2004-Provence and the Alps Maritime

St Remy de Provence
We always liked St Remy, a town you can literally cover in about an hour. There are the usual crafts shops, art galleries and of course, the ubiquitous cafés and restaurants, but, for some reason, we keep on coming back here. For years St Remy was owned by the Grimaldi family of Monaco; Prince Rainer, Grace Kelley, Carolyn, Stephanie and Albert II. The royal citings in St Remy were commonplace, but now the little town has completely and eternally folded itself into into the French flag. In fact the old Grimaldi Embassy is now the new Van Gogh museum. Yes, St Remy is where Van Gogh sought psychiatric attention after he cut off his ear. And ever since Van Gogh and Cezanne came to this part of Provence, artists have been coming ever since, selling everything from oil paintings to sculpture to replicas of cute animals made out of old soup cans. But St Remy has a lot more to offer. The architecture and culture goes back to Roman time. Long before Van Gogh, Cezanne or even Peter Mayle, the Romans enjoyed Provence.  St Remy is also the birthplace of Nostradomus, the 16th century French jewish apothecary, mystic of the occult, friend of Catherine de Medici and one of the most referenced seers in history.

We moved into the Hotel de L’Image for a few days. This is a hotel about photography, which is kind of refreshing after seeing the hundreds of painted landscapes throughout the shops in the town. On one side of the hotel was a bustle of activity, but to the rear of the hotel is one of the most beautiful and tranquil gardens we’ve ever seen. It rained one day and we spent a delightful day in the room. Our bathroom shower was equipped with a steambath and the shower itself was delivered through an apparatus that created a flow like a waterfall. It was a day at the spa.

If you don’t know much about the French Popes of the 14th century or the double Pope period of the Catholic schism, I suggest you have a read about it. It’s a pretty interesting story of jealousy, opulence, overindulgence and general confusion.

Basically from 1309 to 1378, the Papacy moved from Rome to Avignon and during that time, these French Popes built this enormous city fortress. These Popes became so decadent, that according to the Cadogan guide of France, when Pope Clement VI was coronated in 1342, the 3,000 guests consumed 1,023 sheep, 118 cattle, 101 calves, 914 kids, 60 pigs, 10,471 hens, 1,446 geese, 300 pike, 46,856 cheeses and 50,000 tarts. What a party!!

The fortress walls still stand today, and inside there is an evolution of buildings ranging from the 12th to the 20th century. The Pont St Bénezet still stands in it’s incomplete splendor. This is the bridge of the nursery rhyme “sur le pont d’Avignon, l’on y danse, l’on y danse”. Apparently, thanks to bad engineering and a pretty rough river, the bridge either collapsed a few times or was never completed. I still haven’t figured it out. I wanted to walk on the half that still remains and have a dance but Gretchen refused, saying it was too touristy. Actually her words were, ‘can’t you have an original idea?”  We had a nice walk through the town instead. We could see the tourists on the bridge, but I never saw any of them dancing. No waltzes, no fox trots, no tarantellas, no brake dancing, no hip hop, no twisting; not even the funky chicken.

We did happen to find a 13th century synagogue. It was the day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and the local Rabbi was preparing for the High Holiday. He allowed us in and gave us a brief history of the place. Apparently the jews started coming to Avignon in the 1st century and stayed on. While the rest of Europe engaged in the Pograms and inquisitions of the 14th century, the Popes of Avignon gave protection to the jews. To quote the Rabbi, “they were called the Pope’s jews”, which entitled them to a very comfortable protection. At some point in the 16th century the synagogue burnt down, but after the French Revolution, it was rebuilt by an architect who had no concept of Judaism. The rebuilding was fashioned into a Greco-Roman rotunda; I’d guess around a 60’ diameter. However, parts of the old synagogue are still visible. The Rabbi showed us the old oven where the 13th century jews baked their matzoh for Passover. Today, the 3,000 jews living in Avignon still use this synagogue as their base of worship.

Coinciding with our vacation over here, Gretchen picked up a week of work in Provence for a General Motors show. We thought it was in Cannes.

Gretchen would pick up her own car to use for the job, while I had use of our Renault Megane Scenic. As we later found out, her job was actually near Bandol (more about this in a minute) about 1.5 hours away. But we had already given our credit card number to the Hotel Martinez in Cannes, and so we had a day walking around the Croisette (the beach and harbor), imagining what it’s like during the crazy days of the film festival. Cannes is one of the major stops for the rich and famous along the Riviera. Fashion and decadence are everywhere, some of it impressive, some of it is very tacky. The shops windows range from Armani to Ferrari to plastic surgery. We saw yachts hailing from France, the Netherlands, Germany, Cayman Islands, Chicago, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UK. One of them was so big, you could put our San Francisco house inside of it.


The Crew Hotel
Our instructions were to go to the Hotel Provencal in Bandol. Yes, this cute little fishing village is part of the Cote Azure and the famous Riviera but at best it’s a poor relation to the grandeur of Nice, Cannes and St Tropez. There are lots of little souvenir shops and cafes and small boats in the harbor. There is even a famous wine “Bandol” that hails from the region, but most of the beauty of this part of the Alpes Maritime is inland in the mountains with drop dead gorgeous views of the Mediterranean.

Gretchen was scheduled to work at the Circuit Paul Ricard, about 45 minutes up into the hills above Bandol. This is a “state of the art” automotive testing track. State of the Art is putting it mildly. Paul Ricard, the now deceased patriarch of the Pastis fortune (the 3rd  largest selling alcohol in the world) apparently had a thing for fast cars and as well as yachts (he also bought a desolate island off the coast of Bandol and turned it into a nautical, windsurfing, diving, yacht racing mecca) and opened this premiere testing track in the 1970s. But after Papa Paul died in 1997, the track was sold in 1999 to Bernie Ecklestein, who re-energized this place into what they rightly refer to as a High Tech Test Track.
But back to the story…
The production company booked us into the Hotel Provencal in Bandol. But let me backstory a little further.
In America, members of the production crew are usually put at the event hotel, known as the gig hotel because this is where the gig is at.  And usually, the gig hotel is a very nice property because the end clients don’t want to insult their customers, press, sales staff or users by having an event in a scummy hotel. If the gig hotel is full, the crew is then put very nearby in a comfortable and contemporary (something that’s been upgraded within the last 15 years) accommodation. There are exceptions, but this is mostly the rule.
In Europe, it’s been a lot different. European companies have felt that the members of the production crew are on par with road kill. In the past it didn’t matter if these were the people who could make or break their careers, if they wheeled a big black box into the congress center of hotel ballroom, they were destined for the “no star” hotel. As technology entered the audio visual and scenic worlds, enlightened Europeans began to recognize crew members as technicians and started treating them with a little more respect. In 1990, I did a job in Berlin, and the technicians (I think in order to gain some modicum of respect) wore lab coats to the call.
But let me backstory a little further. Every country has a pecking order, that is to say, someone has to be the butt of the joke. In America, it used to be the Polish; actually, it used to be any foreigner, Italian, Irish, Hungarian, Czech, African, Jewish, Asian… sorry the list is getting too long. The Cubans make fun of the Columbians and Puerto Ricans. The Columbians skewer the Mexicans. In France, the butts of the joke are the Belgians. If you do anything stupid, you’re called “Belge”. A few years back we were talking to a friend of ours who ran the front desk of a small hotel in Chianti. Some German tourists were giving her a hard time and we asked if Germans, in general, were difficult to deal with. Surprisingly though, she said the Germans, although they did like to travel in large groups, were nothing compared the Belge, who, she said, in her experience, calling them cheap, would be a compliment. Now we don’t really know any Belgians so it’s hard to formulate an opinion one way or the other. But back to the story.
The production company had given the responsibility of the crew accommodations to a Belgian company. Apparently, the Belgian company was told to find rooms for the production crew. OK, all these little factoids are now going to piece themselves together.
We drove around Bandol for about 30 minutes before we finally found the Hotel Provencal. It looked like an old hotel built in the 1920’s when the charm of the Riviera was spreading from the east, while the ooze from Marseille was seeping from the west. I’d guess that in the 1950’s it was upgraded with ensuite bathrooms and probably by the 1980’s air conditioning was added. The first thing we notice was there was no parking. We had two cars. Then there were the rooms themselves. It had the same peeling wallpaper from the Cohen film “Barton Fink”. It was very small and very smelly and although there was a bathroom, the green/brown stain embedded into blue ceramic sink made me think the past tenants were using it to dissect frogs. I think we actually broke the record for checking in and checking out of hotel in under five minutes.
OK, onto the next hotel. The Hotel Beau Sejour in St Cyr was supposed to be the nicer of the crew hotels but apparently they were overbooked and so we were put into the Provencal. Gretch called the Beau Sejour and sure enough they had a room. No problem. They also assured us they had a parking lot for both of our cars.
It was close to an hour before we managed to find the Hotel Beau Sejour.  This one looked like an old family house that was converted into a hotel about 50 years ago, and hadn’t been upgraded since. The concierge, a small woman in her late 70’s, greeted us and showed us our room, a whitewashed bedroom with a sliding glass door that revealed a small tiled terrace. The bathroom was dark and reeked of industrial antiseptic cleaners, but we were tired. We were rich with Ambien and Donormyl and figured, with the help of the sleep aids, we could stay for at least a night. And so we left the bags in the room, and left in Gretchen’s car to meet up with the rest of her crew up at the Circuit Paul Ricard.

On the way to the Race Track, we passed the Dolce Fregate Resort Hotel and Golf club. I think we made the turn into the driveway at about 85km. They only had one night available but we booked it anyway.
But then, when we arrived to the racetrack, there was a fantastic hotel across the street. And yes, there were lots of rooms available. This was where Belgian tour managers were staying. End of story….

We stayed near Bandol for two days. Gretchen worked, I played golf. Then, according to her schedule, we were to move to a hotel in Fayence. The gig was at brand new Four Seasons Hotel. As I said, the gig is always at a really nice hotel.

Fayence is situated along the volcanic range known as the Esterel, also known as the “Corniche d’Or”, or Golden Coast. It’s one big range of giant blocks of gold rock  plunging into the Mediterranean. It’s really amazing to see the small villages and fortified castle walls still clinging to the mountain faces. Once you get away from the Haute Couture of the coast, it becomes a very beautiful and rugged countryside.