Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Fireworks to Light Up 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.) And my favorite Roman relic is even more spectacular when she’s all lit up with video, light, flame and fireworks as she is each summer during a popular evening sound-and-light show called “Les Féeries du Pont’’ (Fairies of the Bridge). 

This year’s show is called Ulysses in Wonderland. It will be presented four times in June, on Friday and Saturday evenings: June 7, 8, 14 and 15, 2013. 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.

Once again, the producer is Groupe F, the internationally acclaimed pyrotechnicians 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. My best advice is sit as close to the bridge itself as possible.  ''And don't forget to bring also warm wears,'' my contact at the Pont du Gard sweetly tells me. 

Tickets for the Les Féeries show range from €14 to €20. You can buy them online 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. Parking is free.

Still not sure? You can see another video from a previous year, click here

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). A special Féeries du Pont menu will be offered at Les Terrasses but the restaurant fills up very quickly so reserve early

My pals at the Pont du Gard also wanted me to let you know that on July 11 and 12,  they'll be hosting “Lives au Pont,’’ an electro-pop music festival  For the third year, the French group IAM will be the headliner. Other bands performing are Woodkid, Asaf Avidan and Jamie Lidell. For info, click here.

For all the info on the Féeries du Pont show or on visiting Pont du Gard at other times, click here. For historical info, click here. To contact the Pont du Gard directly: contact@pontdugard.fr or 04 66 37 50 99....and yes, they speak English.

If you want to catch a Groupe F fireworks show at another time,  go to their site here and click Rendezvous to see the 2013 schedule. After Les Féeries du Pont, they’ll be staging shows in Provence on the following dates:

July 5: Avignon
July 6: Martigues
August 8: Port St. Louis
August 17: Port St. Louis

Finally, if you plan to be in Paris this summer,  you can get a taste of Groupe F at the Chateau de Versailles, where they're once again staging their musical fountain display called ''Les Grandes Eaux Nocturnes.'' It's on certain evenings until September 14 and the schedule is on the Versailles website here. 

Thursday, May 23, 2013

This Weekend: A Big Celebration in the Sky

The prestigious Patrouille Acrobatique de France (PAF), the precision aerobatic team of the French Air Force,  has its 60th anniversary this year.  And to celebrate, they’ll be strutting their best stuff in a big air show over Salon de Provence on Sunday May 26. I happened upon them practicing the other day and what I saw--three planes trailing red, white and blue smoke across the sky in a beautifully choreographed ballet--looked awesome.  The nine pilots fly red, white and blue Dassault-Breguet/Dornier Alpha-Jets, with the gun fittings replaced by smoke generators. They have a support crew of 35. 

As part of the show, the PAF, in association with “weightless  choreography specialist” Kitsou Dubois, will present a specially coordinated duo that took several months to prepare. The aim of this highly challenging and daring blend of aeronautics and dance is to bring an additional artistic dimension to the team’s considerable flying skills.

Other French and international flight teams (Poland, Spain, Belgium, UK, Italy) will be participating as well. A full schedule for the day is here.

The show runs from 10 am to 6 pm, and if you’re anywhere near Salon you’re likely to see them in flight; another good vantage point will be the hills of Lancon de Provence, which overlook the PAF’s headquarters:  Air Base 701 in Salon.  

But the best way to experience this will be to go to the base itself…and entry is free all day. The Salon Tourist Office tells me that many events and exhibitions are being planned so bring the family and hang out all day. Reservations are not required but you must show a valid ID to get in…and folding chairs would be good too.

On Sunday, all the parking lots in Salon will be running special shuttle buses (navettes) to and from the base…so leave your car in town.

Now here’s the thing: all the main access roads to Salon will be closed as of 7.30 am. I can’t quite visualize how that will work but far be it from me to argue with the French Air Force! If you click here, you can see an access plan that should help. Real-time traffic info will be broadcast on France Bleu Radio Provence: 106.6 FM. 

The 60th Anniversary Celebration of the Patrouille de France is part of the year-long Marseille-Provence 2013 Celebration. A special show just for sponsors and personnel will be held on Saturday May 25.

For more info on the celebration, go to the PAF website here. I couldn’t get the English pages to load properly but maybe you’ll have better luck! If you have questions, you can  call the Salon Tourist Office (04 90 56 27 60) or email them at accueil@visitsalondeprovence.com. For a schedule of all the Marseille-Provence 2013 events happening in Salon, click here. And for the full Marseille-Provence 2013 website in English, click here.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Whale Watching in the Med Starts June 9

Ok, I admit it: Until I wrote about this last year, I had no idea there were whales in the Mediterranean! Or that you could get up close and personal with them on day cruises. So I was delighted to find out that every Sunday, Decouverte du Vivant offers Naturalist Discovery Cruises 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. The season opens June 9 and runs through October 20, 2013. Cruises depart from Sanary sur Mer in the Var at 9:30 am and return at 6 pm. Prices are 55€ (under 13), 66€ (students and teens), 78€ (adult) and on demand for groups.  For more info or to reserve, click here or call 06 10 57 17 11 or email to: info@decouverteduvivant.fr

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Days of Wine and Truffles

Very quickly after I launched my new company Provence Post Travel---arranging amazing vacations in Provence for couples, families and groups of all sizes--I learned how much my clients love activities that get them up close and personal with real life in Provence….the special experiences I arrange for them with artists, farmers, fishermen, winemakers, bread bakers, chefs, guides and more. Travelers these days definitely want to meet interesting locals who love to share their passions.

For example? At our local goat farm, clients love seeing the animals and then tasting the fresh goat cheeses with the farmer who just made them. They love biking with a charming chef who provides a gourmet picnic along the way. They've loved meeting artisan food-makers in Aix and walking in Roman footsteps with an American blogger in Arles. They’ve experienced vineyard barbecues with winemakers and olive oil-tastings with the young woman who tends hundreds of her family's trees and presses award-winning oils. I’ve sent clients out wine tasting with a charming sommelier...to bake croissants and make nougat at a traditional boulangerie…to slice and dice with Michelin-starred chefs…to comparison-taste homemade honey with a third-generation beekeeper…to ride gorgeous horses on a windswept Camargue beach...to tour lush, hidden gardens and learn about the visionaries who created them. I’ve sent private chefs to prepare special dinners in scores of rental villas…and sent kids to sculpting class with my favorite local potter.  This week some clients sipped chilled Pastis in the sunshine while learning to play boules on the village pitch. Loved it!

So now that I know what how appealing these activities are, I’m working on a Menu of Delicious Provence Experiences that I’ll be publishing here soon. In the meantime, here’s one that I just couldn’t wait to share.

Lisa and Johann Pepin are a Franco American couple who moved to the South of France from Chicago in 2003 to take over the Pepin family vineyard and find a better quality of life. (That’s the press release version of the story. What really happened is that Johann’s grandparents really missed him and were dying for him to come home … so they bribed the younger couple by offering up the family farmhouse as a gift. How sweet is that?)

So just like on Green Acres (remember?), the Pepins traded in their high-flying jobs in finance and PR for fresh air, starry skies and organic farming in the bucolic Luberon region of Provence. That was ten years ago. Today their 11-hectare farm Les Pastras (in Cadenet, near Lourmarin) produces grapes, olives, apricots, cherries, plums, apples, pears, pomegranates, figs, almonds, hazelnuts and—wait for it--black winter truffles. Yes, la famille Pepin must have done something right in a past life because they own 50 mature olive trees and another 320 trees (that they they planted themselves—yikes!)  and a stand of oak that regularly produce the prized tuber melanasporum, AKA truffes noirs, AKA Black Gold. They also produce tuber aestivum--white summer truffles--as well.

“Most foodies are familiar with the famous Perigord truffle,” Lisa tells me, “but what they don’t know is that those pricey morsels are the same sort that you find at Les Pastras and across Provence, which is where 80% of black truffles are produced. The Perigord region has just done a vastly better job of marketing themselves to truffle lovers.”    

The olive oils, meanwhile, are 100% organic, extra-virgin and cold pressed, made with olives from trees that were grown in the wild and have never been treated with chemicals of any kind. Also, they don't plump their olives unnaturally using a water-wasting irrigation system; any extra water their trees need comes from collected rainwater.

Because they are just totally cool people all around, Lisa and Johann decided early on that they would give 50% of their olive oil and truffle oil profits to the One Family Orphanage in Dargout, Haiti, where their close friend Kelsey works.  For the time being, the oils are sold only at the farm and online, but they’re currently working on distribution in the U.S. and beyond. So if you visit, be sure to take a bottle or two home! Or order from the website here.

So here’s where the experience comes in: Lisa and Johann are now hosting truffle hunts in both summer and winter truffle seasons. At other times they offer olive picking, grape harvesting, petanques parties and other outdoors events. But their extremely popular truffle hunts are the main event, offered in both Winter (Nov 15 to March 15) and Summer truffle seasons (May 1 to Sept. 30).

In season, truffle hunts are available every weekday except for French public holidays. First you'll learn how truffles are cultivated and truffle dogs are trained, and then you'll sniff out some of your own, with the help of two truffle dogs. Following that, you'll discover the rest of the property, home to wild herbs, vineyards, olive groves and beehives. Then you'll return to the outdoor kitchen to taste three different hors d'oeuvre with truffles, followed by truffle ice cream with truffle honey, and finally a tasting of Les Pastras' organic extra-virgin olive oil, truffle oil and truffle salt. To accompany your tasting there will be Champagne, of course...all you care to drink. And during the tasting you'll learn how to buy, clean, store and prepare truffles once you're back home. The experience lasts at least 3 hours. The cost is 70 euros per adult, 50 euros for kids (10 to 17) and 30 euros for children (2 to 9).

For more info or to book, see the Les Pastras website here. To reach Lisa or Johann directly, email: pepin@lespastras.com. And for more fabulous Provence experiences you can share with family and friends, stay tuned….

Photos: Lisa and Johann do their best American Gothic; Green Acres and black truffles at Les Pastras; 50% of  olive- and truffle-oil profits go to an orphanage in Haiti so order often and order lots!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Brocantes, Bistros and Baguettes in Paris

While on tour last year in the United States for her new cookbook, Cowgirl Chef: Texas Cooking with a French Accent, my sweet friend Ellise Pierce kept getting requests for tours of Paris, her adopted hometown. 

“For eight years while living in Paris," she says, "I was either in the kitchen developing recipes for my book or my Cowgirl Chef column in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, shopping at the flea markets for vintage tableware, or relaxing over dinner at one of my favorite bistros. And it occurred to me that a tour that included all of these elements would be just the sort of tour I’d love. I figured others might love it too.”

So this fall, Ellise--who hails from Denton, Texas--will launch a month’s worth of her new three- and four-day Brocantes, Bistros and Baguettes tours, each offering an itinerary filled with eating, shopping and cooking in Paris…and plenty of champagne-sipping along the way.

The tours kick off in September, after la rentrée, when Parisians return to work after their summer holidays. “The city fills up, the restaurants and bistros are open again, it’s warm enough to sit outside, and the flea market season is in full swing," Ellise says. "It’s the perfect time to experience Paris – like a Parisian.” 

Paris has more than 70 open-air food markets, and both the three- and four-day tours include shopping at one of her favorites, President Wilson Market in the 16th arrondisement, where fourth generation farmer Joel Thiébault sells some of the prettiest veggies in town (he also sells to many Michelin-starred restaurants). With fresh goat cheeses, a stand that sells only mushrooms and potatoes, and a booth that makes fresh crêpes (stuffed with Nutella, jam, or ham and cheese), it’s one of the city’s best places to buy and nibble. Both the three- and four-day tours include shopping at this market,  then returning to Ellise's apartment for a cooking class lunch, based on the just-bought ingredients. 

The highlight of the four-day “Ham I Am/Brocantes, Bistros and Baguettes” tour is the Chatou Ham Fair and Brocante, an 800-plus vendor flea market just outside of Paris that’s been around since the Middle Ages. “I always find something surprising and wonderful at this brocante,” Ellise tells me. “I’ve picked up vintage garden furniture and bed linens; old jam jars and blue-striped grain sacks that I’ve made into pillows. Plus the ham sandwiches are not to be missed.”

The three-day “Brocantes, Bistros and Baguettes” tours include hitting some of the city’s local neighborhood brocantes (which often have some of the same vendors as the Chatou fair) and the biggest flea market in the world, at Clignancourt, followed by lunch at Philippe Starck’s new bistro La Cocotte, located in the middle of the market.

Besides the flea markets, both tours include cooking classes, bistro dinners, and lots of other shopping: wandering around Les Halles; shopping at E. Dehillerin, where Julia Child bought her copper pots; and picking up vanilla beans and chocolate at the pastry supply store, G. Detou, to name a few. There will be plenty of time for simply strolling the pretty city streets and ducking into whatever shop, wine bar or patisserie looks interesting along the way.  

“These are tours for people like me--who like to go junking, eat wonderful food, sit around the kitchen table (with a glass of Champagne) and cook together--then shop some more!” Ellise says.

So wouldn't y'all think, that with a cookbook to promote, a successful blog, a newspaper column, cooking classes and catering gigs on both sides of the pond and now, this new tour business, Ellise would feel her plate was full? Nope--she's cooking up a bunch of other super fun projects as well. Such as? Well, she recently partnered with a Fort Worth, Texas boot maker to create a line of Cowgirl Chef boots that will come out in the fall. She's launching a collection of vintage-inspired aprons and she's working with a Dallas coffee roaster to develop her own Cowgirl Chef coffee blend.  (If you read Ellise's blog, you'll know she's a coffee fanatic.) She's also writing her second cookbook and developing a cooking show. I'm tired just writing this! Go Cowgirl Go!

For all the info on the Brocantes, Bistros and Baguettes tours, go to Ellise's blog here. To see what I wrote when Ellise's book came out, click here. To buy the book on Amazon, click here

Photos:  Ellise in one of her favorite places (the market), doing one of her favorite things (eating)....her recent cookbook...and some of her favorite market finds. 

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Feeling Sheepish? Transhumance is May 20

Monday May 20th, 2013  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 Mountains 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 by 9:30 to find parking because it gets crowded and 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 being served. Other villages in Provence have Transhumance festivals as well but St. Remy's is one of the biggest and most popular.  For more info, call 04 90 92 05 22 or click here

Want to party like a shepherd? As in years past, the well-known St. Remy cooking school and country inn called Mas de Cornud will feature a special Transhumance day fête, kicking off at 12:30 with pétanque and pastis, followed by a "repast des bergers" (salade Camarguaise, gigot d'agneau a la broche, riz de Camargue, fromage et dessert). And of course there will be vin a volante--all the local wine you care to drink. Knowing owners David and Nito Carpita, you can expect a fun, international group of guests...and a party sure to go all day. The price is 100€ per person and you can email mascornud@live.com to reserve.

Thanks once again to Guy Butters for the four top 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 and on Facebook. The bottom photo is courtesy of weloveprovence.fr