nero tunnel along the section Sanremo-Ospedaletti, 1.75 kilometers long. It has been converted into a memorial of sorts to Sanremo’s most famous sporting event, the cycling classic Milan-Sanremo. For more than 100 years, the race has been the first important contest of the cycling season. It will take place on March 22 this year.

Every bay of the tunnel is dedicated to a specific year in the history of the race, with some basic facts about that year’s event written on one side, with tidbits SR.blog.9.ajpgand anecdotes on the other, in both Italian and English. I was too busy pedaling to read it all, but did try to catch some phrases to break up the monotony of the dismal tunnel trek.

Total ride: 45 kilometers. It was a success. And, so was the hotel where we stayed. Fabulous. With just four rooms, the Villa Rita can’t really be called a hotel. The house sits just above the beach within walking distance of the town center. Our room had a large terrace and lovely views. I was in heaven, lying in bed, enjoying the sea view from the window while listening to the restful sounds of waves slapping the shore — and contemplating future bike rides.

breakfastVilla Rita: www.villaritasanremo.it

Menton Lemon Festival: www.fete-du-citron.com/ The festival takes place the last two weeks of February.

Ristorante Bar Emy, Via Al Mare 1, San Lorenzo al Mare, Italy, ++ 39 0183-91314SR.1a

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Club Med St. Moritz: A winning combination

clubmed.8I love Club Med. The love affair started way back in the ‘70s when my friend Irene and I, both late 20-somethings, set off to the Club in Martinique. Fabulous. The next year we tried the Club in Cancun, Mexico. Even better.   Good times were had… even a tad on the wild side, but we were young.

Since living in Europe, I’ve been to several clubs in the Alps for skiing, most recently St. Moritz, Switzerland. Husband VR no longer wants to ski, so I joined my friend Gerlinde from Stuttgart and her son and daughter-in-law, all downhill skiers who have been coming to Club Med St. Moritz for several years.

Although much has changed with Club Med since its earliest days back in the 1950s when it was known as haven for swinging singles, much is the same.St. Moritz.fone 187

It’s the perfect all inclusive vacation – food, beverages (including wine and cocktails), lodging, use of sports facilities and lessons, evening entertainment – all for one price. Rental of ski equipment, however, is extra.

“You can be here for a whole week and not spend any extra,” said Patrick Franck Oberaspach, the chef du village (manager) of the St. Moritz Club. My only

Patrick and Basile

Patrick and Basile

additional expenses, not including ski and boot rental, were a few cups of coffee in the town, and some special bandages for a blister caused by my ski boots.

Clubs are now family oriented, with many clubs, including St. Moritz, having a Mini Club for children. The kids are entertained, taken to the slopes, given ski lessons. They, and their parents, love it.

And, Clubs are no longer just for the younger set. I was overjoyed to find so many older GMs (at Club Med, originally a French enterprise, guests are Gentils Membres or nice members). I may be old, but there were plenty even older than I. Most, like me, were Club Med repeats.

Patrick noted that during the week I spent there, 60 percent of the 540 guests were repeats. Colette, a woman from Nancy, said she has been coming to Club Med St. Moritz for 40 years. “I switched to cross country 10 years ago. Downhill skiing was too fast. Now I snowshoe,” she said.

Club Med offers rental equipment and instruction in all of the above. Since my new knee performed so well on the slopes last season, I signed up for downhill. Gerlinde, an excellent skier, and I chose group level 4. The Club divides skiers into 6 categories, with 6 being the top for those hard core, off-piste daredevils, i.e. her son Tobias.

For non-skiers, there are plenty of high altitude trails in the snowy mts.

For non-skiers, there are plenty of high altitude trails in the snowy mts.

We started out with a group of about 10 others, all good skiers and mostly much younger. Our monitor, ski instructor and guide, led us down the perfectly groomed slopes at a fast pace. No breaks for hot chocolate, photos or admiring the scenery. I kept up, but was more than ready for the lunch break at the Club’s mountain restaurant.

After lunch, the monitor mentioned that a couple from the group (older like me) was switching to a slower group 4. Lest I expend all my energy on the first day, I followed. A wise move as the new group 4, all good skiers but most in my age range, did ski a bit slower. A few days later Gerlinde also joined the slower group of senior citizens.

After lunch rest at the Club's mt. restaurant.

After lunch rest at the Club’s mt. restaurant.

But, we were hardly a group of turtles on the blue, baby slopes. We kept on the move, whizzing down red slopes and even an occasional black run. Our fellow skiers were all very fit. Joggers. Serious cyclists. Cross country as well as downhill skiers.

All had been to Club Med St. Moritz many times. It’s the slopes, as well as the Club, which draws them back. “It’s a very empty ski area which is fantastic in the Alps,” said Patrick. “You usually queue half of the ski day, but not here.” He’s right. No lift lines during my visit. Others praised the meticulous grooming of the slopes.   A cross country skier, who has been coming back for 20 years, called St. Moritz “the best in Europe” for that sport. “The Swiss keep the trails in beautiful condition.”

No crowds on St. Moritz slopes

No crowds on St. Moritz slopes

Gerlinde loves the area for skiing.   “No beginners on the slopes. Few snow boarders. No young, crazy skiers.”

Our ski group was German speaking. However, the club has multi-lingual monitors. In addition to German, there were French, Italian and English language ski groups.

People contact is another Club plus. In addition to skiing with others, you may sit with them at meals, socialize after skiing, join them at après-ski entertainment. Club Med staff, Gentils Organisateurs (GOs) or nice organizers, mingle with guests, dine and party with them.

Gerlinde, who came alone to St Moritz for her first few visits, said, “Even if you come alone you will find friends.”

Snow polo on St. Moritz's frozen lake.

Snow polo on St. Moritz’s frozen lake.

Back when Irene and I went to Martinique, we quickly found friends and more. Irene signed up for sailing. I went for scuba. We joined a Yoga group. We played volley ball. I participated in a French conversation group. We met interesting people from distant lands. We had fun, so much that we extended our stay for an extra three days.

Club Med is no longer a French company having recently been purchased by a Chinese conglomerate. Patrick does not expect big changes. He pointed out that Club Med has been partners with the Chinese firm for some 10 years. “They guarantee that we can continue as before,” he said.

Admiring the scenery on the trail at Muottas Muragl.

Admiring the scenery on the trail at Muottas Muragl.

There are now 70 Club Med villages around the world, including three in China. Future plans call for opening three new resorts each year as well as closing some that are no longer profitable.

Patrick, 42, began his Club career as a ski teacher many years ago on the St. Moritz slopes. “I gave ski lessons to kids who now come with their kids,” he said.

clubmed.1As chef du village, one would expect he’d be busy, but I had to wonder if he ever slept. One frigid morning we bused to an adjacent ski area. Patrick was on hand dispensing hot chocolate — with a shot of schnapps if desired. He greeted guests as they filed into the dining room at dinner each evening. He was the MC and sometimes an actor as well in the after-dinner shows, a Club Med tradition.

After dinner fun.

After dinner fun.

What keeps him with Club Med? He has always enjoyed mixing with the clientele. “The Club Med staff don’t stay apart. You discover lots that you would not normally discover. You have lots of interesting conversations. It’s quite enriching to work in this environment.”clubmed.6

And delicious. Be it a summer or winter Club Med, the food is fantastic, and yet clubmed.9another reason the Club has so many fans. St. Moritz cuisine was amazing. It deserves its own blog post. Stay tuned.

My all-inclusive ski week at Club Med St.Moritz cost 1,141 euro. Ski and boot rental extra. Gerlinde and I shared a room.

More on Club Med: http://www.clubmed.com. More on St. Moritz: www.stmoritz.ch

Today’s Taste features that spicy North African dish, Tagine. Click on photo at upper right to see recipe.

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More horse racing on the lake. The "carriage" behind the horse is on skis.

More horse racing on the lake. The “carriage” behind the horse is on skis.

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French Riviera: Magnifico Menton

It’s easy to understand why artists, film stars, royalty, politicians, Russian oligarchs – and plain old folks like us –are enamored of the French Riviera. The scenery, that seductive combination of mountains and sea, is the stuff of glamorous coffee table books. Add to that plenty of sunshine, good food and happy faces.coast.7

VR and I would like to join those happy faces someday, downsize and move closer to the sea.   With that long range goal in mind, we set off to Menton last week. It is the last city in France on the coast before the Italian border. At times, you’d think you were in Italy. Lots of Italian spoken, restaurants featuring Italian specials, more joie de vivre. Even though that’s a French term, the Italians seem to have lots more of it than the too-often dour French – in my opinion.coast.1

Menton has a lovely stretch of beach (stones not sand) bordered by many turn of the century mansions, not unlike Nice, just smaller. Skinny streets in the Old Town, as well as long sets of pebbled steps, climb to an imposing Italian Baroque church, then onwards to a chapel and even higher to a cemetery. There’s a busy pedestrian shopping street, an old covered market hall, and a well known museum dedicated to the works of artist Jean Cocteau. The city is also known for its gardens which we will visit next time.coast.4

We found many restaurants closed for the season in January, but thanks to the advice of a woman at the tourist office, we had a wonderful fish dinner (Branzino sotto sale). Sea bass baked under a mound of salt which locks in all the coast.3moisture. Owners of the Coquille d’Or restaurant, the chef and his wife, are Italian. Our waiter was Italian.  The fish – maybe it came from the Italian Med.

Ventimiglia, the town just across the border in Italy, has an enormous Friday market, a source of fashion bargains and more. Parking is always a nightmare, but our Menton hotel desk clerk suggested we take the train. Perfect and only 11.20 euros round trip for both of us. This time the market was a disappointment, perhaps because it’s too early for spring fashion, too late for winter?? I did find a few cheap treasures.

Then, a return to a waterfront restaurant we had found on a previous visit for another amazing meal. VR went for grilled fish.   I chose spaghetti frutti di mare, chuck full of mussels, clams, a few shrimp and some unknown critters.coast.5

Before heading back to our abode in the hinterlands, we joined members of the American Club of the Riviera for an outing in Nice. A guided visit of the Musée Masséna preceded a gourmet lunch at the Hotel Negresco. The museum, a sumptuous Belle Époque villa on the Promenade des Anglais, was built between 1898 and 1901 by Victor Masséna, grandson of one of Napoleon’s marshals, and a collector of precious objets d’art.coast.12

More opulence next door at the Hotel Negresco, another Belle Époque gem (1912). According to a guidebook, it is “one of the great surviving European palace-hotels.”   I was delighted to see a gigantic Niki de Saint Phalle Nana adding a whimsical touch under the Baccarat chandelier hanging from the dome in the Salon Royale which was built by Gustav Eiffel’s workshops.coast.6

By the time our excellent lunch (gazpacho, lamb and apple crumble) ended, clouds put an end to the sun’s rays.   No chance for good photos of Nice’s new addition, the Promenade du Paillon, a strip of parkland between the city center and Vieux Nice (Old Town). We did saunter down the Promenade des Anglais, along the sea, then crossed over for a walk to the giant Ferris wheel at the end of the new reflecting pool.coast.9

We’ll be back in Menton at the end of February for its Lemon Festival (14 Feb.-4 March) www.fete-du-citron.comcoast.8

More on Menton: http://www.tourisme-menton.frcoast.13

American Club of the Riviera: americanclubriviera.com

Restaurant Coquille d’Or: xx 33 (0) 4 93 35 80 67coast.10

More on Nice www.nicetourisme.com Nice’s Carnaval celebration, lots of fabulous flowers on parade and more, takes place from 13 Feb. – 1 March.   See my previous posts: “Nice Carnaval,” Feb. 23, 2009 and “Nice- Enchantment on the Riviera,” Jan. 12, 2012

Since I am in an Italian mood, and since a hearty soup is perfect for these cold winter days, Today’s Taste features one of my favorites, Minestrone.   See Recipe column at top right.coast.11

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Incredible Iceland Part II

 Merry Christmas to Tales and Travel fans. For all about Christmas in southern France, see my previous post, “Noel en Provence,” Dec. 2010. And, just in time for holiday reading, more Iceland:blog2.16

“Of Horses and Men,” a strange but captivating movie about Iceland, piqued our curiosity about the country.   We saw the movie several weeks before departure for our Icelandic adventure. The horses were sensational. I knew I would have to ride an Icelandic horse.

I did earn a Girl Scout badge in horsemanship at the age of 12. Too, too long ago. But, I have always been enamored of horses and have ridden off and on (mostly off) since my childhood.   I am definitely not an accomplished rider, but riding an Icelandic horse seemed so easy in the film.blog2.1

It’s the tölt, the fifth gait of these small, sturdy horses which were originally imported by the Vikings.   A trot? A running walk? Whatever, the tölt is amazing to watch. The horse moves at a gentle speed, precisely, rhythmically moving legs up and down, while the rider seems frozen to the saddle. No bouncing, jolting, posting.   “You can drink a glass of champagne while the horse tölts,” it is said.blog2.17

Forget the champagne, let’s just ride. And, we did, with Andres and Luka, a young couple who have 25 horses at their riding company in northern Iceland.    Husband VR (Vino Roberto) is (or was) dedicated to a bicycle saddle. He is not thrilled about riding a horse, but he put up a brave front and joined me and Karen, a woman from our conference group. We followed our leaders up and blog2.19down rocky hills, through fields, with superb views of the non-too distant sea. VR was not at ease. Those steep downhills freaked him out. He was all too happy to dismount so Andres could take Karen and me to flat land for at try at tölt.

We charged along, but I was bouncing, painfully jerking up and down, to and fro. I tried to post. No go. This can’t be the tölt. After about just 10 minutes of this agonizing experience, we gave up. Apparently it takes skill to get the horse to switch to this gait. Even Karen, who is a riding instructor in the US, was only briefly successful.

I am still happy that I rode an Icelandic horse. It is one of the many adventures touted in the tourist brochures.blog2.8

Along our drive in the north country we encountered more horses, a roundup – exactly like the scene in the movie. Icelandic horses are driven up to mountain pastures where they roam freely during the summer. In the fall they are driven back to the lowlands. We stopped to watch the horses, corralled in different pens, being claimed, and then separated, by their respective owners. All the horses are micro chipped, we learned. Many wanted no part of leaving their summer friends and gave their owners a challenge, resisting attempts to move into different pens. It was an exciting spectacle.blog2.3

A few sheep were held in other pens . Sheep are as prevalent in Iceland as pigeons in Venice. They, too, spend the summer in the mountains. Most had been rounded up earlier. Those we saw were stragglers left behind who joined the horse procession to the valleys.blog2.2

Horses and sheep are important to the Icelandic economy. But, not nearly as important as fish. Today the fishing industry accounts for about half of the country’s GDP. We joined a whale watching cruise but saw only a few tails of distant whales for nano seconds. Fishing was offered on board. It did not excite me, but I did brave the cold winds on deck to take photos of the fishermen and women.blog2.21

Incredible! Almost as soon as they would throw a line into the choppy sea, a bite. They hauled in fish after fish, sizeable critters, mainly haddock but some mackerel. One woman caught six in less than a half hour. This did excite me. I had to give it a try. Too late. All the hungry fish had been caught, or the word had spread underwater that this was a dangerous offering. No matter. A chef on board instantly cleaned and grilled the fish – fabulous.blog2.10

A word about whales. Iceland, despite global condemnation, is engaged in commercial whaling. The country did respond to diplomatic pressure in 2012 and renounced hunting of fin whales. Minke whale hunting continues, mainly for export to Japan. I did see whale on some restaurant menus, but Icelanders are said to eat little whale.

“It’s all emotional. The countries who criticize us are doing far worse,” said a worker at a fish factory.blog2.11

We had another fishy outing, joining a “Sea to Table” excursion. First stop, a smelly factory where fish are prepared for export. We were suited up for the tour – white plastic coats, blue hair nets, shoe cover-ups. A perfect Halloween costume.blog2.12

Much of the fish processing is automated, but we did watch skillful employees undertake the initial step – off with head, out with the guts – at record speed.

The best part followed, a “grand crab feast” at a nearby restaurant, Vitinn, where mussels and other sea creatures are kept in live holding tanks. The restaurant’s claim to fame is rock crab, a marine delicacy found only in Icelandic waters and off the east coast of North America. The meal began with an exquisite crab soup, then a buffet of an overwhelming assortment of shell fish.blog2.13

In the town of Höfn, I savored another sea delicacy, what Icelanders call “ lobster,” but is actually langoustine. Pricey, but delicious.

VR is not a vegetarian, but much prefers fish to meat. He was in his element in Iceland where fish is on every restaurant menu, usually many different kinds. Atlantic char is a favorite and tasty. What about all those sheep? Lamb, too, is on many a menu. Because the lamb graze freely all summer, chowing down on chemical-free grass and herbs, the meat is extra tender. We met an American woman, a frequent Iceland visitor, who takes large quantities of vacuum packed lamb home with her.

blog2.22Fish and lamb aside, my favorite Icelandic food is skyr, a yogurt like concoction made from skimmed milk. It’s extra creamy , rich, decadent – but low in fat. It is often mixed with fruit flavors. Since food in Iceland is very expensive (see previous post “Incredible Iceland”) we often bought containers of skyr to have in the room for our after dinner dessert.

Iceland is paradise for adventure seekers with a laundry list of offerings: glacier hikes, trips inside volcanoes, scuba diving and snorkeling, caving, rafting…. We went for an ATV (All Terrain Vehicle) outing. These were heavy, monstrous vehicles. Again, a uniform was required: Bright orange coveralls, boots, gloves and helmet. The how-to briefing was that — brief. I let VR take the wheel, but had intended to give it a try during the ride.blog2.14

I quickly changed my mind. We were a large group, about 18 vehicles, with a leader in the front vehicle and another bringing up the rear. Just 10 minutes into the ride, an abrupt stop.  We waited and waited, then got off and walked ahead to investigate what the holdup was.

A vehicle was overturned at the bottom of a cliff. Fortunately the driver and passenger had been thrown off and were lying on the ground above the crashed ATV.   It took time for assistance and medical personnel to arrive. The victims were taken to a hospital. Both suffered severe injuries, complicated bone breaks. After a stay in a hospital in Iceland, they returned to the U.S. for surgery.

The ride continued. My desire to drive was quashed.  VR said it was fun, but I found the journey too long and too cold. The scenery, like much of Iceland, was barren, bleak. It quickly became monotonous.blog2.15

Never mind, we all went on for a soothing afternoon at Iceland’s number one tourist attraction: the Blue Lagoon, an enormous outdoor pool of geothermal water. There is even a bar in the center offering cocktails. And, a station with silica mud deposits to smear on your face – good for the skin and wrinkles.

I am a swimmer. I like to move in the water. These warm spa pools bore me after about 10 minutes. But, one cannot visit Iceland without a soak in the Blue Lagoon. A fitting way to end our two-week journey in Incredible Iceland.blog2.7

Horseback riding with Andres and Luka, a delightful couple who invited us for refreshment in their home after the ride, www.Icelandhorsetours.com

Whale watching and fishing: Elding Whale Watching, www.elding.is

Vitinn Seafood restaurant, www.vitinn.isblog2.4

No new recipe this time. But, the grape salad (top right) is fabulous, a perfect accompaniment to a holiday dinner.

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Food for Thought

I know. This is supposed to be Iceland Part II. Stay tuned. More Iceland will appear very soon. But, since this blog is about more than travel, namely food, and since that topic has been hot recently (think Thanksgiving), this is a blog post on cuisine. Non foodies can tune out.

I celebrated the turkey day twice – before the actual holiday in northern Italy with friends Carol and Noel, then again last weekend with friends here.

Noel and Carol

Noel and Carol

Carol’s feast was excellent, the traditional American Thanksgiving dinner: Turkey, dressing, gravy, mashed potatoes, two different sweet potato dishes, Waldorf salad, broccoli casserole and peas. For dessert, pumpkin pie (a Thanksgiving must) and an apple/pear pie.

Waldorf salad, a mixture of apples, celery and walnuts, was one of my mother’s specials. I had forgotten how tasty it is. All loved Carol’s version, which, I learned, she is often asked to bring to pot luck dinners. Her turkey was terrific, so moist and flavorful. I copied her roasting method (read on) with a winning result.

Carol's spread

Carol’s spread

Carol and Noel entertained 13 (Italians and Americans), all seated at a long table in their living room. The table décor was fit for a decorator magazine:

Carol's table

Carol’s table

Strands of fall leaves, colorful gourds, flower arrangements, plus a party “favor” for each guest to take home (a pilgrim figure with a small candle).

The afternoon of the evening event, the hostess was calm, relaxed and even had time to sit and chat. I was in awe as I am usually a total wreck, madly dashing to and fro with lots of last minute prep before guests arrive. Carol had prepared much in advance.

I tried to emulate her for my Thanksgiving dinner, from the turkey to the décor to her calm, cool demeanor. (I failed in the latter category.)

“The United States of Thanksgiving,” a New York Times (NYT) food feature with recipes from all 50 states was my inspiration. I pored over all the recipes and chose several, some a bit challenging.

I also relied on a few of my recipes from past years. First, Cranberry Chutney. I was never a fan of the obligatory cranberry relish (Ocean Spray from a

Go for the real berry.

Go for the real berry.

can) served with the holiday bird. Some years ago I came across a Cranberry Chutney recipe in a newspaper. “A pleasant relief from the standard, cloyingly sweet cranberry sauce usually served at Thanksgiving.” Indeed, and my preferred take on the cranberry.

Sweet potatoes, another Thanksgiving requisite and yet another I never liked, with the possible exception of my mother’s Brandied Sweet Potatoes, no doubt thanks to the brandy. (See Helen’s Brandied Sweet Potatoes in Recipe column at right). Instead of the sacred potato I made Butternut Squash with Cranberries and Apples, colorful, festive and delicious. I followed an old recipe for mashed potatoes with cheddar and scallions. Good, but too runny. I always seem to have this problem with mashed potatoes. Must stop adding so much milk.

My spread.

My spread.

Then, the NYT recipes. The Minnesota Grape Salad caught my eye. My mother (family traditions are a big part of this American meal) always served a fresh fruit salad at Thanksgiving. I was going to copy Carol and do a Waldorf salad, but why not grapes? The recipe calls for seedless grapes. I went to four different stores before finding them, but the hunt paid off. This was the easiest of all, and the favorite of my guests. “You could serve it as a dessert,” one commented. The recipe is featured in Today’s Taste, upper right.

I like to begin the meal with a soup. My recipe repertoire includes several that are appropriate for the holiday, mainly different versions of squash or pumpkin soup. Time for something new: Illinois Pumpkin Soup with Ancho Chile.

Canned pumpkin and dried ancho chile are not found on supermarket shelves in France. Thanks to Carol and Noel, I had these key ingredients. Noel is a retired Air Force colonel with base privileges at Aviano Air Force Base, Italy. He purchased both for me at the base commissary.pumpkin

Alas, this was an experiment that failed. I found nothing exceptional about this concoction and regret not having served one of my tried and true standbys.

Connecticut Quince with Cipollini Onions and Bacon. I had to try this and conquer the daunting quince. Back during my years in Germany, it seemed most of my German friends made quince jelly every fall. I love to cook, but don’t do jams, jellies, nor do I can. Yet, I felt the need to somehow incorporate this fruit in my cooking.

Quince is not for sissies, I learned. Peeling this rock-hard fruit was tough enough. Cutting it into chunks required a cleaver and the muscles of Arnold Schwarzenegger. I let VR attack the stubborn quince, but all those tiny onions had to be peeled.

Nasty quince

Nasty quince

“Cipollini” in Italian means small onion. The NYT title for this recipe is thus redundant. I felt triumphant at discovering an error made by those gods of journalism at the NYT.

Verdict: Good, but definitely not worth all the intensive labor. The Germans and those cooks in Connecticut can have their quince.

North Carolina Sweet Potato Cornbread. This was easy and good. Since French bread is tops, I never bake bread here. But cornbread is so American; I decided it would be a nice addition to my meal for British and French guests

Tennessee Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Peanut Vinaigrette. I like most all veggies, with the exception of peas – and Brussels Sprouts. So, why did I prepare this? Because sprouts always seem to be included in those magazine

My table, festive thanks to decorative elements provided by Carol. elkements Carol sent me home with the decor

My table, festive thanks to decorative elements provided by Carol.

features with Thanksgiving menus. I have tried so many versions over the years – with maple syrup, bacon, apples, walnuts, pecans, dill, lemon. I hated them all. I decided to give the B.S. one last chance due to the peanut (actually peanut butter) in this recipe. A new twist. I have always found recipes with peanut butter to my liking. Forget it! Even yummy peanut butter could not save the horrible sprout. A Brussels Spout is a Brussels Sprout is a Brussels Sprout. Never again will a sprout be found in my kitchen.

Arkansas Roast Heritage Turkey and Gravy. Perhaps the best turkey I have ever prepared. The recipe calls for brining. My friend Lynne, a cook extraordinaire, turned me onto brining the bird several years ago. It definitely makes for a moister turkey. This recipe goes one step further.

Carol's handsome turkey,

Carol’s handsome turkey,

It basically utilizes the same cooking method Carol follows. Her turkey was an American Butterball from the commissary and she did not brine. But, she enveloped the bird in layers of heavy duty foil with a cup of water added to the bottom of the turkey foil package. No basting. The turkey is essentially steamed. Her method specifies a higher temperature than the Arkansas recipe. I followed the latter, tightly covering the turkey in two layers of foil.

The only disappointment with this method is the appearance of the cooked turkey. Not a beautiful golden brown bird to present to guests, but instead a very sickly, pale, almost white fowl. I kept it hidden in the kitchen as VR carved it. Carol’s bird, since it had cooked at a higher temp, was presentable. Perhaps I should have removed the foil for the last half hour to allow for browning? But, wouldn’t it dry out the turkey?  It’s the taste and texture that count. “Succulent” proclaimed Lynne. I will definitely prepare future turkeys this way. Thank you Arkansas – and Carol!

Pumpkin Pie and Apple Cranberry Pie – my desserts, but most guests had no room for them. VR is enjoying the leftovers. The filling for my pumpkin pie includes a healthy dose of brandy. I love those recipes with a bit of alcoholic content.fblog.5

For your holiday cooking, you may want to try these and other NYT Thanksgiving recipes. http://cooking.nytimes.com/68861692-nyt-cooking/603426-the-united-states-of-thanksgiving

If you’d like some of my recipes not found in the column at right (Cranberry Chutney, Butternut Squash with Cranberries and Apples, Pumpkin Pie with Brandy), let me know. I will be glad to supply. The Grape Salad recipe is Today’s Taste (upper right).

Casa Parks (left) with the Domolmites.

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Provence for Visitors

With its gorgeous landscapes and numerous attractions, Provence is a Mecca for tourists. French. British. Dutch. Belgians. Asians. Russians, and many more.

Hilltop Gordes -- the quintessential Provence perched village.

Hilltop Gordes — the quintessential Provence perched village.

Friends and relatives who come to visit us in the Luberon hills also enjoy the allure of Provence. Carol and Noel, friends from Germany who have retired to northern Italy, arrived in early October. Soon after came John and Mickey, VR’s (husband Vino Roberto’s) brother and sister-in-law from northern Ohio.carriers.3

We kept on the move and had fun showing off our Provence favorites. A hit with all was Carrières de Lumières in Les-Baux-de-Provence. Words fail to describe this amazing place –vast caverns, formerly quarries, where a unique multimedia presentation enthralls all. The show changes every winter.carriers.4

“Klimt and Vienna” is this year’s show, ending Jan. 4, which features the works of turn-of-the-century artists Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, plus Fritz carrieres.2Hundertwasser, projected on the walls and floors. Wander through the immense space, engulfed by the gigantique tableaux. Enjoy the mesmerizing musical background.

“Klimt is now one of my favorites. The show is awesome. I could have just sat there all day looking at the images,” said Carol. We, too, are overwhelmed with the production and return every year to see the new show.lesB2

The ancient town, Les-Baux-de-Provence, with its medieval château, spectacular views and boutique lined cobblestone streets, is also captivating. ”I’ve been to a million of those cutesy towns that have become little more than amusement parks. Les Baux seemed, to me, to have retained some of its soul,” commented Noel.lesbaux.

Mickey was especially intrigued with the site where the ruins of an 11th century citadel dominate a plateau perched on a rocky spur. She listened to the explanations on an audio headset at each numbered stop throughout the historic site. “I love castles,” she said.rou.fb

Carol and Noel were also impressed with Roussillon, a touristy town whose attraction is its Sentier des ocres (ochre footpath). A trail descends into a gorge of orange/yellow walls, then winds through the woods bordered by these exotic, colorful cliffs. The area was also formerly a working quarry.

Carol and Noel and Bouillabaisse.

Carol and Noel and Bouillabaisse.

Noel had made a special request . He remembers a scene in the movie, “In Like Flint” with James Coburn, during which Coburn savors Bouillabaisse, Marseilles’ signature dish. He had to eat this legendary fish soup in Marseille. I did some

Bouillabaisse is much more than fish soup. A plate brimming with different kinds of fish comes with the soup.  Carol ordered the deluxe version with lobster.

Bouillabaisse is much more than fish soup. A plate brimming with different kinds of fish comes with the soup. Carol ordered the deluxe version with lobster.

restaurant research to find a place serving authentic Bouillabaisse. Many restaurants have a version for tourists. My find, Le Ruhl, has a perfect setting on a hillside just adjacent to the Mediterranean. Great views – but the food? OK, but not great. Next time I’ll try another restaurant for Bouillabaisse

Selfie, of sorts, under the new, giant mirrored canopy at Marseille's Vieux Port.

Selfie, of sorts, under the new, giant mirrored canopy at Marseille’s Vieux Port.

Before lunch we had hoped to take a boat ride of the calanques (dramatic fjord like inlets in the limestone cliffs between Marseille and Cassis), but due to the fierce Mistral which blows too frequently in these parts, the boats were not running. We braved the winds and took a long walk through the Vieux Port, then on to the J4 Esplanade, Marseille’s swanky new addition for 2013 when the city was the European Capital of Culture. I never tire of admiring the dazzling architecture of the new Villa Méditerranée and MuCem ( museum of Mediterranean and European culture).cassis.2

Mickey and John did get to see the calanques. On a delightfully calm day we boarded the sightseeing boat in the enchanting port town, Cassis, for the excursion through parts of this dramatic coastline.   It was market day in Cassis with vendors selling clothing, food, purses and all manner of souvenirs.cassis.boats

Markets are a major Provence attraction. Mickey accompanied me to Forcalquier, a town near our home known for its big Monday market.  “I loved the shopping you did at the outdoor market,” she later said. “ I really liked that you were able to purchase fresh fruit, vegetables, produce, eggs, fish and sausages direct from the farmers the same morning they were picked.   I enjoyed listening to you get a better price for the shawl/cape you purchased, especially after the seller informed you this would be the last time he was going to be at the market with his items.” (It was a coat I could have done without. But when my bargaining was successful, I could not resist.)

Although photos are "interdit" at the Vence chapel, many manage to get a shot.

Although photos are “interdit” at the Vence chapel, many manage to get a shot.

VR and I recently joined the American Club of the Riviera. Their October agenda included an event during Mickey and John’s visit I knew we should not miss – a tour of the Henri Matisse Rosary chapel in hillside Vence above the Riviera. A documentary, basically an interview by American Barbara Freed with the late Sister Jacques Marie, the nun who played a major role in the realization of this unique structure, preceded the tour. Freed has translated the nun’s book about her relationship with Matisse into English and served as director of the documentary. She was on hand with more fascinating commentary. It’s an unbelievable story – the deep friendship between this renowned artist who was not religious and the Dominican nun, and how she influenced, inspired and encouraged him on the chapel project.nice

An overnight stop in Nice, my Riviera favorite, preceded our trek to Vence. We strolled along the seaside Promenade des Anglais and wandered through Old Nice.

John, Mickey and VR.

John, Mickey and VR.

Then back into the hills to Sospel, a town VR and I had visited many times. We had even considered moving there. We became friends with Marie Mayer who

Marie and I with one of her father's sculptures.

Marie and I with one of her father’s sculptures.

runs a chambre d’hote (bread and breakfast), Domaine du Paraïs, where we always stayed. Her late father, Marcel Mayer, was a well known sculptor. She invited us for an aperitif in her living room filled with some of her father’s remarkable art works.

Noel and Carol are foodies like VR and I. ”Food, of course, is always high on our list,” Noel said. “The afternoon at the Dutch guy’s place was unforgettable… everything about that afternoon was wonderful – the intimate setting, the company and the food, which really was excellent.”

He was referring to Table du Bonheur, a special eatery in the hinterlands where we had an excellent lunch. (See previous post, Table of Happiness, Sept. 2, 2011)

Noel and Carol treated us to lunch and some fine wines at Le Bistrot de Lagarde which now has a Michelin star.

Noel and Carol treated us to lunch and some fine wines at Le Bistrot de Lagarde which now has a Michelin star.

Our food extravaganza with John and Mickey was an over-the-top meal in Italy – a lunch of multi courses at an agriturismo (farm inn), La Locanda degli Ulivi, hidden up a very long, very narrow, very windy road in the hills above Dolceacqua, a small, picturesque town just north of Ventimiglia. This was a first for me and VR. We will return, but VR said I can drive up that taxing hill next time. We must have had at least six different antipasti before two different types of pasta followed by the main course, rabbit, and the dessert. Not gourmet cuisine, but a fun experience in a livey, cozy – and very Italian — ambiance .

Clean plates after an Italian feast.

Clean plates after an Italian feast.

Throughout our drives, Mickey, who is very interested in vegetation, often asked me the names of different trees. I failed . All the lavender fields fascinated her. She’d like to come back to see them in bloom (usually July). Olive trees were another favorite.   ”The olive orchards were amazing to see.  It might be interesting to see the trees when in bloom or when the farmers are harvesting the olives.  I noticed olives were served at all the meals.”

Dolceacqua

Dolceacqua

I asked her what was most memorable about her visit. “The view of the mountains was unbelievable, and the winding roads took our breath away.   What a wonderful trip and  fantastic weather!   The sight reminded me of what heaven must be like.  Not a lot of noise, heavy traffic, or trucks unloading but just a peaceful, restful vacation place.”

Not quite heaven, but Provence has its charms.me.b.nice

Like my blog? Tell your friends. If you are not a Tales and Travel follower, please sign up with your email address at upper right. Your address is kept private and never shared. Please comment, Leave a Reply below. I love feedback. Coming next: Incredible Iceland Part II –horses, fish, food, adventure. And, for a taste of fall, try my recipe for Spaghetti Squash Gratin — above right.

More information:

www.carrieres-lumieres.com

www.chateau-baux-provence.com

www.roussillon-provence.com

www.cassis.fr

www.domaineduparais.monsite-orange.fr

www.lalocandadegliulivi.com

 

 

 

 

 

Incredible Iceland

blog.sceneRain gushed from the heavens. Ferocious winds ripped the car door from my hand. It was frigid. The only sight was a wall of gray/white. Welcome to Iceland. I was devastated. We left warm and sunny Provence for this? The warning of a friend haunted me. “Why would you want to go to Iceland? They trained for the moon landing in Iceland. It rains all the time.”blog.ringrdThere was no turning back. Husband Vino Roberto (VR) and I set off in our rental car for a seven day venture, driving Iceland’s Ring Road, a 1,600 kilometer (992 miles)  circuit around the island. When the fog began to lift, depression intensified. Flat, brown, barren landscape. No trees. No buildings. Ugly!blog.0Fortunately things did improve, but Iceland is not for sissies. The country has some breathtaking scenery, but much of Iceland is desolate, vast tracts of varying shades of brown and black.   No vegetation. Sparse civilization. The weather…not much sun, at least in September. Of the country’s 320,000 citizens, more than half live in Reykjavik, the capital.blogglacier.2“Iceland weather is very unpredictable,” a local said. Another quipped, “We don’t have bad weather. You just have to dress for it. In one day, we have four seasons in Iceland. ”blogglacier.7That proved to be true. Often the sun would sneak through the dense cloud cover, usually only briefly, casting its intense rays on all below for what seemed a miraculous transformation. Mountains, glaciers, waterfalls, volcanoes, geysers, lakes, mud pots —we marveled at all. Iceland is overloaded with amazing natural wonders.blog.phone“Most travelers come to Iceland for nature, for the landscape,” we were told. And, adventure. In Iceland, you can hike across glaciers or to the top of a volcano, descend into a volcano, explore caves, drive All Terrain Vehicles (ATVs)  and snowmobiles, snorkel, scuba dive, surf, ski, ride horses… Our adventure was limited to horseback riding, an ATV tour, whale watching, fishing, and soaking in the legendary Blue Lagoon.blog.lagoon2The most spectacular sight during our tour was the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon. We were lucky. The luminous blue waters with their great chunks of ice glistened in sunshine. It was beyond beautiful. We walked around the shores, awe struck by the scene, as were many film makers. The lagoon has been a set in many movies. From the lagoon we followed a stream where all sizes of iceberg bits floated on to the sea, many then tossed back onto the black sand beach by the waves.blog.phone3The sun stayed away during most of our visit to the Skatafell National Park, a wilderness area of flora and fauna at the base of Vatnajökull, the largest ice cap outside the poles. Numerous glaciers flow from the ice hulk and there are active volcanoes underneath. Most visitors opt for a trip to glacial heights where they blogglacier.1can drive snowmobiles or hike across the glacier with a guide. Instead we hiked to Sksftafellsjokull as suggested by my Lonely Planet guide book, a one-hour trek to the dirty, gritty glacier face. Even though it was hardly a thing of beauty, its monstrous size was an overwhelming sight. A flash downpour drenched us as we hiked, but within a few minutes, the sun popped out.blogglacier.3Iceland sits on the Mid Atlantic Ridge, an 18,000 kilometer long rift between two of the earth’s major tectonic plates.   It is the youngest country in Europe, formed 17 to 20 million years ago by underwater volcanic eruptions along the joint of the North American and Eurasian plates. Molten rock continues to rise from within blogpark.2forcing the plates apart. We saw the result at Thingvellir National Park, walking along the path through Almannagja near where the plates tear farther away from each other at the rate of 1 to 18 mm per year. The path between two great walls of rock is dramatic, however it is not actually between the two continental plates.geyserGeysers and waterfalls abound in Iceland. The country’s most famous geyser is Geysir which gave its name to geysers throughout the world. Unfortunately it became clogged when tourists threw rocks into it back in the 1950s so it remains quiet. But just next door is Stokkur, a most reliable geyser that delights the camera crowd with eruptions every five to 10 minutes. The bizarre landscape around the geyser is fun to explore: pools of bubbling mud, steam surging from the earth.falls.1Gullfoss, Dettifoss, Goöafoss — three major waterfalls we visited along our journey. I failed to get a good photo. These are powerful falls producing powerful sprays. The skies were dark when we visited. At mighty Dettifoss which has the greatest volume of water of any waterfall in Europe, a dangerous gale-like wind added challenge. VR had to hold on to me lest the wicked wind blow me into the furious water as I tried to take a picture.

In pursuit of a perfect photo, I almost ended up in this falls.

In pursuit of a perfect photo, I almost ended up in this falls.

Visiting these falls is not for the faint of heart. There are no guard rails, no secure viewing platforms at most. Hike to the site, usually down slippery steps, across rocky terrain.   At Goöafoss you have to jump from rock to rock to cross a pool before reaching the edge of the falls. It was too much for one woman who froze in the middle, afraid to move in any direction. Her husband finally coaxed her back to solid ground.blogfalls.6Volcanoes – active, extinct, dormant.   Iceland has all. Several active volcanoes are beneath glaciers causing dramatic eruptions when molten lava and ice interact. The 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajokull caused serious flooding, as well as world disruption thanks to its ash that grounded Europe’s airplanes. During our September visit Bardarbunga was erupting, but in a remote, uninhabited area. For $1,500 you could take an airplane ride above the fiery cauldron.

Pseudo craters in the Lake Myvatn area.

Pseudo craters in the Lake Myvatn area.

The volcano continues to erupt, but Icelanders seem to take it all in stride.  However John Stevenson, a volcano researcher at the University of Edinburgh, told Newsweek last week (Oct.15) that the lava and sulfur fumeshave been reaching unhealthy levels in large parts of the country. The area affected depends on the wind direction but includes Reykjavik. It has been causing painful eyes and throats, led to cancelation of sporting events, and asthmatics are encouraged to stay indoors.” Glad we visited in September.

Viti crater with floodwater pool.

Viti crater with floodwater pool.

While much of our drive was through bleak, bare terrain, even it had its charms – a strange, mysterious, eerie beauty. In the mountainous interior region of the north where there are no towns, no farms, no houses, suddenly we’d spot a lonely sheep.   We drove through many a fishing village, but there were no weather beaten boats tended by wrinkled fishermen. The boats appeared freshly painted, often in vivid colors. The villages are pristine.blog.boats3aYes, parts of Iceland do seem lunar like. And, rain is frequent. Nonetheless the Land of Fire and Ice is incredibly intriguing — and well worth a visit.blog.04More on Iceland coming in Incredible Iceland Part II – horses, fish, food, adventure. Don’t miss it.  If you are not a Tales and Travel follower, please sign up with your email address at upper right. Your address is kept private and never shared. Please comment, Leave a Reply below. I love feedback. And, try Today’s Taste recipe, Almond Pear Clafouti, also upper right. You won’t be disappointed..blog.mudpot.3Travel Tips: Iceland is expensive, very expensive. A simple meal in an average restaurant can easily cost $35 and up. A beer: $8. A glass of wine: $11 (This put a crimp on VR’s drinking habit.)    I had hoped to buy an Icelandic sweater, but prices start at about $150. A nice one: $200. No sweater for me.   I complained about the high prices to a shop owner. “When we go to the states, we shop like mad. Everything is so cheap.”blog.misc2A 7-night, 8-day Ring Road Highlights self-drive trip from Iceland Travel costs from €868 (about $1041) which includes the rental car, accommodations and breakfasts. http://www.icelandtravel.com Gasoline is expensive,$7.74 per gallon. Follow Tales and Travel on Facebook, http://www.facebook.com/talesandtravel  And me on Twitter: @larkleah