Friday, 1 October 2010

Three nights in Provence

Outside the sky is a bruised, fast-moving grey and the wind is battering the garden.  Through the kitchen window I watch the black and green of the elder tree thrashing and twisting.  The hens are firmly in the henhouse.  The wind whistles in the chimney and tugs at the doors.  The old house hunkers down between the yew trees, its back to the shelter of the rock.

In another world a few days ago the sky was this colour:



There was a wind there too, the mistral blowing hard and cold from the North, but the colours were vivid and the light was strong.  Hundreds of enthusiasts were re-enacting an assault on the castle at Les Baux.  It was an extraordinary spectacle with horses and geese as well as soldiers and archers and peasants.  In the audience were numbers of children also dressed in their chainmail or carrying their wooden swords.  For a moment the lure of dressing up was strong and I would have loved to ride side saddle in medieval dress on a black horse if only I had a dress or a horse or could ride.


But by morning the mistral had blown away and the terrace was a warm and peaceful place for cats to snooze and lounge.

It was the end of September so beaches were empty and in the open spaces of the Camargue white horses dreamed in the sun.

I have always wanted to go to the Camargue and had not realised how close to it our friends now live.  I suspect early autumn and spring or even winter might be the best times to see it, empty as it is intended to be, a landscape of dreams.



There is a surreal quality to Arles too, although it is a robust and practical place.  Houses live cheek by jowl with the huge remains of the Roman amphitheatre.  I am awed, admiring and occasionally repelled by the Romans.  With what total singlemindedness they extended and subdued their vast empire.  Here in Arles they were not so very far from home but in Chester near my home and even further north on Hadrian's wall they must have looked west and north into Wales and Scotland and shivered in the sleet.


But it is hard to imagine cold on a sunny day in Provence.  By lunchtime it is warm enough to sit outside and spend a leisurely hour or so on two or three courses.  There are cafes to sit in and squares to wander through.

Even the Hotel de Ville is beautiful.

And there are markets.  I love markets.  I like my local market in Mold but nothing compares to the variety and beauty of continental food markets.  In Les Halles there are fabulous stalls at every turn.  The stall holders are friendly and welcoming too.  If they are driven mad by visitors photographing their produce rather than buying it they don't let it show.




And after Arles, Avignon: grander, more beautiful, more polished and moneyed.  Lunch in a family run restaurant that has been in the same ownership for thirty years and delivers beautiful, thoughtful food, day after day in gentle well kept surroundings.  How do they do it, lunchtime and evening, day after day, week after week, year after year, all lovingly prepared and immaculately presented? I do love France.


After lunch we went to the Le Palais des Papes.  The whole building breathed power and wealth.  How amazing it must have been to the peasant in his soil floored hovel to see this building almost the size of a small town.  I felt a bit of an overawed peasant myself.  The power and the maleness of the papacy was crushing, portrait after masculine portrait, room after room full of money and business and prayer and power.  It is a stunning spectacle and not for the first time I am glad to be a woman now in the twenty first century with my own power and choices.


And up on the roof, Avignon spreads out below you, with the wide curve of the Rhone and the narrow streets and wide squares.  It is a place to explore and to wander and to get to know.

And in no time at all we were preparing to come home again.  It felt as though we had been there both just for a few hours and for a week.  Our friends have created a fabulous house, sitting high amongst the trees in Les Alpilles.  It has clearly been a long hard road to get there but what a result - full of space and light and peace.  It was wonderful to see it and so good to catch up with them.  Now when I think of them I can imagine them in their new space, the new garden quietly putting down its roots around them.

And here at home there are snowdrops to be planted down by the dogwoods and my new grasses to settle in and apple cake to be made and work to do.  It all looks impossibly green, the wind is dropping and it is almost time for lunch. 

22 comments:

  1. Elizabeth we have been hiding in the storms here too, what a lovely start to your blog, beautiful descriptions. Loved the photos from your holiday, it must have been very dramatic watching a battle being recreated in such a spectacular setting. I too love street cafes and European markets,but you also can't beat home made apple pie. Enjoy x

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  2. Dear Elizabeth, What a wonderful few days you had with your friends in Provence. It is, as you say, so difficult to imagine those blue skies when it is wrap around grey here in the UK.

    I do so agree about the continental food markets. Somehow, whatever the produce it manages to have a quality and style that is, sadly, rather hard to find in England.

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  3. We haven't been down to Provence yet. Perhaps we will manage a few days there next year when we return to the Auvergne. You have made it sound delightful. Love the photos.
    Are you familiar with the poem "Horses on the Camargue" by Roy Campbell? I think you'll like it.

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  4. Gorgeous.....only managed a few hours there, was one of the stops on our cruise....port of Toulon and then a trip to Sanary....will be going back.

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  5. What a beautiful holiday you had. The photos make me want to be there, too, in the off-season when the beaches are empty and the markets not quite so over-run.

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  6. The photographs brought back happy memories - riding the little train in Arles, wandering round the Camargue, shopping on the lovely market in Avignon. All that and good weather too. Thanks for the reminder.

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  7. Oh, that was beautiful! You make me want to run away for a holiday.thanks you so much.

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  8. Beautiful pictures that really capture the atmosphere and beautiful architecture. I love the Carmargue horses! What a lovely break!
    Dan
    -x-

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  9. I would love to explore France, I have only been to Paris and I aam particularly intrigued by the Carmague. I just need to get over my weariness of driving on the wrong side of the road!

    On a serious note, this is a really good post and beautifully written, you were obviously feeling very inspired

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  10. Really don't know what to say, other than this was so interesting and informative. Would love to go to Provence one day. There a funny lot the Romans. Most civilised and inventive - almost Teutonic. Their chariots would be made by BMW if BMW existed. It's the domestic side of their lives that fascinate. Their art of contraception (so good that too few children were born to Roman women); the invention of concrete; their engineering skills, writing a postal service - all the appendages of civilisation. But all built on slavery. What I wonder was their music like?

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  11. MBNAD - thank you!
    Posie - sounds like you had the same storms. Ours blew itself out by afternoon and it is now quiet and still.
    Edith - French and Spanish food markets are marvellous. The market in Barcelona is a work of art in itself!
    Rosie - thank you so much for the recommendation of the poem. I didn't know it and it is a real discovery!
    Knitting - definitely worth a return visit.
    Pondside - I love places out of season or at odd times of day, dawn and dusk are great too.

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  12. I love the vividness of your descriptions and the beauty of the photographs. I agree with you about the Romans. The way they have influenced modern British life and culture is incredible, but standing up on Hardknott Pass, they must have found life here a bit bleak!

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  13. Cepes, Trompette du Mort, Hedgehog fungus, Chantrelles and horses - what more could you ask for. Wonderful.

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  14. That was a lovely story, but now I'm craving a baguette. With ham and melted cheese. And a glass of wine...

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  15. ah what memories this brings back of endless days of sunshine we had down there a few summers ago.. a good pick me up when I look outside and see the relentless rain slowly washing the world away.

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  16. How tempting to take off for a few days Provencal sunshine. Our weather here has had little to recommend it recently.

    Wonderful markets - I always want to buy and try all sorts of things.

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  17. Linda - thank you. Short holidays are sometimes even better than long ones!
    Dan - the Camargue horses are beautiful. Apparently they are dark when they are born and grow white as they get older, never knew that!
    PG - thank you. I was quite relieved that Ian was driving. The combination of wrong side of road and French car daunts me a bit.
    Fennie - fascinating question about the music of the Romans. Never thought of that. I suspect my impressions are all based on trumpets and Ben Hur and other Hollywood forms of Rome!

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  18. H- thank you. I think all these Northern and Western places - Cumbria, Wales, Scotland - must have felt like the end of the world.
    Tom - it was wonderful. I could happily work my way through all the mushrooms.
    Marcheline - yes to all of those, especially the glass of wine as have just had beef casserole so have no room for baguette (for half an hour or so!).
    Her at home - we are free of rain here in North Wales for now. Looks like it is all falling on Brittany and South Wales.
    Mountainear - I love the markets too. It would be one of the reasons to have a gite and to have to cook!

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  19. Elizabeth, believe it or not I've never been to either Arles or Avignon, despite living (more or less) in the neighbourhood. Your photos are terrific - and I'm with you about the markets. They're wonderful, although the days where market produce was less expensive are long gone, I think.
    Your post has given me itchy feet AGAIN. We just came back from a few days in Lyon and I've already decided that's where I want to live next. :)

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  20. Sounds as if you had a memorable time. Funnily enough we recently booked a holiday at short notice after our original plans were cancelled. We debated between Avignon and North Wales and opted for the latter. No regrets ~ beautiful countryside but still want to catch a glimpse of those white horses at some point in the future :)

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  21. You went to North Wales and you didn't come to say hello?

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