Wrapping up Month #1; Birthday #23, Wine Tasting,

Trip Start Aug 16, 2010
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of France  , Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur,
Saturday, September 18, 2010

So on Monday I turned 23. Not super excited to be getting older but not much you can do about it.  But it was a pretty good day nonetheless.  We had a French test in class which sucked because it was not on the material that the teacher had told us it would be on.  But those of us who were going on that day's trip to Chateau Virant got to leave early so that was great.  So we grabbed some sandwiches to eat on the bus, since we didn’t have time to eat in between.  So then we got on the bus and headed off to Chateau Virant for Wine and Olive Oil tasting.  Our guide was an old exchange student who had fallen in love with olive oil and ended up studying it and now lives here as an olive oil specialist.  We got dropped off at the bus station and then had to hike for about 30 minutes to get to the Winery.  We hiked through the vineyard and olive orchard, which was cool to see, but we were doing it in very strong winds.  Le Mistral, (France’s seasonal ridiculously strong storms and winds) were in strong force that day.  We frequently had to stop and turn around  as the wind whipped rocks and dust at us, which stung any exposed part of our body as the rocks and pebbles were flung at us as though by sling shot.

On the way, we passed by some random but beautiful and somehow scenic and poetic roman ruins along the way.  I can’t stop being amazed at how frequently you stumble across signs of ancient civilizations, and at how casually the locals look at it.  I can’t help but stare in awe at these ruins and wonder what they were and why they’re in this particular spot.  The fact that these structures have been able, without any maintenance, to still be standing is just too incredible for me to fathom.  Even if just as a skeleton, these arches stand there weathering time and the elements, not caring if we notice them or not.  And likely when I am long dead these random structures will still be there watching over their vacant weedy field, as they have done since their last residents walked out the door for the last time, unknown centuries ago.

Finally we got there and our guide points out a large outcropping of rock on the mountain, that large rock is called Chateau Virant, which was apparently an old temple site where the local ancient pagans would go to pray to the wind god.  That is where the winery gets its name; there is no actual chateau on this winery.  She then took us into the olive oil processing room.  She showed us their machinery and explained the process that the olive goes through.  First it is chopped up and then spun in a centrifuge then it is separated from the water.  The first oil from the centrifuge is apparently the best oil and really the only kind that should be used for cooking, according to our guide.  I also learned that there is only one kind of olive and that whether it is black or green is caused by when it is picked and how it is prepared after.

Then she showed us their wine fermenting and aging facilities.  She explained the difference between White, Rose (pronounced rose-ay) and Red wines.  She also explained the difference between Rose and Blush.  They are not the same thing.  Rose is made from a specific way of fermenting the grape and blush is made from blending a red and a white wine.  We then tasted the three olive oils and the 6 wines they made on their property.  They both grow and make all of their products in their facility and the land around it.  Some of the buildings dated back to the 1600s.  The current family who owns and operates it bought it in the 1970s.  There is a whole other large wine cellar that is bricked up and no one knows what is in there, but they are afraid to open it up for fear that it might damage the structural integrity of the other wine cellar, which is the oldest part of their facility.  That really fascinated me.  What if there is really really old good wine back there, or treasure or dead bodies.  The list of cool stuff that could be back there is endless, of course it’s just as likely to be an empty room filled with dust and spider webs.

Their wine was very good.  I bought a bottle of a very nice dessert wine, which is apparently a specialty of Provence that they drink at Noel.  It is called Vin Cuit.  Its wine that has been mulled in a kettle, its sweater and thicker and its alcohol content is much higher.  It’s quite excellent.  We ended up missing our bus back and the next one wasn’t for another 45 minutes so our guide took us to a local café and bought us all a glass of wine.

That night my madam gave me another bottle of wine for my birthday, which I am saving for a special occasion.  I didn’t drink it because after dinner I went out with some friends to Woohoo, a local bar that aims towards the foreign exchange college students.  Every Monday night they have a beerpong tournament.  I played with Candice, our team name was Les Condoms.  Apparently they import their red plastic cups from America, since this is not a product that is used as often in Europe, (Who says America doesn’t export anything anymore?).  They knew most of the basic rules to beer-pong but did not know much of the customary etiquette nor take it as seriously as most Americans.  They were mostly pretty bad at it but it was funny to see everyone playing this American game.  We won our first game, but lost our second, oh well, I had been drinking before and in between games so I was fairly tipsy.  Overall a good night, and a good 23rd birthday, lots of wine and beer, what more could you ask for?

On Wednesday I took a short wine tasting class.  I had heard a lot of what we were told from my parents and my older sister Natalie and from going wine tasting in CA, but I still learned a lot especially about the wine industry in France.  Afterwards I had to go buy a new tire for my bike, and learned that the pedals couldn’t be fixed, (they are loose and all messed up and make it so I can’t use the 3rd gear) so that was disappointing to learn that I’ll be riding this crummy bike all year and I can’t fix it even if I wanted to.

On Friday I had my meeting with our program director Guy Allan to help me figure out my classes for this semester.  It was fairly disappointing to find out that I will only be able to take one elective, the classes are much more limited, (meaning all the options listed before I came are not actually available) and that there is no option to get a diplom, apparently that was only at the old institution.

So after that fairly depressing conversation I went home and had a bowl of cereal for dinner then raced back to Park Jordan to meet my friends to go to a concert.  Candice, Helen, Michelle, Angelica and I all went to Festival Zik Zac.  I felt right at home, it was a total hippie concert.  It was like being in Berkeley or Venice back in CA.  The bands were super chill too.  They would alternate back and forth between two stages with each band.  The larger stage had the old Roman aqueduct as the backdrop, but it was all lit up, it was awesome.  The second band was probably my favorite.  They are the only band I have ever heard with a recorder solo.  The band after them looked like they had fallen right out of the 60s, and the guy had this weird home-made looking instrument, I don’t know what it was but it was kind of half electric guitar half violin, (see pictures).  The band after them was really fun and we all had a great time singing along and dancing.  I would have liked to stay but the girls wanted to go because we all had to wake up early the next morning to go to Arles.

I woke up at 7:30 the next morning.  I had meant to wake up at 6:30 in order to meet at the fountain at 8:00 to catch the bus to our bus that was taking us to Arles.  Luckily Angelica texted me because my alarm did not go off, and I was able to race to get ready and still made the bus.

We had a really tiny tour guide that we all kept calling, (to ourselves of course) Santa Clause.  First he took us to the Amphitheatre of Arles, (Arles’ version of the coliseum).  He explained, in French, the history of the site.  In the war between Cesar and Pompeii, Arles took Cesar’s side and made him a bunch of boats for his war.  When Cesar won, he made Arles the capital of Provence.  Later he built theatres and amphitheatres and baths etc.  This is why Arles has so many grand Roman ruins.  Currently there are only two stories to the amphitheatre, there used to be three but due to wars and people using the stones to build other buildings in the city there are only two stories remaining.  In its prime it could hold 20,000 spectators and they could be evacuated in 15 minutes if necessary, a feat still impossible in our modern stadiums.  Later after the fall of the Roman Empire, it was used as a refuge during the various invasions of Germanic tribes.

As I looked into the arena I tried to imagine the men and animals fighting and dying in that ring as thousands of people cheered.  I then tried to imagine the times of the empire in decline, women and children huddled in the center as the men tried to defend the arena from the invading savages raiding the city.  These immortal stones have seen so much bloodshed.

We then moved to the Theatre Antique, which is practically a pile of rubble but was once a massive grand roman theatre.  Now there are only two standing columns in front of ancient worn seating that resembles giant stairs.  At the top I found a litter of wild, but oh so cute, kittens hiding under the stairs to the light and sound box.  I barely had time to soak in and enjoy this site; we were rushed away so quickly.  This was my one complaint about our tour guide.  He knew quite a bit about each location, but he would take us somewhere, sit us down, talk to us for a long time and then move along to the next site.  It was very frustrating, we had no time at all to wander and observe on our own.

After lunch of some funky toast and crepes for dessert we had about 30 minutes to wander.  I saw a sign that caught my interest and wandered into an old church.  This had obviously ceased to be an operating church a long time ago.  What I found when I walked in took my breath away.  There was essentially a forest in the church.  It was an artist’s exhibition.  But the way it was set up and the location worked so well, that at least in my opinion it was absolutely beautiful.  There was some eerie and dramatic violin music playing mixed with some nature sounds of crickets and the like.  Somehow this exhibit just spoke to me.  I wish I could have spent more time just wandering and thinking and sketching.  It truly inspired me.  If I ever got the chance to direct A Midsummer Night’s Dream, this would be the way I would design the forest.  I really can’t describe the trees themselves.  You’ll have to check out the photos I took.  This was definitely my favorite part of Arles.

After I was dragged from my discovery of the forest in the church we headed back to the bus and headed off to the Roman museum.  It was all roman artifacts from that region, found in various places, many had been pulled out of the river that flowed along the city.  There were lots of models of what many of the ruins looked like before they were "ruins", sarcophagi, mosaics, statues, pottery etc.  You know, all the cool roman stuff you usually find in museums.  The song “Broken and Beautiful” sung by Oscar the Grouch in the old movie “Don’t Eat the Pictures” kept running through my mind.   My favorite piece was a statue of some emperor’s head that had been under water for who knows how long, it had been eaten away a bit, but that was what made it so interesting, was the specific way it had had deteriorated.

After the museum we took a bus to the village of Saintes Maries de la Mer.  According to legend a boat with no sails had set off from Palestine.  Aboard it was Mary Jacoby, sister of the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, Lazarus , Mary Salome (Mother of apostles John and James), Martha and their Egyptian servant Sarah, now Saint Sarah.  They were miraculously washed ashore safely in this village in about 40 AD.  Now there is a church that supposedly houses their bodies.  We took a boat on a tour of the Camargue, which is a wetland area right next to this village.  This is the only rice growing region in France.  The wetlands were fairly generic except for the random bulls grazing, and at one spot we saw a French cowboy herding bulls and white horses.  That was pretty much the highlight of the boat tour.  When we got back we had 15 minutes to see the town and meet back at the Hotel De Ville to meet the bus.  Michelle, Angelica and I raced over to the church to see what we could see of these fairly legendary Bible characters.  In the crypt below the church there was a shrine to St. Sarah, some of her bones and the stones upon which the bodies of the famous characters had been resting when found during excavations.  These stones supposedly heal infertility and sore eyes.  Why those two fairly random un-linked ailments, I have no idea.  The bodies of the others were supposedly upstairs in the church but there was a Mass in session and we were out of time so I didn’t get to see what was left of the rest of the holy pilgrims.

This wraps up my first month here in France.  Still having a great time and pretty much settled in, but I can’t believe I still have eight more months here.  This is the longest vacation ever and I am learning so much.  I don’t know how I’m going to adjust to living back in the United States, but at the same time I miss it already.  I’m torn between loves for two different worlds.

Please feel free to leave comments or questions or whatever.  I’d love to know who is reading this, besides my mom, and what you think.

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Katie on

I read your blog, and I comment on almost every one, why wasn't I mentioned? You will adjust to life back in the United States. It is scary how fast the time flies when you are there. I marveled at the first month, but after that the time flew, and soon it had been 11 months, and I had to go home. Being torn between the two worlds is hard, but it is one of the things that every exchange student has to deal with.
Do they have pumpkins in France? They appeared in Sweden towards the beginning of October. However, Sweden does not have canned pumpkin, so if you want any sort of pumpkin bread or pie you have to boil down the pumpkin. Glad to hear that you had a good burthday. You need to call me on Skype sometime.

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