Quest for the heart of Provence
My quest began in Avignon, a UNESCO world heritage site and voted at the millennium as one of Europe's top cities, winning the category of arts and culture. But I could not feel the culture, did not see the art. I was more comfortable outside the city's walls and chose to picnic across the river, rather than tread the hot streets crowded with tourists with their bellies, their fanny packs, their cameras, their socks with sandals.
My most authentic experience in the small tourist Mecca was getting a free haircut at a cosmetology school. It took an hour and a half, two French students and two French teachers. Very few words were exchanged with me, though we did all try.
I came out looking French, which was far better than how I looked going in.
The buildings on the back streets inside the city walls were charming, and the tourist district pretty.
And my roommates were awesome.
Sharisse in the front is a very talented animator from L.A. Check out her work at shardesign.net. Meredith, back right, from Canada is as her sweetheart. She took a sabbatical from work for a year of education (perq of being Canadian) and is touring a bit of Europe before returning.
Megan, concealed in the above photo, is traveling with Sharisse. They both just finished undergraduate programs and are traveling for a few months. Very easygoing and athletic ; they were bicycling out to the Chateneuf de Pape the day I left. She is going to law school at American University and looking for an apartment and roommate, so if you know anyone interested, she can be reached at email@example.com.
The Palais des Papas, where the papacy was installed for awhile, and their gardens high above the city were impressive, as were its panoramic views.
Walked down to the train station at the end of my street through one of the gates to the city to find out how to get to Aix-de-Provence, a nearby university town recommended by my last hostel roommates. Turns out it was not very reasonable and there were plenty of cool places that were, so I took the next train to Arles, hoping to feel something there. The French regional trains are comical; not especially modern or clean and you definitely wonder why you bought a ticket because no one checks.
The lighting was not helping me capture that the cars run the spectrum of the rainbow in amusement park shades. But they run promptly and are cheap. And it is a much more laid back experience than trying to get on in the two minute stops in Austria where you are afraid you might have to knock over a too-slow pregnant lady so you can get in before the door slams shut.
Arles has a stadium that has been used for bullfights since 90 A.D. and that attracts tourists. It is also a source of local pride. A tiny bar habited by locals at a far corner of town has posters plastered all over its walls and ceiling.
Souvenier stands selling tablecloths and napkins with traditional Provençal patterns and of course, lavender, lined the street near the stadium. Downtown, local creations are offered as well.
But as soon as you get away from that, you can feel the real Arles, with kids playing soccer, teens listening to rap in the winding alleyways and couples on their way out for the evening. Arles, like the village of St. Remy takes credit for its beautiful lighting inspiring Vincent Van Gogh to expand his palette from the dark pictures he painted before moving to Provence and embracing its color.
There isn't much to the town square, just a fountain.
Still, it was Friday night, so the locals came out and sat around.
Evening descends. Time to head back to the train station.
So... I wake up with the quest still on my mind. Arles was cool in its own way, but my idea of the heart of Provence has always been eating well and drinking wine and laughing. I didn't want to rent a car and follow the tourist routes and just end up in a restaurant with tourists, and truly, it wouldn't be that rewarding hanging with the locals as my French is worse than rudimentary and that gets awkward.
I took a bus to a village called Carpentras because it looked close to the countryside where I most wanted to be. I walked a kilometer or so out of town, initially following a directional sign that appeared to say something along the line of tourist route.
The directional signs can get pretty confusing. For example:
That means to go everywhere else. There was no sign indicating another destination, so one would get the idea the small town to the right, which was nestled against a cliff, was at the end of a road. But no, the bus I took actually rounded the cliff and headed out of town the other way.
And then there is this helpful directional sign:
The town to the right was one way. And everything else was the other way. Everywhere else. Again, a bit difficult to picture. Pre-Columbus.
That photo of the sign was not taken in the town of Carpentras. There was not a parade in Carpentras. There were no crowds, tourist or otherwise. In fact, this is the only action I saw in Carpentras.
Men playing bocci.
I walked out of Carpentras a kilometer or so, then took a left on to a dirt road leading past a couple stucco houses with vineyards. After a bit, I spied a bicycle trail along a canal that backed up against a vineyard. That looked perfect, so I hiked down it awhile and spread out my picnic of everything local: a bottle of Cote de Rhone called Domaine of the Mistral (the mistral had just begun settling down from the crazy wild winds of the previous days, allowing some warmth, but still blowing the fresh fragrances of roses and honeysuckle and providing a lovely background whisper to the birdsong and butterflies), some local olive tapenade, and two different local cheeses, as well as a loaf of that dark, nutty bread I had begun buying at the boulangerie daily.
During the course of the afternoon, seven people went by, three on bicycles and four walking. Each one of them tried interacting with me. Each one was very approving, pointing to my wine or other aspects of the spread, parting with a thumbs up. By the end of the afternoon, I wandered back, fulfilled. I found what I was looking for.