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August 31, 2006
POSTCARDS FROM PROVENCE 8:
Je suis bloggeuse!
filed under: Ramblings,
In this last installment from my Postcards from Provence series I'd like to touch on some of the highlights of my trip that didn't make it into other entries, for various reasons. Some are small things, like my opinion on why French ATMs are more sophisticated than ours; some are extravagant and colorful, like my account of hitting the entire St. Tropez social circuit in 24 hours (whew!); and some are so seemingly insignificant you may be wondering why I bother to write about them at all (cue my philosophy on French tans).
But I think that these things especially - the random, the small, the almost unnoticed - are what really tell the story of a place. This is especially true for the last stop on my Provencal journey, a little town called Vence in the south of France, about 20 minutes north of Nice. Vence is where it all ended, but before I get to that let's focus for a while on other odds and ends from the trip - the best of the stuff that happened before we got there.
For starters, let's talk about St. Tropez. We worried on our way there for a single night (just after leaving Beaucastel & the Rhone) that we might not be able to effectively "do" the town in that time. Our worries were quickly assuaged, however, when our impromptu research on "must do" items (read: a quick email to our know-it-all pal Lesley in New York) revealed that everyone does the exact same thing in St. Tropez every day: Drinks at Hotel Byblos, then clubbing at Les Caves du Roy downstairs, brunch the following day at Club Cinquante Cinq, then more drinks at Nikki Beach down the street. It's fantastically simple, actually, and every day everyone just repeats the same circuit all over again.
Traffic getting into St. Trop was beyond bad, and this, I now understand, is to be expected on the first "official" weekend of summer there - the first weekend of August, when all of Europe seems to descend on the Riviera for a few glorious weeks of excess. Note to self: next time take a yacht. Here are some pics of us shopping for said yacht down in the harbor by day, then partying it up at night.
Brunch at Le Cinquante Cinq the following day was a welcome relief from the excess of the night before (don't get me wrong, 30,000 Euro bottles of Cristal aren't bad if you can afford them!), and this very cool band came around and sang for us. The place was full of beautiful people, decked out in more pairs of Chanel shades and Hermes scarves than I could be bothered to count. Ann Hathaway even made a cameo by the bar, where we sipped Pimm's cocktails made with fresh mint - yum!
The last stop in our St. Trop circuit was famous (infamous?) beach club Nikki Beach for early evening drinks after "lunch" (which was really at 3pm so that we could make a smooth transition to Nikki Beach afterward). Pam and Kid Rock had just gotten married there a few days before, a fact we were well aware of as we'd managed to pick up the French equivalent of Us Weekly, called Public, on our way into town. Funny: No matter where you are in the world celebrity gossip is just a convenience store away.
About this time we became weary of St. Trop (or maybe we just couldn't afford to stay another night, I forget which it was) and decided it was time to move on. And so we hopped back into our trusty blue Peugeot and drove off into the sunset (literally) towards St. Paul de Vence, the quiet little medieval village on top of a hill near Nice where my family had rented a house. With St. Trop in recent memory we were ready for some R&R, and that's thankfully exactly what we got in our cozy new home. Quite a change from St. Trop, certainly, but we vowed to get back out there into the club circuit within a few days, which we did successfully at Monte Carlo's Jimmyz shortly thereafter.
Speaking of which, here are some snaps from that gorgeous city. Whereas St. Tropez at least LOOKS like a quiet Provencal town, replete with village square, tiny boutiques and plenty of lazy terrace dining, Monte Carlo is an all-out visual homage to luxury. Take this sign, for instance, announcing the boutiques that can be found nearby: Gucci, Valentino, Hermes, Lalique, Prada. (Lalique?) You get the picture. Although we thoroughly enjoyed strolling the yacht-strewn harbor, hitting up the casino for some roulette and drinking on the terrace at the Cafe de Paris, we had the distinct feeling this was also a one-night kind of town.
And so, of course, we made the most of it. We had a riotous dinner sitting outside at a restaurant that had, amazingly, a sign on its awning calling itself "Trendy-Bar." Although I strongly objected to the place based on its cheesy bravado, my sister and the rest of the crew won out and we ate dinner there. It actually turned out to be, well, rather trendy, eventually attracting a lively young crowd. Better yet, our waiter seemed to like us quite a bit, as he sent out many drinks we didn't order, and, thankfully, weren't asked to pay for later.
After dinner it was off to very hip lounge Zebra Square for drinks, where giant pics of Grace Kelly and Brigitte Bardot hung on the walls above throngs of impossibly well dressed internationals (think very tan men with giant Rolexes and collars turned up), then finally to famous club Jimmy'z, where we spied more Ferraris and 18 year-olds wearing couture than most people see in a lifetime, and where we enjoyed extraodinarily priced cocktails and fantastic music. All in a Monte Carlo day's work, I suppose.
Back at the ranch, we followed less high-end pursuits. One of them was learning to play Boules, or Petanque, the simple Provencal game involving metal balls, in short. For everyone's amusement I found this funny video advertisement of young people playing Petanque while drinking Pastis and eventually getting so hammered they have to abandon the game. Definitely worth a look-see if you're wondering what the game's all about. We observed real Frenchies playing it in village squares all around Provence and, too embarassed to commit to learning it in their midst (some of them were annoyingly good), we bought our own set and learned at home. I found that my best strategy was to keep a chilled glass of rose in my hand at all times during play. As I'd hoped, this improved my game and I got better the more we played.
What else? We shopped and went to the beach in Cannes, where I scored a great deal on a pair of pumps at Missoni, Claire fared similarly with a Chloe pair, and we all discovered that not everything in France is in good taste, as evidenced by this rather tacky sand castle creation. But the real adventure from this point in the trip was discovering the charm of the local villages, especially St. Paul de Vence and nearby Vence.
Just a quick aside for some celebrity gossip: at our first lunch in St. Paul de Vence (a ginormous tourist trap due to its infectious cuteness) we saw this woman who, at first glance, we swore was Rod Stewart. Now, I know that sound a little cruel, but it was just when we first saw her, you see. The hair and all. So we of course went right home and bragged about seeing Rod Stewart in St. Paul de Vence, much to eveyone's amusement at the house. Then, impossibly, my parents REALLY DID see Rod the next night at a local restaurant when they were out with their friends! He was there with his new main squeeze Penny Lancaster and outfitted in a characteristically garish blazer, so they knew it was him. Now what are the chances of that? I guess not so tiny given the throngs of celebs who come to Provence at this time of year, but still.
Perched atop the entryway to the village of St. Paul de Vence is this copy of Rodin's famous Thinker statue. It sets the tone perfectly for the gallery-clogged village, or hamlet, I guess I should say - it's a tiny place. The entire place is surrounded by a medieval wall that's still largely intact. The inside is a short stretch of tiny cobblestone pedestrian streets, all lined with ridiculously good-looking shops, art galleries and restaurants. It's also packed with tourists for most of the day, and could quite possibly be the most touristy place on the planet after Disneyland. You get the vibe nobody actually lives there - it's all just for show. And it's a great show, don't get me wrong.
But I really preferred the larger village - nearly a city, really - of Vence up the road. Vence is so large it actually has a supermarket and adequate parking for the still rather large numbers of tourists who visit. But it's also got the trappings of a regular town, with regular people who actually spend more than just store hours there each day. It has a charming farmer's market in its square and a cute old town in its center, also surrounded by still-intact Medieval walls. We ate lunch here several times and I must say I'm hooked on Vence. It's touristy for sure but also has the heartbeat of a place full of life: where people live above their shops, where local kids whip through the cobblestone streets on bikes, and where the guy at the cheese counter at the market remembers what you had last time, as he does for the person before you in line and the person after you.
In spite of fabulous high roller-type experiences in St. Tropez and Monte Carlo, I've got to say the best part of the entire trip was a rock concert I attended with my sister in Vence just before we left. Part of a mid-summer concert festival called "Nuits du Sud" ("Nights of the South"), the mid-week show featured fantastically entertaining act Brazilian Girls (their sound has been described as "electro-pop") followed by aging French rocker Louis Bertignac, whose songs everyone knew, young and old, male and female. I got the feeling Bertignac is sort of like our Tom Petty, or a lone member of the Rolling Stones. The entire village seemed to be out to see the show, and we enjoyed it from an al fresco table where we enjoyed - AGAIN - a bottle of rose and a pizza while taking it all in. Leave it to the French to perfectly combine outstanding (even avant-garde, with Brazilian Girls) entertainment and outdoor dining.
A few more random thoughts on Provence before I wrap things up:
ATMs - Nothing really moves quickly in the south of France (esp. lounging pets, lunches and traffic), and even the ATMs seem to have caught on. When my mother tried to retrieve money at an ATM in St Paul de Vence the day before we left she came out of the booth empty handed but chuckling. What gives, we all asked? The ATM was out of order, turns out, and indicated as much by telling my mother it couldn't give her cash because it was "indispose" (indisposed). Leave it to French ATMs to make running out of money seem like a sophisticated illness.
French tans - The inhabitants of the Riviera, during summer months, are all this amazingly brown color that comes from tons of tanning in the gorgeous sun down there. It's remarkable - this color transformation so many of them undergo - and I recalled on this trip wistfully that I, too, once got that brown when I was here at age 17 for a summer. I logged an insane amount of time sitting poolside that summer (several weeks, specifically), and not much else, which is how I accomplished it.
This trip around we were too busy going here and there to see and do things that we didn't do the one thing the French do so well: nothing. Quite simply put: they have the TIME to get that tan. Their brown sugar tans, I realized on this trip, are like a merit badge for relaxation. It takes TIME to work up a tan that dark. It taskes LEISURE. Leisure, as I am acutely aware, is luxury. We don't take enough of it. Heck, most of us couldn't afford that much leisure time even if we wanted it. But that fascinating coming-together of time, leisure and luxury that the inhabitants of the Riviera seem to possess in spades is summed up, quite simply, in their tans.
As the summer winds to a close and folks go back to the office, kids go back to school, and fall starts to be felt, fewer and fewer people will be sporting their merit badge tans, whether here in SF or back in Provence. But before we turn our focus completely to cooler months, I offer you a few more pics of Provence. Enjoy, and I promise to return my attention to wine from here on out. Back to work!
ps I almost forgot - GOOD LUCK to JC at Harvard Business School, which she starts on Monday! tx for being an outstanding partner in travel crime. Future charter member of the HBS Wine Club, I hope. ;)