Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Look What They Pulled From the Rhône...

Just like many of us here in Provence, Sharon deRham was fascinated by the story surrounding the Roman barge (or "chaland") that was pulled from the depths of the Rhône River at Arles nine years ago. An American living full time Provence--who worked as a tour guide for many years--Sharon has a particularly keen interest in Roman history and she followed the whole saga closely: the raising and meticulous restoration of the boat; the building of the special museum wing to house it. Almost immediately after the exhibit opened to the public, Sharon's tour clients started asking to see it...so she undertook even more in-depth research into Roman life in Arles, the chaland and the hundreds of artifacts pulled up with it. "The Chaland Antique Arles-Rhône 3" is a stunning exhibit in a fantastic museum that travelers in Provence often miss. I asked Sharon to tell us about it...and this is what she sent. 

All of Provence and especially anyone living near the former Roman colony founded by Julius Caesar--once called Arelate, now known as Arles--is fiercely and justly proud of the newest addition to the Musée Départemental  d’Arles Antique (MDAA). The Arles-Rhône 3 is an almost 2,000-year-old Roman chaland (barge), discovered  in 2004 when divers saw a few planks sticking out of the silt in the murky Rhône.  

The only intact Roman ship ever found in the entire world, it still had its navigational equipment, cargo and kitchen. Other ancient ships have been brought up, of course—the Stockholm VASA, some Viking ships in Oslo—but these are not nearly as old as the Arles-Rhône 3. 

Historians and archeologists think that a flash flood caused the boat to escape its mooring near Arles and sink with its cargo. The boat was buried, “fossilized” in the silt and sand of the riverbed which preserved it, protecting it from oxygen and bacteria.

In the first century A.D., Arles was a booming commercial crossroads. Built between 50 and 60 B.C. in Arles’ famous shipyards, the 102-foot-long barge was used to transport goods up and down the Rhône. Sea-going vessels, which brought goods to and from Arles from around the Mediterranean, couldn't navigate the Rhône.  So merchandise was transferred to the chalands in Arles to make the trip north, for example, to Lyon. This one, fully loaded, used 26 slaves on the riverbanks to pull it north, but the sail and river currents helped propel it south.

Details of the recovery and restoration are fascinating, as is the technology used.  The boat was first discovered in 2004. Early underwater studies showed that it was intact and in excellent condition; however it was extremely fragile and could have broken like glass. Water-logged, it weighed eight tons, five times more than a dry barge. The boat was to be sent to the Arc-Nucléart laboratory in Grenoble for restoration but the tanks in Grenoble weren't large enough to hold the entire barge. So deep-sea divers cut it into ten pieces before it was raised in custom-built metal cages.  The Rhône did her part to facilitate the recovery, remaining low, calm and fairly clear during the cutting process.  Only once in a century is the river known to be so co-operative, I was told.

Then the chaland was put into a warehouse, cleaned and kept moist before being sent to Grenoble. There it underwent treatment and restoration so the wood wouldn’t shrink or crack.  Its 1,700 cast iron nails were removed and replaced to avoid acidification of the wood. Scientists have been able to date the oak, fir and pine used in the construction; the fir tree used in the sides of the barge was about 300 years old when cut.

Even before the barge was raised, a decision had been made to add a new wing to the MDAA to house this extraordinary find, surrounded by other exhibits featuring the port and navigation and commerce during the Roman era in Arles.  At the same time, the French Ministry of Culture classified the chaland as a “trésor national,” since it has major historical and archaeological interest for France.

The cost of the entire project was €9 million: €3 million for the archaeology and recovery, €6 million for the restoration and the new museum wing. The project was completed in record time, to meet the goal of displaying the ship for the Marseille-Provence Capitale de la Culture 2013 celebration. The permanent exhibit opened in early October, 2013.

The chaland is shown in a long trench to approximate its look on the river. Also on view are part of its 30-ton cargo of building stones and 450 other objects found in the river, including a large collection of amphorae, which were the most frequently used containers for shipping; they're displayed chronologically alongside the boat. Each is displayed with info on what it carried: wine, olive oil, salted fish, etc. There's a cut-off dolium (a terra cotta pot used as a barbecue), coins, dishes and much more. 

On one side of the room, large windows overlook the Hortus, a Roman inspired garden.  Other windows overlook the Rhône, lending a nice synergy to the chaland experience. 

The MDAA is known as having the best collection in France of objects from the Roman period.  In 2007, another discovery from the Rhône at Arles became a worldwide superstar: a bust of Julius Caesar, who founded Arles in 46 B.C.  It may also be the only remaining statue of Caesar carved during his lifetime.  Although there is some controversy regarding whether  or not the bust really represents Caesar, the French Culture Ministry confirms that the life-sized marble bust is the oldest known representation of Caesar and that it dates from the creation of Arles in 46 B.C. It shows a somewhat aging man, with facial wrinkles and deep creases along his nose. The bust had been on loan to the Louvre but recently returned to the MDAA.

Watching over the chaland is a rare, six-foot-tall marble statue of Neptune, Greek God of the Seas and protector of navigation and maritime commerce, which was found in the Rhône in 2007, broken into four pieces. It dates from the early 3rd century B.C. and was probably commissioned by a boatmen's union in Arles.


Musée Departemental d’Arles Antique
Presqu'île du Cirque Romain
Avenue 1ère Div Français Libre
13200 Arles
+33 (0) 4 13 31 51 03 
Open daily except Tuesday, 10 a.m- 6 p.m
Closed January 1, May 1, November 1 and December 25.
Entry: 8€;  5€ for 65 and older and for groups of 10 or more with reservations; free under 18.

Guided museum visits are offered in French on Sundays at 3 p.m. and daily during school vacations. They may also be offered in English; call the museum to inquire. Sharon can lead tours of the MDAA and the chaland exhibit. For her availability and pricing: sderham@sonic.net.

Photos: (1-3) The chaland nestled into its safe perch, designed to replicate the way it once sat in the water. Crowds flocked to see it opening weekend...and have ever since. The exhibit is permanently on view. (4-8) Diving for, raising, treating and restoring the chaland. (9) Some 450 other artifacts were brought up with the chaland; many are on view alongside it. The collection includes amphorae used as containers for shipping wine, oils and food, plus coins, dishes, vessels of all sizes and much more. There are still hundreds and maybe thousands of Roman artifacts still underwater in the Rhône at Arles, due to the high cost of raising, restoring, storing and exhibiting them. (10) The bust of Caesar, also on view at MDAA, was a major find; Caesar founded Arles in 46 B.C. The bust was on loan to the Louvre for a while but now Caesar's back in Arles, not far from where he was found. (11) The statue of Neptune found in the Rhône in 2007 dates from the early 3rd c. B.C.  (13, 14) Three articles about the chaland appeared in the French edition of National Geographic in 2011 and '12. A 16-page version of the story then appeared in English, in 170 international editions, in April, 2014, and it has since been translated into 36 languages for 58 other countries. Here, the cover of the US edition...and the Georgian edition which shows the handle of a bronze pot found with the chaland. The stories were illustrated with photos by Arles-based photographer Remi Benali. A special 64-page issue of National Geographic is available in French in the museum shop. (15) The MDAA (aka the Musée Bleu or Blue Museum) sits right on the Rhône, adding a lovely synergy as the artifacts were pulled from these very waters. On the lawn outside the museum, you’ll see gardens fashioned in the style of the old Roman Circus, which once sat just adjacent. The MDAA is a wonderfully accessible museum, home to one of Provence's most important collections of Roman antiquities including a world-class collection of statues, and sarcophagi. It also has wonderful series of maquettes (miniatures) portraying Arles during the Roman period. All photos are © Remi Benali except diver photo which is ©Teddy Seguin. 

To read the National Geographic story about the chaland and see more great photos, click here.

Update: Guest blogger Sharon deRham no longer works as a tour guide in Provence but if you want to reach her directly: sderham@sonic.net.

Friday, May 16, 2014

A Luberon Tour for Foodies (By Bike or Car)

So a couple months ago I got a call from a woman coming to Provence with her husband and two daughters in July. She was looking at my list of Delicious Experiences and couldn't decide what to do. "We really want to do the Foodie Tour," she said, "but we also want to bike the Luberon with a guide. And we only have one free day left!"

You can probably guess where this is going, right?

So I got together with my bike-guide friend Jon and we mapped out a wonderful route, the idea being pretty similar to my St. Remy Tour for Foodies but this one designed for two wheels. Not only is Jon a professional bike guide, he's a professional chef too--with 15-plus years cooking experience in Provence and a shiny Michelin star for pastry on his resume. Let's just say that Jon knows a lot about Provencal gastronomy: the ingredients, the purveyors, the dishes and culinary traditions. I mean, how perfect is that? 

That's how this new tour came about... and it sounded like so much fun we thought other people might love doing it too. Et voila: A Luberon Bike Tour for Foodies!

Biking is hugely popular in the Luberon but not just because of the stunning scenery; many of the most-beautiful roads are often serenely, surprisingly traffic free. The region offers a wide range of terrific routes through rolling hills and lush valleys, with steep climbs up to medieval hilltowns and over pretty pine-covered mountains. Vineyards, olive groves and farms blanket the landscape left and right, their ancient stone farmhouses done up Elle Decor-fantastic or left tumbling literally into the fields. The produce grown in this department--the Vaucluse--is considered among the finest in France. 

Sound good? All you have to do is book your day (as much in advance as possible, please) and choose your bike--road bike, hybrid or electric--so it can be ready and waiting for you. Then off you'll go on a glorious full-day, food-fueled adventure. Depending on the day of the week and the season, your day might include a local outdoor market, an olive mill, a goat farm for a tasting of fresh goat cheeses, an ancient bread bakery still in use, a studio making superb confitures, the winery made famous in Peter Mayle's movie A Good Year, a tasting of truffle products and who knows what all else. 

Plus, you'll experience some of the top historic sites in the Luberon such the Chateau de Lacoste, the former home of that freaky Marquis de Sade (now owned by Pierre Cardin), the Abbaye de Senanques (home to silent honey bee-tending Cisturcian monks) and the hill towns of Gordes, Lacoste, Bonnieux, Menerbes and magical Oppede-le-Vieux. 

Since it's only you and your family or friends riding, you can go at whatever pace feels most perfect, but Jon expects to do 60 km (38 miles) or so. The day starts in Bonnieux around 8:30 am and ends about 5 pm. The cost is 350€ per person for two people or 250€ per person for three to six. For larger groups, please inquire. The price includes bike rental, helmets, market tastings, artisan visits, restaurant lunch and any museum entry fees. And if you love the food tour idea but the biking part not so much, we'll happily do the whole thing for you in a big comfy car for 300€ per person, including lunch and tastings.  The tour is available pretty much all summer and fall, with a couple weeks off here and there, when Jon is bike-touring groups around France or cheffing in private homes. 

For more info or to book, contact me: provenceblog@aol.com.

For more info about the Luberon, click here or here.

*Note: Since this story was written in 2014, we've added another version of this bike tour, in and around St. Remy, in the foothills of the Alpilles Mountains. Along the way you'll visit a few of our favorite local artisan food producers: a goat farm where they make delicious chevre and sometimes raise adorable baby pigs; the family-owned olive mill where they make 6 award-winning oils and a wide range of other delicious local products such as tapenade and confiture; a manade (ranch) where they raise bulls and make saucisson; a bee farm to taste the honeys; a beautiful and historic winery, etc. If you choose a full-day tour, we'll break for a casual picnic or have lunch in one of our favorite local cafes or bistros; the cost of lunch is extra. Half-day tours are normally 9 am to 1 pm or 2 pm to 6 pm but variations are possible. The half-day tour price includes electric bikes, helmets, bottled water, all tastings and your foodie guide. Half day: two people, 175€ pp. Then add 50€ per person. Kids prices depend on age. 

Photos:  (1-3) The village of Cucuron, fruit in the market at Gordes and goat cheeses in the market at Bonnieux, courtesy of Pamela Goode. (4, 5) The gorgeous winery Domaine de la Citadelle, and the adjacent corckscrew museum, are both owned by Yves Rousset-Rouard, the Mayor of Menerbes. (6-9). Grapes, olive oil, cheese and honey: the four food groups of the Luberon! Cheese and honey photos by Pamela Goode. (10, 11) And the bakery isn't bad either...(12) If there's time, you can pop into the Maison de la Truffe et du Vin, to learn all about two more of our favorite Luberon goodies. (13) When your guide Jon isn't in his biking gear, he's most likely wearing his chefs' jacket. (14) Pretty pinks, just waiting for you to taste. (15) Pull off the road to snap this view of Gordes; everyone does. (16, 17) The Abbaye de Senanques, inside and out. When the lavender is in bloom, this must be the most-popular photo-opp stop in Provence. (18) A splendid view of Bonnieux, courtesy of Linda Bailey Zimmerman. (19) Chateau la Canorgue, which stood in for the winery Le Coin Perdu in the movie "A Good Year." 

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Tres Baux! New Hotel & Golf Opens June 1

Roughly eight years in development, the Domaine de Manville will open near Les Baux de Provence on June 1st. It's not every day that our little patch of paradise gets a new five-star resort, not to mention one with an 18-hole golf course, so people down here are definitely abuzz!

Set on a 100-hectare former farm in the foothills of the Alpilles Mountains, the property encompasses a five-star ''Country Palace'' hotel with 30 rooms and suites, a gastronomic restaurant and bistro, heated indoor and outdoor pools and a spa.

Surrounding the eco-certified golf course (previously a nine-hole course called Golf des Baux), are nine 2,200-sq-ft. stone-and-glass "shared ownership" Maisons which sleep six to eight each and are available for weekly (in high season) and shorter rentals. Each luxurious villa has a full living room, dining room and kitchen, along with three en suite bedrooms upstairs and a large outdoor terrace. For more info on the villas, click here and here.

Guests in the villas can enjoy all hotel facilities and amenities including the pools, a 24-hour concierge, room service, a 3K hiking trail, yoga, personal trainer, electric and mountain bikes, a private ten-seat cinema, meeting rooms and a Mini Club for kids aged 2 to 7, based in two colorful gypsy caravans under the pines.

The hotel will be soft opening from June 1st onwards, with rooms and suites 15% off until July 1st. Hotel guests can golf as of June but the course officially opens to the public in September.

The Domaine de Manville is overlooked by Les Baux, the beautiful medieval hilltop village with an atmospheric, ruined château up top.  It's a fabulous setting, within an hour's drive of popular tourist areas such as St. Remy (10 to 15 min), Avignon, Arles, the Camargue, Aix, Isle-sur-la-Sorgue and the Luberon.

Surrounding the domaine, wine lovers will find the 12 gorgeous wine estates that comprise the Baux-de-Provence DOC or Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée; virtually all are open for visits and tasting. An hour or so up the road are Châteauneuf du Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras and the other famous villages of the Côtes du Rhone.

This is also serious olive country, where expansive farms produce oils and other olive products carrying the highly regarded "Vallée des Baux de Provence" AOC designation.

Opening Domaine de Manville fulfills ''a lifelong dream" for owners Patrick and Edith Saut, who both come from Maussane, a small, pretty village just down the road. Careers took them off to Paris (where Patrick ran the huge 9000-employee company called NGE) but they always kept the family home in Maussane...and are now based there again full time.

"Even when we lived away from our beloved Alpilles," Patrick explains, "we still dreamt of olive groves, vineyards and the countryside of pine and rock. We still heard the sound of the Provence wind and we knew that we'd come back one day. When we discovered Manville, we knew this was the place. Everything was here: the architecture, the local products, the food – all we had to do was work with it. This is our home and we want our guests to feel exactly the same, that this is their home too."

The name Domaine de Manville pays homage to Louis-Alexandre Blanc de Manville, who, in 1908, built a modern agriculture complex on this land with classic Provencal agricultural architecture: large rectangular stone buildings in a U-shape around a beautiful courtyard planted with ancient plane trees.

The Sauts and their architects felt that preserving the history was essential and made sure to maintain the integrity of both the original property and the natural surroundings. Even the golf course was built to respect the terrain – the greens and fairways geometrically shaped to resemble fields and meant to evolve with the seasons rather than staying green year round.

Meanwhile local designer Annie Zéau did the interiors--no two rooms alike--using natural materials (stone, wood, woven reeds) and local furniture and antiques. A number of rooms have mezzanine floors, ideal for families or groups of friends. Her goal, Annie says, was to create something "deeply comfortable, contemporary, spacious, uncluttered and intrinsically Provençal."

And what about the food glorious food? The chef is Steve Deconinck, formerly of the Michelin-starred Chez Bru in nearby Eygalières.  Born and raised in Ypres, Belgium, Deconinck's impressive CV includes time in the kitchens of superstar chefs Ferran Adrià and Marc Veyrat.  The cuisine will be modern Provençal, he says, low in "food miles" and rich with the flavors of the terroir: "From the vineyards, the kitchen garden, the Friday aioli, apricots, rosemary honey, tomatoes and strawberries from Carpentras – all bursting with sunshine." 

The gourmet restaurant will serve lunch and dinner every day in high season, then switch to dinner only when the weather cools. A bistro will serve lunch only, year round. Both are open to the public as well as hotel guests.

The hotel's general manager is Patrick Nayrolles, who was lured home to France for this job; he was  last working for the Societe des Bains de Mer as director of the Monte Carlo Beach Club on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi. Before that, he was at the famed Hotel de Paris in Monaco and the Cipriani in Venice. Born in the US to French parents, Patrick comes from some pretty serious hotelier stock: his father, now retired, was the GM of Meadowood in Napa Valley for many years, as well as of the Plaza-Athénée in New York.

The sales and marketing director is Florence Biscarrat, who worked for many years at Hôtel La Mirande in Avignon.

To design the golf course, Patrick Saut--a passionate golfer--turned to Thierry Sprecher, who's done more than 50 courses in 12 countries during a 30-year career.  The Sprecher view is that the terrain and landscape must dictate the character of the course. The fairways will evolve with each season, rather than staying green all year. Olive trees and streams provide natural obstacles. Greens fees range from 35€ (nine holes, low season) to 72€ (18 holes, high season). A wide range of packages are available and you can see all the golf info here. The golf manager is Jeremie Picot.

“The essence of my golf courses is nature above all," Sprecher says. "It's vital to maintain harmony and extend the work of nature. Golfers should feel they are walking on a natural landscape and they should feel a bit of intimidation and a little triumph too. I like to create courses that look and feel old, even though they are new. I like to feel they have existed for many years”.

Double rooms at Domaine de Manville begin at €275 per night, with breakfast extra at 28€ per person. 

Domaine de Manville
Les Baux-de-Provence, France
Tel: + 33 (0)4 90 54 40 20

*Note, my company, Provence Post Travel, would be delighted to assist you with booking rooms at Domaine de Manville, at no cost to you. Email me: provenceblog@aol.com.

Photos: 1. At Domaine de Manville, the original farmhouse dates to the early 1900s. 2: The ethereally beautiful village of Les Baux overlooks the property. 3: Edith and Patrick Saut came home to Provence to develop and run Domaine de Manville, fulfilling a lifelong dream. 4: A guestroom. 5: The 9-hole Golf des Baux was transformed into the new 18-hole course. 6: Guestroom. 7: Nine rental villas called Maisons are for sale (under shared ownership) and for rent. 8, 9: Two views of the landscape. 10-13: These pretty plates are the work of chef Steve Deconinck, a Belgian chef who worked with Ferran Andria, Marc Veyrat and, most recently, Wout Bru in nearby Eygalieres. 14: Taken in 1965, the B&W photo shows Edith with siblings and cousins at the family vineyard during harvest. (She's at the far left with a cousin on her lap.) The fourth-generation Domaine de Quatre Amours was begun by Edith's grandparents and is now run by her parents and youngest sister. It's between Pezenas and Gignac in the Hérault region of the Languedoc and yes, the wines are served at the new hotel. 15. Patrick and Edith Saut with their kids and grandkids.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Grace of Monaco To Open Cannes Film Fest

The 67th annual Cannes Film Festival is coming up May 14 to 25th and of course it totally takes over the town; this year 200,000 people are expected. The opening night film is Olivier Dahan's Grace of Monaco, with Nicole Kidman as Grace Kelly. Unfortunately, all the fancy screenings and parties are for industry insiders only...not for you. But Cannes is primo for people watching with the best celebrity sightings at the red carpet entrance to the Palais des Festivals and at the Bar des Celebrites at the Carlton. And, as in years past, there are definitely open-to-the-public events around town that will let you feel the buzz, even if you can't actually hang with Scarlett, Sarah Jessica, Sofia and Sophia, all of whom will be there. Here are two of them.

“Cinema de la Plage” is a free, nightly movie screening under the stars, on Macé Beach, next to the Palais des Festivals. Shows begin around 9:30 pm (''usually'') and no tickets are needed. Yep, just show up. And because your comfort is paramount to me, I inquired about seats and blankets and was told that both will be available...if you arrive early of course. Here's the schedule: 

15 May Eight and a Half, Fellini 1963
16 May For a Few Dollars More, Leone, 1965
17 May The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, Leone 1966
18 May United Passions, Auburtin 2014
19 May Seconds, Frankenheimer 1966
20 May The Warriors, Hill 1979
21 May La Folie des Grandeurs, Oury 1971
22 May Polyester, Waters 1981
23 May Pulp Fiction, Tarantino 1994
24 May Purple Rain, Magnola 1984 

More info about Cinema de la Plage appears here.

And once again, the American Club of the Riviera will be hosting their fabulous Film Festival Lunch in Cannes on May 17.  The reception starts at noon and will be followed by a four-course meal; insights will be provided by film-world insiders and there will also be a quiz.  It's all held  at the Belle Plage Restaurant and everyone is welcome. Details are on the ACR website here...or you can contact BGintell@aol.com for info.  Seats for non-members are 59€ each but book soon as they're almost sold out.

My friend Jackie Pressman has lived in Cannes 14 years and looks forward the festival every year. Last year she told me that if they enter a drawing, locals can get special invites to come to certain red-carpet screenings...apparently it's the Mayor’s way of apologizing for all the traffic, crowds and commotion. "But the truth is the festival is exciting," Jackie says, "and we all love it down here. Many non-industry people come just to soak up the atmosphere." 

Grace of Monaco is set to hit U.K. theaters on June 6, with Warner Bros. distributing the film there. The film doesn't have a U.S. release date yet as the Weinstein Company pulled it from its 2014 release calendar back in January. Apparently there's been a dispute between director Olivier Dahan and Harvey Weinstein, with the former saying that his film is finished but that he doesn't want to sign off on the version that Weinstein wants like to release. "There are two versions of the film at this moment," Olivier told Libération in fall 2013, "mine and his … which I find catastrophic." Dahan also accused Weinstein of creating a Grace of Monaco trailer that doesn’t reflect the film, later insisting that the actual film conform to its trailer. 

But that's hardly the only controversy surrounding the film. The Independent reports that the Royal Family is ''furious'' about the movie...that Prince Albert is "spoiling for a right royal row"...and that Albert and his sisters feel the director completely ignored their feelings by making the film about their beloved mother in the first place. You can read the Independent article here and see the the UK trailer for Grace of Monaco here.

Posters:  Up top is the French poster for Grace of Monaco, below it is the English version. Between them is the 2014 Cannes Film Festival poster, designed by Lagency / Taste, Paris, based on a photogram from Federico Fellini's The organizers explain the choice: "In his films, Marcello Mastroianni continued to encapsulate everything that was most innovative, nonconformist and poetic about cinema." On seeing the poster for the first time, Chiara Mastroianni, the actor’s daughter, said  “I am very proud and touched that Cannes has chosen to pay tribute to my father with this poster. I find it very beautiful and modern, with a sweet irony and a classy sense of detachment. It’s really him through and through!”