WA17 is finally here

And so it’s back to France for me as I start the journey that will be Weasels Afloat 2017. It’s hard to believe that the last time we did it was in 2010. I’m hoping WA17 will be a lot better.

Given I was heading to Battle first up, I had a long train journey to endure. Well, a couple actually. It also meant leaving the house at 4:30 with two confused puppies who’d already been for a walk but were delirious for another.

I dropped them with Sue and headed for the bus stop. And there was an extra spring in my step because today, being weigh in Wednesday was full of good news. My weight had finally gone sub 80kg!

79.2 is superb particularly after two weeks in France and only three days in the gym. I was well stoked… With apologies for stealing words from the 1980’s.

Lindy met me at Battle station and dropped me at Chez Platt for the evening meal of cheese, crackers and garlic bread, all washed down with a beer and vast quantifies of red wine which Jon was more than happy to help consume. I was reminded of Naples.

There was a lot of reminiscing over various other weasel adventures and silly talk mostly around bottoms.

Following a small liquor (or two in some cases) bed claimed us all ahead of the early morning start.

Apparently I am keeping the captain’s log which has become the captain’s blog. There is a log from WA10 though I don’t remember it. Hopefully WA17 will be memorable for all the right reasons.

So far it’s shaping up very, very well.

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Living in a dreamworld

In a move that proves just how backward thinking some nations can really be, Turkey has announced that they are going to stop teaching evolution in their schools. In an extraordinary comment, the head of Turkish education said that the “…subject is debatable, controversial and too complicated for students.”

I think I should have titled this post THIS IS NOT A JOKE. Except it is really. It’s a joke on the entire Turkish nation; it’s a rather horrid joke on the next generation of children growing up hidden within the dark sack of superstition and ignorance.

Too complicated? Is he saying Turkish children are really, really stupid and therefore deserve to be just hidden in a corner and taught to repeat nonsense for the rest of their lives? Because that’s the alternative.

In a piece in the Guardian, there is this:

There is little acceptance of evolution as a concept among mainstream Muslim clerics in the Middle East, who believe it contradicts the story of creation in scripture, in which God breathed life into the first man, Adam, after shaping him from clay.

Of course it contradicts the story of creation in scripture! The story of creation in scripture is a fairy story we tell our children when we don’t know the answer to a question about evolution…while evolution is real.

In the meanwhilst, the Turkish deputy prime minister (some clueless moron called Numan Kurtulmuş) said earlier this year that evolution is a “…theory that was both archaic and lacking sufficient evidence.” So completely different to the scriptures that are clearly very modern and provable.

Of course there are secular Turks who are dismayed over this decision but prime minister Erdogan will prevail because he believes the nonsense and will never be deterred. I hope that this will completely scupper any hope of their joining the EU by proving just how backwards they all are rather than allow them entry because everyone is too scared to criticise Islam.

In much more pleasant news…it looks like Lizzy will be returning to Starbucks! I saw her this morning (always a pleasure) and she was applying for some shifts.

My fingers crossed.

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The friendliest Starbucks ever!

This morning, over my latte, I overheard a young couple chatting behind me. One of them was muttering something about sewing when the other one suddenly said “This has to be the friendliest Starbucks I’ve ever been in!” The other one agreed saying just about everyone who enters knows the staff and greets them like family. And vice versa. It made me quite proud.

Back at home, I spent most of the day organising my over 530 holiday photos. Having deleted the really bad ones and sorting out the ones to out up on Flickr, I felt it was a job well done. I still have to write on each one but at least they’re there. Okay there’s 78 of them but it was a two week holiday. Besides, I figure that anyone who doesn’t want to look at them doesn’t have to. I’m not that precious about them.

The rest of the day was spent finishing off the laundry and making a Japanese feast for dinner.

The weather was not sure what it wanted to do, though it didn’t rain. The temperature is a bit of a shock after the heat of southern France.

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Annie and the Underdogs

As usual, the first day back after two weeks away was spent in the laundry. Basket followed basket followed basket. It was all rather essentially dull.

Tonight, however, was anything but dull.

A few months ago Mirinda had me buy some tickets to a play in Southampton. Her PA, Rowena, was appearing in it. It was called Golem.

For anyone who doesn’t know, Golem was a ‘man’ made of clay that responded to a tablet with written instructions dropped into its mouth. It is a Jewish legend that originated in the Prague synagogue we visited a few Christmases ago. Rabbi Low created Golem in order to help protect them from anti-semitism in the 16th century. Golem also helped around the house and church.

The story ends with Golem becoming bigger and stronger and a threat to its creator. Rabbi Low removed the tablet and hid Golem away, never to be reactivated.

The Golem we saw tonight was a production by an amazing theatre company called 1927. While it borrows from the Jewish legend, it also applies it to today and how we are ultimately controlled by the things we convince ourselves that we control.

Apart from the important message, the production was excellent. Very clever and imaginative with some superb use of multimedia. In fact my only complaint would be that there was no programme and their website doesn’t include the cast. It’s a shame because they were all fantastic. When I say ‘all’, there was only five and a keyboard player on stage.

(Annie and the Underdogs was the name of the basement only anarchic punk band in the play.)

Anyway, congratulations to the entire cast and crew on a play that never flagged, was never dull and simply blew me away…almost like the weather on the way home. The motorway was rendered almost invisible by torrential rain. We drove quite slowly for a lot of it.

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Unexpected red balloon…

…dropped by a woman with a bright green bag while we had lattes at an Italian cafe. Most unexpected in fact.

For our last day in Nice, we wandered around. The weather had become decidedly cooler and the sky was overcast which, basically, is good wandering weather.

Our first stop was through the flower market, which is much more than just flowers. In fact we bought a couple of small saucissons for a sort of mid morning snack before heading back into the rabbit warren that is Nice old town.

The idea was to visit the Palais Lascaris, a grand 17th century house once belonging to one of the knights of Malta. The walls of a couple of rooms are covered in family portraits. One of them, purporting to be a woman, looks remarkably like a man in another portrait dressed in rather unconvincing drag.

Most of the house is now home to a huge collection of musical instruments. There are some true oddities…like the piano harp. A piano harp is, basically, a harp on the back with a keyboard attached to the front. As you strike a key, a string is struck. The one we saw looked to be from the Renaissance. There is also a black woodwind instrument shaped like a serpent and called…a serpent. It was all very interesting though Mirinda thought it was a shame that none of them were played anymore.

In the bedroom, we learned about the odd little Greek story of Daphne and Apollo. Apollo was rather keen on Daphne, mainly because Cupid’s arrow had struck him. Cupid’s lead arrow struck Daphne. The lead arrows have the opposite effect and Daphne couldn’t stand Apollo. Appealing to her father (he was a river sprite), Daphne asked how she could stop Apollo’s attentions. Her father smiled and turned her into a laurel tree. That seems a bit extreme to me. Still, it made a very interesting ceiling painting.

From the house we found somewhere to eat lunch which I regretted for the rest of the day. I’ve been very good with the carb avoidance but today I just had to have a calzone. A much wiser Mirinda had stuffed vegetables which was much nicer/better. While she bounced around all day, I just grew steadily more and more tired.

Still, it didn’t stop us jumping aboard the tram for a trip around Nice. Well, not exactly ‘around.’ There’s only one tram line which goes from Henri Sappia to Hopital Pasteur but this covers almost 9 kilometres and gives a real taste of the outer suburbs of Nice as well as the city centre.

As anyone who’s read my blog for any length of time will know, I do love a tram. And the Nice tram is no different. Although modern and comfortable, they are still a great way to travel through the city. They are currently building a second line which will travel into the city from the airport. Now that will be great.

I am always pleasantly surprised by how many people use city trams when they are available. It just proves what a good idea they are.

Our trip eventually ended at the beginning of the shopping precinct named after the mayor of Nice from 1928-1943 and from 1947-1965, Jean Médecin. While his son Jacques who succeeded him, turned out to be a bit of a rotter during his term, the father, was, by all accounts, a good mayor.

The Avenue Jean Médecin starts at the Place Masséna where seven white figures sit atop high poles, watching over the pedestrians and the city. They represent the seven continents and highlight how cosmopolitan Nice is.

At the other end of the Place Masséna is an amazing fountain. In the centre is a shining white statue of Apollo and surrounding him are some of the planets represented as Greek myths. It’s amazing.

Apollo’s bum because the sun was in the wrong place…

And it actually rained today. We had a very brief few spits earlier in the week but this was actual rain that made you wet. People even opened umbrellas. I figured the grey clouds and descent into wetness was because we were leaving and Southern France was saddened by the fact. Whatever the reason, the slight drop in temperature was certainly welcomed by me.

Sky looking a bit bruised

But it was soon time to head back to the hotel for our bags. But not before we sat on the Promenade des Anglais for one last time and tweeted #ILoveNice.

#WeLoveNice

The taxi to the airport took an age because of the traffic and the building works for the new tram line. But we had plenty of time and eventually were sat waiting for our plane. The flight was very uneventful (as all flights should be) and we were soon on the ground at Heathrow looking along the line of hire car drivers with their names on bits of paper.

And Carole (or one of her drivers) wasn’t there. I rang her, expecting her to say she was just parking. The phone rang for ages, which it never does, and when she eventually answered I had the feeling I’d dragged her out of bed.

For some reason I couldn’t fathom she asked me what time and flight number we were arriving on tomorrow. I told her we had already landed tonight. She was in shock but said she’d be with us in about half an hour.

The reason she’d asked me was because she thought I was answering a text she’d sent me which I didn’t receive. It was just coincidence that I rang when I did.

Anyway, she eventually turned up and drove us home. She was incredibly apologetic but we told her it was fine (it was only half an hour after all) and not to beat herself up about it. In fact we all agreed to blame her mother.

So, home after midnight to an empty house after a very full holiday.

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For example, Capetown

Nice has connections with 24 other cities around the world. Or so the woman in the petit train headphones told us today. She told us a lot of other things besides, while we sat and meandered around the streets and up to the top of the hill that was a fort then a chateau and a cathedral and a hill and now a park.

When seen from the petit train, Nice is quite an amazing place. It has changed so many times through out it’s long history that it’s probably quite difficult to know who’s actually in charge at any given time. The Greeks, it seems, started things (though there was some sort of settlement here 400,000 years ago – I’m thinking homo erectus rather than sapien) in around 350BC when a few of them moved down the coast from Marseilles and built a neighbouring city. Maybe they’d argued, maybe they just wanted to move, no-one knows.

The Romans came next. Then the Greeks again followed by the second Roman wave. All was well until the barbarians destroyed the whole place (because that’s what barbarians do, Terry Jones) in order to sleep on the rubble of ancient Rome like some sort of uncomfortable thumbs up to the imperialists. (Sounds a bit Brexit to me.)

At various times the place flourished then diminished. It was owned by various people (the Savoys controlled it for quite a while) until it eventually ended up being part of France and the playground of the rich, famous and/or powerful. Now it’s just full of tourists. But not so many that you can’t have a jolly happy stroll down the Promenade du Paillon. Which we did first thing.

The day was already getting quite warm when we found this delightful ‘fountain.’ When I saw it from a distance I thought it was sending steam up but, when Mirinda walked through it she said it was very light, fine water.

English rain fountain

It was strangely refreshing around the ankles. As we left it a poor lady walked into it and it all stopped. She looked rather sad that she’d missed the mist. Perhaps if she waited long enough…but we couldn’t wait because we had a date with a pastry.

While we are lo-carb these days, a French treat once a year is mandatory. So to a patisserie we retired to partake of a single delight each. This also gave us time to wait for the Museum of Contemporary Art to open. The museum was Mirinda’s concession to me. I was allowed one art gallery so I chose the modern one. In retrospect I rather wish I’d picked the Marc Chagall instead.

As I mentioned in an earlier post this holiday, sometimes Mirinda is just like her father. No more so than in modern art galleries. I kept wandering away from her because she was getting more and more riled by what she claimed was just a bunch of wanky garbage disguised as art. As she said, the fact that the wanky artists would love this sort of reaction just made her madder.

I rather enjoyed some of it; some of it I didn’t. Of course there were no ‘pretty pictures’ and there were a lot of pieces that appropriated every day objects and reused them to represent various aspects of our wasteful society. The place is circular and the visitor goes from floor to floor and round and round until reaching the terrace at the top. The terrace has an amazing view…

…all around, especially on such a day as today. Though it was a bit blowy.

There was a special exhibition on called ‘Regarding Nice: 1947-1977’ which I rather enjoyed (Mirinda hated most of it). It was about the so called Nice School of artists. Among these artists were Yves Klein, Ben and Claude Pascal to name but three. I particularly like Ben and his own style of mayhem.

But enough of that…we had other things to do before the sun set. We headed down to the old town to look for some lunch. And we found some in a lovely little Portuguese restaurant called Le Barbecue. I had one of the loveliest salads ever – duck, goats cheese on gingerbread and various other bits and pieces. I also had a Portuguese beer which I’ve not tried before. All in all, a lovely lunch.

It was then off to find ice cream, another carb treat. Before that though we popped into the cathedral in order to disapprove of all the riches on display and the dead saints littering the place.

Given Nice is a beachy place, there are signs up in the church about what you can and can’t wear in church. The thing is, some of the women wear such brief shorts, it’s hard to say where the bikini starts and the day wear ends. Still, everyone went in, wandered around and then came out and god didn’t do anything…except make it a bit windier.

Not that the wind stopped us having our ice creams. Rose and lavender for me, rose and violet for Mirinda – totally lush.

Fenocchio’s ice cream is bloody good

But then the wind did get up. We wondered if it was the leftover puff from one of the various devastating hurricanes doing the rounds at the moment. It certainly wasn’t the mistral which is pathetic in comparison. This wind was enough to pick up small children and send them to Italy.

We struggled against it down to the petit train stop only to wave goodbye to a full one as it left the park. We decided to go and sit in a sheltered spot while waiting for the next departure.

And, as I said, we enjoyed a lovely ride through the streets in a very unhurried fashion.

Of course the highlight was getting to the top of Nice, leaving the train and taking lots of photographs of the panorama before us.

Angel Bay

The wind seemed to have left its mark on the trees at the top though…

That’s one seriously leaning tree

Still, we survived and managed to make it back to the hotel as the wind died down.

Then, for dinner, Mirinda found a Japanese/French restaurant not far from the hotel. It was called Ma Yucca and absolutely brilliant. It felt just like we were back in Japan…except for the dessert. The Japanese don’t really do dessert. So we figured that was the ‘French’ bit. The starters and mains were delicious and the miso soup wonderful – I thought it was better than mine but lovely loyal Mirinda said mine was better.

The only downside was the creme brulee I had.

Looks good, lacks flavour

Finally, we staggered back to the hotel for our last night in France.

Here’s today’s video from the roof of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Nice.

Before I sign off, I have a question about today. Does anyone reading this know what the flag at number 8 on this photo represents?

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Oops, wrong week

And so the day I’d been dreading finally arrived. Ever since leaving the tangle of streets that is Nice airport terminal 2 car rentals, I have been in fear of the the reverse. Okay, I’ve relaxed a lot and enjoyed myself but somewhere buried deep but accessible in the back of my mind has been the speck of horror that is the return. I know there’s signs because I saw them when we left but that doesn’t help. What also doesn’t help is not having a proper satnav location. I had to send Celine to her home and hope for the best. Linda was acting as wingman for Celine because she refused to talk to us.

It’s one of those things that heralds the end of a holiday (normally) when you have to return the car then spend another day (or two) before leaving completely. It’s quite easy keeping up with the days when it’s only a couple of weeks. However it’s not always the case.

Of course, when you’re on holiday, sometimes the days get a bit mixed up. You might think it’s Monday when, in fact, it’s Wednesday. And so it should be. The thing is, holidays should make you forget the humdrum day to day sloggery of the weekday routine. There is a point, though, where you need to keep a bit of a handle on what day it is.

For instance, the Sussex couple I met yesterday and re-aquainted myself with this morning turned up at the B&B a week early. Alright, they’ve been on holiday since April but even so. A week out? Mark (of the B&B) told us this morning and we were aghast. He only has so many bedrooms but managed to squeeze them in. Even so, they did look a bit sheepish this morning.

As for us, we took our time getting ourselves organised before checking out, saying goodbye and paying the balance of our account. The trouble was I forgot that we needed to pay in cash. We ended up scraping together Euros and pounds but we did feel rather stupid. It has been such a lovely three days and this almost spoiled it. Not that Mark or Berniece thought it was much of a problem and I did offer to just pay it directly into their bank there and then. Still…

Anyway, we finally said farewell to Mark and Berniece and, of course, Niagara…

…and headed out of the roughly rutted awful driveway for the very last time.

Rather than head straight for Nice, we decided to take Mark’s advice and head up to the Cedar forest for a look see from the lookouts. I’m really glad we did because the views from up there are simply brilliant. The whole of the Luberon seems to be stretched out before you like so much decoration on a cake. It is splendid.

There was, of course, more of the very narrow roads tense driving as we drove down through the hills. As much as I like the French, French drivers are really appalling. They drive far too fast and get really impatient with people who don’t have the same death wish as they do. They drive far too close to you and blow their horns with all the aggression that they can muster. How do they think that works? All it does is make everyone more tense. They really should learn to drive a little less like they believe in a life after death.

Despite the dickheads on the road, we successfully made it to the wonderful little village of Lourmarin where we parked up then took a wander, eventually settling down in a roadside bar for some refreshment. The welcome from the statue at the beginning of the village was an interesting inducement.

From here it was just a long, monotonous trip to Nice, mostly following the A8 motorway for almost 200 kilometres. Then, finally, the big test. The final stretch to the car return.

Would you believe it, it was super easy. Using both satnavs and the visual clues, it was ridiculously simple and made me realise that worrying about it all holiday was a complete and utter waste of time.

So, we said goodbye to Celine and headed into Nice to our gay-friendly Windsor Hotel (“A lovely hotel,” said our taxi driver). Then, after the briefest of rests, we headed out into Nice.

I’m going to write more about Nice tomorrow but it’s quite an odd place. Where one expects golden sandy beaches, there is nothing but stones. Where one expects the beautiful people, there’s just a huge conglomeration of tourists. As I said, it’s an odd place where people seem to be there to be seen and pay stupid money to sit on a sun lounger on the stony beach.

It’s all very strange…but great to gawp at as we did.

Later, we had seafood for dinner. It was possibly our least favourite meal of the trip so far. At least we didn’t have the giant seafood platter that this little German girl had.

It was then back to the hotel to sleep ahead of our sightseeing of Nice on the morrow.

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Crazy French roads

Driving in Provence is decidedly scary. The roads seem hardly wide enough for two cars to pass each other and they are full of blind corners as they go up and down the mountains. The locals drive at top speed regardless, which just adds to the scariness. We spend a lot of time slowing down and pulling over.

Apart from the driving conditions, today was a lovely day spent (mostly) driving and exploring a wide swathe north of where we’re staying.

Before our first stop, however, we decided to visit the local market at Goult as our hostess had told us this is where the market was today. We wanted to buy some food for dinner to have looking out over the grape vines from the back garden of the B&B. This was fine except the market was not at Goult today. I don’t know where it is on a Tuesday but today, at least, it wasn’t Goult.

That was fine though because we had a lovely wander around the village and discovered an amazing windmill that sits, ancient and now tied down, at the top of the village. And when I say top of the village I mean it. The roads to the top are almost vertical (and, of course, very narrow) and quite a slog…but well worth it.

Moulin

After our long uphill slog, we stopped off at each of the shops on the way back down: charcuterie, fromagerie, fruiterie and an antique shop. We bought everything we’d need for dinner and then retired to a cafe/restaurant for a quick coffee. Not that we wanted it to be quick but the staff were a bit rush, rush. We had turned up right on the changeover from morning drinking to lunchtime eating.

This means that tables suddenly change their usage and woe betide someone who sits at a table that’s been made up with cutlery, glasses and a table cloth. You get moved pretty quick smart, as happened to a family of four while we were there. We just managed to scrape in an order so could stay but this family were shuffled around a bit.

There was also a French woman (with her partner) who couldn’t decide where to sit for lunch. She tried three different tables (her partner raised his eyebrows every time she wasn’t happy) before she actually settled down to order. Then she moved again.

We have moved on by this stage, returning to the car park to rescue Celine and head off for our second stop. This was the Villages des bories which lies at the end of the skinniest, scariest road of all. Still, we managed to reach the end without incident, parked up and headed for the village.

The bories are dry stone constructions started in the 17th century. Following a royal decree of 1761, a load of farmers were suddenly given the right to grab as much land as they could work and settle down. So a whole bunch of Ag-labs did just that.

They needed to dig up the rocky ground in order to find fertile soil and, using the rocks, they built the bories. Using the rocks they built enclosures which had living quarters for the farmer and their families, their livestock and storage. And they did it all without any mortar. The whole place is just rocks piled on rocks with more rocks piled onto them. It’s an amazing place.

Borie panno

Along with sheep, goats and pigs, they also reared silkworms…which seems odd but I don’t know why.

The bories don’t have windows. They all have doors that face south and avoid facing the Mistral which is the wind that blows pretty hard around these parts. I know, we’ve been buffeted by it for much of the last week. So, in effect, these stone huts, while weather proof, wind proof and generally cosy are all pretty gloomy. I reckon that the villagers spent more time outside only going in to sleep.

The village as we see it today was abandoned in the mid 19th century and it wasn’t until the 1960’s that restoration began to reach what we have today. While the bories themselves were all perfectly intact, the entire area was overgrown with trees and shrubs and brambles. It took eight years to clean it all up and make everything look as good as…well, new.

The restoration work received a medal from the Academy of Architecture. And well deserved I say. An amazing place.

Pig pen

Heading back to the car we then once more wrestled with the narrow twisty roads, heading for the Abbey of Notre-Dame at Senanque.

The abbey is still inhabited by monks who tend the grounds, remain silent most of the time and wear sandals. That’s about all I managed to understand when our guide took us around. I say ‘us’ but there was about 48 others and most of them were French so they understood our very pretty guide.

In the chapter house

The walk down to the abbey along the tree lined path was lovely. The shade was very welcome. You then approach the abbey itself. It’s mighty impressive. The abbey was first established in 1148 following the successful Cistercian movement that began in Citeaux from where monks spread throughout Europe and the UK, establishing more and more abbeys (our own Waverley Abbey was one of them).

During the 13th to 14th centuries, the abbey was at its height when there were four mills, seven granges and lots of land throughout Provence. While the abbey celebrated its 850th birthday in 1998, it hasn’t been consistently operating as one. For instance, during the Wars of Religion the whole place was devastated and large parts of it destroyed. Then during the French Revolution, it was confiscated and sold off by the state.

Even in the 20th century things weren’t consistently good for the monks. In 1903 new French laws on religious congregations forced the monks to leave. Then, finally, just in time to celebrate the big 850th, they returned in 1988 and have been there ever since. Well, until the next change I guess.

Cloister

Our guide (all tours have to be with a guide and all guides speak only French) took us from room to room and never stopped talking about the place, barely pausing for breath. She was very knowledgeable…I assume. I nodded and laughed at the right times but, apart from sandals, I was pretty clueless. Even so, it was a wonderful way to spend an hour and it all felt very peaceful and calm.

Unlike the shop which was anything but. It was a bit mad with about a million books all about Christian things. And a very funny pair of books called God and Comedy. Had they been in English I might have bought them. I can just imagine God taking a turn at stand-up.

“So, what about those Pharisees? Crazy guys or what? I mean as if I’d bother writing a whole bible and then going to the trouble of verbalising one for these fellas as well. Do they think I have nothing but time on my hands? I mean, come on guys! And I have to tell you. A funny thing happened on the way here tonight. I overheard a couple of teenage girls and one says ‘Oh My God!’ and snarled when I asked what she wanted. But what can you do? That’s kids for you. Mine were never that great. I once caught them stealing fruit! I mean what are you gonna do? Some people will do anything for an apple. Thank you, you’ve been great. I’m here all week.”

Bad comedy aside…at the abbey, there are quite a few signs warning against the use of drones. Interestingly all the signs are in English.

Having left our drone behind, we returned unmolested to the car and set off on a very scary drive along the mountain roads back to the B&B except we decided the time for the fruit pickers to go home was a bit close so went to Bonnieux for a drink. It’s the closest town to us but this was our first visit. It wasn’t very long.

After a bit of a rest up at the B&B where I made the acquaintance of a couple from Sussex who have been on a French holiday since April, we had a very romantic dinner perched atop a small platform overlooking the grapes. It was the perfect end to our Luberon stay.

Cheers, Luberon

Tomorrow we drive back to Nice and return Celine ahead of two nights in the city. We’re going to miss the quiet of the country but definitely not the thin roads and the ghastly dirt driveway!

Which reminds me…I almost forgot the wild boars. On the day we arrived Mark, our host, told us about the automatic gates and the code to unlock them. When asked why he needed gates when the house is in the middle of nowhere and at the end of such a scary drive, he lowered his voice and said “The wild boars. They come in and eat everything.”

Then I woke up last night and thought I heard snuffling. Naturally I figured it was a wild boar and was worried because our window was open. It didn’t keep me awake though. When I woke up this morning Mirinda asked me if I’d heard the annoying moth that decided to flap around half the night. I told her I’d heard it but thought it was a wild boar looking for truffles. Oh, how we laughed.

Here’s a borie video…as opposed to a boring video…

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Chocolat magique

Way back when, the Romans pulled down a Gaulish wooden bridge and erected a stone one across the deluge that was the River Cavalon. These days the Cavalon is slightly more than just a trickle and I’m sure a lot of people look at the bridge and wonder why they bothered. However, if you look at the terraces either side of the stream, it’s clear that where now a mere rivulet runs once a mighty river raged.

The bridge, Pont Julien, is a masterpiece of engineering (if you ask me). It has stood now for over 2,000 years and seems to be showing no signs of stopping and all without the benefit of any mortar. The whole thing is just brilliantly carved blocks, interlocking to provide strength and stability. Okay, traffic no longer goes across but it only stopped in 2005 so it has seen its fair share of cars and trucks.

Pont Julien with tourists

And back in the mists of time (3BC) when it was first built, Emperor Julius Caesar possibly rode across it on his way along the Via Domitia to Colonia Apta Julia (modern day Apt), a town named after him. The Via Domitia ran from Italy to here, linking Rome with Gaul so this was a pretty important road and bridge.

Nowadays the only traffic consists of tourists, pedestrians and cyclists who whizz down off the Petit Luberon having just free wheeled down from Bonnieux. Which is not something I particularly want to try.

We followed a couple down as they hurtled towards the bridge. We were doing 40kph and didn’t need to overtake them. At one point the woman of the couple pulled over (to catch her breath, I assume) but her other half just kept racing on, seeing no point in stopping his forward and downward movement. The sonic boom was not that obvious but I’m fairly sure he hit it.

While we were wandering over and under the Roman bridge the same cycling couple were doing the same. She waited obediently as he found more and more interesting places to take photographs from. He even stood on a rock in the middle of the stream. I’m not sure if he found the perfect angle but I do know how annoying he was.

Pont Julien

As I started down the slope on the same side of the bank as they were, the woman walked her bike up the narrow path while he just felt the need to ride, wobbly and wandering all over it. I felt like giving him a little push. I’m fairly certain they were American.

Actually we heard quite a few Americans today. It seems they all like to visit the ochre shops in Rousillon. Not that I can blame them. It is a most amazing place. Though, perhaps there is not so much need for the amount of gushing they seemed to enjoy. Really, guys, you simply can’t adore everything.

The whole of Rousillon became rich on the production of ochre, the fine powder used in many things but, these days, mostly watercolour paint. The man responsible for the prosperity of the town was Jean Etienne Astier who, in 1780, found a way to turn the ochre powder into a fixed and non-toxic dye. He made his fortune and his memory was assured as quarries opened up, pockmarking the countryside around the town into a moonscape of yellow and red.

Ochre-land

It’s an amazing place. There’s a walk around the old, abandoned quarries where the remnants of work has created a landscape just ready for weathering. Thin shards of red rock, mountains of various shades rising up, dust everywhere, it’s truly incredible.

They warn you, constantly, not to take any of the ochre dust with you because it needs to be processed before you can use it for anything. However, we did see quite a few people with yellow bottoms leaving the walk. I think they may be in trouble.

The ochre was so important to the town (and tourism is now) that the people who live there can only paint their houses in a range of shades of ochre from a limited palette of 40 shades. That’s a lot of yellowy reds and not a lot of blues.

The Rousillon colours clearly do not include the windows

These days, the town sits upon it’s hill of yellow and merely exists for the benefit of thousands of tourists who wander the streets, remark on the quaintness of it, have perhaps a drink then leave either weighed down by tourist tat, beautiful pottery or dust. That’s not to say it isn’t lovely and a strangely peaceful spot to wile away most of a day because that’s exactly what we did.

I realise that the above makes it sound awful but it’s far from that. It felt peaceful and was very beautiful. We visited a few shops and bought a lovely little ochre figurine as well as a bottle of red and some of the wettest goats cheese I’ve ever seen. We had to stop it running out of the shop it was so fluid.

This trip there has been a few instances where we’ve seen French tourists dangling from ridiculously dangerous spots in order to get a good photograph. Everywhere they dangle there are no signs, no barriers and no advice. For example, in the Verdon Gorge the drop was well over 100 metres straight down and definitely fatal.

In Rousillon, however, right at the top, beyond the church and hope from the heavens, there is a sign though mostly for the children. Adults, I guess, should know better.

Adults can do whatever

Now, we’d spent a lovely day in the yellow/red town and we about to go back to the house we’re staying in when calamity almost struck. The car park (there’s only one) had only a single machine to take our money. The car park cost €3 regardless of how long you’d been there and you just had to feed the machine your parking ticket then the money, either by cash or card.

I reached the machine at the same time as a French couple but it said that it was out of service. To all of us. We wandered around aimlessly wondering what we should do.

A Brief Interlude
While I’m mentioning money, the oddest thing happened in the shop where we bought the goats cheese and wine. The woman in the shop started totting up the various items as Mirinda kept adding things to the ever growing pile. The first total was €45. I was happily about to give her a €50. Then Mirinda added a bar of 98% cocoa bean chocolate. She added this to the total and came up with €33. We all stared in disbelief. She allowed herself a slight smile as she started adding everything together again.

Her third total was €33 again so I was happy to pay that asd well but then Mirinda asked if she’d included the bar of chocolate. The woman shrugged and started the process once more, tapping at the tiny keys of her calculator. This time it totalled €29! It was getting quite insane and I wondered how long it would be before she had to start paying us. She claimed it was “…chocolat magique!

She tried it again and the €33 came up so we all decided it must be the correct total. We paid quickly and left. Very odd but a lot of fun. She was an extremely jolly lady.

Meanwhile back in the car park…eventually an engineer showed up and he set to work (having pushed through the thousands of now chattering drivers wanting to pay) trying to fix the ticket machine. He said something gruffly in French.

My limited command of the language could only manage bits of what he said but I thought it was something about credit cards using the barriers. As people started wandering off, for some reason satisfied, he suddenly yelled in English that people using credit cards could pay at the barriers.

This satisfied me (and made me quite happy that I’d managed to translate what he’d said) so I went back to a happily waiting Mirinda in the car. She remained happy almost the whole way back to base. Her happiness vanished like a duck in a shooting gallery when she met the fruit picker we (almost) ran into on the way down to the B&B.

The thing is, the driveway is about 2km long and gradually gets worse the further you go. Mirinda doesn’t like it at all and has wondered what would happen if we met someone on the way up as we were coming down. As an idea, here’s what the road down is like:

Things started to get ugly after we both stopped so I turned off the video.

They were driving in an old beat up four wheel drive Landrover and we were in a brand new (almost) BMW series 2 convertible – they were on a road they knew really well while we were but visitors here for a few days. I could go on forever but right was clearly on our side. They didn’t see it that way.

They were fruit pickers, finishing work for the day and obviously eager to get home. Obviously Mirinda’s immovable stance and the fact that she turned Cecile’s engine off and started reading her book, made them realise they should reverse into a very handy little ramp off the main track. This didn’t stop one of the pickers (a woman who, I think, was Italian) coming up to the car and saying we should have reversed.

There ensued a very strange conversation between this woman and Mirinda which I’m not going to go into because it’s just too painful. I say ‘painful’ because it just keeps coming back to haunt me as Mirinda refuses to let it go. I reckon she’ll be discussing the unfairness of the woman until I die. At least then I shall get some peace…about this woman, I mean.

Anyway, they backed up and we drove through…it was all very much a storm in a teacup where the teacup had been broken and all that was left was the handle.

Finally back at the B&B we had some nibbles at the end of the long table overlooking the sunset. All was blissful and beautiful until I spilled a glass of wine over everything which didn’t go down well. Actually the wine went down a little bit too well and drenched the table, the olives and Mirinda’s ebook.

All of this stuff is far too painful so I’m going to cut it short.

After a brief rest we went to a nearby village for a delicious dinner – the second best so far – before driving home to the accompaniment of Mirinda singing selected songs from various musicals.

Roast cod and bits of amazement

At least the night ended very well!

Posted in Gary's Posts, Provence 2017 | 1 Comment

Sweaty cheese in a car park

Just in case anyone is thinking we were harsh in our judgement of the town of Beaucaire yesterday, today the owner of the place we’re staying in now was very dismissive. When we told him we had come from Beaucaire his mouth gave the sort of distasteful look of someone who knows his awful towns like so much foulness. It would be like if someone told me they had come from Aldershot. Or Blacktown. Or…well, I’m sure it’s obvious.

Fortunately our exit from Domaine de Clos did not require us to go too close to Beaucaire. We drove towards then away from it with great delight. Possibly too much delight though we did get a whiff of something decidedly unpleasant as we drove through the final roundabout.

It made us realise that while we always leave something to see for when we return, Beaucaire has nothing to entice our return. And that is even with the wonderful meal we had courtesy of Madame Cecile! Sadly, some things just go beyond good cuisine.

We’ll miss you Domaine de Clos

Anyway, skirting Beaucaire, we headed for Luberon, a small area of France characterised by a tiny mountain range covered in cedars. The fact that it is under two hours drive from where we were meant we drove really slowly and had a stop off which Mirinda suggested this morning. It was the almost deserted village of Oppède Le Vieux.

What an extraordinary place.

It was once a thriving little village with a massive threshing floor established sometime in the 12th century, but then, for reasons that seemed to be connected with the long shadows, dampness and humidity of the summer months, the inhabitants decided to leave to set up in the corresponding village of Oppède down in the flatlands of the valley. You see Oppède Le Vieux sits on the rock face of a mountain. It clings like a cicada on a tree branch. It defies gravity and all known sense.

Because of this, the place is now almost a ghost town with just a few people living there and lots of tourists visiting. Including us. The tiny population possibly explains why we had a 45 minute wait for lunch (we didn’t) and a 30 minute wait for a drink (we did). Both eating/drinking establishments in the village seemed to have one person doing everything in them which explains a lot.

Not that we were particularly bothered. it was just lovely sitting and watching everyone else get short tempered and angry.

Village centre

To get the village in the first place, there is a compulsory parking area. From there it’s a bit of a hike up to the village. Once there you realise that while you have to park your car at the bottom, the only way out of the village is by driving through the middle of it anyway. I guess it makes some sort of sense. At least the narrow roads are one way.

It was a long, steep haul up to the top of the village but you really have to do it. At the top there’s a ruined chateau which, sadly, you can’t go into (because of its ruinous condition) but there is the loveliest little church. It is still an operational church and really quite a delight…though I’m really not sure of the congregation size given how difficult it is to reach. Still, it looks lovely.

Unusually for churches, this one still retains a lot of the frescoes on the walls (yes, churches weren’t always boring on the inside) mostly consisting of patterns and many colours. It really brightens the place up and makes it feel warm and friendly. Though, to be fair, the little lady sitting at the desk welcoming everyone was also very warm and friendly.

Notre-Dame-Dalidon

The village really was a lovely little place and an excellent way to eat up the few hours we had before checking in at our next accommodation. In fact, we were so taken with the car park at Oppède Le Vieux that we ate our lunch there.

It was the remnants of our market day purchases at St Remy (sausage, cheese, olives, avocado) eaten off paper plates while sitting in Celine with her top off but we thoroughly enjoyed it. Okay, the cheese was a bit sweaty from having been in the boot for a bit but hey, that just makes it creamier if you ask me. And I know cheese.

Eventually, though, we had to leave the car park and continue on our way off the hill and onto the next one. The rest of the trip should not have taken very long except Linda did not allow for the numerous cyclists and one incredibly bad driver. He drove at less than 20kph and kept wandering all over the road in front of us. And this is on a road that is barely wide enough for two cars as it is.

We managed to accumulate quite a few irate drivers behind us as we all twisted and turned and drove through the foothills of the Luberon. It would have been quite scenic if it hadn’t been so annoying. Eventually he pulled over (sort of) and let everyone go by. I looked as we passed and I think he was about ready to shuffle off and go join the invisible choir. I could be wrong but at least he had the sense to stop first. Regardless.

And so, free from the shackles of this strange little old man, we headed up and over Bonnieux and started heading down to our next bed. The only thing was that the bed was situated at the end of a very long, dirt and rutted driveway only wide enough for three quarters of a car. It was not fun driving down it but Mirinda managed very well and eventually we were welcomed by our host for the next few days.

After the full on guided tour (which included finding out all manner of things about our host) Mirinda wasted little time in getting into her swimmers and taking in the Infinity Pool, ably watched over by Niagara the dog.

And it’s a little slice of heaven this place. Perched inside a vineyard (eating not wine grapes) and surrounded by an orchard of its own, it is ridiculously quiet and isolated and…well, just perfect.

Then, as if the day couldn’t get any better, we went to dinner in nearby Goult, at La Terrasse. What a superb meal. The tempura prawns and gazpacho soup was incredible. And the wine…but I must not go on.

Tomorrow we shall explore the area a bit but in the meantime, here’s a pretty bad video of Oppède Le Vieux.

And I feel I really should finish with this wine. We had it with dinner and it was well and truly delicious.

One for Monali

Posted in Gary's Posts, Provence 2017 | 1 Comment