Thursday, April 28, 2005
Provence, there is something magical about Provence
I got bitten by the bug to travel in Southern France after reading Peter Mayle's books. Thought that the best way of doing it would be to avoid the tourist spots (away from the crowds) and walk through small town and villages. I signed up for a walking tour organized by a British travel company.
The trip was much more enjoyable than I expected it to be. A congenial group of people: from Australia, New Zealand, Montreal (Canada), and Boulder (CO); interesting scenery; warm, sunny days; good food and wine. By the time we disbanded at the train station at Manosque we had formed some bonds. I am still in touch with a few of them.
So, a few years later when my friend JHL wanted to walk in Europe I recommended Provence and I ended up walking with her--retraced my steps from St. Andres to Manosque.
Day 1: Nice/St. Andres
Promenade at Nice
The gathering point was Nice on the Cote d'Azur (The French Riviera) between Cannes and Monte Carlo. JHL and I arrived a day earlier which gave us time to explore Nice. Spent a few hours looking at Marc Chagall's paintings (the Chagall Museum in Nice has the largest collection of his "Russian era" paintings). Found the religious theme and the huge canvasses somewhat oppressive. I'll take Renoir and Monet any day.
Nissa Socca, Nice
We had a Provençal specialty--socca (see below)and ratatouille with a glass of the House red for lunch.
"Socca and Cade are Provençal pancakes that go back at least to 1860. Cade de Toulon, probably the most ancient, was made from corn flour and the Socca de Nice that evolved from it is made from chick-pea flour. The Marseilles version is today made with a mixture of flours, using only a small amount of chick-pea flour; in Marseilles this was called "tourta tota cada", meaning "tourte toute chaude", or nice hot tarts. It was mentioned in 1879 by Frédéric Mistral as "gâteau de farine de maïs qu'on vend par tranches à Marseille" (or in the vulgar tongue "corn-flour cake sold by the slice in Marseilles")."
Met the rest of the group at the train station and boarded a train for the 3-hour ride to St. Andre les Alpes. After an overnight stay at St. Andre the walk began.
There is an excellent network of footpaths (long distance trails) throughout Europe. The major part of our walk was on GR4 (Grand Randonnée) over which Emperor Napoleon's army had marched in early 1800.
View from the train to St. Andres
Day 2: St. Andre to Castellane
Jon and Nalini at St. Andre
Provisioning for lunch
Every morning we stocked up for lunch at local charcutteries and produce stands.
Leaving St. Andre
On the trail to Castellane
Distant view of Sainte de Mandarom
From afar the place looked like an amusement park. It turned out to be the center of a cult.
Notre Dame du Rock, Castellane
Recharging batteries at Castellane
There were a few showers on the way to Castellane. We arrived in the late afternoon. Tired. But,after refreshments at a local watering hole, felt energetic enough to climb up to Notre Dame du Rock.
Looking down at Castellane from top of the rock
The hotel at Castellane
Day 3: Castellane to La Palud
Leaving Castellane for La Palud
On the trail out of Castellane
Chapelle de St. Jean near the village of Chasteuil
Such small places of worship in remote areas are quite common in that part of France.
Chasteuil between Castellane and Rougon
JHL with the village potter, Chasteuil
Looking down at Rougon at mouth of theGorge du Verdon
It began to rain as we neared Rougon. The rocky, downhill trail was slippery. We stopped for refreshments before carrying on to La Palud.
Two nights at La Palud: Arrive from Castellane
Day 4: Traverse Gorge du Verdon and return to hotel
Hotel Le Palud
Met these two young women at breakfast. They were from Los Angeles and walking by themselves. After returning to California I received an e-mail in which they mentioned taking a wrong turn between La Palud and Moustierre but found their way back.
Gorge du Verdon
The gorge, known as the Grand Canyon of France, is spectacular but in size it does not come anywhere close to our Grand Canyon. Still, the most demanding day of the trip.
Scaling the ladder in the gorge
In the gorge
Lunch break at Mescla, Gorge du Verdon
Day 5: La Palud to Moustierre St. Marie
Group of riders on the trail La Palud to Moustierre
Lost? Hugh taking a compass reading
Descending to Moustierre
Dinner at Moustierre
Day 6: Moustierre to Riez
Leaving Moustierre for Riez
Lac de Ste Croix
Lavender field near an old church
Roman Ruins at Riez
Day 7: Riez to Manosque via Greoux les Bains
The Chateau at Riez
A local farmer, who had recently bought the chateau, was in the process of renovating it for use as a hotel. There was evidence of construction work and next morning we saw the owner mixing cement. But it was well furnished. Stone floors, the ceiling of my bedroom was at least 20 ft. high. The windows offered unobstructed view of nearby forests known to produce truffles. The owner kept pigs trained for finding truffles.
We were greeted on arrival with flutes of cold kir made with white wine and Creme de Poir.
At breakfast in the Chateau
Day 7: Riez to Manosque via Greoux les Bains
Rainy day after leaving Riez
It rained quite a bit during the first half of the day. We stopped in mid afternoon at a bar and had hot chocolate.
St. Martin de Bromes near Greoux le Bains
It was a gathering place for knights of the Crusades.
By the time we reached Greoux les Bains, it had stopped raining. The town draws a lot of visitors seeking benefits from the mineral hot baths. Walking to Manosque would have required another full day. The travel company had made arrangements to shuttle us by taxi from Greoux les Bains.
Hotel at Manosque
After we checked into the hotel, a major thunderstorm began. It didn't last too long and we were able to walk to Le Barbiron Restaurant where I had dinner on my first trip.
It was in Manosque during my first trip that I had my taste of the wonderful rosé wine from Bandol. The rosés from Domaine Tempier are a far cry from what went by the name of rosé (sweet and without character) here in the United States. The situation has improved since then; a few wineries (among them Bonny Doon in the nearby Santa Cruz mountains) in California are producing decent, drinkable rosés.
Jon (from London) and I used to go out in the evening to try the local bars. He introduced me to a great beer, Pelforth Brune. In Riez, we were too far from town to walk to a bar. We decided to try the bar in the chateau. The innkeeper said he had a 12-year old Oban. It went down very well. It was after the usual glasses of wine with dinner. Come to think of it I don't know how Jon and I got up every morning to hike for miles but the drinks certainly didn't make us sluggish.
Pastis in the afternoon. There is the memory of standing at the bar at the end of a long day, then slowly adding ice cold water to the half-full glass of Ricard or some other brand of the star anise and liquorice-flavored liqueur known as the milk of Provence, watch as the contents turn cloudy and then taking the first sip.
I am not into desserts. My favorite is dark, bitter-sweet chocolate. I loved the fresh fromage blanc served in the country restaurants. Delicious with fruits or just a sprinkling of sugar. Light and refreshing.
The luminous night sky reminded me of camping out in the Sierra Nevada. Here in the San Francisco Bay area we never see such brightness over us.
On my first trip, after the walk I met a few friends from California who were traveling in Wales. They flew into Marseilles. We rented a car at Marseilles and spent three days in Avignon/Cote du Rhone area. Our routine was to visit wineries; have lunch at wellknown restaurants (Bill had done some research before the trip); and return to the hotel with wine, cheese, bread and fruits for supper. We feasted on the melons of Cavaillon. A little larger than a baseball, they were sweet and fragrant.
Palais de Pape
From 1309 to 1377, Avignon was the residence of popes. The Palace of the Popes is like a city within a city.
Lunch at Les Florets, Gigondas
The Bentleys at Les Florets, Gigondas
Six couples arrived for lunch in classic Bentleys.
Bill, Arline and the '85 Hermitage
We had lunch at the Beaugraviere Restaurant in Mondragon, known for serving dishes that contained local truffle. Going through the wine list, Bill found a Hermitage (vintage 1985) and said he must have it.
Winery in Chateau Neuf du Pape (Arline in the doorway)
I had to return to Nice because my flight was booked Nice/London and London/SFO. Bade goodbye to my friends and took a train from Marseilles to Nice. Near St. Tropez, the train track is close to the ocean and passes topless beaches. Most of the passengers were quite blasé. Old hat to them.
On the second trip, JHL and I spent a night in Aix en Provence and then left for Marseilles to catch a flight to Paris. Paris to SFO.
JHL at Aix en Provence
A charming town. The great post-impressionist artist Paul Cézanne lived and painted here. We didn't have time to visit Atelier Cézanne. It is also the home of the University of Provence.
Near the Cathedral, Aix en Provence
The photographs are a mixed bag---from both trips. That will explain the different groups of people. The quality leaves a lot to be desired. I had to scan them, move them to Hello/Picasa and then publish in the blog. Inefficient and the result is far from satisfactory.
I never had a bad meal in Provence and often paid less than what I would have paid in Palo Alto, California. Perhaps the only exception was coffee. Great coffee but price of a cup was more than double what Peets or Starbucks charged.
Today, with the strong Euro and decline of the US$, the prices would be higher but shouldn't be too much more than here in the Silicon Valley. The lodgings, certainly, would cost less. Most of them were rated Three stars. They offered clean, comfortable accommodation in good locations.
"What is travel in the end ?
I suppose it is retaining your sense of wonder and your excitement with the new. I mean the quote from T.S. Eliot that 'We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to return to where we started from and to know the place for the first time.
If you're traveling because you don't like where you live, you're probably not going to like where you're traveling to either. If you're going to be a good traveler, you should find the same delight outside your own back door."
---Hillary Bradt (British travel writer)