Our last week was spent with Vicki Jellis and Kris Chambers who were on a whirlwind tour, which included a few weeks in France. Vicki’s birthday fell neatly into their time with us in L’Isle Sur La Sorgue which was all the more excuse for celebration and excess!
We took them to a few special places we had discovered, one being the perched village of Saumane-de-Vaucluse and the other Venasque where, on the way, we’d discovered a mass of cherry trees growing at the side of the road. Kris, Vicki and I went into a feeding frenzy. We could’ve spent the rest of the day there stuffing ourselves with cherries if we hadn’t finally shown some restraint.
A bit of history: both Venasque and Saumane-de-Vaucluse belonged to the counts of Toulouse up until 13th century when they became part of the Papal enclave basically as a political land grab. Amazingly it remained part of the Papal Enclave for 500 years, the Vatican refusing to renounce its rights until as late as 1814 and the French Revolution.
Venasque, badged as one of Les Beaux Villes in France (or Tidy Towns as we’ve come to call them), lives up to its reputation. Part of the deal for Vanasque receiving help to restore its beauty was that they had to promise to keep the fountains clean – and they must be the cleanest fountains we’ve seen in France so far. Someone obviously gets out there feverishly scrubbing each week.
The beautiful Romanesque church, Notre Dame de Venasque, was decorated with flowers when we visited which looked fabulous and smelt wonderful. It has an interesting story about a painting hanging in the church. It was painted for the church by the Avingnon school of art in the 14th century, but had been deemed ‘old fashioned’ and stored out the back for many years. Then a Canon Sautel, uncle of the priest looking after the church, saw it out the back, recognised its worth and organised for it to be sent it to the Louvre for restoration. The Louvre took a very big shine to it and used it as the featured painting in an exhibition they were holding on the Crucifixion. In fact they were so impressed that they decided not to give it back! It wasn’t for some time, until it became a very hot potato in a local political election that effective pressure was brought to bear and the Louvre returned it, so it hangs once again, (and much more valued), in the church.
Saumane-de-Vaucluse was having a ‘Monday’ the day we went there with Vicki and Kris. (We think the French weekend is Sunday and Monday because so many things are closed on Monday. We think everyone is so busy having a good weekend they need Monday to recover. Actually, come to think of it that Monday was a long weekend as well – so everything was even more closed – if possible.)
The castle overlooking the town once belonged to the Marquis de Sade’s family. He lived here himself between the ages of 5 and 10, in his uncle’s care (the Abbot de Sade). But we didn’t get to see this or anything except a small borie and many giant dandelions which grow here and which Kris tried to wrangle without actually inhaling parts of them.
The day of Vicki’s birthday we went for a picnic back at the magical Fontaine-de-Vaucluse. As the school holidays had finished the crowds from our first visit had diminished to a huge degree. The weather was perfect and there were just enough people to create a great atmosphere.
That night we all went to our favourite restaurant La Renaissance, then back home for a special birthday dessert of religieuse chocolat followed by our nightly game of Rummy tiles.
I’d heard reports of how special the Camargue region of France was – the wild west of Southern France so to speak – wetlands with black bulls, cowboys, white horses and flamingos. None of us had seen flamingos in the wild so that became our mission for the last Thursday. I really had doubts that we’d see any. After all, they did have wings and could fly. I thought it would just be our luck to find the wetlands deserted except for reeds.
But our luck was in! Not far out of Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (a Spanish-come-western sort of place) there they were. Flamin’ flamingos! A large flock were pecking around in the marshes. Perfect photo opportunity. And we saw white horses too (though I really did feel that fell into the ‘so what?’ basket).
As for Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, it was hard to realise we were still in France except for the street lamps! And walking along the sea wall Van Gogh’s fishing boats were very recognisable – or at least where they would have been painted. He got the colour of the water in his seascape spot on too.
There was a very interesting church – Notre Dame de la Mer (Our Lady of the Sea) dark old stone inside with lots of memorial tokens and inscriptions all over the walls of the chapels – and a dark crypt lit with a host of candles underneath watched over by St Sara. We were allowed to climb the towers that overlooked the town for a couple of euros each, which seemed the most active part of the town that day.
We set of for home again, passing heaps of white horses, black bulls, and even saw cowboys in town. Ho hum. And we even got to see another flock of those flamingos.
Tina and Heather