Monday, July 25, 2011

Mont Ventoux, Le Fin & Mon Mari--Le Cycliste Guerrier

We went on vacation last week. It was the holiday I've always dreamed of--lots of kids, friends, a big pool, great food and wine and time spent laughing and talking; the deal sweetened because it was all in English. Sweet nectar of the mother tongue. All English, all the time.

You may not know this but Mon Mari is in love with his bicycle; like I fall in and out of love with my running shoes I guess. I didn't bring my runners on our vacation but he hooked his bike on the back of the car and away we went. He went riding the first morning, tackling the hills around Nyons, sweating out the first-night-on-holiday hangover.

It was after this morning ride that he and another of the Maris hatched a plan. A plan just crazy enough to work--ride to the top of Mont Ventoux.
If you've seen any photos of Provence, read anything about the area, or seen the Tour de France, you know Mont Ventoux. Reaching 1912 metres/6200 feet high at its summit, it's a great challenge for even the best cyclist. And our guys, after riding around, talking about it while having a cold one next to the pool, and buoyed up by the excitement of watching the Tour every afternoon on television, decided it was something they just had to do.

An afternoon was spent in preparation of the big event--renting lightweight carbon road bikes, buying foil packets of sugary goo and a camel back water thing-a-ma-jig, and planning the whole thing out. Where to start, how to follow, what time to leave, etc., etc.

To be honest, I was nervous and just wanted it to be over.
The whole shebang was scary to me--the difficulty of climbing that high, legs barely moving as they pump against gravity, the high altitude making it all the more challenging. I didn't want Mon Mari to keel over halfway up, or fall off and hurt himself, not to mention all the cars. It's not that I didn't believe in him but just that I couldn't imagine doing it myself.

Turns out he's not afraid of much. And he's made of some strong, hang in there, gut it out stuff.
the last climb

Littlest, Le Cycliste Guerrier, Le Fin, & Middlest
My boys and I drove to the top with Msr Banque, the sensible husband of my other Irish girlfriend. Mon Mari and sportsman bar none, Le Fin, got there by the strength of their own two legs. Le Fin is a natural athlete, running marathons like they're the Saturday morning 10k, his body using up all he can eat at a rapid pace while the rest of us consider the work it will take to get rid of that morning's pain au chocolat. When we reached the top he was already there, having finished in 1:58. Not bad for someone who says he's 'not comfortable on a bike'.

Le Fin at le fin
Driving to the top was breathtaking. Fields of lavender, vineyard upon vineyard and rows of sunflowers, faces turned skyward lined the road that climbed and twisted along hairpin turns turned into white rocks and blasting wind. Guess it's called Mont Ventoux for a reason.
Msr Banque and I kept sighing and gasping in disbelief as we passed cyclists who looked like they were standing still despite incessant pedaling, backs bent against the climb.

The summit looks like the moon--all white and rocky. You can get up close and personal with the big tower and there are all kinds of people milling around speaking German, Dutch, French and English buying candy and cookies from the stallholders with prime real estate for exhausted cyclists in need of a sugar rush.

see, like I said, just like the moon
We stood in the wind and watched, waiting. We kept thinking we'd seen him but it would turn out to be someone else. But then, a rider in black shorts and white shirt appeared, pushing and grinding it out to the last hairpin turn. He stopped to take in the view and we all waved and cheered. I even texted him to say we were there and could see him. Almost there!

boys at the top on the lookout for their Dad (they've had haircuts since then)
We watched with butterflies as he finished, the Middlest running down to meet him and run alongside for the last few meters.
And so it was done. The hard part of Mont Ventoux. Conquered.

he doesn't even look tired
After some photos and commiserating it was time for the fun part. The downhill. We drove behind them just like in the Tour and marveled at their speed and the way Mon Mari sat confidently, zipping down the side of the mountain, turn by turn. At one point they got up to 65 km per hour and when we told them later Mon Mari's response was a youthful and exhuberant, "No sh*t?!!?"
flyin' it

I was so relieved. And proud. Still am a bit, can you tell? And so from now on Mon Mari will occasionally be referred to as Le Cycliste Guerrier. I think he earned the name.
post mountain celebrations

The only problem is,  now he wants to buy a 'proper' road bike. I need to find a more expensive hobby than jogging....any suggestions?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Seasonal Sunday--The Perfect Salsa

'Babe, this stuff is dynamite!', Mon Mari.

The Perfect Salsa

1 780g can of chopped tomatoes--use absolutely the best you can find
1 green chile pepper diced, membrane and seeds removed
1 handful chopped coriander
1 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp garlic powder or 1 clove crushed fresh garlic
1 tsp chili powder
small glug of vegetable or sunflower oil
juice of one lime

Mix well and chill.
Serve chunky or blitz if you like it that way.

Have this with a margarita on the rocks and you're smiling.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Old Stuff in Provence Death March, Final Installment

Hi everybody. It's been ages since I've written you and here's why. We've been on holiday, gotten a new puppy, and have been seduced by beach days. The good thing about being so busy is there's loads of stuff to tell you.

Let's get on with the final installment of my wonderful Provencal holiday with K, Bestie extraordinaire. It's super long. And you may feel tired. But soldier on you old stuff wimp! We did it for reals.

Sénanque Abbey
We spent the last night in St-Rémy de Provence. It is a lovely, pedestrian friendly village oozing Roman and artsy stuff. Van Gogh was in a psychiatric hospital/monastery there and painted over 100 paintings including Starry Night and many of my favorite wheat field canvases. The Romans left an impressive arch behind along with a Gallic-Roman city called Glanum where you can still see pedestrian streets from the 1st century. And not to be forgotten, Nostradamus was born there; he of prophecies and 16th century healing to royalty.

All this was fine and good. But first we had to get there. We left Bonnieux, stopping off at Sénanque Abbey to check out the lavender and the 12th-century monastery which has been back in use since the late 1980s. We didn't go inside because I was foolishly wearing shorts. I knew better but having had my skirt blow up to reveal all the previous day in Bonnieux I thought I'd risk it.

It was beautiful from the outside, we got some great photographs and K bought trinkets at the gift shop. And then we headed out to Gordes, one of my favorite Provencal villages to be honest. There are two shops there that I could spend a fortune in and the views and honey from there are magnificent. (We said 'magnificent' a lot...must be the current replacement for 'awesome' in the U S of A.)
See. Beautiful from the outside.

No time to dilly-dally though because we still had Les Baux de Provence and Glanum to see before we reached our inner village St-Rémy hotel--more on this later, but keep in mind that I said the inner village was mostly pedestrian and then note that I said our 'inner village' hotel.

Les Baux de Provence is the old stuff lover's paradise, jackpot, happy dance inducing boon. It really is kinda cool. Mon Mari and I went there on our honeymoon too and I knew K, lover of all stuff old, would pee when she saw it. They've upgraded it with 'shows' since I was there 13 years ago and while this whiff of theme park could possibly distract from the unadulterated ancient beauty of it, I can forgive them for wanting to draw more crowds and sex it up a bit.

The views from the top walls reward you for the vertigo inducing climb up a narrow staircase whose cleaved stairs make it challenging and bring to mind all the thousands of years of feet that stormed up them to the lookout. You can see the Mediterranean and a glimpse of the horizon from up there but when the fortified village was alive and kicking the Med was much closer, covering more of what is now Southern Provence. In one of our honeymoon photos from Les Baux it looks as if a figure is looming behind me in an ancient stone doorway...this is one place you really can imagine spirits lingering.

Les Baux de Provence & pigeon keep nooks
Next stop, Glanum. We were roadworn, tired and thirsty when we arrived at the entrance to Glanum. We parked and walked across the street to tackle yet another super cool old thing but when we saw it was 7 euro and a huge, long walk to get in we stopped in our tracks. "Hmmm....what do you think?', K asked. "Yeah, sure I can do it. But I really don't want to.", said I. And the verdict, "Me neither. I've seen loads of old stuff today. Let's bag it.", said my wise and wonderful Bestie. I hope she doesn't regret not seeing it now but I sure did love her in that moment. A love so thankful and pure that I wanted to give her a smelly, sweaty squeeze.

This love sustained me through our next feat of tourism.

You remember how I told you about our St-Rémy hotel being inner village, right? Well. We were driving Mon Mari's fancypants with built-in GPS car and naturally I put in the address of the hotel as our final destination. And GPS lady did not let us down. She guided us right smack dab into the middle of the village to the dead-end narrow alley which housed the courtyard door to our hotel. Pedestrians were shuffling, glaring, 'run for your life!' and happy aperitif drinkers sitting at outdoor tables had a dose of diesel fumes as I bullishly, nonsensically, foolishly continued on. Following. The. G.P.S.

You know how I have this tendency to keep on with it even though I know it's probably not great just because I get all freaked out and glassy-eyed with terror. Need I remind you of the diesel/unleaded disaster?

Our stylish and groovy hotel lady came out to her beautifully weathered gray courtyard door in shock. Kindly shock. But shocked indeed. It was a horrible moment. I had only one option. You know what it is already don't you? Let me stress this: I Had To Reverse The Car Out Of The Alley. I nearly lost it. No lie. But I remained calm and steady. Texas girls are born knowing how to back up cars. Or at least all of them in my family are. We're like Mater in Cars the way we zip and zoom around in reverse, undaunted. I channeled the powers of all the Daniels clan and got on with it. It was terrifying. I had about a foot of leeway on either side of the car and the alley curved slightly making the navigation of it even more difficult. When I got out of the tunnel I had to deal with the sidewalk cafe with its smoking, pastis-drinking Frenchies looking on indifferent.

Two big green planters were my downfall. And I have to say that when the lovely French men came up and offered to help, I surrendered. I hope my Texas ancestors will understand. Monsieur Sympa got the car out by reversing out the other direction and going the wrong way on a one way street. At this point, this was the least of my worries.

We were out and then had to find our parking garage which was a complete ass kickin' that made us nearly stop speaking to each other for good. We each kept drawing on the love we felt over passing up Glanum and the promise of a cold beer at the end. Which we found immediately along with a lovely French couple who bought us a round.

The next day we headed back to the safety of the Languedoc but not before stopping off for one last hurrah in Arles. There is old stuff there in spades. And we saw it all. Luckily by tourist train because we couldn't be bothered to walk another foot.

Arles Coliseum snapped from tiny,white tourist train
When we got home Mon Mari was delighted to see us and kept us out on the terrace until way too late drinking cold, pink wine. This is when I realized I could drink wine with my toes while wearing my newly purchased cowboy hat.

It took me a week to recover. And poor K had to get on an airplane the next day, trudge through four airports and two connections with a hangover and not arrive home to Austin until I was getting up the next day. That's a lot of love folks. A lot of big ol' Texas Bestie Extraordinaire Stylee LOVE.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Old Stuff in Provence Death March, Second Installment

Back to Provence. Bonnieux to be exact. We woke up on Friday, too late for breakfast but just in time for the weekly market.

French markets are written about, photographed and tucked away in memory files from vacations abroad. Each village has a market day and they're usually year round, not just in the height of tourist season so while it may feel a bit like they've rolled out the lavender carpet and displayed their best stone fruits, ribbed beef tomatoes, jars of thick, white honey and horseshoes of pungent sausages just for you, the tourist, they really do this every week. Rain or shine. Of course the produce changes, the linen dresses and straw hats either aren't on show or are moins cher and you may find a stall of mattresses in the place of the amber jewelry. But it's still a market and the real French people who live in the village or nearby come to buy their goods; flowers, pumpkins, celeriac and yes, sometimes mattresses.

that's lavender down there by golly!
Off to market we went. Except we couldn't find it. Or maybe it wasn't so much that as we got distracted by the old stuff. There is a beautiful old church at the tippety-top of the village with a windswept cemetery for a neighbor and old, cobbled pedestrian streets from back in the day. We meandered and I took pictures of doors and shutters. One in particular that had stairs leading to it caught my eye. And caught my eye again as we wandered back up and past it after our second loop around looking for the market, prompting a sarcastic, 'Oh, what a pretty door.'
pretty door in Bonnieux, the 1st time
We saw an elderly man sitting on a low stone wall with his dog--a fluffy, tear stained eyes sort of gal--and after searching the map of Bonnieux on a placard as he looked on, I got up the courage to ask him for directions. You see, directions are easy to ask for in French. It's the following of them that gets tricky. Add to that, Msr Mur avec Chien was verbose. He told us how to find the market. At length. In a stream of monters, continuer, tout droit, tout droit, tout droit, sous and then some descendres down the escaliers to a Tabac and then, voila! the market.

We found it and it was a good one. A lavender stall was choc full of bunches of freshly-cut lavender that K wanted to buy but decided against because of US customs. A shame. And then there was the jam, freshly made and jarred with an orange plastic ring sealing rhubarb and rosemary in along with the more typical cherry and strawberry. K bought a bouquet of fragrant homemade soaps especially because her daughter gave her the eye roll for suggesting excitedly that she could bring her back some good smelling soap. Eight year-old girls don't really care much for soap. But she got plenty.

giant trees by the cemetery
I bought the third of four dresses and the first of two hats. I don't really know what came over me but my purse strings got loose and I settled for full price like a good American tourist.

After all this spending and excitement we were hungry. Or I was. So we set off in search of a restaurant that was sunny and perched on the cliff so we could have a view. My hungry crankiness nearly made us miss out on Les Terrasses but thanks to K and her persistence that we should take advantage of the view, we found it. And had a delicious lunch of salads, pizza and a small pitcher of red wine while we laughed and made mean faces at each other and bad jokes like, 'you're getting on Ménerbes' and enjoyed the view. What a view.
mean faces'

jokes, just jokes
After spending a good, French stylee two hours at lunch, we made our way to Rousillon. It is the village that sits in the ocre mountains that were formed when the Mediterranean receded from Provence...something about the limestone and sea water or salt or something scientific like that that usually goes in one ear and out the other for me, combined to form brilliant red, orange, melon and neon yellow hues. It is breathtaking, truly. I've written about it before and showed you a lot of photos but if you are in the area you really should see for yourself.

We did the mountain path walk, hid from a gang of very loud talking American teenagers, a lot of girls and just a few guys, one of which was the obvious love interest of nearly every girl in the group. He was making a show of himself, running up and down the ocre hills and talking loudly in bad fake English and Australian accents. What is it about teenage girls that love this type of teenage boy so much? In any language.

smiling in lavender
K smiling in lavender, as promised
We shopped some more, walked some more, ate some ice cream and had a beer while we decided what to do next. We still wanted to visit the towns of Ménerbes and Gordes but could only do one more that day. We decided on Ménerbes for dinner because it was closest to our chalet and we wanted to make it back in time to sit on our little porch and chat like the old days.

lavender field on the way to Rousillon
rousillon gorgeousness
smaller bell in Ménerbes
Ménerbes church bell

Ménerbes mairie set up for concert
Cassis in Ménerbes
Those of you who know of Peter Mayle know that Ménerbes is the village he wrote about in his books. It too has a large, old church at the top of the hill, along with ancient cemetery, stone ruins and breath-taking views. There was a concert on that night and it was fun to watch the bejeweled French women decked out in dresses and heels making their way up to the top on cobbled streets. We ate our dinner and met a beautiful golden retriever, who is apparently the village dog--maybe Fifty knows him?, named Cassis who ate leftover steak and harumphed at my offer of frites. After seriously considering bundling him home with me, we were ready to head back to the chalet and a good night's sleep.
pretty for pretty's sake
Sweet dreams day two. You were swell.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Old Stuff in Provence Death March, First in a Series

We jokingly called our four day trip through Provence the 'Old Stuff in Provence Death March'. This is because we felt compelled to see so many things in such a short time. Here is the first in a series of 'Old Stuff Death March'.
Since there are a couple of Besties I will henceforth refer to this one as simply K.

K arrived on Wednesday morning for a day of acclimation and recovery from the long flight here so I had her room all ready for a morning nap; clean, fresh outside sheets, Red magazines, a jug of water and a large box of Haribo candy. We had a small breakfast, the kids showed her around the house and then proceeded to climb all over her and ask a million questions like they do, and then she went down to take a nap while I took Ma Fille to her last week of horses. I took the Baby too but Middlest was having fun hanging out and didn't want to be dragged along to horses. So I figured I could let him stay with K, even though she was resting.
I called him a few times to check in and make sure nothing awful had happened and during one of the calls he told me he'd checked on her. Hmmmm. He said she was still sleeping and he just peeked in to make sure she was ok. Again, hmmmm. Turns out his version of 'checking on' someone while they are sleeping off jet lag and unable to defend themselves or their big, round tub of Haribo candy is to sneak in and pilfer. To eat handfuls of sweeties while said person is dreaming of flight connections, baggage claim and a guy named Tom who wouldn't stop talking and then fell soundly asleep when he was good and ready. My Middlest ate A LOT of her candy. While she was sleeping. Welcome.
forgiven for the sneaky candy eating

The excitement of the candy and the fact that Haribo is on the way to some of the best old stuff in these parts--Pont du Gard, the Papal Palace in Avignon--we decided to add a stopover on the way Thursday morning to stock up on a big ol' bag of candy for K's kids back in Texas. I should mention that Mon Mari is a huge fan of K and vice versa so when he wasn't scheduled to arrive home from a work trip until nearly midnight on that first night what were we to do but wait up for him. The time zone confusion had firmly set in by then so she seemed to have no trouble waiting. Oh, and there was wine.

first stop, Haribo
When he got home we were waiting on the terrace. And there we stayed for another hour. As you might imagine, this dealt a blow to our plans of early morning departures but we still managed to be on our way by 10 am. We headed straight to Uzés and Haribo to procure some candy. The roundabouts did no one any favors and by the time we arrived we both felt a bit green. Must soldier on....there is old stuff to see.

Pont du Gard
after eating half of my sandwich, see how happy it made me
Up next, Pont du Gard. It was a beautiful, fresh day; perfect for walking around gawking at a 1st century B.C. Roman aqueduct.  I bagged my idea of a nice, leisurely lunch in Avignon and bought a 6 euro ham sandwich at the snack bar instead. The remaining half I tucked into my handy travel Kipling bag for later.
Pont du Gard--my sandwich is in that bag

By now it was after 2 and we still had to hit Avignon and then over to our hotel in Bonnieux. Off we went to see the Papal Palace and the Pont d'Avignon.

Before we proceed let me tell you a little story about me and the Papal Palace. As you know, Mon Mari and I spent a week of our honeymoon in Provence. One day of which we went up to Avignon to see this palace. The day before we'd been to the Med and a beautiful beach in Le Lavandou and being young and used to super white hot Texas heat thought we couldn't get sunburned in the breezy, balmy S of France. Except that we could. And did. So the next day in Avignon, after we'd shared a nice lunch of warm goat cheese salad in the plane tree shaded place, we made our way to the palace. That day 13 years ago was similar to last week in that it was sunny with the purest sun and the palace is across a big courtyard where you have to stand and wait in line on huge, ancient stone steps to enter. As soon as I got to the corner of the big courtyard and saw all that blazing sun I stopped short and refused to budge. 'Ok, I've seen it.', said my sunburned 26 year-old self. 'Really?!', replied my 29 year-old Mari. 'Yes. I'm out.', said I. So that was that.

Papal Palace entry stairs I finally beat you!
This time as we approached the big sunny courtyard my 39 year-old self was tired and hungry. (And a bit spent from trying on summer dresses at H&M) When we got to the corner I remembered it all with clarity. This time I had no choice so across we went, past the copper painted man standing like a statue on a pillar, the three-piece band playing a jaunty tune and the swash-buckling piratey guy brandishing a fake sword at gawping little boys. It was pretty cool. And old.

cylindrical flue
vast dining room
We saw the treasury with its hidden vault beneath the 2 foot thick stone floor, the gorgeous dining room with its vaulted wooden paneled ceiling, the kitchen with a giant cylindrical flue for cooking a feast worthy of a rich Pope and his guests. And then there was the bedroom with its tiled floor and painted walls. Amazing. Jaw-droppingly beautiful. I wanted to take a photo of the tile (but it was against the rules) so I could bring it home and decorate with only those colors for the rest of my days. They were a glazed conglomeration of just that perfect shade of turquoise, sea green, deep orange and brown and yellow and daintily painted ones in sea green paint of birds, fish and flowers. Really magnificent. You can't take pictures but you can buy replicas in the gift shop. Of course you can. I cannot stress this to you enough...those tiled floor and mural wall rooms are worth the price of admission.
papal palace arched ceiling

Next we went up, up and out to check out the view. You could see all of the old walled city of Avignon from up there. And that pure sun (have you seen Hands on a Hard Body?) shone bright out there. This was where I got a bit cranky and hungry so I had a break on a bench and retrieved my half-eaten, now tepid ham and cornichons sandwich from my bag. K thought this was funny so she took a picture from a turret and called it 'the angry sandwich eating' picture.

angry sandwich eating picture
After this we huffed and puffed our way over to see the Pont d'Avignon--a bridge that stops in the middle of the river Rhône, only getting lost three times and turning a 5 minute walk into a 15 minute one. It was beautiful and worth it all. One of my favorite photos is one we took there. But we couldn't linger too long 'cause we had an hour drive over to our hotel and the sit down meal that kept eluding me.
pont d'avignon with H&M bag
lost. and not for the last time.

titanic moment on the pont d'avignon

bubbling brook
Our romantic chalet at the Auberge du L'Aiguebrun made us giggle. It was by a bubbling brook (really) and sat cozily alongside three siblings with large wicker arm chairs on private porches and was cicadas creaking, brook bubbling, bats swooping romantic.
romantic chalets

Day One of 'Old Stuff Death March' done, sleep came after a lot of giggling and recounting of the long day. We had to rest up though because after all, we had a lot more old stuff to see. And lavender. Don't forget the lavender.

Did I tell you too much? Are you tired? Imagine how we felt doing it!

A demain......