Thursday, 8 November 2012

Eatin’ and Drinkin’ en Provence

And that pretty much covers what went on for the first week Perri's fall school break. If you prefer more details, keep reading.

As usual, no school break can be wasted. Perri was overruled when she voted for, and I quote: “sleeping in and watching tv” for the entire week. Meanwhile, Ann quietly made plans to meet some friends who were visiting from Calgary. What better way to spend some time (and money) than driving around the south of France? This time we go en Provence.
Ann making plans... A most dangerous game.
We spent the first couple of days at a B&B in Aix-en-Provence, an ancient town north of Marseille and arguably the cultural hub of the region. The first item on the agenda was some hiking around Montagne Saint-Victoire, a noteworthy blip on the otherwise gently rolling terrain.
Bad weather. What can you do?
Ann and 'guest' at Mt. Ste. Victiore.
The weather had been unseasonably cold and windy, although it had relented for our outing. Mt. Sainte-Victoire is crisscrossed with a myriad of hiking trails, all marked clearly so only a complete idiot could get lost.
I'm sure it's this way...
After about and hour we were lost. Somehow the trail we were on just petered out and we found ourselves at the bottom of a ravine. The good news was walking for more than a kilometer in any direction was bound to get us unlost, plus we were pretty sure the road was about two minutes away if we could guess the right direction. The bad news was Ann and I didn’t agree on which direction was right and the third member of the party (not Perri, who was back at the B&B sleeping in and watching tv) was beginning to see the logic in visiting grievous bodily harm on the two of us. A few short minutes of bushwacking and we found ourselves staring at a lovely country estate, and more importantly, a road.
Civilization, upscale.

Author’s note – I never mention names of those passing through the blog. My concern is being caught up in a messy legal case where one or more guests are caught touring Europe while officially on stress leave, or some equivalent. If I don’t use names, plausible deniability can come into play (“No, that’s not me but I can see why you might think so. There is a resemblance.”).

After lunch and another small hike near our B&B, we ventured out for the first of many significant late-day meals. It occurred to me that we had better be planning at least fifty miles of daily walking to offset the caloric intake. Sadly, this was not to be the case.

The next day we were off to Arles, another ancient town, with plenty of ruins to prove it. Curiously, the town looked like pretty much any other town, if you looked the right way. However, if you looked the other way, or around the corner, you got a whole lotta real old stuff.
On the catwalk at Arles.
They actually had gladiators here.

More Roman stuff.
This is a big bridge thing.

After a big, tasty lunch, we found our way to the Pont-du-Gard, a two thousand year-old Roman aquaduct. More importantly, we also found some firecrackers for sale in the local tabac shop. Fortunately, the other male in our group shared my genetic tendency toward “blowin’ stuff up”, which we did later. Back to the boring history bit. The Pont-du-Gard crosses the river Gardon and stands close to fifty meters high, and is part of an aquaduct of over 50 kilometres length. Pretty cool.

A great race, the Romans.
Our next B&B was just outside of Avignon. For you history buffs, you will remember Avignon for such things as the ‘great papal confusion’ of the 12th century, where no one in the Catholic church knew where to send the money (at least, that’s my take on it). On that day, normal fall weather patterns returned and we were blessed with torrential rain and chilly north winds. Fortunately, we planned on spending a portion of the day touring the Palais des Papes. In retrospect, spending the better part of a cold, wet day in a midieval Gothic structure may not have been a good idea. Brrrrrrr. Sadly, the gift shop had no "Pope-on-a-rope" Soap.
Raining and miserable.
Inner courtyard - good place for a putting green.
Who loves the gift shop? On a bad day, you make your own fun.
The day was salvaged by a trip to Chateau Gardine (in the heart of chateauneuf-des-papes country, for you winos out there), where we tasted expensive wine and failed to leave without purchasing some.
Wow! This tastes expensive!
We finished the day chowing down at a nice little restaurant off the beaten path in Avignon. Without our gps unit, much of this vacation experience would have been impossible. The old part of Avignon reminds me of a rabbit warren for rabbits with a very well-developed sense of direction.

The next few days we spent driving, eating, driving some more, stopping briefly, and eating again. We did see some cool things and funky towns, and had some wonderful meals.
We had lunch here. No idea what it's called.
Ann and I at the old ochre mine, somewhere.
The highlight of the experience might well have been a trip to a truffle farm, where the right oak trees grown in the right type of soil can, with luck and hard work, produce smelly off-colored fungus. We were treated to a hunt, complete with a truffle dog (pigs weren’t available), and a substantial lunch involving every possible use of truffles, including truffle brulee for dessert. When I heard we were going on a hunt, I was expecting something a little more redneck (e.g. camo gear, weapons, truffle blinds). The sad reality set in when it was clear the guide pretty much knew where every truffle was likely to be and the real challenge was keeping the dog from eating every truffle he found. I noticed the dog usually got it in his mouth for at least a few seconds before being asked to remove it (keep that in mind when ordering the expensive “truffle special” on your next visit to a shee-shee-ou-la-la French restaurant).
Get that out of your mouth!
Yummy, tastes like dog.
We managed to find a go-cart place to balance the wine-tasting (does anyone see a problem with this?). A good time was had by the crazy girls...

Speed kills.
 On the last day, we finished with some wine-tasting of the Gigondas appellation (no pictures, sorry). I didn’t notice until I got home that some of the plonk I bought was high-test. Six of the bottles of the 2007 Domaine de Terme weighed in at 15.5% alcohol. Please, only drink this stuff while under supervision of a responsible adult.

The next morning we dumped our mystery guests at the airport in Marseille, and hardly noticed the brief 6-hour drive back to Arcachon.

The provence region must be kooky during the summer season, based on the tourism infrastructure we saw. In late October, there were very few tourists but still enough to guarantee some restaurants would be open. That being said, the food and wine was great everywhere we went and the towns and countryside quite beautiful.  Oh, right. There was some historical stuff, too. I think I may like to try it again in the spring.