Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Zen Barge Moored Opposite Avignon's Palais des Papes

This will be my last report for a while on places to stay in Avignon but I did want to post on the bizarre and rather amazing Zen barge we stayed on when we visited the Papal City again last month. Click here to read more. 

Monday, December 26, 2011

Stay in the Shadow of Avignon's Palais des Papes

While we were still in the area of the Popes' Palace, I took a quick tour of the Hotel du Palais des Papes, whose self-explanatory name indicates that it's one of the most central spots to stay in Avignon. Formerly the Spanish consulate, this building dates back in parts to the 15th century and still boasts stacks of atmosphere. Click here to read more.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Tea and Tranquility in Avignon's Petit Palais

I stumbled across the rather whimsically named Autour d'un Thé, un Voyage in Avignon recently while visiting the superb collection of Italian art in the Musée du Petit Palais. This gorgeous little tea-room is tucked away in a 15th century chapel and its garden (you don't have to stump up the museum admission charge to get in) and is a marvellous sea of tranquility a stone's throw from the tourist crowds. Click here to read more.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

In the Footsteps of Napoleon in Avignon

The Hotel d'Europe in Avignon has a superbly romantic history. Napoleon Bonaparte (who lobbied to have this lovely old 16th century house converted into a hotel in the first place) stayed here. So did Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her brand-new husband Robert B, having just eloped together. Salvador Dali was here, as was Picasso and Jackie Kennedy. And, at these prices, you could be too. Click here to read more.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Mad About Fou de Fafa

In Avignon recently we thought we'd try a restaurant going by the curious name of Fou de Fafa that had been highly recommended on travel forums. The meal was, indeed, superb, and the bill reassuringly reasonable. But what surprised us was the fact that one of the best eateries in a town not short of excellent restaurants is run single- (or rather, double-) handedly by a British couple. Click here to read more.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Wheat of Saint Barbara

If you're in Provence at this time of year, you might be surprised at all the little saucers of green shoots that suddenly appear, today, 4th December, on shop counters and in people's homes. Well, this is the wheat of Saint Barbara (for today is her feast day) and it signals the beginning of the long Christmas season in the South of France. If the shoots thrive, it's an auspicious sign for a prosperous New Year (and don't we all need that right now?) And this is just one of many strange and beautiful Christmas traditions unique to Provence. Click here to read more. 

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Reinventing the Provençal Christmas Crib

Santons - the charming, exquisite terracotta figures of peasant figures that populate Christmas cribs in Provence - are justly celebrated worldwide. Today, though, young santon-makers are finding new ways to reinvent and revitalise this ancient tradition. Surprising, modern, minimalist, sometimes outrageous, their work is on display at Les Baux de Provence and other towns and villages throughout Provence during the Christmas season. Click here to read more.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Bistro Heaven in Avignon

There's a bit of a cupid theme going at the Bistro d'Utopia, one of my favourite bars in this city. It's right behind the Palais des Papes but seems like a million miles from the tourist crowds milling round the Palace and the Place de l'Horloge. You get there down a narrow cobbled street behind the Pope's private garden, and discover a cosy den that attracts a hip, arty local crowd. It's right next to Avignon's best cinema, too, where you can see an enormous range of interesting films in their subtitled (as opposed to the more usual dubbed) versions. Click here to read more.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

T-Rex Skulls, Priceless Botticellis, Egyptian Treasures...

....Talking of museums, I snapped these two adorable children playing on an installation, with scant respect for fancy avant-garde art, at Avignon's Collection Lambert last week. It was all part of my mega-blitz on as many of the city's museums and galleries as I could cram in in two days. T-Rex skulls, priceless Botticellis, very large, very red Chinese four-poster beds: they're all here, and more. Click here to read more. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Vincent van Gogh in Provence

While in Avignon, I had a big blitz on the city's brilliant museums. My favourite of all was the Angladon Museum, which showcases the collection of Jacques Doucet, a successful belle époque fashion designer who lavished his fortune on amassing a fantastic collection of contemporary and - for the era - avant-garde art. If you want to see the only painting by Vincent van Gogh  to remain in Provence- Railway Wagons, painted in Arles in 1888 and pictured above - this is the place to go. And there are many other treasures in the Angladon Museum. Click here to read more.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Autumn Glory in Avignon

After the deluge, at last: a few days of glorious weather in Provence. The perfect moment, in fact, to pop back to Avignon for another quick trip. The autumn foliage in the surrounding countryside was in full blaze, and we went to to survey it from the best vantage-point in town: the Rocher des Doms. Click here to read more.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Provence: The Weather in Winter

It has been a funny old winter so far in Provence. I've just spent two days in Avignon (stand by for reports) where the weather has been glorious, warm and autumnal -- but where several of the museums were partly closed due to leaks caused by the recent very heavy rains. In the twelve years I've been here, I've seen all the extremes: gale-force winds, months-long heatwaves, flooding and snow blizzards followed three days later by blazing sun. So expect the unexpected. But, in as much as you can predict or generalise, here is a year-round climate guide to the weather in Provence. Click here to read more.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The "Indians" of Provence

I just love these fabrics. They're known as indiennes, because that's where they originally came from, but they sing of Provence, with their bright, Mediterranean-coloured patterns of lavender, olives, sunflowers - and even the dread cicada. You can buy very high-end versions of them at outlets such as Olivades or Souleiado, but I like the cheap and cheerful versions on sale at just about any street market in the south. The story behind les indiennes is fascinating too. Click here to read more. 

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Goats Galore in My Local Town Square

A couple of weeks ago I posted about André Gouiran, my local goatherd poet who, every year in October, organises a big shindig in the next village dedicated to the wonders of the goat. Well, he's just posted a clip of last weekend's event, which stars 360 of the beasties being shepherded (or perhaps that should be goatherded) into the tiny town square.

If you'd like to catch a glimpse of this eccentric local highlight, click here. It's my Facebook page (I haven't managed to find the URL of the clip to post it directly). It's the second post down. The top post (in French) is a piece from La Provence newspaper about the craze for nude hiking in the Montagne Sainte Victoire, the mighty limestone hill immortalised by Cézanne. It's pretty amusing too.

PS don't forget to "like" my Facebook page for regular updates!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Cabals, Corruption, Excess, Compromise: The Story of the Avignon Papacy

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about the "secret" tour of the Palais des Papes, a privileged peek into the pontiffs' private living quarters and their pampered way of life. Now to complement this, I've written a post about the Palais's public areas, the rivetting history of those maverick Avignon Popes - and why they left Rome in the first place. Click here to read more. 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Christmas Markets in Provence

Aromatic lavender fields, sun-drenched beaches, perfectly chilled rosé wine on the terrace serenaded (if that's the right word) by cicadas.... That's what everyone associates with Provence. But, steeped in mystery and tradition, this part of France is even lovelier minus the tourist crowds. Forget the over-run Christmas markets of Northern and Central Europe. Instead, here's a guide to Avignon, Aix en Provence, Arles, Marseille and the surrounding region in the magical midwinter months, one of my very favourite times of year. Click here to read more. 

Friday, October 14, 2011

Coffee with Olympique de Marseille's Number One Fan

Coffee with Catherine Brun at the Brasserie OM on Marseille's Old Port was quite an experience. This exuberant Marseillaise is a familiar face on television (waiters approach her for her autograph), the owner of a B&B for pets, a volunteer tourist guide and, first and foremost the Number One fan of Olympique de Marseille, the city's legendary football team. Click here to read more: scroll down the article to find my interview with Catherine in easyJet Traveller.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

From Here and There in Avignon

I've almost finished posting about my latest trip to Avignon, but I couldn't sign off without a word of warm recommendation for this terrific little brasserie right in the heart of town. The place de l'Horloge - the epicentre of the papal city's tourism - is lined with humdrum pizzerias offering the most basic of set menus for 12 Euros, but for the same price Beatrice Bellegarde, the visionary chef at D'Ici et d'Ailleurs, will whip you up a superb set lunch of inventive classic French and cosmopolitan fusion dishes just round the corner. Click here to read more. 

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Avignon: A Tale of Two Train Stations

The two rail stations in Avignon are a study in contrasts. The city centre one has a touch of 19th century elegance with its ornate facade and stone water fountains on the train platforms. Opened in 2001, Avignon TGV is ultra-modern, with its sleek, elegant contours designed to resemble the hull of an upturned boat. Which one to come into? All is revealed in our ultimate guide. Click here to read more.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sur le Pont d'Avignon

On our recent trip to Avignon, we thought we'd better take a stroll along the city's iconic bridge (remembering to turn around after the fourth arch, of course, when the structure, the victim of flood damage, suddenly ends). Does it live up to all the song and dance about it? Click here to read more.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Avignon on Wheels

Walking around Avignon should be a cinch - after all, the walled city is compact and contained. However, after I'd spent a day wobbling along the cobbled streets and climbing up and down the steep, winding staircases of the Palais des Papes, sitting back and relaxing on wheels seemed like a more and more attractive option. If this applies to you too, then be sure to bookmark our complete guide to how to zip around Avignon by local transport - everything from a Vélopop (that's a bicycle to you and me) to a Baladine (electric bus, pictured above in its red Christmas livery -- it's normally a bright eco-friendly green). Click here to read more.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

There Is Such A Thing As A Free Lunch

In Avignon recently, I very quickly learned (as you do) where the locals go for a great free lunch. In Les Halles, Avignon's excellent covered market (which bears no relationship at all to its bland Paris namesake), you will find a cornucopia of fantastic produce at all times. Every Saturday morning, however, a leading chef, such as Richard Bagnol (pictured) of L'Oulo in nearby Mazan, clocks in to give a cookery demonstration at the "petite cuisine" or "little kitchen" set up in a corner of the market specifically for the purpose. Then the onlookers get to eat his results, accompanied by a wine tasting from a local vintner. Click here to read more.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Goatherd-Poet of Le Rove

My local goatherd  is quite a character. He is the last herder in the village and makes a cheese, Brousse du Rove, from the milk which is much-prized by Michelin-starred restaurants in the area. On the side, he's a poet, novelist, writer of comic songs about Provence and founder of the illustrious Golden Goat Association. I interviewed him recently for EasyJet magazine. Click here to read more.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Secret Tour of the Palais des Papes

In Avignon this weekend, we were invited on a rare private visit, behind the scenes, to the "secret" parts of Palais des Papes. The official tour takes you to the Palais's public areas. But this was a privileged peak into how the pontiffs actually lived from day to day. It's on offer, in English, until 14 October. Click here to read more.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Haute Cuisine Meets The Humble Tomato

French chefs are renowned for their ingenuity. Some offer entire menus based around the truffle; for others foie gras or lobsters are the star ingredient of choice. But, for Christian Etienne, the tomato is his fetish-ingredient. For eleven years, the Michelin-starred chef has offered an ever-changing, endlessly inventive seven-course menu at his Avignon restaurant celebrating this everyday provençal fruit. Click here to read more.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

When Hollywood Goes To Provence...

A few months ago, I posted a piece on the ten best movies about Provence. Perhaps it should not have come as a surprise that all of them - from Jean de Florette to An Autumn Tale - were French. Well, I thought, I'd better add in a few films for readers who hate subtitles. And then I had an amazingly difficult time rustling up even five movies. Whereas the Côte d'Azur is highly cinegenic, the area west of Toulon seems to have been totally disdained by British and American directors - with a handful of exceptions. Here are the ones I came up with. Click here to read more.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Flyers' Guide to Toulon-Hyères Airport

En route back from a long, hedonistic lunch in Cagnes sur Mer, we decided to stop off and take a look at Toulon-Hyères airport. Now, normally we always fly through Marignane, aka Marseille-Provence, but I was curious to see this much smaller airport in case we ever have to use it instead. It was quite a pleasant surprise: lavishly appointed, thanks to its origins as a military facility, a lot more relaxed than either Marseille or Nice, beautifully located --- and just five minutes' walk from the beach, if you ever felt like catching some rays on a swift day trip! Click here to read more.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A New Wine Route Through the Vineyards of the Alpilles

A few months ago I compiled ten wine maps - itineraries through some of the finest countryside of Provence, along with a list of addresses of vineyards where you could stop off for refreshments en route. The idea was that driving through stunning landscapes and sampling wonderful wines (in moderation, naturellement) were two of the most enjoyable things to do while in Southern France, so why combine them?

Anyway, on a recent trip to Les Baux de Provence, when I was plied with information by the lovely people at the local tourist office, I realised that I'd omitted one of the nicest itineraries of all: a drive through the Alpilles and the Les Baux appellation. I stand corrected, and the Alpilles map is proudly now up online, no. 11 of the top ten wine routes in Provence. Click here to read more.

Friday, August 19, 2011

A Park of Family Attractions in a Lovely Provençal Setting

By way of a post-script to my previous post, and in case you're touring Provence with the kids in tow, here's a guide to the Parc de Figuerolles, a huge, 320 acre park of family attractions in a lovely setting among pine woods and olive groves on the shores of one of the largest lakes in Europe. Click here to read more.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Day in the "Venice of Provence".

I quite often go into Martigues for its excellent Sunday market and have always been puzzled why this very picturesque little lakeside town - which calls itself the "Venice of Provence" - isn't on the main tourist trail of Southern Provence. But at least the happy result of this is that you don't have to fight your way through crowds of coach parties and walking tours to explore its colourful canals and quayfronts and cobbled streets and squares. Click here to read more.

Monday, August 8, 2011

A Fishy Tale from Marseille

I've been a little quiet for the last couple of days, on account of a nasty gremlin attack on my sister site, But, after much tinkering, it's back and I have a moment to report on another great meal I had recently. Just to prove that it doesn't have to be three-star dining, this was at a minute and colourful neighbourhood restaurant with a fishmongery attached, where you pick out your lunch from the victims on the slab. And, what's more, I learned all about the strange but true story of the sardine that blocked the port of Marseille. Click here to read more.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Three-Star Dining at the Scruffy End of the Med

It came as something of a surprise to find out that the one and only Michelin three-star restaurant in the whole of PACA (that huge chunk of south-east France covered by Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur) is not in the ritzy millionaires' playgrounds around Nice, Cannes and Monaco, but at the scruffy end of the coast: despite its name, Le Petit Nice is actually in Marseille. Now it's not every day that I dine at a three-star eaterie, but last week, to celebrate a birthday and a wedding anniversary, I went there for lunch. Click here to read more.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Shabby-Chic Style on Marseille's Old Port

Read the online reviews of Marseille's shabby-chic Hotel Belle-Vueand you'll be thoroughly puzzled. Located over one of the city's hippest bars right on the Old Port, is it a superb place to stay with magnificent views across the water to Notre Dame de la Garde? Or is it an overpriced dump? I went there to have a good look round last week to find out. Click here to read more.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Rebel Artist in Rural Provence

Last week I visited Les Baux de Provence, partly because, to my shame, I'd never been to this gorgeous village, despite having lived in Provence for over twelve years, and partly because I'd been invited to tour a fascinating exhibition by the 20th century French artist known simply as Arman. This remarkable project, on show at historic venues all over the village, has allowed Les Baux to turn into a giant avant-garde art installation - at the same time as offering up all its usual tourist attractions, of course. Click here to read more.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Through the Valley of Hell to One of the Most Beautiful Villages of France

A fascinating visit this week to Les Baux de Provence, a spectacular and historic village that, not content with being one of France's top tourist attractions, has turned itself into a giant installation celebrating the work of the avant-garde artist Arman for the summer. More very shortly on this extraordinary project. Meanwhile, here's my full guide to travelling through the Valley of Hell (yes, this landscape was allegedly the inspiration of Dante's Inferno) in order to arrive at one of the Most Beautiful Villages of France. Click here to read more.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Ice-Cream Queen of Marseille

When I'm in Marseille on a hot sunny day (and there are plenty of those at this time of year), I always make a beeline for Le Glacier du Roi. Tucked away on a square in the corner of Marseille's Old Town, this minuscule ice cream parlour makes up for style for what it lacks in space. It's dominated by a shocking pink wickerwork peacock chair and a huge, low-slung chandelier made of transparent Murano glass (pictured above, with the owner, Florence Bianchi). More to the point, it makes the best Italian gelati in town, as well as a range of other irresistible frozen confections. Click here to read more.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Smartphone Way to Visit Aix en Provence

The Monument Tracker series of Smartphone applications is a very neat idea: your phone buzzes you whenever you're within striking distance of an interesting tourist site. Many cities now boast this application, and Aix en Provence has just joined their ranks - and is offering free downloads, for one day only, to mark the launch. Far be it from me to discourage anyone from consulting my own wonderful website guide to Marseille, Aix en Provence and the surrounding area but this interactive application is a great aid for when you're out and about in the city. Click here to read more.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Lavender Fields Forever

I have two lavender bushes in my garden here on the Mediterranean coast. One is a straggly little clump that grows wild and one is of the type stoechas (the lavender with a little mohican tuft on the top) which I bought as a pot plant in Ikea and which has established itself very nicely in one of the flowerbeds overlooking the sea.

But neither, I discover, is the type of "true lavender" which will turn the countryside of Northern Provence bright purple for the coming month (in fact the straggly clump probably isn't lavender at all). There's quite a lot to this lavender business, as I discovered when researching my little lexicon on the subject. Click here to read more.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Chilling out at the Jardins d'Albertas

Last Sunday we went to visit the Jardins d'Albertas, just outside Aix en Provence. I'm not usually keen on formal French landscaped gardens, but this tranquil spot was just the place to chill out for an hour or two on a swelteringly hot June day. This week and next, there are evening concerts too, and the extragavantly theatrical gardens, with their fountains, mermen, Atlas figures, sphinxes and camp Roman heroes should provide an idyllic setting. Click here to read more.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

A Time-Traveller at Large in Aix en Provence

You are on holiday en famille in Aix en Provence and trying desperately to persuade your kids to take an interest in the city's elegant museums and historic hôtels particuliers. Not an easy task, I think you'll find, for Aix's pleasures are mostly very grown-up ones. But help is at hand in the shape of this time-travel adventure set in Aix, aimed at children from 8 to 12 and written by a teacher who has lived in the city for fifteen years. Click here to read more.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Melon-Mania in Cavaillon

One of the very many great pleasures of living in Provence at this time of year is the Charentais melon, with its jaunty, green-striped rind and aromatic, deep-orange, luscious flesh. An historic speciality of Cavaillon (the novelist Alexandre Dumas loved them so much he traded copies of his entire, compendious works in return for a regular supply), the melon is at the centre of the city's annual celebration of all things cucurbit in early July. This year disaster hit the fruit crops of Central Provence in the form of a freak hailstorm on 4 June. But the festivities are proceeding undiminished. Click here to read more.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Sex and Loving in Marseille

This week I attended the private view of a new exhibition in Marseille devoted to the illustrator-designer-cartoonist Roger Blachon. The show was in the Palais des Arts, formerly the city library and archive and a lovely ornate building designed by Henri-Jacques Espérandieu, the architect of Notre Dame de la Garde. But I digress. I'd never heard of Blachon before but his work - comic, erotic, surreal, life-affirming - was mischievous and delightful (pictured above, Tarzan and the Elephant gives you something of an idea). Think Pieter Bruegel crossed with Robert Crumb. Click here to read more.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Horses for Courses in Château Gombert

If you would like a serious blast of provençal folklore, Château Gombert is hard to beat this week. Tonight the Festival of Saint Eloi (Saint Eligius in English -- the patron saint of metal-workers) kicks off at 6pm with a ceremonial parade of musicians and magnificently decorated horses. If you can't make it today to this village-like suburb to the north of Marseille, fear not: the fun continues until next Tuesday. And there's always the excellent Musée du Terroir Marseillais and an even better restaurant serving local delicacies all the year round. Click here to read more.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

By Vélorail through Provence

Is it a bike? Is it a train? The Vélorail is both - sort of. A giant bicycle that runs along a railway track, it's an unusual, fun and healthy way to tour Provence. It might not quite live up to your childhood fantasy of being a train driver, but it's a lovely means of taking in some superb scenery from a novel perspective and clocking up some healthy exercise in the process. Click here to read more.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Allauch, Allauch...

Allauch (pronounced "Allo") is just a stone's throw from Marseille and not much further from Aix en Provence but this pretty hilltop town with panoramic views and a wealth of folklore and tradition could be in a different world. Click here to read more.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Secret Beaches of the Beautiful Blue Coast

The beaches of the Blue Coast, just west of Marseille (and east of the Camargue) aren't famous holiday destinations that generally draw overseas tourists. But this secret strip of Mediterranean shoreline features some gorgeous spots away from the crowds. Click here to read more.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A Salty Blast of Provence on the Blue Coast

A short but spectacular train ride from Marseille along the Blue Coast of the Mediterranean, the unassuming, pretty port of Carry le Rouet isn't on the tourist trail for most foreign visitors. But its modest, no-nonsense charm makes for a delightful day out. Click here to read more.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

On the Rails in Central Var

The Tourist Train of Central Var plies along the 24 km (14 mile) rail line between Carnoules and Brignoles, rolling leafy landscapes snuggled in between Paul Cézanne's beloved Mont Sainte Victoire and the Gorges du Verdon. Click here to read more.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Aubagne: the Quintessential Town of Southern Provence.

Twenty minutes from Marseille, 30 minutes from Aix and 40 minutes from Toulon, Aubagne sums up the essence of Provence. With a historic hillside old town, it's the centre of ceramicists and santonniers (santon-makers), is the birthplace of Marcel Pagnol, and is set in a stunning, typically southern provençal landscape. It even has a pastis distillery. And did we mention the Foreign Legion? Click here to read more.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Touring Provence With The Queen Of The Road

Large, sparsely populated and cross-hatched with picturesque backroads where you can cruise for miles without seeing a car or village, France is a mecca for two-wheeled tourists, and a cycling holiday is an ideal way to explore Provence while enjoying superb food and drink.

Not only does the country boast the major event in the international cycling calender, the Tour de France, but you will everywhere see teams of keen local amateurs puffing along on their vélos (bikes) in neon-coloured lycra livery. But touring Provence by bicycle need not be a similarly sweaty ordeal. Cyclists are treated with respect and not for nothing is the French nickname for a bike la petite reine: the queen of the road. Click here to read more.