Palais des Papes, Avignon.

Châteaux! Three châteaux in the last seven days! THREE! Now, that may not seem like a very large number. But MAN those things are big. Three of them taking up memory on the hard drive in my head is nothing to sneeze at – at this rate I’m going to forget where I put my shoes amidst all the visions of 15th-century stonework. But if they’re so troublesome, why have I been galavanting around Provence in search of immense, agéd shells of former glory? For Academia, of course! (What else?) See, I’m in this class called History and Culture of Provence Through Its Monuments. This more-than-usually-descriptive name admirably explains why Prof Durand has gotten to drag us out of bed at 8 AM for the last two Saturdays. But he wasn’t the only one; Yamina also sounded the reveille at an unholy hour last Sunday, and off we bused, sleepily, to the towns of Isle sur la Sorgue and Fountain de Vaucluse. What I’m trying to say is, there’s been a lot of Provence in my life.

Saturday 19 November: Avignon

Infamous for its role in the Great Schism, Avignon is now a somewhat sleepy tourist destination like so much of Provence – but unlike some towns, it manages to retain its own sense of life apart from this most profitable industry. We visited the Palais des Papes, the palace where said popes held court, and next to it the Musée du Petit Palais.

Great Hall at the Palais des Papes.

It’s hard to get a real sense of departed grandeur from the bare, pale stone walls (whence the tapestries? the painted ceilings? the boars merrily roasting in massive fireplaces?) but one can, at the very least, appreciate the size of the operation. Soaring Gothic façade, endless spiral staircases, echoing banquet halls, rooms upon spacious rooms – they weren’t messing around, these folks. Post-plague, they were the rulers of western civilization, such as it was. It shows.

Yeah. Lots of these.

The Musée was somewhat astonishing in its own right, housing extensive examples of art circa the papal period. You can watch the Byzantine influence (simple perspective, inexpressive faces, gold-leaf background, proportions more in line with symbolism than reality) morph through Romanesque, Gothic and into pre-Renaissance, by which point sophisticated spacial perspective and realistic/emotive renderings of the human figure are de rigueur. There’s even a provençal school, which took its own journey through this transformation. Fascinating. However. Like, I imagine, most of the rest of the world, I can only handle so many Madonna and Childs where the baby Christ looks like a slightly deranged miniature adult and the Virgin’s breast comes out of her collarbone before before my brain shuts off in protest. Throwing in a handful of Annunciations helps a bit, but let’s be real, our strategy for prioritizing in the Louvre was to keep an eye out for pottery or Jesus and then go the opposite direction.

Sunday 20 November: Isle sur la Sorgue & Fountain-de-Vaucluse

There’s not much to say about Isle sur la Sorgue. It’s a bitsy town with cute but baffling little streets, an incongruously extensive market, thriving antique dealers, and a canel that runs lackadaisically through it, bequeathing it the name “Little Venice of Provence.” Womp womp. We got lunch there. Moving on.

Now, Fountain-de-Vaucluse is another story. I’d put it on anybody’s Must-See-In-Provence list. It’s beautiful. A tiny commune settled at the foot of dramatic cliffs, the main attraction of this town is the source of the river Sorgue, which magically appears from the cliffs powered by Europe’s most powerful spring. Thing is, no one’s actually been able to trace the spring back to its own beginning. Mark (tour guide extraordinaire) told me that they sent a probe down there in the sixties and it exploded from the water pressure before it even hit bottom. Now probably our robot probe technology has advanced some since then. But I rather think scientists have stopped trying; in a rare admission of the occasional value of wonder over knowledge, maybe they’ve ceded the spring its mystery. Petrarch, composing poems to his beloved Laura in the shadow of the cliffs, retroactively approves.

At the source in Fountain-de-Vaucluse - or are we?

Saturday 24 November: Tarascon & Les Baux

Thought you were done with drafty old castles? haHA! Fools. Should’ve thought of that before you signed up for a history course in a château-rich region, shouldn’t you?

Nah, but really, they’re cool. I love castles. I still remember the one we visited in Wales when I was nine. If I take my children to Europe when they’re young (which is a whole other question), we’re going on a castle tour. Something for everyone.

The Tarasque, mysthical dragon/monster/scary thing that gave the town its name.

In Tarascon, fans of fantastical mythologies will enjoy the city’s founding myth, which involves a dragonesque monster with fangs, giant claws, and a spiny carapace being vanquished by Saint Martha after terrorizing the countryside – incidentally, signalling the commencement of the cult of saints, and therefore Christianity, in the area. You can find a bone fragment of Saint Martha housed in state in a nearby church that was expressly built for the purpose of honoring said fragment. The statue of the Tarasque (for it is he) resides near the château.

Château at Tarascon.

Château, however, can be a misleadingly broad term. This is not a château in the sense that Versailles is a château, or even the Palais des Papes. This is a château like the Bastille is a château. It was built to monitor commercial traffic on the Rhône river (which it is so close to that the latrines in the castle’s upper levels empty straight into it, grâce de long chutes) and serve as a military stronghold during the temps des comtes, the period in which independent Provence was ruled by many counts and their powerful families. When le roi René, last king of Provence, moved there in the 1400s, he tried to spruce it up a bit. There are some nice pre-Renaissance windows and the chapel is beautiful. But again, none of the decorations have survived – though in this case that has more to do with the castle’s incarnation as a prison in the 17th century. They could deny the prisoners any relief from the freezing stone rooms, but they couldn’t break their spirits; this place has some of the coolest graffiti in the world.

Graffiti of a sailing ship c. 1750, château de Tarascon.

The château at Les Baux was another thing entirely. Largely ruined, you reach it by climbing up through the impossibly picturesque village of Les-Baux-de-Provence, which derives its name from the old provençal word baus, meaning “high plateau”. It’s quite high. Once you get to the top of the ruins, you can see Mount Saint-Victoire (our mountain!) in the not-so-distant distance. It was so astounding that I couldn’t even be angry at the Mistral for trying to blow us off onto the rocky slopes below. No doubt it was angling for the historical irony, throwing people off the plateau being a favorite method of getting rid of prisoners.

Château at Les-Baux-de-Provence.

View from the top.

So those are the regional tourism adventures. It also happens to be Christmastime in Aix-en-Provence. This is quite apparent. The Cours Mirabeau, and the rest of centre-ville, has been decked out in its luminous holiday finest, complete with light-up disco-ball looking things strung over the Cours, one of which hangs right over the statue of roi René and which I always imagine falling and impaling itself on his crown. But even more exciting than that prospect is the Christmas market. Open at least most days from now until Christmas, it consists of almost a hundred small châlets with vendors selling anything from soap to tiny glass figurines to mulled wine to waffles drizzled with Grand Marinier. That wine is habit-forming. I intend to make a vat of it when I get home and dole it out to family, friends, and neighbors, thus inspiring a global movement for peace based on the belief that everyone should have equal access to mulled wine. YUM. From now until Wednesday, just in case we weren’t being tempted enough, there is ALSO a festival of international goods, with MORE châlets selling MORE delicious looking foodstuffs (and some nonedible goods, but whatever). I am a seer. Portuguese pastries are in my future.

Christmastime on the Cours Mirabeau.

Yup, Christmas is NUTS here. There were probably a thousand people on the Cours Mirabeau at 6 PM tonight. Oh, and did I mention the live music? and the carnival rides? If I were a child growing up in Aix-en-Provence, and my favorite holiday wasn’t Christmas, I’d go get myself looked at.

What now? How to follow up châteaux? Hmmm. Perhaps I’ll go to Italy. From today we have precisely three weeks until the end of our program, and here’s how they’re going to go:

study, take tests, leave for Milan, study, take tests, party (LAST WEEKEND OMG), study, take finals, cry from sadness, get on a plane, come home, cry from joy.

Life, eh?