Friday, March 30, 2012

Lyon, version printemps

Last week we took a day trip to Lyon, to register Mikus as an American citizen. Luckily for us the weather was warm and sunny, allowing us to further explore the city after the official business was over. (Some previous adventures in Lyon here and here)


We started with lunch on rue de la Républic and continued with a !! Starbucks !! coffee and quick tour through H&M. (I will admit I spent about 20 minutes waiting for my frappuccino, but that this didn’t diminish my ecstatic enjoyment of afore-mentioned decaffeinated delight served in a giant..no, wait… grande! to-go cup. Then on to Place Bellecour, one of the largest in France. (Lauris wasn’t impressed. You have to remember, he’s been to the Piazza Vittorio Veneto, supposedly the largest in Europe) In the very center there is a giant statue of Louis XIV on horseback. The pedestal is decorated by two bronzes, representing the Rhône and the Saône, each facing in the direction of its respective river. I found it interesting that an earlier statue had been destroyed during the French Revolution, but that this statue had been spared in 1848 by a change of inscription. Oh, and the square was home to a guillotine about 200 years ago. 

Lady Saône

We didn’t linger much longer, as ripples of the horrific events in Toulouse were felt even in Lyon, where the funeral of one of the soldiers was held on the precise day we were there. We noticed a chill in the air along with the very visible presence of police in riot gear. The tragedy cast a distinct pall over the city’s celebration of spring.


Chamber of Commerce building
The Chamber of Commerce building sits in a beautiful little square that we paused in on our way north. There happened to be an expo of some sorts wrapping up, and so in addition to the beautiful flowering magnolias we enjoyed a quick peek at the interior main hall.


Then another stop at Starbucks (there are two in Presqu’île, of course we had to stop twice… not to mention I had yet to have my favorite drink, a mocha: today grande, decaffeinated and in a to-go cup!) and soon we were rolling yet again, an additional American citizen sitting in the backseat.

Place de la Républic

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

On the hunt... for Easter eggs!

Easter is almost upon us! This means spring has arrived, with warm and sunny days enticing us outdoors away from the housework, the computer and winter clothes!

On the hunt for Easter eggs

We headed to a birthday party/Easter egg hunt last weekend for a wonderful kick-off to the warm weather. The kids had a blast finding the chocolates hidden across the yard, and I had a blast kicking back for a bit to soak up some sun and chat with my friends.

Lauris showing off his find to Ba-Ba's mom

Strawberries have reappeared in the stores and marcs, Lauris could eat a kilo if I let him. (The other moms we meet have started to bring extra just so Lauris won’t eat them all before their kids get some…) The irresistible red berries inspired my contribution to the potluck party – a fruit bowl. Maybe the day will eventually come when I can get my act together to bake or cook my contribution, but this time (and probably next) my theme was simple, fresh and easy.

Getting the kids to pose took longer than finding all the eggs...

I believe I could have sat in the sunshine all day while Lauris played in the fenced-in yard and Mikus traveled the arms of my friends, but housework and the anticipated arrival of our friends from Chatenet had us saying our goodbyes far too early. Thanks to Marine and Emma for an absolutely lovely afternoon!

The first of the three amigos to turn two. Happy birthday!!!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Le Mur des Sarrasins

Our travels in the south of France and Italy introduced us to some world-famous Roman ruins. I recently discovered that Clermont-Ferrand has a Roman wreck of its very own! Not nearly as renowned, the ruins are a secret even most locals have not seen.

"Are you sure we're allowed in there? 3rd century Roman ruins are down this alley?"

I discovered the ruins of the Wall of Sarrasins because of a geocache. Hidden in the parking lot at 2 rue Rameau and surrounded by tall buildings, the ruins were re-discovered in 1875 and date back to the second or third century. The wall is 22 m long, 7 meters high and 1.70 m thick, constructed of Roman concrete and decorated with volcanic stone siding, and cords and columns of flat brick. In the sixth century, Grégoire de Tours mentions the wall as a possible vestige of the vast Roman temple Wasso Galate (from which the word Jaude is derived), which was destroyed in the third century. In the late Middle Ages, it was incorporated into the walls of the château fort des Salles (visited in 1838 by Prosper Mérimée, inspector of historic monuments) and only restored in 1990.

See, not the most exciting Roman ruins, are they? Trust me, the photo does do the wall justice

Just a short distance from our apartment, we often bring visitors there. I’m not sure why, as the wall isn’t very impressive, especially in its current state. The signs guiding visitors to it brings you to the south side of the wall, which reveals only a very small portion of the wall, however the view from the north in the parking lot isn’t much better. I understand the need for the fence (to protect this important historical monument) but a more aesthetic one would serve the same purpose and allow a better look not obstructed by automobiles. I sincerely hope the city of Clermont at least installs an informative plaque with the history of the wall so that people understand what history is preserved in the mur.

Wonderful signage leads to a great view on the south side

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Sophie, la girafe

I’ve heard every child in France has one*. I also restrained from buying one until about six months ago. Finally I caved in to the pregnant-questioning-my-mothering-abilities guilt and got one for Lauris, although he is a little older than usual to receive his first Sophie. And what is Sophie? La girafe! Born in France in 1961, I’ve heard rumors of desperate American moms seeking to be in the “in” crowd paying up to $50 for this 10 euro toy (but this just can’t be! Amazon.com has them for under $20.). 


So what ended up as an impulse buy has me pleasantly surprised. Six months later and Lauris still enjoys playing with it! The squeaker isn’t that annoying, and everything I’ve read about this toy is so very different from the mass-produced plastic toys of today. The pattern is supposed to be beneficial to a baby’s developing sight, and as the giraffe is made of 100% natural rubber it is advertised as safe to chew on: perfect for teething. There is also a distinct smell, which I thought might be obnoxious but as it turns out, doesn’t bother me at all. And for a small child, it would be incredibly easy to grab and play with, all those gangly legs and neck… Final verdict? I’m glad I finally bought one for Lauris; it’s a great toy for him to share with Mikus! And if any of our friends in the US decide their child absolutely must have this toy, get in touch and we’ll see if Femme au Foyer Inc. can’t import one for you!

Lauris and Sophie enjoying the view this morning

Mikus has already received his very own Sophie from my friend Marine and family who came to visit after we came home from the hospital. Not the same as Lauris’s, it wears an inner tube and is meant for bathtime. There’s all kinds of Sophie gear available, from teething rings to dish sets but I think this household has enough Sophie for now… one per child seems to be about perfect.

"Aw, mom! Enough with the pictures already!"

* From what I’ve seen, almost all French babies Lauris has met do have a Sophie. Most of them look well-loved, and a few mothers tell stories of lost Sophies wreaking havoc upon the household.

Monday, March 19, 2012

People enjoying Provence


Taking a break with the panorama of Cassis behind, still shrouded by fog 


Four lifelong friends watching the ducks in the Jardin de la Fontaine in Nîmes
(and if I have to explain what the ducks were doing, this would not be a family blog)


Mother and child silhouetted, crossing to Pont St-Bénezet in Avignon


Impressive mustache watching the day at a café in Cassis

The pétanque players and their audience in Nîmes

Graffiti artists(?) at lunch on Cap Canaille

Fishing the waters under Pont du Gard

Friday, March 16, 2012

1 month

So I had put Mikus down for a little tummy time last Sunday when I looked down to see him roll over. Not quite believing my eyes, I called Roberts in to witness a possible repeat and turned him back over. And, over onto his back he went again. Over the course of the next hour he repeated this performance five times.

video

Should I be shouting from the rooftops that my one month-old is already rolling over, or amused that his head is heavy enough to topple him over?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Nîmes

After the two hour drive from Cassis to Nîmes we checked into our hotel, the Hôtel Royal, and headed out for dinner. As the hotel is located next to the Carré d’Art and the Maison Carrée, I didn’t have high expectations for finding a great restaurant and I was prepared to settle on tourist fare. However, we ended up in a great little tapas place, Carre Jazz. Being a Saturday night the place was lively, and when we sent in a scout to check for availability, the host, waiters and cooks spent five minutes discussing the best place to seat our party of five (avec stroller and toddler). Finally they took us into the adjoining lounge area and we plopped down in deep leather couches. The food was good after a long day, we snacked on a tortilla dish, gambas and chevre drizzled with honey before digging into some serious calamari, potatoes and entrecôte. When I say serious calamari, I mean we were served two entire squid.

The Nîmes Amphitheatre

The hotel was my favorite of the trip. A spacious room, we had the only balcony on the floor and a big tub that Lauris tremendously enjoyed during his evening bath. Affordable with a perfect location halfway between the Amphitheatre and Jardin de la Fontaine, there is also a tapas bar which we didn’t try out this time because of the crowd. According to the Michelin Guide it’s a favorite of the bullfighters during the Whitsun feria at the end of May when the whole town becomes involved with the bullfighting festival traditions.

Sunday morning we grabbed a coffee on the Maison Carrée plaza before continuing to the Amphitheatre. While Roberts and Lauris headed off for their own adventure, my mother, Mikus and I headed inside armed with an audio guide and baby bjorn. This was my first time inside of an ancient Roman amphitheatre and I’m happy I chose this particular one, it was extremely well preserved with thought-out informative placards throughout. I’m also pleased we were there in March, as I’m sure during the peak seasons it can get quite crowded. As far as ancient Roman amphitheatres go, I am also quite sure I will never have to tour another! (Not that those in Rome and Arles aren’t wonderful, but I feel like if I’ve seen one, I’ve seen them all…) I was impressed by the size (seating capacity of 24,000, or the same as Ohio Bobcats Peden Stadium) and captured by the accounts of combat, styles of armor, and the frequent use of the word vomitaria.


Meanwhile, Lauris and Roberts were off doing their own thing, which involved fountains, tractors and carousels. And I only know this because I saw the pictures.


Lunch right across from the landmark refueled us for the walk past Maison Carrée to the Jardin de la Fontaine. We had hoped for enough time to visit Carré d’Art, a museum of contemporary art, but it wasn’t in the cards, so we passed on by with a pause in Square Antonin. Lauris and Roberts were delighted when we found ourselves in the midst of a skateboarder flash mob. We were photographing the interesting fountain when along with the sound of a hundred little wheels on pavement came at least fifty teens and twenty-somethings. After ten minutes of skating they left as quickly as they came and we were on our way once more.

Maison Carrée

We followed the tree-shaded canal (into which Lauris heaved his sippy-cup, but what's done is done!) to the gate of the jardin, where we entered and spent the last of our time in Nîmes. An 18th century army engineer created the gardens which funnel the Nemausus spring through several pools into the canal. Historically the area also contained baths, a theatre and temple. The ruins of the Temple of Diana (which dates from the 2nd century) are still present, and recently excavations brought to light an ancient mansion and opulent public building. After investigating the balustraded walks we took a seat along the main path and paused for a snack, to blow some bubbles and to watch the kids on rented tricycles zooming around the track.

Can you spot the sippy cup?

And so ended our tour of Provence, as after the park we packed up to head home. The halfway mark home from Nîmes is the Millau viaduct, and we stopped in the aire to use the restrooms and stretch our legs. My mother opted out of the climb to the scenic viewpoint due to the slow drizzle, and soon both boys were back in their carseats for the remainder of the trip. A nice circle; literally, as our trip took us in a large circle, and also in the sense that what started with a bridge (although the ancient Pont du Gard), ended with a bridge. Provence, I will be back.
With the boys in Jardin de la Fontaine

Monday, March 12, 2012

Cassis

The seaside town of Cassis is a little off the beaten path; I can see how the short distance from the highway that leads from Aix-en-Provence to Toulon can take hours to travel in the summertime at the height of tourist season. Portrayed as “a bustling fishing port” in the Michelin Guide, I’d lean more towards a description of “popular resort town,” as even in these colder days of March the beaches and cafés were full of people taking advantage of the sun. We chose Cassis for our next destination after Avignon because of the location. To the east are the towering cliffs of the Canaille and to the west the world-famous calanques.


We arrived at the Hôtel Le Clos des Aromes shortly before dinner after a bit of trouble. Google maps pointed us into old town and had us turning down the tiniest little streets, many of which were not navigable as they were torn up in preparation for new cobblestones. After two tours into and around on one-way streets that seemed to only lead us further from our destination we finally found a hotel sign over a door. Roberts checked us in and came back out to drive us to the parking spot they had for us, and after another maddening trip all the way out and back into town we ended up on the street that we originally drove in on – right in front of the other entrance to the hotel! As we were busy trying to navigate to the opposite side the address was leading us to, we had missed seeing the signage and front door; at that moment I understood why the Michelin guide had suggested a bus from Marseilles in lieu of suggestions on where to park!

I recite this story about our arrival (and add that a screaming twenty-two month old didn’t help the situation or my sanity) as the beginning of the theme to our visit there; initial impressions of dismay were always reversed and proved completely wrong. As I initially lamented my choice of hotel based on the hard to find location and the torn up back-street I believed it to be located on, we entered into a fairy tale courtyard before meeting the most pleasant and obliging staff. This was followed by the realization I should have reserved a spot for dinner when booking, they announced that all the tables were full… until they suggested seating us at the farm table in the lobby… which on our return from the cozy rooms we were assigned to had been beautifully set and eventually served up a fantastically delicious dinner!


After a sleepless night (and the hotel was not to blame, just our offspring) I was relieved to steal downstairs with Mikus and enjoy a humongous coffee and fresh croissant by myself, with peace and quiet to finish a few chapters of my novel. And then we were off! I had planned a driving tour from Cassis to La Ciotat skirting the Canaille on the coastal road Corniche des Crêtes and was somewhat disappointed to find it overcast and foggy. The fog (and my mood) only got worse as we started our ascent, at the first lookout we could barely see 10 feet from the car, and I debated calling the drive off right there and then.


Then, all of the sudden we climbed out from the fog into a beautifully sunny day. And even though at the next lookout we could only see a portion of the view (and no ocean yet), we kept on, with more and more scenery revealed to us at every stop. By the afternoon the fog had all but burnt off and the view was amazing, of the cliffs themselves, of Cassis, of the calanques, and finally the port of La Ciotat. What was even more fantastic was that although we returned to Cassis by the same route it felt like a different road, for what we had missed in the fog was revealed in full by the return trip.


The limestone range we were driving on has some of the tallest cliffs in France, with Cap Canaille measuring at 1,188 ft (362m) and the Grand Tête at 1,310 ft (399m). It was an impressive view all around because on one side we had the Mediterranean, and the other, across the valley, the Massifs de Puget and de Marseilleveyre. I was in awe of the views, each stop more impressive than the last, and was sad when the road started its descent into La Ciotat, a port with large shipbuilding yards. The feeling was short-lived as we quickly found ourselves at the parking lot for a short walk to the calanque de Figuerolles, one of the more picturesque of the rocky inlets near the town.


We climbed down the stairs to the small clear-water inlet flanked by strangely eroded rocks, cliffs with round interior cavities and sharp crags rising up from the water. The wind was sharp off of the water, but we stayed a while to throw rocks into the water, take pictures and enjoy the view. Several other families had the same idea, and some even braved the cold to lunch among the rocks. We chose to return to the car and find a warmer spot to picnic, finally ending up in town at a small seaside park with a grand view of the port. Lauris was in crane-heaven – no construction cranes in sight but the docks were filled with cranes for shipbuilding and loading cargo.


In the late afternoon we found ourselves back in Cassis, and this time we set out on foot. Although not very large, there was plenty to keep us busy until dinner and even then we still had some exploring left the following morning after breakfast while we waited for the 2pm boat tour of the calanques.

The one boat company that provides the tours from Cassis (there are more tours departing from Marseilles) has three options, a 45 minute – 3 calanque tour, a 1 hour 5 minute – 5 calanque tour and a 2 hour – 8 calanque tour. We opted for the shortest, not knowing how Mikus and Lauris would enjoy the confinement. Of the tour, the last of the three calanques was probably most representative of the 5 we didn’t see, and I would like to return for the long tour as well as the chance to hike the area. The water was choppy, however each calanque had sunbathers and hikers laid out on the rocks sunbathing. The calanques themselves were beautiful, the white limestone cliffs sharply contrasting with the blue sky and water. We learned from the guide about the ecosystem, as soil is almost non-existent and the cliffs instead contain numerous cracks into which the roots of plants (such as sage, juniper and myrtle) are anchored. All moisture comes only from evaporation of the sea and during the summer it is as dry as a desert. I though the most interesting portion of the journey the description of the underwater cave, the grotte Cosquer, which was only discovered in 1985. Inhabited when the sea level was much lower (currently the cave is about 37 meters underwater), the handprints have been dated back to 27,000 BC and the cave art (horses, seals, penguins and fish drawings) to 17,000 BC.


After our boat tour it was a slow stroll back to the car, taking one last look back at the Mediterranean before continuing on to our final destination, Nîmes.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Avignon

After Pont du Gard it seemed that the rest of our trip would be anticlimactic, but it turns out the five of us were in for a Provence adventure worthy of a Peter Mayle book, beginning with the day spent in Avignon. Upon arriving we checked in at the Hotel Bristol, recommended by Sara as an affordable hotel just a short walk from the center of Old Town. A fair price with a convenient location, but not optimal if you are looking at spending a lot of time in the room, so thankfully the weather was nice during our stay. After a dinner just across the street we turned in for the night.

The next morning we awoke to beautiful sunny weather and temperatures ideal for a long stroll through the city. Breakfast was a croissant from the closest boulangerie and our little group set out. We started with a coffee on Place de l’Horloge, bordered by the Hôtel de Ville and the theatre, soaking up some sun and doing a little people watching. On the north end several artists had set up shop and we admired their vivid paintings and watercolors of Provence lavender and sunflower fields on our way to the famous palais des Papes.


In the early 14th century the pontifical court was exiled to France; the court in Rome had become impossible for the popes, and Pope John XXII established the papacy in Avignon where from 1309 to 1377 seven French popes succeeded each other. The city was transformed, not only physically with the construction of the palace of the Popes, but also with a swell of population, from 5,000 to 40,000. Along with the historic center of Avignon, the palais des Papes has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Just to the north stands Cathédrale Notre-Dame-des-Doms, which has been rebuilt many times since its original construction in the mid-12th century. And to the north of that, Rocher des Doms with its gardens and spectacular views of the Rhône, Avignon and the Luberon hills. We spent at least an hour in the gardens with a stop in the children’s playground before descending the long staircase down to the river walk.


For lunch we returned to Place de l’Horloge, as it seemed that not many restaurants were open off the main tourist path due to it being off-season. The food at the sidewalk restaurant was good, but the man had me seriously doubting what little French I know; instead of the magret de canard I thought I ordered I was served a beef dish, when I asked directions to the marché he gave instructions on how to reach Port St-Michel, and when I ordered desert the waiter looked at me like I was speaking ancient Latin. Or maybe I’m going crazy, although it was my mother that ordered coffee before the meal…

Next on the itinerary was Pont St-Bénezet, which actually was a narrow foot bridge before the flood in the 17th century that reduced it to the pier it is today. According to legend it was built after a young shepherd was commanded by voices from heaven to build a bridge at that very spot in 1177. He was thought crazy until he lifted a huge block of stone, and then volunteers and funds appeared and the bridge was built within eight years. The popular children’s song “Sur le pont d’Avignon l’on y danse tous en rond!” sings of dancing under the bridge, but we did our dancing on the bridge while taking in the view of the Rhône, the palace and the city from a different perspective.


In the 14th century the Popes ordered the fortifications around the city built, and much of the old ramparts still exist. We strolled along them down rue du Rempart-du-Rhône to Place Crillon before taking our leave of this beautiful city. Had we a little more time we might have visited the Fort St-André (the 14th century fort that is prominently visible across the river in Villeneuve-lès Avignon) and stayed to watch the sunset, but we had a two-hour drive ahead of us that evening, to the small fishing port of Cassis

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Cliousclat & Pont du Gard on Sadie Hawkins day

Traveling with two children vs. just the one is a whole different ball game, but it’s like cold water, you just have to dive right in. And then you might never leave the house again.

My mother had been here one whole month, and we hadn’t been further from the apartment than Montpeyroux, which is no way to repay her for the savior she has been for me with the kids. So Roberts took a few days off, we packed up the trunk with baggage fitting a family traveling with two small children, and off we drove, east towards Lyon and then south to a little town called Cliousclat, just south of Valence. Recommended by my friend Leigh as a good stopping point on the way to Provence, it was the history of the town that convinced us to make the stop. Due to the excellent quality of the clay, the town has a reputation for pottery that dates back to the early tenth century. Because our visit was not during the usual tourist season many of the stores were closed, however we found one or two open, and combined with the many picturesque streets and buildings we found enough to keep us occupied for several hours.


A short while later we crossed into Provence, only my second visit to the region (the first being during our trip to Saintes-Maries-de-La-Mer last May). I was immediately struck by the topography; where on our previous trip to the Camargue region we traveled mostly through flat land with marshes and farmland, this visit wound us through mountains and ridges in addition to the vineyards and lavender fields I had been expecting. The mountainous terrain is due to the Tertiary Era which took the sedimentary rock covered by the Cretaceous Sea and lifted and folded it into the Alps and the Pyrenees, which contrasts to the Camargue with its man-made delta and wetlands.

We arrived at Le Pont du Gard with only a few more hours of daylight. While planning the trip I was worried that a late departure from Clermont-Ferrand or a lengthier stay in Cliousclat might force us to abandon a visit to the famous aqueduct, but the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. A few hours of daylight gave us enough time to see the ancient structure from several viewpoints, and the setting sun on the stone walls was a poem fitting for a wonder of the Ancient world.


The bridge over the river Gard was part of a system that brought spring water from Uzès to Nimes, was built in 1C and is still in comparably good condition due partly to renovations by Napoleon III and partly to the use as a toll bridge for many centuries. At the height of use as an aqueduct the daily flow was estimated to be about 44 million gallons, but in the 4th century maintenance ceased and so by the 9th century it was not used any longer. The dressed blocks of masonry, some weighing as much as six tons, were lifted into place by goats and human treadmill-powered winches. Pont du Gard is on UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites.


We just happened to be standing on the bridge on February 29th, leap day. As we neared the center of the bridge a couple asked me to photograph them; we had observed them earlier sharing a bottle of wine while watching the sun slowly sink behind the trees. It turns out the woman had taken advantage of leap day (otherwise known as Sadie Hawkins day) to propose, and her soon-to-be husband had answered “yes!” There is a popular tradition in some countries that leap day is the only time a woman may propose marriage to a man. Curiously, if the man refuses he then is obligated to give the woman money, buy her a dress or gift her 12 pairs of gloves to hide the fact that her hand is not sporting an engagement ring! Luckily, that was not the case. I felt honored to be able to take the couple’s picture and wish them the best of luck in their future together!

As the last light slowly faded we made our way back to our car and struck out for Avignon to continue our adventure.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Site du jour: Femme au Foyer!

I write this blog for my family and friends/followers, but I also rejoice in the times when it is recognized by other sites. One such site is expatblog.com, where Femme au Foyer is currently the featured blog. I'm honored to have the opportunity to be interviewed by this site. Please check out my interview here, and you will also find a gateway to the expat blog world.

Expat Interview

On another note, I'm currently tapping away on my Ipad while watching both (!) my boys sleep. Should probably use this opportunity to give my husband a hug, hang out with my mom or read more than two sentences in the newest novel by Nicholas Evans, The Brave... However it is good to be back in the traveling mindset; there is much more to France than just Clermont-Ferrand, and I can not wait to share these newest adventures!
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