Winds of Change

Trip Start Jul 13, 2007
Trip End Jul 2008

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Saturday, December 15, 2007

Ah, La vie en Provence.  There in the vineyards you can see the palette of the November landscape becoming a little more muted with each passing day but still the beauty continues unabated.  The country life here has only gotten better with time.  In our final month here we were blessed enough to cross paths with a gentle roving Shepard and his great bleating family. They stayed in our neck of the woods for about a week and he enjoyed our visits as much as we did.  Mucky fields, spunky sheepdogs and precious little 2 week old lambs made us keen to go for daily walks.  We were delighted to finally catch a glimpse of a hasty little sanglier darting through the fields. These little guys can't stop to visit what with all the hunters around.  Its very rustic to hear their gunshots every morning but a little less charming when Bruce was sprayed by buckshot whilst out jogging!    
We were often enticed by all the lovely fragrances wafting around as well and decided to take a side trip to Grasse, where flowers and their fragrances rule.  We toured Fragonard Perfume Museum and learned that good perfume is aged.  Good perfume takes tons of flowers - 10,000 pounds of rose petals to make one pound of rose oil.  And good perfume is decided by some one referred to as a 'nose'.  He or she may be born into a perfume dynasty such as Guerlain and/or be educated in chemistry and learn to distinguish between 1500 and 2000 different smells.  It takes about seven years to become a good nose.  Truly a mélange of art and science with glorious outcomes.
We were also wooed into the culture of the marathon lunch.  Who would resist 2-3 hours with good company and good food?  There is no commerce to participate in through the middle of the day other than food consumption so why not?  We enjoyed it al fresco with friends, as well as in delightful digs like revamped convents and antiquated abbeys.  We enjoyed homemade bouillabaisse in true Mediterranean style with just the right fish, just the right wine, and with friends and family.   It was on this tour of decadent lunches that we discovered another jewel of France: Monsiuer Alain Ducasse.  A chef of provencal cuisine who has for years run the show at le Louis XV in Monaco.  We were decidedly impressed with what his team had to offer in a little country auberge near our house, so it seemed only natural to book a good meal with him to celebrate Su's birthday.
So the birthday came, and with the kids off picking olives with the grandparents, we dumped the big pig of a van and picked up a car with a little more style for the trip to Monaco.  Not to brag, but it was the car 007 drove in Casino hmm, you know the 'spy-in-cognito' Ford he drove in the Bahamas?  Yep, that one...
We stopped off in Nice to celebrate the arrival of Nouveau Beaujolais and gaze at those gorgeous Italian facades in the old section of town.  And lo and behold there was a 'busker' playing a little Debussy just to keep the mood dreamy! There is just a bevy of beautiful Italian and French delights both in sights and food waiting to be had in Nice.  It is called the Queen of the Mediterranean with its Bay of Angels and Promenade des Anglais.   We did not pay it enough due but there were only so many free hours to spend and Monaco was calling...
Now if you want to go to the smallest, most uptight country in the world then set your sites on those 0.2 square miles called the Vatican.  But if you want to go to the smallest, most glamorous country in the world, then head to the 0.7 square miles of magnificence known as Monaco.   Think affluence, opulence, extravagance, and there you are in Casino Square.  All the toys are parked outside, and all the players are inside throwing their millions around for a little light fun. In the foyer of the casino sits a statue of Fortuna, the goddess of good fortune and happiness. It is said she bestows large fortunes on certain lucky people of her choice but for those who fall from her grace she bestows poverty.  She was also regarded as the goddess of chance which comes in handy in a place like this.  We played some roulette, some black jack and some slots.  We won some, we lost some, but having a microscopic amount to play with compared to those whose elbows we rubbed we somehow didn't make it on Fortuna's good list.  Perhaps we left before she had a chance to decide but we didn't want to leave her with a bad impression either.  All of Monaco is easy on the eyes so we explored to our hearts content.  The birthday lunch was indeed spectacular.  All 7 courses! If you were on a quest for tiramisu you might not expect it on such a hoighty-toighty menu but it is available and much to our surprise it is topped with gold leaf.  But that is Le Louis for you.  It makes you think you were in Versailles.  Ooh la la! Our lease on Monaco was all too short and it was time to speed back to the family.  We stopped on the haute corniche to take one last look at the sun kissed jewel.  Ciao bella!
Our last little bit of France was spent poking about Aix-en-Provence home to Cezanne and Santons Fouque.  Santons are the little clay figurines made for crèche displays throughout Provence.  There are hundreds of characters to choose from and each home has its own version.  Much to Gracie's delight our friend Yvonne invited her to help build a crèche with these little saints while the rest of us were out olive picking.  It doesn't get much more Provencal than that!
As we bid farewell to St. Maximin we headed westward to explore Le Pont du Gard.  A massive Roman aqueduct made with precision cut stones weighing up to 6 tons each.  It is amazing to realize it is built entirely without mortar and stands 2000 years old.  The ancient olive trees growing near by could tell some interesting tales for sure.  From there we sped on to the medieval fortress town of Carcassonne.  While its history stretches back across a myriad of religious conflicts and battles to 100 BC, it is now fully restored and thrives as a peaceful city today.  It has been long rumored that the Holy Grail was taken to this place by the Templars fleeing the holy land. It amuses the minds of all who visit and after a short time it does start to make you wonder what the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow is... You could adore the tapestries and quaint handicrafts for sale at length but after you go through the Inquisition Museum the images of nobles playing lutes and forests full of unicorns are wiped right out of your mind.  In our photos we have shown just two of the grisly torture instruments of the middle ages.  This kind of history just stops your heart cold.  On a lighter note, the Mask of Infamy was used for women who talk too much...Shhh! Say no more except this:  If you are looking for a good read, try Labyrinth by Kate Mosse which retells the history of Carcassonne through a tale of adventure and mystery.
At the end of this whole affair one could say that the south of France; she strikes you like a Bond girl.  She is scintillating; she is captivating.  You taste her and think she should be yours.  You know she has a torrid past but you tell yourself it doesn't matter.  You will love her like no one has before.  All that she is, all that she has, just keeps coming at you and you only want more.  She is capricious and frustrating.  She won't make sense when she should.  She makes you crazy with irritation but then she smiles at you and you love her again. That Occitania; she is a delicious mystery.  We are glad to have known her, to have savored her with all that good wine but the reality is that the winds of change are blowing and the time has come for us to go.  We look up at the Cathar castle glittering on the hill.  It was ours to behold for a moment.  We look south to the Pyrenees and start the engine.  Destination: Andalusia.   To the land of sun, sea, and Sangria; of Picasso and paella; where the ghosts of the Alhambra await us...from Spain we wish you Feliz Navidad y una Feliz Ano Nuevo!
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