Adventures in Provence Part 1

Part of our trip was spent in Provence, an area of southeastern France. It’s one of my favorite parts of the world. The area has an incredible combination of mountains, hills, and beaches to the Mediterranean. The food is incredibly fresh and it’s the land of lavender.

We usually stay in Aix-en-Provence, a university town close to Marseille. Its beautiful,  white bark trees that line many of its streets. Paul Cezanne and Emil Zola were from there and frequented the lovely café/restaurant Deux Garçon. You can visit Cezanne’s atelier but it wasn’t terribly impressive. But it’s a nice place as a base of operations.

We made a whirlwind tour of the highlights. First, we drove out to Marseilles late in the day. There is the impressive Fort St. Jean and a large port with a tempting ferris wheel at the end. Unfortunately, parking is also impressive and we ended up circling for about an hour. Eventually, we made our way to the Basilica of Notre Dame of the Garde. The basilica is situated on what appears to be the tallest hill of the city, as if the basilica were watching over the city. The basilica topped by a golden statute of Mary. Once we mounted the many flights of stairs, we entered and found ourselves in a golden chapel. There were mosaics all over the ceiling and part of the altar. Hanging from the ceiling were models of boats (and one plane) which I believe are tokens of thanksgiving from people grateful for the safe return of their loved ones. The walls also had medals, pictures, and more which I think we other tokens of gratitude. The bells began to toll which only added to the majesty. When we left the basilica, the sky had turned dark blue and the basilica was lit up golden and white in the night sky. It was perfect.

The next day we made a trip to Les Baux de Provence. It’s a little village perched in the mountains with a ruined chateau. It has tiny streets and houses built of stone or built into the stone. It’s primary trade is tourist but it is worth the trip. I remember one rare snowy Christmas eve that the town dressed in medieval garb and danced it the streets. This time we visited, there was a manager scene with 10+ gray sheep munching away at hay and one little perfectly white lamb. We rushed up to the Chateau to see the ruins and the vistas. The town is surrounded by a diversity of farms, each a different shade of green. There are trees and distant clouds of smoke. There are more mountains (and some place there was the Valley of Hell but we did not have time to explore this). In the museum of the Chateau, there are siege machines, including the old standby catapult, a battering ram, and a ballista, a machine like a trebuchet from the 12th century. There are also the ruins themselves which have doorways and staircases that lead to nowhere. We ventured up the stairs named “the Saracen walk” despite the caution of a nearby sign warning us about the danger of the walk. Well, it  didn’t take long for us to understand why. The stone stairs were slanted down and the middle of the steps had been worn down so much, there was incredible indent (but you couldn’t actually put your foot in it). Between the slick steps from the rain and these non-level steps, it was a little bit of a challenge to get up there. But we did and the view (and sense of exhilaration at eluding danger) were well worth it.

Our next stop was to the Camargue, a marshland nature preserve that spilled out into the Mediterranean. It’s populated by wild bulls and white horses. It’s also a nature preserve for birds. There are a lot of riding stables for the interested. We saw a variety of captured and hopefully wild horses and bull. We briefly stopped at Stes. Deux Maries de le Mer to gaze upon the sinking sun on the beach. It was even warm enough to take off our jackets for a second. Then we drove off to Aigues Mortes, a little medieval city in the Camargue. It has an impressive city wall around it. It alleges to be the first port of France on the Mediterranean (Marseille was not French at the time). It’s known for its salt and bull meat. I’ve never seen so many places selling bull sausage and other bull meat.

Anyway, that’s all for today. Tomorrow I’ll talk more about our adventures in Provence.

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