|The iconic Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque in full summer glory.|
.... photo from www.senanque.fr
“Le printemps est inexorable.”
I’ve been seeing banners around town with this quote from Pablo Neruda. The spring is inexorable, unstoppable. And it’s true. Spring is coming, relentlessly. Every day we see more leaves, more greenery on the trees and bushes around here. It makes me realize what is meant when I hear California has no seasons. There are trees back home that lose their leaves on the winter, but not so many, it seems!
From my window here in Montpellier I can see evergreens–pines, mostly–and many bare branches. But the un-leaved are becoming rare; most of the recently-bare branches are now sporting thin leaves of a light green. The trees behind our balcony, providing a wall of green during the summer, are still in process: the streets and red tile roofs of the adjacent neighborhood are clearly visible. But any day now those leaves will unfurl, and the sight of the neighbors will become a memory. The birds are already busy choosing their locations among the still-bare branches; they know what’s coming!
|The still-bare branches and our neighbors beyond our balcony.|
Well, we’d tell them, you’ll be spending all your time driving. That’s a lot further than you think!
We recently had similar experience ourselves.
I had just received my newly-earned French driving license when Wednesday evening French President Emmanuel Macron laid out the plan for yet another lock-down, to begin Saturday, the day before Easter. So Friday we took off in a rental car on a day trip, with our friend, fellow expat, and charming travel companion Kate. We planned a tight loop that would take in about seven promising locations and, according to my generous time table, get us back home by 4:30. Hah!
We made it to four of the seven and got back home by 6:30, beating the curfew by a bare half hour! Saw some great stuff, though.
|Tip of the island where the Sorgue splits.|
Nominally an hour away from Montpellier, it took us almost two to get to this small town, thanks to the many slow traffic lights around Avignon. But when we arrived, we were utterly charmed! It was surprisingly crowded (we’ve grown used to finding towns empty), perhaps because others, like us, were out for a final excursion before the confinement.
|Paula and Kate contemplate a main shopping street...|
|... and this cute cafe (closed, 0f course!)|
As the name suggests, the town started out on an island on the Sorgue River. While the town has far outgrown the tiny island, the watercourse provides an undeniable charm.
|This pair of ducks took time out from their river swim to join us for lunch... or at least hang out, hoping for a hand out!|
We bought sandwiches from a take-out vendor; there were convenient-looking tables just outside. I asked if we could sit there. He cited the law closing cafés all over France: "135 Euro fine!". OK, maybe not such a good idea after all. So I showed him this photo. He agreed, yup, that's the way it is...
|Sign in front of a café in pandemic France: "Coffee to go -1.50€...Coffee here - 135€"|
Anybody who has spent even a few minutes researching the lavender fields of southern France has run into the photo at the head of this blog. This iconic monastery, the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque, is—quite literally—the poster child for lavender fields.
|Our first view of the abbey from a road overlook.|
|What the abbey looked like the day we visited (compare to the photo at the top!)|
But the abbey, set in its narrow, wooded valley in an isolated rural setting, is a fabulous place to visit. The setting was chosen by the Cistercians in the 13th Century; their charter required their monasteries to be located away from towns and villages, and to be self-sufficient. The river Sénancole (the abbey’s name derives from the Latin sana aqua, pure water, a reference to the river) was somewhat stronger back then, and provided irrigation and fertile soil.
The abbey prospered for a century or so; then the discord and violence of the 15th century drove it into decline. During the Revolution of the 1790s it was sold for income (as were many other religious properties). Sold again in the mid-1800s, it once more became the seat of a religious order. After some ups and downs, the abbey returned to the Cistercians in 1988. Since then the monks have made a living cultivating lavender, as well as olives and honey, and by offering hospitality to visitors. With this income they are slowly restoring the monument. (Info from the abbey website, https://www.senanque.fr.).
|View of the abbey from the back with hikers passing by.|
We wandered around, contemplating the buildings from several directions and enjoying the outdoors. There appears to be extensive hiking trails behind the abbey, through the narrow valley of the Séancole. I saw a group of hikers emerge and would have liked to spend some time exploring, but we had a different trip in mind.
|Paula's excellent photo of the town of Gordes spilling down the hill.|
This village is the closest habitation to the Abbey of Sénanque. It’s dramatically located, spilling down the side of the hill. Sadly, we missed the viewpoint heading into the town, but Paula was quick enough to catch a snapshot.
|The main square of Gordes; looks like we're back to deserted towns!|
|Folks just hangin' around on a slow afternoon.|
|Gordes has livened up the cold stone walls with large surreal B&W images.|
The town itself was mostly deserted. We’d come to expect this by now, with government action against the pandemic keeping most shops (and all cafes and restaurants) closed. Still, after our visit to the very lively Isle-sur-la-Sorgue we were prepared to see more activity. It did occur to me though that this was the afternoon of Good Friday, and while France is expressly a secular country, it does have strong Catholic roots. And in predominantly Christian societies Good Friday afternoon (traditionally considered the time when Jesus was crucified and died) people tend to stay in.
Plus, all the cafés and restaurants were closed!
|Kate heads down to the overlook.|
|We interrupt our sightseeing at the overlook to smile for Kate's camera.|
We wandered the quiet streets a bit, found a coffee take-away place, and admired the view of the surrounding countryside before heading to our next, and last, stop.
|Buildings in the town of Roussillon, with their distinctive red-yellow tones.|
Paula and I visited this town a couple of decades ago, and I still recall the Sentier de Ocres, the Ochre Trail, winding past cliffs of yellow-brown earth. Once upon a time, a century or more ago, this powerfully-colored earth was a valuable resource. The pigments mined from the earth here were in high demand for use in dying textiles and coloring paints. But production waned, and by the 1950s chemical dyes had replaced the natural ones.
|A mostly-deserted square in Roussillon.|
|Classic shot of the Roussillon clock tower.|
|Wildflowers along a wall (thanks for the photo, Kate!)|
What’s left, though, is a beautiful, colorful village, accepted as one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France®, an official designation recognizing it as one of the Most Beautiful Villages in France. (Gordes, which we’d just left, has the same designation.)
|Roussillon side street.|
|A close look at this doorway shows the date 1698 inscribed in the lintel.|
Again, the village was deserted when we arrived, so we had the place to ourselves as we wandered among the homes and buildings displaying the astonishing variations of the yellow-orange-red ocher found in the area.
One thing we did not do was walk the Sentier de Ocres, that path through the former ocher mines just outside the village. Time, like the spring, was moving inexorably, and we had to be getting back on the road. It was a long drive back, and we had to think of the stamina of the driver (me!).
|What looks to be an old lavender still (to extract the essential oils), now an objet d'art.|
|Gotta love those warm red tones!|
|View of the ocher buildings or Roussillon; the top peaks of the Sentier de Ocres is just visible on the far left center.|
We definitely must return to Roussillon. On this, my second visit, I remembered absolutely nothing from our first visit, except for wandering the paths through the amazing ocher hills (the part we missed this time!) . I really want to walk those colorful canyons again!
|Paula and Kate work their careful way back down to the parking lot. We will definitely be back!|