Back and forth, hither and yon – whether on my habitual trajectory between Touraine and Paris or further afield… destinations, encounters, events and observations I can’t resist sharing.

Soulac-sur-Mer: triple threat Médoc resort.

March 24, 2012
Soulac Villas

Beyond broad beaches of fine sand and gently rolling waves – 3 reasons not to miss this gracious seaside town in the Médoc wine region:

  • 500 quaint to quirky mid 19th and early 20th century villas ‘Soulacaises’.
  • 12th century Basilica of Notre Dame-de-la-Fin-des-Terres, excavated from a sand dune in 1860 and now a Unesco World Heritage site.
  • Small-scale reproduction of the Statue of Liberty cast by Bartholdi in 1888 facing her American sister across the Atlantic.

Just when you’re convinced there can’t be more hidden treasure along the Atlantic coast – you hit on a sleeper like Soulac.  Why didn’t I know about this place?  100 kms north of Bordeaux and a hop across the Gironde estuary from Royan – it merits better name recognition.  Soulac has the architectural potential to be a mini Savannah or South Beach of the French Atlantic coast, yet remains a little known family resort.

Arriving from the north or east, the easiest way to get there is a 30-minute car ferry from Royan.  Leave time for a quick tour of the city.  Royan is a brilliant white-painted concrete 1950’s time capsule.  The old city was obliterated on January 5, 1945 by Allied carpet-bombing intended to annihilate intransigent Nazis.  A massive urban renewal project attempted to compensate for thousands of citizens killed due to tragic miscommunication between an American general and the French military concerning evacuation.

A scenic alternate route is up the peninsula via Bordeaux.  The winding road along the Gironde Estuary traverses fabled Chateaux vignobles – Margeaux, Latour, Mouton-Rothschild and Lafite – ending in Saint Estèphe, before leaving the undulating Haut Médoc terroir to enter the marshy flatlands of Médoc.

The landscape is a mixture of sand dunes and scrub pines on the ocean side, and marshland along the estuary.  The eastern shore is scissor cut with minute tidal ports, where modest pleasure and fishing boats keep company with cabanes de pêcheurs cantilevered over the water on stilts. The most picturesque to my taste is Port de la Maréchale next to St-Seurin-de-Cadourne.

In mid March, Soulac was emerging from winter hibernation.  Its population of 3,000 expands July through August to 55,000, but tourist season builds up slowly.  My first hotel choice – Hôtels des Pins in Amelie Beach at the southern edge of town – opens in April, so we settled for Hotel Michelet, a small 2 star a block off the oceanfront.  The establishment is impeccably clean and professionally run, but shrill décor, circa 1995, is hard on the eyes.  Imagine the  decorating section of a DIY homestore like Leroy Merlin.  

The Michelet’s central location, plus sea views and a balcony  in chambre 10, compensated for clashing color schemes.  Philippe the proprietor couldn’t be nicer or better intentioned – even going so far as to deliver a breakfast tray at seven am.

Our Lady of the Ends of the Earth is an apt name for the Romanesque Basilica nestled at the heart of town.  Back when Saint Veronica (buried in the church) was proselytizing the Gironde peninsula, the former Benedictine abbey at its tip was indeed remote. Were it not for occasional passage of St. Jean de Compostel pilgrims crossing the Gironde estuary, it would have been completely ignored.

Over the centuries, Soulac fell into obscurity as the dunes encroached on the Basilica to the point of swallowing it up.  By the 18th century, farmers drove metal rings into the barely protruding stone towers to attach livestock.  Today, pines teetering over the edge of the sandy cliff above Amelie Dune testify to ongoing errosion, and make it possible to imagine how a monastery could be engulfed over the centuries.

In the mid 1800’s, the fashion for bathing cures accelerated development of  ‘Soulac-les-Bains’, and construction began of its charming Côte d’Argent style villas. Escavation and restoration of the Basilica in 1860 brought more visitors.  A second wave of villa construction followed in the early decades of the 20th century with a more idiosyncratic ‘post colonial’ vernacular featuring turrets, pavilions, jutting wings, balustrades and porches.  Lacey punched wood fretwork and terracotta roof tiles were de rigor, along with brightly hued painted wood trim.

Colonnaded first floor balconies evoke the architecture of French Caribbean and African island colonies.  Each villa has a romantic or sentimental name enshrined on painted tiles, carved stonework or cursive script under the peak of a central eave above the front door.  Stop by the Tourism office (next door to the cinema) for times of guided tours offered in several languages.

Ten to 15 years ago, a vintage gingerbread brick villa could be had for 40 thousand euros, but now a 75 m3 cottage & garden requiring work, sells for €350M (still a bargain by Cap Ferret standards, where a characterless shack goes for significantly more).  Buyers are primarily French, while tourists are German and Dutch, with a smattering of British.

On your tour of centre ville, don’t miss the handsome market building.  Its cavernous hall is filled with rows of food, wine, florist and flea market stalls.  A side wing is devoted to fish and seafood.  Open daily year round from 8am to 1pm, and again during July & August between 5 and 8 pm.

Restaurant choices in March were limited, especially midweek, but it’s evident that plenty of variety exists for summer vactioners.  Tables on the glass veranda of Le Grill Océan on the Front de Mer enjoy an idyllic view of sunset over the beach – just the place to marvel at the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter in the velvet night sky on March 13.  For seafood lovers, a €25 dinner menu includes large fresh oysters or a tureen of terra cotta hued fish soup as a starter, and grilled dorade or mussels in cream sauce for the main course.  Desserts are homemade.  Inexpensive white Bordeaux and Côte de Gasgones on offer.  A 2009 Château de Teste provided a satisfying switch from Loire Valley white.  La Villa Soulacaise, also recommended by our host, was closed for dinner.

The surprise of the visit was coming upon a replica of the Statue of Liberty perched atop a pedestal at the north end of ocean drive.  It arrived clandestinely in Soulac in 1941 when French rail workers intercepted a train shipping it from Bordeaux to Germany, where it was destined to be melted down for armaments.  In Bordeaux the statue had been the centerpiece of a giant fountain in Place Picard, but after the war Soulac held on to her.

Following Liberty’s gaze toward the horizon, you’ll spot the iconic silhouette of Phare Cordauan.  Built in 1611, it is the oldest French lighthouse in service and the last to be inhabited full time.  The lavish interior includes a chapel where weddings and baptisms take place.  Nicknamed the Versailles of lighthouses, Cordauan is accessible at low tide on foot from neighboring Le Verdon-sur-Mer, if you are up for a 7-kilometer hike across the sand bar.

It’s hard to project how Soulac’s genteel ambiance is affected by summer crowds.  In the old town center, streets are narrow and can’t handle much car traffic.  Locals I met claim it remains off the radar despite development of the huge Médoc marina complex nearby, capable of harboring large boats.

The square and adjacent sidewalks in front of the Basilica were being renovated under supervision of historic preservation,  so access roads were sealed off with metal grills.  I managed to squeeze through a gap in the fencing and approached a group of stonemasons to inquire if the church was open.  None of them spoke French, so I tried English and one happily spoke up.  Not surprisingly they were Portuguese.  Sadly the church was closed but they had no problem with me wandering around and I was able to admire exceptional carved stonework at the back.  Another excuse to return in warmer weather to better sample Soulac’s ample charms.

HENDAYE – last stop on the Côte Basque

February 6, 2012
Fontarabie port & resto Ostalamer

The French Atlantic coast trends to melancholy midwinter, but Hendaye on the Spanish border is an exception. You know you’ve landed in a surfing mecca if it’s January, barely above freezing and pelting rain, yet dozens of neoprene-hooded heads are bobbing in the breakers.  Seafront parking is jammed until sunset, when the diehards reluctantly emerge from the waves, and peel off wetsuits right on the street in their haste to get into something warm and dry.

Hendaye has a health-conscious, sporty vibe – with a steady passage of cyclists, runners and hikers rounding the harbor, beachfront and vertiginous corniche road tracing the coast up to St Lean de Luz.  People are out and about at all hours, even if it’s just walking a dog along the waterfront.

Hikers know it as the Atlantic departure point for the ambitious G-10 trail, which crosses the Pyrenees to the Mediterranean along the Franco-Spanish border.  Thalasso-spa Serge Blanco, which was closed for renovation, is also a popular draw.

Hendaye lies on the north bank of the Bidossoa River, where it meets the sea at the Bay of Chingoudy.  The Spanish town of Fontarabie is across the bay to the South, and the massive Deux Jumeaux (Two Twins) rocks rise up from the sea below the cliffline to the north.

The well-protected harbor permits pleasure boats to dock year round. There’s also an active fishing community of open sea vessels and anglers off the jetty.  Didn’t see any sailboats in action but a club of rowers showed up at dusk to practice off the fishing dock, while kayakers meandered around the bay.

A mere trace remains of historic L’Isle de Faisons, rendezvous point for royal and diplomatic exchanges over the centuries between Spain and France because of it’s strategic, face-saving location off the mainland.  In 1526, Francois I was traded for two of his sons after being captured at the siege of Parvis, Anne of Austria, bride of Louis XIII, entered her new country here in 1615, and in 1660, the marriage contract of Louis XIV with the Infanta of Spain was signed in a pavilion designed for the occasion by Velasquez, as a term of the treaty which concluded 30 years of warfare between the rival nations.

The town is divided between Hendaye-ville (train station, town hall, businesses and principal shopping district) and leisure-centric Hendaye-plage (beach, port de peche, port de plaisance, thalasso, hotels and casino).

We stayed at Villa Goxoa, a pleasant family run micro hotel on a magnolia-lined residential street, equidistant between the beach and harbor.  Owners Nathalie and Marc Applagnat inherited the house and gutted the interior three years ago to create a minimalist contemporary nine-room hotel.  Rooms are small and lack a bit of character, but impeccable, with comfortable beds, good sheets and pillows.  Several have a small balcony or terrace. Bathrooms proportionately bigger and well appointed, though only one double is equipped with a bath.  Satisfying breakfast of OJ, yogurt, fresh fruit salad, croissants, baguette, whole grain bread and a pot of strong coffee.  Off-season, a double runs €85-95 euros, plus €10 for breakfast. Read More »

Tidings of Commerce & Junk

December 20, 2011
christmas out of focus

I return to the States at least twice a year, but until two weeks ago hadn’t visited between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, since 1989.  It’s hardly America’s most flattering season.  Over the intervening decades, the holiday season caught the same malady as presidential campaigns and sports seasons – the chief symptoms being it lasts too long, and exerts undue influence over the national psyche and popular culture.

When I asked friends and family to recollect how it was way back in the late 80’s before inflatable snow globe lawn ornaments, LED roof line lights and holiday-jingles-all-the-time radio stations, they were pretty certain it was much the same – like parents who don’t notice changes in children morphing daily under their noses, while someone who sees them every few years finds them barely recognizable.

In the aftermath of the ‘great recession’, I anticipated a reassessment of the ‘meaning of Christmas’ and collective determination to resist deficit consumer spending. While Republican presidential wannabees stage endless debates extolling radical cuts in government programs to reduce the national debt, corporate America hasn’t let up its consumer assault.  The means of infiltration, with new media larded over old – renders the red, green and glitz pitch relentless.

Over ten days I visited Florida, Maryland, New Jersey and New York, staying in cities and suburbs.  The further north I headed, the worse it seemed to get.  It might be that the intensity of Manhattan, where there’s no escape from input overload, proved a tipping point.

Wasn’t Christmas about celebrating the birth of a child in a manger, who grew to preach about the illusion of material well-being?   I hoped to find respite from the onslaught at mass in my old parish church, but it too was unrecognizable – with a gargantuan advent wreath featuring four massive candles the size of pascal candles intended to be lit throughout a full liturgical year.   The scale of disneyfied décor had the charm of shopping mall swag.

As much as I’ll miss sharing Christmas, Hannukah and New Year with my nearest and dearest American family and friends, I left regretting that at least for me, the joys of the season are squelched by an avalanche of schmaltz and commercial overkill.

Nice, capital of endless summer.

October 6, 2011
Nice plage et port

Never made an effort to visit Nice.  When you live in Europe long enough, certain destinations like Ibiza or Prague acquire inevitability – you presume you’ll get there eventually.  It took 25 years for an invitation to celebrate a friend’s birthday to make it happen.  Unseasonably hot weather intensified tourist density, but the city’s irrefutable charm trumped my Cote d’Azur phobia.

Reality matched the improbable cover of a brochure titled “Nice, a natural brilliance” picked up at the airport – featuring a salmon pink building with sunflower window trim and mint shutters, silhouetted against an azure sky behind a fringe of palm fronds.  At sunset, certain buildings seem lit from within.  Graced with miraculous light, the lemon, ochre and terra cotta facades adorned with delicate stucco manage to appear elegant rather than garish.  The mixture of 19th century and deco architecture reminded me of Montevideo, as does the sinuous Promenade des Anglais tracing the waterfront.

Wish I’d experienced Nice before it was France’s number two tourist destination, when the tropical bravura was still leavened with a patina of melancholy.  Summer stretches from May through October and the balmy winter keeps people coming right through.  Heavy pedestrian traffic made it hard to fully appreciate gracious Place Masséna, the old town and waterfront – the way viewing a masterpiece across three rows of shoulders in a museum is dissatisfying.

The historic old town isn’t drained of residential vitality. Locals still shop and gather in cafes lining the narrow shaded streets below the citadel.  The famous flower market running parallel to the shoreline is worth a visit.  Also recommend the vélo bleu, Nice’s answer to the Paris Velib bike rental circuit.  I challenge you to make it up the hill to the Matisse museum – a true three-gear feat.

Sunday morning I witnessed quite by chance a frankly outrageous religious celebration in the Basilica Cathedral of Sainte Marie–Sainte Réparte.  October 5th is the feast of Sainte Fleur, the patron saint of florists and since 1996, it’s celebrated on Sunday closest to the date.  My first impression seeing the riot of red, white and green floral arrangements was that I’d crashed a mafia wedding.  The display was so over the top, adorning every conceivable focal point.  Several priests concelebrated mass surrounded by five flower-bedecked beauty queens seated facing the congregation with rapt smiles on their meticulously made up faces.  It was like watching mass on a carnival float.  Four of the Femmes-Fleurs represented the seasons, and a stunning blond in royal blue trimmed with golden yellow blooms, represented Nice-la-Belle.  The cut flower industry is big business in the region and the event felt like a feast cooked up with the chamber of commerce.  A priest at the end of the service thanked the 30 participating florists and of course the mayor.  Turns out this was the main event of an annual two-day Fête de la Sainte-Fleur festival.

The diocese of Nice is clearly in the vanguard creating special events to draw in the faithful.  The Sunday edition of Nice Matin covered the benediction of hundreds of portable phones earlier in the week on the feast of archangel Gabriel, patron of communication. When questioned whether his blessing had the support of senior clergy, father Gil Florini happily reported that his bishop texted approval.  This week, pets are invited on the feast of Saint Francis.

Bravura and extravagance are synonymous with France’s most southern and Italian city. Long property of the King of Sardinia, it was annexed by France in 1860 and has been colonized since by generations of British sun seekers.  A weekend with the distractions of a birthday celebration was far too brief a visit.  Looks like I’ll be returning, but preferably in March or November.

La Part des Anges:  Found on lefooding.com.  Wine bar favoring natural producers, with daily menu featuring fresh local, organic and artisinal produce.  Rustic décor, relaxed ambiance & friendly welcome.  Lunch, Monday-Saturday.  Dinner, Friday & Saturday.  Limited seating, so reserve for dinner.

La Pizza (Cresci):  Nice’s oldest pizza restaurant in business since 1956. Wood-fire oven, unpretentious décor & terrace on pedestrian street.  Recommend the aubergine. Arrive with an appetite.

Birthday celebrations were held at two chic eateries:  dinner at La Petite Maison in the old town, and lunch at La Guérite on Ile Sainte-Marguerite, the larger of iles de Lérins in the bay of Cannes.

Hard to judge a restaurant from fixed menus served to 80 guests, but the settings were fun and libations flowing. La Petite Maison seems a tad spoiled by success, but La Guérite, enjoys an idyllic pied dans l’eau setting on the quiet side of the island.  The scenic boat ride from the Nice port takes an hour.


Touraine Tradition: Boxwood Sunday

April 18, 2011
Buis

In Catholic parishes where I attended mass before moving to Orbigny, Christmas and Easter services were the big draw, but in rural Touraine, it’s Palm Sunday that really fills the pews.  Considering it’s a lengthy service including the longest gospel reading of the year, I was amazed to see our typically sparsely filled church packed to  capacity with men, women and children clutching bunches of boxwood clippings.  Among the faces were avowed agnostics and vociferous anti-clerical types whom typically cross the threshold only for a funeral.   This wasn’t about an excuse for dressing up, since Sunday go-to-meeting preening isn’t something the French go for even on holidays, with the exception of a wedding.

I suspected the swell in attendance was linked to a primeval sentiment beyond piety – the power of ingrained tradition and superstition to overpower cynicism and skepticism.  But why boxwood instead of palm fronds?

In French, the feast is called Dimanche des Rameaux (Sunday of Branches). No mention of Palms.  Boxwood, or buis, is a hardy evergreen plant that requires little watering and thrives in the alkaline clay soil of the region.  You find it throughout Touraine, growing as a tree in the forest, a trimmed hedge or bush in cottage potagers, or sculpted into fantastic topiaries in chateaux gardens.   Thus it’s readily available, unlike palms imported from the southern Mediterranean.   In the UK and US, pre-blessed palms, typically woven into the shape of a cross, are distributed as congregants exit the church.  Here we hold up boxwood cuttings from our gardens (or a supply set out on a table by the entry of the church), as the priest walks up and down the aisles blessing the congregation with holy water.

A few years back, while out riding my horse, I came across a farmer and his wife on their knees planting a sprig of buis in the plowed earth at the corner of their field.  The spot is a local landmark known as Les Trois Croix, for three crosses erected at an intersection of four fields, where the boundary limits of three villages meet.  It’s also the highest point in the county, and seemed an apt setting for a ceremony with echoes of pagan ritual.  That was my aha moment and confirmed my hunch about the superstitious appeal of blessed buis. Read More »

Quercy Blanc

September 15, 2010
Quercy Blanc

Visiting old friends in Tarn et Garonne, a southern department  even the French have difficulty locating. Quercy Blanc is the historic name for this midsection of the Midi-Pyrénées between Cahors and  Toulouse.  It’s the Tuscany of France, with an undulating landscape of sheep and cattle pasture, sunflower fields, chasselas vineyards and tidy industrial orchards of apricots, plum, cherry and walnut trees.  A succession of  gorgeous views are revealed at every twist along the sinuous road.  The round, green-gold chasselas grape, which is eaten rather than fermented for wine, is the principal crop.

After honing country French renovation skills on a home in the Loire valley, our Australian friends were ready to tackle a seriously daunting project.  They fell for an ancient fortified chateau on the plateau of a hill, whose stocky central tower was first ransacked in the 13th century.  Successive building campaigns in the 16th, 18th and 19th centuries failed to sustain momentum, and it had declined to a forlorn state  of decrepitude.  A tailor made challenge for two artists with vision and a history of savvy real estate investments in Sydney, London and Paris to bolster their courage. Read More »

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