Monday, June 29, 2015

The magical courtyard at Hervé Baume - Avignon

I suppose that it should come as no surprise that one of France's most reputed antiquaires and designers of garden furniture, Hervé Baume, should have a spectacular courtyard behind his boutique in Avignon......and yet as many times as I have wistfully peered in his showroom windows I had never discovered its existence.

 For that I have to give credit to my friend L, who, while I was doing a fair amount of shopping in my imagination, had stepped further along the sidewalk and said, "Oh, what is in here?" Now, I know as a travel writer it is my duty to be inquisitive but at times I am admittedly very timid about walking into anything that might be "Propriété Privée" - it is the American in me. However, as I was out and about with such an elegant personnage as L, I knew that no one would dare to say anything unkind to us and so I followed...

And found a secret corner of Provençal heaven.

Every element was just perfect. From the calade or cobble-stones to the gorgeous plantings in waist-high Anduze planters (more than I have ever seen at one time) and sky blue shutters rising above.

While the courtyard is quite vast (the entryway is high and wide enough to have accommodated even the most elegant of horse-drawn carriages), there are still numerous corners and decorative elements to discover. If "the eye has to travel" according to the fabulous Diana Vreeland, well, then mine went on a little journey...

...under the archway and up the sweeping stone staircase, an escalier d'honneur...

...with glimpses of the soft pastels of classical frescos above...

...coming back down to a mysterious oeil de bouef opening below...

...and even an artists atelier worthy of Picasso en face

But each detail only strengthened the whole...

...and the overall effect was that of a living, joy-filled garden... where I could have made myself comfortable for a very long time indeed.

But the rest of the afternoon was calling. 

As I ducked back out into the bright sun, I noted the plaque by  the main entrance, naming this incredibly fine building the Hôtel Tonduty de Malijac. It turns out that this 16th century private mansion passed in the 17th century to Baron François Tonduty de Malijac, who was a Seigneur of Saint-Légier, a legal advisor, a dignitary for the University of Avignon and an astronomer formed by a Jesuit! In 1983, the building - for its facade, roof and yes, courtyard with its stairway - was declared a Monument Historique.

As we crossed back in front of the showroom, I realized that I really needed to share some of the goods on offer with my fellow antiques lovers out there. For you see it is les soldes and amazingly, everything was already marked at half off...

.Now, let's see...and I apologize that these photos are not up to snuff. As I mentioned, the brightness of the outdoor light made for quite a contrast to the darkened interior...Ah yes, it was L who pointed out the giant and quite rare woven basket at 125 Euros. I appreciated the sea-shelled filled dome at a mere 30. 

Certainly, the gilt touched console was still not a bargain at 4000 but I could easily see the lamps in a beach house at 125 each, thought of a friend who would have swooned over the blue and white garden pot at 30 and was fascinated by the intricately etched smoke glass jar for 130. Below were tall crystal photophores for 120 and an ex-voto that I most certainly wouldn't have been able to resist at 25.

 I don't know whether it was a good thing or bad that the boutique was still closed for the afternoon break. As I passed by the entrance, I spied the owner himself seated just inside, chatting with a friend. He regarded my photo-taking with a supercilious eyebrow raised as if to say, "Well, who might you be, my dear girl?" Only an admirer of your magic, Mr. Baume. Only an admirer...

Hervé Baume
Antiques, Garden Furniture and Decorative Objects
19 Rue de la Petite Fusterie
84000 - Avignon

Tel.: +33 (0)4 90 86 37 66

I honestly don't know if the courtyard is open all of the time or if we just were lucky! But it truly is one of the prettiest that I have seen in Provence. You will find the entry to the left of the boutique. Perhaps you will let me know if you happen to pass by?

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Naka - a new favorite restaurant in Avignon

Here is the second most often ignored advice that I give to visitors coming to Provence (the first being "don't plan too much" which is usually met with polite blinking stares): take it easy on the French food. Now, I get it, you have come all this way, of course your instinct is to start with a croissant and café creme and keep on frenchifying your way through the day until that last delectable bite of croquant au chocolat...but instincts, while precious, can be deceiving.

Because sometimes - and certainly in very touristy towns - French is not necessarily the best option. Those restaurants with incredibly long menus often touted by a charming young lady out front of the establishment (which is illegal by the way)? Well, as the kitchen is most likely the size of a postage stamp, how on earth could all of those ingredients be fresh? And besides, in giving your palate a break, you will appreciate your next foie gras à la poêle avec réduction des cerises even more. Your belly will thank you as well for a bit of something lighter instead of having two big meals out per day... so what about some, say, Japanese food?

I had been wanting to go to Naka for quite some time but it was finally the ever-elegant Madame L who dragged me out of this tiny village so that we could take the bus to Avignon (while elegant, she is also practical) in order to give it a try.

As we would be arriving at 2pm, which is quite late for lunch, she had called ahead in order to confirm that it would still be open. Knowing how things work in the region, I feared that we would be seated but slighted then rushed. Happily, I couldn't have been further from the truth as the service was delightful - professional but light-handed and friendly (as long-time readers might remember, since I have worked as a waitress myself back in my NYC days I am more than a little exigeante when it comes to this métier).

While we loved being on the cobble-stone terrace overlooking one of Avignon's most attractive squares (and I can only imagine how fabulous it would be in the evening), the interior is simply gorgeous - a perfect contrast between the patina of the original stone walls and sleek modern elements such as floating paper lanterns by artist Céline Wright. There is also a comfortable bar area filled with worn leather Chesterfield sofas with a prime view on the sushi bar where some down-low lounge was being played quietly in the background.

Of course all of this is merely la cerise sur le gâteau compared to...the food. Chef Katsuhiro Naka arrived in France from Tokyo in 1977 when he was only 18 years old with hopes of learning la gastronomie française. Having been denied a work visa, he wrote directly to then Président Giscard d'Estaing who not only accorded him his carte de séjour but gave him an appointment at Maxim's in Paris. Chef Katsuhiro worked his way through many grand establishments such as Taillevent and Ledoyen before opening his own restaurant, which two of his children helped him run. As a member of the family was running a yoga studio in Avignon (which is now above the restaurant), eventually the entire family made the move to Provence and Naka was opened in 2013. Isn't this an amazing story?

But let's return to our plates. The sushi and sashimi that I had were probably the best that I have eaten during the 14 years that I have lived in France for their freshness and correctness of presentation. There was nothing fancy about them - how can you get more basic than a California roll? - and yet it was truly delicious. On the lunch menu, the sushi, sashimi and maki were accompanied by two excellent sides (the house favorite of soy-marinated eggplant and crunchy black seaweed), miso soup and sticky rice - for only 14 Euros. As Madame L remarked, "That is the price for a mediocre salad in a café!" For her part, she enjoyed an equally copious mixed tempura with gambas and a variety of veggies for 14.50 Euros. We both had a nice glass of white - Naka's dedication to their wine list is rather unheard of for Asian restaurants in the South - and chatted in between sips, both lifting our heads to catch the occasional breeze.

Naka in itself is certainly a breath of fresh air. While literally a stone's throw away from the hordes on the Place de l'Horloge, we felt like we were in our special corner of Avignon, one that I can't wait to return to again.

Cuisine Japonaise
4 Place de la Principale
84000 - Avignon
Tel.: +33 (0)4 90 82 15 70

*As always, this is not a sponsored post, just me sharing a good address!*

Bon Weekend tout la monde...

Monday, June 22, 2015

Back to elementary in Provence

My friend, the lovely Madame C, who is the original americaine in this tiny village (I am the barely known "other" American) called me last week with a favor to ask. She is a teacher at the elementary school and wanted to know if I would be willing to be a special guest for her English students. And while she gave me every option to decline, even saying, "You can leave after only fifteen minutes if you want to," of course I said yes. I was even tempted to respond that it would be "totes adorbes" for the first time in my life because what is not to love? Yes, I am incredibly shy in large groups...but come on, that is with adults! I couldn't wait to see what the extra small versions of my neighbors would be like and to see a French classroom. Would it differ greatly from my memories of being that age in the States?

So at 3pm today, I rang the buzzer, appropriately marked "école" at a doorway on the left hand side of our mairie or town hall. I listened for a moment at the first cigales buzzing in the heat until C opened the door, clearly a bit flustered. "They aren't ready yet," she said apologizing. "Would you mind waiting out here for just a bit?" A miniature wooden chair was procured. "Pretend like you don't hear what is going on inside!" After she pulled the door behind her, I listened to a cacophony of voices bubble and burst, somehow always remaining on the proper side of pandemonium. In the hallway I found the same gray blue paint that seems to be a standard school color and coat hooks placed for kid-sized reaching along a wooden rack on the wall. Giant decorated poster-boards had been tacked above them. I scanned "La Révolution Française" explained in brightly colored pencils and was just about to take a photo of Lou Reed standing in as the symbol for Oedipus (Rex) when C opened the door, eyebrows lifted as if to say, "Are you ready?" 

Inside, I was met by...a receiving line. Perhaps thirty children, I would say none much older than nine, were standing by their desks with a special group of ambassadors at the door. "Hello," said the first boy with confidence. "Welcome," said another. "How are you?" And so it went. Each word spoken so carefully as if they were passing along a crystal ball from one child to the next. Already, my cheeks were beginning to hurt as I was smiling so hard. "Right this way, please" said a blonde girl with freckles while giving a classic Maitre d' arm sweep. C had prepared me that our theme for the discussion would be as if I were a guest at a restaurant. I was shown to a table in front of the classroom. "Won't you sit down?" piped in another. I was quite impressed. Plates and cups were passed out and C announced that we were going to take une petite pause in order to celebrate a few of the students upcoming birthdays. Aha! No wonder the children were nearly levitating with excitement! 

"Would you like a cookie?" I accepted, smiling inwardly at the staccato pronunciation of such an oh-so American word. Three girls lined up in front of the cakes lit with bougies and sparklers while the rest of the class sang first "Happy Birthday" and then a version "en espagnol!" and finally "en français!" No one laughed when the smallest didn't quite successfully blow out her share of the candles. I actually didn't sense meanness of any kind in the class, just the usual "end of the school year" rambunctiousness. As I accepted cake, then brioche, I finally had to politely decline the various gummy bears on offer for fear that all of this sugar would make my head explode. The questions resumed amidst munching as each student - always shyly, often nervously - approached me with their prepared question. "Do you like carrots?" I do and had some for lunch today. "Do you like donuts?" No, not really (which was not at all the response that had been expected and so was met with a fit of giggles). After everyone had successfully delivered their prepared question (at times with repeated coaching whispered in their ears by C), the language was turned and the students were allowed to ask me French.

Not having children of my own or having had much experience with them, I always appreciate a chance to get an unfiltered version of their personalities. And the questions were appropriately direct, my favorite being..."Are you old?" Yes, yep, I am. Because in their eyes, I am ancient - as huge as a monster, as tall as a skyscraper! Speaking of, I think what they were most interested in was when I explained that in Manhattan, as it is so crowded, people don't live in houses (this was met with a "non!") but apartment buildings that can be fifty or even one hundred floors high. I think that will be a subject around the dinner table tonight in our tiny village. 

With class nearing to an end, I was met with a united chorus of "Thank you" then "Have a nice day" and even a formal "Good-bye." C walked me out. She seemed relieved and proud that her students had down so well. "We are so old!" - I couldn't help but blurt it out - "And they are so, do you remember what it was like to have all the world, all of that knowledge in front of you?" "I see it everyday," she replied with an assured smile. "How wonderful that must be," I thought as I left the school behind and found my way home.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Light in the dark, part two

Hello there. Those of you that have been visiting here for a while know that the needle tends to skip off the record entirely for me when such tragic events as the mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina occur. My heart goes out to the family, friends and loved ones of the victims. If there is anything that could resemble a light in the midst of such darkness, it would be in the forgiveness and mercy that many of them gave to the racist murderer that changed their lives for ever.

We all loose a bit of humanity in the face of such horror. I am still trying to understand it and apparently I am not the only one. I was both moved and inspired by Jon Stewart's monologue about the events. If you wish, you can see it here.

And the part one of this post? It is a light-hearted romp through Provence. That might be what you need right now too. If so, you can find it here.

Back to the usual programming next week. Thank you for reading,

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Up close in the garden

The bees have been buzzing wildly in the lavender all week, almost like proud mascots. For there is so much going on in our little garden at the moment that Remi declared over a white eggplant the other day, "I swear that I can nearly see it growing. It is not the same size that it was half an hour ago!" I crouched down on my heels to watch closely for a while. Above, perched high in the acacia tree, a nearly comic yet infinitesimally wee bird piped his lungs to bursting in rhythmic spurts. No longer looking, I listened, hanging on to each note as if climbing from one branch to the next, focused.

It seems to be how I like to photograph the little mysteries that I find there (although Remi rightfully chides me that I am not nearly close enough) - our friend Mr. W's enviable raspberries, our Medusa-headed yellow rose - as well as the respectful proximity that suits my senses. With my head deep into our climbing tomatoes, I can differentiate the smell of their leaves with those of the struggling red peppers on the other side of the cane fence (one smokey, the other acrid). The crackled dirt turns as smooth as chocolate mousse after being watered and I often trail my fingers, making the mud pies that I avoided in childhood. It is a clean mess and what care I if there are grass stains on my white shirts or bumpy scratches on my wrists. The last of the wild strawberries melts on my tongue, dissolving as if apologizing for not tasting better, for not have being able to have survived the move towards being tamed. That land will now be scrapped for what lies in one of the four promising packets that rattle when I shake them, gifts from Remi for a future to share.

I have learned that I can weed out any residing anger in me like a madwoman, tearing with both hands, even if my left is faster (which is odd as I am right-handed). And that the garden can take better care of itself than I had imagined. We tend to want to hover, wary of the Provençal sun but of course this earth has memories and knows more than we do of its ways. So best to lean in, keep an open and pay attention. As our garden grows there is still so much to learn. 

I could have never imagined that I would be sharing such cliché images as that of butterflies and bees on lavender...but that is what falling in love will to do a person...

Friday, June 12, 2015

The amazing MuCem in Marseille

Marseille. France's second largest city remains an enigma for me. I don't know it well, I admit. Beyond the fact that it is a bit far, logistically speaking, it is also a lot to take in. Within it's limits, a métissage or a mixing of all of the Mediterranean cultures can be found. It is quite the macro-microcosm.

All the better then that there is now a museum right on the shores of the sea to celebrate exactly that. Welcome to the MuCem, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations. Inaugurated in 2013 as the crowning achievement of Marseille having been named the European Capital of Culture for that year, it's stunning architecture, designed by Rudy Richiotti, was immediately heralded by locals and visitors alike. I was especially taken by the 15,000 square meter lattice work shell of reinforced concrete that wraps around the main exhibition space, called the J4 after the port terminal that had previously occupied this strip of land. While it is imposing, even slightly prison-like from the distance, once inside one feels cradled in a cocoon - even while walking the semi-enclosed pathways between floors and exhibition spaces.

The permanent collection is housed in the Gallery of the Mediterranean on the ground floor. While the museum is purposefully going for an interdisciplinary approach for exploring the historical and cultural cross-fertilisation of this vast region, at times it resembles an untidy cabinet des curiosités. Ancient masterworks are presented next to contemporary art installations and animated films attract the youngest of visitors. The Gallery is quite diverse and it was oddly pleasing to visit a museum where every single step is not over-explained, where you have to become a part of the experience in order to take something out of it.

The same can be said for wandering around the rest of the complex as well. A 115 meter long footbridge (constructed with technology used by Air France) leading from the J4 to the 17th century Fort Saint Jean provides a very literal link between past and present. There one can wander among the lush Garden of Migration with stunning views over Le Vieux Port or take another footbridge to the Panier, the city's oldest neighborhood.

That open connection between what is "the museum" and what is public space is one of the most attractive aspects of the MuCem for me. And each time that I have gone, I have seen nearly equal numbers of museum-goers and locals in the outdoor areas. While I have thoroughly enjoyed several temporary exhibitions there, what I appreciate most is the environment itself. Gérald Passédat, chef of the local 3-star restaurant Le Petit Nice, is running all of the restaurants from the gastronomique La Table (with menus starting at 49€ at lunch and 69€ at dinner) to the Café where I bought an authentic pan bagnat to munch outside, next to a gentleman who was sun-bathing. It is said that the MuCem was constructed from "stone, water and wind" and these elements, along with a shot of culture backed by the gorgeous light of Marseille, are enchanting - just as they must have been for the first visitors to this ancient city so many centuries ago.

7 Promenade Robert Laffont
13002 - Marseille
Tel.: +33 (0)4 84 35 13 13
Open everyday but Tuesday from 11am to 7pm (closing at 6pm in winter)
Friday night late opening at 10pm
Full ticket price: 8€ per person
Family ticket (2 adults and up to five children): 12€
Free on the first Sunday of every month


An essential part of this post? Well, I love when worlds overlap. I will leave you with this video of "Au revoir mon amour" by Dominique A. Not only is the song beautiful but the video is in part filmed at the Mucem and features some of the most exceptional aerial choreography that I have ever seen. Enjoy...

...and have a wonderful weekend!