Saturday, August 27, 2011

Domaine d'exception

From time to time, we all need a friend to point out what is hidden in plain sight. And so we were herded into the Range Rover and conducted into the heart of the Alpilles. Turning off of one of our favorite roads, one that we had taken many times, we bumped along in unison, down a 4 kilometer drive over shaggy garrigue covered hills, twisted dry creeks, slowing only to roll carefully over the lowered electric fence that hopes to keep wild boar at bay.

The steeple of Notre-Dame de Pierredon rises so unexpectedly out of such a rough terrain that it could be mistaken for a mirage. And yet this church is an unmistakably solid stone, garnered from the surrounding cliffs. It is believed to have been built in the 11th and 12th centuries, replacing a Roman temple and--undoubtedly helped by its isolation--has remained intact ever since. Another Romanesque treasure, one that Remi had heard of but as it is located on a private property, it is one that we had given up hope of seeing.

Luckily for us, the property on which the church is located has been bought by an Italian businessman who has cultivated 10 acres each of wine and olive oil, which is now sold to the public.

The church is used as an exhibition and tasting space and was surprisingly packed with visitors when we arrived under the glare of the noonday sun. Better to take refuge in the sacristy with it rolled iron sconces and piles of freshly cut lavender.

The church was given to the Chalasien Order in 1205 and the monks built a large adjoining abbey. Their faith, similar to that of the Cistercians, called for a deep respect of the land. It was tended to with great care.  It is a tradition that has lasted through the centuries and today, as evidenced in the magnificent grounds at Pierredon. Color, contrast, shape and form delight at every turn.

Contemporary art dots the property, pulling the eye down a shady allée and through curly-topped orchards. I love that the current owners seem to have a greater sense of humor, or at least of joy, than their ancient predecessors!

Speaking of former owners, our friend told us of his experience the first time that he came to Pierredon. After World War II, the estate was bought by the painter Jean Martin-Roch, who became something of a recluse--but of a rather different sort than the hermit monks. One day when our friend was out hiking, he came a little too close to the property and was greeted by the sight of a rangy Mr. Roch emerging with a shotgun in hand! Needless to say, apologies were sputtered out and a hasty retreat followed. 

The remains of the abbey have been incorporated into a lovely residence that extends behind the chapel. The care that has gone into the property's renovation is evident throughout. For more information and additional photography, here is the link to their website: Abbaye de Pierredon.

I have rarely seen an estate that wears its elegance so lightly. Even the roses at the top of each row of vines spark the eye, as does the gorgeous sculpture in the midst of the lavender field. The Abbey de Pierredon may well be one of the best-kept secrets in the Alpilles, but I have a feeling that it won't be for long...

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Treasure chest

Yes, there is quite a lot of good that comes out of moving despite how much I have grumpled on recently. Oddly--and this might be surprising--I rarely think on the garden apartment in the rue Truchet. So firmly the page has turned. And it has been delightful to rediscover so many objects that just weren't right for that very specific, very Provençal space. No more so than what I call the treasure chest, la malle aux trésors, which was, by necessity, tucked underneath a swivelling stone staircase where it was promptly ignored. Truth be told it is just a linen chest, one bought years ago as Remi's initials happen to be scribbled in iron across the top. But, oh, the happiness once the lid is lifted. Not only that wonderful waft of cedar, but lots of little packages, tied up tight. These are largely pieces that we brought home from our travels, though not exclusively. Fabrics, like spices, are a wonderful souvenir as they are light to pack and the pleasure they offer both immediate and enduring. 

Unfolding a crinkly brown paper takes me back immediately to an incense-filled shop in Samarkand, where we ignored the suzanis in favor of a long wave of finely woven pink and gold silk. One hundred years old. We tested its authenticity by burning a thread. Clean. Just underneath, a blue and white ikat found in a seaside shack in Candidasa. The Balinese woman who greeted us had worn hands that grabbed on to mine and wouldn't let go while she explained the effect the bombings had on her family. The next day, she sent us off with a bunch of gangly bananas from her garden.

And then there are the pieces that have not yet found their use, tucked away on a mini Island of Forgotten Toys. Two bolts of Nina Campbell fabric shipped from England for projects that I can't yet afford to finish but inspire as baroque only can. More ikats from another trip to Bali, not our colors but irresistible nonetheless. So lovely in the hand. Red sarongs bought at the Russian market in Phnom Penh for a photo shoot on the Toum Teav as the Mekong rolled by. 

Alas, there is no room in our new apartment for the treasure chest. Emptied of its goods, it sits in the attic, amidst the lanterns for a garden that we will hopefully have again. Once I am more settled, I will look forward to taking down these wonderful fabrics, one by one and trying to find a use for them. I have a feeling that some of these pieces were bought in the past for a future life, as we sometimes do, projecting ourselves to where we want to be. Certainly, something will fit perfectly for where we are right now.

I wrote this little post with someone in mind. If you don't know of Debra, from Acquired Objects, please take a gander as she is one of the most supportive ladies on the blogsphere. For her, these fabrics might have a more specific appeal although they aren't from the 15th century, like her usual fare!  

Saturday, August 20, 2011

August in the Alpilles, Part three

One last post concerning our time in the Alpilles. 

The experience still feels so close to me, the joy has remained in my heart. And the quiet too. Such a welcoming home and grounds. Perched on a hill and yet surrounded by pines for privacy, it is its own little kingdom. I do miss the pool, terribly. While I am not a proficient swimmer (typical Leo, I hold my head above the water line en permanence), I am so content to float and bob. My Mother reminded me recently that when I was teeny, I would stay in at the public pool until I was blue and chattering. One idea that occurred to me while I was doing my Esther Williams style twists (red-painted toes up! Towards the sky!), was that being in the pool, in the deep end, was an opportunity for surrender. Nothing below with just trust to keep me buoyed. Similarly with that first, sharp inhale followed by a swift dive to embrace the cold. There is nothing to do but surrender to it. How seldom that is the case in our daily lives, or rather, how seldom we allow ourselves such an opportunity.

Although I clearly thrilled over my pool time, it was Ben, our Golden Retriever that was the champion nageur. I was so grateful when our friend assured me that he was allowed. Poor Ben had never had the great connection to water that is normally his birthright as a Golden. Perhaps it is our fault, taking him to the sea when he was only a six-month-old pup. Those waves scared him. But it was not the case with this gradually descending pool and it was delightful to watch his first tentative bats at the water's surface with his paw. And certainly, where we go, he goes, so how could he resist? The first few days he was breathing awkwardly, drinking the (happily barely chlorinated) water in gulps as he went. Slowly, with time, he taught himself and even jumped off the side twice! He would literally shiver with joy while swimming, grunting as he paddled. Such joy is, of course, contagious.

In the evenings, Ben and I would make one last visit to the pool side to watch the sunset spread across, reaching towards the night with willowy fingers. A family of miniscule bats would come to drink, barely touching down on the waters surface, dancing all around us. Again, trust that their radar was working, that they wouldn't splat into us (something that actually did happen to me once pre-dawn at Angkor but that is another story). They did not and as night took its victory we would amble up the hill towards the light beckoning on the porch.

So here we are, already drinking in the last rays of summer. Let's toast to them while they still shine on.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Monday, August 15, 2011

August in the Alpilles, Part One

We are back in Arles after our eleven day stay in the country. Every day was the same and yet each were unique. The light, the wind or lack of it, the emotions as our nerves fritzed their last buzz before settling into peace. I am still in vacation mode but wanted to share. I'll leave it to you to imagine my scrabbling over rocks in thin-soled espadrilles, Ben, our Golden turning back to wait for me with a big smile. The afternoon doing the same. The olive trees, the whispering pines. As always, the scent of rosemary and thyme. But you know all of this, it is the stuff of Provençal legends. I am so incredibly grateful to have had this moment a part in such a beautiful home, private enough to feel good in my skin again. The Alpilles singing their own song--this time of the year it is the castanets of the cigales but also, if you really listen, some sort of exhale. Although that might just be what I wanted to hear. 

I'll divide the photos up into three posts so as to (hopefully) not overwhelm or bore. Am wishing that you find the scenery as phenomenal as I did...

Thank you again for all of the kind birthday wishes. In its simplicity, it is one of my very favorites. Sometimes we don't need to work so hard to faire la fête

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

After the rain

Isn't it gorgeous? We had a bit of rain, most unfortunately the evening when our friends Frederique and Mathilde stayed over (with the owner's permission of course) but it was lovely to huddle under the umbrella on the terrace while the first pats came down. We stayed up talking until 2am, literally burning the candle down low. I would have imagined after such a night to awake to zephyr skies, but no, still a hulk of gray. That didn't stop my girlfriends from donning their bikinis to plunge in. And they were right, yes, the difference between the water and air is less shocking on a cloudy day. Real Provençal girls, these two. Certainly wakes you up quicker than a café!

The odd weather lingered after their depart, trilling on until late afternoon. But when it started to clear--below while still wearing a black cap, what a light! Normally, I think of it as so Paris, that side swipe of gold. How lovely to see it tumbling over, knocking against the Braquesque surfaces of the Alpilles. Shattered into a million pieces at a glance.

In the midst of this, I am just observing. Somehow I found the password to just let myself be here and do nothing. Truly, I don't leave. My last post was the right post and there is nothing more to tell. Save that tomorrow is my birthday. Forty-two. Oof. While I am not ageist, somehow this one seems to be on the other side of something but maybe that is just how my heart is feeling these days. 

Birthdays are a rather big deal in my family. Yes, your day, you decide and do what you like with it. But do you know what? Rather than make a big plan and wallow in a bit of hoopla, I think that I am exactly where I would like to be. I can't imagine anything nicer (well, I can, but it involves taking the plane and spending exorbitant amounts of money) than, for once, just staying still! More yoga, another walk with Ben, salmon on the BBQ and considerable attention from my honey and I think that I am good. I am trying not to over-think the future, what is the next step but just be grateful for all that I have in my life and that includes the wonderful many that I have met here. Thank you--you are all a true gift! 

Saturday, August 6, 2011


Open up the shutters. Breathe in the morning air. Pad downstairs to the espresso machine. Verify that the view is just as breath-taking as it was yesterday evening. Say hello to the already clicking cigales and the rustle of the pines. Faire le vide. Yoga on the lawn. Lunch. Sieste. A dip in the pool when it is too hot to take any more, carefully floating past the sipping bees. Reading, letting the words sink in. A walk with Ben. A very long apéro while regarding the light shift. BBQ. Talking until the cigales pipe down. Sleep. Repeat.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A generous gift

And I am not talking about the lilies, although they were the first real gift that I have given myself in a while (and their perfume is impregnating the walls of our new home, slowly replacing the thwack of paint). No, something that will have a far longer lasting effect, I hope. For those of you that have been reading along for a few months, you might remember our lovely Easter weekend "In the Alpilles" when our dear friends saved us from the madness of the Easter bullfights by inviting us to stay at their home in the country. Well, they have come to the rescue again. They are loaning it to us while they head off exploring for ten days. Ten days! Of quiet. In the pool. Sipping rosé. While reading. It is, indeed, of the pinch me variety. 

Most certainly because we are acutely in need of it, something that our friends are well aware of, so much so that they told us that it was "an order" that we accept, knowing that otherwise that we would simply be overwhelmed by their kindness and try to weasel out of it. With the cost of moving, we cannot afford such a respite otherwise any time soon. Actually, Remi and I haven't taken a vacation since 2006 and even that was a rushed affair for a friend's wedding. I have been back to the States a few times since but again, finances kept Remi here. These past few years have been especially stressful and I think that the move was the final goutte d'eau de trop. Today, while I was ironing, I started crying and couldn't stop. On and off for a very long time. I spoke to my friend Frederique, who thinks that it was what they call the contre-coup, something akin to backlash. Nothing that a stretch of nothing won't cure. 

We are leaving the piles of random objects that have not yet found their places where they are, paintings are propped up on the furniture. The lilies will powder and rose petals will fall on the mantel. There is a problem with the internet where we are going, so I may not be posting as much as I would like and again demand your patience. I promise to come back with many photos and hopefully a new perspective as a parenthesis within the new perspective.