Thursday, June 14, 2012

My Dream House(s) in Arles

For some time I have been trying to choose what is my all time favorite house in Arles--and I need your help! All of them are in the neighborhood surrounding the Arena, which finally is not such a surprise. The area is the most sought after in Arles and has been since Roman times as it is on a hill, high above the possible floods of the Rhone River below. Car traffic is limited by the winding, rising streets and so la colline retains a wonderfully quiet and elegant character all its own.

This ancient city is full of surprises and appearances can often be deceiving. A seeming doll's house might open onto an enormous complex fanning out from an innocuous front door while a long facade may only be one room deep! Crooked, graffiti-strewn walls disguise a magnificent jardin à la francaise replete with pool and fountains only visible via Google Earth. The cadastre or land registry office keeps maps that read like a maze with centuries of construction built smushed up against, on top of or even underneath another. So I hope that you will use your imagination as we visit. After me, if you please...

House Number 1


Admittedly, this house has sentimental value for me as Remi and I spied it with a For Sale sign attached on our very first visit to Arles. The house swerves around in an L with a large enclosed courtyard to the right so that it receives sunlight throughout the day. The rooms are well-proportioned, neither too grand nor too petite. It clearly has been well-renovated with an ivory and cream stucco exterior highlighted with greige accents on the shutters.

There is a small terrace above the courtyard and the wrought iron balcony looks directly on to the Arena. Here in the South, it can be a big advantage to have several outdoor spaces to enjoy depending on the time of day and the force of our Mistral winds.

House Number 2

Deceptively difficult to photograph, this house seems far smaller than it is in reality but it is un vrai bijou. Imagine an impressive Provençal mas in the middle of Arles, with creamy stone walls, exposed wooden beams on the ceiling as well as long 18th century rounded windows to let in the light. A really good energy emanates from this house and I often hear children's laughter when I pass.

To the right is one of the prettiest and most secret squares, in the center of town but with no noise but birdsong. It feels as if you are in the country.

And directly in front, down a tiny impasse, the tower of Saint-Trophime looms overhead.

House Number 3

We first met Bruno, a brilliant but utterly cantankerous mason, while he was renovating this house. Not happy with a simple stucco for the exterior, he revived an eggshell technique from the 17th century which creates an incredible smoothness, not to mention a depth of color. The rest of the house was met with the same care. He carefully reproduced the stone detailing on the facade so that it is impossible to see what is old and what is new.

Untold layers of wash were used on the front door to create patina, one expressly not too perfect. Just  inside is a sweeping stone staircase leading to the upper levels including a terrace and solarium. The house is on one of Arles' most charming cobblestone passageways with several views on the adjacent Arena.

 House Number 4

Halfway up the prestigious Rue des Arenes lies the formidable Hôtel Forbin-Soliers, not a hotel in the contemporary sense but a hôtel particulier or mansion. While heavily renovated in the 19th century, it has retained many of its finest 16th century features, including decorative pilasters and Corinthian capitals in the antique style, as was fashionable at the time of its construction. The stone facade has not yet been renovated but could easily be restored to a gleaming splendour.

Those of you that have read this blog for a while have undoubtedly seen this entry door a few times as I never tire of photographing it. I find it the most beautiful (if not the most ornate) of Arles. While I was trying to find an angle to fit all of it in, an extremely elderly woman slowly approached and entered without giving me a second glance.

In accordance with the period, the house has its own watchtower that is usually attached to a terrace, one that would have views over nearly all of the town. To the left is an expansive courtyard. It is difficult to truly know the size but I believe this to be one of the largest houses inhabited by a single family in the Historic Center of Arles.

House Number 5

The most elegant house architecturally speaking, is on another hidden square, right next to the Arena and yet completely off of the tourist radar. The right of the ground floor opens up onto a long enclosed garden that is completely private and covered with a tunnel of blossoms. 

The Renaissance fenêtres à meneaux,  or divided windows (here with the shape of a cross), that line the upper floor have a clear view of the Arena. 

A charming balcony in demi-lune form protrudes over the garden. Most often in such fine homes of the period, this level would hold the receiving rooms. Creeping vines along the perfectly renovated stone facade give an additional charm to this clearly well-loved home.

So what do you think? Each is interesting in their own right and I know that I would be thrilled beyond belief to inhabit any of them but I am looking forward to hearing your thoughts! It is good to dream, isn't it? As I mentioned in my previous post, I have given one guided walk through Arles and am open to doing more. What do you think--would you like to see these houses in person?

And for those of you cat-lovers out there (and you know who you are), I couldn't resist sharing this photo, taken on the same luxuriously blooming square as above...

Bon fin de semaine...

Monday, June 11, 2012

View on the Rhone

"Why don't you write more about the Rhone?" Remi asked one day while I was putting together yet another post rhapsodizing over the inherent power of the crumbly remnants of time. "What do you mean?" I tossed back with a casual tilt then scratch of my cheek. "The Rhone," he repeated flatly. I blinked and tried to look winsome.

Yes, I know it is the reason why Arles exists, why Arelate or "town above the marshy lands" became so powerful in Roman times. Because a river runs through it. While preparing my first guided tour--given recently to an indescribably lovely group of Australian readers of this blog--its importance was a key thread of the conversation. Having the southern-most bridge before the Mediterranean while intersecting on the roads to Italy and Spain, it was the crossroads of Gaul. Spices and exotic goods came in, jars of wine, olive oil and fish flowed out, offering wealth for all involved. Times have changed--its days as an important port ending abruptly with the arrival of train transportation--but the river's appeal has not.

I love the Rhone deeply. I stroll the recently renovated quay with Ben, my Golden Retriever nearly every day and I am not alone. It is one of the social centers of the city, where one can be lost in thought or cling laughingly to the arm of a companion. It is ever-changing depending on the light, the time of day, the season and roil of the current. Vincent Van Gogh painted it often, also drawn to its mercurial nature.

Which, I realized this morning is exactly why I don't mention it more frequently despite it's being such an important part of our daily lives in Arles--parce que le fleuve coule, it slips through my fingers. I can't capture it in words or images in any way that is satisfactory to me but I can try. I grabbed my camera, called my faithful canine companion and headed out the door.

The Rhone is not neutral, it is nature. The Mistral winds can gather enough force off the winter waves to knock a strong man down. In 2003, the river rose with the rains to kiss the underside of the bridge, spilling over the banks and leaving many homeless for months. But I prefer to focus on all it gives. It is where I have gone on my darkest days, confident that the tide would pull my worries away and where Remi and I walked to celebrate buying our first house here, one whose roof terrace looked onto its shimmering surface. Perhaps that is why the Rhone makes Arles synonymous with home. It is hard to imagine living without it.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Stories in the stones

I don't think of myself as a typical American (or anyone a typical fill-in-the-blank for that matter) but in some aspects, I might be. Certainly when it comes to time. Because in France, I run through a cross-hatch of centuries like a pinball in a maze. And that is just while out strolling with the pupper. It can leave me feeling dizzy and off-balance, unsure of what to hold on to. I have such different references. But like a kid that just got up the courage to go down the slide backwards for the first time in her life, I love it. And then want more.

Because there are stories in the stones. And if you listen, you can hear them. But they always leave me asking after all that I don't know.

Who planted the rose bush that grew over decades to eat the facade of a fortified house on a hill? Was it a gesture of love that fed the vines better than any well?

How many stooped to lay the cobblestones and brick the arches so solidly that they could outlast their makers? And do the structures now miss their former inhabitants?

I walked around the village of Bargème in the Haut Var and such thoughts rolled around in my head.

Garden walls seemed puffed up with pride for all of the many years they held tight the earth for children to run across, galloping in games.

Similarly, a sense of community exuded from the stone benches where women gathered for decades to gossip while waiting for their loaves to bake in the local oven.

In no way did I find this wonderful little hamlet to be haunted. Not at all like that nameless village that I wrote about obsessively previously. No, despite the sun's hide and seek, a warmth of neither frenetic energy nor sleepy hollow filled and followed me.

I could hear the mother's chiding young ones snapping freshly washed sheets at each other at the lavoir.  And wondered at the transition of the proud 12th century chateau to grate and grumble so infinitely slowly as to fall to ruin. 

But perhaps the ruins and monuments, homes and chapels are simply happy with their view. For Bargème is the highest village in the region and exhales across a sprawling, curvaceous valley below. It has been heralded as "Un Village de Charactère" as well as the highly coveted title of "Un des Plux Beaux Villages de France". Personally, I prefer the former over the latter. For who wouldn't choose to have character over beauty? As une femme d'un certain age, these wise stones tell me so.  

I would like to extend a truly heart-felt thank you to all of you who responded so generously to my previous post. Moments like that are really what make blogging unique and I feel grateful to be in contact with such an extraordinary group of people. Merci beaucoup et Bon Weekend!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Pearl of Bora Bora

Hello everyone! I have been asked by the lovely Marsha at Splenderosa to join her International Blog Party "By Invitation Only." It is quite a thrill to be participating along with some of the blog world's finest. Today's theme is "Weddings"...

My photos are faded now. But my memories are fresh. I am not single. Nor have I been married. I have a ring but it is not a wedding band. Let me explain.

Two wild things, two wanderers recognized something in the other and fell head over heels in love. They enmeshed their disparate lives by creating a team as a travel writer and photographer. And discovered the world and each other...together. Wherever they were, that was where home was. 

And so my companion Remi Benali and I found ourselves on Bora Bora in February 2005. It was our most glamorous assignment so far, covering Bora Bora Cruises slow circle of the Leeward Islands for the French travel magazine Hotel & Lodge. We swam amidst the sharks only to find that a floating champagne bar had magically appeared when we came up for air. We were giddy with good fortune, dumb-founded by our luck. But it is also harder work than one outside of the métier can understand and we took it so. We didn't see the time passing but felt it brushing past our skin.

One evening, just as the sun was tipping its hat in farewell, I could hear Remi's gentle pad behind me as I gazed out onto the swirling sea. I turned and saw he held a jewelry box in his hand. My heart started to pound and I searched his gaze. Was this...? Would he...? No, no, not exactly. Inside the box, was the most beautiful pearl, one that glimmered green like the waves below me on one side and glowed pink like my heart on the other. A feeling, a moment, solidified into a tangible thing. It is a commitment ring. A promise was made with it and it has been kept. It is the most precious object I own. 

Five months and much paperwork later, we made that promise legal by making a PACs or a Pacte Civil de Solidarité in the Town Hall, an exceptional option here in France. Solidarity. To stand by each other, to promise to take care of the other. It is so right for our couple, who have been through so much after having previously been so independent. I wore a white Margiela jacket and we stole a quick kiss as the notary wished us congratulations. But that was it. No champagne, no cake smushed in faces. We rushed back to our tiny apartment and started packing our bags for an especially challenging assignment in Tibet. We left before dawn the next morning. There was no time for ruminating high in the Himalayas but what we saw imprinted us strongly, with weight. And fifteen minutes after our return to Paris, Remi found an internet ad for a house that would finally take us to Arles, the city that had called to us. In Provence.

In Tibet. ©Remi Benali

All of this doesn't mean that I don't have my moments of rêverie. I honestly have no idea if we will ever tie the knot as our being together is still an active, not a given choice, but if we do, I know exactly where I would like us to go to do so--back to Bali. We have been twice on assignments and it is magical for both Remi and I. We have roamed the island and been intoxicated by its romance. We could have a simple ceremony on the beach with just our immediate family at our sides. We could be barefoot in the sand with the waves as music. I would charm Remi into wearing his sarong (he is even more masculin in one)...

...and I would don my favorite champagne silk bias gown with matching vintage pearls.

And of course, the pearl of Bora Bora. 

And although our lives have taken another turn, our existence is now quite simple and our travelling days are perhaps over, for the past eleven years I have been with an incredible man. Finally, all of our voyages together were our lune de miel. For yes, we did dine by candlelight in the garden and spread the rose petals out with our toes the evening that I took the above photo along with too many memories to mention. Today, I run my finger over the pearls surface and remember that I don't need any more than all I already have.

I never dreamed of being married, not even when I was a young girl. I don't know why, my parents certainly gave me a wonderful, lasting example. But I did hope, for so long, that one day I would meet a man that I would love and respect, who would feel the same for me. Who would appreciate me for who I am and vice versa. That we could build a life together in trust. A wedding then of heart, mind and spirit. 

I feel very fortunate.

Cue music:

For those of you that are visiting for the first time, I really want to extend a warm bienvenue. And for my wonderful readers and friends, please take a moment if you can to visit some of the other posts. You will be able to find them all at Splenderosa. How wonderful to explore and dream! 

Saturday, June 2, 2012

More Saturday treasures!

Happy girl! That is me. I love Saturdays. Don't you?

The market was too exceptional to not write about today. Packed to its peak, it is true but also tumbling over with bounty.

For once, I did not buy white flowers as the delicate paper-thin pink was too appealing...

...and for those of you that are wondering...yes, the flower man gave me another free bouquet! But not just any flower either...the first lavender of the season. And yes, they are more blue than purple, tickling my nose (and Ben's) with a perfume that is soft as spun sugar.

But the fruit! It is positively luscious. Not a word I usually use as it strikes me as vaguely creepy but my other choice was 'addictive' which isn't exactly charming either! I can. Not. Stop. Eating. The cherries! Why did I only get a half kilo? Why? I think that I wrote recently about "edible jewels" and whatever that was referring to is poppycock because these are the real thing. The strawberries aren't half bad either. The poor things got a bit smushed in transit, so of course I had to eat them to put them out of their misery. We'll finish them off after a late, late lunch of oysters and a glass of chilled white.

Ah, but time to move on to the goods. Because nothing beats a surprise. And there was an envelope waiting for me when I got home, exhausted after lugging around a filled to the brim panier in the heat. It was from Marsha! At Splenderosa! You see, I am a winna!!! Look at these gorgeous bracelets that I scooped up in a give-away. They are gorgeous and my photo doesn't even begin to the quality justice. Marsha bends over backwards to keep her prices reasonable, so if you are thinking, "Yes, those are fetching but I could never afford that," please go take a gander at her shop so you may think again! I will wear these all summer long...

She also included a second surprise in with her card, which that says so much about her generosity. Being in contact with her has been the true gift though. She is one of the wonderful ones who really found her place with her blog as she can bring happiness to so many people. More about her soon but thank you Marsha--for everything!

Now, speaking of lovely ladies, I would be sorely, sorely remiss if I didn't take advantage of writing this little extra post today in order to wish my Mom a very, very Happy Birthday! Do you see that flower? That is how beautiful my Mom is. I love you!

Sending you all wishes for a wonderful weekend full of treasures great and small...And joyful celebrations to those that are revelling in the Queen's Jubilee--huzzah!