Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Wanderlust // A Visit to France


Happy new  year! I hope that everyone had a wonderful holiday season and is feeling refreshed and ready for all that 2015 has to offer. We had a lovely time; lots of family and friends and food (which I ate FAR too much of and will be spending the next several weeks working off) but as I am every year, I was more than ready to put away the decorations and press the yearly "restart" button.

As excited as I am about all that's in store for 2015, this is also the time of year when wanderlust hits me. HARD. There is nothing more magical than the holiday season in New England but after it's come and gone, I start to long for a place that's hot, sunny, lush and generally anything other than here for just a few days. This year, that means a trip to Tulum in March (more on that tomorrow; promise!) but last year, that meant starting to plan a summer trip to France's Côte d'Azur and the Languedoc regions for our family of four. So as the cold settles in Boston for the long haul and the snow prepares to fly, I've been daydreaming about those slow and sultry days filled with sun & wine, family & laughter, escapades & adventure; prepare yourselves for an onslaught of mind-blowing natural beauty (and some super-cute kids if I do say so myself)...

The view from the terrace in Agay. Yeah, that.
We opted to take two weeks -- a rare luxury for my work-at-all-hours husband in particular -- and we are still so glad that we did; there is a level of relaxation that kicks in after the first seven days that really allows one to settle in to one's self.

My mom and Greta. My mom is 70-something and looks *ah-mazing*; I pray every day that I inherited her genes...
I really wish Americans took vacations the way the Europeans do; I think we'd all be so much less-stressed and more creative/productive.

From the Cape to the Côte d'Azur; all my kids need is water, a bucket and lots of sand.
Our first week was spent with my mother and her boyfriend at his vacation home in the hills above Agay on the Côte d'Azur. Having a Francophile for a mother means that I've seen much of that country over the years but for some reason, I'd never really visited the French Riviera. But wow. Just wow. 

Do I even have to caption something this perfect?
While it's true that it's insanely crowded in July & August (you have your towel-space and about 4 inches to the left & right and that's all), it is still breathtaking. The water is this intense shade of blue and when you see it from above as we would from the terrace at the home where we stayed, it was mesmerizing. I'd love to see it in the early summer or fall; my mother says you have the beaches to yourself and I can't imagine anything more lovely.
The Tiki Plage (on the left) and the mountains beyond. Just a regular Tuesday on the French Riviera; no biggie...
We spent a lot of time at a little beach in nearby St. Rafael called the Tiki-Plage which wasn't nearly as crowded, had a nice little restaurant and which had some lovely hiking next door...

The hike above our favorite little beach in St. Raphael did not disappoint.
... and we spent lots of time at home drinking wine (and forgetting to take pictures of the food so you'll have to use your imagination; sorry, not sorry), eating far too much cheese  -- I still dream of Époisses de Burgogne almost nightly -- and foie gras, reading, napping...

Trouble. Sheer, unadulterated, adorable trouble.
... and trying to get our then 22-month-old out of the bathroom after she'd successfully locked herself in one afternoon. I think all of Agay could hear her screams as we worked to unscrew the locking mechanism tiny ancient screw by tiny ancient screw (I know I still hear them in my nightmares). Fun times, fun times.

A stop at the ancient Roman coliseum at Arles  on our way to the Languedoc was my five-year-old's version of heaven.
During our second week in France, we drove down to the tiny town of Bize Minervois in the Languedoc region of France. My mother and I had spent several weeks in this tiny 13th century walled-village when I was a teenager and I had such fond memories of it that I spent quite a bit of time trying to find the right place for our family to experience its magic. And boy, did we ever get it right.

The view of the sweet little swimming "hole" in Bize from The Bolthole's terrace...
The rental we chose is an absolute treasure called The BoltHole.  A centrally-located townhouse that is part of the town's original wall, it was purchased and simply- but beautifully-renovated by a young British ex-pat couple using area antiques and treasures (bonus: the owners live nearby so can get to the house quite quickly in case of an emergency)

Our home in Bize was the closest townhouse on the right. Quintessentially French in every possible way.
 I wish that I had pictures of the interior; it was so sweet but the lighting never came out nicely; definitely check out their website to get an idea of how uniquely awesome it is.

A view from the other side of the river; the Bolthole is the one with the triple terraces to the left...
While I can understand French, my ability to speak is awful at best (something that pains my mother daily) so being able to speak English was invaluable on so many levels. And Jess, one of the owners and the primary contact, couldn't be more lovely if she tried. Not only did she help us deal with a stroller mishap before we even arrived, she also gave me insider knowledge about area antique  (called brocantes), thrift shops & trunk sales (vides-greniers) and let us in on the locals-only oyster night at the area café (an absolute must if you ever visit in the summer: amazing local oysters, cheese, meats and wine).

A doorway in Bize. The dogs are just so fantastic on so many levels...
The home is located directly on the River Cesse, which winds its way through the town so at it's back there are two terraces (one off the master and one at the first floor) overlooking the water and the town's lively swimming hole. Given the area's burgeoning tourist appeal, we heard everything from English (primarily British) to Russian though the majority of the swimmers and sun bathers were clearly local. 

That yellow raft was his best friend for the week...
This proximity to the water (the house has a private entrance to the beach off the first floor terrace) was fabulous for travel with small children; my husband could stay down at the water with Rett & Greta while I prepared lunch, which generally meant that I'd cut up a fresh baguette from the village bakery, slice a still-hot tomato from one of the roadside stands and put out the cheese and olives for all to enjoy (and wine for the adults of course!). 

I remember every single part of this meal; it was totally worth the 5 pounds.
And during Greta's nap time, I could sit out in the shade of the terrace watching my husband and Rett splashing about and read a book.

No, this isn't a postcard. Yes, Carcassonne really *is* this beautiful.
On the days that we ventured out from Bize; we'd often visit one of the many medieval fortified Cathar (or Huegenot) towns in the area including Carcassonne which is magical albeit insanely touristy...

The roads in the Languedoc area are shaded by 100-year-old plane trees because ... YES.
... then stop by a vineyard on the way back to grab a bottle of wine ...
If you aren't salivating looking at this, something is seriously wrong with you.
... and then stroll along the nearby Canal du Midi for lunch and to wave at all the boats going by.

The Canal du Midi is so picturesque that it's almost painful.
At night, after feeding the kiddos, we'd hop over to the cafe just outside the wall (roughly 100 yards away) and have a glass of rosé (or 2) while the kiddos enjoyed ice cream treats ...

Definitive proof that the promise of ice cream will make even the most camera-shy smile.
...and then after putting them to bed (bonus: the place has three bathrooms and 3-4 bedrooms; it's actually large enough to house two families!), we'd head out to the terrace and watch the sun set and the lights come on at the homes on the other side of the Cesse.

The night-time view from the terrace might have been one of my favorite parts of the whole trip. So, so peaceful.
It was, without a doubt, one of the most magical experiences that any of us have ever had and we're already talking about when we can go back and what we're going to do this time around (we'd both love to go back during the fall harvest but that's highly unlikely with two kids in tow).

Why run when you can dance?
One thing I have my heart set on during our next visit is figuring out babysitting so we can hire this company for a day-long private wine tour (and it has to include this winery as well as this one because those chateaus just SLAY me). There are something like 3,000 wineries in the relatively-small Languedoc region; until recently it was primarily known for its lower-grade table wine but it's really coming into its own and there are fabulously-interesting (and affordable) wines every way you turn. Our favorite white was the light & refreshing Picpoul de Pinet (literally the "lip-stinger"); I've yet to try another wine that pairs as well with shellfish and particularly oysters (you can believe we tracked some down tout suite after our return so we could enjoy it with our weekly Wellfleet bi-valve feast). Our favorite reds came from the Minervois & Faugères appellations but honestly, it's hard to go wrong; pretty much everything we tried was amazing.

It's hard to believe that we were there just six months ago; it feels like yesterday and yet a world away at the same time. If you're starting the plan a trip or are looking for a family-friendly way to introduce your children to France, I really couldn't recommend these two locations more highly. And if you do go, take lots of pictures and share them so I can live vicariously!

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