Losing ourselves in France

St. Remy, Provence, where every doorway is decked out with flowers and/or greenery and/or cafe tables.

I could not wait to plunge into our recent travels in France to tell you about Castle Sercy, here, and my day at The Cook’s Atelier, here. But then I thought I should backtrack and give you a look at our trip overall. It was more than castles and cooking.

A few years ago we took a river cruise in France that traveled north from Arles in Provence to Salon sur Saone in Burgundy. We had a wonderful time, we just didn’t have enough time in many of the places we stopped. There were other sights like the Pont du Gard, and towns, like Aix en Provence, along the way, that we never got a chance to see.

We knew we would go back — soon. Then my son introduced me to Ina Caro’s book, Paris to the Past, in which Caro and her husband retraced French history by daytripping via train from Paris to various cathedrals and castles. They did this in chronological order starting with the oldest sight. Since we had already visited Notre Dame, Saint Chapelle and Chartres, I wanted to visit a few more sights on the list.

Somewhere on the road from Burgundy to Provence, stopping yet again to re-calibrate Google maps, but just look at these vines!

Burgundy is home to countless small wineries that we could only sample by visiting ourselves, and Steve was eager to do that. I had discovered The Cook’s Atelier in Beaune (a town we loved on our first visit) and was determined to attend one of their daylong cooking classes. If we started in Reims, we could visit the cathedral where centuries of French kings were crowned.

After a few days in Burgundy, we planned to drive south to Provence, exploring more hilltop towns, visiting markets, and, yes, getting lost on more back roads, before dropping the car off in Avignon and taking the train to Paris.

Our travel misadventure adventure begins

We flew into Paris and, on a chilly, drizzly morning with virtually no sleep on the overnight flight, proceeded to drive to Reims in our rented Renault Clio. We paid extra for a GPS system, but never really figured out how to use it, which explains how we ended up heading towards Paris instead of Reims. Fortunately, even my seriously limited French revealed we were going in the wrong direction. Pull over, pull up Google maps, and recalibrate. (This is a little jingle we would oft repeat!)

Here’s what we learned about driving in France: In addition to being in French, the road signs did not indicate direction. Alas, we midwesterners are used to I80 West, I65 North and so on. Not so in France. Keep your eye on the Google map. And here’s what we learned about roundabouts: keep going around until you are sure of the exit you want to take. If you make the wrong assumption and take the wrong roundabout turn off, you can go many kilometers before getting a chance to turn around on these narrow country roads. Tollroads are nice, but not typically very close to the towns you really want to see. (And the country roads are indescribably scenic and fun to travel!)

The day we arrived in Reims was the annual celebration of Joan of Arc’s arrival there with the young Charles II for his coronation. (This cathedral was the sight of French coronations for hundreds of years.) It made visiting the cathedral a little challenging, however you could not help but be charmed by the locals dressed in medieval garb and recreating processions through the town.

After our stop in Reims and catching up on our sleep at a hotel in Troyes, we visited the Abbey of Fontenay on our way to Beaune. Founded in 1118 by Saint Bernard as a Cistercian abbey, Fontenay is one of the oldest in Europe. Cistercians vow to live a simple life in poverty. Their monasteries were self-sufficient. By 1200 the monastery was complete and able to serve as many as 300 monks. Despite its initial success, the abbey was attacked and pillaged in the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of Religion. The monks left during the revolution and the property was turned into a paper mill by the Montgolfier family (of balloon fame). Today it is privately owned. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981.

Abbey Fontenay lived up to the Cistercian principles of simplicity, but did so elegantly.

True to the abbey’s orders, the buildings are remarkably simple, sometimes even stark, but they feature beautifully vaulted ceilings and generous doses of graceful symmetry.

On to Beaune, the wine capital of Burgundy in eastern France. It is also home to the Hotel Dieu, a 15th-century former hospital that is now a Museum. We had toured the Hotel Dieu on our first visit (an intriguing sight), but we were anxious to explore the town, sample the legendary wines, and I would spend a day cooking.

Pommard includes two chateaux, the first built in 1726 by a member of Louis IV’s court. The French Revolution forced the Marey-Mogne to sell the chateau, though they retained the vineyards (known as clos because they are enclosed by stone walls) during their exile from France. After the revolution, the family built a second chateau. Eventually both chateaux and the Clos were united under single ownership.

As we explored Beaune on foot on the day before my cooking class, we stopped by The Cook’s Atelier to introduce ourselves. My husband asked about nearby wineries and Marjorie’s son-in-law graciously arranged for us to visit Chateau Pommard, one of the oldest in Burgundy and just a handful of miles away. (And, yet we got ridiculously lost in this tiny town, so much so that we had to call the Chateau and say “this is where we think we are, how do we find you?”)

Although the estate changed hands a few more times and is now owned by an American, it has remained complete and has benefited from significant improvements to the estate management and the winemaking. Pommard wines are known worldwide for their quality, and the tour and tasting was simply wonderful.

 

The vineyards, top, and the cellars, above, have changed little in over two hundred years.

 

By now we were becoming more comfortable with driving in France. We still got lost (often!), but we took it in stride and felt free to stop, take pictures and make impromptu changes to our so-called itinerary. This is what we were hoping for!

 

When we left Castle Sercy, M. de Contenson suggested we stop at nearly Cormatin, a largely restored chateau, an unscheduled but memorable stop and a testament to the challenges of restoration.
It took a while to realize that the small bursts of red along the roadside were wild poppies. Beautiful!

Now we know why everyone loves Provence…

It’s easy to forget that this part of France was once part of the Roman Empire and the Romans were amazing engineers. The Pont du Gard was part of a sophisticated aqueduct delivering water to a number of Roman towns.

Before we knew it the road from Burgundy led to Provence where we finally saw the Pont du Gard, visited Aix, and fell in love with French markets.  Provence is  absolutely charming and prettier in person that any picture. Really. We just let it unfold in front of us as we traveled.

Unlike a few other towns, the day we happened upon Seguret, the town was very quiet, encouraging us to walk its cobbled streets.

One of the charms of driving on our own was the freedom to stop and explore, as we did here at Seguret, stopping for a leisurely lunch in an outdoor cafe overlooking the French countryside.

Our plan was to stay in L’Isle sur la Sorgue for a few days (so we could attend their big Sunday market which includes antiques) and then move on to St. Remy. Both towns provided a great base from which to visit other hill towns. (And we did a lot.)

L’Isle sur la Sorgue is larger and has a working class vibe. The town owes its early prosperity to the Sorgue River, which served it well defensively centuries ago, and for the industry and trade the river offered. A number of working waterwheels remain in the heart of town

Today it’s home to many antique stores, typically only open on the weekend for the market (though I’m sure they do considerable private business the rest of the time). In the few days we were there, the people and pace seemed to pick up in anticipation of the Sunday market. We stayed a few miles from town and the hotel advised us to arrive in town on Sunday well before the market opened to assure parking. We did, though parking proved not to be a problem (or maybe we were just really early). So, we grabbed cafes and croissants from a boulangerie and enjoyed the activity as the vendors set up their wares.

I was especially eager to see what the antique dealers would offer and was not at all disappointed. There were linens, dishes, knickknacks, books, paintings and prints, and furniture, some of it just barely vintage but much of it centuries old. Centuries! I think the prices were fair and dealers were willing to bargain, I just had no idea how to get a lot of it home in a suitcase!

 

Stacks of china!

 

Something for everyone here.
Tables of Majolica. Where to begin?

As much fun as the markets and specific sites were, driving almost daily through the French country side was just as much fun.

Rousillon is postcard-pretty and immediately recognizable for its ochre-colored clay, which nets the ochre pigment so popular with artists.

When we moved on to St. Remy I was reminded of the visit we paid a few years ago to the nearby Asylum of Saint Paul Mausole where Vincent Van Gogh went to recover his health; he improved here, and enjoyed an especially productive period, completing almost 150 paintings and a number of drawings from May 1889 until May 1890.  (You may can read my post on that here.) One of the disappointments in the last visit was not spending time in St. Remy. This time we stayed in a charming, old hotel on the square. (In France, old means no elevator. We counted 69 steps to our room!)

A St. Remy doorway: flowers, shutters, stone.

We loved the weekly market in St. Remy. Like the others it was a colorful mix of fruit, vegetables, sausage, cheese, spices, baskets,  t-shirts, linen towels, handmade soap, and local artists. And I’ve probably left out a few categories. Despite the obvious merchandise aimed at tourists, it’s important to remember that most French residents shop these markets weekly for food and to catch up with neighbors. It’s very much a part of the culture.

 

No French market is complete without fresh herbs and a few vegetable plants.
Sausages are a regular component of the French menu. Here is a market day sampling.

 

One of the side-trips we took from St. Remy was to Aix en Provence, a scenic drive on a warm day. I expected Aix to be pretty (and it was) and knew it played a role in the art community (you’ll see that), but we were totally unprepared for how big and bustling it was, especially on its market day (unplanned on our part). The traffic was like rush-hour gridlock. We worked our way towards Paul Cezanne’s studio, found parking in a nearby hospital lot, and walked the rest of the way.

 

The studio was so worth it. Cezanne had many studios over the course of his career, but this was his last and he had it built to his own specifications, a small, two-story structure on a hill in what was then the outskirts of town. The painting studio, above, was on the second floor, and though he worked every day, he often left the studio and worked outdoors. In October 1906 Cezanne was working outside the studio when the weather turned stormy. He worked for awhile anyway, then decided to go home. Unfortunately, the artist collapsed along the way. A passing driver took him home. He died of pneumonia a few days later. After his death, the Cezanne family simply locked up his studio. After a time the building was sold to a writer, who only used the first floor, leaving all of Cezanne’s art materials undisturbed upstairs. Eventually, Aix grew, and the structure was scheduled for demolition and redevelopment. A group of Americans banded together and saved Cezanne’s studio, donating it as a museum to a local university. The easels, paints, palettes, props, coffee cups – everything in the studio – are as Cezanne left them. Amazing!

So many pictures, so little time. I could not resist adding this shot of a road leading out of St. Remy, perfectly lined with clipped plane trees, a familiar sight in Provence.

After our stay in St. Remy, we dropped our car off in Avignon and took the train to Paris for our last few nights in France. I’ll post about that later. We have been to Paris a number of times, so this was more relaxed than earlier visits, seeing a few sights, shopping a little and enjoying French cafes.

Thanks for stopping by and reading and — hopefully enjoying — this loooong post. See you next time!

PS: I love Instagram and post there often. Follow me here. 

 

 

 

 

 

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4 thoughts on “Losing ourselves in France

  1. Janet, thank you for such a comprehensive travelogue, I felt as if I was in the French countryside. It sounds like it was a idllyic trip…your photos were wonderful.

    Like

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