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.
I have fallen in love. His name is Ruchè (roo-KEH). He lives in the northwest of Italy, in the area known as Piemonte (Piedmont in English).
But before I divulge the details, let’s go first to the beginning of the day when it all happened, when I was awakened in the early morning by a crashing storm that brought loud thunder and pounding rain. I had thought I might arise early, and go for a walk to explore the little hilltop town of Castagnole Monferrato before breakfast. But the dark skies and the pouring rain helped me make the decision to stay in bed and sleep a little longer. Thunder gets my pulses going, but steady rain lulls me to sleep.
Happy summer solstice! We’ve progressed from a long, wet spring to a somewhat less wet, warmer season. The summer solstice is days away, and I’ve been out exploring a few corners of the region.
A trip to the beach
First stop: Gruissan, on the Mediterranean coast south of Narbonne. This area is all about life next to the sea. There’s an ancient fishing village, with small picturesque cabanes de pêcheurs (fishermen’s huts), some now used for holiday rentals, plus tantalizing fresh fish stands. Just around the bend are the salt flats where salt is still produced in the old way, by hand. There are long, beautiful beaches with cabins on stilts (1,300 of them!). All along the water’s edge you can find places to pick up fresh oysters and other seafood. And if all that isn’t enough, there’s a round medieval tower named for the pirate Barbarossa.
We strolled around the site of the old fishermen’s huts at Étang de l’Ayrolle: