Today, I want to talk about La Provence, this region in the South of France that most people from outside the country view as a romantic heaven for many painters, because of its amazing light; for producing lavender and roses, used for perfumes and other colognes; and for its yummy mix of herbs sold everywhere simply under the name Herbes de Provence.
Yes, it is all that, but also so much more. To start, let's talk about a few cities of the region. I have been going to Provence each summer for years now, and I have yet to run out of places to discover. Even when I get lazy and want only to swing in a hammock under a tree, the endless discoveries attract me too much to nap for too long.
Provence is a vast province, well, maybe not by American standards of sizes, but certainly for European ones. Apart from the obvious locations to visit, each of the cities below offer an insider's version of tourism. This is just a blog, so I cannot tackle as many places as I would like, without turning into a full scale travel guide, but here is a little recap of five of the places I enjoyed this past July.
Aix-en-Provence: locals call it simply Aix. The art center called the Collection Lambert is one of my favorite artistic places in the World. A former grand residence, the amazing building of classic architecture is wrapped around an inside cobblestones courtyard, and offers art exhibits of sometimes colossal span -- definitely my cup of tea as far as the artists shown. Of course, that is a matter of taste, but the venue itself is worth a visit. It is located inside the fortified city's walls, you can drive your car through the fortifications and park at the central square garage. Artist Cy Twombly was shown here a few years back, not many galleries can hold his gigantic frames, so it was a delight to see the exhibit. This year I saw works by Louise Bourgeois, one of my all-time fav artists, the sculptor who had her giant metal spider fill the entire lobby of the Tate Modern gallery in London. She died in 2010 at age 99. The Lambert gallery is located in the deliciously-named rue Violette.
Marseille: The calanques (inlets) are the best way to enter a world of secret coves and hidden beaches. Some are only accessible by boat, some by ultra-steep narrow roads that requires extremely experienced drivers, not so much to drive down, but to come back up (happened to me). We decided to go to lunch at a restaurant simply called Le Lunch, way down by the shore, located in a deep fjord. We had a heavy slow-motion automatic rental car, and I will tell you this: don't do it. The way down was fairly easy, although the tightly-packed S turns made my friend queasy, but the way back up was hell: no way this car was going to make it. We had be warned by the two men on the parking lot up the hill that we should consider leaving our car with them, as most people do. When they told us the hike was 5 miles back and forth, we unanimously voted to drive down. After all, hiking on a full stomach cannot be good, right? We know better now. Our car just would not go. My friends all had to exit and walk, as I kept on stalling, stopping, starting, stalling, a nightmare. And I am a stick-shift driver. I must have left half of the tires' rubber on that road. The food was great, fresh fish and lemon pies, and we had tiny daring kittens mingling in our food. The eatery's amazing location, above the clear waters on suspended wood planks is worth a trip. But do walk it.
Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer: this is gypsies' country. This town is their headquarters and sacred place. Every year in late May, they have a festival celebrating their culture and way of life. Pilgrims come from all over Europe to celebrate their patron saint, Sara the Black (Sara la Noire).This is also the best entry-way to the vast swamps area called La Camargue, a gigantic sand, sea and salt delta, preserved now as a natural park, and where some of the best corners are only accessible by horseback; wild bulls and wild white horses still roam the land. By small boat, or on a horse, it is possible to watch the local guardians herd animals around the dry fields; If you want to see the real thing, watch the French short movie Crin Blanc (White Mane), it will show you the landscape and life in the area. Overrun by European tourists in the summer, the town is still a destination on my list.
Tarascon: If you have kids (or even if you don't), you may recall the animated movie Shrek, yes? The one where Eddy Murphy hilariously voices a donkey? Well, the castle of the movie is believed to be an inspired copy of the Château de Tarascon, even though it looks nothing like it! I wonder who makes up that kind of story. But if you go, do visit the castle. One down, thousands to go! Tarascon is also home to the museum of typical Provençal fabrics known as Souleïado, a colorful and highly recognizable offerings of unique patterns since the 18th century, originally created with textiles from India. http://provence.souleiado.com/un-peu-histoire/
Avignon: inside the walled-in fortified old city, the Palais des Papes (the Popes palace) is the largest medieval Goth fortress in the World. Residence of nine popes during the XIV (14th) century, built during the reign of two popes: Benoit XII and Clément VI, for the readers versed in the story of Christianity. Chilled building to discover even in summer times, walls so thick the heat does not penetrates, no AC needed! I saw a wonderful "underground" play there, on the outside stage built for the occasion within the walls of the palace, during the fringe festival of theater offered each summer, usually sold-out.
Provence has its own language, the Provençal (La Lengo Provençalo), and you will often see road signs, attractions directions, public information, and local advertising in the two languages, French and Provençal. Parents can choose to have the dialect taught to their children from nursery school-level to elementary grades.
More on Provence next time!
Adessias! (good bye)
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