Monday, 28 June 2010

66. Provence & the Jura

22nd June 2010. Back home on Sunday evening after what seems like weeks away. Phew.. We'd planned a four legged journey (a 3 stop strategy in Formula 1 terms!) around France to take in the Perpignan area, the Luberon and the Jura. 

We'd planned to stop off first for a night with Madame's brother, O and his wife F, who were taking a early summer break in a beachfront apartment at Le Barcares (circled at right on the map), which is on the Mediterranean coast, midway between Narbonne and Perpignan. Driving across SW France from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, on the northern side of the Pyrenees, the landscape changed subtly as the blood-red Basque houses slowly thinned out to be replaced by apricot-washed houses which started appearing in ever-increasing numbers, as well as those towering dark green cypresses beloved of Van Gogh.
As we neared the Mediterranean, Carcassonne suddenly appeared off to the left looking like nothing less than a complete medieval town teleported into the 21st century. Another place that we must visit. 
Le Barcares is one of those purpose-built family holiday resorts with rows of apartment blocks along the sea front in that peculiarly French ziggurat-style. As it was mid-June (ie, outside school holidays), we weren't plagued by hordes of kids. The majority of tourists were baby boomers from all over Europe - many of them in camper vans. After we arrived, we took the dog for a welcome leg-stretch along the beach in the late afternoon sunshine. It was retiree country alright.. silver haired power walkers and cyclists abounded! And then we spotted the wagon train of Camper vans which were circled up on a sea front car park. There's clearly a parallel universe of baby boomers who have dropped everything to travel and move around Europe - and didn't they look a happy and contented crowd! 

Back at the apartment, we sat out on the terrace and started off the evening with a couple of ouzos (yes, I ignored the warning klaxon!) before moving on to the red infuriator with our dinner..

Needless to say, the next morning I felt more than a tad fragile.. so I got up early and took the dog out for a run along the beach. It was already quite hot at 8am.. and the breakfasts were in full swing among the camper vans. Multi-national sun-tanned retirees sat at small tables outside their campers - from the small Brit contingent, the unmistakeable smell of fried bacon drifted slowly across while the rest of the EU were downing coffee and croissants.

After a spot of breakfast, we set off towards Provence (which I'd not visited before) where we'd booked a nice country hotel outside Apt for a few days. During the drive up from Le Barcares to Apt I had the cruise control set at 130kph.. and after a while I was aware that something was extremely familiar.. After puzzling with this for a few minutes, I suddenly realised the car engine was turning over at exactly 2175rpm. "So what?" I hear you thinking.. Well, I spent 7 years in the seventies sat between 4 Rolls-Royce supercharged V-12 piston aero engines which we operated at - you've guessed it - 2175rpm.. Funny how a sound or a vibration can trigger old memories. (Like, for example, the story of our resident USAF exchange officer who had so many medals on his dress uniform that he was instantly christened "Magnetic North".)  
This was my first visit to the Luberon.. and it was Peter Mayle territory par excellence. His books about France, and more specifically Provence/Luberon, have consistently entertained several generations of Francophiles. I was relieved to find that he hadn't exaggerated its virtues at all. Between the low hills the valley floor was intensively cultivated in a cross-hatched tableau of small fields - there were numerous cherry orchards heavy with fruit, olive groves, vines (with roses planted at the end of each run) and almonds.

We explored all the local villages.. some of them impossibly picturesque. The landscape was studded with tall cypress trees and was pure Van Gogh.. We had one day of heavy downpour which caused severe flooding and several deaths in the Var down to the south east.. but we were well out of it. We had lunch at a riverside restaurant at Isle sur la Sorgue* (right) before we finally found Lourmarin** which was a real little jewel.. almost like a stage set. We had a great lunch there too (at the cafe in the centre of the pic below) - rabbit in mustard sauce with pommes dauphinois.. really memorable..
* reading Keith Floyd's obit earlier I was surprised to discover that he once ran a restaurant in Isle sur la Sorgue..! 
**edited to add: Peter Mayle is now quoted as living in Lourmarin..

Van Gogh nailed the look of the Provençal landscape exactly with his ink sketch of the fields cultivated like a patchwork quilt:
There's something about these oh-so-typical tree-lined French roads that makes you want to stop what you're doing and jump in your car and drive and drive..
This picture though reminds me of one summer in the mid-90s when we'd broken our journey southwards in Paris en route to the Pays Basque. The next morning I had the Mother Of All Headaches (please - no sympathy!) as I discovered that whisky does not a good aperitif make. We set off at around 8.30am with a long, hot 8-9 hr drive looming ahead of us. Despite trying to drown it with the best part of a litre of Evian, the MOAH refused to budge and it felt like my frontal lobes were tied firmly in a reef knot. As we were passing Poitiers we decided - meaning me - that we had to stop to have some lunch in the hope that this might dislodge the incessant pounding in my head. We turned off the autoroute at the next exit and followed our nose to the nearest village. There wasn't a soul on the main street (it was lunchtime) as we cruised slowly along looking for salvation. We spotted the only restaurant in the village and its fixed price lunch was about 110frs (£10-11 at the time).

We sat down and everything happened in that wonderfully pre-ordained way that lets you know that one, you're happily back in France and that two, you are about to enjoy an extremely pleasant experience.. I remember the main course was Lapin aux pruneaux (rabbit with prunes) - a Pipérade favourite - and I think we might have had a glass or two of wine with it. By the time the coffee arrived, I felt completely restored and able to continue driving. (Note to the reader with the raised eyebrow: I'm not a wino!) 

Back to the present! We then headed off up to Dole (right) in the Jura region for a few days with S, Madame's auntie. We were lucky enough to be present at her memorable 50th wedding anniversary celebrations (described earlier in Post #34) in 1996..

One day, the three of us visited M, one of Madame's cousins in Belfort (equidistant from the German and Swiss border) where we had an unforgettable lunch with them there too (sounds like all we were doing was eating!)..(you'd be right!). M's husband B offered us some great wine - champagne to start with, then a wonderful Pouilly-Fuissé followed by a noble Gevrey-Chambertin. He then produced some unlabelled bottles with the coffee (muted submarine klaxon!).. the label on the one I tried said Prune - but it was 100% rocket fuel.. (ouch!) He toasted "ze Royal Air Force".. it being the 18th June (a big day for France as it was the 70th anniversary of De Gaulle's famous speech on the BBC - "We have lost a battle but not the war.."). We then drove back to Dole..(!)

The following day we returned to Bayonne - a comfortable 850km in a day. We went via Clermont Ferrand on the A89 - a spectacular new motorway - v modern bridges & viaducts.. amazing.

On opening the mailbox on our return I found a missive from the UK Inland Revenue.. advising me that I'd underpaid tax by - wait for it - a massive 13p.. Wonder if they'll accept instalments..! 

(For those interested in such things, we did ~2,700km and the car returned an average of 5.4l/100km or 53mpg. Which I think is pretty good. Plus my knees didn't suffer!)

25th June 2010. We went to Biarritz this afternoon and the holiday season has started.. the beach was crowded with all kinds of delights..!

28th June 2010. Late notice..!! The legendary Fête de San Fermin 2010 in Pamplona (just over the border from Bayonne) is from 6-14th July 2010. Fashion tip: if you go and you're contemplating running with the bulls, forget the white pants - pack a brown pair! (explanation below) And if you need a reminder of what it's all about, click on this short clip:
There was a famous American naval captain of the war of 1812 who, when his ship went into battle, always wore a red shirt so that, if he was seriously wounded, his men would not see the blood and become demoralised. So now you know why I said pack a brown pair..

This last pic is enough to put you off surfing - for life!

PS This blog is a World Cup-free zone.. Aren't you glad! 

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