“Everywhere you look; it’s a feast for the eyes. It’s a magical place.”
We were sitting around the fireplace in a stylish salon of exquisite furnishings enjoying an apero when a friend made that comment. It was our first time at the Villa Augustine shortly after it opened in April 2012.
The turn-of-the- century mansion in the Vaucluse city of Apt, the capital of the Luberon, was originally owned by a wealthy family, proprietors of ochre mines. Their fortune plunged in the 1930s. The splendid home was abandoned for many years and in a dreadful state. Along came two Parisians, Guy and Christophe, to rescue the magnificent structure. Restoration took three years. Tracking down the furnishings and objets d’art took even longer. Guy and Christophe, both fans of 20th century arts décoratifs, combed France and neighboring countries to find original Art Nouveau pieces to enhance the interior in keeping with the period. Signed objects by Majorelle, Ruhlmann, Leuleu, Royere and others are among the treasures.
Today Villa Augustine is a sanctuary of calm and beauty in the midst of busy Apt just above the river Calavon. There are five chambres d’hote (B&B) rooms and gorgeous gardens planted with Italian inspiration. A more than 200-year-old cedar of Lebanon, classified as one of the most beautiful trees in the Luberon, is the pièce de resistance amidst flowers, cypress and olive trees. An inviting pool on a terrace above the villa is a delightful surprise offering stunning views of Apt and the Luberon hills. Not to forget – food, which is Guy’s realm. The ex-banker has always been passionate about cooking. Here he has the opportunity to indulge in his favorite pastime and prepare gourmet cuisine several evenings per week. His cuisine, he says, is influenced by his Spanish origins and Algeria, where he was born. And, the flavors of Provence, of course. There is a set menu, and reservations are a must as he can serve no more than 20 diners, but up to 40 for special events. During warm weather months, the spacious terrace in front of the villa is often a venue for the latter – concerts, fashion shows, art and photo exhibits.
During our first visit we had a complete tour and admired each unique bedroom with adjoining baths, many delightfully retro. A mirror from a buffet is the headboard for the double bed in one room. One bedroom is done in the style of the ‘50s, and another reflects the ‘40s.
Dinner – either outdoors under trellises on the terrace where huge pots of plants in bloom create an upscale ambience of greenery, or indoors in the dining room with its precious décor, is special. So is the food. Our first dinner in 2011 featured Noix de Saint-Jacques a l’artichaut et l’andouillette, jus de
crustaces, (scallops à l’ artichoke and sausage with the juice of crustaceans).
Last week we savored an excellent meal – a belated birthday treat for step-daughter Kellie and her friend Luka visiting from New York City. It began with a “mise en bouche” (pre-starter), a healthy gamba with a puree of mango and a mini glass filled with chantilly (whipped cream) of chevre (goat cheese). The entrée, carpaccio of tuna with a spinach sauce, was very flavorful – my favorite. Cod with ratatouille creatively stuffed in mini peppers accompanied the perfectly cooked fish surrounded by a coulis of tomato and juice of palourde (tomato sauce made with the juice of the clam perched on top of the cod). Dessert: roasted figs in fig liqueur with vanilla ice cream. Wine: a bottle each of an excellent Burgundy white and a Burgundy red suggested by Christophe. A fitting birthday meal in a magical place!
Guy and Christophe, who had the distinction of being the first gay couple married in Apt after the recent change in French law which now legalizes gay marriage, are overjoyed with the success of their endeavor.
“We are very happy with the speed in which we have succeeded to develop a faithful clientele,” says Guy. The chambre d’hote has been fully booked since April this year, he added. “Normally this would take four or five years.”
Rooms range in price from 100 to 150 euros per night. Three course dinners with two mise-en-bouches at 40 euros per person. Villa Augustine is open from mid March through the end of October. More information at www.lavillaaugustine.com
Have you dined at Villa Augustine? Share your view. I love to hear from readers. See “Leave a Reply” below under Comments. Followers also welcome. Don’t miss future posts. Click on Email Subscription at top right.
A recipe to try: Linguine with Shrimp, Tomatoes and Feta Sabraw. Scroll down recipe column at right.
My article on Marseille which follows was recently published in the newspapers Stars and Stripes and the Houston Chronicle. A slightly different version will soon appear on the dynamite travel web site: www.travelsquire.com Check it out for a wealth of travel info. Marseille is hot — this year named a European Capital of Culture. Read on — and plan a visit.
It’s a tiny place, all decked out with souvenirs of the sea: shells and stuffed fish in nets dangling from the ceiling, a bench with bold orange life vests as cushions around a big corner table, a wall plastered with small sardine cans. Perfect décor for La Bôite à Sardine, a popular Marseille eatery. A few regulars down pastis, the licorice flavored drink of Provence, at a mini bar while chef Celine is busy on the other side with lunch preparations.
Outside proprietor Fabian arranges freshly caught fish on a sidewalk table. Another display of creatures that had been swimming in the Mediterranean a few hours earlier greets us at the entrance.
My husband and I had come to Marseille from our home in northern Provence to savor treats from the sea for which this port city is famous.
We were charmed with La Bôite à Sardine — and even more so when Fabian sat us at a table with two friendly women, Jeanne Feutren, 68, and her mother, Claire Gilormini, 93, who live nearby.
”We come here because the fish is fresh. It’s delivered every morning. That’s rare. We know,” said Feutren, who, like her mother, was born in France’s second city, is a retired English teacher, and, like most natives, a diehard fan of this fascinating city, the oldest in France.
They, and many others, began their meal with platters of oysters. I asked for Fabian’s recommendations, and he suggested we split an order of calamari, then move on to sole for the main course. “It’s the season for sole,” he explained. “They are full of eggs. The taste is the best.” The squid were in a tasty sauce with a side dish of panisse, a local specialty made with chickpea flour. The sole, lightly fried, was exquisite. Fabian made sure we did not miss the cheeks, the minute and delicate portion of flesh under the fish’s eyes.
“I love Marseille. It’s so cosmopolitan,” said Feutren. “You can meet the whole world here. We have the sea, the sand, hills, the calanques (dramatic coastline cliffs). People are so exuberant.” Her mother interjected. “It’s a wonderful town. We have sun year round. It’s January, but look at the weather.” (It was glorious. Marseille has 300 days of sunshine, the highest number of sunny days in France.)
Now is the time to visit. Marseille is the European Capital of Culture for 2013 with a wealth of activities on the agenda this year. The New York Times rated Marseille second in its list of “46 places to visit in 2013.”
Crime, drugs, violence, the Mafia – the city’s reputation was shrouded by all for years. Fortunately policing and public security have improved somewhat. Nonetheless, as in any big city, caution is advised.
What to See:
Vieux Port. The old port is the heart of this city that was founded by the Greeks six centuries before Christ. Every morning fishermen unload their catch at the tip of the port, the Quai des Belges, for the fish market where locals survey the specimens and tourists take photos. “Soles vivantes,” fish still flapping in a shallow pool of water, were a hot item recently, no doubt because it was the sole season as we had learned from Fabian. On one table, an octopus slithered back and forth in a tray. The 17th century Hotel de Ville, the centuries-old home of the city government, is on the right side of the quai facing the water.
New at the Vieux Port is Norman Foster’s Ombrière, a giant mirror hanging above the repaved waterfront. Slender columns hold a thin sheet of polished steel aloft. Reflected are all those passing underneath, from gnarled fishermen to strolling pedestrians.
Pavilion M. This temporary structure of wood and glass erected for Marseille 2013 in the Place Bargemon near the Vieux Port has exhibits on the city and its people. Visit the tourist office on the upper floor for information about special events this year. Tickets for events are also on sale here.
Chateau d’If. Take a boat from the Vieux Port to his legendary castle, France’s Alcatraz. King Francois I had it built in the 16th century as a fort outside the harbor. It never saw battle, but became a prison. Its most illustrious inmate was Edmond Dantès whom Alexandre Dumas immortalized in The Count of Monte Cristo.
Le Panier. Steep steps from the Vieux Port climb the hills of this district whose narrow, cobbled alleys are reminiscent of ancient Mediterranean cities like Naples and Lisbon. The Place des Moulins was once the home of 15 windmills where flour was milled. The name “panier” (basket) is thought to come from the baskets used to carry bread. Check out the boutiques on rue du Petit-Puits. The whimsical ceramics at number 7, Serge Mautarlier, are a delight.
Vielle Charité. This striking architectural masterpiece in Le Panier was a home for the city’s poor in the 17th century when Louis XIV decided poor folks on the streets were bad news. It housed up to 1,000 needy residents. The noted architect Le Corbusier recognized its beauty in the 1950s which led to renovation. The complex of columned arcades includes a Baroque domed chapel.
Notre Dame de la Garde. A golden statue of the “Bonne Mère” tops this Romanesque-Byzantine basilica at the highest point of the city, 500 feet above the harbor, majestically watching over Marseille’s 860,000 inhabitants. Hike up the hill, or take bus number 60 from the old port, and enjoy the best views of the city and nearby islands.
La Canebière. The grand boulevard of Marseille which leads from the Vieux Port. A bit shabby, the Champs Élysée it is not, although it was modeled after the Parisian avenue. Some of the buildings are worth admiring, such as the one with caryatides housing the store C&A at number 53
Calanques/Beaches. Sightseeing boats from the Vieux Port opposite the Hotel de Ville offer coastal tours to admire the stunning cliffs and deep fiord-like inlets between Marseille and Cassis. Marseille has 16 beaches along its 57 kilometers of coastline. The Plage des Catalans offers golden sand, while soft gravel covers the Plage du Prado. Both are crowded in summer.
Markets. In addition to the fish market, this vibrant city has numerous morning markets offering everything from clothing to spices, fruits and vegetables to hardware. The merchandise for sale reflects the diversity of the city’s population which includes 200,000 Italians, 150,000 Corsicans, and
400,000 Muslims (mostly from Algeria). Arab specialties are found at the Marché les Noailles on side streets to the right at the end of Canebière just a few hundred meters from the Vieux Port, every morning except Sunday. Nearby is the Marché des Capucins for fruit and vegetables, also daily except Sunday. Everything imaginable is for sale at the huge Marché du Prado along the this main artery of the city. Tuesday through Saturday.
Bouillabaisse. Marseille is the capital of this legendary fisherman’s soup. It’s said to taste better there than anywhere else because of the variety and freshness of ingredients – several kinds of fish. It’s a hearty meal beginning with the fish broth served with aioli, garlic mayonnaise, and rouille, aioli with cayenne pepper. Smear the mayos on toast rounds which you submerge in the soup. Then comes a huge platter of the fish and potatoes. It’s a pricey dish, between 53 and 60 euros per person at these restaurants all known for authentic bouillabaisse: Le Rhul, chez Michel, Le Miramar and chez Fonfon. A less expensive but authentic version can be ordered ahead at Chez Madie Les Galinettes at the Vieux Port. Other restaurants along the Vieux Port also offer bouillabaisse for less, but it may not be the genuine version.
New Attractions: Villa Méditerranée and Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations (MUCEM). Continue down the waterfront from the Vieux Port to an abandoned pier (J4) that is now all spiffed up and the site of avant-garde architecture. The Villa Méditerranée looks much like a supersized diving board with a vast exhibition hall jutting towards the sea and suspended above a pool of water. It will host exhibitions, but it is primarily a place to provide contact for all Mediterranean countries with the focus on cultural and artistic exchanges. There is no charge to enter and wander around, although there is a charge for exhibitions.
President Francois Hollande will inaugurate MUCEM on June 4. Doors open to the public on June 7. This striking structure, a squat glass building shielded from the harsh Mediterranean sun by a dark concrete filigree veil, echoes the architecture of North Africa. Exhibits from national museums will illustrate the theme of Mediterranean civilization.
The J4 area and the adjacent old Fort St. Jean are linked by a 130-meter walkway overlooking a dock. You can stroll in the public Mediterranean garden suspended on the heights of the Fort and lap up the stunning panoramic views over the sea and city.
Where to stay:
Hôtel Escale Oceania Marseille Vieux Port
The location does not get any better than this, just adjacent to the Vieux Port. The small (45 rooms) newly renovated hotel does not offer luxury, but it does have all you need, including free Internet access. Ask for a superior room with a balcony for superb views of the Vieux Port and Notre Dame de la Garde. 5 La Canebière, 04 91 90 61 61
La Bôite à Sardine, fish restaurant as described in article, 7 Boulevard de la libération, 04 91 50 95 95, www.laboiteasardine.com
Le Café des Epices, gastronomic brasserie near the Vieux Port, a tiny but bustling place with innovative cuisine. There is a terrace in front of the restaurant for outdoor dining. Many of the customers are regulars who greet the talented chef with the obligatory air kiss on each cheek. 4 Rue du Lacydon, 04 91 91 22 69. Restaurant does not have a web site.
Pizzeria Jeannot. Much more than a pizzeria, this large restaurant offers all manner of seafood and grilled meats, in addition to a variety of pizzas. The location, tucked in a tiny fishing port just outside the heart of the city, is a delight. 129 Vallon des Auffes, 04 91 52 11 28. www.pizzeriachezjeannot.net
Chez Fonfon. If it’s authentic bouillabaisse you seek, try this well-known restaurant (mentioned in the article) located almost next door to Pizzeria Jeannot, but with a classy ambience on the second floor of a building with lovely views of the sea and the mini harbor full of boats. 140 Rue du Vallon des Auffes, 04 91 52 14 38, www.chez-fonfon.com
For the city’s famous traditional cookies (Navettes – flavored with orange flower water ), Navettes des Accoules, 68 Rue Caisserie, http://www.les-navettes-des- accoules.fr
Travel throughout the city by bus and/or metro (two lines). A one-day City Pass at 22 euros ($28.50) includes use of both bus and metro for 24 hours, a roundtrip boat trip to Chateau d’If, a ride on the tourist train to Notre Dame de la Garde or through the Old Town and Panier, entrance to all museums, a guided tour, plus some discounts. Tickets at Pavilion M, the city tourist office at the Vieux Port or at resamarseille.com
Marseille also has Hop-on-Hop Off buses running between April 1 and Oct. 31 which stop at 13 different locations. Tickets for one or two days from 18 euros ($23) can be purchased on board.
Sightseeing boat trip of the calanques: two hour trip: 22 euros. ($28.50) Details at www.visite-des-calanques.com. Boats run daily from April through October.
From Germany, Belgium, France, England, the U.S., Australia, Canada, Switzerland, Austria, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Netherlands, Argentina — even Romania and the Ukraine — they’ve come. To spend a week, two weeks, or sometimes longer in the guest studio apartment (known as a “gite” in French) on the first floor of our home, Les Rosiers, that we rent to tourists in summer.
It’s been fun and fascinating to meet and talk to our tenants. And, an experience.
Our first guests several years ago were a German couple, he a baker, who came for a week’s get away from their three young children. It was the end of February, but the Provence sun shone. They bundled up in blankets and lounged by the pool, which was all closed up, soaking up the rays.
We’ve found that Belgians and French, all from the north, especially like lounging by the pool in the summer. No doubt they already know the region, so they are content to chill out, relax, and hang out. Not so for most of our other guests who often set out for day-long excursions to sights – near and not-so-near.
“We have really enjoyed our relaxing stay in your lovely gite, we loved this area of the Luberon and having this comfortable, quiet little home to come back to at the end of a day’s sightseeing just made the holiday.” – Pauline and John, N. Ireland, July 2010.
Last summer was the season of cyclists, starting with a couple from North Carolina who had top quality rental bikes delivered from a bike shop in Isle sur la Sorge – about an hour away. They rode every day. Then came a couple from Brugge, also dedicated riders. They brought their own bikes, and after a day’s outing, were happy to come back and cool off in the pool. Francis, a physical therapist, loved to practice his English, which was excellent.
Aled, a Welshman, who came with his wife, Bethan, took the pedal prize. They come to Provence every year, and every year he pedals up Mount Ventoux. Last summer was his fifth ascent. He also intrigued us with his photography.
Aled is a professional who shoots with an Ebony (google it), an incredible large format camera. After their arrival, we heard them speaking and were intrigued. It was not English. They are among the 562,000 of a population of about three million who speak Welsh.
Close behind Aled for pedal prowess was Jakob from Prague. He did Ventoux for the third time. But, more amazing than his skill, was the family bicycle entourage. Jakob, wife Katarina, daughter Laura, 6, and baby Lukas, 1 ½, arrived with five bicycles (two for Jakob), plus a baby trailer, a baby bed and a baby carriage.
And, they pedaled – often all day, the entire family. After Laura got tired, her bike could be attached to Jakob’s. Katarina towed Lukas in the baby trailer. As the terrain here is anything but Holland flat — lots of long and often steep climbs — their stamina and fitness were mind-boggling.
We’re looking forward to our most dedicated guests in June – Klaus and Eva from Graz, Austria. This will be their fourth summer with us, and they stay for a month. Klaus comes first, his car loaded down with plenty of food supplies and Austrian beer. He always brings us generous gifts of delicacies one can’t find here.
Klaus is a gourmet cook and often shares his creations with us. The first summer he gave me a list of supplies needed in the apartment kitchen, including a knife sharpener, kitchen timer, vegetable peeler. Other guests have also made special kitchen requests. The Brits wanted a tea kettle (we boil water in a regular pan). One French couple wanted espresso coffee cups, yet another requested bowls for their morning coffee. All items now in place.
Our apartment has two double beds. German couples always occupy both beds. Not so with French, Belgians and most other nationalities who prefer togetherness and cuddle together in one bed.
“Thank you for sharing your bit of paradise with us…. Your apartment is wonderfully equipped, definitely a home away from home. This was my seventh trip to Provence, but it was by far the most relaxing and satisfying.” Lynne, Columbia, MO, April, 2011.
We’ve been surprised to find how many of our guests comment on the peace and quiet of our surroundings. Many must live in or near big cities. They love the tranquility of Les Rosiers. But, last summer that quiet was scathed one dreadful night. The house across the street is also sometimes rented to vacationers. Last August there was an entire wedding party and a wedding celebration with loud, blasting rock music that went on until 5 a.m. I finally called the police, and the noise stopped soon after.
Our tenants at the time, Jean Luc and Anne from Brussels, were most understanding. We felt dreadful – mainly because that was not the only disaster to mar their stay. They were without television the first week – a problem that required a repairman who, because it was a holiday week, could not come immediately. Then the gas ran out in the kitchen, but we did remedy that in a timely fashion.
We went off to the states in September, leaving our dear and trusty German friends Klaus and Marianne to house sit and mind Les Rosiers where a German couple, Detlef and Susanne from Hamburg, were staying. They became friends, and all was well until the pool turned green. It’s happened before – algae attack. Klaus, with the help of our friend Alan, got things back in order and our guests, again fortunately, were more than tolerant.
“The whole set up here is warm, welcoming and comfortable…Loved the bright garden and rural setting. ..So much to see and do in this area of Provence, and Les Rosiers is an ideal base.” — Janeen and Jon, Australia, May, 2012.
The pool is a Les Rosiers highlight. But never has anyone enjoyed it as much as a German family with two young children who visited several years ago. They were in the water every minute they were not out visiting sights. Playing “fussball” — water soccer. Every time someone scored, the father, louder than the kids, yelled “Tor.” Children, we’ve found, seem to need to scream with delight when they are in the pool. We’re happy to see them have fun, but life is more peaceful with adults.
We love to invite our tenants for an apero, an evening drink and snacks, and a chance to get to know them. We’ve had stimulating and educational conversations with Belgians on the divisive politics in their country, a first-hand account of life behind the Iron Curtain from East Germans, and a lesson in political history from N. Irelanders. We also like to hear about their adventures in the area, the places they have visited, what they especially like. Our guests enjoy the lovely view of the Luberon hills from our balcony.
As one guest wrote in our guestbook: “Leben wie Gott in Frankreich (live like God in France)..We experienced this here. We’ve found Eden with God as our neighbor.”
Press a button on the bicycle handlebar. Whee…, you soar full speed ahead. It’s like magic, a thrilling sensation.
The power of electric bicycles. I was excited. Husband Bicycle Bob (BB), a hardcore macho cyclist, less so. Yet, we enjoyed our recent all-day excursion on these fun bicycles in the Luberon hills of France’s Provence.
Electric bicycling seems to be surging in popularity. Baby boomers getting too old and out-of-shape for demanding pedaling? More folks wanting a bicycle excursion without stress and sweat? Serious cyclists who want to cover many miles, including some steep ascents where a power boost would be welcome?
Whatever the reasons, electric bicycles offer an enjoyable and easy alternative to conventional pedaling. We rented these sturdy monsters for a day in the Provence town of Gordes with the company Sun-E-Bike which just started renting the bikes, valued at 1,300 euros each, at Easter.
Florian Machayekhi, who spoke English, gave us a briefing. You must pedal for the motor to be in operation, he explained. There are three settings for different levels of motor power. For steep hills, for example, you may wish to select the highest. When going downhill, or in the flats, you can press a button to switch off the motor and pedal as with a regular bike. Sun-E-Bikes have seven speeds.
We have done a lot of bicycling and did not intend to pedal with auxiliary power all the time. However, these bikes are heavy, 25 kilos, therefore not quite like your bike back home. I always shut the power off for downhills, and, lest being a real wimp, tried to keep it off in the flats. But, as this is Provence where the winds often blow, I was happy to press the power button to offset those nasty gusts produced by the Mistral. And, I was no martyr in the hills, loving the easy and effortless climbs. BB, of course, had to do it the hard way most of the time. For the first time on cycle trips, I beat him to the top. So, I cheated…it was still fun being first.
Florian had given us a map with a 40-kilometer itinerary through some Provence highlights: Fontaine de Vaucluse, Saumane de Vaucluse, Isle sur la Sorgue… He suggested we have lunch at the latter where we could exchange the batteries. The bike battery will last for 35 kilometers. When we arrived at Les Terrasses du Bassin, the restaurant/battery exchange point, our batteries still registered full – all four battery lights still glowing.
We enjoyed lunch on the restaurant terrace where the river forms a large pool of crystal water popular with hungry ducks, but did not bother to get a new battery. Almost a mistake. Several hours later when we neared Gordes, the quintessential perched village and our destination, my bike was down to one battery light. And, the last part was five kilometers all up hill. I kept the motor setting on the lowest, thus using less power, and said a prayer that it would get me all the way back to the rental station. I did not want to pedal that weighty bike up this killer ascent. Luck was with me. I made it back under battery power.
We cycled on May 8, a holiday in France, so the walkway through the forest to the scenic source of the Sorgue River at Fontaine de Vaucluse was crowded with strollers. Riding became too risky, so we pushed the bikes up the path along the raging river. Not easy, but the sounds and sights of the water below charging over rocks and boulders detracted from the effort.
Isle sur la Sorgue, known as the Venice of Provence, is a pleasant spot for a lunch break. The Sorgue River splits into numerous streams flowing through the town not unlike Venetian canals. Pedestrian bridges decorated with flower boxes and mossy waterwheels add to the picturesque ambience.
Between the towns on our itinerary we cycled past acres of vineyards, orchards, fields ablaze with wildflowers and weathered stone farm houses, all with the Luberon hills as a backdrop.
Pascal Hernoult welcomed us and the bikes back in Gordes. The new electric bike venture is “encouraging,” he said. “People return with big smiles. They say it’s ‘formidable.’ They are not tired.”
Count me among those happy electric bicyclists. Even BB admitted he was glad for the battery power to get back up that last long hill.
Watch the slideshow below for more photos. Enjoy a tasty treat of the season: Hsin’s Strawberry Cake. See recipe in column at right. Next blog post to focus on French health care — a first person account based on my upcoming knee replacement surgery. Don’t miss it. Click on “Email Subscription” at top of right column.
Sun-E-Bike has 200 electric bicycles for rent at three different sites in Provence: Gordes, Bonnieux and Lauris. Cost for rental per day is 35 euros which includes a helmet and yellow safety vest. Half-day rental (9 a.m. to 1 p.m. or 2:30 p.m. to 7 p.m): 22 euros. Insurance: 2 euros per day. A deposit of 200 euros or an ID card such as passport or driver’s license is required. Maps with suggested itineraries and battery exchange points are provided. Baby seats, baby trailers and panniers can be rented for an extra charge.
SuneE-Bike also offers bike rental for longer periods with hotel overnights and luggage transfer provided. See the web site for details: www.sun-e-bike.com