France - Provence 1

SUNDAY, 17 JULY 2011

Lacoste Found

Optimism and an unwillingness to give up played a large part in the finding of Lacoste at the end of a long drive leading to nowhere (the GPS was probably off by just a fraction, but enough to put us off track).  It was getting late, there was a good chance that the Chateau might even be closed by the time we found it.  We headed towards the hillside town, relieved to find that it was indeed Lacoste and followed the signs to the Chateau.  It was a steep walk up cobbled walkways and through the ruins to the entrance, which, to our relief, was still open.  The lone attendant at the door offered to stay until we were finished.

While the Cadenet chateau was in ruins, it was free.  There was a charge for admission to the Chateau de Lacoste and you can judge for yourself from the photos below whether it was worth the 6 Euros for admission.  For us, we had driven a half day to get there - we paid, no questions asked.  There was no information sheet provided but we knew the Marquis de Sade had lived there for a few years and I was curious to see his rooms.  Unfortunately, there was not much left of the 11th century castle  - it was mostly destroyed during the revolution and there was no access to the interior.   

This stunning sculpture was outside the entrance and there was a temporary art installation just inside the entrance.  You can see the village of Bonnieux in the distance.

Blue hanging installation inside

The Chateau from the outside - there was no access inside.

The town of Lacoste was very picturesque, with cobbled steps through ancient portals in the section leading up to the chateau.  

Someone had a sense of humour here - I had to walk past it before I realized it was an imitation.

People still live in these ancient houses - and I suspect they cost a fortune.

More portals

This is the pretty town of Bonnieux, which you have to drive through every time you want to get from one side of the Luberon to the other.  Crossing the mountain was a steep, narrow, winding road with hairpin turns - but it's an undivided highway with a posted speed of 90 km, a good excuse for a BMW, if you were going to rent a car for your stay.


A different kind of chateau

We drove through the town of Cadenet and noticed a sign pointing the way to the "chateau".  Thinking we were in for another treat, we followed the steep, narrow, single lane, winding road up the hill and found ourselves at an almost bare hilltop.  There were a few cars parked near a sign "Site du Chateau".  With our spirit of adventure still in tact, we decided to get out and take a hike.  There was indeed a chateau on the site, many years ago.  What you see below were all that was left of it.

The amphitheatre

But we did get a treat!  There was a panoramic view of the Luberon, les Alpilles and you can see below on the left, the famous Montagne St. Victoire, the subject of many Cezanne paintings and the inspiration for other painters like Picasso. 

Just as an aside, here is a closer look at the Montagne from another angle, taken when we were enroute to Cassis later in the week.

The neat farmland and vineyards

and the town of Cadanet below.  The view was worth the precarious drive up the hill!

We had lunch in the hillside town of Lauris at this highly recommended restaurant, Lou Pebre D'Ai.   As we seldom celebrate Pentecost at home, we were pleasantly surprised to stumble upon a Pentecostal holiday Monday special - a 5 course Pentecostal lunch with wine for 17 Euros!  The food was excellent and the ambiance was festive - what a deal!  No wonder the place was packed.  We were lucky to get a seat as it was late and the local families celebrating were just leaving.

The town of Lauris

Our plan after lunch was to visit another nearby chateau, the Chateau de LaCoste, bought and restored by Pierre Cardin.  Following the GPS, we found ourselves on the other side of the river in a town called Le- Puy-Sainte-Reparade with no sign of a chateau.  After asking for directions we finally found a sign that said "Chateau La Coste" (with a space) and the GPS told us that we were at destination, except that it's a winery!  The patient store clerk gently told us we were not the first to make that mistake.  She very kindly looked up the coordinates for us and away we go, all the way back across the river and ended up in this spot after another hour...

Nice country road but where is the chateau?
It was getting late and we had been driving for a couple of hours.  We were about to give up when I turned around and looked up the hill - voila!  did that not look like a chateau up there?  We turned off the GPS and decided to strike out on our own.   

Next post:  Find out if we made it without the GPS!


Our First Chateau

The Renaissance Chateau de Lourmarin was the first chateau we visited in France and it led us to expect others to be similar.  We found to our surprise later that they can be vastly different.  The Chateau de Lourmarin was built in the 15th century on the remains of a 12th century fortress, hence the mix of styles you see below.  

Love the wood against the stone and the arches
My favourite spiral

View of the town from the top of the castle

There was an exceptional photo exhibit of the African desert in the basement.  See the camels in the back and this striking portrait of a tribesman.

We were lucky to be treated to a free choral concert in the Temple beside the chateau.  Here are the combined choirs from Aix-en-Provence and Rotterdam.

The colourful streets of Lourmarin

The largest meringue we have ever seen!

It also has the best artisanal nougat ever, which I didn't take a picture of, much to my regret; although I'll remember what it tasted like without any help.

Handsome Lourmarin cat and Lourmarin dog - pretty perky fellas!

I just noticed this sign as we were about to leave Lourmarin.  It turns out Albert Camus lived in Lourmarin and actually used his Nobel Prize money to buy a house here although he didn't live in it for very long before he died.  He was buried here.  Now if we had done our research before we left home, we would have looked up his house at least!  It was apparently not marked but all the locals would know which one.  Peter Mayle too, lives in Lourmarin today.

The dessert of the day - a Lourmarin treat!


Place of Enchantment

With views like these, is it any wonder that we found the Ferme de la Platane enchanting?  The magical village of Ansouis, which you can see in the distance, is just a short walk away.  The truth is, we drove everywhere.  The Ferme became our base for exploring the villages of the Luberon and we returned each evening to a home away from home, it was such a comfortable haven.

This is the private garden entrance to our apartment - 

with one of my favourite trees

The charming and spacious apartment -

Provencal still life

A relaxing meal (mussels and oysters in the shell) on the porch -

This is the view from the front porch

The sideview of the renovated 18th century farmhouse

Picture perfect views everywhere we looked -

The vines catching the setting sun - a magical time of day
We had the time of our lives!

SUNDAY, 10 JULY 2011

Festival in Nimes

We happened to arrive in Nimes on a Saturday when the whole town was consumed with bullfight fever.  For a few hours, you would think you were in a Spanish rather than a French town.  There were bandanas and flamingo costumes everywhere, Spanish food was served at all the restaurants about town.  We limited ourselves to having paella for lunch to keep in the spirit.  I was glad we missed the morning bullfight and the evening session was too late for us as we have to move on to our destination Ansouis.  Otherwise, I would have been faced with an ethical decision (heaven forbid!) - should we get tickets for the bullfight or not?

Below you see the crowd routing for their favourite team outside the arena.

Dressed up for the festival.  The horse was also having its tail braided (sorry, that's another photo).

On the outside, the Nimes arena looked very similar to the one in Arles except that it is bigger.  We didn't get to go in because it was closed for the bullfight.

Here is the "Maison Carree", reminiscent of the Madeleine in Paris, but looking oddly out of place in the modern square.  

The Jardin de la fontaine with two historical monuments on site -

The ruins of the Temple of Diana 

and the Tour Magne, a watchtower from the time of Augustus, standing on the tallest part of the city on Mont Cavalier.  

We climbed the few hundred steps 

to the very small viewing balcony at the top - a very strategic position for a watch tower.  For us, it provided a bird's eye view of the city.

Back on the ground, the festivities continued and here troupes were on their way to a show set up on the grounds of the Jardin.  These streets are really more suitable for horses than for cars.

We were pleased to come across a Milonga on the street where people were dancing the tango.  If our hosts at the Ferme were not expecting us, we may have stayed and joined the fun...

Next post:  Ferme de la platane


Savouring the moment

The joys of travel in France, good food and wine...

 The sumptious markets - here the sweetest melons ever

 Watching a fellow traveller struggling with his equipment from a distance - you see yourself
 Kids enjoying school - here working together on a project at the amphitheatre

Taking a crepe break in the middle of the afternoon

Recognizing there is another side to the good life...

Locals enjoying a game of boule 

and a quiet moment by the riverbank...


The Red Door

I wonder how many museums in the world have a red door?  The Musee Reattu in Arles is exceptional in more ways than one.  It is located in a unique 15th century building that used to be a priory, later bought by the artist Jacques Reattu to house his own works.  Its architecture is quite remarkable and the structure is a historical monument.   It is also the first museum in France to exhibit photos.  

The Museum has two Picasso paintings and many of his sketches.  Below you see his painting of his mother Olga and also a photo of him and the woman who looked like one of his muses.    

The Museum backs onto the banks of the Rhone


Stunning in Stone

It must feel good to be perched on top of the world!  This confident little fella was standing on the 700 year old stone roof of the cloisters of St. Trophime in Arles.  Consider the weight of the stone!
St. Trophime - Church and Cloisters

Here is the 12th century romanesque gallery - you can see the beautiful blue stained glass window at the end.  

Close up of the blue window
An interesting feature of the cloisters is that all four galleries are different architecturally, with the style evolving as the galleries were built in different eras.  The south gallery (below), built in the late 14th century, is distinctly gothic while the ones built in the 13th century are romanesque with some gothic features.  And if I weren't so busy taking photos, I would be looking at the fine details of the columns, each depicting a different biblical tale.

In stark contrast to the cloisters, is the Roman arena - clearly built for the beasts!   

It had been around since 1 BC but had also evolved as the world around it changed.  With the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, it became a fortress and the town was built inside the arena.  It remained so until the 18th century when it became a national monument.  And now there are bullfights and concerts.

Under the arcades

View of the city and the river from the top arcade


A different kind of quail - Arles

It turns out that quails are a regional specialty in this part of Provence, hence multiple handpainted renditions in this shop in Arles. I have never seen so many quails in my life! 

Arles is also a different kind of city from Avignon or Aix-en-Provence.  While Avignon and Aix are genteel, classy, "safe", I found Arles has a very different flavour, one that grew on me after the initial unease and as I got more comfortable with the narrow alleys and slightly dilapidated buildings.  It is colourful with a different timbre.   Maybe this was why Van Gogh liked to hang out here.  This is the cafe that he painted in The Cafe Terrace and below that, you see the hospital courtyard which he painted.  He was admitted to this hospital after he cut off part of his ear.

Artists continue to hang out.  Here is one attempting to render the gorgeous portal of the romanesque Church of the St. Trophime Cloisters (more on this in the next post).

Then there are those who coordinated their washings
and their dinner backdrops...
Streets of colour

I would have problems deciding too!

A different kind of L'Arlesienne...

See the one Van Gogh painted at:

And a Happy July 4th to my American family and friends!


Roasted Quail and Cloisters

Villeneuve was just across the river from Avignon, but what a contrast!  Avignon was crawling with tourists while Villeneuve was quiet and sleepy.  We arrived just as the market was closing and when I saw the roasted quail on the rotisserie spit of the farmer's truck, all plans for a leisurely sit down lunch went out the car window.  Without a map and the tourist office closed for lunch (yes, that seems to be the practice throughout the south - makes total sense!), we wandered around in the midday sun looking for a place to dig into our find and also someone to ask for directions to the cloisters we came here to see.  We noticed this impressive portal and walked in to find ourselves at our destination!

How incongruous that we had our lunch of roasted quail in the courtyard of what used to be a Carthusian monastery in the 11th century, later to become a palace for Cardinal Etienne Aubert in the 14th century in the time of the French popes.  The monks must be rolling in their graves!

This beautiful portal took us into what was left of the church, below.

And here are the amazing cloisters...

There was an interesting incident associated with this courtyard below.  An American pilot parachuted into this courtyard during the second world war but was unable to disengage himself when his parachute was caught on the chimney.  He was rescued by the guardian of the Chartreuse and hidden from the Germans in one of the buildings in the cloisters before he was escorted back to his unit by the French resistance.                                                         

Chapel seen through the hole
This is the 18th century washhouse where the monks did their laundry.  What is interesting are the rooms next to and above the washhouse and the chapel above it.  The rooms were used by monks as a place for confinement and isolation.  They could be "sentenced" for violation of monastic values, including the use of alchemy and commerce with women.  They could go there to examine their conscience and faith in isolation but they would still participate in the church service through their dormer windows and small "peepholes" in the chapel wall.   

The magnificent fort in Villeneuve at top of the hill, the chapel underneath the battlements where prayers for success in battle were offered and the panoramic view of Avignon across the Rhone.

From Villeneuve, we took a detour to look at the tallest aqueduct in the Roman world at the Pont du Gard.  It was an impressive three-storeyed structure and the museum at the site provided an elaborate history and mechanical details on Roman engineering.  There was an interesting video with aerial views of how water was transported via this intricate system of aqueducts.   Well-worth a visit.


French Seduction

I read with interest the article by Julien Russell Brunet in today's Globe & Mail on "Lessons in seduction", an interview with Elaine Sciolino, New York Times Paris correspondent on her new book "La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life"

I couldn't agree more with one comment in the article "The French seem to take pleasure in life more than we North Americans do with our puritanical, work-driven culture.  They have created and perfected pleasurable ways to pass the time: perfumes to sniff, gardens to wander in, wines to drink, objects of beauty to observe, conversations to carry on and it's almost as if they give themselves permission to fill this need for pleasure..."

I have to confess that our three visits to France have been among the most pleasurable of our annual trips.  And I think it has a lot to do with this French enjoyment of life, less consideration for the "bottomline" but more for the quality of the experience.  We went into a bakery in Gordes just as they were about to close.  Our meagre purchase of 3 pieces of dessert must have amounted to less than 5 Euros.  The purchase was patiently boxed and beribboned as if it were a precious gift.  What a pleasant surprise!  It no doubt also made the dessert taste better!

The apartments we have stayed in have always been well-stocked with all the "essentials" for French cooking - olive oil, balsamic vinegar, pepper and other spices, tea, coffee.   Not something we would ever expect in North America or even the rest of Europe (for the price we pay).  There was a stark contrast when the last time we spent a week in Prague after a week in Paris.  The Prague apartment kitchen was stocked with a large bottle of salt, and nothing else.

Fresh flowers awaited us in our Ansouis apartment

A young lady enjoying mussels for lunch in Marseilles - yep, we watched her finish the contents of the entire pot



Avignon Museums

Avignon has a lot of museums for a small city.  We were able to hit four of them in one afternoon, thanks to the very walkable distances in the old town and a well-planned route. The Angladon Museum,  housed in an 18th century house, has paintings from the collection of collector Jacques Doucet, including works by Degas, Picasso, Cezanne, and Modigliani's famous Lady in the Pink Blouse below.  There happened to be a special exhibit of photos by Degas, Bonnard and Vuillard when we were there - most unusual as we never think of these artists as photographers.

The staircase in the Angladon

Nice case of Orientalia, including the two in the mirror
Just across the Place from the Angladon, is the Municipal Library housed in a section of the 14th century Ceccano Palace.  I was a little confused as the History Plaque indicated this is a Bibliotheque but the sign on the door says Mediatheque and there are no books to be seen.  I had to ask a lady coming out of another door marked Jeunesse with her young son whether this is indeed the Bibliotheque.  She confirmed that it is indeed the Bibliotheque but that one side is the Mediatheque and the other the Children's library.  For her, that is the library.  

The Calvet Museum is also in an 18th century museum.  See the beautiful entrance and the staircase below.

One of the more memorable works for me is the portrait of his mother by Georges Desvallieres.  He had captured all the loneliness of age in her eyes and expression.

Ah, a break at a cafe for some glace in the afternoon.  Trust the French to serve up even a few Euros' worth of ice cream in style.

The Vauland Museum we visited was disappointing and was remembered more as a break from the afternoon heat than for its contents.  Our last stop was the Petit Palais Museum just beside the Papal Palace.  The collection was housed in the bishop's palace where the first two popes stayed before the Papal Palace was constructed.  It was a rich collection of religious art and there were again many madonnas, not all of them noteworthy but the Botticelli below definitely stood out.

As usual I was distracted by the architecture and here is another spiral staircase.  One of my future posts will include all the spiral staircases I was able to collect on this trip - and there were many.

A panorama of Avignon from the Palace Garden - the Rhone and modern Avignon in the distance



Taking the TGV (Train a Grand Vitesse) to Avignon was quite an experience.  No security check, no ticket check, no bureaucratic hassle - it truly lived up to its name.  Avignon was three and a half hours south and 10 degrees warmer.  Our host Francis picked us up at the station and walked us the long way round to the modern apartment in the 17th century house where we would be staying for the next two days.  The detour was to show us the Papal palace, practically our next door neighbour.  I was worried the wheels on our luggage would break on the cobbled streets but they survived.  You see below the house and the street leading up to the Palace.

5 Rue du Gal

The Papal Palace was vast and awesome, particularly when you think of the history of the popes associated with this era of chicanery and intrigue - the stuff of great historical fiction, which came back to me as I drifted through the medieval hallways and secret passages.  There also happened to be an outstanding exhibition of contemporary paintings on bridges in the great chapel.  The French are very supportive of the arts this way - many historical sites have art exhibitions installed, giving the artists a lot of exposure and bringing art to the masses.  But for the architecture photographer, not so great.

Support for the artist was also outside the Palace - musicians rotated through the Place and we were pleasantly surprised by this excellent guitarist playing all our favourites, including the classic Romance.  What a backdrop!

The famous Pont d'Avignon
The local story has it that while the dancing was "Sur le pont" the action was actually all "sous le pont".  Here we found a couple not quite making out, but sitting quietly enjoying the view.

View of the Rhone and that other bridge from the chapel below the bridge

What seems like an affluent residential section of Avignon with walled gardens and courtyards

The lush green wall of Les Halles, the daily market

Inside Les Halles, your choice of spices and shrimps (I have never seen so many varieties).  But when asked, the honest fish lady told me they were previously frozen; so we bought Mediterranean fish instead.  The "loup" was outstanding!

The old town was enclosed by this great wall 

Avignon at sunset - you can still take pictures at 9 pm!

The next post - Avignon Museums