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A Close Encounter with Marseille

Cheri and I decided to have lunch in Aix-en-Provence on our way to Marseille. It had been years since I was in Aix, and I really don’t remember it being as large as it is now — my recollection was of an elegant town with a huge fountain as its centerpiece on the broad Cours Mirabeau, and smaller fountains scattered about the city. Well-dressed people strolled leisurely, and folks lingered at the famous Deux Magots café. The route into town dumped us into an enormous parking garage, where we ended up four levels underground; the elevator delivered us to a shopping mall. As I emerged from the mall, I realized the city was completely unrecognizable to me, and was chock full of tourists. No idea where to find Deux Magots.

We didn’t linger after lunch, but pressed on to Marseille. After turning in the Renault and a desultory stroll around the Vieux Port, we staggered through the heat to find a cool place for dinner, and came upon Café Simon, enjoying the misters under the tents. The ice in my Pastis was no match for the air, and Cheri had to add ice to her beer. The waiters looked like they’d just emerged from a shower, though they were in surprisingly good humor.

The following day, Tuesday, Cheri flew back to Tucson and I spent the afternoon doing a too-short visit to the historical museum (absolutely worth a return trip) and a boat ride out to the calanques, soaring rock formations off the coast that shelter quiet coves with sailboats at anchor. I had hoped being on the water would be cooler, but non. The narration was all in French, nearly drowned out by the roar of the engines, so I got little information. The elegant cathedral overlooking the city is a masterpiece of Byzantine and Romanesque architecture standing in stately splendor overlooking the Vieux Port.

In all my visits to France I’ve never been to Marseille, and I have to say I’d like to come back in cooler weather and explore some of the neighborhoods and museums. The city, the oldest in France, was actually founded as a trading port by the Greeks around 600 B.C. and has remained an important gateway ever since. Its reputation for crime largely kept tourists away in the mid-twentieth century, and was fairly or unfairly attributed to the masses of immigrants from the northern and sub-Saharan African countries formerly colonized by France (Algeria, Morocco, etc.). Organized crime was a severe problem, exacerbated by unemployment and poverty. Over the past twenty years or so, Marseille has burnished its reputation with major urban renewal, a focus on crime prevention, and development of a robust tourism industry anchored by cruise ships.

As this adventure draws to a close, I admit it wasn’t the trip I had imagined. Covid and the heat thwarted some of our plans, and our photographer leader couldn’t join us till the last two days, so I didn’t gain any new shooting skills. Nevertheless, I met some wonderful people, got to know Cheri a lot better, and spent time in one of my favorite places on the planet. Next up: some images I wasn’t able to upload in real time. Stay tuned.ix

More Lavender, Banon and Apt

Did I mention the heat? People say this has been the hottest summer in memory, and though Sault was supposed to be cooler than Ménerbes, you can’t prove it by me. As a result, farmers are cutting their lavender fields much earlier than usual, causing our leader and her local guide to hustle each day to find fields that are still intact. The hamlet of Aurel, about 5 km from Sault, was our destination for a sunrise shoot on Saturday, where we met up with the group but kept our distance. I have to say the sunrises have been unexceptional; by the time the sun peeks over the mountains it’s almost too bright. In the event, however, the field was intact, and once again we were surrounded by the hum of bees making their morning rounds.

The great thing about this trip is being able to walk between the rows of lavender, bathing in the rich aroma.

Once the sun was too high to continue shooting, Cheri and I took off to Banon, famous for its pungent goat cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves. We had a pleasant lunch accompanied by this nice lavender honey beer.

This small town was charming, and the center of activity seemed to be Le Bleuet, a bookstore with a unique sculpture out front.

Cobbled streets led to a cathedral at the top of the town, and every house seemed to take pride in its own floral display, including a hydrangea, which I hadn’t seen in Provence.

En route back to Sault we found a lavender field under the watchful eye of Mont Ventoux.

Rising early the next morning for another sunrise shoot, we followed the others about 30 minutes out of Sault to a farm that, alas, had already been harvested. Since Cheri and I had to vacate our hotel, we left the group to do that, then on a whim went to Apt, about 30 km away. While Apt isn’t the prettiest city in the Vaucluse, it was pleasant enough on this quiet Sunday, with a few shops open. We had no trouble finding a café for lunch, then spent a few quiet moments in the St. Anne Cathedral, which dated from the 12th century.

Our final lodging in Sault was at Le Nesk. The 18th-century building hanging off the cliffside had been renovated into a hotel primarily for cyclists; but when they modernized it they neglected to add air conditioning. However, it had a pleasant terrace overlooking the valley, where we could have a drink and enjoy the soft afternoon breeze. In the early morning we could watch the farmer cutting his lavender.

This pile of what looks like wet hay is the leavings from the cut plants, used to fertilize the fields for the next planting.

Sunset is’t till about 9:30 p.m. in the summer, so after an exceptional dinner at Le Petit Jardin, just steps from the hotel, we were treated to this fine display.

On our penultimate morning in Sault, the group was going to chase lavender again, but given our experience the day before, Cheri and I decided to stay in Sault and shop for gifts. As it happened, the field they visited was still uncut, so on our last morning we trooped out to what was probably the finest crop we had seen. Golden wheat fields interspersed the patches of lavender, making for a more interesting landscape. The marker shows that this field is part of a countrywide trail designating spots where Allied forces parachuted into France during 1943-44.

My experiment with spin panning


Exploring Sault

After checking into our rooms at Val de Sault — air-conditioned, thankfully — Cheri and I set off to explore our new surroundings. At the top of the town is a belvedere, with a broad vista taking in the farms in the valley below. Sault dates from the 11th century, and remnants of its fortifications are visible today, including a castle built during the 1500s.

The town was fairly busy on this Friday, and the shopkeeper selling truffle products lured us in with samples, as did the nougat maker.

The town is a staging point for hardy bicyclists aiming to complete the rigorous climb to Mont Ventoux, which looks over the town. Its white summit is often mistaken for snow, but it is actually bare granite.

I have to add a note here about driving. We have a Renault 6-speed manual, which handles pretty well; but as the days went on I found that my clutch foot was prone to cramping at night. The roads are in good repair, but for the most part are quite narrow, and hairpin turns abound. Add to that the dozens of cyclists we encountered, especially in the early morning, and driving could be a bit harrowing.

During our peregrinations we found a little café called L’echappée, where I had a wonderful salade Niçoise.

It must say something about me that my largest photos are of food.

Many More Days to Write About…

More when I get home and upload the rest of my photos.

And Now for the Lavender

Rising at dawn on Bastille Day, Thursday, we caravanned to the famous Abbaye de Senanque, the subject of every photo you’ve ever seen of Provence and its lavender, looking for the shot no one else has ever taken — hah!

In most photos I recall, the abbey is a weathered grey, but it must have recently been power-washed, as its stones are now a pale golden hue. The challenge is that in the dawn light the abbey is so bright, and the lavender fields are still in shadow, so getting the proper exposure is difficult. But it’s a magical place, with hardly anyone else there. The calming smell of the lavender floats on the light breezes, and bees are humming happily as they scoot from flower to flower. The buzzing is constant and quite intense.

The abbey was built by Cistercian monks in the 12th century, and has been nearly continuously occupied, except for about sixty years during and after the French Revolution. Monks still live there today, and take a vow of silence.

This serene place is very near the bustling town of Gordes, which perches atop a limestone hill and enjoys spectacular views in all directions. It’s a chichi destination for well-heeled international travelers and those who can afford to buy real estate here.

To protect the vulnerable in our group, Cheri and I moved on the next day to Sault (pronounced So) and the Val de Sault resort, about an hour’s drive away.

On to the Luberon

Time to join our group of fellow photographers at a chateau outside the village of Ménerbes, made famous by Peter Mayle in his books A Year in Provence and Toujours Provence. We were grateful for the refreshing depths of the pool!

Lori, our trip leader, has hired Martine to cook for us, and that’s truly a blessing, as people straggled in from their flights. Lori spent the afternoon collecting people from the Marseille airport, and they were pretty exhausted by the time they arrived. But we had plenty of rosé and tempting food to make us forget the trials of travel.

The temperature approaches 100, and we have no air conditioning, just strategically placed fans. On this morning we set out to visit Roussillon. Cheri and I can only travel together, as my Covid test is now positive as well. We will have to eat away from the group too, and of course, mask.

As we caravanned up to the perched village, Lori got stuck trying to go up a steep hill, and as I was behind her the same thing happened to me. Even gunning the engine in first gear left us rolling backward. I really dislike the new parking brakes — a little lever as opposed to the old-fashioned kind you yank up, which could help get you out of any situation. When we finally made it up the hill and into the parking lot, we met the people who were behind us — Americans, as it turned out — who were so sympathetic, as the same had happened to them.

Roussillon is dramatically perched atop stunning ochre cliffs, and is fun to stroll through.

Our visit to the Lavender Museum in Coustellet provided a fascinating look at how these flowers, which grow in vast fields as far as the eye can see, are cultivated and harvested. The museum has a collection of old copper stills, some dating from the 18th century, and other artifacts associated with the lavender industry. Because of the unusually hot temperatures this year, many fields have already been cut — as we will learn when we set off for photo shoots as the days wear on, and find only stubble awaiting us.

Tonight was the super moon, so we attempted to capture it.

Deep in the Vaucluse

Yesterday we were enervated by the heat: 95 degrees and the sun a hammer striking the anvil of my head. My normal Panama hat was even too hot, so I bought a straw one that at least was ventilated.

The river Sorgue has its source just a few miles away outside the town of Fontaine de Vaucluse. A 15-20-minute uphill walk along the stream that eventually becomes the river ends at what looks like a cave opening. In the spring, snowmelt from the Alpilles gushes out of this yawning maw and rushes across enormous boulders, tumbling into waterfalls and filling pools. In dead summer, however, there is no rushing water; but the river meanders slowly, ducks paddling atop its green depths. Overlooking the modern town is an ancient castle.

We opted for lunch at a riverside café called Philip 1926, where each of us had a marvelous truffle omelet.

In just under an hour west we arrived in Les Baux-de-Provence, a small, picturesque village clinging to the rocky mountainside. Just down the hill is Carrières Lumiéres, an ever-changing show I can best compare to the immersive Van Gogh exhibit making the rounds this past year. The venue is an a played out quarry that is actually a cave, which is about 35 degrees cooler than the outside — a relief on this scorching day. Daughter Katherine and I first visited Lumiéres more than 20 years ago, and it’s still the main attraction in the area. This display of photographs and paintings projected on the walls was of Venice, primarily during the Renaissance, and was accompanied by classical music.

After a couple of attempts to drive to the center of town, it became apparent that the only way up was to climb the steep road, so ….. never mind!

We were very near the lovely town of St.-Rémy. Outside the town is the ancient Roman excavation of Glanum, and just next door the sanitarium where Vincent Van Gogh was hospitalized. Given the heat, we didn’t trek through the excavation, but we did enjoy a visit to the hospital, with its small field of lavender and sunflowers in back. One can imagine Vincent gazing from his cell-like room and taking in the heady aroma of lavender from the small field below.

I have more images from the asylum and Glanum but can’t seem to upload them, so I’ll skip that for now and circle back when I have better WIFI. I’ll also add photos of nightlife in L’Isle along the river.

Market Day in L’Isle

Just steps from our apartment is the main street along the river Sorgue, and on this Sunday morning it was choked with shoppers. The produce vendors offered juicy figs the size of lemons, sweet fleshy melons a bright orange, peaches, nectarines, berries and more exotic fruits from afar like mangoes. You could sample anything, and we did. As in all these weekly markets in the region, you could buy shoes, clothing, toys and souvenirs, and beat the heat with gelato shops every hundred yards or so.

Our plan had been to take in the market in Coustellet also, but the morning got away from us. After what sounded like a refreshing Provençal salad but turned out to be wholly indifferent, we sought refuge for a brief rest in our cool apartment away from the crowd — but that short respite turned into a few hours, until we knew the market at Coustellet would be finished for the day.

Instead, we dressed up a bit and had an exquisite dinner at Mets de Reynaud. There were three appetizers, a choice of plat and three desserts, meaning no agonizing choices. The apps were gazpacho, a lobster salad in a spoon, and smoked salmon with cherry tomatoes and basil.

My turbot came with a fleur de courgette.

For dessert there were three delectable morsels that satisfied the sweet tooth but didn’t lay heavily on the stomach. Perfection!

A Return to Provence

Those who know me well know I love Provence. So I’m excited to be back in the south of France for the first time in nearly eight years! I met up with my friend Cheri from Tucson in Marseille last Friday, and we drove to L’Isle-Sur-la-Sorgue, about an hour north of the city.

En route we stopped at the charming hamlet of Eygalières, where a leisurely stroll took us to l’Aubergine for a lovely lunch.

I had a delectable, cool gazpacho with a surprise scoop of basil gelato in the middle to start, then gorgeous fried fleurs de courgettes (zucchini flowers) stuffed with herbed ricotta.

And of course, rosé! Which I didn’t drink, because I was driving 🙁

Our apartment in l’Isle (which I’ll call it from now on to save typing) was in a great location steps from the main pedestrian street along the river, with its shops and restaurants. Clearly the place had only recently been fitted, as the appliances were modern and we had A/C in both bedrooms and the kitchen/living area. But the owner had assured us we would have to climb only 12 steps to the apartment, but there were, in fact, 24 — and in a spiral, at that! The other challenge was parking, but I’ll save that for another post!

After settling in we went exploring, stopping to pick up the essential wine and cheese we’d need for cocktail hour.

We capped off the day with some luscious briny oysters.

Away at Last, and Reflections

I write this from my seat on Air France 1277 from Marrakech to Paris. Until the moment I was buckled in I worried something would happen to keep me stranded in Marrakech. But I’m finally on my way home, and the only thing I have to stress over is the flight to Boston tomorrow.

As I reflect on my three weeks in Morocco, the most prominent impression is of the people, so kind, generous, welcoming. Abdou and Zacchariah, of course, who were stuck with me for our twelve-day trek, who taught me “yellelah,” let’s go, and who had to listen to me butcher shukran, or however you spell it. I promise to have more Arabic when I return. Abdou’s sisters-in-law who included me in the traditional Friday couscous lunch, and sister who fed us our second breakfast as we left Casablanca. And his charming parents, who hosted us for tea in their home in Dadès.

Amanda and Youssef, who organized my alternate tour when Lori and the rest of the group were locked out, and kept me posted on flight options. 

Hayat, Hamid and Hajiba at Dar les Cigognes, who so warmly welcomed me and made me feel part of their family, faithfully tucking my hot water bottle under the covers of my bed each evening. Zaida, the wonderful chef at Dar, who introduced me to harira and eggplant salad, bastilla and tajine, and Aziza, who gave me my first-ever hammam treatment. Note to self: Dar has a cooking school.

The earnest Nordine at Riad d’Or in Meknes, concerned that I had only cold water in my sink tap but powerless to fix it. While I never met the chef, I loved his Berber omelet and lamb tajine.

Hajiba, in Moulay Idress, who fed me a sumptuous lunch on her terrace, then showed me how to make Moroccan bread and sweets in her tiny kitchen, measuring by eye and hand and mixing by feel.

Kiki, the tall handsome Berber who led me on a tour of the date farm, fed me the fruit straight off the tree and then hosted me to lunch at his home, prepared by the talented Rakida.

Ibrahim, who built Villa Dadès during Covid, looking after this gem of a hotel in the middle of nowhere, waiting for the guests who will surely come when times return to normal, operating on faith by building what will be a gorgeous rooftop pool and bar.

Jane, the American owner of Riad Baya, whom I only met by phone, but who was very concerned about my well-being while I was her (only) guest. I know we will meet for real one day, as I’d love to see Morocco with her. And what a coincidence that she had lived three years in West Hartford! Fatna, whom I called Fatima for two days, the genius in the Baya kitchen. The huge salad à la Niçoise, and the amazing chicken tajine with green olives and preserved lemon. Avocado smoothie at breakfast, and another riff on Berber omelet. 

And finally, Khalid, the sweet young man at Baya who greeted me with a warm smile each morning, helped print out my travel documents, got wine for me and got me started on my way to Jamaa el Fna, though I got hopelessly lost for awhile returning.

All of these people were unfailingly polite, calm, welcoming, patient and generous, genuinely happy to have me, an American, experience their country. I always felt safe and secure, even in the crowded medinas and squares.

I already want to come back — to see the big part of the west and Mediterranean coastline that I didn’t, to have a photographer guide help me climb a dune in the Sahara for sunset and capture the Milky Way. Spend more time in Tangier eating fish. Take a street food tour with Amanda.

Next time I’ll bring fuzzy socks or slippers against the cold tile floors, leave the bathing suit at home (no need for it in the hammam), bring a sweatshirt for reading in bed. I’ll bring wool socks, not cotton, no matter how warm the temperatures are predicted to be. I’ll learn some Arabic and take pictures of all my hosts. And see again the marvelous people I met on this trip, Inshallah.