U.S.A. – Summer 2015

blog.32Chicago is definitely my kind of town. My visit to this dynamic city where I studied and worked for several years long ago was, for me, a highlight of our recent U.S. voyage. Husband Bob (Bicycle Bob/Vino Roberto) and I also enjoyed visits with friends and family in Virginia and New York City, attended a reunion in Maryland, shopped, ate good food — and had a grand time.

Bev in her garden.
Bev in her garden.

A former college roommate, Beverly, was my guide extraordinaire in the Windy City. Bev and I, both French majors, roomed together in the French corridor of a dorm in our senior year at Northwestern University in Evanston just north of the city. We were supposed to speak only French. (I think we broke that rule.) Bev went on to get a PhD in French, taught at Yale, but eventually moved back to Chicago. She lives in Lincoln Park, not far from where I lived when I worked in the city, and now works part time as a Chicago guide, giving tours in French. She knows – and loves – the city, and gave me an outstanding tour – in English.

So much has changed, and it’s all overwhelming, fabulous. Chicago, the third largest city in the U.S., has always been known for its bold architecture. The first skyscraper was erected in the city in 1885. Today its sky is the background for a blog.22myriad of innovative and beautiful tall buildings, including the Willis Tower, formerly the Sears Tower and the second tallest building in the U.S. With 105 buildings at least 500 feet (152 m) tall, Chicago is said to have the tallest skyline in the country and the third-tallest in the world. A great way to see these buildings, and learn more about the city’s architectural history, is the architecture tour by boat on the Chicago River.   As our boat wended its way past one magnificent building after another, Bev’s friend and exuberant guide Judith provided fascinating commentary.

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Bev drove me through Hyde Park and parts of south Chicago, regions of the city I had never explored. I wanted to take a photo of Obama’s house, but there is not much to see. It is hidden behind lots of trees and bushes, and there are security barricades all around, as well as guards. We stopped at Frank Lloyd blog.robieWright’s Robie House, built in his Prairie style between 1908 and 1910 and now a National Historic Landmark. We stopped at another National Historic Landmark, a Henry Moore sculpture on the University of Chicago campus marking the site of the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction on Dec. 2, 1942.blog.moore

That’s what brought Bev’s late father, Ralph Livingston, a post-doc in physical chemistry, to Chicago. I asked Bev for the details.  “The code name for the research effort of what would become the Manhattan Project was the Metallurgical Laboratory (“MetLab”) and that’s where my dad worked doing experiments on radium, uranium, etc. He was in the “loop” in that he knew that they were working on an atomic bomb; many working on the Manhattan Project did not know the true nature of this “war effort.”

“In July 1945 when the first atomic test blast took place in Nevada, a number of scientists signed a petition addressed to President Truman, NOT to use it on a civilian population.  I have a copy of this petition which has my dad’s signature. Hiroshima was bombed on Aug. 6, 1945; Nagasaki on Aug. 9.”

This explains Bev’s ties to Hyde Park, where she was born, and the University of Chicago, where she did her graduate studies.

Northwestern campus with more construction underway.
Northwestern campus with more construction underway.

She led me on another excursion to the site of our undergraduate studies — Evanston and the Northwestern campus. Progress there is also monumental, with many new buildings, many built on land that was once Lake Michigan. The campus can only expand in the direction of the lake, so more of the lake has been filled to provide needed terrain. We walked by many old buildings which brought back many memories. We found the dorm where we originally met long, long ago.

Millennium Park, a park in the city center like no other city park, is my Chicago favorite, a showcase for state of the art architecture, lush landscaping and outdoor art. It’s fun with some surprising and amazing sights. Cloud Gate,

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commonly known as “The Bean,” is an elliptical sculpture which reflects the skyline and intrigues visitors who walk underneath and all around to take photos, often reflections of themselves.blog.31 Crown Fountain is another winner. Spanish artist Jaume Plensa is the genius behind two 50-foot glass block towers at opposite ends of a reflecting pool. Gigantic faces of Chicago citizens are projected on LED screens on the towers, changing continually, with water flowing from open mouths. You can be mesmerized for hours.

BB bridge leading to the Jay Pritzer Pavilion, right corner.
BB bridge leading to the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, right corner.

We walked up the BB Bridge in the park to the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, a venue for outdoor concerts, both cutting edge architecture designed by Frank Gehry. We had hoped to take in a free concert, but rain drove us away after the first selection. Another day we walked a section of The 606, an elevated trail for hikers and bikers similar to New York’s High Line. It was built on a section of the Bloomingdale rail line no longer in use.blog.21

When I lived in Chicago, I loved the Art Institute, the second-largest art museum in the United States after the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It has expanded, with a new wing designed by Renzo Piano. I did not have time to visit, a reason for a return to Chicago.

Time to join BB/VR in Winchester, Virginia, where he was visiting his son Rob and grandsons Samuel and Lang. I left Bev’s townhouse at 11 a.m. and did not arrive at Dulles Airport outside of Washington, D.C., until 11:30 p.m. that night. I was traveling by air – not car – although a car may have been faster. I spent most of the day in airports or in a plane that never took off. Delays due to bad weather and mechanical problems, I was told. Give me the TGV (France’s fast train) any day!

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Sam, BB and Lang

In Virginia we took the boys on a delightful but short hike in the Virginia State Arboretum, following a trail bordered by grandiose trees. We encountered few others in this peaceful wonderland of nature. It’s another place that merits a return visit.

Campfire at the reunion featuring a guitar player and Somemores
Campfire at the reunion featuring a guitar player and S’mores (roasted gooey marshmallows sandwiched with chocolate between graham crackers– an old Girl Scout favorite.)

Next stop Adamstown, Maryland, where my Peace Corps training group, Brazil 1966-68, was holding a reunion at a camp and retreat center.   Rob and the boys joined us and, when the rain stopped, had fun in the pool. I met old friends, attended some interesting lectures and presentations, including one on the Peace Corps today which, like Brazil, is not the way we knew it 49 years ago.

Mark and moi.
Mark and moi.

En route to the reunion, we made a detour to La Vale, Maryland, the home of German Life, a magazine I write for.   At long last I was able to meet the editor, Mark, in flesh.   Ours has been an email and occasional phone call relationship for at least 12 years. Mark went overboard and treated us all to lunch for making the trip. Thank you, Mark.

Marian on right.
Marian on right.

I left the reunion site for a lunch break to reunite with a high school friend, Marian, who divides her time between residences in Bethesda and Annapolis, Maryland. She filled me in on news of other classmates.

Visits to New York City

Kellie
Kellie

are always superb. There we have the good fortune to stay in step-daughter Kellie’s beautiful apartment in Soho. Kellie had a dinner party one evening so we could meet some of her friends, and see BB’s nephew Joe and his wife Hsinn,

The 9/11 Memorial was a must on our New York agenda. Names of the 2,977 victims of this horrific tragedy are emblazoned on bronze plates attached to parapets of the walls that surround two rectangular pools, one for each tower destroyed in the attack. It is a beautiful, but chilling monument. Looming above the memorial is the new One World Trade Center (Freedom Tower), the tallest building in the U.S. We passed on a visit to the Memorial Museum as the entrance waiting lines were very long.

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No lines at the new Whitney Museum of American Art, an interesting structure with intriguing outdoor spaces, and amazing art. I conquered the subways and went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So much to see, and all terrific. Must go back there, too.

Rooftop terrace at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Rooftop terrace at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

We joined Kellie and a friend for Shakespeare in the Park (Central Park) and a performance of The Tempest. I met Michaela from  Switzerland Tourism for lunch. Thanks to Michaela, I have been on many wonderful press trips to Switzerland.

A closing word on food in the U.S. We have often complained about the high costs of almost everything in France. No more. The dollar’s recent surge has, of course, made things cheaper for us here. We were shocked at some U.S. prices: $14 and up for a glass of wine in NYC; $10 for 2 cups of coffee. Restaurant prices vary, of course, but eating definitely seems cheaper on this side of the Atlantic. In the U.S., a restaurant bill is just the beginning. You need to figure another 20 percent for tip, then a percentage for tax. On the positive side, we found some clothing bargains, and BB came home with a new toy, a MACbook.

A wonderful trip, great to see family and old friends, but it’s good to be home. We just wish this heat wave would end.

For more photos of my U.S. trip, keep scrolling down.

For a super architecture tour of Chicago by boat: Chicago Cruise Line.

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Gardens in Millennium Park.
Gardens in Millennium Park.
No comment.
No comment.
BB, Lang, Sam and Rob enjoy pool at reunion site.
BB, Sam, Lang and Rob enjoy pool at reunion site.
“Through the Looking Glass” at Metropolitan Museum of Art
Kellie's dinner party
Kellie’s dinner party
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Under The Bean.
Under The Bean.
Along the Chicago River
Along the Chicago River
More Chicago
More Chicago
Climb a wall in Millennium Park.
Climb a wall in  Maggie Daley park next to Millennium Park.
Boat harbor on Lake Michigan
Boat harbor on Lake Michigan
Whitney Museum of American Art
Whitney Museum of American Art

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

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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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

 

 

 

 

 

Highlights of the Midi-Pyrénées

Strains of “The House of the Rising Sun”   reverberated through the massive edifice. This was not a rock concert. No one was singing.

The sounds came from a powerful organ played by a monk in the abbey church of Ste. Foy. The Animals 1964 hit about a brothel in New Orleans seemed a strange choice of music in this religious shrine.

It was electrifying, and the perfect background for a nighttime tour of this Romanesque temple in Conques, a picture-perfect village in southwestern France.conques.blog

Every evening from May through September at 9:30 p.m., visitors are permitted to wander freely around the upper galleries of the church, normally off limits, to look down at the vast nave, to study the unique windows, to look up at the sculpted capitals of columns, each a magnificent work of antique art. Spot lights grow dim and then brighter, highlighting architectural details. Shadows move. The music entrances. Even for the non-religious, this is a spiritual experience, a sound and light show like no other.conques.blog3

Conques was my favorite of the many places visited on a recent tour of the Midi-Pyrénées region in this corner of France. It’s easy to understand why it was named one of the “plus beaux villages de France,” (one of the most beautiful villages in France). The tiny burg of Romanesque fountains and half-timbered houses is nestled in a valley surrounded by green.conques.4blog

The abbey church’s roots go back to the eighth century when a Benedictine monastery was established at the site in the wilderness. Relics were needed to give the new monastery clout. In the ninth century a monk set off to Agen and came back with part of the skull of Saint Foy, a Christian who had been martyred in the town in 303 AD. Miracles were soon attributed to the relic, and Conques became a pilgrimage site, a holy place to visit on the road to Santiago de Compostela, the well-known pilgrimage destination in northwestern Spain.conques.blog2

Today about 13,000 pilgrims per year visit Conques, a town with just 90 year-round residents. Most visit the Treasury as well as the church. Lavish, bejeweled gold and silver reliquaries are displayed in glass enclosed cases. The most elaborate is said to contain the foreskin of Christ. “How do you know it’s the foreskin of Christ?” asked a doubting visitor. “I don’t know. I was not present at the Circumcision,” quipped the guide.

The Conques abbey Church has another attraction – windows designed by the French contemporary artist Pierre Soulages. These bear no resemblance to the usual church stained glass windows, but were designed to let light penetrate the grandiose yet somber structure. The Soulages windows, geometric shapes of glass of varying density, change color depending on the exterior light.

Models of Soulages windows in the Rodez museum.
Models of Soulages windows in the Rodez museum.

Soulages was born in 1919 in Rodez, a Midi- Pyrénées town now a must for contemporary art fans. In May, the Soulages Museum opened with some 500 works of the renowned abstract artist who is known for his devotion to the color black.albi.56blog

Another artist, born some 150 years ago, was the reason for a visit to Chateau du Bosc. As a young boy, the famous post-impressionist painter, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec who hails from nearby Albi, spent summers in the chateau.   Today a distant relative gives fascinating tours of the grandiose medieval house which is her home. Nicole-Berangere Tapie de Celeyran, 89, tiny, frail, and slightly hunch backed, charges up the long staircases with the vitality of a teenager, visitors following behind. From the kitchen where she points out Lautrec’s sketches on the wall, she continues upstairs to a lavish salon and dining room, a bedroom, hallways, and then into the garden.albi.11

“I love to talk. I want to preserve this house, the spirit of the family,” she says. She also wants to show Lautrec mementoes and correct misconceptions about the legendary artist.

She embellishes the tour with stories passed on from her grandmother and other ancestors who knew the artist. Lautrec’s father and uncles often went hunting, I learned. They’d come back after an outing and relate tales of their adventures. Young Lautrec sat on the floor, using coal from the fireplace to make drawings of their exploits, she said. In his bedroom, the floor scattered with toys, she pointed out a boat Lautrec had made after his accident.

At ages 13 and 14, Lautrec had two bad falls resulting in broken legs which never healed properly. He stopped growing, reaching only 4 feet 9 inches. He developed an adult size torso, but child size legs and was unable to participate in sports. He immersed himself in art instead.

The chateau visit was ideal background for a visit to the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum in Albi.albi2.blog

Lautrec’s cabaret posters have become synonymous with Paris and Montmartre, the area of Paris famous for its bohemian lifestyle and the haunt of artists, writers, and philosophers in the late 1800s. More than 1,000 of his works – paintings, lithographs, drawings, as well as the famous posters — are on display in the Albi museum which has the largest collection of his works in the world.

“What is important in a painting is the person. Landscape is secondary. That was his philosophy,” a museum guide said. He painted psychological portraits, and he understood advertising, hence the posters, she explained. Lautrec was an alcoholic and died at the age of 37 due to complications of alcoholism and syphilis.albi.blog

Albi, a UNESCO World Heritage site, hugs the banks of the Tarn River where it is spanned by an ancient bridge. The spires of the city’s mighty cathedral dominate the skyline for a scene almost too picture-perfect. The cathedral, Sainte Cecile, is the only cathedral in France that is still completely painted with the original 15th century paint still intact. During the Middle Ages, church interiors were painted although the paint on most has long since vanished. It survived here because the cathedral is very dark.

Albi’s museum of miniatures is curious if not incredible. It houses 55 miniature rooms all made by a 79-year-old woman who started the project 40 years ago. As a child she wanted a dollhouse, but she never got one. So, at the age of 39 albi.3blogshe set out to make her own, room by room. The museum curator told us that it takes her from six months to a year to make one room. She is now busy making a miniature church.

Toulouse, the capital of the Midi-Pyrénées and France’s fourth largest city, is also the European capital of aeronautics and the home of Airbus. The university city, often called the “ville rose” (pink city) due the bricks it produces which have been used in the construction of many of its buildings, is vibrant and attractive with magnificent churches, lively markets and excellent restaurants.toulouse4.blog

Saint Sernin Basilica, the largest complex of Romanesque buildings in the world, is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site because it was a major stop en route to Santiago de Compostela.toulouse.2blog

The Jacobin Monastery, stark on the outside, is a marvel inside with famous and unique palm tree arches. toulouse.1blog

The heart of Toulouse is the Capitole, the city hall and its courtyard with a statue of Henry IV. The 18th century neo-classical façade of the elongated building dominates a large square that is always a hub of activity. Seats at one of its outdoor cafes are in demand.

The cuisine of southwestern France is legendary.  For more about it, as well as  well-known restaurants in the Midi-Pyrénées, see previous post, “Fabulous French Dining, a Post for Foodies.” I love to know what readers think about my posts, so please comment.  See Leave a Reply below.  And, don’t forget Today’s Taste, a recipe for Thai Green Beans, column at upper right.  toulouse.4blogIf you go…

Chateau du Bosc is located in Naucelle, 30 minutes by car from Albi. Madame Tapie de Celeyran gives guided tours only in French, but guided tours in English by other staff members who know all about Lautrec are offered year round from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m.   If you visit, you are sure to meet Madame who loves to welcome visitors.   + 33 (0) 5 65 69 20 83

Museum Toulouse-Lautrec, Palais de la Berbie, Albi, +33 (0)5 63 49 48 70 www.musee-toulouse-lautrec.com

Museum of Miniatures, 16 Rue Rinaldi, Albi, +33 (0)5 63 79 00 98, www.academiedesminiatures.fr

Soulages Museum, Jardin du Foirail, Avenue Victor Hugo, Rodez, +33 (0)5 65 73 82 60, www.musee-soulages.grand-rodez.com

Recommended Hotels

The Hotel Mercure Albi Bastides on the banks of the Tarn has the perfect location for admiring – and photographing – Albi.   Moulins Albigeois, 41 rue Porta, 8100 Albi, + 33 (0) 5 63 47 66 66 www.mercure.com/Albi

The Hotel Restaurant Hervé Busset, in a wooded setting on the banks of the lively Dourdou River just outside Conques, is a true delight. An old mill was transformed into an inn with a lovely riverside terrace for relaxing and/or dining. And, the food – fabulous. Busset has earned one Michelin star with his cuisine which makes use of plants and flowers from his garden. Domaine de Cambelong, 12320 Conques, +33 (0)5 65 72 83 91 www.moulindecambelong.com

Location, Location, Location – Toulouse’s Grand Hotel de l’Opera can’t be beat. Facing the heart of  town, the Place du Capitole, the charming boutique hotel is located in a former convent of the 17th century. Place du Capitole, 31000 Toulouse, +33 (0) 61 21 82 66 www.grand-hotel-opera.com/uk