Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sainte Marie de la Mer

Sainte Marie de a Mer lies a scant 38 kilometers south of Arles but seems worlds apart.  Whereas Arles is gritty in a city sort of way, the Camargue, a sea level marshland, grows rice and grapes, raises black fighting bulls called Taureau (pronounced like the Spanish Toro) and its famed white horses. Though agriculture and salt production still exist the Camargue’s financial mainstay has become tourism.
Promenade du Cheval
The Camargue is cowboy country.  Outlying hotels offer horseback tours and next to each property you’ll find a corral with the short, muscular white or beige Camargue horses for hire.  The cowboys called “gardians” look a lot like the American variety and are imbued with similar mythology so many a western has been filmed near Sainte Marie. No kill bull fighting is practiced in the Camargue.  These contests pit man against bull where the objective is for the “raseteur” a sort of matador in white attire and sneakers to grab an “attribut” strung between the bull’s horns with a dull hook called a “crochet.”  In this decidedly egalitarian French bull game bulls can achieve as much glory as their human counterparts.  Seems fair to me.
Chevals du Camargue
Chevals du Canargue
Chevals du Camargue
Sainte Marie’s town center is dominated by the twelfth century Notre Dame de la Mer church that reputedly can be seen from six miles away which seems entirely plausible since the marshes and ponds called “etangs” are crepe flat as far as the eye can see. 
Notre Dame de la Mer
Centre Ville a Nuit
Street Scene
National Pastime
Dinner of Rouget and Rose
The Plage at Dusk

Little Rome

Place de la Republique
Arles has been referred to as “Rome in Gaul” because of the forum, amphitheatre, theatre antique and crypto portico built by its Roman conquerors in about 90 BC.  The first ever life mask of Julius Caesar has been found in the Rhone River within the last two years.  It was Caesar that gave Arles to veterans of his legions with the understanding that they would honor him by creating a replica of Rome as was done in Nimes and Orange among others. The amphitheatre, the 21st largest of the Roman arenas, is an engineering marvel that seats 20,000 while the nearby theatre seats over 10,000. The Museum of Ancient Arles displays artifacts from prehistory to 500 AD while the Reattu shows Picasso, Zadkine and Alechinscky and contemporary artists. 
Foundation Van Gogh

Rue de la Calade
Vielle Homme
Rue Voltaire
Theatre Antique
Theatre Antique

Theatre Antique
Theatre Antique

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Road to Ganagobie

When Jean Luc Lievet hitched a ride to the monastery at Ganagobie is was to be the ride of his life or more precisely the ride to his life.  Jean Luc had yearned for the monastic life since he was a teenager and now in his early fifties was doing “what I was meant to do” as he puts it.  When still in his teens Jean Luc was dissuaded by his mother from following the path of the cloth.  She told him that he should experience something of life before making such an encompassing commitment.  So he joined the French navy and saw the world in a big way.  The man has been everywhere.  He told me, “I have had a hard life” but didn’t describe his struggles.  He said that he longed for purity, clarity and an unfettered existence devoted to contemplation and the search for God.  With that pronouncement he pointed to the center of his chest.
We drove forS   Set on 40 mountain top hectares above the River Durance the Cluniac priory from the 12th century feels like the top of the world, the summit of absolute faith.  A short walk leads to a simple white cross that leads your eye across the Plateau du Valensole to the Alpes beyond.  
Just twelve monks occupy Ganagobie, thirteen with Jean Luc as its youngest brother. It’s lot of grandeur for a baker’s dozen of prayerful men.

Even as a non-believer I was taken by the warmth and grace of the monks.  Pere Francois, the hotelier for visiting retreatents, was 63 and looked 43. His unlined skin and clear eyes bespoke good health and real joy. The appeal of a pared down, focused life did not escape my understanding or appreciation.   
           Pere Francois graciously allowed one hopelessly back lit photograph of Jean Luc's reception.

Thoroughly Modern Thuerry

Chateau Thuerry is one of most highly regarded in the Var.  Like most Var vignerons Thuerry produces some outstanding roses but also an off dry white blend and four rouges.  The chateau uses Cabernet and Merlot along with the Provencal grapes that predominate in the Var; Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and Cinsault.  The whites, roses and whites are made in four quality levels, the basic “chateau” blend up through the “Exceptionale” which can age 4-6 years.  

Our guide gave us a primer on the importance of barrel aging and how new oak, American Oak and French Oak impact the taste of wine.  American Oak produces the oak and vanilla flavors we attribute to New World wine while the French Oak lends smoke and tobacco notes to the cepage.   It’s a fine point I didn’t appreciate though I’ve been “into” wine for forty years. Further, there are even differences in the effects of the barrels from specific barrel makers.  Now that’s really esoteric.

Chateau Thuerry harvests 45 hectares of estate grapes and produces more than 200,000 bottles each year.  Their production is evenly split between direct sales, retail sales around the globe and restaurant sales in bag in a box form.  Three and five liter box wines are a staple of restaurants and households throughout France and are an economic way to enjoy good juice.  We have just bought our first Box and will report forthwith.

Happily we visited while La Vendage or harvest was still happening so the images show Grenache grapes on the vine and being sorted before destemming.  We were able to help ourselves to the grapes that didn’t make the cut. I couldn’t tell why they weren’t up to snuff but they were fruit bombs in the mouth.

This is my first post with a gazillion pics.  Tell me if it’s too much.