Sunny Southern France; Provence

Our friends Brice and Aline picked us up at the airport in Marseille. We would stay with them at their home in Avignon, in the center of the Provence region of southern France, through early July. And, we’d be there during the annual Avignon festival, a celebration of art, theatre and music that lasts over a week and draws visitors from all over Europe and America.

But Avignon is more famous for its Pope’s Palace and surrounding medieval city, one of the best preserved medieval cities and palaces in Europe including a rare medieval bridge that partially crosses the Rhone River.

In 1305 the Catholic Church elected a new Pope, Clement V, who refused to take up residence in Rome preferring Avignon instead. This led to almost 100 years of a church split between two popes before the papacy in Avignon was abandoned; one in Rome, one in Avignon. Over this time Clement V and his successors built the Palais du Papes (The Popes’ Palace) a huge and magnificent palace in Avignon that survives remarkably intact to this day.

Hopping into their Prius, Brice deftly maneuvered us through the outrageously busy streets of Marseille and into the countryside. Once out of Marseille, Brice pulled over at an overlook where he produced a picnic basket with coffee and cookies which we enjoyed while looking over Marseille and the Mediterranean. Refreshed, we drove on to the small port city of Cassis with its harbor full of brightly painted fishing boats and winding, cobblestoned alleyways. We decided to take the tour of the calanques (fjord-like inlets) and boarded a tour boat. For the next couple hours we cruised across the clear Mediterranean water and into various calanques, each with its beaches and picnickers along the shore.

After our tour Brice drove us to a small hotel outside of Cassis where we rested up before returning to Marseille for dinner. Brice had made reservations at the FonFon restaurant in old Marseille, famous for its bouillabaisse. We parked in the small harbor area Vallon des Auffes by the restaurant and walked around this very old part of Marseille where people live in small houses by the harbor, fishing boats pulled up on the shore in front. Returning to the FonFon we entered and were soon enjoying a fine wine until the bouillabaisse was served in a steaming bowl of spicy soup with various small fishes on the side to add to it. It was excellent and we spent a couple hours in the restaurant talking, drinking wine and savoring the food. Afterwards a short walk around the area and back to our hotel outside of Marseille for badly needed rest.

The next morning I noticed a number of the hotel guests carrying rifles in cases out to their cars. I found that a deer hunting season was occurring and hunters had arrived from all over France to participate. We loaded into the Prius and drove to Lumigny where there is a university campus and a large park through which you can hike out to a high, rocky viewpoint over the Mediterranean, a dramatic calanque on either side. We spent a couple hours walking around the dry woodlands watching sailboats on the sea before returning to the car, hot and tired. To cool off we drove back to Marseille and went to the city beach, swam in the cool, refreshing water of the Mediterranean and then drove on to Aix en Provence. Aix en Provence is a tidy, medieval town with a well restored city center; touristy but pleasant. We walked the streets for a couple hours and left, Brice steering us into the countryside and towards a range of low mountains in the distance, Les Alpilles.

As we drove through huge fields of yellow sunflowers we could see what appeared to be the ramparts of a castle poking above a high promontory in Les Alpilles. As we approached we saw it was an entire medieval town with its castle looming above; Les Baux de Provence. Even more amazing were the nearby quarries from which the fort and town were built. The road goes through them and we stopped to admire the massive caverns cut into perfectly square rooms by the medieval stone masons, wondering how they could cut so accurately and then move the massive stones to the nearby mountaintop. It was amazing, made even more so by its location far out in the country side. From there we drove to Brice and Aline’s apartment in Avignon, a comfortable two bedroom walkup within the medieval walls of this well preserved city. We had a dinner of cheese, bread and fruit before turning in, tired again.

Today we were driving to the medieval city of Arles.

Arles is known for its Roman coliseum surrounded by an extensive mediaeval town and it didn’t disappoint. Parking outside of the ancient city walls, we walked through the main gate and immediately entered a medieval city with stone buildings lining cobblestoned streets. As we walked along talking to shop owners as we went, we approached the coliseum, tucked into the center of the city. It was large, well preserved, and still in use for concerts, bull fights and special events.

No event was occurring while we were there, so we could walk through the entire structure and it was impressive. We wandered into the city center behind the coliseum immediately getting lost in the network of narrow streets, each one ending in its own little plaza. We ducked into a Spanish bodega for tapas and sangria, some of the best we’ve ever had, and continued on admiring the carved stonework of dragons and serpents crawling up many of the facades. It was a magnificent morning, but we had more plans and returned to the car and drove south into the Camargues region between Arles and the Mediterranean and known for its French horses and bulls.

As we drove through the low-lying Camargue we stopped at a nature preserve for a short walk through the wetlands before continuing on to Port St Louis du Rhone, a small city at land’s end on the Mediterranean. We walked along the seafront there, had a lunch and drove along the coastline watching as flamingoes stalked the shallows and campers congregated along the sandy peninsula in their camper-vans. Before turning back northward we visited the salt works at the end of the peninsula, bought some Mediterranean sea salt from a shop at the base of a huge hill of salt. On the way back we stopped at the canal and small bridge made famous in the painting of it by Vincent Van Gogh and it was remarkable to see the bridge almost exactly as it appears in the famous painting. We returned to Avignon, driving through thick clouds of mosquitos as we went.

Van Gogh Bridge

Van Gogh Bridge

Today we went to the market town of I’sle sur al Sorgue. It was crowded with tourists from all over Europe, particularly Germans and Parisians escaping the colder north for the sunny warmth of Provence. There were stands selling sausages impregnated with blueberries, olive tapenade, olive oils in every flavor imaginable, pates of goose liver and beef and, of course, cheese. The town is on the bank of the river and as we wound through the narrow streets of shops and stands, we crossed over to a park to enjoy a pizza on the grassy lawn listening to a woman singing bolero music in the pavilion.

We left the crowds and shops of I’sle sur al Sorgue and drove up Mount Ventoux, the highest point in Provence. Lycra-clad bicyclists were grinding their way up the mountain and when we arrived at the summit we found a grand viewpoint from where we could see the southern alps to the east, the rolling farmlands of Provence to the west, and the Mediterranean far away to the south. We relaxed on the summit for awhile before returning to Avignon where Aline had reserved tickets to a play in town.

We went to the playhouse in the center of Avignon to see a play; however, it was a play of the absurd with symbolism that escaped me and by intermission time I had fallen asleep on the shoulder of my French neighbor (who had also fallen asleep on my shoulder). We awoke and bid each other a surprised excusez-moi.  We walked to a nearby ice cream parlor for a great gelato and enjoyed the street theatre going on all around us before returning to the apartment for a quiet evening.

At 9:00 in the morning Sonia and I walked to the large plaza facing the Popes’ Palace the streets strangely quiet in the morning hours. We entered the palace and spent the next three hours walking through the massive structure, empty of furnishings but remarkable for its good condition. We saw the kitchen where whole boars were once roasted over open fires to feed visiting heads of state at lavish banquets, the smoke exiting through a gigantic chimney. We saw the treasury with its recently discovered vaults disguised in the floor (now empty of course). The popes’ personal chambers were surprisingly small, but intricately decorated with symbolic paintings on the walls.

We walked through the popes gardens where arbors grew grapes for his personal wines and then back into the streets, now becoming crowded, to have lunch at a street-side bistro and watch the street theatre unfolding before us with acrobats and costumed touts promoting various plays or concerts. We noticed a couple of Berber men in their blue robes selling hand-made silver jewelry and Sonia bought a bracelet from them. We stopped in the main market and had a plate of fresh oysters with a fresh white wine before returning to the apartment to rest up for the night’s activities, a flamenco concert at the performing arts center.

Walking back to the city center, we entered the theatre and watched Luis de la Carrasca and his family perform one of the best flamenco dance and song shows we’ve ever seen. The guitarists were phenomenal, the singers spine-tingling, and the dancers more than dramatic, all accompanied by the group pounding out a rapid staccato rhythm by sharply clicking stones together in their hands. We finished the evening with a meal of fruit, bread, cheese and wine.

Last day in Avignon. We walked around the town further exploring the alleyways and passages through this extensive medieval city. There’s something amazing to see around every corner it seems.  In the evening we drove up the Rhone River to the Chateauneuf du Pape (the popes’ ninth castle – a medieval summer home for the popes when it got too hot in Avignon). We met friends Ada and Olivier and their son for dinner spending the entire evening on the restaurant’s veranda in the shadow of the ruins of the palace that once stood there. We talked and laughed late into the evening watching the sun set over the Rhone Valley and sipping the famous Chateauneuf red wine, which was exceptionally good.

The next day we were leaving for Paris where we would spend Bastille Day and Brice and Aline would be guiding us on a packed tour of the city they know so well. So we took one last walk down the shady medieval streets of Avignon with locusts buzzing in the hot, summer sun and turned in early to catch the train north in the morning.

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