Thursday, September 24, 2009

Visits to Lourmarin, Vaugines, Aix en Provence, etc. & Villa In Vaugines (Provence) Jan 2008

As luck would have it, we received a request from some exchangers, now great friends, for a home exchange in the South of France. We think the word is out: The Carlsons LOVE France! And, everyone knows by now that we simply cannot resist an offer to exchange our lovely Hawaii home for one in France.

After nearly a year of planning, we made it through the holidays and our daughter and her husband returned to Georgia, while we worked feverishly getting our house ready for our exchangers. The first week of January arrived and we were on our way. Our first stop was Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris. What a busy place!

Although we'd been to CDG before, it had only been as arriving passengers--not transferring passengers. Oh la la, what a difference! We loaded up a cart with all our luggage and began to follow the signs to the inter-country transfer terminal. We walked and walked and went through a couple of security checks, worrying all the time since our transfer time was rapidly approaching. We were taking another flight to Marseille. We'd never seen so many lengthy terminals. It took us nearly 40 minutes to get from our arriving gate to our departing gate. We did notice, though, at one point while walking through a glassed-in area, that the TGV tracks ran directly beneath us. We'll take the TGV next time. It might be an easier trek south, but who knows? It may have been necessary to walk as far and go through as many check points.

Our exchangers were absolutely wonderful people. They had arranged the trip to their next destination around our arrival, leaving their Peugeot at the Marseille Airport and e-mailing us the location. They had mailed a key to us in advance. We stayed at the Sofitel Hotel at the airport for the night (we'd already traveled 27 hours and were exhausted--even though the Air France flight was very comfortable and our flight attendants very nice--trés sympa). The next morning we realized that the car was parked almost next door to our hotel. What great friends! It was an easy transition for us.

We had a nice breakfast at our hotel and then checked out and began our trek north from Marseille to Vaugines, about an hour's drive. The map provided by our exchangers, proved to be an excellent guide and before long we were at the Villa. La Jassine (our villa) was snugged in at the end of a narrow rocked pathway/drive leading us by a scant number of other villas. Our place was surrounded by a cherry orchard and vineyards and sat in a small valley of the southern Luberon mountains. We noticed that each villa had a name, rather than an address, and we later learned that names were chosen over numbers.

Our villa was a three bedroom, with a nice family room/dining room and a huge wood burning fireplace. It was very cold inside, so Doug immediately went in search of wood to build a fire. Upstairs the office area which had high speed Internet, had a huge bay window opening out onto a vista above the orchard and exposing the beauty of the Luberon mountain range. It's a view that is still indelible in our minds. We've even had our friend in Lourmarin paint us a water color of spring in the Luberon and also have one of her etchings of the Village itself. Both hang in our living room as a constant reminder of such fond memories.

Unfortunately, when we arrived the mistral began. It was indeed a cold, dry wind that howled and blew, making the wind chill lower and bringing with it heavy cold rain. We'd experienced the fury of the mistral previously while on a late spring wine trip up the Rhone, so we knew that if we were lucky we would get the shorter wind and within three days it would be sunny, still and clear. We fought the wind as we carried in luggage and also made our trek to the Hyper U for water and supplies. It was miserable, but as we hoped it lasted for only three instead of nine days. Lucky us!

Our friends put us in contact with their friend, an artist (Lilian Marco) in Lourmarin (the one I mentioned above). She called us the morning after our arrival and invited us for an aperitif that evening. Since the weather was miserable, her timing was perfect. We were excited as this would be our first invitation into the home of a French family. She was delightful. She made us some delicious snacks and taught us about the French culture of enjoying the apéro "pastis," a lovely anise flavored liquor poured over ice and then diluted in strength to please the imbiber with a bit of water. This lovely drink went swimmingly well with the small toasts topped with a salty tapenade of olives and the interesting conversation and tour of Lilian's art studio. It turns out that she's not only an artist of some renown but also the illustrator for the books of a famous poet, Henri Boscoe.

As if we were not fortunate enough to have enjoyed the apéro hour with Lilian, we received a call the very next day inviting us over to her home for a traditional French meal. We were delighted because this meant that we not only behaved well on our first visit, but it also meant that she liked us enough to invite us to such an intimate affair. It was thrilling and the French really do know a lot about hospitality and the importance of friendships. We arrived at 6 p.m. for the beginning of the apéro time. We enjoyed some fine snacks and a bottle of beautiful French champagne, while we talked for a couple of hours. About 8 p.m. we were seated at a beautifully set table and our dinner commenced first with a quiche Lorraine. Lilian is from Lorraine and she really knows how to cook. It tasted like I had always thought a genuine quiche might taste. No cheese, just egg and a light flakey crust that melted in the mouth. With this she served a lovely white wine bottled by a friend and Lilian had helped harvest the grapes. It was crisp and delicious. Then we had a baked salmon served with julienned carrot and zucchini that was moist and deliciously fresh. Next course was a fresh salad with a fresh herb dressing our hostess made. After the salad came a lovely plate of local fresh cheeses, served with a rustic bread. Finally came a fresh fruit tarte she made. At about 1 a.m., when we finished this beautiful meal full of delightful French cuisine and great conversation about culture, travels and politics, we had a "digéstif" which is a nice small sip of a liquor, although with so much champagne followed by wine, we all agreed on a cup of herbal tea--also tasty. We were so honored. Also, it is forbidden to help clean up. So off we went at 1:30 a.m. full of food and culture. We slept like babes. Ha! We thought we could easily become French.

La Jassine was well situated for us to take daily trips throughout the Luberon, where we sought out and explored the many villages in the region. Our place was also very near Puyvert and Pertuis, where the Super U and Hyper U super markets were located. Both these stores carry not only fresh bakery items, but all foods, medicinal and hardware items--even large appliances. They are part of a supermarket chain and it's okay to select your own fruits and vegetables and other items by handling, sniffing and squeezing. This isn't the case with the many open or fresh air markets we visited. If you want to know immediately that you've just committed the worst faux pas possible, try to grab a piece of fruit or any item at an open air market and you'll know that if looks could kill you'd certainly be dead at that moment! It's one of those mistakes you only make once, as I did. I now realize that it's considered offensive and rude to behave in such a manner. I did apologize, making a mental note to look for other cultural mores that might differ. You must politely greet your patron/patronne with a "bonjour" and say that you'd like "un kilo" or whatever of salad.

We loved the big stores. They had everything one could imagine and good food, too. Many have large restaurants inside, where on a cold blustery day it's possible to sit and have an espresso or some hot food. Regarding the super stores, there are a few rules: first, if you want a cart for your groceries, you must pay for its use. One euro coin goes in the slot and out rolls your cart. If you return the cart and lock it up again, you'll get your euro back. We kept a euro coin in our car just for that purpose. This was also the same for the airport carts in Marseille. The other rule is simple. Bags are not supplied at most grocery stores. Once you have your groceries, you must ask to purchase a grocery bag (inexpensively at about .67 cents) at the checkout. The bags are large and reusable. We've bought several and they pack easily and we not only use them at home, but pack them as well. Our villa friends had bags to use, but we still bought our own. There are bags for frozen/cold items and bags for regular groceries. It's also a good idea to take your grocery bag to outdoor markets, your patron will be ever so grateful for this polite gesture. The French, after all, are very eco-conscious--it's a good thing.

During our stay, we found a list of open-air markets on line and we created a schedule to visit each of the villages with open-air markets. It was a great idea, but we wound up stopping at other points of interest along the way and some times missed markets entirely. We were in the region for a little over two weeks, but we didn't always have pleasant weather and some days it was too rainy and windy to venture out. On those days, we enjoyed a roaring fire in the fire place, read novels and enjoyed the fine local foods and wine that we'd bought. We also uploaded and organized our photographs and wrote in our journals.

It's nice to visit the south during winter, however it can be very cold. The nicest thing is to arrive in a village and be greeted warmly because it is not full of tourists. The villagers are happiest at greeting visitors in off season because their normal lifestyles are not so interrupted. Imagine how awful it must be during high season (spring and summer) to get groceries when lines are long and rude gawking people make it impossible to pick up daily bread or a bit of cheese? The French generally shop daily, buying fresh products each day. Our friends say they learn when and when not to go out in order to avoid the crowds of tourists. The Luberon is especially crowded since Peter Mayle made it famous with his book as well as the movie "A Year In Provence." Tourism is good for the local economy, but hard on its citizens for sure.

Because it was winter, we had no traffic on the highways while venturing out to visit small villages like Russillion, Gordes, Bonnieux, Pertuis, Cadenet, Cucuran, Avignon and Aix en Provence and sites such as Pont Julien, a 3rd century BC Roman bridge that is no longer used but still standing and the tri-level Pont Gard. We enjoyed the ochre colors of Russillion and the small brasseries of many of the villages. We ate, took pictures and stopped for an espress or apéro without any waiting and easily exchanged words with the patrons. Many times we were the only people in a brasserie or bistro and the only people walking on a street. The markets did not have the variety we'd hoped for, since many of the small farmers found it too cold and uncrowded to make the trip to market and set up all their tables and gear. Who can blame them? We were still able to buy soaps, some clothing and linens, honey, winter vegetables and fruits, cheese, eggs and roasted meats and to have an interchange with the farmers.

We spent a lot of time in Lourmarin. It's a charming village with a good patisserie and brasseries where it is possible to buy coffee and sandwiches or the plat de jour. There is also a friendly pharmacist who speaks very good English and who helped me with a nasty cold I caught while traveling. Lourmarin also has some small boutiques and a small grocery store where it is possible to pick up small items and a few fresh vegetables or fruit. We loved it so much that we made a vow to return when it was warmer so that we could enjoy the sidewalk cafes and stroll through the village. We did enjoy dining at the beautiful hotel Moulin. The hotel is worth touring. It has a history as an olive oil mas, now converted to a beautiful hotel. They were very friendly and not only did we have a five star lunch, but they showed us the rooms in case we would like to stay there some time. The best part was that they had their clerk with a good grasp of English and French talk to the only taxi driver for miles (he spoke no English) to let him know where we needed to go and how to get to our villa to pick us up the next morning, early. We'd tried unsuccessfully to arrange a ride from the villa to Pertuis train station, about 10 miles away, so that we could ride the bus to Marseille, and we were at a loss as to how to communicate. It was such a relief!

Our taxi driver arrived on time. He dropped us at the train station early, because we wanted to make sure we were timely and could get a good seat on the bus (the train from Pertuis did not go into the Marseille train station for some reason). As it turned out, we were almost two hours early and not another single sole came to ride on the huge bus. We did, however, stop at various villages on the way and a few riders got off and on between.

Once in Marseille train station, we followed the signs overhead to the designated taxi area. We'd been warned not to accept taxi rides from anyone approaching us and to strictly go to the taxi area. It seems that there are thieves who approach visitors asking if they need a taxi and the visitors are led to taxis that are not licensed by the state and many times are a front for a ring of thieves who will rob you blind. Also of note, the luggage carts will not progress past a point near the curb. They will lock up. We thought we had a bum cart until the taxi driver explained it to us, while helping us unload our luggage for the ride to our hotel along the Marseille harbor waterfront.

We arrived safely at our hotel, a newly renovated business hotel filled with men and women wearing nicely tailored dark suits and carrying fine leather brief cases. The cocktail lounge had low lying leather seating and tables with subdued lighting and many young business people were sitting around carrying on conversations while drinking an apéro. Our room was clean and furnished nicely with contemporary furnishings and we had a large window that looked out into the harbor. We were only to stay one night, so we immediately slipped out into the bustling famous harbor and shopping areas of Marseille. I was famished and we found a restaurant boasting bouillabaisse. Doug, who generally will order what I order because he believes I have the better sense of what is tasty, ordered the same. We "ooo'd" and "awed" our way through the steamy huge bowl of freshly caught and gently cooked seafood that swam in a bowl of the most delicious saffron based soup I've ever tasted. I must return, just to have the same. The soup is served piping hot and with a delicious grated buttery cheese and toasted bread. We had an Alsatian white Riesling that went beautifully with the soup. Neither of us could imagine a dessert--both completely sated.

We walked around and watched as fishermen brought forth abundant baskets filled with fresh fish, dumping them into a vat next to tables where their fishwives quickly and adeptly cleaned the fish as people bought them just as quickly. This is a process, we learned, that has repeated itself for hundreds of years. We wanted desperately to be able to buy the beautiful fresh fish, but because we were staying in a hotel it was out of the question. We may have to consider an exchange there some day.

The reason we were in Marseille was simple. We had planned another excursion from France into Italy and the overnight train in the south went from Marseille into Rome. We'd rented a place in Rome for ten days, because a few years earlier we had flown into Rome, stayed one night and then driven out to Umbria where we were staying in a 4th century working farm. During that one day, we crammed in as much as we could and vowed to return soon to see the rest. This was a perfect opportunity for us.

Doug, as he generally does, thought of our comfort on such a long trip by train. He rented us a berth in first class. We'd traveled first class by train before and were expecting the accommodations to be the same. Ha! We had a tiny compartment that barely fit us. It was a real struggle and neither of us slept well. We also had to leave our compartment to use the bathroom, which was down the hall. We had a good laugh as we ate some sandwiches and drank some wine we'd managed to pick up before boarding the train. Also, in the morning, before we arrived in Rome, the porter knocked on our door and handed us a tray with two espressos and two croissants. A good way to start the day!

Please enjoy some of the photos we took at the markets and around the villages in Provence.

And, This Is First Class Train Riding? Hmm. Overnight Train To Rome

Marseille Train Station, We Sadly Bid Farewell To Southern France

A Romantic Marseille Harbor At Night As Seen From Our Hotel Room

A Very Long Shopping Street In Marseille

Our Waiter Gave Me The Recipe For This Bouillabaise (Wow!)

In Town!
This Fisherman Will Unload And Sell His Catch

As They Have For Centuries, Fisherman Clean & Sell Their Daily Catch--Marseille

Early Morning At Marseille Harbor

The Only Two Going To Marseille This Date In Winter

Small But Cheery Train/Bus Station, Pertuis

Excellent Dining At The Hotel Moulin, Lourmarin

A Delicious Croc Monsieur From A Lourmarin Patisserie, And Some Luberon Red Wine
Our Favorite Provençal Village, Lourmarin

Roman Aqueduct, Pont du Gard

Stone Bories And Fences Of Gordes (Stones From Lands Cleared For Vineyards)

Stone Houses Of Gordes

Charming Village Of Gordes, Northern Luberon

Cliffs Of Ochre Mined To Be Used In Paints, Russillion, Northern Luberon

The Beautiful Ochre Color Of Roussillion

Like Many Ancient Structures, Le Pont Julien Has No Mortar, Just Fittings

Built in 3BC, Le Pont Julien

Ancient Roman Bridge, "Pont Julien" (Dating to 3BC)

Winter Hunting Is Popular In Provence (A Man And His Dog)

Narrow Streets Of Bonnieux, Northern Luberon

French Artiste, Lilian Marco, Teaches Us How To Mix Pastis

The Ancient Fountain and Void Streets Of Wintery Lourmarin--Always Full During Spring!

A Golden Finds A Warm Spot As He Watches His Master In Her Boutique

The Handsome Chateau of Lourmarin

The Quaint Village Of Cucuran, Luberon

The Village Of Lauris, Luberon

Selecting Fresh Delicious Organic Eggs Individually, Super U, Puyvert

A Mile Of Pastry (Yum) At Hyper U, Pertuis

We Eat Lunch At Flunch, Inside Hyper U, Pertuis

Streets Of Pertuis On A Cold Wintery Day

Even In Chilly January, Open Air Markets Abound In Aix en Provence

A Delivery Truck Stops Traffic On The Narrow Streets Of Aix en Provence

Our Peugot Says It's -3C and We've Got An Icy Windshield To Prove It!

The Narrow Pedestrian Cobblestone Streets of Lourmarin, Too Cold For Anyone!

My Favorite Chef du Poulet! Lourmarin

Freshly Roasted Chicken and Pork On A Blustery Winter Day, Lourmarin Open Air Market

This Black Lab Finds A Warm Spot Beneath His Master's Produce Table

Not Many Vendors Brave The Rainy Day In Lourmarin

A Rainy Day, Lourmarin Open Air Market

Fresh Produce At A Winter Open Air Market In Chilly Cadenet, Luberon

An Early Morning Open Market Day, Cadenet

Delicious Provençal Olives, Cadenet Open Air Market, Luberon

An Artisan Local Cheese Tray We Bought At Hyper U Super Marché, Pertuis And Luberon Wine

Our Vaugines Exchange Villa, "La Jassine"

The Luberon Mountains, Near Lourmarin/Vaugines

Dawn's Early Light Jan 6, 2008, Vaugines Villa

On A Dark Wintery Day (Jan 5, 2008) We Arrive At Our Country Villa, Vaugines

Between Security Check And Long Terminal Hallways, 40 Min. To Catch Flight to Marseille!

Busy Connecting Flight Terminal At CDG Airport

Charles de Gaulle Airport, TGV Station Beneath Where Doug Is Standing

Next post: Rome

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