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.

A Sensory Summer

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.

Continue reading “A Sensory Summer”