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Click Dordogne Walk to read about our hike in the Sarlat area Oct 2015
Sometimes the delays you experience driving somewhere new can be present new opportunities. For instance, if you find the road blocked by a large flock of sheep that has just broken through a fence and there is no shepherd in sight, you can use herding skills you never knew you had. That’s what Ray did. He and a truck driver got out of their vehicles and shooed the errant sheep back into the field and shored up the broken fence. It is a good thing that sheep acted as expected and just followed each other like the proverbial flock of sheep. We and the long line of traffic behind us were pleased to start off again too.
This was our fifth bi-annual week together of our friends most of whom have known each other since our days at Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, Quebec, 50 years ago. Ray and I joined Suzanne and David Andrews, Marg Dunphy, who came on her own while Jack recuperated from back surgery back in Calgary, Jim and Ginnie Galloway, Pat and Bruce Marshall, Cathy Pawley and Janet Schom. We were happy to welcome Andy and Kathy Greiner and Barry Mair and Sheila MacDonald, who filled out our complement of 15 this year.
Villa Mas St Damien, in Provence, was our choice this year and it met all our expectations. Our rooms were all spacious, there were sitting rooms for pre-dinner drinks and we managed to set up a table for 15 so all of us could eat together in the dining room. The grounds were large enough to accommodate a swimming pool, currently under restoration, a tennis court and a petanque court. With all the other local towns and sights to admire, we didn’t have time to adequately enjoy the outdoor activities, although sitting by the pool with a drink in hand before dinner was good.
Once again we had super dinners every night as everyone pitched in to prepare a feast for our large group. One group, taking their turn as the cooks, presented our meal with a song and dance routine. Who knew we had such talents.
What were highlights we visited in the area? The Sunday market in L’Isle Sur La Sorgue, the closest town just north of the villa, was not to be missed. It was advertised as an antique market but it had everything from veggies, meat, crafts, soaps and oils, as well as antiques, for which the town is famous. I have never seen as large a market and the setting next to La Sorgue River was an added extra.
What is a Borie, you ask? Well, the name Borie comes from an old Provençal word, from the Latin "boaria" - oxen stable -, signifying a type of shed. Bories, behive-shaped buildings built of limestone slabs without mortar, were used extensively from the Bronze Age until the middle of the 19th C. Some of the bories were even used by the Resistance as hiding places during WWII. Ray and I visited the Bories Village, a collection of 20 small huts near the town of Gordes. This open-air museum took 10 years to build and is now an historic monument. Ray and I had fun visiting nearly each one of the dwellings, getting a feel of how it felt to be a villager living in these solid but chilly huts long ago.
Gordes, spilling down over a giant rock, part of the Vaucluse mountains, was covered with low clouds when we first arrived but it gradually cleared enough for us to enjoy the famous views of the town at the edge of precipice cliffs. We had lunch in town and had time to wander the narrow streets of town.
On our way back the villa we stopped to visit the Cistercian Abbey of Sénanque. The setting was beautiful, with the well preserved buildings surrounded by lavender fields, their main source of income, outside of tourism. Founded in 1148, it once housed up to 90 monks, whose main industry was sheep raising. We were in time for a guided tour, in French, of abbey. It was another highlight of our trip.
We don’t usually visit any one place en masse, but Château St Estève d’Uchaux near Orange was an exception. On hearing that we would be staying near Orange, Albane Français, our nephew Nicholas Scipio’s wife, suggested we visit the vineyard co-owned by her uncle, Marc Français. Our entire group thought that would be a great idea, so we arranged for a wine tasting session. Marc Français and another employee, Sylvette, were there to meet us and give us a tour of the caves and production room. They were very gracious and informative. The estate has been in operation under the same family since 1809 but only in the last few years have they been selling their own vintages. We tasted a few of their Côtes du Rhône and Viognier wines and several of us bought bottles to enjoy with our dinners.
Following the tasting, we drove to Orange, entering the town through the Arc de Triumph, which predates Napoleon’s Paris version. This arch was built during the reign of Augustus (27 BC - AD 14) to honour the veterans of the Gallic Wars and Legio II Augusta. It was later rebuilt by emperor Tiberius in AD 27. One of the main reasons to visit Orange is to tour the ancient Roman theatre, built early in the 1st century AD. It is co-owned by the of Orange and because of the excellent acoustics; it is the home of the summer opera festival. It is one of the largest and best preserved in Europe. There was a good film about the theatre and its history and an audio guide to tell us more as we wandered around the site.
Imagen our delight on discovering that another Bishop’s graduate lived in a village close to Villa Mas St Damien. Martha Shearer, a fellow team mate in soccer and skiing, has lived in Lacoste for the past 30 years. We arranged to have a "Ladies Who Lunch" with Martha in Lacoste.
On a mountain top next to Lacoste is Menerbes, where Peter Mayles, the author of A Year in Provence, lived for many years. The tour buses roaming Provence tracing Peter Mayles’ homes no longer crowd the narrow streets of Menerbes, but it is still a lovely town to explore. Pat and Bruce, Ray and I had time to roam the streets before heading over to Lacoste. Bruce and Ray dropped Pat and I off at a terrace restaurant overlooking a valley.
We had a great time catching up on Martha’s life and reminiscing about our younger days. After lunch Martha took us on a tour of her home, perched on the side of a steep hill with work rooms and storage rooms hollowed into hillside. Martha sculpts birds and other animals by welding recycled iron and machinery parts together. She has quite a collection. Several years ago an American from Savanna bought houses and opened a school of art and design for students. Consequently there are several other artists who make Lacoste their home. Martha has a full life playing her cello with other towns people and involving herself with theatrical group.
We had time for a short tour of the small town, complete with a Chateau once owned by the Marquis de Sade, surrounded by a sculpture garden. Unfortunately it is not open to the public, except by special permission. We had so much more to talk about so I drove back to Mas St Damien with Martha in her blue ‘Rolls Royce’ car; a 30 year old truck, to have dinner with us at the villa. We celebrated Suzanne’s birthday with champagne from David and a small cake. The meal turned into a real occasion.
One of the towns everyone thinks of when Provence is the hilltop town, Les Baux de Provence. Ray and I took a scenic route to Les Baux through a forest. Hunters, dressed in orange jackets, stood sentinel every 100 M or so along a stretch of at least 10 km, each watching the woods on the opposite side of the road for wildlife fool-hardy enough to cross the road.
Traces of habitation have been found in Les Baux dating back as far as 6000 BC, and the site was used by the Celts as a hill fort around the 2nd century BC. During the Middle Ages it became the seat of a powerful feudal lordship that controlled 79 towns and villages in the vicinity. Kathy and Andy had visited the day before and reported strong winds. The winds were still fierce for our visit, so we looked for places to explore indoors as much as possible. We went into the reception for the castle but decided not to tour the ruins as it is mostly outside and was posted as a caution for gale force winds. We did visit a small church covered by murals painted in 1977 and had a tasty lunch in a restaurant.
Our last visit was to Roussillon, a pleasant hilltop town known for its ochre deposits in the clay surrounding the area. The ochre was first noticed on ancient cave paintings in the area. The large quarries of Roussillon were mined from the end of the 18th century until 1930, mainly for the pigments ranging from yellow and orange to red, used in textile industry. We took the one hour walk on a well marked trail in the 'Sentier des Ocres' (Ochre Path), through an old ochre quarry. We returned to the villa via scenic road through the Plateau de Vaucluse through Venasque and stopping in Pernes-les-Fontaines for a break. The town was very quiet and not as pretty as some of the others. There are supposed to be 40 fountains. I think we saw 3.
The next day we all went our separate ways. Vowing to put another trip in 2017 on our calendars. Ray and I drove north to visit Yves and Liz Dat in their new home in the small town of Beaumott-Aubertans, near Besancon
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