01 January 2010

Le Castellet & Cassis

One of the many benefits of staying with family in the south of France is that we actually have the time and the means to act like tourists. Instead of slaving away for hours in old farmhouses (we know, we know, you feel so bad for us), we have the chance to go out in the countryside and explore some of the hundreds of cute villages of Provence.

Up first was Le Castellet. We took a trip to this little town perched on a mountain top overlooking the Var on a crystalline late December day.

We went early in the morning on a Sunday during the holiday season which meant that for the most part, we had the entire town to ourselves.

Though it was almost eerily quiet, Le Castellet showed many promising signs of life -- lots of delicious looking restaurants and artisanal shops. Unfortunately, everything was locked up tight so we have a perfect excuse for coming back another time.

Most of the structures in the town, including the church (above left) and the old city wall, are constructed from this sandy colored limestone that is extracted from the valleys nearby. The old wall was surprisingly well preserved, reaching almost entirely around the base of the village.

Meandering through the narrow, winding lanes of Le Castellet, we were frequently treated to views like this out of the many archways built into the ancient ramparts.

Besides providing stellar views, those sturdy arches are great for running through!

Lily was fascinated with this old water basin where the women of Le Castellet used to fetch water. There were a few goldfish swimming around the freezing cold and some dead ones resting on the bottom...we graciously neglected to point those out.

Like most views that look out over vineyards and the sea, the one from Le Castellet's little hill was truly a sight to behold.

After our brief visit to Le Castellet, we all decided it was time to get a little closer to that sparkling sea in the distance. We had a sunny day on our hands and we weren't going to waste a minute! So, we made our way to Cassis, a little fishing town on the Mediterranean.

Upon arrival, we were immediately taken by this place. The sea was an unbelievable shade of blue (a true "cote d'azur") and people were out in large numbers to enjoy the weather. It was nice to see a French town actually appear inhabited in the winter -- apparently not all French go into hibernation in December.

The shores of Cassis have long been popular with people in this region. Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, and Cathaginians all lived here and traded on its shores. The town was rebuilt over the ancient Roman ruins in the 17th century and over the next few centuries, continued to be popular with fishers and pleasure-seekers alike looking for a place to bask in the sun.

Cassis was a truly picturesque place with wide open pedestrian streets, trees casting dramatic shadows and vibrantly painted buildings, all made more lovely by the clearest sky imaginable. It was also surrounded by tree covered hills, dramatic limestone cliffs, and the ocean, so each little street led to a different natural wonder.

Another realllllllly nice thing about Cassis was its offering in the Patisserie Department. Over the past several months, we have been doing our best to embrace the French custom of partaking in the small joys of everyday life. One of the most integral of these small pleasures is the pastry...some of our favorites include croissant aux amandes, pain au chocolat, brioche, chaussons aux pomme, and the little beauty you see above, the macaron. Admiring the beauty of macarons is almost as enjoyable as eating them. They come in the most vibrant shades and exciting flavors.

But, let us return to that beautiful coast!!

On this particular day, happiness was definitely in the air. The French came out and did what they do best, sat in cafes and talked about life. People seemed more animated here than normal. In general the French are relatively reserved in public. However, in Cassis the spirit of the Mediterranean is definitely in the air...some people them even dared to wear colors and laugh out loud in public! Sacre bleu!

Hope you enjoyed this little tour to some of Provence's little gems. Happy Winter!

29 December 2009


Christmas may have come and gone, but unlike Ol' Saint Nick here, we aren't going to let that get us down!!!

We are thoroughly enjoying our time here in the Provence/Cote D'Azur area.  The brilliant light, dazzling sea, pebbly beaches, lavender scented valleys, rambling vineyards, and charming villages are irresistible.  

About 15 minutes east of Toulon, Hyeres has a lot to offer.  Besides being one of the main training areas for the French navy and the flower growing capital of France, it also has a fabulous market.  The market winds its way through Hyere's old medieval center.  

Markets are an absolutely central part of the social life for many people living in villages all over France. Like usual, locals and visitors were out to buy fresh produce, browse for clothing, and catch up with friends.  

One interesting tidbit we've picked up on our numerous visits to French markets is the way they sell squash.  The most common form of winter squash here is the one pictured above.  It has the same coloring as a butternut, but is usually much bigger and has a distinctively different taste.  Instead of buying the whole vegetable, tough old French ladies hack them apart and you take home whatever sized slice you need. 

After our stroll through the market, we wandered the streets a bit to see what Hyeres was all about.  What we found was a place that combines rustic charm, light-hearted humor, and sophisticated elegance.   

The windows of the shops and restaurants are all painted for the holidays.  It seemed like there was a competition for who could come up with the funniest, catchiest, or most creative design -- no traditional Santa in his sleigh here!

This area also seems to be cute-shutter capital of France.  Azur blue, brilliant turquoise, periwinkle, cornflower -- the brighter the better.   

We made our way up to the highest peak in town and were treated to a stunning panorama of the town and a brilliant view of the Mediterranean Sea.  In the distance are a few islands that undoubtedly hold new wonders of their own -- we'll have to save that for another day!

27 December 2009

We Wish You a Merry Christmas!

Though we are having a hard time believing that Christmas actually happened, the 25th of December has come and gone and we did enjoy our share of yuletide merrymaking!

Erika's cousin Sarah and her husband Phil recently relocated to Toulon, a large city in the Provence/Cote D'Azur region. They generously opened up their home to us so we could have some family fun for Christmas.

They're home was a jolly place to spend the holiday. Sarah and Phil have two children -- Lily (4 years old) and little Zachary (14 months). Phil's parents are also here for a visit, so we had a full house!

Never a quiet moment....

Especially when the whole English speaking neighborhood stopped by for a Christmas-Eve party! Three couples and seven kids came over for drinks, appetizers, and treats. We were all treated to a sing-a-long Christmas concert, led by the older kids.

The party was also a fabulous time for ogling at all the adorable babies dressed up for the big event. Here are twins, Camille and Celeste and Sarah's son Zach. Zach was quite the ladies man that night.

So cute, right!?

Zach was proudly sporting a gift from Grandma: a white cotton button-up and a tweed blazer. The clip on tie made its debut the next day. He also discovered how fun it is to race around the house with Lily's stroller. He had the crowd enthralled the entire night!

There were so many kids around, the adults volunteered to let us keep some. Naturally, we picked out the cutest!

We've been accused by a friend of being "clucky" which apparently is an adjective used to describe women who go "awwwwwwww!!!!!" at the sight of babies or women who are feeling broody. Maybe she had a point....

Grandma's girl and Mama's boy.

Though the party started at 4, by the end of the evening we all felt like it was 2am (except for Lily who doesn't really get the whole "tired" thing). Turns out making sure 9 kids stay out of trouble for a few hours is exhausting. Huh, who knew?

What seemed like a very few hours later, Christmas morning arrived!!!! We awoke to Lily's excited chant, "DADDY! TIME TO GET UP!!! DADDY! TIME TO GET UP!!! DADDY TIME TO GET UP!!!!"

There is nothing quite like sharing this morning with little kids. Even at 7a.m., the excitement was contagious.

After a marathon present session -- highlights including an outdoors playhouse, an indoors school house, a rocking-moose, a play-dough kitchen set, and a tool bench -- we were treated to a chocolate chip pancake breakfast, courtesy of Phil.

After breakfast, we honored the established Christmas tradition of breaking in all the new toys. Sarah read on her kindle, Hannah finally figured out which direction is north thanks to the compass function on her iphone, and Lily made green beans and hamburgers out of play-dough.

Zach, in between laps around the house with the stroller, also managed to take a peak at play-dough action. Being too small must be very frustrating when you're so curious.

All dressed up for the big dinner.

The biggest Christmas treat was this first sight of the beach. Our first days in Toulon
were rainy and grey, so when the sky cleared up on Christmas, (A Real Christmas Miracle?!)
we were thrilled to explore the Mediterranean coast.

Nothing in the world can compare to the feeling of walking on a beautiful shore. There is just something so incredibly soothing about the rhythm of the waves, the slight give of the sand underfoot, the rays of sunshine, and the reflection of light off the water.

The French here in Provence seem to share our passion for the sun, sand, and the good life.
The coast is always packed with people, young and old, out relaxing, exercising,
and generally enjoying their time together.

Wouldn't you feel the same way if these were the views you were treated to every day?
This must be a key part of the reason why Mediterranean people live so long.

To all of our family and friends all over the world,
we hope you had a Joyeux Noel and Bonne Annee 2010