It's time to pack up and leave Paris. At last I'm going to Provence, something I've waited to do for years. It's the mediterranean allure that attracts so many, a sensual, historically rich region that is really calling me. I'm excited not only about the travel ahead but that I've gone through a week (only a week) of living in Paris and getting a glimmer of an idea of what this city life might be like for a longer time. There is something about Paris that feels innately feminine, sophisticated and patient. Yet it has energy and verve. A lot of what appeals about Paris is simply that it's European. The time frame of the day is different, and because of that your spirit has more room to breathe.
But, I do have a couple of hours before the train leaves Gare du Lyon at 1:15 PM, so my husband, who has just returned from Chartres after completing his own retreat, and I walk over to a cafe where the snappy waiter in black and white formal and traditional attire, seats us, takes our order, trying to sell us the big breakfast. I decline him and off he sprints for my coffee and croissant. My husband tucks into an omelette and we drift away into conversation and watch Paris from our cafe window.
Afterwards, we have enough time for a walk and angle over to Notre Dame past the dashing and beautiful fountain depicting Saint Michael and past St. Severin church and some very classic cafes nearby. Then the Seine is flowing past us and we see Notre Dame and its hordes of tourists again. It is so tremendous a structure with its glaring gargoyles and grotesque buttresses, spiny peaks and steeples that I am both fascinated and revolted by it. It does not inspire my faith to be stronger, what faith I have at this point, but it does instill fear and awe, not emotions I believe relate to heaven or aspiration to goodness and piety. I think it might be closer to morbid curiosity actually, reinforcing the belief that wickedness thrives in the world.
One way or another, we find ourselves shopping along the main narrow street on Ile St. Louis, the smaller and most elegant of the two islands in the middle of the Seine. This is an old world place, where shops are very tiny and very specialized, every one of them fine purveyors of ultra gourmet foods. A fromagerie, a patisserie or two or three, a boulangerie, a marionette store, an olive oil store, a charcuterie where chickens are sold with their long legs and feet sticking up into the air like weird dancers. It is possible to go to a different store for every ingredient of your meal along this street.
Then, with time growing short, we walk rapidly back to the Boulevard St. Germain, take the metro a half mile to our hotel's neighborhood, grab our bags, hail a taxi at the taxi stand back on the boulevard and wave good-bye to the busy urbane place that feels so foreign and so familiar all at once.
At Gare du Lyon, which is a wonderful place to watch masses of travelers as they await their trains, we eat a salad and some bread and then board the TGV, the ultra-fast super train that will take us to Avignon, a distance of 450 miles in less than three hours. Other passengers settle in and then unwrap their baguette sandwiches and drinks while the train, whisper quiet and smooth, begins to move.
After a few kilometers while we clear the outer bounds of Paris, the train accelerates up to a speed that is deceptive in its silkiness. I cannot guess the speed, but the train is capable of going 200 mph, so it must reach 150 at times. Every once in a while a train from the opposite direction causes a sensation of compressed air as it goes by with a sound like phooomph! Very cool. To my knowledge, we have nothing like it in the USA.
We arrive at the Avignon station. We have a very easy time getting our reserved car from Hertz and settle into the economy-sized Peugeot. The French drive on the same side as we do, but they use roundabouts, which I enjoy quite a bit since they feel like a nice flow of direction instead of intersections with stopping and starting all the time.
It's obvious that Provence looks like California in its best and prettiest regions just inland from the coast. That's a disorienting feeling, not only because we've just been whisked from Paris but because we really aren't in California at all. Olives, wines, cheeses, citrus, fruits and terrain are very familiar, but while some would say we are copying the French in California, Provence has been what it is for two millenia, since the times of the Roman empire. The croplands have been plowed a long time and buildings were not built to code, if you know what I mean.
We arrive at our our hotel, which is a villa on several acres, charming and very peaceful. The land is arid, like our western states. I think we are the only English-speaking people here. The desk clerk, one of the owners, helps me by trying his English while I hesitantly give it a go in French. It's weird, but sometimes I am fine and others I do very poorly. Not enough practice. Anyway, we are here. We are tired, too.
After a nap, we dress for dinner and drive into town, San Remy de Provence, and begin a search for a dinner place. There are winding streets and the town is on a gentle curving slope, so it's easy to get lost in the maze. I am fascinated, as usual, with architectural details, style, colors, light, texture, the air, the sun, everything. It's slowing me down badly, but I love it.
We find a bistro so cute it's ridiculous, the real deal, called Bistro de Marie, and I have to say I cannot describe it to you except that it's in an old building whose stone interior is worn, charming, decorated with many, many collections of old toys, kitchen items, furniture pieces, pictures, art, and curious lighting. Again, living up to a building code would be totally impossible. Building inspectors reading this, do not come to Provence; you will have nightmares.
Dinner? Slices of barely seared duck in a light mustard sauce paired with arugula in a dressing, braised Provencal rabbit with olives and potatoes. Mango sorbet floated on stewed cherries finished my meal. All light, all seasonal, all new to me. That, mesdames et messieurs, was quite a day.
Causes Christine Bottaro Supports
The Nature Conservancy, California State Parks, The United Way