Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Welcome to Our Newest Advertiser

If you’re traveling to the South of France for business or pleasure, or live here all or part of the year, there are bound to be times when you wish you had insider info. Or better still, someone to simply take care of it for you…whether “it” is as small as a restaurant reservation or as big as a wedding or corporate retreat. Et voila: now you do.

Absolutely Southern France is a destination management company providing customized arrangements for travelers seeking unique gourmet, leisure and cultural experiences. Think of it as a personal concierge with the best local knowledge and amazing connections.

The company was founded by Nancy McGee in February 2011, to cater to individuals and groups from all over the world. “I find that no matter who they are or why they come here,” Nancy tells me, “people leave us absolutely enchanted by the colors, flavors and scents of the idyllic villages and traditions of this beautiful area bordering the Mediterranean.”

Nancy grew up in a small Canadian town called Baie Comeau, in the Province of Quebec (her mother is French Canadian; her father was Irish). After university, she went to work for an international organization in Ottawa. When asked to spend a year in France helping to set up a similar UN-funded agency in Marseille, Nancy had only one question before accepting: "Does it snow in Marseille"? She got the answer she wanted--and has been living in the South of France (Nice, Corsica, Aix, Marseille), for 34 years. Today she’s based in Sète (near Montpellier), a town that’s known as “the Venice of France” as it’s bordered by canals on one side and the Mediterranean on the other.

A number of positions in corporate event management and public affairs gave Nancy a comprehensive understanding of the French lifestyle—and an amazing Rolodex. For 15 years she was a member of the AAGP (Anglo American Group of Provence), a 40-year old organization with more than 600 members--which hardly hurt in terms of networking. In February, she launched a similar group, the AGLR or Anglophone Group of Languedoc Roussillon.

Nancy decided to create Absolutely Southern France when saw a very clear niche and knew that she could fill it. She was traveling frequently to Shanghai to visit her daughter, a student there, when she discovered that “the affluent Chinese want to travel and their favorite destination is France,” she remembers. “I knew I could help.”

Then, when she learned that many young Chinese men and women dream of spending a semester or a year studying in France, she put in place a program that allows them to stay with a French family for a week or two and visit a French University.

Today, Chinese and North American travelers remain Nancy’s most loyal customers.

So what can Nancy and her team do for you? The list is long:

* Guide, escort and interpreter referrals and reservations.
* Hotel information, referrals and reservations.
* Car, limo, sailboat, yacht and private jet rentals.
* Airport transfers
* Tickets for shows, concerts, sporting events.
* Sourcing and arrangement of hospitality packages.
* Fine-dining restaurant referrals and reservations.
* Custom excursions to festivals, entertainment and historic sites.
* Referrals and reservations for health clubs, trainers, French language tutors, horseback riding, golf, painting classes, cooking workshops, hair stylists, make-up, etc.
* Shopping info, with or without personal shopper/guide/interpreter.
* Floral arrangement and delivery.
* Wedding and party planning.
* Gift sourcing.
*  Business arrangements such as secretarial services.
* Romantic getaways for weddings, proposals, anniversaries, etc. (Examples include a castle, an estate in the vineyards, a hot air balloon, an underground cathedral, a tree house on a luxury estate.)

And if you don’t know exactly what you want? The company offers a number of packages such as “Gourmet,” “Leisure” and “Culture” and will design custom packages based upon those and other themes.

Nancy charges her clients a percentage on top of all services booked. So if you ask her to find you the right wine tour, for example, and it costs €50 euro, she’ll charge you an extra €7.50. It seems like a small price to pay to know you’ll have a wonderful day out with a tested, respected guide.

“Our clients are discerning travelers who want to discover unique destinations in luxury,” she tells me. “They expect top quality service, confidentiality and security. We’re committed to providing the VIP services they deserve.”

Nancy McGee
Within France: 06 13 23 10 35
Outside France: +33 6 13 23 10 35

Sunday, September 25, 2011

A Passion for Photography...and Provence

Photographer Michael Bastia was born in Cassis, which he describes as a small fishermen's village by the Mediterranean. He had a troubled childhood but found comfort in his surroundings. "Growing up in Provence helped me appreciate the beauty of nature early on," he says. His first job was taking pictures of ski tourists in the French Alps and every day when his work was done, he’d turn his lens on mountains and nature. "I was falling in love with photography," he remembers. "But I didn't know it would be my career path." 

Next Michael ventured into cooking but after years in professional kitchens, realized he wasn't happy. "I was always taking pictures on the side," he says, "and it gave me so much pleasure." So he decided to take the plunge and "take my love story with photography to a new level." Shortly thereafter, he decided to travel and work abroad and he ended up in
Canada where he earned a living shooting weddings, portraits, industrial jobs, real estate and sports. He also volunteered for associations that helped children in social difficulties, "so they could help spread the word of their situation and also of their success, through a picture." 

These days Michael, 34, is most moved by cultural, humanitarian, street, landscape and fine-art photography. Inspiration comes, he says, from "many great photographers around the world" including Reza Deghati, Kazuyoshi Nomachi and Yann Arthus-Bertrand, to name a few. 

After returning to live in Cassis,  Michael set out to create a large database of still images and HD videos that capture his native South of France from every angle (such as the photo taken in Marseille, above). "This project has brought me back to my roots and especially to my beautiful
Provence," he reports. "My goal is to make this wonderful region accessible from all around the world, through the web. As the collection grows, my hope is that it will be used for business and personal reasons…that it will serve as a patrimonial and memorial digital bank of Provence.

"Capturing an image and being able to tell a story through the picture you've created is amazing to me," he continues. "Photography is an evolution of one's self and I am always evolving. Hopefully my passion and images will inspire or bring pleasure into someone's life, as they have done for me."

The project is in its early stages but you can see some of the images 
here. All of Michael's photos are for sale, in a variety of print sizes. His website is under construction but he can be reached by email:

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Another Fine French Book Giveaway

We all know there’s something magical about Provence, something that touches people deeply…something that inspires artists and authors and chefs and all sorts of other creative types….that draws people back again and again from all over the world. And Deborah Lawrenson is clearly one of them.

A British novelist and journalist, Deborah has loved Provence since she first visited “more years ago than I care to remember.” Finally, she and her husband bought their crumbling house in the hills above Apt just under five years ago and set out, like so many others before them, to transform it into the vacation home of their dreams. And it’s this home that inspired—and provides the setting for—Deborah’s newest novel, The Lantern. The book was published in the UK by Orion  in June and in the U.S., by HarperCollins last month. This is Deborah’s sixth book.

Deborah calls the Lantern a modern gothic novel. She initially intended it as an homage to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, with its young heroine who finds her man more and more mysterious the longer she’s with him.

But along the way, Deborah says, “it became a novel about perfume and blindness and the past life of houses, and also about books, reading and the imagination. The beauty of the Luberon region that provides the backdrop was just there to be captured in words.”

So here’s the plot. When Eve falls for the charming, secretive man named Dom, their whirlwind romance leads them to Les Genevriers, an abandoned and run-down house in the South of France. But as summer fades to autumn, Eve finds it impossible to ignore the mysteries the house seems to be hiding—not the least of which is the strange disappearance of Dom’s beautiful first wife. And what is the connection to a young girl who lived in the house decades before? As Les Genevrier’s tangled history begins to unravel, and Dom grows increasingly distant, Eve must discover the secrets of the past before history has a chance to repeat itself.

Reviews for the book have been strong.  The Washington Post said it offers “a vivid escape to an intriguing place, with location playing as much a role as those who dwell there.”

The Chicago Tribune says “Lawrenson effortlessly evokes the sights, sounds, and scents of Provence while at the same time delivering a spellbinding tale of danger, deception, and desire.”

USA Today gave it three stars out of four, saying “The scent of lavender seems to waft from the pages of The Lantern, a hypnotic tale of suspicion set in the south of France…Comparing any novel to du Maurier's dark, obsessive stories is never done flippantly. The Lantern lives up to the hype.”

Today, Deborah splits her time between rural Kent and the house in France. “"What I love most about Provence is the sense of history,” she tells me. “The sense that its streets and stones have been inhabited for thousands of years. The atmosphere of light and sensuous richness is captivating, but is as mysterious as it is romantic. As we've come to know our French friends and neighbours, it has become clearer that they sense it too. When, rather tentatively, I told one good friend that the Provence I had written about in The Lantern was not all the surface brightness that the tourists see, that I had written the darker stories of the landscape into my book, he was actually delighted. ‘Now I know that you really understand us,’ he said.

“Perhaps it has something to do with the way the seasons are clearly defined, with cold, harsh winters and exuberant springs,” she continues. “In the summer we are all at play, and in the depths of winter, even the most down-to-earth farmer becomes a philosopher."

Want to know more about the book and the author? Then check out Deborah’s blog, where you'll find an archive of relevant background and photographs to illustrate the story. You might also enjoy her websitewhere you’ll find video clips (the book was featured on Channel 4’s TV Book Club in the U.K.), her biography and more. If you’d like to read a sample chapter from The Lantern, click here

Ok, on to the giveaway! HarperCollins is offering three copies of The Lantern to U.S. readers of Provence Post. And Deborah is offering three signed copies, for Provence Post readers living in the U.K. or the rest of Europe.

To enter, simply leave a comment under “comments” below. Please don’t forget to leave us your email and to tell us in which country you live. If you don't tell us your email, we can't reach you and you can't win! Signing in with your web or Google address is not enough, unfortunately. And if you want to buy the book on Amazon, you can do that here (from the U.S.) or here (from the U.K.). Here's the Kindle version U.S. and the Kindle version U.K.

Friday, September 16, 2011

New Weekend Photo Workshops in Arles

In addition to their spring and summer workshops, the folks behind the international photo festival known as the Rencontres d'Arles have just launched a series of weekend workshops to be held in Arles the rest of the year. The workshops will provide two days of total immersion in practical photo skills, combining the technical and the artistic.  Directed by professionals, they focus on themes and techniques such as Distance and Poses, The City, New Light on the Portrait and more. The program is called the Stages de Photographie des Rencontres d'Arles and it launches September 24.  Workshop details are posted on the Recontres site but they're a bit tricky to find. Go here, then click Edition 2011, then Education, then Photography Workshops, then Weekends. You can also email for all the info:

Monday, September 12, 2011

This Month: Food, History...and All That Jazz

If you're a foodie, September is a fantastic month to be in France as there are three major culinary events on the calendar. (If you're an escargot, however, this could be a very bad month indeed.)  If you're a history, architecture or French culture buff, we've got you covered as well. And if you love jazz--yep, we've got that too!

First, for the foodies.  September 19th kicks off the nationwide dining-out promotion called Tous au Restaurant, which means "Everyone to the Restaurant." Launched in 2010 by superstar chef Alain Ducasse, it's meant to get more more people out eating in restaurants, from neighborhood bistros to Michelin-starred spots and everything in between. The first Tous au Restaurant event, held in June last year, drew almost 1,000 participating restaurants and 82,000 diners. This year, I have no idea how many restaurants have signed up--but it's a lot.

So what's the deal? Diners who reserve can enjoy two prix-fixe meals (appetizer, main course and dessert) for the price of one. I know! In Valence, chef Anne Sophie Pic, who has held three Michelin stars since 2007 at her restaurant Pic,  is offering a €57 lunch menu for two at Bistro 7. Another Michelin three-star chef,  Gerard Passedat, has a €100  lunch menu for two at Le Petit Nice in Marseille. In Provence, there are 52 restaurants are participating thus far, including Alain Ducasse’s La Bastide de Moustiers  (Moustiers Sainte Marie), Hostellerie de l’Abbaye de la Celle (La Celle), La Cabro d'Or (Les Baux), Les Agassins (Le Pontet) and Restaurant Marc de Passorio at the Hotel Le Vallon de Valrugues (St. Rémy). Reservations have been available online here since September 7th and they're going pick your favorite places and book now. The promotion ends September 25th.  

OK, onward! Next we have the Fête de la Gastronomie on September 23, with more than 1,600 events planned nationwide. (Tous au Restaurant, above, is part of this larger initiative.) The idea here is to celebrate the diversity of French cuisine and food traditions. The program was inspired by the format of the nationwide Fête de la Musique, when open-air music fills streets all over France. The theme for this year is la terre or "the land"--meaning a focus on the best local, regional foods.  There are all sorts of cool events including a culinary treasure hunt, cooking classes, workshops on tableware and decor and special menus in some 47,000 restaurants. So go to the website here and plug in your postal code to see what's being offered near you. 

Then we have the The International Gastronomic Festival, September 16th to 18th. It's also called Les Etoiles de Mougins and it's being held in the village of Mougins, in the hills above Cannes. One hundred French and international chefs will be on hand, presenting demos, workshops, talks and of course, tastings--all around the theme "Art and Gastronomy." The festival guest of honor is Eric Frechon of Le Bristol in Paris; he's a Meilleur Ouvrier de France who holds three Michelin stars. Many of the events are free; others are €5, €10 or €15. Packages are available. You can get all the info and buy tickets here. Unfortunately, the festival website is in French only but the Mougins Tourist Office can answer questions in English. Their phone: 04-93-75-87-67.

 OK, enough about food. Another big nationwide event is happening September 17th and 18th.  It's called the Journées Européennes du Patrimoine and it gives you the unique opportunity to explore behind the scenes of important public buildings such as the Élysée, the Senate, government ministries and embassies. It also, in many cases, allows you free access to historic sites that normally charge a fee. (Privately owned sites may charge at their discretion but most offer some form of discount.) At some venues, there are talks or other celebrations planned. And--hold on to your hairdo now because this is big--many sites that are normally closed on Sunday will be open. You can see a list of the sites and get more info here. For the specific Provence locations, click here 

Finally, St. Remy is having a jazz festival this weekend (September 15 to 18), called Jazz a Saint Remy. Each evening (Thurs, Fri, Sat) at  8:30 p.m., there will be a performance on the Place de la Gare. (That's that gravel parking lot by the old train station, near the InterMarche.) Plus, in the afternoon and evening, musicians--solo, trios and quartets--will perform at public sites and in outdoor cafes all over town. For info and reservations click here or email:

Looking forward to seeing you all out and about!

And if you're a snail? Be afraid. Very afraid...

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Cabin Fever in the Languedoc

I don't know what it is with me and cabins--I just love them. Certainly they remind me of all those summer vacations in Northern Wisconsin in our favorite cottage by the lake. Creaky old bedframes, the smell of pine drifting through open windows at night, wet swimsuits hung on the deck railing to dry, wood smoke from the fireplace--bring it on! So I was delighted when I just happened to come across Villa Vicha on the internet: it's a compound of 12 wooden Danish-style "chalets" located on five wooded hectares between Montpellier and Nimes. But with air conditioning, televisions and WiFi, these are a far cry from the mildewy cabins of my youth...they look clean and fresh and completely, deliciously inviting. 

When Charlotte and Victor Pastor--she's Danish, he's South African--bought the property in September, 2000, the former tennis club/campground was in a terrible state, having been abandoned nearly seven years earlier. "Everything had been vandalised," Charlotte says. "And only the walls of the main building were left. We had a very big job ahead of us." It took the couple nearly four years "of hard physical work and French administration" before they could open to the public in summer 2004. To build the birch wood chalets, most of the components were fabricated in Denmark and then trucked to the South of France. A Danish building team came down to do the assembly. 

On the property you'll also find a swimming pool, tennis courts, a play area, a conference room and a pretty indoor/outdoor restaurant. If you live in the region--or are visiting but staying elsewhere--you can come for the day to use the tennis, pool and spa for a small fee. In the off season, the property is open for seminars, group meals, weddings and other events. 

If you're a little cabin crazy like me, consider staying here and then tell us all about it. If you know of other nice cabins for rent in Provence, please share the info by leaving a comment below this post!

810, chemin de Cardione
30250 Aubais, France
Phone from France: 04-66-80-24-24
Outside France: +33 (0)4-66-80-24-24

Monday, September 5, 2011

An Irish Painter's View of Provence

Margaret Clayton was a late bloomer, at least in terms of her passion for painting. She took her first art class in 2005, at age 45.  When she, her husband John and their three kids decided to leave their home in Galway, Ireland, and spend a year in Provence, Margaret enrolled in oil painting classes at La Cour des Arts in St. Remy--a village which will forever associated with the paintings of Vincent van Gogh. 

Margaret's work that year was heavily influenced by the light and colors of the impressionist painters of that region, in particular the blues and greens of Paul Cezanne.

Now back at home in Ireland--and spending family vacations in St. Remy--Margaret draws her inspiration from the blues and greens of the Connemara coastline.

Margaret's first exhibition, called 'Galway Seascapes,' was on view at the Renzo Cafe in Galway from June 21st to August 15th. Of the 17 paintings on view, eleven were sold. The remaining paintings are available for purchase, in custom-made wood frames, hand-painted in Farrow & Ball Eggshell Off White. Prices range from 100€ to 200€, plus shipping. To see Margaret's work, click here. To buy from her line of lovely greeting cards, click here. To reach her directly:

Paintings, from top: Paysage Provence; St. Tropez; Provence Autumn Colours; Haute Provence, Autumn.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Sparkling New Hotel in Cannes

There's something so inviting about staying in a fresh, brand-new hotel. So here's one to consider the next time you visit the Côte d'AzurFive Hotel & Spa, the newest luxury property in Cannes. It opened in June with 30 rooms and 15 suites, just next to the famous Croisette in the center of town. 

To run the restaurant, the hotel owners snagged superstar chefs Jacques and Laurent Pourcel, the twin brothers behind the Michelin two-star Jardins des Sens in Montpellier. Called Sea Sens, the new restaurant offers panoramic views of the Old Port and the rooftops of Le Suquet, the old quarter of Cannes. The opening menu offers hot and cold starters such as terrine of duck foie gras with ginger confit, kumquat chutney and toasted brioche or a pear and gorgonzola pizzetta with truffle honey dressing and roquette. Main courses include sea bass with grilled asparagus, whole shallots and sweet lemon vinaigrette; Thai-style steak tartare with thick-cut chips and baby herb salad; and spice-crusted rack of lamb with cauliflower purée, garlic confit, Chinese cabbage salad and a rice wine and soy dressing. Lunch averages 45€ while dinner checks come in at around 100€ per person. (In the evening, the restaurant offers menus priced between 60€ and 80€.) Sea Sens is open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.midnight on weekends.

Handling day to day kitchen operations is Australian executive chef Stephane Giono, 29, who has worked for the Pourcel Group since 2009.  Pâtissier Jérôme de Oliveira, who spent five years in the pastry kitchen at the Plaza Athénée in Paris, makes the desserts for the restaurant and will also have his own tea-and-pastry boutique, Intuitions by J., opening within the hotel this fall. In 2009, at age 23, de Oliveira led the French team to win the World Pastry Cup, one of the industry's most rigorous competitions. 

The Spa Cinq Mondes, opening this fall, has a hamman, saunas,  fitness room, five treatment rooms and wide range of multi-treatment packages. It's open to non guests as well. On the roof, there's an infinity pool and bar lounge, where a special snacking menu (truffled panini, king prawns, Oriental burger, fresh fruit, chocolate mousse, etc.) is offered.

Created by Parisian architects Marc Hertrich and Nicolas Adnet, the Five Hotel & Spa has travel as its theme, realized with décor and objects from around the world. If you want to splash out on a suite, one boasts a private terrace with a Jacuzzi while another features three bedrooms and a living room. All rooms and suites have Nespresso machines, free WiFi, iPod docking stations and more. The hotel also offers yacht rentals, with an option to take a mini-cruise between Monaco and Saint-Tropez, among other itineraries.

The hotel director is Grégor Mayoussier, who came over from the Majestic Barrière in Cannes

The Five Hotel & Spa is in the midst of getting its five-star certification. Room rates begin at €295 in low season and current package offers are here.

The Five Hotel & Spa 
1, rue Notre Dame
06400 Cannes 
+33 (0)4-63-36-05-05

Photos: Pool, lobby, guestroom and two signature desserts by Jérôme de Oliveira.