A weekend in Provence

I recently joined three friends for a long weekend in Provence. One person wanted to visit the antiques market at L’Île-sur-la-Sorgue, and that was the seed of a lovely four days in one of my favorite regions of France.

Day 1 : Arles

We set off in two cars, because Maryse and Claude would be continuing on to Grasse, while Monique and I were returning to Bize. I won the coin toss to be the driver, so Monique became my co-pilote.

Maryse had found a lovely chambres-d’hôtes at a farm not far from Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, and that was our base for the weekend’s activities. As the time approached, Claude suggested that we leave early on the first day, in order to spend most of the day in Arles before going to our farm.

The great Arènes d’Arles (Arles Amphitheater), probably modeled after the much larger Colosseum in Rome, was built in 90 A.D. and seated about 20,000. After the fall of Rome, it became a fortress, with towers added in the 6th century by the Moors. After that, it became its own small town, and remained that way until the 1820s, when it was returned to as much of its original state as possible. Today it hosts bullfights and concerts.
A reader enjoys the sun in the exquisite west portal of the 12th-century Cathédrale Saint-Trophime. The sculptures here and in the cloister are particularly fine.
We enjoyed a delicious lunch at Le Tambour, a café owned by El Lobo (The Wolf), whose younger self appears in posters that adorn the walls. Bullfighting is a big deal in this region, although unlike in Spain, the bull is not killed.
Les Alyscamps is a Roman necropolis in Arles. Roman law forbade burials within a city’s walls, so roads into cities were often lined with tombs. Les Alyscamps served as a cemetery for around 1,500 years, and after the fall of Rome it was such a desirable place to be interred that bodies arrived from all over Europe. It was also a major stopping point for pilgrims on their way to Compostela in Spain. When the shine wore off, it was heavily looted and damaged, but now it is protected as part of the Arles World Heritage Site.
An emotional face on the corner of one sarcophagus at Les Alyscamps.

Day 2 : Saint-Rémy

Driving along the southern road from Saint-Rémy, a visitor suddenly sees a surprising sight: two rather ornate and complete Roman structures, right next to the road. These are on the edge of the ancient city of Glanum, and are referred to as Les Antiques; one is a triumphal arch (seen below) and one is a mausoleum (above). The mausoleum, known as the Mausolée des Jules, was built to honor a powerful local family, and is considered to be one of the finest examples of such a structure in the world. It was built about 40 B.C.
The triumphal arch celebrates the Roman victory over the Gauls, and was built near the end of the reign of Caesar Augustus, who died in 14 A.D. The upper portion is gone, but what remains is beautiful. Three travelers: Maryse, Monique and Lynne, photographed by Claude.
The underside of the triumphal arch.
There is a possibility that Glanum was occupied as early as 1,000 BC, but its established history begins with the Celto-Ligurian tribe known as the Salyens. At the site of a spring reputed to have healing powers, they founded a town at the foot of the rugged Alpilles. The town was wealthy, and allied early with Massalia (Marseille), which had been founded by the Greeks in 600 BC. After a conflict, the Greeks turned to their allies the Romans, who drove out the Salyens, stayed in the town, and continued to build and grow the settlement. Later, the town was sacked and then abandoned, and it was eventually buried under mud. We have that mud to thank, because full excavations did not begin until 1921; much was discovered, and the excavations are ongoing. Above, loose bricks and a brick floor from the earliest section of the town.
Claude waves from above the sacred spring of Livius at Glanum. Celts settled this region because of the healing waters.
Near Glanum is Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, an 11th-century monastery that has served as a psychiatric health institution for over 200 years. After he damaged his left ear, Vincent Van Gogh voluntarily checked himself in to the hospital. He remained there for just over a year, during which he produced around 140 paintings and 100 drawings. Saint-Paul continues in this function to this day, and I later learned something I wish I’d known when we visited: a portion of proceeds from the gift shop go to purchasing art supplies for residents of the hospital. The photograph shows Van Gogh’s signature on one of the brass markers seen throughout the region.
One of the sublime chocolates from master chocolatier Joël Durand in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. All the chocolates are in the same square form, but each flavor has been assigned a letter, which is stenciled in gold leaf on the chocolate. “V” is for violet.
Monique stands outside her namesake fromagerie (cheese shop). My husband and I found this shop when we stayed in Saint-Rémy in 2010, and I wanted to see if she was still there. She is, and we all had a nice visit with her. Bought some delicious cheese, too, bien sûr !
For those who love cheese AND have a foot fetish, Monique offers this tiny chèvre (goat cheese). I had to nibble on those toes, and they were delicious!

Day 3 : L’Île-sur-la-Sorgue

The Sorgue River is actually several rivers—two large branches and myriad smaller branches—and the town of L’Île-sur-la-Sorgue straddles all of them. This creates a fresh and lovely townscape that is host to a huge market every Sunday: a combination of traditional French food market, with the added pleasure of an antiques market.
Large glass jars in the window of one antique shop.
Colorful chile peppers and amaranth blooms were on voluptuous display at the booth of one vendor who offered a remarkable variety of chiles.
My friends Maryse and Claude are two of those silhouettes in the tunnel in this lovely side street of L’Île-sur-la-Sorgue.

Day 4 : Carrières de Lumières

The Carrières des Lumières (Quarries of Light) is a 2,000-year-old limestone quarry in the rugged Alpilles hills near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. The quarry closed in 1935; Jean Cocteau filmed “Testament of Orpheus” here in 1960, and in 1975 a man named Albert Plécy had the clever idea to use the quarry as a giant screen to show artworks. A destination was born. Each year, two artists are presented, often following a theme, accompanied beautifully by a splendid and varied musical soundtrack.
This year, the two artists were Cézanne, “The Master of Provence,” and Kandinsky, “The Odyssey of the Abstract.”
Visitors can stay as long as they like (we watched everything twice through), and it’s interesting to move around the huge quarry, to experience the art from different vantage points.
It’s easy to get queasy: the space is dark, the images are constantly in motion, the floor surface is uneven, and, well, vertigo. Thus, while it’s nice to wander about, it’s equally good to stand or sit quietly and absorb it all.
The musical soundtrack of both artist exhibits included classical, jazz, blues, rock, and opera, and the selections were beautifully synced with the works being shown.
The playful and wonder-filled world of Kandinsky.
The Kandinsky exhibit ended with David Bowie singing, “Major Tom,” which was delightful and simply perfect.

A singular road sign in Arles

A head-scratcher of a road sign
Wait, what? To give this road sign some context, it’s on a busy road with two lanes in each direction. The speed limit—completely ignored—is around 30 mph/50 kmh. Cars are coming up a slight hill, so the unaware driver can’t see what’s ahead. The first warning is this sign, which a driver has about 1/3 of a second to see and digest, and then … there’s the mess shown in the diagram. The arrow with a diagonal to the right? That’s a hard right onto a narrow bridge. And the place where you stop if you plan to continue straight is in the middle of the intersection, so cars are moving on all sides around you.

Parting thought: American Thanksgiving
The American holiday of Thanksgiving falls on November 25. For me, this is a time to reflect on all that I have to be grateful for. There is much. This is a wondrous world we live in, full of beauty and mystery. Life itself is abundant with joy, humor, warmth, and yes, occasional challenges. Rising above all else, though, are the people. It is people and community and the love they create that is the single greatest thing in life. Thank you for being present in this world, for being who you are, and for being part of my life. I give thanks that you are here.

Road Trip, Last Day

Thanks to all of you who have been following along on my road trip through a lovely part of France. I had planned to make a couple of stops on my way home today, but when the tires began to roll on asphalt, I decided that I had done enough for this adventure. I’ll save those stops for another trip, another day.

Continue reading “Road Trip, Last Day”

Road Trip, Day 13

Fabulous light from a stained-glass window in the Abbatiale Saint-Austremoine.

This was another day where I didn’t make a lot of photographs. I’ll tell you why and show you a few photos from today, and then the rest of the post will include photos from the previous week that didn’t already make it into the blog. It’s a grab-bag of imagery—have fun!

This is my last night on the road; tomorrow I’ll set my course for home. Depending on the weather and my inclinations in the moment, I may take a detour along the way to see a couple of towns I found on the map. I’ll do one more post tomorrow to summarize the trip and sign off from the adventure of daily posting.

Today was a day that had its own to-do list, the last day to see things in this area before I head home. I returned to the cute village of Recoules-d’Aubrac, in the hope of getting into that 12th century church, but still no luck.

Next up was a visit to the atelier (studio) of a potter whose work I’d spotted last week. I called her to see if I could meet her in her studio, and today was the day. I quite like her work, and bought a few things from her, while playing peek-a-boo with her 17-month-old daughter.

I enjoyed a delightful lunch in Laguiole at a place named Le Bardière, which has a fresh, inventive, delicious menu and a friendly staff. After that, I’d planned to visit a shop a few doors away, named 12 Whisky, a local distillery. Alas, they were closed, so it goes onto the list for the next time I’m in the area.

The Cantal (top shelf) and Laguiole (bottom shelf) in the fantastic cheese shop named Les Buronniers.
More of the local cheeses available for sale at Les Buronniers. Yum!

I stopped into a shop called Les Buronniers (the fellows I mentioned yesterday, who used to live all summer in a stone buron in the mountains), with the plan of buying some cheese to take home. But the clerk told me that since I don’t have a proper cooler for the car, she thought it would be better for me to return tomorrow when I leave. So, that’s now first on the list for tomorrow morning.

I stopped to fill up on gas, and then took a meandering route back to my lodging in Aubrac, turning down more of those tiny, twisty country roads. Puffy white clouds skittered across the blue sky, sending their own shadows dancing over the rocky land. I saw more cows, and more of the raptors that seem to follow the cows; there are definitely peregrine falcons, and there’s another, larger bird (vulture?). It really is lovely here.

And now for a few new photos from the past week.
I was zipping along the mountain roads, returning to Le Mont Dore, when I rounded a bend and saw this. Who lost his/her boot? I’ve no idea, but it made the scene!
From my day atop Puy de Sancy: I made this photo to show what the French trail blazes look like. The national system for marking the extensive system of walking trails is remarkably well-organized and well-maintained. The top yellow line indicates a local day-hike (PR for Petite Randonnée). The lower blaze in white and red indicates one of the GR routes (Grande Randonnée), the much longer multi-day or even multi-week treks of France. I have no idea about the yellow dot. And yes, I realize that it looks like this trail drops off into the air, but I found that it doesn’t.
The next day I drove to Aubrac, where I spotted this Citroën 2CV. This car never fails to put a smile on my face.
I know, this is a little hard to read. But it’s cool, so I included it. It’s a piece of marble carved with various paths from other parts of Europe to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain.
Other kids play with their food. I play with light refracting through my drinking glass.
A column capital from the 11th-century Église Sainte-Marie in Nasbinals, depicting warriors.
A carved figure on a corbel of the Église Saint-Saturnin in tiny Recoules-d’Aubrac. I’d read that there are many more of these carvings inside, but I was locked out. This 12th-century church was built and used by the Knights Templar.

Parting shot
I’d stopped for gasoline on my way out of Laguiole today, finding a station next to a grocery store. While I was pumping gas, I noticed a car pull up to what at first glance had looked like a bus stop (I really wasn’t paying much attention). When I’d finished and paid, I turned to look and realized that the bus stop is actually a drive-up laundromat. I’ve never seen anything like this, but I think it’s a brilliant idea!

A drive-up laundromat in Laguiole. Eight kilograms equals just under 18 pounds.

Road Trip, Day 12

Calves! As I drove past this field, I saw a mamma licking her calf; by the time I found a place to stash the car and walk back, they were all having a siesta. It’s still cute.

Today’s forecast virtually guaranteed rain, so I hopped in the car to explore some of the tiny roads in the region—one of my favorite ways to see a new area. My plan was to see as much as I could before the skies opened up, but they never did. It was another full day.

I began by taking a turnoff from the larger road between Nasbinals and Laguiole, and found myself almost immediately in terrain that was even rockier than what I saw yesterday. I turned up a narrow track toward a place called Recoules d’Aubrac.

Recoules is an immaculate and lovely stone village/hamlet that boasts a big claim to fame: it was founded by the Knights Templar. I wanted to visit the Templar church, but it was closed (I’ll see if I can get in before I leave the region). But even without the church, it’s a lovely place to have a stroll.

I’ve been talking to you about lauzes, the thick, flat stones that are used for roofing around here. I finally found a place where I could photograph it for you, so you can see what I’m talking about.

Here’s a fabulous roof that’s covered in rounded lauzes (tiles made of stone, often a thicker piece of slate).
Here’s a closer view of the lauzes tiles. Like slate, if they’re of good quality and well-installed, they can last a lifetime (or beyond).
A closeup of the extremely durable lauzes tiles for roofs.

Like all the other settlements in the area, nearly all the buildings are made of stone. Here are two from the village of Recoules-d’Aubrac.

The windows and door on this house have exposed stones that probably date to the building of the house, while the remainder of the exterior finish is probably “newer” (even though it, too, looks plenty old).
This place looks abandoned, although it’s still oozing charm.

As you walk or drive through this area, you begin to notice large stone huts in the hills. These are burons, and they represent a way of life that has all but disappeared. In the summer, men would move the cattle into the hills (this is called transhumance); the buron was a home base. The structure was built into the hillside, to take advantage of the cooler temperatures provided by the earth. The buron provided a simple home for the men working with these animals, as well as the work space for producing and storing the cheese. These men were called buronniers.

This is the ancient method of production of Cantal and Laguiole cheese. Laguiole cheese dates to the 12th century, and its younger form (tome fraîche) is what is used to make the local dish called aligot (cheese and potatoes, a perfect combination).

Today, many of the burons are abandoned, and others have become popular restaurants that typically specialize in… yes, aligot! It turns out to be difficult to get a reservation, so I have to save that experience for my next trip to the Aubrac.

I saw this buron yesterday on my drive along winding, narrow roads.
I love turning down an unknown road, preferably small, and seeing where it will take me. Today I found a road that turned into a dirt road, although that’s a generous description. It was made of small stones, larger than pebbles, that sometimes made a good driving surface and sometimes sank like a soft pillow. Anyway, treasures are often to be found along such roads, and this buron was one such treasure.
A front view of the same buron. The cows in the fields across the way watched as I walked up and down the road to make photographs. I wonder what they were thinking as they watched.
Some of the stone walls I mentioned yesterday, many of which look like someone just dumped stones in a pile that eventually turned into a line. I’ve no doubt there’s more to it than that, but it looks a bit random.
I stood on a stone bridge that crosses this waterway south of Nasbinals.
This is the village of Aubrac, where I’m staying for a few days.

Road Trip, Day 11

The rocky countryside around Aubrac

I’m spending a few days in the far northeastern corner of the Aveyron, where it meets the Cantal and the Lodève départements. My whole trip has been in cattle country, cows grazing everywhere. I’ve spent much of my life in cattle country, but now I live in goat country, and it really is different. Before I left on this trip, my friend Sue said that Aubrac has beautiful cows, and she’s absolutely right. So, more cow photos coming.

This region is remarkably rocky, and as I drive along the winding roads, I see fields full of rocks of all sizes, many far too large to move without huge equipment. Some of the rocks that are “merely” large have been used to create stone walls. Again there’s something different going on here than where I live: the walls in my home region tend to be drystack walls, but the walls here are much lower and tend to look like someone just dumped the rocks there. I think that’s not actually true, but as I drive past, I find it hard to discern a building technique.

And all those rocks have been used for millennia to build structures in the region, from simple shelters to small houses to castles. This is cattle country, but it’s also rock country.

A lovely old stone barn outside of Laguiole.

It was a gorgeous day, one to be outside as much as possible. I took a drive to nearby Laguiole, famous for its cheese and its knives, and made a lot of stops along the way to admire the countryside.

Two stone houses in the center of Laguiole.
Another stone house in the center of Laguiole. This house and the one above both have lauzes roofs.
I stopped by the town of Saint-Urcize and saw this mermaid on a building with a historic marker. She’s from the 15th-16th century. And we’re a long way from the sea.

I wanted to have a cheese tasting, but that didn’t quite work out. Maryse had suggested that I try to have a tour of a buron, which is an ancient style of stone structure, usually found in relatively remote areas (not in town); they were used in the production and storage of cheese. Alas, they are no longer used for this, and many of them have been abandoned. Others are now restaurants, where one can go for a meal of aligot, the soul food of this region. I’m still working on finding a slot; so far, everyone I’ve called is all booked up. Dang, I guess I’ll have to come back!

Aligot, by the way, is a dish that is made of silky mashed potatoes, to which either Cantal or Laguiole cheese is added in copious amounts, plus some crème fraîche, to create a smooth, elastic sort of cheese porridge. It’s a trick to dish up, because it forms long ribbons that just keep stretching. It is total soul food, perfect for warmth and comfort on cold winter nights. It’s usually served with grilled sausage.

Another thing to do in Laguiole is to peruse their lovely knives. This area has a long-standing reputation for master knife-making, and there are shops all over town displaying their wares.

A display of single-blade folding knives with wooden handles. Knives from Laguiole tend to have a bee on the handle, and in this particular range, each knife has a different bee design.

Other bits I saw today
I love this sign for a car wash in Laguiole. That’s a model of a vintage Citroën, and I have no idea why there’s a propeller. Had to have a photo, though!
A stone wall in Laguiole with spring-green moss growing along the cracks.
An Aubrac cow I saw on my way back at the end of a wonderful day. What a sweet face!

Road Trip, Day 10

The lovely Viaduc de Garabit, with contrails that seem to be celebrating something.

Today was a travel day, as I moved from Le Mont Dore in the Puy-de-Dôme region to Aubrac in the Aveyron. I drove through both the Cantal and the Lozère to get here.

Aubrac, as you can see by the red dot, is right at the point where three départements meet: the Cantal, the Lozère and the Aveyron. And keen eyes will note that I’ve come nearly full-circle since the start of the trip in Saint-Geniez-d’Olt.

I didn’t drive directly here, and along the way I found myself on more than one very tiny country road (which I adore), and I also found myself waiting in traffic stops for road construction. Thus, there wasn’t much exploring being done, and there aren’t a lot of photographs.

My first stop was to visit the lovely Viaduc de Garabit, for which Gustav Eiffel was the construction engineer. This bridge came several years before its famous cousin, the Eiffel Tower in Paris. This was not a straightforward construction project, and it involved some top-notch engineering by the Eiffel team.

The resulting span was used regularly until 2009, when an inspection showed some cracks. They were repaired, and the bridge reopened, with a 10-kilometer per hour speed limit.

I wasn’t sure if I’d manage to see this, and then suddenly, there was a sign for the turnoff. I took it. This is the Viaduc de Garabit, built by Gustav Eiffel in 1882-1884.
Looking straight up one of the towers that supports the flat span, also one end of the bridge’s lone arch. Eiffel’s company had already established itself as among the best engineering firms in the world, so it was easy to reward the company with this project. I spoke with one fellow who said there are only six bridges in Europe with this single-arch design.
This is a view through one of the short tunnels in the heavy footings of the bridge. I made this photograph because the shadow looks a lot like what I imagine a collapsing Eiffel Tower would look like.

The rich green countryside of the Aveyron. This scene is near the town of Nasbinals.
Another view of the countryside, plus the biggest cowbell I’ve ever seen.
This is one part of the old hospital, built in the 15th century.
A lovely old house in Aubrac. It has the lauzes roof that is so common in this region.