Friday, May 31, 2013

Lost in Time in Provence

Charles Dickens started his novel A Tale of Two Cities with "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times". Driving first south to the Luberon and then eastwards out to Roussilon and eventually northbound through the Haute Vaucluse regions of Provence I saw Dickens’ words materialized like a boldly colored Van Gogh all over the landscape. I saw it in old stonewalled houses and elegant villas in rustic villages among picturesque vineyards with turning autumn leaves. I saw it in derelict ruins of old farm buildings in grassy fields or in fallen castles on hilltops over-looking thousands of acres of historic vineyards. And it is so visible in Orange’s 2000 year old Roman amphitheater, renovated, revitalized and back in use. Provence most certainly has experienced good times and bad times.

In my eyes it was all history in various shades of time. Constantly grateful that so much of Provence has survived wars and pestilence and still look reasonably well cared for. Well, to a degree! For the peoples of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur….

I have often wondered how people that live in the ancient cities or villages of Italy and France see their surroundings. Is that wall that is flaking layers of time during every rainstorm just brickwork, just protection? Medieval, but still practical. Do they ever consciously think of their history when they walk those alleys? Or are those weathered limestone houses along steep narrow, cobbled-stoned streets in hilltop villages just their neighborhood. Just another place where they happen to live? The antiquity of it all lost upon them, faded into the background of the daily consumption of life.

Roaming the old center of St. Remy-de-Provence, a sleepy little village south of Avignon. We had a late start out of Avignon because I had to pick up our rental car for the week and the service at the Avis counter at the railway station was very slow. Hence our arrival at the old village center, just after 12 pm when most shops have closed and the place nearly deserted, which was also good because we had the place virtually to ourselves. We took our time to walk the ancient streets of this Greco-Roman village where Nostradamus was born. One enters the old center through 14th century ports, one of them, Porte du Trou, leads to the Nostradamus fountain (right).
On the outskirts of St. Remy is an old Roman forum with a beautifully preserved Mausolee and the Triumphal Arch of Glanum built near the end of the reign of Augustus Caesar (died in 14 AD) Across from the les Antiques, as the forum is known, is the Saint-Paul Asylum where Vincent Van Gogh spent a year in 1889-1890. Through the inviting gates and a tranquil courtyard we visited the bedroom where Van Gogh stayed and walked the gardens. Among the paintings Van Gogh did while at the asylum are “Irises”, “The Wheat Field” and “The Starry Night”.   
From St. Remy we drove to Les Baux-de-Provence. Built by the Lords of Les Baux in the 10th century, on top of a rocky outcrop, perfectly blending with the stony spur, are the ruins of the Chateau Les Baux, with a commanding view of the surrounding landscape. In 1641 the town was granted to the Grimaldi family, current rulers of Monaco, as a French marquisate, but purchased back in 1791. Top right, the Alpilles Mountains with olive groves as far as the eye can see. The village itself is well "preserved" but unfortunately over commercialized to some extent.

Les Baux is a time-warp. A medieval stone and cobblestone relic that was ravaged and deserted due to wars and an unstable Provence. By the beginning of the 19th century it had but a handful of inhabitants. The famous Provençal poet, Frédéric Mistral described the village as un lieu où souffle la désespérance (A place where desperateness blows).  But since 1945 after the end of World War II it was "rediscovered", excavated and restored to its present day glory.

The old village is one big tourist trap. Albeit, a fascinating one where the grey/cream-colored limestone buildings and roads melts perfectly into the scraggy hillside. Below the old village is the modern-day village where the 400 or so permanent inhabitants stay. Commercialized or not it stays one of the most beautiful, interesting and impressive villages of Provence.

The Chapel of the white Penitents (or Chapel Sainte-Estelle). The  interior is decorated with frescoes by Yves Brayer representing the Shepherds' Christmas in the Provençal tradition.


Anonymous said...

Ek het jou vertellinge oor die reise in Frankryk ontsettend geniet. Boeiend geskryf en die mooiste foto's. En ek is nie min jaloers nie op die wonderlike geleentheid wat julle gehad het! Wat 'n land.

BluegrassBaobab said...

Dankie Bib