Tag Archives: France

Corsica, France: Wild, Splendid and Retro

corsicaBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Sure, a lot of the places mentioned in Kevin Dolgin’s book haven’t been covered yet in these pages. On the other hand, Corsica is his real-life Utopia, so why not have another go at the magical island? Especially with the words of George Semler to inspire us. In the pointedly titled “Wild France,” a piece found at Saveur, he praises all that makes Corsica less civilized but more civil than the places people escape to it from. On a good day, from the right spot, you can maybe see the mainland, and that’s how the Corsicans like it. Semler is a professional appreciator of food, who says:

The Corsican specialties that I had been dreaming of since my last visit…get their unmistakable character from the maquis. The scrub also provides ideal grazing for game as well as for free-range pigs, cows, sheep, and goats-all of which forage at their leisure, resulting in especially aromatic and flavorful meats and milks.

According to Semler’s bio, he arrived in Madrid in 1970 from Vietnam, where he’d been an officer in the Marines. He’s published two books about Spain and written about a remarkable variety of subjects. Here, he talks a lot about the maquis, the mixed thatch of fragrant shrubs and herbs that covers much of the land — potpourri on the hoof, some would say — and permeates the fantasies of natives and visitors alike. The vegetation is so fierce thanks to mountain peaks that scrape the rain right out of the clouds.

He visits the wonderfully named Fromagerie Casanova, an establishment where cheese, and we would never have guessed this, is made by shepherds. And reveals more than some might wish to know about a cheese called casgiu merzu. He gives the historical reasons why the Corsicans, strangely for an island people, are not very much into fish. But “chestnuts are another story,” and he details the process for making pulenda, which sounds strenuous. And don’t get him started on Corsican wines. Or rather, do. This stuff is fascinating.

“Corsica is the third wine-producing island in the Mediterranean,” we are told by Marcel Michelson, who has been with Reuters since 1986 and is now Chief Correspondent. Which is why there could be trouble ahead for the island’s vintners, a dire possibility which is explained here in great detail. In The Telegraph, veteran travel writer Sasha Bates follows the Strada degli Artigiani, Artisans’ Route, which sounds like the most fabulous open studio tour of all time. There’s also, inevitably, a wine route.

corsica-erbalungaThere are aspects upon which we have not yet touched. For instance, did you know that Corsica is the home of many nudist colonies, such as Chiappa? Everybody knows Napoleon was born in Ajaccio, but few realize that the mythical character Ulysses lost many of his ships to malicious destruction, and his crew to cannibals, at Bonifacio. Did you know that in 1941, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., made a movie called The Corsican Brothers? Or that there’s a 6,000-year-old castle at Arraghju?

It’s a place where circuses are very popular, and drivers still pick up hitchhikers, and the people are buried in mausoleums. “Corsican cemeteries, therefore, look like little cities,” we learn in The Third Tower Up From the Road, where Kevin also tells a story about spending the night out in the maquis. It’s illegal to sleep in the forest, where the wild boars roam. Why? Some people find out the hard way. Kevin says:

The pigs won’t hurt you, but it can be a traumatic experience to be awakened at 3:00 am by a hairy snout snuffling around your head trying to find the source of that Camembert odor that unfortunately is still on your breath.

By the way, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote the something called the Constitutional Project for Corsica, and we would be very grateful to anyone willing to give a paragraph or two on the meaning and implications of that. Please.

ship photo courtesy of gripso_banana_prune , used under this Creative Commons license,
tower photo courtesy of aslakr , used under this Creative Commons license

The Catacombs of Paris, a City Built on Bones

catacombs
By PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Attracted by the title “The World’s 5 Creepiest Places,” we visited Amazing Facts and learned the identity of those five locations. They are:
♦ Mary King’s Close, sort of an underground dungeonesque city beneath the Royal Exchange. Looks like a good setting for a post-apocalyptic speculative fiction tale.
♦Chernobyl
♦The Manchac Swamp in Louisiana
♦Bran Castle, the supposed vampire’s home in Romania
♦the Catacombs of Paris, which pull in curious visitors all year round, not just at Halloween. Can you picture 185 miles of tubular underground boneyard? Says the seemingly nameless author:

Bones and skulls are stacked on either side of a narrow corridor like merchandise at a warehouse-a lot of merchandise. The air is close and cool, with just a hint of decomposition, and there’s rude graffiti dating from the French Revolution, mainly about the king and the feeble nobility.

National Geographic News offers a nifty little video of l’Ossuaire Municipal. These tunnels used to be quarries, and when the city’s many cemeteries became a serious health issue, somebody had the bright idea to fill up the one with the other. That must have been a public works project to rival the building of the pyramids! Full employment for all, but what a job, exhuming six million corpses and bundling up the bones for transport into the catacombs.

When exactly does a tunnel become a catacomb, anyway? Is it the presence of human remains that does the trick? And what was the methodology for cleaning the bones? It doesn’t seem biologically possible that they would have all been picked clean by nature. And how much grave robbing went on? Was it policed, or were the workers allowed to keep what they scavenged, as sort of an incentive package? Wondering about these matters, we consulted a few sources. The first being The Third Tower Up From the Road, where Kevin notes that the place “might suffice as a proxy for hell” and then goes on to say a whole lot more about it.

There’s also a lively account by a fellow named Jason, titled “Parisienne walkways. And big stacks-o-femurs,” that we found entertaining. And Lucky Larry passes along some solid advice for maximizing the experience, including the fact that touching the bones seems to be allowed, should you feel so inclined. He also confesses to not following orders:

After walking down 130 spiraling steps we lose the other 18 people in the group and ditch them, I think the catacombs should be viewed in some level of solitude so you can fully appreciate the experience – that means near silence and as few people as possible it also seems more respectful.

What we’d like to know is: Are the Paris catacombs the best in their class? Or would anyone recommend a superior ossuary?

photo courtesy of ricardo.martins, used under this Creative Commons license

Woodstock and Other Music Festivals of the World

guitarsBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

A mainstay of World Hum and the Matador Network, Eva Holland went to Woodstock’s 40th anniversary bash in upstate New York. Born 13 years after the original 1969 Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, Holland admits to liking the music of her parents’ generation better than her own, especially the Woodstock album. It was the siren lure of those musicians that inspired her to attend the commemorative version of the legendary happening. In a piece titled “Back to the Garden?” she describes the journey, which was almost in the nature of a pilgrimage:

At one point, I noticed a homemade peace sign by the side of the road. It read, “40 Years: The Message is Still the Same.” I wondered if it was intended as a hopeful or a cynical comment…For a moment, trapped in my own, much smaller patch of gridlock, I felt closer to those legendary half-a-million hippies than I ever had before.

After idling in traffic for too long, Holland arrived at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, parked, and bought a ticket. She mentions the extensive police presence, and the copious amount of Official Merchandise. Original Woodstock bands Ten Years After and Canned Heat were satisfying. What emerges as the important thing about the four-decades-ago festival is its significance as a social phenomenon and a political statement. Why did so many people show up for this thing, back in the day? And what brought the people who showed up this time? (Feel free, by the way, to send us your own interpretation of the significance of these questions.)

One of the nicest things about The Third Tower Up From the Road is that Kevin doesn’t only describe the sights, and the history, and whoever happens to be hanging around on the scene with the spare time to humor a foreigner who specializes in off-the-wall conversational gambits. Everywhere he visits, if any kind of music is audible, we are sure to hear about it. His awareness extends to the musical nerve center of a given city, the place where the real musicians buy their reeds and strings and try out attractive new percussion instruments. During trips by automobile, particularly in America, matching the music to the landscape is a preoccupation of his. He embraces the universal truth that “mornings are particularly hard on bluesmen.”

Don’t you love being reminded of events you missed? A slew of music fests were conducted over the summer, any one of which might someday turn out to be as legendary as Woodstock, or the 1963 Newport Folk Festival (when Bob Dylan “went from zero to hero in the course of a weekend,” in the words of Rowland Scherman.)

It wasn’t all youth culture material, either. The Copenhagen Summer Festival consisted of twelve nights of chamber music. There was the Byblos summer festival in Lebanon, and the Istanbul Jazz Festival and International Music Festival. People flocked to Lyon, France, for the National Music Festival, while Aix-en-Provence hosted a festival with the theme of ancient mythology, featuring Götterdämmerung. Amsterdam had its Dance Event (which also encompasses electronic music), and presented the week-long Grachtenfestival of classical music.

This one is coming up in October and it sure sounds interesting: the Rajasthan International Music Festival in Jodhpur, India, whose mission is to:

…revive dying folk musical genres of the state and will promote the traditional music of the European gypsies, who are said to have migrated from Rajasthan at least 1,000 years ago… A delegation of musicians from Spain’s biggest institute of gypsy music Instituto Gitane will take part in the festival.

One last word: Jeremy Kressmann of Gadling has compiled a stunning list of desirable music-oriented destinations, including both festivals and ongoing music scenes that are not to be missed.

And here’s another question. What music event in the coming season do you consider essential?

photo courtesy of Patti Haskins, used under this Creative Commons license

Provence, France: Literary Tourism and More

RoussillonBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Susan Spano, staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, sees Provence through the lens of a reader. She was attracted by the writings of Peter Mayle, who has published no fewer than four books featuring the district, only to have a fan of show up in his living room. And then there’s a book called Under the Tuscan Sun, by Frances Mayes, which which brings throngs of devoted readers to the area of the Luberon Mountains.

Spano, however, is not content to stick with trekking off to see the sights described in any of these books. With us peeking over her shoulder, she visits the town of Apt, where the market day is a famous attraction:

The Apt market, stretching along pedestrian-only streets…draws tourists and locals alike for its dazzling array of regional merchandise — handmade lavender soap, lotion and sachets, olives and olive oil, wine, artisanal honey and liqueurs, cheese, herbs, flowers, candied fruit, pottery, baskets and fabrics in all the bright, beautiful patterns of Provence.

Every one of those items is practically mandatory baggage for the home-bound visitor, especially the lavender products, because this is lavender world headquarters. And a serious market-goer has to know the ropes: Show up early, like 8:00, because first of all you want to be able to park.

Spano also explored the a mountain village called Sivergues, which she describes as “sort of Provençal ghost town” situated near the scenic Aiguebrun River. In fact, there appears not to be an inch of Provence that isn’t scenic. Art tourism vies with literary tourism as the big draw, especially since the recent opening of the house of Jane Eakin, a painter who inhabited Ménerbes for about forty years. Know who else used to live in this town? Dora Maar, one of Picasso’s muses.

Travel Examiner Mickey Sewell has also written extensively about Provence, adding an interesting detail about the area called the Luberon. No new buildings are permitted, so if you want to live there, you’d better have a relative who owns a house and who is anxious to remember you in their will. Sewell claims Texas as her other area of geographical expertise, and also is a proficient technical writer who grew up in many different parts of the world.

In La Belle France, she also covers the territory immortalized by painter Vincent Van Gogh, and the village of Les Saintes Maries de la Mer, where Gypsies from around the world gather each spring to celebrate Sara the Black, patron saint of the Romany folk. Another town in Provence, Cassis, is where Bloomsbury artists Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, and Roger Fry tended to hang out. And that’s only scratching the surface of the treasures Provence has to offer. And now, wouldn’t you know it? Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have invaded Provence and bought a 35-bedroom chateau with a 1000-acre back yard.

It goes without saying that this incomparable section of France is a favorite of a certain travel writer whose name is at the top of this page. Kevin Dolgin sings the praises of Provence like nobody else, in The Third Tower Up From the Road. We won’t give away too much, but he does say:

All of these things are wonderful and you should go to Provence and stay a long time and read about them, then check them out and then decide to stay even longer…

So, there you have it: Provence, France – be there or be square!

photo courtesy of jacdesalpes , used under this Creative Commons license

Endless Summer in Aix-en-Provence, France

Aix-en-Provence
By PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Is there a place-name that conjures up more pleasant visions of contentment than the name of Provence? Seth Sherwood in The New York Times offers a nice glimpse of the attractions to be found in the city of Aix-en-Provence, including the weekend hot spots. (The bi-continental author is based in both New York and Paris, the better to fulfil his travel-writer imperatives.) But there are nightclubs all over the south of France. What sounds uniquely interesting here is an art museum, the Fondation Vasarely, of which Sherwood says:

Opened in the ’70s by Victor Vasarely, the Hungarian-born mastermind of the Op Art movement, this retro-futuristic museum is packed with soaring, kaleidoscopic and mind-bending geometric art that will blow out your retinas and sizzle your brain – think M. C. Escher abstractions on a cathedral scale.

There’s a lot of history in these parts, and the old city is proud of being the former home of world-class writer Emile Zola and genius painter Paul Cezanne. A famous café called Les Deux Garcons is the spot where such luminaries as Sartre, Cocteau and Picasso engaged in the ancient tradition of people-watching. Songstress Edith Piaf used to hang out there too. And while we’re tuned in on the art wavelength, there’s a place called Musee Granet where an enormous exhibit featuring many works by both Cezanne and Picasso will be shown through September 27.

Way back in Biblical times, the Romans came to town and started the gentrification process, exploiting the thermal springs for their bathing pleasure. There’s a big modern spa that encompasses part of the archaic bath-house, which is on view as kind of an archaeological exhibit.

Sherwood gives hotel advice, and an overview of the shopping opportunities: furniture, beauty products, kitchen implements. Then he moves on to the gastronomical wonders. We are, of course, in gourmet olive oil territory, as explored by Agnès Lascève. Provence may be the herb-growing capital of the world, global headquarters for herbs of both the cooking and potpourri varieties. You can book a special package tour that includes luxury hotel accommodations and cooking lessons from a master chef. Eclectic sausages are a local specialty, I mean made out of things you never heard of going into sausages before. There’s a great farmers’ market, and a weird yet Michelin-approved restaurant where food is manipulated to look like other kinds of food.

And there is of course the wine. Don’t forget the wine, as if anyone could. Examiner expert Taylor Olson gives us the lowdown on which wine-producing regions of France are best at doing what, and reminds us that Provence is no longer just about table wine and rose’. In France Today, Frank Prial really goes into the subject with a scholar’s ardor. He recaps the sometimes disreputable history of the house wine of Provence, and assures us that, “Slowly, these well-made Provence rosés are rising above the tawdry reputation of the cheap, high-alcohol blends of yore.”

It will surprise no one to learn that Kevin has written about this region in a delightful essay titled “Of Romans and Pussycats: Provence, France” which is of course found in his book.

He says,

The cities are wonderful, the villages are wonderful… The edge of Provence is the shore, which English-speakers call the French Riviera and the French call the Côte d’Azur, or “Azure Coast,” because the water is blue. Really blue.

So, there you have it. How does a trip to the south of France sound right about now?

photo courtesy of nicsuzor , used under this Creative Commons license

Corsica: Small Island, Many Facets

Calvi
By PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

In The Washington Post, Tracy Dahl reports on the Walla Walla Sweet Onion Festival, and if you’re wondering, “What is the possible relevance to Corsica?,” just wait till you hear this. The story of the sweet onion began, Dahl says:

[…] in the late 1800s, when a French soldier found a sweet onion seed on the island of Corsica and brought it to Walla Walla. The Italian immigrant farmers there were impressed with the onion’s winter hardiness, and they began to cultivate it. Years of selecting each crop’s sweetest and largest specimens for seed harvesting made “Walla Walla” synonymous with huge, sweet onions in much of the Pacific Northwest.

Science pop quiz: If they all sprouted from a single seed, where did the genetic diversity come from that allowed sweeter onions and larger onions as time went on? Sounds like a rural legend. Maybe the soldier found, like, a handful of seeds.

Another product of Corsica was, of course, Napoleon. In The Seattle Times, Associated Press writer Ron Todt gives us an overview of the hundreds of Napoleon-related items on exhibit at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia through early September. As Todt points out, this is the man who sold the United States 28,000 square miles of land for a nickel an acre.

All the artifacts are from the collection of Pierre-Jean Chalençon, who was interviewed for The Wall Street Journal by Julia M. Klein. Chalençon, who is a scholar as well as a collector, calls Napoleon a visionary because he liberalized the treatment of the Jews in the territories he conquered and tolerated gays in the military. The patron/curator also says, “Of course, he sometimes made some mistakes — nobody’s perfect.”

At Drapers Online, Sushma Sagar tells us about a “boutique festival” in the Corsican town of Calvi (pictured), a four-day music event with a lot of bikini beach action, the whole scene being “reminiscent of Ibiza ten years ago.” She mentions the non-commercial, sparsely-sponsored ambiance of the festival but, with a nod and a wink, suggests that “any brands wanting a fast track to the hippest kids in France might want to take a look.” A self-described brand courtesan, Sagar says of the brands in her past that she “was always faithful and genuinely loved each one at the time.”

And does Kevin Dolgin write about Corsica? Why yes, quite frequently in fact — at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, where he contributes one column per year in praise of that loveliest of islands, in amongst all the other places he writes about. And of course there’s plenty of Corsica in The Third Tower Up From the Road, where he says, “While on a map Corsica looks very small, there are whole worlds packed into that island.” Truer words were never spoken. Kevin is partial to a certain town with 29 buildings, and does not fear “roads that are more like glorified, semi-paved mule tracks.”

It’s worth noting here that another travel writer of renown, Paul Theroux, has said, “There are no bad drivers in Corsica. All the bad drivers die very quickly.”

And, as long as we’re doing quotations, Kevin Dolgin quotes his native Corsican father-in-law: “When a Corsican tells you that he’ll kill you if you do something, it’s usually best to believe him.” And maybe there’s some validity in that old saying, “An armed society is a polite society.” The Corsican people are also characterized by visitors as among the most sincerely welcoming hosts on earth. Go figure.

One writer theorized that there are four Corsicas, but that seems to be an underestimation by far. Please report in on your favorite facet of Corsica; we’d really like to hear about it!

photo courtesy of urbandigger.com, used under this Creative Commons license

David Foster Wallace, Travel Writer

infinite_jest

By PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

As multimedia books journalist for The Guardian, Alison Flood writes profusely on all things book-related. In “David Foster Wallace biography snapped up by Viking”, she tells us about, well, the biography of DFW that will be published by — you guessed it — Viking. One reason Flood is good: she knows when to stop being a writer, and quote somebody else. Here, she quotes DT Max, who signed up to write the book:

You have a guy who came to play a larger role in culture than maybe what his sales would indicate…. Most writers’ intellectual lives are very contained, but that’s not true of David. If he went to the laundromat, it posed an interesting moral question, and that’s what I want to capture.

Marco Ursi, editor of MastheadOnline, calls DFW “ridiculously gifted” and reflects on his words about dishonesty in the media, specifically the blending of essay-type prose with promotion. Hmmm.

Just as Eric Johnson is a guitar hero, David Foster Wallace is a narrative non-fiction hero. His take on the porn industry is brilliant. And on the illness of political systems, and the inimical nature of “political correctness,” oh, any number of things. And then there’s Infinite Jest, the mega-novel that has inspired a whole lot of people to join a virtual book club in order to accompany one another in reading this summer.

Was DFW a travel writer? Absolutely. There’s the Caribbean cruise, and the Illinois State Fair, for instance. His method was to research intensely, listen to people on the scene, and maintain plenty of both subjectivity and attitude. In “Consider the Lobster,” he traveled to the Atlantic coast to cover the Maine Lobster Festival. Did you know that lobster used to be considered lower-class food, like chitlins or hog maw, that people only ate if they had no choice? Did you know that Maine used to have a law saying lobster couldn’t be fed to institutionalized people more than once a week, because that would be cruel and unusual? We didn’t either.

Picture this. Gourmet magazine hires a guy to write a piece on the famous lobster fest. He hands in a rant about the erroneous claim that lobsters don’t feel pain, and about the eating of animals in general. They publish it anyway. Could anyone but David Foster Wallace get away with this?

Strangely enough, Kevin Dolgin also wrote about lobsters. There’s an essay called “Odysseus and Grilled Lobster: Bonifacio, Corsica, France” in The Third Tower Up From the Road.

These two guys remind me of each other in some elemental way, and there’s more to it than both writing about lobsters. Reading one of their travel pieces is like going to the event with your best friend, with a controlled substance involved. As David Foster Wallace put it, there’s “a kind of persona or narrative voice that will have qualities that the reader will like and find engaging.” This type of writer processes the thing through the filter of his or her brain, and what comes out, when partaken of by the reader, is even better than being there yourself. You get all the best parts of the experience, without the expense of buying a plane ticket. You gotta love it.

photo courtesy of Wolf Gang , used under this Creative Commons license