Monday, September 29, 2014

France On Your Own...But Not Alone

My friend Delana, an American in Aix, has just launched a new business…and I think it’s a terrific idea. Travel Solo Bootcamp is a week-long crash course for women on traveling alone in France…with eight guests max per session. Delana’s partner in the venture is Marcia Mitchell.

Travel Solo Bootcamp is for you if you want to hit the road on your own but might be hesitant because you’ve never traveled abroad…or don’t speak the language…or aren’t comfortable eating alone…or want backup in case of emergency. Or, perhaps you just want some company but don’t necessarily want to spend the whole week with a friend, a partner or a group.

"By giving you knowledge and in-the-field training, you’ll find the confidence to travel solo safely and joyfully,” Delana says. “You’ll perform daily solo maneuvers on your own or with people you’ve met outside the group. We’ll give you a local cell phone so you can contact us for support. And you’ll quickly find that a well-prepared woman traveling on her own is really never alone.”

I love their motto: “We won’t hold your hand but we’ve got your back.”

Here’s how it works. After you sign up for one of the pre-set weeks (or book a custom session), you’ll receive French language info for practice, packing and wardrobe tips in the weeks leading up to your trip.

When you arrive in Provence on Saturday, you’ll be met at the airport and whisked to you own “chic and comfortable” apartment in Aix. Delana, Marcia and their team will help you get settled and you’ll rendezvous later for an aperitif.

On Sunday, you’ll get a tour of Aix and the Luberon Valley, the region made famous by Peter Mayle in his book A Year in Provence. The day ends with a group restaurant meal. Every morning thereafter,  you’ll start the day at an outdoor café or perhaps the coffee bar in a charming bookshop. Over coffee, tea  and croissants you’ll chat about getting around in France, about learning the language, the history, the etiquette,  about dining well alone, about how to meet people while traveling and how to have maximum fun.

Afternoons will be spent on assigned "maneuvers."  These might include a cooking or painting class, a wine tasting tour, a salon visit or, according to Delana,  “Look out! You might be ordered to go shopping for – ooh la la—French lingerie.”

The group will meet several times during the week for a "working apero." Over wine and nibbles, you’ll get a French lesson from a local or perhaps a session on "that special something the French women seem to have." A guest will join you for a dinner you’ve prepared together, to coach everyone on French manners and what’s expected at a dinner party or on a date.

Other topics during the week will include "How to eat lunch alone….and enjoy it!" and the best tactics for clothes shopping or market shopping: how European sizes are different, local shopping etiquette, who you can and can't bargain with. Boot-campers will each get a shopping assignment, such as buying a slightly shorter or slimmer skirt than you're accustomed to or perhaps a new scarf (no Frenchwoman is without one!).

On another day, you’ll learn the ins and outs of public transportation, with a homework assignment of taking public transportation to an outlying village to explore. 

So who are Delana and Marcia and how did they learn all this stuff? You can read their bios here.

So far, boot camps are planned for three upcoming weeks: October 18 to 25, 2014, May 9 to 16, 2015 and June 6 to 13, 2015. The fee is $2000 and you’ll see what that includes and doesn’t on the website. Custom boot camps, other dates and group rates are available. For more info, visit the website here or contact Delana at You can also find them on Facebook.  

Photos: Delana (left) and Marcia. The elegant Cours Mirabeau, the heart of Aix, as photographed by Andrea Schaffer.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Coming Soon to a City Near You...

When the weather cools in Provence and tourism starts to trail off, lots of locals in the hospitality biz head out of town: to visit family, to hit the beach somewhere and regroup for the busy season ahead…or to take winter jobs in far-flung locales like the Alps, the Far East or the Caribbean.

My friends Guy Bremond (a French wine expert) and Jon Chiri (an American chef) are among those who would rather keep working. So for the third November in a row, they’ll leave Provence to offer gourmet French wine-tasting dinner parties in private homes in the Western US. This year they plan to hit Washington, Oregon, California and possibly Texas. The program is called “My Chef and Master Sommelier at Home” and their website is here.

The format is simple:  pick a day from the calendar on their site and invite up to 14 people. Chef arrives at 3 pm, wine tasting starts at 6 pm, dinner starts at 8:30 pm. The wines will be shipped to you from Châteauneuf du Pape roughly a month ahead…and Guy will lead your guests in a 90-minute tasting.  Then Jon serves a four-course meal, inspired by traditional Provencal cuisine and designed to pair perfectly with the wines. Total price for the evening is either $3695 or $3995, which includes all food and wine for 15 people, service and cleanup.

So who are these guys? Guy is a master sommelier who owns Les Caves Saint Charles in Châteauneuf. It’s a tasting room in a vaulted cellar dating from the 12th and 13th centuries, located at the top of the village, right by the church. Open from mid April to early November, Guy pours and sells roughly 35 local labels, serving them up in a magical,  candle-lit space that once stored wines for the Popes based in Avignon. He’s a charming raconteur who speaks terrific English…and he loves to make the wines come alive with tasting tips and tales about the personalities behind each domaine.  Next summer, he’ll be unveiling a cooking school and a small food shop.

Born and raised in Châteauneuf, Guy trained at the Culinary Academy of Arles and the Lycée Hôtelier in Tain l'Hermitage. He earned the title Master Sommelier after a series of rigorous exams, then went to work in high-profile hotels in Switzerland and Hong Kong.  But his beloved Châteauneuf beckoned and in 2007, Guy began excavating these ancient wine caves, opening to the public in May, 2012. (More info on Les Caves Saint Charles appears below.) After the dinner series in the US wraps up, Guy will return to be sommelier at the five-star Hotel Lana in the French ski resort of Courchevel.

Jon was born in Davis, California and attended the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in Napa Valley. He then went on to chef jobs in New Orleans, Santa Barbara and Seattle, followed by Berlin and Barcelona. He moved to Provence in 2001 and ran the prestigious cooking school La Marmiton at the Hotel La Mirande before hopping over to be the chef at Château de Massillan in Uchaux, not far from Avignon. His next gig was at La Verriere,  the “extreme wine school” and conference center in Crestet. These days he wears a couple different chapeaux, working as a private chef, cooking teacher and bike guide around Provence.  He and a partner have the company Gourmet Cycling Travel…and he and I have joined forces to create these Luberon Foodie Tours, offered by bike or car. But with an adorable 4-year-old son waiting for him at home in Seattle, Jon now prefers to spend his winters in the US, taking private chef jobs and doing these elegant dinners. 

“We look forward to them all year,” he tells me. “Whether the table is filled with old friends or new, we love presenting the food and wine of Provence this way. It’s such a joy to share our favorite terroir with people as enthusiastic about eating and drinking as we are. And since we do all the work, the host really gets to be a guest.”

For more info or to book a table, visit the website, email Jon ( or call him on his US mobile:: +33 (0)6 46 89 85 33.

*Note: If you’d like to visit Guy in Châteaueuf, he’s open seven days a week, mid April to early November. Private 60- to 90-minute tastings  are free; groups of eight or more pay 15€ per person. You'll taste five to seven wines, including old vintages and a white Châteauneuf. Obviously Guy wants  to sell wine...and his prices are definitely higher than what you'd pay at the winery or at retail...but it’s a small premium for a unique experience  in a cool, historic setting. And, there's no heavy sales pitch: if you like it, you buy it. Another bonus to buying here is that Guy will ship wine to the US when many others won't.  Les Caves Saint Charles is at 10-12 rue des Papes in Châteauneuf. To book a tasting or for more info :  +33 (0)4 90 39 13 85,  +33 (0)6 03 46 47 37,,

Photos: Jon and Guy plating...Jon marketing...clients partying...Guy sniffing...and Guy with clients in his caves in Châteaueuf.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Two-for-One Meal Deals Sept 22 to 28

The Fourth Annual Tous au Restaurant promo is coming up September 22 to 28. That means you can get two-for-one deals on special menus in hundreds of restaurants all across France. 

Chefs prepare a special prix-fixe menu of appetizer, main course and dessert. The first guest chooses this menu...and the second guest receives the same menu at no charge.  So here's your chance to act like a big shot and invite all your friends out to eat! Sometimes the deal is at lunch, sometimes dinner...and some restaurants are offering it at both. 

Booking  begins on Wednesday, September 17 at 10 am on the Tous au Restaurant site. Reservations made any other way are disqualified. 

As of today,  there are 83 restaurants in the PACA region (Provence Alpes Côte d'Azur) participating and roughly 1.000 all over France. 

For the list of all participating restaurants, click here

For all the restaurants in the PACA region, click here.

Restaurants have until September 22nd to sign be sure to check back. I did a quick scan and found lots of favorites including:

Auberge du Noves in Noves
La Cabro D'or in Les Baux de Provence
Le Pré Gourmand in Eyragues
Le Saule Pleureur in Monteux
Restaurant Prévôt in Cavaillon
L'Epuisette in Marseille
La Table du Mole Passédat at MUCEM Museum in Marseille
Mantel in Cannes
Cafe Llorca in Vallauris
Lou Cigalon in Valbonnes
L'Ecurie du Castellas in Ramatuelle
Hostellerie Berard in La Cadière-d'Azur 
L'Auberge du Choucas in Le Monêtier-les-Bains

For the main website in English, click here. And don't get the two-for-one deal you have to book through the Tous au Restaurant site. Bon App!

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Journées du Patrimoine is Sept 20 + 21

It's that time again: The wonderful annual Journées du Patrimoine event takes place September 20 and 21 in cities and villages all over France; a few have activities on Friday the 19th as well. The program was started by the French Ministry of Culture in 1984 and has since spread all over Europe (where it's also called European Heritage Days). This is the 31st year. The idea is that many historic sites, monuments, buildings, estates and domaines are open for visits...along with many private sites that are normally, um, private. Most sites have a guide on hand to enhance your enjoyment of the visit and most (but not all) offer free entry. Some may require you to sign up in advance...but for the most part, you just show up. The website with all the participating venues is here but you'll do much better checking in with the Tourist Office or the tourism website of the village or city you want to visit. For example, the main Patrimoine website lists just seven participating sites in my village of St. Remy. But the village itself has published its own terrific guide and map featuring 20 participating can see it here. 

Here are some additional Patrimoine schedules, or at least the best info I could find online: AvignonAixArlesMarseille, NimesUzesCannesBeaucaire,  Cassis, Fos Sur Mer, Vaison la Romaine and the Vaucluse. Beyond that, you're on your own...but here's a list of most of the Tourist Offices in Provence and they should be able to help.

Photos: The poster and logo for the nationwide event...and a selection of local posters.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

My Friend the Rock Star

In 2010, my Canadian friend Carolyne Kauser-Abbott (top photo) convinced her husband Andrew (and Labrador Jade) that a few months in France would be fun...and they stayed for more than a year. They currently split their time between Canmore in the Canadian Rockies, Southern California and Eygalieres in Provence. At home or on the road, Carolyne writes the food and travel blog Ginger and Nutmeg, creates travel apps under the brand Edible Heritage and does social media consulting. I think of Carolyne and Andrew as extreme travelers: their idea of good fun runs along the lines of biking 100 kilometers to poke around a new village...or flying the ridges of the Alpilles Mountains in a glider...or driving a couple hours to meet a top French cowboy who raises bucking bulls. When Carolyne told me about their latest escapade--climbing the Via Ferrata in Cavaillon—I was completely intrigued...and I asked her to share the info. This is what she sent.

Waiting for the bike technician to check the brakes on my velo, I was thumbing through the random pile of ad flyers promoting local restaurants. One pamphlet caught my eye:  a new Via Ferrata in Cavaillon. This was something I really had to try but it took more than a year to convince my husband to “harness up.”

Via Ferrata (iron road) is an Italian term. The phrase was used to describe alpine military routes created during World War I in the Dolomite Mountains of Northern Italy. Wooden ladder rungs and heavy ropes were installed to fixed points along rocky ledges. These rustic vertical corridors provided somewhat sheltered approaches to the summits for the troops.  

Post-war, the appeal of the Via Ferrata as an adventure activity for non-alpinists became apparent, offering approachable routes to breathtaking European mountaintops. In the 1930s, the Italian Alpine Club began converting makeshift army equipment into more permanent installations (the whole story is here).  

Currently there are more than 1,000 Via Ferratas in Europe including 200-plus in France alone. Two French websites with lots of additional info are here and here. Adventure seekers will be pleased to know that there are several Via Ferratas in Provence.

The “iron road” in Cavaillon opened in June, 2013, about 40 meters up on the cliffs of the 180-meter Saint-Jacques’ Hill overlooking the city. It’s the only Via Ferrata in a European city that’s accessible on foot from downtown. More than 20,000 people have ‘’done’’ it  since the official opening.

There are two loops: the shorter Via Natura that takes about two hours to complete and the four-hour Via Souterrata. On both routes, you’ll be treated to an expansive view of the Durance Valley. Up close, you will enjoy seasonal fauna that sprouts from seemingly impossible perches.

The Cavaillon Via Ferrata is open all year and there is no charge to use it.  However, it’s highly recommended that novices engage one of the certified guides listed on the Cavaillon website here for their first time on the circuit. We chose David Malbos of Vertical Session.

We left our car in the parking lot at the top of the hill on Chemin de l'Hermitage and David welcomed us with a broad smile,  then introduced us to the rest of the group; we were eight in total for this adventure.  David is not only fully certified and clearly passionate about his job--he was one of the early visionaries for the Via Ferrata in Cavaillon. He was involved in all the stages, from the initial proposal in 2011 through environmental studies, design, installation testing and now guiding.  So, I felt that we were in good hands.

After a brief run-through on proper equipment usage, we were ready to start our tour. David did warn us that there is no easing into this Via Ferrata…and he was right! After passing through a spring-loaded gate, you clip onto the first metal wire, descend a few rebar rungs and you’re crossing your first canyon on a single strand of cable.  Despite the fact that the risk of tumbling is nearly impossible, it’s difficult to convince your brain otherwise. 

Our group completed the Via Souterrata in roughly four hours with David’s coaching. I was never afraid of falling as you’re anchored at all times. However, the via ferrata was more physical than I had expected: there’s one notable climbing section, a few suspended crossings and even two short tunnels. Had I checked the website beforehand I would have realized that the Via Souterra loop was ranked TD --très difficile--so although you do not require any rock climbing experience a base level of physical fitness and some time spent in hiking boots will make for a more enjoyable tour. 

All in all, it was a terrific afternoon on the rocks overlooking Cavaillon.  Have a look at this video clip to give you a feeling for the adventure.

When you hire a guide, they’ll provide a helmet and Via Ferrata kit, which includes the harness and necessary clips. In addition, you should wear lightweight hiking shoes, and carry a backpack with water, sunscreen, gloves, an extra layer and a snack.

For more info, the Tourist Office in Cavaillon can be reached on +33 (0)4 90 71 32 01 or via their website here

Photos: Social Climbers! Carolyne...the view...the warning...Carolyne's husband Andrew David Malbos...another climber...and four folks hanging on by a thread on the Cavaillon Via Ferrata. All photos by Ginger and Nutmeg except final shot, which is by Sam Bie.