Banyuls Sur Mer (Occitaine), France October 2023 (Tour 8)

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.

Roses next.

Saint Remy de Provence (Provence), France September 2023 (Tour 8)

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.

Pietra Ligure (Liguria), Italy September 2023 (Tour 8)

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.

On to Monteux…

Lago Le Tamerici (Tuscany), Italy September 2023 (Tour 8)

It was time to head north. We were always going to be on a tight schedule this tour and, anyway, towards the end of September the majority of campsites in the south of Italy tend to close for winter. France beckoned. Vanya picked out a small campsite (44 campervan pitches) back in Tuscany halfway between Pisa and Livorno and so it was that we set off for Camping Lago Le Tamerici.

Camping Lake Temerici is an outstanding little camp site on the side of a small lake in the Coltano Nature Reserve – large grassy pitches, decent facilities and a warm welcome from the proprietors. There’s also a very good restaurant on site which for the most part relies on their own locally produced meat and vegetables (just as well because there is very little else in the immediate area).

We were fortunate to arrive on a warm sunny Sunday afternoon. The place was packed with day trippers but we were assured the great majority would leave before sunset and we need only reserve a place in the restaurant if we wanted a table on the porch overlooking the lake. I did just that and, after updating my Face Book account over a large glass of the local artisan beer, went off for a short stroll around the lake.

It turned out to be a beautiful evening with a great sunset but, the food and wine (a Tuscan Vermentino) were such that I couldn’t be bothered to move from the restaurant to take any photos.

Campeggio Lago le Tamerici proved a great find and we would certainly return. Nearby Pisa does little for me but Livorno I do want to see more of and this campsite works for me.

Feistritz im Rosental (Carinthia), Austria September 2023 (Tour 8)

On our way to Italy after a great but all too short weekend in Enzesfeld, we paused for the night at the small town of Feistritz im Rosental in the Carinthian Region of Austria. Immediately upon arrival however I spent the afternoon walking the even smaller town (read ‘hamlet’ given it’s size) of Suetschach.

Surrounded by some beautiful hills Suetschach is a pretty little place (full of unusual metal art works and an amazing church). I have since read that Feistritz used to be part of Suetschach but it merged in 1973 with neighbouring Weizelsdorf and as a consequence later received market town status in it’s own right (1996). Suetschach is now considered a remote suburb of Feistritz.

The Parish Church in Suetschach was locked and I was unable to get beyond the front porch but what I could see from there was enough for me to want to go back for a proper look. There’s also an interesting chapel in the church grounds commemorating the area’s fallen in the two World Wars. What sets this particular chapel apart from others I have seen in Germany and Austria is that alongside the name of each person who fell is a photograph of the individual. I’ve never seen that before. It brings it all home.

Then, with the evening coming on and the hamlet’s sole pub closed for a late summer break, it was back to the campsite at Feistritz (Naturcamping Juritz) which even by Austrian / German standards proved to be first class. The facilities are all 5 star but it is the excellent restaurant which sets this campsite apart. Vanya wasn’t eating but I enjoyed a really good scampi dish and a fine Chardonnay. It was a shame we couldn’t stay longer but we’d arranged to meet some other friends in Italy and had to leave early the next morning.

The food in the Restaurant Juritz was seriously tasty; the wines were good and; the service was most attentive. There was a beautiful sunset which could have made for some great photo opportunities at the nearby lake lake but I wasn’t about to let such a good repast go to waste.

There also looked to be a wide range of hill walking opportunities in the area. Now that too is worth revisiting this campsite for but next stop Asolo in Italy.

Montrichard (Centre-Val de Loire), France May 2023 (Tour 7)

We love this little market town which sits within easy reach of some of the most beautiful castles in France. We used it once before as a base from which I could visit both the Chateau de Chenonceau and the Chateau Amboise and Vanya wanted to use it this time as a base to visit the Chateau Royal de Blois. Leaving the castles aside for a moment, we would have returned to Montrichard anyway because it is such a friendly, lazy little town which simply begs you to sit outside a cafe with a glass of wine and watch the world go by. We intended staying a couple of days at least.

We checked in to Camping Couleurs du Monde, which we had used before and knew to be good. Situated adjacent to a decent sized Carrefour and within easy walking distance of Montrichard, it has fair sized pitches, a half decent bar and a heated swimming pool. It would prove a perfect base from which to visit Blois and perhaps even Fresnay sur Sarthe. We’d made good time across the south of France; we’d arranged to get the dogs seen by a vet in Fecamp early the following week and the weather forecast for the next days was excellent. In these circumstances we could afford to relax for a few days.

That’s the town bridge over the River Cher. The original medieval bridge was built by the English but was demolished in the 19th century. The current bridge is a replica.

Staying over in Montrichard for two or three days meant we could once again attend the weekly farmers market. It’s a great little market.

I love these photos both of which I took during our last visit and couldn’t improve upon this trip. The photo on the left is of the Town Hall (taken at night it looks like something out of a Disney movie). The photo on the right is of a small restaurant owned and operated by some expat English. We took dinner there one evening.

Looking west along the Cher from the town bridge.

I took time during this our second stay in Montrichard to revisit the town’s church, L’Eglise de Sainte-Croix (the Church of the Holy Cross). I hadn’t been able to get inside during our first visit.

It’s a pretty little church which is believed to date back to the 11th century although, it’s finest moment came in 1476 when a 12 year old Princess Joan of France was married to her 14 year old cousin, Louis Duc d’Orleans (later to become King Louis XII of France). The marriage had been arranged almost 12 years earlier and was anything but a success.

L’Eglise de Sainte-Croix. Outside, Inside and Window Detail.

On their wedding day, Louis Duc d’Orleans said he would rather die than marry Joan but he was compelled by his father to go through with the ceremony. Louis later had the marriage annulled (so that he could marry the much richer Anne of Brittany) on the grounds that Joan was sterile and hunchbacked. He further claimed he had been forced to marry against his will and never consummated the marriage although Joan took issue with this latter point. Joan subsequently found solace in religion but when she died, Louis did not even attend her funeral.

The Chateau de Montrichard in the centre of the town is very much a ruin (and has been since it was invested in 1188 by the then King of France who wanted the English occupants gone) but, it was good to see during this visit that the local authorities are endeavouring to restore parts of it or at least make it safe for visitors. Watch this space.

From Montrichard we were able to visit Blois and Fresnay sur Sarthe (and we enjoyed both those places – see below) but, we thoroughly enjoyed revisiting Montrichard and, the nice thing is, we’re both keen to return yet again.

I said we’d find time to relax in Montrichard and we did. The weather remained kind enough for us to enjoy the both campsite’s swimming pool and a picnic.

Saint Jean de Luz (Nouvelle Aquitaine), France May 2023 (Tour 7)

As I mentioned before, it was time to head home. We had to get back to Brighton for a friend’s wedding and, anyway, it looked like the north of Spain was in for a week or two of wet weather.

It surprised me how quickly we were able to make the journey from Logrono in La Rioja to Saint Jean de Luz in France, given that we had to pause first at Haro (Bodegas ARVS to buy some Rioja) and then Vitoria (a hypermarket on the edge of the city so Vanya could stock up on Cava). It took us a little over three hours in total and a chunk of that was spent inside the Bodegas ARVS.

Once in France, we settled at Camping L’International Erromardie which is right on the beach and just a few kilometres north of Saint Jean de Luz. The campsite proved okay although I suspect it is expensive in high season. It has all the usual facilities including an on site restaurant, L’Oceanic, and because Vanya was continuing to suffer with her hip I reserved a table for us before setting off along the coast to take a look at La Colline Sainte-Barbe.

It took 40 minutes or so to walk to La Colline Sainte-Barbe (the Hill of Saint Barbara) which is the most northernmost point of the Bay de Saint Jean de Luz and which overlooks the town of Saint Jean de Luz or, to use it’s Basque name, ‘Donibane Lohizune’.

There’s a nice view of Saint Jean de Luz from La Colline Sainte Barbe.

The hill offers fine views of Saint Jean de Luz and of two places we visited last year: Socoa (at the southernmost tip of the bay) and the small town of Ciboure (which sits between Socoa and St Jean de Luz at the point where the River Nivelle empties into the bay).

I read about a path which follows the entire length of the Basque Coast and an orientation table on the hill revealed that it actually passes through La Colline Sainte-Barbe.

The view south from La Colline Sainte-Barbe towards Socoa at the southern edge of the Bay de Saint Jean de Luz. That’s Spain towards the back of the photo and it looks as if the meteorologists got it right regarding the impending wet weather. The small building in the top left hand corner of the photo is the tiny chapel of Sainte-Barbe.

Another photo of the Chapel on La Colline Sainte-Barbe with the town of Ciboure in the background. I understand Sainte-Barbe is the patron saint of Artillerymen, Firefighters and Miners. Really? Who thinks these things up?

The path back towards our campsite on Erromardie Beach. There are worse views.

Although I didn’t expect to see so many WWII bunkers along this stretch of coast.

It takes less than 15 minutes to walk down into Saint Jean de Luz from the Hill and that left me with just enough time to check out the town’s main church, the restored 13th century Church of Saint John the Baptist. Although they seldom look noteworthy from the outside, the interiors of Basque churches have always impressed me and this church promised much.

The outside of the Church of St John the Baptist is as ordinary as you might expect of a Basque church.

The inside of this Church of St John the Baptist is said to be the largest and finest of all of the churches in the (French) Pays de Basque. It’s gold plated wooden altarpiece (Baroque, I think) is particularly splendid and it was in front of this very altar that Louis XIV and the Infanta Maria Teresa, daughter of King Philip IV of Spain, were married on 9 June in 1660. I read on the Lonely Planet website that “After exchanging rings, (Louis XIV and Maria Teresa) walked down the aisle and out of the south door, which was then sealed to commemorate peace between (France & Spain) after 24 years of hostilities”. Now that’s theatrical.

The impressive altarpiece inside the Church of St John the Baptist.

Not as impressive as the altar but still magnificent are the tiered wooden balconies so often found in Basque churches. Historically, men would sit in the balconies while women sat below in the body of the church.

Three tiers of oak balconies inside the Church of St John the Baptist.

Saint Jean de Luz is an interesting town with it’s narrow winding streets, it’s architectural heritage and it’s history (to say nothing of it’s colours and essence). Certainly, I am keen to see Louis XIV Square, the Maison Louis XIV, the Maison de L’Infante and the picturesque harbour/port area that was at different times home to French pirates (Corsairs), Basque whalers and, more recently, tuna fishermen but, all this will have to wait until our next visit. I had to get back to the Van in time for our dinner reservation at L’Oceanic…

The route back took me along this beautiful coastline

… and past this little beach bar where, yes, I paused for a quick beer.

Penafiel (Castile y Leon), Spain May 2023 (Tour 7)

I don’t know how it was that Vanya picked out Penafiel as our next point of call but I’m glad she did. We parked at Camping Riberduero on the edge of Penafiel with a view to staying a couple of days and then stayed for four. With the help of the Dutch owners of the campsite (they were a mine of useful information) we were able to maximise our stay in Penafiel and enjoy much of the surrounding area (most especially Pedraza, Sepulveda and the Hoces del Rio Duraton National Park). We’d have stayed even longer except that we were already commited to being in La Rioja by the end of the week.

Penafiel is a fairly small rural town of some 5,000+ inhabitants in the Valladolid Province of Castile y Leon. Although renowned for it’s 10th century limestone castle and extensive winemaking traditions, Penafiel is well off the beaten track and, nowadays at least, not a popular tourist destination. It wasn’t always so (in Medieval times this was a major city with no less than 19 churches) but it’s current smaller size and the absence of tourists suits us down to the ground.

The unusually shaped Castillo de Penafiel dominates the town.

Building of the existing castle (Castillo de Penafiel) commenced in the 10th century on a cigar shaped rock which overlooks Penafiel and the Rivers Duero and Duraton. Since then the castle has been significantly remodelled, mostly during the 14th and 15th centuries, to resemble a white 150+ metre long German Gothic Style Battleship. My first thought was to check out the castle. It’s an easy walk up to and around the outside of the castle with not too much exposure. However, mine is clearly not the customary approach because, after clambering over the outside wall and in, I almost frightened the life out of a couple who were already there having used the road up.

Nowadays, the castle is home to the Provincial Wine Museum which offers castle tours and wine tasting sessions at very reasonable prices but they were not open for business as I arrived. In fact, very few places are open in Penafiel during siesta time which, during the week, stretches between noon and 4pm. This is real Spain.

There are actually two lines of castle walls. I was able to climb the outer wall only.

It was an interesting walk both to and from the castle. The approach to the castle from the campsite leads across the Puenta de la Leona to the Plaza de Espana and it’s church, the Iglesia Santa Maria. It continues past the Torre del Reloj (the Clock Tower), which is all that remains of the old Romanesque Church of San Esteban, and then up the hill to the outer walls of the castle. This town side of the hill is dotted with what appear to be large chimneys. These are actually ventilation shafts for the many underground wine cellars in the area. The town is full of large excavated caves where wine used to be stored (and perhaps still is) because of the constant temperatures they keep throughout the year. If not properly ventilated these caves would fill with the poisonous gases which arise during the fermentation process.

Penafiel is located slap bang in the middle of Spain’s second largest wine producing region, the Ribera del Duero, where the focus is on producing quality red wines using the Tempranillo grape. Tempranillo is a relatively hardy grape which is better able to withstand the more extreme climates of the high altitude vineyards to be found in this area – long cold winters and hot dry summers. The better approved wines here are invariably 100% Tempranillo with Crianza wines requiring a minimum 24 months aging of which one year must be in an oak barrel; Reserva wines requiring a minimum 36 months aging with one year in a barrel and; Gran Reserva wines requiring at least 5 years aging of which two years must be in oak barrels.

Left: That’s the Clock Tower in the background with a ventilation shaft in the foreground. Right: Several more ventilation shafts fill the hillside.

I returned to town using the castle road, pausing for a glass of wine on the way, and then it was back to exploring. My focus during what remained of the day was towards the Dominican Monastery of Saint Paul (Convento San Pablo) and the elusive but wonderful Plaza del Coso.

I came across the Convento San Pablo first. This Dominican Monastery was built as a fortress in the 13th century but converted into a monastery some time during the 14th century. From the outside the monastery is a strange looking and not very attractive building, an unusual mixture of stone and brick. On the inside, it is something else…

Convento San Pablo – a not particularly attractive mixture of stone and brick although, to be fair some of the Mudejar architecture which was added to the original structure is appealing.

A simple enough entance and central nave

… but with a quite stunning Spanish Renaissance chapel built in 1536

Inside the monastery there is an impressive cloister area but otherwise all is rather simple by Roman Catholic standards… until you see the 16th century funerary chapel of the Infante Don Juan Manuel, Lord of Panafiel. Beautiful.

It took me a while to find the Plaza del Coso. There are just two entances to this large rectangle which is almost wholly enclosed by private houses – a single vehicle entrance from the north and a small gated pedestrian access from the south. I could be forgiven for not immediately recognising the pedestrian access because the gate (which looks like nothing other than the entrance to a garage) was closed. No matter, I persevered and eventually found my way on to the Plaza.

The Plaza is special. Except for the two entrances already mentioned, it is entirely surrounded by three or four storey medieval houses almost all of which have beautiful wooden balconies stretching the whole length of the building on every floor above ground level. These balconies are converted during the Fiestas de Nuestra Senora and San Roque (and at any other time when the situation requires it) into boxes from which those with viewing rights can watch the local bullfights… because this Plaza doubles as a bullring.

Talking of viewing rights, I should explain that since Middle Ages to this day the town council in Penafiel has the right to auction off any room with a window or balcony overlooking the bullring to the highest bidders for the period of the bullfights. Amazing but true.

The first photo of the large rectangle which is the Plaza del Coso (taken from up on high) is clearly not mine but the others are. The second photo is of the single road in the town which leads into the Plaza.

This first photo shows the pedestrian access to the Plaza. As I arrived, workers had just finished installing the wooden bullring which is erected as and when the townsfolk require. We learned later in the day that a festival was planned for the weekend which would include bull-running.

That’s how the Plaza looked like as I walked across it. You can tell it was siesta time.

I’m not into bullfighting unless it be limited to the type that is practised in Provence, where the bull is not harmed – see Saint Remy de Provence blog from May 2023. In Provence, brave athletic ‘rasateurs’ compete against each other, using skill and agility, to collect as many ribbons as possible in as short a time as possible from between the bull’s horns (without getting hurt). Having said that, I think I would have enjoyed attending the bull-running in Penafiel which was scheduled for the following Saturday.

Collioure (Occitanie), France May 2023 (Tour 7)

Collioure is one of France’s best kept secrets. Nestled in a sheltered bay on the Catalan Coast with turquoise coloured waters and a dark green backdrop which are the Alberes Mountains, it’s a picture perfect little fishing town (anchovies) now given over to tourism (although only the French seem to know about it). It’s the smallest and most picturesque of the Cote Vermeille resorts and one of the most adorable coastal towns I have ever visited.

My first trip into Collioure saw me enter the town from the north. I walked the cliff tops from Camping Les Criques de Porteils, down onto the Plage de L’Ouille and then upwards and onwards past the CNEC military base (the Commando Training Centre) and into the town near the large fortress that is the Chateau Royal de Collioure.

The Knights Templar built the Chateau Royal early in the 13th century (1207?) and it was extended during the next 300 years, first by the Kings of Mallorca and then by the Spanish Hapsburgs. It is probably four castles in one now. I didn’t have time to explore the inside of the fortress on this occasion.

The Chateau Royal is on the left, towering over the Ansa de la Baleta Bay.

After gaining my bearings and taking numerous photos of the fortress and the 17th century Notre Dame des Anges church (i.e. the Church of our Lady of the Angels) – none of them very good – I followed a narrow path under the fortress walls and around the bay towards the southern edge of Collioure. I should say here that I didn’t see the church in it’s best light (it was covered in scaffolding, inside and out) but the Baroque interior is worth a look.

Left: The Bell Tower of the Church of our Lady of the Angels with the Saint Vincent Chapel caught behind it. Centre: The Saint Vincent Chapel photographed through a hole in the town walls. Right: The Church again with Lateen boats in the foreground.

This path under the fortress walls took me to another beach, the Plage de Port d’Avall (there are four or five small beaches in Collioure), and then on down the Rue Jean Bart to a terrific little bar with excellent views back across to the main part of the town.

That beach is the Plage de Port d’Avall and up on the hills behind is the 14th century Moulon de Collioure (a grain mill restored in 2001 and which is now used to produce the local olive oil) and yet another Templar Fort (Fort Saint Elme).

That’s the view of the church across the bay from the little bar I paused at and…

that’s a view from Fort Saint Elme (not mine – I gave up because the sun was simply too bright). The views from up on the hill are breathtaking.

Anyway, after refreshing myself with another (smaller) beer back at the bar I set off to explore the town itself.

The lanes behind the Plage de Port d’Avall are largely residential and the houses are invariably painted varying shades of red, orange and/or yellow and

… the buildings in the centre of Collioure, whether residential or commercial, tend to carry more vibrant colours and, by order of the town council, none may be painted black or white.

Some of the streets are truly striking. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this particular area of the town is known locally as ‘La Petite Montmartre’.

Around 1904/1905 the artists Henri Matisse and Andre Derain were inspired by the light and colours of Collioure to create what subsequently became known as the fauvist style of painting – they used strong colours and fierce brushwork and sometimes even applied colour directly from the paint tube. These painters were considered wild beasts of the art world by certain critics and with ‘fauve’ being French for the ‘wildcat’, so the Fauvists were formed.

Examples of the Fauvism. On the left a painting of Collioure by Matisse (Les toits de Collioure) and on the right one by Derain (Charing X Bridge, London).

Unfortunately, Vanya was troubled with a sore hip during our stay in Collioure and couldn’t handle the walk into town. We therefore missed out on seeing the place at night but it has given us a reason to return – As if we needed one!

Of course, Collioure is in the former administrative region of Languedoc Roussillon (now part of Occitanie) and any visit to such an area has to include a trip to a local winery whether it be to the likes of Picpoul for a nice dry white or Banyuls, just to the south of Collioure, for it’s famous sweet wines. We broke with convention and sought out Les Vignerons des Alberes.

Waiting for our wine in Les Vignerons des Alberes, just outside Collioure. We bought almost 10 litres each of their red and white wines. Their more expensive red is sold in 3 litre boxes and is superb. We will be buying considerably more upon our return.

Yep. Collioure really did it for me and we will definitely return. The only thing I would do differently next time is (a) to take a meal in one of the three Michelin recommended restaurants on the seafront (La Balette has a Michelin Star but Le 5eme Peche and Mamma Les Roches Brunes look equally appealing) and (b) to continue the journey into Spain using the D86 road to Cerbere rather than the motorway. I suspect the coast road will provide some great photo opportunities.

And so onto Spain but, I’ll leave you with one more photo of this lovely town…

Saint-Remy de Provence (Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur), France May 2023 (Tour 7)

So we finally made it to Saint Remy de Provence. This beautiful little town in the Alpilles hills towards the western edge of Provence sits among a mix of rolling golden wheatfields, lush green vineyards and gnarled old silvery green olive groves and has been on my “Must Visit” list for years. It proved a far prettier and more interesting place than I could ever have imagined.

Okay, this view of the Alpilles doesn’t feature wheatfields nor vineyards but they are around; believe me.

We were heading for Collioure in the south west of France and then across the border into Spain but with Saint Remy just 20 kms south of Avignon, we simply had to visit the place, not least because we wanted to stock up on some of the Alpilles wine we had previously enjoyed in Avignon. We parked up on the edge of the town alongside a small independent wine cave and, as luck would have it, there it was – the Alpilles Chardonnay produced by Domaine Valdition that we enjoyed so much in Avignon. There was no holding Vanya back.

Saint Remy de Provence is not a large town. It’s oldest and prettiest parts are concentrated inside what I can only describe as an inner ring road formed by three tree lined avenues – the Boulevard Marceau, Boulevard Victor Hugo and Boulevard Mirabeau. This compact centre, just 500 metres across, is entirely pedestrianised and oozes small town tranquility. It is a gem of narrow winding streets edged with honey hued stone townhouses and shops and numerous small shaded squares with fountains and terraced bars, cafes and restaurants. Pretty as they are (and some are striking), it is not so much the streets and the squares which catch the eye here; it is individual buildings, particularly shops such as Fiston and Le Cheval a Bascule. They are so full of character.

These are just two of many colourful and interesting shops to be found near the Hotel de Ville on Place Jules Pelissier.

One cobbled stone square, Place Favier, soon became a favourite of ours. It’s a quiet little square on Rue Carnot, filled with plane trees and a fair sized fountain but with room too for the tables and chairs of two small cafe bars; one of them being ‘Creperie Lou Planet’. We stopped at the creperie for a galette (mine was filled with Mushrooms, Roquefort Cheese and Sour Cream and was absolutely delicious) and then Vanya had one of her best ideas of the trip so far, suggesting we stay on in Saint Remy for a few days. I needed no persuading and ordered a second beer while she googled a place to stay in the area.

Creperie Lou Planet on Place Favier. Points of Interest: Planet is a Provencal word meaning ‘tiny square’ and this little square used to be known as Place aux Herbes.

We were soon parked in a campsite close to the town centre (Camping Pegomas) and, leaving Vanya to rest in the Van, I went off on an extended ‘explore’ in and around the town. We’d already seen various plaques around the town commemorating Vincent van Gogh’s time in Saint Remy and I was keen to learn more about this. I discovered that after cutting off his left ear (following an altercation with his friend Gaugin, while they were working in nearby Arles) Van Gogh admitted himself to the Saint Paul de Mausole lunatic asylum on the outskirts of Saint Remy. He tarried in the asylum for just over a year and whilst there produced well over 120 paintings (including some of his finest works). The town operates what they call the Promenade dans L’Univers de Vincent Van Gogh – a two kilometre tourist trail around Saint Remy and then out to the former monastery/asylum where the great artist stayed between 1889 and 1890. You simply follow a series of bronze studs in the road from one of twenty one information points to another, learning much about Vincent Van Gogh and his works during his time in Saint Remy, on the way.

Those are the bronze studs and that is a photo (not one of mine) of the monastery which is now a museum.

These are just two of the many plaques at the 21 information points along the route. Most serve to introduce the works he completed in Saint Remy.

I reproduce below three of the 120+ paintings Van Gogh painted during his stay in the asylum:- “Wheatfield with a Reaper” (One of Van Gogh’s first paintings after his admission into the asylum, it was painted through the window of his hospital room) and; “The Starry Night” (Regarded as one of his most beautiful works, this is another piece of work painted from a window in the asylum. The village is a figment of his imagination and bears no resemblance to Saint Remy) and; “Irises” (Painted in the asylum gardens, this is my favourite of all those he produced whilst in Saint Remy).

Wheatfield with a Reaper” is currently in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. “Starry Night” is held in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Irises” is currently held in the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Just over the road from the Saint Paul de Mausole is another interesting but much older site which is well worth visiting. This is the archaeological site of Glanum. After being overrun by Barbarians in AD260 Glanum became a source of stone and other building materials for the developing Saint Remy before it’s ruins were gradually buried by deposits washed down from the Alpilles. The town was lost until 1921 when it was discovered and unearthed. Much remains to be seen but two monuments in particular (known as Les Antiques) are in excellent condition.

Les Antiques: On the left is the Triumphal Arch of Glanum which was built towards the end of Augustus Caesar’s reign and on the right is the Mausoleum of the Julii which dates to BC40.

There’s a small museum devoted to Glanum next to the Hotel de Sade on Place Favier (the museum may even be part of the Hotel) and, before you ask, yes the Hotel de Sade was previously a home to relatives of the notorious Marquis de Sade although he never lived there.

Numerous artists, writers and musicians have lived in Saint Remy over the years but the most famous person to have been born in the town is perhaps the 16th century astronomer, apothecary and seer(?) – Nostradamus. He was born there in 1503 and it is possible to visit the house he was brought up in.

Left: The house where Nostradamus was born. Right: A fountain on the corner of Rue Carnot and Rue Nosto-Damo (Nostradamus) which was built in his honour. Surprisingly, this little fountain was full of fish.

We stayed in Saint Remy for a couple more days, more often than not using the place as a base from which to visit some pretty villages over near the Luberon Massif (notably Lourmarin and Bonnieux) but always returning for dinner.

Eating and drinking in Saint Remy is easy…

… and it’s a nice peaceful walk back to the campsite… and still very, very pretty.

One of the reasons we stayed on so long was because we wanted to enjoy the Farmers Market which is held every Wednesday morning. It is held on the Place de la Republique and across much of the old town including Place Jules Pelissier and, of course, our favourite Place Favier. Large, lively and colourful is an understatement. It is recognised as one of the best farmers market in Provence.

We ended up buying two large chunks of the local nougat from that guy on the left.

There is a great deal more I could write about Saint Remy but I’ve already written far too much by this blog’s standards. So, just three quick points about events we missed out on during this trip but will want to enjoy next time:

Firstly, just a few miles from Saint Remy is the small village of Baux de Provence where an indoor quarry has been turned into a light and sound show (Carrieres de Lumieres) where hundreds of images of great artist’s works (including Van Gogh) are projected onto quarry walls and floors in an immersive art experience that has been described as “currently, the world’s best light and sound experience”. That’s a must see for Vanya and I.

Secondly, there’s the ‘Course Camarguaise’ which is run in a number of Provence towns at various times between Spring and Autumn. It is a kind of bullfight but the bulls are unharmed. They have ribbons attached between their horns and brave, athletic men known as rasateurs compete against each other, using skill and agility, to collect as many ribbons as possible in as short a time as possible (without getting harmed).

Thirdly, Saint Remy is famous for it’s festivals. One festival which is held towards the end of May and which, I am advised, would be worth seeing is the ‘Transhumance’. It celebrates the time when sheep are taken to higher pastures for the summer and thousands of them are herded along the town’s ring road.

Next, a little bit about our trip out to Lourmarin.