July 11, 2012

Provence

From Cannes and the French Riviera we turned north and drove into the region of Provence.

Grasse is a really bizarre town that we would not recommend. The one thing it does have going for it is that it’s the perfume capital of the world.


We toured a perfumery called Fragonard and learned a lot about what goes into making fragrances. For example, every perfume has a combination of between 50 and 250 different essences. Just like a sommelier is to wine, a “Nose” is a person who is highly skilled at smelling scents. There are only three Nose schools in the world – one in Grasse, one in Paris, and one in Versailles. The curriculum consists of 2 years of theory and 7 years of practical work. There are only 50 Noses in the world, and the majority of them hail from Grasse.


After that we drove west to a more upscale town called Aix-en-Provence or simply “Aix”. It’s full of restaurants, students and fountains.


They have such strong winds that the bell towers are made out of wrought iron so that the wind can just blow right through. Each of the towers looks like it's topped with a bird cage.


Aix is also where we learned that the good luck charm of Provence is, of all things, the cicada! We have very vivid memories of when the cicadas swarmed Ohio in 2004, so we found this quite funny. What is one country’s annoyance is another country’s reverence.


From Aix it was onto Avignon set along the Rhone River. Avignon is the French “City of the Popes” where the Popes fled when leaving the corruption of Rome in the 14th century. We unknowingly booked ourselves into this town during the largest performing arts festival in France. Over 21 days 7,000 entertainers come to Avignon to present 1,200 different shows totaling about 25,000 performances. The only thing equaling the number of performances is the number of posters covering every square inch of the city. This pretty much defeats the purpose because there are so many posters that they’re all a blur.


The festival is prime time for France’s eclectic group of street performers. They work the streets morning, day and night. Within a 20 minute span we saw ballet dancers, rappers, an Asian pop group, break dancers and marionettes.


Even though we hadn’t planned to be in Avignon for the festival, we tried to make the most of it. Unfortunately that was difficult because the 25,000 performances are primarily in French. What to do when you only know about 6 French words? See a mime! The show we went to was sort of like a mime, but he also made all of his own sounds effects with his mouth. We were sitting front row center, and before the show started, Steve asked me if I was worried about being picked on. I told him that at least we would get our money’s worth. I totally jinxed myself because I ended up getting pulled onto stage and had to do all sorts of embarrassing stuff. I can officially say that I was the leading lady in a French play.

Our last stop in Provence was to the iconic lavender fields. It’s not like in the movies were the lavender grows wild all over the countryside. You have to go hunting. We started in a pretty little town called Gordes.


Just outside of Gordes is the Senanque Abbey with their picture-perfect lavender. 

 
Being in a lavender field is a multi-sensory experience. Not only is it beautiful, but it also smells so good and you hear a constant bzzzzzzzzzzzz. There are bees EVERYWHERE!
Early July is prime blooming time.




The mecca of lavender fields is just outside of the town of Sault. We counted at least 30 fields from this viewpoint.
 

We have enjoyed France more than we thought we would. The rosé wine flows like water. We’ve seen lots of smokers, pregnant smokers and cigarette butts covered in red lipstick. The French have some sort of obsession with sleepy kitten postcards. They also like old-fashioned carousels. We never did run into any sort of stereotypical French snobbery. On the contrary, everyone here has been super nice and helpful. Maybe it's the rosé flowing through their veins.


We also learned an important lesson about guidebooks. Travel writers can’t possibly take into account the places you’ve already been. They write discretely about the country at hand. We had a list of recommended cities to go see in Provence, but they were all full of Roman ruins. We’ve just come from Rome…been there, seen that. Once we ignored the book’s advice and started venturing off to find the lavender fields, the real Provence – the French one, not the Roman one – started to appear. 

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