Friday, February 25, 2011

After Roussillon

Strangely, the visit to the ochre deposits was not the highlight of my day. The highlight was an unexpected event that happened in the middle of the infuriating “replace the gas tank” mission Tom and I had set out on. The tank in one heater had run out and the other heater needed to be set up. Our landlady told us the local Tabac store here carried the gas so Tom ran out in the morning to grab one. The store is only open 8-12 so you must be quick. He lugged the old tank down (It is roughly 1/3 larger than propane tanks at home) and discovered they did not stock the gas. This began our quest for gas.

We decided to leave the kids to do their schoolwork while the two of us nipped out quickly. Since it was so easy to replace, we thought we’d just to head down to the slightly larger town of Saint Didier nearby where the stores opened in the morning AND the afternoon. Stores here keep the oddest hours. Everyone closes for lunch and I mean everyone. Even bakeries that sell food close at lunchtime. Figure that one out. Lunch can mean one to two hours but generally two and sometimes longer as we’ve come across stores that are closed when their posted hours clearly state they should be open. It’s like one big federal government union. So off we went to Saint Didier only to find that although stores on either side of the Tabac were open, the Tabac was closed. A Tabac is like a general store. Fine.

We debated the merits of trying the next small town over, Pernes Les Fontaines but decided we were better off driving the 10 minutes into Carpentras, the closest larger city. We headed for a gas station Tom had seen but when we began unloading the tank from the back of the car, the gas attendant (yes they still have those) shook his head. I asked where we might find the correct gas and he pointed us off towards Pernes Les Fontaines.

Carpentras is the most frustrating city to get around. Each little village has only one exit road out of the city and the city has a one way circle road around its old town centre. It takes about five minutes to circle the town so if you miss your exit you get another lovely circle tour. We have made this circle tour many…many times. The Pernes exit was one exit before where we entered so we circled the city and were off. We found the gas station quite easily a couple of miles along the Pernes road even though all the directions had been issued in French. It was obvious they didn’t carry the correct tank even as we pulled in but we stopped to ask anyway. The attendant here pointed us back to the grocery store in Carpentras. We headed back to the grocery store gas station to find they didn’t have the correct tank either. This attendant had no idea where we could find our extremely rare gas tank replacement.

Tom had one of his “feelings” we should head back towards Pernes again so we did, after circling the lovely city centre, of course. We were zipping along when I spotted an orange tank at a station by the side of the road! Hallelujah! Turns out our orange tank variety is old and has been replaced by the newer red tank. The attendant was quite knowledgeable and showed us the new connection technique. As you have all probably guessed, every station we’d been to had carried the red tank but let us not get our noses out of joint because if we hadn’t spent the last hour chasing after the correct colour of gas we wouldn’t have been trapped behind the sheep drive!

Yes, isn’t that exciting? As we headed back to Venasque we took a wrong turn and that led us to a road with hundreds of goats and sheep. A woman in a bright yellow jacket stopped our car and told us we could try to drive through if we followed the car ahead very closely so no animals would get between us. Tom did a marvelous job of driving closely to the car ahead but it didn’t work anyway and half way through a tiny gap opened and IN slipped a sheep; fast little buggers. The woman came over looking apologetic and told us we were lost. We’d have to just follow along for the next 15 minutes until they turned off the road. She looked as though she thought we were going to get upset about this but as I had just spent the last five minutes excitedly laughing, shrieking and filming farm animals, I wasn’t too torn up about it.

She told us they were from Avignon and were taking the animals to La Drome which is about 100 km north of Orange, I think. I had to look it up on a map and there were several Dromes. Anyhow, they take about 2 weeks and sleep in a camper along the way (the people not the animals). It sounded like grand fun to me.

They had a dog with them who obviously relished his job. He ran about chasing errant sheep and goats back onto the road. This was a fulltime job because just as he’d get one group back to the herd, another group would be drifting off to the side. The dog looked a lot like Jack and I bet Jack would just LOVE this dog’s job too! I imagine the farmers dread this time of year because the animals snack on the farms as they move. The dog and people do their best to keep the animals out of the orchards and vineyards but the goats and sheep are slippery devils and if you divert your attention for even a moment ONE of them is snacking on SOMETHING. It was hilarious to watch. They had little lambs and kids as well. They scampered along at the back of the pack. They were so adorable! When they finally did turn off, we were sad to see them go, leaving us free to get on home.

The video below on the left shows the race between us and the sheep. For awhile it looks like we are pulling ahead but then in the end the sheep win. The second video is of the lambs at the end of the pack and the dog. He is quite gentle herding the little lambs but he gets more aggressive with the older ones or slower ones.

Thursday, February 24, 2011


Miekel, I have found the perfect place for you. Forget Arizona, Roussillon is your spot. Sometime in your life you must come here, if not to settle then at least to visit. Stay right in the town. I know the perfect little house. Oh, I know, I know, someone is already living in it but that is a minor detail. The colours here immediately screamed your name. Roussillon is now my favourite village in all of Provence.

Roussillon is yet another hilltop village. Apparently, back in the day, hilltops were THE place to build your town to watch for impending attacks from marauders and other undesirables. The whole view thing hasn’t lost any of its charm today and the village has all the ingredients for cute town; twisty narrow streets, quaint medieval looking buildings, interesting ironwork detailing and so on. Rousillon, however, has an added bonus. It is built on a hilltop made of ochre. For many years just before the Second World War, this was the single largest producer of ochre in the world. All the bricks used to build with used ochre from Roussillon to get their wonderful brick colour.

The ochre deposit is now a sanctuary. The townfolk charge money to walk the path through the ochre hills but don’t miss it! It is absolutely stunning! The soil feels sandy and the deepest red will stain your fingers if you touch it. Julia thought it felt like that “Moon Sand” they have for kids now. It is red, yellow, white and hundreds of glorious colours in between. Fairy chimneys of the stuff rise up around you as you walk. With the blue sky above and tall green pines dotting the path around, the effect is magnificent. One part of the path allows you to walk on the soil and both kids immediately felt the need to make a movie about Mars. The landscape feels that foreign. It should feel foreign. It was created at the bottom of the sea several million years ago. I just wanted to go back again and again to capture the place in many different lights.

They sell the paint in tourist stores all over the village but only one was actually open. Naturally, we bought a set. In order to get the pure colour out, they use the same technique as they did in the salt mines in Salzburg. They add it to water, wait for the sand to settle to the bottom, drain the water from the sand and then boil the water off to leave the pure colour. All the buildings in the town are painted shades of ochre and walking through the town is a photographer’s paradise. The people who live here must be artists of one sort or another. I’m not a painter but even I am itching to try out the paint set. I’m not sure the pictures really do the place justice. You just don't get the same vibrancy because the angle of the sun was wrong.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Wine Tour

So how fun is this? In Provence, wineries are about every five feet. When I used to think about driving through the French countryside, I imagined field after field of vineyards as far as the eye could see; kind of like corn in the States or wheat in the Canadian prairies. In reality, there haven’t been a lot of vineyards. We’ve seen fields and we’ve seen vineyards but we haven’t seen fields and fields of vineyards…until the wine tour.

Just north of Venasque, Rick Steve’s has a little circuit tour laid out stopping at a few cute towns and a few cute vineyards. Tom and I decided this was a tour for adults and ditched the children at home. This may sound cruel; however, the children were ecstatic and could hardly wait for us to leave. They had their own exciting afternoon of intense computer gaming all laid out. I’m not even sure each one knew the other one was there, unless of course they met online.

Tom and I started our tour at the town of Gigondas. This area is a particularly lush wine region and has several excellent wineries distributed throughout. The town has many little wine stores where one can sample a variety from region. As this was our first stop, we were both at a bit of a loss as to how this worked. It seemed too good to be true to just walk in and ask to try wine for free. Yet, that is exactly what happens. We spent quite a few minutes asking the lady at the desk how it worked and she kept insisting she could not tell us which wines to choose. This miscommunication was probably due to her inability to understand what was so difficult about, “Ask for a wine and I’ll pour you a taste,” and our inability to understand, “Sample as many of the 40-50 wines as you want. We have all day.”

As both of us are truly novices at this, we honed in on three wines that had little signs announcing they were listed in some sort of French wine guide. This had to be a good thing. We also stuck to just three, not wanting to push our luck. She told us they were good choices and very different wines. So far, so good. The first one was fabulous and I immediately exclaimed how good it was. She smiled indulgently and I figured all the wines were probably that good and somehow Tom and I had just been choosing duds the past month. That first taste brought back all the things I had ever read about wine: flavour bursting in your mouth, smooth, fruity, you get the picture.

The next wine, however, I didn’t care for as much. It had been aged in oak so I wondered if maybe I didn’t care for the “tannins” that produced. I have to put that word in quotation marks because aren’t tannins the things that leather producers use to soften the leather? And didn’t they use a variety of urine for that? I must be confusing something somewhere but at this point, not caring for a liquid that has “tannins” in it seems to just be good sense.

The last wine was okay but nowhere near the delicious first wine. In fact, though we didn’t realize it at that moment, that first wine was the best one of the whole day. We bought a bottle, thankfully. We will probably try to get back to that store again to do a bit more sampling. The rest of the wineries, or domaines as the French say, had specific wines from that winery rather than a selection from around the region. This first store was really a one stop shop.

We carried on through the countryside of my imagination. The vineyards were not in bloom. It’s February. However, the vines were all well trimmed and had certain uniformity. Often, there was someone in the field doing something important to the vines. The fields themselves were almost like a decoration on the land. The rows became stripes of colour and many times the vineyards were planted at various angles right next to each other, creating a beautiful quilt effect. Apparently, they plant them at angles because of Le Mistral, a wicked fast wind that blows the smithereens out of everything in this part of the world. We’ve experienced a few windy days but I can’t say I felt it would “blow the ears off a donkey” as Peter Mayle did. Perhaps we have yet to experience that.

At one point, we drove through the Chain Pass, a high point in the mountains. For those of you living near the Rockies or Coastal Mountains, these Provence mountains are mere hills that get in the way of the view. However, we did get a great look at the Dentelles de Montmirail. These are the weirdest looking mountains I’ve seen in awhile. At the top of a dark green average mountain these jagged, flat looking rocks jut up. No kidding, they look like the spine of a Stegosaur. An author with a fertile imagination could get a great story there. Up close, they are just as weird looking, like big front teeth.

We sampled a variety of wines at a variety of domaines over the day. No one sample is very big but after awhile I’m pretty sure we had consumed a few glasses. By the last domaine, we felt emboldened enough to stay for about eight different samples. This one was quite busy and one of the samplers was a 100 year old man. We all spent a bit of time congratulating him on his age. Imagine being able to get around to domaines at 100! He was with his son who looked like he must be nearing 80. They bought a case of wine. We bought another bottle.

I should mention the spitoons. I had heard that when you sample wines, you swirl it in your mouth and then spit it out. This seems to be grossly unfair and although we did locate the spitoon at the first place, after that first sip of wine, all thoughts of spitting fly from your head. No one spits. Everyone drives. And you should SEE the roads. These are one lane, cliffside corkscrews that look as though they wash out in a good rain. One of the roads actually had areas where the road crossed over/through the creek as the road twisted back and forth. There were several places where you could see the road had taken a beating but it is a well know fact that wine heightens your senses so we were fine.

It was a fun day and learning a little bit about wine tasting has created new awareness. We can now spot the “degustation” domaines in our own neighbourhood. Is this the first step in a twelve step program?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Museum of Lavender

Six months of travel includes a lot of museums so one would think that after awhile you’d stop wanting to visit them. Strangely, this is not the case. I look forward to them. So even though the museum was called, “The Museum of Lavender”, I approached it with anticipation. I know what you’re thinking. The Museum of Lavender? Aren’t we becoming a wee bit desperate to spend quality tourism hours at a museum devoted to a smelly purple plant? I mean, other than the female octogenarian set with their blue rinse hair and sensible shoes, who would purposefully subject themselves to a whole afternoon enveloped by the heady scent of lavender? How much does one really need to know? Well, I’m glad you asked.

The museum is set up well with a brief introduction by a tour guide who will answer questions, a movie to place you in centre field, several displays and an audioguide to describe what you are seeing. I can tell you that this is the winning museum formula. Here’s what you want to know about lavender. It only grows in Provence. Yep, real lavender, the most pure kind will only grow above 1100ft in Provence. The rest of the world has to suffer with its close cousin, lavendine. Real lavender grows on one branch and produces only a fraction of what lavendine can produce. Real lavender has medicinal uses. It can help you sleep, soothe a cut or burn, make a calming tea and other things I can’t remember. In fact, we’re pretty sure that if you combined it with pure olive oil and smeared it on your body, you’d be invincible.

To produce the essence, they stuff a bunch of the plants into a huge cauldron. They use pitchforks to get rid of air pockets. Then they heat water below and the vapour rises through the plant matter. It wends its way through several coils, cooling and condensing into a liquid. One of these cauldrons full of lavender produces one cup or so of pure liquid essence. The picture on the left shows one of the first cauldrons to be used. There have been many improvements to production over the years but the process is essentially the same.

Lavender really became world renowned when tanners began using it to mask the smell of tannins used in producing gloves. Both the gloves and the lavender became huge successes. The picture on the right shows a travelling still. It was designed to produce wine but when laws changed and not just any Pierre, Jacques or Andres could produce wine, this still became a lavender production centre for awhile. Have lavender, will travel?

These people are serious about their lavender and even breed their own bees to aid in production. The bees that work in the lavender fields produce an exclusive honey which has a lighter, more delicate flavour. This honey can ONLY be produced in Provence. The beekeepers and lavender producers have a symbiotic relationship until harvest time when each believes their product should determine the correct time to reap the lavender. Now, we haven’t tried the honey but if we do, it will be with all the other gourmet products sold only in Provence. This place is a gastronomic connoisseur’s delight!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Our house in Venasque

We’ve spent a relaxing first couple of weeks in Venasque, France. Venasque is “One of the most beautiful villages in France”, apparently a much coveted title but fairly liberally handed out. Mind you, we’re tourists following advice from guidebooks so it bears to reason that we see the best and most beautiful.

Our first glimpse of Venasque was driving up in the evening, the sun low in the sky, illuminating a village perched atop a cliff. We didn't take a picture that evening so you get the light grey version instead. Not knowing where we were going to end up, Tom said, “I hope that’s it”. We wound our way up the hill, traversing the narrow switchbacks like old pros.

We drove through the arched passage at the top, to arrive a dry fountain that looked as though pedestrians could navigate it easily but anything larger than a mini was a risk. Our GPS, Pierre, pointed us into a passage that could only have been for horses. We opted to return outside the walls to park and explore instead on foot.

Following the ramparts we arrived at an open parking area with arched gates into the city on either side. We discovered our street sign behind the parking lot wall and eventually located a door with the correct name on it. It is an interesting system of addresses in Europe. You have no house number, simply your name and street.

The house is stone, just like the ramparts but the house has a layer of plaster over it. It was built around the 16th century possibly as the gatekeeper’s cottage. In the picture below, you can see how narrow our street is yet it is open to vehicles. We haven't driven it; maybe because of the stairs that go down just beyond the door? The rampart wall is on the right. Our front door is open on the left and those are our window shutters. There are three floors which seems generous for the time but perhaps the floors were put to different uses. It seems like the whole place may actually be two old homes made into one because of its size. Today, the main floor is the kitchen and living area with a wonderful wood burning fireplace. The remains of a second blocked fireplace are by the front door, lending support to our theory that this is two residences combined into one. We’re allowed to burn wood, which is good as it is our main source of heat. There is central heating but we have been warned it cuts out quite frequently and cannot be relied on. As back up, there are two gas heaters and an electric space heater. Seems like overkill but we have used them all at various points. After one week the living room lights stopped working. Tom believes this is because of the transformer.

It may sound like we are freezing to death but it is really quite toasty in the main living space and our home has a wonderful woodsy smell. The main floor is quite dark, although there are several windows. The windows are all set into the thick outside walls and with such narrow streets and tall buildings, little sunlight penetrates. It gives a cave effect and feels positively medieval…if you discount the 21st century creature comforts.

Upstairs is a whole different world. The spiral staircase with steps emulating wedges of Brie cheese rises into a bright, cheery sitting room. This floor has skylights and if the upstairs heaters worked better, I’d spend more time there. Rhys sleeps upstairs and his room is separated from the sitting area by a curtain. He has his own sink and toilet as well so essentially he has his own pad. You can see a picture of the sitting room on the left below.

The rest of us sleep on the bottom floor. Strangely, the basement floor is the warmest in the house. The rooms feel a bit cave-like without windows though both have a door that exits onto the side street. Julia’s room is more spacious but as it had the canopied bed graced with lavender chiffon and oozing feminine charm, Tom and I opted for the low-ceilinged room closest to the bathroom. Two bathrooms feels particularly luxurious after six months of sharing.

There are wonderful “old world” touches throughout and I’m not just talking about the suspect plumbing in the bathrooms. Many of the walls have odd recesses for shelves, the doorway is arched, the windows shuttered and there is a ladder stairway leading to a tiny rooftop terrace overlooking the rest of the town roves. I’m hoping a bit of heat will pass our way so we can enjoy the view out there while sipping wine and eating cheese and tapenade and feeling very Provencal.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


Every European country we’ve visited so far has its own WWII story to tell and France is no exception. In Normandy, we saw the D-Day beaches and read about the Allies liberating France. In the south however, the game was a bit different. This appears to be the heart of the Résistance. The south was run by the Vichy government, a Nazi puppet regime, while the north was controlled directly by the Nazi’s. The Vichy government was led by Petanque (not sure of the spelling), the General of the French Army who decided France’s best chance for survival was to side with Hitler. All over the Dordogne Valley are plaques and memorials to the fallen Résistance fighters. Plaques commemorate sites of skirmishes between the Nazi’s and Résistance, and unless the Dordogne was a hot seat of unrest, there are more than one would expect.

As the Allies drove further into France that fateful summer, the Germans did not go peacefully. The Germans realized the Résistance fighters in France created a particularly difficult problem as they could be anyone, anywhere and strike from within what the Germans considered their home turf. This is the problem when you take over a country by force. After D-Day, the Germans began a campaign of terror in order to prove their superior power and prevent French citizens from getting any ideas about joining the Résistance.

Ordour-sur-Glane was a small village about two hours north of Sarlat. It had about 300 inhabitants during WWII and was unremarkable in most ways. The Germans chose this town to use as an example of how they could annihilate anyone at anytime. The actually had a written document on how to carry out a mass murder. On their chosen date of execution, the population in the town had doubled. It was handout day for cigarette rations and vaccination clinics were being held.

German troops surrounded the town, forming a net and then walking in, sweeping outlying homes and fields, then emptying local schools and businesses to ensure everyone was gathered in the town centre. They then separated the women and children from the men, sending them to the village church and locking them in. They broke the men into small groups and spread them out around the town. On a command, the soldiers around town simultaneously opened fired, executing all the men. Then they built pyres over the bodies and set them on fire.

The soldiers lobbed tear gas and grenades into the church, then opened the doors and shot into the chaos of 400 screaming women and children. They set explosives to the roof of the church to try to cave it in and set fire to the building. They then raced through the town looting and taking whatever valuables they could carry before setting each of the town buildings on fire. They sat guard watching the town burn all night. In the morning, they dragged whatever human remains still existed to a mass burial site.

Of the 200 or so men, six escaped a burning barn but only five survived. Of the more than 400 women and children executed in the church, only one woman managed to escape. One boy also escaped because he ran when the Germans came into his school. He somehow made it out of the village.

During the Nuremburg trials after the war, very few of the soldiers involved were brought to justice. Of those tried, 14 were French citizens who had been pressed into German service as times got tough for the Germans. The 14 Frenchmen were not convicted. The French president used this town as an example of the atrocity of the war crimes the Germans committed against the French. The town was left exactly as it stood June 10, 1944. Today visitors can walk through the quiet streets and see the rusted remains of the fire that ended this town more than 65 years ago. A plaque at the village entrance states simply, “Remember”.

Walking the streets was eerie and sad. Many building fronts still stand though the interiors are rubble overgrown with plant life. Many buildings have signs to show what kind of business was there and who owned it. Signs of human daily life still sit inside; the sewing machine in the wool shop, the pot still on a stone shelf, the husks of cars behind the mechanic shop wall. The telephone poles sag and tilt and here and there a bouquet of fresh flowers reminds you that there are still people now who knew the people lost that day.

The church is roofless and the sunlight spills in, casting beauty in a place of horror. The altar still carries the pock marks of the bullets but more chilling still are the burned remains of a pram nearby. It is hard to prevent the disturbing images and feelings of disgust that shiver over you on seeing it. Even the large groups of teenagers clutching their notebooks and pens walk softly and murmur quietly. This town is in the school curriculum. The French motto surrounding this war is “Forgive but not forget”. It is difficult to imagine how the people here have been able to embrace this motto.

Aquaducks...oh, ducts.

OK, yah so Romans. Alrighty, for me, history gets worse to live in the farther back you go. The Romans, though, had it going pretty well for themselves when there empire was tops, better than medieval times. Romans ruled all over Europe, (and some of Morocco, Jordan and such) one of the things they were good at was keeping the people happy. It’s sort of why they were successful (they were also successful because they were good at fighting). Back then water was a sign of wealth, so the more you had the wealthier you are[don’t worry I’m getting to the point!]. Then the Romans decided that to make the towns look richer they would find away to get more water into the towns [almost there…]. They came up with Aquaducts [Yes, that was the point.], Aquaducts are basically pipes or water transportation.

How: They made them by lying down a solid, rectangular, flat piece of clay with edges that are a bit higher than the middle. Then took a hot stamp and stamped that into the clay. After they had their mould they poured the liquid-medal into the mould and when it cooled they rolled it up and sealed it. The width and length of the mould varied depending on what sizes they wanted their pipes. When they were done making their pipe they stuck it together with another pipe to make a longer one.

Why: They made them mostly to flood water in the city. They also wanted to impress the people they defeated, like now the richer could get cold and hot water out of taps in their houses. The Romans could also turn the water flow on and off in different areas. They had that so they were prepared for times of droughts.

Where: Everywhere they ruled they had Aquaducts. Which was most of Europe and some of Africa and Asia. The biggest Aquaduct bridge (left standing) is in France and we saw it today.

When: The Aquaducts time was about 40 A.D. The Romans prime time was close to 0 A.D, The Romans ruled from 500 B.C to 500 A.D, though. Their Empire started to fall in 400 A.D and fell for good in 500 A.D. After the Romans left the ‘Dark Ages’ started.

What: They used pressure to push the water through the pipes and into the baths.

Who: Uh...the Roman's :)