Sunday, August 17, 2014

CHÂTEAU LA COSTE: THERE’S SOMETHING
FOR ALL AGES

Wine tasting at Château La Coste.


There is no shortage of places to go, people to see, or things to do in Provence, especially in August when festivals of every sort abound. But many of these events, understandably, are not geared to include children.

Let’s agree that children typically sit too much nine months out of the year, generally don’t like to sit, and are better off reaping the benefits of moving about in the fresh air and sunshine, particularly on vacation. (Ahem, perhaps this rings even more true for adults.)

Our daughter traveled everywhere with us—from the time she was four months and came along to Buenos Aires to now, when at 22 years old, she still, blessedly, likes to travel with us. She always rose to the occasion for Mom and Dad’s various vacation whims, but when we found a place that had something for everyone…well, everyone was happy.

Château La Coste with its "wine making chai," designed by architect Jean Nouvel, shown
in the center.  Photo by Susan Manfull


Château La Coste is a great destination, whether you are traveling with children or not. There is a little something for everyone. I am prompted to write this post now because a series of concerts is about to begin for the rest of the month of August—I know, I know, that involves sitting but there is a lot more to do on this gorgeous property of gently sloping forest-covered hills, olive groves, and 125 hectares (300 acres) of beautifully tended vineyards (all of which are identified by grape varietal).

I just visited Château La Coste in June, with three other women. It was a fabulous day of wine tasting, music, lunch, and a stroll along the paths where we reveled in the beauty of the landscape and its sweeping views across this corner of Provence as much as we were moved by the modern art and architecture juxtaposed with the diverse natural landscape. I so wished that Château La Coste had been open when we were regularly traveling to Provence as a young family.

The grounds at Château La Coste.  Photo by Susan Manfull

It opened in its latest incarnation in 2011, although it is clear that the Romans were farming the land (including vineyards) some 2,000 years ago. Look for Gallo-Roman pathways and “dry stone” walls and bridges, for example, which are currently being restored. The Venetian style villa dates back to 1682.

Acquired in 2004 by Patrick “Paddy” McKillen, a hotel owner and international real estate broker from Ireland, this property is the culmination of his dream—and a whole lotta work—to have a special place where art, architecture, and wine come together. McKillen enlisted the help of his sister, Mara McKillen, and artists, architects, and winemakers to bring his dream to reality.

McKillen invited internationally-renowned contemporary artists to tour the property and select a place for which he or she would like to construct a piece of artwork and, likewise, he asked architects to build something for the sites that appealed to them. (Some pieces were created earlier and moved into befitting spots—like one of my favorites, the “Crouching Spider” by Louise Bourgeois, which resided in the Tate Gallery prior to landing at the château.) The result is exquisite.

Walking along vineyards and into the forest among art and architecture (psst, kids, it’s okay to run!)

"Donegal" (2013) by Larry Neufeld at Château La Coste.  Friend Lis Steeden crossed to the other side. 
Photo by Susan Manfull

The result of the McKillen labors is the opportunity to walk around the vineyards and admire the work of such well-known artists as Alexander Calder, Andy Goldsworthy, and Tom Shannon and such renowned architects as Frank Gehry, Norman Foster, and Tadao Ando.

Friend and travelling companion Germaine Juneau who spent her career working in traditional museums discovered La Coste shortly after it opened. Now retired, Germaine travels frequently and is always on the lookout for interesting contemporary art venues—La Coste certainly falls into that category and has become a favorite visit for Germaine.
"Donegal" (2013) by Larry Neufeld at Château La Coste  Photo by Susan Manfull


“The opportunity to experience contemporary art and nature, to appreciate artists working pieces into the environment is fantastic,” Germaine said of La Coste.

It can also be described as a very relaxing, peaceful, and contemplative experience. The whole walk might take as much as several hours but it is also very appealing to do a little at a time. Some people I know have been many times, returning again and again for the solace it provides.
"Portails" (2011) by Tunga at Château La Coste.  Photo by Susan Manfull

On the other hand, others find the stark style of the art and architecture too jarring a contrast with its Provençal setting. Like it or not, it is interesting and fun!

"Crouching Spider 6695" (2003) by Louise Bourgeois at Château La Coste.  Photo by Susan Manfull

Children will find the experiential nature of the venue intriguing. At the very beginning, they will no doubt be excited, as we all were, with Bourgeois’ gigantic spider crouching in the middle of a huge pool of water. I could hardly take my eyes off it. (Arachnophobics need not look, I suppose, but this gorgeous piece of art may be therapeutic for one’s fear of spiders!) 
"Multiplied Resistance Screened" (2010) by Liam Gillick at Château La Coste
Photo by Susan Manfull
"Foxes" (2008) by Michael Stipe at Château La Coste.  Photo by Susan Manfull
As the walk continues, they, like the adults who are accompanying them, will love walking into Liam Gillick’s “Multiplied Resistance Screened” and Andy Goldsworthy’s “Oak Room,” counting “Foxes” by Michael Stipe (former lead singer for R.E.M.), experiencing Paul Matisse’s “Meditation Ball,” and perhaps even tossing some change onto Tunga’s “Portails.” Many of these installations are interactive.

Another friend, Connie Suchta, really liked Sean Scully’s “Wall of Light Cubed.” She said, “I loved the naturalness of the contemporary pieces [embedded] in the environment….and, with this piece, I wondered if the lines [on the block] related to the vineyard.”

"Wall of Light Cubed" (2007) by Sean Scully at Château La Coste.  Photo by Susan Manfull

I, too, liked this piece; I found it very meditative. For others in our group, the giant block did not resonate with them, which is, I suppose, what makes such a walk so interesting. It’s an especially good opportunity for children, who are often reticent in the typical museum setting to express their feelings, particularly if they are contrary.

"Portails" (2011) by Tunga at Château La Coste.  Photo by Susan Manfull

We generally agreed that we would have enjoyed more information about the pieces exhibited. Who is the artist or architect? At minimum, when was he or she born and is he or she still with us? What inspired the piece? What was the vision of the artist? Germaine, who did not accompany us that day but has been several times before, strongly disagreed, arguing that, without a lot of background information, the viewer can experience the piece for what it is to him or her.


Pavillon de Musique (2008) by Gehry partners.  Photo by Susan Manfull

Mary Norcross, photographer and friend, in summing up her experience, said “I like that their guiding principles—promoting ecology and sustainability—are practiced in their exhibition,” a view that is a nice segue to the next section on viticulture and wine.

Wine Tasting and Tour


Biodynamic principles are strictly followed in the château’s vineyards and in the winemaking. The latest technology is employed to realize the fullest potential of the grapes and the natural expression of the wine. The vinification facility was designed by French architect Jean Novel.
Wine tasting at Château La Coste.  Photo by Susan Manfull

Our tasting was abbreviated in order to get to our lunch reservation on time. Still, it was fun and informative, giving us something to think about when we ordered wine to go with our lunch. There is a small boutique and limited café menu for casual dining on a lovely terrace in this area, too.
Café  terrace at Château La Coste.  Photo by Susan Manfull


Tours of the vinification facilities are also available at 11:00 am and 3:00 pm daily; at 1:00 pm in English; and by appointment. I was not able to take a tour (but that just gives me more incentive to return!)

Lunch
Café at the Centre d'Art at Château La Coste.  Photo by Susan Manfull

We opted for lunch in the Art Center (designed by Tadao Ando). It is open daily from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm and was empty when we arrived at 12:30 but very quickly filled up. Thus, lunch reservations are advisable.

Having just enjoyed a taste of the Cuvée Bellugue Rosé (2013), a blend of Grenache (80%), Syrah (10%), and Cinsault (10%), we selected that wine and were very happy.

Mary and Susan enjoy a terrific lunch at Château La Coste.  Photo by Susan Manfull


Mary and I ordered the prix fixe menu of a very fresh green salad accompanied by slices of chèvre layered with roasted peppers and nuts. This very large portion alone would have been sufficient for lunch. The main course was a perfectly grilled and roasted white fish, accompanied by a whipped sauce of cherry and red wine, thin slices of marinated fennel, and a confit of cherry tomatoes. Dessert, for me, was a crème brûlée. Mary ordered a “Café Gourmand” for dessert, which was an espresso with three small desserts (e.g., macarons, cannelés, Madeleines, or maybe even a miniature pot de crème. (It is, apparently, the gourmet restaurant’s answer to fast food—serve dessert and café at the same time!) 
Enjoying a seafood pie at Château La Coste.  Photo by Susan Manfull


My lunch was excellent as was the seafood pie that another friend ordered. Unfortunately, the green salads with shrimp, ordered by two of my companions, Lis and Connie, were decidedly bland.
Lunch at Château La Coste.  Photo by Susan Manfull


I am compelled to report that the service was inconceivably slow once the tables began to fill up. It seemed that there was simply not enough wait staff to go around. Whereas they were smiling and affable when we ordered, they virtually disappeared as more diners arrived. We waited close to an hour between the first two courses and I don’t know when we would have been served dessert and coffee had one of us not left the table to retrieve a waiter (who now appeared stressed and inpatient). Perhaps it was an off-day in the kitchen, but plan your afternoon accordingly.

August Concerts
A little Saturday morning music at Château La Coste.  Photo by Susan Manfull

Having just wrapped up the outdoor cinema series, a series of seven “classical and romantic music” concerts commence on Tuesday, August 19th. The concerts feature renowned pianists with prelude performances by up and coming musicians. The terrace café will be open before the concerts begin at 8:30 pm. Tickets are 35€ and 15€ for adults and children, respectively. Reservations recommended (04 42 61 92 92 or reservations@chateau-la-coste.com).

As the title suggests, there is something for everyone at Château La Coste.  I highly recommend planning a visit!
Walking near the Terrace Café at Château La Coste.  Photo by Susan Manfull


Notes:

Château La Coste is located 21 kilometers from Lourmarin and 14 from Aix-en-Provence.

2750 Route de la Cride
Le Puy-Ste-Réparade 13610
Tel : +33 (0)4 42 61 92 90

www.chateau-la-coste.com

Tickets are 15€ (adult), 12€ (student, senior, job-seeker), and free of charge for children under 10 years old. See website for additional information about tickets for the vinification tour.

You are on your own for these walks so you may go at your own pace and in your own direction. Wear good walking shoes! The trails are not handicap-accessible but there is a “bubble car” tour around the grounds that may be arranged (ideally) a week in advance.

Maps of the walk (and the pieces of art and architecture along the way) are available in the shop. As I wrote above, there is not much supportive information, so if you are the curious sort, you might want to do a little googling before you go to find out more about the art and architecture.

Parking is free and the lot is a work of art as well! 
For other ideas about where to take children, see this earlier TMT post --  "Taking the Kids to Provence:  Waxing Nostalgia and Recommendations for a Memorable Family Vacation."


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Sunday, August 10, 2014

TWO NEW PUBLIC TOILETTES IN LOURMARIN: UN GRAND SOULAGEMENT



New toilets in Lourmarin. Photo by Pamela O'Neill
It’s August and, as tourist season moves into full throttle in little Lourmarin—crowds bulging at the seams by mid-morning in the Friday market and bonnes tables harder and harder to snag—it’s good to know there is relief in one area. Lourmarin has some new public bathrooms and, all snickering aside, this is un grand soulagement!  (That is, a big relief!)

Two free public toilets with automatic cleaning—one with handicap accessibility—opened in May. They are conveniently located near the main parking area (called Parking des Cerisiers) and La Place Henri Barthélémy. 



You may have seen this type of toilet in larger cities (in France and elsewhere) and in public places (the Aix-en-Provence TGV station, for example) where they look like something plucked out of the Jetson’s version of the space-age. These pod-style toilets were, at least to me, rather intimidating at first glance.

It had been our experience that these are often out-of-order, as indicated by “hors service” but, in Lourmarin, they seem to be regularly open. If it is not occupied, as indicated by “libre” or a green color near the door handle, open the door and go in. When finished, open the door and go out. (If you haven’t opened the door in 15 minutes, typically, the door will automatically open although I did not test this feature out in the Lourmarin toilets). Once you close the door on your way out (or, in other places, once it automatically closes) the inside is sprayed with a disinfectant.

So, do make sure that once you open the door to leave the bathroom, you do vacate the facility. A friend of mine, who used the aforementioned facility in the Aix-en-Provence TGV station, told me that, having finished her business, she opened the door and started to leave, realized she had something else to do, and closed the door which prompted the disinfecting process to begin, completely soaking her! (This was not Lourmarin, but I would be mindful not to open the door until you are ready to leave!)

The Lourmarin toilets were very clean, were equipped with toilet paper and soap, functioned perfectly, and, again are free of charge (unlike these facilities in other cities and public places).

As long as we are on the subject of toilets and because I have discovered that, snickers notwithstanding, most people have a modicum of interest in porcelain bowls and many people are so unfamiliar with the range of possibilities in this category, they find themselves unprepared to use some of the toilets they encounter in France. I will take this opportunity to review them or refresh your memory, as the case may be.

Photo by W.T. Manfull
First, the salle de bains (French for “bathroom”) usually refers to the bathroom in someone's home and, in any case, does not necessarily have a toilet in it. Look for Toilettes or W.C. (“Water Closet”).

Second, lights are often on timers. So, there are no switches; instead you must close the door to activate the light.

Third, toilet paper is reportedly considered an amenity although, in our experience, it has usually been there. It was in both bathrooms in Lourmarin (but, best to carry your own to be sure). 




Fourth, unisex facilities are common in bars and cafés. Unlike what one finds in the States in which one individual bathroom is shared by all, one at a time, these are a row of toilets, side by side, for men and women (with doors, bien sûr) and with one sink to be shared by both. Occasionally, it may be necessary to walk by the urinals to get to the toilets. 



The typical squat toilet

Fifth, “squat” toilets (a.k.a. “Turkish toilets”) are still occasionally found in public facilities, bars, and cafés. These are essentially a large porcelain basin with a hole near the center and two shoe-shaped platforms on either side for your feet. Carefully place each foot in its designated position, squat, and go. Sometimes, there's something to hang on to, in order to maintain your balance. When you flush, make sure that you are as far away as possible because these toilets are notorious for a wide swath of spray. Although intimidating at first, they are not as difficult as they appear and are, arguably, more sanitary.

Sixth, regarding the subject of flushing, the French have a large repertoire of mechanisms to initiate the flushing process--and these are found in a variety of places. Look on the top of the tank for something to push or to pull; above the toilet for a chain to yank; behind the toilet for a very large circular- or rectangular-shaped button to press; toward the base of the toilet for a peddle to press; on the floor for a large button to step on; or, alas, alongside the tank of the toilet, for a familiar lever to push or pull. The buttons or bars may be divided into two parts, with the smaller one devoted to flushing urine and the larger part to be used for business that requires more water.



Seventh, using the toilet may cost a little money. In nicer restaurants, especially in cities larger than Lourmarin, there may be an attendant outside the restroom door who may even hand you a towel to dry your hands and would expect a tip of around 50 cents. (A euro would make her day and isn’t it nice to make someone’s day?) In other settings, there is an obligatory fee to use the toilet, collected either by the attendant or by inserting coins in the door. (I haven’t seen this in a long time.) In fast food establishments, apparently there is a code found on your receipt that can be used to open the door to the toilet (although we have never seen this).

Finally, France is also home to some of the most attractive bathrooms with the most modern conveniences we have ever found. I hope you find some of these facilities, too.

Alongside the stairs going up to  Place Henri Barthélémy

There are two other public toilets in Lourmarin.  Let's just say that you won't find the most attractive facilities in the public toilets near the boules courts on Boulevard du Rayol in Lourmarin, but if you are in a pinch at that end of the village, it's good to know they are there.  There are also public bathrooms alongside the stairs going up to  Place Henri Barthélémy from Avenue Raoul Dautry....but, if you are there, you can probably walk a little further to try out the new toilets!

And then there's the en plein air version...for men only.  Photo by Pamela O'Neill


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Saturday, August 2, 2014

LOU PÉBRE D’AÏ IS A GREAT REASON TO MAKE A DETOUR TO LAURIS



Aside from watching my daughter play soccer in Lauris, I never had a reason to get out of my car in this rather drab looking town, just a few kilometers south of Lourmarin. I hasten to add that the people at the soccer field were friendly without exception and took an especially warm interest in my daughter, the sole female player on the field, but for ten years, I drove straight through their little town without so much as a stop at the Petit Casino for a liter of milk.

That is, until I heard about a small restaurant in Lauris with a huge following: Lou Pèbre d’Aï. Located on Avenue Joseph Garnier, the main street traversing Lauris, it is in a traditional Provencal building topped with a tile roof. The lovely stone façade is accented by wrought-iron lanterns and burgundy-colored shutters and a matching canopy that reads “Restaurant Lou Pèbre d’Aï.”

 

If a building may be described as unpretentious, this one is. It makes no attempt to impress passersby but, like the restaurant itself, it doesn’t need to. People-in-the-know flock to the restaurant because they’ll find terrific food, genial service, and a charming ambiance.

According to Jean-Christophe Sapazean, who runs the front of the house at Lou Pèbre d’Aï, the restaurant was established in the 1990s but it wasn’t until 2006 that the current owner/chef, Thierry Guibal, took the reins. That is when the buzz started.

Maryjane Conary and her husband liked Lou Pèbre d’Aï so much that she
was inspired to paint this piece.  See more of her work by visiting her website.
www.maryjaneconaryartist.com.

People began asking me if I had been there. As the years passed, I received emails that suggested (politely) that I was remiss in my responsibilities as a blogger who focused on the Luberon not to have been to Lou Pèbre d’Aï. The trouble at that point was that I couldn’t get a table!

Finally, my husband who was in Lourmarin by himself one spring, was invited there for dinner by our banker who lives in Lauris. Towny’s report was excellent and matched the consensus of local opinion: very good food and a lot of it! It’s like French comfort food, Towny said. So, a little over two years ago, I included Lou Pèbre d’Aï in a TMT article entitled “20 Favorite Restaurants in and around Lourmarin,” drawing many favorable comments and emails from the loyal fans of Lauris’ popular restaurant.

Lis Steeden, a friend who has been a fan of Lou Pèbre d’Aï for several years, recommended dinner and the prix fixe menu at 22.50€. The lunch prix fixe menu, a real bargain, is just 15.50€ (including a ¼ carafe of wine) and all reports are that this meal is excellent, too.

Recently, Pamela O’Neill and I were able to snag a table for dinner. On a Sunday evening in June, before the summer crowds had descended, there appeared to be a few open tables that night which won’t be the case now; but with some planning and a little flexibility, I am confident you will be able to reserve a table. Read on to see why you will want to try.

Santé! Photo: Susan Manfull
Tarte tiède tomate et aubergine, tapenade aux olives.  Photo:  Pamela O'Neill
Charcuterie offert par a la maison.  Photo: Pamela O'Neill
Carré d'agneau rôti.  Photo: Pamela O'Neill
Mignon de cochon au four laquéau miel. Photo: Pamela O'Neill
Fromage.  Photo: Pamela O'Neill
Pamela ordered the craquelin et sa nougatine maison upon the recommendation of the
waiter.  "Delicious," she said.  I ordered the creme brûlée a la vanille, also delicious.


Pam and I ordered from the 22.50€ menu although the pissaladière accompanied by a salad and the demi-magret of duck from the 27.50€ prix fixe menu were very tempting. With lamb and pork as our main courses, we selected the Château La Verrerie Rouge (2010), a wine we had tasted—and thoroughly enjoyed--earlier that day at the Château itself.
 
Photo: Pamela O'Neill


It was a delicious meal, reminiscent of the more well-known Bistrot du Paradou, another of our favorite restaurants (located just outside Les-Baux-de-Provence). In both places, the food might be described as upscale French home-cooking. In both places, the food is perfectly cooked and seasoned with fresh herbs. It is un bon repas that will bring you back again and again. It is not light fare and, in fact, I think I would most welcome a meal in either restaurant on a blustery fall day. On the other hand, I would jump at the chance to go next week.
Fait Maison Logo
With all the news about the French government introducing the “fait maison” (translated, “homemade”) logo to distinguish dishes that are made in the restaurant from the infamous boil-in-the-bag meals that have tarnished the reputation of French restaurants, I thought we should inquire whether Lou Pèbre d’Aï will be displaying the logo in their window (to indicate that all the meals are fait maison).
“We are all fait maison,” said Sapazean. “If we are legally mandated* to display the logo, we will but our clients already know this and do not need a logo to let them know!”

So, who is Lou Pèbre? In all the years I have talked about this restaurant, I had never realized that “Lou Pèbre” is not a person. Instead, “Lou Pèbre d’Aï “ is the Provençal name for sarriette…that is, the herb known in English as savory. I suspect this name underscores the aromatic freshness of their food.

Interior corner Lou Pèbre d’Aï.  Photo: Pamela O'Neill
_________________________
Notes:

*Incredibly, apparently the burden seems to fall on the restaurants that do make their food in-house —if the logo is not displayed or each homemade item is not identified on the menu, they will face a hefty fine or jail time.

Reservations are essential. Weather permitting, I recommend a table on the terrace.

Lou Pèbre d'Aï
78 avenue Joseph Garnier
Lauris
Telephone : 011 33 (0)4 90 08 27 00

Parking in the back


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