Singing Rod Stewart – Carcassone to Saintes Marie de la Mer driving, The Camargue 30km- Thursday 7 May
Mustered early to pack up and rigorously clean the cabin so we could pass inspection by the camp commandant and get our 350E back. Phew, successful! It made for a nice drive through the famed vineyards of Languedoc to the Camargue National Park.
The Camargue is a huge old delta of the Rhone River with dead flat saltbush paddocks, rice paddies, and shallow lagoons dotted with the renowned animal life of the region: black long-horned cattle, white camargue horses, and pink flamingos. I had tried to see it in the 1970’s as a backpacker, but had been unsuccessful in hitchhiking the last 20kms! So it was with great anticipation we walked around the coastal town of Saintes Marie, booked a cheap hotel, and got the bikes out to ride and see the countryside. Elly and I rode along a dyke bikepath with scores of other holidaymakers gawking at the scores of pink flamingos scratching away in the water feeding, or resting on one leg, head tucked under their wing. Sadly, in a revisit to the 70’s backpacker, I couldn’t get the words of Rod Stewart’s ‘Pretty Flamingo’ out of my head!
Back in town, we wandered around to the Notre Dame de la Mer Church with its black wood, statue of Saint Sara, the patron saint of gypsies; and selected a restaurant to sample the flavors of the Camargue: pippies, beef fillet, egg carbonara, and apple tart.
Journee Henri Aubanel – The Camargue 38km, Saintes Maries to Eguilles driving – Friday 8 May
To maintain the record of a swim in every country, the flat, brisk beach opposite the hotel was braved early morning – the air temperature probably the same as the water – high teens? Refreshed and eager for breakfast, Elly and I rode to the edge of town as locals prepared to commemorate ‘the day of Henri Aubanel’, evidently a pioneer promoter of the heritage of camargue life – cattle and horses. ‘For the tourism, for the history, for our children’ was my translation of the speech made while the 100 people assembled tucked into a simple, delicious breakfast of barbequed bacon rashers, lashings of paté on baguette, all sloshed down by red wine. And free!
The next event on the program was the midday running of the bulls into town. Many more expectant people lined the streets now, families with kids down for a beach day given the public holiday for the anniversary of the end of WW2. Suddenly a loud cantering was heard, and in a blur about 10 horseriders, tightly encircling about 4 bulls so they couldn’t see out of the scrum, whisked by en route to the town ‘bull-fighting’ arena. Amazing! [Important note: no bulls are killed in French ‘bullfighting’ – the aim is to pull decorations off the horns of the taunted charging beast!] It was a conversation point as I cajoled the others into another cycle ride north through the swamps and paddocks to Mejanes. But neither were keen to hang around to see the 4pm demonstration of the skills involved, so we drove off, with a deviation along the camino path to Arles, to our weekend destination of the family Guivarch home at Eguilles.
We hosted their son Stevane as an exchange student in 2013, and were looking forward to catching up again, as well as meeting his parents Jacques and Christine and sister Maelle. It was no surprise that after settling in, and having dinner, we all talked until midnight.
Walking in Cezanne Country – Saturday 9 May
With the children sleeping in, the parents conversed over fresh juice, herbal tea and numerous spreads on baguette [Jacques is even a convert to Vegemite!], before driving to the Grand Site of Sainte Victoire, and the Bibemus Park on the outskirts of Aix-en-Provence. A significant area of natural vegetation on the dry stony hills, famous for being the landscapes painted by artist Paul Cezanne. Lots of wildflowers in bloom amongst the native pines and leafier plane trees, and a couple of dams and aqueducts made for a lovely and rigorous 4 hour walk. It was great to see lots of locals of all ages out and about, with ‘bonjours’ and a smile.
Not satisfied with that hike, we then targeted central Aix. Christine informed us apartments were as expensive to buy as in Paris, and people want to be seen on the main street of town having a drink at a café or wandering out of one of the upmarket shops with a purchase. It’s a lovely place, but not startlingly beautiful – it’s more the climate, cultural facilities, and small, old town feel that is appealing. We tried our hand at being snobs by purchasing a couple of pastries from the renowned Bechard patisserie. I reckon a spread-hand sized fig tarte for 3.50E was a bargain, only surpassed by Elly’s outstanding coffee macaron. Snobbery for us anyday!
Collected Maggie from the TGV station in the early evening, having come down early from Lyon with some friends for a day swimming at the calanques [walk-in only, bay-beaches] in Marseille.
Olympique Marseille – Sunday 10 May
Another leisurely breakfast [ie an hour or two] before driving to Marseille. Parked under the Hotel de Ville and walked around the harbour – castle, museum, shopping centre all showed signs of imaginary contemporary architecture and a sustained urban renewal program. Downtown Marseille looks good.
With soccer on the agenda for the evening, it seemed appropriate I had one win and loss for the afternoon. Our stop for a special ice-cream resulted in a yummy fig and St Tropez cake, two-scoop beauty; but I was unsuccessful with haggling at the quayside market stall on a 2E postcard. “C’est non possible” came the firm response. I kissed my 2 euro coin and put it back in my pocket.
The mothers [Elly and Christine] left and the dads and kids went to park near the Olympique stadium at 6pm, 3 hours before kick-off. Could soon see why the early arrival, because it was getting busy at the cafes and bars where we bought a sandwich, and despite the seating inside being numbered nobody pays attention to them – at least behind the goals where all the hardcore fans gather and stand on their seats anyway. The loud singing was egged on by screaming, microphones-in-hand, cheerleaders. There were only a couple of hundred Monaco supporters so they were clearly out-bellowed. The game started disastrously for the home team, as the higher-placed opposition scored after 1 minute! It took until well into second half for OM to equalise, then go ahead with 2 minutes to play. The delirious fans were finally rewarded for their continuous chanting and sustained abuse dished out to opposing fans, players and referees. Certainly the atmosphere at a big-team soccer ground is fantastic, but their edgy support is something not missed in family-atmosphere Aussie Rules games ‘at the G’.
Got home at 1.20am!