Even for a person who enjoys the cold, I can now say enough! I am more then ready for spring! There are promising signs, the days are getting visibly longer and the dirt roads have turned to mud! This week most of the snow melted. So, this is an excellent time for Part Two of Provence Revisited.
In my blog entry from February 7th, Provence Revisited, I talked about my trip to Provence in 2017, made possible by a Professional Development grant from Hofstra University. The main goal of the grant was to learn about the cultivation of oboe cane (the species of cane is called arundo donax) that grows in southern France. For the trip, I was accompanied by my good friend Amanda. The plan was to spend three days visiting cane plantations and interviewing the growers in Hyeres and the surrounding area near the Mediterranean Sea. No hardship there!!
After that, we would have another three days to travel around Provence, with visits to Aix en Provence and Marseille. The main theme for this part of the trip was to visit museums and historic sites, including a visit to the Notre-Dame Senanque Abbey where the monks tend acres of fragrant lavender. AND, of course food played a major part of the planned itinerary!
Our trip started in Cassis, east of Marseille in the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region. Cassis is a quaint Provencal fishing village that is famous for the stunning and majestic Cassis Calangues; white limestone cliffs formed over 120 million years ago. We took a boat ride through crystalline blue water where we were treated to views of the magnificent and regal Calangues cliffs, that have inspired so many painters and artists; a wonderful way to start our adventure.
There were so many places that we would have liked to visit, but an excellent decision was to visit Aix en Provence; a small charming university town with beautiful architecture and bustling with energy! We checked into our hotel, Hotel en Ville; chosen partly because it was in walking distance of our lunch reservation at Chez Feraud! For this trip, I was looking for restaurants that were charming, unpretentious and most importantly offered great food. Chez Feraud did not disappoint!!
The food was excellent- I ordered a vegetable terrine that looked liked a beautifully arranged mosaic and a fish entree; grilled red mullet with black olive tapenade and roasted potatoes- but it was the dessert that I still remember clearly, simple poached figs served over homemade vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce! The only problem was that it was now time to walk to our next destination; Musee Granet. The only desire I had at the moment was to sit in an outdoor cafe and people watch; so this is just what we did!!
After we finally recovered from lunch- icy lemonade with fresh mint helped- we slowly walked to the museum. Originally started in 1766 as a free drawing school, the museum has grown to it’s present size to include over 12,000 works and masterpieces. The day we visited, there was a special exhibition of contemporary works of art that were edgy and boldly colorful.
The next morning we drove to a leafy neighborhood in the Lauves Hill section of Aix to visit Atelier Paul Cezanne. In 1901, Cezanne bought a plot of land that at the time was open countryside. He built a simple two story house and from 1902 until his death in 1906, he worked here daily in his studio. After viewing the studio, I walked outside to the garden in the back of the house; surrounded by the lush greenery, I sat quietly enjoying the sense of history.
The next day we headed up into the hills towards Apt. Our hotel was in the town of Gargas about an hour from Aix. Picking hotels sight unseen can sometimes result in not perfect outcomes. But in this case, I was delighted that the clientele in the charming Mas de la tour, was not touristy, and included a French motorcycle group and a group of handicapped youths on a field trip. The rooms were charming and very reasonable priced. Housed in a 12th century structure that once was an abbey, it was not far from the beautiful hills towns of Roussillon, Gordes and Bonnieux.
We checked into the hotel and then it was time for our lunch reservation in the medieval village of Bonnieux at L’Arome, across the street from a breathtaking view of the hills.
Usually my recollection of memorable past meals is on the mark, but here I only remember that the food was delicious. Perhaps the stunning scenery distracted me and the fact that I was sitting on a terrace in the middle of Provence in a medieval hill town! My only regret is that I did not obsessively take pictures of the beautifully plated food. Here is one picture of my appetizer, almost too beautiful to devour, which I do remember that I happily did!
That night, overly full from lunch, we had dinner in our hotel’s cozy outdoor courtyard restaurant. I remember that the food was good, but the best part was observing the other guests and the hotel’s friendly dogs that eagerly visited the tables. Amanda snuck a bit of her beef daube, that was a bit gristly, to one of the dogs!
The next morning we drove to the charming small city of Apt, famous for it’s bustling open air market place held every Saturday at the Place des Martyrs de la Resistance. The streets are filled with small stalls that sell everything from fruits, vegetables, cheese, bread and pastries to colorful fabrics, pottery and antiques.
I purchased a small tart made from puff pastry, filled with figs and almond paste. I placed it in my bag for later in the day when a snack was called for. And, this is one of my favorite parts of the trip: our next stop was the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque in Gordes. Started in 1148, the monastery still has an active religious community of monks that gather together seven times a day for prayer. The monks are famous for their cultivation of lavender. As my friend Amanda navigated our rental car around the steep and narrow roads, I took out my fig tart and as I took a bite, the fragrant scent of lavender wafted into the car! Heaven on earth!!
The monks have very generously structured their daily life to allow the public to tour the monastery. The tours were in French only, and I could only pick out a few words or phrases, but it was lovely to listen to the fluid and musical language as we walked through the chapels and cloister areas.
When I am traveling, I sometimes find that the unplanned discoveries are often very rewarding. Driving along a back road, we saw a sign that said La Boutique du Molin and we pulled off the road to investigate. It turned out to be an artisanal olive oil cooperative where the growers from the area bring their crops to be processed into olive oil. The friendly and helpful owners offered to give us a tour of the facility and they talked about the process of making olive oil. Then, we had an olive oil tasting where we sampled many different flavors of olive oil. It was fascinating to discover the different character and taste of each oil. And, of course we ended up purchasing a good number of bottles for friends and family.
We flew into Marseille and our original plan was to drive back to Marseille and spend our last day in France touring around Marseille before we returned home. We got to Marseille late in the afternoon- the steep and narrow streets of Marseille were very difficult to navigate our car through and by the time we found our hotel, New Hotel Bompard, a small nap was in order. We did not get to visit some of the places on our itinerary: the Basilica Notre Dame de la Garde, Parc Borely, and the Chateau Borley (museum of decorative art)- this will have to be for another trip!
Then it was time for our dinner reservation at Chez FonFon. We walked down the steep and crowded streets to the restaurant, located in the old fishing port. Across the street from the restaurant was a crowded open air night club- it looked like a movie set from a Fellini movie. Chez FonFon is known for it’s excellent Bouillabasisse specialties, but after a few days of indulgence, I was not that hungry. I ordered a small appetizer of grilled fish and this was perfect along with some bread and a glass of wine! Afterwards we walked around the port and then very slowly back up the long hill to our hotel and very welcome beds!!
So, back to reality! Every day it seems as if we are getting closer to our new normal and if all goes well, more freedom. Writing this blog has awakened my desire to travel again! The other day, a simple dish of roasted red and yellow peppers brought back memories for some of the bright flavors that I tasted in Provence. The peppers can be served over pasta, grilled fish or chicken and with some crusty French bread and a glass of Rose wine, you can imagine that you are sitting on a terrace in Provence!
Roasted Red and Yellow Peppers
2 red peppers
2 yellow peppers
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
To make peppers:
Pre- heat oven to 450 degrees
Cut peppers in half and remove seeds and ribs. Slice into medium size strips.
Place on a large baking sheet and pour a few tablespoons of olive oil over peppers. Mix together with your hands.
Season with salt and freshly ground pepper.
Roast peppers for about 20-30 minutes, stirring about every 5-10 minutes with a spatula.
Roast until peppers are soft and start to caramelize.
Serve over pasta, grilled fish or grilled chicken.
As we drove down the hills back towards the Mediterranean, Amanda noticed that the vegetation had dramatically changed and she said, “There it is, on the side of the road- wild oboe cane!”
My over packed suitcase made it safely back home with Rosé, a huge bag of oboe cane from Daniel Rigotti and of course olive oil! AND, I can happily report that I checked out several of the restaurants and hotels that we visited and they seem to all have survived the pandemic! Perhaps a return trip may happen in the not too distant future!!