Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Most Beautiful Villages in France: Alps

Tucked away from the hustle and bustle of city life and perched amid expansive landscapes in the heart of the mountain valley in the Alps are some of The Most Beautiful Villages of France.

These remote jewels are members of the Association "Les Plus Beaux Villages de France," each one dotted with wooden chalets, narrow cobblestone streets and century-old architecture, all symbolizing authentic charm and unspoilt beauty.

The five villages, which are mentioned below, are certainly worth a detour while visiting France.

The splendidly-preserved village of Bonneval sur Arc is synonymous with idyllic beauty. Positioned at an altitude of 1800m in Savoir, the medieval area is decorated with small houses made of stone with slate roofs, many having wooden balconies, and offers spectacular views of the alpine pastures. December through May brings thick sheets of snow, which is ideal for its small yet reputable ski resort. A visit to the Snow and Mountain Centre is a must, which showcases the beginnings of alpinism at Bonneval. Moreover, individuals can attend the Cross-Country Skiing Race in April or the Derby-Gliss, the French ski wall cup during April and May. In the summer, individuals can hike, take a bike ride, and enjoy a trekking climb through the mountains.

Dive into the medieval village of Yvoire, situated on the shores of Lake Geneva. Clutched just thirty minutes from Geneva, the village transports visitors back to the 14th century with its two fortified gateways, the lakeside castle locally known as Château d'Yvoire, and the House of History which displays the founding documents of the village. A stroll through its cobbled streets will allow visitors to discover the magnificent flower displays, artisanal workshops and restaurants nestled into stone buildings allowing picturesque views of the lake. Finally, nature lovers will enjoy a crisscross walk through the Le Jardin de Cinq Sens, or The Garden of the Five Senses: a labyrinth of plants where individuals are encouraged to use their “5 senses” – from smelling and touching its perfumed flowers to tasting its fruits and vegetables.

It’s stone galore in the village of La Grave in Haute-Romanche. Homes and traditional shops lining the old narrowed streets were built predominately by volcanic rock or shale with earth-based cement. Interestingly, the local houses face the stunning La Meije, the emblematic peak that upstages the entire surrounding landscape. Come winter, it’s time to strap on those skis because it’s a going to be one exhilarating ride at the famous ski resort during the annual Derby de La Meije; the 2,150 m vertical drop shall prove challenging even for them Black Diamonders. The 11th century church of Notre Dame deserves a stopover with its historic Romanesque art, known as the “Lombard style.”

Located in the heart of Haute Savoie, the gorgeous village of Sixt-Fer-a-Cheval is the place where nature speaks and outdoor enthusiasts rejoice. It provides spectacular views of mountains, waterfalls and forests, and hosts the largest Nature Reserve in all Haute Savoie. Guests will marvel at the impressive Cascade de Rouget, or “The Queen of the Alps,” the most impressive of the waterfalls. Furthermore, the 12th century Abbey also deserves a quick stop. The wintertime allows for alpine skiing, cross country skiing, snow trekking, and ice climbing. Summer also brings a myriad of opportunities: leisure hiking through classified sites, like Le Cirque du Fer a Cheval with its giant limestone cliffs up to 2300 ft, with friends or pack donkeys; water sporting including canyoning, swimming and white-water rafting; and of course, rock climbing.

Sitting high and proud at 2042 meters, Saint Véran is the highest inhabited village in Europe. The tiny village is devoted to preserving the old century life. Chalets here are made of stone and timber, and inhabitants continue to eat cereal-made bread directly from the fields. Highlights of the town include the 17th century church; La Vieille Maison Traditionnelle, an authentic traditional house; and the Soum Museum which recreates life in the olden days. Visitors can ski down the slopes during winter, or have pleasant walks and hikes with the family during the summer.

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Friday, December 9, 2011

Christmas in Provence: Traditions Live On


The Provencal culture comes alive on the 4th of December.

The day signifies the start of the Christmas season, called “La Calendale.”

It’s a vibrant period filled with festivities, customs and rites. Nativity displays, songs, and “Santons,” or little saints, are all part of the grand tradition.

If you’re currently visiting France, or planning to visit during the Yuletide season, an excursion to the renowned region of Provence is a must.
Christmas Markets
It’s a winter wonderland all over Provence. Throughout the region, streets are presently being adorned by wooden little chalets brimming with handcrafted gifts, seasonal goods and more mulled wine than you can knock back. The market in Avignon - featuring santons, street acts and artisan crafts - is one not to miss. Located in Place de l’Horloge, you’re guaranteed to have a taste of the Provencal life.

Pastorale in the Alpines
Every year, a Nativity ceremony, referred to as a “pastorale,” plays out on Christmas Eve in the hilltop medieval village of Baux de Provence. Residents of the rural town gather to watch the theatrical story of the nativity. The ceremony takes place at midnight in the Roman church of Saint-Vincent.
Les Treizes desserts de Noel: The 13 Desserts of Christmas
It isn’t Christmas in Provence without a heaping of tasty sweets. Before attending the midnight mass, families gather at the table to have the “Gros Souper” (big supper). The 7-course meal typically consists of meatless dishes, veggies and cheese. Afterwards, they head back to their homes to indulge in 13 sweets, the number representing Jesus and his 12 apostles at the Last Supper. Each one has symbolic meaning in local tradition. The table is set with 3 tablecloths and 3 candles symbolizing the Holy Trinity. Although each village has its own choice of desserts, some of the typical foods include:

Dried fruits and nuts -  The first 4 are known as the “Les quatre mendiants,” or the four beggars, which include figs (symbolizing the order of the Franciscans), hazelnuts/walnuts (for the Augustine order), almonds (for the Carmelites) and raisins (for the Dominicans)

Pompe à huile – sweetened yeast bread made with olive oil. Bread is broken apart, not cut, like Jesus did at the Last Supper.

Nougats – Two types: a black one containing honey and almonds, and a white one made with sugar, pistachio and hazelnuts. It is actually believed that each color represents good and evil.

Given that this has been going since the Middle Ages, it's quite clear that the century-old Provencial traditions are here to stay.
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