Fréjus, France

Fréjus, France
Aqueduc Romain

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Enchanting Chateaux

We capped off our week of vacances with 3 days in the Loire Valley. In 1996, when we were last in France, Rick and I toured the Château de Chambord, a magnificent example of Renaissance architecture that Francois I had built as a hunting lodge. While the outside of this castle is scrumptious, the inside doesn't hold much interest, except for the double helix central staircase. This escalier was designed so that lovers could go up or down a floor and not be seen by passersby, including their spouses. Ribald!

There are dozens of châteaux still standing, many restored thanks to becoming patrimoine heritage sites, others kept safe, through wars and revolutions, by the families who inherited them. I was always amazed there were so many châteaux in the Loire Valley--if there was only one royal family, why have so many homes? Well, this trip I learned that the royal court was enormous. Thousands of people hung out with the royal family--relatives, religious powers and others of whatever import. These thousands would traipse about the countryside amongst "the court" and all needed a place to stay.

We chose to stay in the little town of Amboise (our pics), centrally located just east of Tours. I found an apartment online, across the street from the Château d'Amboise, with magnificent views of it.
This apartment, with some of its wood paneling dating back to the 16th century has been newly renovated and is completely modern. We were only the second tenants. Its 2 bedrooms felt very spacious compared to the cramped quarters of our Paris hotel. The town of Amboise is charming--set on the bank of the Loire with the lovely gothic and flamboyant facade of the chateau overlooking the little streets.

The Château d'Amboise is called a "château royal" because it indeed housed several kings. In fact Charles VIII was born there and also died there, after bumping his head on a doorway after viewing a tennis match. Once the court moved closer to Paris, however, the château fell into ruin. Only 1/5 of the original remains, the rest of it was sacrificed to rebuild what stands today, under orders of Napolean. The chapel on the grounds houses the tomb of Leonardo de Vinci, who lent his talents to French kings interested in Renaissance style and spent his last years in Amboise.
This château also served as a house arrest for an Arab emir and his retinue who were captured when France decided to colonize Algeria. He was released after 4 years but several of his household died while living here and they have their own burial plot on the manicured grounds.

After pouring over websites of the other châteaux to visit, we selected Chenonceau for its uniform rave reviews and its close proximity to Amboise. After seeing this delicacy we've decided Chenonceau is the gold standard of Loire Valley châteaux. It has everything: a sugary façade, formal manicured French gardens, and exquisite furnishings. In addition to period furniture this château houses original tapestries and paintings. The attention to detail with each room went from the monogrammed ceilings to to the fresh flower arrangements. As this castle was built over the Cher river, supplies could come via river and be deposited right to the kitchens, which seemed so well equipped it was like the staff only had the day off. This château is not huge and so most of the rooms were available for viewing. During WWI the entire château was used as a hospital. It was a beautiful day, the only thing to mar it being the ubiquitous scaffolding. Here's our photo gallery.

Château de Chenonceau is called le Château des Dames because it is known for the women who lived there. Diane de Poitiers was given the château by Henri II, her lover, and she is responsible for the grand place that it is. But when he died his widow Catherine de Médicis kicked Diane out and moved in. She made a few changes including building a gallery over Diane's bridge, and designing her own rival garden. Other queens, daughters and daughters-in-law lived in Chenanceau as well, all leaving their mark, but the creepiest of all was the room dedicated to Louise de Lorraine. After her husband Henri III was assassinated she withdrew to Chenonceau and spent the rest of her life in prayer. Her room is a veritable house of mourning.

Our whirlwind trip up north ended with taking the TGV back home. We were whisked south in a bit over 4 hours from Paris. We went to get Maggie from Chez Katell, where she spent a happy week getting spoiled with several walks per day, including some marathon balades in the Esterels. Today, a week later, we found a juicy tick--her souvenir from her vacances.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Back to Paris/New Experiences

Our trip to Paris was a 3-day cyclone of activity. Since we were taking Brenda (and Terri who had been before) for her first visit to this fabulous city, there were obviously repeats such as the Tour Eiffel, Notre Dame, Arc de Triomphe, etc., but we also were able to experience some new things. This started with getting on the train at 8:30 pm for an 11-hour night journey. Lisa and I both traveled at night on trains back in college, but this was our first time this year to do this, let alone with a kid, too much luggage (what's new?), and two extra adults relying on us. While the train was nice enough, the seats reclined but did not go flat, and the lights stayed on all night (we still can't figure that one out, we even asked...), so none of us except Irie slept worth a damn. We pulled into the Gare de Lyon in Paris at 7:30 am, piled all our stuff on to the Metro, and made our way to the Les Argonautes Hotel. We had been told we could leave our luggage, but the rooms wouldn't be ready until early afternoon. The rooms were actually available so we all took power naps until about 10 am, then started our day. We love this little hotel in the Latin Quarter! Small, personable, friendly, cheap, and ideally located, but yes it can be loud at night with the bar scene in the alley. It was raining so we walked across the river to Notre Dame. Then the girls wanted to shop on the Ile St. Louis, after which we had a fabulous lunch.

The next day we went to the Catacombs, which was on our list of things to do last summer, but somehow had not happened. It was really a trip! You walk down through these narrow passageways of what used to be the city's quarry mines, past amateur sculptures , and finally into the actual tombs where they moved 6-7 million of Paris' dead in the late18th-early 19th centuries. They were moved under cover of night by priests because cemetaries had filled up and poor burying practices were resulting in disease. The bones and skulls are stacked incredibly orderly, sometimes with a bit of artistic flair like skulls in the shape of a heart or a cross (see photo gallery).

After the Catacombs, the sun was finally starting to peak out from the clouds so we headed over to the Eiffel Tower and took the elevators to the top. Always a spectacular view! Then on to the Arc de Triomphe, and a walk down the jam-packed sidewalks of the Champs-Élysées. Speaking of new experiences, I certainly would never have stopped for a drink in this incredibly pink brasserie if I hadn't been with 4 women!

Later this night, Brenda realizes her Passport is missing. Being a Sunday night there is nothing to be done about it until the next morning at which point Lisa and she head off to the U.S. Embassy to get a new one. It turns out to be a very easy process, but the unknown of "where is it?" is unsettling. We got home to Frejus to find her original sitting on the table, so at least it wasn't stolen, and Lisa got another new experience. Meanwhile, I took Terri and Irie on a leisurely stroll along the Seine River, over the Pont Neuf into the Louvre courtyard and the Tuileries Gardens where we met up with Lisa and Brenda.

After lunch in the Gardens, Lisa and I got away for a little alone time strolling the Luxembourg Gardens (Lisa's #1 garden in the world) while the ladies and Irie went shopping again. Later that evening, we took them all to St. Chappelle for a stringed performance of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons." While this was something Lisa and I had done on a date last summer, it was well worth the repeat - a different sextet, front row seats, and afterwards the ladies got to meet the "hot' lead vioinist, buy the cd, and get his autograph.

We then hit a fun Latin-themed bar in our hotel alley where we scored some Havana hats , and did a little dancing before heading to a Moroccan restaurant that was excellent.
Lisa, Brenda and I even headed out to catch the midnight dazzle of the Eiffel sparkling on the hour. All in all, a fun-filled three-day tornado of sights, sounds, tastes and activities that left us all feeling the length of this post can attest!

Thursday, April 23, 2009


I will have to write a post on our 3-day whirlwind in Paris later. Right now I'm sitting in our bedroom of our apt. in Amboise looking at the marvelous chateau here. Yesterday we toured the castle and grounds and enjoyed the ambience of this town, but as with Paris I will write more about it later. Today, I'm going to focus on Giverny.

Giverny is a very small village a little over an hour west of Paris, and is where Monet lived. He created the ponds and gardens from which he created so many of his masterpieces, and it easy to see from where his inspirations came. I love Monet, he is possibly my favorite painter ever, and as we walked the grounds his paintings where ever-present in my mind's eye. There's the ponds and the bridges,
the flowers,
the colors.
It was sunny and warm, and to be here in spring when the tulips and so many other flowers were in bloom was perfect timing and delightful. I took full advantage of the surroundings and the light to take hundreds of photos. Here they are.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Visitors from Michigan

Just a quick post before we hop on the train for Paris. Lisa's mom, Brenda, and friend, Terri, arrived safe and sound Weds. afternoon. Nathalie was kind enough to drive Lisa to Nice to get them , and they came bearing American goodies. Reese's peanut butter cups, peanut M&M's, microwave popcorn, and mac & cheese and Poptarts (both Irie requests) filled the table. They've had quite the changes in weather: from beautiful and sunny Weds. afternoon, to heavy rain yesterday, to a mix of sun and rain today. I think they've been eating very well, they've been to the beach
, the market, and downtown Frejus.

Irie just got out of school and has the next two weeks off. It is her last real school vacation of this year and she is très excited. "Nana" is here, we're going back to Paris, and doing it on a night train, something she has wanted to do since she found out it was possible. We are bringing the computer so hopefully I can get a post up from Paris and from Amboise in the Loire Valley where we will be touring famous chateaux. Until's a few a gallery of Terri's photos so far.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Le Pâques Weekend

What a wonderful weekend! Friday, as was written about in the last post, we played Loto (bingo) in the packed school gymnasium and even had a little luck.

Saturday, we had our friends Edouard, Marielle and their très jolie daughter Serena (who turned 1 today!) over for dinner. Edouard and I play basketball, one-on-one, almost once/week and it's always a rout. He is, after all, probably 6'4" and this is his sport! A guard v. a center is hardly a fair contest, but it's really about exercise and a chance for both of us to speak the other's language. Anyway, as is custom in France, one shows up to another's house with some kind of cadeau in hand, usually a bottle of wine, flowers, or dessert. In this case, not only did they bring a bottle of Rosé, but he brought me a brand-new basketball! Not only that but he personalized it with little french sayings from our games: "prêt?" (ready?); "dommage" (too bad - and always said with a bit of sarcasm after a missed shot), and "à bientôt" (see you soon). I love it! Bonus: Irie is now interested in the game so we have been going outside for dribbling and passing practice (no hoop here at the apt.). For dinner, I went out on a limb and dared make magret (duck breast) which is a distinctly french dish. Turns out Edouard's mom makes a magret that he has wonderful memories of, so the pressure was on. We also made fresh green beans with mushrooms and onions and baked potatoes, and Lisa made parfaits for dessert. We were a bit surprised that they didn't know what a "parfait" was as it is a french word (parfait means "perfect"), but now they know! Lisa made them with granola, yogurt, maple syrup and fresh strawberries, and the joke the rest of the night was that the parfaits were parfait. They also kept complimenting the duck so hopefully they weren't just being nice :) It was a very à l'aise (relaxed) evening and Irie got to practice her future baby-sitting skills with Serena.

Sunday was Pâques (Easter) and on Friday we got an invitation to dinner at Laly's grandparents at noon. Laly is one of Irie's classmates who has spent the night here once and had multiple playdates here and Irie there. This, however, would be our first time hanging out with the parents and grandparents. Their apt. is only about 5-6 blocks away with a nice view of the beach and sea. The complex has a small garden area and they hid a bunch of chocolate eggs that the two girls hunted. It was yet again, a very relaxed atmosphere with the grand père sharing some homemade wines - one a vin du noix (sweet and nutty), and one a vin d'orange amer (bitter orange) - they went well together. Grand mère had the cooking flowing like a professional. Perfectly arranged individual appetizer plates that included our first taste of blood sausage. Like foie gras, this was not something I anticipated liking, but was delicious! Just don't tell me what's in it (though I have a pretty good idea). The dinner was also très bon with a starter course of asparagus and fava? beans, a tasty meat though we still aren't sure whether it was veal or lamb, au gratin potatoes, a cheese plate, and an apricot/meringue/custard dessert that melted in my mouth. Laly's mère and père appear to be our age and were easy-going and convivial. At 4 pm we rolled out of there content and full, and walked home along the beach. As with any of these get-togethers I was a bit spent from the energy of listening and parlez -ing en français.

Today we awoke to bright sunshine and warmth, one of the nicest days of spring. Considering it was a national holiday, the timing couldn't have been better. We noticed over the past week that our apt. complex and the whole Fréjus Plage area has been steadily filling up with people and cars. Not only was it Easter weekend, but we understand that the Paris-area schools are already on their spring vacation (Irie's starts next week), so people are heading south in droves. The grocery store lines were huge all weekend and the cars along the plage were moving at a snail's pace, everyone looking for parking. It makes us all the more happy about the location of our apt, and not owning a car. It is also a marked contrast with the quiet we have experienced all winter. Today, the beaches were packed! I went for my first swim in the Mediterranean since last fall, and we all enjoyed a real beach day like we haven't since last October. It was a weekend that seemed to typify how we have become Fréjusians.

Now Irie has 3 days of school, a morning of sailing lessons, Lisa goes to Nice on Weds. to get her mom and Terri, and Friday we are on our way to Paris.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Le Loto

Irie's school had the French version of the bake sale to raise money for extracurricular activities. We wrote about the Christmas Loto we went to in a previous post. We got to the door a few minutes late and were told there were no places left. Wow, rockin' start to a 3 day weekend! We went in anyway to say hi to friends and Kurt and Steph figured out how to squeeze us into their table. The acoustics were terrible so hearing the announcements and the numbers called was a strain, especially since we were socializing too. We've also learned that when the numbers (1-90) are called they are often prefaced by the associated département. (The Var, where we live, is 83, Paris is 75). At some point in school one must memorize all the departments and their numbers, as we do the state capitals. So amidst all the commentary en français we were straining to hear the numbers. But all our table mates were cheerful and helpful and we all provided each other auxiliary ears. Loto is like Bingo, only you call out " Quine! " (pronounced KEEN) and have to stand up and flail your arms. The teachers and principle of the school were the volunteer verifiers of the Quine callers. I won the first game! As the night wore on people left and so we took over their cards, but alas, though we had some close calls we didn't win anything else. My prize, "Tea Time" was a basket stuffed with glasses, coffee cups, a tea pot and cup, coffee, teas and other little hoo-ha. And a plant. Quite dramatic carrying that stuff out of there.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Happenings in the south of France

In two words: "not much." But it's time for a post, so here goes...

While the weather is pas mal, it's rarely très bon either. Everyone keeps saying this has been the worst winter they can remember. Figures. Though the weather, even in this "terrible" winter, was probably better than it would have been in Ashland. I do know the wet cool weather made for great skiing in the Alps, whereas at home, Mt. Ashland suffered from not having enough snow. In any case, it has kept us out of the Mediterranean, but hasn't stopped the bike rides, the sailing lessons, the markets, or yet another trip to Bon Pin.

Sunday, we went up to the Bruzzone's chalet for the third time, this time under the impression that we would be working, perhaps helping them get ready for the summer season. Instead, we all sat outside on the patio enjoying a fine spring, typically French lunch of meats, breads, cheeses (melted-in-the-fire camembert is The Bomb!), tartes, wine, and even some guacemole and tortilla chips, all followed up later by fresh strawberries and chantilly (homemade by Nathalie).
I think the only work that got accomplished was Laurent cleaning all the leaves off the pool cover, but they didn't seem to care.

In the meantime, it feels like everyone is preparing for the two-week Easter vacation that begins a week from Friday. This is the last school vacance of the year and we are going to Paris then the Loire Valley to tour some of the famous chateaux. Lisa's mom, Brenda, and her friend Terri, arrive next Weds. and they are going on this last adventure with us, before setting off on their own trip to Italy. They will then return here to celebrate Irie's birthday before heading back to the States. Proof of our dwindling time is that we are in the planning stages of how to do it. Maggie is flying home with Brenda, then my dad will drive Maggie out to Oregon in July when he delivers the grandparents van to us...a very thoughtful cadeau since we sold our van before we left. We, especially Irie, will miss Maggie, but this makes the most sense.

Irie has also continued asking friends over for lunch. The latest was a bold new step for her as she asked a boy, Abel (pronounced "a bell"), and he was a lot of fun and very polite. She is going to their place for lunch next week. That's all for now.