Archive for the ‘Provence & the Côte d’Azur’ Category

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Travel Writing: Putting in the legwork

April 12, 2009

 

It’s not all wining in trendy Marseillais caves à vin and dining in the next best place to eat before Michelin. Hiking in the rain to hidden rocky coves, walking dodgy streets, cruising by pedal-power along defunct railways … Putting in the legwork is all part and parcel of a travel writer’s job which is precisely what makes it such hard work, so darn inspiring.

 

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The Rough, Tough, Macho Camargue

April 7, 2009
Leap of Life by @luefkens

Leap of Life by @luefkens

It’s really not my cup of tea hence my never quite making it to one before. But today was different. Being in the right time at the right place, aka Arles on the opening day of the Camargue’s bullfighting season, I really had no excuse. All in the name of research I reassured myself. I also knew two small boys, aged five and seven, would be mesmerized by such gravity-defying acrobatics.

As spell-binding as the pack of young fit 20-something men in tight white flying to the sky to escape the bull, was the seriousness with which the audience watched. Easter is still a week away, so tourists remained anonymous. We were surrounded on all sides by born-and-bred aficionados for whom watching a bullfight at Les Arenes is the perfect Sunday afternoon. Cowboy hat, shirt and intense concentration were a uniform.

I grasped the Les Arenes bit: gargantuan arch-laced amphitheatre built by the Romans in Arles in the 1st to 2nd century AD, intact, magnificent. But the bull bit, not really. No blood is shed in a course Camarguaise (Camargue bullfight) and the pesky bull trots out the ring 15 minutes after entering to the sound of resounding applause. Six bulls in all make up a course, each one in turn taking on 11-odd razeteurs who pit their wits against the bull to pluck rosette, tassles and strings from its horns using a small metal comb-like object. Dressed from head to toe in bright white, bullfighters charge at the bull then flee the ring with an almighty acrobatic leap – an astonishing feat of agility and athleticism – up and over the red-painted barrier dividing the sandy ring from the audience. One razeteur, haircut swankier, t-shirt tighter, demeanor cockier than the rest, practically flew to the moon each time he leapt to safety. The accuracy of jumps was equally impressive: not once did a bullfighter miss the barrier, stumble and fall. Sensible given the size of those horns just centimetres from his bum.

Leaping in Tandem by @luefkens

Leaping in Tandem by @luefkens

Best up was the bull who also leapt over the barrier in hot pursuit, prompting cries of terrified delight all round. Best up was the bull who refused to leave the arena, prompting attempts by both the bell-clad head of herd and the herd-keeper aka a Camargue gardian wielding steel fork to get it out. Best up was bull after bull who thwarted the razeteurs’ acrobatic bids at bagging his trophies.

Time and again, bull after bull sent them flying like a pack of cards out of the ring. Crumpled, sweaty, bums scuffed with red from the painted barrier, those cocky razeteurs didn’t look half as immaculate when they left the ring. In the Camargue’s rough, tough, macho scape of bulls, white horses and mosquitoes by the billion it is clearly the black bull who has the last laugh.

Part of the Course by @luefkens

Pack of Cards Go Flying by @luefkens

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Dine Well, Dine Savvy, in Southern France

April 1, 2009

 

Peppers at the Provencal Market by Michael Gwyther-Jones
Peppers at the Provencal Market by Michael Gwyther-Jones

Having eaten out every day for the past two weeks (and set to do so for another four), I categorically confirm the following top three tips for dining well, dining happy in southern France:

 

  1. Do not be bullied into ordering a bottle of water. Even in the most multi-starred Michelin restaurant, it is quite acceptable to ask for une carafe d’eau. A nonchalant ‘une carafe’ will do should you really want to say ‘I know what’s what in this Frenchie neck of the woods, so don’t mess with me!
  2. Go on, be a devil, rip a chunk off that bread and wipe your plate with it. It goes against the best of English table manners but it’s soooo satisfying, honest.
  3. If you’re unsure precisely how to eat something, don’t be afraid to ask for un petit conseil (a little advice). This is something I have done on several occasions with magnificent results (and not only on truffling matters at Chez Bruno). Take last night at the Hotel des Deux Rocs in Seillans: As starter I ordered saumon dans un macaron et salade japonaise. What came was two plates, one displaying a ‘flower’ of raw salmon with a sweet macaroon at its centre, the other an Asian-style patty of flaked raw and cooked salmon, mixed with hazelnuts and Asian spices, and topped with tart rocket and other green. I didn’t even pretend to know which plate to tackle first, to which I was told ‘don’t hesitate to eat them together, the sweetness of the first neutralises the acidity of the second’. And indeed, the orgy of contrasting tastes was fabulous.
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Researching a Guidebook Off-Season

March 30, 2009
St-Tropez by Michael Gwyther-Jones

St-Tropez by Michael Gwyther-Jones

In a tourist-hot region like Provence there is one enormous advantage (bar the obvious) of travelling out of season – or rather on the cusp of the season as I have done for the past fortnight. Come Easter, this fabled part of southern France will burst into mad-busy life. But for the moment many hotels and restaurants are in a sleepy state of anticipation – painting woodwork, doing up shop fronts. Or they are simply shut full-stop … zero sign of life.

  

For me, researching a guidebook, this poses an interesting phenomenon. Instinct says ‘Pain in the neck! Have to come back!’ Selective judgment says ‘Great, easy as pie to spot where people who live here go!’.

 

 

Take St-Tropez. All those flashy, high-flyer celebrity addresses – Club 55, La Voile Rouge et al – are shut: summer’s jet set hadn’t arrived yet. Rather, it is down-to-earth, gutsy, simple bars and bistros like Brasserie des Arts, Le Sporting, La Dame de Coeur that are open, busy and buzzing. And have been all winter. That’s where I’ll send you, where the locals are.

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Road Trip: Lake Geneva to the Med

March 24, 2009

 

Col de la Haute Croix, nr Grenoble, by gaetanku

Col de la Haute Croix, nr Grenoble, by gaetanku

Being so fixated on getting to St-Tropez by noon to have a decent afternoon’s work, I somehow managed to ignore the six-hour road trip south … from Lake Geneva to the Med. It was a glorious journey. Fuelled with two pre-departure coffees and four apples to munch en route, I was up with the larks and speeding direction ‘Annecy-Chamonix-Mont Blanc‘ by 6am. My Twingo practically purred as I drove between mountain peaks in the untouched Vercors National Park; snaked up and over the snow-hugged hairpins of the Col de Haute Croix mountain pass; razzed 130km/h past Sisteron’s rock-perched citadel; gave a nod to the monks frozen in stone at Les Mées; glanced wistfully at the ‘Gorges du Verdon’ exit; lusted after all that lavender I wouldn’t get to see around Manosque; motored passed the Luberon turn-off. Up to Aix-en-Provence where I joined the A8, the drive was rather like a slow-motion, cinematic version of a ‘Best of Northern Provence’ movie in fact.

 

By contrast the A8 was rammed with cars speeding hell for leather towards Nice. Five minutes short of my St-Tropez exit, warning lights flashed and all three lanes screeched to a death-defying halt. To pass the two long hours it took for fire crews to clean up the accident, I read the Provence chapter of Lonely Planet’s France guide, researched in 2008. Excellent tip by Parisian-turned-Londoner co-author Emilie: To avoid the worst of high season traffic (or in my case a crashed flaming lorry full of courgettes, aubergines and other Provencal veg) peel off at Le Cannet des Maures instead and follow the D558 road across the Massif des Maures to La Garde Freinet and Port Grimaud (from where you can sail Signac-style to St-Tropez). 

Joyous was the final approach to St-Tropez. It being March and low season, traffic was as silky smooth and fluid as that huile d’olive every second shop in Provence sells. I dumped the car in the hotel car park, skipped to Place des Lices, plopped myself down at a sun-facing table at Le Café and ordered a nice cup of tea and slab of Tarte Tropézienne. I had arrived.

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Co-Authors Hit the Road

March 19, 2009

Massif de l'Estérel by theslaveofjapanapart

Massif de l'Estérel by theslaveofjapanapart

So, the second of my co-authors arrived in Provence today. I follow in two days time and Fran, the fourth on our all-girl power team, arrives in mid-April fresh from penning a guide on Iceland.

 

Alexis’ arrival in Nice particularly tickled my fancy. First she sent an email: ‘I’ve made it to France and to a computer with no full stops!’ And indeed every sentence ended with an exclamation mark. I sent a welcoming ‘salut copine’ text to the spanking new French mobile number she’d just acquired at the airport and within seconds she replied: ‘Just about to take on the A8. The island on which I live has no cars. Ahh, the adventure…’.

 

There’s no disputing Lonely Planet authors are a colourful bunch. This Prov & CA 6 team – four fabulous brunettes – is no exception. Alexis is a 30-something artist who lives and works on the Greek island of Hydra. My commissioning editor in London described her as ‘a real inspiration’ and reading the text Alexis sent a couple of hours ago she’s clearly not the only one to think so:

‘Full day: Got hit on by a toothless elder gentleman and I’m speaking atrocious Freek (mélange of French and Greek). But the Vallée de la Roya is incredibly beautiful and I’m about to indulge in a panna cotta after my plat du jour. Cheers!’.

Emilie meanwhile spent the day sprinting along footpaths researching day walks in the Massif de l’Estérel and cursing Sarkozy for the strikes that saw much of France shut up shop. Several of the museums she had planned to visit in Cannes were shut. As a kid Emilie summered from birth on the Côte d’Azur, is a London-based journalist, and is one of just two French people I have ever met in my whole life who speaks flawless English with no accent. Hard to believe but true. It’s also very hard to believe she’s Parisian.