Many days have passed since last I wrote. Those cheering can kindly be quiet for I am back again. Actually I have been writing but not for this blog (You mean there are MORE Richard?). But the cause of my silence is good – we have been very busy.
Our plans to see much more of Provence, well this part anyway, have been aided by good, even excellent weather. It is still colder than it should be for the time of year but the sun shines and the Mistral is moderate. But I can see why the eponymous poet, Frederic of that ilk, wrote of making the doors bang and dogs bark; it does.
We have visited or re-visited many places. The best would be hard to choose. St Remy remains a contender, especially on market day. But high up on the rocks of Les Baux, once a key fortified village but now mostly a tourist trap, was pretty inspiring. We dodged the huge crowds by going late afternoon and benefited from easier parking, less bodies and lovely evening light. The limestone that allowed this outcrop to resist the great sea that once covered the Rhone delta also provided, and provides, wonderful building rock – and the first ever find of aluminium, or BAUXite as it is known.
Our visit to the Roman ruins of Glanum (including Greek, Phonenician and Celtic actually) was impressive and covered elsewhere.
A return to Arles on a better day was a bit disappointing. I was once told by a tourist development director that towns with heritage content have to decide whether they are lucky husbanders who benefit from the visitor and accept the bills or simply milk the punters. I fear Arles is a bit in the latter category – the Roman remains are poorly kept but exploited as locations for events. The Roman baths are a mess and look likely to fall down any day. The town is untidy and its superb large houses are neglected and even empty. In Avignon they are clean, tidy and in use either culturally as museums and galleries or as hotels and other commercials facilities.
Arles even has a superb square with a fine 18th century Hotel de Ville, two much older churches and some excellent Maisons de Maitre and Hotels. In most towns there would be bars, restaurants and pavement terraces and cafés. Not here. Nothing. A fine fountain with an obelisk (in bad repair) is in the centre and they do not even use it for parking. There are no trees and so no shade. It is a disaster are. Not far away is the wrecked remains what was the Roman forum – one and a half columns and and a bit of wall. But this one is packed with cafés, bars and restaurants and is alive and buzzing – as indeed it would have been nearly 2000 years ago.
So much else. A wonderful Provençal farm that found it had once been a Roman winery. A major dig later and much remains and they convert the ancient barns into a representation of the Roman winery – complete with an astonishing wine press comprising four metre diameter upright oak tree trunks supporting an even bigger 8 metre long trunk, pivoted and pulleyed to provide the 'press'. They already grew and had for 300 years vines and olives. So naturally they now make wine in the Roman way as experimental archaeology - tasting was amazing. They cannot use the correct grapes as these are unknown but the nature of the raisin is known and so they use Vella, an obscure but maleable vine. They tread it the Roman way, by foot, they press the resultant mass using the Roman style press. They brew in Roman style in large earthenware amphora buried in the soil. Three weeks later and after various Roman authenticated additives and processes it is transferred to amphora. They do actually bottle some and we have bought a rather dessert style that should survive the journey home – we hope.
Many lovely villages nearby have been visited, with astonishingly good butchers and bakers and patissiers. Our waistbands bear witness.
A longer drive took us into the Vaucluse to the east. We had only driven through in the past so a proper visit to a couple of special towns was overdue. Gordes is a hilltop gem with amazing buildings and views. Further on is Roussillion, home of the largest ever deposit of ochre. Wonderful colour in its natural state and a brilliant covering for buildings, flexible and breathable. But fire it and the colours go from yellow to deep red. Hilltop Roussillion is mostly a warm reddish pink. We assume nobody would dare paint their house green or blue... But it is beautiful. One good thing about both these tourist traps is that unlike Carcassonne for example they are still lived in and among the souvenir shops, glaciers and bars there are proper shops to be found. Not many but a few!We went also the Salon de Provence, famous for many thing but mostly because it is here that Nostradamus, born in St Remy, spent the last 19 years of his life and wrote most of his prognostications. His wealthy background I rather hidden in St Remy here the family home has virtually disappears. Not so in Salon where the house is huge, beautiful and houses his museum. Of what but his writing I know not as I did not bother to go inside. He was nuts anyway. An astrologer and a would-be alchemist and what he actually wrote is skilfully ambivalent. At least Newton made up for his weird activities with some serious science!
We shall be off to Spain now after four weeks in this excellent place.