Ancient caves, a whiff of lavender

In the valleys and hills of Ardèche, about an hours drive from Avignon, lies a cave. The entrance to the cave has been blocked by many years of erosion and rockslides, and the road roped off, but once it was full of life. Cave bears, cave lions and other animals that we don’t know the names of rested and bred there, and in time people moved in, leaving behind foot and hand prints, and images of the animals around them that seemed to climb off the walls. The bears left traces behind too, deep gouges from their claws as they stretched after a long hibernation, paw prints and bones. The cave was untouched for thousands of years, silently holding its secrets, until careful candles in the dark brought the images of long dead and extinct creatures back to life.

It wasn’t this cave that we saw.

Driving up from Avignon, fresh bread and cheese in our bags, we saw farms, mountains, villages and lavender fields. Though I stuck my head out of the window as we passed, I only caught the barest whiff. Reaching Ardèche we followed the GPS directions to a rope off road, around the corner from the majestic Pont d’Arc. Some stressing and confusion later, we zigzagged our way up sparse hills to a large car park and tourist area. Tickets in hand we wandered around the site, then waited with our assigned group, taking the English translation headsets and after being told that photography was not allowed, we walked into cool, humid darkness.

What they have done is create a complete replica of the Chauvet cave system, right down to the human and animal footprints still preserved in the soft sand. If this sounds at all tacky (and the thought did cross my mind) go and prepare to have your breath taken away. We were lead through by a guide, talking in French, and shown handprints, claw marks high up on the walls, soft craters that held sleeping bears, a lion skull on a rock pedestal and seemingly endless paintings. They have been recreated by artists and are as stunning now as they would have been 35-20 000 years ago when first painted. Woolly rhinos butt horns, cave bears tower, horses prance and gallop and cave lions prowl. An owl even sits upright, staring at us across the millennia. We twisted our way around the cave, along the raised platforms, losing our bearings amidst the shadows and rippling cave structures. It did feel a little dissonant sometimes, when I was staring at a row of horses tossing their heads, to imagine the people painting these thousands of years ago and then remember that it was only completed in 2015. It was a matter of intentionally forgetting when it was made, and instead seeing it as a recreation, and enjoying the experience of being as close to art from pre-history as I’m ever going to get.

A dreadlocked mammoth

A dreadlocked mammoth

Out in the blinding sunlight and spring heat we went to the museum, which had a video showing the history of the cave, and then a room full of interactive displays (I utterly failed at cave painting) and recreations of a mammoth with realistic dreadlocks, lions, deer and humans. The detail on the small family of pre-historic people was amazing, and I could imagine how they must have lived, constantly on the move across the tundra and grasslands, returning to sacred places to carry out rituals that we’ll never know about.

Our next stop was to have been a lavender farm, where I could skip around and breath deeply, then stock up on soap for the rest of the holiday. It was not to be. As we passed through a quiet village one of the tyres on our hire car went flat. Long story short, we were able to get back to Avignon on side streets and slowly on freeways, which I suppose meant we got a more scenic trip.

An imposing tollgate

An imposing tollgate

The next day we said goodbye to Avignon, swapped our car and headed along the coast. We passed through immense toll gates, saw stunning hills and cliffs in the distance and listened to many podcasts. Finally we reached Nice. Continuing the trend in Paris, there was a train strike, plus the Euro Cup was coming up soon, so parking was a bit scarce in town, including where we were staying. We then had some difficulty returning the car (in the sense that understatements mean the opposite), so by the time we were out and strolling the streets, I was feeling a little bruised and not entirely impressed with the city.

A beachside in Nice

A beachside in Nice

Reaching the waterside and taking in the view lifted our spirits though, and so it was with relief and relaxation that we shared a bottle of wine on the balcony that night, and cheered for our final night in France. The glasses were the only ones we could find.

Celebratory wine

Celebratory wine

Writing this I can’t help thinking of the sight along that palm lined and broad boulevard not many weeks later. It’s hard to imagine the lively, cheerful and bustling city that we saw so torn by hatred.

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Provence, part 1

It’s hard to play favourites with places that you visit on holiday; each one stands out in its own way, bringing you find memories and tastes that keep calling you back. One such place is Provence, a region in the south east of France. It was once the first area taken over by the Romans outside of Italy, their first province, thus its name. They no doubt had to bash through hordes of Celts and Gauls to establish their neat little towns, and on our journey we were faced with similarly obstreperous natives; the French rail network.

A quick search to confirm the name shows that there is another strike underway, though I imagine that the many people who are staring at timetables in stations and angrily calling helplines won’t be as lucky as we turned out to be. We found out our pre-booked tickets had been refunded on the morning of our departure, and as she had to rush off for work and say her goodbyes, our host advised us to just turn up at the station and see if another train turns up, or in the worst case hire a car and drive down. So off we went, and lo and behold there was a train leaving in 5 minutes, so a sprint and a scramble around later and we were in first class, on seats left open by friends of travellers who had not turned up. We left a few hours earlier than intended on a faster train, for free, so in all, the strike worked out pretty well for us.

Avignon in the evening

Avignon in the evening

Upon our arrival in Avignon, the temperature rose from the foggy, jumper-needing 15 in Paris to shorts and t-shirt weather. Driving through the twisting streets, past the warm coloured walls and wide river, it felt almost like another country. Our accommodation itself was also very different. For a bit of a difference, we’d rented a gypsy caravan for our stay, which sat in someone’s chicken-ful yard and was bright yellow and purple. It had everything we needed, though in a reduced size and was definitely the most unique Airbnb place we’ve stayed in so far.

That afternoon we wandered around Avignon, admiring the Papal palace and views of the hills and valleys in the distance, as the sun set. For dinner we went to a restaurant that had been recommended online, which should serve as an example to not always believe what you read. After being told they were booked out, we were grudgingly taken to one of the empty tables almost on the street, left for ages, given different menus to the rest of the guests who gradually arrived, not offered anything to drink other than water and generally ignored. I’d have been less annoyed if the food had been decent, but I wasn’t, and on top of that felt disappointed that the stereotype for rudeness was true in at least one occasion.

The bridge of Avignon

The bridge of Avignon

So how do you follow such a day of ups and downs? You have a Roman holiday.

Our first stop was the well deservedly famous Pont du Gard. Since my partner’s last visit years ago, tourism around it had taken off, so it was only after crossing a huge carpark, paying a fee, getting through the shops and a walk through paths and gardens that we got our first glimpse of the aqueduct. It was awe inspiring, both in the size and craftsmanship, and purpose.

In the shadow of Pont du Gard

In the shadow of Pont du Gard

The Romans built menuments such as this to work, for a functional purpose, but also to impose themselves on the landscape so that wherever you were in the Empire, you knew that Rome was there. It was impressive from every angle, and dwarfed all of the tourists and staff and little shops built nearby, as it had no doubt dwarfed the slaves who built it, the legions who marched past it and the people centuries later who wondered if it had been built by giants.

Pont du Gard, imposing itself

Pont du Gard, imposing itself

Next we visited Nîmes, which is a gorgeous town that I think puts Avignon in the shade in regards to elegance. Walking along its tree lined boulevards and past fountains, we saw the arena, which seemed almost entirely intact. Inside we saw that it was being set up to host a concert, the original seating, walkways and arena floor still serving the purpose they had been built for.

The arena of Nîmes, ready to go

The arena of Nîmes, ready to go

From a vantage point in the top tier, there was a wonderful view over the city, with pigeons soaring and cathedrals and ancient towers rising up and beyond them the hills.

Rooftops of Nîmes, from the arena

Rooftops of Nîmes, from the arena

Not imagining this could be topped, we next found the Maison Carrée. Though long since stripped of the bright paint and gold, it looked almost intact, a beautiful temple that glowed in the afternoon light. It has been a house, a church, a stable and a granary, and still stands as if it had never been touched. Exquisite is a good word for it. If you think I’m waxing a bit too lyrical, I urge you to visit it, and then say I’m wrong.

Maison Carrée

Maison Carrée

It also made me wonder what else had been lost to history, what other beauty had been torn down and the sorts of people and situations that bring that about.

The ceiling of the outer collonade

The ceiling of the outer collonade

Out next stop was Arles, but as we drove I noticed something on the map that had inexplicably escaped my notice before. With a slight change of direction we went off the main road, and arrived at our destination as thunder began to roll on the horizon. Our destination was a replica Roman winery, built on and around an ancient winery, and which was still in production. We were left to explore the centre ourselves, taking in the info about amphorae, wine production and the history of the site. We then found the pressing room, which has a massive tree beam hung above a press, with winches and pulleys, basins for the wine and grape mush and huge amphorae buried in the ground. Every year there is a harvest on the site, with workers and volunteers in costume, who then press the grapes by foot, operate the equipment and create wine following ancient recipes.

The press at Mas des Tourelles

The press at Mas des Tourelles

It was all fascinating and I was giddy with the reality of it, even more so when we were offered tasting, which were included in all visits. Obviously tastes have changed over the millenia, but the herbs, spices, sweetness and saltiness were marvelous to experience, and we left with smiles and bottles of our own, glad we had the opportunity to try this completely unique experience.

Then to finish off our day, we had dinner in Arles, which for my was a plate full of crustacea. Though my partner’s face went white as I offered him meaty lumps of sea snail, I got through the whole thing – and the whole experience far exceeded our first night in Provence.

Seafood extravaganza

Seafood extravaganza

Walking through the town we saw another arena, a bit smaller but still imposing and many cobbled streets and a busker. What overlaid everything was the scent of jasmine, which hung heavily in the evening air, the flowers themselves growing around and into houses and walls.

Jasmine in Arles

Jasmine in Arles