For some of us this summer, France is calling, and we may even experience the mysterious sense of a first encounter. Yet for many others, France remains a distant dream and desire, an aching absence after so many months.
So, allow me to share with you my ideal vacation, the sum of multiple experiences: cultural, artistic, gastronomic, and oenological in historical and natural places. Together these make France one of the most varied, envied, and marveled-at countries in the world. I dream above all of sharing those experiences with family, a family of chosen friends, day after day.
So, come along this epistolary journey: a night in Versailles at Alain Ducasse’s newest hotel, an invitation to deep thought and conversation at the Napoleons in Arles, the magic of music in La Roque d’Anthéron, entertainment at the Festival de Ramatuelle, a breath of oxygen (and greed) atop Chamonix, and a glass of champagne in Reims to toast an exhibition with the seductive title, “Blooming.”
A Night in the Most Majestic of all Castles
On July 4th, 2020, I decided to celebrate America’s Stars and Stripes with a friend, a soul-sister really, by dining on the newly opened terraces of Benoit, Alain Ducasse’s destination in New York City—in my opinion, the best French bistro in town. Benoit combines talent in the kitchen and generosity in the dining room, a gentle familiarity and creativity in the dishes, and above all, a rare fusion of the best French and American savors and traditions.
With a loving memory of that bygone evening, I have decided to begin my tour of France with a night in Versailles, in the Suite of Marquis de Fouquet’s, a hero of American Independence in 1776. The room is one of the 14 in Les Airelles Château de Versailles—Le Grand Contrôle, the hotel and restaurant Alain Ducasse recently opened with French entrepreneur Stéphane Courbit.
I know without a doubt the attention to detail and comfort in this ultra-luxurious hotel and magical restaurant. Alain Ducasse has for so long been habituating us to a gravity-defying and subtle universe. He once created an all-truffle-menu for Air France’s Concorde and recently prepared 92 dishes—including Burgundy-style beef cheeks, and a pistachio and morello cherry clafoutis—that French astronaut Thomas Pesquet rocketed to the International Space Station, to share them with his international colleagues 400 kilometers due north, among the stars.
Back on earth, the patron of French chefs—the heir of Vatel—returns us to the history of the old French kingdom’s gilded age, fabrics, and colors of the 18th century at the time of Louis XVI ; to the exuberant palette, the earthy flavors of vegetables and fruits from the garden of the Hameau de la Reine; and to the flamboyant recipes from the inventive court of the Sun King. Les Airelles Chåteau de Versailles is set within the gates of Versailles in Le Grand Contrôle built in 1681 by Louis XIV’s favorite architect to host Europe’s political and cultural elite. Entirely restored, Le Grand Contrôle is now a timeless hotel, offering an unparalleled chance to “vivre la vie de château”– live the life of the castle –in the most extravagant palace in the world.
Every guest here becomes a distinguished visitor. One of the 14 rooms was once the apartment of Madame de Staël; another housed the last Prime Minister of Louis XVI, Jacques Necker. When the gates of the castle close on the last tourists at the end of the day, the doors of the Queen’s and King’s apartments and the Hall of Mirrors open to the one-time châtelain. Another rare pleasure is a morning jog in gardens designed by Le Nôtre before the tourist life resumes, unless guests would rather take advantage of a private tour of the Trianon Castle, the Queen’s Hamlet, and the English gardens where Marie-Antoinette loved to lounge. And if not, there is always the possibility of indulging at the Valmont Spa.
Back in the capital and before heading south, I will stop at Alain Ducasse ice cream parlor, “La Manufacture de Glaces,” his new Parisian pleasure. I most likely will try a Peruvian chocolate ice cream and a fine-herb sorbet. Now you know.
“Le Plaisir” with Les Napoleons in Arles (July 21-24)
Destination Arles. To be honest, this will be my first stay in the two-and-a-half thousand-year-old-city located on the edge of the Alpilles and the Camargue, an opportunity to admire (or not) Frank Gehry‘s (controversial) Tower at the Luma foundation. Arles is resolutely modern. While I’m looking forward to wandering around its winding streets, I am impatient to discover this city fully committed to photographers and artists, and thanks to Les Napoleons, a city of ideas. It will soon launch a “Villa Medicis” for innovators.
Les Napoleons, a forward-thinking conference in the vein of the Aspen Ideas Festival, bring together leaders, entrepreneurs, financiers, sportsmen, thinkers, artists, politicians, scientists, and communicators, searching for a society of dialogue, questioning, and solutions. This community of leaders is on a quest for a peaceful world, rather listening to others’ ideas than imposing their owns. They meet twice a year, in the winter in Val d’Isère, in the summer in Arles, the starting point for new explorations, for trails to be discovered and unknown summits to be conquered. It is at Les Napoleons that former President of the United States Barack Obama decided to give in 2017 his first—and to date only-post White-House-conference in France.
Last May, the two founders of Les Napoleons, Mondher Abdennadher and Olivier Moulierac, organized a conference on “Emancipation” in Marseilles as soon as the French confinement restrictions started to be lifted. On the ramparts of Fort Nicolas overlooking the Palais du Pharo and the old port, sessions were held “Libérée, Délivrée” (‘Freed; Liberated’, the slogan of this meeting). On stage discussions intertwined with group experiences, a spirit of celebration, of dance, almost a rebirth for the participants. We were emancipating ourselves not only from the violence of the pandemic but also from our preconceived notions such as minorities in the French society, trust in the digital world, the power of writing, religion, and even death. I was lucky enough to participate in these essential exchanges where, we could breathe again together, and not alone from our homes behind a computer screen.
I had the unique opportunity to discuss with essayist Anne Soupa who reacted to the Catholic church’s male-only spiritual leadership by running for the Archbishopric of Lyon in 2020. Two heresies, she confided to me: being a candidate for Archbishop and being a woman. When Alexandre Kouchner invited her on stage along with the secular Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur and the first woman Imam in France Kahina Bahloul, the journalist and professor at Sciences Po introduced them as the “three punks,” whose dialogue demonstrates that there is a way to move beyond the the tired dogmas of religions. That’s what The Napoleons are all about.
Enough for Marseille. Here is Arles. At the Gare de Lyon in Paris, a privatized TGV that “Les Napoleons,” nicely nicknamed ‘The Ice-Breaker’ (where lunch and Veuve Clicquot are served at the end of the morning, and friends—new and old—meet again), will carry on July 21 this joyful band for three days of talks and conversation on the theme of “Pleasure.” Alluring!
A former Prime minister of France, a first dancer of the Paris Opera, a director of a podcast and “sexually explicit” films, a Buddhist monk, an acrobat, a professor of addictology, a creator of perfumes, leaders of advertising agencies, and even a mountaineer are already scheduled to speak.
I think I already know however the answer to one of the questions posed by this conference. “Can we live without pleasure?” No.
The Tenderness of a Piano at La Roque d’Anthéron (July 23 to August 18)
After three days of listening, thinking, and discussing pleasure, why not let the pleasure of music do its part and attend the duet of Renaud Capuçon’s violin and Béatrice Rana’s piano in the warm Luberon night the at the festival of La Roque d’Anthéron?
This detour to La Roque d’Anthéron was the idea of Rachel Brunet, the editor of Le Petit Journal New York. “It’s my city,” she told me, suggesting I add it to my midsummer dream tour of France (already hundreds of words too long!). Rachel is an entrepreneur and a friend. I take her counsel.
At the mention of this festival, I immediately thought of my music-loving parents. They have so often told me about their evenings at La Roque d’Anthéron, punctuated by the wild playing of pianist Shura Cherkassky, a friend of theirs, a.k.a. “The Last of the Romantics” after Vladimir Horowitz passed away. Cherkassky would arrive on the stage of La Roque d’Anthéron in black pants and a white tuxedo jacket, grinning his famous smile, somewhat shy, still surprised, and grateful at 80 years old for the immense welcome with which the public rewarded him. This former student of Josef Hofmann in Philadelphia—and whom Rachmaninov wanted to train—worked his piano rigorously, note by note, as a child learns a lesson at school. But when he sat on stage at his piano, nothing could stop him; he dressed his music with passion and feelings, with a surprising strength.
I had the chance to follow Cherkassky in 1995, to film him and produce a documentary with my friend Véronique Barbey during his last trip to his birthplace of Odessa in Ukraine, only a few months before his death. We accompanied him on the path of his childhood home and the melodies of the past. Cherkassky wanted to visit a last time the hall of his first recital. He was only 10 or 11 years old then in the late 1910s, early 1920s. Shortly afterwards, his parents left the Black Sea resort with him in a hurry for the United States. The Russian Revolution was beating down the door.
When we finally arrived at the Odessa concert hall, we were greeted by scaffolding. Workers were breaking down walls and redoing the floor. Amid this deafening metallic noise, a hall guard led Cherkassky upstairs. The old maestro was happy as only a child can be. In the darkness and dust of a room, he liberated a piano from its purplish cover. And Cherkassky was having fun, standing in his frock coat, playing a few notes of Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu. Suddenly, he turned to the guard and asked him in Russian:
“Is there a piece you would like to hear?”
“Bach’s Toccata,” the guardian responds without hesitating.
Cherkassky immediately performed the first dramatic notes of the Toccata until the guardian, incredulous and laughing, interrupts him and asks him to move directly to the Fugue in D minor. Wiping away a tear, he says to the pianist:
“You are no longer afraid as when you played here as a child!” the guardian told the maestro.
Cherkassky then recalled the compositions of his first recital, and strung together a few notes of a Scriabin etude, laughing at the incessant sound of the hammers.
These memories have resurfaced, and I now dream of an evening at La Roque d’Anthéron with Cherkassky on stage, his black pants, his white tuxedo jacket, and his shy grin, amazed by the magic of music, wherever it leads.
Ramatuelle and its Festival Under the Stars (July 31 to August 11)
It’s a mandatory dream, already lived several times over. An evening among the olive trees at the Festival de Ramatuelle, created 36 years ago by actor Jean-Claude Brialy and entrepreneur Jacqueline Franjou, who has done everything in life that one can think of: small businesses and corporate leader, board director, advisor to Cabinet members, activist, and Festival President. Like so many others mentioned here, Jacqueline Franjou is part of the family I have built over the years. Together, we launched the Women’s Forum for the Economy & Society in Brazil and Mexico; I also worked with her on the realization of this exceptional event in Myanmar, unbeknownst that the country would quickly and violently face off again with its military and authoritarian demons.
Her decision to maintain the festival de Ramatuelle last year when most festivals had given up, was in itself an act of cultural resistance.
Even more reasons to go back and applaud either a prestidigitator of words and rhyme juggler whom only Fabrice Lucchini can perfectly imitate—himself—or the singer of “J’ai dix ans,” Alain Souchon, and celebrate with him those who, like me, cannot bring themselves to grow up.
For two weeks, Ramatuelle will slow the effervescence of Tropezian nights. This immense open-air theater “hanging on the hills” attracts every summer fans of actors, actresses, singers, and stand-up comedians. Humorists Gad Elmaleh and Philippe Katerine will perform in the first two evenings of the festival.
Ramatuelle, the village of Gérard Philipe, the immortal Cid Campeador of Jean Vilar‘s Théâtre National Populaire, does not only shine at night. Perched on the heights of the azure Mediterranean, Ramatuelle offers sculpture exhibitions all summer long, a market twice a week in the central square under the shade of a majestic elm tree, and a permanent invitation to lose oneself in its narrow and circling streets. An unmissable charm if you ask me. And there is Pampelonne’s beach—a heroine in Vadim‘s 1955 film, And God Created Women—which like a solitary spike stretches from the wild Cap Taillat almost to the limits of Saint Tropez.
On the Trail to the Montenvers in the Alps
After the festivals and conferences in the South of France, a detour to the neighboring Alps offers a much-needed sight of greenery and eternal snow, on the peaks of the Chamonix Valley.
I feel a strong desire to return to the hiking trails of my childhood, to wake up at dawn and set off into the mountains through to the cool mist of a late night. Here I am, alone on the street that leads to Les Planards in Chamonix, at the start of the Montenvers path. The semi-darkness allows the day a chance to weave in its colors. It is at this moment that they are the softest. One must bend to get a glimpse of the Mont-Blanc summit, already touched by the sun. Up there, a line of climbers, who left the refuge of the Dôme du Goûter in the middle of the night, follow each other towards the roof of Europe. This is when I enter the forest of fir trees, spruces, and larches, marching rapidly. I cross the cogwheel tracks of the red train. In an hour or more, it will transport Alpinists ready to win over the stony walls of the Vallée Blanche’s summits and tourists impatient to observe as closely as possible the largest glacier in Europe, or what is left of it. Since 1983, the Mer de Glace has lost a hundred meters in thickness under the Montenvers.
Over the years, global warming has accelerated the melting of the seracs. Since 2003, the glacier has been receding by an average of 30 meters per year. Near the village of Les Bois in the valley, the glacier has given way to a gaping hole with vertical walls and earthy colors, waiting for the grasses and trees to take ownership of the land.
The spectacle remains magnificent. But it is a race against time. I activate my step on the hillside trails. I have this urgency to embrace this aging landscape, to prove that it still has some appetite, some emotions to share when the sunrays pierce the summits of the Drus and the Aiguille Verte. The mountain breathes, adapts to its inevitable chronicle of breakdown, and its shape changes appearance.
I will walk on the same path at the end of the afternoon, but this time I will stop halfway up the trail, where the Chamonix itinerary joins the last of the three laces? that go up from the village of Les Praz. I will meet my friends Solène and David. This young couple has been running the Chalet du Caillet for several years, with its edelweiss flowers and its view over the valley, the Aiguilles Rouges opposite, and the Swiss summits to the north.
The cuisine is meticulous, natural, and ethical, by far the best in the area. The pies are baked in a wood-fired oven. We drink Alpine wines, and I can stay there for a long time hanging weightless and far from urban civilization. Since last summer, people can even sleep in a geo-dome and stare at the stars all night long. Unless they prefer to walk back down, a lamp on the forehead or a smart phone in hand, each step groping forward on a nocturnal and perfumed path, until they reach the valley.
Fill Up on Art-and-Bubbles at the ‘Vranken’ in Reims
I have one more day left before flying back to New York. I’ve never been to Reims, in the Champagne region of France, even though it’s only a 46-minute ride from Paris by TGV. As royal a city as Versailles, Reims crowned its first King, Clovis, in 496 AD, or more than 1500 years ago.
It is not for a history lesson that I dream of a day in Reims, but to recharge my batteries with energy, enthusiasm, and a much-needed inner “blossoming” in these uncertain times. “Blooming” is the perfect theme exhibition proposed by a discreet but daring couple in Champagne, Nathalie and Paul-François Vranken, the owners of Villa Demoiselle and the Pommery estate. Authentic art patrons—as was Louise Pommery, the inventor of Brut Champagne—the Vranken open every year the 18 kilometers of cellars dug in the world-renowned Reims Crayères (chalk pits) 30 meters below their estate to contemporary artists for “Experiences Pommery #,” a series of annual extravagant exhibitions amid the working bottles of champagne.
The most recent—and now closed—Experience # 15, “Introspection,” offered a sum of memories of the first 14 exhibitions, a look in the mirror not in search of lost but of lived time.
Maintaining this exhibition and welcoming visitors in between two confinements last fall to venture down the 116 steps that lead into this maze of cellars and impatient bottles must have required a nice dose of optimism. Not enough to dry up the Vranken’s sadness to see the great banquet rooms of Domaine Pommery, those of the Cellier Pompadour—a tribute to the eponymous Marquise and the name of an exceptional champagne bottle, the only one made on a plot of vines in the city of Reims, the Clos Pompadour, plunged into a forced silence.
Along with the editorial director of Beaux-Arts Magazine Fabrice Bousteau and the curator of the Museum of Fine Arts of Reims Catherine Delot, Nathalie Vranken, a passionate expert of contemporary art, then imagined “Blooming,” a face-to-face encounter across ages among artists of yesterday and today to create a garden of flowers in full bloom, a French garden, Cartesian.
“When the idea was born to transform (the Cellier Pompadour) into a garden of works of art for unique confrontations between the artists of the Museum of Fine Arts of Reims and those of Experiences Pommery#,” writes Paul-Francois Vranken, “we have been full of joy.”
The landscapes of Camille Corot thus reflect in those of Olivier Kosta-Thefaine. Gauguin’s roses are carried by statuettes; Keith Tyson’s are transformed into a firework display in a lively vase composed by Dionysus, of course, the God of the Winemakers, and other heroes of Greek mythology—always drink in good company! A Branch of Lilac, a ceramic by Virginie Boudsocq, would no doubt have pleased Mademoiselle Duthé, a courtesan and dancer at the Paris Opera who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries and a popular model (here painted by the Reims portraitist Lie-Louis Perrin Salbreux).
We can easily imagine characters such as Mademoiselle Duthé–or even ourselves–jumping into a painted landscape. The dream of becoming a visitor inside the artwork itself. I would choose either the “Framed and Green Landscape” of painters Tursic & Mille or Jean-Pierre Formica’s tryptic “Without Title.” While Tursic & Mille‘s interpretation of nature results from reviving life-less images from magazines or even the internet to bring them together into a new and endless dimension, Formica‘s green shapes and forms, made of the paper itself, colors, and charcoal, open to an imaginary nature. Isn’t imagination and dreams the equation of coincidences and sheer luck, of characters and audacity? Formica lives and creates in Arles. He will actually attend and speak at Les Napoleons. What are the odds of appearing in two chapters of a midsummer dream?
Also, in “Blooming” is a work by BarthélémyToguo, “Vaincre le Virus!” (Defeat the Virus), four monumental vases created for the Centre Pompidou in 2016, an artistic representation of infected strains of the AIDS and Ebola viruses. The Covid-19 virus had been also musically interpreted at M.I.T. Science and art often intertwine. In response to Toguo’s masterful work, stands the flower ceramics of the Bachelot-Caron tandem, again and again flowers, happy and smiling, the fragrant heart of the life of a garden, the symbol of continuity and rebirth, which Jean-François Fourtou’s Bee symbolizes so well.
As Paul-François Vranken writes, “There is something sensitive and poetic about our gardens. Less fanciful than the English-style gardens, they have crossed the centuries and never stopped reminding us of the purpose for which they were designed. The joy of strolling in beauty, light and happy times where only beauty counts.”
And sheer gluttony too. Before leaving for New York, I stop for a moment at the brand-new restaurant Le Réfectoire, located in the heart of the Pommery estate, right next to the Cellier Pompadour. You already know what I will order to celebrate the end of this summer dream.
But before there are two questions left to answer:
What if I make part of this dream a reality?
Would you tag along?
WEBSITES AND DATES
Blooming (until November 15th) and oenological tours:
To book a visit to Domaine Pommery and Château Demoiselle: https://www.vrankenpommery.com/visites/
To book a table at Le Refectoire: https://www.thefork.fr/restaurant/le-refectoire-r689827
The Chalet du Caillet at Solène and David: https://www.chamonix.com/infos-et-services/restauration/chalets-buvettes/chalet-de-caillet
Extension of the morning walk to the Montenvers: continue to Signal Forbes (2198 meters) and walk across the balcony to the Plan de l’Aiguille, at the foot of the Aiguille du Midi (2317 meters).
Festival des Nuits Classiques (July 27–29) and Festival de Ramatuelle (July 31-August 11): https://www.festivalderamatuelle.com/programme
Festival de piano de la Roque d’Anthéron (July 23–August 18): http://www.festival-piano.com/fr/accueil/bienvenue.html
Les Napoléons (July 21-24): https://lesnapoleons.com/
Les Airelles de Versailles, Le Grand Contrôle: https://airelles.com/en/destination/chateau-de-versailles-hotel
La glace Alain Ducasse: https://www.lechocolat-alainducasse.com/fr/glaces