La rentrée

IMG_5761I’ve written about la rentrée before, that time in September when life resumes in France. People return to work and children return to school after the long summer break. New books are published, new movies appear in the cinemas, news broadcasters are shuffled: in short, it’s a fresh beginning.

We always seem to move in late summer and we got married in mid-September, so over and over again, we’ve had a fresh beginning in September. When I changed careers a dozen years ago and became a French teacher, I got to experience la rentrée each fall. Fresh pencils, fresh notebooks. Delightful.

IMG_5762I’ve started my own little rentrée ritual since moving into our new home three years ago. I go room by room, shelf by shelf, drawer by drawer, and box by box and decide if all if the accumulated stuff of our life should stay or go. (I do keep my hands off things that belong to my husband or our daughter, however.) I usually wonder at the outset if there is any need, since I went through everything just a year before, but I end up taking a car load of things to the thrift shop and throwing out as much again. Even though it’s a lot of work, it’s strangely cathartic to do all of this sorting. It made me think about my relationship with things. Here are some of my thoughts after The Great Purge 2017:

IMG_57691. Use it or lose it: After I Roy G. Bived a bunch of books in my bedside table that had been lurking in a storage box in the basement, I realized that there were twelve of them. I resolved to read one a month and that anything that was still there at the next rentrée wasn’t important enough to me to stay. So far, I’ve read one and I’m partway through the second.

In addition, I found cards and postcards that I’d picked up in museum gift shops or vacations that were waiting for a special occasion to send to someone – some from more than two decades ago that went through two moves. I’ve started sending them out to people who might need their day brightened.

IMG_57652. Rethink bulk purchases: I threw out a lot of pantry items that were past their “best before” dates. In almost every case, these were items that I had purchased at a bulk store in a multi pack. Hmm. Questionable savings. Also, do I really want to be a warehouse? I’m going to rethink whether a multipack or jumbo size makes sense for empty nesters.

IMG_57663. Have a memory box: Going through funny little cards our daughter had made or reading a letter my husband had written about some of her childhood escapades had  me laughing until my sides hurt. I called my daughter and read them to her to share the memories and she had a good laugh, too. I have a pretty box for my souvenirs and a more masculine one for my husband’s.

IMG_57674. Get rid of incomplete sets: Why was I keeping top sheets to sets where the bottom sheet had worn out? My neighborhood has boxes for fabric recycling where I can take things that aren’t fit to donate.

IMG_57685. Re-evaluate decorative items: Does the clock, or ornament, or candlestick on your shelf represent your current taste, someone else’s taste, or who you were a decade ago. Let it go!

I’m reveling in the knowledge that every nook and cranny is in order for another year. When la rentrée rolls around again, I wonder what other treasures I will unearth or what else I will find that needs to find a new home?

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What to see in Les Baux

IMG_5757On my final day in Provence, I headed to another hill town, Les Baux. Again, I took the bus from Avignon, passing St. Remy and continuing along narrow switch-back roads until being dropped at the foot of Les Baux. The ore bauxite, used to make aluminumwas first mined in the town, which gave the mineral its name.

IMG_5758It was a medieval stronghold, crowned with a fortress. You can visit the ruins. The princes of Baux claimed to be descendants of Balthasar, the name given to one of the magi who followed the star to Bethlehem, and you will see carvings in stone that refer to the wise man. After the fall of the princes, the town was given to Monégasque royal family: one of Prince Albert’s titles is the Marquis of Baux. The town is, however, administered by France.

IMG_5759There are layers and layers of history here. Early inhabitants tunneled into the rock face to make their homes, and even an ancient chapel. For a time, during the wars of religion, Les Baux became a Protestant stronghold. The ruins of one house have the Latin inscription Post tenebras lux 1571 (After darkness, light 1571), which was a motto of Calvinists. A rather different message is conveyed by the carving of a woman’s face and a basket of flowers. This was the Middle Ages way of identifying a brothel!

IMG_5188.JPGToday, the town depends heavily on tourism for its survival. The bauxite ore has long been exhausted. Les Baux reminded me a bit of Niagara Falls, all touristy shops and restaurants. You can also buy olive oil made from local olives and wine from local grapes. In fact, I sat in the shade of one of those olive trees while I waited for the bus to take me back to Avignon along those twisty little roads.

IMG_5710Markets of Provence: Food, Antiques, Crafts, and More

 

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What to see in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue: Part 2

IMG_5048In my last post, I wrote about visiting the antique dealers in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue on a Saturday. I returned the following day for its famous market. It was packed! A woman wedged in behind me kept muttering imprecations against touristes as she was trying to buy her groceries.

IMG_5738There are several parts to the market. First, there is the brocante or flea-market style vendors of vintage goods. These were certainly far less costly than the precious objects I saw the day before at the antique dealers. Their stalls are along the main street, right where the bus from Avignon dropped me off.

IMG_5739Then, in the main square near the church, are most of the food vendors, although I sampled some delectable local Cavaillon melon at a vendor along the river.

IMG_5740Then, on my way to get lunch, I came across the floating market. This is a feature of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue on Sundays in August, and it was one of the most entertaining things I saw this summer in France. Merchants, usually in folkloric costumes, had filled their flat-bottomed boats with merchandise and punted around the river basin from client to client. There were goats, chickens, fruits and vegetables, flowers, even newspapers on offer. A beauty queen and two “security officers” added to the spectacle, and when an occasional boat tipped, it was all part of the fun.

IMG_5742.JPGWhen the show was over, I went for lunch at the same place I had discovered the day before, Jouvaud, a marvelous bakery, tea room, and gift shop. The specialties of the house are flaky pastry tarts, both sweet and savory. They are about two feet long, and they just cut a portion for each customer. The savory tart that I tried was re-heated and  heaped with eggplant, zucchini, and peppers. The fruit tarts were so good! I tried a different one each of the three times I went in the shop. My favorite was the one with several red fruits, including raspberries, strawberries, and red currants. If Jouvaud was in my town, I’d have a serious addiction.

All in all, L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue was my favorite place on this trip to the south of France. Lots to see, lots to do, and lots to eat.

IMG_5710Markets of France: Food, Antiques, and More

 

 

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What to see in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue: Part One

IMG_5047A visit to this pretty little town was one of my chief motivations for visiting this part of France. L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is known as “The Venice of Provence” because of the way it is encircled by the river that gave the town its name. The water also powered the wheels that powered the many factories that made this such a prosperous town that is was able to support two market days a week instead of the typical single day. The open-air Sunday market that still takes place today dates to the end of the 16th century.

IMG_5062The other reason for L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue’s immense popularity is antiques. There are seven multi-dealer “villages” filled with antique dealers, many if whom had really high-end merchandise. In mid-August, there is a very important antique fair with about three times as many vendors. Along with Paris’ flea markets and London’s Portobello Road, this is the most significant antique fair in Europe. I decided on a two-day trip to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue: on Saturday, I visited the antique dealers and on Sunday, I visited the open-air markets. In this post, I’ll just talk about Saturday.

IMG_5053Peter Mayle, author of several amusing books about his adventures fixing up a house  in Provence, famously quipped “You can get anything in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue but a bargain.” There may have bargains to be found, but they weren’t on the items that caught my eye. A mere €5000 separated me from a gorgeous traveling clock adorned with cherubs in its original case and for a further €1800 I could have had a stunning rock crystal vase with ormolu mounts. Unfortunately, all shops were clear that photos were not permitted, so I can’t share these lovelies with you.

IMG_5074The best purchase that I did make was at La Boutique de Francine  (20 Avenue Julien Guigue), a shop filled with stacks and stacks of antique linens beautifully embroidered for a long ago trousseau. I frankly wasn’t in the market for lots of ironing, no matter how intricate the needlework. In a basket in the second room, however, there were lavender sachets made of vintage linens. They were about the size of a brick; the center panel was an embroidered initial cut from a piece that was too damaged to be used whole, and the side panels were a pretty print. They were absolutely stuffed with lavender. There was a beautiful “E” for my mother’s first name that came home with me. I only wish I had bought more of them.

IMG_5710 Markets of Provence: Food, Antiques, Crafts, and More

 

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What to see in Gordes

IMG_5095Next in my list of places to visit in Provence was Gordes, one of the best known hilltop villages in the region, and one of the most beautiful in France. It was a little harder to get to; I took one bus from Avignon to Maubec and then had a half-hour wait to transfer to a different line to get to Gordes. Maubec has some cute shops and a small restaurant right in front of the bus stop, so it wasn’t an unpleasant wait.

IMG_5098The site has been occupied since prehistoric times due to its great strategic importance as a gateway to the Calavon valley. It was a fortified city in the Roman period. An imposing château that dominates the village dates from the 10th century and was remodeled during the Renaissance. Many artists have lived in the village of Gordes, such as Marc Chagall and photographer Willy Ronis, and they contributed to its reputation for rugged beauty.

IMG_5104During the Second World War, the village of Gordes was an active resistance center against the German occupiers. It was bombed on August 22, 1944 and a dozen houses were dynamited in reprisal for the death of a German soldier, killed by resistance fighters.

img_5105.jpgToday, the town is also famous for its proximity to the Abbey of Sénanque. You may have seen pictures of the stone monastery surrounded by fields of lavender. The lavender season was already finished in the sizzling heat of early August, but a kind police officer pointed out that there were a few sprigs of lavender in front of the police station. I was surprised that they had hung on! I had originally planned to visit in June, before my summer job started, and then I would have seen those magnificent fields. Maybe another year.

Next up, what to see in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.

IMG_5710Markets of Provence: Food, Antiques, Crafts, and More

 

 

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What to see in Saint-Rémy

IMG_4853.JPGI had heard a lot about market day in Saint-Rémy, so it was high on my list of places to visit while I was in Provence. I traveled there by bus from Avignon, which brought me right into the heart of the market. It was packed! It was overwhelming! There were so many vendors and so many shoppers that it was tough to move about. I did do a little shopping, especially for fragrant lavender,  before making my way out of the throngs and to the Tourism Office. There, the very helpful woman gave me some ideas of sights to see that would be less crowded.

IMG_5331
My first stop was les Antiques, the oldest Roman triumphal arch in France and a perfectly preserved mausoleum. They marked the entrance to Glanum, a fortified town on the Via Domitia, the Roman road that connected Gaul to Italy. I had hoped to also visit Glanum, but the heat was so intense at over 100 degrees Farenheit (or 40 degrees Celsius) that I just couldn’t face exploring stone ruins without a scrap of shade. So it was off to lunch.

IMG_5351.JPGOn my way to les Antiques, I had noticed Villa Glanum, an inn and restaurant. They had salads on the menu, and that was exactly what I was in the mood for. I opted for roasted beet and sweet potato, with a big wedge of feta, drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette. It was delicious and just what I needed to continue my explorations.

IMG_5707Basically opposite the inn was the entrance to Saint-Paul de Mausole, the asylum where Vincent van Gogh was treated for a year. The route from Saint-Rémy to the rest home is dotted with reproductions of van Gogh’s works in the places where he painted them. It was quite inspiring to look at gnarled old olive trees and wonder if they were exactly the same ones the artist had painted. Inside the rest home, I saw the cloister of the former monastery where van Gogh and other patients were free to wander as well as the artist’s tiny, cell-like room. I could see why he felt cured after a year of this peaceful, simple life and why he was able to paint some of his most famous works, including The Starry Night.

IMG_5708.JPGThe woman in the Tourism Office had suggested some particularly photogenic spots in town, and now that the market was wrapping up, I was able to actually see the ancient stone buildings. Saint-Rémy is the birthplace of Nostradamus, author of that book of mysterious predictions from the sixteenth century, and there is a fountain in his honor. After a pleasant wander through the little streets, I took the bus back to Avignon and my blessedly air conditioned hotel.

IMG_5710Markets of Provence: Foods, Antiques, Crafts, and More

 

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What to see in Avignon

IMG_5147In my prior post, I mentioned that I used Avignon as a base to visit other towns in the region, but I passed pleasant hours walking its medieval streets. Here are some of the places I think are worth a visit:

IMG_5181Palais des Papes – In the fourteenth century, the papacy was itinerant, moving from one papal holding to the next. When a French pope was elected, he decided to set up his residence in Avignon. Seven popes called this palace home, often expanding it to suit their needs. Some of the dimensions of the rooms were astounding – 150 feet long with no supporting beams. The Palais was decorated with frescoes painted by the Italian artist Matteo Giovannetti, many of which have been restored over the past 100 years, but there is still much to do. I bought a twin ticket that also allowed me to visit the famous bridge in town. I recommend the audio guide to get the most out of your visit.

IMG_5176Pont Saint-Bénézet – More familiarly known as le Pont d’Avignon, all that is left of the famous bridge are four arches of the original twenty-two. The bridge was built in the twelfth century, but it was already in ruins four hundred years ago. The Rhône river was prone to flooding, which changed the topography of the riverbed and weakened the footings. In addition, a mini ice-age in the late Middle Ages caused blocks of ice to form that battered the footings to dust. You can also visit the tiny chapel to Saint Nicolas that obstructs most of one end of the bridge. Here’s a much more complete account, recently published by a regular reader of my blog.

IMG_5663Rue des Teinturiers – Between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries, this street was the hub for a vibrant textile industry. The power of the Sorgue river turned waterwheels that powered the mills. Today, four still remain of the original twenty-three. But you can also find the remains of an ancient church, the still active Grey Penitents’ Chapel, and a gothic house, complete with gargoyles and turrets. That’s a lot for one street!

IMG_5662Square Agricol Perdiguier – The prettiest little park in Avignon is located right next to the Tourism Office. Vestiges of a gothic cloister are highlighted by abundant flowers. Right across the road is the Brasserie du théâtre where I had my morning coffee and croissant most days. Looking at this beautiful garden was a good way to start the day or spend a few minutes on my way back to my hotel in the evening.

IMG_5710Markets of Provence: Food, Antiques, Crafts, and More

 

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