Markets, Santons & un Hibou

A narrow building in the narrow old streets of Old Town Nice.

My friend Caitlin (who is currently writing her PhD in Cambridge,) a self-proclaimed ‘glad-bag,’ just headed off on the bus from Frejus to Nice this morning. Now she’s on the plane back to London, then she’ll take the train to Cambridge. But this morning started off with an even more exciting form of transportation: the Vespa! Yes, Caitlin was a brave & excited (& slightly nervous) passenger with me over the weekend, and it was a 20-mph (chilly) blast. We had an extraordinarily busy & fun weekend, countered with laid-back lounging around which was equally fun.

Caitlin’s visit started off with a late-night arrival on the bus to Les Adrets. She’s spent the whole day travelling, and the poor thing gamely got herself practically to my doorstep – but once she decided she was ok on the Vespa, we agreed to get her to Frejus so her bus trip wouldn’t be quite so ridiculously long on the journey back.

Valerie and I had made plans to go to Nice & Antibes the next day, and she picked us up on Saturday morning, her 15-year-old daughter Emma along for the ride. It was a delightful ‘girl’s day out,’ with Valerie acting as guide. She took us all over the Old Town in Nice, through the regular market that is there every single morning, through the Christmas Markets, through tiny winding cobblestone streets; past cathedrals and churches, scooters and locals, bars and cafes…The markets were a dream, and excerpts from two poems kept coming to mind which are the only way to describe the bounty:

First, Keats, from ‘The Eve of St Agnes’


While he from forth the closet brought a heap
Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd
With jellies soother than the creamy curd,
And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;
Manna and dates, in argosy transferr’d
From Fez; and spiced dainties, every one,
From silken Samarcand to cedar’d Lebanon.

These delicates he heap’d with glowing hand
On golden dishes and in baskets bright
Of wreathed silver: sumptuous they stand
In the retired quiet of the night,

    Filling the chilly room with perfume light.
Next, Rossetti, from ‘Goblin Market,’ though these markets had none of the evil undertones of C.R.’s poem – only the lush ripeness:

Auer chocolaterie, depuis 1820.

Come buy our orchard fruits,

Come buy, come buy:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpecked cherries-
Melons and raspberries,
Bloom-down-cheeked peaches,
Swart-headed mulberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
Crab-apples, dewberries,
Pine-apples, blackberries,
Apricots, strawberries–
All ripe together
In summer weather–
Morns that pass by,
Fair eves that fly;
Come buy, come buy;
Our grapes fresh from the vine,
Pomegranates full and fine,
Dates and sharp bullaces,
Rare pears and greengages,
Damsons and bilberries,

Champignons of all shapes and sizes.

Taste them and try:

Currants and gooseberries,
Bright-fire-like barberries,
Figs to fill your mouth,
Citrons from the South,
Sweet to tongue and sound to eye,
Come buy, come buy.
This is exactly what the markets are like now – imagine what they would be like in the spring and summertime. One Provencal treat we tried were Calissons: gently diamond-shaped, or rather almond-shaped, candies that are like little soft biscuits of almond and orange meringue. They use orange flower as well as orange peel, lots of super-fine sugar, eggs, ground almond, and apparently, at least in this recipe, a liquor. They are as delicious as they sound, and I bought some dusted with gold powder for Christmas.
Valerie took us up to the very top of the Modern Art Museum where there is a rooftop walkway and garden, with spectacular views over Nice. Then, with the top down on her little convertible, we drove to Antibes.
There were more Christmas Markets, with their hundreds of ‘santons‘ or little saint tableaux for sale. It’s a tradition in Provence, and I can only guess that it’s the kind of thing where you buy one each year and add to it, or these santons get passed down in the family, because they would become very expensive to buy a whole set. Each little ceramic figurine costs from about €3.50 to €15, depending on what they are. You can buy unpainted ones and paint them yourself (Valerie says that’s what she does, and her children paint them,) or you can buy painted ones, all of which have a unique style depending on the artist.

Caitlin, Valerie (in the middle) and Emma outside the Picasso Museum in Antibes.

The idea is that it makes a nativity scene, but what is special beyond the familiar nativity is the cast of local Provencal characters: from lavender-sellers to fishermen to hunters to church-bell-ringers. There are local animals, including sanglier (wild boar) and geese, rabbits, and owls, as well as all possible farmyard animals. Donkeys, bulls, goats and horses. Caitlin and I came across an amazing santon market in Frejus this morning, and each artist’s style was very distinctive. I chose a sanglier as a special keepsake for my stay here.

In Antibes, Emma, Valerie, Caitlin and I went to the Picasso Museum, which I rather unexpectedly fell in love with. It’s perched on the tip of Antibes, in a castle, Château Grimaldi. I wasn’t very familiar with Picasso’s works, and I loved the colours, textures, and lines, the themes and movement, the angles and curves. Blue seemed to prevail, as well as a theme of an owl, or un hibou, also known as a chouette.  Of course the Provencal landscape and colours – the dusky blues and purples – influenced Picasso hugely. The museum is also sensitively done: a clean, white space showcasing these precious paintings, but with ancient stone and arched ceilings peeking out in the right places so one never forgets they are in an ancient, once-fortified castle. We walked out into the sculpture garden at sunset, which overlooks the sea, and enjoyed the sculptures of Miro as well as more of Picasso’s work.
The bounty from the sea is also evident throughout these markets: oysters & champagne are a Christmas specialty, and there are booths / market stalls as well as more permanent restaurant/cafes set up, catering to exactly that treat. Urchins are popular to eat, and we watched as a couple bought a bag full of sea urchins, which the purveyor cut open – as he cut out a circle from the bottom of the urchin, lots of water came out, and I can’t help thinking these taste like saltwater just like many other shellfish…though I admit I’m a huge fan of moules (mussels,) Saint Jacques (scallops) and various sizes of crevettes – shrimp, crayfish, prawns, etc.
We walked around the markets until dusk before returning home.

Caitlin posing on Vespa after lunch.

On Sunday, Caitlin wanted to join me for Messe (Mass,) to see all of these wonderful characters she’s been reading about. She bravely acted as passenger on my Vespa, and it went so well that after Mass (whereupon I introduced her to pretty much all of the people I’ve mentioned previously,) we rode across Lac St. Cassien, all the way up to Tourettes and Fayence, and back to Les Esclapiers for lunch. What a gorgeous day; what an amazing lunch! And I’m so very impressed that Vespa made it up the extremely steep hill to Tourettes with a passenger to boot. We had to go in first gear and went at about 5 miles per hour, but we made it.
After lunch, we rode back to the house and I lit a log fire, and Caitlin kindly acted as my first ever reader for Venus Heart, the poetry play I’m writing whilst here. She gave me excellent feedback and I know exactly where I want to write more poems to complete the storyline. It’s going so well that I’m beginning to think about what I might work on after the excitement of Christmas and New Year, in that space of time when I’ll once more be by myself and be able to focus on writing. I’m hopeful and excited that I’ll have a full draft of VH before Christmas, and I rather wonder if my family will be up for being roped into a Victorian-style performed reading…hmm…

At the movies!

Quite possibly the most goofy and fun thing we did was to go to the movies last night. Les Adrets shows one film every Monday evening at 8:30pm, on a projector screen in a medium-sized room which has the feeling (and odd smell) of a high-school gymnasium. So, for €5 each, we bought tickets (amazed that they even gave out tickets,) and pulled up a folding chair to watch the latest Twighlight movie clacked out on a rackety projector in dubbed French. It was most certainly a unique experience, and we both loved it. It was only made better by this film being absolutely ridiculous, and me having refused to read any of the books or see any of the movies, whilst Caitlin has read all of the books and seen all of the movies. She talked me through it, but for the most part, it’s a simple & predictable enough plot that we didn’t have much trouble. Also, I have to admit that the ghastly scene where Bella has a Vampire-led c-section was right up there with my ‘Venus Heart’ material, but in an awful Hollywood way, so I really rather enjoyed it.

Today (Tuesday morning) Caitlin and I strapped her bag to the luggage rack of my Vespa, rode to the boulangerie where we got fresh croissants (au aumonde for her, and an apple tarte for me,) before riding down the winding Roman Road to Frejus. We walked around the Cathedral and markets before having pots of tea, and then Caitlin caught her bus, and I waved her on her way.

Picasso's 'hibou' (one of many)

What a wonderful visit! Happy travels, Caitlin! Now, time to turn the house around (ah, domesticity: washing laundry, cleaning cat-boxes, changing bedsheets,) and to settle back to writing, before Noel.

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