Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Another day, another baguette

It has come to pass that we're in France. JT found two roundtrip tickets to Toulon from the U.K. for ₤50 (US$100). Total. He argued, how could we not come? Not a bad argument, really.

Our travels have taught us that any more than a four-day trip or so, and you really ought to rent a house or an apartment, or something with more than one room that has a coffee pot (or related coffee-making device) and a fridge so you can have coffee and French cheese on demand. So, JT started looking for a house, and early on found this house. It met my major demand of Internet access, as I was anticipating a full(ish) work schedule this week.

And so, here we are in Claviers, France, and it turns out neither one of us has work to do that can't be procrastinated. We're in a house that could easily fit four more people, so we are a bit sad about not having friends with us. (Slightly complicated by the fact that we don't really have any British friends yet, or rather, any we care to vacation with, but that's another story.) The house and village are more adorable than there are adjectives to describe them. I'll post pictures later in the week, but for now, you can see the house on the owner's web site, and here's the town square and JT in front of the church:









See the alarming lack of other people? Welcome to the south of France in January. We visited a village today in which we saw more cats (6) and dogs (2) than people (6). So, we haven't gotten stuck in too many traffic jams or waited in many queues. We have, however, learned full force the meaning of "fermé" -- closed. But three days in, we're starting to figure things out and realize there's nothing wrong with picking up something simple to cook for dinner and spending an evening in in our 5-level, 14th century house on a mountain top with the seven bottles of wine we've somehow acquired, tons of books, magazine, movies -- and each other.

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We landed in Toulon on Saturday afternoon, and made it up to the house relatively without incident. A quick call from the owner (who lives in Washington state) made us feel welcome. We settled in for the evening and made half a plan for Sunday.

One of the great joys of France is the French markets, so it's not out of the question to plan one's vacation around markets. The closest -- and indeed one of the biggest -- market in the area on Sunday is in Le Muy, 30 minutes or so down the road. One hunk of Beaufort cheese, 2 euro worth of dried saucisse, 5 bananas, 4 oranges, 2 tomato/olive tapenades, one hunk of fresh butter, and two baguettes later, we felt as though we had arrived in France. (Note: Always pack a totebag or three when coming to France; you'll need it at the markets and at most stores -- you have to pay for plastic grocery bags.)

We then headed down the road to a town called Frejus, which, according to the guidebook I had in my hand at the time, has lots of Roman remains. We happened upon the Roman ampitheatre, which is undergoing refurbishment. (Just soak that in for a moment.) It's still used, according to the guidebook, "for rock concerts and bullfighting."

We meandered a bit, but soon headed for the coastal town of St. Raphael, which was like most beach destinations, but with cafes. It was then that we checked the list of restaurants our homeowner had given us. Turns out one of them was back in Frejus. Since we didn't have a phone number for the restaurant and we were only 15 minutes away, we went back. The reason we were willing to go back again was this:

A palette of crème brulees on the dessert menu. Unfortunately, we were also greeted by this sign:


Closed for renovation! So, sadly, we would not be having a palette of crème brulee on this vacation. So, we headed out for a drive down the coast, an hour or two stop in the town of Ste. Maxime for sunset and a coffee, and then a drive back to Le Muy, for this dinner.

Monday it rained and poured and rained some more. During a slight break in the weather we went for a short walk around Claviers and then a short drive to the nearby village of Bergemon, made famous most recently because the Beckhams bought a place there. (We have our suspicions about where exactly their house is, but we're not sure.) Again, our homeowner had a couple of recommendations for restaurants there; we learned they were all closed for renovation, for holidays, or for no apparent reason at all. Also, Butcher: closed. Pasta shop: closed.

So, we thought, this was the night we'd try the local pizzeria. I was actually almost excited about this because the pizzeria had a sign in the window for the week's special, which we've translated as shark pizza. That ought to be good for a laugh, at least, we thought. So, when dinnertime approached, JT headed out into the now pouring rain to get us some shark pizza. Pizzeria: closed. The One Restaurant That Didn't Have A Sign Saying It's Closed For The Month: closed. Café/bar: closed. Another note: Always pick up a pack of dried spaghetti and jar of pasta sauce for Dinner Emergencies. And Also Wine. (We had done this; no complaints here. Especially with some Beaufort cheese grated over the top -- turns any jarred sauce into something amazing.)

Tuesday we headed out to the village of Fayence for their market. This market turned out to be exactly two vendors. So … we wandered the town instead, which was absolutely lovely.

It was just before noon when we left for Sellians, a neighboring village we had heard was very charming. We figured it would be a good place to have a sit-down, three-course French lunch we'd been hearing so much about. Well, this is the village where we saw more cats than people. And, everything was closed. There was not an open giftshop, restaurant, bakery, butcher, nothing. It was adorable, though -- incredibly picturesque with windy "roads" that are really footpaths they squeeze cars down. (In the picture at right, we had just passed a parked truck on this road!)

We were eventually chased out of Sellians by a crazy, mad dog who chased us to our car then chased after our car.

OK, that's a slight exaggeration. He was a very very sweet dog who made me wish I wasn't so averse to dog slobber and wet-jumpy-dog-paws-on-my-clean-trousers. We figure it had been so long since he'd seen people that he just wanted someone to play with. He really did chase after our car, though. Who knew Bassett hounds could run?

Since everything was closed, we went back to Fayence for lunch to the one place that would have us, a little shop/deli that serves lunch called Le 8 (in the interest of completeness: 8 Rue Maurice Astier, Fayence). He was cleaning up, but took pity on us and was so incredibly friendly that I want everyone in France to go shop and eat there. John had a local beef stew called daube Provencal, with gnocchi. I had the most delicious pasta arrabiata -- hot (spicy hot) but with real flavor, not just hot for the sake of it.

We then decided to go wine tasting. I initially got us lost, but conveniently on a road with wineries. The first was called Val d'Iris. The wine maker, Anne Dor, was absolutely lovely. She and her husband have a small operation with maybe five different grapes. She spent a lot of time with us answering all our silly questions and explaining her background to us. We bought four bottles of wine from her. Then we went across the street to the Chateau des Selves. We tasted rose wines there, even though we didn't expect to like them. They turned out to be great! We limited ourselves to one bottle there (cost all of 5 euro).

The red wine we bought had me in the mood for steak. So, we went home via Bergemon and, much to my delight, boucherie: Ouvert! Pasta shop: Ouvert! So, we went home to work for 5 minutes each, write half of this now-insanely-long diary, and then dine on broiled beef from the butcher in Bergemon, gnocchi made by the pasta maker up the road, zucchini and tomato sauté, and a gorgeous red wine whose maker we met this afternoon.
Life, it is good.

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