This Travelogue was written by Dawn Kramer and Stephen Buck. We are Americans in our late fifties. Dawn is a
choreographer, I am a lighting designer. We took this trip because weare still able to. When we began our travelogues in 1997 we carried a
laptop and found ways to email them back to our friends as we went. This time, because we were going to spend half the trip carrying what
we had on our backs, we left the laptop at home and carried a spiral notebook instead. At the request of some of our friends, who had used
to getting it bit by bit, we sent this travelogue as e-mails as we wrote it at home.
You will quickly notice that we write a lot about the little things and a lot about ourselves. I have linked various places
inside to a resources page where you can find contact information.
All errors are ours. We try to edit each others writing for style and accuracy, but we miss things. All the facts are
as we remember them.
Monday, May 24, 2004
Boston, Ma, USA
Dawn and I have been catching a lot of early flights lately when we have been traveling so the 7:55 PM flight to Paris looked like it would
be easy. Dawn had called a cab that morning, and we're now waiting for him to show up. When he didn't arrive on time, we moved our bags
outside, locked the door and hid away the key. We didn't have our cell phones with us because we were headed for France and they wouldn't work
there. We were set. A lot of planning and research had been done so we were now ready for another trip, one month in duration, that would mix
new kinds of things with ones we had done before. We had spent the day running through our lists of last minute preparation and were now in a
state of anticipation as we sat on our front steps.
It has been nearly a year since we bought our cell phones. We felt like the last two people in the world to buy them. And of course fell
immediately in love with the convenience and efficiency that they brought into our lives. We have only one car between us and the phones
made it possible for us to hook up with each other in town after our jobs were over so that one could get a ride with the other. Now the
cell phones are locked in the house. Landline phone is locked in the house, and the key is hidden way far away. We were ready for the taxi.
Blame and fault are ugly words in a relationship and much of the time we do things together in a way that I don't think these words
about Dawn. But with check-in and security lines looming ahead of us, I panicked a little and felt myself slide to the other side of an
imaginary fence as I wondered silently.
"Why isn't the cab coming?"
Dawn decided to call them again and I went back to the get the key and unlock the front door. She called and found out that when she
reserved a taxi for 5:00, they assumed that it was for tomorrow morning. Oops. They said that they would be over as soon as possible.
So we locked up the house and I put the key away again. We waited.
The way to deal with the blame game is to remember that the person that you love is more important than the result that you are trying to
achieve, but things remained kind of quiet and I remember that Dawn was waiting on the porch and I was over in the driveway. After some time,
Dawn sent me down to get the key again and she called to see where the hell were they and found out that they were at
the bottom of our street so we rushed to lock the house, hide the key, our bodies tense in evermore readiness.
He finally came from the other direction, something we didn't even ask him about. We loaded our stuff, one suitcase and two backpacks into
the cab and made our way to the airport with only one U-turn. And even with a line at Air France that overflowed out of its corral
half way down the building and a mix-up on my part about boarding passes which Dawn remedied, we found ourselves lifting off from the
runway, holding hands as we always do as airplane wheels untouch the land.
Getting to Cezac
Tuesday May 25
To go to France and not go to Paris seems weird. Yet that's just what we did this time. All we had was about an hour layover in Charles DeGaulle. Two days before, a roof had fallen at this same airport, injuring many people and killing several. The woman sitting next to me on the plane had said in a very thick French accent, "Bon Voyage in France, and I hope Charles DeGaulle does not fall on you."
"Yes. Well, me too, Merci beaucoup."
We had to take a bus to a different terminal to avoid the damaged one. There was very little direction as to how we should do this, a pattern that seemed to persist throughout our four weeks in France; things often seemed to unfold mysteriously. With about half an hour to wait, I dug out my old French phone card, saw that it would expire July 1st
, and tried to reach my friend Malek. Finding a "cabine" that would take my old prepaid phone card was a challenge as most of the phones in the airport are equipped to take credit cards only. They don't expect travelers to have phone cards. Coin phones are relics that exist now only in remote little villages.
No answer; he was probably at work
Later in the trip, I convinced Dawn to make some phone calls herself to reserve B&B's, rather than relying on our innkeepers to make the call. I was looking for more information that would help me find the place on foot. We marched up to the phone booth in a remote village, card in hand, only to find it was one of these relics. Back to the Innkeeper, she was gone for the day, then back to the phone booth to use our only coin. We got the reservation, but no more details because we were cut off without another coin to put in. -
After about twenty minutes, we noticed that no one was waiting at our gate anymore, and there was a long line at the nearby gate. "Beh oui," they had changed the gate for the Toulouse flight without announcing it; or if they had announced it, it had been incomprehensible to us.
I don't think the gate was too nearby because I remember using my newly purchased binoculars to read the destination on the sign. It said Toulouse, and that was our destination, so we grabbed our stuff and slid over there. We had slept on the flight over and we got more sleep on this flight so we were pretty rested when we landed and were ready to face the car rental people. The woman at the counter was very nice but between the computer bugs and her inexperience it took a while. It helps not to be in a hurry. Finally everything seems to be set and we head out with there hand drawn xeroxed map of how to go north from the airport and our 5-8 year old maps from times that we were here before.
When we go to France or any country where they speak a language different than English, I nominate myself as the navigator and Dawn as the speaker. She has very good language facility and I am willing to go the wrong way enough times so that we eventually get to our destination. But I was going to need to sharpen my route finding skills. The trip from Blagnac Airport to Cezac near Cahors is easy, but some other parts of this trip will be more difficult with less room for error. We are going to stay for a week with Jean and Isabelle in le Lot, a part of France north of Toulouse. Delphine, their daughter, and Aude, her fifteen-month old baby will be there also. We will make a decision whether to stay in a new spare bedroom in the house or sleep in the renovated stable as we have done in the past. We will do little. Talk. Visit Ben and Deena to see how their house is coming along. Walk. Eat. Drink wine.
The week after that is undecided. We will ask advice from Isabelle and Jean. We are thinking about spending some time in the Camargue, a wild, marshy area at the mouth of the Rhone where horses may run wild and you see photos of bulls. Spending some time touring the Chateauneuf-du-Pape area north of Avignon has also become a possibility. We have five or so days before we need to be in Avignon. We have reservations at the Blauvac Hotel for two days that weekend so we can see the town which neither of us has spent any real time in. When we arrive in Avignon we will give up our rental car.
The following Monday, we are going to take a bus to Gordes, west of Avignon, shoulder our new back packs and walk from village to village for 12 days in the Vaucluse and Luberon, both parts of Provence in southern France. This is the part of the trip for which I have been planning madly for more than a month. Using techniques borrowed and adapted from a book,
by Bruce Le Favour, I
have been cutting and pasting information from the Internet about 25 or so towns we might visit. The more planning we do, the idea goes, the more flexibility we will have. I have a tentative route planned out, a sort of reservation for the first night, one for the weekend and lots of e-mail and phone contacts we have made with hotels and chambres d'hàtes which are a semi-equivalent to B & B's in the USA. We know where we are going to start, but we don't know where we will finish, so we have some bus schedules and in some cases, rumors about bus schedules, so that we can get back to the Blauvac where they will have kept our suitcase, before heading back to Toulouse to fly back to the USA, not before visiting my favorite restaurant in the world, Le Capoul.
In retrospect, I should have arranged to fly out of Avignon, and I probably should have arranged a stop over in Paris. I think I had reached my planning limit, or really, planning the unplannable limit, and I needed some solidity somewhere, and in trying to get the best fare on the Internet, I plunked down two granite blocks on our schedule, one is that we will fly to Toulouse on May 24 and the second is that we will fly back on June 22, Tuesday to Tuesday. The rest will have to fall into place.
Also Paris is something that we had done and this trip was about balancing old and new. Dawn feels slightly guilty when we go back anywhere. She loves France, but she looks out at Africa, Asia and Australia and sighs. Her grandfather was an explorer and she has plenty of his genes, so I designed a trip looking for the new inside the old. This was our 4th
trip to Cezac, which we love, but I wanted for it to be a springboard to a new part of France seen in a new way. Going to Paris at the end
seemed like a retreat from these ideas. But all this is in the future, as we motored up the A20, stopping to look at a Michelin map in a relais because the map we had was so old that it did not show the autoroute that we were traveling on and we needed to find the exit that we should take to Cahors. At home, we have a fast lane transponder on our car. In France, we had the next best thing, a credit card. When we needed to pay a toll, we went to a credit card lane, put the ticket in, it showed us how much we owe, put the credit card in, pulled it out, it said thank you and we are on our way. We made a stop in Cahors so that we could get some food and wine to bring to Baralou, the name of their farmhouse. We had agreed to have dinner there that night and we wanted to make some contribution to the event. Also, we needed coffee and milk to go in it for the following morning. We arrived about 5:30 in the afternoon with much greeting and kisses (twice as many as at home).
This time Cezac turns out to be a whirlwind of people, gatherings, and much re-attuning to listening, speaking, and thinking in French. Aude is adorable, testing out how steep a hill she can manage to walk down without tumbling. She takes immediately to Stephen, especially to his beard. Of course I had brought an updated supply of grandchildren pictures to show off, but being around Aude made me realize that four weeks would be a long time away from Tess and Sydney, at a time when they would inevitably make huge changes.
Isabelle has offered us the spare bedroom in their house which made us feel quite honored, but we opted for the stables across the driveway. Dawn is ultra-sensitive to mustiness and the bedroom had been closed up tight for quite a while. In a week it would have been fine. Also, the "ecurie" was closer to the bathroom that we would use and it had its own kitchen.
Isabelle would not allow us to help with her cleanup in the ecurie,
and sent us out for a walk. Things had changed. There were new hiking
signs and some kind of landing strip at the top of the ridge. The
evening light was soft and the area was as green as we had ever seen it
because of the unusually large amount of rain they had been getting.
It had been nearly seven years since we first had dinner in this house. A spring evening much like this one. A simple meal, soup, an entrée, cheese, desert, served to us just hours after our arrival. We hardly knew them then, but now I felt that we were being folded back into the family as we sat between Isabelle and Delphine. We dished out the responsibilities of wine opening and bread cutting and platter finding, but were not allowed to help in the clean up. It was still a dance of cultures as we mixed the way we do things very lightly into the way they did things, all softened with the talk of recent grandchildren and other catch ups and laced with plans for the coming weeks. It was late before the evening ended with sleepy good nights, a walk across the drive to the ecurie, more sleepy good nights and our first two days were finished.
Wednesday, May 26
We had some trouble in the morning getting up to speed. First, there were breakers to find so that we could get the hot water in the shower going. I couldn't twist the knob on the propane tank to get the stove going so I was forced to use an electric coffee maker we had never used because the replacement carafe would not fit under the water dispenser. By partially disassembling the unit I was able to make it function and get us the coffee that we needed in the morning. By the time we went through yoga in the hot sun it was noon and the outdoor market at Cahors was finished, so we put together lunch and planned a walk.
We took a walk that we had never taken before by driving a few miles past Castelnau-Montratier, then parking at the edge of a little country road and doing a circle hike back to the car. It was a really nice "starter hike," with a bit of elevation, lovely views of the town of Flagnac, and varied terrain, from farm to forest. As we walked waist deep in grasses going to seed and I started sneezing, I realized that my allergies were going to hit hard here, a month earlier than at home because spring happens much earlier in this part of France.
We got back to le Baralou, after drinking a couple of Ricards in the square at Castelnau, in time to greet Jean arriving from a brief trip to Paris, with books and new laptop in hand. It was delightful to see him again as well as Isabelle and Delphine who had greeted us the day before. Jean is a font of information about the history, culture, and "patrimoine de la France." We looked forward to consulting with him and Isabelle about the next leg of our trip after leaving Cezac.
We tried to do a little yoga every morning there. It's lovely to practice yoga outdoors, but without our mats, and with the rocky and uneven terrain, and with my allergies (!), it was a bit of a challenge. That would only be one of many challenges that greeted us on this trip. Logistical, linguistic, and navigational challenges sharpened our ability to deal with the unfamiliar without being too attached to getting perfect results every time.
As the trip progresses, I begin to get good psychological results by remembering to think of this trip as a "mission exploratoire." Rather than trying to do this trip perfectly, I thought of myself just learning how to do it. My technique became to put us somewhere and see what happens. Also, I had been practicing yoga by myself at home for about five months. I always did it in the same place and used the same the same CD of harp music. Here I found it difficult to find my yoga center when everything was different, so a trip that I had imagined would be full of yoga actually had very little.
Thursday, May 27
Since we managed to miss the Wednesday morning market in Cahors, we drove back to the Carrefours, the huge supermarket, and got supplies for a barbecue that evening. We grilled salmon, aubergines, poivrons rouges, champignons, saucisson, and served fromage and melon, and of course, wine and beer. I had hesitated to buy the Moroccan melon, knowing how fastidious Jean is about eating local produce in season only, but the French melons weren't quite ready, the Moroccans were on sale, smelled wonderful, and after all, Morocco is not that far away from France, and historically it was quite French. Luckily the melon was perfectly ripe and tasty, and Jean didn't seem to mind consuming it at all.
Dawn did all the prep for our meal and I did all the grilling. The charcoal was quite different and it took me a long time to find it in the store. It seemed to be real wood charcoal and not the pressed black dust briquette that we use here. It burned with a hotter flame, took longer to start, but everything turned out fine. I am still learning to use my new watch, (leaving my cell phone behind forced me to buy a timepiece). I couldn't seem to change the time on it so the whole meal was done using a timer that would only do six minutes and five seconds. Like I said, it seemed to work out.
Friday, May 28
My book group had decided to tackle Proust's huge masterpiece. Apparently a new English translation has come out that is supposed to be quite readable. However, when I am in France, I really like to try to read in French. Yet reading Proust is more than just reading "in French". I think he was doing something like Joyce was doing in English, so I doubted my ability to comprehend his run-on, free associative style in French. Luckily, Jean had a copy of the first part of the first book, Combray
, in French but with an introduction and copious notes in English. The book was designed for English-speaking students of French. Perfect. I launched in, and am still enjoying it. The only problem is that we seem to get so busy in France that I don't have much time to read. Jean graciously let me borrow it; I must remember to mail it back to him when I have finished it.
With Isabelle, we call on France, an eighty-five year old painter living by herself in a 16th
century "maison de la bourgeoisie" north of Montcuq. This was another one of those times when I wished I had brought my camera with me. Not having my camera at the right time, or not having the right light when I did have my camera, seems to be another recurring theme of this trip. Unlike the stone farmhouses or "mas" that are common throughout the region, France's house has grand, high ceilings and windows, huge fireplaces, a courtyard filled with blooming perennials, a spectacular view of vineyard and fields from a small balcony, and a series of rooms almost like monks' cells on the opposite side of the courtyard. It seems that she lives there rent-free, but not truly as an owner either. Apparently her father left northern France in 1943 to look for a place to live that "had never experienced war." They ended up here in Le Lot.
Isabelle asked to see her paintings, which were very varied in style. She said she never liked to repeat herself, but preferred to try something new each time. This attitude reminded me of myself as a choreographer; I have always admired artists who refine one style or one approach and eliminate lots of other possibilities, but I have never been able to do that myself. She pulled canvasses out from their stack against the wall and propped them against the wood stove (not working, or course.) Isabelle took some photos of the paintings. I particularly liked a very yellow one that reminded me of the desert in the American West. Later, during the hiking part of the trip, we would discover Roussillon and Le Colorado, canyons of ochre cliffs and bizarre formations reminding us of Canyonlands in Utah.
When we are home, no one asks us to sit down in her studio pulling out paintings, one by one, for us to look at. Although we were not buying, it made me aware how important meetings similar to this have been to the world of art. Painter and gallery owner, or painter and collector, together in a room pondering a transaction that in the short term may feed the artist's family and pay his bar tab and will fill the walls of the buyer. In the long term, perhaps they will change the face of art in the world. I don't know what happened in the past. Here, we were mostly quiet. A painting was shown, I had an immediate reaction or not, it attracted me or not. Luckily, I was not required to say much, a French word of appreciation now and then. Dawn and Isabelle said more. Dawn teaches in an art school. She has some practice speaking about art in front of the artist. It took about forty-five minutes, and was one of many times on this trip where what we were doing could have happened in any number of different centuries. Sometimes, I feel like I am time traveling rather being a tourist and I find the sensation pleasurable.
France is a very elegant and outspoken lady! She was filled with opinions about current events. She led us out to a table under a parasol in the courtyard, served us some tasty, attractive hors d'oeuvres (from the supermarket in Montcuq, she pointed out), and had Stephen open a lovely bottle of Cremant. This was her idea of "tea." We rather liked it. As she was talking about her family and background, Stephen and I both got teary at the same time. While she does not physically resemble my mother, she has a similar feisty, artistic spirit, a generosity and beauty that made us remember my mom's personal connection to the country, language and culture of France.
I got teary because I was sad that France was living a life that I wished for Elsa in the last years of her life, continuing to be a painter, living in a beautiful environment and just enjoying an independent life. This was not the hand that Elsa was dealt, but she did the best she could and we did the best we could to make sure that she knew that she was truly loved. In fact, France is younger than Elsa was when she died and probably what I am wishing for was that Elsa could have remained a "young" eighty-five for the rest of her life.
Back at Le Baralou, Isabelle and I sat outside peeling white asparagus for a late dinner. Reading Combray
a few days later, I came across the expression "plumer les asperges." The verb "plumer " usually refers to plucking the feathers of birds, but I like the mental picture that phrase creates of white asparagus in its partially peeled, feathery state, looking sort of avian and ready to fly!
Caught up by looking at their family photos on the computer, we unfortunately awoke Aude who was sleeping in the next room. It was 1:00 a.m. by the time we staggered to bed.
Saturday, May 29
Gilbert Pons was one of those people who found us on the Internet by searching on certain key words that brought up our previous travelogues. In his case, the word was "Pechpeyroux," a village of maybe 100 inhabitants not far from Cezac. In 1997, when he first searched, he got four hits. This year when we searched, we got twelve hundred. Pechpeyroux was one of those places where I had ridden a bike a few years back and was charmed not only by the place but also by an interaction I had had with a Mme. Pern. It turns out the Gilbert is concerned with preserving the history and "patrimoine" of Pechpeyroux, his native village, and has created a website for the town. We had had some e-mail correspondence over the years, but somehow I only was able to call him at the very end of our last visit to Cezac. This time, I promised myself to send an e-mail before arriving in France, after receiving it, he graciously invited us to meet him at his farmhouse and to take a walk, either "en pleine nature" or in the village. We chose the nature walk.
First he showed us his place with a splendid 360 ° view
from the top of the hill, a few outbuildings, and fields. We had some cold drinks with him and his quiet sister in the kitchen. I went to the car to change into better shoes for hiking and put on my old straw hat, bought in a village on the Canal du Midi in '97. His sister had been a bit shy and reserved before, but somehow that hat must have spoken French to her because she beamed when she saw it and complimented me on it.
Gilbert has tremendous enthusiasm for his native terrain and local history. The walk ended up being an arduous three hours with a fair amount of bushwhacking in the hot sun! Good training for our future long distance hiking trip. We started by climbing a small hill that was divided up among three different communes. From there we could see Montcuq, Lascabannes and Villeseque, each in a different direction. Near the end of the hike we went by a recently purchased old stone farmhouse, renovated by an English couple. It had a beautiful garden and setting and a magnificently restored grange. In fact the barn was huge and beautifully refinished inside. The exterior revealed some serious new buttressing to keep the old stone wall of one side from leaning any further than it had over the years. The couple uses their grange to present musical concerts during the summer. I fantasized some amazing site-specific choreography in there, the hayloft making a natural scaffolding, the high ceiling crying out for ropes to dance on. Hmm, a new French version of Pipe Dream
meets After Ever
Then we hiked up to a plateau overlooking a valley where an American couple had bought an old farm with outbuildings. We could see the well-tended exteriors and new swimming pool. Gilbert described the luxurious nature of the interior renovations and furnishings. It was a magnificent setting and must have cost many a Euro to bring it to this level of "comfort."
There is a bittersweet sidebar to this story. According to Gilbert, the young people who grew up in this area cannot afford to buy property here. The foreigners and "city people" (mostly Parisians) have so much more available cash that the prices in the region have soared, precluding the younger generation from buying property in the area where they grew up. Moreover, Gilbert said that the trades people in the region (masons, carpenters, electricians) are in such high demand that the local folks sometimes have to wait a couple of years to get stonework or carpentry done on their property while the newcomers hire the locals and get the work done quicker. (The "Peter Maylisation" of southern France? More on this thought later.)
My brain was moving fast. Hmm, at least someone is buying these dilapidating properties and beautifully restoring them, but for what? English, American, or Parisian vacationers who use them only a few months of the year, and the rest of the time they are closed up.It's sad that the younger generation cannot really afford to farm here anymore, but do they perhaps want to leave? Do they want to go to the city and find careers in computers and business instead of taking over the family farm business which must be very difficult, to say the least? And where does that leave Stephen and me, Americans who adore this part of France, its land, its villages and its people, who have fantasized about buying a place here too? Would we just contribute to the "foreign gentrification" problem? Even if we could or would not renovate to the level that some of these folks have done, wouldn't we still be pushing prices up anyway? Or will we always be visitors, occasionally staying with dear friends from Paris who have been coming here for thirty years?
Stephen reminds me that "gentrification" is an issue at home also. Isn't that just what we've done in Roslindale? We didn't grow up in Rozzy, yet we've participated in a lot of the changes that have taken place over the last thirteen years since we bought a house here. We love the artisan bread store, the new restaurants, wine store and boutiques, having a grocery store in our own neighborhood. Nevertheless, such amenities increase demand for the area, and we worry that such changes will contribute to pricing some residents out of the area.
We also like the diversity in Roslindale. The mix seems to work: trades people and professionals, artists and auto mechanics, Greeks, Irish, Italians, Latinos, Asians, Haitians, Armenians, Anglo and African-Americans. However, the population in rural, southern France is quite sparse, and I can see how the old farming families might feel that their way of life is being threatened by the newcomers. None of this speculation should lead you to believe, however, that the folks we met in and around Cezac, in fact, everywhere we've traveled in France, haven't been extremely gracious and often very warm towards us.
Both of us will revisit this topic again as the trip progresses. Dawn's questions, which really are about the effect of taking money from one place to another, are ones that institutions as large as the World Bank and as small as Dawn and Stephen must ask themselves.
After good-byes and thank yous to Gilbert, we rushed back to le Baralou just in time to shower and change and make the appetizers for dinner, grilled mushrooms and sausage. Ben and Deena joined us that night. Isabelle had set the long table instead of the smaller round one because there were seven of us for dinner. It's a good thing I'm still a recovering vegetarian because Isabelle's lapin (rabbit) was delicious. It was great to catch up with Ben and Deena and to have more of a mixed language conversation since Ben is English and Deena is Palestinian/Austrian. Again we staggered across the gravel driveway to fall into bed at about 1:00 a.m.
Sunday, May 30
We were invited to the 60th
wedding anniversary celebration of the Besses. They are farmers in Cezac who raise delicious chickens among other things. Their children were throwing a party "after church" in the town function room and have invited the whole village. Dawn and I skipped church but not the party.
It turns out that it was too bad that we skipped church. To my total surprise, Isabelle said they had played Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf songs during Mass!
We went down there and milled about, sometimes just taking in the sights and sounds of it all, sometimes talking to the Isabelle and Jean or Ben and Deena. It was an absolutely universal gathering and had all the elements: the gawky teenagers, the cute babies, the old men, and their dressed up wives. The family was rushing around carrying sound equipment. In the middle of all this, a timid driver needed to back her car up through the crowd. It was accomplished with much gesticulation, gentle guiding of the guests who were paying little attention and some coaxing of the driver herself who seemed reluctant to accomplish what from the outset seemed to me to be a bad idea. But it was done and soon we were headed for the salle des fetes, a sort of town function hall.
It was fun to meet a Swiss couple, new neighbors of Ben and Deena, who had just read our first online travelogue about three weeks before. We're beginning to feel like internationally famous, published authors. In an alternate universe, someone would pay us.
When we travel through France we marvel at
the diversity of the land, the people, their accents and certainly their histories. The history of France probably needs to be written one village at a time. If you are interested in such things, let me recommend Gillian Tindall's Celestine.
She found letters in a house in central France that she had bought and they start her on an investigation that leads to a history of the people in that village since the revolution. More time travel.
But, on the other hand, France is a republic and hashad a central government for a long time. No variations created by state governments, so there are many things that are exactly the same no matter where you are. There always seems to be a salle des fetes, and a centralized sports arena. There is always a mairie (mayor's office). In a small village, it is only open Thursday afternoon. In Paris, there is one for each arrondissement, open six days a week. Then there is the gendarmerie, a national police/national guard. So we travel and see the diversity but are always aware of France the centralized government, one that started simultaneously in all parts of the country after the revolution over two hundred years ago.
Monday, May 31
Ben and Deena had invited us to stop by and see theprogress on their renovations. They live there year-round, across the valley from le Baralou, and seem to work constantly at this huge project. Since we knew we were going to leave Cezac Tuesday, Monday was our last chance. It had been a drizzly, gray kind of day so we procrastinated about getting out, not arriving at their place until about 5:00 in the
Walking up the driveway, we noticed the gardens that replaced the brambles, weeds and rubble that had been there last time. Dee later said that she "knew nothing about gardening" before starting this project. It seems that she learned a lot quickly. The varied shapes textures and colors of the plantings were perfectly suited to the environment there
Their very large and apparently menacing dog greeted us with loud barking from inside the small garden house. This building had been renovated the last time we visited, and Ben and Deena were still living in it while working on the big house. Although we hadn't called them before to let them know the specific time of our arrival, they graciously kept the dog behind closed doors, dropped what they were doing and gave us the tour.
The "new" old house has undergone an amazing transformation. When we visited two years ago, it was essentially a large stone shell with a lot of rubble in it. Now there was a rebuilt stone staircase up to an entrance hall with Middle Eastern artifacts hanging on the wall. The arched windows in the thick stone walls created dramatic patterns of late afternoon light across an elegant but comfortable living room. Downstairs via a spiral stone staircase, they had created a study with bookcases they built to fill the walls. They showed us the future kitchen and dining areas and the cave that would become their wine cellar. They managed to combine the sense of rural antiquity that emanates from these old stone buildings with a sense of urban chic, without being in the least pretentious! For someone who feels a proud sense of accomplishment from doing something as simple as staining our deck, this level of renovation is outside the realm of my imagination.
"Would you like some tea, or a glass of wine?" Deena asked as we were walking out the drive.
The only thing standing between me and a cup of tea was that dog that was the size of a large bear.
"Don't worry," she said. "He's really a sweetie."
"Right," thought I.
So we entered to barks and growls and straining at the collar. Ben let the dog outside for a minute or two. When the animal returned, he seemed to think everything was fine; we were part of the family or something. Apparently if the dog enters the house and the "strangers" are already there, seated at the table with his owners, he has no problem. Suddenly he was seeking our affection!
Two bottles of Quercy wine later, we left Ben and Dee's place knowing each other quite a bit better and truly looking forward to "la prochaine fois."
Sometimes as Dawn and I are coming home from parties, Dawn questions my telling of the inappropriate details of my life to people who shouldn't know them and probably don't even want to know them. I don't know whether it comes from my lack of attention or perhaps just some boredom. I can always find some detail of my past life to blurt out. Generally I am not like this. I keep to myself and don't reveal too much of the difficulties that I might be having, sometimes not even to Dawn.
Stephen's exuberant spilling of personal information usually happens when the alcohol level in his brain has gotten higher than usual. - Dawn
Maybe I started it, being in the room with three people who spoke English or maybe it was the cozy room away from the rain outside that led us all to gently reveal details of our lives. It doesn't hurt that we have genuine admiration for the life they are living and real affection for the two of them; he being very tall with a kind of gruff way of speaking; she, slender with eyes that hold you when she speaks.
It started with children, as it sometimes does. We talked about Ben's son and Dawn 's son and daughter, about the joy and fear that accompanies the act of raising them. Then ourselves as children, growing up, our education, meeting each other. We explored the similarities and differences, what have we learned, what will the future bring, how to deal with the past. Recounting our triumphs and our failures. As if we had pulled out our wallets to show family pictures and discovered behind those photographs story after story from the lives we led or thought we had led.
The finishing of the second bottle brought the afternoon to a close and evening beckoned us to dinner across valley with Isabelle and Jean. We drove down the hill, quietly at first, wondering whether we had behaved appropriately, then breaking into smiles that expressed our feeling that it had been a wonderful afternoon and sometimes decorum just has to be damned.
Tuesday, June 1
We rushed around a lot today, as we got ready to start the next phase of our trip, and Jean and Isabelle prepared to go back to Paris for three weeks. We have closed the place before, but it was still complicated as machinery got stored away in very small spaces, shutters went over the windows and refrigerators were cleaned out.
In the middle of all this I was trying to make Isabelle's e-mail program work better. It was stubborn and won't let me do things that I wanted. In the end, we called it a draw. By 1:00 p.m. we were ready and said our good-byes and headed for St. Bertrand de Comminges in the rain. It will be the first stop on a four-day trip to Avignon.
Tuesday, June 1, 2004
We had a late lunch at a roadside rest on the highway. Very unusual for us, but we had a lot of food left over and we wanted to eat it. The place wasn't very charming, but served a purpose by bringing us back to twenty-first century France. We got some practice with our packs, not carrying them, but just packing them and then remembering where we put anything.
We saved ourselves a couple of bucks by getting off the autoroute a stop earlier and finding our way cross country to our destination. It was not so easy because the scale of our map was so large and the name so long that we couldn't figure out to what end of the name printed on the map we were going. We kept following signs that led us into the foothills of the Pyrénées, and soon we were there.
(Driving through Southern France
St. Bertrand de Comminges
Jean and Isabelle have always sent us in the direction of beautiful old abbeys, Romanesque churches, and great little hill towns. St. Bertrand de Comminges was no exception. We approached it in the late afternoon and saw the imposing Cathédrale Ste-Marie-de-Comminges and its cloister on top of an isolated hill, with the smaller Basilique St. Just down below. The Hotel Comminges
was right across the square from the church, and our room looked over the hilly terrain where goats and cows were grazing.
We had been forewarned that nothing would be open for dinner in the village that night because of the three-day weekend that had just ended. The hotel patronne had directed us to Montréjeau, another town where a couple of places were sure to be open. This was not a tourist town. It wasn't particularly quaint. Regular working people, not in the tourist biz, lived there. It had a movie house that was closed until the next night (playing Harry Potter
). Nevertheless, we found a very good Vietnamese restaurant and decided to have dinner there. So the first night on the road in France, after eating "chez nous" either at our place or with Isabelle and family, we find ourselves eating Vietnamese food. There was some irony about Americans in France, eating Vietnamese, given the history of these three countries. It was the first night in a week that we ate no cheese.
Wednesday, June 2
After breakfast at the hotel, and a couple of excellent, individually brewed and steamed cafés-au lait, we headed over to the abbey and church. I think we were the first ones to arrive at the abbey. It was 9:00 a.m. and the mist was still rising off the hills. Being in the foothills of the Pyrénées, it really did get cool at night. What a magnificent setting! Through the repetitive pattern of the cloister columns and arches, we overlooked craggy, verdant hillsides. It was so quiet. I could imagine how the monks found the necessary peace and solitude here to meditate. The only sound was from the bell around the neck of the lead goat in the farmer's herd below. Plus there were roses. I am a sucker for climbing roses on old stone buildings. I have probably taken more pictures than we will ever need of flowers against stone walls, arches, churches, barns, and bridges. Not just in France, but everywhere I've been, bougainvillea against whitewashed clay in Costa Rica, yellow cactus flowers against adobe in New Mexico, Delphiniums against stone walls in Maine. Maybe it's the softness of the flowers against the hardness of stone. Maybe it's the tenacity of nature when vegetation actually roots in stone and manages to flourish in such an inhospitable spot. In Turning the Mind into an Ally
, Sakyong Mipham says, "There is an old saying that bringing Buddhism to a new culture is like bringing a flower and a rock together. The flower represents the potential for compassion and wisdom, clarity and joy to blossom in our life. The rock represents the solidity of a bewildered mind. If we want the flower to take root and grow, we have to work to create the right conditions. The way to do this , both as individuals and as people in a culture in which the attainment of comfort sometimes seems to be the highest standard, is to soften up our hearts, our minds, our lives." In the last few years I have been trying to soften up the rock of my own "bewildered mind," so perhaps this rock and flower imagery now captures my attention spiritually as well as aesthetically.
Back to Cathédrale Ste-Marie-de-Comminges. Like so many of France's churches, this one was built in stages, over many centuries. It was started in the 11th
century, Romanesque style, then the nave and side chapels were added in the 14th
c., Gothic style, while the extraordinary woodwork of the choir stalls is a Renaissance masterpiece. While marveling at the architectural and sculptural beauty inside the church, the most spiritual place for me was still the cloister. Its simplicity of design, with vegetation and animal motifs on the capitals, and its very openness to the environment blends the natural and spiritual worlds in a magical way. "Location, location, location," say the realtors. This place really has it.
We spent some time in the choir, looking at the carvings. Many represent cardinal sins. Here are some photos, not for the faint hearted. Much of the imagery is non-Christian. We can probably look to the present day Catholic Church in South America to give us some idea of the nature of the church at that time and in that place.
This was the first church where I found out how useful binoculars could be to see art. The stained glass windows were very high and the binoculars made it possible to really see the details in the work. The capitals at the tops of the columns were equally interesting to see up close.
Lunch was the local creperie. It was still too cold to eat on their terrace so we downed a couple of crepes and headed for St. Just. It is a small Basilique out on a flat field in total contrast to to St. Bertrand. For the first time we got audio guides. We pushed the buttons, and the voice told us where to go and what to look at. But after a while we just turned them off and wandered around. So solidly built in a location so defenseless against an attack, I wondered whether the congregation was looking for some protection from
God. What did these places sound like when they were first built? This was before Pope Gregory and his chants and certainly before Bach and all that great music of his era. A much more primitive religion in those days.
The organ was being dismantled, cleaned and repaired. Not the last time will see evidence of the importance the French ascribe to these beatiful churches.
We returned our guides, took some pictures, and headed east. We didn't know where we were going to end up for the night, but we knew that we should move in the direction of Avignon. We had three lines hastily scribbled in our notebook, the result of a hasty session with Isabelle. One said St. Bertrand Comminges, okay we had done that, the next said Chateaux Cathares and then listed four towns that we had never heard of, and the last said coast with another list of towns. From this our next few days would be formed. Today we decided to head toward Foix. We went south toward Spain, and then cut across country through some of the greenest and most hilly country I have ever seen.
We brake for old churches, so our afternoon stretch took the form a visit to a church that recently had its roof replaced. There was a bulletin board with pictures of the new roof trusses being put in place by helicopter. Sort of an alpine town, a stream rushing through the center, a fly-fisherman trying his luck, a couple of guys sitting on some benches, keeping a watchful eye on everything. The old painted frescos from the fifteenth century on the porch of the church are the attraction here. They were in pretty good shape, mostly because of the lack of air pollution out here. We spent some time wandering around, took a picture of a stone wall and continue on our way.
I wistfully noticed a man sitting on the terrace of a Gîte Rural, feet up, reading his book next to the gurgling brook. I thought this would be a really nice place to stay, but instead tried to get a photo of a stone arch framing the mountaintop behind the brook, visible through the arch. Onward! - Dawn
Coming around a corner we had to come to an abrupt stop because we were confront by a herd of goats coming down the street with their shepherd trailing behind. There didn't seem anything else for me to do except wait as the sheep passed us by on each side. Of course, Dawn is scrambling for the camera and by the time she got it out they were behind us. I said take it anyway so we have a shot of them turning the corner and heading out of view. You can't hear the wonderful sound of their bells nor smell the strength of their odor.
Just before six we stopped at a tourist office and inquired about a place to stay. The young woman behind the counter tried to get us in to a couple of B&B's, but they were all full. She finally came up with a place but we decided not to stay there because it was on the main road. To us it seemed like the worst of both worlds, you got the noise of the city, but not the cafes, restaurants, museums within walking distance, etc. So we decided to push on to Foix and try our luck there. She gave us directions to one of the hotels there and we were on our way.
(Driving through Southern France
We wandered a bit in the town, found the place, but they didn't have any rooms we wanted, so we took a map and walked to another. They were full, so we got directions to the third hotel that is in town and even got another set of directions from a woman who stopped us on the street and asked if she could help us. She spoke English and we wonder if she just wanted to practice it on some tourists whom she heard speaking English. We found the hotel easily, next to the Post Office and got our room for the night. He ran our credit card and explained how to use the key in the glass outside door, which we would need to do if we came back late. We brought our packs up, leaving the suitcase in the car and took a rest, showered, changed for dinner, consulted our Guide Michelin and headed out to find a restaurant.
Foix is a town of about 10,000, big enough to have a small rush hour, but small enough to walk around. It was my turn to pick the place for dinner after Dawn selected the Vietnamese restaurant the night before. We went by a couple of places, until I recognized one from the Guide, a Moroccan restaurant named Atlas
, named after the North African Mountains I think. It was nearly empty when we went in, a couple of businessmen, a young couple who only had eyes for each other were among the clientele. The meal was great, and huge. We ordered couscous and when they brought it in, the couscous itself and the skewers of meat, I thought it looked great. After a pause the great bowl of broth and vegetables arrived and I realized that they have served enough for eight! We dig in and were halfway through our second ethic meal in France when I heard the phone ring.
Let's be clear about this. We didn't know what town we were going to be in until six o'clock that evening and we didn't know what hotel we were going to be at until seven-thirty and we didn't know what restaurant we were going to be in until we walked up to the menu and liked what we saw.
Madam walked up to Dawn and says, "It's for you" (In French).
"Moi? Mais personne ne sais que je suis ici!" ("Me? But no one knows that I'm here!"), I say, automatically thinking that something must be wrong with someone in my family, then realizing that truly, no one we know has any idea where we are or how to find us at that moment. No cell phone, no e-mail.
"Are you staying at the Hotel l"Echauffaugette?" she asks.
"Ah, oui," I reply, barely remembering the name of the place, and vaguely wondering if it means small, hot zucchini.
"Well then, it's for you. He asked if a Canadian couple was here at our restaurant."
So I go to the phone and pick it up. It turns out that the guy who had checked us in was worried that he hadn't explained to us completely how to get back into the hotel when he wasn't there. So he managed to track us down to explain that there would be another door in front of the glass one, but that one wouldn't be locked. We should not use the key in that door but push it open and unlock the glass door. Well, I was surprised, not only by the fact that he would take the trouble to find us, but also because his hotel was the only place we ever stayed on the entire trip where they made us pay the night before. Therefore, I wasn't expecting him to be so concerned for our welfare. Everywhere else we went, we made a reservation, usually by first name only, but sometimes with the Visa card, signed nothing on arrival, and paid on the way out.
After hanging up, the server at the restaurant said, "Are you Canadian?"
"Mais, non!" I replied, not being sure if I should be flattered by this mistake. I guess he thought I spoke French well enough but not with what he considered to be a French accent. Actually, I sometimes have trouble understanding Canadians myself because they speak so differently, but then the sound of French in this part of the country is very different from what one hears in Paris. Moreover, there is the "langue d'Oc" (the language of Oc) movement here in Languedoc. There is a group that tries to keep the old language alive, even doubling up welcome signs to villages, one in French, once in Provençau in which there seem to be many more "u's" in most words. Well, it's undoubtedly just as challenging for a French person who learns British English in school to go to New York City, and then say, Texas, and try to understand American "English."
Anyway, we were so stuffed by the end of the meal that we could not possibly eat the dessert that was part of the prix fixe meal we had ordered. So we opted for that wonderfully sweet North African mint tea instead, which proved to be the perfect digestif. - Dawn
I know that to appreciate a running joke one must be there, so I hesitate, but only for a moment, to say that for the rest of the trip whenever we heard a phone ring, one of us said, "It must be the guy from Foix, seeing if we are okay." Later in the trip, we heard a late night phone in a B&B, made the joke, but learned the next morning that it had been for us, from the United States, but more of that later.
Also, I did some research on the history of the language in this part of France.
As in other parts of the Roman Empire, Vulgar Latin was heavily influenced by local languages. This accounts for the differences between for example Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Romanian. It also helps explain the existence of different dialects of Occitan, a number of which survive, and can be divided in three main groups:
Northern, Limousin, Auvernhat, Alpine --- Southern, Languedocien, Provençal or Provençau, Gascon.
The picture is slightly confused by the fact that the literary form of Occitan was also generally referred to as Provençal. Between the 12th to 14th centuries, Provençal was a standard literary language in what is now southern France, northern Spain and northern Italy. It was widely used in poetry and was the primary language of the troubadours. Occitan literature is therefore plentiful. Provençal was still the leading literary language of Europe when Dante wrote his Divine Comedy. It was therefore something of a surprise that he chose to write it in the obscure vulgar dialect that we now recognize as the precursor of modern Italian.
Thursday, June 3
When we are in towns, we decline the breakfast option at a hotel. Most of the time they are dreary events. In a two star hotel, the coffee is rarely any good and the places lack the energy of a café on the street. In four star hotels, which I have stayed in while working, it is different. I remember in Linz, Austria, Peter Colao and I actually moaning in pleasure over the coffee at a Ramada Inn. And the spread was varied as to satisfy the clientele that come from different breakfast cultures all over the world. Here, as we passed the breakfast room on the way out, we saw a few couples sitting at their tables, silently waiting for their coffee.
We didn't have to go far, just to the corner. The woman behind the bar got us our coffees. We found a paper and sat there and watched the town wake up and go to work.
On our way over to see the abbey of St. Volusien, we met a woman with two dogs. Dogs are also becoming a motif in this story. What they represent we will have to discover as we go.
She was wearing sunglasses and walking two dogs, one black and one white. She said, "Bonjour," and we exchanged pleasantries. It wasn't until she asked me where I learned to speak French that ; realized she was the same woman who had been our server the night before. So I told her about my mom having been born in Paris and speaking French for the first five years of her life, that I learned the sound of as well as the love of the language from her, but that basically I had learned the grammar in American schools. She actually seemed to think that I had a "broader vocabulary" than most people who learned French in school who, she said, use the same words all the time. Well, I was pleased to think that since my 1989 three-month stay at la Fondation d'Art de La Napoule and with my subsequent visits that maybe I was picking up a few colloquialisms and some street French!
One of the dogs turned out to be a "Chien de Montagne des Pyrénées," a breed that had almost died out when mountain shepherds started abandoning their way of life and moving to the city. However, she said, people are beginning to move back to the mountains and cultivate this breed again. Apparently she and her husband have a mountain place that they visit on weekends. - Dawn
I use my hat when I visit churches to keep the sun that comes through the windows out of my eyes, especially in the early morning or late afternoon. Not in this abbey, I was reprimanded for by a young priest for wearing it in church. I snapped it off in an instant. Some churches behave more like museums, with exhibits for the tourists. Some, like this one, are mostly just places of worship, and should be treated that way, but they are also buildings that over the centuries have heard many different languages, seen different kinds of dress, and endured different styles of religion, all while silently becoming a living repository of our history.
I showed total lack of courage, when follwing signs for a toilette, I found a pissoir. Henry Miller has written at length about them in Paris, but I thought they were a thing of the past. This one had a stand up section and a sit down one. To use the stand up part, you went through a gate amd did your business against the wall, totally visible to passerbys. I like to shake with a little more privacy, so I choose the other part but needed to find my flashlight before I could use it because I couldn't find the light. The complexity of the whole affair was deepened by having to hold the min-mag in my mouth. Ah, Europe.
(Driving through Southern France
I thought it exciting to be headed for Andorra as we left Foix. It just seems to me to be one of those exotic places, but it was not for us this time and we turned off the road to head for the mountain bastion of Mountsegur. Actually, the last bastion of the Cathares. The short history of the place was that it was the last refuge of Catholics that decided among other things, to pursue the religious beliefs without the aid of the priests. The Pope rustled up a thirteenth century crusade led by Simon Montfort and he came down and slaughtered as many as he could find. Montségur was the last killing ground.
As you climb up, you pass a wheat field that was the burial ground.
We climbed to the top, a forty-minute trek, stopping at the ticket booth to pay our Euros, and then have lunch. I practiced carrying a load in my pack by bringing a bottle of wine along with our bread, sausage and cheese. We sat with our backs against the ramparts and took in the view of the valley and the snow-capped Pyrénées Mountains. The road was far below us. The parking lot with space for 15 or so tour busses was empty except for a few cars. There were about fifteen or twenty tourists scattered around the mountaintop. In season, it will be a different place. Now after lunch, we walked around it and then inside. It was quiet out of the wind; also, it made us quiet for awhile.
We went on to the museum, probably because our tickets gave us admission to both. Artifacts abounded. I wondeedr how many centuries of global warming it will take before we have underwater tourists visiting the great abandoned drowned coastal cities of the world wondering what it was like to live there.
Before we leave Montségur, I must mention that in looking for a photo of the chateau, I found a website that said that the ruined castle that we visited was not the one that was besieged, but one built later. Also, that the siege was instigated because of an assassination of ten Catholic monks by members of the Montségur community. The French government keeps quiet about the fortress in order to keep the tourist business strong. I am feeling a little gypped. We think we are time traveling back to the 13th
century, to a momentous location when we have, in fact, fallen a century short. I guess better to lie about a war eight hundred years ago than about one that you are about
The Mediterranean coast was our next destination. We were having some cloudy weather that seemed to be clustered around the Pyrénées so I made a navigational decision to head north to find some sun. We succeeded and spent a couple of hours driving across a dry, sun soaked upland of rugged beauty, a small version of the American West. We kept coming over rises expecting the sea, but getting only more dry rocky landscape. It was a beautiful drive but came to an abrupt end when we hit the coast and were thrown into the maw of the French Mediterranean tourist industry. We emerged a couple hours later, enduring a rising mistral that threatened to blow away anything that wasn't nailed down.
(Driving through Southern France
Hotel du Port in Gruissan was where we ended up after having been through facsimiles of towns in Northern New Jersey and Southern Florida and any other honky-tonk place you might think of. Beaches with cement factories, short cuts that had been cut, traffic rotaries that we visited four or five times were all part of a hectic afternoon/evening that led us to Gruissan. In the morning we would discover its considerable charms but this evening we were left with a view of a yacht basin that on closer inspection turned out to be a parking lot for boats. We ate dinner where the receptionist sent us, le Bistrot du Port, an international style place, perhaps more comfortable in New York or better yet Miami. After dinner we walked arm in arm around the dark, slumbering vacation spot. The thousands of condos all waiting in the pre-season for their appointed clientele, a few emitting the blue light of TV's from their darkened interiors.
Friday, June 4
Since we were not in a town, I risked having breakfast at the hotel rather than getting in the car to go find a breakfast place. On the good side, the room was bright and sunny and decorated in those provençal colors that are so cheery. On the downside, we could hardly drink the coffee even after mixing in some cocoa. We charged up with some granola and muesli and then sat down with our guidebooks and decided where to go next. Isabelle had told us that we must see Chartreuse, a renovated Abbey in Villeneuve-les-Avignon, just outside of Avignon and as the Mistral was still blowing and our first take on the Mediterranean was unfavorable we decided to pass up the Camargue and head for the environs of Avignon and spend the afternoon visiting a domain or two in the world famous Chateauneuf du Pape area. With the aid of the receptionist, we made a reservation and headed out, first to see the beach and then to get on the autoroute and speed our way on.
The beach was hard to find. The signs were unclear. We kept driving through more and more resort suburbia until finally we reached the edge of town and once we crossed the town line, all human construction abruptly stopped. We continued driving, the road surface becoming sandy until we reached a parking lot for a three-mile long beach maybe half-mile wide with one car in it. We were so far from any building that we needed the binoculars to make sure that they were buildings. The reason for the absence of cars was evident once we got out. The wind had not abated and we were in the middle of mild sandstorm. But we were here so we did walk out over the dunes to the water, a truly gorgeous beach. Looking back the way we came, what we thought were clouds on the horizon, were in fact the Pyrénées.
The wind drove us back to the car, and we took a twenty mile coastal drive through and around resort towns, vineyards, farms, marshlands, a truly beautiful area.
It was hard to believe that adjacent to Gruissan Port et Plage with their zillions of identical, pink cement condos, there could be such lovely farm and vineyard country. Yet happily, there it was. That curvy, coastal drive made up for the Disneyland feel of the place where we stayed the night before. - Dawn
The road took us inland, pushed us onto the autoroute, and two hours later we were approaching Avignon. At the last minute we decided not to find our hotel but to go directly to the wine country.
(Driving through Southern France
Chateauneuf du Pape
We only lasted two domains. In some ways, it was enough. Two domains, a four minute drive from each other both making wine of the same appellation, but everything else was different.
We found out that you can choose among seventeen different varieties of grapes when you make Chateauneuf du Pape and we also found out that there are at least one hundred and seventeen varieties of people who make and sell them. The first place, in a small dark room we tasted 3 or 4 recent vintages, none of them exceptional to my tongue. It was all business, we passed all their computers on the desks in their office to get to the tasting room.
The second place, Domain Mont Redon
, has a large room full of large picnic tables with a wall of glass at the end that afforded a view of the wind swept vineyard. There were about three groups of people that were tasting. We all got to taste about eight to ten wines with vintages going back about twelve years. We heard a lot about the vines, including that the wind was very bad at this time of year because it was breaking the new growth. A very pleasant experience and of course the wines themselves were more interesting.
We still had not learned how to taste wines without swallowing, so this second domain brought the tasting to a close as neither of us would have been able to drive after visiting a third.
We made our way back to Villeneuve-les-Avignon and found our hotel with some difficulty. We didn't get lost, we just had to go around the block and it took us forty-five minutes, given one way streets and rush hour and just general confusion. The hotel itself was probably our low point in lodging for the trip. I didn't get the air conditioner to work until I went downstairs to the desk where the desk guy did a forehead slap and went to a closet and switched the breaker on. We finished up the food we were carrying on our little terrace and went for a walk in the evening and had a drink in a dive. Suffice it to say that not all of France is cute and picturesque and the best part of this evening was the knowledge that the next day we would move on to Avignon with our hiking beckoning to us just beyond.
Saturday, June 5, 2004
We got up early in order to clean up the car, but first we had to find our coffee. Up on the corner, at the bridge leading to Avignon, we found it. I still love these bar-tabacs. They are like a convenience store on steroids. They sell only stuff that you really need. In the morning, they sell really good, fresh espresso (or caf au lait) and a good croissant if you are lucky. All day long, phone cards, tobacco productions, magazines, etc.are sold, in the afternoons and evening, beer and drinks. They are very working class places, no décor, just the necessary table and chairs, if they match, all the better, but certainly not essential. Not a place to go on a date. But people stay and drink their coffee, almost always standing at the bar. Are they talking to the same guys they talked to last night over beers or is this a different clientele? They are talking. Creating the culture. You can't have a neighborhood if nobody talks to anyone.
These places are always small. And run by one person. And this seems to be a link between many of the places that we visited. They are small enough to be run by one person. Even at our first hotel, the woman who was running the bar checked us in, and the next day, got us our breakfast and later ran our credit card. She had someone cleaning rooms, but other than that, she ran the place. We ate in restaurants with sometimes just the owner out front and someone cooking in the back.
In restaurants this is possible because they work at a slower pace. Although we read that restaurants in France only took one reservation per table per night, we assumed that this only applied to some small percentage of high-end restaurants. Not so. Many restaurants open at eight or so and people wander in to take their tables and the meal begins. No lines waiting for table. No waiters dropping bills on your table before you ask for it and NEVER EVER any waiter asking you how your meal is. Before we figured this out we had someone make a reservation for us for a Sunday evening meal. Actually the patronne called the proprietor of our next place and she did it. We tried to find out for what time, but were unable to. People were just having difficulty understanding the question. Sort of like asking the color of their latest idea. Dinner reservations don't have the attribute of time.
After our morning coffee, we began "Operation Rental Car Return". It meant getting gas, visiting the Chartreuse, an old monastery that now houses a writers' artist colony, and getting the car to the rental company before noon when we assumed they would close.
Two beautiful spaces in Chartreuse, the one on the left (Stephen's) is a side space in the main church; the one on the right (Dawn's) is a section of the cloister.
Before I go on, I have to go into some detail about the "cells" that the monks lived in and now were inhabited by playwrights. They are easy to imagine by anyone who has been in a cheap hotel or seen any number of movies on the subject, but you would be wrong, at least about the ones at Chartreuse. The closest modern day analogy would be a town house. Each one has four rooms in two stories with a private walled garden. The garden is divided into three areas, one spiritual, one medicinal and one gastronomical.
There are rooms for physical labor, for study, to eat and to sleep. The bed is sort of a closet like affair that used with a curtain I am sure is quite snug. With the stone staircase to the second floor is a small sitting balcony. If you were practicing solitude, there was a mechanism near the door to get your food without human contact. All the rooms were large enough so that we didn't feel cramped and all had windows to make them feel light and airy.
In contrast, in another part of the monastery, there was a building where monks were kept in solitary confinement, I imagine for some spiritual transgression. Here the only view that perhaps eight rooms had was of the altar where a priest came to celebrate Mass, not the whole altar, just the priest's upper body and the host. This was accomplished by up to as many as three angled slots in adjacent floors, ceilings and walls. Some of them were designed to be used from a lying down position for members of the community who were ill.
Returning the car included getting mightily lost, but luckily we ended up in the rental car parking lot itself when we just trying to get the car parked somewhere so we could find the thing. Unluckily, we got stuck in the garage elevator, but luckily some one rescued us, then unluckily getting to the rental desk after noon, then finding out that it did not matter because they had been closed all day, luckily we got help from the hotel desk clerk who contacted EuropeCar and then accepted our key to give the rental guy on Monday and sent us on our way to find our hotel.
Later, sitting at lunch, I was pleased with the way the morning had gone. My normal self was still there, driving too fast, making hasty decisions, getting perturbed when things weren't going as planned. But there was a new, vacation self also. This self kept looking at my goals, judging some inappropriate, reminding me of what was important and that certainly schedule was not. There is always another train, another hotel. There is always another way, and maybe a way that is more fun. "So what? " became a question that I began to ask myself more often.
So the two selves battled it out, neither winning, but one softening the other. Maybe beginning a trend.
I did not feel quite so cavalier about getting stuck in the elevator. This had happened to me before, when I was twelve, with my parents, at the Ambassador Hotel in my one and only visit to Atlantic City, NJ. We were stuck a lot longer then, and it was a lot scarier when we started smelling smoke and the elevator operator got hysterical. (Those were the days of white-gloved, uniformed elevator operators.)
This time it was hot and cramped. The thing would go up and down; it just wouldn't open at any floor. We could hear people out there taking the other elevator. Stephen rang the alarm bell, but we had no idea if it sounded or anyone had heard it. After about 15 minutes, I started banging on the door and shouting something in French when I heard people outside waiting for the elevator. Someone said he would get help. Luckily, he did. In about five minutes, the thing went down to the basement and a maintenance man opened the door for us. "Comme je suis heureuse de vous voir!" I said to the guy who got us out of there, and I sure was happy to see him. Of course it meant that Stephen had to lug the suitcase up two flights of stairs once we got out of there.
We are going to kind of skip Avignon. The Hotel Blauvac
was charming and eccentric with all that implies, the wonderful desk help, the long stairs, the spiral staircase that confronted us immediately as we opened the door to our room. We never did get our suitcase out of the hallway. The bathroom is downstairs and the bedroom is up the spiral stairs with a window that looks down into what would be called an atrium but what is really a covered 16th
century courtyard. This is room twelve. We recommend it, but not for everyone. You have to be not too large to pass each other in the hall and to get up and down the stairs and it was nice to have only one suitcase. A two star, a couple of minutes from everything.
Room twelve is the quiet one. If you read Internet travel sites, you will find a battle between the people who find this place peaceful and those who find it incredibly noisy. The peaceful side stayed in room twelve. Rick Steeves says to take earplugs so that you can stay in more interesting places and still get a nights sleep. We had them with us but never used them. Earplugs have also been suggested for camping out where you have protected yourself from mosquitos but are now being kept awake by their whine. Never tried that either.
We had dinner at
I liked it for its out-of-the-way-ness. It is in a small square with nothing else there. It might be better for lunch because the outside seating was bathed in the light of the flood that was lighting the facade of the church. We ate inside. I liked the energy. Dawn was less than happy with the place.
We toured the Palais. Saw large rooms. Dawn drooled over the stage being set up for the Festival d'Avignon. Had a light lunch on the roof.
Visited the Petit Palais and saw a lot of medieval art. I also saw a Botticelli that just knocked me out. We went into a très chic café of a movie theater and saw people wearing clothes and accessories that cost more than my whole wardrobe. (Not hard). Maybe more than Dawn's and my wardrobe put together (Still not hard) Anyway, they all were trying to look like Hollywood actors and were doing a great job.
I was navigating us to a nice lunch spot when Dawn got us totally disoriented by asking to follow signs to dance studios, avant-garde theaters, even conferences. She is never satisfied just to tour but is always seeking to make contact with artists who are working today. Our luck had temporarily run out as every theater or group had just done or was about to do a performance. Also, it seemed that every movie theater in Southern France was just showing Harry Potter.
Sunday, June 6 Avignon
I don't know where we got the idea that we could take a bus to Gordes.
Moi. - Stephen
There were so many bus routes going east from Avignon to various towns that we had considered visiting that it seemed like we must be able to get to Gordes without a car. Moreover, it's one of the biggest tourist towns in the region. We had decided to poke around there for an hour or so and start our hike there rather than to spend our first night in Gordes. In fact, we had made a reservation by phone and e-mail from the States for our first night at a B&B near Murs, a smaller town about 10K from Gordes. We figured we didn't want to do too much distance on the first day of our two-week hike. We wore a track in the pavement between the Hotel Blauvac and the phone booth at the Place de l'Horloge, making what seemed like a zillion phone calls in French. We even tried to get a taxi from Avignon to Gordes (Mais, c'est trop loin! But it's too far!" she said). We decided we'd have to change our route. So I called Claude Pouget, le patron of Les Vergiers, the B&B we had reserved for the first night, to apologize for having to cancel our reservation because we didn't think we'd be able to get there. If the bus dropped us at Cavaillon, it just would have been too long a hike for the first day.
"Mais, il n'y a pas de problème," he said. "Of course you are coming here tomorrow. Just take the bus towards Apt, get off at Coustellets, and my friend from ABC Taxi
will pick you up and take you wherever you want. I'll give you the taxi phone number, and you can call today and let him know what time the bus will arrive."
"Vraiment? (Really?), I say. "About how much would it cost from
Coustellets to Gordes?"
"Probably fifteen Euros," Claude said.
Perfect. We were on, ready to start the hike as planned.
We tried to make our backpacks as light as possible (although we were to lighten them later by giving a few things away or throwing them out). Everything else went in the one rolling suitcase that the folks at the Blauvac graciously agreed to store for us until we returned to Avignon. After morning coffee at Lou Mistral, our favorite café, we headed off to the bus stop, in hiking boots and backpacks. Although we had to leave a nice bottle of Rhone in the suitcase back at the hotel (too heavy), we did have room to stop at a patisserie and pick up a couple of amazingly light Sacristans for the road. The Sacristan is a new discovery for us, a long, twisted flaky pastry, made with almonds or chocolate. These were actually better than any croissants we had found on the trip so far.
We made sure to get to the bus stop well before departure time only to find that the ticket booths were closed until 10:15 a.m. Then, when the booths opened, we were told to buy our tickets on the bus anyway! As we descended from the bus at Coustellets, a late model mini-van pulled up behind us, and Edith welcomed us into the air-conditioned ABC Taxi. She and her husband run the business. We were happy to find out that should we have any problem on our hike, she'd be happy to go get us and take us wherever we needed to go in the region. Putting her business card in my pocket, I felt reassured. Of course, the taxi people have cell phones, but we did not. So it wasn't like we could call from a remote trail somewhere. Happily, we never needed to call them again, although we did think about it once or twice.
(Two Weeks of Hiking
It didn't seem to take very long to get to Gordes in the taxi, but it wouldn't have been a very pleasant hike. It was all paved road, and a busy one at that, with lots of tourist and commercial business between Coustellets and Gordes. As we approached the town, it became clear that Gordes was an outstanding example of "un vieux village perché. etc. an old village perched on the side of a hill. It is beautifully situated with narrow meandering roads and many more photo ops for flowers against stone walls (I resisted). We bought a melon and cherries for the hike. The fruit and vegetable market was the subject of many a tourist photo that day. We wandered around, consulted the tourist place about our hike, popped into an art gallery. A young couple asked us to take their picture, so we did, and they reciprocated. However, all this was preamble. We were really itching to get going, to truly start the hike.
It didn't take long to get off the paved road and onto a rocky path with a gentle incline, bordered by stone walls, old orchards, scrub oaks, and the occasional vineyard. It was a hot day. The melon was heavy so we had our first stop about 45 minutes into the hike, consumed the melon and drank a lot of water.
I think it is time to talk about these Mediterranean melons. Whether from southern France, Spain, or Morocco, they look like small cantaloupes with stripes, the fruit is the same color, but the taste is so much sweeter and full of flavor. They never seem to leave that nasty, taste-it-again indigestion problem that cantaloupes at home do. I imagine that one of the big differences, as with all farm produce in the south of France, is that fruit can truly be picked ripe. Since the farmer doesn't have to pack and ship it for thousands of miles, he can offer us ripe cherries, melons, peaches, plums, and strawberries at the farmers' markets that almost every town hosts at least once a week. In fact, Stephen's Internet research gave us a schedule for markets in all the villages we thought we might visit. At some point, we held the fantasy that we would be able to arrange our hike in order to hit a farmers' market every day in a different town. Alas, that didn't work out, but we certainly didn't lack delicious calories from all the local produce and cheeses.
(Two Weeks of Hiking
Abbaye de Senanque
Our French friend Chantal, who lives in Cambridge, Massachsetts but grew up in Provence, said we must visit the Abbaye de Senanque if we were going to be near Gordes. So after our melon stop, we headed up for another half-hour or so to the crest of a hill. As we began the steep descent, the abbaye and its lavender fields appeared below us. We could only imagine how much more magnificent that view must be when the lavender is in full bloom. Every day for twelve days on our hike, we passed lavender fields that were progressively closer and closer to blooming. I would run my hand along the foliage and inhale the sweet scent. On our last day, we could see the purple buds about to burst and smell the perfume in the air. Did we ever see one in full bloom? Well, we'll tell you that story later.
Our reward, or perhaps consolation prize for seeing a lot of bloomless lavender fields, was to see, day after day, empty bus parking lots, and to wander through this beautiful country without having to make many reservations and to generally see it as close to its natural self as it could be seen.
We arrived at Senanque at about 1:45 p.m. We were told that the only way one can visit the abbey is to go on a guided tour, and the next one would start at 2:20. We bought our tickets and headed back outside to seek a spot of shade in which to share our one chèvre sandwich that I had picked up in Avignon that morning. It was a hot, dry day. We noticed an "eau potable" spigot outside the building which we made a mental note to use to fill up our water bottles before the next leg of the hike.
This place is a Cistercian monastery. There are currently seven monks living, meditating, praying, and working here. At first I thought the guide must have said seventy, or even seven hundred because the place is so vast, but no, there are only seven. It is a very austere order. They observe silence. One of the things that appealed to me about it was the simplicity, the lack of decoration. The guide told us that the concept was to evoke the spirit of God, rather than to represent the Holy Spirit. Hence there were no paintings, sculptures, or stained glass. The altar and chancel were very simple, reminding me of my Protestant roots. Many of the windows were circular, symbolizing God as all-powerful, the beginning and the end, the full circle of life, death, and Holy Spirit.
Before we went into the church itself, the guide said a few words about it then asked us to go in and visit it, but not to speak in the church. She would meet us outside the exit to continue the tour. The color of both the light and the stone were exquisite and the seven simple chairs in the sanctuary confirmed the number of monks who were there. We had come a long way to sit in this place, and it was good to let it work its magic in silence.
Photo: Henri Gaud
Our tour group sat for a moment in the Chapter
Room. We had visited many such spaces in other churches, but I never knew what the name Chapter Room referred to. The guide spoke quietly from a particular spot, and we could all hear her clearly. Apparently, this space is acoustically designed for a particular reason; this is the one place where speaking is allowed, and the monks gather there each day to hear a reading of one chapter of the Scripture. The guide pointed above our heads to the one small representational sculpture in the entire abbey. It was not a sculpture of Christ or the Virgin Mary, or of any saints or apostles. Instead it was the face of the Devil, allegedly placed there to remind the monks to behave properly, or else.
The tour ended at 3:30. We headed across a dusty dirt path, wistfully eyeing the vast, pregnant fields of lavender to find a phone booth and call the Pougets to say we'd probably be quite a bit later than the original projected arrival time of 6:00 p.m. I spoke with their son Bruno, who could have been thirteen, or thirty; I had no idea. He seemed surprised that I called (again!) saying, "But of course, you arrive whenever you want." Since they had said they would feed us that night, and I did not know what time dinner was scheduled, I figured I should forewarn them of our late arrival. Meanwhile Stephen stopped at the spigot to fill up our water bottles, and we were off on the trail again.
Getting back up that path we had descended to visit the abbey wasn't so bad after all. However, finding the correct paths later proved to be more of a challenge. France has a spectacular, immense trail system and wonderful maps. The GR's (grande randonnées) are the most utilized trails, and some of them are just beautiful. However, sometimes those trails spend a certain amount of time on paved roads, and we wanted to avoid auto roads as much as possible. So we often followed regional or local paths. The only problem with those is that sometimes they were simply overgrown because of lack of use, or some person had bought the land and no longer wanted to give hikers the privilege of walking across their property. As we were later told by one of our B&B hosts, access to walking trails across private property has been a tradition in France for over a thousand years, and it galled (Gauled?) him that some new landowners were starting to change that tradition.
(Two Weeks of Hiking
About three hours later, we found
ourselves walking up a long, hot hill, on pavement because of overgrown trail inaccessibility, approaching the town of Murs, "the most beautiful village in the world," according to the owner of the Crillon, a small hotel that I had called from the States. It did indeed look to be a lovely village, but it was getting late, and our destination was another 3k past that village, so on we went to Les Vergiers
which turned out to be a mini-village in and of itself. There were three or four old stone buildings, either connected or extremely close to each other out in the middle of the farmland. We asked a rotund, older lady who was watering her flowers where the Pougets lived. "Les chambres d'hotes?" she said. At my "oui," she pointed around the corner. We walked on and saw a young woman with a couple of small children, then a handsome silver-haired man in a big straw hat. We nodded and smiled at everyone, but couldn't really figure out who was who since they didn't introduce themselves. Eventually it became clear that the silver-haired man was Claude, the B&B owner, and the young woman was his Australian daughter-in-law, and the two kids his grandchildren. I don't think we met Jeannine, Claude's wife, until the next morning.
Claude led us up a small flight of rose-covered stone steps to a little private terrace attached to our room. The room was chic rustic, all warm woods inside, a very comfortable bed with blue and white sheets and comforter, a nice modern bathroom with blue and white tile. He brought us a huge thermos of ice water and real glasses (not plastic cups) which was just what we needed after our first day of hiking. Apparently dinner was going to be served at eight (which turned out to be the case almost everywhere we went in that part of France) so we had almost an hour to shower, wash out our hiking socks, and stretch out a bit. As I was resting, I noticed a little card on the desk describing "la Table des Vergiers." "Depuis son enfance, "Since his childhood, our son Bruno has been captivated by the art of food. He has been cooking professionally for eleven years and offers you a five course dinner made from the freshest local produce in season, accompanied by our fine wines of the region."
This all sounded great, but we had no idea if this was the meal we were going to eat that evening, if there would be other guests for dinner, or if we would be having an omelet "en famille" with the family. So we sat outside in the twilight, overlooking Claude's orchard of 150 cherry and plum trees, and waited to see what would happen.
Then Bruno came out and introduced himself. Since we were the only guests that evening, he wondered if we would like to have our dinner right there, sitting at the table "sur l'herbe." Well, that sounded lovely, and Bruno (who turned out to be just about my son's age) proceeded to serve us the "formule gastronomique " at 28 Euros. So our first night of the hike turned out to be a little pricier than we had planned, but it was so well worth it. At some point, I tried to say in French, "I think I've died and gone to heaven," but Bruno had such a distraught expression on his face, I knew he must have just thought that I thought I had died, and probably with incorrect grammar at that.
So, the meal:
Pate de volaille with sauce de canard (chicken liver pate with duck sauce)
Terrine de carrottes, poisson, oignons verts, cumin, etc (Terrine of fish with carrots, green onions, cumin, in a lovely light green sauce)
Salade aux trois asperges ( salad with three asparagus spears)
Plateau de fromage (He apologized because all the cheeses were goat cheese, , which we love)
Gateau au chocolat, with cinnamon and chocolate sauce
A pitcher of white wine, and a pitcher of red, both of which we drank
And a tisane (herb tea) to finish.
All this, served one course at a time, by the chef himself, to Stephen and Dawn, sitting en plein air all by themselves, overlooking the cherry orchard to the distant hills. And then the moon came out, and it was full. So were we!
Tuesday, June 8
Breakfast is outdoors. Coffee, bread, confiture, fruit. It is plenty. Also the map is on the table and we are planning the day. We are tempted by two different wild gorges that lead back down into the valley but end up going straight down through Joucas and then over to Roussillon. Jeannine makes a call for us to one of the B&B's in our guidebook.
The idea from France on Foot
was to buy some guide books and cut and paste information about all the towns that are on your or near your planned route. Then if you change your mind, as you inevitably will, you will have information on lodging and restaurants and any of the things you might want to see. I altered the technique a little by going on the internet and cutting and pasting onto my own website, so after printing it out I would still have access to it in case I lost the book. It turned out to be a jumble of languages, misinformation, repeated entries, but still it was incredibly useful as we walked through the Vaucluse and the Luberon. We used the information to make email and phone contact with quite a few innkeepers, just to get a lay of the land. I had gotten a phone card from Dialaroundtheworld.com
and it was three cents a minute to France from Boston.
The woman answers and says she has a room but she won't be back from Marseille until 6 PM. We say okay and after saying goodbye to everyone (Bruno and family are preparing for a day of biking on their new bikes) and getting a picture of Claude, we are on our way.
We walk through the town of Murs, stopping in at the Crillon Hotel to take a look at it and say hello. We didn't have the courage to ask to see a room We buy another map which we will need in a few days as we progress across the countryside.
I was pretty happy with my boots when I used them in the desert, but was now getting a twinge in the arch of my foot. I had hiked through it the day before, but at the first cherry-eating break of the day, I took my boots off to make a close examination. I found that the Dr. Scholl gelsoles that I had added to make them more comfortable was in fact doing the opposite. They had a spot that pushed up on the tender skin of the insole. I removed them and carried them as far as Roussillon where they found a trashcan, the first of our jetsam.
(Two Weeks of Hiking
Joucas turned out to be another beautiful hill town. This time we approached the town from above, walking down a winding narrow street to the center. We stopped for a couple of beers and to rest our legs, finishing up our leftover breakfast goodies as our trail lunch. The afternoon was hot again. We passed through many vineyards with very little shade. Unfortunately we had to walk on pavement most of the way from Joucas to Rousillon. I started developing the dreaded shin splints. Ever since I did the Walk for Hunger about ten years ago and limped my way for the last five of the twenty miles, I have been easily vulnerable to shin splints. I had brought along an elasticized shin compressor, and Stephen had an old Ace bandage in the first aid kit. So we swaddled up my legs, I took some ibuprofen, drank a lot of water, rested a bit, and we went on.
(Two Weeks of Hiking
Approaching Rousillon was another long uphill walk. Priding itself on its ochre cliffs of eighteen colors, it is a major tourist attraction. We actually got there about 4:30 p.m. and went to have a drink, figuring the B&B lady would not be back yet from Marseilles. However, on the way up to town we stopped at a construction site to get a view of some of the cliffs. I sat on a stump of an evergreen tree, not realizing that I was getting glued to the stump by sap. I have now added to my French vocabulary the words for "stump" (une souche) and "sap" (la seve). I used these words to ask a very nice lady at the pharmacy if she had a solvent I could buy to clean up my pants. We chatted. The old "where did you learn your French" subject came up again, and I told her about our hiking plans. "What, you're not going to Lioux? Why you must; it's a beautiful town on an extraordinary falaise (granite outcropping), and I grew up there," said the lovely lady with the long blonde ponytail. Stephen and I figured that if we could find a place for lunch there, we would do the extra distance and hit Lioux on our way to St. Saturnin. So I asked the pharmacy lady if she knew of a lunch place there, and she said to try the Auberge. She looked up the phone number and wrote it down for me. I had the feeling she would have called the place herself on our behalf, but her supervisor was giving her the eye for chatting so long when customers were waiting.
Once we got to the B&B, dealing with a gate and two menacing large dogs, it felt great to soak my shins in cold water. In fact, that became our after-hike ritual, soaking our feet and shins in cold water before taking a shower. It seems to help. I recommend this ritual to other hikers.
Going back up the short climb to town from our B&B was a pleasure without the packs. In addition to throwing out the insoles, my hand towel and an old pair of spare pants have made the recycle list. Lighter is better. In town, we had a successful trip to the ATM, it turns out to be our last for quite awhile. And a successful trip to a casual restaurant for dinner. We caused a little ruckus, by giving our table for four to a young family that came in after we had ordered and took the table for two that they were about to attempt to sit around. The swap gave the guys delivering the food fits for the rest of the night. Our meals must have been labeled by table number. We walked around town after dinner, and from the very top I got a chance to identify some of the towns that I had been researching and fantasying about for the prior two months. Being as late as it was, it was the night flight airplane view, a bunch of lights here, a scattering of lights there. We head back to the B&B; I forget how we got by the dogs. Dawn's pants had gotten cleaned. Our first full day of the hike was over. Not bad. We were still figuring things out.
We never learn to make people understand that we are walkers. What they think is that we are walkers who have a car. They think we were going to drive a car over to their place and then later we would walk around. They only give us directions to their town and figure we can drive around 'til we find them.
(Two Weeks of Hiking
We are going to Lioux for lunch, having altered the route after the glowing report from the pharmacist. We have found out that the Auberge is open, we have even made a reservation, (When? Lunch time obviously). We work our way across the flat valley of the Calavon, having at one moment to walk across the side of someone's lawn. We make the foothills of the Vaucluse and begin our climb to Lioux a town of 33 inhabitants nestled against the cliffs of Madeleine, half mile long by 300 feet high. We play leapfrog with another hiker as we pass him resting and then later he passes us doing the same thing. The last part of the morning is a slow stretch up a road into the village. As we get there a small truck whizzes by us, then stops by a building and beeps its horn. Moments later a nun comes out of the building and the driver delivers her two large baguettes and then gets back in the truck and whizzes back down the hill. I guess this scene is just French, not really to be compared with anything else. It is just what it is.
We find no restaurant once we are in town. We walk around with our packs and in ten minutes we have gone through the whole village, no restaurant, no nothing except one phone booth, so we call again. Not exactly in Lioux he says, but next to it, down on the main road. In fact, as we leave the town, we see it right below us, but there is no direct route, so we are going to have to circle back down the road the way we had come then get out to the by-pass by another road. I was kind of quiet as we retraced our steps. I knew this downhill on pavement was the worst for Dawn's shins, I figured that after lunch we were going to have to climb again through town to get to our next destination. We were now hiking in the hottest part of the day, I couldn't figure out who to blame. Like I said I was kind of quiet.
As I came up the entrance to the Auberge de Lioux
, I saw that it was empty except for two places that were set for us on the terrace. Placemats, glasses with napkins standing up in them, and a basket of bread. My heart melted. This small symbol of hospitality reached out to me and made everything all right.
And all right it was, as for the next hour and a half we ate a wonderful meal in a kind of touristic bliss as we discovered the meal only as it was served, having no idea of what was coming or when the meal would be over or even how much it would cost. It had to be the best meal I ever had that was cooked and served by someone in bare feet.
We fanaticized about just staying here for the rest of the day, grabbing a room and starting out fresh in the morning, but I had figured how to get to Saint Saturnin without going up through the village again, so we decided to go for it.
Wednesday, June 9, 2004
On the way to St. Saturnin
The walk from Roussillon to the Auberge de Lioux to St. Saturnin was about 15 kilometers (10 miles). The gathering heat made it longer and sharing the last mile or two with cars on the road made it longer still. The Ste. Madeleine chapel allowed us a midway shady break. It had been recently renovated and the garden that surrounded it rejuvenated. For us it was a cool oasis. It also signaled the end of our woodland journey and the beginning of our afternoon crossing the flats to get to St. Saturnin.
The first question people ask us is how far did we hike everyday. A reasonable question. I think the ten to twelve miles we did today was the longest and maybe six the shortest. Other questions might be how many hours did it take or how long did it actually feel. But I found out that the quality of the hiking day had much more to do with did whether we found a good place for lunch, did we make the town before everyone closed for the afternoon, did we have the right snack and enough water, did we hike in the shade, did we have good views, did we hike on too many roads, did we know how long we had to hike until our destination, could I figure out the best route?
The answer to these questions was many times no, especially in these early days. We even spent a couple of hot days traveling east or west during the beginning and ending of a day and north or south in the middle of a day, so we were afforded little shade from the trail side trees as the sun would always be in front or behind us. But slowly we figured it out and it gave us great pleasure to make the simple act of walking from village to village as much fun as possible. It wasn't always easy, but we surmounted the difficulties with increasing ease and nonchalance and we grew confident that our lodging at the end of the day would be a reward. We never failed to get a good shower and a cold drink and the end of the day and with one exception, a good meal.
(Two Weeks of Hiking
Which brings us back to our arrival at St. Saturnin. We did find the old road into the town and had a chance to inspect the back yard gardens of the houses that faced the new road. We followed the signs to the Hotel St. Hubert
and collapsed on the bed before even taking a shower. Once we had showered and changed to go out, still being stuffed, after a short walk around town we ended up at a table in front of the hotel and we drank two pitchers of the local wine while being totally entertained by the local goings on in the square. Then we paid our bill, and saying heck with dinner, we went to bed.
Thursday, June 10
We lightened our packs again at the hotel in St. Saturnin, leaving some old long underwear and a towel, with a note to give them away or donate to the Croix Rouge (Red Cross.) I also left the bottle of nail polish remover I had bought in Rousillon to get the sap off my pants as well as a bottle of nail polish that suddenly seemed like a pretty stupid thing to be carrying around on a hike. In Cezac, we had been happy to have our long johns to sleep in, it got so cold there at night. Even on our hike, it usually cooled off at night no matter how hot it had been during the day, but we really did not need those extra layers.
After a couple of coffees in the café across the street from our hotel, we exited the town in the other direction from which we had arrived. I think the hike from St. Saturnin to Les Esfourniaux was one of the most beautiful as well as one of the most challenging. Basically, it was up all day. We started up on pavement but soon found the lovely hiking trail through the mountains. This day felt most like hiking in the Rockies: ridge trails, dense forest, craggy outcroppings, spectacular views, wildflower fields, even a borie or two (not to be found in the Rockies.)
That morning in St. Saturnin began with some bad news. This was to have been my last opportunity to get cash, but there was no cash machine in the village and I had forgotten to hit the ATM in Roussillon the morning that we left there, so we would have to rely on the cash we had and some American Express travelers checks for most of the remainder of the trip. We would walking to villages that had no ATM's and where the B&B hosts only took cash. When we ran out of money we would reconsider our options.
We filled up our water bottles in the hotel and found a couple of nice places to buy bread, cheese, sausage and fruit before we left town. There were two possible routes. the first involved continuing east on the trail we had come in on, losing altitude until we got to the GR 9 and then climbing straight up until we found the path to the farm. The second was to go up on a road from St. Saturnin and then cut over to the GR on some dubious looking local trails.
Our destination was Les Esfourniaux, a place whose website boasted that it was the oldest, highest, continually operating farm in the Vaucluse. It was near the Albion Plateau which seemed almost like a mesa, being so vast and flat, and so high up. Our map reading and trail finding worked pretty well until about the last quarter of the trip. At some point we realized that we must have actually gone much farther than we thought because the trail we were looking for on our right was suddenly upon us.
I am attracted to dubious so we took the second route. Some of the shortcuts were overgrowth and useless and we did have have to do some downhills that I was trying to avoid by taking this route. There were some real grinders of climbs, one about twenty minutes of heart pounding ascent, but it was very beautiful. Once we got on the trails we saw no people and no buildings except for one borie. We took a long lunch break and we began to settle in the the routine of just walking, and seeing and talking about what we were seeing, or not talking and finding our way from trail to trail. - Stephen
After much deliberation about whether this could be the correct trail, we decided to take it, and subsequent landmarks proved that we were right. However, after about five hours of hiking, we were still going up, and onward for what seemed like a very long time. Eventually we spotted a roadbed up to our right which totally confused us because there were no roads on the trail map near where we thought we were. Uh-oh. Then we started seeing chain link fences. Ugh, what could this be? A sharp switchback to the right, a turn to the left walking over freshly tractor-turned dirt made us think that we must be way off track because we knew there was no village up there so what could all this construction be for? Finally we got up to the edge of the plateau and spied an old farmhouse, a few vehicles, a bunch of roosters and chickens, and a flock of sheep meandering around the corner. Baa-baa, and dogs barking. We saw a small sign that said Les Esfourniaux and bragged about its statistics for age and elevation. We made it! And, we were almost two hours earlier than we thought we'd be.
(Two Weeks of Hiking
This is the only picture I could find on the web. It must have been taken in winter and lacks the tables, umbrellas, flowers and foliage that were there when we visited. Our stairs are right behind the tree
It took a while to find our hosts. This is one of those connected buildings that had a bunch of doors, and we weren't sure which one we should use. Eventually, the farmer appeared, buckling his belt, as if we had awakened him from a nap or something. He said that we were much earlier than he had expected for which we apologized, saying we had no idea how long the hike would take us so we had gotten an early start. A young woman led us up an uneven stone outside staircase and showed us our room. Considering that this was a working farm, and not a fancy one, the room was very nice. The deep, thick stone walls kept the room very cool and dark, with its one small window, but the bathroom and tiled shower were very nice, and there was even a TV!
We collapsed and slept for about an hour, then did some laundry and showered and went outside and downstairs to see if we could score a cold beer. Luckily we did. Although the early evening light was beautiful outside, they served us dinner inside to avoid the flies. There are always flies in the country, especially at farms. Once again, we were the only guests. This time we were seated in a fairly good-sized restaurant, with little white blinking lights and all. They are a farm and a restaurant. I guess people drive up there from outlying villages. The young woman served us a meal that had two basic similarities to the one we had had in Lioux,: ratatouille and pan-seared steak. As usual, we ate everything put in front of us, feeling that we earned every calorie.
During dinner, we asked about the construction and fences. It turns out that they are putting in new fences to expand their pasture land. They raise deer, brebis (sheep), and lamb for meat The deer need a lot of grazing land, but clearly need to be fenced in. After dinner, we took a walk around their property and saw lots of deer. It seemed strange to be up on this remote plateau and to see so many deer behind fences!
I loved our after dinner walk. It was twilight which is when the deer come out and we just watched them eat and keep a wary eye on us. The next morning when we left, there were no deer to be seen. . The farmers had fenced in many acres of a combination of woodlands and meadows so that the deer could live in as natural a habitat as possible, and during the day they all retired to the woods.
Friday, June 11
As we were getting ready to leave in the morning, a large Mercedes pulled up and soon they were loading lamb parts into the trunk and back seat of the car. They loaded it so full that they had to finish by sitting on the trunk to make it close and the rear fender was practically dragging on the ground as they drove out. It turned out that they were picking up for themselves and their neighbors. They would drive around the area and drop off the meat.
in earnest to carefully examine the trail possibilities. We have decided that we like the rugged trails and don't like walking on the roads. We now plot a route that will start on the GR following a road and then we will depart from it and follow a thin black squiggily line on the map that should lead us into Simiane la Rotonde from the south, perhaps for lunch.
Well, the trip was a little longer than we thought, so we had lunch at the edge of a farmer's field. We had gotten off the GR to avoid any more road walking although we rarely saw a car. Now we were off the secondary trail because of land ownership changes, so we were navigating by map and compass until we came across the trail again. It eased down from the highlands, crossed a real road with a moment of suburbia and then headed back to the woods on its way to Simiane la Rotonde.
As we approached the town, Dawn got wind of the goat farm by smelling the cheese, and soon the barn appeared. The sign said closed, so we were not able to replenish our supply. We continued on into town, arriving after lunch but before anything elsa opened. I left Dawn at the bottom of the top and went and searched for a place to take a breather. I found a cute hotel with a small outdoor terrace that wouldn't open for an hour or so, but we were in no hurry and we could do some writing while we waited.
The travel gods took pity and someone came out and asked us if we wanted anything to drink. Oh, yes. There is a world of difference between hanging out with or without that beer. We found out that our resupply store would not be open for a while so we were just on hold. We needed some food because we were going to be at the Gite de Chaloux for two days where they would serve us breakfast and dinner, but we would be on our own for lunch.
While I relax, Dawn investigated the town and looked for an ATM.
I walked all the way up to the public water fountain and public phones. It was very steep, but again beautiful in that magical "every corner reveals another surprise" way that only old hilltowns can provide. A young woman in high heels was having an animated conversation on one of the phones. I glanced down at my hiking boots and trail clothes and wistfully wondered if I would ever look chic again. She confirmed for me that there was no ATM in town. I spied the Mairie up another hill and up some steps and found that it was actually open. After a conversation with two very bureaucratically inclined women, I established the fact that there was no ATM and no bank in town (although we could hike another 10k to find a bank in another town, non, merci as it was already about 4:00p.m., we were tired, and we had another hike still to get to Chaloux.) In addition, I had called the Gite de Chaloux from the public phone and found out that they do not accept travellers' checks, even in Euros, whch turned out to be the case almost everywhere we went.
We were refreshed by our stop at the hotel and ready to head down to Chaloux. We picked up some food at the convenience store and managed to get a hundred euros in cash back which will certainly help our cash flow situation. Once we got off the road, it turns out to be a beautiful walk. We skirted a farmer's field, crossed over a small stream and then headed into a small canyon. For the next forty five minutes the gorge seemed to change every five minutes. Some places looked like English gardens, others were fields of new growth trees and in still other places we would be skirting the base of granite cliffs. Simply a pleasurable walk.
Soon we started the inevitable end of the day climb. This one was made a little easier because we were looking forward to our layover day . As we climbed, we began to hear cars and finally a view. A few more steps and we were there. I don't think they had a sign, but we had downloaded a picture of the place, so we recognized it.
If we do this again or another trip like it, I will definitely get maps of the towns. At the end of the day, the packs are their heaviest and the hills are their hilliest and I don't feel like walking around looking for our night's lodging. We always seemed to need to search for it, even here at Chaloux, we had trouble finding the front door. We had a little competition as we try to figure out where to go. I found my mind totally engaged, trying to use all the clues from the e-mail, the signs we have seen, footprints on the ground, noises from inside to save my feet a couple of extra steps. Rarely am I successful. Next time maps. This time our first guess was correct and we were greated by Sylvie, a young women from Prague who was temporarily standing in for the owners.
(Two Weeks of Hiking
Chaloux(Simiane le Rotonde)
She showed us to our room and we did our daily laundry and before dinner nap. As you can see from the photos, we wear the same clothes every day. The gear came from REI
, this includes the Kelty redwing packs and the lightweight quick dry pants, shirts and underwear. For dinnertime we carried a small selection of things to put on. I was really happy with the packs. They were very comfortable and we could find things easily enough.
A B&B, called a gîte, is not like a hotel. A hotel has someone at the desk. If you want to find out something, you go to the desk and ask. At a gîte, after showing you your room and asking or telling you what time breakfast will be, their officials duties are complete. Since we had made arrangements ahead of time to have dinner, they might tell us some info about that, but usually not. Actually, at Chaloux we negotiated an earlier time, but she assumed we would know where to go. So at the right time, we just wandered around, looking at the sights and appreciating the gorgeous view until she found us and led us to the table. The night before we ate by ourselves, tonight we would eat with Sylvie, a simple pasta meal, a salad, a pitcher of the local red.
That night as we were lying in bed, we heard the phone ring in the other part of the house. We dozed on, thinking we were again safe from outside calls.
Saturday, June 12
At breakfast we met our host Gilles and two young families who were also staying there. We also found out that the call the previous night had been for Dawn. It was her daughter, Amber, and while we think we were told that everything was allright, we were not sure considering the multiple language barriers the message had needed to leap. We began to plan how we were going to return her call.
In the meantime, we got to do yoga. Dawn chose a nice outdoor site and I used the studio. The studio was a little musty,so I opened a door and did my yoga looking out it. Yoga is a great help both mentally and physically. You get to stretch out all the knots that you get from all this hiking and you get a calming down from the excitement caused by living in so much uncertainty.
The rest ofthe day, we did nothing except for talking to Amber who called back after having recalculated the time difference.
Dawn read, we both wrote notes for this travelogue. Eventually we ate our packed lunch. I planned our next part of the trip. Later our hosts called a B&B in Viens that we had already e-mailed from the States. They made our reservations for Sunday night and also a reservation for dinner at the restaurant in town.
That night we had "Gallettes de Bretagne" an egg inside a buckwheat crepe, a light alternative to the large meals that we had been eating. Much of what we do and eat and see seem to be alternatives. Certainly the motorcycle group that drove up that afternoon and would stay that night. Motorcycles and hikers are not two groups that easily coexist, but we would find out more the next morning.
Sunday, June 13
As we were getting ready to leave in the morning, the owners of the motorcycles appeared in great outfits, ones with much more style than we were wearing every day. Dawn got to talking and I felt to need to grab the camera. The trip gods were laughing at us again and we were laughing with them. We have been pretending to be in a different century and all the while our own century had been existing right beside us and now was even visiting us. Dawn is not really a motorcyclist fan, she especially doesn't like the noise, but she will always make exceptions when he speak French and was"très génial" (pronounced shee-nee-al which seems to make it sound just like the behavior.) Actually they all were and were happy to pose for some pictures, We had a lot of fun. They were from Cannes and this was one of their weekend trips
We had someone get a picture of us with Gilles as we left. Don't be fooled by the photograph. It is still the same orange shirt that Dawn was wearing. we had a chance to talk to him about how he came to be at Chaloux.
He showed us the best route and called ahead to let the restaurant at Oppedette know we would be there for lunch. It was again confusing to us. This would be the much talked about Sunday dinner in the country. We would find out when we got there.
(Two Weeks of Hiking
Sunday, June 13, 2004
The Day started with a nice gentle downhill slide back down into the valley of the Calavon. We were headed for Oppedette. I had read about this small town on the Internet, mostly about its cafe. I wanted to see it for myself. The town has only a hundred inhabitants or so and I had read that a traveler had gotten fed here in the middle of winter. All this is made more complicated by the fact that today was Sunday. We had read that many country restaurants serve a midday dinner for mostly their regular customers and then close for the rest of the day. That was why were so careful to make sure that we could get dinner that night in Viens. It wasn't like we could just motor on to the next town to find an open restaurant. But our present problem was to see if we could have lunch at this restaurant.
Well yes, sort
Gilles had called ahead, but we found out that they were full for the midday dinner, but that they would serve us a beer or two and some sandwiches from there bar menu. We have spent considerable time on these pages raving about French food, but here was an example of when it isn't very good. Yesterday's bread and some sausage. We supplemented them with some food that we were still carrying. I don't mean this to be a criticism of this restaurant. I would go back to taste their food when they were paying attention. Their focus was on dinner.
We did better than other people who began to arrive without reservations; for them the restaurant was closed. And it turned out that a lot of people did begin to show up, not to eat dinner, but to the hike the gorge d'Oppedette. There is a path that goes down one rim and back the other and a third that goes down the middle. It is a very popular day hike as we found out later when we passed a full parking lot.
We never did see people arrive to have dinner, There may have been another door or just that they would come later.
I insisted that Dawn take a picture of me in front of the cafe. I wanted proof that after seeing the picture at the top of this page on the Internet at my desk two months before, and deciding that I wanted to go there, I could in fact land us there on a Sunday afternoon. The fact that we didn't have some sumptuous meal there or some fascinating adventure is beside the point. Just the walking up the street, turning the corner and recognizing the place gave me a great deal of satisfaction. It is a little embarrassing, but there it is.
We worked our way out of town, the trail markers seemingly taking us through back yards and passed afternoon picnics to the edge of the gorge. I would have climbed down and gone down the middle but Dawn felt more comfortable staying up top. If you are in the area, take the hike. The trail twists and turns away from the edge and then back. It is all in miniature but very rugged. We pass more other hikers in this hour that it takes to get to the end than we do the other eleven and a half days, kids in various states of enjoyment, old folk like us, the whole gamut of tourists and locals out for some air. That is Dawn standing there with the white visor on. It was fun.
The rest of the day's walking took place mostly on the road. I looked for an alternate route but could find nothing. We met a man in his back yard next to a church that we wanted to go into. He turned out to be a German tourist on his first day in his vacation place. Using all three languages, we found out he couldn't help us. The break was useful because the obligatory hill climb faced us once again. They don't call them hill towns for nothing.
(Two Weeks of Hiking
As we approached Viens, the weather began a game that would continue for a couple of days. Clouds began to pile up on the horizon and then moved our way. The wind picked up and soon we decided to get our rain jackets out. The clouds allowed a few drops to fall and then moved away. We stopped again to repack our jackets.
The trail did follow a back way into town which I missed, much to my chagrin, so we took the main road in. I have complained about not having maps to guide us to our B&B, but here we did have one that had been attached to an e-mail that she had sent to us. We still had to ask someone where she lived. We happened to talk to someone who worked for a small hotel just out of town, Hotel St. Paul. He saw a picture of it on our Guide page. We were headed for La Bastide Les Blaquières
with Arlette Bos as our patronne. We did find it and like the whole town of Viens, it was totally charming.
For the first time we would share toilets with other guests. We had our own sink and shower and then down the hall there were a row of three WC's. The room was beautiful with a headboard hung on the wall behind our heads. There was a large common room with a kitchen and a TV. The house itself was fairly modern and was just outside the old town, surrounded by a large field enclosed with a fence through which we entered and left by password-protected powered gate.
Everything was impeccably clean, and the sheets and towels were the most luxurious on the trip so far! - Dawn
We did our normal rest, shower and wash and headed for the restaurant which we could see as soon as we got out of the gate. The Restaurant Le Petit Jardin
had a garden terrace which we ate on once we ran the gauntlet of the local drinkers at the bar. This was the only establishment in town so it had to take care of everyone. Our waitress was playing kissy-face with her boyfriend between serving all the diners. She was wearing his jacket because it had turned a little cold. In fact, I was sent back for more clothes for Dawn. Dinner was good and the place eventually got more crowded with a multi-lingual crowd. We noticed a large table of either Germans or Dutch at the other end of the terrace.
As previously noted, we pretty much hiked in the same clothes everyday, occasionally alternating between shorts and long pants. So in the evenings, I really liked to dig out one of my two lightweight skirts, my go-with-everything black tank top and my sandals. I brought along my lightweight, compressible black cardigan as well, but after an aperitif, I just knew I was going to be miserable for the rest of the evening if I didn't have more clothes on. So gentleman that he is, Stephen walked back to the B&B and brought my black pants, my fleece top, socks, and even a pair of pantyhose and my raincoat. I declined to visit the ladies' room to put on the pantyhose, but I managed to slide the long pants on halfway under my skirt, squeeze the socks on in my sandals, put the fleece over the black cardigan, and don the purple Goretex rain jacket on top of it all. If I was really desperate, I even had a pair of gloves in the pocket of the rain jacket. I was warm and comfortable and happy to enjoy the rest of the meal in that lovely garden setting. It was, however, a bit embarrassing to exit the restaurant with my print skirt worn over my baggy exercise pants and socks inside my sandals. Apparently I have reached the age when warmth supersedes vanity . - Dawn
After dinner, we went for a walk. Another place that would be wonderful to live in. A lot of renovation, but no tear downs. They gut the insides in some cases, but the village remains the same.
When we get back, I turned the TV on and by accident found the European Cup soccer match between England and France. We were almost immediately joined by the group from the restaurant who turn out to be Dutch and were very interested in watching the game. At least the men were, the women went to bed. The game is great, at the end France scores two goals in injury time to win the game, something that England never should have allowed. In the meantime, we found out that the Dutch folks were getting up early and hiking in the same direction as we. They will go much farther. They are three couples and they have two houses in Provence and this year they are hiking from one to the other. Dawn has done some performing in Holland, so she chatted with them about cities and people.
Monday, June 14
They beat us to breakfast and because they arrived late the night before without reservations, Arlette hadn't had time to get more food; they ate most of our breakfast. We didn't really mind. They were like a small energetic herd and were fun to be around. They were off down the driveway as we were still becoming fully awake.
We got the explanation for the pieces in the front hall from Arlette. She had lived in the Cameroons during the sixties and had brought a bike that was used to go to and from the fields. I can't imagine riding it. With wooden tires it would have been a very harsh ride.
We found out over the past couple of days that our travelers checks, even in euros, are worthless. No one will take them. They cost too much to deposit and the expose the income to the tax man. So we went to La Poste to see if they could cash some of them. The answer was, "Go to Apt," Our hike so far has made a semi circle around this city. We have never been very far from it. It is a town of some 11,000 inhabitants and we had no intention of going there during our hike. It is too big and the only way we could walk there would be on busy roads. His solution is no solution. Luckily the restaurant the previous night had taken credit cards, so we still had some cash left.
As we were standing at the edge of the old town wall, overlooking the view and trail by which we had approached Viens, a gentleman approached me and said that he had overheard our conversation in the post office. He said his wife was driving to Apt later that afternoon and would happy to give us a ride there. I was touched by his generosity, but since we needed to be on our way that morning to hike to our next destination, it wouldn't have worked out. - Dawn
We were surprised to find out that there were no public card phones in town. It is here that we meet the coin phone. Because we only have 50 cents, we end up with a short conversation with the guy at Lou Rustreou, a hotel in Rustrel. He says he has a room and he gets Dawn's first name before our time runs out and the line goes silent. That seems enough, so after a stop for lunch supplies, we are on our way.
I had begun to fantasize about becoming a travel guide, selling this trip to people who wanted to do the same kind of thing. I would make some changes; cut Roussillon, go to Lioux instead, which would make the trip to Saint Saturnin a little more manageable. For people don't speak French, we could make the reservations for them and back them up by phone. In talking about it with Dawn, I realized that it wasn't going to work. They would be taking our trip rather than their own, and we would be cutting out its heart, the adventure. We know very little about our day, where we will eat lunch, exactly how we will get to the next town, whether the trail will be beautiful or ordinary. It is the finding out, the dealing with it, the dealing with each other that is the soul of our journey. No one else can take this trip. What we like about it and what we are trying to bring home with us is the sense that we can be comfortable in a state of uncertainty. We seem not to have to care whether we know what is going to happen in the next few days. For me this is very freeing.
We turned west from Viens, beginning to head back the way we came. Once we get to Rustrel, we will head south again. On the way, we saw signs to an old chapel and decided to take a look at it and have lunch there.
Downhill, in the distance we saw an unusual area of trees. They seemed to be extremely dark green pines of some kind. As we got closer, we found ourselves amidst acres of burnt trees, with new green grasses shooting up out of charred earth. The chapel we had hoped to visit was situated smack in the middle of this burnt area. There were a couple of men working to clean up the dead trees. I asked them if we could visit the chapel. He said that it was now privately owned by a family so it was closed to the public. I gestured to the acres of burnt trees and asked him what had happened. He said a fire last summer threatened to destroy the chapel as well, but the firemen arrived, thankfully, just in time to save it.
The area had an odd beauty to it with the blackened branches making a latticework against the blue sky , and the new green grassy shoots asserting the tenaciousness of life.
We made our way along farmland and forest and took a long break in the woods for lunch and rest. Another couple walked by sometime during our break, an unusual sight on this still "low season" hike. The customary "Bonjour, bonne ballade" greetings were exchanged. Stephen and I actually dozed off a bit after lunch with me using the Goretex rain jacket, this time as a ground cover to keep all the prickly things off my legs and arms. Finally we seem to have figured out how to relax for a longer time in the early afternoon. It stays light until 10:00 p.m., and no one eats dinner before 8:00 p.m., so what's the rush? We might as well hike when it's cooler and enjoy that luscious late afternoon light.
(Two Weeks of Hiking
Approaching Rustrel, we were hiking down along the edge of one part of le Colorado, a sort of Canyonlands of southern France. As in Rousillon, these bizarre and multicolored formations were made of ochre which used to be quarried there. I missed my one opportunity to get a great photo looking down into the pinnacles from our path. The right light never returned, but it turned out that the next day offered a multitude of photo ops.
The weather played the same game, feinting rain, making us get out our jackets, then moving away. - Stephen
As usual, we still had one more uphill hike to get to the town of Rustrel itself, but it wasn't too bad. Stephen was grumbling a bit about not knowing exactly where the hotel was and that I hadn't gotten directions before our time ran out on the coin phone that morning, so I asked a woman at the local alimentation (corner store) where Lou Rustreou was. "Voila," she said, indicating the sign on the building two doors up the street!
The hotel patron showed up in shorts and a tee shirt. He knew immediately that I was the one who had called that morning. He showed us to our second floor room which was a bit dark and dreary but perfectly clean and had a private bath. The room overlooked a small square which seemed to be the small center of this small part of what was already a small town. Rustrel is not one of those unbelievably quaint, beautiful medieval towns. While there are some old buildings there, it is more of a workaday kind of place. There is a tourist biz because of le Colorado, but geared more to young hikers, climbers and bikers. In fact, one of the fanciest old buildings in town has been converted to a youth hostel.
We had a couple of beers outdoors at a cafe across the square, with plenty of moto and truck noises to keep us squarely in the 21st century. We decided to have dinner at the hotel. The dining room was a surprise, quite elegantly decorated and sporting a deep well right at the entry to the room, that must have gone down about thirty feet! It was illuminated, and covered with a grille, of course. Quite bizarre.
Tuesday June 15
We grabbed a croissant and coffee at the cafe across the square where we had a beer the night before.
When I could not find my hat after breakfast, I returned to the cafe to see if I had left it there. I had, but not at breakfast as I had thought but after our beers the night before. I was pleased with my ability to retrieve the hat in French as well as comment on the country's football team performance the night before. And I was really happy to get my hat back, a gift from my brother Johnny, an authentic minor league baseball hat from the New Jersey Cardinals, and a necessary tool a week before the summer solstice.. - Stephen
Today was our day to hike in Le Colorado. I wanted to get an early start so the light would still be at a nice angle for taking pictures. It wasn't often on this trip that we retraced our steps, but this morning we had to do just that to get back to the entrance to the ochre cliffs. I think we were the first ones there since we were all alone as we entered the first area of surreal red pinnacles. This terrain bears some resemblance to the Canyonlands in Utah and the red rock country of Sedona, Arizona.
It is astonishing to me that France, which is about the size of the state of Texas, has such a huge variety of natural land features. Of course the scope of an area like Le Colorado is much smaller than the vast deserts and canyons of the American West, but their beauty is similar. From the rugged mountains of the Alps and Pyrenees to the bucolic farmlands and rivers of le Lot and le Dordgne, from the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts to the serenity of the Canal du Midi, from the vineyards of Bordeaux and Burgundy to the wildness of the Cevennes and the gorges, there is a huge amount to be explored even without the artifacts and culture of France's rich history. Add in the churches, from Medieval to Romanesque to Gothic and all the art within them,the prehistoric cave paintings, the Cathare fortresses, the great Chateaux, the museums of history, culture, and art (not to mention the wine and food), the allure of all the old stone villages and the magic of Paris, well, I could spend a lifetime in France and not tire of it. In the end, though, it is people who breathe life and energy into all this beauty, art, and history. Having had the good fortune to spend three months at the artists' colony in La Napoule in '89 has led to lasting friendships which then lead to new friendships with artists, writers, and generally interesting people of several nationalities who form a microcosm of today's living, breathing France.
Back to le Colorado: As we walked through an area called the "Sahara," we passed a group of senior citizens in a painting class "en plein air." I thought nostalgically about my mother and how much she would have enjoyed painting here. She was, after all, my very first connection to France.
After a couple of hours, we left the ochre cliffs and headed back out on the road to find the trail which would take us up over a mountain and head us towards St. Martin. We stopped by the lovely B&B that our Chaloux friend Gilles had recommended over the hotel where we stayed. It was a wonderful setting with horses grazing in the pasture, gardens everywhere, but we realized that if we had stayed there, we would have had to walk up to town for dinner and back down again afterwards. It just would have been too much at the end of an already long hiking day. Once again, a vehicle would have made all the difference. We would have just zipped up the hill for dinner, then back again. But we liked our primitive form of locomotion and were willing to alternate town and country stays depending on availability of dinner.
Then we started going up, and up, with no switchbacks. This was one of the two longest, steepest trails on our trip. It was also quite wooded, although we got a few views of other areas of ochre cliffs through the trees. At the very top, there was essentially a five-way intersection. For the first time at such a major intersection of marked trails, there were no signs. To be more accurate, there were signposts, but the signs had been cut down. This was the first act of petty vandalism that we witnessed on our hiking trip. It was a bit inconvenient, trying to be sure which trail we should take from there, with no signs, and then not being exactly sure where our destination was located either. Maps are great, but if you don't know where you are or where you're going, they don't help a whole lot. So I figured it was time to stop for lunch. When in doubt, stop, rest, drink water, and eat.
Once we got over the ridge, we found a place to eat lunch and plan our route to Lou Caleu. The problem was that we didn't really know where it was. Again, we had very clear directions of how to get there by car coming from Apt, but they didn't tell us where the place really was. Lou Caleu wasn't our first choice, from the descriptions on the Internet, it seemed to be a small resort, offering a swimming pool and maybe horse back riding. The other places in the area had all been full. What we are now doing is trying to jump across the valley of the Calavon with Route National 100 as its main east-west roadway from the Vaucluse mountains on the north to the Luberons on the south. There were not many lodgings around here and when we e-mailed and then later called, we found them to be full. So we went with Lou Caleu.
So as we sat on the ridge and looked south, we were faced with two possibilities; one, the hotel was near the town, or two, it was on a road that left Route 100 three miles earlier. From where we sat,this meant we should go left to a trail that lead to the town, or go right to a a series of trails that lead to the highway. After looking at the map and Dawn replaying the phone conversation in her head, we decided that the odds lay in going to the right. It all went smoothly until we got to a farm named "La France". We had not been following any particular trail at this point but a series of thin black lines on the maps that denoted paths or dirt roads or as it says on the map legend, "Unidentified linear features." Well at La France the black line denoted his driveway and it had signs saying that he didn't want anyone walking on it. There was no turning back at this point and even the detour we took along the edges of his fields and across his pastures probably added a half hour to our hike. After that it was clear sailing on a pretty trail that led us toward Route 100. We would stop every half hour or so to refigure out our options, but nothing seemed a reasonable alternative, so late afternoon found us on a switchback of a road with our map out trying to figure out our best option. A pickup truck came down the road and then stopped to help us, which he did. He told us that we were close to the hotel and that we should go down to the highway and go left and he mentioned six hundred meters. We didn't know whether the distance referred to how far we had to go until we got to the road or how far we would have to go once we got on to it.
We carried on. We got to the road and found no sign, but we got more help, sort of. A family came riding down the bike path and stopped to help us. The woman said that there was a hotel that sounded like the one that we were headed for not far down the road. Her husband agreed with her but added that because they were on bicycles, she had underestimated the distance. It was more like three or four kilometers. Doesn't seem like a lot now, but standing on a busy noisy two lane highway during the hottest part of the afternoon, it seemed to us disappointing news.
Once we got around the first turn, we saw a sign up ahead that I could read once I got the binoculars out. Lou Caleu. So the wife was right, she probably always is, and the husband is no Lance Armstrong, and a few minutes later we walked into the reception room.
(Two Weeks of Hiking
Lou Caleu (St. Martin du Castillon)
The most interesting part of of stay was our dinner and its aftermath. But before I relate the story I want to emphasize that the restaurant is very good and I would definitely go back there. In fact, excepting our meal at Les Vergiers, it was the best meal we had on this trip. So, despite this story which had a happy ending, we give the restaurant and the Inn two thumbs up.
After our swim, flirting once more with afternoon rain clouds, we came down to reception looking for a bar to have an aperitif. Having no bar, they suggested we could just sit at our table and have a drink, which is what we did. We got a chance to look at the menu and both of us selected the menu at 28.5 Euros. They selections looked fabulous and we waited with some anticipation for the meal which in fact was delicious. The strange part of the evening began when the waiter brought our bottle of wine, showed it to me and began to open it. I stopped him to explain that it wasn't the bottle that I ordered. It turned out that they were out of that selection and I was a little surprised that he was going to substitute another one, twelve dollars more expensive without saying anything. From there the situation went downhill. They seemed to be out of every bottle that we wanted to drink and as we tried to find something, the restaurant began to fill up and he had divide his time among all the clientele. We finally did get a bottle for us, but he just opened it, poured our two glasses and left. Odd, to say the least.
Actually, I am no fan of the little ritual practiced in every restaurant in the world where after they open the wine, someone is picked to taste a small portion poured into their glass and then nod reassuringly at the waiter that the wine is okay. Nobody ever sends it back. Next time, maybe I will ask the waiter to taste, he or she should know more about the wine than I.
As I said, the food was great. I had lamb that was the epitome of all lamb dishes, incredibly flavorful. We had a serving of lime vodka sherbet that was the ultimate palate cleanser and the sable aux fruits dessert was delicious.
All the while, the waiter is getting crazier and crazier. I actually saw him running toward a table and come to a sliding stop. For years in travelogues, I have been lauding the character and skills of French waiters and here in front of me was a wait service catastrophe. In his defense, I noticed that the dining room and the terrace was full, which must have been unexpected, being an offseason Tuesday evening, and that the manager has pitched in as a second waiter. But in this situation I would have expected for the service to be slow, not that the waiter have a panic attack. But again, the food is great and I did my best to ignore the craziness. After the meal, I considered mentioning my displeasure with the manager, but think better of it. It is not worth the trouble and in venting my little emotions I might jeopardize the waiter's employment which was not my intention. Good thing, because the next morning.
Wednesday June 16
He is the person checking us out of the inn and from whom we need some help. First of all, he apologizes for last's night dinner and takes our drinks off of our bill as a small token. And when we ask if he could get us a cab, because now we are out of money and we need to go to Apt to visit a cash machine, he suggests that for a small fee, one of their kitchen staff could drive us in to an ATM, wait for us, and then drive us back. So a problem that had been quietly looming over our heads for a couple of days was solved in thirty five minutes by someone whose job I might have lost for him the night before with some rash words.
It seemed like a miracle. One moment, we are standing next to kitchen helper's car with no cash in our pockets, thirty five minutes later we are standing at the same spot with enough cash to continue our journey until we reach Apt again at the end of the week. So we head out of the inn with smiles on our faces. We had a phone in our room with free local calls, so we had made a reservation at the Moulin des Fondons in Auribeau for two nights.
I had originally thought that during this second week we might get over the Luberons to see some villages on its southern slopes. This is the area where the films Jean de Florette
and Manon of the Springs
were made. The scenery in these films is to die for and a story on the Internet from one of the towns mentions the bench where Yves Montand waited between takes. These films, while inviting us to the area with their cinematography are also cautionary tales as their plots are based on the unwillingness of the villagers to accept outsiders. Dawn and I should never forget that we are accepted as tourists, not as inhabitants, sometimes by people who have only recently arrived. Recently by village standards, which means that both your grandparents were born there. When we moved to our neighborhood in Boston thirteen years ago from a nearby town, we were referred to as blow-ins by the local politico.
I could see that we were not going to be able to get up and over the mountains and down to a village with lodging without a very long day with our packs on. So I decided to stay two days at Les Fondons and climb to the ridge on our off day so that we could at least look down on the area we would just have to save for another trip.
As we left Lou Caleu, one of the things that had been worrying me was getting across the river. Sometimes I don't know why I worry about anything, because the river proved to be bone dry. They had not been getting much rain in the area and the river showed it. The river had been dry in the gorge d'Oppedette but I had forgotten that it was the same river. Today, we would climb as we headed toward Auribeau and then the next day, Mourre Negre, the highest point in the area. First, we had a nice walk through the grassy fields next to the dry riverbed.
From Lou Calou
Wednesday, June 16, 2004
As with headed towards Castellet, we found ourselves following a dry gorge. Anyone who has followed a streamside path understands that the trail has variations for wet and dry seasons . As you travel up the stream bed you see trails leading off into the surrounding area that are used during high water. In the dry season, one must distinguish between these paths that just return to the bed after fifty yards of bush whacking through the overgrowth and the real trail. When you make the wrong decision as we did, you end up in a dry pool facing 30 feet of vertical wall which at other times must have produced a fine waterfall.
I wouldn't mention any of this except that when I put the map in my pocket so that I would have both hands free for the little bit of rock climbing it took to regain the path, I wasn't careful enough so it fell out at the top of the climb. I only noticed that it was missing at a stop ten or fifteen minutes farther along when we stopped at a junction to decide our route. No map. So I hiked back to the wall and found it at the top, very pleased to have found it and very pleased not to have to climb down and back up again. But, my backtracking for the day was not complete, because once I returned to Dawn with the map, we realized that in fact we may have missed the junction where we wanted to turn. So I had to hike back up the hill and look at the junction that Dawn had pointed out to me as we passed it the first time, but that I had dismissed. So now returning to Dawn a second time, I decided that we could get there by continuing on the trail we were on because I just couldn't bear to climb back up that hill for a third time.
Turned out to be a good trail. It had a gentle if constant pitch but also a variety of aspects, going from a single track path to a cart path to a grass covered tree arched over lane. At the top, just before we met the road that lead into Castellet, we had lunch with a grand view of the places where we had walked for the past couple of days.
(Two Weeks of Hiking
This little hillside village would fit into half a football stadium. The main road that we were walking on approached the village from the side, touched it for a moment then curved sharply uphill on its way to Auribeau. We continued on in and stopped by the fountain and clothes washing facility. The shade was welcomed and the water soaked bandanas around our necks felt great. I wandered off to look for a B&B that I saw advertised and Dawn stayed to guard our packs and watch the renovation being done on the church. I found the B&B, just a small sign near a glass doorway and a hanging pot of flowers. Probably just an extra bedroom in a house which was the origin of what has now become a major cottage industry. I continued up the steep cobbledstoned street and in fifteen minutes have seen the whole town. It is a thirteenth century villages, houses are tucked into one another, the streets are narrow. There are buildings that are abandoned and others have been renovated. There are some second story decks and some windows have been enlarged. To me it is totally charming.
Maybe, I shouldn't be surprised. In 1964, the Belgian Village, a copy of a Medieval town, opened at the World's Fair in New York and I spent much of my time at the fair, wandering around its streets. I loved it. I found it very romantic and used it as a rendezvous with girls with whom I was trying to be involved. The fair did not receive official world' fair status and so was boycotted by the major European nations, therefore most of the exhibits were sponsored by US companies and they all emphasized the benefits of progress through technology, but I seemed to be pleasantly mired in the past. Even as I was totally immersed in sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and was confirming in my French classes my total inaptitude in foreign languages, I was drawn to a place that was decidedly foreign and very old. Maybe I just have a thing for cobblestones.
I don't want to leave the World's Fair without mentioning an experience at the Johnson Wax exhibit that revealed another side of myself that I was trying to ignore. The exhibit consisted of a film called "To be alive" which was being shown in a room with no chairs. One just came in from one side and apparently stood against a wall in the dark and then when you had enough or the film had looped through to where you had come in, you walked out the other side. The design element that changed everything for me was that the wall was slanted back, so rather than standing next to someone, people were leaning against the wall. I felt that I was lying down with them and at the time, it felt like a shockingly intimate experience. I think this must have been the designer's intention, to try to pull the audience together. I was amazed how the change of just a few degrees in my body angle could take me so far out of my comfort zone. I don't remember how long I stayed in there, and I am pretty sure that I didn't return, but I probably got the feeling from this event that life was probably going to be a little bit more complicated than I thought it would be.
When I got back to Dawn, she wanted to know where the heck I went, so maybe it was a little longer than fifteen minutes
Getting out of town was another adventure of following near hidden blazes through narrow pathways that seemed to travel through people's kitchens. We went down the side of the hill that the village sat on, moving into the shade down steep switchbacks. We ended up by a field at the base of the village. From there, we traveled up a valley for an hour or two to the village of Auribeau, passing may cherry orchards where the fruit was almost ripe.
(Two Weeks of Hiking
More upscale than Castellet with more flowers. We spent some time waiting for the right light to take pictures. I haven't got the idea of these villages that have no commerce. No bakeries, cafes, food stores. Most likely, there is a small market once a week, and although at one point in the planning of this trip I had the idea to be in the villages on their markets days it turned out that the introduction of one more variable was totally impracticable. (Once I had the idea that you could travel across the United States going from one church supper to another, throwing in a firehouse supper once in a while. Another impractical idea in the indigestibility of the fare, but you would meet the locals.)
Auribeau is the name of my favorite
hilltown in the Alpes-Maritime area which I discovered during my stay at the artists' colony in 1989. There are many towns by the same name in France, but of course they are each in a different province. This Auribeau is quite a bit smaller but still a "village fleuri" with plenty enough charm. As we were sitting beside the fountain in the small main square, a couple of French tourists came by and asked if I knew where one could get a drink in town. I replied that there were no cafes or bars around but pointed to the "eau potable" spigot which emptied into the public basin. They departed without refreshing themselves; we filled our water bottles for the last leg of our hike.
As we left town and starting walking up the road curving to the left, we saw a vast field of stumps,all the same height, arranged in a perfect geometric pattern. It was a strange and macabre sight. I struggled to find the right camera position to capture the odd regularity of the stumps' arrangement. I managed to grab a photo just before losing the light. We figured this must have been a cherry orchard since that was the predominant fruit grown in this area, but why were they all cut down? It didn't look like there had been a fire. Was the wood more valuable than the cherries? Had there been some kind of pestilence in this area? We found the answer to our question by talking with our hosts at dinner later that evening.
I think we were within a mile of Fondons when the weather began to play that same old end of day game with the rain clouds and we almost didn't go through our routine of stopping to get our jackets out of the packs and putting them on. Glad we did. We got hit with the deluge. The skies emptied on us and we were completely soaked in five minutes. Now I know why people recommend rain pants. All the water that runs off your jacket just flows down onto your legs. When I am backpacking I solve this problem by wearing a bathing suit and hiking fast enough to keep warm. Here, everything that wasn't under the jackets got wet. We looked like a couple of drowned rats when we arrived at le Moulin des Foundons.
Moulin des Fondons
We picked the room with the most light, forgetting that it would have the least privacy. The room might have been a renovated garage with the doors being replaced with a wall of glass. Unfortunately, open to the path coming down from the road. The room was spacious and it allowed us to hang our wet things around in order to dry them out.
I think Brigitte had been astonished to see us arrive dripping wet. Although many people stay at their B&B in order to hike, I think that again, most of them are day hikers who arrive at the B&B by car, and thus much drier.
After drying out and cleaning up, it was dinnertime, and as is often the case, we didn't know where to go. We wandered over to the kitchen door where Brigitte had earlier greeted us in our wet attire. We found her and her husband Jacky and another couple standing around a table laden with a big bowl of cherries and lots of bottles of different colored drinks. "Bonsoirs" all around, but as usual, no introductions. Since it was still damp on the patio, we were ushered into the house dining room to enjoy a meal full of wonderful local produce and fascinating conversation. There were nine of us at the table: Brigitte and Jacky and their two adolescent sons, a Belgian couple named Jean-Luc and Marie-Claude, a young man staying there to do research on the local water quality, and the two of us.
Jacky offered us a choice of four aperitifs: three"wines" made by Brigitte, walnut, peach, and lime, and of course, the standard of southern France, Ricard. I opted for the noix (walnut) and Stephen the Ricard. We had terrine d'aubergines and a sardine tapenade for appetizers, and then a vegetable salad with their first haricots verts of the season, tomatoes and feta. It was unusual to have salad before the main course in France, but it tasted great. Then she brought an amazing country casserole of courgettes and ground duck with the crispy skin of the duck spread over the surface of the whole thing, and I think she said there was mozzarella in it too. So that's already two kinds of cheese in the meal, then we pass a cheese plate with five varieties on it. Dessert was mousse aux fraises (with strawberries that her son picked that morning.) Good thing I'm a recovering vegetarian, and good thing I'm hiking on this trip. The wine also flowed, including an excellent bottle of Bordeaux????
The food was only part of what made that dinner so special. The conversation was animated and included political and social issues such as mandatory retirement, pensions and the relationship of work to life. Brigitte used to be a teacher in an urban area, so she did not grow up here in the country. She talked about what a hard life the local people had here, recounting a story of a mason who worked for them who, when asked for a receipt, was unable to write it. She felt it was important for her sons to learn what it was like to work in the local trades so one was picking cherries for the summer and the other was packing candied fruit in a factory.
Thursday, June 17
Today was our layover day that we had planned to climb Mourre Negre, the highest point in the area. We didn't think it would take us very long so we had a leisurely morning. We did yoga by the pool. My yoga attracted their two large dogs who were very upset with my down dog position. I think they thought it was an aggressive posture, so to my practice which consists of the positions, plus maintaining my banda, a sort of holding of some internal muscles, and maintaining a kind of mindless focus was added the additional tasks of mentally communicating with the dogs that I did not mean to threaten them. I felt like a "dog whisperer", although a horse whisperer uses body positions to communicate with a horse and all I had was some tenuous mental projections. Things worked out with the exception of getting my hand stepped on once because they felt the need to stay very close to me during the whole time.
So, in the afternoon we climbed to the top of Mourre Negre and had a lunch that Brigitte packed. Today we found out that the map that we were using is not the most uptodate one. This explains some of the problems we had navigating the past ten days. We decided to come down a different way which ended up taking at least twice as long as the way up. We ended going through Auribeau again. We didn't get back until almost dinner time. But we did have time to take a quick dip in the pool, which was great on the legs.
Later that evening, Brigitte said that the housekeeper told her that the cat was copying our yoga postures!
It was a relief to hike with only one light daypack between the two of us. The hike was truly straight up. After lunch, we progressed to the very top, with its towers of transmission/reception devices and its nasty weeds that kept attacking our socks and boots. The view was incredible. We could see so much of the area we had walked through as well as a whole other region we hoped to walk through someday. Wandering around and looking through binoculars made us lose track of time. We did not start down until 5:10 p.m. The longer route that we chose turned out to be quite long and very steep, with downs and ups on precipitous scree and talis slopes. We became very rushed as we realized that we had to hike almost all the way back to Castellet. The ridge/ravine trail with its alternations of way up and way down was indeed a challenge to do fast. I gave up the idea that we'd have time for a swim and began to worry about whether we'd even be back in time for dinner. It was a bit of a bummer to have to do the same road we had done the day before, through Auribeau and on to Fondons.
As we rounded the corner where the cherry stumps were, the sight was dramatically different from the prior evening. Instead of the bizarre, geometric order of the cut stumps, it looked like a couple of giants had passed through the field, ripping up stumps and throwing them at each other. Most were uprooted and lay haphazardly about. We found out later that the cherry trees were being removed because it was too expensive to hire pickers. The fields would be replanted with lavender which, I guess, is easier to harvest and is certainly in great demand throughout the world. While I adore all things lavender, it seemed sad to me that the cherry business was too difficult for this landowner. I have never tasted more delicious cherries anywhere than in this particular part of Provence.
When we got back to Les Fondons at 7:40, Brigitte graciously said we should take a dip in the pool. I was rushing around so fast, I practically bumped into Jacky, carrying a hot casserole dish of food. The dip felt great after a pretty arduous day of hiking. I never got showered and dressed so quickly, managing to be only five minutes late for hors d'oeuvres on the terrace.
Friday, June 18
I made another map reading mistake this morning, not seeing a small hatch across our route. It turned out to be a gate with a sign that said ferocious dogs. A woman came by in an SUV and reinforced the warning. We had to go all the way back to Fondons in order to go a different way. We met Brigitte at the end of her driveway as the same time as the SUV swung down the road. The conversation that followed was too hard to follow but we got the idea that Brigitte wasn't too pleased with her. But we are not too sure. The day continued in the same mode. Many of my shortcuts, or the shortcuts on the map, did not exist, so we took long pleasant detours. We decided not to go to Sivergues, leaving it for another time and instead had our lunch at the edge of a meadow at the beginning of the gorge that we would be traveling in after lunch.
The stream in the gorge was running, the first water we had seen for a number of days. We spent an hour surrounded by mossy banks and gurgling sounds. A trail blaze signaled the end our dark, cool interlude and we headed up the embankment back into the Provençal summer. Eventually, we felt that the trail was headed off in a direction that didn't feel right to us. A fellow hiker came along and we had a long discussion filled with turnings of the map and pointings to distant landmarks and then back to the map. Finally, we decided to ignore the map and take his advice that we could there from here by going that a way.
And it was true. We walked among those tantalizing lavender fields that refused to bloom, following blazes and signs and soon were descending, I repeat descending in to Bouux. We could see our place from the ridge and in fifteen minutes were walking down the cart path that led to their back door.
(Two Weeks of Hiking
La Grande Bastide
was an 16th century building that we figured must be the place. However, there was no sign, and there didn't appear to be anyone around. So I sat under a tree in the field and Stephen did a bit of exploring. After about twenty minutes, a Japanese couple drove up in a car, parked next to the building and headed into the back yard. It was they who led me to la patronne, Veronique, I believe was her name. At 50 Euros, we had a large, comfortable room with a very nice, modern, attractive bathroom that was supposed to be "shared." However, since the Japanese couple had their own bath, and there was no one else staying there, it became a private bathroom. We spent the late afternoon hours lounging about on lawn chairs, drinking tea that we were invited to make in the little kitchenette, reading, and talking in English, French, and a drop of Japanese to the other couple.
When we were back in Lou Caleu, we had the luxury of a phone in our room and local calls were free. This fact took awhile to establish, not because we didn't understand them, but because we didn't really believe it. So we spent time trying to figure out how these words could mean the opposite of what they meant until we just decided that it was probably true. We took advantage by calling a couple of nights ahead and making a reservation in Buoux for our lodging and for dinner. Here is what we read about the restaurant, again, on the Internet.
You can eventually lunch in the Auberge de la Loube, where the hors d'oeuvre are famous. Served on an enormous plateau is composed by 17 different items. Quality changes with seasons. Best is off-season late fall or in the winter. Also: Fresh cuisine with copious dishes with Provençal hors d'oeuvres, lapin sauté, fromage, desserts.
But first we wanted to have a drink, so we stopped at a terrace road side place half way from our B&B to the restaurant. Another quiet pleasure in the south of France. Almost all the beers were unfamiliar and Dawn worked out with the waiter the various taste possibilities. Next to us was a father and young daughter having supper. A bird in a cage whistling away rounded out the entertainment. For us, a quiet drink, near the end of our trip just to smile and touch fingers. After a while, we took a short summer evening walk down the road to Auberge de la Loube.
Dinner did not disappoint. Once again, I wish I had brought my camera and taken a picture of the "plateau" with its eighteen tapas. Le patron came by and chatted with us, so we had the chance to compliment him on the meal. We noticed across the terrace that the Japanese couple were dining with some others. Small town.
We also saw a large family group that we would see again the next day in Apt. But for tonight all that remained was to walk back and fall asleep.
Saturday, June 19, 2004
We met the Japanese couple again at breakfast. They were up early in order to fly back to Tokyo. We found out that they had been coming here for a week for the past twelve years. Dawn begins to get nervous if we go back to the same place twice.
This is not true. I've probably been to Paris fifteen times, and four to Cezac. I cannot resist returning to sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and people that I love. It's just the world is so full of a number of things (to quote A. A. Milne) that I feel I should pursue new directions, new continents, new experiences and languages. The other truth is that if I could bring my loved ones with me, I would be perfectly happy spending the rest of my years in France.
Well our plans to get a ride to Apt fell through. A child's recital in another city has taken precedent. We were told that the best way would be to hike in on the road and some one would give us a ride. We got out on the road and walked and took pictures, but no car passed us. Finally one came tearing down the road, glanced at our outstretched thumbs, and continued around the curve, where to our amazement it came to a screeching stop. We ran up and piled into the car. She was going , not to the market, but to work, and she was late. She drove fast. At one point, she looked at me in the front seat and asked, "Are you afraid." I said I wasn't and we continued careening toward Apt. (I was lying.)
After she had gotten into her parking space, we got out quickly and as she moved toward her building she gestures that the market was over that way someplace. Well it wasn't hard to miss because it took over almost all of old Apt. But first we had to find our hotel the L'Aptois. To our amazement the room was available a little after 9 in the morning so we were able to stash our packs in the rooms and be back in the market in no time.
We are not shoppers, we see markets as entertainment, but we did have things to buy so we set to work. But first we had to get some cash. So back across the town we went to the Tourist Office to find the Post Office where we did cash 200 euros of our travelers checks. It was a major operation with passports and forms and much signing of things.
One of the nice things about buying gifts is that you get to think about the people for whom you are buying things. So, for the next couple of hours we pondered Dawn's children and grandchildren and our friends as we wandered through the market streets. We found ourselves attracted to the fabrics and ended up with napkins and folding bread baskets and seat covers all made of that wonderful fabric that is so redolent of this part of the world and our small stay in it.
We liked Apt, named by the Roman soldiers who made camp here because it was an apt site. We were tourists so we never got out of the old town where cars go much faster and life has a harder edge. We found a place for coffee where the stools were so comfortable our mouths dropped opened. He should have been selling them.
We spoke to a woman who ran an Antique shop. Great stuff. We said we couldn't possibly buy anything because we were still on foot. She replied with shippers' names who would get anything to the docks in American for less money than it would take to get it the rest of the way.
We found a park to sit in, a bar to have a glass of wine in. a pizza place to have dinner. An apt place for winding down.
Sunday, June 20
We could get up late. Take a stroll for coffee with a view and in the sun. Actually we found two, the first place wasn't quite right. Not enough sun.
Back at L'Aptois we spoke to the woman behind the desk. She turns out to be the owner of the place with her husband. It has been her mother's, who had owned a well known creamery outside of town. She had stayed here when she came to sell her products and when she had had enough, she bought the hotel and named it after her creamery. She then took us down into the bowels of the building where she showed us the stable that used to house the patrons' horses when they were staying at the hotel. They mangers were still there. Some renovation is scheduled once their new elevators are complete. Something about a game room. So, for her the hotel is not just the day to day business of renting rooms, but a present from her mother. I think it's a present that makes her mother present in her life and makes the history of the place with its clip-clopping of horses' hooves magically close.
But the bus was waiting and soon we were on it and headed back to Avignon.
It was a little sad to be at the end of our hike and almost at the end of our time in France. The bus covered space so quickly in contrast to our pedestrian rate of the last several days. There were only a couple of other passengers on the bus so we could stow our packs on separate seats and move around to see sites from the windows on both sides. We noticed signs to places we had decided we'd not be able to visit on our hike, like Menerbes (made famous by Peter Mayle's first book), Bonnieux, and La Coste where the Marquis de Sade lived. We were looking out the windows on the left side of the bus, facing the hills on the south side of Rte 100 where we had not hiked. Suddenly a purple flash caught my eye out of the window on the right side of the bus. "Stephen! Quick! Look!" I said, and for two seconds we finally got to see a field of lavender in exquisite full bloom through the window of a moving bus on the highway! Not exactly what we had hoped for, having hiked through scores of lavendar fields ready to burst, but, something anyway. The little irony of it gave us a laugh.
Sunday, June 20, 2004
When we arrived we bought our train tickets to Toulouse at the station next door and then headed back to the Hotel Blauvac to see if our suitcase was still there. It was, but on opening it, it seemed that nothing in it was very important or necessary. It would all have to be repacked.
I had a list of hotels in Toulouse. We confidently headed for our phone booth and about an hour later and calls too numerous to count, we had a place. Not halfway between the restaurant where we had a reservation and the train station, but out in a suberb near the airport. The city was full. Something about graduation week at the university. For a while we thought we might have to sleep in the airport lounge. It is not Dawn's favorite occupation to spend a lot of time on the phone, but she did great as each place that was full gave us another number to try until we found a home for the night.
That evening we went to a restaurant because of the following comment on the Internet
29 rue Saraillerie
tel: 04.90.85.21.83 SUPER
Dinner was fabulous! Chuck started with champignons with almonds de mer, a saute/brothy concoction, and I had foie gras with aspic of marc of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, with C-d-P grapes, fig quarters, starfruit and black sesame seeds. Chuck went on to a chunk of leg of lamb roasted in crepenette with tapinade and courgette jus. I had stuffed quail with tiny "fried" ravioli and demi glace jus. It was one of the best dishes I have ever had, and I order quail frequently!! Not knowing where this meal was heading, we had only ordered a caraffe of the house Cote du Rhone, which was not at all bad. With the usual Badoit and coffee, the entire bill was 379FF!! In addition, madame was beautiful (curly red hair, pale skin and sparkling eyes) as well as very, very charming; her husband is the chef.
We had a great time. We sat outside and it was very lovely. Toward the end of the meal we showed him the review, helped him translate it and got the corrected version. Madame with the red hair was his mother. When we found this out, we gave him the review to show it to her. The people who run the restaurant are brothers, one out front and one cooking. And the food was good. Entertainment was provided by some traveling musicians that cost us a Euro and by two elderly English ladies who ordered "French coffee". Through one language barrier they were never able to reconcile the two conceptions of what this might be. In the end, the two ladies drank their coffees, sans brandy, and the patron comped them for their disappointment.
Monday, June 21
Back to Lou Mistral for coffee, and then down to the train station. Then a train, a metro and a bus brought us to the Hotel L'Aeroport, a three star businessman's hotel where everyone was there to talk to Airbus whose headquarters are in Toulouse.
The restaurant shows a different face very time we go here. This time it was filled with the businessmen that have seemed to overrun the city. They don't serve the moules anymore but the food is still very good. This was our fourth visit and perhaps the magic has worn off a bit. Also, we had a collection of wonderful and magical meals for Le Capoul to compete with.
After the meal, we took public transportation to the end of the line and now were faced with calling for what we knew would be an expensive taxi ride back to the hotel. Again, the luck of the trip surfaced in its usual form, bad followed by good. First, it started to rain as we walked to the pay phone in the deserted parking lot, and second, a cab pulled up moments later and dropped off some passengers. Dawn hesitated not for a moment and snagged the cab.
We arrived at our hotel fifteen minutes later warm and dry and having made arrangements for the driver to pick us up the next morning for our trip to the airport. We celebrated our good fortune with a couple of degestifs at the bar. The bar itself looking like something out of a fifties movie.
Tuesday, June 22
We both think that the next time we travel, it will just be with the backpacks. We have grown very used to them now and having to cart our rolling suitcase, lift up and down from trains, up and down Metro station stairs has quickly become irksome. Even for regular trips we have been debating rolling carry on bags vs.our packs and have decided that we like the packs over those paragons of rolling convenience. It will mean looking at each other in the same clothes a lot more, but also not having a ton of clothes scattered all over Amber's and Patrick's guest bedroom (ie. their small office) when we visit them in San Francisco. The packs might make our travels a lot easier.
Today, we flew home. First back to Paris and then right on to the United States. It all went right on schedule and before we knew it we were standing over the largest pile of unopened mail that I have ever seen. Instead of opening any of it we relaxed with a bottle of Bordeau that I had bought with my last 15 Euros at the Charles de Gaulle airport.
Thanks for reading. It has been a pleasure to write.
Dawn and Stephen