Of course I knew that vendange was coming, the season of grape-harvesting. If nothing else, new signs had begun to appear on the local roads, warning drivers to be extra alert. Nonetheless, I was unprepared for the number and variety of grape-harvesting trucks tooling down the road. Some of the trucks are small, the ones that putter along at the pace of a horse-drawn cart, carrying a payload of grapes on their way to becoming wine. Those aren’t the trucks that startled me.
I was driving along one day, minding my own business, when around the bend came a giant beast of machinery. It was tall, oddly shaped, and slightly menacing. It was moving slowly and ever so deliberately, with focus and purpose. I kid you not, I completely expected to see Jeff Goldblum (Buckaroo Banzai) jump out of the cab. These are the grape harvesting machines, and they’re shaped the way they are so that they can move down a row of vines and harvest grapes from both sides.
In my last post, I talked about what it really means here in France when someone says “bonjour,” and the post was titled “Good day to you.” With a nod to symmetry, I now offer you “Fare thee well.”
I was moving into a different house, and it was my last visit to the old place. This was a trip of random-sized boxes, for emptying out the refrigerator, for garden gloves, for the bathroom items I’d used that morning. And it was a trip for closing up the house. As I was packing my car, the neighbor who shared a driveway with me was headed toward the river carrying a chair. She walked over to ask if this was it. I said yes, it is and it’s a little sad, but she said non. “You will still be here in town, and we will see each other.” We chatted a few minutes about random things, and then she mimed knocking on a door and told me to come over any time. “Tok tok, Michelle ! Je suis la !”
I’ve had two especially enjoyable walks lately, and I’d like to share them with you. These were walks that had not so much to do with the location, and everything to do with the people I met along the way. I do believe that a place informs its people, but today I’ll just talk about the folks I got to meet.
And I’ll pepper this post with photographs from various walks and hikes I’ve enjoyed this summer.
Let’s begin with the time I set out on a fresh morning, enjoying air that felt noticeably cooler than it had in many weeks. It was bliss. My usual walk takes me out of town past the cemetery, and on this day I passed two teenage boys walking with their grandfather. Perhaps they strolled to the cemetery? These boys are two of the nicest teenagers I’ve ever met, always stopping to say “bonjour” to me, even long before we officially met and learned each others’ names. (In this town, kids stop what they’re doing to say bonjour, which delights me to no end.) I had never before met their grandfather, but he was eager for a bonjour, too, and he commented on my “determined” gait.
Smell: the lavender of Provence
The final part of my trip to Italy was two days spent in lavender country in Provence. In planning my trip, I realized I’d be driving back into France right around peak lavender bloom, so I made arrangements for a few nights in Valensole, right in the heart of the action. I arrived a week before the local lavender festival, so I guess the timing was about right!
Four years of drought and the lateness of this year’s spring rains had left the lavender plants in a state of distress, not as full, lush and vivid as in other years. That said, it was my first view of the stunning blue-purple fields, and they were gorgeous!
Fat, straight violet lines, rounded on top, lead the eye across the landscape and toward mountains turned hazy blue in the distance. The sky above is a brighter blue, and adjacent fallow fields are pale gold. In the midst of many of the lavender fields, one spies a single tree or a stone hut.
These stone huts, called cabanes, are old, built in a drystack technique (no mortar or cement) that is all but lost in modern times. Cabanes were generally built from the late 1600s to the late 1800s, and had a variety of uses: shelter for animals or people, storage of tools or food, and—less common—to protect a water well or spring. They were outbuildings of a farm, often built as part of a stone wall. They are a basic aspect of the rural landscape of southern France. In Provence, the warm gold hue and rough stone texture of these cabanes make a great foil for the perfumed purple glory of all that lavender. It is a feast for the senses.
I closed the last post by saying that the world of the Siena contradaioli (the members of the various contrade) is almost entirely focused on the two days a year on which there’s a horse race, which today is referred to as the Palio, or in Italian, “Il Palio.” Now it’s time to learn more about the Palio itself.
Siena, Italy, is a city with two personalities: a successful modern culture layered onto a rich, storied medieval foundation that functions today much as it did 800 years ago. I love it, and recently returned from a visit there to experience the crazy bareback horse race known as the Palio. There’s so much to talk about that I’m planning to divide my story into two blog posts; this one will tell the background story, and the next will cover the Palio itself.
A long history, in brief
Historians tell us that Etruscans founded Siena a few hundred years B.C., and then the Romans arrived in the first century B.C. But that’s a little dry and the legend contains more intrigue: it holds that Siena was founded by Senio and Ascanio, sons of Remus and nephews of Romulus, the founder of Rome. Romulus murdered his brother, whose sons then fled Rome. The twins took a statue of the she-wolf suckling the infants Romulus and Remus, made the symbol their own, and founded Siena; today, these statues are seen all over town.