Saturday, June 6, 2015

Ménerbes: A Week in Provence

 Leaving Sicily, we first flew to Munich and then onto Marseille.

Aerial view of Marseilles.
Marseille, the gateway to Provence, is located on France's
 south coast and is the second largest city in France, after Paris.
We quickly rented a car at the airport and were soon on A7 Autoroute heading inland to Cavaillon and on further to Ménerbes. We were to be joining Ian and Judy and an extended community of new friends ... not one a Peter Mayle wannabe, or so Gus hoped.
The drive took maybe  hours. We turned left off a country road, passed through an iron gate, drove up the sand and gravel driveway, and parked. We had arrived: Bucolic Provence.  Our home for the week ...
Entrance gate and driveway

It was early evening and we were the last to arrive. During the day, our housemates for the next week arrived and had each settled in.

Our room, Room Moulin Rouge
(photo courtesy of VRBO)

Our housemates ...

Ben & his wife, Jamie
On their tandem bicycle brought from home

Garçon d'anniversaire

Shelley & Judy
Sisters in French stripes

Ian's younger sister

Judy & Tina
Friends for life

Charlie with his panama hat & wife, Roxy
"Avec ma femme a Bonneiux"
(photo courtesy of Charlie)

Most all of our housemates had arrived in Europe before arriving in Ménerbes. Ian, Judy, Shelia, and Tina first spent 6 days ("Three Perfect Days" times 2) together in Barcelona enjoying tapas (Cal'Fusta, Mirilla, and El Callejon) and what we were told was exceptional "eye candy" and then drove to Provence. Jamie and Ben passed through Paris on their way to Vaison la Romaine; Ben described the charming town as "a highlight of our honeymoon that we had always wanted to revisit." They stayed for a couple of days in Vaison la Romaine before continuing on to Ménerbes. Charlie and Roxy went to the French Open (Round 4 and Quarterfinals) sans Roland Garros panama hats and then wandered down through the south of France. Finally, Shelley, the only one to travel directly from the United States, spent almost 24 hours getting from San Francisco to La Bastide de Ménerbes. 

The first morning we all seemed to begin an adjustment to not rushing things. First coffee, then more coffee, then a question ... what shall we do today? "Tout prend du temps, ne vous précipitez pas de choses." The effect of being here, in this separate and peaceful place, was immediate and obvious. No more rushing to meet with a tour guide, no more "must see" tourist attractions, no more scrambling to get tickets to an calendar accommodating event, no more restaurant reservations, no more, no more. "Let's go to a village market, it is Sunday, how about the one in L'Isle sur la Sorgue?" 

Going in several different cars we found parking at bit of a challenge...we were scattered around the little town. The town, though, does an excellent job of setting up free auxiliary parking areas for the hundreds, if not, thousands of visitors. Yet, the sun shone, the river glittered, the streets were thronging with color and life, the crowds were cheerful and relaxed; no one hurried, no one pushed, the air was fresh and warm.  Gus began to think if he had one Sunday left to live he would spend it in L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.

Pellucid river Sorgue
There are seven or eight of these waterwheels scattered around
 town serving as reminders that L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue was a very
 active industrial center in the past. These large waterwheels, and
 dozens of others, were used for things such as dyeing fabrics and
 powering olive and paper mills.

Wonderful female busker singing Mademoiselle de Paris
with Edith Piaf's rasp in her voice.

 "The only thing you can't get in L'Isle sur la Sorgue is a bargain." Peter Mayle

Joan and Gus proved him wrong.

Boucherouite that Joan & Gus bought at
Galerie Demesure and shipped home. This
art gallery and interior design shop is on
 Avenue de la Libération.
Boucherouites are usually one-of-a-kind vintage recycled fabric rugs made in North Africa by Berber women who weave recycled cotton, nylon and occasionally wool together to create ribbon-like rugs.

Vintage advertising signs abound.

The wonderful canals and river basins make L'Isle sur la Sorgue one of the most picturesque spots that we have ever visited in all of our travels.

River basin where the waterways enter the
 center of the village. Looking across the basin
 is Le Bellevue on Quai Jean Jaurès.

River dam and falls leaving the basin at
Avenue Général de Gaulle and Porte des Bouigas.
And of course, the amazing market.
 (Credit for most of the market photos: Desire Empire)



Certainly, the market had many items other than just wonderful food ingredients. The Sunday market is a food market, a flea market, and an antique market all rolled into one so you can buy everything from fresh flowers, to seasonal produce, to Provençal fabrics, to fragrant French soaps, to fine art, to highly prized antiques.

Our group gathered at  Le Moulin de L'Isle for a nice lunch (thanks Tina and Shelley). The most memorable, for Gus, was his ordering and eating andouillette and sauerkraut. Some comments:
  • "True andouillette is rarely seen outside France and has a strong, distinctive odor related to its intestinal origins and components. Although sometimes repellant to the uninitiated, this aspect of andouillette is prized by its devotees."  Wikipedia
  • "... it absolutely stinks and we're not talking good stink."   good food
  • "Love it or hate it, there are no half measures and its staunchest supporters would sell their souls for a “Five A”. Those who turn their noses up at the mention of the andouillette have no idea what a treat they’re missing!"   travel Michelin
  • "But I am never f*ck$#g eating that disgusting s*#t again."   luis in paris
Well, as Gus always like to say ... "De gustibus non est disputandum"

We soon returned to La Bastide. Ben and Jamie made a wonderful dinner of vegetable frittatas and salad accompanied by several quaffable Provence rosés provided and opened by Charlie. 

The next morning was different, but only slightly. We all headed off to the superb little village of Ménerbes. Most on foot, some on bicycle, and a couple by car. The goal was to find a pâtisserie and experience the quintessential French ritual of le petit dejeuner or morning meal. Unfortunately, we had to settle for a boulangerie which had a limited selection of pastries; however, the boulanger still served some pasties and delicious coffee drinks.
Shelley, Judy, Tina, Jamie, Ben, Shelia, Charlie, Roxy, Ian

Charlie, Roxy, and Ian
Judy and Jamie
Weather forecast for Ménerbes

Then the question ... what shall we do today? "Today is Monday, let's go to the market in Cavaillon." Cavaillon market may be the least charming market of the Luberon, somewhere that locals shop for clothing, fabrics, leather goods, footwear, bed linens, bags, soaps and other household products ... Joan even bought 2 pairs of cargo shorts.

Joan's purchase of the shorts is worth a brief story. Walking by a set of clothes racks she spied two pairs of cargo shorts. One raspberry and another turquoise. She asked the young man who was minding the stall if she could try them on; she was told yes and was led maybe five blocks away from the stall and shown a large, white delivery truck. The young man opened the latched door and told Joan that she could try the items on in there. Joan, with her bum hip, climbed into the truck. No windows, very little light, and no mirrors. Joan tried on each pair of shorts, each time exiting the truck, walking across the street, and checking the reflection of the garments in a store window. Each pair fit reasonably well and looked good on her. Returning to the stall she purchased the items for € 20. Now that is what's called 'SEAL Team 6' shopping.

Oh yes, as for food shopping, we found spices, quality meat, fresh shellfish, and organic produce for our next few dinners.

Culinary lavender


Pâté en Croûte from
Girard Blanc Michel Boucherie-Charcuterie
The Charentais melon of Cavaillon is a fragrant star of the European
 cantaloupe family and at its best is far more succulent than the North
 American cantaloupe.
Provençal breakfast radishes

 We shopped with Ian and Judy who were responsible for making dinner tonight.

Charlie, Judy, Ian, and Shelia's left shoulder
Assorted grilled meats, roasted potatoes, and Romesco sauce.
Dinner is served!

We enjoyed another wonderful dinner washed down by some of the region's modestly priced food friendly wine. 

Not to be mistaken for a version of Groundhog Day, but ... what shall we do today? "Today is Tuesday, let's go to the market in Gordes." Gordes, a quintessential Provençal hilltop village, is really all about the view of the town from the approaching road and not much else, but what a view.

Approaching picturesque Gordes from the south
(photo credit: Under our own olive tree)

It was another beautiful day and the market was not as crowded as the two previous markets that we had visited. The Gordes market features clothing, hats (Gus bought a Panama hat to replace the one he left on the first leg of his last airplane flight), jewelry (Joan purchased a simple bracelet), soap (we added to our collection), linens and other souvenirs. There were only a few offerings of local specialties and an even smaller selection of fruits, vegetables, or proteins. However, the few ...

Artisan pâte de fruit and nougats

Hand crafted traditional nougats and assorted fruit pastes.
Mixture of dried forest mushrooms.
Anise seed (back left), rosebuds, and cardamom (back right)
Bergarouge apricots.
Juicy, very sweet and very low acidity. It is
available from early June through late July.
Apple cider vinegar is the most common fruit vinegar,
 but consider the endless possibilities with pear, plum,
 raspberry, blackberry, persimmon–or even tomato
 vinegar. From left raspberry, green apple, and tomato.

Just outside Gordes is the lovely medieval Sénanque Abbey with its famed lavender field. We were a bit early in the season (in Provence the lavender is in full bloom from late June to August), but the complex is stunning. 

Sénanque Abbey
Returning to La Bastide we relaxed and read by the pool.

Swimming pool
(photo courtesy of VRBO)
As the afternoon wore on, Roxy was busy preparing paella for dinner.

And Charlie was mixing evening cocktails; it was apéro hour.

Ménerbes Cocktail 
(developed by "Charlie the Mixologist")
1 ½ oz. Aperol
½ oz. syrup from Kirsch brandied Morello cherries
3 oz. champagne, chilled
2 brandied cherries
Combine Aperol and syrup in champagne flute. Stir.
Drop cherries into the flute. Top off with champagne.
Serve. Drink.
Shelia helped Roxy with the finishing touches for the paella. Dinner was served. The paella was definitely a "crowd pleaser."

Reminded of yet another movie, If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium, we set off to the market knowing that if today is Wednesday it must be Saint Rémy de Provence. Saint Remy's lovely location is also part of the draw of this market. From the east, one drives along the French country road D99 where rolling green fields dotted with vineyards extend to Les Alpilles, the small range of limestone cliffs made famous by Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh, Les Alpilles
   Kröller-Müller Museum
 (photo credit: Paint Watercolor Create)
The entrance to the city is lined with gigantic plane trees on either side and is breathtaking. 

Driving into Saint Remy de Provence, it is impossible not to notice
 the avenues of plane trees that are gnarled and knobbed like the
 arthritic hands of an old man.

After entering the town we were unable to avoid the notorious parking problems of market day. It may took us more time that we planned to find parking; yet the remote parking lot we landed in was next to a small creek which presented an incredible photo opportunity ... which Joan skillfully captured.

Dragonflies in flight
We walked into the heart of town and soon found ourselves in the midst of the sprawling market. Covering most of the town the market at Saint-Rémy is well-known as one of the region's best. At its edges, non-food vendors hawked clothes and crafts. By the time we reached the over-size central roundabout, seafood stalls were overflowing with impeccably fresh fish. The stalls in the grassy plaza were selling tablecloths and napkins sporting classic Provençal themes, alongside displays of ceramic cooking vessels and tableware. We were underwhelmed; maybe it was the crowds, maybe it was that the items for sale were not as high quality, maybe we had arrived too late in the day, maybe it was because the day was overcast, or just maybe we had "village market burn out." We left the market and found La Gousse d'Ail Restaurant, made a reservation an hour hence for 9 at a table outside under a charming trellised patio. 

In the hour we had until lunch we walked around and with a little bit of luck stumbled across ...

Talented group performs every market day

The group gathered at the restaurant. Lunch was pleasant. Relaxed atmosphere, attentive service, and the food was very good and attractively plated. Gus, for one, had a perfectly cooked duck breast. One of our party, on a trip to the restroom, discovered an eclectic collection of memorabilia.

Dining room adorned with vintage fairground cars, old kids bikes
mounted to the walls and myriad other collectibles.

  Shelley treated the group again! And to end lunch ...

A French kiss

Tonight Gus and Joan were responsible for dinner. The menu:

French 75 

Roasted Pork Tenderloin with
 Juniper Infused Red Cabbage 

Provence Rosés 

Tart Tatin

(recipes, for those interested, are available under the Recipes gadget to the upper right of this post)

Too busy to take any photos except for ....

Joan's Tart Tatin
Today is Gus and Joan's last full day in Provence. We decided to stay nearby. A walk up to the village for lunch with Shelley and Judy for lunch ...

Résidences secondaires of Ménerbes

Deserted street suggests Ménerbes to be a Provençal ghost town


 The village’s brilliantly repaved and immaculate streets came by way of the
 generosity of philanthropist Ms. Nancy Negley.

Ms. Negley purchased, in 1997, The Dora Maar House. In a five-year effort, she rehabilitated and updated this spacious, four-story stone residence in the village of Ménerbes. Her goal was to make it a retreat for scholars, artists, and writers, where they could work undisturbed on their research, art, or writing, for one to three months. 

The Dora Maar House
The 18th-century town house was purchased in 1944 by Pablo Picasso
for Dora Maar, the artist and Surrealist photographer who was Picasso’s
 companion and muse in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
(photo credit: The Alliance of Artists Communities)
As Gus has read, Ménerbes has become hollowed out year by year by more and more absentee owners aka résidences secondaires, having reached a tipping point where the year-round village population is inadequate to sustain shops and cafés. The only doctor in the village closed his office in 2012; only one pharmacy remains in business; the butcher took retirement without replacement; the post office has been downgraded to an agency; the épicerie is expected to close once sold, a pizzeria has a for-sale sign up, and the future of the boulangérie is uncertain. While gentrification of Ménerbes can be attributed to a number of reasons it is, without a doubt, the uncanny attraction of "living" in Provence created by Peter Mayle's 5 books: A Year in Provence, Toujours Provence, A Good Year, Provence A-Z, and Encore Provence: New Adventures in the South of France that has had a great deal to do with the sad outcome.

We did find a restaurant open and had lunch at Le Galoubet. We sat on the terrace across the street from the restaurant and we were pleasantly surprised by a gentle breeze that accommodated the space. The place was busy and full of mostly English speaking customers. This small restaurant serves simple, traditional food that left each of us satisfied but certainly well short of wowed.

Walking back to La Bastide we passed by ...

Panoramic view, to the west, of vineyards in the valley
Lavender field just beginning to bloom.
The ancient cemetery of Ménerbes
Arriving back at La Bastide the balance of the group had organized themselves and were heading off to The Château la Canorgue. On the way we passed by ...
On the left, field of lavender in bloom and on the right Coquelicots

The Château la Canorgue, about a mile from Bonnieux, was used as the film location of the chateau and vineyard that Russell Crowe inherits in the film "A Good Year." 
Original winery building now the tasting room and administrative offices

View of only a small part of the Château's grounds and
 vineyards with the nearby village of Bonnieux in the distance
One of the Château's vineyards
One hundred acres are planted with  Syrah, Grenache,
 Carignan, Mourvedre, Cinsault, Viognier, Roussanne,
 Marsanne, Merlot, and Cabernet
Returning to La Bastide we enjoyed our final evening with our old and new friends. Sitting around the outdoor table ...

Clockwise, staring with Judy, then Gus, Ian, Tina, Jamie,
 Shelia, Charlie, Roxy, Shelley, and Ben.

We took the night off and had leftovers. Actually, the meal was quite tasty. The night, like most every other night, was filled with great conversation, amazing stories, and gratfying laughter. It was clear, at least to Gus, that the assembled group of people got along well and even enjoyed one another, had similar interests, had at least some things in common, and all were worth knowing. Thanks, Ian and Judy for being our good friends and sharing with us your wonderful friends.

C'est logique!

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