lets play catch up. this was originally going to be a series - I, II, III - because our travels with seth's parents encompassed three distinct voyages, but then there were the times that we weren't taking two day vacations, when they were here in avignon, and those parts bear mentioning as well. so we'll divide it differently, and somewhat arbitrarily, like those memories are now --
I. nice & monaco - seth's folks had just arrived in marseille from the states, and first thing booked it for the sunshine. we can't blame them, so we decided to meet them on the côte d'azure for two days. nice was a big french city, but with palm trees and stone, richesse and beach. the best part of this trip was the drive from nice to monaco. there are three possible drives - the low, medium, and high roads, each with their own spectacular views, each with their own odd histories. we took the low one to monaco and the the medium back. beautiful both. the sea is green-blue, the rocky cliffs gray and tiled roofs clay-red coloring the scene pure mediterranian.
II. rick steves - one of the handful of guides that seth's folks brought with. when i was in sixth grade i had a social studies teacher, mr beam, who one day taught us about communism. "if you live in russia, you can't decide what you want to be when you grow up. they give you a test and the results determine your job," he said bitterly. it sounded like a great idea to me. maybe we're getting older, but sometimes we're tired from traveling and thumbing through the lonely planet, tired from making choices every few minutes about this museum over that restaurant and that historical landmark, and we want someone to make up their mind for us. that's where rick steves comes in. compact, concise, easy to read. tell us, rick, tell us what to do next.
III. the côtes du rhône and luberon - malaucène: we stopped for the wednesday market. i bought olives with herbes de provence. i love those things. and i bought goat cheese made that very morning. crestet: population 37, but since it was early in the season the town was practically deserted but for one, an old woman walking up the hill when we arrived, still walking up when we left. a quintessential provencal town nested in a mountain. so many of these towns up high, carved into rocks, overlooking gorgeous valleys below. vaison la romaine: not much of interest in the lower, more modern town but a good lunch, and we didn't make it up to the top. oddly, i did run into a fellow assistant walking down the street. much to his chagrin he was stationed there. didn't seem so bad to me. fontaine de vaucluse: this is where we spent the night. it's a beautiful town under a high rocky cliff with a clear blue-green river running through it, the sorgue, the start of which magically bursts forth from some rocks. we could spend days here. also the home of the surprisingly delightful santon museum. santons are basically dolls that originated as nativity figurines. a regional specialty, they feature provencal archetypes - the painter, the old woman carrying lavender, the shepard. isle sur la sorgue: called the venice of france (many bridges, a river), it's pretty charming. famous for its 200 antiques dealers, but they only open thursdays and sundays. rouillson: called the colorado of france (golden mountainous terrain), everything is a ruddy brown color on account of famous clay earth everywhere. they sell pigment to tourists by the scoop. gordes: a mideval castle town, again carved high into a rock. on the drive there, when the town comes into view from across the valley you gasp ooh and ahh, (or at least i do), it's so stunning.
IV. coq a vin - we wanted to cook a nice meal for them, something quintessentially french, so we gave this dish a whirl. first we had to buy the coq, but unfortunately the baker didn't carry coqs, so we had to settle for a poulet, head and feet still attached, bien sur. i giggled and elbowed seth - you'll have to cut off it's head. but the butcher heard this, and offered to prepare it for us. with a butcher knife he whacked the head and feet clean off, took out the insides from the cavity and put the good ones back in, trained a blow torch on the skin to burn off the remaining feather parts, and finally tied it all up in twine. this took him about two minutes. but we had to finish it up at home, cut up the bird to fit in the casserole, and we have never done this before. thank you internet for helping us through. (when you think about it, it's amazing that this was the first time cutting up a chicken, so far from our food that we are.) after that it was seth that took the cooking reigns, melting the butter, frying the bacon, frying the veggies, frying the chicken, all in the same dish so that you build up a nice multi-layered fond, then adding a whole bottle of wine and boiling some off. it was a lengthy preparation, but the result was delicious.
V. arles - arles is a like avignon, but bigger and grittier. instead of the palais des papes there's an old roman arena. arles is the one time home of van gogh and a bunch of impressionists, but not much remains of that but sunflowers canvas totes. we stayed in a nice family run hotel with sunny rooms and a good breakfast. the hotel had a gallery, and this month was host to a photographer whose specialty was photographs of barbie doll women with arched backs being sprayed with water. we put a down payment on one right away. On the more tasteful side of culture, we throughly enjoyed the arlaten museum which is devoted to all things past and provençal. it was created in 1896 by frédéric mistral, a provençal regionalist writer and educational advocate (i teach at a school that bears his name), and contains costumes, furniture, tools, objects relating to religious and superstitious traditions, that illustrate life in provence during the 19th century. would've sounded dry to me a year ago, but living here made it fascinating. i want to dress up provencal and be a sheep herder and cheesemaker.
VI. camargue - i was looking forward to seeing this area, one of the few nature preserves in france. it's a swath of marshy land where the rhone meets the mediterranian, and it's famous for it's wild horses, flamingos, and mosquitos. Oh, and did I mention the salt? There is a famous salt distilled here that retails for up to 6 euros a container. And there's a salt museum, that (un)fortunately was closed when we stopped by. When we visited there was very strong mistral (not related to the writer, by the way) a blowing, and we could barely get to the salt hills from the car. but the photos attest to us setting foot on this martian landscape for all those unbelievers. behold.