Vedute or Capriccio [truth or dare?] – Aix en Provence, Monday 11 May
In ‘groundhog day’ fashion, another relaxing breakfast with Jacques and Christine who had taken days off work to keep us company. We followed it up by an afternoon drive back into Aix to show Maggie around, go to an art exhibition, and tour Jacques’ workplace.
The exhibition showed the works of Canaletto, a Venetian artist of the mid 1700’s who specialised in buildings and street scenes from Venice, Rome and London. And like most days, I learned something new. His early paintings were in the popular and colourful ‘capriccio’ style – where he would use a bit of licence in his depictions, like transposing buildings into different towns/streets, and, changing the proportions or colors of an edifice. He then made his reputation pioneering ‘vedute’ – where he would produce accurate copies of places and events. In the same gallery Jacques and I also watched a short film on the late-1800’s life of local-legend artist Paul Cezanne, which highlighted the natural surroundings of Aix where Cezannne had lived and painted, including the stunning areas we had walked in.
Jacques, a technician in the air traffic control centre that controls the airspace of south-east France, then showed us his workplace. [A little white-lie to security that our drivers’ licences did indeed show our places of birth, and we were in!] It was amazing to see the controllers in action, and all the technology and backup systems required. Topical too, given the recent ‘German Wings’ crash tragedy in the French Alps had happened on their watch – the controllers issuing a distress notice within minutes of fruitlessly trying to contact the renegade pilot and noting the slow descent, flight pattern change.
Back home, it was another special dinner of ravioli and chicken ‘a la Christine’. Evening entertainment was provided via video snippets of their travels, and the kids’ younger days. [You can imagine how much they enjoyed seeing those!] I put in a request for Jacques to visit Australia tout-de-suite so he could organise all our photos in the same orderly fashion he had theirs! Even anarchists must agree there is Freedom in Order? Final goodbyes said in case we missed them in their morning starts to work and school. Thank you Famille Guivarch!
Beware the nougat stalls – Eguilles to Cucuron driving, Tuesday 12 May
The home village of our French/Australian friend Sandrine is Cucuron, just 30km north of Eguilles. On her demand we had to stay with her parents and visit the Tuesday market! Dutifully we arrived at the market square at 9.30am – about 30 stalls with variety of products. Elly commented on how it was a bonus her Mum wasn’t with us yet, fossicking ‘bargains’ and buy things like pottery, kitchenware, and tea towels…and then Elly immediately purchased a hat and some jam! I can’t criticize though as I nabbed an olive-wood cake-slice server, and some nougat. And that’s a story in itself.
Nougat salesmen never have to work too hard to sell their delicacies to us, but we should have paid closer attention to the price as we sampled every variety in the range. A requested slice of 300gm of the pistachio and coconut seemed very reasonable at 6.90E/kg. We even accepted with an expansive wave the almost 500gm piece he [deliberately?] cut off. Trouble was we misread the sign and it was 6.90/100gm. Oh, la, la! But we have not been the first to come unstuck at a nougat stall – Maggie’s friend Rosie did exactly the same thing at Lyon some months prior. Buyers beware.
Deciding it would be a good present for our hosts, we carried on sampling other wares for lunch: delicious barbequed chicken, duck sausages, and pork ribs…followed by Florentine biscuits, and apricot tart made by the same family in nearby Luberon since 1963.
Found Sandrine’s parents home in the centre of the village, and with Maggie acting as essential translator settled into our upstairs self-contained ‘house’ fit for Provencal-holidaying kings. Last tasks for the day were: a 45min drive to the Aix TGV station to gather Grandma Val and Uncle Will, a shopping spree at the supermarket, and eat the dinner prepared by Elly and Jordy of stuffed tomatos, capsicum and zucchini [following Christine’s recipe sampled just days before].
Biting the Dust – Luberon Valley circuit 53km – Wednesday 13 May
Maggie and I decided to ride one of the signed bike circuits around the villages of the valley, while the others wandered the streets of Cuceron.
Perfect day for cycling with little wind, quiet roads and rural scenery. The agriculture is dominated by grapevines on the slopes and rockier locations, and on the fertile flats wheat and oats, tinged with red from the competing [weed] poppies . A succession of villages passed with their typical mid-brown colored houses and half-circle roof tiles, clustered around a church and small central square: Loumarin, Ansuois, La Tour des Aguies, Saint Martin…A couple of stops for baguette and banana lunch, and dessert of ice-cream at a specialised ‘artisan glacier’ [cinnamon gelati is delicious!], before an unscheduled and unpleasant third stop.
On a slight downhill run, we caught up to a small tractor. Happily chatting about the joys of the day and agrarian life, suddenly Maggie flipped over the front of her bike and hit the bitumen deck at 25kph. If she wasn’t shocked I certainly was – looking back to see her sitting in the middle of the road cradling her arm and shoulder, vulnerable to the next car whizzing over the hill. It could have been worse – fortunately the bike was ok. Oh, and Maggie, despite a large open graze on her shoulder and various sore spots, was able to pedal the last 15kms home – grateful she had been wearing her helmet, and annoyed she had mistakenly jammed on her front brake instead of her rear as she rolled up behind me. Who’d be a cyclist?
Imagine our surprise when we got back and Grandma [retired GP] Val was already in consultation with another patient and we had to join the queue! Elly, while acting as goalkeeper for Jordy’s playtime shooting at the soccer field, had been cracked on the wrist and bruised/sprained it. What a mess!
But we decided to keep calm and carry on…and open a bottle of bubbly…while Jordy, Will and I produced dinner of creamy, pepper chicken and salad. Maybe everything would be better in the morning?
The Extraordinary Museum – Ascension Thursday 14 May
No improvement in the sporting injuries, so it was a day of sedate driving [with 4 in the back seat of the accommodating Kangoo] and walking locally. Began at Lourmarin, thinking the market was on despite the public holiday. It wasn’t, but that’s because I jumbled my days of the week when I was reading the French tourist brochure. Ooops, note to self: ‘Vendridi’ is Friday. Luckily the others weren’t upset as they wandered the tourist shops, and Jordy was stoked because there was a grass soccer pitch and I kicked with him until my knees and groins suggested I might miss the next game if I continued. Moved on to a lake near Cucuron with our picnic lunch, then to the Beaux Village of Ansouis, and ‘Le Musee Extraordinaire’.
It’s an extraordinary claim to be an extraordinary museum…in a small house in a small village in a small valley. But the sign out the front maintained ‘there are many places you leave feeling disappointed, but you will leave the Extraordinary Museum feeling happy you visited’.
With that build up…? Well, it was interesting, and it wasn’t like any other museum. And Grandma Val thought it was extraordinary. It was essentially the eclectic collection of a [now deceased] ‘lover of the sea’ still operated by his middle-aged daughter. The bloke had been an avid diver, amateur artist and gatherer of odd things like fossils, old tools, and gemstones. But basically it was the shells and skeletons of a whole lot of sea creatures and corals, and anything else he’d found on the ocean floor and beach. The English-speaking daughter showed us around and was intrigued we were also museum proprietors! Indeed, it was not ordinary.
Fixing the Injuries – Friday 15 May
Public holiday over, it was time to get expert opinions on the war injuries. While I took Val and Will to Lourmarin market [take-two], Elly and Maggie visited the doctor. The results: Elly a severely strained wrist requiring rest and a splint, Maggie a possible broken arm requiring an xray in Aix en Provence.
Having already booked our lunch date at the Balbos cousin’s restaurant la Belize at Cavaillon, we decided to honor that before going to the hospital. Despite a 45 min drive, it was well worth it – value for money and time. Beautiful presentation and large servings of regional dishes.
Lucky we were fuelled up, as the wait at the hospital was almost 5 hours. Perhaps understandable given it was Friday afternoon at Emergency. Eventually Maggie emerged with a plaster cast past her elbow that weighed as much as her, and a diagnosis of a small break.
Aromas of Provence – Grand Luberron 21km, Manosques driving – Saturday 16 May
Fine clear morning, so decided on an early morning bike ride up the walking and forestry paths to 948m saddle of the Grand Luberron Range above Cucuron. Felt part of an ‘outdoors fraternity’ as being a weekend a lot of other bushwalkers and cyclists were out and about. I was very careful: with the bike as it wasn’t quite robust enough for downhilling on the rough, rocky and loose terrain; and also very careful with myself given the accidents of the week! It turned out to be as slow going downhill as up really. But well worth the considerable effort, and it was a shame not to have company.
At midday we squeezed into Kangoo again and headed for Manosques and the factory outlet/museum of L’Occitane de Provence, the now global cosmetic company founded by a young passionate visionary in 1978. The story of the company was new to me, and told nice things of an ethical emphasis on bio-produce of the region, establishment of fair trade cooperatives out of the region for ingredients coming from overseas, and a commitment to quality. It was inspiring, but it is still an industry based on vanity, and as practical as an antiseptic, even perfumed soap is…it still should not cost a fortune. [Hope you enjoy it Oma!]
Returned to honour an invitation with our hosts Maurice and Geneviève for a 6pm aperitif. Wow! Geneviève had prepared a table length of hors d’oevres delicacies, and Maurice a secret punch recipe that we could only drink ‘two fingers’ at a time… the index and little finger ‘two fingers’ that is! After a couple of glasses the conversation flowed freely, despite the fact everything had to go through translator Maggie. We were also joined by the neighbours, a younger couple whose 12 year old son had a longing to visit Australia – they were super-impressed when Jordy produced a kangaroo out of the wire champagne stopper as a present.
Sound and Light – Les Baux en Provence, Sunday 17 May
Funny how things work out sometimes. The plan for the day was to visit two places of interest at Les Baux en Provence, about 60km from Cucuron: Les Carrieres de Lumieres, and Les Baux Castle . I’d chosen them with Val and Jordy in mind respectively. It was an interesting twist that they enjoyed the ‘converse’ attraction.
Les Baux is famous for two things? It was the source of limestone building blocks sawn from open and underground quarries; and ‘bauxite’ is named after it, as the aluminium ore was ‘discovered’ nearby.
Les Carrieres is a large, mainly underground quarry that has been converted into a sound and light show space. Digital images are projected on the plane 15m high, white ‘walls’ and massive supporting pillars of uncut stone. Hard to visualise, but wow – what a vision. The current exposition was the major works of da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo. About 45 min of music and changing images was stunning. [Make sure you see our video of it one day!]
The Castle sits above the village, and whilst a ruin, still commands great views south to the sea, and has medieval weaponry on display, from battering rams to crossbows. Jordy tried the latter, but loved the audio-visual of the morning. Val was intrigued with the models and castle complex, and found the sound and light show, not as good as ‘seeing the originals’.
For the rest of us, including Jacques and Christine who’d joined us from Eguilles, both activities were duly recognised.
Next event for the day was to deliver the kids into Avignon to catch the train to Lyon, as it was impossible to pack all the gear, six people and three bikes into the Kangoo. It’s good, but not that good!
Last job? Record the church clock of Cucuron just outside our window. Maybe there are others around like it, but we haven’t come across one in Europe before. It ‘dongs’ the hour twice, a minute apart, so if you miss the count the first time, you get a second chance. Fantastic. And the half-hour is just a single ‘dong’. [And as had happened most nights, I heard the 2am, 3am or 4am clanging really clearly.]