Today I did something I have never done before. Lois and I went for a ride in a four-seater aeroplane. We saw the brochure last night at the hotel and thought “why not!”, so off we went. We took off from the Avignon airport (which is basically a small building and a single runway).
The cabin of the plane is about the size of a mini, and the engine is probably not much bigger (I am still partially convinced that the engine is just a really long elastic band). The plane honestly needed about 100m runway to take off, and a bit longer to land.
The trip was fantastic, we flew really low over the whole area, giving me a wonderful opportunity to see the landscape from above and to take some great photos. We opted for the shortest trip –which is about 25 minutes. The longest trip is about 1 ½ hours, and goes all the way to Marseilles.
Here are some vineyards; they are all over the area. The bright yellow in the middle is actually a sunflower field.
A hilltop fortified village, of which there are many. You can literally have a several hundred meter drop out of your bedroom window. No sneaking out at night!
This is the centre of Avignon, clearly dominated by the Papal Palace. Building started in 1305, when the papal court moved from Rome to Avignon. In the second picture, you can see the town square as well.
The bridge on the right is the remains of the famous bridge "Le Pont St Benezet". This famous bridge was built between 1171 and 1185, with an original span of 900 m. See this post for more details.
Finally, our landing and a quick pic of us at our aeroplane. It is not often that I get to sit in the front! The trip is expensive, but I really encourage you to do it – it was worth every cent.
We could not drive through the village of Chateauneuf du Pape without stopping for a wine tasting of their world-renown wines. While the village itself is very small, there are many wine farms and tasting ‘caves’ (cellar) in and around the village.
We tried to use the local version of the Platter’s wine guide, but without any success. So we parked in the village and walked into two caves at random. In France, you do not taste wine according to a varietals, but rather according to a vintage. Each farm in an area makes basically the same blend of wine, according to a set of very complicated appellation rules’. This means that when tasting, you will not taste a cabernet or a shiraz, but rather a 2001 or 2002.
The first cave turned out to be the local tourist centre, and while the wines very good, I did have a sense of ‘shunting the tourists through’ without much attention.
Our experience at the second was very different. The proprietor did not speak any English, and we spoke very bad French, but this did not seem to be a problem to any of us. We had a lovely tasting of some superb wines. We learned all about the ageing process, what goes into the blends, and even ended up discussing the use of sulphar in the wine – all in French! This was with much gesturing and scribbling on paper. It was a fantastic tasting, and we even managed to buy some non-appellation wines at a really good price.
While the wines we tasted were really fantastic, the good French wines are very expensive, even in France. The cheaper Chateauneuf du Pape wines started at about 20 euros, which is about R160. For R160 you can get some really fantastic wines.
Of interest is that in France the farms pay tax on the wine depending on how many capsules are used. So when you taste wine there are no capsules on the bottles. These are only added when you buy the wine. Hence the farm does not pay tax on wine used for tastings.
Today, we went to the villiage of Sault, the lavender capital of Provence. What looked like a 50km drive on the map turned out to be a drive along the smallest and most bendy road I have ever been on. I think that our average speed must have been about 5 km/h. However, when we arrived at hilltop town of Sault, the view made it all worthwhile. There was field after field of purple lavender bushes, all alive with the buzzing of thousands of bees, busy pollinating the bushes. You could see all the way down the Luberon valley, and to the snow-capped mountains in the distance. This is some of the most beautiful scenery that I have ever seen.
Although it can get quite frustrating driving down the narrow roads, constantly being slowed down by blind corners, roundabouts and tractors, it is a really pretty, laid back part of the world. I very quickly learned that since you are going nowhere quickly, there is no point in rushing. Rather slow down, enjoy the view and arrive when you do.
On the way to Sault, we made two stops. The first was at the lavender museum in Coustellet, where they have a short video showing the growing and harvesting of the lavender. They also have many exhibits detailing the distillation process. There are loads of old copper stills, very reminiscent of the whiskey stills in Scotland. I was staggered to hear how much lavender is required to obtain the oil. You need about 300 kg of lavender to make 1kg of essential oil.
The second stop was at a wine shop (also in Coustellet), where we wanted to stock up on wine. This shop had a very interesting feature. There were about six petrol pump hoses in the shop, which were used to fill your own containers with the local vin ordinaire. They just measured off the wine and charged by the litre.
We were really thirsty and asked for a bottle of water. We were a bit startled to be presented with a wine bottle filled with water. So it was a rather interesting site seeing Craig and Lois driving down the road, drinking straight from a wine bottle. I am glad we did not have to explain that to a traffic officer.
Both lavender, and lavandin grow in France. Lavender only grows between 600 and 1500m. It is cultivated for the pure oil, which contains medicinal properties. Lavandin grown almost anywhere, is far more hardy and prolific than lavender. It is mainly used for cosmetics, however it has no medicinal properties.