Sunday, August 30, 2015

To The North!

My last full day in the South of France consisted of driving through vineyards and lounging on the beach. This is of course what I think of most when musing about the French Riviera and also when envisioning heaven. Despite heavy traffic alerts in the region, my good friend's parents decided to brave the storm at the last minute, and we were chauffeured about an hour and a half away to L'Estagnol, a thoroughly spectacular little beach. Before officially arriving, however, we made a quick stop at one of the local wineries en route. The south is very well known for its vast amounts of rosé, my personal favorite, in addition to every other kind of wine imaginable. For someone like me who grew up in New England, the sight of vineyards still holds a magical glow. We passed so many that I suspect the french generally take it for granted as part of the everyday scenic charm. I, on the other hand, have to prevent myself from flying into the lush green plants and pretending to crush grapes barefoot while wearing petticoats. 

After this slight detour, we finally made it to the beach which was packed to the brim with locals and tourists trying to drink in the last of the summer days. Once we had finally found a small bit of land to stake claim, it was time for lunch at the local beachside tavern. I was incredibly lucky to be taken care of my such gracious hosts, as the resident restaurant was not anywhere near the right side of cheap. And though we could dig our feet into the cool sandy floor while we ate over plastic table cloths, the fish was as fresh as could be and the wine equally crisp and refreshing. Everything was so fresh in fact that our appetizer of crudités and sardine tapenade resembled a quaint lilliputian forest. I had sea bass once again, but this time it was served the right way, meaning that the whole fish was displayed in all its glory then swiftly removed to be beheaded behind the scenes. Overstuffed with festive fare, we finally made our way back to the beach to sun and swim. The shoreline itself at this particular beach is very narrow indeed and the water shallow for meters and meters before you actually have to demonstrate any swimming skills. The sea was warm and delightful under the Mediterranean sun and I made sure to frolic in the miniature waves more than once before we left.

Our farewell evening was a quiet affair because my dear friend had to pack her 11,000 suitcases but more importantly because the executive decision had been made to depart for Paris at approximately 4am the following morning. I was very fortunate to have been offered a ride home in the family car, but since traffic moving north had been hellish as people were journeying back to school and work, we wanted to avoid being stuck on the road for hours on end. Lucky for me, I couldn't partake in any of the driving time (nor would they have wanted me to if I could) so I slept away most of the time dazing in the back seat. I woke up at a few intervals when we hit a rest stop, but for the most part the ride went by quickly and smoothly, and I was nestled back home in my little apartment before noon on sunday. I still managed to feel rather jetlagged as the day went on, but I had plenty of time to rest and relax before starting my week. My second visit to the beautiful south was filled with fantastic feats, food and friendship. I can't imagine a better way to end the summer and begin a new year abroad.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Gorges and Gorgeous Cities

The next two days turned into a feast of landscapes and vistas of varying sorts. We tried to wake up early the day after frolicking off to Cassis so that we could frolic in quite another direction. During my first trip to the south of France, I was lucky enough to visit the Gorges du Verdon. At that time, I was with a french family who opted to take paddle boats through narrow channels of this stunning lake. This time my friend and I decided to take paddles boats again, but instead of the river-like passageways, we stuck to the wide open expanses of water where we could also utilize the slide that was attached to our small vessel.... Yes, I said slide and yes, it was clearly my heartfelt desire not hers. The only snag in our charming plan was the fact that due to a lagging GPS and my less than spectacular navigatrix skills, we missed several exits and arrived over an hour later than planned. Happily, we had been smart enough to buy sandwiches and water before heading off on our journey, so we were able to enjoy a peaceful lunch while drifting on the open waters. After we lounged about for a bit, I of course took full advantage of the small slide that I barely fit into, splashing down into the pleasantly warm and salt-free water several times before we had to pedal back to shore. We ended up deciding to stay home again for the evening, enjoying some delicious wine from Cassis and girl gabbing into the night as good friends so often do.

The next morning was another fairly early start, as we wanted to finally head into Aix-en-Provence proper so I could see the city centre and get the real provence experience. As it turns out, I was not remotely disappointed by the beautiful architecture and gorgeous ambiance of the region. We stopped into several of the shops about town, wandered a local market, and had a delightful afternoon cocktail at a notable café. I bought some Herbes de Provence to bring home for future culinary experiments and my friend decided to surprise her parents (who would be arriving home later that evening) with a traditional dessert of the south, the tarte tropézienne. We had to jet home for a short while so she could let some workers into the house but was actually the perfect time for us to rest and regroup before heading out to Marseille for the evening.

In contrast to the more quaint villes of the south, Marseille is a much bigger and older city. It has a reputation for not being super safe in some areas, but I was really looking forward to experiencing at least a taste of such a famous city. Our plan was to park near the Musée des civilisations and then walk around the old port. It definitely had a different vibe than most of the cities I have been to in France but I liked the feeling of history and intrigue nonetheless. Our primary objective, however, was to enjoy a lovely dinner while in town, so we efficiently hopped onto the web and found a few restaurants of good repute to peruse. Ultimately, we ended up at a place we hadn't searched for at all but was well equipped with outdoor seating and more importantly, room to sit down. The waiters were incredibly nice and accommodating, offering me a menu in english but also placating my desire to practice french. They even went so far as to humor me when I was brought out a full fish on my plate, head, tail and all. Now, I know that many fish are served whole, but I suppose I am (in addition to being a baby brat) also used to them showing you the creature, then whisking it away to strategically guillotine the sucker. Once I realized that the poor beast would be staring AT me while I tore apart his innards, game was officially over. My dear french friend obligingly called over the server and explained that I was currently being traumatizée and asked if he could please behead the poisson. Laughing hilariously, the man brought the fish back to the kitchens where in some way shape or form, the necessary pieces were removed and I was able to continue my dinner without fear of making eye contact with my food.

Once we finally made it home, I was happy as a clam to indulge in dessert, a bit more wine, and crash deliriously into dreams of beautiful gorges, even more gorgeous cities, all sans fish head.