Come on down!
Speaking as one who has been settled in the Haute Vienne for several years, September often brings about a feeling of 'our time now', the time when holidaymakers have left, when shops and restaurants are quieter, allowing us to enjoy the normally glorious weather before the season begins to change.
This year things have been different. It's been chilly and grey and we feel somewhat cheated. It's far too soon for those morning mists, and mellow fruitfulness is all very well so long as it actually is fruitful as opposed to simply dreary.
Crisper days are fine, can even be welcome after the relentless heat of summer, but damp ones often make some of us feel disgruntled, and I confess to being such a person.
Noddy boats on the Canal du Midi
Never mind! We are heading off to Provence in a few days time and I have been told the weather is much nicer there.
Better get packing! I hope you will join us on our southerly sojourn. Castelnaudary here we come!
How right they were! The weather is much nicer, but sadly there it ends. The name Castelnaudary lends promise of something altogether grander than the rather run down and sad place it actually is.
Home of the famous Cassoulet, this clearly was a thriving town at one time judging by some of the fine old buildings which remain, uncared for and crumbling in places. There are lots of boarded-up places, but shops abound whose dusty windows are filled with earthenware dishes great and small bursting with fatty concoctions of sausage, duck and beans.
According to the experts, the way to judge a cassoulet is by its crust. For me, however, these bulging, rib-sticking stews are not at all appetising. I do make a similar thing myself in the depths of winter and know exactly what is hidden in the rich sauce, as well as cutting the fat content dramatically too.
No doubt there will be those who take issue with my daring to tamper with this great French classic, but if it's all the same to you, I will stick to doing it my way! We are only stopping off here for the night and have found a pleasant restaurant alongside the canal. Filled with people from what Rick Stein calls 'noddy boats' and lots of Brits taking advantage of the lovely fish dishes on the menu, we were lucky to get a table. Clearly a good choice!
We had sea bass to die for and a crisp rose wine. Yes, it was a good choice. The fish, the wine, the wonderful old plane trees, and my early-morning glimpse of a fat tabby cat slinking across the main square in the direction of the food market are what I will take with me from Castelnaudary.
Tomorrow we head for Arles.
The landscape changes just after a magical and enticing glimpse of Carcassone which can be seen easily on the route. It is here that a backdrop of mountains looms upon the horizon. Pretty umbrella pines and the finger points of cypress trees push up into the (by now) ceaseless blue.
Breakfast was a while ago so we shall stop for a bite to eat in Aigues-mortes.
If you are interested in history then this is a must for you since the site has been occupied since the origins of man beginning with a Greek colony followed by the Romans who produced salt here. There are many artefacts which testify to these settlements such as bones, tools and coins and oil lamps.
Moving forward from the fifth century when Benedictines founded the Abbey of Psalmody to the eighth century, there are documents which refer to the city of Aquae Mortuae because of the so-called 'dead waters' surrounding lagoons and marshes. This ancient place is rich in history and well worth a detour or even a Google! It is hugely picturesque, and although a bustling tourist destination, there is a pleasing ambiance here.
We lunched in a pretty sun-filled square before leaving on our quest to find the flamingos, the white horses, and those famous bulls of the Camargue. We were not disappointed and managed to get good sightings of all of these wonderful creatures.
Next stop Arles.
Above and below,Central square of Aigues Mortes
Flamingos on the Carmargue
Arles, Vincent and Others
Arles is nothing if not dramatic! Suddenly we were plunged into a maze of narrow alleyways all desperately trying to be roads with no hope at all of two vehicles passing.
My poor husband who was at the wheel gritted his teeth and pressed on until we found ourselves alongside the amphitheatre. This we thought a stunning sight until we caught sight of the famous arena, but there was no possibility of stopping to marvel for it was getting late and we had to locate our hotel.
This we did and found a warm and friendly reception. So friendly was it in fact that the manager informed us that there was no way we would locate our reserved parking spot and that she would go with my husband... if I would mind the hotel! 'The keys are over there, and if the phone goes, just deal with it as best you can. Tell them I won't be long!'
It was a bit daunting to say the least, and to my horror, people did turn up wanting things. But I managed, and even convinced an elderly English lady I was French!
I did own up though and the poor woman fell upon me like someone lost in the wilderness. She called the rest of her party to reassure them that all was now well because they were safely in the hands of an English person and could happily go off in search of 'a jolly nice little tea shop!'
There is so much to see and do here and a stopover is not long enough. This is a place to revisit for sure.
Yes, we took in the 'Vincent' sights and had the obligatory photo at the the 'starry night' cafe before enjoying a wonderful meal in a tiny restaurant run by an all-female team. By now though we were looking forward to getting to our Provençal home for the week just outside Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume, so a good night's sleep was just what we needed.
The next day was an easy drive; just over the hour to reach our apartment at Domaine de Brandine where Flavia, our hostess, greeted us like old friends and quickly put us at our ease.
We were there courtesy of a scheme called HPB. It's well worth checking this out as it is an excellent organisation. As always, we were more than delighted by our accommodation and settled in for another peaceful night safe in the knowledge that the only sounds we would hear would be cicadas, the breeze rustling the trees in the olive groves, and the far-off tinkling of a goat's bell.
The Arena in Arles
A week in Provence
Plump shiny olives, wine tasting and soft goats cheeses with fresh figs. What's not to like? It took us no time at all to sniff out a lovely little local market where we bought some heavenly duck pies and olivade, which is like tappenade without the anchovies; very handy for anyone like me with an allergy to certain fishy things.
Next on the agenda was a visit to Aix, and what a place this is! It's bursting with fabulous old buildings and is a shoppers paradise, not forgetting wonderful museums and restaurants. A visit here is a must if you happen to be down this way. We had marvelled over the St. Victoire mountain range and the connection with Cezanne and his fixation to paint it over and over again truly resonated.
This was a packed day and we pressed on back to the car loaded up with more goodies. A quieter day tomorrow, I think!
One of the reasons we chose to come to Provence was because of Marcel Pagnol. My husband loves his books and films and we decided to make a pilgrimage and visit three places of importance.
First came an exhibition in the small town of Allauch chronicling his life and work. I had been very efficient and had packed us a nice picnic, but this was thrown over in favour of lunch in a small and rather ordinary-looking place situated just opposite the car park. When we saw what was on offer for 14 euros we caved in and enjoyed beautifully-fresh crudités and charcuterie followed by roast lamb, potato gratin and ratatouille, with apricot tart and ice cream for pudding. A bit naughty, but we told ourselves that we were on holiday, and seeing how many locals were descending upon the place it looked too good to miss.
All three courses were delicious and we left feeling well set up for our museum visit.
We had a little time to kill whilst waiting for the doors to open so we sat down on a bench shaded by plane trees in the same square as the museum and watched as a fat pigeon looked around rather imperiously before pecking at the ground. Clever bird! What better spot than this corner by another tiny restaurant with a boulangerie opposite?
There was a card game in progress inside the gloom of the cafe, a handful of old man all sitting nursing glasses of beer or Pastis... or both.
A young mother crossed the square, toddler in tow, and shouted a cheerful greeting in the direction of the card players. She is wishing her papa a good afternoon, and somehow I am touched by the sense of family and the feeling of belonging. They do things differently over here.
This town is not large, but the exhibition was very well done.As we were leaving I asked if I could buy a poster and was told, "Non, Madam! But I give you one with pleasure."
Next stop was La Treille and the cemetery which is situated in the shadow of the great mountain Garlaban where the Pagnol family is buried. We arrived at the same time as a school party and tagged along happily, learning from the elderly teacher leading the group.
Last stop Aubagne and then back to Brandine, tired out, but glad to have made our homage to the great writer and filmmaker.
Market day in St. Maximin
A slow stumble around another market, this time in St. Maximin itself. This is a bustling little town with nice shops and a good selection of restaurants.
The produce is second to none, and though I am not a vegetarian, I think I could well become one if I lived down here - not to decry what we have in the greener and more gentle Limousin; our local dishes are just as good, if altogether heartier and more meat based.
Anyway, if you can't come up with a good vegetable dish here, then I'd say you're just not trying!
So it's lunchtime already and we have Italian ham and salami, yellow tomatoes, olive bread and cheese with herbes de Provence, followed by deliciously juicy pears.
This afternoon we are off treasure hunting at a Brocante we saw a sign for earlier in the week and decided that today was the day to check it out. We found it without any difficulty at all, and my goodness, it's huge, and I am like a child in a sweet shop.
Where to start? We could get lost and never come out; maybe even get sold two for the price of one, or be chucked in free to be rid of us!
But all was well and we trawled around three times quite happily before coming away with far too much stuff we don't need and didn't know we wanted. The next problem will be getting it home in one piece.
Never mind. We do have plenty of experience when it comes to loading the car to the gills with stuff from junk yards and so forth.
All that bargaining has made us hungry, so time to turn my mind to dinner.
Well! You might have guessed. Stuffed vegetables and something cooked on the barbecue. Drink anyone?
A poster for a Marcel Pagnol exhibition.
It's hard to believe that our time here in Provence is drawing to a close.
The day is set fair and just right for what we have in mind for this our final day. Today we will follow in the footsteps of kings and queens; of popes, saints, and countless pilgrims. We shall make our own way to La Sainte Baume and the most revered and holy shrine to Mary Magdalene.
Jesus said "Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much." Luke VII vs 47
So we climbed up to this remarkable and inspiring place toward the cave of St. Mary Magdalene through the strange and thought-provoking forest. This is a place unpenetrated by the bright sunshine of Provence, a place where stand oak trees and sombre yews with hollowed-out trunks still bearing green foliage. Some are said to be 1,000 years old and it's easy to believe when one sees them standing amongst the fallen limestone boulders covered in black deposits from water which seeps unendingly from the stones. Darkness and silence reign here, yet the atmosphere is remarkably peaceful and untroubling.
Here is a short description by the poet Lucain.
'Legend had it that earthquakes made the caves below, that the curved yews straightened, that the woods without burning shone with firelight and dragons entwined around trunks slithered here and there.'
We were very much moved by our visit to this special place and can see why people flock here seeking comfort and strength.There is a pilgrimage centre and an eco museum, very well done, and even though there were people milling about, an air of quiet calm prevails.
This is not a place for shouting tourists. For my own part, I must admit I gave thanks for actually having made it there! The hairpin bends on the tiny snaking roads are enough to terrify the most experienced driver, and as for the passenger, I did have to force myself several times not to scream.
These roads climb ever upwards, and the sides, such as they are, fall away to practically nothing! All the same, our white-knuckle ride was worth it, and we both agreed that the best day here had come last. Our grand finale!
Whether you are a person of faith or of none, it's a fine place to come.
For some, a re affirming experience perhaps, whilst for others an opportunity to delight in the spectacular views and to marvel at the wonders of nature.
This was my first visit to this wonderful region and I would dearly love to go there again. There is so much to see and do, and I think the ideal would be two weeks at Brandine so that we could take full advantage of the comfortable accommodation, the wonderfully warm welcome there, and the swimming pool.
We were fortunate to meet up with Diana and Brian, two other bondholders who were there for two weeks, and I must say that not only were they a very thoughtful and charming couple, they absolutely had it right!
More importantly though for we retired travellers, it's good to be able to simply do nothing very much! Soaking up the different atmosphere is surely part of being away. I feel sure you know what they say about a change being as good as a rest. In my view, a rest is as good as a change sometimes!
But that's up to the individual, and I do remember days gone by when I certainly wouldn't have even thought about having a rest!
Our journey home was long and we were returning because of commitments that same weekend, so we are just beginning to draw breath.
Our region of France is very different and I love it here. Autumn approaches and it's time to prepare for the changing season when we shall enjoy the rich and vibrant colours of the Limousin forests and woodlands, and when our cooking takes on a different feel too.
Wild mushrooms, a handful of chestnuts, a nice glass of wine in front of a comforting fire. What more could anyone want? It's nice to travel, but it's nice to come home!
Our final night at Brandine.
Au Revoir Provence!
PS. My new book, A Handful of Chestnuts, is available now.
The Chapel of La Sainte Baume
© 2017 Anne Cartwright