Monday, September 30, 2013

The charm of Crillon le Brave, where to eat and stay

Surprisingly, none of my French acquaintances had heard of Crillon le Brave, the charming little village that had recently stolen my heart. They would do a sweet Gallic shrug and raise their eyebrows expectantly to ask, "Should I know it?" Yes, most certainly, yes. And yet, I couldn't quite peg how I had heard of it myself until we visited and I came across the hotel of the same name.

Oh, of course! As someone who is something of a hotel geek (I have a deep appreciation for luxury hotels--not only when having stayed in them on assignment but also that, in having worked in them, I know what is required to make them tick effortlessly along), I had definitely seen the property mentioned on several "Best of Provence" lists. The gleaming metal plaque declaring it a member of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux group induced a further "got it!" moment and the lobby with a stunning view over the valley beckoned welcomingly beyond.

I was immediately surprised by the utter lack of pretension surrounding this five-star hotel, one that occupies seven buildings of the hill-top village. My curious--if timid--glances were met openly and there was none of the "and you are?" of some resorts (amazingly, I was effectively thrown out of the Hotel Nord Pinus in Arles recently for doing the same). There was no sign of bling (ok, save for the  "highly preserved" guest who tottered out of the lobby wearing a poured on Pucci mini-dress and too high Costume National booties, while clutching the chain of her Chanel Mini Flap as she headed to the café next door...but I digress) and hardly any signs at all actually. The key idea here seems to be: discreet, relaxed elegance.

On our second visit to the village, we stumbled upon to the entry of the terrace bar by chance, having been drawn to the arched doorway by the strum of a guitar trio playing in the background as lucky visitors sipped local wines (7€ the glass) and looked over the evening's set menu (a surprisingly reasonable 30€).

If you are looking for something a little more formal, you might wish to have a seat under the gorgeous stone vaults of the Restaurant Jérôme Blanchet, which looked smartly elegant. Follow Ben up the staircase, he will show you the way.

I thought it smart that, while the hotel is such an important contributor to the village's economy, its presence is never over-whelming and the staff always gave us a friendly nod despite the fact that we clearly weren't guests (with our two tail-waggers in tow). A well-run establishment, full of true Provençal charm.

Hotel Crillon le Brave
Tel. +33 (0)4 90 65 61 61
For an excellent and informative guest review (with lovely photography to boot) please click here.

Similarly to the hotel, you would never know that L'Amiradou is a luxury villa rental based on its outward appearance. After chatting with the directrice, a Crillon le Brave native, she offered that I step inside while she searched for a business card. As I glanced down at the plush silk carpet under my feet, I knew that I was in a special place. The surrounding living area oozed a serene but finely edited ambiance.

The name of the property comes from the local Vaucluse dialect meaning a belvedere or panoramic view point. Each of the six bedrooms (there are only two per floor and each level is accessible by elevator) opens out directly towards the Mount Ventoux... do the pool area and terraces. It didn't take an enormous amount of effort to imagine floating on my back while gazing at the mountain then hopping out to sip rosé until sundown. Daily breakfast and housekeeping services are included in the weekly rates, which run from 10,285€ in low season to 12,100€ per week in high.

If the property manager's kind efficiency was anything to go by (and it was), a group of friends and family would be tremendously spoiled during a stay at L'Amiradou.

Tel. +33 (0)4 90 12 89 50

But I don't wish to give you the wrong idea. Crillon le Brave is not only for the well-heeled. Au contraire, the village is a popular base for those that are chasing after the Holy Grail de velo of pedaling to the top of the Mount Ventoux, one of the most infamous legs of the Tour de France.

We saw several vans topped with bicycle racks pass while we sipped our Perrier menthes at Le Petite Crillon and could envisage famished cyclists gratefully tucking into a burger maison (14€), spaghetti with pesto, parmesan cheese and pine-nuts (12€) or an "Indian" salad topped with curried chicken breast as well as (oddly?) bacon and egg (13€). Any bistro that has a separate club sandwich menu is just fine by me...especially if home-made frites are piled up on the side...

Le Petite Crillon
Tel. +33 (0)6 1094 82 57

While I was instantly charmed by the new team that runs Le Saint Romain, Remi was taken by the view, one that overlooks the other side of the valley and the Dentelles de Montmirail. Le Mairie or town hall is hoping to keep Crillon lively throughout the year and so have brought Severine and her husband Francois in to operate the restaurant and bar (which offers a full menu of entrée, plat, dessert for 13€ for weekday lunches), as well as a tiny food shop. The gîtes d'etape, shared hostel style rooms are only 15-20€ per night. A one-bedroom rental runs for 90€ with the possibility of demi-pension where dinner is provided by the restaurant. Severine, who is originally from Avignon, has only been onsite since July. I asked her if she was happy with her move and if the locals have been welcoming (something that is truly not a given in the South of France). Without a moments hesitation, she broke out into a large smile and responded, "Very!"

Le Saint Romain
Esplanade de la Marie
Tel. +33 (0)4 90 65 34 25 (website not yet operational but will be soon)

Ah but I saved my chouchou for last. Remi and I have been entranced by the terrace of Le Vieux Four on both of our visits, lingering despite being there at off-hours before the dinner service. The auberge is tucked away on a small square lower down the hill than the hotel, right next to L'Amiradou. My food radar seldom fails me and I know that this is un spot, a true find. At 29€, the menu is limited to three choices each for entrée, plat and dessert but these seemed comforting with interesting touches. I definitely hope to return--to Crillon in general and Le Vieux Four in particular. I could be wrong, but to me this sweet little gem is placed in just about as perfect a location as I can think of...

...and if the restaurant's cat is this content, perhaps I could be too?

Restaurant le Viex Four
144 rue le Vieux Four
Tel. +33 (0)4 90 12 81 39

I hope that you enjoyed this little list--something to keep in mind while planning your next visit to la Belle France.

And oh! Stop the press! A fun surprise. The beautiful Jeanne (inside and out) of the gorgeous blog I dream of,  has just posted about our meeting this summer! I will let you pop over to learn about how our friendship first started (although it might ring a bell for long-time readers) but it was wonderful to take it to the next step and meet in person. I am absolutely crazy about Jeanne and the entire merry band that she had with her that day--her husband Will, her friend Heidi, Heidi's husband Angel and their gorgeous and crazily cosmopolitan girls, Penelope and Paloma. Isolation from truly kindred spirits can be one of the biggest challenges of being an expat and trust me, I made the most of the time that I had with them (even if I did tell them the history of Arles until their eyes started to glaze over a bit--ooops). I have a feeling that this won't be Jeanne's last visit to Provence--she caught the bug! 

To read more about our meeting and see her view of Arles, please click here.

Have a lovely week everyone!

Friday, September 27, 2013

"Mastering the Art of French Eating" by Ann Mah


I have to admit it, I like to save things. So when my friend Ann Mah and her publisher's at Penguin were kind enough to send me an advance copy of her new book, "Mastering the Art of French Eating," I did what any perfectly illogical person would do, I put it wait of the perrrfect...moooment (please tell me I am not the only one to do this)...when I was in desperate need for a truly excellent read. 

That is, until yesterday, when I was snapped to by an email from Ann, excitedly announcing that the day had arrived and that the book was available in stores! Well, obviously, now is always the perfect moment, so, fortified with a navette à la fleur de la lavande and a piping hot cup of joe, I turned the cover and dove in...

Now, wait a second. Let me just say something first. This is going to sound snobby and perhaps I am snobby on the following subject: I don't usually read "expat" books. Why? Let's just say that having a dream and following it to Singapore/Hawaii/Paris does not a writer make. 

But Ann is a writer and a really fine one at that. Not only is she the author of the novel "Kitchen Chinese" but her articles have appeared in such choice venues as The New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler (excuse my slight whimpers of jealousy), the Huffington Post, etcetera...

The premise is as follows--Ann is finally able to spend a three year stint in the city of her dreams, Paris, when Calvin, her diplomat husband, is transferred for a year in Baghdad, leaving her alone in the City of Light. Now, it is harder than one might think being an expat, yes even in Paris and yes, even if Ann already had plenty of experience in moving from country to country. It would take as strong a woman as she is not to fall into a whimpering series of "Whyyyyy?"'s...a strong woman like, say, Julia Child? Ah ha. Inspired by Julia's efforts to document la cuisine française in the legendary "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" and fueled by her own insatiable curiosity, she decided to visit ten different regions to get to the heart--the how's and why's plus the je ne sais quoi's--of each area's signature dish. 

One of the trickeries of travel writing is that it has to strike a real balance between dreaming and learning. Kind of a "feet on the ground, head in the stars" type of thing (and a key reason for my afore-mentioned snobbery is that I find most expat books rely solely on the latter with little of the former). Not so here. Already in the very first chapter on the steak-frites of Paris, I found myself gobbling up so much that was new to me and I lived there for four years! And yet it is tasty going down, I will tell you that. I dare you, I double dare you to try to read just the introduction without continuing on...

As you can see, Kipling can't put it down.

If I sound like I am gushing, it isn't just because Ann is a friend (and she truly is so lovely that it is little surprise that she collects new friends wherever she goes) but also because I have been really trying to get back to reading for the sheer joy of it and "Mastering" really fits the bill. Like a hungry man at table, I have to keep telling myself to "slow down, slow down" and...enjoy the meal.

"Mastering the Art of French Eating" by Ann Mah is Ben-approved.
to read an excerpt, please click here
Available on Amazon and itunes (although the quality of the book itself is lovely) as well as other online sources or by all means...go to your local bookstore! 

Don't believe me?
"Excellent ingredients, carefully prepared and very elegantly served. A really tasty book."
--Peter Mayle, author of "A Year in Provence"

*Oops! Perhaps because I am a hopelessly lazy cook, I forgot to mention that there is a recipe at the end of each chapter. And while I WON'T be attempting to make my own andouillet any time soon (and give Ann mega-props for getting down to the guts of that chapter--ahem--I most certainly will be making the cassouelet this winter...*

Have an absolutely delicious weekend everyone!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Shadows on the dial

I am taking a little break from my quasi-mystical ravings about a certain village that seems too beautiful to be true in order to share something tiny but that pleases me to no end.

We are being pulled into the time of year when the light is at its most spectacular in this corner of Provence. Every evening there is a silent show, each slightly different, as the sun bows down with the grace of a prima ballerina's final curtain curtsy.

My favorite aspect (and I know that I have written this before) is when those last rays seem to pull sideways with the rake of skeleton fingers across each surface. It can be surprisingly revealing. 

The other evening, Remi was passing by the window in front of my desk when he paused and stared. "Look at that...un cadran solaire." What was he talking about? I went to the window and sure enough on the wall directly opposite were the faint scratchings of what had once been...a sundial.

While I love to guess time based on the shadows created by a large iron hook further down the same wall, the real thing and had been there all along. And I have been looking at that exact wall every day for nearly two and a half years!

Arles can be sneaky like that, offering up little gifts when you are least expecting them. Something akin to making the baby in you gurgle with the jangle of time's keys, I would guess.

As I type the sun is warming up with pliés for this evening's performance but already I can begin to discern that scraggly half-mask, carved who knows when and for whose benefit. 

Just as I was getting ready to hit publish for the above, I had an idea. For as long as we have lived in this apartment, I have been fascinated by a small window built into one of the massive outer shutters. As we are so high up off the ground, when you slide the panel back, you can't see the ground nor the sky really. So what was its purpose? To spy on the neighbors? Well, I think I have a solution. Our little sundial is what you look towards, exactly. So this little window very may well have been installed as the easiest way to tell time from a 17th century clock. 

Neat, isn't it?

Monday, September 23, 2013

Falling in love again--Crillon le Brave, part two

I won't lie to you.

I threw out ninety percent of the photos that I had carefully prepared for this post and replaced them with those that I took yesterday evening.

"Yesterday evening?"
"Yes, yesterday evening."
"You were in Crillon le Brave again yesterday evening?"
"I was."
"Did you like it as much as the first time?"
(enter Mona Lisa smile here)

I don't know what the future holds as far as this village and myself are concerned but I..
But I...

Have a wonderful week ahead, more soon and please leave the door open, thank you.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Falling in love again -- Crillon le Brave

It started with Remi suggesting that we go on a picnic. Now, I know a bit of him after twelve years, not all--thankfully--and could sense that there was something not at all random going on. By now, I know well to just let the explorer explore, for he has an infallible instinct. And so, packed up and armed with paté, we drove an hour north until we were at the base of Mount Ventoux.

We lunched, we drank a bit of wine, we took a nap. And then the secret was revealled: Remi wanted to take a looksee at the village above, Crillon le Brave.

Was the charm immediate?

Evidently it was.

As we rounded each corner, giving way to a different bit of lovely more glorious than the last, I sighed.

And waved a little hello at our picnic spot in the valley below (follow the road to the intersection of vines on the left, olive groves on the right, under the big tree).

Surprisingly, for such an utter patch of bijouterie, there were still corners untouched...

...But oh there were secret signs that Crillon le Brave was most definitely appreciated by a certain few.

Remi and I know Provence...quite well, I would say and yet this discovery reminded me of another and knocked me breathless. 

Literally! I was snapping like a mad turtle to the point of hyperventilation so there will be more to come...

Until then, yep, follow that good light, the one that makes you happy and have a fantastic weekend.

To listen to: