A Week In Provence (NEW - now with added photos - no imagination required!)
A week on from my semaine en France, I'm finally putting pen (keyboard connectors) to paper (website text-entry-interface) as promised with the fruits of my fact-finding mission. I'll relay the notes that I jotted down notes during the course of the week, so apologies for any roughness of exposition.
Starbuck's Facts From France
1. The most valuable element of any holiday is the transition to another world.
Having arrived at Marseilles airport, my parents quickly whisked us away through the darkness. Driving along the autoroutes and byways of West Provence, snatches of this different but familiar world briefly broke through the gloom outside the vehicle. Excitement mounted. Deep in the countryside, the car forged its path through the blackness, climbing sharply and steeply up hidden valley slopes, merged as one behind the glass with the nothingness of the sky. Finally emerging at the villa, we eagerly left the car. The atmosphere washed over me. The sweet smell of pine was thick in the air, the chirping of crickets a constant background hum, the ambient temperature pleasant. And then, the following morning, the big reveal...
The villa's grounds were nestled two-thirds of the way up the valley slopes, opposite the north face of Mount Sainte-Victoire, 13 kilometres east of Aix-en-Provence. Behind the villa, towering slabs of rock pushed out from the scree-lain inclines, to which dense forestation had somehow found the foothold to anchor itself at impossible angles. Even more impressive was the view across the valley, framed by dusty cypresses and towering pines, with La Croix de Provence crowning the west face, the cross clinging to the mountain-top clearly visible from our villa. Cezanne concentrated a body of his work on the landscape formed around this pyramidal hunk of rock. With vistas such as these, its not hard to see what attracted the artistic eye. Another world...
2. Small but fundamental changes to one's diet can cause large changes to one's bowel movements.
For the first half of the week, my regular 24-hour sit-down-toilet cycle switched down a gear to 48-hour mode. It felt like I was carrying several bags of cement around inside of me...
3. "French plumbing and sewarage systems may not be as robust as those at home. To avoid the danger and inconvenience of a blockage, please note the following: Please do not flush tampons, condoms, sanitary towels, nappies or baby wipes etc. Try to avoid flushing large amounts of paper in one go. Thank you."
Every villa in France seems to have such a notice. It made me doubly concerned about the knock-on effects of fact number 2.
4. The nearest village was Vauvenargues, down the hillside and a couple of kilometres to the east (some nice photographs on the Provenceweb website). A lovely quietly quaint village.
Just outside the village lies the 14th Century Chateau de Vauvenargues, fabulously photogenic and fully integrated visually into the magnificent scenery. The chateau was the home of Luc de Clapiers (1715 - 1747), author of the "Introduction a la connaiscance de l'esperit humain", in which he wrote that "the highest perfection of the human soul is to make it capable of pleasure". This the people of Vauvenargues have taken to heart, with one of the tastiest pizzerias I've had the fortune to visit!
In 1958 the chateau was purchased by Picasso. He is buried within the grounds, his peace protected from the chattering of tourists by vicious-looking hounds fresh from the set of The Omen.
5. Everyone is an artist in Provence, or so it seems. Beware being kidnapped by glassy-eyed and pot-bellied windmill-dwellers, intent on selling you their wares. You could be in Beijing!
5. Happen to be travelling along the Route de Vauvenargues RD10 between the Parc Saint Marc de Jaumegarde and Vauvenargues? Drop in at Chez Le Garde - a wonderful restaurant. They'll fill you up, they'll get you pissed, and they've got the most fantastic toilet I've ever seen (its like being on a ship, complete with storm lamps. and fake vines crawling through the walls. and starfish and shells embedded in the toilet seat and cistern. and more soaps, oils and lotions than the Body Shop. 9/10 on the toiletometer.)
6. I have previously charted my ant obsession on these pages. Fair enough, a man's gotta have an interest. However, our ants in the UK are fairly boring. Much more interesting to study the massive phenotypic and behavioural differences between Mediterranean ants. So, erm, you've got the big meaty ones - tasty-looking critters - which are on the whole solitary, independent beasts; their close phylogenic relationship with wasps evidently obvious from their physical superstructure, looking like soot-black wingless versions of everyones favourite meanness machine. You can see the difference in unit intelligence between these big old muthas and the smaller, swarming varieties, the latter blindly following the common pheremone trail for food, the former living their own anty dreams.
7. The aforementioned Croix de Provence on the western brow of Mont Ste-Victoire marks a place of deep history. Legend has it that in 102BC the Roman general Super Marius stood watching from this spot as his troops annihilated the Teutones; he then ordered the 300 defeated Chieftains (not the folk band) to be brought up to him, where they were tossed into Garagai - Ste-Victoire's mighty chasm. Or so my mum's guidebook said. A less reliable legend has it that the bottom of the Garagai contains an enchanted lake and meadows, and was home to the Golden Goat of Provence; shepherds would lower their sick sheep and cows down on ropes to graze on the therapeutic grasses. The fools. It was in fact the entrance of hell (Apparently.)
8.Ear infection? Can you feel your ear drum crinkle uncomfortable as the viscous liquids of sickness get dislodged whenever you equalise the pressure in your inner ears? There is only one sure-fire therapy. Lie in some daytime 35 degree Celsius sun next to a pool, head to one side gazing up at a mountainside, boiling away the poorlyness. And take a couple of Ibuprofen every 4 hours. Sorted.
9. Sunflower fields - a glowing mosaic of verdant yellow and green - are deeply moving.
10 . Calanques are not rotting pits within the flesh of trees, but are in fact mini-fjords in a French-styley.
We visited Cassis - a lovely old choral-fishing port, flanked by crystal-white cliffs and beached bays. The brilliant-white stone of the sheer limestone cliffs has long been exported, most famously for the construction of the Suez Canal. The views from the boat trips exploring the calanques were breath-takingly beautiful. Ahhh!
11. Fire is danger. Beware the fire. It is bad.
Our explorations around the region of Mount Ste-Victoire were often impeded by the signed restrictions, prohibiting the user of various paths due to the fire risks. Sensible considering the tinderbox nature of the flora, but selfishly annoying to us all the same. However, our final full day at the villa was enlivened by the sight of numerous helicopters soaring overhead and dumping their loads of water over the landscape, dampening down potential flashpoints. It was comforting to know they were paying attention, but fairly disconcerting all the same.
Then on the next day, whilst in the environs of Marseilles for the flight home, we saw billowing plumes of what first looked like pollution. As we drove closer the seriousness of it became apparent. It looked like petrol fumes of a downed aircraft, I thought, as we approached the airport; the toxic guts of a jet airlines haemorrhaging into the sky. As the smoke got thicker it revealed itself to be "just" a forest fire. Later on, safely ensconed within the airport, we saw that the nearby sky was gashed with yet-worse sooty clouds, scarring half of the hemisphere above as the winds spread another wooden furnace across the countryside. Just 6 hours to wait... fingers crossed. No-one at the airport seemed too concerned at the approaching devastation, except for the many light aircraft and helicopters dropping their hydrous bombs, or the queues of traffic evacuating the nearest hillside town. Strangely exhilarating.
12. The beauty of night-flying.
As we escaped from the wildfires surrounding Marseille airport, the view was awe-inspiring. Terrible but awe-inspiring, the purple-orange glow of the roaring hillsides lighting up the sky, like a lava-filled crater broken across the ground.
Later, cruising above mainland France, watching the buildings and streetlights far below, stretching out like molten gold pools in the distance, their regularity resolving in close-up as cellular cross-sections across a microscope slide. In the words of a child sitting behind me looking down at a web of street lights converging on an urban centre, "Dad, come and look at this spider town!"
But the most wonderful sight of the flight - fireworks from 39000 feet, looking like muticoloured exploding suns, burning like dandelions far below the craft.
13. More of my favourite French things can be found HERE.