Excursions d’été: Le Sud-Ouest

Our final summer trip was to southwestern France, specifically the Béarn and the Pays Basque. They look very similar geographically: hilly, verdant, home to loads of sheep, surrounded by the Pyrénées mountains. The Béarn, however, does not have a foot on the Atlantic coast.

Sheep crossing

Sadly for me, culinary cultures are similar too. I found it difficult, no, impossible, to find a restaurant that didn’t have meat as the only option, for every appetizer and main course. Anyone for a gizzard salad?

Basque menu.

What separates the two is traditional culture. The Béarn is deeply, traditionally French. The other is something else.

The Pays Basque is, well, BASQUE, with its own language, Euskara, and non-French culture. Linguistically, Euskara is totally unrelated to any other living language. Which is saying something when you consider that eastern European Hungarian is linguistically related to Nordic Finnish. In bastions of Basque culture like St. Jean Pied-de-Port or St. Jean de Luz, you see signs around town written only in Euskara.

In Euskara. Try to read that.

The current theory is that the ancestors of today’s Basques settled in what is today Europe before Romance languages originated. Euskara must be related to pre-Indo-European languages that have been extinct for some time. I find this fascinating.

I wanted to find a Basque male choir to actually hear the language, or even to attend a church service in Basque (I actually did do that decades ago, in a small village off the Atlantic coast, standing in a full church a whole head taller than the tallest Basque man, who along with all of his compatriots was wearing the stereotypical black beret). But we didn’t get around to that. Next time.

Still, you get a flavor for the language just from the names of towns deep into the country, like Irissarry, Irouléguy, Itxassou, Aussuruq, or the long homestead names inscribed on the large Basque houses, none of which I remember now.

You’ve heard of Pelota? It’s a Basque original, like Squash, but played with bare hands. There are summer tournaments in the major Basque towns, played in the traditional courts called “trinquets,” one of which we visited off-game. We didn’t get around to catching a game either. Next time.

The “Camino” runs through Basque country, with the last stop before crossing the Pyrenees into Spain at St. Jean Pied-de-Port. The town is pilgrim central, dotted with low cost hostels geared to certified Camino walkers. At the outfitter stores, weather-beaten pilgrims stock up on socks, rain ponchos, mountain gear and the traditional shroud. I would have loved to linger longer in the pleasant town, to talk to some pilgrims about how the walk was going for them. Next time.

The shell symbol of the Camino Santiago de Compostela
St. Jean Pied-de-Port, Pays Basque, France

Throughout French history the Basques have suffered, and even in modern times friction between Basques and administrative France existed. After World War II the state gradually provided the Basque region greater autonomy, and so deterred would be separatists.

Pays Basque
St. Etienne de Baïgorry, Pays Basque, France.

And I do hope there’s a next time because it’s a beautiful region. I see myself in a rented Basque pile overlooking sheep pasture, before me a planche of fresh sheep’s milk cheese, gateau Basque and cider, settling in after a meandering walk in the hills.

Basque cider in a cider glass.
Gateau Basque and sheep’s milk cheese.

But in the time of COVID-19, who knows when that will be. After a summer of crowded beach parties, bar raves and large weddings, cases are on a steep rise all over France. Mandatory mask-wearing at last is settling down on most cities, including here in Nice, and Mayoral threats to close down establishments violating the social distancing rules are more frequent.

For my part, I find travel under these circumstances to be drained of much of its allure. So much of what makes travel fun involves going to places that are now risky — restaurants, market, museums. So it’s okay that we’ll be staying put for a while. Plus, we are moving. More on that next time.

p.s. Fans of international crime fiction might want to get a flavor of the Béarn by reading the Detective Adamsberg series by Fred Vargas.

p.p.s. Most of you have heard of Béarnaise, one of French cuisine’s essential sauces.

p.p.p.s. WordPress has a new editing format. I hate it.

Posted in Basque country, Béarn, COVID-19, expat, expat life, France, Pays Basque, Pyrénées Atlantiques, sheep, Travel | 10 Comments

Excursions d’été: un séjour en l’immersion

A friend told me she was attending a French immersion course in the Alps. I figured I could use both, a serious language practice and cool mountain air in mid-July, so I signed up too.

The course was held at Lauvitel Lodge outside the village of Bourg L’Oisans, and was positioned in a large meadow overlooking several peaks. That’s where we took all our classes, under shade umbrellas. This was the view from my room.

Lauvital Lodge, La Danchere, France, July, 2020

We were nine of us in the class, with occasional participation by the lodge owner Caroline, a British expat long in France. Jane, our instructor and a native of Normandy who had lived ten years in Portland, Oregon, was excellent. She’d trained as an actress, and loved to role play. Her performances of unhelpful hospital secretaries, gas station attendants and other “service” people during our improv sessions made us laugh in recognition.

Our group met daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner, with class filling the time in-between, conversations unbroken and entirely in French. After five days, it felt odd to arrive in Nice and have English enter my brain. But it did, and all too quickly, hours or days passed without a word of the local language. Foiled!

It was a worthwhile experience, however. I did pick up additional vocabulary and tips on how to improve further. My favorite: read “bandes dessinés” (graphic novels), such as this one often for mastery of colloquial, spoken French.

I’m eager for more immersion but my next foray will have to be closer to Nice. The train journey from Grenoble home required two changes and took six hours. Even with AC, the car was hot, which felt worse by having to wear a mask the entire time. Which everyone was doing, thank god, as it was packed.

Normally I am happy when traveling, but in the era of Covid that was not the case. I was nervous and hyper-vigilant about getting too close, examining surfaces and using hand gel frequently. It did make me wonder how many more train trips I’ll be on.

Posted in expat, expat life, France, Nice, France, Travel | 8 Comments

Excursions d’été: La Transhumance

Years ago, preparing for my first trip to the Abruzzo region of Italy (home of paternal ancestors), I read about the annual Transhumance.  In the 1960s when the book had been written, the Transhumance involved many shepherds, tens of thousands of sheep and up to a week of walking 20 kilometers a day from winter lowland to summer mountain pastures. The author described waking in the dead of night to strange sounds, and, looking out his guest house window, being drowsily confused by the sight of of puffy white waves. They were the sheep passing through the village before the dawn, bleating, collar bells softly clanging.

Today, the Transhumance has largely died out. Sheep are still moved seasonally, but usually in truck convoys, for ease and convenience. But for some shepherds, the annual ritual along ancient tratturi, the paths beaten out by innumerable sheep hoofs over the centuries, has meaning worth preserving. Unesco has recognized the Transhumance as an intangible part of cultural patrimony thanks to their efforts.

So I was thrilled when I learned that a Transhumance took place in the Parc National du Mercantour not far from Nice, and that a small number of tourists could take part.

Transhumance

During the Transhumance, in the Mercantour National Park, France

The plan was for ten people to accompany a few shepherds, 1000 or so sheep and numerous dogs for two days as they made their way up a mountain. I was especially lured by the promise of sleeping in our mountain refuge to the sounds of sheep bleating in the nearby fields.

It didn’t work out that way. For whatever reason, 19 tourists were on the journey, not ten, and we didn’t encounter the herd until midday on the first day. The path, described to us as “easy” was certainly not.

About a half hour before sighting the first sheep, we could hear their bells and bleats, and the occasional dog barking. They arrived on the path like a rushing river, forcing us to get out of their way and not interfere with the hard work of the herding dogs. The three protector dogs, who had the job of keeping the wolves at bay, didn’t waste energy herding, keeping a silent-but-deadly lookout throughout.

shepherd dog

Great Pyrenees shepherd dog, protecting the herd

At night, they had moved on who knows where, but far away enough for us to not hear a baaa. At 6:00am the next morning, knees sore from the unexpectedly rough uphill path the day before, I and several others opted for the minivan ride to the top of the mountain where we waited under the early morning sun the arrival of the contingent.

What a beautiful mountain landscape it was.

Mercantour National Park, France

We hikers ate al fresco with the three shepherds and two guides before beginning our descent, ending at the train station home to Nice at day’s end. Was it all I expected? No, but there are other Transhumance journeys to consider for next summer.

father and daughter shepherds, Mercantour, France

father and daughter shepherds, Mercantour

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Mercantour, Nice, France, sheep, shepherd, Transhumance | 9 Comments

Excursions d’été: Marseille

What comes to mind when you think of Marseille? Crime? In fact, in 2012, one third of all murders committed in France were in the city. Drugs? A short boat hop from North Africa means all the illegal hashish you might possibly want ends up in the streets of Marseille. A large poor population might be why thefts and vandalism are real problems.

Actually, it seemed to me that Marseille is the French city with the strongest New York City vibe. It’s an immigrant city of outsiders, hustlers and survivors, with a global cultural power. Iconic French films have been set there, such as “Fanny,” “Borsalino” and “The French Connection.” The city gave its name to the national anthem.

In the two days in June that I spent there with a friend, you couldn’t help but notice that compared to Nice it is a young, dynamic and vibrant city. It is noisy, grimy, covered in graffiti, and many of the grand 19th century buildings need a renovation, but it is a city of the future. A future very different from the past.

Marseille is an ancient city, founded by Greeks who were perhaps the first to see the site’s strategic advantage as a major port on the Mediterranean. They weren’t the last. Its economic fortunes rose and fell with regular sackings by invaders (including Nazis). Attacks of plague brought by sailors wiped out a large proportion of the population more than once. You can imagine that the descendants of inhabitants past are made of hardy, proud stuff.

One used to go to Marseille to eat bouillabaisse, and take the little boat to the Chateau d’If, the inspiration for Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo.” Or, to walk the Corniche out of the city towards the brilliantly hued “calanques” of La Ciotat or Cassis, where the French Riviera begins.

There’s even more than all that to draw tourists today. (who were notably absent on our trip due to the pandemic). Architecture by Norman Foster, Le Corbusier, Zaha Hadid, Kengo Kuma and Jean Nouvel modernize the 19th century cityscape. MuCem, a museum that was still closed “par nouvel ordre” of Covid-19 when we were there, is a draw in and of itself. North Africans have settled in the center and populate a large open air daily market dotted with inexpensive eateries offering Moroccan tagines, Tunisian briks and Algerian couscous.

Baker, Marseille

Some French refer to Marseille as “France’s first Arab city.” And that reveals another dimension to the place Marseille holds in the French mind today. As Europe diversifies, some see only problems. France needs the immigrant energy, in my opinion. By the way, those round loaves are great toasted, sprinkled with olive oil and a little oregano, topped with fresh creamy cheese, a la Marseillaise.

 

Posted in expat, expat life, France, Marseille, Nice, France, Provence, Travel | 13 Comments

Excursions d’été: L’Esterel

For a long while, we’ve wanted to visit L’Esterel, in the neighboring department of the Var,  westward along the Côte d’Azur. From the Promenade on most days one can see the outline of one of the massif’s biggest peaks jutting out in the distance, and it’s always called to us. We rented a car and took off to explore it for four days.

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It’s difficult to do it justice in photos. Plus, we had some cloudy skies. Nevertheless, we spent every dry, sunny (and windy) moment on a path high above the Mediterranean, alone except for the rare cyclist zooming by, enjoying the colorful contrasts of red rock and blue sea, the rustling of eucalyptus and cork oak tree leaves in the breeze, and the singing of ecstatic birds.

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Just outside the Esterel park, pushing northwards, are a dozen or so villages, worthy of the hour-long drive through lush hills of olive trees and pine forest. In the towns, plane trees shade the sidewalks where fountains faintly gurgle, locals read their newspapers at café tables and neighbors hobnob.  A relaxing desultory air hands over it all and I get deliciously sleepy.

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Seillans, Fayence, Bagnol-en-Forêt are not forgotten and dying towns. They’ve become bolt holes for second-home owners who want to preserve the landscape and traditional character of the area, while also having access to natural wine and great olive oil.

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Notably, we did not see any tourists. So the timing looks good for a further exploration of the area in early July. No airports involved, zero crowds and open air markets for food to keep things safe, and that sleepiness can be indulged in a nap locally.

Posted in expat, expat life, France, L'Esterel, Le Var, Nice, France, Seillans, Travel | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments