Les Fleurs de Provence

One of my favorite things about living in Provence is seeing the landscape come alive in the spring and summer with fields and fields of flowers.

Les Tulipes

IMG_9830.JPG

In early spring—before the chill of winter has fully left the air—it’s time to start anticipating the tulips. But you have to move quickly because they are gone in the blink of an eye. Their ephemeral beauty lasts only a week or two. But the neat rows of rainbow-colored flowers are not to be missed.

Les Coquelicots

IMG_5904.jpg

As the weather starts to heat up, bright flashes of red start popping up everywhere and before you know it, you come across a fat, wide, scarlet ribbon of poppies. It’s a gorgeous way to usher in the warmer temperatures and never ceases to make me happy.

La Lavande

IMG_2771.jpg

As spring melts into summer, the poppies start to fade away and are replaced with soft, feathery hints of purple that gradually intensify in color until you have vibrant, rolling fields of lavender.

Les Tournesols

CHZFE1368.jpg

As the lavender starts to peak, you’ll begin to notice sunny glimpses of yellow. And then, one day, you’ll pass a field full of bright, golden orbs facing you. How can these not make you grin?!

Tell us, what are your favorite flowers of Provence?

Worms in the Apple in the Garden of Eden

It’s Not All Lavender Fields

Really, life in Provence is generally fabulous. Mild winters (unless you ask Dana who is from Florida and freezing here), rather amazing food and wine, lots of fresh air and sunshine. But it’s not all lavender fields, rosé, and olive trees. There is a creepy-crawly side to Provence that you may not realize until you live here. Come! Let me give you an introduction to my little friends.

Processionary Caterpillars

We are now entering the height of caterpillar season.processionary caterpillars in provence This furry train can kill your dog if he eats them or at least make your small children break out in a rash. It’s a serious problem which can be mostly avoided with awareness and prevention.

They are a kind of tent caterpillar that nests in and eats pine trees; You can spot their messy webs as you walk through the woods. This time of year, they crawl down the trunk of the tree, making a poison parade in search of who knows what.

Each year, a few dogs die from ingesting these guys. Sure, we have ticks nearly year-round (due to these generally mild winters) and use the topical tick repellent almost every month according to our vets’ recommendations. But these are more than an irritant, these caterpillars have furry barbs loaded with histamines. A dog getting these in the mouth has a chance of suffocating from a swollen throat, or stop eating due to the wounds in the mouth. No fun. Watch out.

Scorpions

These will stop you in a heartbeat, unless you are more accustomed to them than I, such as my colleagues in Phoenix Arizona. The scorpions of Provence aren’t nearly as large and toxic as the ones in the southwest or the Sahara, but they are still quite imposing and aggressive looking.

Just ask my friend Jackie, who, upon hearing a bump in the night, got out of bed to see what it was. When she turned on the light, she was greeted by an equally startled scorpion in the middle of the hall. Yikes! She had nearly stepped on it in her bare feet. Who knows how he got to the second floor landing, but that sure woke her up quickly. She completely forgot about the noise.

You could also ask our friend Marijn, who captured this lovely lady and her new babies. What a proud mama!

 

Earwigs

These are commonly inside our house. At least they were, until I started using an ultrasonic repeller.

earwigChalk the presence of these guys up to the ubiquitous damp crawl spaces that run under most houses’ foundations. Locally, the crawlspace (vide sanitaire in French) is considered to be a great architectural feature–it helps keep the house cool in the summer, boosts airflow, and is great for storing your wine at cellar temperature (and root vegetables, which aren’t nearly as fun).

Once, we looked at a new house for sale that had an unfinished basement they were calling a vide sanitaire. “Unfinished” as in, the basement floor was made of stones on top of dirt. THAT level of unfinished. In the Midwest US, there were many companies that specialized in drying out and encapsulating / insulating your crawl space. That would cut down on earwigs and our other creepy-crawlies. I have yet to find a company that does this around here. (Free business idea, anyone?)

 

So, back to these aggressive-looking bugs. They’re dark, they’re shiny, they’re quick, they’re wriggly, they’ve got big pinchers. What’s not to love? In truth, they aren’t quite as bad as they look, I’ve read that they aren’t poisonous or harmful. I was once bold and used my thumbnail to squish one–the darned thing raised up its severed end and pinched my cuticle. It was a bit swollen and sensitive for a day or two, but I live to tell about it. Won’t do that again.

Mice and Other Rodents

loire in provenceSurrounded by farmland, there are lots of field mice in Provence. We also have loire (those rodents that gave their name to the Loire River and the Loire Valley), a somewhat large-ish dormouse that makes lots of scrambly noises in your attic during the middle of the night. See right. Cute, no? Non…

During the winter, these rodents like to come inside where it’s warm and cozy. It certainly isn’t my preference to play host to these rude and messy guests. But it seems that there are many people of a different mind–I am told that it is rather normal to just let nature do what it wants. Let the mice live in the garage or house walls when it’s cold outside, the poor things.

My desire to keep them out is so unusual, that the builder who was finishing our carport into a garage couldn’t find a material to close up the gap between the corrugated roofing and the wood beam. Oh, that stuff is certainly manufactured, and it was listed by his supplier, but he just couldn’t get it delivered. No one wants to buy it around here.

Snakes, Particularly Vipers

Yes, nearly everywhere has some kind of snake. As I would rather have snakes than mice, they do not really bother me that much. I keep to myself and expect the snake to do the same. But my husband comes from a place that only has two kinds of snakes and either of them will kill you–you can choose the asp or the cobra. So we are particularly aware when there’s a snake around. (Did you hear that man shrieking like a little girl? Yeah, that was him.)snake

At right is a lovely specimen from Marijn’s garden. Did I mention she has two boys? Lots of nature and science going on at Marijn’s house.

Provence also has vipers. Yeah, that kinda freaked me out. They have that wide viper head which makes my mind scream, “Danger!” Although they are vipers, they generally aren’t so venomous and prefer to keep to themselves, so that’s just fine by me. Although the pharmacies do sell snake bite kits, so that’s in the backpack, just in case.

Wolf Spiders

I saved the best for last. These aren’t particularly dangerous, but they do give folks around here a good scare.

Have you ever had an exceptionally large spider in your shower? Have you ever had him lunge at you? These guys are fearless! And huge. And hairy–which makes them look even bigger. And they have a habit of quietly appearing very close to you when you least expect it. And then dare to be difficult to kill. You have to ask Emily to tell her wolf spider story–much panic and chaos ensued.

So there you have it. Even with all the romance and flowers and sunshine of Provence, life–in all its forms–goes on.

Top 10 Castles to Visit in the Loire Valley

One of the perks of expat life in France is that you have dozens of amazing places to visit that are all within driving distance. The Loire Valley offers an excellent vacation destination for those of us with little kids. Heck, it’s a fantastic vacation destination if you have a pulse. Perfect for families, students, seniors, solo travelers, or couples looking for romance, the Loire offers something for everyone.Loirechateaux30002wm

 

The Loire Valley is a rolling verdant expanse dotted with small, medieval towns and gorgeous châteaux straight out of your favorite fairy tale. It is impossible not to lose yourself in the magic that permeates this jewel located just an hour and a half outside Paris by train.

Our family of six spent a week this summer exploring the region. We stationed ourselves in the wonderful town of Tours and spent each day venturing to new castles and exploring the little towns that surround them. Here is our (very subjective) list of the top 10 châteaux of the Loire Valley:

#1 Chambord

IMG_7116

We spent the entire day at Chambord. You almost have to as it is absolutely massive. The castle boasts an impressive 440 rooms, 80+ staircases, and 365 fireplaces. The towering structure, crowned with a magnificent array of towers, spires, and chimneys, offers a truly awe-inspiring view as you approach the castle grounds.

The highlight for our family was a double-helix staircase that runs up the center of the château. My four-year-old twins delighted in running up and down the separate, intertwining staircases and poking their heads in the little windows to try to search for each other. For the older kids, they had heard that some of the rooms had hidden doors that led to secret passages. They painstakingly searched each room for camouflaged doors and insist that they managed to spy at least three!

#2 Azay-le-Rideau

IMG_6949

Set on a lake, Château d’Azay-le-Rideau is impossibly picturesque. One of the smaller castles in the Loire, this one felt quite manageable, especially with four exhaustingly energetic children. The rooms were beautifully decorated and several had incorporated animatronic elements. For instance, in the dining hall, a beautifully laid out table suddenly sprung to life with twirling fish, spinning bowls, and rising cabbages. The kids called it, “The Dancing Dinner,” and watched the whole show over and over again.

#3 Cheverny

IMG_7332

This one was an absolute winner with the kids as it was also housing a temporary Lego exhibition when we were there. According to the château’s website, the exhibition will be on display through June 2018.

Be sure to put up your feet and partake in a little refreshment in the beautiful Orangerie located in the back of the garden.

#4 Blois

image1

Château de Blois is a never-ending box of candy for history and architecture buffs. Built over the centuries in Gothic, Renaissance, and Classic styles, the walls of this château brim with stories of intrigue, deceit, and murder.

Its rooms are lavishly furnished and the decorative motifs on the walls, floorings, and ceilings are truly dazzling. The kids enjoyed the opportunity to take a seat on the throne in the cavernous Salle des États with its beautifully ornate ceiling.

#5 Chaumont

IMG_7221

The lovely Château de Chaumont happens to be set in some of the most beautiful gardens in France. Although the interior of the castle is worth a look, the gardens are where you should budget most of your time. Each year, the castle hosts an international garden festival that involves multiple artists. Wandering from garden to garden, it feels as though you’re exploring whole new worlds in miniature as each installation has a unique look and feel.

#6 Chenonceau

IMG_7223

Arguably the most famous of the Loire châteaux, Chenonceau is also its most crowded with tourists. And for good reason as the castle is truly a classic beauty. My advice is to avoid mid-day on a weekend. If possible, go in the middle of the week a few hours before closing time in an effort to miss the thick of the crowds. During the height of the season, the château keeps its doors open until 8pm.

Sometimes described as “the ladies castle,” the Château de Chenonceau we see today is the product of a bitter rivalry between a queen and her husband’s mistress. Henri II gifted the castle to his beloved Diane de Poitiers, who built the bridge that spans the Cher River. After the king died, his widow, Catherine de Medici, forced Diane out of the castle. Catherine then turned the bridge into a splendid gallery that gives the castle its iconic look.

To escape the swarms of people inside the castle, the grounds offer two beautiful, distinct gardens—one is Diane’s and one is Catherine’s. The grounds also contain a hedge maze, which was the perfect place for my kids to run around and play hide n’ seek.

#7 Ussé

IMG_6806

As you travel the little bridge that takes you to Ussé, you’ll find that you’ve crossed over into the fairy tale world. Indeed, Ussé is the very castle that inspired Charles Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty, or as the French say, La Belle au Bois Dormant.

In honor of its place in the land of fairy tales, the castle has a whole section dedicated to scenes from Sleeping Beauty. For my kids, the highlight was climbing high up into the open-rafter attic to a narrow staircase that spiraled up to a tiny room where the fairies locked away the evil Maleficent to practice her dark magic far away from everyone else.

#8 Langeais

image1

We were lucky to arrive at Langeais as the town’s weekly market was getting underway. Any excuse to roam this quaint town, which looks like it leapt straight off the pages of a storybook. Picturesque, enchanting, charming…I need a whole thesaurus to describe this delightful town.

The castle itself offers great views of the town below and puts on a 15-minute play with knights and sword fighting that is fun for kids. I should note that the play is entirely in French and involves audience participation—so if your French is rusty or nonexistent, you may want to practice the fine art of eye contact avoidance with the actors as they search the crowd to pull someone onstage with them.

If you have kids with you, be sure to explore the garden out back, which is perfect for picnics. After a bit of searching, you’ll come across one of the best tree houses my kids have ever had the treat to climb. A must-see!

#9 Villandry

IMG_6951

While the château itself is quite lovely, the real star of Villandry is its glorious, terraced garden. Be sure to take every opportunity to peek out the castle’s windows for spectacular views of the garden as it stretches out below. The formal, rigid lines of the landscaping contain a riot of color.

Once outside, kids can run through the hedge maze while you stroll through the formal ornamental garden or the water garden. It’s amazing how flowers and vegetables are mixed together to create a sumptuous feast for the eyes.

#10 Amboise

Amboise wm

 

Rising imperiously over its namesake riverside town, the imposing Château d’Amboise is absolutely striking. Walking through the medieval city center, it’s easy to get swept back into a time long since passed, when chevaliers paraded through the streets, kings held court, and Leonardo da Vinci crafted his inventions.

The château was the setting for some major events in France’s history, and one can only imagine what the walls would say if they could talk. Take as much time as you need to soak in the castle’s history, wander the carefully manicured gardens, and visit the stores, stalls, and restaurants nestled at the building’s base.


This list is only a taste of the many castles the Loire has to offer. Which ones have you visited? Which ones would you recommend our readers explore? Let us know in the comments.