Monday, January 14, 2008

from Cassis, France: Sunday frolic

If yesterday’s ramble put the lyrics of Blowin’ in the Wind in my head, today, I was thinking how catchy Ella is, especially in one little ditty about clean hair*.

As my occasional traveling companion Ed and I sit on a cliff top contemplating what has to be one of the loveliest tracks of limestone jutting out of azure waters…

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…I say, in a moment of pure rapture:

Isn’t this the best traveling moment?
To which the ever non-rhapsodic gentleman responds: it’s okay, it’s pretty enough...
What could be better ? – I ask incredulously.
Adventuring, he tells me.
Thinking that yesterday’s brush with mortality qualified, I prod him to give me an example.
Maybe hitchhiking in South America? Or taking a little tiny sailboat down along the coast of Honduras, sleeping on the beach – he answers.

* If you laugh at different comics,
If you root for different teams,
Waste no time, weep no more,
Show him what the door is for…
I’m gonna wash that man right out of my tangled-by-le-mistral hair

A reflective moment there, on a limestone ledge, as I bite into my baguette with cheese and tomato, thinking who could not place France at the top of a list of best places to visit?

Still, songs are one thing and life is another and so we pack up the baguette wrappings and trudge forward.

But let me go back to the beginning of the day. Because it is Sunday and I am in France. And no one knows better how to take the day off after a long(ish) week of work than the French.

I step outside and I am enthralled. The sun is brilliant, the air is calm and everyone, everyone is pouring out to the port of Cassis, greeting friends with kisses for the new year. Humanity convenes and expresses joy at being alive.

(Nino is not so appreciative. Must be the Italian blood in him. Give me American work ethic anytime, he tells me. I want to keep my restaurant open this evening, but I can’t. I have to give my staff time off. Restauranteurs, thank God, can employ someone 42 hours a week, not the standard 35, but after that, it’s double pay! And, in addition to all the calendar holidays, I have to give them five weeks vacation!)

In the late morning, the cafes are packed and the restaurants are setting tables outside. It may be January, it definitely is a cool day by their standards (it is in the mid fifties and they are bundled as if it were a Wisconsin deep freeze), but it is Sunday, by God, a day for family and friends and food. A day to be outside.

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Still, a calm (nonwindy) day is one to be used wisely. After yesterday’s encounter with le mistral, I’m thinking we should grab this day by its gentle strings and head out toward les Calanques.

They’re not fjords, really. But they look like them: narrow inlets of water carved into the limestone by raging sea waters. A six hour hiking trail weaves its way up and down and all around so that you can get the perfect views.

(Signs everywhere warn that proper hiking shoes are “obligatoire!” and so I leave my snazzy French-like boots at Nino’s.)

We set out. And still I am tempted to stay put and do nothing. At the little town beach, the protective back wall keeps the air so toasty warm that a number of people are sunbathing in all forms of undress.

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A January moment on the beach… Bliss…

But, I am certain that idle sunning is not Ed’s thing, so we trudge on.

The three Calanques are indeed stunning. The first, de Port-Miou, is used to moor sailboats. An old quarry (limestone, used, they say, for the building the Suez Canal) but now a protected natural site, it snakes for a while and then deadends at the edge of Cassis.

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The second, de Port Pin, is especially coveted by families, out for a day in the country. An hour’s hike and you can unload your picnic right at the water’s edge while the kids let the water wet their toes.

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The third, d’en Vau, is the toughest to get to. With dramatic vertical cliffs dropping precipitously into the waters of the sea it can scare the daylights out of people like me, who cannot stand being close to slippery edges. So you get one photo. And just barely that.

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It is hard to remember that even here, at the edge of Provence, it is winter. The bees are finding the rosemary buds without a problem, as if we were in the middle of August.

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But the shorter day gives it away. By four, the sun is very low. The boats are returning to their resting stations. It's time to head back.

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Back at the port, no one is ready to call it a day. The waiters balance trays of hot drinks, beer and wine...

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...the conversation is even louder after a day well spent.

Most restaurants, like Nino's, are closed for the evening. Nearly everyone eats their big meal at midday. But there are those, like us, who have spent the day out in the country, who now want a dinner of simple, hearty Provencal foods. In Cassis, it's impossible not to eat well. And the wine... ah, the wine! A rosé and white wine lover's paradise. As I said, how can you not love France?

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