October has seen us being very busy tourists, enjoying the last rays of autumn sun.
We spent 4 days in Aix-en–Provence, longer than we had anticipated. Michael was being treated for an infection from a knife cut – caught while doing the dishes, do you mind! Obviously the kitchen is a very dangerous place for Michael, because you will remember that he ended up having a shoulder reconstruction after a cooking class in Thailand. Anyway, he recovered and is now claiming amnesty from doing any more dishes!
Aix-en-Provence was an interesting and very varied city. We were staying out in a commuter suburb that looked tired and boring, but when we caught the bus into the city we found a very large and delightful old quarter full of fantastic museums and art galleries. They are very proud of being the place of Cezanne and many of the tours focus on his work. The city is also full of fountains, there seems to be one in every little square! It’s quite an expensive place considering the number of young people studying in their famous University. There are lots of high-end shops and gorgeous wide boulevards lined with plane trees and banking institutions.
Sue went to a fascinating art gallery that showcased the collection of a working class man with a great eye for art, who got a job as a curator of a private art gallery. Through careful buying and the relationships he developed with up-and-coming artists, he built up an astonishing personal collection that he later donated to the French people. As well as all the paintings and sculptures there were photos of his home: a humble bedroom and living room whose walls were covered with paintings by Modigliani, Picasso, Dufy, etc. How did he ever go to sleep with all of that to look at?!
From Aix-en-Provence we made our way to Cassis, not far from Marseille. This was a tip-off from some young German people we met. What an absolutely beautiful town! The day we arrived was very blustery, with wind gust of up to 80kph all day and gave us our first experience of ‘le mistral’. No wonder people go crazy after a week of it! Apparently it can blow for up to 100 days a year in this part of Provence and at speeds of up to 125kph.
We caught the bus to town and meandered around the gorgeous port and checked out the activities, deciding to stay a little longer than planned.
The town is in the Parc National des Calanques and is renowned for the calanques – narrow, steep-walled inlets that are a little like short fjords. The massif (plain above) is the source of great submarine streams of freshwater. Whatever, the rock formations and clear aquamarine waters are stunning!
We took a boat trip to experience the calanques. You can’t get there by land unless you are a climber or serious hiker. But we were still surprised by the number of climbers scaling vertical cliffs up to 400M above the water. It made Michael feel quite sick just watching them.
The town of Cassis is unbelievably pretty. A lovely harbor filled with fishing and pleasure craft and surrounded by restaurants; back streets with lovely homes and then suburbs marching up the hill.
Sue had her first try of Boullibaise. It was huge! A soup plus prawns, 3 fish and a wonderful sauce made from the mustard of crabs and lobsters. Just as well she had Grubie to help, or she would never get close to finishing it! Michael stuck with his favourite grilled sardines and no dinner was consumed that night. We were just too full!
Cassis is a short trip (40 minutes by bus, through hair-raising winding roads) to get to Marseille. We went on a Sunday, so probably not the best time to see the city because many of the shops were closed but we figured that didn’t matter as we were concentrating on the old port area. Still, we were very disappointed. It was incredibly dirty, covered in graffiti and for the first time we felt unsafe. There were soldiers everywhere and we were turned back at one point because of a bomb scare. But the trip to the church of Notre Dame de la Garde made the visit worthwhile. Perched on a hilltop high above the town, the views were amazing! It was an unusual church. Lots of paintings of marine themes covered the walls and there were mobiles of boats hanging throughout the nave. Every square inch was decorated in some way.
Our next stop was Avignon, a city described as “the jewel in the crown of Provence”. We were camped directly across the Rhone River from the Palace of the Popes and had a fabulous view from our ‘front yard’ of the palace and the church of Notre Dame, with its golden statue of the virgin on top, weighing 4.5 tons. It was just a short bike ride on a bike path across the bridge into the town. Avignon was a centre of art, culture and religion in the 14th century when the Popes fled political turmoil in Rome and moved the seat of power to Avignon. Nine Popes ruled here before they moved back to Rome (hence the naming of the Chateauneuf du Pape wine we are all so fond of). While they were in Avignon the popes built wonderful palaces and churches and collected great art.
We spent a week slowly exploring the palace, churches, art galleries and forts of the town – and the wonderful restaurants hidden away in little squares and laneways. We became adept at avoiding the tourist spots and finding the good value local hangouts.
Micahel found and enjoyed some great value wines from the local area that were pretty spectacular.
Sue went to a few Art Museums, notably the Calvert Museum. In a beautiful private villa, it showcased a range of works from ancient Egyptian sarcophagus and mummies to wonderful paintings by 15th to 19th century artists.
Avignon has lots of great shops – we have never seen so many for a town this size! There was one whole shop just for stockings! Many of the shops had brands not the same as those everywhere else, so it was much more interesting to browse. Sue bought a pair of shoes (rose gold sneakers!) and Michael a new ‘gillet’. Grubie got a new shorter lead, for wearing in traffic.
One unexpected highlight was the ringing of the bells on Sunday morning. There are so very many churches in the town and the bells pealed from 9:30 to noon. It sounded beautiful.
In the late afternoons we returned home to soak up the late autumn sun and relax from all the stress of being tourists!
We met some lovely people during our week in Avignon, especially a Dutch couple Marjolein and Maarten with whom we shared aperitifs and boules tournaments and a memorable ‘last supper’. They had retired early and spent three years sailing the Med before buying a camping car and travelling for 6 months of each year. They were interesting and fun and added to our enjoyment of Avignon. We also talked to several couples from England who were heading to their winter homes in the south of France/Spain etc. They were great about sharing information to help us cope once the majority of the campgrounds shut down at the end of this month.
From Avignon we travelled the small, narrow back-roads through L’Isle sur le Sorgue and Fontaine de Vaucluse. Gorgeous villages! L’Isle sur le Sorgue had lots of restaurants and quirky art/antique shops and the river of Fontaine de Vaucluse had the clearest water you would ever see. Both villages had dreadful parking, all limited to 2m high so we could never find a park. They obviously don’t like motorhomes!
We kept going to Orange to look at the Roman ruins and magnificent amphitheater. Orange is a very quiet place at this time of year, but with nice wide boulevards as well as quaint little laneways. Orange was a Roman colony in the 1st century AD and had a forum, temple, Arch de Triumph depicting the Roman defeat of Gaul and the theatre. It’s a very important archeological site and the theatre is one of only three in the world with a stage wall still standing. The theatre is still used in summer for opera, theatre and rock concerts and we would love to attend, but would have to be sure of seats in the first two rows. It’s so high! The slaves and prostitutes were in the top rows and walls separated the various classes of people. With no handrails and worn marble steps, we were all very careful tourists. Grubie had her first experience of going to the cinema, as two parts of the audio tour were films.
Having had enough of art and old rocks, we headed to the famous Chateauneuf du Pape for a spot of wine tasting. Mrichael had warmed up his palate with a glass of the Genache while in Orange and was rearing to go! We parked in the carpark of the ruined Chateau. This was on a rise above the town and had the most amazing views across the Rhone valley on one side and to the Alps on the other. It was originally built as a summer residence for the Popes during their reign in Avignon but because of its location also had strategic defense importance. We couldn’t stop looking and exclaiming on the beauty of the views. When we could drag ourselves away, we walked down to the town, through gorgeous old streets and staircases and with a quick detour to visit to the Romanesque church.
Chateauneuf du Pape is a wine appellation (with very strict rules) that covers only 3,200 hectares. The area is similar to St Emillon in that they don’t do tours or paid tastings. All tastings are free and they hope you will buy, but at a bottle price between 50-300EU it’s a very expensive wine tasting! We did two tastings and then went to lunch in the town square – osso bucco accompanied by a marvelous red, a 2014 grenache. Then up to the van for a nap before heading back into town for two more tastings and an aperitif. That was more than enough for our palettes for one day!
The region is famous for its Grenache-based red wines. We tasted 100% Grenache and a very interesting wine that was aged in terracotta vats rather than oak barrels. The wines we tried were incredibly well-balanced and had a subtle nose. They were between 14-15% alcohol, quite high for wines in France.
There is no camping ground in the vicinity of Chateauneuf du Pape at this time of year, so we free-camped in the chateau car park. The views from our ‘front yard’ were spectacular!
Our next stop was to be Les Baux de Provence. Many people had recommended this town to us, saying how beautiful it was. Unfortunately they didn’t tell us to approach it from Arles rather than Avignon. OMG! The road! The last 8k was incredibly narrow and winding with drop-offs only protected by strategically placed rocks. Thank goodness we only met bicyclists coming the other way or we would have been really stuck! Obviously other motorists knew something we didn’t. However, the views and the limestone outcrops that popped up everywhere were incredible. Unfortunately we don’t have any photos of this area as we were both too traumatised to think of it!
We ended the month and celebrated Michael’s birthday in Stes-Maries de la Mer in the Camargue region, south of Arles. What an interesting place! Catholicism first reached France at this spot when the Saints Marie-Salome and Marie-Jacob landed here from the Holy Land. Locals believe the boat also included Mary Magdalene. Prior to that there were Roma people (gitano) living here herding bulls, raising horses and fishing. They were swiftly converted to Catholicism. We were lucky enough to be here during the October Pilgrimage of the Gitans, where the people celebrate their culture and honor the Saints Marie.
On Saturday night we cycled into town to attend the ‘evocation vivante de la legend des saintes’ that was held on the beach. It was stunning and very moving. It was a passionately narrated story with very evocative choral and orchestral music. The story was acted out to the narration and players included a huge bull effigy, real horses and carts, cowboys and herds of the camargue small white horses as well as people dressed in period costume. There were bonfires, fireworks and flamethrowers worked into the story and across the backdrop an artist painted the story as it was told. We were so lucky to be there to experience it.
On Sunday there was a procession from the church to the sea to bless the boats and honor the saints, that Michael went in to watch. Lots of villagers dressed in local costume.
On Wednesday the celebrations were more secular and more about the culture of the Camargue. This area is quite flat, has lots of waterways and marsh as well as grasslands. It’s famous for its pink flamingos, herds of small white horses and for the bulls, as well as for its rice production. It seems more Spanish than French, with its terracotta roofed houses, paella and ‘cowboy’ culture, except here they’re called gardians and they wear colourful patterned shirts under black velvet jackets and with flat black hats. Wednesday’s celebrations included a bull running. The streets weren’t specially barricaded, there was no one in his-vis jackets and the people were lined up on the side of the road. Suddenly horses with riders came galloping down the street, surrounding three or four bulls in the middle, packing them in tight and keeping them on the move. The bravery of the horses and skill of the riders was remarkable.
In the afternoon we went to the ‘Courses de Camargues’ or the local version of a bullfight. Sitting on stone steps in the arena next to the beach, we were entertained by pre-game music (very Spanish in style) along with local dances by people in traditional costume. The bullfight here is quite different, no weapons or killing and the object is to run in front of the bull and steal the rings from around his horns. Ten or so ‘matadors’ dressed in all white and sneakers try to time their runs so they can attract the attention of the bull, make a grab at his horns before leaping to safety over the barrier and up onto a narrow ledge surrounding the stadium. Unfortunately the bulls are good at leaping the barriers too and run around the outer ring. Sometimes you only know where the bull is by the men leaping the other way! The bulls are young and feisty, with all the stereotyped ground-pawing and snorting. They are very impressive animals. The matadors are also young and must be very fit to run and jump like that for several hours.
The bull fight was an incredible experience, and not what we thought we’d be doing in France.
To get ‘up close and personal’ to the wildlife and see the countryside we rode to the lighthouse one day and Michael also cycled out of town to the ornithological park –there are 500 species of birds in this area.
We finished our experience in the Camargue with a celebration for Michael’s birthday. A seafood lunch including oysters, a delicate little pipi type of shellfish, wonderful chargrilled prawns (think Bali without the over-cooking) and lobster. Delicious!
The Camargue is a surprising place, more Spanish than French in lots of ways. We always said that one day we’d find a festival in a village and stay to enjoy it, rather than those in the bigger cities where you worry about terrorism and have to keep going through security checks. Our ‘one day’ happened in the Camargue.