Some 200 miles due north from Millau, in the Allier Department of the Auvergne, is the tiny village of Herisson; 600 inhabitants, a handful of shops, no hotels and only one bar-restaurant. We stumbled on the place while looking for somewhere to stay and it very quickly blew me away. It’s a picturesque medieval village in a most delightful setting on the River Aumance and it is brimming with history and character.
We parked the Van in the municipal campsite and made our way through the Parc Louis Bignon towards the centre of the village. In case you’re interested, Louis Bignon was born in Herisson some time in the 19th century and rose to become one of France’s most famous chefs and the owner of ‘Cafe Riche’ which at the time was Paris’s most fashionable and expensive restaurant.
From the park, there is a footbridge across the River Aumance which leads to La Porte de L’Enfer, one of two surviving medieval entrances into the village. The views from the footbridge, both up and down the Aumance, are splendid and some of the charming stone houses on the river bank are more than 500 years old.
The most obvious feature of the village and the one I was intent on visiting first was the castle. It is in ruins now but it was constructed in the 14th century by the Dukes of Bourbon (on the site of earlier castles) and it is steeped in history having been besieged by the English at least twice during the ‘100 Years War’ and again by Protestants in the French ‘Wars of Religion’. It was a small civil war between members of the Bourbon family which finally resulted in it being dismantled in the late 17th century by order of a certain Cardinal Mazarin. It’s walls were then used in the construction of many of the village’s existing houses but what remains of the castle is now protected.
For a village of just 600 souls, Herisson is very well provided with churches. There are four in total; five if you count the 12th century church of Saint Pierre de Chateloy which is just outside the village. My favourite is the 19th century Church of Notre Dame with it’s wonderful staircase at the entrance and some splendid stained glass windows.
Others to be seen are the Eglise de Saint Sauveur in the village centre (most of the church is 17th century but the belfry dates back to the 12th century), the 16th century church of Saint Etienne and the 17th century Chapelle du Calvaire. This latter building sits on a small hill on the edge of the visit and offers a great view over the village towards the castle.
Originally there were three medieval gates into Herisson. Two still stand, the 14th century Porte L’Enfer (also known as the Porte de Varenne) and the Porte de Gateuil…
As mentioned previously, there is just the one bar-restaurant currently open in Herisson; that is the ‘Auberge’ and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the place. The service was friendly and attentive (despite the fact we were the only diners interested in eating at one of the outside tables), the wine was local and the food was fine given we were staying over for just the one night.
Although the last to finish our drinks at the restaurant, we weren’t too late. We had a fairly long drive the next day and there was still one more place to visit before we could leave in the morning. Herisson is the French word for hedgehog (see photo below of house with hedgehog tiles) and there’s a small distillery in the village (the Monsieur Balthazar Distillery) which produces a whisky called ‘Hedgehog’. Now that’s got to be worth a try.
post script: Hedgehog is actually bourbon with a high corn content, barley and rye – As Charlie Endell would say “That’s nae a whisky. That’s a dirty glass”.
We have crossed the magnificent Millau Viaduct, designed by our very own Norman Foster, on a couple of occasions but not once stopped to visit the historical town of Millau. That had to change and, while heading north on the A75 Autoroute in readiness for our return to the UK, we dropped down into the Tarn Valley. We chose to stay at the Camping 2 Rivieres on Avenue de L’Aigoual, just over the River Tarn from Millau old town.
Situated at the confluence of the Rivers Tarn and Doubie, Millau’s historical centre is a ‘must see’ destination in it’s own right and the starting point for numerous interesting outings across the Aveyron Department of Occitaine. We were staying just 24 hours and didn’t therefore have the time to explore anything other than Millau and, after parking the Van, I set off to explore the old town with a view to showing Vanya it’s highlights later in the day.
I really like Millau’s old town. It’s a warren of crooked cobbled lanes and tiny courtyards. Many of the lanes are arched and lead to sleepy little squares tucked away all over the town. They are gorgeous.
Except for when I crossed the Tarn to look at the the Millau Plage, using what looked like pedestrian pontoon bridge near the Pont du Larzac, I kept to the old town. Sadly, this meant missing out on a couple of Millau’s more interesting tourist sights, notably the Roquefort Caves and the Museum and Roman archaeological site of La Graufesenque (all that is left of a whole town of potters whose huge kilns were capable of producing 40,000 high quality pots per batch and whose wares have been discovered as far away as India). No matter, we’ll be returning and meanwhile I saw enough in the old town to keep me content.
I started by heading for one of the town’s highest points, the Belfry or ‘Beffroi de Millau’, not least because it is adjacent to the local tourist office and I figured they were best qualified to help me maximise my short time in the town. The tourist office informed me that visitors could ascend the tower except it was currently closed for renovation. They provided some background information on the town, starting with the Belfry (which is all that remains of a 12th century palace built by the Kings of Aragon) and then directed me towards some of the town’s more impressive monuments; churches mostly and various other historical points of interest. I’ll leave the photos to do the talking…
I visited a number of the larger churches but would comment on just two. The first of these was the Eglise du Sacre Coeur. Built in a Neo-Roman Byzantine style in the late 19th century and having two bell towers, it’s outside is more impressive than the inside. It’s one of the newer churches in Millau.
The Eglise Notre Dame de l’Espinasse is definitely the most interesting of all the churches I saw in Millau. It has history and some wonderful frescoes inside. The existing church was built in the 17th century although there has been an Eglise Notre Dame de L’Espinasse on this site (now the Place Marechal Foch) since the 11th century. The original church and contents (including a thorn supposedly taken from the crown worn by Jesus at his crucifixion and from which the church got it’s name) were completely destroyed during the Wars of Religion in the second half of the 16th century.
In contrast to the Millau Sacre Coeur, it is the inside of the Eglise Notre Dame which is the more impressive, not least because of Jean Bernard’s paintings which cover the apse ceiling.
Other historical points of interest in the town include the Lavoir de L’Ayrolle (a washhouse built during the 1740’s on the orders of Louis XV); the Fontaine du Moyen Age (known now as the Fontaine Basse, this has been a source of clear water for the town since at least the 14th century) and; Les Halles Millau (built near the Sacre Coeur church in the 19th century, during La Belle Epoque, this bustling covered food market is open every day except Mondays).
It is perhaps appropriate to mention here that there is a Farmers Market in the Old Town every Wednesday and at weekends in the area of the Eglise Notre Dame. Regional delicacies in the Aveyrone that are always available in the market include the local Roquefort blue cheese (aged in the nearby limestone caves), aligot (a creamy mixture of mashed potato and cheese), fouace (a sweet bread often enjoyed at breakfast) and echaude (an aniseed flavoured biscuit).
One last historical point of interest in Millau is it’s old grain mill (Moulin Vieux) on the town’s old bridge (Pont Vieux). There’s been a working mill on the Vieux Pont since the 12th century, even after most of the bridge was washed away by floods. The mill finally ceased working when the owners were declared bankrupt in 1937. I’m not sure what purpose the building serves now. I was unable to gain entry.
After dinner and a further wander around the old town with Vanya and the dogs we simply sat outside the Cafe Tout Va Bien on Boulevard de Bonald and watched the world go by over a couple of drinks. It was as chill a moment as you can get.
We’ll have to return for a few days when next in France. There’s plenty more to experience in Millau and the surrounding area. I’m thinking in particular of the two of Aveyron’s ten ‘plus beaux villages de France’ which are close by (Montpellier le Vieux and Peyre) and I missed out this time on Roquefort sur Soulzon (for it’s cheese). There’s also the Maison des Vautours Visitor Centre (to observe local vultures) and the Via Ferrata du Boffi (a rather interesting looking cliff-side walkway). Most important are some of the other local foodstuffs which I have yet to sample. I’m thinking of Veyreau Honey, Paulhe Cherries and Truffles at the Maison de la Truffe in Compregnac.
We decided to drive to Spain for the day from Banyuls sur Mer, taking the D914 coast road to the Franco-Spanish border. From there, well… we were intent on having a pintxos lunch so, almost any town or village in Spain would do. We’d follow the N260 in Spain and make our mind up as to the final destination en route. This trip was as much about the coast road as the pintxos.
The coast road to the border was everything it promised to be. It is a slow route because of it’s many curves and hairpin bends but, except for a handful of motorbikes, it was surprisingly quiet and offered exceptional views along the Catalan coast. The route took us through Cerbere and then up through a series of interesting rock formations to the Belitres Pass and into Spain.
The border is marked on the French side of the Pass by a long abandoned customs post which is now almost completely covered in graffiti and; on the Spanish side of the Pass by the Retirada Memorial, erected in 2009.
The Retirada (the Memorial del Exilio del Paso de Belitres to use it’s correct name) is a pictorial representation by Columbian artist Manuel Moros of the suffering of hundreds of thousands of republican refugees fleeing Spain for France as General Franco’s armies descended on Barcelona towards the end of the Spanish Civil War. And it didn’t end there; a year later, in 1940, this same Pass was used by refugees crossing the other way, from France to Spain, while fleeing from Nazi Germany. I suspect a fair few of those who left Spain in 1939 were amongst those who were compelled to return in 1940. Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place. Whatever, the photographs on the memorial capture the anguish and despair of the refugees. It’s a sobering memorial.
Once across the border and into Spain the road became the N260. This led us down through Portbou and then two other little fishing villages, Colera and Llanca.
Don’t ask me how it happened but, we soon found ourselves parked up in a place called Empuriabrava. Don’t go there! Reclaimed from swampland by some German entrepreneurs during the late 1960’s, Empuriabrava is a purpose built tourist resort of some 8,000 people (rising to an incredible 80,000 in the summer months). It is built around what I am advised is Europe’s largest residential marina, with some 40 kilometres of canals and more than 5,000 boat moorings. “Naff” is possibly the word that best describes the place. There is nothing about it that is remotely Spanish, let alone Catalonian, and from what little we saw (we couldn’t get out of there quick enough) it appeared to be populated largely by Russians. Vanya likened the place to an ill thought out and awful imitation of Port Grimaud. I thought she was being kind.
And so it was that we arrived in Roses. In a facebook entry on the day we arrived, I described Roses as being to Spanish beach resorts what Waitrose is to supermarkets (i.e tasty) but, looking back, any Spanish beach resort with any authenticity about it would prove tasty compared to Empuriabrava … but that shouldn’t detract from Roses.
In common with most towns and villages on the Costa Brava, Roses was a fishing town. It still has the largest fishing fleet on the Costa Brava but is now unashamedly a tourist town and probably one of the most popular tourist destinations on the Costa Brava. What sets it apart from so many other places on the Costas and what I like about the place is that it is not in the least tacky. The words fashionable and chic spring to mind (but, we are out of season). Moreover, it sits on the northern tip of Roses Gulf and is the only beach resort on the Costa Brava that faces west (which, if nothing else, will make for some great sunsets).
We parked the Van in the south of the town on a wide boulevard in the modern residential area of Santa Margarida and then, with the wide sandy beach and calm turquoise sea to our right, we strolled along the promenade towards the town centre.
Hotels, restaurants, cafe-bars and sculptures line the promenade all the way to the old fishing port. At it’s centre there is little left of the original village; just more hotels and restaurants, large apartment blocks, shops and boutiques and the odd monument and; on Sunday mornings a farmers market with 200+ stalls. There’s no doubt about it; Roses’s focus is towards it’s high quality blue star beaches and there are plenty of them.
Those nearest the town centre (the Platja Nova, the Rastrell and the Salatar) are wide family friendly beaches with fine sand and clear shallow waters and they are very popular during the high season; as is the beach just to the north of the harbour (Platja La Punta). Beyond that and accessible by car and local transport are the smaller, quieter but no less welcoming beaches of Platja Palangres, the Canyelles Petites and the Canyelles Grosses (also known as Platja Almadrava). They too offer golden sands and shallow waters and they tend to be frequented by local families in the summer. Further north, some 7 kilometres from Roses and on the edge of Cap de Creus National Park, is Montjoi Creek (where the world famous triple Michelin Star restaurant ‘El Bulli’ used to be located), Joncols Creek and Cala del Canadel. The sand on these particular beaches is darker and mixed with flat stones but the water is clearer still. Finally, there are numerous other small secluded beaches deeper inside the National Park (Cala Calitjas Creek and Cala Rostella being two of the larger better known ones) but these are stony and rocky and not so accessible and the water at Cala Rostella is considerably deeper. To reach them they require a bit of walking (unless you access them from the sea) and they tend to be the preserve of divers and nudists (or so I’m told).
Beach holidays don’t hold the same allure to Vanya and I as they used to (we can’t take the heat) but, going forward, I could be tempted to use Roses as a base from which to visit some of the surrounding countryside and especially the coastline although, it would have to be out of season. September and/or October would be as good a time as any. I think too that I could be tempted to charter a boat to better explore the coastline. Now there’s a thought.
After a short wander around the town, we set off back along the promenade to the Van, stopping at a beachfront restaurant on the way for pinxtos and a beer.
Oh. I mentioned the restaurant, El Bulli. It was owned by the Barcelona chef Ferran Adria and, until it’s closure in 2011, was one of the most famous restaurants in the world, holding 3 Michelin Stars from 1997 and being voted ‘Best Restaurant in the World’ 5 times in a row by Restaurant Magazine. Not once did El Bulli make a profit in the 27 years Adria was Head Chef but this is perhaps not surprising given they employed 40 chefs and had just 50 covers. It seems Adria’s focus was (is?) primarily towards avant-garde cooking; pushing boundaries and; creating new dishes with the whole menu being completely changed every year. Now that would have been a restaurant to visit.
We’ll return to Roses but for now, it’s back to Banyuls sur Mer and then north to the UK although; we still have a few days before having to catch our train back to Folkestone. It’s booked for Sunday 8 October.
And so to tiny Banyuls sur Mer in the foothills of the Pyrenees on the beautiful Vermillion Coast.
The Vermillion Coast (La Cote Vermeille in French) is a jagged shoreline, crammed with rocky coves and small stony beaches stretching some 50 miles from Argeles sur Mer through Collioure, Port Vendres, Banyuls and Cerbere (on the French side of the Pyrenees) to Port-Bou and then on almost to Cadaques (on the Spanish side). During an earlier tour we stayed at Collioure (one of my favourite places in France) and resolved at that time to return to the area and perhaps drive the narrow coast road across into Spain. That’s how it is that we came to be in Banyuls sur Mer.
Banyuls is a tiny picturesque town situated on the edge of a small bay, L’Anse du Fontaule, in the Gulf of Lion. It was a fishing port. It is now a tourist resort albeit, a fairly quiet one (especially out of season). A palm lined promenade, dotted with diverse sculptures (more about those later), curls south around the edge of the bay towards a small harbour. The beach is not one of the best I’ve ever seen. It’s a mix of rough almost gritty sand and stone, so typical of beaches in mountainous areas, but it is clean and the water is almost crystal clear
George Orwell is said to have described Banyuls sur Mer as “a bore and a disappointment” but that was a long time ago when he was on his way back from the Spanish Civil War. The fact is, Banyuls doesn’t attract the large crowds that either Collioure or Argeles sur Mer does. It’s a little off the beaten track and doesn’t have the distractions of it’s larger neighbours but that is not to say it is boring and/or a disappointment. This is particularly true if you are into either the local wine (there are countless vineyards and wines to experience) or hiking (Banyuls marks the end of the GR10, an exhilarating 850 kilometre trek along the length of the Pyrenees). In fact, lovers of wine and walking can enjoy both at the same time in Banyuls by walking the ‘Cote Vermeille Wine Route’. That would be neither a bore nor a disappointment to me. I think ‘intoxicating’ is a more appropriate description.
Banyul’s doesn’t have the grand villas that so many French coastal towns are graced with and neither does it have such an abundance of colourful, flower bedecked fishermen’s cottages that certainly Collioure has but; it has plenty of sea front bars and restaurants from which to sit and watch the world go by and; there are even more on the Rue Saint Pierre which runs parallel with what I will call the Corniche (since I don’t know the name of the sea front road).
I’ve mentioned already that this is a famous wine producing area. It’s most renowned product is an unusual red fortified dessert wine known simply as ‘Banyuls’. Banyuls is made with a mix of grapes, never less than 50% Black Grenache (75% for the Grand Cru), which are left on the vine until they shrivel, like raisins. This helps to concentrate and intensify the deep fruit flavours. A particularly interesting feature used in the production of certain Banyuls (e.g. Banyuls Grand Cru Doux Paille) are the glass barrels known as “Dame Jeanne” or even “Bonbonnes”. They serve to ensure the wine is exposed to direct sunlight. When ready for consumption, Banyuls pairs exceptionally well with chocolate, be it a cake, a sauce or simply a strong bar of plain chocolate. The proof is in the pudding (Sorry, I couldn’t stop myself).
Of course, I had to try the local wines and in this regard I called in on one of the more prominent wineries (Cave L’Etoile), visiting first their beach hut bar (where better to sample wines?) and then their production centre and shop on Avenue De Puig Del Mas. And, yes, of course I bought a bottle or two.
I also mentioned previously that the promenade in Banyuls Sur Mer contains a number of sculptures. Three of them are the work of Aristide Maillol, sculptor and painter who was born, lived and died in the town (1861 to 1944). He was a friend of Matisse and Derrain (whom I wrote about in my blog on Collioure) but also Picasso, Dali and, not forgetting, Dina Vierny (muse, model, avid art collector, museum director and member of the French resistance during WW2). Amongst other things, Dina Vierny was instrument in establishing the Maillol Museum in Banyuls.
I thoroughly enjoyed our time in Banyuls sur Mer. We stayed two or three nights and in keeping with the promise we made when last visiting the Cote Vermeille we used one of the days to travel the coast road down into Spain (visiting the pretty little town of Roses). The journey was everything I hoped it would be but that’s the subject of the next blog. I cannot finish this entry without writing something about the food.
We tried a couple of restaurants on the seafront but the one we enjoyed the most was La Table de Jordi. The service was first class, the wine was good (from Collioure) and, for the most part the fish was very good. My only disappointment was with the oysters (skinny, flat ones) but the rest of the food… the sea bass, monkfish, mussels and langoustines were superb.
We were on our way to Banyuls Sur Mer down near the Spanish border but, after just a couple of hours driving, we thought to stop at Marseillan Plage for what remained of the day and the night. It was a warm sunny day and the idea of spending some time by the sea appealed to both of us and; besides, we were in the former administrative region of Languedoc Roussillon where one of our favourite white wines is produced – Picpoul de Pinet.
Marseillan Plage is Marseillan’s beach resort area on the Mediterranean coast. We found a suitable campsite right on the beach. What I didn’t realise until we were parked up and I was already walking towards the town is just how far the beach is from the town. Marseillan Plage sits on the south side of a long thin strip of land which separates the Mediterranean Sea from the Etang Thau saltwater lagoon and the town of Marseillan sits on the opposite bank of the Etang Thau near the eastern end of the Canal du Midi. They are more than 5 miles apart which meant I was in for a 10 plus mile hike even without allowing for a wander of the town. Oh well, best get on with it.
It was an arduous walk, made worse by the 32 degree heat but it was worth it. The first part of the walk took me across and along the very southern (eastern) end of the Canal du Midi. This canal connects the River Garonne (which flows into the Atlantic Ocean) to the Etang Thau (opens on to the Mediterranean Sea). That’s an incredible 240 kilometres. The canal has featured in this website before; so, I’ll not risk repeating myself here. It will suffice to say that by any standards it is a fantastic feat of engineering and, even more so, when you take into account it first opened in 1681; that’s during the reign of Louis XIV.
One interesting fact I will share with you about this part of the world (and which pleased me as I returned to the Van later that evening) is that, the local authorities have eliminated all mosquitoes in the area and residents are required by law to report any return of the bloodsuckers. That’s another amazing feat given how marshy this area is.
Upon entering Marseillan I made directly for the harbour area. It’s not a large harbour and the trading and fishing industries which once dominated have for the most part given way to tourism but, having said that, the place is not overly commercialised. Fishing remains big business – the area is justifiably famous for it’s oyster and mussel farms and the lagoon still teams with sea bass, bream, mullet and eels. Trading along the Canal du Midi is not what it was (improved roads and heavy goods vehicles have seen to that) but there’s still a fair amount of river traffic (leisure boats mostly) which use the canal and take advantage of the facilities that Marseillan still offers. It’s that river traffic which continues to ensure the little town’s quays are lined with sufficient cafe-bars and restaurants.
The centre of the old town hasn’t changed much at all in the last 200 years. Some of the old wine warehouses down by the lagoon have been converted into apartment blocks (holiday-lets for the most part, I suspect) and what little remained of the old fort and it’s walls have long gone but, the 13th century covered market, the 17th century church of St John The Baptist and the old merchant’s houses and smaller fishermen’s cottages are all much as was.
We arrived out of season and there was little sign of tourism. A number of the cafe-restaurants down by the quay were open but it would have been easy getting a table. Indeed, the whole area was quiet and peaceful; very relaxing.
One of the most prominent buildings down by the port is La Maison Noilly Prat where the famous vermouth is produced. Using a mix of the local Picpoul de Pinet and Clairette grapes, Noilly Prat produces 4 different vermouths (Original Dry, Extra Dry, Rouge and Ambre). In case you are unaware, vermouth is a type of aromatised wine macerated with spices which can be drunk on it’s own (and is not unlike a dry Madeira to taste) or it can be mixed with gin or vodka to make Martini. It is the Original Dry Vermouth which is used to mix Martini.
It goes without saying that I bought a bottle of the Traditional Dry but, I also bought a bottle of Grey Goose Vodka – anyone for a Vodka Martini? I didn’t know until visiting the distillery that Noilly Prat, together with Grey Goose, Bombay Sapphire Gin, Dewars Whisky and Patron Tequila (to name but a few) are part of the Bacardi Group.
By the way, La Maison Noilly Prat suggest the perfect Vodka Martini should be made using 60ml vodka, one tablespoon of Original Dry Vermouth and an olive or lemon peel to garnish. The process, they advise, is firstly, to stir the vodka with the vermouth and; secondly, the alcoholic mix should be combined with ice in a cocktail mixer and; thirdly, the resulting liquid should be strained into a chilled martini glass and; finally, the liquid should be served with the preferred garnish. Sounds easy in theory, doesn’t it?
Of course, it would be inappropriate to write about Marseillan and not mention a little more about the seafood.
If the truth be told, I goofed up during my visit by not finding time to visit Coqui Thau which is just up the road from Marseillan. Unfortunately, I heard about the company only after my return to the UK. The fact is, the calm salty water of the Etang Thau is ideal for farming oysters and mussels and that, primarily, is what Coqui Thau do. Moreover, they offer tours and tasting sessions. I’ve eaten and enjoyed countless oysters from all around the world but I know absolutely nothing about farming them. That will have to be put right when I’m next down in Marseillan.
So, I spent most of the day in Marseillan and then Vanya and I spent the evening and night in Marseillan Plage. Marseillan Plage does little for us but we did find an inexpensive bar in which to spend the evening where the Picpoul was good and the locals were very welcoming. Moreover, we were well placed to let the dogs enjoy a swim the next day before headed off to Banyuls Sur Mer.
Vanya and I were eager to return to Saint Remy de Provence, capital of the Alpilles. We had each enjoyed our first visit to the town earlier in the year (Tour 7) and were more than happy to be going back. The small town ranks amongst our favourite in France and if ever I were to move from England, it would in all likelihood be to Saint Remy. Once again, because of it’s close proximity to the old town, we opted to stay at Camping Pegomas.
I wrote a fairly comprehensive blog about Saint Remy earlier this year and will endeavour not to repeat here everything that I wrote about the town previously. Certainly, I will steer clear of things ‘to see and do’. You can find out about such things by reading my first blog (use the search engine on this site to find the earlier entry on Saint Remy and… hey, presto). No, we were here this time not to explore but to simply immerse ourselves in the beauty and lifestyle that is Saint Remy. On this occasion we weren’t even inclined to visit ‘must see’ places in the area that we had previously promised to return to. They would have to wait until our next visit. This was going to be about ‘chill time’.
And so it proved. It was enough to simply walk the wholly pedestrianised old town streets and sit outside in the sunshine with a bottle of Alpilles wine and watch the world go by. There follows, a few photos that capture the essence of this visit, starting with the wonderful street scenes…
Of course, Vanya being Vanya, there is always time to mooch around some of the shops…
Strolling through Place Favier we noticed the ‘Lou Planet’ (a creperie we had eaten at previously) was closed but, just seeing the place again awakened taste buds that screamed for a galette. I’m pleased to say there’s no shortage of creperies in Saint Remy de Provence and we very soon found another where we each ordered a galette holding the freshest of scallops.
That was it. Sitting outside in the warm sunshine with a galette and a bottle of chilled wine (a dry white Mas Sainte Berthe produced in the Alpilles) and we were at peace with the world. We sat for quite a while. Well, Vanya insisted upon a cream and chocolate filled crepe for dessert and I was prepared to make do with a little more wine while she finished her repast. Life was and is good.
During our previous visit I was unable to get inside the local church, the Collegiate Church of Saint Martin. The original church built in 1122 was extended and embellished when Pope Jean XXII (that one I mentioned in the Monteux post earlier in this tour) transformed the original place of worship into a collegiate church (I believe a collegiate church is a cathedral without any bishop) although, there’s not a lot left of even that church. Much of it collapsed and had to be rebuilt in the 19th century; hence it’s current largely neo-classical style.
I made it inside the church this time. There’s a particularly impressive organ inside and I understand that organ recitals take place quite often during the summer months at no cost to the public. There was no recital during my visit and I didn’t therefore stay very long. One unusual feature of the church is the altar in a small side chapel which is surrounded by a large block of the local Alpilles rock.
This visit this time was short and sweet and about ‘chilling’. I didn’t therefore revisit the Roman town of Glanum and neither did I resume the Van Gogh trail which I started during Tour 7 but, I leave you with a couple of photos that I took during our last visit. The first is of the Triumphal Arch and the Mausoleum of the Julii (from Glanum) and the second is a reproduction of my favourite Van Gogh painting (Irises) which he painted while in Saint Remy.
I suspect that we will be back in Saint Remy next year but, in the meantime, we are heading further west. We want to buy some wine from down near Collioure before we return to England.
L’Isle Sur la Sorgue was always going to be a hard act to follow and I must, therefore, keep an open mind as I describe Gordes. I agree Gordes is one of Provence’s prettiest hillside villages and it is certainly a worthy member of France’s ‘plus beaux villages’ but, for it to be portrayed as “the prettiest village in France” and “the Parthenon of the Luberon” (as it is in some travel blogs) is rather stretching matters.
I think the place is overrated. It benefits from being on an established tourist trail that includes the Abbey of Senanque (which features in countless photos of the Provence lavender fields and is less than 5 kilometres away) and the Village des Bories (France’s answer to the Puglian Trulli and only 2 kilometres away). Add to this that Peter Mayle’s best selling book “A Year In Provence” mentions Gordes and that several hotels were built in the village around the time his book was published (1989) and it strikes me that over the last 30 years Gordes has received a hugely disproportionate degree of promotion and praise from local property developers and travel agents as thousands of tourists were channeled through the area from nearby Avignon, Aix en Provence and even Marseilles. It’s pretty but it’s not that pretty and it gets far too many coach tours to rank amongst the best villages in Provence, let alone France.
Having said all that, on a sunny day it’s white and ochre coloured buildings and terracotta roof tiles are stunning whether viewed from afar or up close and the views across the Cavalon Valley towards the Luberon Massif are tremendous.
A medieval castle, the Chateau de Gordes, towers over the village. It’s an austere and forbidding fortress and, despite being modified in the 16th century (an attempt to turn it into a residence), not one of it’s owners has chosen to make it their home. Instead, it has served as a barracks for passing friendly forces, a prison and, believe it or not, a boy’s school. As I write this I am reminded of the boarding school I attended for a while in the mid sixties. Sorry, I digress, the castle also housed the town hall, the village post office and a pharmacy for a while after being acquired by the local council authority. Nowadays it doubles as a home to the village tourist office and as an art gallery & museum. I understand there’s a second quite unusual museum in Gordes in the shape of the St Firmin Palace Caves and I was tempted to visit but, we had the dogs with us and dogs and museums simply don’t mix.
The most impressive aspects of Gordes, and the most photogenic, are the church (L’Eglise Saint Firmin) and, most especially, the steep, narrow alleys known locally as ‘calades’. Many of these calades, particularly those in the steeper parts of the village where all the houses sit at different levels, have small steps running down their centre to help people move more easily up and down the tight little spaces. My favourite part of the village is down near the foot of the village in an area known as the Fontaine Basse, where there are old wash houses, a mill and what appear to be a couple of small chapels (and, dare I add, very few tourists).
We didn’t stay in Gordes for very long. It’s a small village with very little to offer in terms of local attractions and it can be explored in just a few hours. We might have stayed longer had we visited on a Tuesday when the weekly farmer’s market takes place but, having said that, I shudder at the thought of how busy the place would be on market day.
Anyway, we had decided that for old times sake we would revisit one of our favourite small towns in France, Saint Remy de Provence. No amount of tourists will deter me from going there…
We were settled in the Hotel Le Blason de Provence in Monteux for the next two nights. It was time to explore the surrounding area and we decided to start with L’Isle Sur La Sorgue which is listed among ‘Les plus beau villages de France’ and only a 20 minute drive south.
Vanya was suffering with her hip and so, having parked the Van at the edge of L’Isle Sur La Sorgue on the Route de Cavaillon, I left her to rest for a while and set off alone to explore the town. Within 10 minutes I had reached the River Sorgue which marks the southern edge of the old town. I need only have crossed the bridge in front of me and followed the Rue Carnot to reach the town centre but I fancied following the river around the town first.
The River Sorgue is for the most part a shallow meandering river which completely encircles the old town and it is this surrounding ring of water, together with it’s canals and tributaries, that have caused L’Isle sur la Sorgue to be called the Venice of Provence. I think that excessive but the many waterways and numerous footbridges do lend the place a priceless charm. The river water is crystal clear and there are a couple of wonderful looking bathing areas towards the edge of the town although you’ll not catch me using them. The water is a constant 55 degrees, being the temperature at which it surges from it’s spring in nearby Fontaine de Vaucluse. That’s a little cold for me!
Passing one of the town’s 60+ waterwheels on the way, I followed the river as it ran parallel with the Avenue de la Liberation towards the Monument Alphonse Benoit. Benoit was a local businessman and philanthropist who lived in the town during the period 1809 – 1872. Cross the river from the Avenue de la Liberation and you’re on the Quai Rouget de L’Isle and this too leads to the Monument Alphonse Benoit.
At the Monument turn left and you’re on the Quai Jean Jaures. This is arguably the prettiest and most photographed part of the town although the far end of this quai (where it meets the Quai Frederic Mistral) runs it a close second. There’s no denying L’Isle Sur La Sorgue attracts a high number of tourists and the Quai Jean Jaures is a tourist hotspot but it is a gem of a place and well worth visiting.
Both the Quai Rouget de l’Isle and Quai Jean Jaures are lined with waterside cafes and restaurants and an array of interesting and unusual shops, many of them antique shops. Indeed, the town is brimming with hundreds of antique shops and/or dealers in second hand goods and, if that isn’t enough, the town holds an ‘International Antiques Fair’ twice a year (Easter and the end of August) which attract more than 500 stalls. It is said that, after Paris, L’Isle de la Sorgue is the largest antique centre in France and I wouldn’t argue that point.
Talking of markets, L’Isle Sur La Sorgue is almost as famous for it’s farmers market as it’s antiques. They’re held every Thursday and Sunday morning and the latter market is enhanced by a brocante (flea market). Once or twice a year, in the summer, a floating market is also held on barges (known as nego-chins) on the River Sorgue but I’d need to check with the local tourist office for the precise dates. There were no markets on as I strolled the town.
Follow the Quai Rouget de L’Isle, the Quai Jean Jaures and the Quai Frederic Mistral and you will have walked the most interesting three sides of the four that surround the old town. Turn left into Rue du Docteur Tallet upon reaching the medieval washhouses on the Quai Frederic Mistral and you’ll soon reach the centre of the old town, Le Place de l’Eglise. Me, I retraced my steps to the Van to collect Vanya and the dogs. Vanya just had to see this place.
In no time I was back in the old town with Vanya and our dogs. The relatively silent narrow winding streets and lanes of the old town, together with their empty cobbled passages and courtyards, proved irresistible after the bustling, congested quays that line the Sorgue. They were shaded and cool and, at least until we reached the town centre and the town’s principal church (the Collegiale Notre Dame Des Anges), we somehow escaped the tourists.
Waterwheels of many different sizes and designs, most dating back to the 18th century, are to be found throughout the town. The majority served to generate power for the spinning and weaving of wool and silk or the production of paper while others were used to crush olives or mill flower; all industries long since replaced by tourism in L’Isle de La Sorgue. A few are still in working order and I could happily stand and watch those wheels turning for ages but, even those that are now still and covered in moss are bewitchingly attractive.
On the central square at the heart of the old town stands the Collegiale Church of Notre Dame des Anges (Our Lady of Angels). The church was first built in 1212 in a Romanesque style although there is little if anything that remains of the Romanesque style now. It was almost totally rebuilt at the end of the 14th century and has since become a blend of Gothic and Baroque styles but, the inside is truly… spectacular? It is filled with grand vaulted ceilings, gilded statues, colourful paintings; it’s a mass of blue and gold. In truth, I was overwhelmed by it and there’s a part of me thinks it is over the top and perhaps a little gaudy but; it has to be seen.
Just outside, on the same square, is another quite famous institution… the Cafe de France. If ever there was an Art Nouveau Coffee Shop, this is it. It is the oldest coffee shop in the town and the perfect place to enjoy a croque monsieur and people watch while planning your next move. Oh, and the town’s tourist office is also to be found on this square in the event you need help with the planning.
We left the square by the Rue Carnot and before too long were back at our starting point although we would have been a great deal quicker had Vanya not constantly paused to take photos of Beanie for her facebook posts…
L’Isle Sur La Sorgue. Wherever we go next, this place will be a hard act to follow.
Vanya had booked us into the Hotel Le Blason de Provence for a couple of nights. How she found this place, I do not know but; it is a delightful boutique hotel just outside of Monteux on the road to Carpentras and it proved the perfect place to chill out after a little over 3 weeks on the road.
I’ll write about Monteux later. Let me start by introducing you to the Hotel Le Blason de Provence. In their website the owners describe the hotel as “a typical Provencal building from the 1930’s”. That may be true from an architectural perspective but otherwise, no; there’s nothing typical about this hotel. Vanya and I are agreed; they have transformed the hotel into something wholly charming inside and out.
It’s a member of the Logis Hotels Group(e). From what I can tell, the Logis Group is a ‘confederation’ (my word, not theirs) of independent hotel and restaurant owners across Europe who are concerned to offer “a warm and personalised welcome, quality accommodation and home-made meals based on local and seasonal produce”. The hotels are generally small (20 bedrooms on average) and, more often than not, are to be found in the countryside.
Le Blason de Provence conforms in all respects with the above. The reception we received upon our arrival and throughout our stay from the two proprietors and their staff was warm, friendly and attentive.
The hotel itself has a tiny reception area and just 18 bedrooms but, so far as we could tell, each room is well furnished, tastefully decorated and spotlessly clean. The dining area really impressed me. It is not particularly large but it’s tables are comfortably spaced and the room has a real chic feel about it (embellished as it is by some unusual artefacts collected by the owners during their travels – I’m thinking in particular of their nod to Japan). However, the part of the hotel we most enjoyed during our stay (and I include our dogs in this) was the shaded terrace area by the front entrance. This pretty garden and patio area with it’s striking mural – more about murals later – proved to be the perfect place to take coffees in the morning; cold beers during the afternoon (the hotel swimming pool borders the patio); glasses of chilled Pouilly Fume in the early evening and; a warming whisky last thing at night. I always keep a bottle of malt whisky in the Van.
We were looking for a charming place to relax and we found it – quiet and comfortable and with the most attentive service.
Surprise, surprise. Within minutes of checking in, we were on the terrace outside the front of the hotel enjoying a very nice bottle of Pouilly Fume…
And the food? The continental breakfast was as comprehensive and as fresh as you would expect from a good hotel in France. I need say no more about breakfast.
Dinner in the hotel restaurant? Well, the restaurant is recognised in Gault & Millau’s Guide Jaune (Yellow Guide) as one of the best in this part of France. I was expecting something special and I wasn’t disappointed. There were 7 or 8 main courses on the menu. Vanya went for the ‘Veritable Salade Cesar’ which surprised me by having all the proportions of a main course. I decided in favour of the ‘Poisson du Moment’ which that day was Ling.
The chef, Thomas Longuesserre, is something of a celebrity having featured on national tv. Quite where he ranks as a chef I cannot say but the fish he prepared for me was outstanding. Ling is a deepwater fish that I would normally avoid, because it is often trawled and I’m not sure I approve of deepwater trawling but, I was assured the fish being offered was caught by long line. I think Ling is a member of the cod family (although it looks more like a cod-conger eel cross and can grow up to 7 feet long) but it tastes a little stronger and goes exceptionally well with Pouilly Fume. We enjoyed another two bottles and once again were ‘last men standing’.
There’s not a great deal to the town of Monteux but we were there to relax and, anyway, if we wanted more there was always nearby Carpentras; and of course Avignon is only 20 kilometres away.
Monteux is a long established market town, dating back to Roman times. It reached it’s zenith early in the 14th century, at the time of the ‘Avignon Papacy’, when Pope Clement V chose nearby Avignon instead of Rome for his Papal Palace and took up residency in Monteux’s 11th century castle and for a while nearby Carpentras. It was Pope John XXII who settled definitively in Avignon.
The castle in which Clement V lived was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1415 and the town’s two main gates (the Avignon and Neuve Gates) and the castle dungeon, known as the Clementine Tower, are all that remain of the castle and it’s walls.
A road system circles the old town where it’s castle walls once stood and I entered through what was the Avignon Gate. It is nowhere near as pretty but the town reminds me of Dozza, near Bologna in Italy, in that many of the walls are covered with some quite fascinating murals. The murals here tend to identify the original purpose of the buildings (e.g. basketmaker, cooper, tailor, etc). One of the artists who painted the walls in the old town also painted the mural at the Hotel Blason.
I particularly like those murals that have been built around existing features; such as the fountain below.
I’ve already mentioned the castle and the Clementine Tower. The only two other buildings of significance in the old town are the Church of Our Lady of Nazareth and the Hotel de Ville. Unfortunately I cannot relate much about either building. I couldn’t access the church and all I know about the Hotel de Ville is that it was originally a hospital (the Saint Pierre Hospital which opened in 1713) and it became the Town Hall in 1958.
You don’t need more than a few hours to see Monteux and so we spent subsequent days in the area visiting a couple of the local villages – L’Isle sur La Sorgue and Gordes. They are the subject of separate entries in this blog.
I’ll round off this particular entry by addressing other eating options in Monteux. It won’t take long because except for the Hotel Le Blason Restaurant, we were disappointed with the alternatives in and around the town. In hindsight we should have asked the staff at our hotel for their recommendations because having walked through and around the old town the only places that we saw open were fast food outlets. Credit where it is due, one of them serving Vietnamese and Japanese food (Le Palais d’Asie), did have a handful of tables and we enjoyed some of their Vietnamese dishes with a couple of beers. I was actually drinking bottles of Singha (Thai) in preference to bottles of Asahi (Japanese) or cans of Saigon 333 (Vietnam). Then it was back to the hotel for a final bottle of Pouilly Fume.
Leaving Lago Le Tamerici we drove north; making for Camping dei Fiori, a campsite in Pietra Ligure which I think is part of the Pian dei Boschi hotel complex. We would stay in Pietra Ligure for just one night as we were due in the small French town of Monteux the following day. Vanya had booked us into Monteux’s Hotel Le Blason De Provence, a highly recommended boutique hotel just outside of Monteux on the road to Carpentras. We were going to spoil ourselves for two or three days but more about that later. First, let me write a little about Pietra Ligure. I really liked the place and will most certainly return.
Pietra Ligure is a popular seaside town, half way between Genoa and San Remo, on the Riviera Ponente (part of the Italian Riviera) and it is named after it’s castle perched up on an imposing limestone cliff known as La Pietra (which translates as the stone or the rock in English). There has been a castle on this rock since the time of the Roman Empire but the current structure dates from the 16th century.
It took just 10 minutes to walk from Camping dei Fiori to the beach and another 5 minutes to reach Pietra Ligure’s historic old town (the largely medieval Borgo Vecchio)… and what a little gem it is!
Hemmed in between the sandy beach and a series of low hills which form a backdrop along much of this coast, the old town is built mostly of a pastel coloured stone and comprises numerous narrow shaded alleys (known as ‘caruggi’ in this part of the world), many of which are topped with arches and lead through or to small squares or courtyards. Interspersed with shops and cafe-bars and almost entirely pedestrianised, the caruggi are brimming with character and lend the town a very local flavour and feeling. I love them.
At the centre of the Borgo Vecchio, on the town’s main square (the Piazza San Nicolo di Bari) is an elegant, cream coloured, Romanesque style church – the Basilica of San Nicolo di Bari. Inside its beautifully carved doors this church is sumptuously decorated with sculptures and stunning artwork. The inside of some churches that I have seen during these tours have been overelaborate, almost gaudy, but this is a jewel of a church and no photos I took can do it justice.
Pietra Ligure is not a large town (just 8,000 residents outside of summer) and it didn’t take long to explore the Borgo Vecchio. I knew too that I would be returning later in the day with Vanya and so, after tearing myself away from the Basilica, I made my way on the beach and then on to the Borgo Nuovo (the new town).
I was most impressed with the beach area. There’s a long sandy blue flag beach, a sizeable pier from which numerous anglers seemed to be enjoying themselves and a wide seafront promenade lined with palm trees. Most important, given Italy’s proclivity towards private beaches (regular readers of this blog will know that I abhor private beaches), Pietra Ligure has determined that a large central part of the beach should be open to the public. Moreover, the town has at least one and possibly two dog friendly beaches complete with dog showers. Respect!
The next day, we were moving on into France. Sadly, we didn’t have time before leaving to return just a few kilometres back down the coast to visit two of Italy’s most beautiful villages – the Borghi piu Belli d’Italia of Borgio Verezzi (with it’s Valdemino Caves) and Finalborgo (with it’s annual medieval festival) but, we’ll be back.