D had been sent to
the South of France on business for three months and was
based near the town of Cavaillon, just south of Avignon.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, he had the opportunity
to scout out some places to see in preparation for J's visit
over the holidays. So join us for a unique look at Provence
in the Winter, when the tourists have departed, the pools
are covered, and the sunflowers and lavender are dead.
When the day finally
arrived, D drove down to Marignane, the airport just outside
of Marseille, to pick up J, who eventually emerged looking
as refreshed as one can after a long flight. J
tried her best to stay awake as long as possible on Day
1 to help overcome the jetlag. We had a nice lunch and some
wine (which was counter productive) and went for a leisurely
walk around town. D managed to stall her until about 6pm,
but she finally had to get some sleep.
The Palais des Papes.
Le Pont d'Avignon
with the Tour Philippe-de-Bel on the opposite bank.
A view of the Palais
from the Pont.
We slept in a little
and then headed off to Avignon. Although D had been there
a half dozen times since he arrived, he never got past the
TGV station. Since he had to check in at the rental car
office anyway, we opted to spend the day in town looking
at the sites, and maybe let J hit the malls on the way out
Avignon is situated
at the confluence of the Durance and Rhône rivers
and has been inhabited since Neolithic times. Even back
in the Roman era, its bridge (immortalized in a children’s
song) was the principal method of crossing the Rhône.
When the French King Louis VIII was denied permission to
cross on his way to a crusade in the Holy Land, he promptly
laid siege to the city and razed it to the ground. He also
claimed part of it in the name of the Church, a move that
would eventually lead to its claim to fame. Nervous over
the uncertainty of the Italian political scene, Pope Clement
V (a Frenchman) moved the papal seat to Avignon in 1309
where it remained uncontested until 1377. Needing a place
to count all their money, the popes built what has become
the jewel of Avignon, the Palais des Papes.
Pope Gregory XI returned
the papacy to Rome, but the French cardinals, angered by
the move, elected another Pope to stay in Avignon. Thus
began 40 years known as the Great Schism which saw the Catholic
Church ruled by both pope and antipope. To expand their
acceptance, the Avignon antipopes opened their doors to
anyone and thus attracted all types of riff-raff. Ironically,
Avignon gained a reputation as a city of debauchery. Fearing
violence from followers of the Roman papal seat, the Avignon
popes fortified the Palais and the city by building walls.
Eventually, the matter was sorted out and the reign of the
Legend has it that
in 1177, a shepherd by the name of Bénézet
heard a voice telling him to convince the city of Avignon
to build a bridge across the Rhône. The bishop challenged
the boy that if he could lift a nearby boulder, he would
order the construction of the bridge. Needless to say the
shepherd hoisted the boulder overhead, convincing the townfolk
to contribute to the project. St. Bénézet
is buried in the chapel that hangs on the side of the bridge.
Much of the bridge has washed away in floods, leaving only
four of the original twenty-two arches that once spanned
the Île de la Barthelasse all the way to the tower
(Tour Philippe-de-Bel) on the opposite bank. Excavations
have since shown that a wooden Roman bridge stood on the
Making our way
to the bridge.
A mural near
Place de l'Horlage.
The Christmas market
out for the holidays.
The setting sun illuminates the pont.
All of our guide books proclaim
Les-Baux-de-Provence a must-see, so we had no choice
but to take a look. We took a circuitous route to
get there in order to enjoy the drive as well as the
quaint villages like Fontvielle and St.-Étienne-du-Grès.
Les Baux is a classic medieval town concealed within
walls and protected by a castle. Not much remains
of the castle but the cobbled streets and narrow passages
are charming. The residences that once housed the
city’s inhabitants now play host to art galleries,
souvenir shops, and restaurants. Sitting atop a plateau,
the city provides a picuresque view of the surrounding
Les Baux’s glory days were
in the 10th century when the castle housed the descendants
of Balthazaar of Bethlehem (or so they claimed), one
of the Magi. In subsequent years, the strategic position
changed hands so many times that the inhabitants finally
asked the Louis XIII to tear the castle down – which
it was under orders from Richelieu. No one lives at
in the city anymore (it's a ville morte) and
in fact it was forgotten for several centuries until
the discovery of aluminum ore (now called bauxite)
in the surrounding hills.
The real jewel of Les Baux
is its église. While not a cathedral
by any means, its uniqueness is that it was built
in three parts. The original nave dates to the 10th
century and is carved into the abutting cliff. A second
nave was added in the following century, built in
the Romanesque style. In the 12th century, a Gothic
nave was added, making l'Église St. Vincent
an interesting study of medieval architecture.
View to the
beginning of the Alpilles.
de Penitents Blanc in Les Baux.
A view of one of
Les Baux's streets with some of the remaining ramparts overhead.
Another of Les Baux's
Souvenirs from Les
Baux. Anything from ceramic cicadas to liquors made of melons.
Once we thawed out
from the previous day’s visit to Avignon, D was able to
convince J to go on a hike so she could see the area around
Saint-Rémy and Les Baux de Provence. D found a relatively
short jaunt to the Rocher des Deux Trous (Rock of Two Holes)
that took us right by the Roman village of Glanum. Arriving
at the highest point, we reached the broad Plateau des Caumes
with spectacular views from Cavaillon to the Rhône.
Situated near Glanum
is the abbey and hospital of St.-Paul-de-Mausole. Still
a clinic today, Vincent van Gogh sought psychiatric help
here in 1889. He lived in a small room for a year and wandered
the surrounding countryside which inspired one of his most
productive periods. Copies of his works are on display showing
specific locations that he painted. It is purported that
the village depicted in Starry Night is actually Saint-Rémy.
A view of Saint-Rémy.
Van Gogh stayed
in one of these rooms.
Christmas in Provence
isn’t exactly laden with tradition, but they do have a few
novel customs. One includes small handmade painted figurines
called santons representing various characters
in daily life of Provençal villages. The santons
can be arranged in elaborate displays, but most every family
has the basic crèche (nativity scene) that’s
been handed down through generations. Another Christmas
tradition is the treize desserts or thirteen desserts
which is served with dinner on Christmas Eve. When J learned
about this custom, she was naturally very excited, picturing
a buffet of cakes, pies, and sundaes. As it turns out, it
sounds a lot better than it is. It boils down to a large
plate of figs, nuts, candied fruit, nougat pieces, and maybe
a chocolate or two if you’re lucky. J was understandably
disappointed but is considering importing the basic premise
of thirteen desserts and Americanizing it for next Christmas.
We didn’t have anything
special planned for Christmas Eve. We expected that we would
find a place to have dinner and then head back home to exchange
a few gifts. Finding a place to eat was daunting. Many restaurants
were closed, and those remaining open had a special set
menu that ranges from $30 to $100. Almost all of
them had foie gras (a paté of fattened
goose or duck liver) which is the traditional Christmas
fare. D had seen a French news report on how these animals
are force-fed with funnels until they can barely support
their own weight. Pretty sad but the French are crazy about
the stuff. Anyway, we found a Franco-Italian restaurant
that had some decent menu selections (eg., cannelloni
as the appetizer) and had a hearty 3-hour meal. There was
even live entertainment as a man and woman took turns serenading
the patrons with French standards. The problem was that
we were situated in the middle of the floorshow and were
easy pickings when it came to audience participation. The
singer would stroll by our table in mid-song and then stick
the microphone in our face to finish a line in the song,
which of course everyone knew but us. They weren’t catching
on that we not only didn’t speak French, but we had never
even heard of these songs. The show culminated with that
little-known French Christmas tradition known as the “dropping
of the trousers”. The owner of the restaurant who had been
tending bar all night (a fact that may explain everything)
climbed on the chair right behind J and showed everyone
his special holiday bikini briefs, complete with snow-white
beard. To her credit, J remained composed through the whole
ordeal, even though Santa’s little helper was just over
her right shoulder. Nevertheless, it brought an abrupt but
memorable end to our Christmas Eve répas.
Santons on display.
These are from
a large crèche in Arles.
castle at Tarascon.
Tarascon with Beaucaire
across the river.
The remaining tower
of the château at Beaucaire.
Facing opposite one
another like sentinels on the Rhône are the châteaux
of Tarascon and Beaucaire. Tarascon was started by Louis
II and eventually became the home of Good King René
in the 15th century. It functioned most recently as a prison,
but it is still a marvelous example of a French château.
There is a legend that the town of Tarascon was terrorized
by a serpent-like monster called the Tarasque that would
rise from the Rhône to feed on the townsfolk. Saint
Marthe restrained the beast using a crucifix and led it
away on a leash. Each year the feat is celebrated with a
festival in which a likeness of the monster is paraded through
the streets like something from a Chinese New Year celebration.
Only a single tower
remains of the château across the way in
Beaucaire. The town sided with one of Richelieu’s rivals
for whatever reason so the cardinal had the castle destroyed
in 1632. The château hosts a first-class
eagle and falcon show daily, but not in the winter.
The truffle market at Richerenches.
a wide variety of goods.
Trees available to farm your own truffles.
Time for the
blessing of the truffle.
Men and women
wearing traditional Provençal dress in the procession
for the truffle mass.
A young truffle
vendor learns the trade under the watchful eye of his father.
hunter. Ironically both hunter and prey taste equally good
in an omelet.
Black diamonds, les
truffes, les rabasses – whatever you call
them, truffles are a symbol of Provence. We're not talking
about the chocolate kind either. These truffles are pungent,
bulbous mushrooms that grow at the roots of a handful of
types of trees, the most prevalent being the chêne
blanc (white oak) or chêne vert (green
oak). Traditionally, trufflers would wander through the
forests between November and March using pigs to sniff out
the location of wild truffles. One can still see them today,
although pigs have been replaced by dogs for the most part.
Another sad trend is that people are now farming truffles
by planting orchards of the green and white oaks, forcing
wild truffle hunters into obsolescence. In any case, Saturday
is the traditional market day for truffle hunters, and a
handful of towns hold markets specializing in the selling
of les truffes. Provence accounts for over 75%
of the truffles in France and most of that comes from the
Vaucluse. Thus, most of the markets are in this region and
the oldest of them all is at Richerenches, an old command
post for the Knights Templar.
So on a dreary Saturday
morning, we made our way up to Richerenches. Typically,
the market specializes in all things truffle. There are
vendors of truffle books, truffle brushes (to scrub off
the dirt), truffle graters, truffle-infused olive oils,
and the trees around which the truffles grow. There’s even
a truffle apéritif that we sampled. You
haven't lived until you've tasted a liqueur made from a
fungus. However, the market also offers more traditional
items such as lavender soaps and oils, spices, foie
gras, breads and baked goods, fruits and vegetables,
meats and cheeses, and various crafts.
The truffles themselves
come in two varieties – white truffles (which are really
light brown) and black truffles (the more potent and therefore
coveted of the two). Because of the challenge in finding
them, they are not cheap - a truffe noire (black
truffle) the size of a walnut costs around $200. Consequently,
they are used sparingly in dishes as truffle shavings in
omelets or small chunks in sauces. The main clientele are
chefs who come to select the best truffles for use in their
restaurants. Negotiating the transaction is often done with
utmost discretion by the customer writing an offer on a
piece of paper and giving it to the truffle seller. There’s
usually some counter-offering before the sale is finalized.
Some vendors sell openly from tables in the market, but
many sales occur right out of the back of a truck or car.
Towards the end of the market, just before noon, there is
a special mass in which the truffle is blessed and thanks
is given for the bounty of fungi. Following the ceremony,
vendors and customers sit side-by-side for a traditional
from the back of a van.
Templar stronghold at Richerenches.
More spices than we knew existed.
The only entrance
to the haute ville.
Ruins of the
12th Century castle at Vaison.
Steep streets of
the haute ville.
The history of Vaison-la-Romain,
another town in the Vaucluse, revolves around its inhabitants
moving back and forth across the river Ouvèze. On
the hill to one side of the river was a Celtic fort and
settlement serving as the capital of the Voconces tribes.
When the Romans moved into the area in the 2nd Century and
established a city called Vasio Vocontiorum on the fertile
plain across the river, the people from the haute ville
(high city) moved out among the Roman villas. The Pont Romain
was built to facilitate crossing the Ouzèze and still
spans the river today. During the power struggles of the
12th century, a castle was constructed on the hill and people
flocked back to the safety of the haute ville.
Centuries later, the inhabitants of Vaison began drifting
back across the river to the low ground and began rediscovering
their Roman roots. Excavations in the early 1900’s, uncovered
two Roman districts including a 6,000 seat amphitheater.
The Pont Romain
over the Ouvèze.
A Roman statue.
An unearthed urn
among the ruins of Roman houses in one of the excavated
Pick up any book on Provence and there will be a picture
of the abbey at Sénanque. I’ve seen it on the cover
of several. What makes this 12th century Cistercian monastery
so appealing is that it sits as an island amid a field of
lavender. It must be a stunning sight to behold in the summer.
We’ll have to come back someday to see it.
L'Abbaye de Sénanque
amid rows of shrubs.
The church in Rousillon.
village of Rousillon.
Some of the various
Located in the Lubéron
along the same tourist trail that includes Gordes and Sénanque,
the perched village of Rousillon is remarkable only in that
its buildings exhibit a virtual palette of different shades
of red and orange. Rousillon sits atop a large deposit of
ochre, a clay that is stained red by the presence of iron
oxides. Dating back to the Roman era, the ochre was hydraulically
mined, dried in the sun, and exported as ready-made bricks
or in powder form around the globe. The clay was prized
for its various shades and its resistance to fading when
exposed to the sun for long periods. In the early part of
the 20th century, the quarries in and around Rousillon produced
80,000 tons of ochre a year. Due to competition from synthetic
dyes, mining in the region has since completely ceased.
quarries of the Colorado Provençal.
in the quarries.
What can I say?
The girl just loves rocks.
Known as the gateway
to Provence, Orange stands along the N7 highway which was
the former Roman road, Via Agrippa. Like almost every other
city in the region, it has Celtic roots. In the 1st Century
BC, its inhabitants pulled off a rare feat in that they
defeated several Roman legions in a nearby battle. Needless
to say, the Romans returned some years later, and under
General Marius, completely leveled the town. The land was
given to the soldiers of the Second Gallic Legion as payment
for their service in the Cesar’s conquest of Gaul. Orange’s
Roman heritage is evident in the massive Arc de Triomphe
which depicts several of Cesar’s triumphs over the Gallois.
After being passed
around for some time, the town finally fell into the hands
of Maurice de Nassau, a fervent Protestant, who made it
a refuge for anyone turning their back on the Catholic Church.
Friction between Maurice and the Catholic French King Louis
IV resulted in Maurice fortifying the city using stones
from the Roman monuments as building blocks. His efforts
were in vain, and Louis captured and destroyed the city
once again. The town was eventually passed down to Maurice’s
nephew William of Orange, King of the Netherlands and later
ascender to the English throne by his union with Queen Mary
(namesakes of the College of William and Mary), putting
Orange under Dutch sovereignty. It was given back to France
in 1713 as part of a treaty.
The only other Roman
structure that managed to survive Maurice’s pillaging is
the magnificent theatre at Orange. It is the thought to
be the best preserved Roman theatre in the world, mainly
because it is the only one with a stage wall still intact.
Ironically, Maurice used the outside of the stage wall as
part of his fortifications, ultimately sparing the theater
from destruction. The wall is filled with passages which
allowed actors to appear on queue and stagehands to move
scenery and props. It also makes possible the incredible
acoustics allowing all of the 10,000 spectators to hear
the faintest whisper. After being used as fortifications,
slums, and a prison, the theater was left unused for 300
years until the late 1800’s when it began hosting music
performances, which it still does today (in the summer,
The Arc de Triomphe
10,000 in the theater.
Cesar Augustus greets
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