Enchanting Medieval Ramparts and ……… salt!!

It is funny how the events of a day that you had not particularly been looking forward to can take an unexpected turn that fills your heart with joy. I left my Kate at the tiny airport of Béziers, a further 50 km south from Montpellier, where we normally have our ‘Love Actually’ moments; departing from there as she could get a flight directly to Bristol and save much travelling time in UK. Having left the sunshine of Uzès it was cloudy further south, closer to the coast and as I pulled away from the airport, not much bigger that an airfield really, the clouds reflected my mood, I felt a bit flat and sad to see Kate go.

I raced back up the Autoroute into the sunshine and then on a whim decided to turn off just after Montepellier to explore the Medieval city of Aigues-Mortes. I had seen it sign posted each time I had driven to the airport and had also noticed that it was the place where the famous hand raked and harvested ‘Fleur De Sel de Camargue‘ came from. The salt to use if you are going to use any, hugely expensive and hard to find in USA but just 3 euros here! More than that I didn’t know what to expect.

I had actually thought that the crumbling small cluster of ramparts, visible from the autoroute, was where I was headed and so was surprised after 5 minutes to see a sign post informing me that I had 20 km to reach my destination. The landscape was very flat, I was in the Carmague, fields of white horses and a sense that the sea was hiding just over the horizon.

As soon as I reached Aigues-Mortes I knew my unscheduled meandering  was an excellent decision. A walled bastide right in one of the largest wet lands in Europe. A wild and protected environment of marshes, sand and water. Home to unique flora and fauna which are protected through the natural production of salt using principally renewable energy, the sun and the wind.

A spectacular sight made more incredible as the original city walls are still in tact! It looked somewhat incongruous with the surrounding area but that is also what made it so bewitching. As if someone had placed a Disney castle in the middle of a vast flat terrain!!

Aigues-Mortes was built in 1240, by Louis IX, who decided to build a city close to his kingdom in order to have a direct access to the Mediterranean Sea. Crusades were planned and led from here and the Knights Templar imrpisoned within its shadows. This unique medieval fortification, which one can explore from the top of its ramparts, offers magnificent views over the city, the lake, the vineyards and the salt!

                                                                   Salt has been mined from this area since neolithic time. In the 8th century Benedictine monks settled at the Abbey of Psalmody, to exploit this valuable commodity. In more modern times water is pumped into the sea travelling more than 70 km. The salt is harvested mechanically, piled up in the twinkling “camelles” before being packaged, fascinating!!

Over Seven centuries later, salt mining and the fortification of Aigues-Mortes still dominates the Camargue as one of the most well preserved medieval French buildings. So on a Wednesday afternoon here I was roaming around these enchanting cobbled streets! Discovering charming buildings, coffee spots and restaurants.

Also many tempting treasures to buy.

I contemplated whether my boys could add these to their car collection but for once the challenge of airline luggage allowances got the better of me!

Yes, yet another day of special treasured memories in southern France, lucky, lucky me!


The gift of travel

How can 7 hours on a plane take you to a place that is so utterly different from the one you left? I guess we have all pondered this following a flight overseas. I remember thinking exactly the same thing as a seven year old child first visiting France. I was awestruck by how strange and foreign Cherbourg seemed from Southampton, the architecture, the people, the food, the language, driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road……………..I also thought I was thousands of miles from England having spent 6 hours on a cross channel ferry, the Townsend Thoresen rolling across the grey Englsih channel, a recipe for nausea if ever there was one!!

                                                     Last week we were working in Dubai, a hundred million miles from the gentle, sun kissed, golden stone bastide of Uzès! Like any large metropolis, loud, vibrant, bustling, traffic clogging the roads in every direction, with sky scrappers towering overhead competing for domination of the horizon. Commonalities with the cities in Europe or America I am more used to visiting but also distinctly different. Palm tress and mosques peppered in amongst the buildings, people speeding past in shining luxury SUV’s, in full Arab dress, the wailing of the call to pray, each skyscraper more architecturally bizarre than its neighbor, challenging to be the most unique building around, spouting at all angles bearing all shapes. Opulence on every corner be it high end luxury car
dealerships, immense shopping malls with retail temptations from across the globe, complete with indoor aquariums, ice rinks, ski runs and hotels all trying to out do each other in offering their guests the best of everything. Then there is the searing unrelenting heat which when you step into makes you feel it will possibly vaporize you!

Part of me wanted to be vaporized in this artificial Middle Eastern mirage; as you sat by the pool conscious that the salad you had just ordered for lunch was probably the equivalent of the weekly salary for the person bringing it to you…..It makes for feeling very uncomfortable, despite the indulgence which I was privileged enough to be able to enjoy, all designed to pamper but threatening to consume!

Yes, a long way from Uzès, a long from anywhere, but how fortunate to be able to experience the differences that the world has to offer. For me also a further chance to reflect on what life is all about. How being born into which ever culture and part of the world you arrive in offers such varied experiences depending on where that place is. Of course there are people everywhere, in every corner of the globe born with the ‘silver spoon’, just as there are many more born into abject poverty. The gift of travel helps to open your eyes to others’ lives and situations. Visiting Dubai for 4 days, just as being in Uzès for 4 months, in totally diverse ways, has shown me how life can be incredibly different.

It isn’t about what is right or wrong or better or worse it is about making the best choice for you.

Back in Uzès, my lovely Kate was pretty happy with her decision to return with me and help me move into the new ‘bachelor pad’! Tiny, minimalistic, ‘très chic’, still right in the throng of everything with a great west facing deck overlooking a scattering of clay tiled roof tops. The perfect setting for the end of the day…… a setting perfect for us! 

Les Baux De Provence

France, and especially southern France is famous for its perched villages. Stone bastides, which cling, seemingly quite precariously, to the hillside. Mostly built in the Middle Ages on carefully chosen prominent rock faces, offering the best vantage point for protection from potential invaders. Once immersed in the enfold of ancient stone buildings and winding cobbled streets the modern day visitor cannot fail to be both impressed and charmed.

In Provence one of the most famous of these fortresses is Les Baux De Provence, dating back to the tenth century.

Nestled on a magnificent 804 feet high rocky escarpment, (in provençal, “bau” means ‘rocky escarpment) standing high above the caves of the surrounding Alpilles hills it is utterly captivating. Les Baux’ strategic position meant it was settled early, both by Celts and by Romans but the height of its power was in the early Middle Ages, when it was dominated by the fiercely ambitious princes of Les Baux, who controlled 79 towns and villages in the region.They claimed to be the descendants of Balthazar, one of the Three Wise Men, and the 16-pointed silver star which guided the kings to Bethlehem is still on the municipal flag.

Small squares, shady pavement cafes and shops heavily festooned with local offerings, wine, olive oil, soap, tablecloths all purposefully arranged to allure and entice.

Fragrant smells of lavender and cooking, the atmosphere is magical.

In 1642 the town was granted to the Grimaldi

family, of Monaco, as a French marquisiate, the title of Marquis des Baux remains with them. The family have visited the tiny 12th century church, Saint Vincent’s, a ‘troglodyte building’ i.e. it’s partly carved into the rock. It is spellbinding in its quiet simplicity.

Having ambled through the winding streets there are the ruins of the once majestic chateaux to explore.

With a little imagination, after a fine glass or three of vin rosé you are transported back to a bygone era.

If you listen carefully you can hear the swish
of arrows
ascending from the elevated fortress walls. Swords clashing and men far below scream as they charge and the ram the heavily guarded entrance way, dodging whatever is being hurled at them from something like the weapon shown here.

Les Baux is postioned high above the surrounding flatlands, ‘Le Crau’, an important stretch of the Via Aurelia, the Roman road connecting Arles and Aix en Provence. It commands a splendid vista over acres of olive groves and vineyards, offering a view of Provence that dreams are made of. It is almost possible to see the ocean on a clear day and the distant sights of Nimes and far off Marseilles.

I found this wonderful extract written by André Suarez, (1868-1948) a French writer and poet from Marseille, whose love and passion for of Provence, a bit like mine, was deeply rooted in his soul. He was buried in Les Baux de Provence, July 8,1950. For me it is an excellent description of this enchanting place: “…I longed for the pine trees and olive groves […] Everything here speaks of families and eternity.” “I know of no place more admirable than Les Baux. The countryside separates us from all that we find offensive […] It reveals all that we have which is great, all that is real; it turns this inner greatness into a vocation […] In Les Baux, grandeur has charm and charm is filled with a sense of grandeur.”