shades of blue: falling for gorges du verdon

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A stranger in the kitchen. That was my first impression of Rémi. I didn’t know how to politely phrase the question ‘who are you and what are you doing here,’ so I assumed he was related to my AirBnb hosts, a cousin or something. We had a whole conversation before I realized he was just a guest like me. In Cannes for a week from Bordeaux, he would complete a weeklong stage for his new job, the training period required before he begins in January and moves here for the year.

Both in our early twenties and new in town, we struck up an easy rapport, making our respective dinners at the same time and walking around Cannes together. In the middle of the week was le Toussaint–all Saint’s Day–and Rémi had the day off. He asked if I wanted to go somewhere.

Yes.

I thought of places Erika and I had visited that he might like. “No,” he said, “let’s go somewhere new for you too!”

Kind soul. I thought out loud about where we could go by train.

“I have a car!” He laughed.

La classe! Clearly I had been “roughing it” for too long. En voiture, the possibilities were endless.

We met early the next morning. Rémi hooked up the GPS, while I sat in the passenger seat thumbing through a Lonely Planet guide for Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur.

I fell on a page about the Gorges du Verdon: “Europe’s Grand Canyon.”

“Have you heard of this?” I read him the description, then typed the address into my phone. It was only thirty miles away, but the drive we’d need to make, winding around mountain roads, was predicted to take over two hours.

“Is that okay? What do you think…” I really wanted to go, enchanted by those turquoise waters, but I tried to hide it. If he didn’t want to, I understood. It would be a lot of driving time for a last-minute day trip, and we wouldn’t be able to trade off. (I thought of my one disastrous manual driving lesson the year before).

Rémi responded with that most French expression of enthusiasm: a shrug. “What’s the address?”

We were off.

img_3113It was a proper road trip: windows down, blue skies above, and the radio cut by static. In the space of an hour, our setting evolved from beach town to classic autumnal landscape to the ear-popping heights of the mountains.

We passed pastures of goats and sheep and plenty of warnings to watch out for wandering members of the flock.

Civilization became more and more scarce, but no matter the elevation, one thing was sure: even in the boonies, there would be no shortage of festivals.

Signs alerted us to the existence of fêtes celebrating everything from chestnuts to…donkeys. As you might expect from a country that loves champagne and celebration, France has a festival for everything. Some seem a bit…unnecessary (yay garlic. Yay orchids), but even the small ones are excuses to get together, eat, drink, and buy things you don’t need. And what’s not to love about that.

We were almost there, and I was more than ready, my stomach pleading with me to find solid ground. The comically tight, twisting roads were nauseating, as was the view (in a beautiful way, of course).

There were bikers (there are always bikers, tough as nails), and I would’ve stayed in the car all day before trading places. Their uphill plight looked like one of the circles of hell.

We passed crêperies and tiny pizza shacks squeezed onto the side of the road. Some had outdoor seating: the chairs lined up near the edge of the cliff, nothing between the casual diner and the abyss but a weak fence. One pizza margarita and a side of dread, s’il vous plaît.

We stopped to breathe and stare over the edge for awhile. Ultimately though, we wanted to get to Lac de Sainte-Croix. More driving.

It was worth it. I had never seen fresh water this shade of blue: from deep-teal to turquoise to swimming-pool-acqua depending on the light and on the depth.

We watched people set out in kayaks and paddleboats.

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Signs on the bridge warned swimmers from jumping. I was interested to see that the biggest danger cited was not the chance of landing wrong, or hitting a rock. No, jumping was a really bad idea, apparently, because of the high chance of getting stuck in the clay at the bottom of the lake. And drowning. To further dissuade, the signs listed a death toll. img_3109

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After driving, walking, and sufficiently appreciating the natural beauty, we were ready to find something to eat.

We drove away from the gorges and the lake and through a number of tiny villages perchés. They were postcard-charming…and postcard-still. Everything was closed for le Toussaint. img_3117 It was a hungry trip home to Cannes, which may have influenced my opinion of the pizza we eventually procured: absolutely delicious.

eye candy: a guide to Menton (a South-of-France staycation, i)

As much as I would love to run away every weekend, this year I am going to be motivated by money.

And money is telling me (to borrow from an internet meme I saw this week): “girl, you can afford to walk downstairs.”

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What luck, then, that my home base of Cannes can easily satisfy the travel bug in its proximity to a wide range of landscapes, cultures, and activities. From here, trains, buses, boats, a quick car ride, or a good walk all serve to transport the weekend traveler to a variety of interesting locales.

It seems the Côte d’Azur is the ideal setting for a staycation.

When my friend Erika came to visit in October, she brought with her the motivation for me to wander away from my favorite stretch of beach in Cannes la Bocca and to do some exploring. Some destinations were entirely new to me, while others saw my second or third visit and I wanted to show them off. Though Erika and I saw a lot, often packing two destinations into a day, we didn’t even scratch the surface.

First up was Menton.

Candy-colored Menton feels like home, surely because it’s tiny and I have visited thrice in the past year. What is a twenty-something American doing in a sleepy ville that mostly attracts English retirees? Well, largely just wandering around and appreciating my surroundings. The town is home to my favorite boulangerie (they know me there), which may have something to do with it. Ever had pain au chocolat you’d take a train for? I hadn’t, not until Menton. The café is on a main shopping street and near the carousel. That’s all I’ll tell you (or can tell you. I don’t even know the name).

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Exploring Menton

Originally lured by the well-known Fête du Citron (not, in my opinion, worth a visit on its own), I spent a week here with Mom last winter, and two weeks with Mary in May to celebrate the end of our teaching year. Menton (“chin” in French) is definitely not the It destination on the French Riviera. Its glamour is dilapidated, its opening hours are frustrating (why must a botanical garden close for two hours at lunch, or completely shut its doors on a Tuesday?), but it is beautiful and it is quiet. Menton’s old town is a pastel wonderland reminiscent of Italy’s Cinque Terre.

I knew Erika would appreciate the colors (and the pain au chocolat), but once we were kicked out of one of the gardens only ten minutes into our visit, and found the rest of them closed, we decided to keep our time in Menton short and try to see another town that day. Still, it got me thinking about my other visits here, and, combined, I’d say I’ve acquired a bit of knowledge (or opinions, at least) about how to do Menton right.

Menton mentality: come here to relax, not to be entertained.

For a day-trip visit: I’d recommend spending all your time outside. Get a brightly sour lemonade from Au Pays du Citron and walk to Italy (seriously, the border is just a short ways down the coast) or wander through one of the botanical gardens. Make sure to check opening hours and check again. Once you’re inside, the fussy planning is worth it. I particularly enjoyed the secret garden atmosphere of Serre de la Madone.

In early May, this garden is low on tourists but teeming with life (mating frogs, mostly). Next, climb the buttercup-yellow steps to the top of the Basilique Saint-Michel-Archange for a stunning view of the sea framed by palm trees. Keep your eyes out for trompe l’œil paintings: those that fool your eye into thinking there are objects (such as windows) that aren’t really there.

From the basilica, it’s easy to get to the Cimetière du Vieux Château, a sprawling cemetery that sits atop the old town.

For lunch, save your money and keep it simple. Despite the drool-worthy menus displayed on chalkboards all over town, Menton’s food scene leaves much to be desired. Instead of getting suckered in by a perfectly average tourist trap, opt to walk around Menton’s covered market, Marché des Halles, and grab food for a picnic. I recommend getting bread from local boulangerie Au Baiser du Mitron and picking out several cheeses and seasonal fruits. I like goat’s cheese with herbes de Provence and sheep’s milk tommes, as both are indigenous to the warmer parts of France.

If you don’t want to do the picnic thing, I’d suggest stopping at Sini, right next to the market, for really excellent pizza that you can eat sur place or take to go.

For a longer visit: Bring plenty of reading material or a project to work on. There’s nothing like a Mediterranean sunset or a walk through an olive grove to ignite creativity. I would recommend staying in an AirBnb in the vieille ville. Particularly in the off-season, you can find some really good deals (think 20 euros a night!). Find a place with a decent kitchen, stock it with the basics: olive oil, salt, pasta, a basil plant…and you can walk to the market daily for fresh fruit, vegetables, and fish.

Above: live music in a small square near the Marché des Halles. I definitely felt exactly like Rick Steves while taking this video. 

Menton is well-situated for day trips to even smaller towns. I’d recommend Èze (take “Nietzsche’s footpath” and be ready for some serious walking) and Villefranche-sur-Mer, both easily accessible by train for just a few euros.

Otherwise, visit the Jean Cocteau museum, as well as his bastion by the sea. Cocteau, an artist, author, and the director of the original Beauty & the Beast, was a contemporary of Matisse and Picasso, and apparently had a bit of a Napoleon complex about keeping up with them. If you visit Villefranche-sur-Mer, you can see the chapel Cocteau decorated, motivated by an effort to compete with the other master artists and their own “spiritual” chef-d’œuvres.

For a dinner out, try the plat du jour at Les Enfants Terribles (named for Cocteau’s 1929 novel). They put the daily catch on special, which is fun considering the restaurant’s proximity to the sea.

 Other things to do:

Visit the fine arts museum

Take a boat to Italy: for about twenty euros, you can get to Italy via a small boat in about two hours. (I haven’t tried this, but it looks like a great experience!) Just walk around the port and look for the chalkboard signs advertising departure times.

Take a train to Italy (Ventimiglia). The town isn’t as striking as Menton, but it’s still fun to hop over the border and have some real Italian lasagna, or at least a cappuccino, and get a taste of a different culture.

 

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shoebox in paris

Thoreau said, “I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.”  

It’s a fair sentiment, though with my budget, I’m more likely to be crowded on a pumpkin.

Using AirBnb, the glorious startup that connects travelers with private homeowners in the perfect meeting of supply and demand, I’ve had the comfort of a cozy, well-priced place to sleep in Strasbourg, Lyon, and the Riviera.

I’ve also found a few pumpkins: simple, private, and deathly uncomfortable.

The most memorable is a studio apartment in Paris.

“Apartment” is generous, “broom closet” somewhere closer to the truth. I think the ad, actually, described the place as A Shoebox in Paris. I respect “Olivier” for the honesty. While poetic, he did not use “shoebox” as a charming diminutive, but as a realistic description of the room’s actual dimensions.

The room was the size of a spacious American bathroom.

But it was Christmastime, and the idea of it all was irresistible. Despite arriving via a seven hour OUI bus from Strasbourg, it felt impossibly glamorous to be spending the week in the City of Lights. Given my history of misadventures, I should have known better, but once again I was starry-eyed. I pictured museums with no lines (and I’d get in free with my carte d’éducation). I dreamt of flawless French classics: buttery steak and perfect crème brûlée. There would be a light snowfall around the Eiffel Tower. 

It was so close: the perfect winter vacation, great escape from Montluçon. But first we had to lug our bags up six flights of stairs.

The task accomplished, the first problem we encountered was where to put our two suitcases. To give an idea of the available space, the bed was such that, should you share it, one person was effectively sleeping in the “kitchen” (a hot plate, a sink), while the other lucky traveler had an excellent view of the bathroom, sleeping nearly inside it as they were.

You had to step on the bed (and over a sleeping roommate), to access the bathroom, actually, which “closed” via a sad little accordion door and which contained a crusty bar of soap and an emphatic note in a rough English translation explaining how exactly to flush the cantankerous toilet.

There was one spot of glamour in the room, a small coffee table that accumulated over the course of our trip articles that advertised an entirely different sort of vacation, the kind that doesn’t involve freezing showers, the kind that might allow a bath towel in place of a washcloth.

The table held bright new novels from the Shakespeare & Co English bookstore, a bottle of pale pink Chanel Mademoiselle, and the creamy pastel boxes and bags from our visits to Ladurée for macarons that, temporarily, made me feel like a queen at Versailles instead of a mouse in a shoebox.

This wobbly balance between glamour and grunge became a theme for the week (and truly, for my whole life in France).

Christmas Eve, we wandered around looking for that perfect little brasserie. An hour and a walk through Montmartre and Pigalle later, we admitted defeat and had Christmas Eve dinner in a Chinese traiteur. We sat in our skirts and tights and heels and ate egg rolls and orange chicken, eight euros a person. The restaurant was empty, save for the family that owned it: the little girl playing by herself, the father watching a ninja movie in the corner. But we ate on fine, pretty plates and drank wine out of heavy glasses, leaving lipstick on the rim.

Then we went to Christmas service at the Notre Dame. Candles, the Christmas story in French. The organ music thundered through the cathedral and I felt stunningly small faced with all this grandeur, all that history, all those people.

Christmas Day we spent at the Pompidou, the quietest I’ve ever seen that place. My Christmas tree this year was a modern art piece: colorful bulbs that lit up suddenly every few minutes.

For Christmas dinner, wanting to avoid Orange Chicken Part II, we googled best Christmas dinners in Paris and booked one, a splurge. We ate at a beautiful place in Montmartre, feasting on oysters and foie gras and a fruit salad with lychees and the recommended wine pairing. The restaurant was full of non-Parisiens. The locals, we assumed, were home with their families.

The trip, like our AirBnb, wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. It was exhausting. Paris was cold, rainy, and gray, and there were more tourists than ever.

One day we went out of our way to go to a Christmas market near Nation. A far cry from the Christmas market we’d enjoyed in Strasbourg, this one was dripping and pitiful, on its last day. Most booths were closed, and still we got conned into buying expensive cheese. A lady yelled at me about gingerbread. We talked with a chef selling Portuguese custard tarts who disclosed his love for Merle Haggard and started singing “Okie from Muskogee” (definitely the best part of that day).

Overall we spent too much time in the dystopian underworld that is the metro, and we ran out of money and had to eat lentils for a month afterwards.

In pictures it is lovely, all pale sunsets and gold lights, but really it was cold and cramped and a little lonely in the way that Christmas without your family can be.

I know this, remember this, and still I am nostalgic. How was it that not so long ago I rented a terrible, memorable little shoebox in Paris with my best friend? Where are the croissant crumbs and freezing fingers, or, on fortunate nights, the oysters and champagne? Where are the endless espressos and afternoons free to wander?

Christmas in Paris was like the room’s promoted “Eiffel Tower view”: both sound a little more glamorous in the telling.

But we did have our shoebox view. It was there, if we stood on the bed to see out the high window. If it wasn’t obscured by the January clouds.

The trip, the view: awkward and uncomfortable and lovely still. There it was, if we were lucky: the top of the tower, sparkling brilliantly into the night.

 

bad & bougie: our ill-fated vacation turned writing retreat

According to some estimates, Menton, France experiences merely thirty-four sunless days a year.

I have been here for all of them. img_3557-1

That’s an exaggeration. I have learned, though, that even the “sunniest place in France” isn’t always the beach oasis you expect. Not in February, when I visited the first time with my mom, and not now. img_3534-1

I’m here again, this time with Mary, in our last stretch of time together in France this year. It seemed the perfect destination. Small, relaxing, and beautiful. I found an unbeatable deal on an Airbnb, and we figured we wouldn’t need to spend much money; we’d eat gelato and caprese salad and lounge on the beach all day.

But when we arrived two days ago, we saw Menton under clouds and a brisk wind. I envied passersby: cozy in thin down jackets. When we couldn’t figure out, for a frustrating thirty minutes, how to make the convertible couches turn into beds, I wondered if we had been way too optimistic. About money, about weather, about what we planned to do with a two week stretch of time not at the beach when we lacked the means to travel anywhere else, or to do much of anything besides feed ourselves modestly.  img_3553-1

I felt a little foolish and a lot disappointed. “Stop trying to make beach vacation happen,” I joked to Mary and myself, paraphrasing a quote from Mean Girls. “It’s not going to happen.”

I hadn’t even looked at weather forecasts for Menton in May, assuming that the area’s “unique micro-climate” (as quoted from approximately every tourism website) would be conducive to napping in the sand and listening to the waves.

Trying to think of ways to get the most out of our time here, I had a change of perspective. We could look at it as a creative getaway. Menton is a beautiful, sleepy little town, perfect for a lazy beach vacation or writing retreat. Voilà.

We figured out the beds (at last), slept in, woke to the first day of our “Writing Retreat in the French Riviera.” It sounds likes something the well-dressed, hat-donning British retirees around us might be doing, but our circumstances are just the slightest bit different.

My project is to catch up on this blog. Much has happened and I hope to share it articulately and with lots of pictures. It helps to be breathing fresh sea air and to know there’s no return to teaching anytime soon. In other words, I can finally relax.

A writing retreat. We will have breakfast every morning at this great boulangerie where the pains au chocolat and croissants are still bien chaud, warm from the oven. img_3543

We will visit the little covered market five minutes from our apartment and cook simple, fresh, Mediterranean and Provençal food. Yesterday we bought a basil plant, fat red tomatoes, a single melon, two banquettes of strawberries, all of it wonderfully fragrant. To finish up provisions we bought a large boule of fresh mozzarella, tagliatelle, garlic, olive oil, salt. img_3554-1

Everywhere we want to go is generally less than twenty minutes by foot. We can walk to Monaco one day if we need the exercise (only about ninety minutes).

If we need inspiration, there’s of course the crashing waves of the Mediterranean, which we can reach in less than a minute. Down the steps of our stone and brick street is a castle by the sea, refurbished by artist Jean Cocteau and now filled with his art. There are scores of gardens and grand pastel-painted hotels lining the Promenade du soleil along the sea.

We’re renting an apartment in le Vieux Menton, and thank goodness for that: we might have ended up in the harbor. img_3539

Trip planning, Mary was scrolling through the Airbnb website. “Come look at this! How cool would this be?” Pretty cool. We could sleep on a boat? Not a bad price–

And then we remembered something. Neither of us knows how to operate a boat.

The horror. I imagined that trip, paying to sleep on a boat that doesn’t leave the boardwalk. The mildew and tight shared spaces of aquatic travel, with absolutely none of the glamour.

Or the alternative, wherein we take the boat out anyway, end up lost at sea without provisions.

All that to say, I’m glad we’re here, high on the fifth floor, with a view of the Mediterranean when you stick your neck out of the side windows and look to the right. A tiny window in the tiny kitchen provides a view of the city: craggy hills and overlapping, bright, boxy buildings. The apartment is small and cozy, like a cabin or a nest, a perfect place to write. This high up, we’re surrounded by whirling pigeons and seagulls, by their spirited calls that mimic the full spectrum of human displays of mirth: from low chuckles to full-fledged maniacal laughter.

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Yesterday the high evening winds meant the beach was deserted, but in a light sweater and a rain jacket, I hardly noticed the cold. The waves rolled toward me, higher than I’ve ever seen them. I watched the sun set, pink over the water.

Despite a weather forecast of straight rain and clouds for the next ten days, the sun has made an appearance plenty of times. We’re flexible. It warms up five degrees, we run home, put on swimsuits, get down to the beach. The wind sets in, we’re back to the apartment, back up the flights of stairs, back to sweaters and chamomile tea.

humble pie in lemon land

Scene: late February. A sunny day in the South of France. A garden blocked from outside view by tall barriers and security guards. Hordes of elderly people wielding cameras and smartphones crest the hill. It’s a viewing platform, actually, all the better to gaze at a lion made from citrus fruits. img_8923-1

“Circle of Life” plays faintly in the background and a breeze carries the delicate scent of oranges.

Mom and I both are younger than the majority of the crowd by a good twenty-five years. I am not, in the view of the retired French people passing me as I pose for a picture in front of a house made of oranges, dressed for the weather. It’s a bright 63 degree day, but apparently still too early in the year to show one’s shoulders. They mutter about how I must be freezing, how “the poor girl needs a coat.”

How did we end up here?

When I realized several months ago that I was going to get to take my mom on a tour de France of sorts, I was a bit overwhelmed and then excited by the possibilities.

France was our oyster. I wanted to show Mom where I’ve been living in the Auvergne, but transportation to and from the area isn’t very manageable. Eventually I counted it out, promising to take lots of pictures instead.

Scouring the internet for some lesser-known French treasure, preferencing somewhere with sun, I saw a large sculpture of an elephant, made from oranges. Different. I followed a few links and learned that the image was taken at la Fête du Citron in Menton, France.

A lemon festival in a small town on the French Riviera.

Sounds kind of cool, right?

I pictured a charming, authentically-French community, colorful and lively. Markets and gardens. The churning Mediterranean sea. All enhanced by a quirky small-town lemon-scented festival.

To be fair, it was all of these things. But.

As soon as we saw the heart of the festival: a rectangular garden filled with revolving citrus sculptures underscored by tinny Broadway music, I wondered if I had made a terrible mistake.

Scenes flashed through my head. The many times, recently, I had told a French friend or colleague: “yeah, I’m really excited for les vacances. My mom’s coming, all the way from the United States. We’re going to Menton, in the Côte d’Azur. “For,” I had said, and here was the kicker, “la Fête du Citron.”

Currently, or so I had told many people, my raison d’être was a garden of Broadway paraphernalia. img_0767

I was staring at a big slice of humble pie. Lemon-flavored. Naturally.

Mom and I were in hysterics. The horror dawned. We stared as a cheery Mary Poppins revolved on her platform.

Mom. I could hardly get the words out, gasping with sheepish laughter. I told people we were coming here. Just for this. 

So it hadn’t been just in my imagination. When we met the neighbor who let us into our Airbnb in the Vieux Menton, he expressed surprise that we were American. That my mom, who doesn’t speak any French (yet!), had found herself in such an out-of-the-way place.

Yeah, we’re here for the Fête du Citron, I had said breezily. As if, yeah, c’est normal, it’s every day that someone flies thousands of miles to look at a tribute to Singin’ in the Rain.

I burned with embarrassment now, remembering, comparing my ideas with what I was seeing now. I had the strange feeling of having aged too quickly (try fifty years) in a day.

“Wow, Jess,” Mom said, sarcasm on full tilt, a faux-dreamy look in her eyes. “It’s everything I dreamed it would be.”

“Yeah, well,” I said, snickering. “Yeah, well. It’s worse for you, Mom. At least I live here. You flew over from the middle of the United States to come to this.”

I took some pictures and realized that if I aimed away from the army of French tourists pointing cameraphones, the photos would come out pretty cool. I like pretty pictures. But then I realized I was obligated to write about it. Tell the truth. Or else a friend might see one of the photos, be spurred to action like I had been. They might never forgive me, or at the very least, question my taste. And see, I value my friendships.

Later, on a train, I heard some older ladies chatting and translated for Mom: “the festival was especially good this year.”