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Matisse, France, Travel, Creativity, Adventure, Expatriates, Dreams, Reinvention

Our Travel Notes and Recommendations are not meant to be a complete tourist guide of Matisse's France and his Moroccan sojourns. This is our handbook of the hotels that became our homes, restaurants we enjoyed, cafés that called us, and stores that caught our eye. One of the great pleasures of France is its markets, and on some lucky days, we wandered among the stalls of ripe and artfully displayed vegetables and fruits, sausages and cheese, olives, jams, tarts, and breads. The local residents carefully choose fresh ingredients for their entrées and plats while visiting with their neighbors, and the aroma of roasting chickens made us lick our lips. We've included some of these marchés. There is more, not the least of which is practical information we wish someone would've told us.

I like to know the "picture" of my destinations before I arrive. The history, customs, sights to see, food specialties, and classic and happening hotels and cafés (if there are any) give me a sense of a region or town, help me feel its beat faster, appreciate the past and present. This helps me understand more about why this speck on the map is the way it is at this moment in time. That said, there are always surprises in store. My senses go wild. There's nothing like experiencing it myself to make a place become clear and alive. I like to get the broad view first before I go into the delightful detail.

I do extensive research, and my standard is authenticity. Sure, we take in most of the major sights-at least the ones that interest us. We check out some famous restaurants, but we like a range from elegant to a good dive. We definitely want to be comfortable wherever we spend the night. While we were nomads on the trail of Matisse, our schedule was full and tight, and good hotel services gave us the comforts of a home we no longer had. I also had to be sure I could plug into the Internet.

Staying at a plush hotel is divine. I admit it. It's true luxury to be showered with nice amenities and to be taken care of by a knowledgeable and excellent staff. Traveling usually wears you out. But these temples of deluxe aren't always in a budget, and besides, they may give you no sense of where you are at all. That to me misses the point. We want to hear more of a native language being spoken than our own. We want to go to the places the locals like. We tend to gravitate toward lovely boutique hotels, and I ask around for good restaurants. The well-known ones may have lost their spark.

I also factor in quality and price. Especially for our hotels, location was important. Staying in the centre ville (the center of the city which translates to the old, charming part) allowed us to park our car and walk which meant less wear and tear. Plus, walking a city's streets and neighborhoods, and sitting and watching its people, is the best way to see what's there and to feel a city's spirit and life. With a bit of good fortune, a serendipitous moment will land in your lap, and we had many of them. Taking a stroll at night, which we almost always did, was just as enchanting with monuments splendidly lit and less hubbub around. These night ambles gave us a different perspective.

Much of our trip was made during the off-season. We had no reservations and didn't need them. We often drove into a village or town with an idea of the hotels where we wanted to stay, but we had the fluidity of making our decision after seeing them-even the rooms. It's matter-of-course for travelers to ask in France . But it's an empowering and delicious moment to find a charming inn on your own. You can be driving through a small village or on the little roads of France and come upon a jewel, if you're willing to take a chance. The main point is to do this when there is still light to see and someone at the desk.

It is important to know that in major tourist areas many hotels and restaurants are closed for the off-season. After the busy Spring, Summer, and Fall, they don't have the traffic to make staying open worthwhile. The proprietors use the time for vacation and to freshen up and repaint. Museums may also be closed or keep fewer hours. The villages may not be quite as beautiful shut up for winter, a little empty and lonely, but we quite like them that way.

As we started around the coast in Western and Southern France , the season was beginning, which meant reservations were necessary. The lovely hotels fill up fast, and we stayed in some stunning ones. It's important to plan ahead.

If we're going to be somewhere for a more extended time, we love to rent houses, apartments, or villas. It's a fantastic way to pretend we live wherever we're going, a virtual fantasy for us. We find it more comfortable, and the privacy and convenience can't be beat for a holiday with family or friends. There are no maids interrupting or other guests to hear. I shop at the outdoor markets and come home loaded with bags of artisinal products, good cheap bottles of wine, and gorgeous bouquets. It's a sensual treat and cultural blast, and the end result is a feast. France is full of exquisite properties to rent.

Many of these notes were originally written on the fly. But with all the jobs I had-muse, travel agent, diary writer, photographer, researcher, manager, scout, marketing and P.R. agent, assistant, web master, and more-I literally couldn't keep up. The death of my mother, Bobbye Arnold, could never have been foreseen and stopped me cold for a time. Computer problems caused other months of delays. I was a one-person staff. There could be more, but.

After having a solid sense of home for my entire life, I was amazed at how I adored the nomad life. I felt free and happy not to be taking care of the house I loved, the house where my children grew up and we became a family. I didn't care a whit that all of my beautiful things were stored away. I didn't want them with me. At the time we left, my mother was well, I thought, and though I never intended to live there, my childhood home was intact and a refuge for my children.

In the course of one year, I gave up my adult home-my children's home-and then surrendered my childhood home after Mother died. It was the home my parents built, and where my mother lived, for more than 40 years. She was the keeper of our family stuff, and I read every tattered letter and dug through every drawer and box. I reviewed each tangible remnant of my mother, father, brother, and both sets of grandparents, and found a place for them, dispensed them somehow. My family slipped from my grasp. In the course of one year, I closed down my two safety nets. My children felt this as well.

I don't want my house back, and I can't bring the dead back to life. We've had a grand adventure, and so far it hasn't stopped. We chased Matisse. We chased ourselves and traveled over a huge chunk of France. We learned how to see the world in a different light, because we wanted to. Other times we had no choice.

There could be much more, but the following notes are part of it. Get some good tips, and enjoy.

Beth Arnold
January, 2005

Copyright © 2005 James Morgan & Beth Arnold. All rights reserved

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