Poppying out of Provence to the Languedoc Rock

by wandering freditor / Jun 27, 2009 / 1 comments


Some writers have the happy knack of changing the way we think about a place, or even alerting us to its joys, not only for their own enrichment, but to the local tourism industry as well. Look at what Thomas Hardy did for Dorset, or E.M. Forster for Florence and India. There are hundreds of examples, I am sure, where writing popularized places, and made people want to have a look-and-see visit. Well Peter Mayle has done that for Provence. Not just that other authors have not written about the place, but his A Year In Provence enormously popularized the region in the manner that Vince van Gogh gave us a visual ‘earful’ of it through his art. Without them, we might have gone to Bordeaux, Brittany or Burgundy, or stayed merely in Nice and her coastal sister cities, but through their medium, they persuaded us to go further a-field and see the rural riches of this special part of France. Moreover, in 760, Pippin the Invader had conquered much of the south of France and somehow I felt that we would be following in the footsteps of a very distant relative, spelling then not being what it is today!

We started off meekly, dipping a toe in the water, and straying only a short distance from Nice by visiting the little medieval village of Eze. Many had been there before us, the usual band of circumspects of course, Romans, Moors, Phoenicians, Turks and Spaniards, as Eze occupied a rock-hard, strategic nipple, some 500 metres above the Mediterranean. But it was not until the Middle Ages that it was fortified by the Dukes of Savoy due to its nearness to Nice. With so many differing masters, life for the citizenry was never meant to be 'easy', but the pristine preservation of the village is testimony to its strength and location. It is claimed that the philosopher Nietzsche, became a veritable super-man while staying in the region, for he climbed every day from the Mediterranean to the Eze castle. Maybe it was the climb that drove him mad, for no-one in their right mind can believe in nihilism or the absence of a God while standing at the top of Eze, and looking down upon the bountiful abundance of beauty below. I think that Bono and The Edge, who both own a villa in Eze, were much closer to the mark when they wrote Beautiful Day, with the accompanying promotional video a reflection of the beauty of the village.

The road from Nice to Monaco roars past Eze like a rushing river and the beauty of the place only comes to you after you fight your way through a picket of eateries, tourist places and perfume outlets. It is a steep climb, even without shield and broad-sword, and you are puffing when you breach the village walls. There you enter another world. All I can say is thank goodness I am a Capricorn, for it gives us goats an advantage in clattering over the cobbles, ever upwards and through the tiny lanes in which Meatloaf has to edge sideways when he goes jamming with Bono! Walking in Eze, and I use the term advisedly, is a bit like entering a Swiss cheese, for everywhere there are little door-barred holes in the walls and passageways into the gloom, although now there is generally a brightly lit shop at the end of the tunnels. There are cavities in the rock where in the Middle Ages, oil lamps showed the way, but with the price of oil today, electricity is cheaper! If I stayed in Eze long enough, I would, I am sure, see a Hobbit for it is that sort of place. An ivy-covered hotel clings to a finger of land like its nail, and we saw supplies brought up from below by a caterpillar-tracked vehicle that I am sure once helped Hillary and Tensing. Views hang everywhere, of the Med and the valleys, exotic gardens full of gaudy sculptures, and another hotel where the cars in the courtyard were a Roller, a Ferrari, a Porsche and even a Range Rover, which was surely just for 'slumming it'.

We sat in the silence and drank coffee in a place where there was no need to speak. The views were stupendous. Raptors glided above as we rested our own soring limbs, but this climb was worth it, merely to see such a perfectly preserved village, and look down on modernity, way below. Later, from beneath, we looked up at the village, with its church below its ruined castle, state above religion, and thought of the pluck of invaders. Far better to come as a tourist, I thought, willing and welcomed, and entry now as Eze as pie.

The French cannot be faulted for their roads as they criss-cross the country, neither thwarted by great chasms or massive massifs, for the bridge and the bore have served them well. They pass unrelentingly through woods and fields of gnarled olive trees, pockets of colour suggesting wheat or potatoes or beet. But everywhere, beside the road, beneath the trees, fluttering and dancing in the breeze, if I can borrow from Wordsworth, were the blood red poppies that we tend to associate with the killing fields of the Somme. Somehow they look less 'weeping' here, more rejoicing in their wildness, though undoubtedly in parts here too, the soil is no less bloody.  At a time of high oil prices, it brought home to me the heavy dependence that Europe has on oil, with every third vehicle being a huge truck, all from the furthest reaches of the continent. At the toll booths, and there are a lot of toll roads in the south of France, jeune fils said a hearty “Bonjour” as they took our euros before raising the bar. In Provence, it seems, it is not too hard to be happy.

We drove through wonderful pastoral scenes to the perfume centre of Grasse, past the astonishing town of St Paul en Vence which sits on its own acropolis like a shag on a rock. While in Provence everything seems to either rise up, or tumble down a mountain pimple, I was surprised at the extent of settlement in the areas in-between villages and towns. Mustard and ochre coloured houses, with sea blue shutters, are the finger-prints of Provence, but in many places the shutters were closed, indicating they were holiday homes. And there were lots of them. After a roller-coaster of speed-bumps, through farm-lots of fruit trees and fields of lavender not yet in bloom, we eventually reached Grasse, which slides down the mountainside, the panorama from its ‘balcony terrasse’ one of farm plots of verdant colour. We walked to a village square, teeming with alfresco diners, and chose a place where our knowledge of the menu gave us at least an inkling of the beastie, but not necessarily the manner of its delivery. I think that my lamb probably ingested the champignons which I had expected to accompany the d’Agneau et champignons, as there was no sign of them, while my wife’s jambon et fromage came with a lathering of mayonnaise as though applied by an Iranian barber given the task of shaving everyone if the Ayatollah regime ever collapses. We jovially chatted with the waiter in tongues, hands and feet, in the manner that revealed us to be linguistically challenged, but nevertheless, our food and drink were quite close to the level of expectation. (Unlike in Quebec where I thought I had ordered, in French, sausages and ended up with tripe!). Waiters dashed back and forth to the restaurants on the square with all the speed of those micro-organisms that you see magnified in a droplet of water. We lingered over coffee, our eyes sweeping always upward to the history that surrounded us. It is good to drink in history with a meal.

Grasse is a town that smells good, with every fourth shop selling perfumes and soaps as well as brightly patterned tea-towels and napkins adorned with the fleur de lys. The town streets ran steeply up and down and I envisaged citizens with meaty, high definition thighs, but also Matisse, Chagal and co. beret on their heads, easel under their arms clambering about this town to paint. Then, Grasse’s location may have been more isolated. Now ‘new clutter’ abounds on the outskirts, but at its heart, it is still rather beautiful, albeit somewhat run-down, the yellow stonework stained with time, rust besmirching shutters. The locals remained hidden, peering through lace curtains perhaps, sometimes the shutting of a door or the sight of smalls hanging from a line over a first floor window, the only suggestion of life.

We travelled on to Biot, renown for its glass-blowing, again an ancient village purchased in a crows-nest, overlooking wheat-fields and olive groves. In many places there was a dried sunflower nailed to the door, and inside I envisaged pagan rituals of people dancing naked around a boar’s head, but in the tiny, cobbled town square, with its tinkling fountain, all was normal and people just like us sat sipping large foaming beers while others delved into surrounding shops marked ‘Antique’ or ‘Arte’. Many of them, I judged, would be lucky to make a sale a day, but I hoped that I was wrong, for the world needs places like Biot. Pigeons flocked fearlessly in the square and the cats lay lazy and fat in the afternoon sun, in marked contrast to the plethora of lean and mangy cats of Bahrain, which seldom let a pigeon land. Again the scent of lavender and herbs swirled about and while our olfactory senses worked overtime, the rest of the corpus just relaxed like Provencal paintings where the field-hands sit dozing, with a haystack at their backs.

The next day, a pathway of poppies led us through vineyards and rounded hills to Aix-en-Provence, with its lanes and honey-coloured buildings, big tree-lined squares with obelisks and statues. It was wet and dank and the town seemed to crowd in on itself, so we stayed only for a few hours before we moved on through quiet villages and fields of wheat and vines. The rain stopped and the sun came out, giving everything a lacquered tinge, as though freshly painted. I can find no reference that Van Gogh travelled this far west from Arles and later St Remy, although they are close by, but this is his country, for his spirit is here amidst the landscapes. Did he sit in some of these places, ginger-bearded, hollow eyed, hair styled by the wind, probably talking to himself and drinking absinthe, in between daubing his canvasses?  His eyes seeing all, yet no-one seeing his genius till near his end, and few the darkness that had burrowed inside him and led to his suicide at the age of only thirty-seven. This is his country, more than it is Gauguin and other artists who came to paint, and that night, as if to honour him, the beautiful stars came out, just as on those starry nights that he saw, and painted.

We went to the tiny village of Laumarin, all ringed with poppies and under the watchful eye of a fortified chateau, which is now a centre for regional wines. A busload of loud Germans had come a-conquering all over again, and made the schloss their own, while a bus-load of Japanese artists had spilled out on the outskirts, and were busy water-colouring. We quickly bought a bottle of wine, and as it was market day in the village, also a ripe local cheese and baguette, and lunched under shady trees to ensure we were not caught up in the Axis pincer movement. It was a lovely, tiny village and I am sure that after the invaders had left, it resumed its life again in silence.

For us, it was on to Roussillon, which had once been the centre for the ochre pigmentation which coloured the exterior of French houses. It was therefore a wealthy and important place. Today, it looks like the Badlands of South Dakota or the canyon county of Arizona or Utah, except for the tiny, picturesque village that sits atop the orange coloured stone works like Pinocchio’s hat. We drove also to Gorges, dubbed one of the prettiest villages in France, and spectacularly purchased above a cliff face, but the rain fell like an impenetrable wall, and we headed for Avignon and the Palace of the Popes.

A ghastly girdle of industry rings Avignon like an outer battlement, but you are soon at the real saw-toothed walls, and the medieval Gothic architecture indicates that here is a city of substance. In short, Avignon was already an important city pre-Popes, as it had the only bridge crossing the mighty river Rhone between Lyon and the Mediterranean, a choke point for trade and a great place for tax collectors. In 1309, the Pope was on the nose in Rome, and he fled to a monastery in Avignon, and set up his consultancy. The local pile was hardly salubrious, so from 1334 to 1364, the Pope and his in-his-wake Popes, used the best location in town, a rocky outcrop right beside the Rhone, to build a luxurious pad. It cost them a mint, which nearly bankrupted the papacy (no bull), and then they only lived there till 1377 when things were again hunky-dory in Rome, and the whole caboodle returned, forever. The sought-after real estate was taken over by the Anti-Popes, but they left too, and during the French Revolution it was the scene of a massacre, then served as a prison, and fell into ruin. Restoration began in 1906 and has continued ever since.

Many people, however, know of Avignon because of its famous bridge, and the unforgettable nineteenth century song (which embellished the sixteenth century original), Sur la pont, d’Avignon. (I bet that you are singing it right now and in a few hours, you will curse me because it is still going around in your head!) Apparently, a shepherd boy was told by angels to build a bridge at Avignon but local sceptics had a laugh, till he picked up a one ton foundation stone just to show them he had a way with God, and quickly found himself the head of a joint venture! He was canonised as St Benezet, and is buried in the tiny chapel built into the bridge. From 1171 to 1185 a bridge of twenty-two arches, most of stone but some of wood, was built across the Ille de Barelasse, the island in the middle, to the fortified town of Villeneuve les Avignon. But the Rhone here is a particularly vicious beast, and year after year it claimed portions of the bridge, and flooded parts of Avignon. Today, only four majestic arches remain, thrust out into the Rhone like a fishing pole. It was a narrow bridge, probably only an ox-cart wide and even Nureyev and Fontaine would have had trouble dancing sur the pont, so the Middle Aged frolickers probably danced under the famous bridge during their picnics on the island. But under had already been done, as in Under the bridges of Paris with you, so with a bit of licence – as I am using with you – under became sur, and is undoubtedly better for cadence!

When we got to Avignon, it was hissing down, but undaunted, we took our brollies and walked on the bridge and learned of its story. Until the 1950’s, the lower parts of Avignon flooded every few years, and some of the city walls were designed to harmonise with the bridge architecture, but more to keep the waters, rather than invaders, out. Alas, hundreds of years passed before flood mitigation was at last successful. The bridge has a rough cobbled pathway and the little chapel has a bare and haunting look, but it is decidedly a romantic place, looking up at the towers of Avignon, the green fields of the Ille de Bartelasse, and the dark, swirling, brooding waters of the Rhone.

In the morning, the sun came out and we explored the streets and squares of Avignon, and had our omelette Provencal (twelve euros each – now you see why the French can’t afford breakfast!) in the sunshine, a mere Cannon’s cape away from the Palace of the Popes. Later we walked to the Rocher de Doms, the Pope’s belvedere, where, like them, we looked down on the majestic Pont and also the small vins de Pape vineyard where the grapes looked as though they had been nurtured with holy water. Spires and towers, gardens and walkways, were below us, and in the distance, there were  more modern Ponts to speed us from the city block, to the province of Languedoc.

We took the highway but detoured to see one more Pont, built by those master Pont builders, the Romans. The Pont du Garde is simply stupendous, solid, spectacular, serene, and spanning a rocky gully, its warm reddish-yellow stone a witness of the centuries. I walked gauchely to the bank rive, as did other busloads of patrons, but the Pont is set in its own preserved parkland and somehow, did not look crowded. I am sure that if the Romans had moved their Pont to Avignon, it would probably still be standing, and still goading the Rhone “to do your worst”. It was well worth the detour.

Languedoc, is full of rock, so the fields are smaller, the valleys steeper, the mountains higher and the villages’ greyer. Great viaducts span rushing streams, and forests of pine, and plots of vine, grow up the mountainsides. We passed through medieval towns named Suave and Ganges, and we followed, with some sadness, a long abandoned railway line which snaked along the valley floor, and climbed the ridges. What a testament to man's efforts. They were huge constructions, constantly breaching barriers, tunnelling through rock, steel bridges over streams, embankments of stonework where a thousand masons must have toiled, blasting. cutting, carting. The whistle of the train, mournful in the mountains, smoke rising above the pines, excitement at the stations, busy signalmen and fettlers, produce piled for markets, all long gone. It is an irony, I suppose, that it was the railways that killed off the economic viability of many canals, yet in so many instances, the railway lines have died, but the canals have had a resurrection, providing leisure boaters with places to putter and roam.

We were now in Cathar castle country, full of grey stone forts, with villages at their bosoms, many like La Couvertaide, looking like tiny toy towns that come in kit form. The Cathars emerged in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as heretics, abstaining from the Catholic doctrines, saying there was more than one God, that power and love were incompatible, and that in the evil material world, man had to transcend material gain, renounce marriage, and share all through love. But before you think that they were ‘early hippies’, sex was shunned, even for procreation, and meat was off the menu. More like ‘hippies’ without the ‘hip’, I say. The Pope was displeased and called for a crusade against the Cathars, and so the Crusaders, the mainstay of the early Hollywood film industry, were born. Simon de Montfort and his Crusader campaign ensured lots of fighting, inquisitions, burning at the stake, raising of towns, and talk of the Holy Grail. The Cathars sought refuge in mighty castles throughout Languedoc-Rossillion, but one by one, they were either over-run or starved into submission, the biggest being the walled city of Carcassone.

When you first see Carcassone, you simply know it is a fairy tale, stolen by Disney in portrayals of ‘towns of old’, and you just cannot wait to get inside and explore the narrow streets scuffed smooth by a million soles, and its towers, keep and barbicans. You just know that there are secret passages and dungeons, and barred or hidden doors. It is a ‘boy’s own’ place where even ‘big boys’ still feel a tickle of excitement. It is a place where even the rain will not keep the crowds away, but we stayed in a fabulous hotel within the town walls, and by five o’clock the crowds were gone, and we had the ghostly knights to ourselves. My first sortie was to the battlements and I circumnavigated the entire town in an hour, admiring the breast-works, the archery slots, gate-houses, dropping holes for stones and boiling oil, and the towers, marvelling at the ‘defence-in-depth’ planning of the castle builders. I could imagine a lot of grunting to get things in place. In the town there were shops in abundance and squares full of eaters, a fine cathedral and an ivy-covered former Bishop’s apartments, now a five star hotel with a Michelin starred chef. Carcassone curves everywhere, a deliberate plan to foil the flight of arrows, and give defenders a sporting chance! Before cannons and gunpowder, it was better to starve such impregnable places into surrender, as happened in 1209. Castle designers would today be horrified at the ease with which tourists now scale the heights and their ‘impenetrable battlements’.

In truth, Carcassone is an 1850’s restoration in which the restorer, Viollet le Duc, dabbled with authenticity and put non-authentic ‘witches hats’ on many of the fifty-three towers which ring the city, and give it the fairy tale charm. By the mid 1850’s the old town was a ruin and there were calls that it be demolished completely, as life thrived in the nearby ‘new town’, which dates from the fourteenth century, and was one of the first to be set out on a grid pattern. Thank goodness those calls were resisted and now that it has World Heritage Listing, it is a ‘must-see’ magnet for tourists, particularly in combination with the nearby Canal du Midi with its towpath girded by three hundred year old trees. We loved our stay and at night, when the town walls were all lit up, it was clear to see that the fairy tale continued.             

We travelled on to Perpignan, passing impossibly sited castles, all in ruin, and I climbed to the crag at Queirbus, badly out of breath and wondering how anyone had been able to take the place. Indeed it was the last place of the Cathars, and fell after a three week siege and later it served as a Spanish Royal stronghold. It sits, like the eye of an eagle, way above the plain of Roussillon, over-looking fields of vines which run to the edge of the snow capped Pyrenees. In the distance was Perpignan, a city which has had many masters since it was founded by the Romans in the tenth century, but which has been French since the seventeenth century. There were attractive, tree-lined streets, an old town with a canal flowing through it, great city walls, and a massive fort designed by Vauban. And there was, of course, the railway station that Dali dubbed the Centre of the Universe although the French, more modestly, inscribed him as saying it was the Centre of the World. We came there to take our leave of France, to visit another world.

If Provence is symbolised by its rolling hills, then Languedoc-Roussillon is its rocking counterpart. Together they made wonderfully varied music together. There is joy in their differences, provinces of cultivation and wilderness, settlement and isolation, gentle folds and rugged peaks, each historic and unique in its own way. Alas, so many come only to the towns and cities of the Cote d'Azur, but let me tell you, they are really missing out. Go inland, I suggest and you will be rewarded for the interior is rich in history in its own right. And what is more, neither province needs to hang on to anyone else's Cote tales, for their 'tailors' are just as enchanting! 


Winfred Peppinck is the Wandering Freditor for Wandering Educators

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