A day in the heart of Provence

A word of warning: if you want to see your childhood dream of walking through fields of lavender come true, you need to a) have the lavender season on your side b) book your tour well ahead of time. Luckily for us, we had a). Unfortunately for us, we didn’t do b).

Through a thorough scan of the internet, I was able to find us some of the last places on a half day tour leaving from Avignon. So we bought the tour and some train tickets, and the next day we set off to see the lavender.

Avignon was worth a visit in its own right. The Palais des Papes is an old and majestic building and I would’ve liked to have had the time to explore it. Instead, we headed over to the famous bridge that once spanned the river, connecting several medieval townships.

Avignon

We ended up singing ‘Sur le pont, d’Avignon‘ for the rest of the day. It also happened to be the start of the Avignon Festival, and in the space of a few small hours we witnessed several thousand signs for plays, musicals and shows get posted up on every available vertical surface. If we hadn’t had such a strict itinerary, I would’ve loved to stay to watch several of them, and test my capacity for understanding the nuances of French drama onstage.

It was soon time to head off on the tour. Interestingly it was given in English, but we managed to have several in depth conversations in French with our guide. Driving through the countryside, we stopped at several age-old villages to admire their provincial beauty. We stopped to visit la fontaine de Vaucluse, with its beautiful turquoise waters and its ancient paper mill. We also stopped by Gordes, a stone walled village set into a hillside that looks out across the fields and countryside.

France_Gordes (2)

The town of Gordes looks out over the plains

The main attraction was L’abbaye de Sénanque, an Abbey which for hundreds of years, has sustained itself by growing and harvesting lavender, which is then sold locally. The grey stone of the Abbey and the vibrant purple of the flowers made for a beautiful contrast. Although the place was buzzing with tourists, I felt a sense of quiet and peace as I walked between the purple rows, the lavender scent shimmering around me like a mirage. When it was time to leave, I dawdled reluctantly back to the bus, trying to soak in the feeling.

We stopped in several larger commercial lavender fields as we drove along to our next destination: Roussillon. Roussillon is a town with houses built from the ochre cliffs it sits upon. The contrasts of the reds, greens and pale blue shutters lend a real beauty to the place. Wild lavender was growing from the clifftops where we sat to eat lavender ice-cream from the local gélaterie and soak in the evening sun.

 

 

We arrived back in Avignon just in time for our train (after an alarming roadside inspection by the gendarmarie). As we sped back to Marseille, we watched a big full moon rise over l’estaque, each lost in thoughts about all the beautiful places we had been.

Advertisements

Les Santons

One of the things I love most about the South of France is that it’s got real character. The ‘santons’ bring this to the fore, demonstrating country scenes from the typical to the comical.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

These large santon figures are fitted with clothing and outfits to suit their trade, but smaller clay figures also exist and can be placed alongside hand painted clay florists, bakers, butchers, markets, schools etc. to create a whole village scene. Many people collect them.

When back in Melbourne, I take part in the Paris to Provence French Festival, whose Santon display never fails to initiate wonder and intrigue. It was fantastic to come and see where these little figurines in their birthplace. Every time we saw a Santon display set up in a window, we paused in front of the shop for a good ten minutes comparing these jolly characters and making up stories about their little inanimate lives.

Notre Dame de la Garde

On the high limestone peak sits la bonne mère, ‘the good mother’, keeping watch over the Bay of Marseille. The Basillica of Our Lady of the Guard, is traditionally seen as the guardian and protector of the city and has a long history as a chapel, a fort, a place of worship and a religious sanctuary.

IMG_9258

We made the long walk up from the Old Port to her door. The Catholic Basilica offers a breathtaking view over the city, the low rocky mountain ranges and the open blue bay. The Byzantine and Romanesque influenced architecture are just as entrancing. Inside, mosaics line the walls and direct your attention to the ornate ceilings.

Visiting Notre Dame de la Garde, you can’t help but feel in awe, but the place also invites introspection. We spent some time in the cool of the church, reflecting, praying and being thankful for the wonderful experiences France had offered us as we traveled.

IMG_9267IMG_9255

Le Savon de Marseille

Marseille is the home of SOAP! Marseille is known for making a number of high quality olive-oil soaps. While we were there, we went visited the Licorne Soap Factory to see how the soap was made.

Firstly, the unscented soap is warmed and then rolled out thinly to create flakes which can be mixed with scented oils and colourings to create a unique soap ‘flavour’.

 

While we were there the ‘parfum du jour’was green tea… and although the photos don’t show it, the scent was almost overpowering. ‘This is one of our subtler scents,’ said the young man who was leading the demonstration. ‘But you may start to feel heady or find it hard to breathe. Please leave at anytime if you start to feel uncomfortable.’

My nose was already stinging with the scent, and I sneezed several times to clear my head of the soap powder that floated through the air and covered every flat surface of the factory. I wanted to stay and see how things were done.

 

The fine flakes of soap were condensed into a long cylinder, pressed into shape by a machine. This was then cut by hand into small portions of a certain length. The pieces were placed in a machine which clamped above and below to mould an oval, stamped with the Licorne motif and the flavour Thé vert ‘Green tea’. The discarded excess was placed in a bucket and eventually returned to be repressed and reused.

Some soaps where pressed using a square mould, as you can see on the right above. After watching the demonstration, we raced outside for a breath of fresh air… and then I bought myself a tiny green tea soap, to remember the smell of this place and to do what soap does best- to wash- something I needed after a long day’s sightseeing.

Les Calanques

This is an essential if you are visiting Marseille. For those who love hiking and who have the time to spare, I would recommend packing a picnic, your bathers and some walking shoes and climbing through the calanques to discover their hidden coves and cliffs that give you access to the blue, blue Mediterranean sea.

Otherwise, do as we did and jump aboard a boat cruise that will take you along the coast so you can discover this beautiful natural coastline. Another option is to spend some time visiting the town of Cassis, which marked the end of our tour and is an excellent point from which to explore by foot, boat or stand-up paddle board.

We loved our day out on the water – this what I would come back to Marseille for.

Attentats à Paris – 13/11/16

Paris again has been subject to violent attacks, and once again this has had major repercussions across France, and across nations. Here in Australia, people are reeling from the shock.

The situation is difficult to understand. Politics, religion, biases and violences… In this day and age we are notified of everything, but it is hard to know which notifications are the best representation of reality.

It is my hope that the shock of these deaths, the shock of this brutal attack on the city of light, will encourage a reflection on our perceptions. I hope it will challenge us to respond not with fear, but with an awakening. We have taken our stability for granted. Historically, countries such as France (and you could also say Australia) have threatened others to defend their stability. Now we are beginning to see what it means to be threatened on our own soil by people who wish to defend a conflict. It is easy to close your eyes when the trouble doesn’t concern you directly, it is much harder to remain ignorant when the threats extend to those you know or those you identify strongly with. Perhaps out of this sorrow, we will become more aware of the multitude of sorrows that are inflicted daily on others in conflicts throughout the world. Perhaps a more critical engagement with the news and other notifications will arise from these traumas. Perhaps we will grow a desire to replace fear with thanks: thanks for the freedom that we have, regardless of those who threaten us, the sorrows that befall us, and the instability that surrounds us, to live without fear.

Palais Longchamp

LE MUSÉE DES BEAUX-ARTS, the Fine Art Museum, is the oldest museum in Marseille and is housed in the Palais Longchamp. Established in the 1800s, it houses a rich collection of paintings dating from the 16th to 19th centuries.

Whilst the paintings and masterpieces are exquisite, the building in which they sit is also worth a visit in its own right. The Palais Longchamp was constructed in 1869, as un château d’eau or a ‘water castle’, to celebrate the new canal that brought the waters of the Durance river to Marseille. Until this point, Marseille had been having problems with a constant water supply.

Behind the large and extravagant fountain, is a large park, once home to the botanical garden and a zoo. Whilst there are no longer any animals kept there, you can see many marseillais walking their dogs and taking a stroll among the ancient trees- some as old as 150 years!IMG_9381

In the heat of summer, this is a lovely place to relax and enjoy the peace of the garden. In some places, you can even look out across the city to the surrounding mountain ranges.

IMG_9423

 

Marseille

After the visiting the Rhône-Alps region, we took the train from the mountains to the sea to stay in Marseille. An ancient Phoenician port, Marseille has been around for a long time. We were fortunate enough to stay for five days, but we could understand the enticing lure of the blue Mediterranean which for a long time made this city a gateway from France to the  rest of the world.

Having learnt a lot about Marseille in the classroom, it was great to be able to experience it for ourselves. We had to visit the vieux port and try the Bouillabaisse soup, as encouraged by our teacher. Marseille was a beautiful town, but boy it was hot while we were there! We were glad for the electric fans in many restaurants, and for the excuse to buy a few icecreams…

On top of the world

While visiting Aix-les-Bains, we were invited to go on a hike with our wonderful hosts. Borrowing shoes, stocking up on picnic supplies and putting on our sunhats, we drove up the mountain to our starting point, for “an easy walk, with a bit of a climb”.

Walking through shaded forest, it was quite cool, in contrast to the hot day down in the valley. Between the trees, there came an occasional glimpse down over the edges of the ridge to the valleys on either side.  At some points the path was quite steep and we had to cling to the hand rail. My inner competitor (who likes to always be in front) had somehow pushed me to claim the lead, and I thought that this might have been the climbing we were warned about. Until I arrived at the foot holds built into the rock face.

It was a matter of placing your feet securely while holding on to the cable with your hands… and NOT LOOKING OUT OVER THE EXPANSE OF BLUE SKY DROPPING AWAY BELOW THE RIDGE. With shaky knees, we managed to haul ourselves up to the summit.

And wow…. it was amazing. At first I was reluctant to lift my eyes much past the gravel path in front of me, because I still couldn’t trust those shaky knees. I didn’t have to hold out for too long though, a few paces later we were at our destination: le dent du chat.

IMG_9102 (2)

Literally ‘The cat’s tooth’, it seemed like the perfect place to sit down and eat our picnic lunch (du saucisson, du fromage savoyard, du bon pain) looking out at the town and the lake spread out below us. Our altitude was well above that of several planes flying through the mountain pass, and the mostly clear sky left it difficult to compare ourselves to the clouds, but gave us the most spectacular view.

It was one of the most stunning walks I’ve ever done, and definitely one which challenged my instinctual dislike of heights (which fortunately I am slowly learning to ignore because the view is always such a great reward).  One thing is for sure: this fantastic experience left me feeling on top of the world, even once we’d left the mountain peak well behind.

Aix-les-Bains

…blue sky, blue mountains, blue lake…

Aix-les-Bains was our next stop on the map, and it was absolutely beautiful in Summer. We went for a trip up to the local specialty cheese shop, passing by the cows with their bells in the fields, moving up into the forested hill tops, and stopped at the local ski slopes for a magnificent view of the French Alps on one side and the valley and the lake sloping away on the other.