Ah, France. The joie de vivre, the je ne sai quois… It is the most visited country on earth. And, after a year of turmoil, she is ready to host the world again. Here, three ways to experience the country now – including five must-do’s in Bordeaux
1. The Anti-Bucket list guide to The South of France
The antithesis of a bucket list goes sort of like this for me: Rather than experiencing something once before crossing it off a list, my goal is to return incessantly to the south of France. Here’s why:
Lavender, roses and poppies
You may want to develop a green thumb after seeing rows upon rows of purple lavender with rose bushes at the end of each row. And the oh-so-French tissue-paper blossoms of poppies growing like weeds—but not like mine at home! (Seriously, weeds. French farmers may use herbicides to get rid of Papaver rheas—the Flanders Field poppy—but there are still banks of them along the roadways.)
One of the smallest hamlets in my travels, Les Baux-de-Provence has a population of 22 – down from the 3,000 who lived within the ramparts in the 13th century. Legend has it that the House of Baux was descended from Balthazar, one of the Three Wise Men who followed the star of Bethlehem, which is featured on its coat of arms. But with the death of the last member of the House of Baux in the 15th century, the castle was demolished and only partially rebuilt until King Louis XIII of France gave the lordship to the Grimaldi princes in appreciation of them driving the Spanish from Monaco in 1641. As the Marquis of Baux, Prince Albert of Monaco was given the keys to the city during his visit with his mother, the legendary Princess Grace, in 1982. He returned to the castle in July 2012 for a tribute to Princess Grace by Paris-Match magazine.
On the edge of a red cliff, Roussillon has more restaurants than I’ve ever seen in a village with a population of less than 1,300. It’s a visual feast, too. The buildings on its spiralling streets glow in every shade of ochre imaginable—yellow, red, brown purple, sienna and umber—found in the clay deposits surrounding the town. The surrounding quarries are said to be the world’s biggest vein of ochre, which, aside from the clarity of the light, was a major attraction for European painters. The natural pigment is the basis of the paints they used to create their masterpieces.
Saintes Maries de la Mer, by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890).
I’ve enjoyed a pastis at the yellow café Vincent van Gogh made famous in Arles but, standing in the small barren cell in Saint-Paul de Mausole in the town of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence and looking out the barred window that was his view for the year he spent “resting” here sends shivers down my spine. Far from resting, van Gogh’s confinement to this private asylum (still in operation today) was his most prolific period. Some of his most famous works originated here: The Starry Night, Vase with Irises, Wheat Field with Cypresses. Yet none of his originals are here; only reproductions set up in the fields where he had often worked. Seeing the original scene, standing where he would have stood is, surprisingly, as moving as seeing the paintings themselves, now hanging in museums around the world.
2. Eat one really killer omelette in northern France
The picturesque ancient abbey of Mont Saint-Michel, half Romanesque and half Gothic, perches perilously on a rocky islet jutting up from the salt flats on the border of France’s Normandy and Brittany. It was there, while on a motorcycle grand tour of Europe as an undergrad, that I made a double discovery. First, Romanesque architecture has a beauty that tugs at the heartstrings, but only if you see it up close and personal because in photos it comes across as squat and gloomy. Second, an art history prof urged me to have lunch at La Mère Poulard restaurant to sample its famously fluffy omelette.
Henry Adams’ classic 1905 book Mont Saint-Michel and Chartres, a study of the faith that built medieval cathedrals, is prefaced with a description of tourists “along the chaussée, over the sands or through the tide, till they stop at Madame Poulard’s famous hotel within the Gate of the Mount.” More than a century ago, the hotel’s restaurant was already renowned for the omelettes that would fortify pilgrims about to undertake the ascent up the medieval shoppe-lined spiralling Grande Rue to the abbey.
More than a century later, there I am, watching how the “floor show” beguiled the time for patrons waiting in queue: chefs in traditional red smocks and black hats rhythmically whisked the egg mixture, then poured it into great copper pans heating on a giant wood-burning fireplace. Or guests can ogle the walls covered with framed autographs from politicians and luminaries such as Ernest Hemingway, Charles de Gaulle, Cary Grant and Yves Saint Laurent.
I was welcomed to a typical lunch starting with Normandy bisque of Brittany lobster and ending with the regional specialty tarte tatin, an upside-down pastry of apples caramelized in butter and sugar—another apple foodie blessing from the land that birthed Calvados (cider brandy)—with vanilla ice cream and caramel. The main course, omelette with pan-fried foie gras and fresh mushrooms, was rich and filling enough to challenge the most gluttonous trencherman, yet paradoxically puffy as a soufflé and lighter than air.
3. Take a cruise on the Crystal Serenity to Bordeaux, France… or do your best armchair traveller with this inspirational slideshow…
En route, the famed Chateau Margaux vineyards
A cruise is a wonderful thing: it allows you to unpack once, yet visit much more than just one place. Itineraries vary, but Crystal Cruises opts for some very interesting ports of call, including Bordeaux.