Based in Roussillon
14.07.2012 - 19.07.2012
(Ochre Cliffs of Roussillon)
Bastille Day! Or Fete Nationale, as they actually call it in France. We spent most of it driving. The traffic was stop-and-go at times even on the toll autoroute. It took about eight hours to do what could have been a four-hour drive. We were expecting that, however. And, since almost all the homes in Provence rent from Saturday to Saturday, it was hard to avoid.
Getting to Roussillon was worth it. There were, however, a few hiccups. "Annabel" (the GPS) took us some bizarre and precipitous back route that I wouldn't want to do again. Then, we couldn't find "Georgette" to open the villa for us. We were knocking on doors up and down the street - all except hers, I guess. But that was okay, because our cell phone's working fine, and we found her. As we were settling in, however, we noticed the front door wasn't locking. We got Georgette and her husband (Lulu? I swear that's what I heard. And their dog is Lola) back to help, and they broke the door handle off on the street side. The villa is right in the middle of town, but they basically said, "we can't fix it until Monday, so don't worry, just leave it unlocked." That didn't make us feel too comfortable, but at least the door "looked" locked from the outside...and there was no handle anyway. Instead, we would come and go from the garden door, using an old-fashioned skeleton key.
One thing I was pleased about: all the conversation was conducted in French, and I held my own, even under stress. Georgette and Lulu (?) don't speak a word of English.
The villa is huge, with three bedrooms, four different outdoor sitting areas, on different levels, a swimming pool, and the characteristic red ochre stone and blue shutters look of this town, famous for its ochre quarry.
It was, however, a little dusty and cobwebs, despite the owners having just been there for a couple of weeks. Another drawback for Jenn is the wasps that are around the pool in the day. She wouldn't take a chance on the epi-pen and its follow-up hospital visit (there's no "nearby" hospital), so she only swam at night.
The only food-related item left behind was a welcome bottle of wine, so Jenn led the "girls" on a grocery-run while Dad guarded the place and I worked on the lock issue with Georgette.
At night, our hosts had made reservations for us at the Bistrot de Roussillon, which looks under the town square, Place de la Mairie. All the restaurants were packed for Fete Nationale, and the buildings had tri-couleur bunting and flags up. An accordion player strolled around, then the DJ invited him to play over the mic from a stage. "La Marseille" was played and the music slowly became less...traditional. The party went on long past our endurance - it had been a long day!
(Looking at the pool deck from another of the villa's decks)
What a great place Roussillon is. We spent our Sunday just relaxing at the villa, swimming, shopping, exploring this hill-top town. We had food from the "Petit Casino" for lunch outside around the blue, wrought-iron table that's shaded by grapevines. We had dinner across the street (literally six steps from our door) at "Le Petit Snack," where we ate sandwiches on their back deck and looked out over the ravine from a different angle.
(Bell Cage of Roussillon church)
A lot more ambitious today! We drove into Avignon, a city of about 500,000. We somehow found free parking in the shadow of the medieval wall. From there, we walked in to the centre past walls absolutely covered with play posters. It's their drama festival time, which creates a colouful mess.
(The play's the thing in Avignon)
The big attraction is the Palais des Papes, from when the Papacy moved here. Or did they? It led to a schism, and rival popes in Rome. Either way, it's an impressive castle - much more a fortress and residence than a religious site.
We got the combo ticket and walked up and out on the Pont D'Avignon. As in the children's song: "Sur le pont, d'Avignon..." Much of it is washed away, but once this was the only bridge that spanned the Rhone.
(Sing along: "Sur le pont...")
For dinner, we were back in Roussillon and celebrated Mom and Dad's wedding anniversary!
What's Roman on the bottom and Medieval on top?
No joke, the answer's Vaison-La-Romaine.
It was also this town's market day, so, although the town was busy, the Roman ruins of the "lower town" were not. We saw the ruins of palaces that were several thousand square feet. We saw the "commercial district" and imagined shopping along the arcade.
Then we picked our way through the market until we came to the river, a canyon really, spanned by a single-arch Roman bridge. It's still THE bridge here, even after two thousand years. Crossing it, we grabbed lunch on a patio looking over the canyon - beautiful breeze on a hot day - before moving on (and up!) in to Vaison-La-Romaine's "upper town." It's the medieval part, and it's beautiful.
(The medieval "upper town" of Vaison-la-Romaine)
We were able to get stuff from the market in Vaison-La-Romaine for dinner, and go back to Roussillon to enjoy a swim. So nice! There literally hasn't been a cloud in the sky since we arrived in Provence, and the temperature's been climbing higher into the 30s each day.
With all this Roman stuff, I keep thinking I'm in Italy. Today, I figured it out: it's actually Spain!
No, it's France, but we did see the bull-games today in Arles. They're NOT bull-fights; the bull is never hurt. The "Courses Camarguaises" consist of a bunch of men trying to pull ribbons off a bull's horns, and jumping the boards out of the ring in an effort to avoid being gored. It's a hilarious, acrobatic sporting spectacle. The bulls may be teased, but apparently they're treated like stars before and after the show, and they "die only of old age." The bull-games take place in the ancient Roman arena, right in the heart of Roman Arles, so it really is like being part of history.
(At the Bull-Games in Arles)
Arles today was hot, dusty, beautiful and intriguing. It may have reached forty degrees celsius. We ate lunch just outside the Roman Arena. We saw the ruins of the Roman amphitheatre and bathes, we cooled off in the shade by the Rhone and we explored the cool, dark depths of the "Cryptoportiques," which runs under the remains of the old Forum. Everyone liked that the best of the "ruins," because it was a way to cool off and because it was so unexpected. You really could get lost in the ancient, dark galleries down there!
Aboveground, we ate gelato and looked at the exact spot where Van Gogh painted "Cafe Terrace at Night." It looks pretty much the same now!
The last of our Roman-themed sightseeing is probably the most famous: the "Pont du Gard." This ancient aqueduct is in such good condition, and is so impressive, that it could easily have been one of the "world's wonders" instead of the Coliseum in Rome. It certainly has stood the test of time.
Here in France, the group that protects it as a monument to visit charge "only" for parking. The other displays, walking across the bridge, swimming in the river below, and touring their ridiculously-good museum, are all included. We pretty much did make a day out of it. Anica and I at least waded in the freezing, fast-flowing Gard, beneath the aqueduct.
Dad said there have already been several moments of discovery on this trip - those first glimpses - that take your breath away. Coming over the ridge and seeing the Pont du Gard today was one of them, as well entering the Hotel-Dieu courtyard in Beaune, and entering the Musee D'Orsay in Paris.
(We stand on Gard for thee)
But our day was not over yet! Anica was very much looking forward to our next stop: the Haribo candy factory and museum! It's in the nearby town of Uzes (pronounced like YOU-zays, although I preferred to call it oozes, or useless). Anyway, there were far more people lined up to tour the candy factory than there were at the Pont du Gard. We all enjoyed their colourful tour of the history of their company, which is now a giant Germancompany, Haribo, based in Bonn. We bought bags and bags of candy in their gift shop!