Thursday, 17 June 2010

En vacances!

Greetings from the sunny south of France! It has been a week or so since I last posted, but an Internet connection has been hard to find where we are, so here are several days’ worth of posts all in one – more in the nature of a dissertation than a blog post, I’m afraid!

If I had been able to find an Internet connection last Friday, I would most probably have written something more profound about how our role as parents to two young boys seems suddenly at an end. For the past 20 years, we have enjoyed so many lovely family holidays together, but this year is different. Our youngest son Daniel is now 18 and is flying off for a holiday in Corfu with his mates in a couple of weeks. He seems very independent and is always off doing his own thing. And after living a life of leisure for a good couple of years, 20 year-old Alex now has a full-time job, although he still hasn’t discovered the benefits of saving a little money (car, holiday, etc) or organising his life. So despite the offer of a free holiday with us, two weeks away from his girlfriend was always going to be at least a week too long. If he’d had the money (and the wherewithal to book a week’s leave) he could have flown down to spend a few days with us, but chose the easy route – as usual – of doing nothing.

So, having spent the previous few weeks and months looking forward immensely to our holiday, I spent the day before we left feeling pretty sad. To tell you the truth, it felt an awful lot like grief – the loss of something that we’ve always held so dear and will never get back. And I know that Diane felt the same as me (as evidenced by the tears as we left) but we also both realised that – for now, at least - it was us that needed the boys more than they needed us. One day, with a little luck, they will experience the same joys (and trials and tribulations) of raising a family as we have. Meanwhile, Diane and I will move on to a more independent life, safe in the knowledge that the boys can cope for themselves. I just hope the house is still standing when we get back!

Anyway, we had a ferry to catch at 7.30 on Friday morning, so we set off at around 2.30. It was an easy journey for most of the way, apart from some of the most torrential rain I have ever seen in the UK, travelling down the M2 in Kent. I have never seen a motorway get so flooded so quickly. It didn’t exactly bode well for the journey through northern France, but almost as soon as we left Calais, on the autoroute towards Reims, the sun started to peep through the clouds. Within an hour, we were driving in glorious sunshine.

The beautiful northern France landscape

Each time we stopped at the services, it was getting warmer and warmer. By the time we reached the southern Champagne region, the temperature was 28C, and it was just as warm by the time we reached our overnight stop in southern Burgundy. Our friend David Bennett had kindly given us the keys to his beautiful little hideaway in Saint Gengoux Le National – surely one of the prettiest villages in the whole of France. Before we arrived, we took a detour and a leisurely drive through the vineyards of Beaune, Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet, followed by a visit to the Cave Cooperative in Buxy.

A lengthy tasting left me unable to choose between so many lovely wines, so we ended up buying 18 bottles of mixed wines, including various cuvees of Crémant de Bourgogne, white Macon and Rully and red Mercurey and Givry. Lovely wines, every one of them. I have often said that the Neffies Cooperative in Languedoc is one of the best in France – well now I think that the Buxy Cooperative is the best in France.

After a lovely evening in Saint Gengoux, we set off for the final stage of the journey to our destination in Agay, on the Côte d’Azure. It was a rather longer journey than we had anticipated, but we arrived unscathed, despite a somewhat scary altercation with a mad Frenchman in a souped-up BMW, who didn’t take kindly to me showing him my brake lights in the outside lane of the autoroute when he was about 2 yards away from my bumper. Where do you go when you are trying to overtake and have two other cars in front of you? Anyway, despite the fact that this nutcase had previously wanted to reach his destination (possibly an early grave) as quickly as possible, he then decided to tailgate us for the next 20 or 30 kilometres – which was a bit worrying, because we were eventually going to reach the Péage, where we would have to stop. Luckily, he finally decided he’d had enough of trundling along the inside lane at speeds of 50-60 mph and sped off into the distance. Thankfully, we didn’t encounter him again and I learned a valuable lesson – don’t offer internationally-recognised hand signals to people with cars that go faster than mine!

Our house (or villa) has a lovely situation on the Corniche de l’Esterel, which hugs the coastline all the way between St. Raphaël and Cannes and onwards towards Nice, Monaco and the Italian border. Set into the hillside with the coastal rail line directly behind, all we have between us and the sea is the Corniche and the villas on the far side, the gardens of which are literally lapped by the waves. It really is a stunning location. The view from the pool, which is high up behind the house, affords magnificent views out into the Mediterranean, and the view from the living room is almost as good.

The view from our pool........

........and from the patio

It is nice to wake up to such a wonderful view. And all we have to disturb the peace and tranquillity is the distant crashing of the waves and the occasional passing train or car. The house itself is very comfortable and, whilst a little rustic, it has all the facilities we need – private pool, garage, washing machine, barbeque, DVD and TV. We don’t usually feel the need for a TV whilst on holiday, as we like to spend our time outside, although it has certainly proved useful this time, if only to watch the odd World Cup match. We didn’t see much of the England v USA match, but I don’t think we missed too much excitement either. Some of the subsequent matches have been very entertaining, though, and it seems to be shaping-up into an interesting tournament. I’d actually fancied Spain to win it, but the Swiss gave them a good game last night and certainly deserved to win.

I have quite a few relatives in France (my Dad’s family moved there from Poland in the mid-1930’s) and my cousin Fabrice lives in Antibes, his current posting as a Gendarme. So on Sunday, he and his lovely wife Sandrine and their two boys Florent and Baptiste came over for a barbeque and a trip to the beach. It was lovely to see them again, as we had not seen each-other since my cousin Dominique’s wedding in 2002. Today, we will visit them for dinner at their apartment in the centre of Antibes.

My cousin Fabrice and his lovely wife Sandrine

In the evening, after they had left, Diane and I went for a ride on our bikes for a few kilometres along the Corniche. Although the road is by no means flat, the inclines are gentle and fairly short – ideal terrain for Diane to get used to riding a bike again! Her friends had all been saying how jealous (not) they were that she was going to be doing so much cycling on holiday. Well, I am happy to report to Diane’s cynical friends that she enjoyed it immensely and is looking forward to doing a lot more cycling - especially when we get to the hills of Faugeres!

Monday was a lazy day for us, spent mostly by the pool, although we did venture out on the bikes again in the evening.

Tuesday began cloudy and overcast, which eventually turned to intermittent showers, so we decided to drive along the coast. We were going to take the train, as – like the Corniche – it pretty much hugs the coastline all the way to Italy. But we decided to take the car instead, since it meant we wouldn’t be constantly getting on and off trains and we could work to our own timetable. First stop was Cannes. Just as we got out of the car, it started raining, but only for a short while, so we took a stroll along the main drag, to see how the other half lives (and shops). The prices in some of the shops were eye-popping – I saw more than a few skimpy dresses or small items of jewellery selling for several thousand Euros. Some of the shops were less vulgar and didn’t even bother to display prices. I guess if you need to ask the price, you certainly can’t afford it! There are a few free bits of beach in Cannes, but most of it is cordoned-off and clearly reserved for the use of the guests in the numerous plush hotels. To be honest, it really isn’t my kind of place (or Diane’s, thankfully) and the only really interesting bit is the exhibition centre used for the Cannes Film Festival – we spent a few minutes looking at the handprints of all the famous film stars inlaid into the tiles nearby.

Then we drove on along the Corniche, making a few stops here and there to take photos of the spectacular sea views. East of Cannes, we took the more direct road towards Nice, which isn’t at all pretty and passes through some grubby, run-down places – a mixture of wasteland, building sites, ugly towns and high-rise developments. When we got to Nice, we drove straight down through the town to the promenade which, I have to say, is utterly gorgeous – a 2 or 3 kilometre stretch of beach (although it looks like shingle, rather than sand) runs from one side of the bay to the other. I have never seen such a blue sea – in fact so blue, it was almost turquoise. Unfortunately, parking along the promenade is not easy, so we just took a slow drive along to the other side, enjoying the view and the temporary bright sunshine. Just around the corner from the main bay is the harbour, which we reached just as a ferry was departing for Corsica.

Nice harbour, with the main resort top left

The road climbs quickly from there and the view from the highest point is a stunner. In fact, there are countless stunning viewpoints along the whole stretch of road from here, taking in Villefranche-Sur-Mer and Beaulieu-Sur-Mer.


Then, all of a sudden, we were in Monaco. If you’ve watched the Monaco Grand Prix on the TV, or have visited Monaco yourself, then you hardly need me to tell you how small and built-up this place is. Wedged between mountain and sea, there is little room left for building outwards, so most of the new buildings now go upwards (and in some cases downwards). Although I’m not a fan of high-rise developments, I guess they have little option here and, being set against the backdrop of spectacular cliffs and mountains, they actually seem to add to the charm of the principality. Not that this is a place without some fantastic old(ish) buildings – the Opera, Casino and Hotel de Paris are magnificent buildings, and there is a lot of great architecture in the older parts of town. And of course, the place simply screams wealth and decadence.

Monaco, seen from the east, near Menton

The Casino

Hotel de Paris

We drove around the town a couple of times before we were able to find a suitable parking space, which almost inevitably meant driving along several parts of the Grand Prix circuit. Save for a couple of areas of red and white-striped verges (and no Armco barriers), you wouldn’t know it, of course, for the whole of the race track comprises what are – for 51 weeks of the year – very busy public roads. It was raining heavily by this time, but we enjoyed seeing the sights and strolling around what is actually a very pretty town – even in the rain.

F1 fans should recognise this stretch of road

The sun made a very welcome return yesterday (Wednesday). There was still a hefty onshore breeze (as evidence by the white horses on the sea) but we had a cloudless sky and temperatures in the high 20’s Celsius, so we enjoyed another relaxing day by the pool.

Finally, here are some rather sparse notes (mainly from memory) on a few wines we have enjoyed over the last few days.

Vignerons de Buxy Buissonnier Demi Sec Crémant de Bourgogne was a delicious way to end a long day’s driving to Saint-Gengoux. A blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, it was refreshing, off-dry with a hint of richness and minerality and a lovely mousse - and crammed full of lovely stone fruit flavours.

Vignerons de Buxy Clos de Chevris 2007 Givry, enjoyed with our Sunday barbeque, was a beautifully light, yet not unsubstantial expression of pure, youthful Pinot Noir – fruits of the forest, with leafy, forest floor notes, and a palate of sweet but tangy strawberry and raspberry and a hint of cream.

Thierry Allemand “Chaillot” 1998 Cornas was one of several bottles I brought with me to enjoy this week, before we reach the vinous heaven of Languedoc. I don’t often use the word “strong” in a tasting note, but this one was exactly that – strong, without being overly tannic or alcoholic (12.5%) and robust, without being overly rustic. It was absolutely loaded with rich, dark blackberry and cherry fruit and not a little spice. It was identifiably Cornas, though it has yet to develop the classic smoky bacon and violet notes on the nose. That said, it was still lovely to drink, even at this relatively young age. It is a very fine wine indeed and definitely has another 5 to 10 years’ of ageing potential before it reaches its peak. I’m glad I have another bottle.

Tuesday night, we “slummed” it with a bottle of supermarket Côtes de Provence – simply by way of experimentation, you understand. It cost us all of 1.95 Euros and I have no idea what the grape mix was (and it was non-vintage) but it was remarkably OK – even good. It ticked all the right boxes – spicy red and black fruits, decent acidity and rustic (but not harsh) tannins made for a very pleasant drink to accompany some steak, Toulouse sausages and pasta with a rich tomato sauce. I’d happily drink it again – though not too often. Life is too short to drink cheap wine! Last night, we stepped up a notch, with a remarkably good Domaine Bech 2008 Costieres de Nimes – also a supermarket wine, though a little more “expensive” at 3.95 Euros(!) It was absolutely delicious and true to its appellation – plenty of dark, ripe fruit, tar, herbs and spices and a certain yeastiness which made it all the more interesting and yummy. In fact, it was so good that I may go back to buy a few more bottles to take home.

As a postscript to this entry (which I have been piecing-together over the last couple of days) we saw the news on the TV last night about the terrible floods and resulting deaths in and around Draguignan. This happened on the very same day (Tuesday) that we made our trip to Monaco. It was a rainy day, for sure, and we had torrential rain on the way back to Agay on the autoroute, but we didn’t realise things were that bad inland. Yesterday (Wednesday) saw a return to glorious weather. There was more rain last night, but the weather forecast is now really good for the rest of this week and the whole of next week - fingers crossed!


Bob Rossi said...

What a view of the Mediterranean from your house! When we were driving through that area years ago we had hoped to get a good view of the Mediterranean and maybe picnic there, but with all the buildings, it was impossible until we drove inland up into the hills. Then we eventually got a great view (and found a picnic spot).
I hope you might still manage to find the time to stop at Domaine Mazel in the Ardeche.

David Bennett- Optometrist and Contact Lens Practitioner said...

..."Vinous heaven" of the Languedoc. ROFL

Surely you mean Burgundy?


Glad you having a lovely time!


AlanM said...

Great read Leon, from the emotional traumas to the holiday musings. Cannes is truly awful I agree. Have you been affected by the floods at all?
I wish you'd said you were going to Nice it's a city we know very well as it has a good air link with Newcastle, handy for short breaks. Enjoy Faugeres and don't forget Ollier Taillefer in Fos

Bernard said...

that sounds like a good trip.
it doesn't surprise me you had an argument on the motorway.
have a good second week.

Leon Stolarski said...

Bob - I forgot all about you mentioning Domaine Mazel. I'll try and get to them next time. If you want details of the villa in Agay, let me know - I would be happy to recommend it to anybody. A really lovely place, and not expensive.

David - Burgundy and Languedoc are both vinous heaven(s). Just different.

Alan - I had a notion of visiting a couple of Bellet growers in/around Nice, but never got around to finding out their location details. Ultimately, we just took a drive along the prom as part of our bigger day trip. Having seen that stunning beach, I'd love to go back there sometime, if only to spend a full day enjoying the beach (which was completely empty when we drove past).

We drove through Le Luc on Saturday, when we left for Languedoc. We didn't even realise that was the place that had been affected by the floods - until we got there, that is. The scenes of devastation were very sad. Piles of caravans that looked like they'd been swept up by a tidal wave, up-ended cars and mud everywhere. The whole town seemed to be out clearing away the debris and shovelling mud.

Bernard - why were you not surprised? ;-) It was scary for a while, though - you live and learn!