Lately I’ve been obsessed with forcing these cherry branches I found at Whole Foods. Normally, I’m not big on forcing branches to flower, mostly because the forsythia that’s usually available just doesn’t “do it” for me. However, I had not seen the cherry branches before and one bundle had a few soft pink blooms already open. They certainly looked like spring to me!
However, I picked a different bundle because it was bigger and hauled it home. Then, because there were no buds open yet, I started worrying that they may not open. Yikes! So, I started checking the branches — several times a day, worrying over them. I eventually realized that the buds had to fatten up a bit and then they started to open. Whew! Mother Nature is amazing. The bundle is taking over one end of our living room, and I may have to move some branches elsewhere (not a bad thing), but I’m loving the look.
Do you re-read books?
If you follow me on Instagram, you know I have been re-reading Reflected Glory, Sally Bedell Smith’s biography of Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman. Pamela Churchill Harriman, as she preferred to be called, was married briefly in the early years of WWII to Winston Churchill’s son, Randolph. Although the marriage floundered from the start, Pamela was a favorite of the Prime Minister and rubbed shoulders with an endless stream of notable figures including Harry Hopkins (Roosevelt’s right-hand man), Eisenhower, and even Edward R. Murrow. It was also how she initially met Harriman, a U.S. envoy to Great Britain at the time.
Pamela Churchill Harriman was a 20th-Century courtesan who enjoyed long-term relationships with a number of powerful — often married — men. She knew the right people, did favors large and small, and helped people make the right connections, often at her own dinner table. (The Churchill name and connections went quite far in London and Europe.) She even famously kept a small pad and pencil beside her plate at dinner to jot down notes about her guests, everything from their favorite cigar to questions about international policy. In many ways, Pamela was in the business of details, details to please those around her and details she could use to her advantage. She reinvented herself several times over.
Back to the re-reading thing. I first read this book in the early 90’s when she was the American ambassador to France, appointed by President Bill Clinton. Then, a few weeks ago, @markmcginesswrites on Instagram posted her photo (If you aren’t following him, you should. His comments about people and places, most often in Great Britain, are just wonderful.) His post piqued my curiosity and I rummaged thru my bookshelves to find her biography (yet another reason I’m not giving up any more books, as I posted here). I thought I may just skim a bit of it, but I’ve never been good at that. I’m rereading the book and enjoying it just as much the second time around.
In the great scheme of reading, when there are “so many books and so little time,” reading purists might say this is not time well-spent. I disagree. In the case of Reflected Glory, I had been to France for one quick trip the first time I read it. Since then, I have been fortunate to return several times and made a handful of stops in Great Britain. I have a better sense of that slice of history and place. As reading whet my appetite for travel, travel has also whet my appetite for reading. In the case of this book, I am reading it from a different perspective.
Sometimes, however, re-reading is just simply fun. Gone With the Wind was one of the first books I re-read. And I did so more than once. I loved the romance/drama of Scarlett, Rhett, Melanie and Ashley. It was a wonderful escape until I began to realize what a carefully polished view the book was of a genuinely terrible chapter in our history.
There are other guilty pleasures I’ve re-read as well, often “beach reads” like Anne Rivers Siddons’ Islands and Peachtree Road. Last fall I re-read Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. I read and enjoyed it a few years ago but my book group was discussing it, so I dove back in. I was glad I did because there were some characters and plot twists I needed to review. In short, there was a lot more substance than I had initially given it.
Sometimes I get so caught up in “the story” that I just go with it instead of perhaps doing the more careful reading, following themes and character development. I can’t decide if that’s good or bad. As an English major, I spent so much time taking notes on everything I read, reading for pleasure was an activity I had to re-learn.
So, what about you? Do you ever re-read a book? Or do you just move on? I’d love to hear what you think!
I’ve lived in Chicago all my life and winter weather — including snow, ice and bitter cold — is something we just learn to live with. However, this year’s temperatures have challenged the hardiest of us. I honestly cannot remember a time when sub-zero temperatures and wind chill hit 50-below, when the Post Office announced it would not deliver mail and the garbage trucks simply stayed put and these lapses had nothing to do with two feet of snow on the ground.
As my grandson would say, it’s been epic!
Although we have certainly been able to get out for groceries, go to the gym, meet friends for breakfast, lunch or dinner, we have often done so in bitter cold or sloppy snow. With boots, gloves, hats, and scarves. This is fun and adventurous early in the winter, after a few months it gets old, at least for me. Most of all, there have been too many days when we just couldn’t go out. When no one could.
Cabin fever is no joke.
When I look back at what I have done lately, most of it has been centered on coping with cabin fever. First, of course, I read. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee was a book club read and, like so many of them, it pushed my typical reading choices. This multigenerational story about Koreans living in Japan (where they were viewed as second class citizens) recounts one woman’s life decision and the repercussions on her family for generations to come. I knew very little about the history of either country, so this was especially eye-opening for me. Pachinko was a little tough starting, but ultimately a compelling read.
Then I read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. Never assume. This was appearing on so many reading lists, I thought it would be one of those best seller/easy/fun reads. It was all that, but more. Eleanor is way more complicated than the heroine I was expecting. Yes, she has an amusing lack of social skills. Then she crosses paths with co-worker Raymond. (I know, this is sounding contrived, right?) Slowly, their growing friendship begins not only to reveal her terrifying past, but also the importance of human connections.
I’ve moved on now to House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea. I’ll keep you posted, but so far, so good.
I’ve been cooking
In fact, I cooked so much I had to start passing out “samples.” I made Ina Garten’s Winter Vegetable Soup twice in one week. It was just that good! I made the first batch per all of her instructions, minus the pesto which I did not have. The second time, I tweaked the recipe a bit, substituting potato for some of the squash. It was just as good! (I did take Ina’s suggestion to use homemade chicken stock, and I do think it makes a huge difference!)
Since we really can’t live by soup alone, I also made beef burgundy and a batch of meatballs. I would have continued, but the freezer was quickly filling with the soup, homemade stock, etc.
So I turned instead to decorating…
And I re-hung this gallery in the stairway to our finished basement. I am the only child/only grandchild and therefore keeper of family photos. My mother-in-law also passed along boxes of photos to me. These riches are compounded by the fact that my dad was quite the amateur photographer. He had a small darkroom in our house and he enlarged/cropped and otherwise tweaked his own photos as well as old negatives that my mom unearthed. It was a lot of fun for all of us. But it also resulted in a lot of photos. I’m really drowning in prints, often multiples of the same image (though I am increasingly successful at weeding those out!).
Some of these have been hung here right along, some have been displayed on tabletops, others were stashed in the back of closets, behind dressers, under beds — you name it. Would it surprise you to learn I have a few more to add to this? My goal has been to save the best and get rid of the rest. Let’s just say I’m making progress.
My Instagram feed
And, yes, I’ve spent far too much time this winter on social media, which for me is Instagram. I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that my IG feed is pretty narrow, no celebrities, few FaceBook friends, a lot of designers and lifestyle bloggers. I’ve saved some screenshots, so I could share my favorite finds.
Anyone who has successfully grown a geranium in a porch pot is desperate for spring and the garden season after a winter like this. If you love gardening or decorating, I encourage you to follow Jenny Rose Innes, from Bowral, Australia. Her home(s) are stunning and her gardens beautifully lush. I was initially struck by the brick path in this image (I love the way it periodically cuts into the beds on each side), but I also thought that if my garden just looked this good in green, imagine how it would look when those plants bloomed!
I often think that “go big or go home” is a good rule in decorating. Look at the impact this big but simple bucket of lilacs has on this room. It’s not overpowering (though the fragrance must be wonderful), it’s placed to be seen but not in the way, and it beautifully balances the stone wall, wood floor, and baskets.
Elizabeth blogs at blueandwhitehome.com. Both her blog and her IG feed are populated with beautifully-appointed, mostly blue and white rooms. She’s traditional, sometimes with an edgier feel, and her daughter, who also contributes to the blog, has a similar aesthetic. Elizabeth also generously introduces a number of her favorite designers, like Caroline Gidiere Design. (Yes, I’m a little obsessed with this room: the gallery, the blue and white and that green!)
James T. Farmer is an interior designer, gardener, author and speaker whose work is always infused with a gracious, southern sensibilty. His IG is as likely to feature photos of his dog, whatever he’s cooking or eating, and/or his extended family and friends as it does images of his design work. This image says it all! (Check out his latest book, A Place to Call Home.)
Wouldn’t you love to attend or host a dinner party featuring this lovely table? Enough said.
Finally, Joni Webb — whose awesome blog Cote de Texas is, well, awesome — posted this image (and several others) of an apartment belonging to the late Lee Radziwell. Is there anyone else out there, of a certain age I suppose, who heard a door quietly close at the news of her passing?
And that’s my lately. What are you doing to combat cabin fever?
Do we still call these the dog days of summer? It’s hot and dry. Our lawn looks a little crisp. My geraniums are big and blooming, but the day-lilies have more spent blooms than buds and the coneflowers seem “bleached.” There is a back-to-school buzz in the air.
August is a season all its own.
My husband’s vegetable garden has been producing some delicious corn (a first for us) and tomatoes. Then the park district called. (His vegetable plot is in a larger community garden.) It seems someone took a drive thru the garden plots. All of the remaining corn and half of Steve’s tomato plants were wrecked. What a mean-spirited stunt.
Other plots were damaged, no one will go hungry because of this, and there are far more heinous acts committed daily. But does it seem to you that there’s a mean streak in the air? Perhaps it’s time to go back and read “What I learned while standing in line.” It’s time for the better demons to strike back.
But, there are still tomatoes!
Decades ago Steve and I were presented with a few bushels of tomatoes from one of his co-workers who had a ridiculously prolific garden on his multi-acre property. We didn’t know any better, so we canned them the old-fashioned way (per my grandmother’s instructions) in a water bath in glass jars. It was a long, hot, messy process in a small kitchen without air conditioning.
I went on tomato strike for quite a while after that.
But then the gardening bug bit and we had to come up with a plan (beyond salads, bruschetta, and salsa), which has been tweaked and continuously simplified. I cut a small X in the bottom of each tomato and drop them (usually in batches) into a pot of boiling water. It only takes a minute or two to loosen the skins. I scoop out the hot tomatoes and spread them out on a cooling rack that I’ve set in a sheet pan. (This corrals hot drips, errant bits of tomato, etc.)
After a few minutes the tomatoes are cool enough to handle and I move them to another sheet pan lined with a flexible cutting mat. I remove the skins and the cores, and squeeze out as many of the seeds as reasonable. (I pretty much use my hands for the latter. As Ina Garden says, clean hands are a cook’s best tool.) What I’m really after is the “meat” of the tomato, which I drop into another pot. This is a messy job, but remember, I’m corralling all the tomato juice, seeds, etc. into a sheet pan which I periodically empty.
This really doesn’t take that long. After I’ve gathered the best of the tomatoes into the pot, I simmer them for maybe 20 minutes, just to get rid of more of the juice. You can also pour off excess juice. (Hint #1: Too much juice in the container makes the tomatoes watery.) Then I ladle the simmered tomatoes into quart containers and freeze. (Hint #2: This year I’m cooling them first in the fridge, uncovered, to try to eliminate frost in the containers. We’ll see.) I use them in recipes that call for crushed tomatoes.
A book I can’t put down
When I’m not putting up tomatoes, I have had my nose in a new book, Varina: A Novel by Charles Frazier. You may have read Cold Mountain, set in the back country of the Civil War, for which Frazier won the National Book Award. This novel returns to the Civil War era with the story of Varina Howell Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America.
Frazier begins in 1906, telling Varina’s story, largely in her own voice, in flashbacks. At first I found this point of view a bit cumbersome. But as I became better acquainted with Varina, who was a writer in her own right long after her husband died, I began to better appreciate the sum of her life.
Varina Howell married Jefferson Davis when she was 19. He was 36, a widower, a war hero, and destined to leave behind the plantation life she expected for politics. Especially well-educated for a woman of her time, including a term in Philadelphia at a prestigious female academy, Varina grew up with slaves, even owned slaves, but never fully embraced the Confederate Cause. She was often the object of criticism while presiding over the Gray House in Richmond. When the Confederacy fell, she and her children were forced to run for their lives. Although she worked hard for her husband’s prison release, theirs was a less than ideal match. They often lived separately; however after he died, Varina completed his memoirs and eventually embarked on a writing career of her own.
Does she sound interesting to you?
Without her place in history, Varina Davis would still be pretty interesting. With it, she’s compelling. This is not the first book written about her. I’m sometimes suspicious of “historic fiction.” I think it’s often light on the history and/or the fiction, but that’s certainly not the case here. Frazier does a masterful job.
What about you? What are you reading or cooking these days? Whatever it is, I hope you’re enjoying these last weeks of summer.
Despite my affection for a Carolina beach in the summer, I am not a hot weather girl when I’m in the midwest.
I sweat (even my eyeballs) and get beet red. And that’s just working in the garden on a typical summer day. I’m an upper-seventies to lower-eighties girl, so the recent string of temperatures in the high nineties (which feels like some heinous number over 100 when the local meteorologists start adding in humidity, corn sweat and other variables) has been a challenge. In Chicago we’ve had a brief respite Monday, but the heat is back today.
Okay. I need to stop whining. It’s July, it’s supposed to be hot. So, what have I been up to in this heat?
First, I played with the hose. We have not had much rain, and although the garden beds seem to be doing okay (a bumper crop of daylilies and now the hostas are beginning to bloom), keeping the pots going has been a little harder. Although I normally am a planner when filling garden pots, carefully assembling color, height, etc., this summer I did a few pots with leftovers — some snapdragons I didn’t have room for, an extra geranium, leftover alyssum. And guess what? These may be the happiest summer pots yet!
Then, I saw a great movie. (I’m old enough to recall that going to the movies was one of the best bets for air conditioning. The advertisements teased, “It’s cool inside.” ) “RBG” is a documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She is a truly remarkable woman who has quietly, determinedly, changed the legal landscape for women and men. The movie deftly covers her childhood, education and legal career as well as her time on the Supreme Court. (When she was appointed to the Court by President Clinton, the Senate approved by a vote of 97 to 3. Those were the days.) Friends, family and colleagues offer interesting comment. The movie seamlessly captures her and the challenges of equality.
Finally, I’m keeping company with a couple of great reads. I just finished The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s follow-up to This Side of Paradise and Tender Is the Night. I read this for a book group and we chose it because it’s short but also a classic. Like most of us, I read it decades ago in an American Lit Survey class, when I was churning thru books and pumping out papers and never getting to savor the language and the characters. This is not a “happy read” and the characters are not especially likable, but the writing is so clean and precise. You can tell Fitzgerald wrote, then rewrote, then rewrote again. That kind of precision, striving for perfection in each sentence, is missing in many current works.
Gatsby was not a huge financial success until it was reprinted after Fitzgerald’s death. What I read, however, is the “fifty-seventh anniversary celebration of the tenth printing of the fourteenth Scribner edition.”
But, if Gatsby seems a little heavy for this season, I also picked up another Sue Grafton mystery from the library. I haven’t read “E” Is for Evidence but I think it will be the perfect porch read for a lazy afternoon. My daughter passed along Windy City Blues by Renee Rosen. We have both read What the Lady Wants, Dollface, and White Collar Girl, all set in different eras in Chicago. Their Chicago settings make them great fun for us. Last but not least, I’m working on Ron Chernow’s Hamilton. I had to after seeing the play. Alexander Hamilton is such a fascinating character. Does anyone else do this, read more than one book at a time? This is not my habit, but sometimes it works out this way!
Finally, wishing you a fabulous Fourth with plenty of flags and fireworks, parades and patriots. This is such a happy, uniquely American holiday. Enjoy every minute!
Sometimes writing a blog post reveals more to me than it does to you. That may be the case here. I started out to write about “Getting my spring on” and how nice it has been to get back outside after a seemingly endless winter. But as I typed I began to see that for me, this year, “Getting my spring on” meant a whole lot more.
Forget lilacs and peonies. One of the sure signs of spring here has always been moving the wicker sofa from the family room (where it “winters”) back out to the porch. Then we bring up the wicker rocker and side tables from the basement and the chairs that fit around the dining table out there, and life is good. This is where we eat most of the summer, have drinks with friends, read the paper, check our email, plan our day over coffee.
But the best way for me to get my spring on is digging in the dirt. It’s creative to coax color and texture from seedlings and soil, to pick the right plants for the right spot, to pair colors and textures for the best effect. But it’s a lot more. Planting, pruning and even weeding has always been therapeutic for me, as I think it is for many others.
The power of digging in the dirt
Gardening is a nurturing process, caring for the plants while enjoying time outside, being nurtured by nature. This is a lesson I learned from my maternal grandfather, who always had a garden. I’m sure the vegetables began as a depression-era effort to supplant the family budget. Grandpa tended the garden; Grandma canned. This morphed into a larger “victory garden” in World War II; it was one way they could support the war effort and I suspect it kept them busy and managed stress while sons, nephews and friends were scattered around the globe.
In addition to the tomatoes, beets, beans, carrots, and more, there were always flowers: geraniums, dahlias, phlox, marigolds. (Thinking back, I wonder how he squeezed so much into that tiny, 25-foot Chicago lot!) Happily he passed that gene on to me! (This totally skipped my mother, whose garden was limited to whatever Grandpa planted for her and that was totally lost on my father, who efficiently mowed down more than one rose bush without recognizing what it was!)
This year I have found my garden to be especially nurturing.
I wrote a few posts ago about suddenly, unexpectedly, losing a very good friend. Her death left me reeling and I was unable to come to terms with it until I got into the garden. I am sure time itself had something to do with it, but the simple tasks of raking and cleaning up the beds, of digging up the weeds and dividing and transplanting some perennials, of dealing with the life of the garden, brought me some peace. (This would be easily explainable if she was an avid gardener, but it’s actually her husband who has a green thumb and has mentored my gardening efforts. Sherry just loved flowers and and for her the garden was a natural source!)
So, this is the year I discovered that gardens also yield comfort.
I am, however, still left with lingering weeds, the purple coneflowers gone wild, daylilies desperate for division, herbs that need tending and some ideas to renovate tired beds. After assuming I had finally nailed the basic landscape at our house, the light conditions abruptly changed. The large ash tree that shaded our front yard fell victim to the dreaded ash borer. Not only do we miss the shade, but a bed with a number of shade-loving perennials was totally crisped last summer. In the back yard we had a bank of upright arborvitae along the southern lot line. They threw a lot of shade, but they got way too big, and then damaged by a heavy snow a few winters ago. We had them removed & replanted that area with hydrangeas last year. It looks terrific, but it’s pretty sunny now. (Aha! A new gardening opportunity!)
I’ve now spent some time moving things from sun to shade and shade to sun. (I think of this as the gardener’s version of tweaking bookshelves or furniture arrangements!) I’ve also spent two fun mornings at my favorite nursery, searching out replacement plants. I can’t wait to see how this all works out. And I’m feeling a little more at peace with the world each time I dig in the dirt.
These are the challenges gardeners relish and the rewards they reap!
My husband and I, along with our children and grandchildren, spent last week on Kiawah Island, South Carolina. It’s safe to call this a family tradition since we have taken this same vacation for almost all of the last 25-plus years. (Some people might call that a rut, but I like to think of it as a home away from home.)
We look forward each year to familiar days at the beach, bike rides on the island, and favorite restaurants, but each trip also seems to have its own adventures. (On the first morning of the first year my daughter-in-law joined us a baby shark was discovered swimming along the beach. We really worried that she’d never come back!) It’s the kind of place where a waiter in your favorite restaurant turns out to be the boy who lived across the street 20 years ago and an old friend from those mommy-and-me days walks by on the beach where you’ve settled in with a book.
Part of the charm of Kiawah (apart from 10 miles of pristine beachfront, protected dunes and a lush, protected landscape devoid of chain stores or restaurants) is that it’s just 20 miles from Charleston, recently named (again) one of the top destinations in the US. We knew this early on. Charleston is ground zero for American history, foodies, and charm.
I am totally charmed by Charleston’s many gardens, some of them public, some more private, and some completely hidden. At this time of year they are very lush and green.
This year my husband and I were in Charleston a day ahead of the rest of the family and stopped for lunch at one of his favorite restaurants. We’d barely settled into our booth when another diner stopped by our table and asked if we were visitors.
Why, yes, we are.
Well, said the diner, I was just given two free passes for Fort Sumter but we’re leaving now. Can you use them? (A bit of history: Charleston’s harbor, where the Cooper and Ashley Rivers merge with the Atlantic Ocean, is also home to Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired.)
This is one of the tricks of Charleston. The sense of polite, genteel hospitality Charlestonians are known for just starts rubbing off on everyone. And for history geeks like us, the passes were like finding money in the street.
We had been to Fort Sumter years ago, on one of our first trips. Our kids were in grade school then, and it was a very hot day. The best part was the boat ride out there and back; there was very little left of the fort. This time, our daughter, my husband and I made the trip one afternoon. It was not as hot and the boat ride was still fun, but we also appreciated the fort far more. We could not remember if there was a Park Ranger talk the first time around, but there is now and although it was short, we learned a lot.
Fort Sumter was built on a manmade island positioned to guard the all-important Charleston Harbor. After the War of 1812 the U.S. Army realized existing fortifications on either side of the harbor could not stop an attack on the city. Despite the fact that there is very little left of the fort, it was originally pretty large — three stories high and designed to accommodate a substantial number of men and even officers’ families. (It was not yet staffed except for Union troops who had secretly moved there from Fort Moultrie after Lincoln’s election.) After those legendary shots were fired April 12, 1861, and subsequent shelling, the Union Army was ultimately forced to surrender. However, this was still a “Gentleman’s War,” so, until he surrendered, U.S. Army Major Robert Anderson was allowed to receive supplies from the city and use telegraph lines there to communicate with his commanders. (This is, after all, Charleston.) After the surrender Anderson and the remaining soldiers were allowed to leave on a supply ship. They went to New York where they received a hero’s welcome.
And that’s how history unfolds…
For the last few years, my daughter and I have made a point of going into Charleston early one morning so we can walk and photograph the streets. Last year we did this on a very hot, humid Charleston morning and, after an hour or so, we were desperate for cool air. We turned a corner and there was the Nathaniel Russell House, one of the “house museums” operated by the Historic Charleston Foundation, so we went in and took the tour — again. We are “repeat offenders” because although houses like this are historic, they are not static. Continuing research, based on excavations, paint analyses, or even newly discovered documents or furniture often lead to changes in the house as well as its interpretation. (We really are history geeks!)
Last year we had passed the Calhoun Mansion and decided we should visit it next, so this year, after a walk that was far more comfortable (and at least 10-degrees cooler), we headed down Meeting Street in time for the first tour. We knew the house, built a few decades after the Civil War, was different than others we have toured (all pre-Civil War, often by many years). What we did not realize was just how different it would be.
A bit more history: the 23,000 square-foot house was built in the 1870s by George W. Williams, who had made a fortune as a merchant-turned-Civil War blockade runner. The docent who showed us around said the house was constructed in the early years of the Gilded Age (think Vanderbilt and Carnegie), when building mansions to hold vast collections of art, furniture and collectibles was common among men of certain stature. It became known as the Calhoun Mansion when Williams died, leaving the house to a daughter married to Patrick Calhoun, grandson of John C. Calhoun.
I wondered, out loud to the docent, how Charlestonians accepted this mansion in their midst. The city’s residents, once successful landowners and professionals living privileged lives, had suffered terribly during the Civil War and the city had struggled to survive. Post-war society was so polite that those who did have the means to repair or repaint their homes, did so sparingly, not wanting to embarrass friends and neighbors who could not afford to do the same. The docent pointed out that the construction employed hundreds of unemployed citizens for years.
The mansion is packed with furniture and collectibles, but almost none of it is original to the house. Those belongings were auctioned off after Calhoun suffered financial setbacks. The current owner, however, is an avid collector and has filled the house with the same vast quantities of “stuff.” The floors, the woodwork, the Tiffany chandeliers and the glass ceiling in the music room are all beautiful. But I found it hard to focus on most of it, along with the lovely collectibles, just because there was so much stuff. The collection ranges from Tiffany glassware and a Wedgewood-decked chandelier to Kibuki armor and English footstools made from the feet of real elephants. It’s dizzying.
People love it, but I was confused by the clutter and frankly a little “turned off” that a family really lives here part of the time and charges admission to allow tour groups. Am I weird? Probably. Perhaps I just want a “purist approach” to 19th-Century houses.
The gardens were beautiful, but on the whole I’d call this a miss. Interesting, but maybe not for the right reasons.
On the other hand, here are a few more shots from that morning in Charleston.
Whether you are traveling or staying close to home this season, I hope your summer features far more hits than misses!
I could not wait to plunge into our recent travels in France to tell you about Castle Sercy, here, and my day at The Cook’s Atelier, here. But then I thought I should backtrack and give you a look at our trip overall. It was more than castles and cooking.
A few years ago we took a river cruise in France that traveled north from Arles in Provence to Salon sur Saone in Burgundy. We had a wonderful time, we just didn’t have enough time in many of the places we stopped. There were other sights like the Pont du Gard, and towns, like Aix en Provence, along the way, that we never got a chance to see.
We knew we would go back — soon. Then my son introduced me to Ina Caro’s book, Paris to the Past, in which Caro and her husband retraced French history by daytripping via train from Paris to various cathedrals and castles. They did this in chronological order starting with the oldest sight. Since we had already visited Notre Dame, Saint Chapelle and Chartres, I wanted to visit a few more sights on the list.
Burgundy is home to countless small wineries that we could only sample by visiting ourselves, and Steve was eager to do that. I had discovered The Cook’s Atelier in Beaune (a town we loved on our first visit) and was determined to attend one of their daylong cooking classes. If we started in Reims, we could visit the cathedral where centuries of French kings were crowned.
After a few days in Burgundy, we planned to drive south to Provence, exploring more hilltop towns, visiting markets, and, yes, getting lost on more back roads, before dropping the car off in Avignon and taking the train to Paris.
Our travel misadventure adventure begins
We flew into Paris and, on a chilly, drizzly morning with virtually no sleep on the overnight flight, proceeded to drive to Reims in our rented Renault Clio. We paid extra for a GPS system, but never really figured out how to use it, which explains how we ended up heading towards Paris instead of Reims. Fortunately, even my seriously limited French revealed we were going in the wrong direction. Pull over, pull up Google maps, and recalibrate. (This is a little jingle we would oft repeat!)
Here’s what we learned about driving in France: In addition to being in French, the road signs did not indicate direction. Alas, we midwesterners are used to I80 West, I65 North and so on. Not so in France. Keep your eye on the Google map. And here’s what we learned about roundabouts: keep going around until you are sure of the exit you want to take. If you make the wrong assumption and take the wrong roundabout turn off, you can go many kilometers before getting a chance to turn around on these narrow country roads. Tollroads are nice, but not typically very close to the towns you really want to see. (And the country roads are indescribably scenic and fun to travel!)
After our stop in Reims and catching up on our sleep at a hotel in Troyes, we visited the Abbey of Fontenay on our way to Beaune. Founded in 1118 by Saint Bernard as a Cistercian abbey, Fontenay is one of the oldest in Europe. Cistercians vow to live a simple life in poverty. Their monasteries were self-sufficient. By 1200 the monastery was complete and able to serve as many as 300 monks. Despite its initial success, the abbey was attacked and pillaged in the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of Religion. The monks left during the revolution and the property was turned into a paper mill by the Montgolfier family (of balloon fame). Today it is privately owned. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981.
True to the abbey’s orders, the buildings are remarkably simple, sometimes even stark, but they feature beautifully vaulted ceilings and generous doses of graceful symmetry.
On to Beaune, the wine capital of Burgundy in eastern France. It is also home to the Hotel Dieu, a 15th-century former hospital that is now a Museum. We had toured the Hotel Dieu on our first visit (an intriguing sight), but we were anxious to explore the town, sample the legendary wines, and I would spend a day cooking.
As we explored Beaune on foot on the day before my cooking class, we stopped by The Cook’s Atelier to introduce ourselves. My husband asked about nearby wineries and Marjorie’s son-in-law graciously arranged for us to visit Chateau Pommard, one of the oldest in Burgundy and just a handful of miles away. (And, yet we got ridiculously lost in this tiny town, so much so that we had to call the Chateau and say “this is where we think we are, how do we find you?”)
Although the estate changed hands a few more times and is now owned by an American, it has remained complete and has benefited from significant improvements to the estate management and the winemaking. Pommard wines are known worldwide for their quality, and the tour and tasting was simply wonderful.
By now we were becoming more comfortable with driving in France. We still got lost (often!), but we took it in stride and felt free to stop, take pictures and make impromptu changes to our so-called itinerary. This is what we were hoping for!
Now we know why everyone loves Provence…
Before we knew it the road from Burgundy led to Provence where we finally saw the Pont du Gard, visited Aix, and fell in love with French markets. Provence is absolutely charming and prettier in person that any picture. Really. We just let it unfold in front of us as we traveled.
One of the charms of driving on our own was the freedom to stop and explore, as we did here at Seguret, stopping for a leisurely lunch in an outdoor cafe overlooking the French countryside.
Our plan was to stay in L’Isle sur la Sorgue for a few days (so we could attend their big Sunday market which includes antiques) and then move on to St. Remy. Both towns provided a great base from which to visit other hill towns. (And we did a lot.)
L’Isle sur la Sorgue is larger and has a working class vibe. The town owes its early prosperity to the Sorgue River, which served it well defensively centuries ago, and for the industry and trade the river offered. A number of working waterwheels remain in the heart of town
Today it’s home to many antique stores, typically only open on the weekend for the market (though I’m sure they do considerable private business the rest of the time). In the few days we were there, the people and pace seemed to pick up in anticipation of the Sunday market. We stayed a few miles from town and the hotel advised us to arrive in town on Sunday well before the market opened to assure parking. We did, though parking proved not to be a problem (or maybe we were just really early). So, we grabbed cafes and croissants from a boulangerie and enjoyed the activity as the vendors set up their wares.
I was especially eager to see what the antique dealers would offer and was not at all disappointed. There were linens, dishes, knickknacks, books, paintings and prints, and furniture, some of it just barely vintage but much of it centuries old. Centuries! I think the prices were fair and dealers were willing to bargain, I just had no idea how to get a lot of it home in a suitcase!
As much fun as the markets and specific sites were, driving almost daily through the French country side was just as much fun.
When we moved on to St. Remy I was reminded of the visit we paid a few years ago to the nearby Asylum of Saint Paul Mausole where Vincent Van Gogh went to recover his health; he improved here, and enjoyed an especially productive period, completing almost 150 paintings and a number of drawings from May 1889 until May 1890. (You may can read my post on that here.) One of the disappointments in the last visit was not spending time in St. Remy. This time we stayed in a charming, old hotel on the square. (In France, old means no elevator. We counted 69 steps to our room!)
We loved the weekly market in St. Remy. Like the others it was a colorful mix of fruit, vegetables, sausage, cheese, spices, baskets, t-shirts, linen towels, handmade soap, and local artists. And I’ve probably left out a few categories. Despite the obvious merchandise aimed at tourists, it’s important to remember that most French residents shop these markets weekly for food and to catch up with neighbors. It’s very much a part of the culture.
One of the side-trips we took from St. Remy was to Aix en Provence, a scenic drive on a warm day. I expected Aix to be pretty (and it was) and knew it played a role in the art community (you’ll see that), but we were totally unprepared for how big and bustling it was, especially on its market day (unplanned on our part). The traffic was like rush-hour gridlock. We worked our way towards Paul Cezanne’s studio, found parking in a nearby hospital lot, and walked the rest of the way.
The studio was so worth it. Cezanne had many studios over the course of his career, but this was his last and he had it built to his own specifications, a small, two-story structure on a hill in what was then the outskirts of town. The painting studio, above, was on the second floor, and though he worked every day, he often left the studio and worked outdoors. In October 1906 Cezanne was working outside the studio when the weather turned stormy. He worked for awhile anyway, then decided to go home. Unfortunately, the artist collapsed along the way. A passing driver took him home. He died of pneumonia a few days later. After his death, the Cezanne family simply locked up his studio. After a time the building was sold to a writer, who only used the first floor, leaving all of Cezanne’s art materials undisturbed upstairs. Eventually, Aix grew, and the structure was scheduled for demolition and redevelopment. A group of Americans banded together and saved Cezanne’s studio, donating it as a museum to a local university. The easels, paints, palettes, props, coffee cups – everything in the studio – are as Cezanne left them. Amazing!
After our stay in St. Remy, we dropped our car off in Avignon and took the train to Paris for our last few nights in France. I’ll post about that later. We have been to Paris a number of times, so this was more relaxed than earlier visits, seeing a few sights, shopping a little and enjoying French cafes.
Thanks for stopping by and reading and — hopefully enjoying — this loooong post. See you next time!
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