Sunday, March 1, 2015

Saturday in Marseille and a BIG hike up to Notre-Dame de la Garde

I've had mixed feelings about Marseille since my rental car was cambriolé, or that's what the police called it, and three suitcases were removed. I had arrived at Marseille Provence Airport a few hours earlier and a thief cleaned out my car and took my clothes, a lap top computer, and two cell phones while I enjoyed some of the best Bouillabaisse to be found in Marseille at Fonfon Restaurant in Vallon des Auffes off the Corniche du President-John-Fitzgerald-Kennedy.

Marseille has a complex history. It was founded by the Phoceans (from the Greek city of Phocaea, now Foça, in modern Turkey) in 600 BC and is one of the oldest cities in Europe. The town is a far cry from the Cézanne paintings and Provençal clichés of sleepy villages, "pétanque" players and Marcel Pagnol novels.

Marseille is France's second largest city, after Paris, with a population of 850,636, and largest in land area. The people of Marseille have varying ethnic backgrounds, with a lot of Italians and Spanish having immigrated to the area after the second world war. Currently, over one third of the population of Marseille can trace their roots back to Italy.

My father Daniel and his family lived in an apartment on Boulevard Longchamp in Marseille when he was growing up and my cousins lived there with their families too at various times. My cousins Ginette and Josiane live there now and speak in poetic terms about Marseille's charms. Slowly after several visits with my cousins, I am growing fond of Marseille too.

So when cousin Jean Marc called a few months back to suggest we meet the next day in Marseille for lunch and a little visit, we accepted his invitation without hesitation. We set a time to meet at the Vieux Port and go to lunch at Le Grain de Sel Restaurant, a well regarded restaurant on the south side of the Vieux Port. We found a place to park in an underground parking garage and walked out and saw Saint-Victor Abbey seen below.

Saint-Victor Abbey is one of the oldest places of Christian worship in Europe. Its 5th-century crypt and catacombs occupy the site of a Hellenic burial ground, later used for Christian martyrs. Continuing a medieval tradition, every year at Candlemas, a Black Madonna from the crypt is carried in procession along Rue Sainte for a blessing from the archbishop, followed by a mass and the distribution of "navettes" and green votive candles.

Abbaye de Saint Victor (Saint Victor Abbey)

As we strolled along the Vieux Port, we looked across and saw the Panier District. Built on the site of the ancient Greek Massalia, the Panier District, panier means basket in French, but in Marseille it is the name of the oldest area of the town. In the middle of this area is the Vieille Charité, a wonderful old monument, now hosting museums and exhibitions. It is a typically Mediterranean district with color-washed facades, the historic refuge of seafarers and generations of immigrants.

View across the Vieux Port towards the Panier District

The Vieux Port, or Old Port, is the center of the city. It was the natural harbor of Marseille since antiquity; the Greeks landed here in 600 BC and set up a small town for trading. The town grew and in the middle ages became one of the world's largest trader of hemp baskets and ropes as the area around the Old Port were originally cannabis, or hemp fields. Hence the name of Marseille's main street Canebière, which leads down to the old port.

Vieux Port

Today the Old Port, just 20 feet deep, is unable to accommodate commercial marine traffic, which now sails in and out of the nearby port of Joliette. Instead it's the largest of the city's 14 marinas, with 3,500 berths for which pointus, the traditional fishing boats of the Mediterranean Sea, vie alongside yachts, a handful of tall ships and common sail and motor boats.

Vieux Port

The Old Port is lined by restaurants and cafés. We were headed to Le Grain de Sel Restaurant, which is on a side street just a few steps from the Vieux Port.

A square lined with cafés alongside the Vieux Port

We enjoyed our time together and lunch at Le Grain de Sel Restaurant, although to be truthful, we enjoyed our conversation more than the food. By the time we finished dessert, we had decided that we were going to walk up to Notre-Dame de la Garde Church which we had seen in the distance high above Marseille.

Jean Marc and I at Le Grain de Sel Restaurant

One of the streets we followed up to Notre-Dame de la Garde 

Notre-Dame de la Garde church seen below stands on the summit of Marseille, its most important landmark, visible from afar. The site was an observation point in ancient times and during the Middle Ages, was the location of a pilgrimage chapel. Today, the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde with its gilded Madonna crowning the belfry is a beacon for the faithful.

Notre-Dame de la Garde Church

Let me tell you that hiking up to Notre-Dame de la Garde Church is quite the ordeal. Thankfully, the sidewalks along the streets that lead up to summit where Notre-Dame de la Garde sits have steps cut into the sidewalks. 1800 steps later, we got to the top and were greeted with great views over Marseille.

View to Le Panier District and Sainte-Marie-Majeure Cathedral

View to the Vieux Port and Le Panier District

The entry to the Vieux Port is guarded by two forts, Fort Saint-Nicolas and Fort Saint-Jean.

Fort Saint-Nicolas and Fort Saint-Jean guard the entrance to the Vieux Port

Another view from Notre-Dame de la Garde is out toward the Château d'If located on the island of If, the smallest island in the Frioul Archipelago about a mile offshore in the Bay of Marseille. The Château was built between 1524 and 1531 on the orders of King Francis I as a defense against attacks from the sea.

The isolated location and dangerous offshore currents made Château d'If an ideal escape-proof prison, much like the island of Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay in more modern times. Its use as a dumping ground for political and religious detainees soon made it one of the most feared and notorious jails in France. Over 3,500 Huguenots (French Protestants) were sent to If.

Alexandre Dumas brought fame to the prison in his 1844 novel, the Count of Monte Cristo. In the book, Edmond Dantès (a commoner who later purchases the noble title of Count) and his mentor, Abbé Faria, are both imprisoned at Château d'If. After fourteen years, Dantès escapes from the castle, becoming the first person ever to do so and survive. In reality, no one is known to have done this.

View out toward Château d'If

Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde is an ornate Neo-Byzantine church situated at the highest natural point in Marseille, a 532 foot (162 meters) limestone outcrop on the south side of the Old Port. Designed by Henri-Jacques Espérandieu, the church was built between 1853 and 1864 on the site of a 1214 chapel.

It is topped by a 33-foot-high (10 meters) statue of the Madonna and child made of copper gilded with gold leaf who keeps a watchful eye over the fishermen headed out to sea. There is a walkway which encircles the entire building and provides a 360-degree panorama overlooking Marseille, the hills behind and the islands offshore.

Belfry, bell tower and statue of the Virgin with child

Notre-Dame de la Garde is considered by the Marseille population as its guardian and protectress of the city, hence its nickname of "the Good Mother".

View of the south side of Notre-Dame de la Garde Church

View of the north side of Notre-Dame de la Garde Church

Statue depicting the passion of Christ in front of Notre-Dame de la Garde

Belfry, bell tower and statue of the Virgin with child and stairs

Statue depicting Christ on the cross in front of Notre-Dame de la Garde

Back down to the level, I can say it is a lot easier coming down than going up.

Built in the 17th century, Fort Saint-Nicolas served not only to guard the port, but also to ensure that there were no uprisings against the king. Many of the guns pointed toward the town, rather than out to sea.

Restored in the 19th century, Fort Saint-Nicolas is a fun place to walk, with lovely views of the Vieux Port and the Mediterranean beyond the harbor.

Fort Saint-Nicolas

I love the santons of Provence, more so than Shirley, or we would have more of them in our home. I immediately recognized the name "Marcel Carbonel" as we happened upon this shop, as one of the best known craftsman of Santons. Bright, colorful and carved by hand, the little baked clay figurines are the work of a real artisan. The selection is exhaustive with over 600 figurines in six different sizes.

Marcel Carbonel Santons Shop

We got our car from the parking garage and headed to the other side of the Vieux Port to drop cousin Jean Marc off at his car and take a couple more pictures on our way out of town.

View from the Panier side of the Vieux-Port towards Notre-Dame de la Garde

The Cathedral of Sainte-Marie-Majeure or La Major, founded in the 4th century, enlarged in the 11th century and completely rebuilt in the second half of the 19th century by the architects Léon Vaudoyer and Henri-Jacques Espérandieu.

The present day cathedral is a gigantic edifice in Romano-Byzantine style. A Romanesque transept, choir and altar survive from the older medieval cathedral, spared from complete destruction only as a result of public protests at the time.

Sainte-Marie-Majeure Cathedral

I must say that Marseille continues to grow on me and I see why my cousins love living there so much. Don't be surprised if you see us exploring more of this town on future trips to Provence. Have a great week. Chat soon.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Roussillon, A Most Beautiful Village in the Luberon

Friends and others headed to Provence often ask where they should go during their once in a life time seven day visit to Provence. This is a hard question as most visitors have only 6 days since they usually arrive on Saturday afternoon and depart the following Saturday morning; there are so many wonderful things to see.

There is something for everyone in Provence; there are amazing Roman ruins and medieval villages for history buffs, lavender, sunflowers and coquelicots (poppies) for artists, open-air markets with tantalizing displays of fruits and vegetables and great restaurants for foodies, and world famous vineyards for wine lovers.

There are perched villages everywhere, summer music and theater festivals, bull fights and the Transhumance for lovers of spectacles, brocantes and vide-greniers for antique hunters, Mont Ventoux for amateurs cyclists who want to test their skills on the most famous ascent on the Tour de France, the Dentelles de Montmirail for hikers and picturesque villages with beaches along the Mediterranean Sea.

We usually suggest visitors include a trip to the vibrant red-ocher colored town of Roussillon, one of five villages nestled in the Luberon hills which are classified as Plus Beaux Villages de France (Most beautiful villages of France). Roussillon is one of our favorite villages and just one hour from Sablet.

The Luberon stretches 35 miles along a ridge of rugged hills from Cavaillon in the west to Manosque in the east and from the town of Apt south to the Durance River. Much of the area including Roussillon lies within the borders of the Parc Naturel Régional du Luberon, a protected area with outstanding natural beauty.

Roussillon sits on the southern edge of the Plateau de Vaucluse above one of the world's largest known ocher deposits where 17 shades of ocher--violet, blood red, orange, yellow, and everything in between were once mined.


Just a few minutes walk from the village is the beginning of the Sentier des Ocres (Ocher trail). Ocher is a natural pigment in the sandy soil which form the cliffs around Roussillon. Iron oxides color the sands into shades ranging from yellow to violet. The mineral landscape shows the effects of erosion and mining work done by man.

Two different trails, one short, one long take you through the ocher lands on a 30-minute or 60-minute walk. You can stay as long as you like. Information signs along the way describe the geology, flora and history of the ocher deposits in the Luberon. The trails takes you past multi-colored ocher formations set against a backdrop of pine trees. There is a small admission fee.

Ocher cliff

It's still not known exactly why geological changes caused these pigments precisely here and not elsewhere in the region.

Ocher cliff

There are colorful old buildings and narrow medieval streets everywhere you go in Roussillon.

Roussillon street

Store selling decorative olive trees

The belfry was the ancient entrance into the fortified area called the Castrum. The belfry was renovated in the 19th century as a bell tower adjoining the church. The first street on the left takes you along the former watchman’s walkway, which ran between the two towers on the rampart wall. There are great views of the village and surrounding area.

Belfry overlooks Town Hall Square

Beautiful views alongside the village defensive walls

Roussillon must have more restaurants per head of population than any other Luberon village. Most are clustered around Town Hall Square. A little lower down, with its dining room sailing out into the ocher void, is the more upscale David. Although there are a lot of choices, we have not found any of them to be all that good.

Restaurants line town hall square

The Librairie (bookstore) in La Maison Tacchella to the left and the Hotel de Ville (town hall) to the right in Town Hall Square, the main village square.

Town Hall Square

As you stroll around the village, make sure you look for the 150 year old grape vine in front of Restaurant la Treille.

150 Year old olive tree

A weekly market is held on Thursday mornings.

Roussillon street

Follow the street up to the Castrum at the top of the village and you will find some wonderful panoramic views across the valley to the Grand Luberon, the slopes of Mont Ventoux, and the plateau of the Vaucluse.

Belfry entrance into fortified area of Roussillon

As you stroll up the street, you will pass 17th and 18th century houses painted in all the local ocher shades from soft gold to deep, rich red.

Roussillon house

Another view of the belfry and clock tower

Little friend Julia hitched a ride with me up to the Castrum.

Friend Julia and I

Saint Michel Church whose origins go back to the 11th century, originally faced the castle, inside the fortified walls. The church has undergone countless renovations over time, necessitated in part by its location by the cliff.

Saint Michel Church

Interior of Saint Michel Church

Ocher only became a widespread, industrial product in the late 18th century when Roussillon native son Jean-Etienne Astier came up with the idea of washing the ocher-laden sands to extract the pure pigment.

View from top of village toward cemetery and ocher trail

Shirley and nurse friends pause at a vaulted passageway

As you walk around Roussillon, you will come upon remains of the village defensive walls, some of which were partially rebuilt in modern times.

Roussillon defensive wall

Roussillon street

Roussillon belfry and clock tower

As you can imagine, the beauty of Roussillon draws hordes of artists and visitors during tourist season. It is the most visited village in the Luberon after Gordes, a few miles to the west. Despite this, we have never had any problem finding parking close to the village.

We think it's best to visit in the morning when the first sunshine of the day strikes the village, to see the glowing colors at their most stunning. Roussillon is fairly small so it doesn't take very long to explore. So combine a visit to Roussillon with a visit to Gordes or other hill towns in the Luberon.

Final picture with our friends before we depart Roussillon

Don't forget your camera, you will definitely want to take a lot of pictures. Have a great week. Chat soon.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Domaine de Coyeux, a winery with top tasting wine at the top of the Dentelles de Montmirail

A few months back, I received a text from friends Steve and Mary, I told you about them here, who were in the middle of a séjour in Sablet, saying they had visited Domaine de Coyeux, a winery located high above Beaumes de Venise near the top of the Dentelles de Montmirail.

They said the wines were delicious and the location and views from the winery were spectacular. By the time we arrived in Sablet a few weeks later, we had already decided we would go to the winery and see the sights and taste their wines for ourselves.

Domaine de Coyeux vineyards near the Dentelles de Montmirail

So off we went one Friday morning to Beaumes-de-Venise, a small village about 12 km south of Sablet at the foot of the southern slope of the Dentelles de Montmirail. Beaumes-de-Venise is one of several wine-making villages along the 78 km wine road that circles the Dentelles de Montmirail.

Just outside of Beaumes-de-Venise on the D90 heading toward Lafare, we found a sign pointing the direction for Domaine de Coyeux. We drove up the road until we arrived at a place where there was nothing but vineyards and the Dentelles de Montmirail in front of us. As Steve and Mary said, the views were spectacular. I stopped to take pictures, while Shirley walked ahead.

Road through vineyards up to Domaine de Coyeux

As I said, Domaine de Coyeux is located near the top of the Dentelles de Montmirail, short, steep mountains with a distinctive vertical comb of rock. The name Dentelles, the French word for lace, refers to the jagged, rocky tops obtained by erosion, while Montmirail is derived from the Latin mons mirabilis meaning "admirable mountain".

The Dentelles de Montmirail mountain range is about 8 kms (5 miles) long and runs from Vaison-la-Romaine on the north end to Beaumes-de-Venise on the south. The tallest peak of the Dentelles de Montmirail range is St-Amand, at 734 m (2,400 ft).

Domaine de Coyeux vineyards

The scenery around the vineyards that produce Beaumes-de-Venise wines would fit perfectly into a Tuscan landscape. Grapevines and olive groves mingle, rooted in soil well cared for by the winegrowers. While the name “de Venise” conjures up romantic images, it is of no relation to the Italian city. The name is a distortion of “de Venisse”, meaning “of the Comtat Venaissan”.

Located at the foot of the Dentelles de Montmirail, the terroir’s earth contains three types of soils, as well as deposits of Triassic rock that produces an exceptional type of soil that produces unique wines. Officially granted cru status in 2005, the AOC produces deep colored red wines, in shades ranging from cherry red to purple, as well as the famous dessert wine, Muscat.

Domaine de Coyeux vineyards

Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise wine was awarded AOC status in 1945. These wines are made through a process of arrested fermentation, to produce what is known in French as a vin doux naturel (naturally sweet wine). This technique is based on adding grape spirit (at a minimum of 96 degrees proof) to the semi-fermented grape must, killing the yeasts and thus stopping the fermentation.

This results in a high level of residual sugar and increases the alcohol content (to about 15%). The finished wines are pale gold when young, with delicate vegetal notes and hints of tropical fruits. With age, they develop a rich golden hue and acquire more-prominent flavors of honey, dried apricot and raisins.

Dentelles de Montmirail

The vineyards around Beaumes-de-Venise are very old; the wines can be traced back to 600 years before Christ, when a Greek community moved into the foothills of the Dentelles de Montmirail. The first vines at Domaine de Coyeux were planted back in the 1950s. The Domaine was taken over by Hugues de Feraudy in 2013, whose family history in the Vaucluse dates back to the tenth century.

Olive tree lined entrance to Domaine de Coyeux

Domaine de Coyeux is located on the southern side of the Dentelles de Montmirail and includes one continuous parcel with 112 hectares (277 acres). The estate has Trias soil with pores filled with clay which capture the winter water from the soil that when released in the summer nourishes the root system of the vines, leaving grape berries thirsting for the sun.

Vines are planted on the Coyeux mountains at 300m (984 feet) elevation, the air currents bring freshness in the summer, contributing to healthy grapes and delicate aromatic wines. The Mistral winds quickly dry the foliage which minimizes the risks of parasites.

Shirley inside the tasting room at Domaine de Coyeux

The Domaine's Muscat wine is produced from vines on contiguous plots, the oldest of which will soon be 65 years old. Domaine de Coyeux produces approximately 140,000 bottles of Muscat wine every year from a unique grape variety called Muscat petit grain. This grape variety splits itself into two varieties, one with black berries and the other with golden berries. Regardless of their color, these two sub-varieties produce sweet Muscat wine.

Domaine de Coyeux

There are 17 hectares planted for production of Beaumes-de-Venise red wine. The age of the vines are between 35 and 65 years. Current production is about 72,000 bottles per year. Domaine de Coyeux farms three red grape varieties which are assembled together for the Domaine's red Cru wine, each with its own characteristics: Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre.

Views from Domaine de Coyeux

Domaine de Coyeux produces a small amount of Gigondas red Cru wine from a vineyard southeast of the village of Gigondas and Muscadin, dry and semi-dry white wines from the same grape variety, Muscat petit grain, as that of the Muscat sweet wine.

View toward Dentelle de Montmirail from Domaine de Coyeux

Muscat sweet wine should be served chilled (6° to 8° C). In addition to serving as a nice aperitif, it perfectly accompanies your meals: Appetizer: melons, foie gras, and warm oysters, Cheese: blue-veined cheeses (Roquefort, Stilton), and Dessert: coffee cakes and red fruit gratins.

Domaine de Coyeux

Steve and Mary were right; the Domaine de Coyeux wines are delicious and the scenery and views are spectacular. We will return when we are back in Sablet with our friends. If you are a wine lover, you should definitely go. If you are looking for spectacular views of the Dentelles de Montmirail, you should go too.