25 July, 2014

Where the Buffalo Roam the Alps

We climbed the Route de Napoleon from Grasse into the forested foothills of the Alps to pay the buffalo that roam the Haut-Thorenic a visit.  It was November but in the mountains winter had already encrusted itself.  My husband and I slipped on every last stitch of warm clothing we’d brought before negotiating the last available slots for the afternoon safari.

European Buffalo and Ecolodge

After our small group assembled at the camp playground, we weren’t more than a dozen, we set out on foot into the sprawling 700-acre pasture of the Monts d’Azur reserve.  Our guide spoke of the temperament of the herd of European buffalo as we approached referring to partners and their offspring by name as you would friends. No, these buffalo (bison in French) weren’t native. Imported from Poland in 2005 on an initiative to increase the endangered population’s numbers, the herd has since doubled.  We stood only a few meters away from these largest of the land mammals yet the herd paid us no mind. 

I could have spent the day admiring those relics of prehistory but our guide suggested we travel a kilometer downwind to where the wild Przewalki horses were exhibiting frisky behavior that he wanted to investigate.  We followed eagerly, stopping to identify flora and fauna while the youngest in our group, a pair of elementary school-aged children, continued their barrage of questions.  With each informed response it became more apparent.  The scraggly 20-something we were following wasn’t just any tour guide; he was a naturalist.  The patience with which he responded was as much a product of his nature study as the knowledge he shared.

Winter in the mountains is cold and by the home stretch of our two-hour safari when we encountered a flock of water birds my feet were too frozen for me to care much about their habits.  I was happy to see the camp gate being opened and ducked into the lodge for a therapeutic cup of hot chocolate.

The next time I pay the reserve a visit will be during the summer when it is warm enough to camp out in the park.  They offer tent rentals (on a platform safe from stampede), catered picnics, horse drawn buggy rides and “safari” hikes like the one I took.  Hotel rooms are also available but lack the resort appeal to be enticing.  Definitely book your visit ahead of time as tours seem to fill up.  Though it’s only an hour away from the Riviera you don’t want to make the trip for nothing.  Prices range from 25 Euros for a safari hike to 260 Euros for an Adventure package for two that includes dinner, lodging in an eco tent, a safari and a buggy ride.

16 April, 2014

On the Perfume Trail in Grasse

The perfume industry in Grasse, renown for the production of luxury fragrances, evolved as leather tanneries began selling perfumed gloves.  A visit to the recently renovated Musee International de la Parfumerie offers a look at the process of making perfume and the history behind fragrance’s role in the last four thousand years.  From Roman slaves applying perfume by mouth to their mistress’ hair, to the use of incense to commune with the divine during the Middle Ages, to fragrance’s role as a disinfectant in the Age of Enlightenment, the displays make for interesting reading.  My favorite part of the museum was sampling the constituents used in creating fragrances.  With the push of a button, a chocolate, incense, rose or even cocaine-scented cloud was expelled.  Though good fun, smelling them all left me feeling nauseous.  Set aside a few hours to visit the perfume museum; it is well worth the time.

Several of the old perfumeries are still in production and offer free tours of their ateliers to drum up business.  When in Grasse I like browsing the Fragonard boutique because in addition to perfume they stock beautiful, affordable gifts like embroidered laundry bags and colorful scarves. 

For a more personalized approach, the sleepy village of Gourdon has a row of mom and pop perfume boutiques where merchants will concoct a scent just for you.  After doing some winter shopping, my husband and I stopped for dinner in Valbonne at the Auberge Provincal and enjoyed warming up by the fireplace and filling our bellies with the hearty fare from their three-course menu.

The South of France still produces jasmine, rose, mimosa and lavender.  The museum’s sister garden in Mougins, developed to educate and preserve native perfume plants, offers a look at the plants before they are distilled into perfume.  While it lacks the majesty and old growth of more established gardens educative approach makes it a pleasant experience.  You are actually encouraged to touch and smell and plants!  In early spring blooms were sparse but I was advised May is the best time to visit. 

Candied Fruit at the Florian Confiserie
Another way to enjoy the local flowers is in the candied variety.  The Florian Confiserie beside the river in Tourettes-sur-Loup offers free tours and tastings.  Meander through each room of the factory as the candy is being made and learn about the process.  The lemons and clementines, rose petals and violet blossoms are almost too pretty to eat.  After sampling your fill of candy, don’t leave without a stroll along the picturesque trail that follows the river.  It doesn’t take more than fifteen minutes to walk and would be a nice place for a picnic or swim during the warmer parts of the year.

For more information on the logistics of planning a visit:
The Perfume Museum and Garden
Florian Candy Factory

05 February, 2014

Un Lion à Paris - Children's Book Review

 A Lion in Paris - Un Lion à Paris
Once upon a time there was a lion. Bored in the Savannah he jumps a train to Paris. Expecting to incite fear, he discovers that the Metro passengers pay him no mind. This and the rain that make the city look grey cause him to feel sad. While out exploring he visits landmarks like Café Floré, the Pompidou Museum, the Eiffel Tower and the Sacré Coeur. At the Louvre Mona Lisa’s tender regard cheers him up. He finds a perch to look out on the city from and decides to stay indefinitely.

A sweetly simple story by Italian writer/illustrator Beatrice Alemagna, compiled into a beautiful book. Even the way it’s bound it atypical, it hinges from the top rather than the side. The illustrations, a combination of drawing and collage, are what make it my favorite children’s book. I bought a copy for myself long before my son was even born.

I recommend this book for adults and children alike. It was originally published in French and recently translated into English. Though I shy away from reading novels in French, children’s books are a less intimidating way to pick up some vocabulary while travelling the fantastical voyages between the pages. Some of the words I like from this story are: rugir – to roar, and bouche bée – to have your mouth open in surprise. Reading it would be a fun way to prepare for a trip to Paris, or to revisit the sites afterward.

I first discovered A Lion in Paris in the Pinacotheque museum gift shop, a fun place to browse.
You can order a copy in English here.
To learn more about Beatrice Alemagna, visit her website here.