14th Oct 2010 - 5th Nov 2010 - 2010 Europe
From Geneva we flew south to Nice and picked up a rental car for three weeks during which we discovered why so many people want to live here and everyone who visits raves about it. It has everything we really enjoy: spectacular mountains, forests and gorges (lovely walks); agricultural countryside planted with lavender and other flowers for the perfume business; fruit orchards; vinyards; quaint towns; history; beaches and islands.
Our first few days were in Valbonne at Judy and Richard’s house on the square for our third visit this year. We spent the days visiting various attractive and historic and originally fortified, mountain side towns:
Mougans which we really liked. Its origins are 11th C but most of the buildings appear to be from the 15th/16th Cs and then the 18th C. It is where Picasso finally settled and eventually died. It is full of artists so we enjoyed strolling the narrow, cobbled main street which spirals up the hill to the main square.
The medieval town of Eze which is on the Corniche Moyenne (middle) with fabulous views overlooking Villefranche-sur-Mer and St Jean-Cap-Ferrat and all the way down the coast to the Esterel mountains. It was a clear day so we had a great view from the ruined castle (demolished in 1706 by Louis XIV’s soldiers) topping the rocky pinnacle the town is built around. The highlight for us was the “Exotic Garden” a cactus/agave/aloe etc garden designed and constructed by Jean Gastaud in 1949. It also has some delightful, modern clay sculptures of slender willowy women.
Another day’s exploration took us through Opio, Le Bar-sur-Loup, Tourettes-sur-Loup, and Vence to see Matisse’s Chapelle du Rosaire and his former home Villa le Reve. Unfortunately not open that day. We also wanted to visit the Fondation Maeght which has mosaics by Chagall and 4000 items of art on a revolving display. It was only an hour before closing so we decided we couldn’t see enough to make the entry fee worthwhile. Instead we visited the walled town of St Paul de Vence. To our delight its lovely narrow, winding, cobbled main “street” (path) is lined with art galleries so we enjoyed some interesting paintings and sculptures for free. Strolled along, around, up and down the cobbled paths and steps between the buildings, out to the view point from the ramparts for a view over the valleys and out to the coast.
Moustiers Sainte-Marie and the Gorges du Verdon
From the coast we drove up through Grasse (the perfume town) into the mountains then west through spectacular Gorges du Verdon to Moustiers Saint-Marie www.moustiers.fr It is snuggled on a hillside up against high cliffs with a deep cleft out of which a spring wells producing all the water for the village. High above the village, in the cleft is the Chapelle Notre Dame de Beauvoir. High above the church, is a chain strung between the two peaks of the cleft with a gold star hanging in the middle. The legend states that a Knight taken prisoner by the Moors vowed to hang a star above the village if he ever came home. The first record of the star is from 1565. The current chain weights 150 kg and the star is 1.25m across. Autumn weather had really set in bringing cold nights, cool but sunny days and fabulous autumn tints. We had a delightful little flat with a view down the valley and spent the days walking in Gorges du Verdon.
This week we stayed in a cottage on a farm growing table grapes, olives and lavender near Pernes-les-Fontaines, about 20 km east of Avignon in an area absolutely full of interesting places to visit. The town has Roman origins but developed between the 10th and 14th Cs. The town has 40 fountains so we did a walk to see them all and on the way discovered the defensive Notre Dame gate with crenulated towers and bridge with chapel, various mansions, the old covered market hall, the view from the tower and the delightful wind vane on top of the wrought iron church belfry with a cat chasing a mouse along the rod.
From Pernes-les-Fontaines we visited:
Fontaine de Vaucluse to see the source of the Sorgue River.
Gordes www.gordes-village.com to see the Village of the Bories, dry stone buildings. The technique has been used since Neolithic times, about 4,000 years ago. It is thought that this village is quite recent and dates from the 1400s and was occupied until the middle of the 1800s. It consists of five groups of buildings in a village. Each group has a house and attached to the house are animal barns, pig sties, store rooms, wine stores, all within a drystone wall. Paths between the walls link the groups of buildings. Large areas of flat, stone shelves around the buildings were used as threshing grounds. The buildings are made completely of stone, almost beehive shape, but all different to each other. There is even a two storey 17th C house without any curves. The photographs will best describe what we saw. There was also a central baking oven. The inside of the dwelling buildings was black with soot from the cooking/heating fire. They also had beams across supporting a second floor of flat stones with a hole where a ladder would have given access. Hard to imagine that people were still living here, growing olives, almonds, grapes, berries and rearing silk worms up to 150 years ago. Apparently there was one small well nearby but it is now on private property and dry. Animals were taken to the creek nearby for water. The land and the village was bought in the 1960s. It was completely overgrown with some trees having taken root in the middle of houses, destroying the stone work as they grew. Also, earthquakes in 1886 and 1902 had caused further destruction. Rehabilitation took eight years of very hard work. We found it really fascinating with the stonework reminiscent of some of the ancient sites we saw in Greece.
Orange www.otorange.fr which is famous for three things: the Roman Theatre, the Arc de Triomphe and it is where the now Dutch royal house “The House of Oranje Nassau” originated. We really went to see the Roman Theatre www.theatre-antique.com because it is one of only three remaining in the world with its stage wall still standing in its entirety, the other two are in Turkey and Syria. It is really spectacular and using our imagination to clad the wall with marble as it originally was we could visualise the performances and the crowds. The theatre was abandoned completely when the Roman empire fell in the 4th century A.D. It was sacked and pillaged by the Barbarians and was used as a defensive post in the Middle Ages. During the 16th century wars of religion it was used as a place of refuge and filled up with dwellings. It was only in the 19th century that the theatre slowly recovered its original splendour, thanks to the restoration works begun in 1825. Finally the tiered seats were restored at the end of the 19th century.” Incredibly, an almost complete statue of Augustus is still in place high up in the centre of the wall.
Avignon www.avignon-tourisme.com. With W doing his usual excellent job as guide we strolled around, particularly enjoying the Rue des Teinturiers (dyers) with its canal and water wheels. There used to be 27 water wheel driven mills here but now only four are left. The two main sights we visited are:
The Palais des Papes (Popes’ Palace) with its Tower of St Laurent which towers 144 metres from the street. . The palace is so huge we kept finding ourselves in enormous halls, the enormous Grand Chapel, but our favourite place was the “Upper Kitchen”. The chimney covered 2/3 of the room and the audio guide described the architectural feature that brought the walls in to start the funnel of the chimney as “squinches”. Never heard that word before. W lay on the floor to take a photo looking up at the blackened chimney.
Pont St-Benezet (Pont D’Avignon) which is the bridge featured in the song Sur le Pont D’Avignon. It was originally completed in 1185, linking Avignon with the settlement across the Rhone. The original 900m wooden structure was washed away many times and eventually replaced with a stone bridge, however, despite all attempts to make it flood proof, all but four of its spans were washed away in the 17th C after which it was completely abandoned. There is a small chapel built into the bridge, dedicated to St Nicolas, the patron saint of bargemen. The wind was so strong it was difficult to keep our footing but the truncated bridge gave us a great view looking back at the palace and city in the afternoon light.
L’Isle sur la Sorgue, nicknamed “the Venice of the Comtat” (Comtat is an area within the Vaucluse). The whole town is criss crossed with canals with numerous water wheels. The main Sorgue river makes a lovely waterfront with cafes and restaurants. We couldn’t resist having a coffee beside the river looking at a beautiful mansion which is now a bank and watching the ducks on the water.
Rousillon, built on a hill where ochre has been mined since Roman times. We marvelled at the amazing shapes and colours of the cliffs, outcrops and spires. The colours ranged from white with red through it, to yellow, orange and deep dark red in the most amazing shapes (see the photos). The village of Rousillon is very attractive, with houses painted in various ochre hues. We also visited the Conservatoire des Ocres et de la Couleur, just outside the town in the old Mathieu Ochre Factory where we learned how the earth was processed and the end product shipped all over the world. Today, there is still one factory operating near Rousillon, producing approximately 1,000 tons of ochre per year. Very interesting.
Abbaye Notre Dame de Senanque www.senanque.fr , an operating Cistercian monastery since 1148, located in a long, narrow valley with lavender fields above and below it. It is a beautiful stone building, completely unadorned. While we were in the cloister the monks had entered the church and were singing a cappella. Our lovely guide opened the door a crack to allow us to listen.
We loved our three weeks in Provence which introduced us to so many places we would like to return to, to walk in the mountains, taste the wines, visiting the quaint villages along the way.