The Mediterranean village of Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer splashes a brilliant spectrum of colors that once inspired the palettes of the French Impressionists. Salmon and mustard-colored stucco buildings glow in the late afternoon Provençal sun, trimmed with periwinkle wooden shutters. In the village square, a toddler in fuchsia sandals waddles past us, barely able to grasp her arms around the neon orange beach ball that’s as big as she is. Emerald and azure–colored table umbrellas of the outdoor cafes along the square’s perimeter advertise Perrier and Kronenbourg 1664 beer. Women in wildly colored sun dresses and men in Panama hats, khaki shorts, and sandals stroll by. Wine glasses on the table blush with pale pink rosé. A scaled down replica sculpture of the Statue of Liberty, donated to the village by a wealthy businessman in 1913, glistens in gold in the middle of a fountain.
Have we stepped inside of one of Henri Matisse’s vibrant paintings of the Côte d’Azur?
A few hours later, twilight descends. Tiny white lights suddenly sparkle all around the square. On a raised platform off to the side, musicians unpack their instruments. While Rich and I savor a dessert of lavender ice cream and coffee, the band plays “In the Mood.” Music washes over the square. Dining couples rise from their tables and move to the center. The Friday Night Dance has officially been called to order.
After a few songs give us the chance to size up the dancers and their relative expertise, I convince Rich that we too are “in the mood.” I may not be Leslie Caron in An American in Paris, and Rich is surely no Gene Kelly, but we give it our best whirl. Soon the center of the square is completely filled with dancers of all ages, moving around in a giant circle, laughing and bumping into each other. A kaleidoscope of colors and shifting shapes swirl past us. No one seems to mind. “La Vie en Rose” never sounded so enchanting.
This is our inaugural visit to Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer, which is near to a beach house that we are fortunate to enjoy on our weekend forays around the French countryside outside of Marseille. After a spectacular drive along high cliffs of the coastline, we arrive to a 100-year old farmhouse less than a kilometer from the beach. Wearing a flowered apron, silver-haired Jacqueline, followed by a coterie of white and brown chickens, rushes out to the gravel drive of the gated family compound to greet us as we pull in. Her elderly hound lazily opens one eye to inspect the commotion, and then nonchalantly dismisses us with a canine version of a Gallic shrug.
“Bonjour, Jacqueline. Je m’appelle Anne. C’est Richard.”
We shake hands to murmurs of “Enchanté” and exchange warm smiles. Soon we discover that Jacqueline’s English is even more limited than our French, so we will make do by pantomime and a little broken French for the next four days. She points to a small cottage– actually more like a double-wide mobile home − nestled amidst some trees and flowers in the back of her property, which we take to mean our beach house for the long weekend.
“Ah, la maison est belle.” I nod approvingly.
Inside, she orients us to the linen closet and the washing machine. Rich and I sneak a smile at each other, silently remembering the washing machine at our rented apartment in Paris two years before, the one we christened “Diabolique” for her evil and inscrutable ways. Once Diabolique even held Rich’s socks hostage, washing and rinsing them again and again for more than nine hours, refusing to shut off. Hopefully her beach house cousin will not flummox us so frustratingly.
Then Jacqueline eagerly opens the door to the small refrigerator, revealing a bounty of wine, cheese, pate, grapes, and figs that she stocked to get us started for the weekend. A crusty baguette sits in a basket on the little dining table for two. A coral-colored ceramic bowl holds fresh eggs from the chickens. Our eyes widen at the unexpected hospitality.
“Oh, Jacqueline!” we exclaim. “Merci beaucoup!”
She grins and pats her tummy, signifying that it’s lunch time. Once settled into our weekend cottage, Rich and I graze on a plate of Jacqueline’s treats on the patio, in the shade of the grape vine-covered pergola. We clink our little juice glasses of red wine, toasting the start of our weekend seaside adventure. Our eyelids droop from the warmth of the midday sun and the wine. Nap time before we hit the beach.
Two hours later, with Jacqueline’s hand-drawn map as our guide, Rich and I drive to the wooded park that is the entrance to La Calanque de Port d’Alon. Beach towels in hand, we walk down a gravel foot path under a canopy of tall trees to where an exquisite pebble beach awaits us. Along this part of the Mediterranean, calanques – or natural rocky beach coves – dot the coastline. A few sailboats in the cove bounce gently on the waves. On this late afternoon, mothers are packing up tired children who cry for just one more splash in the water. A few bikini’ed young women are topless and languid.
This is the spectacular La Côte d’Azur – the Azure Coast. The water shimmers in shades of deep teal and translucent turquoise, calling us. Rich and I cautiously wade in over the pebbles, bracing ourselves for the frigid water temperature we find, even here in the warmth of southern France. We splash and swim around each other. Rich cradles me, buoyed and weightless by the sea, in his arms. My right arm is draped around his neck and shoulder. I nuzzle his ear. We kiss.
The luscious moment completely envelops us.
We are not the only ones enchanted by the lush beauty and sensuality of Provence. Centuries of seekers – from the Romans to Picasso and Julia Child – have traveled here to experience its “Je ne sai quoi,” the mysterious magic that Provence exudes. Golden sunlight, carpets of lavender and sunflowers in the countryside, the sparkling indigo Mediterranean. Rolling hills covered with vineyards. Flavor explosions of traditional Provençal dishes such as ratatouille, brimming with ripe tomatoes, eggplants, onions, and black olives.
Just a short drive from the beach house, we discover Les Moules, a little outdoor café that is strung with colored Christmas lights. Rich and I fall in love with their nightly blue plate special, a simple bucket of plump mussels cooked in white wine and herbs, with crispy pommes frites wrapped in butcher paper on the side. That, along with a bottle of Provençal rosé, are perfection on a plate.
The Sunday open air market off the square in Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer bursts with fragrance and color. Embossed table linens of cornflower blue, buttery yellow, and the deep red hue of a Côte du Rhone wine flap in the breeze from clothes lines and welcome us in to enjoy this weekly market ritual. A giant batch of saffron paella, abundant with mussels, clams, squid, and prawns, steams in an enormous pan the size of a Jacuzzi, enticing us to take some home.
One farm stand contains wooden bowls and baskets brimming with olives, at least a dozen varieties in all. Glistening spreads made of green or black olives, garlic, capers, and anchovies will be a delicious accompaniment to the fresh baguette we picked up this morning.
One of the curly-haired young sisters behind the olive table catches Rich’s eye and smiles. “Voulez-vous de la tapenade?”
“Oui,” Rich replies. “Deux kilos, s’il vous plait.”
“Deux kilos?!” She looks both shocked and amused. “Deux? Kilos?” She questions now with raised eyebrows and emphasis.
We all laugh together, realizing the enormous mistake in calculation. No, the Americans do not really intend to order four and a half pounds of tapenade for the weekend. We scale back to a small container of the shimmering tangy treat. On the way back to the beach house, an improvised farm stand on the back of a pick-up truck off the gravel road advertises wine from a nearby vineyard for just 3 Euros a bottle. Of course we stop to buy a few.
Provence cracks opens all of our senses, challenging us to inhale, simply mindful of the present succulent moment. It is intoxicating. While we are dancing, swimming, nuzzling, toasting, shopping, laughing, and relishing mussels, there are no thoughts of 14-hour work days, email, deadlines, budgets, briefs, or corporate meetings. There is no past, no future. Only now. Seulement maintenant.
So how do we bottle Provence and bring her home with us?