Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Flash Tour of a Popely City

June 27, from Sainte Cécile-les-Vignes

"No, I don't think this is . . . "  Beth in the car ahead of us had turned through an opening in Avignon's ancient wall and Lisa was following . . . "the way to the parking garage," I finished under my breath. I could see a signaled entrance a few hundred feet farther along the perimeter road. Too late. We'd entered into the rabbit warren of tiny one way streets of an ancient walled city. It would take an unerring directional sense -- on a grey directionless day -- and a good bit of luck to get to the big underground parking garage from within the walls.  Or luck enough to find two parking spots on the street.

Beth stopped to ask someone. After much arm waving and pointing, we headed on into a skinny street despite a sign indicating a traffic blockage ahead. We proceeded a short way, but as Beth rounded a curve, I could see her turn her body back toward us, indicating a need to back up. We backed first, past the previous intersection. That's Beth, in the black car in front of us, turning the wrong way into a one-way street as a big piece of machinery proceeds toward her on our original route.

Lots of shrugs to and from French motorists meeting us the wrong way . . . yes, they understand . . . and finally both our cars make heart-stopping left turns back onto the perimeter highway, then swing into the underground parking. We speed over speed bumps, around and around and around (thus this jiggly photo).

Then Lisa decided to change directions and take the exit ramps instead, and shortly we found a big stretch of empty spaces. The first order of business was to find les toilettes, where we were reunited with Beth's crew.


Someone coming out of a ladies' stall advised us it was drip-dry. We divvied up pieces of tissue. Several of our group who couldn't read French walked through a door that said Public Forbidden and didn't run into this paper problem. Hmmm. There are benefits to not being able to read French. What could they do to you, after all?

We emerged into the grey day, sun barely poking through the overcast over the Palais des Papes. The large edifice dominates Avignon both physically and historically. The pope resided periodically in Avignon during the 13th century, then the permanent papal residence was set up here for six consecutive popes through two centuries. More on the popes in Avignon here.

"The era of the Popes somewhat eclipses other events in what is a long and tumultuous history. At the crossroads of the big trade and migratory routes between northern and southern Europe and between Italy and Spain, the city played a major role in European history." Continue at . . .

We would be in Avignon for a relatively short time ... relative to the fact that the old walled city is of a fair size, and, as these cities that start with round are, exceptionally easy to get lost in. Thus, we were starting with a Petit Train tour of the city. They give a good overview and provide some ideas about where you might want to return to after the ride. With headphones in the language of your choice.

Here are Sister and Linda in their seats in le Petit Train.

Lisa and the other Linda approach to get on the train.

Just to give an overview of the ancient city, here's one from Google Earth. Click on the photo to enlarge it. The pope's palace is on a promontory in the little wedge at the top of the circle. You can see this isn't your gridded city with a simple walk-around-the-block method of orientation.

A view of the golden Virgin Mary, who towers over the city, taken from inside the little
train . . .

The train goes up the promontory, onto the palace grounds, winding through the gardens. We can look down to see grape fields below and the Pont Saint-Bénezet, or what you might have heard of as Pont d'Avignon in the children's song. It is no longer a bridge, but just a remnant extending out into the Rhone. I have clearer views of that later.

There's an island in the Rhone to the west of Avignon, and past the second arm of the river is Villeneuve-les-Avignon, which also has some interesting ancient buildings.

Again from Google Earth, you can see the split in the river, the island and Villeneuve, but note particularly in the lower branch of the river where Pont Saint-Bénezet extends out into the water.

As in many of the towns of the South of France, living statues are peppered throughout the streets, earning donations from photographers and would-be photographers. Zorro here abandons his pose and lowers his head when this trainload of freeloaders drives by snapping photos. Beware the wrath of Zorro if you hope to freeload on foot!

Window shots in this flash tour of Avignon . . .

I've stayed at this hotel a few times with Jeanne's quilters tours. As you can see, it's on a hill. I think some of these hills account for the fact that le Petit Train in Avignon isn't as petit as it once was.

Here's an eye-level view of Pont Saint-Bénezet, and the little chapel on it where Saint-Bénezet is interred and where Saint Nicolas, patron saint of the Rhone boatmen was once worshipped, until the clergy decided the chapel was in danger of being swept away.

I just snapped this because I got a kick out of the proudly displayed one-star rating of the hotel. I don't know what the following NN refers to.

At the end of the tour, I asked Sister and Linda where they'd like to go and they said "shopping!" They wanted in particular to look at santons. Santons are small painted terracotta nativity figurines. They were originally crafted during the French revolution when churches were forcibly closed and all large nativity scenes were forbidden. Making them is essentially a family trade, passed down through the generations.  (Wikipedia)

They shopped, and bought santons and table clothes, and I resisted shopping for a time, then finally bought a tablecloth, and couldn't resist some coasters with funny cat cartoons on them. What? No pictures? I don't know what I was thinking. Or wasn't thinking.

I did take a picture of my lunch. I decided to order a croque monsieur, which is the French version of a ham and cheese sandwich, very light and fluffy and topped with a creamy cheese browned under the broiler. They vary in their construction from place to place, but this has to be the very worst one I ever had. Lucky for the little sidewalk cafe that I didn't note its name!

I almost take that back. I once had a pretty awful one in Paris. The very first one I had was in Paris and it was quite good, but the very best one was at a tea shop in Saint Jean De Luz. (I'm not a foodie, so you'll seldom hear my food evaluations here.)

After lunch the ladies wanted to look at Mephisto shoes, so I took them to the store. Big sale going on, but unfortunately Linda couldn't get fitted in the pair she liked, and Sister decided that her pre-trip shoe binge had been quite enough for this summer.

On my very first visit to Avignon, back quite a few years now, my roommate on the quilters tour and I gathered up our nerve and became the only customers at the time on the carousel. We weren't sure whether it was an adult activity or not but we had a glorious ride and quite a few other riders hopped aboard as we got off. (Merry-go-round shills!)

We headed out for a wine tasting later that afternoon and a slight disaster of a dinner out. But I'll leave those for next time.

See you soonish. (I'm in the midst of a computer production project . . . those little pocket itinerary/diaries I've shown here before.)


Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Nose to the Glass, Saint Rémy & Glanum

"Cypress and Star,"  van Gogh
If you Google "cypresses in Provence," most of the search results come up referencing van Gogh, with this painting as a prime example.

Each day as we head out in the car, we whiz along straight roads -- for some part of the day's journey -- bordered by grape fields and distant rows of cypress (also skyrocket juniper).

Nearly every day, I touch Beth on the shoulder and bubble, "I love this place!" Yes, bubble. I can barely contain the grins.

"Me, too," she answers.

This day we are going into the heart of van Gogh country, Saint Rémy-de-Provence. We'll visit Wednesday market and find a spot for lunch, then go a little south of town to Mausole Saint Paul, where van Gogh spent a period hospitalized, and/or Glanum, an excavation of a Roman city.

I've been to Saint Rémy numerous times, and despite an image of being very touristy and an expensive place to live, I love it there. I've seen Mausole Saint Paul and its gardens in various states of bloom, and differences in Glanum as excavation slowly continues. I stayed in town for a week to attend language classes a couple of years ago and learned to get a little less lost in the old town center, where streets take off in different angles and you never quite know where the radius you've chosen comes out on the perimeter road. This made me official guide for Sister and Linda. I also was set on having my favorite melon avec jambon cru and café liègeois for lunch, whether or not my companions liked my choice of venue!

We plunged in. Market tables and stalls snake throughout the old town, with one parking lot area off to one side that is covered with umbrellas. Elaine spots the little pink car (no, the little one, not the big Buick one). She wants it. It appears to her to be a Bugatti. I know nothing about Bugatti except the name. I Googled it.

I think this must be the model. I wanted to get it for her birthday (the pink one), but didn't think it would fit in my luggage. Actually, we would be flying home on her birthday. Perhaps in her luggage?

We heard the sound of a familiar musical voice wafting through the streets and wandered into the square where Leonard Blair was playing with his group. We had hopes for a new CD from the group but that appeared not to be the case.

Chickens in the square

Leonard groovin'

Colorful paintings with reflections in a window. What's that red figurine in the foreground? Looks like a porpoise jumping, but it's a horse, with his neck arched and his chin down against his neck.

I took this picture for a friend whose last name is Barth. It turns out this is a big annual regatta.

Ah! Here it is. La Fontaine. The melon avec jambon cru for lunch. The Cavaillon melon is the juiciest, sweetest, most luscious melon I've ever tasted and this one did not disappoint.

[stock photo]

They didn't have café liègeois on the menu (at least under that name) so I asked for it. A big beaming smile from the waitress assured me that it could be done, so we all ordered. I've had them various places, but, here, they are best ever. Recipes may vary, but this has got cream, coffee ice cream, perhaps some kind of liqueur, chantilly cream, and few crunchies, then a shot of strong, hot espresso that you pour over it yourself.

Lordy lordy!

Market was over by the time we finished the meal, but we still had time before our rendezvous to stroll through the street looking at the shops. I admired the cute pants on the mannequin but never considered them for myself. I  already bought a gauzy blue shirt, but after admiring this one, the sales woman invited us in to look at shirts in other colors. I tried on a grey one, then consensus was that I should find matching pants. The "One Size" pants that came with the shirt didn't include my size, but the young woman brought me pants that turned out to be the "button pants," as I'd been calling them.

The model                                                                    Mine

There was this other cute outfit out front, but it's definitely for the young and svelte.

Everyone in our two cars except Sister and me went to Mausole Saint Paul to walk in the steps of van Gogh. Sister and I had gone there on our trip here two years ago, so this time I wanted her to see Glanum.

[Jeanne M, this one's for you. Kinda sparse.]
We started our tour by going the opposite direction as the suite de la visite (direction of visit) signs. The visit starts at the downhill end of the excavated city and continues uphill. I proposed we climb higher to overlook the whole scene, then wander downhill.

We climbed, higher but not highest. I'm so unsteady on foot to get too fancy. In fact, I forgot to bring my own walking stick, so Sister lent me hers, and at one point, we shared. We're looking down on it at about the middle.

Looking downhill, toward the highway to Saint Rémy.

Back up the canyon. That's Sister with a turn at the stick to get down the stairs.

This big stone step is amazing, obviously having been formed under water. The embedded shell (a scallop?) is about three inches across, to provide some scale, and there were many smaller shells embedded in it as well. I didn't see this in other stones nearby.

We were up there, not at the top, but at one of the intermediate levels. That's where I was taking the overlook pictures.

I bought a novel in the Glanum gift shop, in French, about the Roman era. It's targeted at young teens, and translated into French from English. It's my hope that it's at a reading level that I can follow with some ease. I discovered after I got back to the villa that it's book 2 in a series of 3. You may or may not know that I have a pretty good collection of Roman detective novels (in English), so my reaction was that "I must get the series." I looked around a little in France, but discovered I can order the other two online, which means NOT having to pack more books. One has arrived, the other has been sent. I'll post a photo of the whole lot when book 3 arrives.

Heading back home past grape fields and cypress trees. I love this place.

And, as promised much earlier, I've scoured up a photo of the front door of the villa, shuttered up against the heat. This year we have more chill from the mistral than heat.

See you soon!


Monday, July 8, 2013

Color & Scent

June 25, from Sainte Cécile-les-Vignes

Vaison la Romaine has a major Tuesday market and a Gallo-Roman history that has left behind many cultural and archeological artifacts. You can focus on one or both. I wanted on my first trip there in 2008 to climb up to the castle, but I was wearing a boot for a broken bone in my foot and walking over the crumbled rocks was out of the question.

Sister and I visited there in 2011 and were headed up toward the castle when we were involved in a harrowing incident. We continued up to this same point, but both of us were too shaken to undertake the climb to the castle. Now I figure I'll not likely be in physical shape to get past that "Danger Cliff" sign, so we didn't even take a shot at it this year.


But we did go to market. And I remembered to take pictures of the colorful sights there. Here Sister is looking at scarves. Two years ago, the combined group purchased (collectively) 70 something scarves. We were a little more restrained this year. I still haven't found enough occasions to wear all those I purchased.

It's hard to take home the colorful Provençal pottery pieces, except maybe an olive plate. (I don't eat olives, so skipped that one.)

But I did buy this blouse, which is a little bluer than it appears here. It's very gauzy, but the French clothing manufacturers seem to include an under shirt for these frothy things.

These ladies may wear plain, modest head scarves, but they like colorful clothing.

Look at that lamb and the pork chops, not something we dared buy with an entire day out in the car planned.

Sister and I recalled past difficulties in finding les toilettes on our previous visit here, so we and Linda decided to ensconce ourselves in a brasserie before the lunch hour for beverages, with the intent of staying for lunch and starting as early as they'd serve us so we wouldn't be delayed by those lengthy French lunches or scouting out toilettes from making our departure rendezvous on time.

This man who settled at the table near us for a drink seemed to be a big man in the restaurant, or maybe in town, as many people stopped by his table to shake his hand and pay their respects. (Felt kinda like The Godfather.)

Our waiter took our lunch order before noon, often hard to find. Sister pours me some ice cold water from a violet bottle. Provision of cold tap water to a restaurant table seems to be becoming more common in France, rather than trying to slide in the expensive mineral water. I had a salad, and Linda had a mammoth lunch. Sister's was somewhere in-between, as I recall.

After lunch, we had a reasonable amount of time to find our way back to the meeting place at the wine co-op. I, however, spotted a tote bag I had to have, and managed to catch the eye of the owner the stall, who was down the road a bit taking things down. Getting all the vendors out by their deadline is a process worthy of a military maneuver, and quite a jam up to press through.

We were on time for our rendezvous. No one else was, having gotten trapped by the lengthy lunch service. The wine co-op was closed for lunch, so we perched at the edge of a flower box to wait for the rest. While we were waiting, a car stopped for a pedestrian. The car behind it stopped. The truck behind that one, didn't. All vehicles were damaged enough not to be able to drive away. The co-op parking lot became a detour for traffic. Despite the chaos, Beth, our driver, and Guille, her partner, managed to get us into her car and we headed off to salvage our afternoon appointment for a tour at the lavender distillery. Meanwhile, Lisa and her crew were waiting for their server to deliver the check.


We were late for our appointment, and I was "forced" to sit on the terrasse at Distillerie Bleu-Provence, eating two scoops of luscious ice cream while Beth explored options for after Lisa's group arrived. Those would be waiting over an hour for another private tour in English, or joining the public tour, to be conducted in French and English, beginning at the next half hour. We chose the latter.

The charming Giovanni, the tour guide whom we met on a visit a couple of years ago, started beside the big vats that the freshly cut lavender is piled into. You walk past these as you enter the distillery. Pressure is applied, liquid is introduced, and vaporized lavender goes through the condenser coils.

We move upstairs (we three who had our walking sticks were offered rides on the elevator) to rooms set up with pictures and educational materials about the distilling process. There's this great view out of the upstairs window, which makes me want to come back and explore the town some time.

Zooming in on a prominent feature:

It seems that not all that we call "lavender" is true lavender. There is also "spike" lavender, and then there is lavandin, a hybrid. True lavender is used in perfumes and lavandin is used to provide the lavender scent in other products. We started with a chart on how to distinguish one from the other by the structure of the flower stalk, just in case we want to figure out what's growing in that field, or even our garden.

Giovanni segues so seamlessly between French and English that we're in awe.

Next comes the test: Giovanni dips one of those paper sticks for sniffing scents into lavender and another into lavandin, then asks us to identify which is the true lavender. We learn that the true lavender has the more delicate scent, whereas the lavandin contains a hint of camphor (or, I thought, turpentine), which is a bit of harsh note. (Doesn't this sound a lot like a wine tasting?)

He takes us outside again. (Someone speculates that we tourists tend to nod off if we sit too long in the classroom. Yup.) I'm mesmerized comparing the French to the English narrative, so much so that I totally forget what he was talking about. Something about oil floating on another liquid.

Demo. He shakes it.

This doesn't show the milky liquid as well as another photo I took, but I'm enamored of this profile picture.

Back into another classroom, where there is a schematic of the process downstairs where we first came in.

These boots are available in the gift shop. I love them! I could not figure out how I could fit them into my carry on bag.

Guille checks out the essential oils on the shelf in the gift shop. I bought one of those little spritzers of lavender at his waist level left. I could wrap it up and stuff it in the toe of my running shoes in my checked bag. (Honest, have you seen a way earlier picture of my running shoes? I feel like they'll run without any active participation on my part.) (If you catch the irony of my having "running" shoes.)

Loved these lavender diffusers, too, but I'm not sure they're electrically compatible with U.S. systems.

And so it was, back to the villa at the end of the day. I remember little else of the day. Sister has given me this picture of me that evening.

See you soon!