Wednesday, May 16, 2007

But Where’s the Crème Brûlée?

With our trip now completed, here are a few random observations on our experience in Provence and the French Riviera.

--There seem to be many more chiens (dogs) in France than chats (cats). People bring their dogs with them everywhere, including to restaurants. We did have a “shop cat” in our hotel at Avignon; it often slept on one of the sofas across from the registration desk. It was jet-black and so was the sofa, so it was always a good idea to look before you sat down.

--People wondered if we’d get to see Provence’s famous lavender fields in bloom. As it turns out, that doesn’t happen until late June. We did see some pretty impressive fields of poppies, though.

--Our trip director from Alumni Holidays, Fred Burke, was endlessly helpful to the travelers, and a fascinating guy to boot. Born in the U.S., he has worked all over the world, and now lives in Normandy with his French-born wife. He taught himself French and is now fluent in it. He also worked on the production of the movie Winged Migration, helping to raise and train some of the birds used in the film.

--A good expression to know in France is a simple one: “C’est bon,” meaning “It’s good.” Whenever we’d re-board the bus after a photo stop, for example, Fred would count heads and then call up to the driver, “C’est bon!” -- and off we’d go.

--For those of us who remember almost none of their high school French, another useful expression is “Où est…” -- pronounced “oo-ay” -- which means “Where is…?” We also quickly caught onto the fact that a “boulangerie” is a bakery, of which there are many in France. And if you need a beer, that’s “bière.”

--The phrase I said more than any other on the trip was, “Un verre de Coca Light avec des glaçons, s’il vous plait”: A glass of Coke Light with ice cubes, please.

--Fred would post the meal menus for the day on an easel near the hotel’s front desk, and a hobby for many of us was trying to decipher the French so we could figure out what’s for dinner. The main course one night, for example, was “joue de loup et son tajine de legumes au miel.” Anybody? Anybody?

--We ate many of the foods you might expect on a trip to France: Croissants were omnipresent at the breakfast buffet, and French bread was served at every single meal. Main courses featured fish, poultry, or occasionally lamb or veal. Wine was served not only at dinner, but at lunch too.

--We had French fries once.

--Several of the travelers had a hankering for bouillabaisse, which apparently has its origins in Marseille. As for me, I kept waiting for the crème brûlée. Alas, no bouillabaisse or crème brûlée ever materialized. Next trip!

--The French presidential election was a common topic of conversation on the tour bus. Fred told us that if you ask his daughter, who is 3, who won the election, she will declare, “Nicolas Sarkozy is the President of the Republic!”

--A piece of trivia: Pablo Picasso often gambled at the casino at Monte Carlo.

--Everyone got home safe and sound, albeit a little tired from our 12 days of adventures. We all have pictures to show off, stories to tell, and dreams of going back there someday. C’est bon.


In France, lots of people bring their dog to lunch or dinner with them.

With the French presidential election taking place on May 6, political signs for the two candidates could be found everywhere.

Fred Burke, our travel director from Alumni Holidays, handled all of the trip logistics and was on top of every detail.

Our meals and desserts were always artfully presented.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Word for Today is “Opulence”

A highlight for many on the Penn State trip was the visit to Monaco, home of the House of Grimaldi royal family, lots of extremely wealthy people, and the legendary casino at Monte Carlo.

From our hotel in Nice, Monaco is about an hour’s bus ride along a mountainous coastal road that offers an impressive view of the Mediterranean below -- though not one that’s recommended for those with a fear of heights. The road was known as the Via Julia Augusta in ancient Roman times, and today it goes through such villages as Eze (pronounced “ess”) and La Turbie; the latter has a Roman monument called the Trophée des Alpes, or Trophy of the Alps, which was built in 6 or 7 A.D. to commemorate Augustus Caesar’s conquest of the Alps.

Monaco is its own country, or, more correctly, a principality -- a sovereign state ruled by a prince. Those who follow current events (and the tabloids) know all about Prince Albert and his often-in-the-news sisters, Caroline and Stephanie. On the bus ride we learned more about the history of the monarchy in Monaco: how in 1297, armed men disguised as monks (led by Francesco Grimaldi) conquered the country; how the Grimaldi family has ruled ever since; how Albert I (1848-1922) built an oceanographic museum and brought the Grand Prix race to Monaco; how Rainier became prince in 1949 at the age of 26; how Rainier married Philadelphia-born actress Grace Kelly in 1956; how Princess Grace was killed in a car accident in 1982 on one of the coastal roads above Monaco; and how their son, Albert I, doesn’t have a legitimate heir to the throne, because his only son was born out of wedlock to an Air France flight attendant.

We learned that the residents of Monaco -- called Monegasque -- are plenty wealthy, and on top of that they don’t pay income tax. The famous casino, which was built in 1863, doesn’t bring in much money for the principality, either -- casino revenues account for only 5 percent of Monaco’s income. What does generate revenue is the Value-Added Tax, which you pay on everything from postcards to real estate -- a whopping 19.6 percent.

We Penn Staters did our part to help the local economy, paying 10 Euros each (about $17 U.S.) to get into the casino and then, once inside, pouring some more Euros into the slot machines. The most successful of our group was Janice Meyer, who won a whopping six Euros. Nobody else won a thing. I bought 10 Euros’ worth of slot-machine tokens and lost them all -- and it didn’t take long.

Incidentally, for you blackjack fans, the cheapest blackjack table at Monte Carlo is 25 Euros per game. The most expensive is 10,000 Euros!

Our stop in Monaco also included a visit to the Jardin Exotique (exotic garden), a stop at the Prince’s Palace, which was built in the 12th century as a fortress, and -- because we were only about five miles from the Italian border -- a pasta lunch.

Next it was off to another ostentatious site, the Rothschild villa and gardens along the coast. This would be our last official excursion of the trip, and Ingrid, our guide, said, “We saved the best for last.” The official name of the place is a mouthful: Jardin de la Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild. The mansion and gardens belonged to the heiress Beatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild (1864-1934); the house has dozens of rooms, all lavishly decorated, and the grounds feature nine different gardens, ranging from a Spanish garden to a rose garden to a Japanese garden. Sculptures, fountains, and a waterfall also provide plenty of photo ops.

The town in which the Rothschild villa is located is called St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. “Cap” means “cape,” and Cap-Ferrat is a peninsula in the Mediterranean. The real estate here is quite desirable: Ingrid said that Bill Gates has a home here, as do several members of the Rolling Stones. None of them invited us over for drinks.

Our next day is devoted to exploring Nice on our own, and then we head home. I’ll send one more posting to wrap things up.


The Principality of Monaco is squeezed onto a hillside where the Alps meet the Mediterranean. It’s surrounded by France on all sides.

Monaco takes up an area no bigger than New York's Central Park, yet has 32,000 residents. Most are extremely wealthy -- and, by law, pay no income tax.

Penn Staters Donna and Bob Nicely enjoy a lovely view of Monaco from an overlook near the Prince’s Palace.

A luxury villa once belonging to the heiress Beatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild is now a prime tourist attraction along the Mediterranean, between Nice, France, and the Principality of Monaco.

Penn Staters Bill and Dot Kracht in the Rose Garden, one of nine different gardens at the Ephrussi de Rothschild villa and gardens in France.

Jackie and Jerry Grossman from the Penn State contingent at the Ephrussi de Rothschild villa and gardens.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Photo Ops Abound in Nice

On our first full day in Nice, we took in some postcard-perfect views of the Mediterranean, explored a museum devoted to the painter Chagall, and visited a gorgeous Russian Orthodox cathedral.

Our guide, Ingrid, arrived for work as usual on her motor scooter -- a Piaggio Granturismo -- and parked it next to our hotel for the day. She, along with our Alumni Holidays trip director (Fred Burke), and our bus driver (Rene), first took us on the bus to a fancy neighborhood overlooking the city. There Ingrid showed us lots of examples of belle époque architecture, a style that was popular from around 1860 until start of World War I in 1914 -- “a time of wealth and splendor,” Ingrid said. The architecture is a mix of styles: pointed arches, Romanesque cupolas, stucco, even some towers on a building that look like Turkish minarets. Most of the houses are either red or yellow, with orange-tiled roofs, and when set against the Mediterranean -- which is several shades of blue -- it’s just a treat for the eyes.

Up in that neighborhood, we stopped at an overlook for a fine view of the port and beach. A huge cruise ship, the Astoria, was docked in port, along with a ferry offering trips to the island of Corsica; the side of the ferry read, “Corse-Nice en 2h 55.”

After the overlook stop, our bus worked its way back down the hill and through the narrow streets of Nice. At one point we turned a corner and suddenly saw our next stop: an unbelievably beautiful Russian Orthodox cathedral with green and gold onion domes against a pure blue sky. It looked like someone had airlifted the thing in from Moscow or St. Petersburg and plunked it into this old French city. Officially called the Cathédrale Orthodoxe Russe St-Nicolas, it was built by Tsar Nicolas II in 1912 and is still used for Sunday services today. It’s extremely picturesque inside and out -- colorful tile work on the outside and ornate woodwork and gold leaf inside. (No photos are allowed inside, alas.) It features more than 250 religious icons, including the Virgin Mary, Alexander the Martyr, the Archangel Michael, and others. Plus, of course, a gift shop.

Next it was off to the Chagall Museum, or in French, Musée Chagall. Ingrid, our guide, told us that Marc Chagall was a Russian Jew who fled his home country and lived in France for a number of years in the 1920s, then came to the French coast in 1948. He eventually settled in St-Paul-de-Vence -- the town we visited the previous day -- where he was neighbors with Henri Matisse. (Not that they were best buddies, however; Chagall reportedly was intensely jealous of the attention that both Matisse and Picasso were getting for their work.) The museum is full of works that Chagall donated in 1966 -- huge paintings, mostly, but other media as well. When Chagall was in his 60s he started to do mosaics, and when he was 70 he took up stained glass windows. We saw a wall-sized mosaic of the prophet Elijah, and stained-glass windows depicting the seven days of Creation.

To no one’s surprise, the Chagall Museum also features a gift shop. Many of the Penn State travelers bought books, postcards, or other items there.

After a lunch of salad Niçoise assiette (sort of like a salad Niçoise with accessories), we set off to explore Nice on our own for the afternoon. Before we left, Ingrid gave us some advice about getting into the good graces of the French shopkeepers. Always say “Bonjour, monsieur” or “Bonjour, madame,” and then ask, “Parlez-vous anglais?” People in France, she said, really appreciate it if you make an attempt to speak their language.

And a good number of French people don’t speak much English. On the one hand, we’re all a little surprised at this, but on the other, we’re very mindful -- and a little embarrassed -- that most of us Americans speak only English. (Two passengers in our group, Margaret Smith and Monica Shumann, do speak French, and we often go to them for help. Fred Burke, our AHI trip director, was born in the U.S. but is fluent in French, and having him around helps enormously.)

I had a frustrating but comical conversation a day earlier with the clerk at the Internet café, where I had gone to retrieve an adaptor I had accidentally left there the night before. The clerk had no idea whatsoever what I was trying to say, as I held the adaptor and pointed to myself to try to convey that it belonged to me -- and I had no idea what she was trying to explain to me in response. Finally, when she was distracted by another customer, I put the adaptor in my pocket. When she saw me leaving, she said something in French in an apologetic tone of voice, and I shrugged graciously, as if to say, “It’s OK -- don’t be too sorry. I have my adaptor back.”

Tomorrow we have a road trip to Monaco, including a visit to the fabled casino at Monte Carlo. Will any of the Penn Staters actually win some money at the slot machines? Stay tuned.


Our guide in Nice, Ingrid, showed up at the hotel each morning on her scooter -- a Piaggio Granturismo.

Penn State travelers, including Bob Nicely (shown here), were treated to a fine view of Nice from an overlook above the city.

A view of Nice’s waterfront from one of the city’s hillside neighborhoods. The arched structure on the right is a memorial to the French who died in the World Wars.

A cruise ship docked in the port of Nice.

The city of Nice has a gorgeous Russian Orthodox cathedral, built in 1912.

Penn State travelers Alvin and Pat Levin admire the Cathedrale St-Nicholas, the Russian Orthodox cathedral in Nice.

Ingrid, our guide in Nice, explains Chagall's “La creation de l’Homme” (The Creation of Man) at the Chagall Museum.

Surprisingly, the Chagall museum allows picture-taking. This is Monica Shumann snapping a shot of “Adam et Eve chasses du Paradis” (Adam and Eve driven out of Paradise).

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Perfume Lessons in Grasse

The abundance of flowers in Provence -- especially in the area around Grasse -- led to its development as a perfume center several centuries ago. In the Middle Ages the town of Grasse was centered on leather-tanning, but that process made the town pretty stinky. Catherine de Medici gets credit for coming up with the solution -- de Medici, who came to France from Italy in the 1500s to marry Henry II, got the idea to perfume leather gloves to cover up the smell. A perfume industry eventually developed, and it remained long after the leather industry faded away.

Our group visited one of the three major perfumeries in Grasse: Fragonard, which has been around since 1926. We learned that although the flowers for the Grasse perfume factories once came from the surrounding countryside (lavender, for example, is especially big in Provence), nowadays development has eaten up that countryside, and today it’s cheaper to import the flowers from Egypt, India, and other countries. The job of the perfumeries in Grasse is to process the blossoms here and extract the essence, or what they call the “absolut.” It takes on ton of flowers to get a about a quart of absolut. Each perfumery has a head honcho who creates the perfumes and has an especially well-cultivated sense of smell; he or she is called “the nose.”

At Fragonard we attended a class where we sniffed little sticks scented with perfumes, trying to name the components. We learned that perfumes are classified into categories like woody, oriental, spicy, flowery, and so on. We also learned (or tried to learn) to distinguish a perfume’s “top,” “middle,” and “base” notes. Top notes are scents like citrus and fresh-cut grass; middle notes evoke flowers and spices; and bass notes include amber and wood. It felt a little like the wine tasting of a week earlier: The instructor described Shalimar, for example, as “vanilla with a powdery note.”

One of the Penn Staters, Marilynne Stout, proved to be especially good at picking up on all of these nuances, so we took to calling her “the nose.”

After our tour of the factory -- and some time in the gift shop -- the Penn Staters in the group had a very special treat. A bus took us to the town of Valbonne, where a Penn State alumna and her husband hosted a reception for us at their home. Aimee Rusinko Kakos ’69 H&HD and husband Michael Kakos live in the U.S. most of the year but have a summer home in the south of France, and when they heard that a Penn State tour group would be in the area, they offered to have the travelers over for wine and snacks. It was a lovely late-afternoon gathering, and the alumni from Cornell (the other school represented on this trip) were a little envious of our bonus excursion. Later, many of the Penn State travelers said that the Kakos’ generosity and the chance to meet Penn Staters living in France was one of the highlights of the trip.

Tomorrow we’ll spend a day in Nice, visiting the Chagall Museum and a picturesque Russian Orthodox church, and taking in the beauty of the Mediterranean. I’ll write about Nice next.


Members of our group took in a class on perfume-making at the Fragonard perfumery in Grasse.

The Penn Staters learned how to distinguish the various components of perfumes during their visit to the Fragonard perfumery.

A tile painting at the Parfumerie Fragonard in Grasse captures the long tradition of perfume-making.

A special treat on the trip was a reception at the home of Penn State alumna Aimee Kakos and her husband, Michael (at right), who own a summer home in Valbonne, not far from Nice.

The Penn State travelers posed for a group shot at the Kakos home. Standing in the front row, from left: Jerry and Joady Gorelick, Pat Levin, Dot Kracht, Marilynne Stout, Jackie and Jerry Grossman. Second row: Jan Meyer, Alvin Levin, Aimee Kakos, Bob and Donna Nicely. Back row: Michael Kakos, Bill Kracht, Ned and Relda Newlin. Seated in front: Tina Hay.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Our First Day on the French Riviera

We’ve now traded the quaintness of Provence for the glitziness and
beauty of the French Riviera -- which is charming and photogenic in a whole different way. The day before, after our lunch at the base of Mont St-Victoire, we left Provence and driven east towards Nice. Along the way we learned a bit about the history of the French Riviera, known locally as the Côte d’Azur, or the Azure Coast. It started off as a string of sleepy coastal villages, and its evolution into a major tourist destination can be attributed to one thing: tuberculosis. Someone discovered that the climate here is conducive to health, and suddenly lots of people started coming here. From there it didn’t take much for the area to morph into a resort destination. Queen Victoria (who, as far as I know, never had TB) would spend her winters here, bringing an entourage of 400 aides and servants. The area became extremely popular with the English, who found the idea of winter vacations in the sunny Mediterranean to be a heck of a lot more appealing than the dreary cold of their home country.

As our bus continued toward Nice, we got our first glimpse of the Alps, and learned that this region of France is called the Alpes Maritimes, because it’s where the mountains meet the sea. A few days from now, when we visit the principality of Monaco, we’ll see just how dramatic the transition is: Monaco, like other towns along the coast, is stuffed up against a mountainside, and the upper coastal road provides a spectacular -- if scary -- view of the ocean below. Anyway, it was pretty cool to see snow-covered mountains and palm trees all on the same day.

Just before we reached Nice, we passed through the city of Cannes, where we saw fancy tents being erected in preparation for the famous annual film festival. As we drove along the beach in Cannes, our trip director pointed out that all beaches in France are “top optional” for women. We also saw the town’s Hotel de Ville, which prompted the rest of the travelers on the bus to tease me: Earlier in the trip, I had noticed that every town seems to have a Hôtel de Ville, and I had assumed it was either a hotel chain or just a very commonly used name for a hotel. (Sort of like how every beach town in New Jersey has a motel called “The Dunes.”) Well, it turns out that “Hôtel de Ville” is the French name for the city hall.

Upon arriving in Nice, we noticed once again that motor scooters were everywhere. That had been the case in all the previous towns and villages we visited as well. It’s not unusual to see eight or 10 of them parked in a row outside a cafe, and there even are a few areas in Nice that you might call “scooter parks,” where dozens of scooters (and a few motorcycles) are all crammed in. Businessmen and businesswomen, moms with kids riding on the passenger seat, even a guy driving his scooter while smoking a cigarette -- we saw it all. As far as I can tell, helmets are mandatory in France, because we never saw anyone on a scooter without one.

Our first excursion from our base of operations in Nice was St-Paul-de-Vence, where we visited the Fondation Maeght, a museum of very modern art. We saw paintings and sculptures by Joan Miró, paintings by Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, and Marc Chagall, and an entire courtyard devoted to bronze sculptures by Alberto Giacometti. Of all those artists, I had heard of only Matisse and Chagall, but several of the Penn State travelers were art buffs and were pretty excited to see works by Miró, Giacometti, the cubists, and others. In the sculpture garden outside we looked at some colorful, larger-than-life sculptures ranging from a giant hot-dog-like thing to a guy who looked like Reddy Kilowatt to a figure that one of the Penn Staters pointed out was an E.T. look-alike.

For a dramatic contrast, we went from the museum of ultra-modern art to the center of the village of St-Paul, which is another of those “perched villages,” built on a hilltop for protection in the Middle Ages. Much as we did in Les-Baux-de-St-Rémy a few days earlier, we strolled around on the narrow cobblestone streets (really more like alleys), poked around in the boutiques, cafes, and postcard shops, and took turns taking each other’s picture with the rocky hillside as our backdrop. Some of us also walked over to the cemetery that contains the grave of Marc Chagall, who was associated with St-Paul-de-Vence for 19 years of his life. Others went down to the village square to watch the men play some very serious games of boules or pétanque, which is similar to bocce.

By the way, St-Paul-de-Vence is where we saw our first and only Pepsi products on the trip. It seems that Coca-Cola has a lock on southern France -- it’s everywhere. There’s Coke, Coke Light (the European equivalent of Diet Coke), Coke Light with Lemon, and a product you don’t see in the U.S.: Coke Light Sango, which has blood-orange flavoring. In St-Paul, however, we found a café that served only Pepsi products, and I had a “Pepsi Max” -- which contained no sucre (sugar) but presumably large amounts of caffeine.

After lunch at a restaurant in the Loup (pronounced “loo”) Valley, we headed up the mountain to Grasse, a town that’s famous for its perfume-making. I’ll write about that in my next post.


Penn State traveler Bob Nicely checks out the Chagall painting “La Vie” at the Fondation Maeght, a museum of modern art outside the village of St-Paul-de-Vence, France.

The sculpture “Walking Man” is one of a number of bronze figures sculpted by Giacometti that are on display at the Maeght museum.

St-Paul-de-Vence is one of a number of picturesque “perched villages” in southern France. Dating at least to the Middle Ages, they were situated on hilltops for protection against attacks.

Men play pétanque, or boules, in the village square in St-Paul-de-Vence, France. The game is similar to bocce.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Culture, Cafes, and Cezanne in Aix-en-Provence

A favorite spot for many visitors to Provence is the lovely city of Aix-en-Provence, the center of which is its beautiful tree-lined street, the Cours Mirabeau. The town’s name is often shortened to just “Aix,” which is pronounced just like the letter “X.” When someone does say the full name, it sounds like they’re saying “Exxon Provence.”

Like many cities and towns around Provence, Aix started as an ancient Roman colony, although it doesn’t have as many Roman ruins as some other towns. An interesting thing we learned was that there would be more Roman ruins in existence today if people over the centuries hadn’t used the Roman structures as quarries -- in other words, people in, say, the Middle Ages would cannibalize the ancient Roman structures for their limestone and use it to build newer buildings.

Our walking tour started on the famed Cours Mirabeau. “Cours” means a wide avenue, and this one is named for Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, marquis of Mirabeau, who was a key figure in the French Revolution. Lining the Cours Mirabeau are large plane trees -- what we in the U.S. call sycamores -- which, when they touch, make the avenue look almost like a tunnel. When we were there the trees had recently been trimmed, so we didn’t get the tunnel effect, but the avenue was beautiful nonetheless. On either side of the street are handsome townhouses from the 17th and 18th century, as well as cafes and shops. Some of the townhouses have a face sculpted in stone -- a person or a lion, perhaps -- over the doorway. Our guide mentioned that sometimes these conveyed a particular meaning: For example, if the owner didn’t like their neighbors, the stone face over the door might have its tongue sticking out.

One of Aix’s claims to fame is that the painter Paul Cezanne was born and spent much of his life here. Our walking tour took us past the junior high school where Cezanne spent four years, the College Auguste Mignet. While there, Cezanne made friends with a classmate named Emile Zola, who would later become a respected French novelist. The two would stay friends for years -- until Zola made the mistake of writing a novel in which the central character was a failed artist. Cezanne suspected that Zola was referring to him, and he broke off the friendship.

Among the other sights we saw on our stroll through town:

--The Museum d’Histoire Naturelle, or Museum of Natural History, which sports a few dinosaur eggs.

--A monument commemorating the liberation of France on Aug. 15, 1944. Most of us know about the U.S. forces that landed in Normandy on June 6 of that year, but there also were U.S. forces who landed later on the beaches at St-Tropez, in the south of France, and moved north to Aix and the rest of Provence. Several of the people over here have told us how grateful the French are to the Americans for our country's role in World War II. One of our lecturers told us, “Without you, I would not be free.”

--The Cathedrale St-Sauveur, which has a baptistry dating to 400 A.D. as well as some very old stained-glass windows. Original stained-glass windows are rare in Provence because of the powerful Mistral wind and the damage it can cause.

--The 600-year-old University of Aix-Marseille III. Today it is almost as big as Penn State’s University Park campus -- 40,000 students -- and is a popular spot for students in Study Abroad programs.

--Shops selling sweet treats called calissons, or calissons d’Aix. A confectionery that has been made for more than 400 years, a calisson contains almonds, candied fruits, and marzipan, among other ingredients.

Some of the travelers opted to explore Aix on their own. Joady Gorelick, a Penn Stater from California who runs a business supplying needleworkers and costumers, headed over to the Musee des Tapisseries to see the 17th and 18th century tapestries and the opera and stage costumes from the 20th century.

After re-boarding the bus and leaving Aix, we headed off to lunch at a restaurant at the base of Mont St-Victoire, a mountain made famous by Cezanne, who loved it and painted it from many angles. He painted at least 60 paintings of Mont St-Victoire. We ate at a lovely restaurant and winery in the village of Relais-St-Ser, where we supplemented our country lunch with local red, white, and rose wines. (There is never a shortage of wine at meals in France.) Then we got back on the bus and headed for the Cote d’Azur, or the French Riviera. For the next five days we’ll be based in Nice. Stay tuned for dispatches from our adventures there.


The Penn State travelers visited Aix-en-Provence's Cathedrale St-Sauveur, which has a fifth-century baptistry, visible on the right-hand side of this photo.

Elegant townhouses line the main street in the town of Aix-en-Provence.

The university in Aix-en-Provence is one of France's largest, enrolling 40,000 students.

You often can find a small statue of a saint on the corner of a building in Aix-en-Provence.

Many of the old townhouses in Aix-en-Provence have a fancy -- and often humorous -- stone face over the doorway.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Wandering the Outdoor Markets in Isle-Sur-La-Sorgue

Among the charms of Provence are the local products -- from fabrics to foods -- and a good place to see them all on display is the town of Isle-Sur-La-Sorgue. As its name might suggest, it’s on the Sorgue River, and the town center is surrounded by canals, leading to its reputation as “The Venice of Provence.” On Sundays the town is dominated by an open-air market, where we had an opportunity to browse, take photos of, and in some cases purchase, the local products.

Isle-Sur-La-Sorgue is about a half-hour bus ride from our hotel in Avignon, and on the ride we learned about the town’s history. It was one of three towns in Provence that were owned by the Catholic Church in the 14th century, when the papacy was based in Avignon instead of Rome. Long ago, Isle-Sur-La-Sorgue had about 70 wooden water wheels, used for wool, silk, and paper making. Nine of the original water wheels are still there. The town also has a 17th-century church, the Notre-Dame-des-Anges, which was designed in the Baroque style and which has 222 representations of angels throughout.

On the way to Isle-Sur-La-Sorgue we passed through the village of Le Thor, where American Pierre Salinger made his home in his later years. Salinger, you may remember, was White House press secretary under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and later was a correspondent for ABC News. His mother was French, and Salinger lived in France several times during his life; in 2000 he moved to Le Thor, and for the next several years he was a popular news analyst on French TV. He died here in 2004, and the village now has a museum in his honor.

Farther down the road is Luberon, the home of Peter Mayle, the British-born author who wrote the bestseller A Year in Provence, along with A Good Year and a number of other books. There was a time when tour buses would regularly go out of their way to go past his house, but he didn’t appreciate that, as you can imagine. So now the buses stay away.

In Isle-Sur-La-Sorgue itself, after visiting the church, the Penn State travelers wandered the outdoor markets. You could do your grocery shopping here, if only taking it back in your luggage wouldn’t be so messy: Strawberries are in season, as are radishes and white asparagus, all artfully presented in photogenic displays. There also are stands displaying olives, sausages, fish, cheeses, melons, and Clementine oranges, among other foods. Sachets of lavender are everywhere, as are antiques, pottery, colorful fabrics, and fragrant and colorful soaps. A few of the Penn State travelers bought olive oils or tapenades to take home as gifts; others bought posters, art prints, or postcards.

In the afternoon we’ll have some free time in Avignon -- our last day here -- and then after that we travel to Nice, along the French Riviera, where we’ll be based for the last five days of the trip. On the way to Nice we’ll visit the town of Aix-en-Provence, which will be the subject of my next post.


Penn State traveler Jan Meyer checks out the soaps for sale at the market in Isle-Sur-La-Sorgue. The most common soap by far in Provence is lavender, but there's also cannelle orange ("cannelle" is the French word for cinnamon), lemon, almond, verbena, rose, and many others.

In the town of Isle-Sur-La-Sorgue, in Provence, a weekly market draws people shopping for everything from antiques to textiles to food. This particular stand was one of several offering fresh olives for sale.

Colorful pottery is everywhere in Provence, as evidenced by this stand at the market in Isle-Sur-La-Sorgue.

A floral shop in the lovely town of Isle-Sur-La-Sorgue.