Thursday, 28 April 2011

Perched Villages of the Luberon: Gordes.

The Luberon  is classic Provence, row after row of impeccably tended vines, medieval villages clinging to hillsides, lavender fields aplenty and stunning scenery.

In the heart of the Luberon is a large valley which is surrounded by mountains, to the south the Petit Luberon and Grand Luberon ranges, as well as the Luberon Oriental, and to the north the high Vaucluse Plateau.

There are many walking trails, although the height of summer is not the best time to attempt them, as the heat may well get the better of you.


Gordes clings to the edge of the Vaucluse Plateau and surveys all she sees. Once a magnet for artists,  Gordes was a resistance stronghold in the war and deserves it's title as one of the most beautiful villages in France. It's little winding lanes lead to the most spectacular views.

Sites to see in Gordes include an impressive castle, which dates back to the 11th century, a museum and the church. 

More information can be found on the Gordes website Gordes village .

Monday, 25 April 2011

Lest We Forget - a dark episode in the history of Provence.

Camp des Milles.

Les Milles, which is situated between Aix-en-Provence and Marseille, was once a tile and brick factory. But during the second world war it was used as an internment and transit camp by the Vichy Government. Thousands of men, women and children were rounded up, kept at the camp and then deported to Auschwitz via Drancy outside Paris.
The station and railway track can still be seen. Railway wagons also remain.

Many artists and intellectuals passed through the camp, although some managed to escape. The camp is unusual in that the prisoners were given paints and decorated the walls with murals, which remain to this day.
One prisoner who was held in Les Milles for a few weeks and then released was German Surrealist artist Max Ernst.

Les Milles is the only former transit camp in France which is still in good condition and a project was set up to preserve it as it is for educational purposes. The project, called Mémoire du Camp des Milles (Remembering the Camp des Milles) works to "save, maintain and open to the public" the buildings of the  camp. The project came about as the site is "a remnant of a particularly painful and enlightening period of history. Therefore, it represents a significant part of the French national memory and of the European culture."

More information can be found at Camp des Milles.  Photos of some of the murals are at     campdesmilles/photos.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

A role model from the unlikely world of politics and finance?

French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde comes over as the most sophisticated, elegant and stylish politician in the world today. Impressively fluent in English she deals effortlessly with complex matters of high finance in both languages and when grilled by the likes of Jeremy Paxman (at the BBC) she actually answers the questions! Amazing!

Ms Lagarde was born in Paris in 1956 and went to secondary school in Le Havre. She studied Law at the Sorbonne and went to the prestigious  Institute of Political Studies (L'Institut d'Etudes Politiques) in Aix-en-Provence , where she obtained a masters degree. Known as the Sciences Po, the institute is situated opposite the Cathedral St Sauveur, in the heart of Aix's atmospheric old town.

Before entering politics Ms Lagarde spent 20 years living in Chicago as a high flying lawyer. Known for speaking her mind, she is said to be more popular abroad than at home.

The grand entrance to the Sciences Po in Aix.

As a teenager Ms Lagarde swam for France in the French synchronised swimming team. Nowadays when she is not brokering political deals around the world she likes to tend her rose garden and make jam at her country home in Normandy, where she lives with  her partner. She has two grown up sons from a former marriage.

She is almost the embodiment of what we expect from a French woman in terms of appearance - elegant and chic. It just goes to show you can wear a Hermès scarf and carry a Birken bag and still play a crucial role in modernising a major western economy.

The first woman ever to be Minister for Economy, Finance and Industry of a G8 country, Ms Lagarde is consistently ranked as one of the most powerful women in the world today by magazines such as Forbes.
What a bright spark to have on the international stage.

Statue of St Peter in the cloisers of the cathedral in Aix.

One of the best things about the old winding streets in Aix is that many are traffic free, or there is very little traffic. Cafe tables wait for the weary walker and the sun is never far away.

Les Quatres Dauphins, one of Aix's famous fountains.

Place d'Albertas, another well known and tranquil spot in Aix.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Emile Zola born 2 April 1840.

Emile Zola, looking
 very French.
Born in Paris, Emile Zola moved to Aix-en-Provence with his family when he was three years old. There he went to school and became best friends with the artist Paul Cezanne. Zola wrote many classic novels, such as Therese Raquin, the story of a married woman's passionate affair.

He also wrote a series of twenty novels, les Rougon-Macquart, centred around two families, getting his inspiration for a large series from Balzac's la Comedie Humaine.  Zola was fascinated with how a person's fate in life was determined by the influences of their environment and their genetic make up. He explored these ideas through the two families, the Rougon, - drive for power, money and success - and the Macquart, - alcoholism, prostitution and general bad luck.  Entertaining and enjoyable books, especially Nana, Germinal and L'Assommoir, a dramatic story of poverty and alcoholism in working class districts of 19th century Paris.

 At the drinking place or watering hole.

L'Assommoir was a slang term for a shop selling cheap liquor which was distilled on the premises. There is no direct English translation, but the word comes from the verb assommer, meaning to stun, bludgeon or knock senseless, so the nearest meaning in English would be to get hammered! There are tales in the book of absinthe and the drinking of almost pure alcohol.

Emile and Paul frequented  Les Deux Garcons a bar on the elegant tree lined boulevard le Cours Mirabeau, the main artery and place to be seen in Aix-en-Provence. A meeting place for artists, writers and thinkers in the past, les Deux Garcons now attracts the rich and famous, and tourists.

Zola's bold letter to the French president
was published in a newspaper.
Sadly Zola died in rather suspicious circumstances at the age of 62. A blocked chimney caused him to die of carbon monoxide poisoning and rumours abounded that his enemies had finally got to him. Enemies he had made when he wrote a daring open letter to the French Government - entitled J'Accuse! - accusing them of anti-semitism when a Jewish French army officer, Alfred Dreyfus, was wrongly convicted of treason and sent to Devil's Island in the 1890s. The officer was finally freed, but the Dreyfus Affair, as it was known, haunted Zola for the rest of his life, and death.

He looks hammered at l'Assommoir.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Let the train take the strain in France

The TGV (Train Grand Vitesse meaning very fast train) will whisk you to the sunny south in a few short hours. I always prefer to travel by train if possible, it's much more comfortable than flying, the check in is much smoother and quicker and you have interesting and sometimes spectacular scenery to look at. And with all the lengthy airport check ins I think train travel is just as quick if you're travelling within a country, say from the north to the south of France.

The TGV travels along some amazing routes with spectacular scenery. Sit back and enjoy it!

The very fast train (TGV) entering the channel tunnel, which links France and England, or is it leaving the tunnel?

It's only just over two hours from London to Paris on Eurostar. You could stop in Paris or travel onwards to the Alps or the south of France.

It's hard to beat the Alps as a good place for walking in the summer months. This beautiful area of mountains and lakes is also ideal for boating and other water sports during the summer.

Nice, on the Cote d'Azur, one of many destinations you can reach by train.