20 June, 2011

On n'est pas à Lourdes ici.

I can't make miracles, even though I can now say I have been to Lourdes, the second most visited place in France after Paris.  Years ago, in Reims, famous for its own cathedral, I was treated to an extraordinarily bad hotel experience.  Following my outraged complaints, the manager lifted his shoulders in a Gallic shrug and declaimed what is now the title of this post. In other words: "we can't make miracles here."
It has been absurdly busy here in the countryside.  Cherry season, regrettably brief, is already heading out the door.  There is dark cherry sorbet in the freezer by which we will remember it.  There is also a new store of raspberry/blackcurrant jam in my pantry; the kids started cheering when they saw me making it, as we always go through that the fastest. 
The strawberries in my garden are long done and gone; I may have speeded up their departure by not watering them even once. Oops.  The garden is roaring ahead anyway, and pruning is an on-going process, especially among the roses.

A procession past the pick your own, giant prayer candle shack.
In between the cooking and the canning, there has been a passel of end-of-school-year activities. Recital concerts, horse events, school outings and such.
Getting holy, healing water from the source. In bulk.
Oh, and the pool's open for the season. Boy, is it open.
Taking a moment to savor the holy water.  Many queue to wash their feet.
There were twenty-five kids in my pool.  At once.  Diving, giggling and splashing well into Saturday evening. Others questioned my sanity, but it was an unqualified blast.  I even introduced these ten to twelve year olds to rice krispie squares.  Yup.  (Ever try to get a kid to taste something they've never had before?)   
The rice krispie squares were the only non-organic food on offer...and they devoured every single last one of them. Actually, they ate everything on offer. And guzzled grenadine like there was no tomorrow.
Selecting the holy design for the pressed eurocent.
 Then there were birthday parties, potlucks and barbecues to attend.
I gave the last reading at the library for the school before the summer, too.  We had a goûter to celebrate the year's worth of reading.  Feeling a bit old-school circa 1950s, I made pineapple upside-down cakes.  They went over very well--with the adults anyway.  Marbled chocolate cupcakes saved the day for the kids.
Sadly, I most definitely missed last week's red lunar eclipse, the 101 minutes of which I should have had a good view, given our clear skies. The moon was behind a mountain though, and lacking a babysitter, I was loathe to traipse off into the night looking for it.

All this to say it's getting tougher to find the time and mental space for writing in this pell-mell season.  I may have to skip another week, too.  Forgive me?   
At least I took photos of some of the dizzying assortment of religious tchotchkes (or bondieuseries) for sale in Lourdes.
When we reached the grotto where Mary is said to have appeared eighteen times before little Bernadette, I was very surprised to see a photo of Nicolas Sarkozy among the more personal images (left, upside down). Someone is praying for the poor guy. 
Just beyond the grotto, there were prayer candles beyond any counting of it, touching in their simplicity.  All those troubles, hopes and dreams...rendered more poignant by the innumerable wheelchairs and stretchers on hand. 

There were entire vats filled with the melted and rehardened wax of candles. 
After all the crowds, queues, fervor and emotion, thank goodness there was the corner cafe cum fast food joint, for a pick-me-up and convivial chat.

08 June, 2011

Cruising Biarritz.

I had a fling this past weekend.  I'm still catching my breath.
I love the Cevennes, and not just a little.  But we've gotten to know each other, and well, things have gotten very comfortable between us.  Perhaps even predictable.  I mean, Biarritz it's not.
I don't know what I was expecting before I headed west.  Atlantic coast, Northern Basque Country, the birthplace of pelota (or jai alai, as it's called in the US--remember that jai alai shot in the Miami Vice opening sequence?), check, check, check.  My expectation: a slightly petrified resort town, maybe even chic-er than thou.  I mean, it made the shift from whaling town to resort rockstar status when Napoleon III built a little cottage for his Empress Eugenie way back in 1855.  Okay, it was a ginormous villa, which is now a ginormous five-star hotel on the Grande Plage.  Anyway, assorted royals and the merely monied have been flocking to Biarritz ever since.
Today, turns out the chic bit is still very real. Parts of the old center seem directly lifted from Paris' 16eme arrondissement.  Grand perhaps, but not by definition a good thing in my book. However.
Biarritz is Parisian chic modified, transposed on the rough, spray-soaked Atlantic coast and nicely populated with surfer boys. This is something in a softer register.  The vibe is relaxed cool.
And yes, this is the perfect opportunity for some gratuitous surfer shots.   
I think I'm ready for a camera with better telephoto capability, don't you?  I was blushing too much to get shots of the closer-by, drop-dead fine fellas passing the rugby ball.  Not only is Biarritz billed as the surfing capital of Europe, but rugby is very, very big here, with the home team, Biarritz Olympique, regularly taking home the national title.  This in a place where there is a municipal pelota court on every other street corner.
This is a detail of the door leading into the cathedral Napoleon had built for that most-loved Eugenie. In the process she was eventually named a saint--in this, her own cathedral on the rocks anyway.   
Unlike Frank Sinatra, I did not stay at the Hotel du Palais (Eugenie's old digs), but I still splashed out:
This was the breakfast table.
And boy, did we get lucky with the weather.  In the Cevennes, il pleuvait des cordes (it rained ropes, i.e. a heckuva lot).
Meanwhile, we cruised around, stopping for dinner in St. Jean de Luz, a nearby village (dramatic amounts of shaved local ham were involved).  All in all, picturesque to the nth degree.
The sea was sedate, and so was the village tempo, shops closing up for the night as the bars and restaurants filled up.
People were having drinks out on their terraces as well.  I loved the mosaics I kept seeing with the swirly Basque cross symbol, indoors and on building facades.
I did not get any beautifully stripy Basque linen; I dearly wanted the gussied up VW van, though.
I experienced a twinge of envy when seeing this wisteria, so old it had a proper trunk.  Makes our wisteria here at home seem outright anemic in comparison.
I window-shopped avidly at Maison Adam, which is, by all accounts, the place for macarons, since the mid-1600s at any rate. You can see from the link these are not remotely Parisian-style macarons, either.  I can't tell you how they taste because the shop was closing.  But I can tell you the peppers hanging above the sign are made of ceramic, and are a colorful nod to the nearby town of Espelette, famous for its AOC registered chile.
As my daughter is horse-mad, we went to a hunter competition at the Club Hippique in Biarritz.  Some lovely, perfectly done-up horses on hand, more of that Basque red and pure white around us, and loads of that relaxed Biarritz cool.  
I can tell you now, I'll be back to savor more Basque charms.  Impossible to do otherwise,
even if I still come home to the Cevennes...

01 June, 2011

Led by the nose.

You can't tell from this image, but I had to swallow several times on the way here, as my ears were popping.  I live in the foothills of the Cevennes.  The Lozère is the mountains for me, and several times I found myself well above 1,000 m in altitude.
Smack-dab in the middle of this Languedoc Roussillon map you see the Parc National des Cevennes, 1,500 square kilometers straddling the départements of the Ardèche, the Aveyron, the Gard (where I live) and the Lozère.  In the middle of the Parc--and the Lozère--is the town of Florac, population about 2,000, where I stopped for lunch and a good wander.
This is the kind of place to which nature-lovers can't help but be drawn, tucked into a valley between high, wide plateaus.  It's also a good stopping point for those who love hairpin turns and panoramic views. A lucky someone had an old Triumph I couldn't help but admire; it fit right in to the laid-back, slightly lost in time feel of Florac.
Many come for the fishing as four different rivers and streams come together in Florac, offering a lush quantity of trout, if local menus are anything to go by.
The house on the motionless water on the left is actually a restaurant with a divinely situated terrace, overlooking the canal.  It's where I had wanted to eat--La Source du Pêcher. I had heard quite good things.  Unfortunately, I cavalierly failed to make a reservation, and seeing as it was Mother's Day in France...well, the lovely-sounding menu went untasted.  Another time--and outside seating a must.
Beyond the hikers and fishing aficionados, lots of motorcyclists head this way for the aerial, twisting turns of the ancient route of the Corniche des Cévennes, used by the King's soldiers way back when they were hunting down the Protestants, or Huguenots. 
Just a bit farther north-ish and you are in Gorges du Tarn territory, a dramatic, fine place to be, as long as you aren't in a hurry.  Get yourself stuck behind a truck on these narrow lanes and you're waiting a while indeed.  I'll admit to having had a touch of vertigo. Some people welcome the slowness, if not the trucks.  In a couple of weeks the transhumance will be underway, slowing things down even more, as goats and sheep in the thousands head to summer pastures well above the hotter lowlands.
As you reach the Gorges du Tarn, you also pass Ispagnac, a little village girded by picturesque low-scale orchards and known for its cherries and strawberries.  This is where they still have communal meals on long tables in front of the medieval church, under the sibilant, swooping circles made by dozens of swallows.  Just earlier this month, they enjoyed the annual tête de veau.
The local roofs are eye-catching with their roughly-shaped slate tiles, unknown in the lowlands, where rounded terre cuite rules the day.
I think I could fall in love with a mountain place on the strength of that sort of roof alone, warm and smooth in the spring light.
The roses are in evidence everywhere--and they have a rich scent.
But the perfume that really drew me to the mountains in the first place came from two sorts of local broom.
There is the more common type (cytisus scoparius), which grows rather sparsely around my house, and is considered a nuisance plant in some countries (despite its herbal and practical uses).  But there is also what is called by some Provence broom (cytisus oromediterraneus), which hugs the ground more closely and can cover entire flanks of mountains in the Parc. The scent is intoxicating, almost a sort of golden jasmine of the mountains. At this time of year, the air is swollen with that perfume.  People drive with their windows and nostrils wide open to take it all in.
I know I did.
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