Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Château d'If & Frioul Islands: Paying homage to the Count of Monte Cristo

What remains of Château d'If 

Château d'If, the "Alcatraz" of the Mediterranean, rests on a 3 hectar island called Île d’If which is approximately 3.5 kilometers west of the Vieux Port in Marseille. The smallest island in the Frioul archipelago, If can be spotted from a distance from its lighthouse and what remains of the Château. Before the Château d'If and the Île d’If was immortalised in 1844 through the pages of the literary classic, Le Comte de Monte Cristo (The Count of Monte Cristo) by Alexandre Dumas, the Château d'If was a fortress. Built in 1524-31 on the orders of King François I, the 16th-century fortress eventually was turned into a prison due to its ideal isolated location and dangerous offshore currents. 

A view of Marseille from Île d’If 
Throughout the years the prison housed political prisoners, along with hundreds of Protestants in the 17th-century and in the 18th-century heros of the French Revolution. But of course the prison's most famous inmate was the romantic fictional literary character Edmond Dantès, i.e., the Count of Monte Cristo. After fourteen years locked in prison (unjustly), Dantès makes a daring escape from the island, finds the burried treasure on the Island of Montecristo (thanks to his only friend and prison-mate Abbé Faria) and with his new found wealth makes his way for Marseille to take revenge on all those who have wronged him. Today you can visit the Château d'If and take a guided tour. The prison visit ends at a small hole, through which the Count of Monte Cristo was said to have escaped to freedom! 

Frioul If Express boats leave for Château d'If from the Vieux Port of Marseille. Over 15 daily departures in summer, fewer in winter (€10 return, 20 minutes). The Château d'If is open from 9.30am-6.30pm May-Sep, to 4.45pm Tue-Sun Oct-Apr.

In the warmer months, many locals and visitors alike take their sailboats, speed boats, banana boats, tug boats and yachts for a day (or days) around the Frioul archipelago. The archipelago is made up of four limestone islands: Pomègues, Ratonneau, If and Tiboulen. The Frioul Islands are home to many rocky inlets, beaches and sandy creeks. Between the islands are many different places to anchor your boat making it the perfect location to chill out, swim and enjoy the warm Mediterranean sea and sun. 

Whether you are hitching a ride back from Château d'If or Frioul Islands with smugglers like Edmond Dantès, or taking the world's fastest schooner...just remember to hold on and don't fall out of the boat!  

Friday, July 25, 2014

Open-air summer markets in Provence: Château Pesquié

Open-air markets are a way of life in the South of France and in particular, Provence. The market provides the community an opportunity to acquire their weekly goods but it also is a social event strengthening ties between members of the community, it's farmers and producers. At a typical Provencal market you can find an endless array of goodies from local foods (cheeses, pastries, produces and meats etc) to local nougat, honey, tapenade, spices to clothing, art, antiques, skincare, lavender and crafts (and the list goes on and on!). 

Every year the celebrated winery and estate Château Pesquié holds their lively open-air market the last two Thursdays in July and the first Thursday of August. Located in the village of Mormoiron at the foot of Mount Ventoux in the Rhone Valley, this event is not only great for stocking up on local fresh products, but it is also a great event for the entire family. Set against the Château surrounded by vineyards the market is open from 4:00pm-7:00pm and locals as well as tourists arrive by the hundreds to take part in the festivities. 

Like every good market-goer, you can’t forget your sturdy basket (or in this case, your best friend too..woof)!

Each of the 25-30 vendors are happy to talk about their products as well as have you taste them! Free samples to try are the norm! 

Provence is known for its delicious organic and fresh produce. One of the most popular fruits of the region comes from the near by village of Cavaillon (which is approximately 20 miles from Mormoiron), the famed Cavaillon mellon

And because we are in France we can't forget about Escargot! These bad boys have been cooked and seasoned in broth!

Charcuterie and Terrines are a must at any good market. This butcher of Maison Biscarel has made it a family affair passing on his knowledge and skills to his son (who works closely beside him!). 

My favorite purchase of the day was from La Ferme de Margolive. Most cheese in the area are made from goats. However at La Ferme de Margoline, located in a little village called Reilhanette, they make their produce from cows. Their sage, rose and lavender yogurt was divine and I couldn't get enough of the stuff! None of the yogurt or cheese from la Ferme de Magolive are pasteurized which is unsuitable for expecting mothers but harmless for all others! Yum yum! 

Local lavender, wild flowers, herb and acacia honey!

An assortment of salts, tapenades and jams!

And of course because the market is held at a winery, the cave of Château Pesquié is open and ready to provide visitors with free tastings! The winery's tapenade, olive oil, spreads, spices, jams etc. are also available for visitors to try!

And for the kids (and adults),  there is homemade ice cream to help with the heat! 

There are also donkey rides offered for those brave children willing to adventure up and down the tree line entry way of the Château;) 

For French speaking children, there is a story session lead by a teacher who reads to the families. After the reading is completed activities and crafts related to the story are given. A fun way to learn! 

And at the end of Château Pesquié's open-air market, each guest receives and drives away with this vintage beauty! Well...ok, perhaps this is not true but as a visitor you do drive away with a belly and car full of goodies as well as a heart filled with warm and happy memories of your time at the market. See you next Thursday for another evening of fun! 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The new Nike: Winged Victory of Samothrace

She's baaaaaack.....

Discovered 150 years ago by French diplomat and amateur archaeologist Charles Champoiseau, Winged Victory of Samothrace is one of the five most popular works at the Louvre Museum, which attracts almost 10 million visitors a year. So, if this Hellenistic masterpiece is such main attraction at the museum, why would they have taken her way for almost a full year!? 

Well...she needed a bath as she hadn't had one in since the late 1800's. Since early September 2013,  under the direction of Daniel Ibled, a team of eight archaeologists and conservators has worked meticulously on cleaning the representation of Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, to give it back the natural white shade of its marble after more than a century of dust and filth rendered it a dirty yellow. Restoring old, stained marble is complicated and requires delicate work from conservationists. The conservationists also cleaned the base, designed as a prow of a ship, to restore the veined-grey color and the contrast with the Goddess that was also lost with time. Given her (Nike's) importance and her weight, it was the first time since World War II the statue of the goddess was moved and the first time it was restored since it was installed in the staircase. (Although the Louvre was never bombed during WWII, many of the most famous paintings on display today underwent rescues. The Winged Victory of Samothrace was wheeled down the steep staircase and had to be transported out of Paris in a scenery truck from the Comédie-Française theater. It was returned to the Louvre at war’s end, unscathed.)

So with great anticipation, the 2,200-year-old, 18ft tall (5.57 m), 29-ton Winged Victory of Samothrace is now back for public viewing at the Louvre and she is ready for her close up! Cleaner, more complete and whiter than ever she returns back to her monumental pedestal on top of the Louvre’s Daru staircase. During the restoration Scientist Giovani Verri, from the Courtauld Institute of Art identified microscopic traces of blue paint, showing the statue was partly colored with at least a blue fringe on the drapery. He also found blue pigments on the wing. The restorers were also able to add some fragments of the drapery and the left wing’s superior flight feather to the statue. 

As one walks up the steep and dramatic Daru stairs—designed to give us a spectacular view of the Winged Victory—it would be as though one would be are approaching the Greek island of Samothrace by boat. That was how the goddess was designed to be seen; her installation here at the Louvre tries to capture that visual experience. The Winged Victory originally stood in Samothrace on a cliff towering over the esplanade of the Sanctuary of the Great Gods, a complex of a dozen temples dedicated to different deities popular in Antiquity. Art historians believe Nike was made in approximately 190 BC however fell from its pedestal in a natural disruption like an earthquake. 
Now that she is back and restored, she is more spectacular than ever. Forever locked for eternity in a moment in time this windswept goddess truly is victorious in winning the hearts of all who see her. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Abbaye Notre Dame De Sénanque

Located near the beautiful village of Gordes in Provence, sits the Cistercian Abbey of Notre Dame de SénanqueThe Cistercian monks always looked for secluded wooded valleys to build their monastery's and the location of Sénanque was perfect as the valley was and still is well hidden from the world. Pierre de Mazan arrived in the vale of Sénanque on July 9th, 1148, accompanied by a dozen monks with intentions to build a monastic Cistercian abbey and that is just what he did.

Today the monks of the Abbey aim to continue in the footsteps of their Fathers who led the Cistercian monastic life in the monastery for centuries. Although they maintain many values of their medieval forebears, the commitment and profession of monastic vows are now the same for everyone - unlike the two "sorts" of monks that existed in the 12th century: choir-monks and lay brothers. Today all monks at Sénanque lead the same life which involves liturgical prayer (sung in the church), prayer alone with the Word of God (Lecito Divina) and manual and intellectual work. The church itself is in the traditional Cistercian way, done in extreme simplicity. The church is laid out in the shape of a cross. The monks' prayer and worship must not be distracted by decoration. Only light is allowed to enter and transform the space. 

The Cloister forms the centre and is the heart of the Abbey, a passageway linking the various parts of the monastery. But above all, the cloister is a place for meditation and reading (although in the summer you can hear the hum of foreign tour groups from around the world). The cloister is an enclosed courtyard, surrounded by four alleyways which open into a garden. Each alleyway has 12 arches and forms a full circle. The capital of each column is decorated with a different shape based on flowers or foliage. 

The Abbey is also home to one of the most famous lavender fields in the region. Although the field is small, hundreds of people flock to the site to see the plant in full bloom. The monks also cultivate the lavender to make products such a room spray, soaps, lotions etc. The Abbey is open daily to visitors from 9:45am-11:00 am with the exception of Sundays, Catholic holidays and is closed to the public in the winter. Guided tours are available in French. Silence and a proper dress code are enforced and the website strongly urges, no cycling gear! A small cost is required to visit inside the Abbey but it is free to walk the grounds and visit their extensive library (gift shop). 

Although there are highly visible signs to keep out of the lavender fields, some tourists just cant help themselves and invade the fields for that perfect photo opportunity (or pick the plants for a little souvenir... and even rub handfuls of the plant on their clothing!) I would highly advise against trampling through the fields, as we should respect the monk’s home as well as the well being of the lavender plant! Adiuva nos Deus!

Friday, July 11, 2014

Best bistro on my block: La Rôtisserie

19 Quai de la Tournelle 75005 Paris, France
Located on the left bank, just a walk across Pont de la Tournelle from the Île Saint-Louis, sits one of my all time favorite French bistros, La RôtisserieLa Rôtisserie, sister of La Tour d'Argent delivers delicious traditional French bistro cuisine time and time again. 

Les escargots et le foie gras
I am not the only one to love La Rôtisserie. I once saw Mikhail Nikolaevich Baryshnikov on a cold and rainy Paris day at the La Rôtisserie sitting by himself, reading a book and enjoying his meal (while I creepily spied on him over my delicious café gourmand having my own private Carrie Bradshaw Sex in the City moment). La Rôtisserie offers a cozy atmosphere, great service, fresh and quality meats and vegetables. All your favorite traditional French bites are offered from Coq Au Vin (cooked in Beaujolais wine), veal kidneys to roasted pigeon. If you are on a diet or want a light meal, don't come to La Rôtisserie as the meals served are hearty, soulful and filling (unless you want a liquid dinner as they have a sound wine list and make great cocktails!). 

Hands down my favorite dish at La Rôtisserie is the 1/2 roasted chicken and buttery mash potatoes. Although I am not a fan of chicken, I dream of this killer combination. The chicken is cooked to perfection and is the ideal texture and the mash potatoes are THE most incredible buttery mass of amazingness. 

The best roasted chicken and creamy mash ever!
And of course no traditional French dinner is complete without a desert (although before the desert comes the cheese if you still have room!). From the sorbet and ice cream assortment to the floating island (meringue floating on crème anglaise a.k.a. vanilla custard), all deserts offered are a good choice. Naturally you can never go wrong with a traditional crème brûlée.

The final treat to top off your delectable meal are the views just outside the restaurant. Just outside the restaurant you can see the Notre-Dame Cathedral and the Île Saint-Louis, the perfect nightcap to quench your visual thirst before you head back home or hit the town. 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A little heaven in your mouth: La Maison Berthillon

One of my all time favorite flavors, Salted Butter Caramel 
One of my all time favorite places on my parisian island is La Maison Berthillon. Berthillon is a French manufacturer and retailer of luxury ice cream and sorbet with its mother ship right here on the island of  Île Saint-Louis. If you have only one opportunity to eat ice cream in Paris, make sure it's from Berthillon. 

Fans of the ice cream lining up right before closing!
The company is owned and operated by the Chauvin family, descendants of Monsieur Berthillon, who from 1928 operated a restaurant on the premises called "Le Bourgogne". Berthillon sells its ice cream in bulk and by the scoop from its shop on the island, and distributes to retailers within the Paris region. Berthillon uses only natural ingredients, with no chemical preservativesartificial sweeteners or stabilizers.  Up to fifteen flavors may be produced every day by the chefs depending on the season, market availability and demand. In total, about sixty different flavors are produced by the Maison Berthillon throughout the year. Its ice creams are made from milk, sugar, cream and eggs and flavoring, which derives from natural sources like cocoavanilla beanfruit, etc. Because I am not the only one to think that Berthillon is the best ice cream spot in Paris, the lines can be very long. To avoid the lines why not take a table inside the Salon de The to enjoy an amazing ice cream sunday and Mariage Freres tea. The ice cream retailer is open daily EXCEPT for Monday's and Tuesdays (in August hours may be limited). The best time to go to get your scoop on is before Berthillon closes (at 8:00pm) BUT flavors will be limited at this time of the day! 

Pom'Cannelle's Ice cream window

Alternatively you can walk across the street to the restaurant Pom'Cannelle (27, rue des Deux Ponts 75004 Paris) which scoops up over 20 different types of Berthillon sorbets and ice creams! To be honest, I usually go to the little window at Pom'Cannelle if I just want a scoop (or two) as the lines are shorter and they are bound to have my favorite flavors. Enjoy!! 

A sweet combination of chocolate and pistachio! 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Lavender fields of Sault, France

The area of Mont Ventoux, including the town of Sault, (northeast of Avignon and Carpentras), looks strait out of a fairy tail, especially in July when the fragrant lavender fields are in full bloom. The word Lavender comes from the Latin “lavare” which means to wash or purify. Lavender first came to Provence with the arrival of the Romans around 2000 years ago; never leaving and withstanding drought and storms, the resilient flowering plant spread easily to hillsides and plateaus. At the onset of the Middle Ages, the local Provencal populace gathered wild lavender flowers to treat wounds. Toward the end of the 19th century inhabitants of Provence began to care for and maintain the wild lavender patches, particularly those on hillsides between 600 and 1800 meters (roughly 2,000-6,000 ft) in altitude to encourage development of the plant – hence its production. In this way lavender entered the 20th century: from family farming to intensive cultivation. 

You can enjoy the lavender fields by car, by bike or on foot. Wheat fields and lavender fields are found in the same areas, and often side-by-side. The wheat ripens just before the lavender season; so lavender fields are often bordered by golden bands of grain, backlit by the sun. If you want to see sunflowers and lavender together, sunflowers are in full color in July-August (end June is too early for the sunflowers). On the way to Sault you will pass the village of Simiane la Rotonde, which is a picture-perfect, perched village with fields of lavender at its base – an ideal spot for taking photos set against a backdrop of blue and purple.
"Lavender is the soul of Provence"Jean Giono
Lavender is harvested from July to September. This blue gold and purple has been used for a long time to make soap and cosmetics; it is also used in some Provençal dishes! Lavender is said to heal insect bites and burns as well as repel insects. It is used to soothe headaches if you apply it to the temples. The flower can also be placed by your pillow to aid you into a restful sleep. Dried lavender is used to repel moths in clothes closets. Lavender oil is also said to cure acne. The essential oil has antiseptic properties; it was used in hospitals in the 1st world war to disinfect wards. And of course it’s quite nice in the bath, for aromatherapy, and can be found in household products like room fresheners. 

Plateau looking over the lavender fields, town and valley of Sault.
A magical plain in a a very special part of the world. 
One can follow the lavender roads in Provence from the fields to the many distilleries along its route. One can even visit the many farms along the way. There are also festivals dedicated to the legendary plant as well as a museum in its honor (Lavender Museum in Coustellet). 

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