Our first day in Provence dawned bright and sunny but we awoke to the sounds of the howling ‘Le Mistral’ winds. Yep, we were in Provence alright, and right in the middle of the second day of Mistral winds. We headed down to the terrace for breakfast but Monique informed us that breakfast was to be served indoors today due to the strong winds. I got to chatting with Serge a little during breakfast. Ours was a typical French ‘connaissance’. I have always found the French to be warm and friendly, but in general, they are rather reserved people. They don’t go spilling their lives’ story to every person they meet. They spend time building relationships and friendships. They take the time to get to know you, before deciding if you get to move past into the inner sanctum where you become a friend, and not just an acquaintance. It is this honesty that draws me to the French. I like the lack of pretense, I like the honest frankness. I like that if we don’t like each other, we remain acquaintances, and there is no need to have pretend ‘friendships’.
Anyway, Serge and I got to talking about the weather – favourite conversation topic for the French and basic conversation in French 101. According to him, the Mistral runs in 3-day cycles. We were currently in our second day. However, the benefits of having the Mistral was the clear blue skies, without a single wisp of clouds. Serge said the strong wind blows the clouds away and so there is never any rain when the Mistral is around.
We met our fellow guests at the breakfast table. They were all returning guests to the châmbres d’hotes. Some of them holiday there annually. They were mostly from other European countries like Belgium, Germany and Switzerland but the language of choice at the breakfast table was French. Yay me, but poor mum, dad and hubby. I was a bit of a source of fascination for about 10 minutes when they found out that I had been learning French for a little over a year. Apparently my accent was very good, and they were very impressed by my French. They said I speak normally, in the way the language should be spoken in everyday use. I guess that’s the benefits of learning French with a native, and avoiding the common ‘learning techniques’ that people use to learn the language. I had to store that up to tell my tutor. Serge told me he thought I had been learning the language for a few years at least… If I were a dog, my little tail would have been wagging nonstop 🙂
Our breakfast was the typical French breakfast that hubby and I had come to love the last time we were in France – there was a variety of breads, croissants, chaussons aux pommes, choquettes (a regional specialty), about 6 different types of home-made jams, french butter (mmm….), chèvre with ‘les herbes provençale’ (hubby’s favourite), crêpes (made fresh by Monique), eggs (cooked the way you wanted), endless pots of coffee, tea and juice… Mum and dad could not believe the amazing spread. Conversation was endless and lively at the table. It was a wonderful breakfast. It was close to 9am when we finally left the breakfast table with regret. We had places to see, lunch reservations and a private wine tasting booked for the day so we could not afford to be late.
Our first stop for the day was Orange. Orange is a small town that boasts two of the finest Roman monuments in Europe, both listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. We got there rather early and found a carpark without much trouble. Then we began the hike uphill to the ‘Théâtre Antique’. It would have been a pleasant walk were it not for the Mistral. The wind was so strong that I almost got blown over a couple of times and that is no exaggeration. We had to constantly shield our eyes from the dust. It felt like we were getting coated with dust.
The Théâtre Antique d’Orange is an impressive and amazingly well preserved theatre that can hold up to 7,000 spectators. Its superb acoustics makes it ideal for concerts, which are held over the warm summer months. The theatre’s stage wall, which is built of red limstone, is the only Roman stage wall to remain intact. This massive construction which is 103m long, 36m high and over 1.8m thick is a testament to the engineering and architectural prowess of the Roman empire. The new roof above the theatre is an interesting contrast to the ancient building. Built to protect the stage wall from the elements, it has been specifically engineered to ensure that it did not interfere with the acoustics of the stage.
From 1925-37, excavations next to the theatre unearthed the ruins of a temple. It is believed that it was part of the theatre, forming an Augusteum, which is an architectural unit devoted to the worship of Roman emperors. We spent close to two hours at the theatre. The audioguide was extremely informative and you really have to be there to appreciate the sheer size of the construction.
We then moved on to the next great Roman monument in Orange – l’Arc de Triomphe. This monument was built to celebrate Roman conquest and supremacy. When the first Roman army attempted to conquer Gaul in 105 BC., it was defeated near Orange with a loss of 100,000 men. Three years later, the Romans returned and triumphed. They built this monument to celebrate that victory. The arch has intricate decorations devoted to war and maritime themes.
Our next stop was Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where we had lunch reservations at La Mère Germaine. Châteauneuf-du-Pape was a lot smaller and less touristy than I expected. We drove past the famous vineyards of the region before arriving at the town center. We arrived right on time for our lunch reservations. I was anticipating a busy touristy town, so I had made reservations in advance via email to ensure we had a table for lunch. The owner of La Mère Germain, André, was as friendly in person as he was in replying to my email. The staff didn’t speak English but were extremely friendly and helpful. I had requested a table on the patio, which overlooks the vineyards, but the Mistral made that impossible for the day. Lunch was a choice from a set menu. The food was good regional cuisine, and surprisingly reasonably priced. We got chatting to the table next to us. Turns out they were a couple from Sydney – hubby was Australian but the wife was French, and they visit Provence every year to visit her elderly mother. We were chatting away like old friends by the time we finished lunch, and bonding over our mutual love for the tropical Malaysian fruit, durian. An Australian who loved durian, now that was a first!
After lunch, André gave us directions to our next stop – Les Caves St Charles. It was a pleasant walk in the sun through the small streets of the town. My original plan for our day at Châteauneuf-du-Pape was a full day of chaffeured private wine tasting with an œnologie professor from Aix-en-Provence, Joël Corre. I had it booked months in advance, confirmed the dates, even offered to pay a deposit, which I was told wasn’t necessary. So imagine my disappointment and disgust when I contacted him a month prior to our departure for France to confirm our pick-up time and place, and was informed that he was not available on that day. I was offered another day instead, and was also informed that he was no longer able to pick us up from our chambres d’hôtes in Maussane-les-Alpilles and that we would have to meet him either at Aix-en-Provence or Châteauneuf-du-Pape instead. And yet, the price was still our initial agreed price of 500 euro for the four of us.
Left to find an alternative, I found Guy’s ‘cave’ on the internet. His private wine tasting had glowing reviews on TA. I sent a quick email enquiring if he did the tasting in English as well. I didn’t think my French was at ‘dégustation du vin’ level and I didn’t want my family to miss out on the experience by having to have everything translated. So I was very relieved when Guy’s prompt reply informed me that ‘yes, of course we speak English’.
Guy Brémond is the owner of Les Caves St Charles. Having travelled and worked all over the world as a master sommelier, Guy’s knowledge of wine is extensive. Unlike our experience the previous year with our guide in Bourgogne, who had no knowledge of wine culture outside Burgundy, Guy had good knowledge of Australian wines and wine culture, which resulted in a lengthy and interesting discussion amongst the three of us. He was also able to explain the biological aspect of grape-growing and wine-making to mum and dad (who being biology teachers, made perfect sense to them and gave them a deeper understanding of the ingredients needed to make a good wine).
Our private wine tasting session was in a restored 13th century cellar. Guy had for us 2 whites (we were told whites are rare in Châteauneuf-du-Pape) and 6 reds. What I loved about the tasting was how he talked us through the style of each wine, gave us the opportunity to form our own opinions about the wines, and at no point did he divulge the price of each bottle. It was true wine-tasting for the sole sake of enjoying and tasting the wine – no emphasis on labels, or names, or ‘Robert Parker gave this ? points’. It was so pure and simplistic that it was an unforgettable experience. (Now we have been to ‘En Premier’ tastings of Bordeaux wines in Melbourne, where they had for tasting wines from well-known domaines – Haut Brion, Cheval Blanc, Mouton Rothschild, Comtesse Lalande, d’Yquem, along with some other 3rd and 4th growths. And while the wines were good, you could not help but feel that you were in a room with a bunch of pretentious twats who couldn’t wait to tell every stranger they met that they had 3 bottles of this, and 2 bottles of that stashed away in their cellar)
Guy spent about 2 hours with us, even allowing us to revisit wines that caught our interest. At no point did we feel the pressure to purchase anything. He only told us that he could ship the wines to us in Australia when we asked about shipping. It was only when we told him our choice of two bottles from the tasting did he finally reveal the price of each bottle, and his preferred choice to us. I think he was rather pleased that we picked two of his favourites out of the 6. It was a no brainer… We ordered a mixed case of our two favourites. (The wines arrived in Melbourne safely packaged and insulated.) At the end of our visit, Guy showed us around the cellar, pointing to the house above the cellar where he lives with his family. It was truly a wonderful experience and we enjoyed every minute of it.
Leaving the ‘cave’, we climbed up the hill to the ruins of the Château des Papes. Châteauneuf-du-Pape translates to ‘New Château of the Pope’. The château was built in 1317 by John XXII, an Avignon pope who planted the first vineyards. Today, the château lies in ruins, having mostly been burnt down in the 16th century Wars of Religion. From the hilltop, there is a wonderful view of the famous vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
On the way back to the car, we decided to stop by at a little bistro for a cold drink. I had to drink as much Orangina as I could while I was in France. Finding a boulangerie next door, we decided to buy some bread for dinner. Luckily for us, we snagged the very last baguette from the baker. Walking down the streets of the village, we found a butcher who had nice-looking ‘jambon’. We managed to buy some chips as well as some fruits, which would make for a simple but nice dinner.
We got back to Maussane just as the sun was setting. Sitting on the porch outside our rooms, we had our little ‘picnic’ of sorts. Serge saw us sitting outside and came by with a bottle of red wine to complete our meal. What a guy!