Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Cookies and Calanques

We're in the south of France, and it's sunny! At least for yesterday and today. I just checked the weather forecast for Arles, and apparently there is a series of thunderstorms moving in. We all brought rain gear, and we were planning on going to the marshes of the Camargue anyway, so there will be water underfoot and overhead. Today, we're headed into the hills, and the old fortress-castle-town of Les-Baux-de-Provence, and then the town of Aix-en-Provence, taking advantage of the sunshine.

Yesterday we headed down the Mediterranean coast to the town of Ollioules, which was a neat-looking place, but we drove straight through it to the outskirts, looking for the headquarters of Biscuiterie Navarro. I had sampled their amaretti at a food fair in Tours last fall, and knew that as long as we were close by, I had to get some more. Unfortunately "close by" when combined with our request to the GPS to avoid toll roads meant a three-hour drive through scrubby hills (pretty, but a lot like southern Oregon), farms and vineyards, and the industrial outskirts of Marseilles, including a nuclear power plant that was just sitting there in the middle of its parking lot, with no particular security measures we could see, right at the side of the road. But finally we got to the small warehouse factory, and started sampling.

All of the amaretti are gluten-free, because it's nothing but ground almonds, egg white, and sugar, plus the additional flavorings. They use organic and natural ingredients from the region, and the flavor is incredible. Plain bitter almond, fig, orange, pistachio, preserved lemon, coffee, and poppy-flower varieties were distributed and evaluated, and John tried the salted butter caramel version as well. They had coconut and chocolate, but we didn't taste those. I was afraid that after the really quite long and wearying drive that took up way more time in the day than I'd planned (although we did get a late start after a lazy morning) Mom and John wouldn't think that it was worth the drive, but they agreed that the amaretti are fantastic, and we bought an insanely extravagant amount of them to take back. We were told that they'll last a month in the refrigerator in a closed container; whether they'll last the two and half weeks we're traveling is debatable.

The poppy extract gives the amaretti an almost raspberry flavor. Fields of poppies were everywhere, as well as several fields where they appeared to be deliberately growing thistles, which Mom posited were for birdseed sales. There were more vineyards as we got closer to the coast, with the Bandol AOC label on the signposts, and orchards of peach and nectarine trees.

Being so close to the Mediterranean, we had to go to the beach. Some friends had told me that the boat trips out of Cassis to see the calanques, the rocky inlets along the coast in that region, were worth going on, and we made it into town and found a parking place right at the harbor and got tickets for one of the last tours out. I'd hoped that we would be in time for a longer cruise and the 8- or 5-calanque trip, but it was nearly 5pm and only the 45-minute 3-calanque tour was left. We had time for a visit to the beach, and to touch the water of the inland sea. I was at the Mediterranean! It was so cool. Cool as in "wow, I can't believe I'm here!" and also cool as in temperature, although there were people swimming.

The Château de Cassis dates back to the time of the Romans, when it was a simple fort, but in the 13th century it was enlarged by one of the local feudal lords, and eventually turned into a small walled city. It's now a privately-owned property and has been turned into a luxury hotel. The port area is full of pastel buildings and cafés and places to buy souvenirs and ice cream, and must be an absolute madhouse in July and August when France is on vacation. It was crowded anyway, but not packed wall-to-wall with people. On the boat trip there were people from the United States, and people speaking French, and one young woman from Finland who is studying biotechnology in Paris as an exchange student for six months.

I gave Mom and John the brochures in English about the inlets and some of the mythology and history around them, figuring that I could just listen to the announcements. But with the echoing loudspeaker and the sound of the wind and waves I couldn't catch what the guide was saying, and in any event I was happy to just breath in the fresh air and squint my eyes against the dazzle of the sun on water and white rock.

There is a public toilet facility at the beach where for 60 centimes you can pee, as long as you are willing to take your chances with the dangerous chemicals that are in some of the stalls. In the women's area, anyway - I didn't ask if John also had to play "lady or the tiger?" on his side of the building. We considered staying in Cassis and finding something to eat, but decided instead to head back to the gîte at Le Paradou, since we had all of the duck-fatty leftovers to get rid of, and we were all rather tired of being in the car. We told the GPS that were were not trying to avoid toll roads, and ended up getting home in about an hour.

Back in between the small villages in the hills, the roads are narrow and lined with trees. There was one stretch of road that had been enlarged, leaving the old road and its double row of white-barked trees to host a series of picnic tables overlooking the fields. The birds were singing and the sunlight slanting down through the leaves led to a quiet evening.

We went for a walk around the town after dinner, looking for the bakery (found it), the butcher shop (found that too), and the self-serve laundromat (didn't find that).

We met a couple from the Lorraine region also vacationing here, who told me that I was speaking French with a German accent. I imagine when I'm up in the northern part of France they'll tell me I've got an Italian or Spanish accent, then.

Gazing out over the water towards the south, I wondered how far it was to the countries on the other side, and if or when I will get to them, tracing paths of voyages made by Homer and Herodotus, an observer and recorder of pictures and places and people, always in that state of "wow, this is cool!" 

It's a good state to be in.

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