Thursday, April 22, 2010

Oui, Chocolat!

You still have a week to take advantage of the Châteaux and Hôtels Collection's Chocolate Month Promotion, featuring all sorts of getaways, giveaways and goodies. There are cooking lessons, body treatments (chocolate oil massage anyone?), dinners, tastings, workshops, classes, tours and prizes such as a chocolate lovers trip to France and pastry and cake-making lessons at Valrhona. Chocolate Month ends officially on April 30th. See the full menu here.

Photo courtesy of Valrhona.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Gallery Opening

Christian Manoury opens his temporary art gallery, Inside Out, in St. Remy on Friday April 23rd. He'll be showing contemporary painting, photography, sculpture, ceramics and Oceanic tribal art from a variety of artists. The opening party is April 23rd at 6 p.m. and all are welcome. Inside Out is at 24 Blvd. Marceau in St. Remy. For info: 06-75-09-72-89,

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Your Parisian Pied a Terre?

Theo Dawson is looking to sublet his great Paris studio apartment in July and August, on a weekly or monthly basis, while he spends time at home in Provence. Located on the Rue Saint Antoine (in the Marais, in the 4th, between Bastille and St Paul Métro stations), it's 42 square meters (450 square feet), on the fifth floor - no lift - with a balcony and three large windows. Theo writes: "It has a lot of 'cachet' as the French say!" The rent is 400 a week or 1200 a month (roughly $540 and $1600). Contact Theo at: or 06-99-21-03-52.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Not a Good Day for Travelers

Twenty-five airports in France are closed and trains are either completely full or cancelled as a giant volcanic ash cloud moves slowly across Europe. Thousands of international flights have been cancelled due to what's being called "the most significant air traffic control event since 9/11."

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Traveling by Train?

Okay, so the SNCF has been on strike for 10 days now. But here are some bits of news that might interest you anyway....
First, Expatica reported that the SNCF, the French rail operator, is planning to run some sleeper trains during the day, starting May 21st--so passengers can catch a nap while traveling. The new service, called Téoz Eco, will run for a six-month trial on the line from Paris to Toulouse via Limoges, Brive and Cahors. If succsesful, it will be extended to other long-distance routes. Read the whole story here.
The next item, from This French Life, tells how Eurostar and the SNCF are working to improve the links between London and Provence, with a new trial service that connects in Lille and uses specially reserved coaches. Upon arrival at Lille, passengers are given advice and directions for their onward travel. Tickets for travel to Lyon and Marseille on the new service are on sale now for travel beginning June 1; prices start at £109 roundtrip to Lyon and £119 roundtrip to Marseille. Travel time between London and Lyon is around five hours while Marseille is about six and a half. Eurostar will seek feedback from passengers, and if the service proves popular, extend it to other destinations. You can read that article, along with other French rail news, here.
Most of the year, to travel between London and Avignon by train requires a change in Paris. In summer, however, you can travel direct non-stop...but only once a week. Direct Eurostar trains from the UK to Avignon run every Saturday, July 10 to September 11, 2010. Trains leave St. Pancras at 07:17 and arrive at Avignon Center at 14:08. Passengers may also board at Ashford International. For the return, trains leave Avignon Center on Saturdays at 16:24 and arrive at St. Pancras at 21:09, stopping at Ashford along the way. For info, click here.
Photo: Train wreck at Gare Montparnasse, Paris, 1895.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Cocktail Drinkers' Guide to Gardening: April

Born in Hampshire, England, James Clay is an artist and sculptor who has lived in St. Remy for almost 20 years. There he has created a gorgeous one-hectare garden, filled with fruit, palm, pine and olive trees (he has 60 olive trees, all of them transplanted), plus many varieties of bamboo, flowering plants and shrubs. James knows pretty much everything about gardening in Provence. Plus, he likes to drink. Plus, he likes to write. So each month here on, he serves up some essential gardening tips...with appropriate drink suggestions. This month, James revisits the beguiling Château de Roussan in St. Remy, recently breathed back into life by Philippe Roussel, whose family has owned the property for three generations. Now that the château has beeen lovingly "conserved," the Roussels are once again running it as a very special hotel--and the gardens are more magical than ever.

I found my ‘Secret Garden’ just down the road, in fact a short bicycle ride away.

Years ago, I was cycling home from the village and thought it would be an interesting idea to try to find other ways back so, with this in mind, I turned down the next lane and continued due west. Rounding a corner, not much further along, I had to stop so I could take in the beauty of all that was before me. As in some Arcadian landscape painting of the 17th century, there was a shepherd guarding his flock of sheep which were grazing in a large meadow; an avenue of ancient, stately plane trees were reflected in a bassin in which a pair of swans were gliding among the shadows; and there set back, almost unseen, stood a glorious chateau. This was one of those moments in life of sheer contentment.

No doubt about it, I had to investigate.

Abandoning my bike, I headed off on foot toward the bassin to get a closer view of the chateau and its surrounding park. I could make out some massive bamboos in the distance and a structure that the sunlight seemed to dance around and through. Following one of the streams that fed the bassin, I made my way eventually between the bamboos and entered into my very own 'secret garden' and there in front of me stood an old abandoned glasshouse with many of its panes smashed or missing, the sunlight darting and dazzling as it played on the fractured glass. Pushing open the rusty, hinged door, I stepped inside and instantly felt the heat roll over me. Some cacti had decided to make a break for it and were heading off out through the broken roof. I was reminded of a song written by Gilbert and Sullivan where the lines run: 'There's a fascination frantic in a ruin that's romantic."

In the song, the ruin is one of Gilbert’s elderly, ugly ladies but here it was the building that appeared to ask, “Do you think I am sufficiently decayed?”

Outside again, I could hear water gushing away and made toward it, passing through more giant bamboo. I came upon another bassin, this time stone-edged with crumbling statues placed around it. Carp were cutting through the water at speed in every direction as if wanting to say to me “Look at us! Aren't we the fastest, smartest fish ever?” Beyond the bassin, at the end of an overgrown path, lay the chateau, so complete in its surroundings that it appeared to have grown there rather than to have been built. Mellow stone, roman tiles, peeling ox blood red painted shutters, the main door of wood in golden rich yellows through ochre. One could only imagine all the people over the centuries who had passed through it. To the left of the door, up high on the wall, is a sundial, below which is carved the motto/phrase: "Horas Non Numero Nisi Serenas."

In English it may be translated as I count only the serene hours. Now there is food for thought!

But rather than food, how about a drink? Nectar was the drink of the Gods and, as I believed myself to be then in Arcadia, a cocktail along those lines seems like a good idea. So here's a recipe which includes tequila (the Gods knew all about tequila...I am convinced of that).

1.5oz Tequila gold
75oz Cointreau
75oz Grand Marnier
Freshly squeezed lemons/limes to taste.
Throw in some ice if April heats up, as it should!

It's almost 20 years since I discovered my own 'secret garden' and the pure delight of finding it remains with me to this day--as it will until I shuffle off this mortal coil! (Hopefully to Acardia but somehow I doubt it).

As with everything, nothing stays the same. But in this case, I have only good news to report: the Château de Roussan was recently reclaimed by its original owners (of many years standing) who have lavished time, care and good taste in 'conserving' their beautiful home and gardens. It's doors are now open to us if we care to go and stay. Yes, it may be an hotel but, believe me, it is a very special one.

Château de Roussan
From the US: (011) 33 4 90 90 79 00
From France: 04 90 90 79 00

Painting: Chateau de Roussan by James Clay.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Road Scholar

Ron van Dijk has led bike trips in France for more than 30 years, first with Euro-Bike Tours and now with Austin Adventures - Adventure Travel (which purchased Euro-Bike Tours in 2008). The Billings, Montana-based company was named the No. 1 tour operator in the world by the readers of Travel+Leisure in 2009; they're known for very personal service and first-rate guides. (Among their 47 adventures for the year ahead are eight Provence trips: four biking and four hiking.) Because Ron knows practically every bike route in Provence, I asked him to share one of his all-time favorite one-day rides with us...and here's what he graciously sent. It's a 43 KM (26 mile) loop, starting and ending in Vaison-la-Romaine. Ron says this ride offers rolling terrain, stunning views of nearby Mont Ventoux, small roads and few cars...and that it's at its best from April to June or in September and October. If you have questions or would like details and a map, Ron's email appears at the end of this post. Off you go!

Vaison has only 6000 inhabitants, but it’s a vibrant little town with two sections: the commercial part with typical French delicatessen stores, many restaurants to choose from and a bustling market on Tuesday morning. Oh…and don’t forget to visit the remains of the Roman town. Across the river, Ouvèze is the medieval upper town, built against a hill. It's from here that the bike route begins, by crossing the one-arched 2000-year old Roman bridge.  

We turn right after crossing this bridge and now follow signs to St. Marcellin. In this peaceful village we turn left, after which quiet country roads lead us via St. Romain-en-Viennois to the top of the hill in Faucon. Definitely visit Faucon’s quaint center and discover the old stone washing place (still used by some!), the little square and the narrow streets. The village is surrounded by vineyards which are especially pretty in the fall. Don’t hesitate to pick a few grapes. Délicieux! 

So far, we’ve mostly gone gently uphill. Now comes the reward: after we turn right in Faucon, we are treated to a superb downhill. After crossing an old stone bridge over the river Ouvèze we turn left towards Mollans for 5 KM, a perfect village for a morning coffee at the café by the side of the river. Park your bike and go for a stroll. 

Back on our bikes again, we return the same way along the river for 5 KM and turn left towards the village of Entrechaux. When you reach the monument in Entrechaux, it’s time for your next stop. On foot, you could climb the “Montée du Château” to reach the castle ruins with nice views. Also at this monument is the Restaurant l’Ancienne Poste, a very pleasant spot with home cooking and an outside terrace. The local ‘vin de la maison’ may slow you down, but it’s earthy and goes well with the daube (beef stew in a rich wine-laden broth) cooked with olives. After lunch, do it the French way: 'un petit café’ should get you going again! The caffeine comes in handy on the hills between here and Malaucène. 

Along the way, maybe you'll want to visit the winery Domaine Champ Long, whose prized wines are made mostly from Grenache and Syrah grapes. Béatrice, Christian or Jean-Christophe Gély will be glad to introduce you to their art of wine making. Maybe buy a bottle for after the ride? 

Now we proceed to Malaucène, a lively town and hub for the ‘real’ cyclists, namely those brave ones who climb Mont-Ventoux from here. This is Provence’s sacred mountain, often a stage of the Tour de France. Have an Orangina on one of the terraces, give your legs a rest on a chair, and everyone will admire you, thinking you did the 14-mile climb to the summit! By the way, the bike shop in the upper part of town sells Mont Ventoux bike jerseys. 

As you get closer to Vaison-la-Romaine, turn left and climb the challenging 2 KM uphill to Crestet perched above you. Another gem of a village, and fantastic views of the surrounding hills and the Ouvèze valley. 

Íf you stay on this side of the river, pretty soon you’ll reach the old Roman bridge again. Voilà. Fini!  

Looking for a place to stay? Hotel le Beffroi is situated in the medieval upper town. It consists of two charming houses dating back to the 16th and 17th century, with a beautiful terraced garden. Each room is different and has kept its old character. Ask for a room with a view of the valley. 

Or, if you’ve got something special to celebrate (how about ‘la vie’?!), make a reservation at the Restaurant le Moulin à l’Huile in Vaison, where chef Robert Bardot serves a Michelin-starred dinner in a former oil mill on the banks of the Ouvèze, only 100 yards from the Roman bridge. Let’s make that a Chateuneuf-du-Pape and splurge! 

My favorite month for this ride is October, when the vines start to turn color and the light has a silver touch. July and August can be a bit hot, so don't forget lots of water. Bonne route!  

*Note: For Provence or France biking questions, a more detailed description of this route or a route map:

For independent travelers, the following spots, all in Vaison-la-Romaine, rent bicycles: Mag 2 Roues, Cours Taulignan, Tel 04 90 28 80 46 (Tues-Sat) Cycles Chave, 10 rue des Ormeaux, Tel 04 07 89 45 51 (Mon-Sat) Intersport, Route de Nyon, Tel. 04 90 36 24 01 (Mon-Sat).