Paris and Provence

July 20, 2015.  With the ridiculously cold weather and unending rain we’ve been experiencing in Oslo this summer, Matthew and I decided we needed a week’s vacation somewhere warm and sunny.  (As a southern girl, if I don’t get a warm summer to recharge my batteries, ain’t nobody happy.)  And because we’re both pretty pooped out from job stress and adjusting to all the changes life has thrown at us this past year, we decided the trip needed to be super no-hassle.  So we opted to go back to Paris and Provence.

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Someone’s really excited about her pretty plate of foie gras.

I know, I know; thanks to a pile of frequent flyer miles, we’ve been to both places for the last two summers in a row — first to celebrate a big, round-numbered wedding anniversary, then to usher in an even bigger birthday.  But honestly, France is probably our favorite place on Earth.  We love everything about it, from the incredible outdoor markets, fabulous fashion, and can’t-be-beat architecture of every era, to the food that is as gorgeous as it is delicious and the culture of “working to live, not living to work.”

In our defense for repeatedly going back to the same places every summer, with each trip we’ve focused on different themes:  Roman ruins and Côtes du Rhône vinyards, Medieval sites and modern artists, etc.  And that was the beauty of our plan this year.  Because we’ve already toured Paris and Provence pretty extensively, our goal was to to simply relax and soak in the ambience rather than running ourselves ragged trying to see everything.

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Last year we did a “Van Gogh Day” where we traveled through fields of sunflowers and lavender.

So for the first time ever, we took a vacation where each day wasn’t mapped out to the minute on an Excel spreadsheet.  I’m serious; our usual holiday agendas are researched and scheduled beyond reason.  I can’t help it, I’m a travel glutton and just a bit OCD.  But on this trip, we had only one thing on our calendar each day: spend time sipping pastis by the pool — a complete departure for us, since we’ve never been pool people.  But that’s what exhaustion and spending an entire summer in frigid Oslo will do to you.

Since this trip was about living in the moment, here are a few of our favorites (along with some huge photo galleries to help capture the flavor).

Luxembourg Garden Moments
Selecting an antique toy sailboat from the international fleet of rental possibilities; working up a sweat chasing our Netherlands-flag-flying ship around the grand basin; prodding it into better behavior with a bamboo pole; then cleaning up the carnage after our renegade schooner plowed into a flotilla manned by shrieking five-year-olds.  Strolling through the soporific gardens; paying our respects to the marbled queens of France standing at attention around the pond; then kicking back with a bottle of Perrier in the shade of the plane trees that line the Medici Fountain.  If you can’t relax here, it’s time for a hospital stay.

Moments on the Train to Provence
Boarding the high-speed TGV to Provence and racing through a landscape that looks like all of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings, unfurled end-to-end in a giant collage of wheat fields, haystacks, sunflowers, and lavender.  Trying to photograph flashing glimpses of Norman church towers, white dolomite cliffs, hilltop Medieval villages, Roman aqueducts, and white Charolais cows, all shimmering like mirages in the unseasonable summer heat.  Attempting to cool down with melted ice cream and warm beer, and wondering how in the heck the French businessmen in their summer suits managed to look so crisp and unconcerned in the 90-degree heat.  (Power problems on the train meant no AC or refrigeration for the 3-hour ride.)

Moments in Arles
Lazily wandering dusty streets once painted by Van Gogh; catching kitties napping on centuries-old stone windowsills; ducking into an ancient cloister for a bit of shade and finding a guitarist and singer lustily performing flamenco in a vaulted monks’ dormitory.  Circling the ancient Roman arena imagining gladiator combat of yesteryear and bullfights of today; toasting my birthday poolside with a glass of pastis — and rubbernecking at the typical French phenomenon of 60-year-old (married) silver-backed males canoodling poolside with their 20-something mistresses.  Then finishing off the day slurping up a steaming bowl of garlicky, rich bouillabaisse while being serenaded by gypsy jazz street musicians.

Camargue Moments
Motoring through France’s version of the Everglades, which proved to be even hotter, sweatier, and sunnier than Florida’s swamp, but bizarrely peppered with herds of grazing black bulls and white horses.  Hiking through the Ornithological Park for a view of nesting pink flamingos from Africa that migrate to breed and feed in these wetlands every summer — watching these ungainly creatures take flight in fighter formations is something you just don’t see in zoos.  Pulling off for a view across the rainbow-colored salt plains of Salin-de-Giraud where “fleur de sel” comes from; dodging dinosaur-sized dragonflies as they zoomed over the flats in search of mosquitoes; and finally taking shelter from the oppressive heat in Les Salicornes, a roadside cafe that offered an unbelievably wonderful veggie terrine, paté, and ham tartine.

Bastille Day Moments 
Waking up to TV coverage of the stirring yet surprisingly militaristic celebrations in Paris, then parading down the Boulevard des Lices with costumed Arlesiennes to witness an elderly gentleman being awarded the Légion d’Honneur for his service in WWII.  Mingling with French families along the impossibly crowded streets of Cassis; sharing a giant ice cream cone filled with scoops of lavender, salted caramel, and cassis gelato; swapping seafood stories with our suppertime restauranteur as his two adorable poodles mooched for table scraps from charmed diners.  Cruising the quay to gawk at the fabulous yachts of the rich and famous, then trolling the holiday stalls for handmade jewelry, art, and clothing.  Camping out on a patch of lawn with hordes of oohing and aahing locals as fireworks kaleidescoped above our heads, all choreographed to a playlist of Edith Piaf’s greatest hits blasted from the harbor’s emergency broadcast system.

Moments in Cassis
Napping to the raucous cacophany of cigales (cicadas) crooning for their mates in the trees surrounding the hotel pool; sampling the unbelievable varieties of tapenade, olive mixes, sausages, cheeses, and breads offered on market day; sharing a bottle of rosé next to a patch of lavender literally vibrating from the ministrations of frenetically harvesting bees. Weaving in and out of the craggy Calanques — France’s answer to Norwegian fjords — for a look at hidden sandy coves and towering limestone spires.  Having a Grace Kelly experience (the “To Catch a Thief” type, not the “farewell, Monaco” moment) speeding along the Route des Crêtes in our Peugeot convertible, absorbing the breathtaking panoramic views of the Mediterranean from atop Europe’s highest seaside cliff.

Cluny Museum Moments
Closing out our trip by spending some quality time in our favorite little Paris gem, where we contemplated the mysteries of the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, tried to identify all the animals and flowers cavorting in the background, and wondered anew how Medieval weavers managed to capture so much detail and movement with just a few changes in thread color.  Plus, where else can you wander through an unbelievably intact Roman bath, wrapped inside a gothic abbey, converted into a bishop’s palace, and eventually reborn as a museum of art from the Middle Ages?

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