Monday 27 August 2012

The hot shades of sunset

As the flat haze of the heatwave slumped into a cooler day of clouds, the evening brought the most vibrant sunset we've seen for a while. All the most delicious colours of Provence combine in a display like this: shades of apricot, peach, tomato and aubergine.
These are the hot colours that sizzle in warm air and lighten the heart. This is high summer, and indulgence and good company. At least that's what they are to me. As the last guests have departed and our own leisurely packing up begins, even these clothes on the washing line are cheering, each one an exuberant reminder of having fun while wearing them.
The same pinks and reds and oranges can be found in the garden flowers, especially the pelargoniums and the Marvel of Peru:

Darker elements of the sunset are held in the skin of the sumptuous white-fleshed nectarines we keep in the fridge to intensify the pleasure of biting into their juicy sweetness:
And, of course, no Provencal eveing would be complete without a glass of cold rosé, which comes in all shades from dark plum to the palest clementine. We prefer the lighter wines, made from the cinsault grape which produce a glowing orange colour in the glass and taste like iced fruit. As we sip watching the sun cast red shadows up the hillside and then light the sky, there's absolutely no need for rose-coloured spectacles.


Thursday 23 August 2012

The temperature rises...

The August heatwave has us in its grip. A heavy, flat heat that saps energy and slows us down. Wasps swarm and hornets drone like B52s. When the teenagers arrived back at the bus station at seven in the evening from a trip to Avignon the barometer at the nearby pharmacy was reading 41 degrees celsius.

With a houseful of guests, many hands make light work but even so, sitting inside writing blog posts has been out of the question. The computer has remained unopened in favour of lying reading under the trees, splashing in the pool and shopping for long lazy dinners by candlelight. Excuses, excuses, and here they are in pictures...

The weather forecast in the local newspaper La Provence gives hope that the worst is over. Weeks of unbroken sunshine and heat hazy landscapes have given way to cloud this morning... 

...and as I write at the kitchen table, a welcome shower of rain has started to fall... 

Friday 17 August 2012

On the coast

There's no getting away from it, the coast is hot and crowded in August and beggars can't be choosers when it comes to finding a hotel at short notice. At first glance, basic facilities on the Vieux Port at La Ciotat seemed less than enticing. Rob reminded me (after I'd presented him with the fait accompli of the booking) that La Ciotat was the blot on the St Cyr bay marked by vast industrial port cranes.

But we arrived to find our rooms were a few steps away from this view...

...on this pretty street...

...I think you could say we struck lucky... 

Tuesday 14 August 2012

A glamorous dinner near Antibes

A few miles inland from the yachts at harbour and the chic nightspots of Antibes and Juan les Pins, our old friends Trevor and Angela have a summer home. In this light and airy place, surrounded by gleaming pool and Italian garden, we laugh a lot and remember the first trip we made to Provence shortly after leaving university. We still can't quite work out how the four of us fitted into Trevor's Mini Metro, given there was also Angie's enormous suitcase to factor in, plus Pete who hitched a lift down from the party to Portsmouth, where we took the night ferry.

Life has changed considerably since then, but we meet every year in one or other of our very different parts of the South of France. This time we were the honoured guests, and it was a night of some splendour, with dinner for six at home on the terrace prepared by Michelin-starred chef Serge Chollet.

Champagne and canapes were served promptly at seven. By the time we were summoned to the table, we were all salivating, such were the enticing glimpses of what was to come. The first course was a millefeuille of Mediterranean vegetables and crab with a passion fruit coulis and a spaghetti of beetroot.

For the main course, Monsieur Chollet served us breast of duck with lemon, fennel and polenta:

And for dessert, a dreamy lime panna cotta sitting on a mysterious nest. He made us taste and try to guess what it was before he let us in on his secret ingredient - green and tangy sweet with a slightly crunchy texture. It was utterly delicious and I was hoping he wouldn't think I was being rude when I suggested it was courgette (zucchini) confit - but it turned out that it was! Not the best photo, below, but by that stage it was dark and the candles were lit.

The next morning, we were having breakfast when Serge reappeared to collect something he had left in the kitchen. I say reappeared, actually he roared up in his Porsche. It was a fitting finale to a sumptuous meal - and another glimpse of the glamorous Riviera lifestyle. And all the better for experiencing it with very generous friends. Cheers, Trevor and Angela!


Saturday 11 August 2012

Burlesque dans les arbres

Introducing...Miss Superfly, who has been left hanging (as it were) while we've been away for a few days on the Cote d'Azur, staying with friends near Antibes and then wandering around on the coast.

Miss Superfly arrived in the dusty Place d'Ormeau in Viens at 6.30 in the evening, an exotic creature in a kimono - which she rapidly shed to jazz music. She sang in English - in an authentic French rasp that convinced no one she was American, as the compere had claimed - and danced while trying on various hats designed to look like a fly's head. She smoked a cigarette as if she had stepped into a 1940s film and pretended - at least we hope she was pretending - to swig from a bottle of hard liquor.

There was a murderous rendition of God Bless the Child and then the main part of the act: she swung herself up onto a trapeze suspended some twelve feet above the ground, as lithe and supple as a child, though she was clearly rather more advanced in years.

As with all the best live performances, there was a thrill in knowing that things could go wrong. Along the way to the ascent there had been glitches and hiccups, and now the element of unpredictability was tangible. We strained forward in our seats as she swung ever higher and let herself fall, only to be caught my her ankles. The children were enraptured by one of the best aspects of France as far as they are concerned: the cavalier attitude to Health and Safety compared with their own cotton woolly country. "She hasn't got a safety harness. No net! It's fantastic!!"

The audience nodded and grimaced in appreciation, the older folks, especially the men, with the same dreamy expressions with which they greet the scantily-dressed dancing girls on stage at the village fetes. Young children were running around in front of the trapeze. Wine was drunk. It was one of those events, we agreed, that was exactly the kind of spectacle you would hope to find on a summer evening in the South of France. Curiously old-fashioned, with a hint of memorable magic.


Tuesday 7 August 2012

Viens: a sunny bohemia

There's a distinctly arty-bohème vibe in the village of Viens. The tiny widow in dark clothes buying a single artichoke in the general store seems on good terms with the cosmopolitan gentleman in pressed white slacks and a red Gucci belt, as are the younger crowd in their dusty layers, harem pants and dreadlocks. The communist mayor (communism à la francaise), the farmers and the families who have been here for generations and often have brave tales to tell, the wealthy Parisian and Swiss second homeowners, the artists who live and work here, all contribute to the mix.

They say the village has been here for a thousand years, and its narrow medieval streets have seen it all. It sits at the edge of a plateau, protected on two sides by precipitous rocky cliffs, and the name Viens means "Come!" but in the sense of "Come on then...if you dare!"

It's a special place for Rob and me - especially Rob, as it's where he spend his long boyhood summers. His headmaster father could take off to Provence for the duration of the school holidays, and the family loved the area so much they bought some land close to the cliffs in Viens and built a house on it. Staying there in my early twenties was a revelation: the heat and light and colour and laid-back atmosphere were intoxicating.

Every summer Viens hosts a week-long art and culture event and this year it was bigger than ever. The Mistress of Ceremonies towered over everyone on her stilts.

At one point she came careening up through the Saracen gate in the old ramparts, having to duck under the part of one ancient house built in a bridge over an alley, in order to round up the spectators who were unaware a venue had been changed at the last minute. How did she manage it with not so much as a wobble?

Bands played every evening. Theatre and mime acts came. There were talks under the plane trees of the central square. There was even a burlesque singer and dancer on a trapeze (who deserves her own post, and will get one - watch this space!). Artists opened their studios and invited other artists to show their work too. Painting workshops were set up outside in gardens and on terraces.

And the village itself was decorated with life-size figures around every corner: lavender girls slumped by a laden wheelbarrow in the castle courtyard, a Spanish dancer stood by the animals' drinking trough, a gangster lurked at the edge of darkness, with many more. Even a bicycle was dressed for the occasion!

Sunday 5 August 2012

The jewelled landscapes of Bonnieux

Did you spot the visual clue to the treasure in the last post? Across the road from Le Fournil, the restaurant in Place Carnot at Bonnieux, is a bright modern canvas in a display window. This is the studio and gallery belonging to artist Rahim Najfar.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I'm a huge fan of Rahim's modern Fauvist paintings. (Click this link for an introduction to his work: Terre Fauve.) His vision of the countryside all around the hilltop village where he lives and works is rendered in bold colour, reminiscent of the works of Derain, Matisse and the German expressionist August Macke. A Najfar summer scene flashes and clashes with all the extremes of light and shade that define southern Europe.

I went into the gallery to say hello to Rahim and his lovely wife Suzanne and to see his latest works a couple of weeks ago. As ever, there was much to admire and several works I would love to have taken home. But one painting stood apart for me. It seemed to glow from the wall with rich jewel colours, amethyst and ruby and sapphire.

Its title is Sous-bois Automnale (literal translation: Autumn Undergrowth - though I'd go for something more lyrical. Under Autumn Wood, perhaps, with a nod to Dylan Thomas). With the change of season comes a deeper, more contemplative colour palette interspersed with happy reminders that the sun is never far away here.

Reader, I bought it. I'd been longing to have a Najfar original on our wall and now that the sitting room has been rebuilt and remodelled it was the ideal moment to act on impulse. Treasure indeed, at least as far as I'm concerned. And here's a photo of the artist with his work, the artist as expansive and jolly as his joyous understanding of the jewelled landscapes of Provence.


Thursday 2 August 2012

Lunch in the Place Carnot

In Bonnieux we stop for lunch in the Place Carnot, with the end of the treasure hunt in sight. The restaurant our local friends always recommend is Le Fournil (trans. The Bakery) and in summer its tables under the trees around the stone fountain are always crowded. If you haven't booked, then arrive early!

The food is always regional with a twist, beautifully presented. Shown above is a starter of goat's cheese with artichoke heart and tapenade (salty black olive paste). With a glass of very cold pale rose, this is a true taste of Provence. And the final clue to the treasure hunt is in sight...

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