The perfect French holiday - Endless sun, wine and culture
13.09.2007 - 17.09.2007
View Britain and Europe 2007 on Jaana M's travel map.
On Thursday, September 13th we packed up our bags and left for southern France to visit my Grandmother, or as we call her Ömeli. She lives outside of a little town called St. Paulet, in the middle of the French Provence. We got on a train at 5:46pm and arrived in the nearby town of Montelimar at 6:30am the next morning, an hour later than the planned 5:30am. We had reserved two places in a sleeping car, but really didn’t get much sleep because the bunk beds were very small and hard, not to mention that another person in the car was snoring loudly. If anyone wants to take a night train I advise you to skip the overpriced sleeping car and just sit in a normal seat, because even with ear plugs it was horrible. In the rush to get off the train I forgot the present we had bought for Ömeli, so overall our holiday wasn’t off to a great start.
I forgot about all that though as soon as I saw Ömeli walking towards us at the train station. It had been seven years since I had last seen her, but we recognized each other right away. The drive to her house was a half an hour long over tired daze for all three of us. I couldn’t remember many of the landmarks, but the landscape looked familiar: rolling rock hills, with stunted and sparse trees, wide rivers, tall grass and oodles and oodles of gnarly vineyards. Kyle said that it made him think of Mexico. The roads are very windy, have plenty of roundabouts and are often sheltered on both sides by huge, ancient trees that come together at the top to make a shady arch. Originally these tree arches were designed to keep the horse carriages out of the sun. The roads had been quite small, so when cars became popular they had to cut down one side of the trees, widen the road and then replant the trees at the new road edge, which creates a very lopsided arch, if one at all.
As we got closed I started remembering things and when we got to her house it looked exactly the same as when we left it seven years ago, except for the fact that the trees and bushes had grown and the grass was brown instead of green. It is a fairly large white washed house with a red clay roof, typical of the area. A nice yard surrounds it, with a whole assortment of fruit trees: Cherry trees, a couple Olive trees, Apricot trees, Prune trees, Apple trees and a Parsimmon tree. There were also numerous tall grasses, cacti, lavender bushes, grape vines, berry bushes, a couple of palm trees, cedar trees and countless flowers. After napping for a few hours and eating a late breakfast we drove out to the Ardage and a stone city overlooking it.
The Ardage is a long, winding canyon with a deep river at the bottom that is popular for its swimming and scenic kayaking. We hiked along one edge of the canyon, which had a beautiful view of the town below it, Pont Saint Esprit, and the Ardage itself. Along one side of the path there was lots of dried grass, with what looked like lots of white flowers, but upon closer inspection turned out to be dead bleached snails clinging to the grass!
The medieval stone village, Aigueze, was almost completely carved out of the mountain and the parts that weren’t were built in the manner of very old stone-masonry. A building code restricted the construction of any modern buildings and required that any repairs be done by stone-masons knowledgeable of that style. This made the area very expensive, which is evident by the posh hotel and the classy, over-priced restaurants. An ancient church held the attention of the town and all of the crooked streets came together at the church square. It was delightful to walk around and imagine how people lived here thousands of years ago.
We drove around to the other side of the Ardage, to a lookout at the highest point of the canyon wall. All around us were the rock hills, the stunted trees and below us the Ardage snaked its way between them. Kayakers dotted the river, and the caves that we had explored so long ago loomed above them. Before we went home Ömeli took us to a friend’s summer house, in the area of Garrigues (No Man’s Land), and we got to eat fresh figs from her fig tree. I never liked dried figs, but fresh they are very tasty. They have a semi-soft purplish skin and a bright red flesh dotted with yellow seeds. We ate so many that our tongues started to burn!
The rest of the day was spent laying out in the sun, playing with Ömeli’s dog, Trixi, and enjoying a typical French Apperatif, Pastis, which is a lavender liquor served with water and ice. Kyle didn’t like the Apperatif very much and spent the afternoon hunting down the wild lizards in the yard. At 9pm my aunt, Doris and her husband Jacques, arrived and after a joyful greeting we sat outside in the warm night air, drank local wine and talked the night away. The discussions were held consistently in three different languages, Swiss-German, French and English, which made for some funny translations and a wonderful international atmosphere.
The next morning we got up early and went to the Saturday morning market in Pont Saint Esprit. It wasn’t nearly as nice as the market in Vienna, but it interesting for other reasons. One half of it was Arabian, where the prices were lower, the fruits and vegetables more various and the tables dirtier, and the other half was French, where the prices were higher, the items more local and the tables cleaner and more organized. Half way through the market we stopped for an espresso, and afterwards we had the first Apperatif of the day, Kir: white wine with blackberry liquor. Back at Ömeli’s the whole afternoon stretched before us in sunny laziness. We snoozed in the sun for awhile, played a French game Pétanque, which is very similar to Bocci, and Kyle and I went for a walk in search of grapes. Finding them wasn’t hard at all, but we wanted some of our own, so when the coast was clear, Kyle darted into the vineyards and snatched us some. Secluded in a nearby bamboo patch, we held the grape bunches up and ate from the bottom, just like we had always imagined it. We felt like we were on a perfect holiday.
That night Doris and Jacques made Que de’Boeuf for supper, which is basically a huge slab of T-bone steak, cooked blue rare and served in slices. We had hot chili peppers, stir-fried vegetables, fresh noodles with fresh parmesan and a tomato mozzarella salad with it. The meat was extremely delicious, probably the best thing I have ever tried, and after Kyle grilled his to medium, he liked it as well. They explained to us that most meat couldn’t be cooked blue rare because it was poor quality, which meant that it hadn’t been hung for long enough, and if it were to be cooked blue it would create a bloody sauce on the plate . This meat, on the other hand, was very high quality and had been hung for at least two weeks and when it was cooked blue rare it didn’t bleed at all. We went to bed quite early that night, because we were getting up early and driving to the Mediterranean Sea the next day.
The next morning we left at 10am and got to seaside town St. Marie de la Mer at 12 noon. Half way down to the Sea the landscape changed dramatically; the rocky hills, stunted trees and clay roofs where replaced with flat, watery rice fields, tall cedars acting as windbreakers and thatched roofs. The area was famous for its bull fighting, white work horses, sea salt and rice. The town had a very coastal atmosphere to it and was overrun with tourists. Our first destination was the church at the centre of the town, which held St. Sarah, a Black Virgin and the gypsy saint. The church was dated by its architecture: small windows signified that they did not yet know how to build large ones without sacrificing stability, and the slanting walls showed that the whole church had been built as one large rounded arch, rather than the pointed arches of the gothic times that allowed for straight walls. We lit candles for my Grandpa, which loved this town, and then headed back out into the crowded streets. Tourist shops consisted of the local products seasalt, rice, nougat, lavender, colourful pottery and top-quality horse gear.
We had lunch at a supposedly wonderful restaurant, but it must have been a bad day for them, because we were there for way too long. The French, like the Italians, enjoy long meals, but waiting for more than an hour between the first and second course is a little much. At least the food was good. We had tellines, a small shellfish, for the first course along with an Apperatif. Kyle got an Americano, which was an unknown, but very disgusting mixture, and I had a Maison, which is sparkling wine with blackberry liquor. For my main course I had Ai le de Raie, Ray, and Kyle had a bull steak. We drank the local rose wine Picpoul de Pinet with the main course. Full, but slightly angered and a little tipsy we left the restaurant and headed for the beach. The Sea crashed onto the sand and the sun shone onto the hundreds of sunbathers littering the beach. Doris and I ran straight into the Sea, with Kyle and Jacques trailing behind. The temperature was perfect and I was really enjoying my first swim in the Sea…and then a wave came, flooded my mouth with salty water and made me gag. I never would have imagined that it would be that salty! Soon thereafter the same thing happened to Kyle, and we were both disgusted as to how gross it tasted. Thankfully we got used to it pretty fast, and were able to enjoy playing in the ocean. For the next couple hours we tanned and walked around the beach. Kyle and I managed to get into a private camp ground and take a shower, which felt great because we were coated in salt and sand.
On the drive home we stopped in an 18th century town Uzäs, Jacques’ favourite, to check out a private castle. In the approaching twilight we had an Apperatif under the ancient arches protruding from the side of a Swiss restaurant. There must have been hundreds of birds in the trees near where we had parked because I have never heard such a loud and relentless squawking.
That night we had a very late supper of duck and rice. I was surprised to find out that duck meat looks much more like red meat than the white meat that I expected. It was cooked blue as well and was almost as delicious as last night’s meal. After dinner we played a fun card game, of which I don’t remember the name, and just enjoyed being together for the last time. In the morning we said our goodbyes and left with Doris and Jacques. They had offered to take us with them on the 4 hour drive to Lausanne. We drove north through France, through the Swiss Alps and to the French-speaking Swiss town of Lausanne. On the way we saw very impressive scenery, but the most shocking thing was a freshly blown-up gas station. My aunt speculates that it was a car bombing. From Lausanne we took the train home and arrived at 11:30pm.
It was a truly relaxing holiday and it couldn’t have been nicer! Thank you Doris and Jacques for showing us so much of the culture, and most of all, thank you Ömeli for letting us stay with you and making it all possible!! I love you all!