Thursday, August 4, 2011

France trip, July 2011

Friday, July 22, 2011

It's always such a pleasure to arrive in Paris. The more often I come, the more I love it. Arriving in Europe feels like coming home.

I watched the Bill Cunningham documentary on the plane ride over and kicked myself for not asking him anything about himself when sharing the elevator with him and his bike so many times at Carnegie Hall. Must remember to look up that woman I see everywhere (Lois Apfel or something, with the huge glasses?)

Practicing, stretching, getting ready for a night at the Sunside with Matt and Baptiste Trotignon. Bill's docu inspired me to put on bright green pants, gold chain with beads, high heels, and red lipstick. It is Paris, afterall...

Before the gig, we enjoyed a delightful meal at Le Hangar, a tiny French restaurant tucked away behind a cobblestone footpath. Starter: Haricots Verts with Parmesan cheese. Main: Dorade, prepared beautifully.

Gig was great. My dear friend Mando came, and it felt like home, catching up and enjoying the music with a soul sister.

Saturday, July 23.
Trip to the Centre Pompidou. Like the first time I went, I was rather underwhelmed. Maybe it's because I just wasn't in the mood for large canvases with paint splashed on it (only original/provocative/whatever the first time it's done), or a string of small Christmas lightbulbs hung sparsely on a wall. Really? The expansive, bright pink shower curtain with yellow designs was fun and made us laugh, but the only real highlight on the 2nd floor for me was the Beuys exhibit of a completely dampened room with felt walls and ceilings, and with a piano in the middle of the room. I loved the quiet, the pressure in the air. Anyhow, the view from the Pompidou is spectacular, of course, and I got my artistic fill by walking up to the next floor and feasting my eyes upon the Matisse, the Kandinsky, and some woman whose paintings I really loved. The usual suspects, but once again, they made me happy.

Dinner: a fantastic restaurant recommended by Jerome, called Le Pré Verre. Delicious lobster and mango appetizer, followed by a glorious fish. Dessert was ridiculous. Maybe the best of the vacation: a molasses ice cream and this deathly chocolate torte. I can still taste it. Wine: a lovely Petit Chablis with a cool label (hand holding a grape).

Another show at the Sunside, so much fun.

Sunday, July 24.

Train to Lyon, car rental, drive to Vienne, where Matt has played a few times at the jazz festival. The town was pretty quiet, but posters everywhere reminded you that a jazz festival took place not long before. Vienne is a charming city on the banks of the Rhone river. After dumping our stuff, we went for a long walk through the old Roman town. Tried seeing the stage where the festival takes place, but when we had to pay, we decided against it and continued walking up a steep hill road, near the cemetery, and then through a cute street called “Chemin des Amoreux.”

Ended our walk by looking at more ruins. Went for a run along the river, then enjoyed a spectacular dinner at Le Verre en L'Air.

My meal included the best gaspacho I've ever had (and I don't generally like gaspacho) with a whipped goat cheese topping that looked like whipped cream. The main course was a Fondant de Julienne with a pureed bean topping and “sauce mouclade.” Basically, the chef ground up and pureed a fancy fish and then shaped it back into a rounded form that looked like pate. Really creative, unless of course you're an LA Jew like me, in which case it tasted and looked disturbingly like Gefilte fish.

Tons of cheese after the main course, followed by the other highlight of the evening (after the soup): a crème brulee infused with fresh mint. Probably the best I'd ever had. The wine was perfect with the meal: a 2010 Alain Paret Viognier.

Monday, July 25.
Cote Rotie wine tasting! Domaine Clusel-Roch, where a charmless young man in dirty clothes served us several wines at about 10am. I love this about the French wineries: you can tell that the people who run them are really like farmers, and that the estates have been in their families for ages. These are people who know their land inside and out, and who tend to wine as if it were their children. We went home with several bottles.

This was followed by another couple of places (one was a wine store and I fell asleep in the car). On our way to Chateau de Fontager, we stopped in a gas station cafe, where Matt noticed an All Blacks teddy bear on the wall. (All Blacks is the New Zealand rugby team.) Turns out the owner is a huge fan, and he ran to the back to bring us a picture of himself holding up a little baby in an All Blacks onesie (his grandson). He sent us across the road for a tasting of Cornas and Condrieu.

Arrival at Chateau de Fontager, a very cool and very large chateau on the way to Tain l'Hermitage. Cute, funky rooms. Could have spent a couple more days there lounging around the pool, if the weather were nicer.

Dinner in Tain l'Hermitage at another ridiculous restaurant. 4th gourmet meal of the trip, hooray! No wine for me, as I was all wined out from the tastings.
My meal:
Starter: black spaghetti with calamari
Main: Filet du Merlu (a nice fish over tasty veggies)
And for the best part of the meal: Vacherin a l'abricot bergeron en verrine, which translates roughly to “creamy fresh apricot mouth-gasm with crumbly moist goodness on the bottom."

Tuesday, July 26.

10am, trip to Valrhona chocolatier. Jennifer goes a bit crazy with the myriad of samples around the store and gorges on truffles, and all manner of chocolate pieces imaginable. She ate for her own pleasure. She ate for her sister, who couldn't be there. She ate for her mother, whom she knew would appreciate it. Then she ate some more for herself. She left not wanting to eat sugar ever again.

Of course, then we arrived for a degustation (wine tasting) in Cornas, at the tasting room of Alain Voge (my favorite of the places we tasted). Lovely wines, need some time, but yum.

Driving to Uzes, beautiful vines everywhere. Amazing fort on the top of a hill (Chateau de Crussol) jutting out over a steep cliff. Shall we see it? Absolutely.

Turn around and drive up, park, walk up beautiful path towards an old Roman fortress. I do a headstand, to see the top of the world from a different view. Like children, we climb around the old walls, peering through old windows and wondering who used to live there, what they saw when they looked down at the valley. A beautiful day.

Lunch in Montelimar, where we couldn't stop singing “Savoy Truffle” by The Beatles. Underwhelming town, though we did stop briefly at the huge pink nougat factory. Lunch of cheese and bread, and some veggies, sitting on a stoop and ready to leave.

Arriving at the Best Western hotel in Uzes around 7pm. Straight to see our friends Clare and Olivier at Olivier's aunt and uncle's place off a tiny street in seemingly the middle of nowhere (aka Saint Quentin de la Poterie). Lovely home, built entirely by Denis (the uncle). This 83-year old man could be a character out of a movie, like Louis Defunay. We played a good game of petanque, in which my trusty teammate and coach Denis continuously stood in first position, pointed downwards, and insisted, “La! La!” to indicate where I should through the ball. It never went there. Nonetheless, he seemed a proud coach when once or twice I accidentally tossed the ball to a relatively good location.

Denis and Jeannine didn't speak English, nor did Olivier's 89-year old grandmother. But we enjoyed a terrific meal of tomatoes from their garden (with the best pepper I've ever had, and local olive oil), an omelette for us veggies, a gigantic plate of probably the richest and tastiest cheese I've ever eaten (the Roquefort! The Camembert! The hard goat's cheese!), dessert, and a nice Cote Rotie from 2004 but tasting like it was from the 80's. I particularly liked the Poire eau de vie from my birth year, 1981. It was handsome and smooth and perfect.

Wednesday, July 27.
To the market in the morning with Clare and Olivier. A feast for the eyes in herbs, olive oils, lavender sprays, fruits, veggies, and specialties like walnut spreads from a monastery (sold by a nun with missing teeth).

Lunch at Olivier's grandma's. Everything was so fresh, so full of taste.

A game of tennis between Olivier and Matt at our Best Western courts, with Clare kindly hitting the ball towards me and my feeble attempt at hitting it back. A little yoga on the courts, and it was time to go. Back to Denis and Jeannine's for a good-bye, then Matt and I headed back to the lovely old city of Uzes. Wandered around, poked our heads into stores, wine cellars, art galleries, simple dinner of pizza and salad (NO MORE rich food).

Thursday, July 28.

Jennifer practices horn in the car while Matt hits some balls on the court. Drive to Pont du Gard, avoid the 15 euro parking by parking on the street and following some French people down a path. It was a much longer walk than we'd expected, but beautiful, with old stone arches in ruins throughout a vast forest. Sunny, open skies, gorgeous light, shrubbery everywhere. We walked and walked until finally: WHAM. A huge perfect arch-way structure, constructed by the Romans, right smack in between two hills, totally unexpected. It was magnificent, especially how it crept up on us out of nowhere.

Drive to Arles, arrive in Trinquetaille at the home of Rosalbe and Thierry (and their 10-year old son Yihmbert). Emra, our friend with the house in Quissac with whom we were meant to stay, had her water shut off, so she took us along with her to her friends' place. We had no idea what to expect, but it turned out to be the most wonderful turn of events. We fell in love with the Italian, red-haired, prominent-featured Rosalbe and the good-natured, music-enthusiast husband Thierry. They hardly spoke English, so the evening rolled out in a mess of Italian, French, and English, with Emra and Matt at the helm of translation. It was one of those evenings that only happen when unplanned: sipping rosé in the garden for what felt like hours, eating a delicious meal prepared by Emra, moving to the sofas at some point to continue chatting, my having had just enough wine to grab a guitar and sing Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Jeff Buckley, and some of my other favorites for everyone. Matt and I sang a rendition of “Tea for Two.” We were awash in Gemutlichkeit: a warmth, a deep love for the evening and the company.

Friday, July 29.

Lunch with Emra in Arles, a very cool old Roman town. We fell in love with Arles. Its winding Roman streets, its colliseum, the fragrant air, the sleepy Rhone, the little square that wasn't a square at all but a random shape where Matt really wanted to enjoy a Rosé. We ambled slowly through the tiny streets, drunk with the sun and the perfect air, the scents and sounds of a quiet French town in which most of the residents were on holiday.

Finally, we made our way back to the house. I went for a run in some fields behind the house in a developing community with new houses and new concrete cul-de-sacs. No idea where I was, just ran and ran. After, we joined Rosalbe, Thierry, Yimbert, and Emra at an outdoor Mexican/Columbian concert along the river, where we had a terrific time getting plastered on the Clusel-Roch Rosé and dancing wildly to the music. It was truly a blast, and the out-of-focus pictures that were taken that evening are testament to the wine. We managed to get home, only to raid the fridge of cheese, and then eat a full wheel of camembert, followed by half a log of goat cheese (which literally tasted like the grass the goats had eaten. It was so damned good). Awoke around 4am pondering the amount of cheese I had just consumed.

Saturday, July 30.
Matt and I leave for the south. Glorious drive, passing a gigantic flock of birds on huge rocks near Aix-en-Provence. The light cast the most incredible hues across the valleys of vines and fields. Arrive in La Londe, right by the sea. A sigh of happiness. Stayed in the crappiest hotel, but it didn't matter. Went directly to the sea, where I read my book for a long time while Matt and Baptiste did sound-check.

Ate thick, savory octopus and couscous, with sides of other seafood salad in the Jazz a La Londe crew tent. Drank a rosé. The light couldn't have been more perfect: a golden red, a photographer's paradise. Baptiste Trotignon trio played on the adorable little festival stage, with the sea as the backdrop. We were wasted afterwards, went back to the hotel and crashed.

Sunday, July 31.
I insisted on driving to the beach once more to see the sea before going to Quissac. So we did, drove really out of our way, but it was probably the highlight of our driving trip. Tiny driving paths through Provence vineyards, the light shining spectacularly in that special Mediterranean way, and arriving at a beach that could be out of a novel (Fort de Bresancon). Apparently, Nicholas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni have a summer home around there. We feasted on delicious Pyrenees de Brebis cheese (again, like eating the grass that the animals ate), fresh apricots, Reine Claudes (little plums), radishes, carrots, and yummy fresh bread. It couldn't have been any better.

Drive to Quissac. Another fascinating experience. We really had no idea what to expect when Emra told us she'd bought a huge villa that was basically unlivable, and that she and her kiwi boyfriend were trying to fix it up. All we knew was that it was in the middle of nowhere, that it was huge, and that there was currently no water. We drove and drove, through tiny roundabouts, through tiny villages, through fields of Languedoc vineyards, through sunflower patches. We kept driving. Finally, we pulled up a path where a gigantic grey stone house loomed in the distance. “That can't be it,” Matt said. “Yes it could be,” I replied, “and I think it is.” Indeed, we had reached Mas de Figueroa.

First, we went to the town to play some tennis (super fun). When we returned, I played Bach cello suites in the vaulted room (best acoustics I've ever heard for horn).

Then we ate dinner in Emra's garden. We slept in a vaulted room that used to be where the wine was made, and you had to walk over some planks that covered two 10-foot-deep wells in order to reach the floor where our air mattress lay. Some of the planks were missing towards the front, leaving a gigantic gap that you could easily fall into if you lost your footing. The only light that came in was from a tiny window, which looked out onto beautiful vineyards and trees.

She showed us around the “house,” which hadn't been lived in in 30 years. It was huge. They'd turned two of the rooms into a very cute living area.

Monday, August 1.
Drive to Argeles-sur-Mer, stop first in Bouzigues, a beautiful tiny town on the sea, for their famous oysters. We ate oysters and mussels that tasted like we'd pulled them directly from the sea.

Next stop: Carcassone, a very cool and annoyingly overcrowded Medieval town. We wandered around for a bit, then got tired of the tourists and left.

Tried wine at a winery in which the winemaker used to work for one of the most famous Burgundy wineries. He was arrogant. The wines were nice, though. We bought a couple of bottles and left.

Next: the beautiful beach near Narbonne. It was about 6.30pm, and I went for a dip in the sea. Vast sandy beach, lovely hills nearby, perfect weather. Game of frisbee.

Arrival in Argeles-sur-Mer, a hilarious town close to Collieure (where we'd hoped to stay but couldn't find a place). For every time we'd wondered where all the locals had gone in the towns we'd visited, we decided that they'd all ended up here. There were thousands of French people everywhere, poorly dressed and enjoying their holidays on the beach. The hotels were pink and kind of crappy-looking, and there was terrible techno music pumping from the bars. Kitschy beach stores were open late for buying plastic jewelry and t-shirts. But somehow, I loved it. It was such an incongruous place for us to end our holiday, and something about the festivity in the air was contagious. We ate mussels and salad, then wandered around the mini theme park. Laughed at some of the rides, rode one called “Tron” which had nothing to do with the movie, but was like if the Star Wars ride at Disneyland were a car race instead.

[Things you could win at the casino]

Tuesday, August 2.
Drive to Barcelona! So very excited to see this city I'd always wanted to see. We got to the pension, dumped our stuff, I practiced a bit, and then we ran off to the Sagrada Familia, the huge Gaudi cathedral. It was breathtaking. I literally became speechless when I walked out of the subway, turned around and saw it. The facade looks like it's melting. The gargoyles are animals like lizards and snails, because he wanted as many images of nature as possible protecting the church. Huge colorful balls stood atop the turrets. It looked like something out of Disneyland, only it had taken 50 years for just the facade to be completed. We walked all the way around, marveling at it. One day I'll return to go inside and spend the day admiring the details.

Then a long walk up a steep hill to the Park Guell, a huge park with Gaudi everywhere. Apparently, it was meant to be an artist's community, and a place where the wealthy could have their homes, but instead it became a park protected by UNESCO. Quite spectacular. We were in the best spirits, if not a bit tired.

For dinner, we pigged out at a tapas place, where the portions were much larger than we'd thought they'd be (octopus, cuttlefish, potatoes, bread, garlic mushrooms). The highlight was the two bottles of cider that we drank. Incredibly full, we managed to walk through the gothic quarter, through Placa Real, and through another square that Matt wanted to show me from his 5 weeks there in 2007. I loved the city, and look forward to returning again to explore it further.

Wednesday, August 3.
Leave on Swiss Air after a perfect vacation. To top off an already amazing holiday, we had business class seats. To quote Matt upon arriving in our seats with massage and bed functions: “Ah, it's good to be home!”

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