O! TO BE IN PROVENCE, NOW THAT MARCH IS HERE!

NJWILDBEAUTY readers know that, although this blog is devoted to beautiful, and all-too-fragile New Jersey, I am always longing for Provence.

Mediterranean with Crimson Esterel Massif at its Edge by Popoff

Mediterranean Sea from Esterel Massif, en route to and from St. Tropez

I lived in Cannes from October of 1987 into August of 1988 – in other words, I saw the seasons ’round.

pine tree by Meditgerranean from Internet

Normal Provencal Drive for me, even in winter

In February and March, along the Riviera, trees bloom.  Driving in closed cars up to the sacred hill towns, the perched villages, the fragrance of blossoms fills the vehicle.  Almond blossoms like snow against gnarled hillsides.  Menton’s lemons, grapefruit, mandarines, clementines, and yes, oranges filling the air, until breathing was like drinking Cointreau.  Mingled with the sweetness of flowering fruit trees was always the pungency of wild herbs in the garrigues: thyme, marjoram, rosemary in tall shrubs, oregano, savory and pebre d’ail, a truly spicy wild flavoring.  Animals who fed in the herblands absorbed those savors into their meat, their milk, therefore infusing Provencal cheeses.

Menton's Citron Festival in February

Menton’s Citron Festival around George Washington’s Birthday

The sense of smell was literally intoxicating during my stay there.  One bitter January day in Biot, I was walking its narrow streets, marveling at flowers in small terra cotta pots even on back stoops of houses, blooming in what we know as winter.  Then, I smelled peaches.  I decided I’d just been in this land of enchantment so long that I’d ‘gone round the bend.’  Instead, I strode ’round the corner to find a small fresh food marche, with some of its produce out on the sidewalk in January sun.  Peaches filled the air, as though someone were baking a peach pie.

20110806-100810_peches_etal_marche_aix

Peaches in an outdoor market in Provence

The sense of hearing was newly called into play, not always pleasantly.  The mistral reared its inescapable head day after day in winter, roaring down the Rhone toward that usually placid Mediterranean Sea.  Some say, and I’d believe it, that Van Gogh cut off his ear because driven to this by the mistral.  It can roar for days, causing pipes in your home and shutters on your windows to whine and twang.  We don’t know anything like this wind.  It’s as though Provence wind came through huge faucets, all turned on at full blast at the same time and the same impossible speed, by day and by night, interminably.

Le Parfum des Garrigues

We don’t know wind like this, not even in hurricanes, which I’ve now lived through.  Our winds rise and fall in intensity and sound.  One of the greatest horrors of Sandy for me was the relentlessness of that howl.  The mistral’s is more infuriating, more intense, –a more ceaseless and inescapable blast.

Cheese of Goats, perfumed by wild herbes des garrigues

Cheese of Goats who Roam the Garrigues/wild herb fields of Provence

One time, my daughters had a good laugh on their romantic mother.  Somewhere in the South of France, high above the sea, I enthused, “Isn’t Provence wonderful?  The air smells like champagne!”  We were at a picnic ground high above the sea.  The mistral was so strong, it had blown over a family’s champagne, literally spilling it all over those ancient rocks.

perched village of Provence

Typical perched village – driving through fragrant collines to reach these treasures

It probably doesn’t make sense even to miss the annoying mistral, but I do.  Afterwards, the Provencaux would say of that wind, “Il balayer le ciel.”  (It sweeps the sky.)  No bluer blue ever existed than post-mistral skies, unless you count the Mediterranean, reflecting that ethereal hue.

typica drive near St. Tropez

Everything’s electrifying in Provence.  Breathing itself is intoxicating.  Around any corner, anything can happen.  In St. Tropez’ s Musee de l’Annonciade, one looks at Fauve masterpieces on the wall, then through the windows at the very scenes those vivid colorists painted so masterfully.

Baie de St. Tropez from Musee Annonciade at Sunset

Fishing Boats of St. Tropez, from window of Musee de l’Annonciade

Typica View from Window of Annociade Musee on Baie de St. Tropez

Baie de St.  Tropez from windows of Musee de l’Annonciade

But the queen of all Provencal sense experiences is the amazing mimosa/  Delicate as these blossoms are, they come from a tree.  One filled my second-floor bedroom window in Cannes.  Tiny puff balls moved in the slightest breeze, wafting a scent of lemon and nutmeg in through those bottle-green wooden shutters.  Nothing surpasses waking and sleeping to the delicate mimosa fragrance.  Another miracle was peering through mimosa branches to discover Napoleon’s Corsica so very far away, but only in early winter months.

Magnificent Mimosa in ad for l'Occitane, Provencal's quintessential fabrics

Magnificent Mimosa Tree in Ad by l’Occitane, house of superb Provencal fabrics

Even with my love of New Jersey’s soul-filling beauty, I miss the many electrifications of Provence, especially as March — the month of flower fragrances in that land – begins, with a nor’easter, no less.  No flower fragrances for us, let alone peaches around the corner.

flowering almond treeFlowering Almond Tree – subject of Pierre Bonnard’s last painting – he lived at Le Cannet, one hill over from ‘mine’, L’Observatoire of Cannes

flowering orange treeIn

In Menton, flowers and Fruit at Same Time, on February Trees

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Easter Running of the Bulls, Arles, France

Running of the Bulls

Running of the Bulls – Pamplona, not France

Once upon a time, I lived in Provence, on Observatoire Hill, high above Cannes, and within walking distance of Picasso’s pottery town, Vallauris.  In February, I waked to see, through fragrant blooming mimosa at my bedroom window, the serene but blindingly blue Mediterranean.

In winter, I could see Corsica from that same aperture.  With my passion for Napoleon, seeing his homeland was a thrill.  Even though my neighbors in the villa snorted at all my visits to the Musee Napoleon in nearby Antibes:  “That Corsican!”

My narrow curving balcony was planted with the wild herbs of the “garrigue”, the scrubland, which Provence shares with Corsica.  It’s local nickname is “le Maquis”, which basically means a tangle of nearly impenetrable shrubs and weeds – and gave its name to the noble Resistance in the South of France.

When the wind blows over the garrigue, especially le mistral, it is scented with rosemary, thyme, savory, and something the Provencal call “pebre d’ail.”  My balcony held and transmitted that perfume, by night and by day.

I traveled all I could each day of my year in Provence.  Friends from home came and shared some of those incredible, indelible excursions.

One of the best was my Manhattan roommate from the 60’s, Joan Stouffer, an architect who specialized in historic restorations in Washington D.C.  She was soon to be headhunted from her D.C. firm to work on the Holocaust Museum in Manhattan, returning home to transform the support building for the Museum, which holds all the nuts and bolts of machinery required to keep the Museum functioning.  Joan is now Joan Scharnberg, still my friend since college days at the Detroit Free Press, filling in for vacationing women’s editors.

Joan was graduated from Smith, having spent her junior year studying in Aix.  When she’d be in Paris, the locals would not her Aixoise accent.  I, on the other, hand, this one-year habitant of Provence, has studied French for two college years with a nun who had never left Indiana and never wanted us to.  She certainly hadn’t taught us how to converse with French people, especially not men.  I didn’t know the familiar endings for any of the verbs.  So when my Cannes neighbors began to ‘tutoyer’ me, to use the familiar with me, out of affection, I didn’t know how to do it back.

Joan loved haute Provence, la France profonde, the hill towns, the garrigues, the scruffier and more paysanesque (peasants) the better.  By this time, I had tired of La Cote d’Azur, and was ready for any remote setting Joan desired.

Arles isn’t THAT remote, but it’s OLDE Provence, and very not Cote d’Azur.  We went there for Palm Sunday weekend.  Posters alerted us to a custom we would not miss — the running of the bulls.  We’d both been Hemingway addicts in our teens, so of course we were going to do this.  It wasn’t Pamplona, but we will never forget it.

Arles has many convoluted cobblestoned strees near the Arena, where the bullfights themselves would take place the following day.  It was before noon, long shadows, coolness in the ‘rues” (roadways).  There were pretty flimsy barricades of metal pipes alongside these roads, behind which we took our places – the only Americans we saw or heard.  Everywhere, the young people of Arles began sprinkling each other wildly with flour.

Joan’s perfect French and my insatiable curiosity + Indiana pre-school French, were of absollutely no use.  Not a single person could tell us why.

It was somewhat hilarious.

Boys and girls were running, flinging flour, skidding on the cobblestones, now white as snow.

Then they began cracking fresh raw eggs on one another’s hair, already white as their grandparents’.

Again, our “Comments?” and “Pourquois?” were inutile/useless.

Suddenly, the crowd changed.

It hushed.

People began to move against the ancient walls, tense and all staring in one direction.

A roar went up, such as one hears while a bullfight is going on.

Many young people, mostly garbed in white, now egg-and-flour bedecked, were moving erratically. We pressed up against the metal rods, trying to understand what was taking place.

Black heads, dark horns, glaring eyes, flaring nostrils, huge furry bodies came hurtling toward us. The bulls, also, slipped on the flour, now mixed with raw egg as though for some bizarre cake.  The bulls also began to wound the runners.  Blood on white shirts, white pants.  Blood on the cobblestones, mixing with flour and egg.  Angry bulls, who did not like skidding.  Confused bulls, who reversed partway through this strange corridor, and somehow turned round and kept pouring toward us

This is all I remember, and I have no pictures of my own to share.

Those bulls ultimately ended up at the arena, where they would engage with matadors, toreadors, and picadors the next day.  Yes, to the songs of the opera, Carmen – which had been written about bullfights in France, not in Spain.

Aerial View of Arena, Arles, South of France

Aerial View of Arena, Arles, South of France

Joan would attend the next day’s full bullfight.

I would drive over to Tarascon and Beaucaire, for ancient literary reasons, and on to Maussane, where the Provencal Nobel Prize-winning Poet Frederic Mistral had lived.  I would stand in the shade of Mistral’s trees outside his home, honoring his determination to preserve his true native language, no matter how the French would strive and even battle to take it from these staunch people.

Joan would brave the bullfight entire.

Reunited, we would figure out at last that the entire bullfight had been something of ancient times, purely pagan, an inescapable fertility rite.

A far cry from the Palm Sunday rituals of childhood!

Runner and Bull, Arles, South of France

Runner and Bull, Arles, South of France

Here is a soupcon of a web-explanation, about what we experienced:

Easter Feria in Arles

updated: November 5, 2014

arles feria poster

Arles (13 Bouches-du-Rhone, Provence) starts its bullfighting season with theFeria de Pâques (Easter Festival) from 3-6 April 2015.

Many visitors may feel squeamish or even disapproving about the spectacle of bull-fighting, but it is a long-maintained tradition in Provence and southern France, especially in the Camargue.  You can however still enjoy the spectacle (and avoid the risk of any gore) by seeing the noisy and colourful parades and bull-running through the town. My view is that if you really object to this form of “entertainment” then avoid the area.

The bull-fighting (corrida) takes place in the spectacular Roman Arena in Arles, and there are other options such as the  Course Camargaise, which is another local form of bullfighting without the drawing of any blood.

About course camarguaise:  It is a summer pastime practiced in many small towns around Arles and the area. There are local leagues which are reported in local newspapers..
This different kind of bullfighting is known alternately as “course libre” or “course camarguaise“. This is a bloodless spectacle (for the bulls) in which the objective is to snatch a rosette from the head of a young bull.

The participants, or raseteurs, begin training in their early teens against young bulls from the Camargue region before graduating to regular contests held principally in Arles andNîmes but also in other Provençal and Languedoc towns and villages.


Before the course, anencierro — a “running” of the bulls in the streets — takes place, in which young men compete to outrun the charging bulls. The course itself takes place in a small (often portable) arena erected in a town square.


For a period of about 15–20 minutes, the raseteurs compete to snatch rosettes (cocardes) tied between the bulls’ horns. They don’t take the rosette with their bare hands but with a claw-shaped metal instrument called a raset or crochet(hook) in their hands, hence their name. Afterwards, the bulls are herded back to their pen by gardiens (Camarguais cowboys) in a bandido, amidst a great deal of ceremony. The star of these spectacles are the bulls, who get top billing and stand to gain fame and statues in their honor, and lucrative product endorsement contracts!

See what I mean?  No explanation about the running of the bulls, the flour, the eggs — some mention of blood.  That’s Provence!

Vive la France!