Winter Solstice 2021

Looking up at a crystal chandelier and the light it casts on the ceiling.

Winter festivities
There’s a luscious full moon outside my window as I write this post, and the winter solstice is just two days away. In the northern hemisphere, this is the darkest day of the year, an occurrence that led to early rituals which continue to this day, many of them incorporated in more recent celebrations such as Hanukkah and Christmas.

Perhaps it’s human nature, or maybe it’s our western culture, but we tend to shy away from darkness, both the physical darkness of night, and the emotional darkness of some of our feelings. We avoid the darkness with busy-ness, never more so than at this time of year. We shop, we wrap, we cook, we decorate, and we party at a dizzying pace.

I think of the winter solstice as a reminder to slow down, to breathe, to be still. We can embrace the darkness as a time to reflect on the closing year, to express gratitude, and to set intentions. It’s a time to rest, to move slowly, and to prepare for when the light returns.

I’m not suggesting that you drop all your social commitments and burn your shopping lists. This is simply a gentle reminder to breathe. Between moments of busy-ness, I wish you moments of quiet.

This year’s delightful window painting in a nearby grocery store.
A Christmas-red Ford pickup truck parked in the ancient heart of Narbonne. I tried to find the model year, and I think it’s from 1949 (that grille is rather unusual). Cool truck.

A weekend in Provence, redux

Le Cheval à Bascule = The Rocking Horse

When we were in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in October, the fromager (cheese vendor) suggested that we return for a cheese tasting in her 12th-century cave, and that we plan it for the day in early December when Saint-Rémy would host its holiday festival of lights. We thought that sounded pretty swell, so we began planning immediately.

Monique contacted a centrally-located hotel that looked promising, and tried to figure out when the light festival would take place. This seemed to be up in the air (a clue), and after some hesitation, we were told that the date would be Saturday, Dec. 11. Hotel rooms reserved, we also made arrangements for a cheese dégustation (tasting). Our little group was Monique, Rosie and me, and given the busy season, we made it a one-night trip.

Take one excellent cheese shop, add a 12th-century tasting room, mix in glowing lamps and smiling faces, and voilà! It’s a dégustation de fromage (a cheese tasting).
Christmas lights mix with the French tricoulour projected onto the city hall of Saint-Rémy on a frigid night of shopping and hot spiced wine.

The day we arrived was clear and sunny, but the mistral was blowing ferociously and everyone was cold. We enjoyed our cheese tasting, and then headed out to explore the town’s many boutiques, darting from one to the next in search of warmth. Shopping was done.

Later in the afternoon, we returned to our rooms for a short break. We were staying at the Hôtel Gounod, a 17th-century building that was an early relais de poste (an inn, often used by riders carrying the mail), where a rider could get a meal, find a bed, and even change horses. Its earlier name was Hôtel Ville Verte, but it was changed in honor of composer Charles Gounod, who stayed at the hotel when he wrote the opera “Mireille.”

After our break, we went back out to see the light show. Oops, there wasn’t one. Instead of wonder, we had commerce: all the shops of Saint-Rémy stayed open until 10:00 pm, and served hot spiced wine, cookies, and tea to entice shoppers inside. True confession: we were enticed.

We’d found a place for dinner that was just across from our hotel, a cozy and popular spot with a nice-sounding menu. After enjoying a delicious dinner, we all felt sleepy and ready to return to our rooms. On the way out, someone told us the temperatures were expected to be even colder the next day, a piece of news that had Monique changing her mind about attending mass at the town’s ancient church across the street.

Waking up on Sunday, we dawdled over a yummy breakfast in the space that once housed the stables for the inn. Old stone walls and high beamed ceilings provided the rustic touches, while chandeliers and gold-framed mirrors lent elegance to the room.

When we stepped outside, we found that the mistral had blown itself to another town, leaving Saint-Rémy sunny and wind-free, which meant a fine day for exploring more of the town. We found some ancient buildings, a carved-stone sign from the 1400s, one of the original town gates, and yes, a few more shops. After lunch at a crêperie, we set our sites for Bize and home, arriving just as the sun was setting over an unusually clear, full expanse of the Pyrénées Mountains.

Nids de poule = hens’ nests = potholes

Parting shot
I passed this sign on the road in a nearby town, and thought, “Nids de poule?” Hens’ nests? And almost right away I realized the sign was a warning for potholes in the road. This needed a photograph.