Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Easy Way to Do Marseille

Marseille, as you may know, is at the center of the European Capital of Culture for 2013 and the city has been getting ready for its close-up for years. Almost all of the shiny new sites, museums, monuments and attractions are fully up and running and just a few are still to come. Marseille is teeming with excited travelers, anxious to experience the best of the old and the new. Traffic has been re-routed; a new shuttle bus is zipping people around the Old Port; some wonderful new hotels, restaurants and shops have opened; new parking lots have popped up.

And now that the city is all spiffed up, a series of visionary--and slightly crazy--events have been organized. On two evenings last month, all the lights on the Old Port went out to make way for thousands of glowing candles and braziers. Earlier this month, 3,000 sheep (plus hundreds of horses, goats, cows and even donkeys painted to look like zebras) swarmed through the center of town led by a female "centaur" riding three black horses. Later this week, a section of the Old Port is will be briefly transformed into a giant lavender field (more info on that below). The Tour de France will pass through the city on July 3rd while EuroPride happens July 10 to 20. And an impressive schedule of other shows, exhibits, performances, workshops and installations is creating an energetic, festive vibe throughout the entire summer.

But here's the but: Marseille was never an easy city to navigate and none of that has changed. The city has always been crowded and now it's even more so. And since many of the new sites have acronyms or numbers as names--MuCEM, J1, J4 and FRAC are just four examples--you don't really know, at least at first glance, what it is they offer.

Bottom line? If you have just a day or two to explore Marseille you may find it a bit of a struggle. So what to do? You hire Sheila Johnston for a tour, of course!

Sheila has lived just outside Marseille, in one of the pretty western calanques, for more than 12 years and she edits a tourist guide to Marseille and Southern Provence called marseille-provence.info. The girl knows her stuff! Sheila offers walking tours around the Old Port and the winding streets of the Panier (Old Town, with its shops and galleries and craft shops), taking in the Vieille Charité, the Hotel Dieu and the aforementioned MuCEM: Marseille's bold and dazzling new world-class museum and the historic Fort Saint Jean, which has become its annex.

Depending on timing and your preferences, she might take you to visit some of Marseille's colorful street markets...the Maison du Pastis, which stocks 95 different types of Provence's iconic aperitif... a workshop/museum of santons (terracotta Christmas crib figures)...and a navettes bakery where the city's traditional, boat-shaped biscuits are made. 

A full-day tour could also include a ferry trip across to the other side of the Old Port. On this side, the attractions are Notre Dame de la Garde (Marseille's iconic and much-loved "Bonne Mère," with its fantastic views of the city and bay), the beautiful, ancient Saint Victor Abbey and the Jardin du Pharo (with yet more spectacular views across the Old Port). A likely stop en route is the Bar de la Marine, the haunt of Provence's famous writer Marcel Pagnol (and the setting for the climax of the rom-com Love Actually). 

Sheila can also create tours for special interests, such as food and wine, art, architecture, ancient history or football/soccer (Marseille is the home of the legendary Olympique de Marseille).

Private walking tours with Sheila start at 150 € for half a day and 250 € for a full day, excluding lunch and (if needed) local transport. For more info or to book, contact Sheila directly: sheila@marseille-provence.info.
To see the schedule in English for Marseille Provence 2013 (European Capital of Culture), click here

And finally, what about that lavender? As part of the program for MP 2013, a sea of 4,000 lavender plants will bloom on a section of the Old Port in front of the Town Hall in Marseille from Friday June 28 to Sunday July 7, courtesy of the Manosque-based cosmetics company L'Occitane en Provence. Major photo opp! The plants will be sold at the end and the proceeds will go to L'Occitane's foundation for the preservation of lavender against pests and diseases. 

Top photo courtesy of the London Evening Standard, from an article about Marseille-Provence 2013 here. Bottom photo: Sheila Johnston (sheila@marseille-provence.info) loves to share the Marseille she loves with travelers.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Food, Fun, Fireworks: 4th of July in Cannes

In the USA, it's not Independence Day without fireworks. And this year, the folks behind the annual Cannes International Fireworks Festival have graciously complied...by opening this year's festivities on the evening of 4th of July. In conjunction, the American Club of the Riviera will be organizing a reception and dinner starting at 8 pm at a centrally located Croisette beach restaurant. From here, guests will be perfectly placed to take in the spectacle; the fireworks will be launched from barges in the bay facing the Croisette, with the music coming from speakers just in front of the restaurant. I've yet to see the Cannes Fireworks Festival but I'm told that the synchronization of music and fireworks is extraordinary. The evening begins with an 8 pm cocktail reception, followed by a three-course dinner with wine, water and coffee. The fireworks concert lasts about 30 minutes, beginning at 10 pm. Dress for the evening is ''beach smart casual'' and all-inclusive prices are as follows: 80€ members, 85€ for non-members, 40€ for children's menu.  Full event details are on the American Club of the Riviera's website here or contact: bgintell@aol.com.

After July 4, the Cannes Fireworks Festival continues on Sunday July 14, Sunday July 21, Monday July 29, Wednesday August 7, Thursday August 15 and Saturday August 24. For all the info, click here

And while we're feeling patriotic,  you might enjoy seeing the homage one young French artist paid to America here...

Monday, June 17, 2013

You're Invited...

I received a very nice email the other day from my friend Stephane Guiran, an extremely talented sculptor in Eygalieres. We met last year when other friends commissioned a piece from him and I wrote about him here. Then all of a sudden we started seeing each other at all the same parties…isn't it funny how that happens? Anyway, the email was an invitation to Stephane’s studio, for a new ‘’happening’’ called L’Atelier. I thought that this might interest some of you and Stephane said I could share the info. The general idea is this: Stephane’s studio will be open all day and evening on Fridays: for conversation, for connecting friends and strangers, for reading, for looking at art…and for a meal. Anyone who pays 5€ to join the association Les Amis de l'Atelier is welcome.
The goal, Stephane says, is to welcome anyone who enjoys art and feels like spending a few hours in cool surroundings, with terrific food, top regional wines and interesting chat. While the conversation is bound to be primarily in French, Stephane and his wife Ghislaine speak English and so do many of their friends. I love the idea and I’m sure it will be a huge hit.
Meals will be prepared by Céline Villard, who sold her company a few years back to focus on yoga and cooking. Stephane describes Céline’s food as very natural, often organic, made with fresh local produce and lots of veggies. ‘’But here in the village,’’ he says, ‘’we also love when she cooks the traditional dishes: pistou, bourride, pot au feu, pieds et paquets...’’

Lunch is 15€ and dinner is 25€. Timing is loose: lunch starts around 12:30 and dinner around 8 pm.
The lunch menu for Friday June 21 will be spinach and ricotta canelloni with fresh salads and a fresh red-fruit croustade with lime cream and a fresh-berry pavlova, The dinner menu for June 21 is the same except the main course will be slow-cooked lamb with fresh vegetables. Both meals start with grignotage (best translation: hors d’oeuvres or nibbles).

Fresh organic juices and wine will be available for purchase. “I’ve made a selection of wines from the South of France,” Stephane says, “from Ampuis (Condrieu) to Perpignan (Cotes du Roussillon). The idea is to propose good wines at affordable prices. I’ve got Yves Cuilleron's wines from Condrieu and St Joseph, Alain Voge from Cornas, Vieux Telegraphe, Rayas, Roc d'Anglade, Mas Jullien, Peyre Rose... and of course some great local wines (Eole, Trevallon...)’’
“People can come have tea/coffee and read art and poetry books,” Stephane continues, ‘’visit the exhibitions, and then have lunch or dinner if they book ahead. I will be here every Friday, working on the first floor. This is not a restaurant, it's an association mixing art and food. It’s quite confidential, open one day a week, for 25/30 people max. There are no signs outside, no publicity, only word of mouth. The venue is intimate and seating is limited.’’

So there it is. Pop in on a Friday, pay your 5€ membership, then hang out and enjoy. If you plan to have lunch or dinner, be sure to reserve; the first L’Atelier, on June 14, filled up quickly. The studio is one block off the main street in lovely Eygalieres, on Avenue Leon Blum, and will be open from 9:30 am to 11 pm. To reserve:
stephane@guiran.com or 06 85 98 26 24.

To see more of Stephane’s beautiful work, his website is here.

Finally, I wanted to quickly mention Les Nuits des Patios, a annual festival of art and music in Eygalieres next month. This increasingly popular program features art, installations and most notably, three terrific concerts on ‘’patios’’ around town . Concerts are scheduled for July 19, July 22 and July 24; the one on the 24th is in the garden of Stephane and Ghislaine’s home. For all the info on Les Nuits des Patios: lesnuitsdespatios.com

Photos: One of Stephane's sculptures in the garden of his studio in Eygalieres. Stephane photographed by Bruno Suet. The studio from the street; there is no sign or number address. It's 100 meters from the Cafe de la Place and if you can't find it, ask at the Cafe.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Sculpture Classes for Kids & Adults

Bob Appelmans is a charming Belgian-born sculptor living and working in St. Remy.  He’s been in Provence almost 30 years now and is very active and beloved on the local art scene. Fully bi-lingual, Bob loves to welcome visitors into his studio but it’s easy to miss: he’s hidden away in a pretty courtyard off the main traffic circle.  Bob’s work takes many forms but I especially love his whimsical caricature busts; there are two above but many more on his website and in his studio. Bob accepts commissions so if you don’t see the one you want, he’ll happily make it for you.

Bob’s sculptures range in price from 30€ to 1500€. 

Bob is also a terrific teacher who offers hand-sculpting classes for all levels: kids and adults, tourists and locals, and groups of up to ten people. He’ll teach children as young as four, charging just 15€ per child for a 1.5 to 2-hour session. Your little monsters will come home with clay under their ongles and a fun new skill. For adults, Bob offers one two-hour class for 35€ or four sessions for 130€.

Group prices are available and Bob will work around your schedule.

To find him: Enter the courtyard using the pathway in between the shop called Tectona and the one called Les Jardins Van Gogh, which is opposite the Campus gas station and down just a bit. Or follow the signs to the restaurants Chez Fanny or La Medina. The square is called Place Mireille Moatti and Bob’s address is #34 blvd. Mirabeau, St. Remy.  And while you’re back there, consider La Medina or Chez Fanny for lunch or dinner…both are very nice options for casual dining. 

L'atelier de Bob, 06 75 08 13 58, bobappelmans.com, bob13210@hotmail.fr

Monday, June 3, 2013

One New Provence Restaurant I Love

After many years on a prominent corner next to the cinema in St. Remy,  the restaurant La France gasped its last breath this winter…probably because locals avoided it like la peste. This spring, a well-known local couple—John and Laetitia Vergnaud -- took it over and transformed it into a lovely Italian restaurant called Da Peppe…named for Laeticia’s grandfather, Giuseppi. To run the kitchen, they lured chef Maurizio Scalia over from Sicily and chances are you’ll find him paddling pretty pizzas in and out of the vast, round Morello oven, the first thing you see when you step through the door. John calls the stainless-steel oven—fueled by wood and gas, operated digitally and equipped with a rotating stone “refractory” bedplate that holds ten pies at a time—“the Rolls Royce, the Bentley, the Ferrari of forni!”  

Quanto è costato?” I asked the chef, impressed by its gleam, its glowing controls and how cool it feels to the touch; Maurizio’s pizzas bake to crispy/chewy perfection at 380 degrees C (700-plus F) in just two to 2.5  minutes.    

Tres cher!” was all he’d say, with a big smile.

I also noticed the oven creates no smoke or smell, thanks to a serious system of venting. Obviously this is key when you decide to plant a spaceship-sized, fire-breathing behemoth smack in the center of your dining room.  So I went to the Morello website to learn a bit more. “Never again lawsuit against neighbours and/or burning chimney !!!” the company proclaims proudly. "Morello Forni  can offer antipollution-water filters enabling to clean wood oven smoke, stop chimney fire risks and mainly to avoid noising quarrel versus neighbours!!!!”

Noising quarrel versus neighbours in Provence? Never!

The menu at Da Peppe is a la carte only, with a lunch-time plat du jour priced at 13€.  John tells me his best-selling main courses right now are the Risotto St. Jacques “a l'encre de seiche” (­­­squid ink risotto with scallops) and the Saltimbocca alla Romana (veal with ham and sage, rolled up and cooked with white wine and butter).

But pizzas are far and away the most-popular choice, with the Pizza Nona--scallops, arugula, truffle oil, olives, crème fraiche, mozzarella—currently in the lead.

And for dessert? “Our Tiramisu is excellent, our guests’ favorite dessert by far,” John says. “We make it the right way, with not a lot of liquid underneath, and very-nice Pavesini biscuits from Italy.”

My friend Lorraine and I shared a Pizza Decima (tomato, fresh buffalo mozzarella, gorgonzola, cherry tomatoes, basil, olives), a Pizza Settima (tomato, gorgonzola, pecorino, fresh ricotta, olives) and the Salad Burrattina (tomatoes, Burrata cheese, arugula, pine nuts, balsamic syrup). I thought all three were terrific. And Lorraine, who happens to be a bit pizza-obsessive and has always been staunchly loyal to Pizzeria Brun in nearby Maussane, proclaimed everything bellissima e molto bene! Or something very funny-sounding that meant that.

The atmosphere in Da Peppe’s dining room is warm and welcoming; the staff young, handsome and professional . (Don’t be surprised to see Jean-Pierre Ricci, the owner of nearby L’Áile ou la Cuisse, helping out; he’s Laetitia’s father.) The vibe is casual—jeans are fine—but in the evening the crowd makes  an effort to kick it up a notch, clothes wise. Dining all around us I saw dating couples, young families, foreign tourists, familiar local faces and a large gaggle of girlfriends sharing pizzas, carafes of wine and laughter.  Da Peppe has a handful of sidewalk tables and a terrific rooftop terrace too, with views of the Place Republique (that sounds so much better than saying ‘the big parking lot,’ no?) and our enormous church, with bits dating to the 14th century.  

Da Peppe is a much-need addition to the dining scene in St. Remy and I’m so happy to have them in my quartier. All hail chef Maurizio,  the new Prince of Pizza in Provence!

Prices: Pizzas are 12.50€ to 14.50€. Meat and fish main courses: 19€ to 22€. Pasta and risotto: 12.50€ to 23€. Desserts: 7€. There’s a small selection of Italian specialties and sweets for sale at the door.  Hours: Open for lunch and dinner every day but Tuesday; dinner is served from 7 to 11 pm. Parking: On the street or on the Place Republique. And as always, please tell them I sent you…

Da Peppe, #2 ave Fauconnet (next door to the cinema), St. Remy, 04-90-92-11-56, venezmanger@dapeppe.fr, no website.

Photos: John and Laetitia Vergnaud; tucking into a Pizza Prima; at Da Peppe you can eat indoors, on the sidewalk or on the rooftop terrace.