Sunday, December 30, 2012

Win This Lovely French Country Diary

Linda Dannenberg, who created and publishes the immensely popular French Country Diary, has just written that she'd love, once again, to offer some copies to my readers as a end-of-the-year giveaway. Last year, the French Country Diary giveaway on Provence Post got such a big response, Linda went a little nuts and actually sent out quite a few more gift copies than she had committed to. ''Couldn't help myself,'' she explains. ''And why not? I loved the comments. It was such fun.''

This year's edition of the hardcover book--the 25th annual!--is 128 pagesIt's slip-cased in a a pretty, deep-rose Provencal toile fabric from Olivades called “Les Quatre Saisons.” Vintage typography and gorgeous photos by Guillaume de Laubier enhance the design and layout, with each week-at-a-glance spread offering an intimate vignette of the French countryside: gardens, private homes, villages and landscapes. As the year goes on you'll visit a luminous stone farmhouse surrounded by lavender fields near Saint-Rémy; take a sunlit drive through the hidden coves and harbors of the Côtes d’Armor, Brittany’s rocky northern coast; enjoy a snowy winter’s day in Paris; and spend an afternoon discovering the Potager du Roi, Louis XIV’s extraordinary vegetable garden at the Palace of Versailles. Also included are lush four-color endpapers, generous space for jotting daily notes, a stitched-in ribbon to mark each week and decorative address pages. More than a few people have told me they save their Diaries year after year, that they make lovely keepsakes.

This year, Linda would like to give away five signed copies To enter the giveaway, simply leave a comment below, by clicking COMMENTS.  Linda suggests you tell us:  ''What is your favorite book set in France...fiction or non fiction...and what makes it so special?'' You don't have to answer that question but please keep in mind that the more creative your comment, the better! And please be very sure to leave your email address or we won't be able to reach you if you win.

Meanwhile, if you'd like to go ahead and order the French Country Diary 2013 on Amazon, you can do that here. Or you can order it from Linda's website, which is here.  (On Linda's website you can also get all the info about her other books, an impressive list that includes Pierre Deux's French CountryNew French Country, French Country Kitchens, Paris Bistro Cooking, Perfect Vinaigrettes and Ducasse: Flavors of France.)

So bonne chance...I hope you win...and of course, I wish you all the happiest, healthiest, most-heavenly New Year....

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Friday, December 21, 2012

Warm Winter Welcome at Château La Coste

If you're interested in wine, design, sculpture or architecture--or simply enjoy experiencing very unusual and beautiful places--a visit to Château La Coste is a must. This gorgeous 600-acre wine domaine ten minutes north of Aix has a large visitors center designed by world-famous architect Tadao Ando, plus numerous installations and buildings crafted by other luminaries such as Jean Nouvel and Frank Gehry.  Granted, a visit in Spring, Summer or Fall is ideal....but they're open all year and if you can catch a warm-ish day, there's no reason not to enjoy it now. Here's a great opportunity to do so....along with a special evening food-and-wine event next week.

Tatsuo Miyajima's Wild Flowers and other selected installations are now lit up at night and the owners are offering a special guided tour at 6 pm on Saturday December 29th. (The same event is being held tomorrow night but it's sold out.) Afterwards, dinner will be be served at a long table in the lovely, very-serene restaurant Le Café de Tadao Ando. Just make sure to wrap up warm for the 45-minute guided outdoor visit. 26€ per person includes the tour, dinner and a glass of wine. Places are limited and reservations are advised: 04 42 61 92 92,,

Otherwise, guided visits are available every day in December, except the 24th, 25th and 26th. Visits depart at 2.30 pm and will be followed by a complimentary glass of vin chaud (hot wine) and a traditional mince pie. Tickets are 6€ plus the normal entrance fee and reservations are required. 

While the newest incarnation of Château la Coste is just a year old, there's been agriculture and winemaking here as far back as Roman times. On the property are cobbled Gallo-Roman pathways, dry stone walls, bridges, underground wells...and the vestiges of an intricate watering system currently undergoing restoration. Between the rows of vines, mixed in with the sandy limestone soil, workers have found fragments of amphores which the Romans used to transport their wine and varnished fragments of the cups from which they drank. Today the property is blanketed with forests of green and white oaks, meadows of almond trees and broad swaths of wildflowers, plus 250 acres of meticulously tended vines. A lovely Venetian villa in a rosy pink hue has stood here since 1682.

It was in 2004 that the current owners decided to transform the domaine into a place where art, architecture and the terrain would blend seamlessly. The idea had already been successful in the Basque city of Álava, headquarters of Vinos del Marqués de Riscal, where Frank Gehry was commissioned to build a hotel. Here in France, the Irish owners of Château La Coste expanded on that idea, inviting artists and architects from all over the world to visit, explore and find a place upon the estate that inspired them to create. Other artists with work on view include Alexander Calder, Michael Stipe, Louise Bourgeous, Andy Goldsworthy, Richard Serra, Paul Matisse and many others.  To see the major features of the property, plan for a two-hour stroll with some gravel and gentle hills. And definitely stay for a friends and I loved everything about our lunch here in mid November: the sunshine on the terrace, the soothing calm of the reflecting pool, the excellent food, the wine (of course!) and the gracious warmth of our server. Make sure to also leave time for wine tasting in the pretty shop...and for perusing all the art and architecture books in the alcove by the front desk. Set aside a day to give the property the time it deserves.

If you've visited La Coste in the year since it's been officially open, you'll want to pop back in periodically. New buildings are coming from Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, while other additions--such as a small hotel--may be coming soon. The property is open for self-guided visits year round (you'll be provided with a map) while guided visits are available by reservation. Scheduled English-language tours are offered on Friday, Saturday and Sundays at 1 p.m. More info and admission prices can be found on the bi-lingual website.

Chateau La Coste

2750 Route de la Cride
Le Puy Sainte Reparade, France
04 42 61 89 98
GPS coordinates: on the website
Facebook and Twitter 
Photos: 1. Hiroshi Sugimoto's ''Infinity'' in the reflecting pool at the Tadao Ando visitors' center. 2. Liam Gillick's ''Multiplied Resistance Screened.'' The colored panels slide around to create different hues3. Crouching Spider by Louise Bourgeous lives in the large reflecting pool at the visitors' center. 4. Alexander Calder's ''Small Crinkley'' outside Tadao Ando's visitors center. 5. Sean Scully's ''Wall of Light Cubed.'' 6. Jean Nouvel's winery, called the Chai, is the preserve of wine maker Mattheiu Cosse. 7. Guided visits in December depart at 2:30 daily and include vin chaud and mince pies. 8. Soaking up winter sun on the cafe terrace.

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Monday, December 17, 2012

If You Live in the UK and Love France...

The France Show is coming up again, January 18 to 20 at Earls Court in London, bringing a taste of France to the heart of London. And once again, the organizers of this large lifestyle expo are offering the readers of Provence Post reduced ticket prices. Until December 31st, you'll pay just £6 per ticket instead of the normal advance-purchase price of £10 and the at-the-door price of £13. From January 1st onward, you'll pay £7 per ticket, rather than £13. Children under 16 accompanied by a paying adult are free.  

This year's schedule includes cooking demos, bestselling authors (Kate Mosse and Carol Drinkwater); wines and Champagne you can sample at tutored tastings, petanque games, can can dancers, a French market, lots of info on relocation and property buying...and thousands of properties for sale in the French Property Exhibition. You can also enter to win a week-long holiday for four in a Mongolian yurt in the Auvergne, a three-day, self-drive Morgan experience in Southwest France, a Burgundy river cruise for two, a weekend break in the Champagne region and a Brittany Ferries crossing, among other prizes.

For full info, opening hours, a map, a list of exhibitors and more, click here or visit To get the special £6 ticket price, use the promotional code TPP33 before December 31st. From January 1st onward, use TPP41 to pay £7 per ticket. You can also get tickets by calling +44 (0)1242 264777.

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Sunday, December 9, 2012

What Happens at The Negresco...

With its dazzling Belle Epoque facade and famous pink dome, the gracious Negresco Hotel in Nice is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. It’s one of only three five-star hotels in Nice and it fills up a full city block—in both directions--on the Promenade des Anglais, facing the sweeping Baie des Anges of the Mediterranean Sea. While the Negresco may not be the largest or flashiest hotel on the Cote d’Azur, it definitely has one of the most colorful histories. Like the time Richard Burton forgot Liz Taylor’s million dollar emeralds on a bar stool...or Michael Jackson dressing up like a hooker so he could slip out of the hotel unnoticed...or James Brown chasing his wife around the hotel in a jealous rage in the middle of the night...

Those are just a few of the many stories that got out. Imagine the ones that didn’t!

A bit of backstory: In 1893, a young Romanian named Henri Negrescu, the son of an innkeeper and a gypsy violinist, arrived in Monte Carlo to seek his fortune.  Through his jobs at the Helder Hotel and the Municipal Casino of Nice, he met the celebrated French/Dutch architect Edouard Niermans (creator of the Moulin Rouge and Folies Bergères) and financier Alexandre Darracq. Negrescu talked up his dream hotel with Darracq, who agreed to back him, while Niermans was signed on as the architect. None other than Gustave Eiffel was chosen to construct the framework of one of Europe’s most beautiful glass domes, which became the centerpiece of the hotel’s Salon Royal. For the hotel’s name, Henri chose his given name as a French citizen.

The Negresco first opened her doors in 1912, then after a brief hiatus, officially launched in January, 1913, boasting innovations such as a steam autoclave, electric switches, and an internal tube system for distributing mail to every room. The hotel quickly lured a glittering international clientele and had an enormously successful first season, “earning a profit of 800,000 gold francs.’’

When World War I broke out, Henri (by then a Knight of the Legion of Honneur) transformed his beloved Negresco into a hospital, paying for the upkeep of 100 beds himself. Later, the hotel fell into severe financial difficulty, was seized by creditors and was then purchased by a Belgian company. Meanwhile poor Henri died penniless in Paris in 1920, aged 52.

Fast forward to 1957, when Monsieur Jean-Baptiste Mesnage and his wife bought the Negresco and moved in. Their daughter Jeanne Augier, today age 89, still lives on site and is involved in every aspect of operations. I’m told she’s the last private owner of any Riviera palace hotel...and that the Sultan of Brunei and Bill Gates, among many others, have tried to buy her out. An endowment fund was set up long ago to ensure the Negresco’s future, with beneficiaries including humanitarian causes, French art programs and animal welfare charities. (Pets are very welcome at the hotel and Madame Augier’s beloved cat Carmen spends most of the day dozing in a leather chair in the bar.)

Passionate about French art and antiques, Madame Augier was already a serious collector by her early 20s.  And the Negresco’s walls have always been the perfect backdrop for her collection. Today, the Negresco is the only hotel in France that employs a full time curator (Mr. Pierre Couette) for its art and antiques, a collection that numbers roughly 5,000 pieces. And Jeanne Augier is still adding to it, her goal being ‘’to present an overall view of the great periods of French Art.’’ 

Artists, of course, figure prominently in guestbook; Dali, Matisse and Picasso were regulars; Chagall and Cocteau loved the hotel. Show biz types have long treated the Negresco as their base on the Cote d’Azur: Alain Delon, Cary Grant, Lauren Bacall, Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, Elton John, Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour...the list goes on and on. Ava Gardener and Ernest Hemingway have been guests, as have Jacques Chirac, Winston Churchill, countless Royals and heads of state.

Stories of the Negresco’s rich and famous clientele—and their hijinks—could easily fill a book. Indeed, the hotel has always indulged quirky behaviour. 

Prince Turki, brother of the King of Saudi Arabia, arrived with a 50-person entourage, 1,000 pieces of luggage, and his own furniture...all of it packed in a moving van. There were 15 cases for the Prince’s shoes alone. The local fire brigade was called to clear the entrance hall, so the Princely possessions could make it through the lobby.

Once during a power outage, the pianist Arthur Rubinstein refused to climb the four floors to his room. He asked for two pillows, a blanket, an 8 am wake-up call with breakfast and Champagne...and then settled in for the night in the Salon Louis XIV.

Anthony Quinn arrived with 20 suitcases containing 100 of his wife’s evening gowns...and an unusual request. He wanted a white Cadillac--with chauffeur--and a bicycle. He used the bike throughout his stay in Nice, disappearing each morning into traffic...followed by his wife in the Cadillac. Quinn stayed at the hotel three months while shooting A Star for Two with Lauren Bacall.

It was around 1970 when Richard Burton, in love and rather distracted, was chatting to the barman and showing him the fabulous emerald necklace and earrings he planned to give his wife Liz Taylor, when she called down and asked her husband to come up to the room. A half an hour later, the barman discovered the jewels on a bar stool, where Burton had forgotten them.

Michael Jackson came to stay in 1988, bringing his own chef.  After having transformed one of the rooms into a kitchen, he installed a dance floor in another room so that he could rehearse. In order to leave the hotel unnoticed, he disguised himself “as a hippie, an English gentleman, a delivery boy and a prostitute.’’

Once, a passing student stopped to admire a magnificent Hispano Suiza parked in front of the hotel and allegedly said, “You have to be a King to own such a car!’’  Rudolf Valentino tapped him on the shoulder and asked, “Would you like to be King? Then get in, my chauffeur will drive you wherever you want. You’ll be a King for a day.’’

And then there was the rock band that stole one of Madame Augier’s favourite paintings, a present from her parents on her 21st birthday. I can’t say who the band was or how the heist was found out, but the band was apprehended at the airport and the painting was returned in perfect condition.

Late this summer, the Negresco threw itself an enormous birthday party, with Madame Augier playing elegant host to 500 guests, friends and local dignitaries. Other celebrations and promotions were being staged throughout the year, but the most joyous gift of all came in March 2012, when the folks at the Michelin Guide called to say they’d be giving the Negresco’s restaurant Chantecler its coveted second star back after bumping them down to one star in the Guide Rouge eight years ago. (The hotel’s first two-star review had originally been earned back in 1980 by the wildly talented but notoriously eccentric Jacques Maximin, chef at Negresco from 1978 to 1988. (Maximin now has the Bistrot de la Marine in Cros de Cagnes, ten minutes from the Nice Airport.)

Credit for the second Michelin star goes to Negresco chef Jean-Denis Rieubland, who joined the hotel in 2007 and immediately set out to win it back. Born in Agen, France, Rieubland trained at the Lycée Hôtelier in Nice, then went on to work at top hotels and restaurants such as The Carlton (Cannes), La Tour d’Argent (Paris), and the Four Seasons Resort Provence at Terre Blanche (no longer a Four Seasons, it’s now called just Terre Blanche). Rieubland earned his Meilleur Ouvrier de France (‘’Best Craftsmen in France’’) title in 2007.

Among Rieubland’s many contributions to the Negresco is the farm-to-table system he set up, turning his family’s own farm--about 35 minutes from the hotel—into his private potager.Rieubland works closely with his father, Jean François, to select the varieties they’ll grow each season, on 17 hectares of terraced, hilltop beds. Jean François drives the produce down to the Negresco twice a week and Rieubland says that cooking with just-picked ingredients grown to his exact specs is “one of the greatest luxuries of all.’’

Hearty kudos also goes out to restaurant manager Olivier Novelli, who was hired to run the Chantecler dining room in late 2009. Before that, he’d worked at Château de la Chevre d’Or (Eze), Le Mas Candille (Mougins), and with Rieubland at the Miramar Beach Hotel. Novelli earned his own Meilleur Ouvrier de France title in 2011, one of just four candidates (out of 59) to attain the impressive distinction that year.

The Chantecler is now Michelin's highest rated restaurant in Nice. (A list of all the starred restaurants in the Alpes Maritimes region appears here.)

In honor of the 100th anniversary, the Negresco completed a €10 million, 18-month renovation in June 2011. Among the upgrades were an entire kitchen re-do and a transformation of the restaurant La Rotonde, which now has a lovely terrace facing the sea. The façade was also restored and 30 guestrooms were redone.

If you’ve never experienced Negresco, there are a few nice ways to do it even if you can’t spend the night. You can dine at Chantecler of course, or the more-casual, family friendly La Rotonde, which serves brasserie fare all day. (They’re currently offering an 18€ plat du jour at lunch; a 22€ lunch special including main course, little desserts and coffee; and a full à la carte menu.)

Live music continues in the Le Relais bar, every night from 7:30 onwards. Jazz Night is the first Thursday of the month, at 9 pm.

A small but worthwhile exhibit covering the Negresco’s colourful 100-year history remains on view in the Salon Royal, free and open to the public, from 3 pm to 6 pm daily, until January 5.  

Meanwhile, the centenary celebration runs through June 2013 with a series of events this spring ‘’highlighting French creativity.’’

According to the Negresco’s director, the charming Pierre Bord: ‘’There are few hotels on the Cote d’Azur—few hotels anywhere—that have seen what the Negresco has….and lived to tell about it! While independent hotels up and down the coast continue to be acquired or replaced by chains, Negresco remains steadfastly independent and highly personal. And after an amazing 100 years, the hotel’s original personality remains intact:  formal but friendly, rich in history and ready to party! There are always surprises here…you never know what will happen. And now that this Grand Dame has had her face lift, she’s as glittering and sparkling as ever. Here’s to the next century!’’

For info, rates and reservations at the Negresco, click here.

Photos: 1. The Negresco has been likened to a giant wedding cake. 2. Executive chef Jean-Denis Rieubland loves to tromp around his father's farm, where produce is grown to the chef's exact specs. 3. Madame Augier's cat Carmen is a fixture in the Relais Bar. 4, 5. The dining room and a typically lovely presentation in the restaurant Chantecler. 7. You know who, on the beach at Negresco, June 30, 1965. 8. Image once used on luggage tags and posters. 9. The 100th Anniversary Birthday cake, made by pastry chef Fabien Cocheteux. 10. Seen from the sea. 11. Bienvenue a Negresco!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Xmas at Estoublon: Hot Air Balloons & More

There are scores of Christmas Markets in Provence; the ones in Aix and Avignon are two of the largest and loveliest. But many wineries now host beautiful Christmas Markets as well, selling their own products alongside other regional and seasonal goodies. Among those, the one at the Château d’Estoublon in Fontvieille has definitely become a favourite, a regular stop on the holiday-shopping circuit for many families and visitors in Provence. The Marché de Noël at Estoublon is now in full, festive swing...and, as in years past, you’ll find new products, activities and surprises.

Estoublon is a large wine and olive domaine, spread out around a magnificent 17th-century chateau, not far from the villages of Les Baux, Maussane and Paradou. (For the history of the
château and the property—which dates to the Middle Ages--click here.) This year, their 12th annual Marché de Noël fills three floors, with beautifully displayed Estoublon products, holiday foods, lots of candy for the kids, home decor, ornaments, clothing, elegant gifts, whimsical toys, art, handicrafts and more.

As in years past, the chapel is open for visits and the historic carousel is there are pony rides for the little ones (2
€).  Santa arrives at noon on Saturday December 22nd and he'll be around until 5 pm.

But what caught my eye were the hot air balloon rides, being offered for the first time this year by Montgolfières Méditerranée. On three Saturdays (Dec 8, 22 and 29), you'll be able to take a short (10 to 15 minute) ‘’baptême’’ (baptismal) flight for just 8€ per person.  (Private rides are 200€ per person). The flights depend on weather conditions, of course, and it’s best to reserve ahead because they’ll fill up quickly. I’m sure that seeing this vast domaine and surrounding countryside from the air will be a fabulous experience. To book, call 06 65 46 32 32 or email:

Meanwhile, Estoublon's atmospheric, vaulted restaurant Mogador is open throughout the holidays, all decked out with pretty lights. Plus, there’s a new chef in place, Franck Dumont, who worked previously at the well-known Le Passage in Aix and later, took over the restaurant at Golf des Baux (now closed for a major re-do). I’m hearing great things about his food. During the holidays, Franck serves lunch and afternoon tea (with a decadent array of desserts), from noon to 6 pm daily. Dinner is offered as well, but only on Friday and Saturday evenings. A special Thanksgiving dinner will be served for the first time on December  8th. For more info and reservations at Mogador, click here or call: 04 90 96 22 40 or 04 90 97 12 46. 

Also on December 8th, Estoublon will be displaying a number of high-end Harley-Davidson motorcycles...and rides may be possible. For more details on that,  call 04 90 59 78 70 or just show up.

The Christmas Market at Château d’Estoublon runs until December 29th. It’s open 10 am to 1 pm and 2 pm to 7 pm, but closed on Sundays and on Christmas Day.

For more info, see the Estoublon website or call 04 90 54 54 00.

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