I was so taken by Hotel Bastide de Voulonne, which is near Gordes in the Luberon region. Above is the outdoor courtyard that was central to the rooms, with the stairs to the left leading to mine.
I almost didn't want to leave my room, or my doorway for that matter, as it was so pretty. I also really didn't want to stop looking at that fantastic frosted-glass door. Eventually I had to walk down those gorgeous steps into the gorgeous courtyard to the gorgeous 18th-century farmhouse (sigh), which had a back patio that overlooked the lush countryside. The owners of the hotel welcomed a handful of international visitors for a pre-dinner schmooze with hors d'oeuvres and a table of elegant cocktails. A nice dinner followed of cauliflower soup with sesame and salmon to start and then entrecote de boeuf with vegetables and potatoes.
My room keys. How cute?? Each room had a name and a kitschy keyring. My room was passionflower.
It's pretty obvious why Roussillon is on the list of "Most Beautiful Villages in France," an actual designation given to the prettiest of the bunch that adhere to a strict list of 27 criteria. I was able to visit a few of these villages of the 152 with this official designation and each one, from an aesthetic standpoint, rightfully deserved to be on that list.
Roussillon looks like it is out of picture book. From the ground to the brick to the rooftops to the flowers to the homes, to that view, just breathtaking. Ochre deposits found in the clay give the village that stunning pinky-orange colour.
Finally a glimpse of the breathtaking vineyards, where the magic happens that is the prized France vintage. The village of Châteauneuf du Pape, in Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur region, is home to the legendary wine of the same name that we have all heard of, but not all have tasted. Finally, I get to taste. And sniff and swirl and sip and all of those good things at our wine tasting at the Brotte Wine Museum.
This is where the beloved La Fiole du Pape was born. We learned about the special technique of blending young wines and older reserves to ensure the consistency of the style year in and year out, much the way Champagne is made. And here is a snapshot of what we learned:
The first vines were planted by the ancient Romans, and the region's special soil and terroir produce a number of grape varieties, which are largely red and largely Grenache. The soil is characterized by pebbles that retain heat during the day and cool down at night, lending a positive effect to the ripening of the grapes. The Mediterranean climate of dry, sunny weather and non-freezing temperatures create the coveted character of Châteauneuf du Pape's grapes. Another factor is the Mistral, the "crazy wind" they say can reach up to 100 mph -- the bane to hairstyles everywhere (especially ours during some insanely windy days). The Mistral is incredibly nourishing to the grapes. It keeps the grapes clean, dry and carries away insects and disease. Great impact on the character of the grapes, super-annoying impact on us. We got the Mistral bad in the face on a couple of days in the south.
The sheer grandeur of the Pont du Gard is awe-inspiring. To hear the story of how this ancient aqueduct bridge came to be from our incredibly prolific guide Alejandro was a real treat. The Romans built this 50-kilometre-long aqueduct to carry water from the springs in Uzes to the people of Nimes in the 1st century AD. I loved taking in this architectural feat and contemplating how ancient it was.
The aqueduct was built for the most part underground, but further complicating this massive undertaking was the fact that the terrain from A to B had hills and could not be built in a straight line. The route had to be diverted and wind across a gorge, thus creating the need for an aqueduct bridge. The aqueduct had to carry the water at just the right gradient along all of these hills to sustain the flow of water, and so the Roman engineers had to contemplate the depressions in the landscape. If the aqueduct were too steep, the water would run too fast, bursting the pipes. If it were built too low, the water wouldn't flow. The accuracy behind its construction ... Truly fascinating stuff.
They say the aqueduct carried 2 million litres of water a day and took 15 years to build. The Pont du Gard is surrounded by a beautiful and "sensitive" landscape that was rehabilitated in 2000. If you like to walk among the serene hills of the Mediterranean, leave extra time to explore the grounds around the bridge -- it is just gorgeous. Go off the paths ... there is so much to discover. You can detect traces of the work done by the men who cleared the forests to plant wheat, vineyards and olive trees. It's all there to see still, and the area is a beautiful, living testimony to its agrarian past. The breeze felt so fresh on my face.
Our dinner at Le Carre d'Art in Nimes was pure artistry.
I ate a bull steak. No bullshit! Or bullcrap. Or bull-ogna. Not entirely a steak person, I took the bull by the horns on this one.
We all marvelled about being in the land of bull fighting, a traditional event that dates to the 19th century in Nimes and Arles in the south of France, and eating bull steak. Ciele du Nimes is a delicious restaurant on the top floor of the Le Carré d’Arté, a contemporary cultural centre across from the ancient Maison Carrée, a Roman temple built in the 16th century. This juxtaposition of ancient and modern is a remarkable site, especially since Le Carre d'Art is mirrored, and so the reflection of this grand historical structure is reflected on the modern structure. Very cool.
We also were served codfish as well -- the fish appeared many times on our plates throughout the trip, and I loved it. And believe it or not, that is the cod below:
Check out the way I ate it: All moussed and fluffy. Damn it looks like gefilte fish but I am certainly not discriminating against that, says the proud gefilte fish lover. With a fluffy underbelly of moussed zucchini and a red pepper sauce, the Ciele du NImes was fast winning our hearts. And then there was dessert.
Oh gawd our first dessert. Lemon meringue -- mon dieu. Unbelievably rich. Unbelievably tasty.
While exploring Nimes, we happened on some pretty majestic Roman architecture, said to be some of the best preserved in the world.
What an old, beautiful hotel. First stop is Nimes, and the charming Hotel Imperator. We marvelled at the classic art-deco elevator, said to be 80 years old, and the fact that this had been the resting place of Ernest Hemingway, Ava Gardner, Pablo Picasso and French poet Jean Cocteau. The hotel was the perfect fusion of old and new. I loved being stuck in this elevator. Not stuck per se. It was just a few minutes but who the hell knows how to operate such an ol' girl. But she was a beaut.
Oh it feels good to be back on my blog. Merci to all who were watching for my posts. The wifi has been extremely unpredictable.
France ... the south of France ... is just gorgeous. Breathtaking. A real world treasure. I am blessed to have been able to drink it all in, along with the wine. Oh so much wine. And croissants. But those were inhaled.
Invited on a press trip by Air Transat and Transat Holidays, writing for The Toronto Star, I joined a group of four other Toronto journalists to the glorious regions of Marseille and Provence ... eight full days with virtually no stone left unturned, eight days of olive trees and glorious scenescapes and Roman history and grand architecture, and some of the most creative and delicious food that tasted as good as it looked.
Air Transat has kicked off a seasonal direct flight from Toronto to Marseille every Monday until Oct. 13, and it has increased its flights from Montreal too. And so we celebrated.
Sitting in Club Class makes the time go by nicely, especially with a glass of champagne in hand. A great flight ... even when you cry. Saving Mr. Banks will do that to you. OK to me, I mean.
My suitcase was way too big. I knew this. But problem packers are problem packers. This needs proper therapy. It will not improve after overpacking again and again. We don’t learn our lesson. We justify it by saying “Well the weather looks iffy”, or “We don’t know what we will be doing.” I knew the weather and I knew our itinerary, yet I still overpack.
At least I got to cart around all of the outfits I didn’t wear. And I developed a strong shell for oversized suitcase jokes.
I really should have learned in French how to apologize about my heavy suitcase to our drivers, but a big smile and sheepish “sorrrrry” seemed to suffice. Hopefully there were no hernias.
What there was though were laughs. Starting on the flight. A perfect icebreaker for our group, even though most of them had travelled together on press trips before. My seat mate, lest she be named, was telling a story and gesturing with her hands a little too close to the aisle and sacked a passing male flight attendant in the groin. Well that was it, our cork was popped, let the joking and banter ensue.
In Montreal we picked up our French connection, our incredible hosts, Mylene, our media liaison from Air Transat, and Marie-Andree, our extraordinary leader from tourist agency Atout France.
Published journalist, world traveller, big thinker, fun haver