France - Provence 2


Last stop - Marseilles

We were a little daunted by the reputation of Marseilles as a busy metropolis with horrible traffic jams, hordes of tourists and the accompanying pickpockets.  So we left it till the last and visited on a Sunday.  Much to our surprise, it was a vibrant walkable city, full of character with a diverse population mix.

We started at the waterfront where the fishermen were selling fish along the quay together with all the other merchandise you'd typically find at a street market.

We wandered up the steep streets to the historic Le Panier district, the site of the original Greek settlement of Massalia in 600 B. C.  We were a little intrigued by the runoff in the sewer down the middle of the street on a sunny day...

Here you could see some of the sentiments of the Marseillaises posted on the front of a house in the area.

You could see all the way to the waterfront through this arcade half way up the hill.

La Maison Diamantee - obviously named for its walls.

The oldest house in Marseilles, Hotel de Cabre, built in 1535 and showing its age.

At the top of Le Panier, is La Vieille Charite, a former almshouse now the home of two museums and a cultural centre.  The architecture is stunning with arcades on three sides of a pink-stone courtyard.  It must have looked quite different when it was a poorhouse in 17th century France.

The chapel at the centre of the complex.

 The Cathedral "Vieille Major" dwarfed by the Cathedral "Nouvelle Major" behind it - what a contrast in style!

The inside of the "Nouvelle Major" is possibly comparable in size to St. Peter's in Rome.

This was where we had lunch - one of the best Salade Nicoise.  We were, afterall, quite close to Nice...

From the restaurant, we could see the Cathedral Notre Dame de la Garde at the top of the hill on the other side of the bay.  We were intrigued and decided to venture up.

An Arc de Triomphe on the way - looked familiar...

The inside of the ornate Neo-Byzantine Cathedral had all kinds of boats hanging down from the pillars - a little bizarre.

But the panoramic view outside the Cathedral is definitely worth the trip.  This photo shows the Chateau d'If (of Count of Monte Cristo fame) on the smallest island of the Frioul Archipelago a mile off shore.   It reminded me of Alcatraz in San Francisco.

We went back to little Cassis for our last evening in the region, enjoying a peaceful sunset by the sea.

We have come to the end of our remarkable trip to the south of France.  Thanks for coming along on the journey.  My next project - photos of our equally amazing trip to Australia and New Zealand last year.  Please stand by...


Cassis by the sea

Cassis is a lively, touristy little town on the Mediterranean coast, less than half an hour from Marseilles.  We stayed here on the advice of Rick Steves' travel guide, to avoid the traffic congestion in Marseilles and was glad to be able to catch a glimpse of daily life in the town.

A wedding at the local church.

Stylish guest in a hurry to get in...

Patient grandma in a hurry to get out...
I crashed the wedding ceremony - just one photo of the church...
And yes, it's a long-haired priest you see at the altar, pretty hip, I'd say.  

This old fountain is in the town centre.

We'd come across lots of statues of Mary on the walls of houses.  This one is different with steps created just to attend to it.  I wondered if this is the site of some significant event or other.

The sacred...

and the profane

Budding flamingo dancer performing by the waterfront

A parade of couples looking for food

Food found - scrumptious!

Great tasting bouillabaise - and we didn't care if it had all the "correct" ingredients

You couldn't see the actual sunset in Cassis but it seemed the reflected glow was even better.  It created  a warm glow in the town in the evening which you could enjoy from many vantage points, as you can see below.

The setting sun caught the red rocks behind the town's chateau, which apparently was not open to visitors.


Les Calanques

From the port of Cassis (or from Marseilles) you can take a boat ride to go out to gawk at the Calanques - fjord-like inlets with high white rocks on both sides.  The rock layers are very distinct features - reminded me of the geography lessons I had in school.  The great thing is they are also accessible by land and have become recreational areas for hiking, swimming and rock-climbing.

At Cassis, you can wait at the quay here for scheduled boat rides.  We went for one that took us to see eight calanques, all quite different.

Cassis with its backdrop of rocky outcrops seen from the sea

Great place for a picnic!


The headland of Cassis in view again.

Next post:  Cassis 


Ansouis - a very small village

But it has a big chateau!   And that is the dominant feature.  Built in 1178, the chateau had been lived in by the Sabran family for the past 800 years!   It had to be put up for sale in 2008 because the family was in financial straits.  Photos were not allowed inside the chateau, much to my regret, as there were some really striking rooms, particularly the medieval chambers in the lower part of the chateau.  The 17th century additions on the upper levels were interesting too with many connecting corridors and secret doorways.  

The entrance gate to the chateau

The main portal

There are many terraces on many levels.  The lion sculpture that you see on the roof of this building is actually on a terrace.  And you can look down on another terrace garden below.  

View from the terrace.

It doesn't look like it, but this is actually on the roof of another part of the building;

another aspect of the rooftop garden.

View of the village from one of the chateau terraces.

This is the church even though it doesn't look like one on the outside.

The inside was a little unexpected.

You could almost count on one hand the number of businesses in the town.  The bakery was only open in the morning and a few hours in the evening.  But it has a really nice restaurant, La Closerie, where we had a fabulous dinner the first night that we arrived at our apartment at the Ferme de la Platane.    Below, you see two gentlemen in the village - one very much at home, the other behaving like a tourist (he was trying to show how narrow this street was - and it actually has a name!)

Here is a view of the Ferme de la Platane from the village.  We visited Ansouis on the last day of our stay at the vineyard.  With this, we said a reluctant goodbye to this marvellous region, moving on to our last stop, Cassis and Marseille on the Mediterranean.


Silvacane Abbey

No matter how similar in style and structure the various abbeys and churches from the middle ages, they all have a different ambiance.  Silvacane Abbey, near La Rocque-d'Antheron, is no longer a religious establishment, but it retains a sombre and peaceful atmosphere.  In fact, I found it more restful than the Abbe Senanque because it was not swamped by tourists and there were no guides.  I was able to take it at my own pace and just soaked in the simplicity and harmony that was inherent in the architecture of the Cistercians.   You can see for yourself below.

The chapel was almost devoid of decoration, which made its architectural lines all the more striking.

An appropriately placed work of art added to the ambiance.

This is the entrance to the dormitory.

A dormitory very similar to the one at Senanque but more interesting because of the many windows.

The cloisters are stunning in their simplicity.

This is a window decorated with fingerprints!  A touch of contemporary art.

This would be a great place to do some Zen meditation.


Magic Kingdom

We drove around another hairpin bend on the D15 highway in Provence, slowed down because of all the cars parked on a narrow strip of roadside and saw this breathtaking view.  It was the town of Gordes, spilling down the hillside, reputedly the most photographed town in France - for obvious reasons.   It's a fairytale kingdom with a castle at the top of the hill - sheer magic!

The castle, started in the 11th century and completed in the 16th century, is now a museum dedicated to the art work Pol Mara, a Belgian artist who lived in Gordes.  We did not visit as it was closed by the time we got there late in the day.

We did wander through the town through all kinds of ancient laneways.

You practically have to bend down to go through this one, it's actually a real street

that came out onto this courtyard.

We wanted to see how the town worked - how the houses were built down such a steep slope - and so we tried one of the streets leading downhill...

See how this house was built on multiple terraces following the slope!

The temptation was to keep going down the path to see what the next corner would bring -

one awesome view after another.

This even looked like it might be a private home, can you imagine living here?

This seemed to be caverns of some sort but there was no signage.

There were no road signs and no map, it was time to turn back up the hill, along this ancient path...

with an escort

It always took twice as long to go up than it did to go down.  We made it back into the town just before the bakery closed.  This was where the patient sales lady boxed and beribboned our two pieces of dessert  even as the owner locked the front door.   Typical French style!


Abbey in the Valley

By now, you would have figured out that most of our destinations in Provence seemed to include a religious institution of some kind or other.  No, we were not on a pilgrimage but the church was so dominant in the middle ages that religious structures seemed to be the only ones around or still standing and worth seeing.  The Abbe de Senanque (apologies for all the missing accents in my French names -  I have yet to find them on the blogging site!) is hidden in a valley near the town of Gordes.  We had to drive down a narrow winding mountain road to get here, all the time keeping our fingers crossed that we wouldn't encounter a tour bus going in the opposite direction. The location is very secluded and I could imagine it would be very peaceful when all the cars were gone. It is an active monastery and guided tours in French were again the only way to see it.  

This used to be the dormitory for the monks.

Here is the chapel.

Note the asymmetry in the location of the windows in the chapel.

Haven't we seen this before?

I loved the challenge of taking photos in the dim lit rooms.  Figuring out the lighting was a learning experience, but there were also the physical challenges of trying to out manoeuvre a crowd of more than 50 people milling around and competing with other photographers for the prime spot for photos.  I have developed a technique when forced to be in a group - be the first one in and the last one out.  Other photographers had the same idea of course but we were all very considerate of each other and moved on when we were done, unlike people who didn't take photos but talked on cellphones or for some reason or other wouldn't get out of the room.

This was the room where meetings were held.

And here, the only room in the monastery with a fireplace, the place where the monks could do work or write as it was the only warm room.

Here is the door to the library - you can see the word "Bibliotheca" carved into the stone.  I would have loved to see inside, but it was not open to the public.  

SUNDAY, 31 JULY 2011

Seeing Red

In Roussillon, of course!   Everything here is red - houses, roofs, bricks, even the drink glasses and place mats - well, some of them.  The locals have great colour sense and sure knew how to bring out the red in the town.  The natural ochre deposits found in the clay in the village is the source of all this redness.  Apparently there was intense mining activity in the 18th century with the demand for the red pigment, but in the 1930's the mines were closed to prevent degradation of the sites.  Tourism is now the main industry, and why are we not surprised.

Now if it weren't 100 degrees and the sun so burning hot, we should have walked over to this cliff and looked back onto the town.  It would have been a spectacular shot, but I only discovered that after I came back.  To see the village from the other side, go to this site:

The town is pretty amazing!

Look at the stunning palette of colours - a painter's delight!

Even the lemon seemed to have a reddish tinge!  This was the best lemon sorbet we ever had.  The sorbet must have been scooped into the lemon before the whole thing was frozen.  The perfect dessert for a 100 degree day!  I sure could have used one today!


Castle on the Rocks

It's hard to tell which side the castle was on, it blended right into the rocks in a very strategic location at the top of a steep hill.  But look at the lady on the bicycle!  She seemed hardly deterred by the steep grade - she didn't even look like she was exerting herself!   And she was not a young woman.  This is the road to the 10th century castle atop the town of Les Baux.  It is a grand fortress built out of the rocks.  You can see from the photos below it is often hard to see where the fortress began and where the rocks ended.  

The town was well-protected behind the castle.

I could almost picture the knights in shining armour...

The spectacular panorama from the high fortress wall -  you can see the vineyards and the orchards with the Alpilles, the mountain range in Provence in the distance.

Some not-so-medieval knights demonstrating on the medieval siege machines

I love the many levels the castle is on - until I have to climb them!  But it has many courtyards, towers, underground passages, even a medieval hospital - really quite a fun place.

It would make quite an amazing play castle, don't you think?  Magical!  This has got to be my favourite castle.

And a serious chapel underneath the rocks...

This is the view from one of the highest points on the castle wall - it was quite a sheer climb, but worth it.

We arrived at the end of a very hot day so by the time we left, the town was deserted.

The setting sun highlighted the white bauxite in the surrounding mountain sides.

MONDAY, 25 JULY 2011

Van Gogh's Asylum

The wonderful St. Remy market was just a road stop for us - our real destination was St. Paul's Hospital just south of the town.  Van Gogh checked himself into the mental hospital and stayed there for almost a year.  Here is the statue of Van Gogh pathetically clutching his sunflowers in the garden.

St. Paul's was a monastery before it became an asylum.  The splendid romanesque cloisters surrounded this beautiful courtyard.

Here are some young visitors enjoying each other's company, oblivious to the gorgeous architecture -

Van Gogh's bedroom in the hospital and below that, the view from his window.  He had painted both the room and the view.

The view of the hospital and chapel from the lilac fields.  The gardens and the fields around the hospital all looked familiar because they had all been painted by Van Gogh - this was one of the more prolific periods in his life.

Here's the painting

Here's the landscape in front of the hospital grounds

One thing we noticed while we were in Provence - there were many mountains and natural landscapes - we were actually right in a vast national park.  But while the French promoted art avidly everywhere, there was very little promotion of hiking and other outdoor activities.  Not once did we come across any literature in the tourist offices promoting hiking trails.  This was in sharp contrast to our last trip in New Zealand where we were bombarded by suggestions for tramping everywhere.  One almost felt guilty if one didn't hike.  Here, it's the art...

SUNDAY, 24 JULY 2011

Cezanne's Studio

Aix-en-Provence is Cezanne territory.  His studio was just outside the centre of town, a short walk from the church of St. Sauveur except it was a hot sunny day so it felt much farther for us.  No photos were allowed in the studio but here is the staircase leading up to it, in itself quite striking.

The studio was one large room, the width of the house, with one large window facing north and several windows facing south.  The large wall to wall window was quite unusual in a house from that period but clearly perfect for a studio.   There were little original furniture but we were told we can pull out some of the drawers of an old cabinet to see some of his old photos and sketches.  It was all quite interesting but there was probably enough content for a 15 minute visit.  Still, if it were a pilgrimage, one would say it was an honour to be treading on the same ground as the great artist and to be in the same room where he created his many famous paintings.

Here is the outside of the house

and the garden, which I actually found more captivating because of the fascinating play of light coming through the tree canopy onto the many intersecting pathways at varying grade levels.   You can see below that there are a million possibilities for Cezanne paintings in that garden and I almost saw more of Cezanne in the garden than in the studio.  I had great fun with the camera here - adjusting the light meter,  the polaroid filter, focusing on different areas, then checking for effects.  We must have spent more than an hour just in the garden.  Love it!


Beautiful people, awesome architecture

What a treat!  The cloisters in the St. Sauveur Cathedral at Aix-en-Provence are a real gem.   Entry was free but French guided tour is the only way you can see it.

Couple admiring detail with the guide

The guide emphasized that these columns were each different because symmetry was not the style.  Not only were the design details and shapes of the columns different, the columns were even made with different kinds of stones.  Now I wish my French were better and I could repeat more of what was said, but it sure was incentive to listen harder.

The Cathedral


Every day is market day

We visited a market practically every day that we were in Provence.  In each area, there are bound to be two or three towns that would have a market on any given day.  The biggest one we have visited was at St. Remy, even bigger than the one at Aix-en-Provence and one we've enjoyed the most because of the variety of merchandise.  The beautiful voice of Mirielle singing in the marketplace at St. Remy also made this a memorable locale for us.  We were lucky to find a seat in the cafe in front of which she was singing.  You can hear a clip of her singing:

Here is the Aix market, right outside the Hermes store!

Baskets - a signature provencal market fare,

A happy customer -

The cleanup afterwards

St. Remy market is spread out over many streets and squares with a wide variety of merchandise,

 Look at the array of door knobs!

and your choice of cheese stalls


a family affair!

 Not to mention your choice of street musicians,    

on the Cours Mirabeaux in Aix-en-Provence

St. Remy