September 23rd to 30th, 2000 (continued from the French Riviera)

            This morning brought packing, a tour through the Alpes Maritime above Monaco, then the drive on the A-8 motorway to Aix-en-Provence, our meeting place for lunch.  After a harrowing drive down narrow streets full of students and pedestrians, we finally found a parking place and wandered past the Ville Hotel, a fabulous flower market, and then found L’Hacienda for lunch – where Phoebe and Logan somewhat miraculously met us a little later.

After a pleasant drive on the prettier N-7 and one wrong turn, we found our way to Mas Dagan – to be our home away from home for the next week.  Mona greeted us warmly – with her dog, cat, and 22-month-old son (who is very lively and we hope takes LONG naps!).  Our studio apartment is rustic, but very pleasant and comfortable.  The other apartment was still being cleaned, so the rest went to town for supplies while I unpacked and now will RELAX!     (more later….)

            (9-25) First – to catch up from Saturday night.  The Blackburns & Phelps returned with a trunk load of goodies, so we spent the evening just relaxing, laughing at silly stories, and pigging out on wine, cheeses, olives, sausages and fruit – sitting outside in the beautiful gardens near the pool.  I have never seen so many different trees and plants coexisting so happily – roses on trees and bushes, palm trees, evergreens including cypress and fir, apple trees, weeping willow, etc.!…

            Sunday dawned cool and sunny, Phoebe bravely took a polar bear dip in the 65 degree pool (!) – then we enjoyed an All-American breakfast of scrambled eggs with cheese & mustard, sausages, toast and wonderful Cavillon melon.  While the rest lounged in the sun, Paul and I drove to the nearby village of St. Andriol for MORE food and supplies – then we all headed to St. Remy to get acquainted with our “hub” city – with lots of history, shops and boutiques, restaurants, and (unfortunately) a local carnival filling the square with kiddie rides and French fast food stands.  Since most of the shops were closed Sunday afternoon, we decided to explore some of the nearby sights.

            Our first stop was the town of Tarascon on the Rhone river nearby.  Most of the town was rather deserted and unremarkable, but the winding narrow streets in the old section were interesting, and the huge castle along the water was a fascinating tour.  The fortress dates back to the early 1400s and was used as a prison from the 18th century.  The church of Ste. Marthe nearby dates back to 1197 and is quite beautiful.

            From Tarascon we drove to one of the most popular sights in Provence – Les Baux – the ruins of a medieval fortress dating back to the 10th/11th centuries.  We didn’t arrive until 5 PM in hopes that the tourist crowd would have dwindled – but it was packed with people!  The narrow streets through the village were jammed with tourist shops, museums and restaurants – but we continued the climb on foot to the plateau with the castle ruins (entrance fee) – and the rewarding view from the top made the leg-numbing trek worthwhile – it was spectacular!

            We were starving, having missed lunch, so we returned to St. Remy for dinner and had a delightful meal sitting outside at Terrace de Soleil (though the vin du pays was disappointing).  I had a wonderful salad with roasted sweet peppers and filet of sea bass with rice and ratatouille.  Paul had seafood gratine and a casserold of chicken with tarragon.  For dessert:  apple cake with berries ina wonderful cream sauce for me and crème brule for Paul – yum!

            Today we plan to again have breakfast here – then head out to the wine country with picnic foods and some plans for serious tasting in Cotes du Rhone, including Chateauneuf du Pape.      More later…..

(9-26) Yesterday we left at ~ 11:30 and caravanned with 2 cars into the wine country, getting hopelessly lost circling Carpentras.  Finally asked directions (!) en Francais – and found our way to D-7, heading north to Gigondas, where we wandered the village during siesta until we could sample the wine at 2:00.  Bought a few bottles which we enjoyed at our picnic lunch in the village of Crestet with a spectacular view of the valley & Mont Ventoux. (?sp?)   Our feast included an assortment of cheeses, pate, sausage, marinated artichoke hearts, moules (for Paul), bread, crackers, and apples – delicious!--- However, it was spread on a blanket in a parking lot, since no picnic area could be found!

We then journeyed to Chateauneuf du Pape – the area known for full-bodied reds.  Sampled a few in the village – but preferred the special white and bought a bottle.  Returned to Mas Dagan for a little outdoor relaxation and refreshment, then 5 of us (minus Phoebe) headed to town for a supper of salad and delicious wood-fired pizza with gruyere, artichokes and mushrooms.  Sleep came easily.

            This morning Paul and I headed out on our own for a brief tour of Avignon, since the rest wanted to sleep late and go shopping.  We continue to be amazed (and a little disappointed) with how populated we’ve found this part of Provence – but the drivers are certainly more “civilized” than they were in Italy, and the roads are in good repair and well-marked.  The weather has been surprisingly warm and sunny every day so far – but the evenings are pleasantly cool.  We’ll need to wash some shorts and light shirts before the week is over.

            Avignon is quite large – the most populated city in this area – but the walled old city is beautiful and full of interesting history.  We toured the Palais des Papes – home of the popes from 1309 to 1417, saw the famous Pont St. Benezet (“Sur le Pont d’Avignon…”) and enjoyed lunch on the Place de L’Horloge, with lots of outdoor cafés, street musicians, etc.  Paul had his usual: moules et frites, and I had a warm fresh pasta dish with scallops St. Jacques – really tasty with the white house wine.

            Returned to Mas Dagan from the alternate route along the Rhone.  Paul now is napping after a coffee on the terrace.  Later this afternoon we’re headed to a local bullfight, which should be an adventure!….

            (9-27) Yesterday afternoon’s local “bullfight” in the blistering heat was a different type of adventure – small town league – without any blood (thank goodness!), and also missing any sign of a dashing matador with cape, etc.!  They did have a snappy band with a lively, costumed band leader and pretty ladies in traditional costumes.  The “matador wannabees” were dressed in white pants and shirts and spent the allotted time – all 10 of them! – dashing at the bull from different directions with the goal of loosening and eventually dislodging the strings wrapped around the bull’s horns.  The bulls demonstrated distinct personalities re how to deal with this craziness – but all performed the required snorting, pawing, and dashing – into (and twice over!) the barrier ring.  If the strings were removed before the time was up – the “matador” gang won --  If not, the bull got the applause.  (Paul’s videos will do a better job at making sense of this!)  After about 90 minutes (4 bulls) we had had enough and headed to the “intermarche” (supermarket) to stock up on more goodies.

            We had cocktails and snacks (olives, cheeses, nuts, etc.) then cooked out on the grill – chicken and vegetables (eggplant, peppers, zucchini, onions, & red shallots ) – yum!

            Today headed out early (8 AM) to get to Arles for the Wed. market.  Saw a sobering sight on the way – it appeared that a cyclist was being loaded into a body bag – police, ambulance, hearse – but no wrecked car…. I’m sure that everyone passing that scene drove more carefully….

The Arles market was all that we expected … and more!  One long boulevard ~ ¾ mile long was lined with countless stalls and trucks filled with everything imaginable – mountains of gorgeous fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, nuts, sweets, pastries, breads, fish, meats & sausages, wonderfully aromatic rotisseries with chicken, turkey and pork roasts dripping juices onto potatoes and onions, pans of paella, preserves & honey, soaps, linens, clothing, etc. etc.!  I bought a delicious fruit tart to munch and some wonderful bulk lavender, rosebuds, and herbs de Provence for gifts.

            We then explored some of the interesting old historical walled city with a Roman arena, churches, etc.  The Blackburns and Phelps decided to return to St. Remy – but Paul and I stayed for a pleasant lunch in Place du Forum (Paul had moules and I had salade Nicoise) – then a nice walk to the Ancient History Museum where they had wonderful exhibits and replicas of Roman Arles – including fascinating ancient mosaics, tombstones, burial vaults, and models of the arena (and its moveable stadium cover!), the circus (a rival to Rome’s Circus Maximum), and city buildings.

            We drove back to St. Remy via the scenic route past Les Baux, through the Alpilles range – and past Glanum – an ancient 6th BC settlement.  SO much history here!  Haven’t decided where we’re going tomorrow… but it’s bound to be wonderful!

            (9-28) Headed northwest today to Pont du Gard – another 3-star attraction in the guide books and well worth the trip.  It is part of a Roman aqueduct – said to be built before the birth of Christ – out of hand-cut stones without mortar!  This section is 160 feet high and 900 feet long and amazingly well preserved.  It is part of what had been a 31 mile long channel bringing water from the springs at Uzes to Nimes.

            After wandering on and around the bridge, we headed farther west and north to Uzes – much less touristy than many other towns, but quite charming with interesting history as a medieval stronghold.  We strolled the streets, then had a pleasant lunch in the main square (Place aux Herbes).  No moules on any menu, so Paul had “pizza Reine” and I had an onion tart on mixed greens.

            We headed back along a narrow winding road through the mountains, over another ancient bridge, and found ourselves in the middle of Nimes that we had hoped to bypass!  Anyway, we drove past its famous Roman arena (where “real” bullfights are held every weekend) on our search for a way out of town.  Stopped briefly in St. Remy to buy some soap for gifts – then went back to Mas Dagan to rest until the rest of the gang returned from their adventure to Cassis and environs…… Can’t believe that we only have one more day here before heading back along the coast toward Nice…  Tomorrow we’re going to the Luberon.

            (9-30) Backtracking to Thursday night – We went to town for a fantastic dinner at our host’s favorite restaurant in St. Remy:  “XA” (the first 2 letters of the owner’s name – Xavier – his wife is the chef!).  It was a charming, intimate place and the six of us had fantastic meals – aubergine mousse with fresh tomato coulis for me, followed by outstanding grilled duck medallions, rice and ratatouille.  The rest also had interesting meals, including vegetable mélange, an Indian beef curry, pasta, etc.

            Friday we awoke to a horrible rainstorm – the first bad weather we had (with the exception of a brief shower in Arles Wed. AM).  We headed for the Luberon in spite of the dreary conditions, and had a taste of Apt, Bonnieux (really pretty, with a fantastic view from the hilltop ruins), LaCoste (just drove through) and Menerbes.  Went to the Corkscrew Museum (!) just outside Peter Mayle’s hometown – part of the Domaine de la Citadelle winery.  Tasted and purchased some wonderful reds (1992 vintage ~ $17 US).

By this time we were tired, chilled, wet and hungry – having missed lunch again!  We had packed a picnic, but there was no dry place to stop, so we headed back to Mas Dagan – stopping to purchase a rotisserie chicken, some greens, goat cheese, tomatoes and artichoke hearts – then feasted on everything before  and after packing…. :=(