Tuesday, January 10, 2017

20 French Instagrammers to Follow

Instagram is loaded with gorgeous photos of Provence. Here are 19 local accounts you might enjoy following...plus one I love in Paris. Feel free to share your favorite French IG accounts--or your own--by leaving the info under comments, at the bottom of this post. 

A photo posted by Sam (@samm20) on

A photo posted by ProvenceGuide (@provenceguide) on

A photo posted by La Provence (@laprovence) on

A photo posted by provence (@provence) on

A photo posted by @myprovenceofficiel on

A photo posted by VuTheara Kham (@vutheara) on
And last but not least...

Monday, January 2, 2017

Curtain Up! A Theater Debuts in Avignon

A new, 50-seat theater will open in mid-January in the heart of Avignon, in an 1875 hotel particulier just behind the Opera House, just off the Place Horloge.

Called Theatre Le 9 Avignon, the venue will host a range of performances including classical music, cabaret, comedy and small-cast plays. Arnaud Lanez, communications director of the Avignon Opera, has signed on as the “conseiller artistique.”

The first, “toe-in-the-water” season launches January 12 with a free performance of Les Notes et Des Mots, a three-person evening of music, song and poetry by Tatiana Probst, Barbara Probst and Francois Lambret. The schedule then continues until July--when the space will be rented out for the Avignon Theater Festival--and starts up again in fall.

To call the Theatre Le 9 a very-personal labor of love would be a wild understatement. Owner/director Hilary Lemaire conceived the project and chooses all the shows; her husband Jean-Pierre Lemaire, literally built the theater and the beautiful home that surrounds it.  “I always loved the idea of living above the shop!” Hilary says. When you arrive for a performance, don’t be surprised if it’s Hilary or Jean-Pierre who greet you at the door, take your coat and usher you into your red-velvet seat.

For Hilary, the theater is the culmination of a life spent in theater, both on the stage and behind the scenes.

For Jean-Pierre, an “idea guy” and an experienced master builder, this was an important renovation project for his most-important client yet: his wife.

Hilary calls herself London Irish: “born in London but proud of my Irish heritage.” She trained in theatre at Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance (London) and went on to marry a jazz musician. “It was a cool but not very lucrative career,” she says, “and one of us had to pay the rent.” Hilary found work as a teacher but the marriage didn’t last; she transitioned into journalism and became features editor of Campaign, a journal for the advertising industry. There she met her second husband and together they embarked on what Hilary calls “an amazing adventure,” which, thanks to his job with Heinz, gave them ten wonderful years in Asia.

In Japan, Hilary rekindled her theater career, working for--and eventually running--Tokyo Theatre for Children. She was also involved in community theater, as both an actor and a director.  

After four years the couple moved to Hong Kong, where Hilary performed in a professional, English-speaking theatre company and eventually created her own company, presenting cabaret performances. She also wrote a series of touring murder-mystery shows.

When retirement beckoned, the couple settled in Antibes on the French Riviera, which they had always loved. There Hilary created The Red Pear Theatre, presenting more than 150 shows with artists drawn from London, Dublin and the US. She also designed and led a workshop program that brought actors into the classrooms of five local international schools.  Actors were in and out of their home constantly, with Hilary often donating proceeds from their performances to Educating Cambodia, an organization she still supports. 

After a long illness, Hilary’s husband passed away in 2010. “There was a period of adjustment,” she says, “and then it was time to turn the page.”

Hilary met Jean-Pierre in Antibes when a friend sent him over to help her with an electrical problem. “He rang the bell and it was a coup de foudre,” she told me. Eventually the couple decided to move to Avignon and set out to find the perfect building, one that would lend itself to the unusual combination of home and theater. “The estate agent showed us everything he thought would appeal,” she recalls, “but nothing did, of course. Then he mentioned a house that had just come on the market but needed way too much work. Jean-Pierre was looking for a challenge, wanting to create something very special. He looked at the rabbit warren of tiny rooms, the pigeons, the mess and then at me; he saw me smiling and we both said, ‘yep, this is it.’”

The house had gorgeous bones and a fine pedigree but was a total ruin. While Jean-Pierre isn’t exactly an architect, engineer or contractor, he does all those things and more: electrical, woodworking, cabinetmaking, plumbing. (Hilary calls him “a creator of buildings who has the ideas and the skills to realize them.”) And so he set to work making Hilary’s dream house. He evacuated 265 tons of rubble and 40 tons of wood...and built an entirely new house within the old walls. Wiring the building took nine kilometres of cable; he went through 400 sacks of plaster at 30 kilos each.

“And I did it all with 20 tons of amour,” he says.

Today the house has reception rooms and the jewel-box of a theater on the ground floor, with living areas above. In the reception rooms, Hilary will be showing artwork, clothing and jewelry from artisans she loves. A large, terraced courtyard garden will be used for drinks at intermission and post-show mingling with performers.

“The goal was to restore the home to what it had been...but with modern ideas,” Hilary says. “For example, I wanted the garden to have a Japanese element.  I lived in Asia ten years and loved the contrapunto idea of blending modern, classic and Aisan influences. Some of my furniture comes from those years and I wanted the garden to be a zen experience.”

A private launch party on December 20, with three performances, built the buzz around town and gave Hilary the chance to test her sound and lighting in front of a packed house. “Arnaud from the Opera proclaimed the acoustics ‘perfect,’ she says proudly.

Performances will be international...some in French, others in English. Hilary says her years with Red Pear in Antibes “will bear fruit” while many of her heavy-weight London theatre-world friends have agreed to perform as well. To draw younger performers and theatre-goers, there will be a Master Class program and connections are being forged with local universities. Certain performances will be fundraisers for Educating Cambodia.

So what’s on? The debut season launches with Les Notes et Des Mots, for one night only, on January 12. Tickets are free (limit two per person) and can be reserved by email or phone (see contact info below).

On Monday Feb 13, Hilary presents Love Letters, with Anne Reid and James Bolam. Reid is an English stage, film and TV actress known for the soap opera Coronation Street (1961–71); the sitcom Dinnerladies (1998–2000), and her BAFTA-nominated role as Celia Dawson in Last Tango in Halifax (2012–16).

The next night (Feb 14), Reid will perform My Funny Valentine, a cabaret show in English created for this venue with Jason Carr, a two-time Tony Award-nominated pianist. “Anne came to Antibes and happened to mention that all she’d ever really wanted to do is cabaret,” Hilary explains. “I said ‘just give me a date!’ She went back to London, found a musical director and returned a year later with her first cabaret show. Since then she’s done cabaret in New York and London...she absolutely loves it. It means so much to me that me that she’s coming!”

On Friday March 24, there will be a concert of arias with soprano Julie Roset and pianist Helene Blanic. Roset recently won a competition sponsored by the Avignon Opera and as part of her prize, Hilary provided funding to continue her studies. This concert is her thank you. “Julie is delightfully expressive and has an infectious personality,” Hilary reports. “Having that in this intimate setting will be wonderful. I can’t wait to have her on our stage!”

On Friday April 28, look for a concert by the eight students of a one-week Master Class with soprano Francoise Pollet. (“Francoise is the diva,” Hilary proclaims. “To her, you bow down.”) The performance will be the culmination of the students’ week-long training.

Friday May 26 there will be a two-person dramatic evening with Pierre Rochefort and another actor to be named soon.

On June 29 and 30, the first season wraps with Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer, a one-man show in English, written and perfomed by Adrian Dooley. Crean was the only member of Shackleton’s crew to go with him three times to the South Pole; Hilary describes the work as “pure magic...the best one- man show I’ve ever presented.” 

Theatre Le 9 is located at 9, rue Racine, just off the Place Horloge. The website is still under construction but info on all performances is on the Facebook page here. For info and reservations: +33 (0)4 84 14 27 28, le9theatreavignon@gmail.com.

Photos: (1) Jean-Pierre and Hilary, during construction. (2) The theater takes it's name from the address, at 9 rue Racine. (3, 4) The theater itself, before and after. (5) Anne Reid will perform February 13 and 14. (6) Reception area for pre- and post-show mingling. (7) Part of the couple's lovely kitchen, upstairs of the theater.

Monday, December 12, 2016

My Excellent Autumn Luberon Adventure

Huile on Wheels! If you know the Luberon, you know this truck.
(Four pix) Lunch at Chez Auzet in Menerbes: squash soup, a rich Roquefort and walnut tart, goodies to take home,  GĂ©rard and his son Vincent, 6th and 7th-generation bakers.
Local rosĂ©s on display at Maison de la Truffe et du Vin. The annual truffle market in Menerbes is December 28.
(Four pix) From Le Clos de Buis in Bonnieux: breafast, a pretty guest room, owner Pierre Maurin, view of Mont Ventoux.
(Two pix) Who could resist the charming Roland Masset or his Bonnieux antique shop Au Detour d'Une Promenade?
(Three pix) At the Bastide de Gordes: me and my new best friends, setting the dining terrace, view of the back of the hotel...and its knockout view.
(Three pix) Anthony Mathieu at Le Phebus, his dad's Michelin-one-star dining room, the pool at night.
The lower "new" church in Bonnieux.
Eighty-six steps up to the 12th-century "old" church in Bonnieux...and fantastic views.
The Restaurant de la Gare: before Pierre Cardin took over...and now. It may or may not be closed for the winter...their hours remain a mystery.
The Roman bridge Pont Julien
Corinne Russo is my secret weapon when it comes to all things Luberon.
One of my Luberon tours will include a guided visit to the Ochre Conservatory.
 Sunset over Roussillon means the party's over, at least for today...

This is the time of year when I do much of my research, checking out new and renovated hotels, visiting rental villas, trying restaurants I've heard good things about, finding cool new places to share with my readers and clients. There are always so many things to discover...I keep a list and am adding to it all year. And it’s so much more fun when someone totally in-the-know, like my sweet friend Corinne Russo, goes with me. So a couple Saturdays ago, when Corinne said "let's go exploring in the Luberon!," I jumped at the chance.  Plus, she offered to drive. Bonus!

Born and raised in Cavaillon, Corinne left her job at the Cavaillon Tourist Office last year and has teamed up with two partners in a company called Culture Couleur, which provides color research, expertise and team building for private companies, tourism organizations and economic development. But tourism remains Corinne’s passion and she is frequently called upon by hotels, restaurants and tourist boards to help with marketing, PR and development projects...throughout all of Provence but especially across the Luberon. No one knows the region better! Using her extensive network of contacts, Corinne is helping me put together some fantastic new day trips and activities to add to my offerings at WhatToDoinProvence.com, where you’ll already find lots of fun things to do in the Luberon such as cooking classes, a foodie bike tour, a lavender tour, art workshops, photo safaris and more.

Our first stop was the Le Clos de Buis in Bonnieux, a perfect little eight-room, three-star hotel with great prices, a large garden and pool, gorgeous views and a super-warm atmosphere created by owners Pierre and Lydia Maurin. (The hotel isn’t new but I’d never visited.) If you like the idea of staying in the heart of an ancient village--but still want a country feel—this is your place. Among other things, I loved the hotel’s pretty Provencal decor and the extra kitchen for guests who want to do some of their own cooking.  I also loved how they kept the old bread oven, back from when this was one of a few village bakeries in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  No one is quite sure when the bakery actually shut down but Pierre’s cousin, age 96, says he’s never seen it open in his lifetime. If you need a handicapped guest room, by the way, they have a really nice one which opens right onto the streets of the village...no steps.

Speaking of steps, I love how Bonnieux—the highest perched village in the Luberon—has  an upper and lower church, so folks who lived in the valley didn’t have to climb all the way up top to attend mass; the 12th century "vieille Ă©glise" or old church is 86 steps up from the upper-most village street! The one everyone calls the "Ă©glise neuve" (new church) was built in 1870 and perches on the slope in front of the lower village. These days, Sunday services are held in the new church every few weeks, on a rotating schedule with other villages, while the old church is open occasionally for tourist visits, classical music concerts, marriages and funerals, and special services like Christmas Eve Mass.

Bonnieux’s steep upper streets are lined with 800-year old buildings, most of which are built on top of even older structures and ancient caves; from up top you get a spectacular view. To the east, is the FĂ´ret de Cèdres (cedar forest), with trees imported from North Africa during the Napoleonic era. Three km north of town, you’ll find the Roman-built Pont Julien Bridge, which crosses the narrow Calavon River and was in use until 2005! (The main road through the Luberon Valley, the D900, pretty much follows the route of the Via Domitia, which linked Italy and Spain in Roman times.) Beyond that, you’ll see the mighty Mont Ventoux, “the Giant of Provence,” well known for many grueling stages of the annual Tour de France.

But back to our own tour! Neither Corinne nor I can resist a cute antique shop and the one directly opposite the hotel Clos de Buis, called Au DĂ©tour d’Une Promenade, beckoned us. Owner Roland Masset was just closing up for vacation but invited us in to poke around and chat. He’ll reopen in spring, at which time I plan to go back and buy at least half the shop.

We had hoped to lunch at the Cafe de la Gare in Bonnieux, one of my favorite haunts in days gone by. Pierre Cardin took it over a while back and I’m curious about the changes he made. But no luck there...they were closed up tight...despite the sign that says “Open Monday to Saturday.” (Their voicemail says the same.)  This was my third attempt to try it in the last year and a half...but I’ll try again in Spring.

Instead, we toodled up the hill in Menerbes to see Corinne’s old pal GĂ©rard Auzet, at his tiny cafe just next door to the Dora Maar House. A 6th-generation baker, GĂ©rard sold his well-known boulangerie and tea room Chez Auzet in Cavaillon a while back, thinking he’d retire. But he quickly grew bored and decided to open a small cafe “for friends,” next door to his hilltop home, this summer. At this new Chez Auzet (52 rue du Portail Neuf, Menerbes, 04 90 72 37 53), GĂ©rard and his son Vincent prepare just a few things each day for lunch and sometimes dinner...closing up “when there’s no more people.” It’s perfect! Every day, père et fils make a few savory tarts, a few sweet tarts, salad and soup; a terrifically satisfying lunch with a glass of wine, dessert and coffee costs well under 20€. I had the Roquefort/walnut tart; Corinne had the pissaladiere tart; we both had squash soup and salad and a glass of red wine from nearby Domaine de Jeanne. Best of all, Vincent pulled out his guitar and serenaded us after lunch, starting with The House of the Rising Sun, one of the very first songs I learned to play on piano. If GĂ©rard’s name seems familiar, he became a bit of a celebrity in these parts with the 2005 publication of Confessions of a French Baker, a book written (with him and about him) by none other than Peter Mayle.

After lunch we strolled over to the Maison de la Truffe et du Vin, which combines a restaurant, party space, wine shop, tasting room and bookstore....all designed to promote the truffles and wines of the Luberon area (which includes three AOCs: CĂ´tes du Luberon, CĂ´tes du Ventoux and CĂ´teaux de Pierrevert). And yes, you can buy truffles here! If you plan to eat, request a table on the terrace...the view, the view, the view! I’m told they can also arrange truffle hunts for those who want them. And if you love truffles, don’t miss the Petit MarchĂ© Ă  la Truffe de MĂ©nerbes (truffle market) which happens in the village on December 28. 

Next stop: the hotel Bastide de Gordes, which I hadn’t seen since their recent and very-major renovation. The big news there is that they’ve just received the prestigious “Palace” hotel distinction from Atout France, the French Agency for Tourism Development; only 23 hotels in France have this higher-than-five-star rating for exceptional facilities, architectural heritage, personalized service, superb location and outstanding design. (My friend Stella hosted her daughter's wedding here just after the renovation, in June 2015, and said the whole event was beautiful beyond words.) Our adorable host was named Manon but since they didn’t have that name tag, she was wearing one that said Julie instead. Works for me!

We capped the day with a visit to another gorgeous hotel, the five-star Relais & Châteaux called Le Phebus, in Joucas. There we were greeted by Anthony Mathieu, the 21-year-old year old son of owner Xavier Mathieu, whose hotel dining room has one Michelin star. Set to close for the season the next day, Le Phebus was completely full except for one large lovely room, but seeing it—and the rest of the property--gave me a perfect sense of this family’s refined sensibility. (I loved the helicopter landing pad...and the indoor/outdoor kitchen, where summer cooking classes are held. How great to learn some new French dishes and techniques...and then settle in for your meal on the shaded poolside terrace!) Over coffee and petits fours, Anthony told us all about their winter renovation plans, which include expanding the restaurant, building a new indoor pool, adding a meeting room and putting finishing touches on a smashing, 3400-square-foot, five-bedroom rental villa with butler service and a private pool. All work will be complete before the hotel reopens in April. Note to Xavier: if and when you retire and hand over the keys to your son, your beautiful hotel will be in very good hands indeed! Anthony couldn’t have been warmer or more welcoming.

When we weren’t jumping out of the car to take photos— the Luberon’s rolling hills and vineyards were magnificent in the autumn sunshine--Corinne filled me in on all the local news and gossip...and pointed out all sorts of places that she loves, such as the indoor/outdoor restaurant La Fleur de Sel in Les Beaumettes, where Nathalie Sodavalle does the cooking and her husband FrĂ©dĂ©ric runs the front. “Terrific food, very fresh and very reasonably priced!” Corinne proclaimed. This would be a great lunch stop if you’re biking the Veloroute de Calavon, the 37 km path running east/west along the Luberon’s old train tracks: a little trail leads from the bike path to the restaurant.  Corinne tells me that each village along the path purchased the parcel of land on which it sits...just in case they ever want to restart train service through the Luberon. Clever!

What usually happens on days like this is that I run out of time about halfway through my to-do list....and this was no exception.  So Corinne and I scheduled a second recon mission a few weeks later, when we visited two five-star Relais & Châteaux hotels (the Domaine de Capelongue and La Coquillade), the fantastic Ochre Conservatory outside Roussillon, the new hotel La Maison des Ocres in the village itself and the artist/designer Frederic Medina, who will offer sketch classes to my clients next year. But I’ll write about that day another time.

In the meantime, Corinne and I are putting finishing touches on the tours I’ll be adding to my site for 2017. Among other things, you’ll find a day devoted to ochre which will include a visit the Ochre Conservatory, an outdoor painting class and a stroll on the Sentiers des Ochre (Ochre Trail) to see the gorgeous red/orange cliffs for which Roussillon is known. (A bit of advice: don’t wear white!) Another tour will focus on antiques and artisans. Watch my site WhatToDoinProvence.com for more info on these and other Luberon activities in the weeks to come! 

Photo Credits: Pont Julien courtesy of ProvenceGuide.co.uk. Lower church in Bonnieux via Net-Provence.com. Corinne took the photos of Chez Auzet, the portrait of Anthony Mathieu, me at the Bastide de Gordes and the wine bottles. I took the rest...or swiped them from the Bastide de Gordes, Le Phebus or Clos de Buis websites.

Monday, November 28, 2016

If Van Gogh Had a Camera...

If you have a chance before December 23, pop into the two-floored Arles Gallery, where the owners Anne Eliayan and Françoise Galeron--both of them photographers--have organized an interesting show called “Les Photos de Van Gogh.”  The exhibit is on the gallery's lower level, in a vaulted cave that dates to the 17th century.

The idea, Anne says, was to imagine what might have happened if Vincent Van Gogh had a camera. To realize it, she turned to 25 photographers and other artists, asking them for images that either reference the Dutch painter directly or were inspired by his life and work.

One photographer placed himself in the exact spot in Arles where Van Gogh painted a particular landscape; it looks remarkably the same today. A series of three black-and-whites pays homage, in part, to Vincent’s older brother (who was stillborn and also named Vincent) and to Vincent’s father, who--like his own father--was a pastor.

Two embroidered pieces (a pillow and a textile wall hanging) were done by Casablanca-born Christine Millerin, who has her own studio/boutique just across the street (#7 rue de la Liberte).

Anne has three of her own photos in the show; I particularly liked her dreamy take on Van Gogh’s famous “Starry Night.”

Also part of the show are two large paintings by the Arles-based painter Ise Cheddadi, who used a technique she calls pixelisme to create two large portraits of Van Gogh, each composed of 600 or so tiny paintings. Your eye sees the artist’s face clearly only when the piece is viewed from a distance or through a camera lens. One of her Van Gogh portraits hangs in the gallery window and you can see others on her website.

If you’re lucky and Anne has time, she’ll take you through the show herself; she did that for me and it added to my appreciation immensely. The work is varied, moving and quite wonderful but it’s easy to miss some of the references if you’re not so familiar with Van Gogh’s work. Some pieces are just pretty photos until you hear the story behind them.

When I saw the show in mid November, about half of the images were already sold. Most are priced under 200, as Anne and her partner want their gallery and its artwork to be accessible to all.

The “Photos de Van Gogh” show comes down December 23. The gallery's next group show, called “Arles and Mythology,” opens March 24, 2017. And on the main floor, there’s a whole gallery full of interesting photos and posters to explore as well. The Arles Gallery is just off the Place du Forum, at 8 rue de la LibertĂ©, +33 (0)6 59 35 57 51, arlesgallery.com. The hours are Monday to Saturday from 10 am to 6 pm.

Where to eat before or after? If you’re looking for a nice, simple lunch nearby, try the interesting open-faced tartine sandwiches (on Poilâne bread) at Cuisine du Comptoir, open all day just next door, at #10. The best-sellers are currently the poularde (chicken, capers, homemade mayonnaise) and marius (tomatoes, mozzarella, olive oil, basil). For just 15€, you can have the tartine of your choice,  plus soup or salad, a glass of wine or 1/2 bottle of mineral water and a coffee. For more about the restaurant, read my 2011 review here. Cuisine du Comptoir is open for lunch every day except Sunday; open for dinner every night except Sunday from April to December; and open for dinner on Friday and Saturday only from January through March.

Another extremely popular nearby restaurant is Le Galoubet (18 Rue du Dr Fanton, 04 90 93 18 11), with its friendly staff, pretty shaded terrace nice cooking and good prices.  And a bit further from the gallery (but still a five-minute walk max) is Le Gibolin (13 Rue Des Porcelet, 04 88 65 43 14), considered one of the top three spots in Arles...and great for wine lovers as well. 

Photos: Click on any photo to enlarge. (1) The gallery, with one of Ise Cheddadi's Van Gogh portraits in the window. (2) Gallery co-owner Anne Eliayan curated the show and is pictured with her take on Van Gogh, called "Starry Night." (3) "Les Sabots" by Celine Geneys. (4) "Tourment Creatif,"  a digital lithograph by Christophe Kay. (5) Another"Nuit Ă©toilĂ©e," this one by gallery co-owner Francoise Galeron. (6) A "pixelisme" portrait of Van Gogh by Ise Cheddadi. This one is composed of 1008 little paintings, about 3.5 cm each. (7) "ArlĂ©siennes" by Jurgen Grade. (8) Photo by Claude Sportis. The title translates as "Pine Needles as a Van Gogh Painting." (9) An embroidered wall hanging by Christine Millerin. (10)  Photo of a sculpture by Arles-based artist Thibault Franc. 


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