Provence was the region highlighted in the last issue of Creative Life News, featuring towns as different as Aix-en-Provence and Rousillion. Now, we're visiting Languedoc, L'Hérault, and other regions of Southern France. As an idea of how gorgeous this autumn season can be here, look at this house just sitting along a country road. Below it are random photos taken earlier.
Day-trips or overnight excursions in Southern France let you discover many different worlds. The range of different geographies, micro-climates and opportunities to time-travel is surprising, and the pleasures are enormous. The area of the Midi (a local term for these regions) extends from the Pyrenees bordering Spain, goes eastward to the French Riviera bordering Italy, and from the Mediterranean goes northward to the French Alps. The land of Asterisk and Obelisk, of ancient Ocs, Gauls, Romans, Greeks, of kings, peasants, conquerers, merchants, romance, fables, and art.
What I wish to do here is share some of my impressions of living and travelling a bit across this region, perhaps sparking your own impressions, recollections, or new discoveries. My photos are amateur ones, without apology.
What skill is needed to take a scenic photo in southern France? None. Just point and shoot. Believe it. That's pretty much it. Not only the known cultural centers and places cited in travel books, but also the random walks and drives are stunning in regions like Provence, Languedoc, L'Herault, all the way to the Pyrenees to the west, to the French Alps to the north, and bordering the Atlantic and Mediterranean oceans. So much to see and experience. So much to photograph, it's overwhelming. Maybe better just to look and breathe it all in.
I hate cameras. They are so much more sure than I am about everything. --John Steinbeck
Sometimes I wonder if taking scads of photos is even a good idea. Does the quest for just the right photo help, or perhaps hinder, the experienced interest and enjoyment of just looking around? Photos help us remember places and sometimes even feelings associated with them. Yet, the search for photo ops can also hinder the flow of involvement with the scene. I can't really capture in a photo anything like the fullness of what I see or experience. Maybe professional photographers feel differently. I like that my camera is easy enough to travel with me but small enough to neglect when larger experience beckons. On the other hand, I look back on some photos I've taken in this region and they seem almost like paintings! The land itself does this.
Advantage of Poor Photos for a Painter?
For me, having easy access to an I-phone camera provides the option to record a moment-in-time, reminding me to keep eyes open and alert to details or to vast expanses. For studio paintings, snapshots, especially poor ones, help me remember something I thought worth stopping for. Since I have no intention of copying reality in my work, what I want from a photo is enough of my experience of that moment to translate into visual marks and colours. I like that my camera is easy enough to travel with me but small enough to neglect when larger experience beckons.
For example, my photos of Lac du Salagou (above) were taken while exploring the Hérault region. Much more scenic shots could be taken, but I wanted to remember the redness of the soil against the water and the changing shapes of rocks underfoot. That's what I emphasized in a subsequent painting.
Finding Places by Chance
A special feature of thinking like a traveller, instead of tourist, is that you find things by chance. You are not always headed for a specific "must-see" place but remain open to meandering about and seeing what reveals itself. This set of mind puts you into explorer mode, so whatever you happen to find becomes more personal or notable because you've discovered it yourself (no matter how many other people may have also done so).
If you have the time and good fortune to stay in one place in Southern France for a stretch of time, you can try this out. Look at the names of a few nearby places. Pick one for a day-trip. Go there and explore. You'll find something interesting.
As well as a prior Creative Life column published here ("Life Imitates Art"), I've posted frequent Instagram texts and photos from Provence (see them in this website menu under "About"). You'll find trips to various places including Aix-en-Provence, Marseille, nearby Cassis, that forever-sunny fishing village with wonderful shellfish and wine, and other nice spots. The focus of this column is on other surrounding regions.
My fondness for food leads me to enjoy many restaurants, cafés, and open-air markets for purchasing it. In a country like France, in which food plays such a distinctive role, I especially love the open-air markets, where food, wine, and condiment stalls of all sorts are arranged in tempting displays. A palette of colours, smells, and tastes invites us. There is a market in every town I've visited.
We visitors love them because they give access to local flavours both literally and figuratively in terms of the human interactions possible in relatively brief time. The French resident, however, can be quite choosy in which market to go to for which particular item. Locals regard them with a studied pragmatism that assesses quality and value. The custom of food vendors giving out sample tastes of their wares fills this function. I get hungry just walking through the different food stalls and my eye is drawn to all the colourful displays, but my French friend will halt, raise a brow, and signal me onward to another place. She knows which vendor in which market has the best olives at the best price, which has the freshest artichokes or fish, for the season , which has the best selection of brébis cheese or the best local paté. It must have taken her years to learn this. Of course, I leave the wine choice to her. It seems to me that every French person I've met, however humble, is a food connoisseur.
Potimarron, shown above, is a delicious local dish my favourite spouse-chef made near Halloween. He stuffed a red kuri squash (a sweet winter squash with thin, edible skin) with mushrooms, savoury sausage, and chestnuts.
Nearby Lourmarin in Languedoc-Rousillion
Languedoc, just west of Provence, is another beautiful region of grapes, olives, châteaus and lively villages.
Living in Provence very near to this region, we drove from our village of Rognes to the nearby town of Lourmarin as a weekly event. Its Friday market rivals, on a smaller scale, that of Aix-en-Provence in quality and assortment of goods. Wonderful cheeses (the brébis one with truffles is a fav), wines (oh, any of them!), patés (including duck and sanglier), clothing stalls from shoes to scarves and hats, jewelry, a host of small cafés and easy mingling among visitors and locals. The little town square is a a very popular location, crowded with cafés, restaurants and some galleries. Among the resident artists, Gerard Isirdi is a popular painter of Lourmarin scenes.
One of Lourmarin's most famous residents was the Nobel-winning author, Albert Camus.. We carry a nice memento from a previous visit here. It's a book inscribed to us with "Come back soon" by Peter Mayle, author of bestselling A Year in Provence. We did come back, but it was years later.
Canals in Languedoc and l'Hérault
A notable feature of this region as we travel southwestward are the canals, both natural and human-built (Canal Midi), that link the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Many towns in this area have a canal running through them. Below is a typical photo of boats moored in a town along the Midi Canal. Houseboats and canal trips seem a pleasant option, especially in good weather. Fishing and seafood restaurants are good and abundant, with many local folk enjoying them again (as pandemic restrictions lessen).
Walking in l'Hérault
One step at a time is good walking. -- Chinese proverb So is not falling over one's feet. -- Janet Strayer All walking is discovery. On foot we take the time to see things whole. -- Hal Borland, NY Times
All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking. -- Frederich Nietszche
I love hiking and walking around places (though now hiking is limited by broken vertebrae that don't quite heal). Yet, one step at a time still gets you places. And here are some shared items to prove it.
I first came the to the Hérault region as an invalid (an odd word, considering it suggests one is no longer valid). Several broken vertebrae left me barely able to walk and for only minutes at a time. It was only with the help of my caring spouse that I could start this adventure at all, and I marvel at his capacities. One of which I share wholeheartedly: the capacity to enjoy and live as well as one can under whatever the circumstances. Not hedonism, but an appreciation of life. In this way, our European adventure helped me literally to make great strides.
We lived in the ancient village of St. Thibéry, beside the Hérault river. Its uneven cobblestone streets, charming as they were to look at, were hell for me to walk on. Given that walking freely was a main objective for me to regain, one of my favourite things became taking increasingly longer walks along a lovely nearby path leading to an ancient mill and remains of a Roman bridge on the river (above).
Priory Grandmont in the Hérault
Among the places found by chance, while we were en route to seeing someplace else, we found the Priory Saint-Michel de Grandmont. It's an austerely beautiful old monastery, no longer inhabited but in remarkably good shape. Walking around the abbey lets you feel a bit of what it must have been like when it was inhabited by monks in 1022 compared to now, 2022. . It's so COLD inside now, and those monks had to be barefoot! Next (below) is a fine example of Romanesque architecture. How much of what we build now will last as long or attract as much interest? How much of our work is motivated by beauty or reverence for anything beyond itself?
I'm partial to the more blunt simplicity of Romanesque style vs. Gothic ornateness, and especially like the surprising faces and odd little people carved into the columns and over doors of so many of the medieval structures we saw. I think these are from St. Maguellone in the Hérault . Such figures are never displayed too prominently, but these "lesser" beings, if you like, are my favourites.
Valmagne Abbey in l'Hérault
So many interesting cathedrals, churches and related structure in France, one could spend all one's days visiting them. But I'd rather not, given my preference for many different kinds of beauty. I wanted to include the Valmagne Abby (near Mèze ) because it surprised me with its changing structure, history, and use. Founded in the 12th C, it's quite an elaborate structure for a Cistercian monastery. As it became one of richest abbeys in the region over the next two centuries, its simple Romanesque structure became elaborated in Gothic style -- only to be plundered during the Religious Wars, then sacked with all monks expelled during the French Revolution. After that, the Abbey became a huge wine cellar, and you see huge wooden barrels, larger than a person, tucked into the hollows of its ancient nave. And, it has a wine-tasting room for purchases. Quite a place.
Medieval Villages Alive and Well
Travelling around different regions in this area, you come to appreciate that medieval history lives on. Not only in monumental structures but in villages built of medieval stones. St. Martin de Londres is an example of one such village in the Hérault. Its inhabitants must enjoy the authenticity of their historic homes. Though, I wouldn't be surprised to find perfectly modern appliances inside.
You can experience large geographic and scenic differences across relatively small distances in southern France. Arles, for instance, has its own flavour ,very different from towns like Lourmarin (above) -- though it's only about an hour's drive southwest from it. You can feel a strong Roman/Latin influence in Arles. Its ancient Roman amphitheatre dominates the center of town. Still in use for bullfights, popular in this area. Other cultural events are held there as well. The town center is also filled with trees and good little cafés (including the one Van Gogh painted in the Place de Forum)
You can experience large geographic and scenic differences across relatively small distances in southern France. Arles, for instance, has its own flavour, very different from towns like Lourmarin (above) -- though it's only about an hour's drive southwest from it. You can feel a strong Roman/Latin influence in Arles. Its ancient Roman amphitheatre dominates the center of town. Still in use for bullfights, popular in this area. Other cultural events are held there as well. The town center is also filled with trees and good little cafés (including the one Van Gogh painted in the Place de Forum).
Arles is known as the French "home" of Van Gogh -- the yellow house with green shutters in his painting (1888). Though he lived here only a year, he produced over 300 drawings and paintings during that time! This is where he immortalized his humble bedroom, as well as memorable paintings of people (Madame Ginoux, shown) and local scenes. It's a special pleasure for any art-lover to walk in the sights and scenes known from paintings!
Bouzigues, Agde, Sète
Beyond this photographed tree (with what look like wooden birds in its branches) is the village of Bouzigues, famous for its oysters. My Canadian home on Saturna Island, B.C. also has wonderful oysters. We see them attached to ocean rocks during low tide. Here, the oysters are in offshore shoals that can be reached by the small boats tethered on shore. Eating at one of the beach restaurants, I was amazed at the huge and artfully arranged platters of oysters and shellfish that came to tables. I wish I had taken a photo! I was even more amazed to watch people consume multiple dozens of these sexy oysters at a sitting, leaving only glistening shells to mark their extraordinary culinary prowess.
Nearby is Agde, a port city on the Hérault River linking the Midi Canal and Mediterranean. It's one of the oldest cities in France (along with Marseille and Béziers), first settled by ancient Greeks. Not a tourist attraction, I enjoyed the easy feel of strolling through Agde on a Sunday. Lots of families out, along with the ducks noted in the plaza pond. The beaches at Cap d'Agde are well visited.
Sète, "the Venice" of this region, given its network of canals, seemed to me even more pleasant and lively. It's a favourite maritime city for poets (Paul Valéry is buried there) , musicians, and artists. I took endless photos of small, colourful boats along the canal, loved its lively water-side restaurants, and its good local weekly outdoor markets. It also has sandy beaches that are fairly secluded off-season and great to walk, collecting sea shells.
The Beaches of Southwest France
Ever get bored by walking along the sea? Not me. Anytime, wind, rain, sun, even howling tempest (yes, if you manage it!). Some beaches are quite civilized, with promenades built beside them and restaurants. Others are open and wide-reaching (more like the northwest Pacific shores I know from home). There are many variations of shoreline we were to discover along the sweep of the Mediterranean in Southwest France.
The many lovely towns along the Côte d'Azure and Riviera to the southeast are justly prized for their magnificent beaches. This section of sea in the southwest differs in its charms. It’s not summertime, so we’re not talking bikinis (as if) or enjoying sun-cooked water. This is the “raw” Mediterranean Sea in late autumn. Here’s one small beach town beside the ocean. They were mostly deserted this time of year, having the look of shuttered down resort villages one still finds in out-of-the-way places—still running but at half-throttle, waiting for its crowd of summer residents.
Sérignan is another of town that benefits from its natural surroundings. It has some of our favourite beaches, ones that seem to go on forever. The sand is soft and golden, settling sometimes into dunes. And there are wonderful seashells all around the tidewaters. You can see one held up to the light. Secluded in this season, these beaches are wonderful to walk and contemplate.
One of oldest cities in France (along with Marseille), Béziers, in the Hérault region, was founded by ancient Greeks. Despite being an urban centre with handsome buildings, it also has huge vineyards and agricultural land. The Canal du Midi runs along its south side. Like most cities and even villages in France, the local museums are worth visiting. Here are some picturesque views of the city seen from the top of St. Nazare Cathedral. PIctures that inspire paintings, no?
This medieval village in the Hérault balances on a rocky spur above gorges carved into the limestone mountain. You reach it via an impressive viaduct bridge. It's marked by cobble stone streets and ruined ramparts that once historically welcomed the Cathars in siege against their enemies. It was then a relative haven (once you made it inside) for people fleeing persecution, because there was no bridge to its fortified structure. Now, there are said to be only about 100 people who live in houses stacked against the rocks.
A good reason for visiting here is the amazing countryside filled with unusual limestone formations called dolomites. Many of these strange looking rocks are huge, much larger than a house.
A hike along the Cirque de Merguez, for example, will bring you to these scenes. The very rocky limestone terrain , long etched by erosion, has produced some quite marvellous natural sculptures.
These fantastic structures that look like houses, some even like multiple-house dwellings, are many thousands of years old. Found in several regions of the world (Korea has many, Stonehenge is famous in Britain), in France they are found scattered from Brittany to the Mediterranean coast. Often marked with fertility symbols, dolmens are now thought to be ceremonial burial chambers, some tunnelling underground (see third photo below) as well as structured above ground. It's remarkable to think how such massive megaliths were moved to different locations by humans likely not stronger than us, and the effort it took to carve one side smooth for architectural purposes.
Carcassonne and Peyrepertuse
Carcassonne (first in photos below, from internet) is probably the quintessential city of castle and fortress. It is a major tourist attraction that comes straight to us from the middle ages. It was settled and fought over from even earlier periods, given its strategic position between the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Carcassonne also played a huge role in medieval history, especially the Cathar religious rebellion, and other prominent wars.
Being in Carcassonne now feels somewhat like you've stepped into a movie. There are many events and festivals hosted there, including jousts in full regalia, that re-enact history in well-researched costumes. Walking around the ramparts and alleys of this city, it's hard to resist time-travelling.
For a stunning shift of pace (see third photo below), about 85 km further south and even closer to the Pyrenees is the Chateau Fortress of Peyrepertuse (third photo above). It crests a limestone cliff with a magnificent panoramic view. Wear sturdy shoes. It's quite a staggering structure to explore. Walking its ruins provides a more individual imaginative experience (rather than planned reconstruction) of medieval life and struggle.
Further Southwest to the Pyrenees:
We didn't have much time in this large and attractive city of gold-pink terracotta bricks. Like many places close to the Pyrenees and Spanish border, a Basque/Spanish flavour mingles with the French. It's officially also along the route of the Santiago de Campostela trail going across the Pyrenees to Spain. Founded as a city by the Romans, Toulouse was inhabited earlier by Iberians and Gauls, and subsequently had a tumultuous history through the Religious Wars, and Napoleonic era. The Hall of the Illustrious (first image above) in the City Hall (Capitol) provides an ornate depiction of some of the city's history.
Notable among its architectural attractions is the Basilica of Saint-Sernin, one of the largest Romanesque structures in Europe, with beautiful carvings.and sculptures, just one of which I've shown below (second image). We had just enough time to visit the Augustine Museum of Fine Arts, set in a former convent. Most of its art and architectural collection ranges from the middle ages to early 20th century. My favourite setting in the museum was the cloisters, where you can see impressive of array gargoyles set up as statues.
The Camargue-- for a very different scene and change of pace
The Camargue region (south of Arles) is France's "wild west". It's the largest area of marshes and wetlands in France. Famous semi-wild horses still roam the delta. The cattle ranges and "cowboys" who herd them, as well as the impression you get from its inhabitants, suggest a sense of being different from the rest of the southern France. The region is closer to Spain than to Paris, with bullfights still an active tradition
In contrast to any other "wild west" you might know, the Camargue is uniquely positioned in Europe's largest river delta and has outrageous pink flamingos along its salt flats and wetlands. I managed to see the famous white Camargue horses romping in fenced yards, but my photo from our moving car was too poor (replaced by one from the Camargue National Park). The popular music group, the Gypsy Kings, are from this region. However unique, like the rest of France, this region shares in the production of wonderful wines. And, like much of France, nearby ancient and medieval towns are interesting to visit and explore (like the Romanesque abbey of St. Gilles).
This small town with sandy beaches sits in the Camargue. It was painted by Van Gogh (above), who did other paintings based upon its people and fishing boats. The town's name refers to multiple Marys: the Virgin Mary, her sister (also named Mary ) and Mary Magdalene.
The town is a famed place of pilgrimage to honour Saint Sara, the "Black Madonna". Her statue in the main church is robed with many fabrics, so she may appear differently clothed at various times. Legend has this as the place where the Virgin Mary, her sister Mary and their dark-skinned maid, Sarah, landed (along with Mary Magdalene, Martha, Lazarus and Ste Maximin). One legend has Sarah throwing her robe into the sea, so that it became a raft guiding others safely to shore. In Roma (Gypsy) tradition, the Black Madonna is honoured for good fortune, fertility, and protection.
Collioure near the Pyrenees
Collioure is a quiet fishing village in southeastern-most France that borders the sea and scrapes the Pyrenees. It is a spot favoured by Matisse and other painters who loved its seclusion and bluish-light. This is where, in the early 1900's, Matisse and André Derain began the Fauvist art movement, a style emphasizing freedom of depiction based upon strong emotions and intense colours.
You're fairly close to Barcelona from here, and just a stop from the Salvador Dali museum. But I'll leave that for another time.
I'll end this column with very simple photo - taken from the car as we travelled in southern France. It's a simple appreciation for the land one passes by, no tourist sites visible, no notable events, just the pleasing beauty that can be found in the remarkably ordinary. One of the things travelling teaches: Appreciate where you are!