Our transition between summer and fall has brought change and instability in the weather. It is raining, it is sunny, it is warm, it's time to start the fire. But of course no destructive forces, as in so many other locations. In fact, most of our days offer us beautiful skies to enjoy.
This week was as busy as any other, with one exception. Our clients were long-stay. Our house is generally a stop-over location, as we are not in the tourist corridor, which means that making up beds and doing laundry fills the middle of many of our days. However this week. we had several clients who came to stay for 6-8 nights, providing us some free time.
Early in the week I had an eye appointment in Le Mans, so we decided to tack on a leisurely lunch in Old Town. Le Mans, most famously known for the 24h race, is actually one of the oldest cities in northern France. It was an important cross-roads long before the Romans and continued to play a central role in commerce and government through the ages. It has some of the best examples of Roman walls in all of Europe and on top of those are built a layer of beautiful buildings from several centuries. While the newer part of town is entirely uninspiring, old town is one of the most beautiful and charming enclaves in this part of the world. I never get tired of just walking through its cobbled streets.
There are several very nice restaurants in town.
But we chose to eat outside at one of the little cafés. We were home by late afternoon, in time to make dinner for our clients.
On Sunday we had a more elaborate plan. Emily and family are just back from their annual vacation in Slovenia. We have been baby-sitting their pet guinea pig while they were away, so we made a date to meet up and transfer the creature to them. Emily recommended a place called Domaine de Chamarande, a large park and château south of Paris. We had never been.
We had a delightful picnic under lusciously green trees.
The grounds of the château are large and have a lake, acres of lawn to play on, a free art exhibition in the manoir and a pleasant café where we got coffee and ice cream.
We feasted, walked, talked, kicked the foot ball around, threw a boomerang and relaxed on the cool grass. It was an entirely pleasant day.
I leave you with another morning photo from our upstairs window taken this week. Dawn is arriving much later these days. I enjoy the pretty sky while having morning coffee.
August continues on with many visitors throughout the week. It's definitely not vacation time for us! When life gets busy, it's time to find enjoyment and sustenance in small moments. For instance, one day recently I was walking down the hallway with an arm load of laundry when I happened to glance into our Green room, and saw the afternoon sun filtering through the window. It brought me a moment of pleasure and gave me the idea to dedicate this week's blog to visual gratification that highlight even the busiest of days. I don't know if it's true for everyone, but for myself the beauty of the most ordinary things can fill me with a sense of tranquility and joy, feelings that are restorative and vital. During difficult times it's seems essential to find something that uplifts the spirit.
Dahlias have always been the most practical flowers in our garden. They're not my favorites, but they are abundant and long-lasting.
I have never lived in a house before this one, where I could so easily track the voyage of the sun across the sky and observe its effect throughout the whole year. Light plays a significant role in our daily lives, from sunrise to sunset.
Interesting shadows on the front terrace.
The sky and fields change colors throughout the day
Clouds come and go.
At the end of the day, when the sun is low in the west, it paints the hills golden. The white farmhouses on the distant hillside glow. We never seem to tire of these little charming moments.
And then of course there are meals. To eat well and take the time to enjoy the daily pauses meals together provide, nurtures in more ways than one. Here's a delicious salad we made this week: Recipe
In past years, August has not necessarily been our busiest month at Maison Conti. We put that down to the fact that most of the French go on vacation in August and generally head to the beach. This year, however, we have clients every day. It means our time is filled with chores. Sometimes we can find ourselves at home day after day without a break.
Last Sunday we organized ourselves to get out of the house and into the countryside between clients checking out and those checking in. Just a few hours away can offer deep refreshment, particularly when there is such pretty scenery surrounding us.
We took a walk on a trail not far from home, that we had not discovered before. So many small roads lead to forested areas, and France is full of marked walking trails. During this hike, you pass through a verdant patch with berry bushes hugging both sides of the trail. It is just beginning to be blackberry season, and we snacked ourselves along the path.
Berries in every stage of development.
There were even wild blueberry bushes here and there,
We recently learned that forest covers almost 30% of France. Our area has some of the most productive forested land in the country, and almost all forests offer public access and well-maintained hiking trails. In Montmirail our commune takes very good care of our forest trails.
Our walk ended at the moulin in Avezé on the river Huisne.
Back in April, when our friends Gail, Zack and Nelly came to visit us, we took an adventure south to Le Loir and discovered an incredible shop which by happenstance, had just opened that day. I posted about it here. This real-life cabinet of curiosities has continued to fire my imagination even as the months have passed. I have longed to return
We did find ourselves in La Chartres sur le Lior one day in June and discovered then that the shop is only open one day a week, Sunday.
So last weekend, while James and Daniel were with us, we made a plan to go visit. Before leaving home we verified that the shop wasn't closed for vacation via SMS, which is the only way to reach the proprietor. We were informed that the hours are 11-13h! Obviously moving the merchandise is not a tremendously high priority.
That became even more evident when we arrived. The shop is so beautifully arranged, and so full of treasures and curiosities that it certainly provides extraordinary visual pleasure, but there is not a bargain in the place. In fact the prices are so high, it became clear that selling is far down the priority list of the owner. The price tags were at least double or triple what one would pay even at the Paris Flea Market and bargaining is not an option with this guy. He calls himself an antique dealer and scenic designer. I think his talent is for the later.
The shop is a pleasure to visit and provides lovely little still life arrangements and photographic opportunities, but I can't imagine I will ever be able to buy anything from this charming shop.
*Quoted from Lady Churchill
Closer to home we have this Brocante, not quite so beautifully arranged! We visited yesterday and although it is a mishmash of items both in and outside the shop, there are wonderful things to discover, and the quoted price is never the firm price.
I got this lovely and totally functional whip for 7€.
The week has been cool but pleasant. James and Daniel, who have been in Paris for the month of July, came to visit for a long weekend. Coincidentally it was the weekend of our village yearly Medieval festival and Emily and family arrived as well, making for a lively and memorable few days.
The new owners of the Château of Montmirail, have exerted their influence on our village. After renovating the castle, they have worked to integrate it into village life, by offering public events throughout the year. During the summer we have had concerts in the music room and picnics in the park. It has become a very friendly place.
There are even plans to make a restaurant in the currently abandoned stables over the coming years.
Certainly there is a lot of positive energy and more conviviality in the village than during the last few years. This is our tenth summer at Maison Conti and thus our tenth Medieval festival.
The activities were much the same as in years past.
The vendors/actors and presenters are part of a cadre of folks who spend their weekends touring France to similar village festivals, popular all over the country.
This year almost all the activities took place on the castle park.
There is always a big banquet offered on Saturday evening. We went with James, Daniel, our neighbors and another village family. Two enormous beef shanks turned on a spit throughout the afternoon. There was enough meat to serve a couple of hundred people. If you were a vegetarian, you were out of luck.
It was enjoyable sitting among the crowd with friends and relations, and watching the sun go down.
Meanwhile we had music and other entertainments.
The dramatic finale was a huge fireworks display over the castle walls.
Even better were our family meals together. Everyone, with the possible exception of myself, loves to cook and many tasty dishes are always rustled up whenever the family gets together.
Jos bought us a new family game called "Concept," and we literally spent hours playing it. It's a game for the whole family, and interesting for all. I highly recommend it to you.
It's been many months since visiting with you via this blog. I've resolved to try to be more communicative, starting today. I have a little catching up to do, but going forward, I hope to more regularly keep you in the loop with what goes on in our little village.
This year, due to the rather dramatically cold winter, we had a bumper cherry crop. We couldn't keep up with the harvesting. James, who is in Paris for the whole month of July, visited for a few days at the beginning of the month and took the lead in picking and processing.
He spent an afternoon making preserves and desserts. They were absolutely delicious, both as fruit and prepared delicacies.
Puttering in our garden, a five minute walk from the house, is a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. The patch is behind the castle walls, where few people walk past and there are no houses in the immediate proximity. The avian life is boisterous and butterflies of many sizes and colors are abundant, not to mention the bees, the lizards and a determined mole who share the space. We can't get up to the garden every day during our busy time of year, but we appreciate every opportunity.
Quinn and Zinnie spent some days with us while their parents were at work in Paris. We actually shut down the business while they were here so that we could enjoy our time together. James came along too. we went boating on the lake in La Ferté-Bernard, we went to nearby water slides, we played games, did art projects and read together. Quinn is eight this year. Zinnie is five.
One afternoon we took a ride through the forest of Bellême in an antique cart driven by two Percheron horses and guided by the mayor of a little town on the edge of the woods.
At home, we spend what extra time we have in the atelier. Rick has taken up a new hobby, dying with natural dyes. He's been able to create a rainbow of delicious tints.
I repainted the print room earlier this summer, making it fresh and cheerful. Rick helped me create a new copper wall, which you get a glimpse of in the photo. It's made from old copper etching plates that I've collected over the last many years. I had an idea they would make a very nice wall covering, and they do.
Since I haven't posted here since France elected a new young and dynamic president, I will close this week's communique with one of my favorite political photos, borrowed from the Guardian Newspaper. It was taken by the photographer Eric Feferberg and depicts Macron giving his State of the Union speech in front of the congress in Versailles. The French really do know how to do grand.
The weather has turned positively summery this week. The weeks before have been punctuated with a certain amount of rain, leaving the countryside now as green as green can be. When we visited the château earlier this week, I was struck by the incredible views from every window.
The renovation work is nearing completion, and it was very nice to see the rooms furnished. I took photos of only the dinning room, as that was were we were alone waiting for Dominique, our friend, and the general contractor, who gave us a tour. I felt shy about taking out the camera once we were with him.
We were free last weekend, probably due to the fact that most travelers stayed home to participate in their elections. We took the opportunity to visit Emily and the kids in Parsi. Jos is in Australia at the moment, shooting a movie.
Emily had given me a crafts class in Paris for my birthday at a very nice place in Oberkampf, named Seize. On Saturday we took a workshop together, making wall hangings.
Sunday was the election and Emily took us along to her friend's house in Belleville, where there was an election party.
On Monday we went into Paris to visit Monet's waterlilies at the Orangerie. Ever since finishing Ross King's book, Mad Enchantment, about the last years of Monet, I have been wanting to revisit these paintings. Our friend Nelly accompanied us.
Here are a few photos for your entertainment.
My friends from Santa Fe, the artists Gail and Zack Rieke, and Nelly, who lives in Paris, came to visit last week. Over the past six years Gail has offered several workshops at the Maison. This time she came just to visit and see the area, which she hasn't previously had time for. Every day was better than the last in terms of weather and spring springing. I took so many photos. I thought you might enjoy coming along with us on the adventures we took.
Rick has been working for the new proprietor at the château during the last month. The new owners liked the way the lime wash looks in our house and asked Rick if he could help them achieve the same thing in the guest rooms they are redecorating. He's gotten to know all the other contractors and has permission to bring friends and family for tours. He showed off the rooms he has finished. Out the window is a view of roofs, the valley and the back of our house.
Before leaving the castle grounds, Rick took us to the "glaciere" which is essentially a mammoth-sized hole in the ground where ice, layered with straw, was piled up in winter as refrigeration for the castle before electricity. The walls of the passage leading to the deep hole are covered with ancient graffiti and vendors' calculations.
Gail, Nelly and I did a collaborative collage project in the atelier one day. I always find that I get inspired and filled up when I work with Gail. She has a wonderful way of seeing possibilities and solving problems in ways that never fail to open my eyes. Nelly and I like to work together and when we're both free we often do.
In my last blog post, I put up some photos from our drive to Le Loir, the river valley north of La Loire. I have more to share.
On the way down the road we saw these stupa-like sculptures on the side of the road. Rick drove right past, not noticing them, but the rest of us simultaneous called out "wait, stop, turn around." We got out and spent quite awhile walking among the rows of this installation. Not what one expects to see in the deepest France profonde.
I told you last time about the shop we discovered in La Chartres-sur-le-Loir, which had only opened a few hours before we arrived. I didn't mention all the other coincidences we had with the owner, Grégoire. He had just seen a photo of Gail's famous suitcase wall the day before; he had gone to school just down the street from Nelly's house in Beaugency; and he knew the people who sold us Maison Conti. Suffice it to say we all made friends with him very fast, and couldn't help taking many photos of his gorgeous shop, which was like a nineteenth century cabinet of curiosities:
Our second adventure together was to La Loire, the more populated and well-known areas, which Gail and Zack had never actually visited.
First stop was Vendôme, an elegant city with lots to recommend it.
We lunched in Vendôme and then went a little further south to Blois, one of the biggest of the cities on La Loire
After coffee and a walkabout in Blois, we drove to Nelly's house in Beaugency for dinner. She has her apartment in Paris, where she mostly lives, but she also owns a very charming house on the river.
Happy spring and Easter to all.
Several people have told me that they have subscribed to my new blog, but are not receiving daily emails. The subscription feature is not working on the blog and I have not been able to trouble shoot it yet. If you return to the blog and enter your email in the field "follow by email," that should allow you to have an email in your box from me every week day. For this to work, you have to verify your email address after you enter it on the blog.
In the meantime, it is full-on spring in Montmirail, with glorious weather, enthusiastic birds, trees in bloom, safflower carpeting the hills and currently old friends visiting. Here are a few photos from a Saturday drive through the countryside to give you the flavor:
When we got back to the Maison after having been away for a couple of months, it was my atelier I was most anxious to see again. The first thing I did was an early spring cleaning which involved rearranging the furniture, scrubbing from top to bottom, and even rearranging my books. After all that I was happier than ever to wake up every morning and rush down to my work/fun space.
While I was out of town, I spent a certain amount of time reading art books and watching Youtube videos of artists at work. Stuart Shils makes monotype prints and even more than his actual images (which are very nice) I liked his studio space, especially his work table which is covered by a huge sheet of glass where he can freely mix his paints. Rick bought me the largest piece of thick glass he could fit into the car and helped me fix up a pleasant workstation in the press room. I got busy trying out the monontype technique that Shils talks about in his demo video, basically painting on an old etching plate and putting it through the press. The monotype technique I was more familiar with was using a piece of plexiglass to paint over drawings as a guide to work from (as in the photo below). These are ways of working which I don't use often. With my new work surface it is easy to experiment with the method.
I also read a book by Carol Marine, called Daily Painting, which very clearly discusses the popular artistic movement A Painting a Day, that has been around for about a decade. Several years ago Emily directed a clown show in Paris and introduced me to one of the musicians for the piece who is married to a daily painter, Julian Merrow-Smith. It was my introduction to the trend. The idea that Julian was supporting himself from a postcard size painting he undertook each day was certainly impressive, but the thing which struck me even more was that while following his blog, his artistic development was plain to see. The discipline was definitely improving his ability as a painter.
Laziness and a desire for self-command are frequently at odds within me, so while I have always thought that this was a wonderful idea, I have been rather nervous to undertake it myself. It requires the commitment of posting an image each day and having something new and relatively worthy to share at high frequency. It is an intimidating personal project. Besides which, I am really not a painter. However the book and new monotype painting station managed to coincide in my mind and excite the concept of a print a day challenge for myself.
Today, I am launching a new blog, on blogger.com where I will be posting montotypes, traditional etchings, collage, perhaps even cyanotypes on a more-or-less daily basis. I'm going to try to keep it going on Mondays - Fridays, as long as life gives me the time and space and ambition to pursue the project. You are certainly invited to subscribe to that blog. The blog you're reading now will remain more a slice-of-life occasional report, with far fewer posts now that our season is getting under way.
Today was our last day in Greece with the kids. Tomorrow we fly back to Paris and from there we head back home to turn our attention towards the next season at Maison Conti. We drove up through the Pelopennese, crossing the Corinth canal and stopped at a hotel on the mainland coast. The journey was about three hours.
I leave you with a few views of the Bay of Megara. I'm not sure when I'll be back to the blog, but I appreciate your company for the last weeks, and all your kind comments.
What an incredible part of the world this is! It certainly makes you dream of Odysseus. You can almost believe you see him sailing past...
We began the day by crossing the river Styx into the underworld, locally known as the Diros Caves. It is a huge series of grottos, navigated by boat.
We took a counter-clockwise tour of the Mani peninsula though hardscrabble villages carved into the steep mountains.
We visited the temple of Poseidon where we laid our offering next to all the others left by travelers before us.
It's hard to imagine the kind of rough existence which people have eked out here over thousands of years. Currently the population of the area is 5000 hardy souls, but 200 year ago, 60,000 lived here.
Around every bend in the road is another beautiful view. This is the southern most point of continental Europe.
Today we left our little place in Xiropigadou and head down to the southern tip of Peloponnese. The scenery on the way was spectacular.
We stopped in Mystras, the site of a Byzantine church and ruined castle which overlooks the plain of Sparta. We have taught Quinn and Zinnie to exclaim "ancient footprints are everywhere."
Our new location for a few nights overlooks the sea, but is a few kilometers up a rugged mountain.
We are staying in a self-catering stone house in a complex of similar ones, all run by the same family.
From one side of the house we see the high mountains,
And from the other the sea.
Today we drove to the east coast of the Pelopennese to see the ancient amphitheater at Epidavros. The site was a famous center for healing in the 6th century BC, and the theater, which seats 12,000, was built in the 4th century BC due to the popularity of the sanctuary there.
The theater is famed for its excellent acoustics. A person standing on the stone in the middle of the ground floor can be heard by all.
The site is rich in ancient statuary and artifacts.
A few miles away is the town that bears the same name. We found a restaurant for lunch overlooking the breathtaking vista.
After lunch we took a very rugged dirt path through a lonely forest towards another archeological site, but realized it was going to be too far and too arduous for the kids. We got a glimpse of it in the far distance.
Quinn pointed out three islands illuminated by the afternoon sun. He thought they made a worthy subject for a photo, and so did I.
We had a rather less adventurous day today. We try to vary the rhythm so as not to wear out the kids. We stayed fairly close to home, visiting the little harbor town of Astros, just south of where we're staying, and had a nice lunch. Afterwards we played around the marina, climbed to the lighthouse and horsed around in the local amphitheater.
We made the correct turn this morning and made our way up the coast to the strategically located town of Náfplio. There is a fortress at the mouth of the harbor as well as one upon the very top of the hill behind the town. It was the capitol of Greece from 1821-1834, when someone presumably pointed out that Athens was the more logical choice.
This time of year we don't have much competition. The town is lively during the warmer months, but mostly quiet for us. We enjoyed walking about town, which is pretty and full of shops and restaurants.
We had lunch at a restaurant on the main square where the waiters were jolly and the food fresh and tasty.
Yesterday was our dog day, as we met friendly dogs at almost every place we stopped. The kids began. giving them names. Today it was cats. They seemed to be everywhere.
We visited the archeological museum and saw Mycenaean artifacts from 1400-1500 BC.
The second fortress, also built by the Venetians (in the 1680s), is reached by walking the 999 steps to the top of the mountain, where you are rewarded with a stunning view over the town and Aegean Sea. Quinn was eager to go.
Zinnie, not so much.
So Rick and Quinn scaled the mountain while Zinnie and I did some drawing at the bottom.
At the Athen's airport where we rented our car, we were told that the one thing we should not miss in Náfplio was the gelato made fresh daily by an Italian guy. We were told to ask anyone where his shop was, since he's a local legend. We were not about to miss that!
After a rather long and eventful day we came back to our house and Quinn, despite it being nearly dusk and 50 degrees, took a swim. The rest of us just watched in wonder.
After a morning of romping around our own little beach, we decided to take the road to Náfplio. At some point we jogged left instead of right and soon realized we'd lost our way
Instead of retracing our steps we decided to follow another road that led towards a "Hellenic Pryamid."
We climbed a hill and found ourselves at this pile of rocks that were stacked there about 2500 years ago.
We have a project to sketch every day, each one of us, with the idea of putting together a travel journal when we get back home.
The pyramid and rugged countryside around made a nice subject for our first efforts.
Zinnie chose to imagine how the pyramid looked before it tumbled down.
Quinn was more interested in how the ruins fit into the landscape.
Even Rick is trying his hand.
Last night we arrived in Xiropigado where we've rented a little house right on the sea, just down the coast from Náfplio.
We have an idyllic spot from which to gaze out on the the famous wine dark sea. The house itself is charming.
It is our grandchildren's school holidays. Emily asked over a year ago if we could watch them during this time, as she and Jos are working on a show together. I began to hatch a plan to take them with us to Greece where presumably it would be a bit warmer and there would be more fun activites to keep us busy. Quinn is a history buff, and they both love the beach, so it seemed an excellent plan.
The house has its own private beach which you sramble down to via a rocky path.
Although the weather so far isn't glorious, when you're in Greece who cares?