Exploring the French Countryside with a German Detour
Part Two – Bavaria, Provence and the Cote D’Azur
September 15, 2011
Dateline: Munich, Germany
Latitude at Munich 42.13 Degrees North, Longitude 11.56 Degrees East
Today we took a shuttle from our hotel in Nice to the airport to catch our Lufthansa flight to Munich to visit our friends Klaus and Inge. They met us at the airport and we took a bus into the city and then a taxi to our hotel, the Hotel Schlicker, right in the heart of the old city and an easy walk to many of the sights in the Alstadt (old town). Munich is located on the Isar River on the lower northern slopes of the German Alps. It is the capital of Bavaria, which for hundreds of years was a kingdom unto itself. It only became part of Germany in 1871. The city has retained it richness of culture and architecture and draws millions of tourists each year.
We took a stroll at the nearby Viktualien Market (translation Victuals Market) which is a large square that has served as a market place for the last 200 years. There we saw all sorts of food and crafts for sale in umbrella covered stalls, alongside churches and beer gardens. The food was beautifully presented with a liberal dose of vinegar on almost everything. We walked to the famous Dallmayr Deli and into a spice shop that had an amazing array of fresh spices from around the world. They also offered blended spices to season specific dishes, such as the paella we bought. The shop, and indeed the entire neighborhood, was decorated with the ubiquitous hops vines made into wreaths and swags. The hops used in brewing beer look like tiny and fragile pale green pine cones. The traditional houses in the old town are tall narrow pastel structures with steep pitched roofs with Bavarian flags featuring a pale blue and white diagonal check pattern prominently displayed.
The city was getting ready for Oktoberfest, a celebration started in 1810 when Prince Ludwig was married. The original date was October 17, and thus the name, but it was moved to September so they could have better (warmer) weather. The actual celebration runs for 16 days and takes place in Theresienweise , which most of the year is just a large oval meadow in a Munich suburb. However during the last part of September, it turns quite boisterous, offering a venue for music, fun and the drinking of beer – lots of drinking of beer, so much so that the average merrymaker at Oktoberfest has no inkling of Prince Ludwig’s existence. Oktoberfest has been held continuously since it started (with the exception of 27 cancellations due to war and cholera), and with good reason. It brings around 1.3 billion Euros to the area.
We walked to The Hofbrauhaus (translation is Brew House) to have dinner. The Hofbrauhaus was established in 1589 by Bavarian Duke Wilhelm V because he disliked the local beer and decided to have his own brewery. It became a food establishment as well, and one of its claims to fame is that the first food laws of the world were established here. It seems some brews had turned out to be poisonous or otherwise toxic before standards were adopted. In 1607 they established a second beer hall and made white beer (wheat based) and this is the recipe and the location of the Hofbrauhaus today. In 1808 it was decided that the building was too small and the brewery was moved, leaving just the beer hall, which today is a mere 11,000 square meters. It was originally just for private use by the duke, but it became public in 1828 when the current duke ordered it to be. He also regulated the price in 1844 so commoners could afford to enjoy a brew, but that had the unintended consequence of making it so popular that it created a shortage. With the ever increasing consumption at Oktoberfest and other holidays, they still struggle to keep production equal to demand.
September 16, 2011
Today Stu and Sharon took the train to Stuttgart to visit the Mercedes Benz factory while Klaus, Inge, Gary and I meandered around Munich. Our first stop was the giant park called Englischer Garten (English Garden) where we took a long leisurely walk. It was created by Count von Rumford, an American born scientist who moved to Bavaria in 1784 and was the Bavarian Minister of War. He convinced Karl Theodor, then Elector of Bavaria to build it. Electors were princes who helped select the Holy Roman Emperor (from 1623 until 1806 when the Holy Roman Empire ceased to be). The Garden is approximately 1, 235 acres in the center of the city, built on reclaimed marsh land. Our first stop was at the Eisbach, a small channel on the Isar River to see The Wave – which is surf artificially created by concrete pillars
or baffles which were installed in the 1970’s to slow the flow of the river. A side benefit is that it creates continuous waves of approximately 3 to 5 feet. There were dozens of wet suited surfers there riding the waves, but there was no paddling involved. They would throw their board on the water, much like a skateboarder and hop on from the bank. We took a stroll on the English Garden Walk enjoying the perfect autumn day. There is an interesting mix of buildings there – a Japanese Tea Garden and the Monopteros, a Neo-classical temple, creating a very eclectic look.
From the park we went to the venerable Bayerishcerhoff Hotel Terrace on top of the hotel for refreshments before continuing on the Residenz Museum. This massive structure was the home of the first dukes of Bavaria who were the first electors. These nobles later became kings of Bavaria from 1806 to 1918 when WWI ended a lot of monarchies. The royal family of Bavaria was named Wittelsbach and the Residenz started out in the 14th Century as their relatively modest family palace. Major additions were started in the 17th Century and more were added in the 19th Century to create the behemoth of today. Within the Residenz was
the Treasury, plus huge areas for entertaining and being entertained including a full size theater called the Cuvillies Theater which was built in 1751 in full-fledged Rococo style. Some parts of the Residenz were under renovation so we missed those, but the parts open were still massive. It didn’t have the palace look from the outside, in fact it looks more like the US Department of Agriculture or Justice, but the inside is exquisite.
A note on Baroque and Rococo Art and Architecture – both are very fancy and detailed, but Baroque preceded Rococo. Baroque is mostly dark and serious, with death scenes, somber and often brutal statuary and carvings. Rococo is done in a much lighter vein. It is very much over the top with curlicues, gold, rich colors, statues in every niche (and not to mention cranny), with designs, scenes, figures and creatures (both historical and mythical) carved on every surface with carvings on top of carvings, but everyone is happy in the Rococo motifs. If Baroque conjures up a witches brew, Rococo calls to mind a wedding cake.
We took a break from our sightseeing to have coffee and cake at our friends’ apartment with two other friends of theirs. Afterward we took a taxi to the Hirschgarten (Deer Garden) which is actually now a Beer Garden for appertifs and dinner. This garden, also known as the Koniglicher Hirschgarten (Kings Deer Garden) was an outdoor café that caters to approximately 8,000 beer drinkers simultaneously, making it the largest beer garden in Bavaria. We did see a few of the tiny deer for which the garden was named still surviving, despite the 8,000 rowdy beer drinkers.
Dinner was a buffet featuring haxn (pig knuckles which are really pig knees). It is a huge hunk of schwein (pork or swine is a closer translation) on a plate with sauerkraut. Gary loved ever bite of it, but I opted for chicken. I also sampled wienerschnitzel while here which, contrary to the name of a popular American hot dog eatery, has nothing to do with wieners as we know them. It is a delicious cutlet, lightly breaded and sautéed. We met Stu and Sharon here, back from their day in Stuttgart and enjoyed the beer, music and people watching.
September 17, 2011
Today we took a bus tour out to the Bavarian Countryside to see Linderhof and Neuschwanstein Castle, both homes of King Ludwig II ( often called Mad King Ludwig or more diplomatically “a man out of step with his time”) who lived from 1845 to 1886. Ludwig II’s father, King Maximillian II died unexpectedly in 1864 when Ludwig was only 18. It was a turbulent time of war with the neighbors and Ludwig II ended up endorsing the creation of the Reich and Bavaria lost its independence in 1871 and came under the rule of the Prussian Kaiser Wilhelm I. (this was the First Reich). Ludwig II at this point seemed to retreat into a bygone era and he started building castles that conjured up medieval times, such as Neuschwanstein or the glory days of Versailles such as Falkenstein castle, which was designed and never built. In fact most of his projects, including Neuschwanstein, if started, were never completed. It was raining when we left Munich, but as our bus climbed to the village of Ettal, the sun came out and we had a sunny day to take in the gorgeous landscape – storybook houses, green pastures with sturdy well fed cows and horses, blue green mountains emerging from the mist and patches of blue sky here and there. With the clearing skies we were able to see the Zugspitz, the highest mountain in Germany looming above the narrow valley.
Everything was incredibly tidy and clean. There was a total absence of litter, and everything was orderly, from firewood cut and stacked in uniform lengths with nary a splinter out of place, to cars parked evenly spaced with nary a tire over the line. Our first stop was Linderhof (translation is hall of the linden trees) which was the only one of Ludwig II’s building projects that was actually finished (completed in 1878), although this was a remodel versus a build-from-scratch project. The outside is Baroque and very much influenced by French architecture, but the inside is Rococo, also influenced by the French, but there are also many Bavarian elements mixed in as well. The grounds are equally opulent and very French Baroque, but with elements of an English Garden and buildings and grottos designed to replicate scenes from Wagnerian operas with a few Moroccan elements thrown it.
Linderhof was Ludwig’s personal play house. This is where he came to get away – from everyone, including his servants. He still had to have servants of course, but he insisted that he not see or hear them. His dining room featured a dining table for one. The table was set in the room below the dining room and then raised up through a concealed opening in the floor with the entire meal (fit for a king) on it. After he finished eating, it disappeared the same way. Ludwig received no visitors and granted no audiences while here, but he did “work” from here. His Secretary of State brought documents from Munich every week for him to sign, but never saw him. It was reported that Ludwig was perhaps shy and not crazy, but regardless of the diagnosis, he did not improve over time. He was also reportedly gay since he never married, but that, it is argued, could be attributed to his shyness. His biggest flaw as a monarch however was his profligate depletion of royal assets. Ludwig was very fond of the French Court of the Sun King, Louis XIV, and patterned much of his residences after the over the top opulence of that era. He even had portraits of some of the French court members hanging on his walls, but his construction projects were the final straw on the road to bankrupting the kingdom. Ludwig drowned in a lake at the age of 41 under suspicious circumstances (apparently there was a doctor present at the drowning) and there are conspiracy theories who say it was murder, either to cover up his sexual identity or that so one of his several uncles could inherit the throne. There was much intrigue along the lines of that surrounding Marilyn Monroe’s untimely death. There are still a lot of Wittlebach royalty – the odd prince or princess around today- who receive a lot Hollywood style press coverage.
Our next stop was Oberammergau, home to the famous Passion Play, depicting the life of Christ. It has been performed here only every 10 years. The tradition was started in 1634 as a means of thanking God for deliverance from the Black Plague. The last one was in 2010, and so the next one will be in 2020. The production requires the efforts of around 2,000 people and the townspeople are almost all involved in the play in some fashion. It is performed in German and is not video- taped or translated, but people still come from all over the world to see it. So I guess if you know your New Testament, you can get the hang of it, even if you don’t understand German. The town itself is quite charming in a Grimm’s Fairy Tale sort of way, set in a narrow valley with steep streets. The houses fit the Bavarian stereotype with window boxes full of ivy geraniums. A unique feature of Oberammergau is the facades of the houses which are painted with scenes from fairy tales, Bavarian lore and Biblical events. They were status symbols during the 18th Century and the village has continued to maintain them.
From there we went to the village of Hohenschwangau where Ludwig II had another castle which his father had renovated with the same name as the village. The original castle there dates back to medieval times. Ludwig II reportedly spend his summers here as a young man. We had a really delightful experience here that thoroughly jammed up traffic. The local farmers were bringing their cows down from higher pastures and they came right down the main street of town. It was a little chaotic and the occasional cow would run amok into the crowds of gawking tourists, (sort of a tamer version of the running of the bulls in Pamplona) Although these were milk cows, they were still big and could easily bowl you over like a ten pin.
We had lunch at the Hotel Muller and then took the thirty minute walk/climb to Ludwig’s most famous structure, Schloss (Castle) Neuschwanstein, which was perched on a mountain top above the town. (Translation Neu= New, Schwan = swan, Stein = rock – or New Swan on the Rock if you will.) It was, we were told, the model that Disney used for Cinderella’s castle. It is quite imposing from the outside, but despite its 17 years of construction, it was never finished. Ludwig kept borrowing money right up until he died, much of it needed because he kept changing his mind and having work ripped out that he no longer wanted or liked. The castle designer was Christian Jank whose daytime job was theater design, which makes perfect sense when one sees the sheer drama created here at the castle.
Ludwig was a big fan and patron of Wagner’s operas and he envisioned scenes from them painted on the walls of Neuschwanstein. He even had a cave built out of plaster of Paris on a frame inside the castle to replicate the one from the opera, Tannhauser. Ludwig had a special fondness for swans and thus the name of the castle, which is built on the shores of the Schwansee (Swan lake) but he also fancied himself in a romantic fairy tale kingdom with jousting knights, courtly love, poets and minstrels and he sought to re-create all of that here, (shades of Michael Jackson and his Neverland Ranch.) Given Ludwig’s castle building binges, he soon had money problems and word was out that he might just not be playing with a full deck and talk of deposing him was rampant. So in June of 1886, his mysterious “drowning” in Lake Starnberg solved a lot of problems for a lot of Bavarians. We arrived back in Munich in the early evening and had dinner downtown at Hugo’s on their outdoor patio, which was covered, but the rain and wind drove us inside after we witnessed one canopy collapsing and thoroughly drenching some neighboring patrons.
September 18, 2011
Today it was very vigorously raining on our parade – the Oktoberfest Parade that is, but we managed to find a spot where we only got mildly damp as the marathon parade marched past us. The parade is a massive affair with 8,000 people in costume, and entrants from all the towns of Bavaria, all the breweries in Bavaria and many regions in the surrounding Alps such as Austria, Italy and Switzerland. Each group had their own costumes and themes, dancers and music and then each of the breweries had their own draft horses and beer wagons all decorated in brass and leather to the hilt– the Budweiser Clydesdales would pale in comparison. Although these draft horses are generally for show, for Oktoberfest they actually are hauling beer and some of the breweries passed out samples along the parade route.
Many of the people in the parade would yodel or call out something that sounded like” Ya-hoo-hoo-hoo”, and then some added a few extra “hoo’s” . It called to mind the call from the American West “yee haw”. It had that same sort of tone and inflection. It may be that cattle calling connection. Their spunk and spirit were amazing considering they were whooping and hollering in a driving rain. Only Bavarian breweries participate in Oktoberfest, but there are plenty of them. Beer producers erect vast marquees (giant tents) and provide tables and benches or chairs and a plethora port-a-potties. Everything was decorated with hops vines, a key ingredient of good beer. Admission to the event is free but to get a table in one of the tents requires a purchase and connections since these seats are in high demand. Each tent will hold thousands of people so it is quite the party inside.
Many of the local people dress up for the occasion, with the ladies typically in dirndl skirts and embroidered peasant blouses, and the men in leather lederhosen (short pants) and fancy shirts – sort of like Americans dressing up for a rodeo in Western wear. A symbol of the celebration is a large heart shaped, largely inedible gingerbread cookie, which can be worn as a pendant. Oktoberfest begins with the parade, and a ceremonial tapping of the first barrel of beer. Sixteen days later it closes no doubt amid massive hangovers. We did learn that at the end of each day there are a significant number of bierleichen (translation = beer corpses) who have to be rousted and escorted off the grounds. Recent statistics show 827 people requiring medical attention during Oktoberfest one year, which is really not bad considering there is seating for 100,000 and the grounds hold many more. In fact there are usually over 6 million
people visiting over the 16 days and they consume between 6 and 7.5 million liters of beer which sounds like pretty modest consumption except many of the attendees are children (drinking age here is 16). Other interesting statistics: there are 965 toilets and ½ mile of urinals. Amazingly, crime is low considering the number of people and amount of alcohol with 487 arrested in 2012. The biggest crime seems to be theft of beer steins that some people perceive to be souvenirs included in the price of the beer. Authorities confiscated 226,000 from celebrants in 2012.We understand that there are no charges pressed as long as the perpetrators peaceably return the goods. Violence is also minimal – in 2012 for example there were 58 incidences of people hit over the head with beer steins, which seem to be the weapon of choice. We took a break from the parade, which was still going strong, for lunch at the Haxnbauer (rough translation is the Pigknuckle Inn). Said knuckles were quite large, served on a heaping bed of sauerkraut, making a feast suitable for medieval times when bones were thrown on the rushes on the floor for the hounds to gnaw on. Gary is determined to try this at home – I am less enthused about this idea. We stopped for coffee at 4:00 then we went back to the hotel to change into dry clothes for an evening at Oktoberfest.
We took the subway along with throngs of people and made our way to the Paulaner tent where we had reservations and where we met Klaus and Inge and their friends. There was much merriment – singing and dancing on the floor and on the benches – no dancing on the table since you might knock the beer over. There were no formal introductions to people at adjacent tables, but we were included their group dancing. In fact a neighboring giantess, whom we dubbed Helga, was particularly interested in the men folk at our table and brazenly invited/demanded that they dance with her. And of course they did.
The DJ played a lot of dated American music including such songs as “Sweet Caroline”, “YMCA”, “Hey Baby” and the very interestingly rendered “Sweet Home Alabama”. They also played 3 to 4 times an hour, the German Oktoberfest Classic “Ein Prosit” that none of us Americans really knew the words to, but that did not keep us from singing along anyway. When this song is played, the crowd stands and sways to the music, often with arms linked, followed by a toast and chugging of beer. A key phrase in the song is “Gemutlichkeit”, which translates as “coziness” or” good cheer” and it generates a sense of belonging, social acceptance and leaving your troubles (and differences) at the door. It was like a big fraternity party with 6,000 of your best friends. It felt a little like Woodstock must have been, with the same sentiments (peace love and understanding), but of course being German, it was much more organized. Beer may just be the solution to world peace that everyone has been looking for.
September 19, 2011
Dateline: St. Paul de Vence, France
Latitude at St. Paul de Vence 43.69 degrees North, Longitude 7.12 degrees East
We had a very early flight back to France and were picked up by a taxi in a downpour at 4:00 a.m. for our 6:40 a.m. flight from Munich back to Nice. We took a taxi to the train station in Nice to pick up a car. Our first vehicle was a Dacia, but with four people and luggage, we quickly determined that this was a non-starter, so we swapped that for a Peugeot (a newer model of the car Inspector Clousseau had in the Pink Panther movie back in the 1960’s). From there, thanks to a combination of a map and GPS provided in the car, we drove to St. Paul de Vence with a minimum number of wrong turns and checked into the Hotel La Grand Bastide. A bastide was a fortified town in medieval days and we learned that this part of France has a wealth of them, many now in the business of welcoming outsiders instead of sending them packing.
St. Paul de Vence (pronounced Sahn Pahl de Vahnce) is located on the Cote de Azur (pronunciation is “coat dah zoohr” with the accent on the first and last syllables. Translation is the Azure Coast) It is one of the iconic “villages perches” (translation = perched villages) of Provence. These are villages built on the jagged summits of mountaintops and hillsides, most dating back to the Middle Ages when these lofty “perches” were essential for defending against intruders. Each village has a very distinctive silhouette with ramparts and a bell tower jutting into the sky from a rocky promontory. The villages are typically comprised of narrow cobbled streets with steps, archways and alleyways and were built around a fortified castle. In the event of an invasion, the local people would close the gates to the town, and if that was not successful, they could retreat inside the ramparts of the castle for safety. Today these villages have been subject to a new invasion of artisans and tourists, who are welcomed with open gates and open arms and the tourists respond in kind with open wallets.
The medieval ramparts of St. Paul de Vence were totally restored in the 16th Century and these are the walls standing today, but the streets were bare until the early 1950’s when the Mayor had them laid with cobblestones from the beach at nearby Cagnes Sur Mer. The stones were placed on their sides in the Provencale tradition, which makes for interesting walking for anyone in ridiculously fashionable shoes. The site dates back to Roman times when an oppidum (essentially a walled provincial fortress) was built to defend against the uncivilized hordes from the north. Over the centuries the town developed as people built around a chateau there with its chapel dedicated to St. Paul, and thus the name St. Paul de Vence came to be. Then there were more walls built which date from the Middle Ages in the 13th Century to create a stronghold to fend off the Saracens along with other principalities such as Savoy, Austria and Piedmont. In 1543, “spur” bastion walls (walls that protrude out beyond the rectangle walls, providing a place from which to shoot arrows at anyone trying to scale the walls) were added to protect the city gates.
In the 19th century, painters flocked to the area, attracted by the colors of the hills covered with wildflowers and in particular the buttery light of the balmy south of France. The most famous lodgings in town, the Colombe D’Or now has a wonderful art collection in their dining room of paintings accepted over the years in lieu of payment of hotel bills incurred by now famous artists. After looking at their prices for meals and lodging, we concluded that even a bartered Picasso or a Chagall might not go too far here. In the 20th Century St. Paul de Vence became a fashionable hangout for celebrities, with hangers- on and tourists following in their wake. We had brunch and a brief rest by the pool before walking up to the old town.
Entrance to the town is through the 13th Century gate of Porte Royale. The main street runs thought the town past the Place de la Grande Fontaine to Porte Sud . Fountains have been in use since medieval times as the source of water for the townspeople and this one has survived the centuries. The town is a jumble of alleyways that twist and turn around the bell tower and central fountain square. We stopped at a store that sold liqueurs and olive oil called Le Trois Etoiles (translation is The Three Stars) and bought a peach liqueur thinking we might locate some champagne make Bellinis. We had dinner at a restaurant called La Sierra. Stu and Gary ordered rabbit and pronounced it wondrous, but I couldn’t bring myself to taste it – I could only visualize Thumper in the Bambi story.
After dinner we watched local men playing boules (also known as petanque, although technically the balls they play with are boules and the game is petanque). It looks similar to the Italian game of bocce. Their “pitch” was grassless open ground under the plane trees of a square called “Jeu de Boules . The historic Café de la Place was adjacent, offering refreshments to the players and onlookers, built on the site of the old La Moulin a Huile (Olive Mill) where in the 19th Century water mills crushed olives into olive oil.
September 20, 2011
Today after coffee and baguettes, we drove east from St. Paul de Vence to the village of Eze-le-Village, (Eze rhymes with Fez) another “perched village” which bills itself as the Village of Art and Gastronomy. There is another Eze not far away, but it is nowhere nearly as picturesque, and thus the “le village” designation is important to travelers. They should also add story book charm to the title. We were there on a beautifully sunny day and thoroughly enjoyed our explorations here. Eze is a walled village built on a hilltop below the ruins of an ancient castle, and it has steep narrow lanes to navigate, but it is worth every step. Stephen Liergard (the same person who dubbed this area the Cote d’Azur) described the walk as a climb up “the golden braid” of a ” black bodice”. I can’t say that I would describe it just like that, but he might have had more wine than we had at that point. I have seen the Mediterranean many times and most of that time the water doesn’t quite live up to azure, but here at Eze – it’s a different story. It is most definitely azure.
The village itself is postcard worthy. It is a collection of old houses built around the ruins of a 14th Century castle. We had a delightful walk with tiny shops and restaurants and fantastic views of the Mediterranean at every turn – and there were many turns -amid walls covered in jasmine, wild roses and bougainvillea. It is indeed a step back in time to walk the streets of this village whose houses, including those of the aristocrats, did not have running water until 1952. Despite this inconvenience, there was still an abundance of fine residences there including the Chateau Eza where a Swedish Prince lived from 1923 to 1953. The ground floors are now shops and studios. This space in those days was used for wine cellars and stables for the small donkeys that brought fresh produce directly from the surrounding countryside up the narrow streets. The upper floors today house a fine restaurant and hotel.
The oldest building in the village built in 1306 is the Chapel of St. Croix which is also known as the Chapelle des Penitents Blanc (Chapel of the White Penitents). The white penitents were a religious group of lay people of the Roman Catholic faith who created an organization to promote religious charitable works and penitence, such as fasting and self-abasement . This type of organization is called a confraternity and the color associated with their garb is attached to their name – in this group it was white. There are other confraternities which dress in other colors. They wear a costume that typically consists of a robe, a face covering and a pointed hood , making the white penitents outfit disconcertingly similar to that of the KKK. A visit to Eze during an Penitents Blanc event can be a little startling if you are not tuned in to this unusual coincidence.
We treated ourselves to drinks at the Chateau Eza where the views were every bit as fabulous as advertised. We briefly visited the famous Chevre d’ Or (translation is Golden Goat) which is a hotel and restaurant with the requisite fabulous views of the Mediterranean as well. According to legend there was in ancient times a golden goat which would make intruders lose their way in the winding streets and distract them from their goal of looting the castle back in the days when it was filled with treasure rather than bats. The castle was destroyed by the soldiers of King Louis XIV in 1706. Today the castle grounds contain the Exotic Garden, consisting mostly of succulent plants collected from around the world. We were told from the top of the hill one could see Corsica on a clear day, but we decided to continue on our way instead of making the arduous climb.
From Eze we drove east and we had a choice of 3 scenic roads or corniches which link Nice to Monaco. Corniche translates as roughly as a cliff (or cornice) or cliff road – which in this case are scenic roads cut out of the mountainsides. There is the High (Haute) or Grand Corniche , Lower (Basse) and Middle (Moyenne) Corniche. The Lower Corniche was built in the 1860’s along the train line to allow motorists access to the casino at Monaco. It also enabled the seaside villages to spring up and provided thousands of people with access to the water. We left Eze on the Middle Corniche, whose steep hairpin turns kept us “oohing and aahing” over the views it afforded us. It also gave us glimpses of sumptuous villas both above and below us, including that of King Leopold II of Belgium, built in the 1920’s and then sold to the Agnelli Family (of Fiat) and later to a family of American bankers. We then made the ascent to the Grand Corniche, over 1600 feet above the Mediterranean, which took us to the village of La Turbie, an old medieval city, to enjoy a picnic lunch and a parking ticket (well, actually we only enjoyed the lunch).
The Grand Corniche was built by Napoleon and runs alongside the old Roman road called the Via Aurelia, which was the route the Romans took to first invade and then defend their conquest of Gaul (current day France). A lasting symbol of their presence is the Trophee d’ Auguste, a commemorative monument erected in the 1st Century B.C, to glorify Augustus Caesar as the conqueror of the 44 hostile tribes of the Alps. It stands on what was once the border between the Roman Empire and Gaul. This particular victory was the beginning of the Pax Romana (Roman Peace) which lasted over 200 years. It is the only monument of its kind still in existence in France, although only a portion of it remains intact. Like so many Roman structures, it became used as a quarry for later building projects. Unfortunately it was closed for ongoing restoration while we were there, so we only got to see it at a distance.
From there we dropped down into Monaco and took the tunnel to Nice and drove on to Villefranche-sur- Mer, (pronounced veal –fransh- sir- mare), another utterly charming village, with buildings of soft pastels and steep narrow streets. Like so many Riviera towns, Villefranch-sur-Mer was once a fishing village, but very few families fish today, largely because the Mediterranean is considered largely “fished out”. Fish still is featured on most menus, but it now mostly comes from the Atlantic. Another Villefranche claim to fame is that it was home to the US Navy’s Sixth Fleet until 1966 when they moved to Naples. The town still
boasts a huge castle built in the 16th Century by the Duke of Savoy to defend against the French, but of course, once the area became part of France in 1860 the castle became unnecessary and was turned into first a barracks and it then later housed city hall, the police station and museums, which are still there today. We had drinks and dinner at a restaurant called Trastavere on the lively waterfront of the tiny harbor where we ate outside at a table right on the water and absorbed the ambiance. Whereas Eze felt quite ritzy (and I guess it was since when I perused the menu at “The Golden Goat”, I found a cheeseburger priced at 55 Euros – which comes just over 80 bucks. Needless to say we did our burger eating elsewhere),
Villefranche-Sur-Mer has an Italian flavor, maybe a Cinque Terre sort of vibe. It seemed to be the hangout for a lot waterfront workers and crew members from the eye-popping mega-yachts in the harbor, or perhaps worker bees from the palatial chateaux of Cap Ferrat just across the bay. We noticed the dinghies of these yachts ranged anywhere from humble Zodiac inflatables to a fully outfitted Boston Whalers, all bobbing side by side, as the yachtsmen and crew members came and went. We stopped at a market for cheese, baguettes, fruit and wine for our next picnic and then drove back to St. Paul de Vence full of good food and wine and memories,
September 21, 2011
Today we took our Peugeot west to the village of Grasse, famous for its perfume houses dating back to the 16th century. It was also home to the painter, Fragonard. It wasn’t always such a sweet smelling town since there were also tanneries here at one time to compete with the fields of flowers used in the perfumes. Today the tanneries are gone and the flowers to make the perfume are largely imported. Sharon and I toured the Molinard perfume factory (although our particular tour was in German and so we didn’t learn as much as we might have) while the guys had a glass of wine at an outdoor café. Stu and Sharon’s grandson, who lives in Georgia, was curious about what French school kids looked like and so the guys tried to capture a few on camera, but had to be careful not to be mistaken for pedophiles.
On our tour we learned that the perfume industry actually got its start here because of the tanneries. Catherine de Medici had started a trend with her perfumed scented gloves and the demand for them grew almost exponentially. The fields surrounding Grasse became covered with acres of lavender, jasmine, roses and other scented flowers, as well as aromatic herbs. The process is essentially this: Flowers are picked in the early morning and then essences are extracted by various methods including the steam method which we saw demonstrated. The idea is to separate the essential oils. Steaming is common with orange
blossoms which are mixed with water and boiled and the essential oils are extracted by an oil decanter called an essencier. The more delicate flowers such as jasmine undergo a process called enfleurage where the petals are placed between layers of lard which becomes filled with the scent. This process requires thousands of flowers. E.G one ton of jasmine flowers produces 1 liter of jasmine essence. Perumes are created by a “perfumer” (also called “the nose”) who mixes fragrances by blending a number of essences.
From Grasse we drove through the Gorges of Verdon, entering at the village of Castellane, a one- time medieval stronghold, whose walls date from Roman times. However these walls were repeatedly encroached upon by the river and eventually succumbed to it. The walls were rebuilt in the 14th Century, but had little success against the river. Our plan was to continue through
the gorge to the village of Digne les Baines. (Pronounced “deen le bahn”). En route we saw Notre Dame du Roc, a church built in 1703, perched on a cliff 600 feet above the village of Castellane. We traveled through steep gorges and canyons with mountains close by on a road called the Corniche Sublime and it was indeed sublime. – reminiscent of the mountains above L.A. or Santa Barbara with the sea close by and visible from time to time as a blue haze in the distance. We sampled some local French beer , brewed here since 1664, but not quite as good a French wine.
Back along the Verdon River we passed blue green lakes with tumbling waters in a series of rapids. The mountainsides were covered with evergreen forests – now more like the Pacific Northwest than Southern California. We stopped for a picnic lunch at Lac De Ste. Croix. We did reach Digne- les- Bains, but had no time to enjoy the “bains” (baths) personally since the day was rapidly getting away from us.
A highlight on our return was seeing the citadel of Entrevaux, (pronounced “ahn tray voh” with accents on the first and last syllables) perched high above the valley floor. It is reached thought a series of switchbacks and then accessed through a drawbridge that permits access to the town. It was fortified in 1690 by a French military engineer and it became one of the strongest military sites in France. Instead of building the whole village on a hill, here the citadel is built on a rocky outcrop above the village. It would take about 20 minutes to walk to the citadel from the village, so it was probably a good idea to have lookouts to warn the townspeople when it was time to make the trek to avoid the marauding hordes. We skipped the trek as darkness was rapidly approaching.
Just about dusk we returned to our base at Saint Paul de Vence and had dinner in the village at La Fontaine where we had a fantastic Cote d’Azur red. Actually we never found any bad French wine, no matter how little we paid for it, nor where we bought it. We even bought some at a gas station that was great. The special of the day was cod, which was also outstanding. The French have a way with food – rivaled only by their way with wine.
September 22, 2011
Today we had our own tailgate breakfast in the parking lot of a local bakery, Fournil du St. Paul, making our bellinis out of peach schnapps and champagne, and consuming an array of quiches, beignets and turnovers. We decided to focus on the Riviera today and to see what the beautiful people were up to. The Riviera was a big draw for artists long before the glamorous “discovered” it. Artists such as Matisse, Renoir, Chagall and Picasso, just to name a few came here and painted, all entranced by the wonderful light of the sun-drenched region. It was a great experience to see the simple lines and bright colors of same landscapes, lifestyles, buildings and waterfronts that appear in so many famous paintings, but of course to see it like they saw it, you have to imagine a lot fewer tourists.
We drove to Antibes (pronounced Ahn-teeb with the accent on “teeb”) and strolled around a bit, taking in Port Vauban, the yacht harbor and the old Fort Carre, which once imprisoned Napoleon. It sits atop a hill overlooking the harbor. The origins of the citadel date back to 1487. Its main function was to protect Antibes from Nice up until 1860 when they both became part of France. The history of this area goes all the way back to the Greeks, who had a trading post here called Antipolis. Antibes was a military town until after WWI, and only then did it become a party town with the help of such notables as Rudy Valentino and Charlie Chaplin. There are a number of ancient historical sites here – the citadel, twin medieval towers and a cathedral, but we were focused on a more leisurely and hedonistic “Riviera” experience in the Valentino-Chaplin mode. The very renowned Picasso Museum is also here, but we took a pass on that.
We paid our parking ticket from La Turbie at a local tobacco shop which we thought was rather strange, but that seems to be the way things are done here. We ran across an open air market called the Marche Provencale which offered clothes, antiques, food and assorted miscellanea. From there we walked along the waterfront and stopped for lunch at the Royal Beach Restaurant adjacent to the Plage (Beach) du Ponteil, where we were treated to outstanding food and wine. We also had the opportunity to observe a number of topless sunbathers, and rapidly came to the conclusion that many of them really shouldn’t go topless, especially so close to a restaurant, lest the patrons lose their appetites. On the more tasteful side, we had an excellent view of Cap d’Antibes – a haunt of the Rich and Famous.
We took a longish, but very pleasant walk to Juan Les Pins (with the improbable pronunciation of jew-ahn lay pahn – accenting “jew” and “pahn”.) The village has a long history of famous visitors starting with Napoleon in 1815, but he wasn’t there to enjoy the beach. That came later in the 1920’s and 1930’s when the likes of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and assorted millionaires such as Jay Frank Gould showed up. We found its tree lined streets to be quite charming and there were shops and restaurants galore, but the beach was not the wild and pristine sandy expanses found in the Caribbean. It appeared much more
regimented or perhaps “occupied” is the right word, colonized as it was by umbrellas, beach chairs and cabanas. It was wall-to wall civilization encroaching on the natural beauty. And the sand was quite coarse, just a bit finer than the pebbly stuff we had experienced in Nice. There were also casinos, but they were understated – more Monaco than Vegas. The vibe here was youthful, chic and tasteful.
From Juan Les Pins we took the short train ride to Cannes to see what all the fuss is about, and found there to be not so much fuss when the Cannes Film Festival is not underway, which happens every May. And apparently the Beautiful People were elsewhere, but then so were the crowds so that was not such a bad thing. We walked into the city from the train station and found it to be interesting, but in a different way from ambiance we had found in villages such as Eze and St. Paul de Vence. Cannes was just a sleepy little fishing village built on a hill above the port until 1834 when a British Aristocrat “discovered” it and built a villa here and it became trendy.
The old historical part of the city is called Le Suquet. Modern day Cannes has expanded around the Bay of Cannes with a wide palm-lined boulevard called La Croisette running along the waterfront, lined with hotels and cafes. The most notable hotels for famous people are the Carlton, the Martinez and the Majestic . The whole boulevard becomes a focal point for glamour during the film festival. There are two historic casinos, the Casino Croisette and the Palm Beach Casino, which is only open in the summer and is built in the ruins of the Fort de la Croix. All up and down the boulevard there are international flag designs, made to look like candy wrappers on some extremely large pieces of candy (quirky, very quirky this place).
We encountered another historic market, this one called the Marche Forvil, which was rich with merchandise and people watching opportunities. We walked from there to the harbor to gape at the yachts (it was quite a somnolent scene and also sans beautiful people). Mostly it was filled with crew members, idle once all the brass was polished and the boss and guests were gone.
We enjoyed a stroll on the Promenade de la Croisette, visualizing it people with the glitterati and paparazzi. We had drinks at the Carlton, one of the most venerable and elegant of all the hotels where all the A-List stars stay, and soaked up the Beautiful People ambiance. The Carlton was built in 1911, with their colonnades and ornate ceilings unchanged since then. It is sort of a wedding cake kind of place with a host of balconies and windows, although we were told the two Black cupolas on either end of the structure were modeled after the breasts of a gypsy courtesan who had captivated the architect. They are quite tall and pointy (the cupolas that is), so we had to assume that either the architect was not going for an exact anatomically correct replication or else his gypsy had a very strange body.
From the Boulevard de la Croisette we took the Petit Train Tournotique de Cannes for a city tour of both old and new Cannes. The name “train” is somewhat a misnomer since it had wheels for the street and no track, but cosmetically it looked like a train in a Thomas the Tank Engine sort of motif, complete with a smokestack. It was a great way to take in the sights in a short period of time while resting weary feet. They provided head sets and had a different language on each channel. Gary kept switching mine to Russian to see if I was actually paying attention, which is hard to do sometimes after wine and a big lunch – it is too languorous an atmosphere to sit still for long without nodding off. As for Old Cannes, we saw the Old Cannes Castle, which houses a museum today and dates back to the 11th Century.
There is also the tower (Tour) de la Castre which can be climbed to take in the view. It also dates back to the 11th Century. In New Cannes, we saw the boulevard including the Palais des Festivals et Congres where they hold the two week Cannes Film Festival. The Palais is nicknamed the Bunker for its rather clunky façade. This is the place where the top award for achievement in filmmaking, the Palmes d’Or (Golden Palm), is presented. Nearby is the Allee des Stars containing handprints of famous people in the business (sort of like stars and footprints in the sidewalk in Hollywood).
We took the train back to Antibes where we had left our car and went back to St. Paul de Vence that evening and had dinner and had another wonderful meal with a view from the ramparts overlooking the country side.
September 23, 2011
Today we enjoyed our daily bread at our favorite patisserie, Fournil du St. Paul, and then drove to St. Tropez in really heavy traffic. We had anticipated a relaxing beach day, but found it to be not so beachy there. It was much more a yachting village that was once a fishing village. It still retains a lot of charm, surrounded by vineyards and bordered by the very tranquil Golfe St-Tropez. We parked some distance away and set out on foot along the waterfront and through the narrow streets . The village itself is tiny and was rebuilt in its original style after the Allies landed there in 1944 and consequently quite a bit of it was destroyed.
Walking along the quays (quais in French,) there was an interesting contrast between the rustic and sometimes down-at-heel fishing boats moored alongside mega-yachts. All the activity in the town – shops, galleries and restaurants – is centered along the waterfront as well. The pastel houses of this area are the subject of a number of post-Impressionist painters, some of which can be seen in the Musee de l’Annonciade, which we didn’t have time for, but will have to save for a future visit.
Despite all the painters, it was Bridgette Bardot who put St. Tropez on the map. She lived in nearby La Mardrague and starred in a 1959 movie filmed in St. Tropez in 1959 called And God Created Woman. From that point on the place was a magnet for celebrities who flocked here in droves during the summer. And there were tourists who came of course, hoping to catch a glimpse of Bridgette. Apparently there are cold winds in the winter months called Le Mistral which keep the rich and famous, as well as the tourists away then.
There is a citadel from the 16th Century overlooking the town and two towers that have survived, although most of the city walls are gone. There is an interesting story on the name of the town. It is named after the little known St. Torpes. He was a Roman Centurion in Pisa in the time of Nero, who was beheaded for becoming a Christian. According legend his body was put in a boat with a dog and a rooster and the thinking was they would eat his remains and this would be the final degradation of him. However when the boat washed up here in what is today the village of St. Tropez, his body was intact. No word on the fate of the dog or rooster.
With all the restaurants in the village jammed with people, we had an impromptu picnic by the water on a couple of benches and enjoyed the open air art displayed on the quay. We then inched our way out of there to return to our hotel. Seeking relaxation, we lounged by the pool for a few hours. We again went to St. Paul de Vence for dinner, this time at La Petit Chapel. They had a little French Bulldog who was quite shy and very well mannered. We watched the local men playing boules (petanque) in the adjacent park, apparently a nightly event since we had seen it every night when we came to dinner here. We were told that it is good we were there in September because there is one road in and out of town and in the summer it can take up to 3 hours to get in or out. After our day in fighting traffic in St. Tropez we can believe it.
September 24, 2011
Today we decided on a drive to enjoy the Provencal wine country. The Vin du Pays ( which translates as “country wine” or, more specifically, the region of the country where the wine is produced) is Cotes du Provence. There are strict rules for producing wine under this name with regard to procedures, grape varieties, blends and geography. It is a category above table wine and below AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controlee) which has even more strict standards.
We drove west to Frejus which was an old Roman town, the oldest in Gaul (which is what they called this part of France back in the days of the Roman Empire). There was an ancient cathedral and cloister dating from the 12th Century, but they had a baptistery dating from the 4th Century which was a re-purposed pagan Roman temple. It was quite important to the Romans, as evidenced by the number of Roman ruins in the city. It was also an important trading town in the ensuing centuries until their access to the Mediterranean silted up over the years. There was much to see here, but we were on a mission to taste wine, and so we continued to Les Arcs, which is home to several vineyards.
We stopped in at the Chateau de Vaucouleurs at a town called Puget- sur -Argens – the last part of the name being a river – sort of like the way the British do Stratford-on-Avon to differentiate it from other places called Stratford. We were in the Argens River Valley where grapes, first brought here by the Greeks, had been grown since 600 B.C. On this particular estate, they have been grown since 1686. The wine we sampled was Appellation Frejus and the label had a green lizard which was a symbol of the village. We bought Le Cuvee Lizards, both a rouge 2007 and a blanc 2010. We had planned to go“tasting” in other vineyards as well, but these ambitions were thwarted. We found several vineyards closed because it was Saturday, or it was lunchtime, or the season for tourism was over or for other reasons unspecified. Nothing to do but find a nice spot to picnic and enjoy the wine we bought.
We found a charming spot on a lake near the village of Carces. The village itself was picturesque with murals on the walls of the wine co-op and quaint little houses. We drove back to St. Paul de Vence for dinner at the Terrace sur St. Paul, followed by a stop at Ben and Jerry’s St. Paul de Vence branch for ice cream.
One of the most notable museums in the area which was very close to our hotel that we drove by almost daily was the Fondation Maeght which features a wealth of modern art. With little understanding or appreciation for modern art and so much else to see with beautiful weather, we did not make a stop here. To my untrained eye most modern art looks like an accident, either a mutation of nature or a disaster – either or natural or unnatural. It must be the Philistine in me. Having said that, with sufficient time, I am amenable to getting educated on this subject , but will have to save it for a future time. The foundation was inaugurated in 1966 by Andre Malreaux, who was then the Minister of Cultural Affairs. All the big names in modern art are there – Miro, Braque, Chagall and so forth. There is much sculpture
scattered about town, some quirky and amusing, some just pleasing to the eye and some to make us wonder “ what were they thinking?” St. Paul de Vence continues to draw artists in all mediums – painters, sculptors and ceramists. An outdoor exhibition called L’Artenciel is organized every year featuring works of art placed around the village. The streets are often used to display works for sale and you may see something in the morning that is not there the next day if someone has bought it.
We have found that many of the Provencale towns have contemporary art placed in outdoor locations that blend in with surroundings views and landscapes in sort of open air galleries. Also several days a week there are open air fruit, flower and vegetable markets. And of course there are vineyards in every direction, visible from the heights of city walls of St. Paul de Vence.
September 25, 2011
We had our usual breakfast at the patisserie and then drove to Vence (pronounced “vahnce”) to spend the day. Vence is an old cathedral town from the Middle Ages, built in the mountains high above the Mediterranean Sea. Very little of the walls is still intact, but the city gates and a tower from the 12th Century still stand. Where the wall used to stand there are attached houses built on the ancient foundations. In the days of the walled city, houses were built up against the ramparts. Where the moat used to be,there is a broad street called the Avenue Marcelin Maurel below the walls of what once was the medieval town .
This area was occupied dating back to Roman times when a forum stood on the spot where the cathedral is today in a town called Vintium. There are still a few Roman inscriptions dating to 22 A.D. and traces of a section road built by the Romans. We entered through the Porte de Peyra whose site dates back to 1441, but today’s gate was installed in 1810 – still old by American standards. There is a 16th century castle now housing a museum. The cathedral is one of the oldest (4th Century) smallest and most modest in France, but there is a chapel that has Chagall and Matisse artwork in the mosaics and stained glass installed in the 20th Century.
They were having La Fete du Moyen et Haut Pays (translation as best I could tell is The Festival of the Average Man in High Country, but I could be missing something here). It was similar to a country fair with artists and artisans, locally produced food, expositions, demonstrations and farm animals. We had lunch outdoors at the Midi Restaurant adjacent to the old Cathedral in Place Godeau, named after a former bishop who was known as wit and confidant of the ladies in the 1600’s. The Place (pronounced “plahss”), or plaza as we would call it, replaced an Old Cemetery that was removed in 1780.
The festivities were interrupted by a driving rain and so we abandoned our tour of Vence with many sights unseen and returned to our hotel for an afternoon of napping and reading. We again returned to the Old City of St. Paul de Vence for our last dinner in Provence. This time we took the navette (hotel shuttle) since finidng parking had always been a challenge. For dinner our last night here, we went back to La Fontaine where we had eaten our first night here. We ordered escargot which was exceptional and again enjoyed the local cuisine. Walking back to our car we stopped to watch the nightly game of boules under the ancient sycamore trees casting shadows on the dramatically lit walls of the ancient city. It was a beautiful and memorable evening and good way to end this chapter of our adventure.
September 26, 2011
Dateline, Paris France
This morning we returned the car to the Nice train station (the Gare de Nice Ville) which was no easy feat since signage was at a minimum. We had stocked what we came to call our “Feed Bag” with bread, cheese and wine for our journey. After some minimal delays (the signs said the trains were “retarded” by which they meant late, not mentally challenged ), we took the train to Marseilles with stops in Cannes and San Raphael and then caught the TGV non-stop to Paris arriving at the Gare de Lyon around 4:00 p.m.
We had quite a wait for a taxi large enough for 4 passengers and their mound of luggage, but eventually we were successful. Our taxi took us to the Select Hotel Rive Gauche, just next door to the Sorbonne. We had a cocktail and confirmed our flights for the next day. We a second cocktail at an outdoor café called L’Escrtoire which was a student hangout so we didn’t exactly blend in, but it was great for people watching. The desk clerk at the hotel recommended a Corsican restaurant called La Cosi which was just a few blocks away and so we walked, briskly walked that is, due to a brisk breeze and chilly sprinkling of rain. Their specialty was a veal ragout which was quite tasty. Packing up for our departure tomorrow, we gave the leftovers from our feed bag to the hotel clerk, who was a dead ringer for Ross the Intern from Jay Leno’s Tonight Show, and who seemed quite delighted to have them.
September 27, 2011
Today we bid farewell (make that au revoir) to France. We checked out of our hotel and took a taxi to the airport just as Paris was beginning to bustle. We returned home on a long, but uneventful flight – my favorite kind, that uneventful part, that is. In reflection, I found this quote from Jawaharial Nehru to be very fitting for our trip: “We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if we seek them with our eyes open.”