While Province is well-known for the lavender fields, it is also covered in sunflower fields. Here is one of the many that we drove through when we were travelling in Provence. You can see them from miles away, bright yellow flag in the middle of the fields.
The Pont de Gard is an old Roman aqueduct which was build around 19BC. That is over 2000 years ago. The aqueduct is now in the middle of a nature park, with lovely paths meandering through the greenery. If you walk down to the river, there are loads of places where you can sit on the bank and have a picnic. Unfortunately when we arrived it was raining, so we had our picnic in the car in the parking lot!
Fortunately the rain stopped and we were able to walk down to the bridge. The walk is only about five minutes from the car park. The bridge is very grand-looking in the pictures, but far more so in real life. It is built as three sets of arches. The first is about 20m high (you can walk across at this level), the second level is also 20m, and the final level is 5m high. The water course would have moved through the top level. The total length of the bridge is about 265m. It was quite intimidating to see this hugh bridge towering above me. If you look carefully at the pic on the right, you can see how huge the bridge is compared to the people below. You are standing on the first level, and looking up at the second and third levels.
The total length of the watercourse is about 50km, with a gradient if 1:3000, which means a total drop of only 15m through the entire journey. That is absolutely amazing engineering for the time. You are able to go and visit remains of the actual aqueduct itself, but it was too far a walk for today, so maybe next time.
There is also a visitor’s centre with a small museum and gift shop etc. It takes about one hour to get there from Avignon, but it is well worth it (The area is now a UNESCO World Heritage Centre).
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.