Thinking back about our time spend in sunny Provence during August 2016 is a pleasant way to escape from chilly Georgia in January 2018. Provence was a place the Rambler had wanted to visit for a long time and when we finally got to stay there for a few days, it did not disappoint. After touring the region on the Uniworld SS Catherine, for a week, we had two days to explore on our own and two we would travel around the area with a Viator guide.
I had booked two tours from Avignon before we left Georgia through Viator, a subsidiary of Trip Adviser. Viator works with local tour companies all over the world and lists many tour options on their website for almost everywhere. The best thing about using Viator is that they have vetted the local tours and if something goes wrong, they will make it right. Our first tour was to be an overview of Provence in one day; obviously we wouldn’t see everything but this seemed to be a great way to get a feel for the area. On the second day we would do a wine tasting tour; a little selfish on my part as the senior Rambler doesn’t drink, but we would also enjoy the varied scenery of Provence as well as the wine tasting.
Although our guide for the first day, JB (Jean Baptiste) was not our favorite, he did take us to some amazing places ranging from ancient towns and monasteries to Roman ruins. Unfortunately although the trip was supposed to be English language, we found that a small French woman was already seated in the tour van when we boarded. JB announced casually that he had another passenger and she did not speak English, so he would conduct the tour in both English and French. I am pretty sure that the woman spoke English, he said she was a teacher, but for whatever reason, she did not want to speak English or French for that matter, to us. In fact, she totally ignored us for the whole tour. In fact, she was the only French person we encountered who was not friendly and willing to speak to us. To make matters worse, as the day went on JB, spent much more time speaking French to the French teacher than he did in English to us. This was very frustrating but there wasn’t much we could do about it except complain to Viator when we got home (We did and they were very good about refunding half our expense.)
The other problem we had was that except for three stops, JB dropped us off and stayed with the van so we didn’t learn as much about the area as we would have liked. We were used to having a guide along with us when we toured but evidently on this tour, because of crowds of tourists and minuscule parking, the guide was supposed to drop off the tourists and pick them up at an agreed upon time.
Admittedly parking was very tight in those small villages built way before the advent of the auto, and it did save us some walking but the negative was we got no information on what we were seeing as we strolled around the towns.
It was also un-nerving to be sitting in the middle seat of his small van where we had an excellent view of his no hands style of driving on the narrow roads of Provence. As we headed away from the busy city of Avignon, and into the countryside, JB told us the legend of the Mistral. This strong and often unpleasant wind which often blows tiles off roofs and branches from trees, also dries out the air in the region saving millions of grapes from mildew. For an excellent re-telling of the legend click here. https://curiousrambler.com/2016/07/28/the-mistral-of-provence/
We found that the lingering presence of the Roman empire is never far away in Provence. One of the first sites JB pointed out was the oldest bridge in Provence, Le Pont Julien which dates back to the beginning of the first century. It was built of interlocking stones without mortar by Roman engineers over the Cavalon River, circa 3 BC, as part of a much longer Roman road.
The river was dry on this August day, but the Cavalon is a rushing torrent in the springtime. Unfortunately there is absolutely no information about the bridge at the site which is a shame. I later learned that only a few years ago cars drove over the ancient structure but now theRoman bridge is restricted to pedestrians and bicyclists.
JB then parked on the shoulder of a hill so that we could look down at the Cistercian monastery of Senanque near Gordes.
While we were stopped, he picked some thyme and other herbs (the Herbes de Provence) to show us how they grew wild by the roadside. Although Senanque was abandoned during the French revolution, in the 20th century a small group of monks returned and Senanque is now flourishing.
When the lavender is in bloom, the monastery is bordered by fields of scented purple flowers. Unfortunately, Senanque was not our list of stops as I would have really enjoyed walking through the 12th century Romanesque church of Notre Dame.
From Senanque we traveled to Gordes, a town built up a hill for protection in the Middle Ages. All of its buildings are made of pale, white-gold limestone, durable and readily available. Tourists from all over come to the beautiful hill-top towns of Provence and Gordes was no exception, almost all built of the pale white-gold stone.
We were dropped off at the village square and given a chance to explore on our own. The first thing I noticed was the town’s WWI memorial, standing somewhat forlornly and un-noticed in the town square. These monuments are found in most French villages but this was the only one I saw that featured a soldier. Most are usually much larger and impressive.
The area around Gordes has been inhabited since prehistoric times. Tourists come to walk and marvel at the almost perpendicular streets of Gordes and its ancient Church and castle ruins.
However, on the outskirts of the town is another village dating to prehistoric times. Much of it has been restored, and like the Romans, these early inhabitants built their houses, called borries, out of stacked stone, without mortar.
It is possible to walk through the rebuilt town but we just took a peek inside because our time in Gordes was limited.
Our next stop after Gordes was an ancient farmhouse, part of a working farm, and not much changed for several centuries.
The family who lived there raised chickens, rabbits and a few other animals for their own use but also maintained bees which produced lavender honey.
They had a small home business selling home packed lavender honey and other lavender products. Alas, the honey I bought there never made it back to Georgia because I forgot to pack it in my checked bag; unfortunately honey is considered a liquid, Who knew? I am sure the pleasant farm family was happy to have groups stop there as it is increasingly difficult to make a living farming because of European Union regulations. Their honey was delicious and I only wish it had made it home.
We were on our own for lunch on this tour but JB picked a beautiful spot: Le Fontaine de Vaucluse. This was a small town of 500 which revolves around an amazing natural wonder, a fontaine or spring. It is, in fact, the largest spring in France and the 5th largest in the world. Vaucluse comes from the Latin for closed village and indeed it huddles close beside the spring which is surrounded by limestone cliffs.
Our uncommunicative French lady quickly marched off on her own without even a nod. The Ramblers shrugged and strolled alongside the river that flows from the spring, evaluating the various restaurants for their potential. We finally settled on Les Terrasses, mainly because it had some tables available with a water view. Since we had eaten excellent cuisine for two weeks, we enjoyed a simple snack of pinions de poulet (chicken legs); the senior Rambler had an Orangina, while I settled on a pichet of rose wine, what else, in Provence.
After a leisurely lunch and stroll along the flowing spring, we would spend the rest of a long day, about 9 hours in total, seeing even more of beautiful Provence. To be continued…