Kris à Genève

A Canadian living in Switzerland

France with the Palmers, part deux

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A week after my cousins Jon and Joan left, Eileen’s parents arrived for a three-week visit. As well as being happy to see them, we were also happy to see the enormous care package they lugged with them from Canada to Switzerland: two bottles of Victoria Gin, two containers of sambal oelek, boxes of fruit leather, books… Assembled together, the many items created a 10cm pile that covered our dining table. Certainly the most impressive visitor tax we have yet received, and a standard against which future visitors will be measured.

When Mike and Erlinda visit us, we have developed a habit of abandoning our home country of Switzerland for France. During their visit two years ago, we spent most of our time in Paris, the Loire Valley and Brittany, and then they travelled on their own to Nice. They spent only a couple of days visiting Geneva and the rest of Switzerland.

This time, we continued the tradition, leaving for southern France on the second morning after their arrival. Later during their stay, Mike and Erlinda only returned to Geneva for brief stopovers between a couple of shorter trips to Nice and Mulhouse. Why are we unable to keep my in-laws in Switzerland?

We began our French tour in the popular Lubéron region that stretches between Avignon in the west, Aix-en-Provence in the south and Manosque in the east. The area is named for the east-west, ridge-like mountain at its centre.

The area is famous, among other attractions, for its beautiful villages perchés (“perched villages”) that are built on the slopes and crests of the hills that dot the valley. Five of these are villages classés: classified by a well-known tourism association as being among “the most beautiful villages in France.

For those who like bang for their buck, this means that the seven villages classés in the Vaucluse (the département in which the Lubéron falls) represent the third densest concentration among France’s 96 départements (county- or district-level geographic units). The only two départements with denser concentrations of these little gems are the Dordogne, in the SE centre of the country, and the Aveyron, which is just inland from the western Mediterranean coast.

Of the Lubéron’s five villages classés, the three most famous are perched villagesthatsit north of the Lubéron mountain: Gordes, Rousillon and Ménerbes. To the south of the mountain, the remaining two classified villages are: Lourmarin, a valley town that seems popular for its centrality, cafés and shopping, rather than for its charm; and Ansouis, a sleepy, isolated perched village.

We chose the Lubéron because, after Eileen and I visited the area with our friends Dani and Reid in 2010, we described it to Mike and Erlinda, who interrupted us to say – “we want THAT on our next visit.”

The Lubéron is quintessential Provence, especially for anglophones whose mental image of the region was shaped by Peter Mayle’s overmilked franchise of light, amusing books. In them, he relates his experience as a bewildered Englishman living amid the warm light, lavender aromas, quaint villages and slow pace of Provence.

Mayle wrote the first one, A Year in Provence, while living in Ménerbes, now one of the more touristy of the Lubéron villages. He has since moved to a rural house somewhere – a café owner told me where, but I quickly forgot. It is worth reading one of Mayle’s books, but after that, the repetitive titles and formulaic writing will have you hoping that his next title will be “Ça suffit, Provence.”

In 2010, we rented a house in Rousillon, a beautiful perched village famous for its ochre-coloured buildings and cliffs. Although it is among the busiest of the Lubéron villages, we visited in March, so it was quiet. One night during our stay in Rousillon, we drove the long, windy road through the mountain to Ansouis, to eat at La Closerie, a one-star Michelin restaurant that is the village’s only well-known enterprise.

For our trip with Eileen’s parents, Eileen and I decided to rent a house in Ansouis so as to be on the quieter southern side of the Lubéron and, more importantly, to use La Closerie as our nightly dining table. Here is a dawn view from the small rooftop terrace of our rental house:

Here are two photos showing Ansouis’s setting, first from the east just after sunrise, then from the west at sunrise. If you click on the first photo for a larger copy, you may be able to see the moon just over the roof on the far left of the scene.

Unlike the other classified villages in the Lubéron, Ansouis feels forgotten and half empty, although the feeling is illusory. Ansouis’s seeming emptiness is characteristic of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dying villages in France. The disappearance of village life has been a big issue in the country for many years and it was on my mind throughout this trip.

Here is an employee unlocking the town hall at mid-morning – the only time we saw any activity there during our 10-day stay.

Historically, rural communities have played a significant role in French culture: the way the French see themselves, the pace of French life and the ridiculous variety of delicious wines, cheeses and other produits de terroir that each commune has proudly perfected over centuries. Balanced by the urban decadence of Paris, the cultural importance of small communities means that there are a mind boggling 36,000 or so communes in France, a country of 65 million inhabitants living in only 550,000 square kilometres. By comparison, Canada’s population of 34 million is spread along the southern extreme of its 10 million square kilometres, in only 3,700 municipalities.

Over the last 150 years or so, the perceived quality of life advantages of the city have steadily lured young and working age French people away from their villages. Especially in less touristy villages of France, the buildings are mostly boarded, the businesses are closed and only the occasional elderly person is visible as one drives quickly past.

Although Ansouis projects something of this rural exodus, it is only an illusion created by comparing Ansouis with the other, very busy and very affluent, classified villages in the Lubéron. Speaking with a couple of the business owners in Ansouis, I gathered that the town’s quiet feeling comes from the inflated real estate prices that result from its classified status.

Locals with jobs in farming and retail can not afford to live in Ansouis, so the houses are mostly second residences owned by wealthy foreigners or Parisians. To date, these part-time residents have not invested in businesses in the town, so most of the houses and shop fronts remained shuttered throughout the majority of the year.

I gave myself an unambitious project of photographing a selection of the village’s doors, shutters and windows. Here are a few shots from this series, which never required me to walk more than 500 metres from my bed:

Along with pretty villages and delicious cuisine, wine is another of the Lubéron’s attractions. During both of my visits to the area, I have really enjoyed the wine. The wines are composed mainly of Grenache and Syrah grapes, with some smaller amounts of Mourvèdre. But there are also some unique Provençal varietals that I have not seen elsewhere.

We discovered after our last visit that very little of the Côtes du Lubéron appellation escapes the local market, and I have never found any in Geneva. On this visit, we took no chances and brought several cases home with us.

Here are some photos of some of the drab, out-of-season vines that surround Ansouis.

Across from one of the wineries we raided was this picturesque windmill in its pastoral setting:

During our early April visit, the cherry trees were in full blossom:

We spent nine nights in Ansouis, loading into the car late each morning for a few hours of village-hopping. Beginning with the most famous, here are some photos of Gordes (some of the photos below are from our visit in 2010):

Nearby is ochre-rific Rousillon, where we stayed in 2010.

Along with its ochre-ific profiles, Rousillon attracts for having the iconic Mt. Ventoux as a distant backdrop. The Ventoux is a geological freak, as its summit is bare limestone, giving it the look of a snow-capped volcano, even in summer. The Ventoux is also a cultural landmark, as the site of one of the most famous and challenging climbs in the Tour de France, the country’s premier sporting event. Exploits on the Ventoux climb quickly become cycling legends, for example Lance Armstrong’s attack in 2000, or Tom Simpson’s death during the 1967 Tour.

Click on the image below and zoom into its middle to see the Ventoux in the distant background.

Eileen and I visited Gordes and Rousillon last time, but a new destination for us this time was la Fontaine de Vaucluse, a touristy town built at the head of the valley where the Vaucluse River springs into existence from below the mountains. The walk out to the “fountain” was a typical pilgrimage path, with cafés and souvenir stands all along it, so we skipped it and instead climbed to the ruined castle above town, which afforded great views.

We stopped for a picnic one day in scenic Ménèrbes, but I shot only a few photos. I realised on this trip that the best way to photograph the perched villages is not to approach them, but rather to shoot them from a distance. With Ménèrbes, we only saw the village from within.

The next town along the road is Lacoste, which has a triple significance. One: it is the same name as the fancy French clothing brand, although I don’t think the two are related. Two: the Marquis de Sade (the namesake of “sadistic behaviour”) owned the Lacoste castle, presumably with a pleasure-pain dungeon installed. And three: my cousin Joan’s maiden name is Lacoste.

Despite its many significances, we just had a brief walk and drink at Lacoste. I photographed this bizarre hilltop monument to the Marquis de Sade: the sound of one hand spanking?

One afternoon, Eileen and I had four hours of free time, so we drove into the mountains for a walk. We walked along a dry plateau above the tiny town of Buoux. On the walk, we found a valiant beetle trying to muscle a… well, you’ll see.

The walk also gave broad views over the Lubéron ridges and peaks, which give a visual impression of plate tectonics, as if the carpets of rock beneath the surface have bunched, collided and split over millions of years.

If you enlarge the previous panorama photo and look across the valley to the opposite ridge, you can make out the ruins of the old Fort Buoux at approximately one third into the photo from the left. For our walk we parked in Buoux, now in its new location several kilometres across the valley from the old Fort. After our walk, Eileen and I raced over to visit the Fort, racing because of a fast-approaching hair appointment and a fast-approaching rain cloud.

The Fort occupied a small plateau and, in its day, had all of the infrastructure of a small town, including two churches, a large cistern and a market area, all protected by several layers of walls.

As the rain clouds arrived, the wind began gusting, and I shot this delightful photo of Eileen, poking her head out of a storage room carved into the rock. I shot this photo just in time, as Eileen had her hair cut much shorter only 30 minutes later.

On another day, Eileen and I hiked from the valley up to the crest of the Petit Lubéron mountain. We left from the “abandoned” fortified town of Oppède-le-vieux. The town has left the hilltop fort in ruins, but tourism and the beautiful setting has attracted residents, artisans and businesses back to the lower town: we saw kids playing in yards, a bustling café and several artists’ workshops in “old” Oppède. In the following photo, you can see the hilltop ruins of Oppède-le-vieux, with the visibly lived-in lower town below.

This was towards the end of our stay, when the mistral was blowing a gale. The mistral is a cold, dry wind that comes from the northwest and accelerates as it descends the Rhône River valley to the Mediterranean. When it blows, it slams into southern France with surprising force and chill. During our hike, we regularly had to stop and steady ourselves on uneven ground, as the gusts threatened to topple us. Despite the sun, the wind was cold enough that we had our hoods deployed and our gloveless hands buried in our sleeves.

If you click on the following panorama and zoom in, you can see the Mont Ventoux in the distance at a third or so from the left. On the right half of the photo, you can see the snowy Alps in the far distance.

When we returned to the valley near the end of the hike, we came across this giant quarry, with its administrative buildings tucked inside the right-angled hole they had carved into the hillside over the years.

We made a couple of day trips out of the Lubéron, including to Aix-en-Provence. When I lived in France many years ago I enjoyed my two visits to Aix, reading in the park and walking along its tree-lined boulevards. As it is also famous for its shopping, I thought Eileen would love it. But we were all a bit non-plussed by its snooty, hectic feel. Here is a peaceful photo that does not represent our experience visiting Aix:

We also drove west to Avignon. Aside from being a pleasant, attractive city on the banks of the Rhône River, Avignon is famous for being the seat of the Catholic popes from 1309-77. This bizarre interlude came about in, ahem, typical French fashion. The French king at the time was unhappy with the Catholic Church and managed to have a Frenchman elected in 1305 as Pope Clement V. The new Pope refused to move to Rome and remained in France. The papal court trundled around France from city to city, until it settled in Avignon in what became the Palais des Papes.

During the French Revolution, the long-abandoned and dilapidated Palais was gutted, stripped and used for executions. Napoleon continued its decline by using it as a barracks and jail. Altogether, this means the interior of the modern site is disappointing. The building itself remains impressive, but the interior is bare and stark – not at all Palais-like – and the visit relies heavily on the audioguide telling you about the Palais’s former glory.

Here is a passageway under one wall of the Palais des Papes:

A big, bare hall inside the Palais:

A view past the Palais gargoyles towards golden Mary, who stands atop the adjacent Notre Dame des Doms cathedral:

From Avignon we travelled south to Arles, another pleasant city. Like Avignon with the Palais des Papes at its centre, Arles is arranged around its Roman ruins, the Arènes d’Arles chief among them. The Arènes is hardly a “ruin,” as it remains in use for events.

When we visited, they were preparing the Arènes for the annual corrida, or a Spanish-style bullfight to the death (not all styles involved killing the bull). Corrida is illegal in France except where it has a historical precedent, so there are a handful of sites in southern France where it still happens, among which Arles is probably the most famous.

Ironically, my last visit to Arles in 1998 was to watch the corrida. A friend bought tickets and insisted that I suspend judgement about the barbarity of torturing and killing the bulls, and instead watch it for its cultural spectacle. In addition, in the corrida we watched, the bullfighter was on horseback (the picador), which, said my friend, enlivened the spectacle.

My friend was partially correct: the ceremony and spectacle were great. The power and energy of the terrified bulls when they enter the ring was also impressive. And the horsemanship of the picador, dancing the horse around the panicked bull, was amazing.

But each bullfight inevitably ended with a sad, bloody thud as the exhausted, crippled bull fell from a sword blow through his spine. If the bullfight went “well,” the picador was skilled enough to kill the bull with a single blow. If it went poorly, it was a horror show. In the last fight we saw, the picador failed several times to bring the bull down from horseback. By this time the bull was exhausted and its neck muscles were shredded, so it stood motionless and defenseless with its head down, its bowels and bladder evacuating by instinct. The lady picador dismounted and struck the bull over and over but could not finish him. Eventually one of the other picadors had to come out and finish the gruesome scene. The ceremony long since gone, the crowed sighed with relief, and the meat cart wheeled the corpse away, to be butchered and served on menus throughout the city that night.

Here is a poster for the 2012 corrida:

Here is the bloodthirsty rabble in the tribunes:

On the final rainy weekend of Mike and Erlinda’s visit, we drove up to Mulhouse, France. Why? A good question – Mulhouse is an industrial city known for its car manufacturing rather than its tourist attractions. But Mike is a car enthusiast and Mulhouse has one of the world’s most famous car museums: the National Museum of the Car. The Museum was assembled around the extensive collection of the Schulmpf brothers, French textile industrialists who began collecting cars, especially Bugattis, after World War II.

The history of the collection is somewhat unsavoury. The brothers became obsessed with their collection, diverting funds from the family company to secretly buy and stash the cars in a locked warehouse. By 1977, their obsession had bankrupted the company and the factory workers went on strike, broke into the secret warehouse and discovered over 600 luxury cars. The brothers fled to Switzerland, which accepted them (and their money) as citizens. The company was liquidated; the workers lost their jobs; and the car collection was sold to the museum.

Nonetheless, the museum’s supporters, including the local Renault-Peugeot factory, have invested a lot of money in the facility. It is well laid out and attractive, with well curated exhibits. My only complaint is that there are too many cars! Here is the facade at the entrance:

The main exhibit is the giant warehouse, filled with cars, that the striking workers discovered in 1977. Around the main hall are a series of smaller, themed exhibits, such as this one showing racing cars:

There were several interactive exhibits, probably to entertain the children, but Mike and Erlinda pushed the young ones aside to go for this ride:

This was probably my favourite car among the many hundreds: an old Alfa Romeo.

Although it is a side exhibit, the centerpiece of the museum is probably the “classic” car exhibit, focussed on 1930-1960 luxury coupes and saloon-type cars. The room is filled with giant vehicles, most of them propelled by 10-12L engines and weighing 2-3 tonnes. Don’t jaywalk in front of a three-tonne car with 1940s braking technology!

Probably the museum’s most famous cars are its two Bugatti Royale luxury coupes. Ettore Bugatti intended to customise 25 of these cars for European royalty – the first one was named the Coupe Napoléon. He had the poor timing to build six of them just as World War II began, and was only able to sell three. The hood ornament is a rearing elephant; the trim and fixtures are in walnut and whalebone; and the upholstery in silk. The car has a giant 12.7L engine and weighs over three tonnes. Bugatti only built the six original Royales, and two of them live at the museum in Mulhouse. Here are some details of one of them:

Lastly, here is a photo of a replica Bugatti built by the Bugatti-mad Schlumpf brothers, with the famous elephant hood ornament.

On our return from Mulhouse, we stopped in Gruyères for a cheese-themed afternoon. Here is a photo of the smiling Palmers near the end of a great visit:


2 Responses

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  1. Bloodthirsty rabble?? Squeezing aside little children to ride in a vis a vis?? Egad, Fox News reporting from Switzerland!! Nice writeup, K. Mike

    Mike Palmer

    May 17, 2012 at 06:20

    • Great photos as always. Looks like Los Palmeros had a great time. I especially like that last photo with many family resemblances and shared cheekiness!


      May 25, 2012 at 10:02

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