Thursday, July 18, 2013

My Trip to Provence, France.

Thursday, July 18, 2013
The French region of Provence or rather Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur is in the south of France. Romans called it Provincia Romana which evolved into the present name. It was ruled by the Counts of Provence from their capital in Aix-en-Provence until 1481, when it became property of Kings of France (actually, the chain of succession used to be like Celts- Greeks-Romans-Counts of Provence- Kings of France).While it has been part of France for more than five hundred years, it still retains a distinct cultural and linguistic identity. The region counts 300 sunny days a year owing to the wind called "Mistral", a.k.a. the Master, which can reach 90 kph and thanks to it the sky is cleared from clouds.

The first day was spent travelling in Poland. This is a very big country with a network of roads that are ever increasing in quality. The main point of achieving high speed is building many roundabouts around the cities to allow high speed traffic and reduce congestion and noise in the very cities. A good idea indeed, but that makes a rather boring trip because all you see is high walls to stop the noise and pollution with regular intervals of landscape where wayside crosses with colourful laces regularly give way to scarcely dressed ladies. However, I must notice that it's a highly agricultural country and croplands go as far as an eye can meet. I must also add that Poland has a lot to offer for sightseeing and it would be a mistake to regard it as a transit country only. We arrived at our hotel in Prague late at night, so we couldn't go and see the flooded city.

The second day was spent travelling in Germany with a stop in Bamberg. I immediately fell in love with the city. I suppose many can recognize its famous landmark- a town hall on the island.

Bamberg Town Hall on the Island.
I really enjoyed strolling its narrow cobbled streets. The city was lucky to avoid being bombed during WWII (while, for example, Dresden was raised to the ground) and it is now part of UNESCO world heritage. Another stop was at the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. George. The notice inside asks to take photos for personal use only, so respecting that I will only share some images of its exterior.

The Frog.
Well, it's not a frog, actually. It used to be a lion guarding the entrance but the weather conditions transformed it beyond recognition. However, it also lends itself nicely to a legend. The Cathedral actually has two entrances and was supposedly built by two masers. The legend says that one of them sold his soul to the Satan in hope to complete his part before his competitor and the Satan, working had for the soul in return, sent frogs to delay the other master. Talk about the competitive spirit.

Jesus's Pupils upon the Prophets.
Another interesting detail is that 12 Jesus's pupils (not sure if I can refer to them all as to Apostles) are standing on the shoulders of 12 prophets. This means that the New Testament is based on the Old Testament. One more interesting opposition refers to Ecclesia and Synagogue, but I don't want to tell you all and spoil the fun of discovery. Naughty, I know. I also stopped to buy a Christmas toy in a special shop and a guide book for Germany's Romantic Road that I hope to do soon. But I also promised to myself to return to Bamberg again.




On the third day we had a two-hour delay due to the broken bus, so we hung out in the small German town where our hotel was and the main attraction was taking photos of roses.

A German Rose.
When our bus finally arrived, we crossed the German-Swiss border and headed to see the famous Rhine falls. They are considered to be the largest falls in Europe. We also took a 15-minute boat ride to the falls.

Rhine Falls.
I wish we had more time to spend there but, as our bus ate two hours of our free time, we had to move on. But if you get a chance to go to the falls, make it a point of doing it as a day trip. In the meantime, our bus was riding towards Lucerne.

Me in Lucerne.
Lucerne was so amazing that I could hardly walk. All I wanted to do was sit down and watch, absorbing the beauty of the landscape. I was in awe and I totally want to come back for more.

It was +35'C and the Swiss people know what to do.
We filled in our bottles with water from the many of city's fountains-it was cold and refreshing, one of the best you can get in Europe.

The fourth day finally saw us crossing the French border. Provence became more fact than destination. The first day in the region was packed with action. Now, I must admit I will not need to go to Italy or Greece for a while because France is filled with the relics of Ancient Rome. I was even disappointed because I came to see Provence and not the Roman ruins! Our first stop was a small snoozing town of Montellimar, the capital of the sweet nougat.

Nougat. 
The name of the sweet is derived from the Latin word "nux" meaning "a nut" and indeed nuts are one of the main ingredients in this sweet. What makes France a tourist destination is that you drive 1,000 km and you are in a totally different place- the food, the wine, the sights, the climate, all is different. So when the French go on holiday in August they come in bulk to shop for nougat and the town becomes buzzing with life. Also, stop at their Tourism Information Center for free wi-fi.

The second stop of the day was in Orange. The highlight of the town is the ancient Roman theater that is still functioning today. I loved the possibility to download their Android guide and the cat that slept next to the till but other than that it was rather disappointing.

I mean, is that plastic on the floor? Roman spirit, eh? 
The place might appeal to ruin lovers, so do make use of the audioguide. The town itself has many cozy cafes and shops, I bought a few books about Provence in English. it's difficult to get books in English in France, I thought I reached nirvana when I found a biography of Marie-Antoinette in Conciergerie in Paris.

Coffee time in Orange. Now fully qualified as a client, can use WC for free.
The third stop of the day was at the aqueduct of Gordes.

Me by the aqueduct. 
Augustus the First Roman Emperor succeeded in many things but not in having an own son (he adopted his male relatives for that, poor thing) but he had an only daughter. Augustus's son-in-law was responsible for water supply in the Roman Empire, so it was his idea to build the aqueduct to supply Nimes city with water. The structure took 50 km, 35 km of which were underground. The structure you can see today is now part of UNESCO world heritage but it has been pedestrianized only since 1996.

The fourth and the final stop today was wine tasting. It was, in my honest opinion, quite a failure. Let me digress a bit and tell you about what a gourmet person I am. You see, I classify wine into three categories: bad, good and very good. Only three categories that make my life so much easier. And so, today we went to Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It's one of the best wine places there are in France. The name comes from the Pope's wines as for many years the Pope used to reside in the nearby Avignon. BUT. Neither the legend nor the price make this wine good. I've tasted much better wines that were much cheaper. But maybe I'm wrong and cannot tell good wine from bad compote. In fact, what you will most likely taste in this town will be wines of the Rhone river valley and not the real Provence wine. You will taste red and white wine when the real Provence wine is actually rose. It's complicated because on the map Châteauneuf-du-Pape is de facto in Provence.

The fifth day started in Baux-de-Provence. If you can, go early with the first morning birds. This tiny town has only several streets but receives many tourists. Baux can be called "a nest town": in the Medieval times life was hard and people settled on cliffs and difficult to access locations to prevent enemy from attacking them. Baux is a charming little town with shops to suit every taste, don't miss the one by the Tourist Information Center: I bought olive oil with ceps, olives, biscuits, clay dishes and some other souvenirs. Make sure you stop at the santon museum near the church.

Typical santon: a man holding his hat while mistral is blowing. 
Santons are tiny Christmas figurines. When the Great French Revolution came, church was off limits but believers were creative: they made small figurines to put in creches during Christmas and the figurines were small enough to hide from zealous officers. Presently they count 55 characters that can appear in creche scenes. Impressive!

Then we went to Arles. I believe it would be interesting to mention that our bus, though fixed it supposedly was, was changed and from yesterday we had a new bus and two new drivers. They were both French. One of them let be called I Forgot His Name but the other was called Rene Grimaldi. Word. And he wore a sombrero and a garland of artificial flowers around his neck. That didn't add to his royal driving skills, so we kept driving around Arles rather than in Arles for about half an hour. Arles was a popular destination to die. I know, I know, sounds gross. It was the capital of the sarcophagus in Roman times. However, when Christianity came and they had to build new places of worship -on top of former Roman forums and temples, naturally- they took a sarcophagus and put pieces of it into new altars. Unfortunately, the church was closed for siesta time and we couldn't have a look at what such altars look like. Another famous point about Arles is that Van Gogh lived and worked here. He came here to heal from smoking and drinking but his mental health deteriorated to the point he cut a piece of his own ear.

Cathedral: Daniel in the Lion Den. Lions are not happy. 
Charming Windows.
Yup, still Arles. 
By the former Roman theater that we didn't visit- Orange was enough- we noticed a pick-pocketing pair. Two girls with a map kept close to our group and a vigilant eye of one lady in our group noticed them. Our guide asked them to go away. It turns out that people dressed nicely, not bums or anything, take maps and pretend to be tourists and use every chance to steal something. So, consider yourself warned.

The sixth day was spent in Marseilles. Our hotel was in a rather run-down part of the port city with people of mixed nationalities and we rather stayed inside our rooms, knowing that the crime rate in this city is high. But when we went to see the city, we had a great time. First we went to see Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde. It's a church on top of a hill and you can see the panorama of Marseilles, including the island of If.

St. Veronica cleaning Jesus's Face. Memorial to Missionaries in Africa and Asia.
Though Marseilles had two forts to look over it, now only Our Lady does that from this very church.

Notre Dame de la Garde.
Women used to come and pray: Good Mother, save our men in the sea and lead them to safety ashore, and from ashore they will come home themselves.

Tile of Gratitude.
The church is filled with tiles of gratitude to Our Lady for different help received. We usually put small silver symbols of hearts, arms, legs or donate jewelry while here people donate tiles, small wooden ships and paintings in the marine style.

We were supposed to go and see the island of If but the weather was too bad for the boats to sail. So we had a tour of the city instead.

Doing One's Laundry in the Open.

Oh, those Narrow Streets...

The view of the Marina. 
The Famous Fish Soup.


The famous fish soup was yuk yuk yuk, and three more times yuk. I don't mind the price, it's worth trying if you've never done that before (27 EUR) but it leaves a lot to be desired. The origins of the soup are unclear. Some say that it used to be a fisherman's dish: at the end of the day all unsold catch went to the pot for family's dinner. However, one food critic estimated the price of butter and saffron throughout the times and drew a conclusion that no poor fisherman could have ever afforded that, so this fish soup has always been a thing for the rich. But the truth is out there.

After lunch we had a cruise to calanques, a.k.a. inlets.

The Calanques Cruise.
The sea was rough and a few people kept vomiting almost all the time. I also took a sickness bag but, fortunately, I didn't need to use it. But i understood why they didn't sail to the island of If today-there's no way they could have boarded safely.

The seventh day started in Aix-en-Provence. The town of Cezanne and Mirabeau is divided into the right shadow side for hotels and houses and the left sunny side for cafes and restaurants.

One of the Oldest Cafes, started in 1792. 
The Market.


We came across a market and spent some time sampling the produce, buying some food and herbs, and dealing with some rude sellers. Is it a crime to pick a piece of melon put on the sample plate? Yes, apparently it is.

Me by a Lovely Fountain.

Me by the Door.
Aix-en-Provence has got fantastic wooden doors that lead to inner yards that, unfortunately, are off-limits to tourists.

Then we rode to Roussillon. This town can also qualify for "a nest town" category and is famous for its ochre canyons, a.k.a. the Colorado of France.

The Colours are Truly Amazing!
The small picturesque town is fantastic. It's narrow cobbled streets lend themselves to slow exploration and the laziness is in the air. However, the shops are few and the prices are by a few EUR higher than before.

Me and Roussillon. 
The highlight of the day was Gordes. It's been voted one of the most beautiful French towns and I can see why.

Gordes.
People usually come for the underground cellars of St. Firmin but I will recommend you to skip those few small empty rooms and save your EUR for something else. The town's streets are 45 degree up or down but there are a few good panorama spots.

Rose Wine in the Terrace with A View. AND the Wind. 

Much, much better.
Look for "Cercle Republicain" in rue des Tracapelles. They charge 0.50 EUR on each drink if you sit in the terrace but it's the best 50 cent ever spent. The glass of rose wine I'm holding in the photo with this extra fee cost 2,60 EUR (let me spell that out for you: two Euro and sixty cents). AND they say France is expensive?

Now, the saddest part of the trip- the lavender.

You think this is Lavender? Meh, you silly thing. 
If you consider going on a lavender tour in France, your own or booked via an agency, make sure you know this: the real lavender grows at 1,000 km altitude, mostly in mountainous regions. Otherwise you are looking-or me is posing in this photo- at its several times removed cousin or derivative lavendine. What's the difference, you say? Something like between an orange and a lemon: both are citruses but you want an orange. We stopped at a lavender museum where we got to know more about this plant and, naturally, did some shopping. Did I say France is cheap? I take my words back.

The eight day was spent first of all in Avignon. It was my first time there, so I did want to go and see the Papal palace.

Avignon. 
The story of why the Pope relocated from Rome and what they did is interesting but I don't want to bore you because you might not be such an avid history buff like myself. I can only recommend you to look up the following: the connection between the Oder of the Templars and the royal dynasty of France dying out, how John XXII was elected, what's the average life and rule span of each Pope in Avignon, and why there were three Popes in one Europe at the same time -that should give you a more or less exact picture.

And then our road turned and we started returning. The weather also changed and it started raining. Our final stop in France -not counting WC breaks- was in Beaune in Burgundy.


Hospice of Beaune.
I didn't want to focus too much on describing Burgundy (famous of beef and wine) because Provence was the focal point of this tour. I will tell only that Beaune is a beautiful town of wine cellars and you can enjoy visiting them. I also bought a book "Wine and War"-fantastic read. The very hospice you see in the photo was built for the poor and the rich as a hospital. Yes, the rich also were not rich enough to afford medicine. Now it's a museum and they do own a vineyard as well, that enables them to hold charitable wine auctions. 


On the ninth day we only had a short stop in Heidelberg in Germany. It rained so much that we quit the tour of the town and hit in one of the many cafes and had a proper hot breakfast instead. 

Heidelberg. 
Oh, I also got myself a new bag. And I saw one of those European cruise liners. By Jove, they are magnificent. Then it was another boring trip across Poland until we pulled in back in Vilnius at midnight. You know what they say-East or West, home is best!

I might expand a few stories into separate reports if I feel the inspiration. Now, I only eat and sleep (hopefully, not expecting!) and go to work.

Thanks for reading me.


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