Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Four Smashing Evenings at the Pont du Gard

The 2,000-year-old aqueduct called the Pont du Gard is one of the most magnificent sites in Provence; I never get tired of gazing at it, tromping around on it, photographing it. (I've yet to kayak the Gard River underneath it but hope to soon.) So I can only imagine how breathtaking my favorite Roman relic will be when she’s all lit up with video, light, flame and fireworks in a new evening sound-and-light show called Ludolux. (To see a video from last year, click here.) The theme of this year's show is the human passion for games of all types, from the Olympics to duels to video games. The show will be presented four times in June, on Friday and Saturday evenings: June 8, 9, 15 and 16. Showtime is 10:30 p.m or at dusk. But definitely arrive early as there are some "animations" before the main event, probably starting around 7 p.m.

If you’re thinking that this will be like your kids running around the backyard with flashlights or sparklers, think again: Ludolux was created by Groupe F, the internationally acclaimed pyrotechnic group known for shows at the Eiffel Tower, Versailles and the Olympics. If you want a smile, have a look at their website; their work is over-the-top wonderful. I think the Romans would love it!

The Pont du Gard site will be open all day, as usual, but separate tickets are required. Seating will be on the right bank of the river so if you arrive on the left bank,  you must be in by 9:30 pm in order to cross the bridge; the gates to the Pont du Gard park will close at 9:30.  Bring cushions, chairs and blankets or you'll be sitting on the ground; the shops on site also sell seats if you forget. ''And don't forget to bring also warm wears,'' my contact at the Pont du Gard sweetly tells me.

Tickets for Ludolux range from €15.10 to €21.10. They may be purchased on line here or at the Pont du Gard box office at any time. They're also available at FNAC, Virgin, Carrefour, Cultura and France Billet. Children under six are free and group rates are available (for group rates call 04 66 37 51 10).  If you have an annual pass to the Pont du Gard, you get a discount. 

So what about dinner? Casual food will be sold on site or you can bring a picnic in with you. There's also a restaurant called Les Terrasses that serves excellent Mediterranean cuisine (04 66 63 91 37) but I'm told they're already fully booked for dinner on those evenings. They may have space at lunch. 

For historical info on the Pont du Gard, click here. For more info on the Ludolux show or on visiting Pont du Gard at other times, click here. For info on Groupe F, click here. And finally, here's a number you can call to get info and yes, they speak English: 04 66 37 50 99. 

If you want to catch a Groupe F fireworks show at another time, here are some upcoming ones in Provence:

July 7: Martigues
July 14: Martigues
July 14: Arles

And if you'll be up near Paris, you can experience Groupe F at the Chateau de Versailles, where there will be ''Royal Fireworks'' on June 22, 28, 29, July 5, July 6 and ''Les Grandes Eaux Nocturnes'' (a musical fountain display) on Saturdays from June 16 to September 7.  More info on the Chateau de Versailles is here.

Photos: Three from last year at the Pont du Gard; one from December 31st, 1999.  All photos © Groupe F-Thierry Nava.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Another Fine French Book Giveaway!

Many of my past book giveaways were titles that would appeal primarily to women. So here's one for the boys! The publisher has graciously offered me three copies to give away. If your père loves Paris, this would be a great Father's Day gift, non

Paris for Men is full of tips, illustrations and photos designed to inspire men make the most of their time in the glorious City of Light. Short literary snippets highlight the city’s many pleasures such as smoking a cigar on a café terrace, getting your shoes shined, enjoying a morning espresso, exploring second-hand bookshops, renting a classic car, playing outdoor tennis, buying a fitted suit or wandering the city at dusk.

The 160-page book also includes a guide to choosing wine and whiskey and info on the city’s best cocktail bars, night clubs, cafés and ‘’secret hideaways.’’ Plus, you’ll find interviews with famous Parisian men including François Simon, Frédéric Beigbeder, Fabrice Lucchini and Edouard Baer.

Author Thierry Richard writes the popular blog Chroniques du Plaisir. He also works as a food critic for several guides to Paris and as a literary journalist for the Magazine des Livres. Photographer Juliette Ranck studied at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure Louis Lumière and shoots for magazines, books, television and cinema, specializing in lifestyle, ecological living and food.

Paris for Men was first published in France by Editions du Chene and is now being distributed in the U.S. by ACC DistributionFor more info and a look inside, click here.

To enter this giveaway simply leave a message under ‘comments’ below. Make sure to include your email address or we won’t be able to reach you if you win. This giveaway is open to readers in the U.S. and Canada only—but you’re welcome to provide a friend's address and have the book sent to them. Or to buy it on Amazon, click here. Bonne Chance!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Transhumance: Sheepish in St. Remy

Monday May 28th is the annual Fête de la Transhumance in St. Remy, where local shepherds herd their flocks (roughly 3500 sheep and goats) three times around the village's circular "main drag" before taking them up to graze the green pastures of the Alpilles for the summer months. Transhumance is considered one of the 100 Prettiest Festivals in France and if you haven't seen it, it's great good fun. (My friend Philippe calls it ''sheep cooking in the streets.'') It starts officially around 10:30 am but arrive earlier to find parking because the streets are closed off. There's also an all-day flea market on the Place Republique, starting at 9 am. Up at the Plateau de la Crau at noon, there will be sheep-herding demonstrations and food served.  For more info about the Transhumance in St. Remy, call 04 90 92 05 22 or click here. As part of the Transhumance festival, the Cine Palace in St. Remy will be screening the documentary Sweetgrass, which you can read all about here. The film is in its original English-language version, with French subtitles. On Sunday May 27, the showtime is 8:45 pm,  with an art exhibit beforehand and a discussion on Provencal history and traditions afterwards. Admission is free but you must reserve by calling 04 90 47 99 54. On Monday May 28, the film will be shown at 6:30 pm and normal ticket prices apply. 

Thanks once again to Guy Butters for the great Transhumance photos. You can visit Guy's website here and see more of his wonderful photography here and here. You can also follow him on Twitter.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Whale Watching in the Mediterranean

Ok, I admit it: I had no idea there were whales in the Med! Or that you could get up close and personal with them on day cruises. So I was delighted to find out just recently that every Sunday between June 17 and October 31, Decouverte du Vivant offers Naturalist Discovery Cruises in the Med aboard the boat La Croix du Sud V. During the nine-hour voyage you're likely to see striped dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, Risso's dolphins, pilot whales, sperm whales and the second largest animal on the planet, the fin whale. You can also expect to encounter seabirds, sunfish, loggerhead turtles, bluefin tuna, bonito and swordfish. Cruises depart from Sanary sur Mer in the Var at 9:30 am and return at 6 pm. Prices: 55€ (under 12), 66€ (students, teens, groups of ten or more); 78€ (adult) per person.  For more info or to reserve, click here or call 06 10 57 17 or email:

 **Note: Dates for 2013 are Sunday June 9 to Sunday October 20, 2013. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Gorgeous New Wine Country Guesthouse

Since I launched my Provence travel-planning business this winter, I've been running hither and yon, checking out hotels, inns, rental villas and restaurants in all price ranges so I can suggest and book the best ones for each client. But also so I can share the ones I love with you here. One place that really stands out is the Clos Saint Saourde, an impossibly stylish five-year-old guesthouse just outside Beaumes de Venise. But before I got the chance to write about it, owners Géraldine and Jérôme Thuillier told me they'd be opening a second guesthouse, this one right in the heart of the village itself. I missed the opening party late last month but Jerome just sent me photos and I'm not surprised to see that Les Remparts (above) looks every bit as glorious as its older sibling. 

Built upon the 16th-century walls of this famous wine village, Les Remparts offers exceptional views of Mont Ventoux and the Dentelles de Montmirail mountains on one side...and village views (the church steeple, the old castle ruins, the old Canale-tile roofs and the Vallée du Rhône) on the other. 

It has five air-conditioned rooms, a pool, communal kitchen (with serve-yourself Nespresso and tea), a large lounge with a fireplace, a library corner and of course, a garden. Like they do at Clos Saint Saourde, the Thuilliers include breakfast in the price and can provide other meals if arranged in advance. Wine tours and tastings, massage, catering, babysitting and bikes are available on request. Rooms range from €140 to €280.

Jerome was an interior decorator in Paris before the family came to Provence. His aesthetic blends beautifully with the rugged beauty of the setting, both here and at Clos Saint Saourde. I love the creamy colors, exposed stone walls, sense of space, juxtaposition of old pieces with new and exquisite lighting. Jerome's attention to detail is evident in every inch.  These rooms are romantic enough for a honeymoon, elegant without being stuffy. The design magazines are going to jump all over this place. I want Jerome to do my house!

Whether you're exploring the world-famous Côtes du Rhône wine route or simply craving a serene getaway in stunning surroundings, this is a delicious option. 

La Maison des Remparts
#74, cours Louis Pasteur
84190 Beaumes de Venise
Tel/fax 04 90 37 35 20

Note: Le Clos Saint Saourde, the Thullier's first guesthouse, has one of the prettiest treehouses in Provence; see it and others available by the night in my recent story here. Meanwhile other guesthouses that I've seen and loved lately are the Le Mas de Tourterelles in St. Remy (very pretty rooms, English owners and a great village location), Mas Bellevue just outside St. Remy (expansive views, great pool, wonderfully quiet setting) and the stunning Mas de la Rose in Orgon, about 10 minutes east of Eygalieres (quintessential Provence!).

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Cooking Classes in Lavender Country

Erik and Joyce Borgmann came to France from Amsterdam in 2002. Three years later, they found the property of their dreams: a noble-looking country house, parts of which date to the Middle Ages, on 12 hectares of land with a long alley of Cyprus trees and a glass-enclosed orangerie. After a total redo, they opened to the public with a cooking school, two vacation "cottages," 300 olive trees,  vast organic gardens, a swimming pool and stunning views. They call their little paradise L'Oustaou de Oulivie, which means something along the lines of ''the big house with the olive trees.'' It’s in Oraison, at the crossroads of the Luberon and the Parc Naturel du Verdon.

With her shiny cream-colored Aga stove (brought from the Netherlands) and her "bring it on" attitude, Joyce is like a Dutch Martha Stewart. She grows her own flowers, herbs, vegetables and grains; makes her own bread, confiture, marmalade and olive oil; looks after two teenage sons and her pilot husband...and somehow finds time to prepare table d'hôte dinners (open to the public, seated communally), when there are no culinary students in the house. 

Cooking class sessions (usually a weekend or a week) include visits to nearby markets, vineyards and farms. Private day classes are also available in both local and ethnic cuisines; the current class schedule is here. The kitchen is magazine-cover gorgeous, with a fireplace, large dining table and lots of pretty Provencal touches. Plus, it has amazing views, of the fields, gardens and mountains beyond. The two gites/cottages on the property are spacious and nicely appointed, sleeping up to six people each.

L'Oustaou de Oulivie sits on the edge of the Valensole Plateau, one of Provence's top lavender-producing regions. It's 45 minutes from the Gorges du Verdon, known as the Grand Canyon of France. (Joyce loves to take her students there for picnics.) At first glance the location might seem a bit remote but the pretty town of Forcalquier, 10 minutes away, has good restaurants, nice shopping and a large Monday morning market. And the cosmopolitan Aix-en-Provence is just 35 minutes to the south. Provencal bath-and-body care company L'Occitane is based nearby and open to the public for tours, so that's a popular stop for Joyce's students. And if you or your travel companions want something a bit more sportif, there's hiking, mountain biking and canoeing nearby...along with paragliding and gliding at two local clubs. 

In Oraison, in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. 
011-33/6 73 32 64 29

Photos from top: *An inviting teaching kitchen was built inside an old glass-walled orangerie; table d'hôte dinners are also held here.  *Joyce's cherished Aga stove dates from 1955 and originally burned coal and wood; it was later modified to gas. (''My father was a large-ship captain and always had an AGA on board,'' Joyce says. ''As long as I can remember, I'd wanted one as well.'') *Parts of the main house date to the Middle Ages; the rest is 19th century. *Joyce: giving Martha Stewart a run for her money. *Prep work outside. *Gâteau glacé au miel, made during Joyce's recent lavender/honey cooking class. For a video of last year's olive harvest at L'Oustaou de Oulivie, click here.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Renovated Provençal Mas for Sale

There are plenty of beautiful homes for sale in Provence but you rarely find a traditional mas (farmhouse) that's been fully renovated...and yet unlived in. Here's one and it's a beaut.

Sandra Peskin first came to St. Remy in 1977, while studying at Montpellier University. ''It was love at first sight,'' she says, ''and thereafter I dreamt about one day owning a home here.'' Once her kids, now 23 and 25, were done with school, the dream became a reality. In 2006, she and her husband Andrew bought a vacation home in the region and did a full one-year renovation. In 2009, they made the move down from London permanent and full time. But with her background in property sales, relocation and interior design--and one stunning Provence renovation under her belt--Sandra found herself itching to tackle another. So when this 19th-century house became available not far from their own, the couple snapped it up. Sandra spent close to a year gutting and renovating it for resale. Final landscaping touches are happening this month.

On the ground floor are a reception room, dining room, TV room/office/playroom, guest bathroom with walk-in shower and double bedroom with fitted wardrobes and en suite bathroom. The kitchen is fully equipped with Neff appliances, including three ovens (two traditional, one steam), a stove, American fridge/freezer, dishwasher and a breakfast bar that seats three. The utility room is equipped with another American fridge/freezer, a dishwasher and a large-capacity washer and dryer. Floor tiles are stone throughout the  ground floor.

The first floor has a master bedroom with en suite (tub and walk-in shower) and a dressing room; a double bedroom with fitted wardrobes and en suite; two additional bedrooms and a family bathroom. The floors upstairs are a mixture of stone and wood.

The house retains all the architectural features of a traditional Provencal mas: a south-facing entry, wood shutters, thick stone walls, tile roof, wood beams, large fireplace, etc.

The property comprises 328 square meters (3,530 square feet) of living space and is set in a mature garden of 3,800 square meters (just under one acre), with a newly renovated swimming pool with surrounding terraced areas.

Called Mas La Belugo, it's located ten minutes west of St. Remy, on a quiet, wooded lane between the villages of Mas Blanc des Alpilles and St. Etienne du Gres, where you'll find a high-quality butcher, boulangerie, florist, tea salon, restaurants, cafes and small shops. A few top-rated wineries are nearby. The price is €1.89 million. 

Plus, now that Sandra knows all the best design and decor shops in Provence, she says she'd be delighted to help the new owners find their way around and get set up.

So why am I writing about this house? First, because it's beautifully done and an ideal set-up for a family without the time, know-how or inclination to tackle a major renovation. Second, because I like Sandra and Andrew a lot and would love to help them find a buyer. Third, because you, my precious readers, tell me you're interested in real estate. Fourth: Le Finders Fee!

For more info, contact Sandra:, 
+33/4 90 96 46 41 or +33/6 06 66 68 45. 

Thursday, May 3, 2012

One Restaurant I Love in Wine Country

Sometimes a restaurant just does everything right. At Alonso, located in a pretty 1861 Maison Bourgeoise in the town of Sorgues (not to be confused with L'Isle sur la Sorgue), the greeting is friendly, the service is impeccable, the prices are reasonable, the room is welcoming...and the food is truly outstanding. Owners Gérard and Josette Alonso are Lyonnais and had a highly regarded restaurant in Macon for 20 years. They’ve worked together in the restaurant business since 1976 and their vast experience shows in everything they do. They opened Alonso in 2008.

The formula here is simple: for one price at lunch, you get grignotage (best translation: nibbles), an amuse, starter, main course, cheese, dessert and mignardises. At dinner, you get the same, with an extra main course to boot. The breads are homemade and addictive, and on any given day, the cheese cart offers 30 to 40 different types. Except for dessert, however, there are usually no choices: Gérard markets each morning and crafts the daily-changing menu from the ingredients he finds most appealing. But if you have special dietary concerns, he'll happily accommodate you...and the vegetarian at our table was thrilled with what Gérard prepared. ''If a dish is not for you,'' their website says cheerfully, ''we can change it.'' Today's menu includes two starters: first, a lobster pressé and then a delicate line-caught bar (seabass, also known as loup) with fresh petits pois peas (currently at their seasonal peak). That's followed by a choice between sweetbreads or volaille de Bresse. Dessert is a degustation of three. Wine is, of course extra, as are coffees, cocktails, digestifs and bottled water. Lunch is 35€ and dinner is 50€. 

It's all even more impressive when you realize that Gérard is doing everything himself: the breads, the desserts, the perfect tastes that come before your meal and the delectable little sweets that come after....not to mention the very-refined, impeccably presented, seasonal dishes that roll out in between.

Although he never worked with him, Gérard trained with--and remains heavily influenced by--the philosophy and cuisine of legendary Michelin three-star chef Alain Chapel, a forefather of nouvelle cuisine. (Chapel died in 1990, aged 53.)

My sommelier/wine guide friend Kelly McAuliffe takes clients to Alonso often and calls the wine list an oenophile's dream: fairly priced, rich in variety. ''It’s better than what you’ll find in many Michelin-starred restaurants,'' Kelly says, ''and their selection of local labels grows all the time. Gérard and Josette are very wine passionate and have relationships with some of the best winemakers in France. They’re also big on natural wines and organic/biodynamic producers as well.'' It's no surprise the restaurant is a winemaker hangout.

With only 30 or so indoor seats, Alonso's two dining rooms fill up fast, but a good six months a year everyone loves to dine outside anyway. If you're touring the Southern Rhone wine country around Châteauneuf-du-Pape (as we were, both times I went), or looking for a sensational meal not far from Avignon, this makes an ideal stop. There's really nothing not to love about Alonso. 

Restaurant Gérard Alonso
Avenue du 19 Mars 1962
Sorgues (halfway between Avignon and Châteauneuf-du-Pape)
GPS: Lat: 44.00767 Long.: 4.87230
Closed Sunday and Monday