A Weekend in Provence

When we were in Kenya and first decided on the idea of going to France for language study, our teammate Alyssa loaned us a great book called "A Year in Provence," by Peter Mayle.  It is an awesome little book about a Brit's experiences buying and renovating an old French farmhouse in the Provence region.  Each chapter is a different month of the year and talks endearingly of French culture (which basically means French food).  We were pretty excited to go to France after reading this book.  Last weekend, we actually had a chance to visit the region of Provence (pro-vahhnss, accent on 2nd syllable), which is about three hours south of us.  Many thanks to our generous teammates, who watched our kids so we could get away to celebrate our 7th anniversary a few months early.

Provence is an area of France known for vineyards, orchards, and fields of lavender.  It also encompasses the French Rivera/Mediterranean coast (which we did not visit, it being November).  Apparently in the summer this place is nuts, but we were definitely there in the off season.  We went for long stretches of time without seeing anyone at all (which was sort of fun!).

Our first stop was the Senanque Abbey, a still functioning abbey complete with monks. It wasn't currently open to tourists, but we did walk around the grounds and chat for a few moments with a real live monk in habit.  If you've read Stephen Lawhead, you know how exciting this can be. :)
From the abbey, we spent the day driving around an area known as the Luberon, a hilly national park (preserved area) with lots of restored towns, ruined villages, castles, and beautiful views.  Although the abundant orchards and vineyards were obviously not in bloom, it was still beautiful.  We saw the newly restored city of Gordes, pictured below.  A lot of wealthy Parisians have taken to buying up property in what used to be a ghost town and restoring the buildings with its original white stone.  Reminded us of Gondor, minus the towers.

Then it was on to Rousillon, a town that mined (?) ochre from the surrounding hills until WW2.  The entire village is hues of red and orange and brown, much like the US Southwest.  We enjoyed quaint little streets, a picturesque bell tower, and the sense of our own private village.

On our way to lunch, we passed an old Roman bridge.  This things was built literally in the time of Christ, and traffic still used it until 2005.  Wow!  Built to last.  The top has been paved and repaved, but the rest is original stone.

After a delicious and quite filling lunch at a cute French restaurant (we weren't hungry for another 24 hrs or so after goat cheese bread, fish soup, partridge, and Provencal stew) we stopped at the ruins of a castle that used to belong to the Marquis of Sod (sod as in sodomy, not dirt).  A rather creepy history, but apparently the grounds have been bought by Pierre Cardin and are being renovated.  We saw no evidence of people or gates and climbed around for 30 minutes by ourselves.
We visited a few more tiny villages and ruined cities, then headed back to our B&B to relax.  The next day we visited the city of Avignon.  In the Middle Ages, a French pope was "elected" and decided to move the papal seat from the Vatican to Avignon.  Hence, the Palace of the Popes was built.  In the meantime, apparently, the Italian church decided they needed an Italian pope and so for awhile there were 2 popes.  Wonder what Peter would have thought of all this.  But anyway...you can see original city walls below, and the towering structure behind is the Palace.  We didn't go in, but the exterior is impressively mammoth.
From higher up in the city, you can see what remains of another old bridge.  Apparently it used to have 19 arches and span the river from the palace to a tower on the other side.
Finally, to wrap up our trip homeward, we stopped in the city of Orange.  It also has some Roman ruins, most notably a beautifully preserved amphitheater.  That is the original wall below with a statue of Caesar presiding over the festivities.  We read in the guidebook that this is one of the only Roman amphitheaters left in the world with its original acoustic wall remaining.  Wait, I said, we've seen another.  C'est vrai.  Of the three left, one is in Ephesus (Turkey)

Overall, an awesome visit.  We packed a lot in but it was fun and relaxing as well.  Not disappointed after reading Mayle's book (which we recommend).  It would have been fun to see in the summer, too, but it was nice to avoid the crowds!