Thursday, September 28, 2006

Shopping for Little Saints

Every husband comes with baggage. Some have sports fixations or Blackberry addictions or children from other marriages, but me, I have the little saints. Millers and bakers, fishermen and bear trainers, village idiots and water carriers, you name it, I’ve got it, and it was always thus. It’s not everyone who can boast a fascination with “santons” (the word comes from santouon which means ‘little saint’ in Provencal), the 70 millimetre high, hand painted clay figures representing 19th century Provencal characters. It’s really not as kinky as it sounds. Having spent time as a child in Marseille, my husband and his whole family acquired a passion for collecting santons, which actually began as a popular act of resistance to the closing of churches during the French Revolution.

Before the French Revolution, crèches were big business in Provence. Churches put on magnificent nativity displays and people flocked to see them. With the closing of the churches, the population was denied access to their beloved crèches and perhaps more importantly, crèche makers had no work. Along came Jean-Louis Lagnel (1764-1822) from Marseilles who seized the market opportunity and began to make figures for people to display in their homes at affordable prices. Using the fine clay from Marseille and Aubagne (10 miles down the road) Lagnel and his followers perfected a technique of using small molds, the casts from which would then be hand painted. As these were crèches “for the people”, santon makers looked to local characters, trades and activities for inspiration. The idea for crèches which used ordinary people on their way to pay homage to the Holy Family was an instant success, with santon fairs springing up throughout the region. The largest and oldest of these fairs, founded in 1803, still exists and can be visited in Marseille from Advent through Epiphany.

Today, the ancient art of santon making is lovingly practiced in workshops across Provence and for visitors to the region, santon shopping presents the rare opportunity to bring home something that is really made in the region instead of China and is a small work of art in its own right. The santon you buy today is made using the same techniques that have been practised for centuries. There are hundreds of different figures, animals and accessories from which to choose. Most families add a piece or two every year and santon collections are considered family heirlooms which are passed down lovingly from parent to child.

For the uninitiated, there are a few aspects of santon collecting that could seem confusing. First, you need to decide whether you are interested in the “santons d’argile” which are the hand painted clay figures that come in six different sizes ranging from 1- 6 inches or the “santons habilles” which are more like small dolls dressed in cloth and carrying implements such as baskets and fishing nets. To a degree, what you are willing to spend will drive the decision. No santon is cheap, there’s too much hand labour for that, but the price varies a lot depending on the size. A woman from Arles, for example, costs €14.45 in Size #2 and €89 in Size #5. In case you were wondering, the most popular size and type for French collectors is the “santons d’argile” in Size #2.

For anyone interested in purchasing a crèche, a good place to start is at one of the workshops which offer visitors the chance to watch the santons being made as well as having sales outlets. One of the oldest and most famous santon makers, Marcel Carbonel, has a workshop, boutique and museum in Marseille, along with another store on the main square in Aubagne. You can visit the santon workshops and boutiques any time during the year. The best time to shop for santons is during Advent when the fairs are in full swing. My recommendation would be to make a weekend of it, staying at the wonderful Bastide Relais de la Magdeleine which is just outside of Marseille and close to Aubagne where you can eat and shop to your hearts content. If you happen to be in Paris, there are plenty of santons and accessories for sale at the religious shops on the square next to the St Sulpice cathedral. Most of the major workshops also sell from their internet sites.

On our recent trip to Provence, we made the pilgrimage to Aubagne in pursuit of this year’s additions. We bought a woman with lavender, Monsieur Jourdan, one of the characters from the Maurel ‘Pastoral’ and a woman with snails. We spent an interesting morning discussing santons with the lady running the Marcel Carbonel shop and in addition to being introduced to the newest pieces in Carbonel’s collection, we also know what Madame thought of the weather this summer, how it impacted the trade and where Madame will be taking her long deserved holiday. In roughly two months time, these new members of our santon family will join dozens of others who will be arranged and rearranged around the Hedges dining room because it is always difficult to decide if the brigande should be next to the woman with a chicken or the one with the keg. As for husbands with baggage, I’m glad I went for the one who brought along an entire village of little saints.

Santons in Marseille
Atelier Arterra
Cabanon des Accoules
Marcel Carbonel

Santons in Aubagne
Lei Santoun Castelin Peirano
Santons Magali
Santons scaturro Daniel

Santons in Aix en Provence
Santons Cavasse
Santons Fouque
Santons Jouve
Santons Richard

Most of the workshops and boutiques are closed on Mondays

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Romance on the Riviera

St Tropez. Who wouldn’t want to go to St Tropez? The name conjures images of film stars, money, glitz, Brigitte Bardot in her prime, gleaming white yachts, cruising sports cars, topless beaches and perfect sun tans. That being the case, you can imagine how thrilled Jeff and I were to receive an invitation to the most glamorous wedding on the St Tropez peninsula since Mick married Bianca in 1971. I had my doubts, however, whether the Cote d’Azur would turn out just too Over The Top for someone hoping to turn a dislike of crowds into a career.

As it turned out, La Croix Valmer, the village where the wedding ceremony was to take place, is only a short drive out of St Tropez, but light years away in terms of temperament and tempo. If St Tropez is the place to see and be seen, then Croix Valmer is a lower key alternative for those who want to get away from the hoi polloi and relax. I was charmed.

La Croix Valmer sits at the southern end of the St Tropez peninsula and is surrounded by vineyards, has several really beautiful sand beaches, and a substantial nature reserve perfect for hiking and getting away from everyone. At the suggestion of the bride’s family, we, along with most of the guests, stayed at the Parc Hotel L’Orangeraie, just outside of town, which must have been very “non plus ultra” during the Belle Epoque and is now a comfortable three star set in a park with a great pool and spectacular views over the bay. Staff are accommodating (and we certainly stress tested their ‘bonhommie’ during and after the festivities) although services are limited. The hotel does not have a restaurant or a bar but the receptionist will happily sell you drinks from the front desk. Our pretty double room with a fabulous sea view was a reasonable €126 per night in low season and although breakfast at €12 was steep for what it was, the fact that it was served out in the garden with such lovely views seemed to help justify the cost.

What makes La Croix Valmer and its beaches truly special is their position next to a vast tract of coastal land that has been set aside as a nature reserve, backing onto the justifiably famous and fun Gigaro beach with its surfers, lively bars and surprisingly good restaurants. The night we arrived, the groom’s family had an informal drinks party at the unpretentious beach bar and restaurant ‘Pepe Le Pirate’, at which point I stopped worrying about the entire Code d’Azur being too OTT. We also had several wonderful, informal and reasonably priced meals at the pretty beachside restaurant Couleurs Jardin, also in Gigaro. Although parking regulations are enforced, parking was hassle-free and plentiful. This was hardly the yacht choked, jet setting set-up I was expecting. I can’t speak about Gigaro in high summer, but in September, this place is blissful. I have been told that if you are willing to hike, even in high season, you can escape to empty beaches in hidden coves within the nature reserve.

On the Saturday morning of the wedding, hopeful that September 16 would be late enough in the season to take the topspin off the crowds, we set out for the famous Place des Lices market in St Tropez. But, of course, we underestimated the appeal of this world famous former fishing village, underestimating as well the fact that huge amounts of people wait until September to take their holidays. By late morning, the place was heaving, traffic was at a standstill and parking spaces were long gone. With that said, this is a really fun market and September is the perfect time to buy dirt cheap, incredibly sexy bikinis and knock-off Vilebrequin swim trunks. There’s lots of tourist tat and tee-shirts but you can also find keenly priced, good quality linens and cashmere as well as soaps, lavender and all kinds of fabulous food, much of which can be eaten as one strolls the rows of stalls. As the mother of the bride had so correctly cautioned us the night before, if you want to go to the market, be sure to get there early.

After we finished with the market, we walked down to the port which was heaving as well, which seemed to be the point of the place. We, like the rest of the plebeians, strolled along the space between the yachts and the bars and restaurants, hoping to see someone famous but only glimpsing lots of folks like ourselves looking hopeful. Jeff spent much time checking out the posted menus and prices and quickly began to lobby for heading out of town for lunch. We passed lots of boutiques which you can also find on Bond Street/Madison Avenue. The architecture in the old town is lovely. But I don’t feel we need to go back.

Still, later that day, after a beautiful ceremony, we did head back towards St Tropez for the reception at Les Moulins de Ramatuelle, a small inn and fabulous restaurant set in a lovely garden, only five minutes out of town. And as the French dramatist, Jean Anouilh, once remarked, “In France, everything, from weddings to duels, is merely a pretext for a good dinner." And what a brilliant dinner we had, set in an elegant dining room of white, blond and beige opening on to the a romantically lit garden. With five rooms, the intimate Moulin de Ramatuelle would be an good alternative for couples who want to be near the action of St Tropez but at the same time, stay out of the scrum.

So what’s the verdict on the Cote d’Azur? Maybe it was the charm of the young couple getting married, the attractiveness of their friends and family, the sun which finally came out after an ominous deluge, the lunch at Coulers Jardin or the dinner at the Moulin de Ramatuelle, but in any event, I loved it. And here are my tips to make sure you love it too. Go any time except July and August. Stay within walking distance of Gigaro beach. Have a sunset drink at Pepe the Pirate’s, stay off the road to Nice and get to the Lices market early.

Parc Hotel L’Orangeraie

Route de Ramatuelle

PB 33

83420 La Croix Valmer

Tel: 00 33 (0) 4 94 55 27 27

Fax: 00 33 (0) 4 94 54 38 91

Coulers Jardin

Plage de Gigaro – La Croix Valmer

Tel: 04 94 79 59 12

Pepe Le Pirate

Plage de Gigaro – La Croix Valmer

Les Moulins de Ramatuelle

Route des Plages

83350 Ramatuelle

Tel: 00 33 (0) 4 94 97 1722

Fax: 00 33 (0) 4 94 97 85 60

Place des Lices Market

Tuesday and Saturday from 8:00 - 1:00pm

Photo of the beach at Gigaro

Monday, September 18, 2006

A Traditional Country House Hotel Near Marseilles

On the outskirts of the small town of Gemenos, near Cassis in the South of France, you will find another family owned and operated four star hotel which really delivers on the values of tradition, ambience and service.

And it speaks for the magic of the Bastide Relais de la Magdeleine that after a harrowing journey from chaotic London Gatwick airport where the computer system was down, followed by a 45 minute wait in line at the out-of-control Europcar agency at Marseilles Airport ( never use this place - the staff laugh at their discontented customers and argue amongst themselves), and an impressive Marseilles rush hour traffic jam, our travel weariness melted away the minute we made the turn into the driveway of this stately 18th century country house. The fact that we were soon sitting outside on the elegant and beautifully lit terrace with drink in hand discussing dinner with a knowledgeable young man who had brought us our menus, did much to soothe our many irritations.

The Relais de la Magdeleine has been run by the same family since 1932 and one senses immediately the benefits of their experienced, hands-on approach. The house, which is set in a large park full of ancient trees, is beautifully decorated with country antiques and period reproductions. The public spaces, both inside and out, are wonderful. There are comfortable areas to sit and read, fireplaces for chilly evenings and impressive settings for dining. Our room and bath were spacious, well appointed and decorated.

The hotel has a first class restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner which is presided over by another member of the Marignane family who focusses on serving the specialties of the region. There is a large pool in the garden perfect for sun bathing . Best of all, prices are more reasonable than an equivalent Relais and Chateau property and the atmosphere is less pretentious. We spent €124 per person which included breakfast and dinner but not drinks. The hotel is perfectly located for touring Provence being close to Marseille, Aix en Provence and Toulon-Cassis.

This was our second stay at this hotel which we visited roughly five years ago. I liked it then. I like it even more now as I grow in appreciation of the meticulous attention to detail and traditional values on offer at the Relais de la Magdeleine, which results in a stay that is restful, romantic and good value for the high end. We’ll be back.

Bastide Relais de la Magdeleine
RN 396 13420 Gemenos
Tel: 04 42 32 20 16
Fax: 04 42 32 02 26

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Fear and Loathing on the Tourist Trail

My mother once flew across the United States with Hunter S. Thompson. I know this because I met her at the airport in Colorado where she came off the plane happily and intensely engaged in conversation with the King of Gonzo Journalism. She had absolutely no idea who he was, but let me know she had had a most entertaining flight. Thompson seemed smitten with the elegant lady in the Chanel suit. I was beside myself. Those were the days when you could smoke on planes and there was no telling what they had gotten up to. In the pantheon of cool things my Mom has done, that moment looms large.

The image of Mom with Hunter Thompson came back to me yesterday when a friend of mine sent an email in which he paid NoCrowds the highest of compliments, describing it as “Gault Millau does Hunter S. Thompson” The sender is a senior communications executive and can therefore whip off these ‘bon mots’ without breaking a sweat. But I was stopped dead in my tracks by David’s little elevator pitch because it is, in fact, the ultimate description of what I am trying to accomplish with NoCrowds, combining the detailed reporting, strong opinions and irreverence of Gault Millau with the super subjectivism of gonzo journalism. I haven’t found anyone doing this kind of writing and reporting in the ‘travel space’ yet and that’s why I started NoCrowds. Good, gonzo travel information is what this is all about.

Tomorrow we’re off to St Tropez and I’m looking forward to reporting on the scene on the Riviera in what the trade calls the “Shoulder Season”, that golden moment just before and after high season, when the weather should still be good, but the crowds mostly gone. On the plane, I’ll keep a sharp eye out for weird people to engage because, as my uber-cool mother once proved, gonzo moments are everywhere.

Photo of Hunter S. Thompson, New York City, 1979 by Allen G. Arpadi

Monday, September 11, 2006

Eating Art in London

If hunger strikes in central London, my advice these days is to head for a museum. It is remarkable how many art venues have opened serious alternatives to the “soggy sandwich” cafeteria and for visitors, it is wonderfully convenient to consume great art and good food all under one roof.

Last week, the doppelganger and I rushed over to the stately Wallace Collection on Manchester Square to be one of the first to try out Oliver Peyton’s newest addition to the eat/art club. Not that the Café Bagatelle, the previous offering at the Wallace, had been inferior. Run by the same folks who own the Jules Verne restaurant in the Eiffel Tower, Bagatelle was pretty good. But Peyton seems to be launching a one-man take-over of London museum restaurants and after our good experience at the National Dining Rooms, we were eager to see what he was up to at the Wallace.

The restaurant describes itself as “the modern answer to a typical French brassiere” which is really PR speak for the fact that they have tweaked the traditional formula. To begin with, the place doesn’t look or feel like a brassiere but the location in the central courtyard with lots of foliage and a beautiful glass ceiling make it a very pleasant venue and the colder, wetter and darker London becomes this winter, the more pleasant the Wallace will seem. The menu pays homage to some brassiere classics such as steak tartare, bouillabaisse and fruit de mer. Just back from Spain, I was tempted by the cod with beans and ham and the doppelganger had the bouillabaisse. Both dishes were good, neither were exceptional. The service was keen if not yet very efficient. We spent £45 for two. In addition to lunch, the Wallace serves breakfast from 10 to 12 and afternoon tea as well as dinner on Friday and Saturday nights.

Maybe I’ve overdosed on Oliver Peyton’s cultural formula but my “take-way” from my Wallace Collection lunch was “been there, done that”. Everything was well prepared and executed but hardly new and not exciting. Still, the Wallace is a nice place to take your mother-in-law and despite being formulaic, I really appreciate the fact that London museums are filled with good restaurants. I’m particularly eager to try the Afternoon Tea at the Wallace which could be a breath of fresh air after the stuffy and increasingly commercial experiences at the grand hotels. With an exciting looking new show featuring drawings from Versailles about to open in October, in the immortal words of The Terminator, “I’ll be back”.

The Wallace Collection
Hertford House
Manchester Square
London W1U 3BN
Tel: 020 7563 9500

Photo of Hertford House taken from Wallace Collection website

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

La Villa Duflot - One for the Road

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Last summer (how sad that sounds), while waiting to meet my brother for lunch off 5th Avenue in Manhattan, I spent an unproductive 30 minutes in Borders searching travel guides for a pleasant place to stay off Interstate 95 on my return trip to North Carolina. The whole damn highway seems to have been colonised by Mariott Courtyards and the like. What I was looking for but couldn’t find was a hotel that wasn’t a chain, which was connected to its location and was run by owners. In the end, I spent a dreary night in a Hampton Inn in Spotsylvania.

By way of contrast, later in the summer, I spent a charming evening at La Villa Duflot, an individually owned and operated four-star hotel in Perpignan, France that was also just off a major highway (the A9 which links Montpellier to Spain) and next to one of the ugliest commercial zones you will ever encounter. Formerly an architect’s villa, the hotel consists of 25 rooms built around a beautiful park-like garden with sufficient foliage to hide the fact that the next door neighbour is the Auchan hypermarket.

Set in a secret garden, the retro building and eccentric artwork immediately communicate that this is a hotel run by and for “individuals” and that’s what I like about it. The rooms are of generous size, well equipped and decorated in a slightly weird but appealing art deco style. The nicest rooms are located off of the garden which has striking and unusual statues and a large and pretty pool where you can lounge around in white robes like film stars and order drinks. In summer, the glass dining room doors open completely and tables spill out into the garden beside and around the pool which provides a really romantic dining experience “en plein air”. The food is sophisticated and delicious and the restaurant is consistently filled with tables of celebrating locals.

As for cost, La Villa Duflot provides good value for money in the luxury category. We went for the Mini Suite (on the garden) with half-board which for €256 for two, considering how good the food was, seemed more than fair. In years past, we have stayed at the Domaine d’Auriac, a Relais and Chateau property down the road near Carcassone that cost double what we spent at Villa Duflot, granted it was next to a golf course rather than a supermarket.

And on a note related to its commercial location, I would be withholding information if I did not tell the little story about cavorting rats. Yes, that’s right, rats. The story goes like this. I was sitting beside the pool admiring the garden and enjoying a brilliant breakfast, when my attention was drawn to a number of small objects scurrying about on the far side of the garden. It took the longest time to believe my eyes. Mon Dieu – these are no little woodland creatures – these are rodents from next door! Anyway, it seems the rats know their place and restrict themselves to providing breakfast time entertainment on the far side of the park.

In any event, the cavorting rats did not put me off Villa Duflot. On so many criteria, this hotel delivers. It is an oasis where you least expect to find one. It is idiosyncratic and at the same time has a retro glamour that is big fun. It is comfortable, has an excellent kitchen, attentive staff and fair prices. Compared to the offerings of Interstate 95, it is paradise. What it does need, however, is a cat.

La Villa Duflot
Rond-point Albert Donnezan
66000 Perpignan
Tel: 04 68 56 67 67
Fax: 04 68 56 54 05

Monday, September 04, 2006

Beating Crowds at Cadaques

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My mother-in-law tells the story of once being seated next to a woman at Bar Meliton in Cadaques who was stroking a pet leopard. That was back in the 1950s when the picturesque fishing village on the Costa Brava was not only the home of Salvador Dali and summer magnet for artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and Max Ernst, but also a fashionable destination for well-to-do bohemians.

It may be difficult to find much of that raffish charm in modern day Cadaques, which has become very popular and crowded, but the area is still breathtakingly beautiful and saved from many of the horrors of mass tourism by the tortuous access road which winds along the spine of the Pyrenees, finally plunging down to the isolated, white-washed village. For stylish surroundings with artistic sensibilities and a spectacular Mediterranean setting, Cadaques offers a real alternative to the Riviera that is as beautiful, less snooty and less expensive.

I should come clean here and say that I know nothing about restaurants or accommodations in Cadaques, since my leopard-friendly mother-in-law was fortunate and forward looking enough to acquire a share of a fisherman’s hut above Cadaques in the 1950s and while the hut has been extended and modernised since then, it is still the kind of place that once you get there, which isn’t easy, you rarely leave except to buy provisions, hike, swim, ride bikes (Lance Armstrong lived and trained nearby) and fool around in boats.

And my advice to anyone considering Cadaques is to also try to rent a house outside of town where you can delight in the intoxicating Mediterranean scenery and climate, leaving behind the aggravations of finding a parking place or listening to the folks who like to party all night. If you like to party all night, then go ahead and rent a house in Cadaques. Some good sites for finding Cadaques rentals are, and .

As for restaurants, what I do know is that the legendary restaurant many critics consider the best in the world, El Bulli, is roughly 45 minutes away in neighboring Roses. Of course reservations are beyond impossible but this year I plan to follow the advice of Clothide Dusoulier in her delightful food blog, Chocolate and Zucchini, send an email on October 15 and pray I get a table.

Once accommodations are sorted out, there are plenty of wonderful things to do in Cadaques. Here are my top recommendations

 Hike from Cadaques towards the lighthouse through the spectacular Cap de Creus National Park on an ancient, but well marked trail. Bring your swimsuit and drinking water. The nicest coves and beaches are along the way. There is a bar/restaurant at the lighthouse, the view is spectacular and the walk should take roughly 2 ½ hours each way.

 Rent a bike and take the road to Cap de Creus and reward yourself with a drink at the lighthouse. Stop along the way and marvel at the beauty of the dramatic landscape and the amazing rock formations caused over the centuries by the wicked “Tramuntana” wind which can blow you right off your bike.

 Go snorkelling. There’s plenty to see under the sea but be sure to wear something on your feet. Sea urchins are everywhere. There are also several dive centres in town.

 Visit the Salvador Dali House-Museum in Port Lligat. Even if you are not a huge fan of Dali, the house where he and his wife Gala lived from the 1930s to the 1970s will blow your mind, from the life sized polar bear that greets you in the entry to the psychedelic, El Hambra-esque swimming pool with its hilarious matador-doll fountain - it's great theatre. Reservations are essential.

Rent a boat and explore the spectacular coastline. Postpone this idea if the tramuntana is blowing. You can also rent kayaks and windsurfers.

 Sit at Bar Meliton, like Marcel Duchamp, and watch the world go by. I like to think that this is the closest thing to “Rick’s Place” from Casablanca you’ll find in the real world. Don’t miss the wall inside with Duchamp memorabilia. The lemon granitas are delicious.

As I read back over what I have written, I start to feel a little guilty. For years I have resisted writing about Cadaques. First, I promised our neighbours that I would not exacerbate the overcrowding problem by touting the areas considerable charms but this year I had a small epiphany. I finally realised that in addition to my mother-in-laws “petite paradise by the sea”, there must be other charming places to rent. Secondly, I realised that Cadaques would benefit from the interest of NoCrowds travellers. We may not all be world famous artists or celebrated bohemians but we do raise the tone of a place and appreciate getting off the tourist treadmill, valuing what is authentic and interesting about a destination. With a little luck finding a nice house and armed with the right information, it is perfectly possible to have a first class NoCrowds experience in Cadaques and the rewards are simply amazing.

Cadaques is accessible from several airports including Perpignan in France via Ryannair (one hour’s drive to Cadaques), Girona also via Ryannair (75 minutes ) or Barcelona (2 1/2 hours) in Spain. All things being equal, I would go into Perpignan and stay at one of my favourite, rather funky, hotels, the four-star Villa Duflot which I will cover in my next post.

Bar Meliton
Tel: (34) 972-258-201

El Bulli
Cala Montjoi, Roses, Spain
Tel: (34) 9 7215 0457

Blue Rent Cadaques (boats)
Tel: (34) 972 259 029

Bike Rentals
C/. Fontvella, 2
Tel (34) 972 25 91 01