Friday, September 12, 2014

Our love is here to stay

On Saturday at 5pm, my Mom, Linda and her fiancé, Leonard, are getting married. I will walk her down the aisle under the protection of a giant oak tree while my Sister and her companion, David, will sing "Our Love is Here to Stay." 

My joy for them knows no bounds, for they are a true couple. They have never fought and have been known to dance in the living room first thing in the morning. When I think of them, the image that comes to mind immediately is that they are laughing. The delight that they have- as well as the sheer gratitude - in having found each other is infectious. As they have already surmounted many challenges together, all that know them already think of them as married. And they do as well.

But now they are making it official. With the real "I do" too.

Here is to Love. As beautiful as the best bouquet but far longer lasting...

Happiness is full bloom.

Thank you for being here everyone...I am so appreciative of you all and for your kindness...may Love fill your weekend wherever you are,

PS. Any thoughts or prayers for good weather and smooth sailing would be greatly appreciated!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Brunch at Aventura - Ann Arbor

Ask any American expat what culinary delights they miss most while overseas and they will undoubtedly reply: Brunch. Delicious comfort food, a bit of booze and happy, lingering conversation in a fun atmosphere. Truly? What is not to like? 

I would also add to that list of longing: a touch of culinary adventure. For while the food in France is as truly exceptional as its reputation declares, it can often veer back to the safe side. When I am in the States, I delight in discovering the new and taking my taste-buds for a ride.

And so, one rainy Sunday on my most recent trip back, I suggested to my Mom that we try a relatively recent restaurant in Ann Arbor, Aventura. 

I love to contradict naysayers with proof that, "the Mid-West is not what it used to be" and Aventura's sleek and yet welcoming design fits that particular bill perfectly.

We were given a gracious welcome - ok, it hasn't changed entirely! Folks are still very friendly even in cosmopolitan Ann Arbor.

Rather than slip into mimosa sleepiness, I jazzed things up by selecting a blood orange, gin and Campari cocktail. One glance at the bearded hipster shaking things up behind the bar (does he call himself a "mixologist"? He might.) told me that I would be in good hands and I was right.

As nothing makes me happier than the "small plate" revolution that is currently trending in the States, I was delighted to see that Aventura, which is a tapas restaurant serving modern Spanish cuisine, had also extended the idea to brunch as well. My Mom and I split a coca or flatbread topped with goat cheese, mushrooms and a farm fresh egg plus a shrimp and polenta bowl topped with sauteed spinach. Both were pitch-perfect excellent.

But the truly melodic tones came from a very talented flamenco guitarist who strummed quietly throughout our meal. As I mentioned to him later, in Arles - home of the Gypsy Kings! - we hear quite a lot of such music and yet his finesse was to be admired. It really was the cherry on the cake of a lovely meal and a good thing to as, foolishly, we declined getting the churros with salted caramel and chili chocolate for dessert. I know, what were we thinking? We weren't.

Afterwards, John, Aventura's genuinely charming General Manager, took us on a tour of the private wine cellar...

...past the open kitchen ("Merci, chef!")...

...through another seriously romantic made for snuggling cocktail lounge and out onto the back patio, where dancing happens on Thursdays. I could be up for that.

I had to do a little "research" on their evening menu. How fantastic that the pintxos start at $2! My Sister has already gone with a group of friends and had a fabulous time. At these prices, one can really taste, try new things and share a plenty, which is, of course,  the whole point of tapas! 

I will definitely follow the blinking lights leading me to Aventura on my next visit to Ann Arbor...and since I am taking the plane tomorrow morning...well, that might be sooner than later...


216 East Washington Street
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Tel.: (1) 734-369-3153

Friday, September 5, 2014

Christian Lacroix: L'Arlésienne

I first heard of the idea of "L'Arlésienne" long before I ever set foot in Arles.

The basic idea is is a term to describe a woman that you find incredibly attractive...and yet...

...try as you can never have her.

She is a dream that you search after in vain.

A character in Alphonse Daudet's Lettres de mon Moulin, who finally drove her lover to suicide, went on to inspire the opera by Georges Bizet. But I can still see them in modern dress strolling the streets of Arles today with a trail of young men following in their wake, drunk with longing.

Christian Lacroix has long been fascinated both by the women of his hometown and the symbol of what they have come to represent in society. Les Arlésiennes have been a continuing source of inspiration within his design work (he has said that 'le pouf' skirt that launched him to stardom in the 80s is nothing more than the highly codified traditional gown cut above the knee) and so it is little surprise that he has curated an exhibition dedicated to them during the international photography festival Les Rencontres d'Arles for 2014.

For the event, he has assembled works by a variety of artists that portray themes both literal and more tangential, such as with the framed studio coat of the painter Balthus. All are shown in the Chapelle de la Charité, which is both owned by and joined to the Hotel Jules Cesar (yes, recently renovated by Mr. Lacroix himself) and thus rarely open to the public.

It is a baroque jewel. Created in the mid 1600's, it was the chapel for the neighboring convent for an order of Carmelite nuns. The pulpit and main altarpiece were built by a sculptor from Avignon named Péru and a massive Apotheosis of Saint Theresa, painted by Pierre Parrocel in 1718, towers over the space. Perhaps it is because so many churches were gutted and their treasures destroyed during the French Revolution, that the richness of the colors, forms and textures are so utterly pleasing to me in their rareness, just like L'Arlésienne. The lieu and the exhibit are utterly made for each other. The interplay existing between the ecclesiastical and modern art creates a cocoon as fine as thinly spun silk.

Of all of the works presented, I was most fascinated by the ghostly portraits of the Queen of Arles and her court by the English photographer Katerina Jebb. Following a car accident, Ms. Jebb was no longer able to easily hold a camera and starting working first in photocopies then with scans in order to produce her prints. It is a lengthy process and the stillness required in her subjects is transferred within the final result. Her nearly life-size images of these beautiful women represented the most moving essence of L'Arlésienne and her ephemeral, insaisissable quality that I have ever experienced. I couldn't stop staring at them, as if looking for an answer but finally, in the shiny black glass, all I could see was...myself.

To read Christian Lacroix's poetic introduction for the exhibition (and to see several lovely photographs that were featured in it) please click: here ou en français, cliquezici. There is also another excellent article en françaisici.

Christian Lacroix: L'Arlesienne
Chapelle de la Charité, Boulevard des Lices, Arles
Until September 21st
Open everyday from 10am - 7:30pm
Entry: 5€

And to listen to a bit of Georges Bizet's opera L'Arlesienne, please click below:

Wishing you a weekend filled with mystery and delights,

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Hotel Jules Cesar redesigned by Christian Lacroix - Arles

I have a long-standing love of fine hotels. In my early 20's, I saw first hand how hoteliers such as Ian Schrager transformed properties like the Paramount or the Royalton into spaces that were not only complete aesthetic worlds for their guests but also hot-spots that attracted and served the local community. Conversely, in my travels, I also experienced the fact that even some of the most elegant resorts in the world miss out on that spark, leaving behind an after taste of champagne gone flat.

So it was with great anticipation when I first heard that the designer Christian Lacroix had agreed to redesign the Hotel Jules Cesar, one of Arles' most well-known luxury hotels that had sadly morphed into something of a sleeping dinosaur in recent years. Christian Lacroix is not only from Arles, he is one of its prodigal sons. He understands the tricky juxtapositions of this ancient town innately. In the introduction to the excellent guidebook, "Arles, ville d'art et d'histoire," he proclaims that, "Arles is at once working-class and imperial, rustic and aristocratic, Christian and pagan, modest and proud, classical and traditional, stark and baroque, austere and unbridled. Apollo and Dionysus. In colour and black and white."

How would all of that translate into a hotel design? Christian Lacroix had found an apt partner in architect Olivier Sabran but how much could they do?

I pushed open the old rotating doors, happily still in place, took one look around...

...and gasped with delight.

It was all here. From the proud toréador presiding over the bar, to the 18th century scenes depicting Arles as it was (including an insider's wink from when the Arena had been transformed into a village of its own), to the vibrant colors so present in the light, the air - those that inspired Van Gogh and Picasso - to the hum of the future that Arles is building towards with swift momentum. For as I have already said, "It is not sleeping."

And neither is the hotel. It is a lot to take in.

There are so many details to discover, such as the combination of Provençal calade and Roman mosaics woven into the carpet...

...a light-filled breakfast room perfect for charging up for the day...

...and so many corners for a tête à tête

I was delighted to see that the design was not a tabula rasa, for that would not be Arlésien du tout but rather a mixing of old and new. Some of the fauteils that I recognized from the hotels previous incarnation had been given a new zip of upholstery...

And the panelling in the restaurant was topped with a parade of L'Arlésiennes in their finest... well as a few of the wild bulls from the Camargue that are no doubt being served up on plate too. As I visited in the afternoon, the restaurant, Lou Marquès, was closed but I have heard, as was always the case, nothing but good things regarding the chefs Pascal Renaud and Joseph Kriz who have upped the ante of their regional cooking by bringing in a new pastry chef, Anne Beyl.

For you see, the hotel's team was not shelved during its acquisition by the Maranatha Group, something of a rarity. As part of the contract, it was agreed upon that the former owner, Monsieur Albagnac, now in his nineties, would be permitted to continue living in his private quarters onsite.

And while I was poking around the delightfully Alice in Wonderland like hallways, some of which had been scrawled upon with quotes from another prodigal son of Provence, the Nobel Prize winning poet Frederic Mistral, I met one of the hotels top managers who had been with the company for 26 years. Anyone who has worked in the industry knows how demanding it is and I was really pleased to know that such dedication had been correctly rewarded.

The gentleman very kindly offered to show me a standard double room...

...where the interplay of materials and prints that Lacroix had already used to such acclaim in his designs for such Parisian hotels as the Hôtel Petit Moulin or Le Bellechasse is in evidence... is the presence of a fine antique armoire for which the artisans of the area became well-known in the 19th century.

Brazilian tiles meet ones that are a funky sun-splashed mix in the bath... echo of the light that pours in through the former cloister on the lower level of this historic building. 

In the 17th century, the building was created as a convent for the Carmelite nuns, who were expulsed during the French Revolution, when the building served as the Hôpital de la Charité until it was closed in 1903. Afterwards, a petition was put forward to convert the space into a luxury hotel, in which purpose it has served since 1928, save during World War II when it became the Kommandatur of the German Occupation. As Arles is protected as a World Heritage Site, all of the historic aspects of the property were renovated by the règles du métier under the strict supervision of the Bâtiments de France.

It is fun to imagine what the nuns would have thought of the extravagant Lacroix suite!

It is a modern cocoon and yes, the bright red is comforting...

...and a welcome change from the quiet Zen styles that have reigned over hotel design for far too long.

As someone who claims - a tad boastfully even! - to know Arles very, very well... was wonderful to discover a charming garden courtyard that I had no idea existed... well as to be surprised by the splashes of the pool where tanned twenty somethings lounged languidly in the sun.

Such is the spirit of the new Hotel Jules Cesar, now a five-star property, it is an invitation to have a seat...

...and open the door to the best of the essence of all that Arles is, has been and hopefully will become. I know that I will certainly look forward to going back as a guest or as a local. In 2001, Christian Lacroix also wrote from the result of his living here, "What I see, I keep; but I grow because I give in return. The key here is not so much the idea of an eloquent past as that of a present whose voice is always in the background." May that voice keep humming for a very long time.

Hotel Jules Cesar
9 Boulevard des Lices
13200 Arles
Tel.: +33 (0)4 52 52 52

Special re-opening rates can be booked on the website starting from 125€ for a Chambre Classique, the Suite Lacroix from 382€