Friday, October 26, 2012

Cashmere and Croissant

On my recent trip to Avignon, I also spent a day in Arles, one of my favorite places.  One of the reasons I love Arles is because Vincent van Gogh, my favorite painter, lived there for some months and being there allows me to see some of the places he painted and feel closer to him.  Arles is where he lived in the Yellow House, where Gauguin came to live with him, but ended up only spending some weeks.  The climax of that ill-fated visit was when Vincent mutililated (not cut off) his ear.  His illness was certainly not caused by Gauguin, but their stormy relationship probably contributed to making it worse.  This attack was the first of several episodes, probably a form of epilepsy, that he suffered from for the rest of his life. So visiting Arles, for a van Gogh fan, is necessarily a pilgrimage. The other reason is simply that it is a very pretty place to be.
Les Arenes, Roman amphitheatre
Les Alyscamps
Musee Reattu, those are carobs
afixed to two different buildings
This trip, going to Arles was a double pleasure because in addition to being able to spend a day in a place I love, I also got to meet one of my new friends who I got to know through the internet.  Delana is an American who lives in Aix-en-Provence.  Delana moved to France about four years ago and in the last year we have corresponded a few times.  She was kind enough to make the journey to Arles one day during my stay so that we could finally meet and what else?  Go treasure-hunting at a brocante fair.

Photo by waitress

Delana is a sucker for old linen, especially linen bed sheets.  But we combed through all the stalls, not just the linens, because we both know that at an antique/collectibles fair, you never know what you might find.  And we did find two treasures, neither one of them linen, both made of leather.  These were two fine leather bags, Delana’s in the form of a backpack, and mine in the form of a battered little handbag with a lot of character which I was assured was a designer bag, although which designer the lady couldn’t say.  It doesn’t matter.  The bag is clearly a one-of-a-kind (now, if not when it was new) and I will remember my great day in Arles every time I use it.

Brocante shopping wasn’t my only spree.  I always pay a visit to the second-hand clothing stores in Avignon where you can often find designer treasures.  There I scored with an Eric Bompart cashmere cardigan that suits me perfectly, adding to the Avignon second-hand stash that I already have at home.  Lots of good memories hang in my closet.

My new cashmere sweater
Photo by Delana
Delana writes a blog and recently started a Provençal rug business.  You don’t have to travel to buy her Provençal rugs, they’re online at

My most surprising and genial experience in Avignon took place at the café near the hotel where I went each day for my morning coffee and croissant.  There was a very cute, young waiter (maybe the owner) who, by my second visit, already knew I wanted a café au lait et un croissant.  (Week after week, the waitress in the café here in Figueres where I go on Sundays has never given any sign that she has ever even seen me before – not so much as a nod.)  He encouraged me to use the little French I knew while he practiced his superior English.  On my first visit he was friendly, explaining the difference between a café au lait and a café crème (the former has more milk).  On that second day¸ he made me feel at home. 

There were two days when I went in quite early for my coffee, and both times there was a group of eight or ten men sitting together at several adjacent tables.  This was a small café and they were taking up about half of it.  At first I thought they might be work colleagues having an early morning meeting even though some were dressed in business clothes and others were dressed casually.  But they didn’t all leave together.  And not only did they leave at staggered times, I noticed that some didn’t pay on their way out.  I asked the friendly waiter about them.  He told me they were friends who met before work every day.  The first man who left had paid for them all.  Apparently they take turns.  What a nice way to start the day – so much nicer than taking your coffee to go in a styrofoam cup and drinking it alone in your car.

My last day I went to pay and told the waiter au revoir, that I was leaving.  He gave me three kisses on the cheeks and wouldn’t take my money.  He said I had been a loyal client for the duration of my visit and this last breakfast was on the house.  Whoever says the French are unfriendly, needs to visit this café. 

At home in Avignon


Friday, October 19, 2012

Rue des Teinturiers

There are several things I like about Avignon.  I like that there are many very good restaurants, some of them very expensive (and probably worth it, although I haven’t tried those myself), some affordable enough if you’re splurging on vacation or for a special occasion, and some where you can eat well in a delightful environment for 10 euros or less.  Then there’s the river.  I’ve lived all my life near an ocean (or sea) and at this point, I prefer river.  Some places have rivers but no riverside sidewalks or paths (Tortosa is one such place; the promenade along the Ebre is lovely, but it’s only about two blocks long) whereas you can do a lot of walking along the Rhone.  And third is the rue des Teinturiers, a wonderfully atmospheric small street in the heart of Avignon.

I had written in an earlier post that the rue des Teinturiers was the most evocative street in Avignon.  But evocative of what?  Of tranquility, of beauty, of a village and of a time gone by.  And why, you may ask, would you want to feel you’re in a village when you went to all the trouble to go to the city of Avignon, famous for its gigantic granite palace?  Because the grass is often greener on the other side, that’s why.  And sometimes you get to have both.

The canalized Sorgue River runs along the tree-lined street.  Here is where the 19th century dye works were housed that once made the cotton printed fabrics that Provence is still known for.  You can stroll along the river, beneath large leafy plane trees, passing small, mostly funky shops, welcoming cafes, and the occasional waterwheel.  If you go in October as I did, when there are not many people about, you might even be transported to another time.    If you prefer to be transported directly from home, get yourself one of these music CDs, Les Grandes Chansons Francaises or Piaf: The Voice of the Sparrow.

The End

Friday, October 12, 2012

Sur le Pont d'Avignon

France was wonderful.  I won’t go into a detailed account of all the sights, there are guidebooks that can do it better.  But the guidebooks can’t tell you what I liked best, so I’ll do that.

I had already been to Avignon four times and to Arles twice.  Why go again, you may ask.  Why not go somewhere new?  Well because I was traveling alone, not for the first time, but this time I didn’t feel I had the energy to explore.  I wanted to go away, spend some time in a place I love, EAT, and relax.

And I must say that when I got off the train and started to walk into town it was almost (not quite) like being at home.  I knew this place.  Well, I knew it to a point.  There was the same bakery, mostly the same shops, the small park, the same big tourist-trap bistros on the Place de l’Horloge, and the same unique, humongous Palais des Papes.  But where was my hotel? 
Carousel, Place de l'Horloge
Humongous Palais des Papes
 My old hotel couldn’t accommodate me so I reserved a room at a new place.  Not really new, it’s in a 17th-century mansion, but new to me.  Finding it was a bit of a challenge.  I went the right way, (although I saw later it was not the shortest path), but until I consulted my map, I wasn’t entirely sure I was on the right street.  Tiny streets in the medieval part of a European city are crooked, winding this way and that, and often, each time they cross a street they change their name.  I don’t think they had urban planners in the middle ages.  To top it off, you have no idea how annoying and noisy it is to roll your suitcase over cobblestones, so the sooner I arrived, the better.  Talk about relaxing. 
Woman emerging from
 teeny weeny street
Cobblestones and suitcases on wheels
are not a good match
But relax I finally did and in the end I would say there were four highlights to this trip.  The first was meeting up with an American expat in Arles and spending the day with her, tooling around a brocante fair, having lunch, and sharing our expat experiences; the second was walking over the Rhone River(on a bridge) to Villeneuve-Les-Avignon; third was walking along the rue des Tenturiers, hands down the prettiest and most evocative street in Avignon; and fourth was my experience at the café that for four days fed me my breakfast.

I’ll start with my walk to Villeneuve because I would say that that was where I experienced my happiest moment.  I crossed the Rhone sur le pont d’Avignon, although this was not the bridge of the song.  That bridge, (called Le Pont d’Avignon but officially named Pont St. Bénézet), built in 1185, was, sadly, partially washed away in 1660 at which point the people of Avignon decided they had had enough and finally gave up repairing it each time the river flooded.  Nevertheless, a good hunk of that bridge still stands and you can go dance upon it if you wish.  Manel and I walked on that bridge on our first visit to Avignon and in fact, I have a cute photo of him dancing there.  But for crossing the river, I used the modern Pont Edouard Daladier  which successfully spans the entire width of the river and the Ile de la Bartelasse, to get to Villeneuve-Les-Avignon, a village just on the other side. 

Pont St. Bénézet


The walk from Avignon to Villeneuve is about three kilometers and I loved every centimeter of it (never mind the blisters).  Standing part way out on the bridge and looking back over the river towards the city, past all the flat canal boats, I felt my heart sing.  I’m so glad I ventured out and took that walk -- a walk I’ve done every time I’ve visited Avignon.  Everyone has their image or images of paradise and this is one of mine.


Bucolic Villeneuve is a pretty village that sits alongside the river, where once the King of France kept an eye on the Papal goings-on across the river in Avignon.



In Villeneuve, you can find the Carthusian monastery Chartreuse du Val de Bénédiction, the 14th-century Fort St-André, and my favorite of the three, the Abbaye St-André with its beautiful terraced gardens.  I had in mind a visit to the gardens, but by chance, I wandered into town on market day so I spent my time browsing at the market instead. 

Chartreuse du Val de Bénédiction

Fort St-André

Abbaye St-André gardens

It was mostly a food market with a few shoe and clothing stands.  I found interesting cookies and bought two hard sausages, one with thyme and the other with lavender from a Frenchman wearing a jacket with the Barça insignia.  But the biggest pleasure was just being there, walking beneath the huge plane trees, watching people shop, soaking up the ambience, and wondering once again if I should move to France.


Friday, October 5, 2012

Et Voilà!

Postal bicycle
I just got back a few hours ago from a short vacation in France.  Since I don't have time to write anything up, I thought I'd just post a few photos to give you a taste of my four days, one of which I spent in Arles, and the rest in Avignon.  I was a plagued with stomach aches (they passed) and sore feet (they didn't), but that didn't deter me from walking and eating.  This was France!

The hospital in Arles where Van Gogh was first treated
 when he mutilated his ear, now a cultural center
Ready, set, lunch
A street in Avignon
Place Crillon, Avignon

City walls, Avignon
Table for two