Daytripping from Roussillon
20.07.2012 - 22.07.2012
We were still hot on the trail of Vincent Van Gogh, but first...Les Baux!
(Poised to conquer Les Baux)
Les Baux is like the small-town version of Edinburgh, in the sense that you explore the vast castle grounds at the top of the hill. Nobody's going to sneak up on you from there! This town has a fascinating history, including being owned by the Grimaldi family, the royals of Monaco. A photo exhibit documented Princess Grace's visit here in 1982.
My Mom and Dad were amazing today: climbing every single battlement, tower, keep and narrow, windswept staircase there was on offer! The views are stunning. You could see for perhaps a hundred kilometers across the plain. Bright white rock, olive orchards in the valley below. centuries-old buildings built into caves - like the restaurant in Les Baux we ate in at lunch, a "troglodyte terasse." I had an "assiette" (plate) with about eight different Provencal specialties on it.
We had a demonstration of how the castle was defended in medieval times. "Saracens" were the enemy then! Actors, who were hilarious even in French, worked the siege machines. They hurled water balloons the size of cannonballs from the massive trebuchet and other catapults.
(Battle stations, everyone! Climbing around the Les Baux keep)
In the town, Jenn and I got a table cloth with matching napkins, and Mom bought an outfit (not at the tablecloth store!).
But the day was far from over. My Dad said later this was his favourite day taken as a whole on the entire trip.
Just down from the town proper of Les Baux is a old quarry that's been transformed for the "Carrieres des Lumieres." We've never seen anything like it! On giant stone walls inside a cool set of cavernous chambers made by the quarry, hundreds of projectors coordinate with each other and with music to put on a display. (We don't have any photos of this, as photography's not allowed.) There were two shows: one of Gauguin and Van Gogh using their paintings, and another called Metamorphoses about life & the seasons on Earth.
After Les Baux, we struggled to put in our time (we had an 8 PM dinner reservation at a restaurant in the area). It was another hot day with temperatures in the upper 30s. We did go to St. Paul's monastery near St. Remy, which is also the grounds of the mental hospital where Van Gogh stayed. They've re-created his room, and put up big reproductions of the paintings he painted there, which sometimes show scenes from these very grounds.
The monastery, too, is interesting because it's so old! The chapel is from the 10th century and the beautiful cloisters date to the 12th century. After that, we avoided getting out in the hot sun to see Glanum (more Roman ruins) and instead got cold drinks and sat in the square of a town called Mausanne des Alpilles - just a non-descript town, but they've still got the cafe/terasse scene going.
Finally, after checking out the tiny hamlet of Le Paradou itself, it was time for the big dinner. This country crossroads restaurant, Le Bistrot du Paradou, is somehow practically world-famous, yet also has it regulars and all of its charm intact. Not at all snobby, the waiters joked around with us . Each table has just one sitting per night and by 8:15 the place was full. The menu is set each day, and currently costs fifty-one euros including very good house wine.
(Exterior of Le Bistrot du Paradou)
We had a vegetable soup to start, served piping hot in a giant crockware pot for us to share. The main course was lamb (the tenderest I've ever had!) with mashed potato and vegetables (artichoke, carrot/onion). Then came the cheese course - a huge selection from which we freely served ourselves. The dessert course had a LOT of options, and, oddly enough, we each had something different. Then I had an espresso and geared up from the drive back to Roussillon. After our two-and-a-half hour dinner, it was past 10:30 and we didn't get parked in Roussillon until the church bells tolled midnight.
We made the short drive to Apt in the morning. So far it's just been a town name on road signs each day.
Saturday is market day for Apt, and we were there to buy food for lunch and dinner. It got very busy but we'd arrived early and (since it was sunny) took a chance on the "stationnement submersible."
We bought pate, sausages, vegetables, bread and a poulet roti, which we had for lunch. The rest of the day was just swimming, reading and souvenir shopping in Roussillon.
We drove to the nearby town of L'Isle Sur La Sorgue today. What makes it different is how clearly an island it is. The Sorgue river winds through it, and there's all manner of bridges that span it: iron foot-bridges, stone ones, ones for cars. There's several large, mossy waterwheels, too, still turning as they have for hundreds of years.
And it's market day here. No coincidence; Jenn's tried to get us to these towns on their market days where there's the chance. This one has been my favourite market in France. The wind blew through the streets and aisles in the morning. There were a few really good musical acts performing here and there. The goods included cloth, clothes, food, antiques...lots of variety. We easily spent two or three hours there.
(The famous Cavaillon melons)
(Market-day music, L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue)
In addition, there was a summer festival on which included people in traditional costumes demonstrating fishing techniques (by hand, by spear) from antiquated wooden rowboats. There were races of long skiffs, where the rowers had to lie down flat to go under the low bridges. The trick was to do at the last second and then pop back up again as soon as possible. Huge crowds gathered on the river banks for these events.
(With his bare hands...L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue traditional festival)
The problem for us came as lunch-time approached. Looking for a place, we became all Goldilocks and no bears. One restaurant had seats, but was too expensive, another's menu was not appealing, another was too noisy, another had seats but only in the blazing sun, many others had no seats. In frustration, we left the town, keeping our eyes open for road-side places, but there were none. At mid-day, parking in Roussillon is also impossible, so we kept going to the outskirts of Apt and...McDonald's. This is how it happens, people. It actually hit the spot, was far better than I remember Canada's being, and of course had free parking and washrooms. I handled all the ordering in French, and it was funny when I had to repeat "McFlurry" in an exaggerated French accent to be understood.
Thus fortified, we drove on through the hills and hill-towns of the petit Luberon, including a jam-packed photo-op of the famous Abbey with the lavender field in front of it. That was so crowded that we didn't even try to get parked or even to get everybody out of the car. Just my Mom and Jenn to take pictures, while I carefully turned around.
Less crowded, but much more remote, was the village of the "Bories." Good thing we didn't wait to eat lunch here, because we wouldn't have found it. There was even a gift shop. Although we'd all seen "bories" before near Sarlat, and buildings like them in Ireland, this was special. For the uninitiated, they're stone structures, stacked and fitted together without mortar, which leads to a beehive-shaped dome. For 4000 years, there have been bories in this area. The village we saw today was reconstructed to be like it was in the 19th century. There are many dwelling, sheep-pens (usually bigger than what people had!), walls, and fences. Even the road in and out of the area was a one-way lane lined with stone walls. Very narrow!
(This place is borie!)
We also passed through such villages as Gordes and Murs today as part of our "hill-town" Luberon drive.
It was a special dinner in Roussillon - a place where the Provencal speciality was "aioli." Basically a big pile of creamy garlic as the centerpiece of the meal. Anica and I had it - with fish, vegetables, potato - but it sure didn't agree with me! I won't be having that again soon, even though it was really tasty at the time.