Monday, September 29, 2014

From Van Gogh Haunts to Papal Palaces

For our last week in France, my family and I rented a farmhouse with some friends on the northern outskirts of Salon-de-Provence, just south-east of Eyguières, off the D17, and along the Ancien Canal de Boigeslin. The access road was rough—pot-holed and hard on suspension—but once you passed a sluice gate, the dirt road would calm down, and you were less than 200 metres from your destination.

The farmhouse was a large complex with many living spaces. Two sections were created into guest houses, each with their own private entrances. In the centre, the owners occupied the lion's share of the complex. Though the houses were all part of a single unit, you wouldn't know you had neighbours unless you happened to run into them in the shared pool—which we never did.

Horses wandered the pasture closest to our end of the building: gentle and quiet, with hoods over their heads, presumably to protect them from the ravages of flying insects. Their tails swished in irritation from the pests, though from the patio and pool area, we were never bothered.

For six nights, this remote paradise was our base from which to explore Provence. We had a long list of things we wanted to accomplish, but more than anything, we wanted to spend time with our friends.

For the first full day, a Sunday, we wanted to relax. One of our daughters fell ill, and spent most of the day in bed. And because we had spent such a long Saturday in the car, from the Dordogne to Provence, via Carcassonne, that we had a very lazy and leisurely morning with our friends. We ate a wonderful breakfast, caught up on news (thank goodness for WiFi!), and listened to music, while chatting with our friends.

The only plan we made for this beautiful Sunday was to head to a car-rental agency, in Aix-en-Provence, to add my name to our friends' vehicle. Their car, a Citroën C4 Picasso, had three rows of seats and fit seven people, and was perfect for all of us to travel in. But because neither of them likes to drive—and I love to be behind the wheel—I was to be our designated driver.

We learned, on our way back from the Aix train station, that the GPS was unreliable: it was out of date and many roadways that we took were new. But on the bright side, we got to see many things along the back roads between Aix and Salon, and we didn't care because we were in Provence with great friends!

Luckily, whatever had afflicted our daughter on Sunday had passed by Monday, and we were able to explore some planned destinations. Our friends wanted to see the yellow café in Arles, made famous in the works of Vincent van Gogh. Though the house where Van Gogh lived during this period was destroyed, the café, now called the Café Van Gogh, remains. Needless to say, we weren't the only tourists that crowded around the front of it, but we did not dine there—the cost of a light lunch outstripped our dinner budget.

While the neighbourhood around this landmark was quaint, I was also interested in finding the remnants from the Roman period: the amphitheatre and the coliseum. Not as impressive as the real deal in Rome, but a must-see stop in Arles.

One of the highlights of our visit to this ancient Provencal town was the small café where we found lunch. The six of us dined on a platter of cheeses and breads, and some enjoyed a bowl of fresh lentil soup, while others, including myself, had a dish of a cucumber salad that ate more like tzatziki. But the best part was washing it down with the best French beer I have ever had.

An IPA, Sulauze, was aromatic with lots of bitter hops and ripe grapefruit. It was my kind of beer. I looked for it later in stores but sadly never had it again, which makes me want it all the more to this day.

We wandered around the coliseum, took lots of photos of the surrounding buildings and then made our way back to the car.

We had another town to see.

Less than an hour north of Arles is the old papal town of Avignon. From 1309 to 1377, the papacy moved from Rome to the walled city Avignon. During this time, this Provencal town saw seven popes rule the Catholic Church: two antipopes also resided in Avignon after the papacy returned to Rome. Today, the Papal Palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that attracts huge numbers of tourists.

We parked outside the walled part of the city in one of the free parking lots that offers a free shuttle service through the old town. We made our way to the tourist office, where we purchased tickets to the palace, including admission to the evening sound-and-light show and to the Pont Saint-Bénezet. The tickets were good for two days, so we decided that we would see the Papal Palace and light-and-sound show today (which was followed by fireworks over the Rhône River) and we would reserve the bridge (aka, Le Pont d'Avignon) for the next day, when we would stop on our way up the Rhône, into wine country.

The palace was interesting, with its audioguided tour, but I found it similar to the tour we took in the abbey at Mont-St-Michel, and I found the English guide spoke far longer than I needed for each room that I visited. I found myself leaving one room before the narration for that room was finished; by the time I reached the next room, it was time to start the next talk.

Because I also stopped to take photographs in some rooms, including the photo that I used for last Friday's photo post, I fell behind my family and friends, and soon lost them. And, I discovered, to my loss. At a juncture towards the end of the tour, I had the choice to head upstairs, towards a café, or downstairs, towards the exit. I chose the latter.

I caught up with one daughter, who had also fallen behind, and together, we left the palace. Only, no one from our party was there. We waited for what seemed a long time, and when I saw Lori emerge from another exit, I learned that everyone had climbed up, past the café and onto a terrace, from which they witnessed a spectacular sunset.

I was disappointed, but as the light was still fading, I found another vantage from which I could see the sun sink.

We milled about the outer plaza and shot more photos, and then queued up to re-enter the palace for the sound-and-light show.

Held in a large inner courtyard, the story of Avignon was told in dramatic fashion on four walls. There was no English translation and I got lost in the story, but the visual display was stunning.

As soon as the show finished, we returned to the place where I captured sunset photos, and we watched the fireworks over the Pont Saint-Bénezet, before walking back to the car and returning to our welcoming farmhouse.

The tale continues tomorrow.

No comments:

Post a Comment