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Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Honeymoon: Chateauneuf de pape

May 14 & 15

We found a great inn near Orange called Bastide des Princes that is run by a master chef and his wife. We’d hoped to stay two nights but they only had availability for one night so we decided to take it anyway.

Door knocker
The door knocker

The inn is along a lovely country road and in the middle of fields. It’s charming to say the least, just like the owners.

Bastide des Princes, near Chateauneuf du pape

Bastide des Princes, near Chateauneuf du pape

Bastide des Princes, near Chateauneuf du pape

While James and I were having a small picnic in the garden, Annie came out and let us know that the couple set to arrive the following day had some misfortune and were no longer able to come so if we still wanted the room for two nights, she’d be happy to accommodate us. Hooray!

Bastide des Princes

This was wonderful news for us because the kitchen is closed on Monday, which meant that if we weren’t staying the extra night on Tuesday, we’d be unable to enjoy the fantastic creations of her husband. The menu is set each day depending on what is fresh and available in the garden and from the market.

Vines near Bastide des Princes
Check out these old vines.


For our first night we asked them to recommend a good foodie place for us to have dinner, and we had a fantastic recommendation, which did require a bit of scouting! Fido can thank Google maps for that $50 data checkin.

I’ll have to update this post with the name of the other restaurant when I find the business card because it was James’ favourite meal.

The following day we borrowed a map from our hosts and did another excellent loop drive, where we stopped and wandered through several little villages.

Loop drive from Chateauneuf du pape

Vines

Vaison-la-Romaine (maybe)

In Vaison-la-Romaine or Séguret (maybe), we walked up to some ruins at the top of a hill and enjoyed a beautiful view of the countryside.

Vaison-la-Romaine or Séguret (maybe)

Vaison-la-Romaine or Séguret (maybe)

Vaison-la-Romaine or Séguret (maybe)

Vaison-la-Romaine

The route from Vaison to Suzette is a little climb, which means that the viewpoints are even more frequent and spectacular than the loop route near Grasse. In addition there are caves for wine tasting everywhere, and everything tastes amazing.

Route de Vaison to Suzette

Route de Vaison to Suzette
That night we had dinner in the restaurant, which was magical and my favourite meal of our entire trip.

Nighttime at Bastide des Princes, near Chateauneuf du pape

We started with a glass of sparkling wine, then moved on to this bottle of red, which I’d happily have again and again.

Bastide des Princes amazing dinner

I really should have taken a photo of each course because the next dish was always trumping the last. This is my favourite way to eat, small plates throughout the evening with a great bottle(s) of wine.

Bastides des Princes - appetizer with scallop, salmon, asperagus

Bastide des Princes amazing dinner

I can still taste this dessert. The fruite mousse was delightful, but the white chocolate cheesecake with the whipped mint-chocolate hardened around it was the ultimate taste combo for me.

Bastides des Prince -- master chef dessert

Bastide des Princes

It was sad to leave our little kitchen breakfast table the next morning, but also happy because we were on our way to see Darren and Julie in Argeliers.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Book Review: The Red House by Mark Haddon

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The Red House is the latest novel by Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and A Spot of Bother. The novels are getting more and more experimental and deeper into the psyche of the characters. In some ways A Spot of Bother and The Red House remind me of Martin Amis novels in that we get a low-class to middle-class view of the British and the protagonists are losers in some way, and continue to be losers even at the end of the novel.

In The Red House we have a brother and sister, Richard and Angela, who’ve drifted apart but are reunited after the death of their mother. Richard, who is younger and more successful—a doctor, albeit with a lawsuit pending—has invited his sister and her unemployed husband and three children on holiday. Richard also has his new wife Louisa and her teenage daughter Melissa in tow. Louisa seems to be the least developed character. She’s initially presented as the trophy wife who is amenable to everything and everyone. She has a small triumph in confronting Richard midway through the book but otherwise isn’t as developed as her daughter, who is beautiful outside but not inside, Alex the athletic son, Daisy the Christian, Benjy the little kid, Angela the self-proclaimed underachiever who is losing a grip on reality or Dominic the weak father. But then again, the novel really isn’t about anyone.

The crazy thing about this book is that the perspective shifts, almost at every paragraph, from one character to the next. This is a bit of a challenge in the beginning because on top of the shifting perspective, some of the characters are reading books so you get their interior monologue as they read.

Overall, the book was enjoyable but not my favourite Haddon novel, which still remains Curious Incident. Regardless, if you’re a Haddon fan, then give this one a go. Like Spot of Bother, it’s not an uplifting ending but it’s not depressing either. 

The Red House by Mark Haddon is published by Doubleday Canada.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Honeymoon: Provence

Grasse, France

On Saturday, May 12th James and I flew from Amsterdam to Nice. Our plan was to have lunch in Nice and wander around then drive to Grasse, where we had rented a little cottage. We left the Amsterdam flat at 5 am so by the time we arrived in Nice, we really just wanted to get to Grasse and have a nap. So we decided to forego our lunch plans and arrived in Grasse in the early afternoon.

Bienvenue a Grasse. Perfume capital of the world.

We were a bit lost. It was analog maps and the compass on my iPhone guiding us, especially since the French are pretty relaxed when it comes to signage. At one point we stopped at a McDonald’s that was advertising free wifi in order to get our barings. It ended up that the McDonald’s was on a roundabout and our guesthouse was straight across that very roundabout.

We stayed at Mas des Romarins, which is walking distance from two perfumeries and 45-60 minutes walk from the town of Grasse.

After a nice little nap, we ventured out into the warm afternoon and trekked uphill to the town. Right at the top of the hill is Molinard, a little history of perfume museum with old bottles and photos and a small factory tour below. We wandered around there, then stopped at a creperie for a bite to eat.

Grasse

The town was a quaint little village with windy streets and little stalls selling lavender and rose products. Overall I was disappointed in Grasse because I was hoping for more insights into the perfume industry and I was keen to see the rose fields where Channel grows their special stock. Alas, the internet (in French and English) was not helpful in getting us sorted out.

We did do one of the tours though, just to look around.

Perfume organ


Thankfully I discovered a loop road and we planned our adventure for the following day.

Grasse loop drive


Sunday, May 13

After a lovely breakfast we drove off to Valbonne, which is a typical Provence town.

Valbonne

Valbonne

Rose festival

Rose festival

There was a huge garage-sale event happening in one of the parking lots so we walked around there, then stopped at a butcher and vegetable stand to collect some lunch items.

Market day in Valbonne

Asterix in Valbonne

Rose

Then we took to the road, driving passed Chateauneuf-Grasse to Gourdon. The road was absolutely spectacular and Gourdon is tucked up at the top of a mountain.

Driving up to Gourdon.

Flower fields outside of Gourdon

In Gourdon James stumbled upon a confectioner who was only too happy to chat us up about his son’s visit to America, French politics, the art of making nougat and the perfume fields around Gourdon.

Grasse to Gourdon

Gourdon

Since it was afternoon, the roses would be already picked, but after having a sip of orange blossom liquor from their private stock, we decided to see one of the fields anyway.

Flower fields outside of Gourdon

It’s not really that hard to find beautiful roses.

Flower fields outside of Gourdon

In May, the orange blossoms are scenting the air more so than the roses.

Florian Confectionery

From Gourdon we travelled eastward to Tourres-sur-Loup and Vence. We stopped at the Florian confectionery and visited La Colle-sur-Loup where there village was celebrating Rose Festival. Then it was back to Valbonne for a nice dinner.

The Florian confectionery had a lovely garden with roses and orange blossoms.

Rose

Florian Confectionery

Florian Confectionery

In Colle sur Loup is where we encountered the Rose Festival with traditional dancing, sweets and roses bushes of every kind for sale.

Rose festival in La Colle sur Loup

Monday, May 14

Our host Claire made us a lovely breakfast in the garden and chatted to us about the jasmine growing and orange blossoms. By the time we left we had a small flower and herb garden of clippings in our car, which made for a fragrant journey to Chateauneuf-du-pape.

Jasmine

We also stopped at a few of the perfume factories to poke around. They are rather touristy but it was still fun to see the old stills.

Us in front of Fragonard

Fragonard

Fragonard perfumery in Grasse

Fragonard perfumery in Grasse

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Honeymoon Interlude: Amsterdam

Wednesday, May 9 James and I boarded the train in Paris. The Mobilism conference was on in Amsterdam and we were going. Technically James was going and I was to amuse myself. I did have a great set of recommendations from friends so I was nonplussed about it.

First, train travel in the EU is spectacular. We travelled 300 km per hour and zipped along the French countryside, fired our way through Belgium and bingo-bango arrived in Amsterdam in just over 3 hours. No borders, no “security theatre” as James likes to say, and no drama.

The Dutch enjoyed our company from May 9-12 then we flew off to Nice, France.

Us in Amsterdam

So about that Amsterdam visit.

May 9: We walked around Amsterdam that afternoon and evening. Amsterdam’s downtown streets radiate out in a stoke with the cross streets alternating with canals. It’s really quite a lovely city.

Amsterdam


Amsterdam

I was interested in going to Amsterdam but it wasn’t on my original list of honeymoon plans so I’m glad it was blissful.

The weather was a bit better than Paris, which had been grey and then cold and rainy. At least Amsterdam’s air was refreshing and everything was green and blue as opposed to beige in Paris. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Paris. But Amsterdam felt wonderful.

One of my wishes was to have great Indonesian food in Amsterdam. I’d been to Indonesia and enjoyed Dutch chocolate sprinkles on my food so I figured that Amsterdam would have brought back the best of Indonesia. Indeed they did!

We had a delicious dinner at Kantjil & de Tijger. Our choice was a rijsttafel, which is a number of dishes to share. Our palates enjoyed 13 dishes.

Most delicious Indonesian in Amsterdam @ Kantjil & Tijger

Rijsttafel Matjan:
Nasi Koening, Saté Ajam, Saté Oedang, Daging Roedjak, Ajam Goreng Pazri Nanas, Ikan Boemboe Bali, Sambal Goreng Boontjes, Sambal Goreng Laboe Siam, Selada Nanas, Sambal Goreng Kentang, Sambal Goreng Telor, Seroendeng en Kroepoek.


May 10 & 11

I was feeling much better after my Parisienne broth and dry bread diet but still not 100%. Thankfully our apartment in Amsterdam made it worth it to stay indoors and relax. We had an upstairs flat in one of the canal houses on Keizersgracht (#684). The front-half of the entire floor.

Amsterdam


Canal House on Keizersgracht

This meant a beautiful view out the front of the canal from our sitting room.


The Dutch, so stylish

A nice table for breakfast.


Amsterdam Canal House on Keizersgracht

A day bed. A full-size bedroom with a small washer/dryer tucked away in a closet.


The Dutch, so stylish

A super cute kitchen.  And a small bathroom off the back of the kitchen.

Totally lovely. And Maud, our landlady, brought me fresh bread and breadfast foods. I quite happily read my book and lazed away my afternoons.

Amsterdam

There is a ton of style in Amsterdam and great touches with the clothes and interior design. We even noticed a ton of graphic designers and ad/marketing agencies. Perhaps Boxcar Marketing needs a European office?


During the adventurous parts of my days, I went to the Anne Frank house. I think many people forget that Anne was from Amsterdam. It was sad to see the tiny attic rooms and to think about those families hiding there and being afraid. It choked me up to see Anne’s walls still with some of her movie star postcards plastered to the wall. Most affecting were the pencil marks charting Anne and her sister’s heights. Anne was my height. Taller than I’d imagined, especially because she was so young.

At the end of the tour is a video series. One is of a neighbourhood girl who knew Anne and saw her in the concentration camp when Anne believed she’d lost everyone. She didn’t know that her father was still alive. The neighbour believed that if Anne had known then perhaps she would have fought to continue. The other was Otto Frank talking about Anne and how close they were, yet he never suspected she had these thoughts that she was recording in her diary. He knew she had a diary because she made him promise not to look at it and to lock it up in his safe every night. One of his striking comments was that they got along well and reading the diary made him feel like this was not the Anne he knew. He ended with a caution to parents that you never really know your children, regardless of how close you feel to them. I wonder if the discrepancy between the Anne he knew and the Anne in the diary made it easier for him to edit and publish the book.

After my tragic exploration of Anne’s quarters I sought out the sunshine of Vodelpark. I did think of renting a bicycle because they are everywhere in Amsterdam, but walking meant I could look more closely at things and enjoy my time ambling around vs. watching for traffic.

Vodelpark


Vondelpark


On our last night, James was finally free from the conference and we walked around the streets again and settled in at Cafe George for a delicious dinner.

Cafe George


I am Amsterdam

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Book Review: Gold by Chris Cleave

Two years ago I read and loved Chris Cleave’s novel Little Bee. I loved it, thought it was brilliant and was definitely looking forward to Gold, which did not disappoint!

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Basic plotline: Gold is about the upcoming London Olympics and 3 British cyclists who are vying for a spot on the podium. But just as Little Bee wasn’t about immigration, Gold isn’t about the Olympics.

Chris Cleave throws readers his usual twists and turns, giving us Kate and Zoe, two driven athletes who are friends and competitors and Jack, Kate’s husband, and I can’t tell you any more otherwise it spoils the surprises, but all three are world-class cyclists.

You can practically feel the blood pumping in these woman’s legs as they fight for every finish—and fight through every part of their friendship as well. In some ways the novel is about humanizing the athletes we admire and cheer for in the Olympics and the messed up ways that they must be determined to win. Zoe is certainly the extreme example here. With no family ties and no friends aside from Kate, Zoe is the headstrong, angry, determined, single-focussed athlete, whereas Kate is a mother, a wife, and a gentle menace on the track. Jack is Jack. There’s never any doubt that he’s going to win, but even his heartbreaks show that life is about more than winning medals.

Gold is another outstanding novel by Chris Cleave.
Published by Bond Street Books, Doubleday Canada
See it on Amazon.ca