Travel Writing

Journal / Diary

Vaison la Romaine The Then and The Now

May 06, 2007

Ever wanted to be immersed in ancient history, the centre of a life size 3-D roman maxi theatre?

In Vaison la Romaine you come close as you stand in the ruins of a 2000 year old “well to do” landowner’s house. The design layout is sophisticated for its time. There are bedrooms running off an atrium and an independent bathhouse. A kitchen with separate entry for deliveries feeds into a dining room. Toilets with uncomfortable stone seats dare you to look away.

As you stroll down a shopping street you can almost hear the traders and customers haggling over price. Elaborate mosaic floors are a marvel of patterns, a peacock, a parrot, a fish, hours of painstaking work on hands and knees.

For entertainment, sit in an amphitheatre from the same era, still used today. Thirty rows of seating can hold 6000 people, the population of the whole town in fact.

Walk across the single arch 1AD roman bridge up through narrow cobbled streets to a 12th century castle. And you guessed it, in ruins.

But don’t get the idea this is a ghost town. A visit to the bustling Tuesday market will show you that this is a thriving community. If you arrive by car, you’ll have to learn to jump gutters to get a park. Every street is jammed with stalls and eager shoppers. Sharpen those elbows to get through.

Take the time to enjoy all that a Provençal market has to offer. Happiness radiates from the sunflower bright tablecloths and tea towels. Your nose is teased with lavender, in bunches and infused in soap. Your hands can hardly keep from stroking the warm olive wood bowls and matching salad servers.

And then there is the food. Cheese stands display delicate medallions of brebis (sheep) or chèvre (goat). These are dwarfed by rounds of vache (cow) that weigh tens of kilos. You can choose from fresh or aged, soft or hard, herb crusted, washed rind or wrapped in oak leaves. Pass slowly by stands of salamis as big as your fist, teetering towers of baguettes, seafood on ice so fresh it still winks. Sample spices from small open sacks with exotic names and prices by the gram.

Purple, red, green and gold jump out from the vegetable stands – a rainbow of good healthy produce. This is not a tourist event although you are permitted to join in. The secret is to follow a local with an eye for quality and a bargain.

Vaison la Romaine is big enough to be challenging but small enough to be comfortable. And the contrast of roman and medieval, all within easy walking distance is a bonus.

Papal Avignon

May 06, 2007

Seven consecutive Popes, all French, ruled from Avignon.

In fear of his life, Pope Clement V fled Rome for Avignon in 1305. In 1348 Clement VI bought the city for 80,000 florens. The Papal court became the envy of Europe as it grew more splendid.

You can experience the extravagance and the wonder by taking a tour of Avignon’s Palais des Papes, its turreted grey stone façade impossible to miss as you enter the ramparts via the Porte du Rocher.

Take advantage of the hand held commentary and imagine shadowy figures dashing up secret stairways, gold and jewels hidden in vaults under the floor. Faded tapestries large enough to cover an average sitting room still hang from the walls. Ante rooms for dressing, ballroom dimension meeting rooms, an 18 meter kitchen chimney, all give a clue to the wealth and the power that reigned within.

But even Popes need to go on holiday. And what better choice than a place you create to your own specifications, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which literally translates to new chateau of the Pope. Less than 20 kilometres away, the ruin of the Popes summer castle dominates the skyline of the namesake village and provides good parking for a visit. Take a moment to admire the valley of stoney vines. Then walk down cobbled steps and into a tasting cellar carved into the hillside. Here be enticed to slurp and gurgle on a range of the red and white wines of the Appellation d’Origine Contrôllée (AOC), Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the name dramatically spelt out on the bottle itself in raised lettering over crossed keys and a crown.

Avignon, on the Rhône River, with a population of about 90,000, is an excellent city base for a tour of Provence.

The Mystique of the Fig

September 25, 2005

We walked in the field and tasted straight from the tree. Black, white and grey – Noire de Caromb, Marseillaise, Grise de Staint Jean, and more. The Pepiniere (nurseryman) Baud offers 300 varieties of the fig tree, some to buy, some to study. Pierre Baud is a world respected expert having developed what was first his grandfather’s farm, then his father’s collection, to what it is today – a showcase for the fig.

The story of the fig has all the drama of a Hollywood movie. The male tree (fruit inedible) sacrifices itself as food for the pollinating insect, Blastophaga psenes. This insect is like a small black bee or wasp. Without the blastophages there would be no pollinating and no fig.

The blastophages in turn make a supreme sacrifice for the fig. The females deposit larvae into the fruit of the male fig tree and there it feeds and grows. Male insects develop first, fertilise the females then die. The females release themselves to pollinate the female fig tree flowers and then repeat the cycle of birth, life and death.

And just to add another little twist, the fig is not a fruit at all but the flower of the tree. As the caper is the flower of the juniper plant.

To learn more, read ‘figues’ published by Editions Target, authors Pierre Baud, Raoul Reichrath and Reinhard Rosenau. But first, learn French!

After sampling in the fields continue the journey of discovery with a visit to a restaurant featuring fig on the menu. And a bonus, you have some of the recipes in your book.

In September, the outdoor terrace looks inviting but the chill of the night air moves us inside, bathed in soft colours of dark and light beige with a touch of Mexico in the artwork.

We choose the fig menu with matching wines. First an aperitif, peach liquor and champagne. Then an amuse bouche – three small dishes balanced on a wooden plank – vichyssoise, smoked salmon, chickpea puree.

The first course on the menu, is a cocktail of medium sized fresh cooked prawns marinated in lime and coriander, fresh fig (‘Sultane’), tomato salsa. Wine to match is a Côte du Ventoux rosé.

Next a fondue of foie gras from the South West of France, fresh and delicate slices, rich in taste. The foie gras lies on a bed of fresh fig (‘Dalmatie’), dressed in warm olive oil and balsamic vinegar lightly sprinkled with salt crystals. Wine to match is a white, tasting predominantly of voigner.

Then the main course, confit of lamb, the pieces succulent, cooked with semi dried figs and wrapped in fig leaf crisped to a crackling. To accompany, pureed orange sweet potato and a fig confit. Wine to match is a typical Côte du Rhône (blend of grenache syrah mouvedre).

Before dessert we are presented with a pina colada, this time served with pineapple juice but at times made with the juice of the fig.

To finish, and still eager to discover what the next dish will do to honour the fruit, you have ‘Ronde de Bordeaux’ figs roasted in olive oil (yes, swimming on the dessert plate) served with white balsamic vinegar icecream, sprinkled with caramelized pecan nuts and a sprig of lemon thyme. Wine to match, a sweet red from nearby Rasteau.

Coffee brings more, a plate of petit fours – fluffy white marshmallow, tiny chocolate pearls, deep red jelly on a toothpick. But the most intriguing – a small cone of stiff paper, housing a spicy chocolaty powder that you are under strict instructions to upend into your mouth. Tasty and a touch of fun!

The Art of Aperitif

September 10, 2005

Dinner is 9.00pm, aperitif is 7.00pm and the first does not necessarily follow the second in the invitation.

Aperitif is a commonsense way to catch up with many friends over a short period without the worry and fuss of planning a whole dinner party.

You are expected to arrive promptly. You will be offered a range of drinks, from champagne to sweet to dry wine, beer, whiskey and something soft.

There will be a selection of small food bites – tapenade on croutons, blue cheese wrapped in soft cured ham, creamy goat cheese shapes sprinkled with red or green herbs, roll mop styled fresh anchovies wrapped around a stuffed olive and of course, the magnificent olive itself, black or green, with herbs or chili or garlic or lemon.

And the magnificent olive is all the more a treat if it has been hand picked and prepared for the table by the hostess.

Consider the joy of tasting shiny black olives barely coated in olive oil, covered with flecks of some herb, knowing that the olives were hand picked from the trees at the front of the house? Two trees only, shading the cars that park on the narrow street. These are communal olive trees, available for harvest by anyone in the village. Harvesting the black ripe olives is a service in fact; otherwise they would wither on the tree, drop fruit on the cars and create mess on the street.

When ripe in October, they are hand picked using a rake like tool. Each olive must be pricked many times with a fork, staining the fingers black, placed in a jar, the only additive large granule salt. The olives stay in the jar for at least 4 months but can be left for much longer. The salt turns to water and, when you are ready to prepare them for eating, is discarded. The olives are rebottled with only a little olive oil, some dried thyme, some garlic and left to rest, in a cool place, for another few months.

Their destiny is to grace the table, from a humble beginning to a simple feast.

Tourist for A Day

September 08, 2005

Sunday is market day in L’Isle sur la Sorgue, a virtual island village riddled with canals. Stalls line the canals dotted by moss covered water wheels once the engines of the silk industry. The red, green, and purple of the vegetables, the lavender scent of the soaps, the glistening white and grey of the fresh seafood, the white and mouldy cheese stacks and delicate pink and deep ochre cured meats give way to sunflower and olive splattered table cloths. Continue on for the brocante market, bric-a-brac and antiques. After an hour of just strolling you still have not come to the end of the first line of merchants and there are a dozen more.

With your dinner supplies safely stashed in the car it is on to nearby Fontaine de Vaucluse. Here water seems to miraculously appear out of the rock from the depths of the earth to become the River Sorgue. This is its source. A path from the village centre along a stream takes you to a great hole in the mountain, the fountain chasm, giving the village it’s name. The water in the stream is clear and iridescent emerald green reeds on its shallow bed sway with the movement of the water flow. It is a welcome place to rest tired feet.

Half way along the stream is a 15th century working paper mill. A waterwheel still turns internal cogs and twelve large wooden hammers (the block at the end doing all the work is one and half meters long and twenty centimetres square) pound a white sloppy mixture that is transformed into the hand made products available in the adjoining store. The mill is a working museum and the equipment – presses and vats and levers and mini wheels – is a dirty white, coloured by the product going through the various stages of paper making. And what looks like a washing line of white tea towels hung out to dry is a row of paper sheets.

Flowers are pressed into the paper to make an interesting back drop for a piece of poetry. Old time world maps look more authentic on the rough textured paper. Light shines through the pearly and flowery lamp shades. It is one of the few ‘souvenir’ store experiences that is memorable for the actual experience, each hand made product is unique.

After a lunch beside the canal, under the natural shade of the large trees, it is off to Gordes and a visit to Village des Bories along the way. These dry stone huts look like porcupine igloos. They have been built in the same way since 2000 BC using no mortar, housing both people and animals. Village des Bories is a small area with twenty restored buildings. The doorways are low but the interiors high enough so you may stand tall; in the middle at least. There is something calming but at the same time forbidding about the sharp textured exteriors.

Gordes is carved into the side of a cliff; or so it seems when approaching from the south. This vista is dominated by the Chateau de Gordes, a tall rectangular building with a large bell cloister on the top that must send an imposing not to be ignored ring across the valley. This, apparently, is where the very well to do of France like to holiday, with many exclusive hotels and restaurants.

A detour to the 11th century Abbaye de Senanque completes a day long round trip. This abbey is popular in calendars and postcards of Provence. It has a large low round tower at its front, a rectangular main building and hexagon shaped wide low tower on the main roof. A sweeping lavender foreground is the most common photo set up. The Cistercian monks work the fields and sell their home produced lavender product. A melody of bells announce mass at 6.00pm marking the time to stay and prayer or head home.