Ohmygordes

Jesus, it’s been a while. This has been CRAZY. I moved across the country with the cat, and four huge dudes lugged my piano up six flights of stairs (sorry, dudes), and the cat is having the absolute worst fortnight of her existence ever, despite having gone to stay with the loveliest catsitter in existence who spent the entirety of the time combing her, giving her treats, and sending me photos to show me how she was doing. Ungrateful wretch.

Anyway, I live in Paris again, and it snowed last weekend, and I am going to take this opportunity to… write about a small, adorable village in the south of France. You’ve probably heard of this one though: this is Gordes.

Gordes, perched on the side of a hill

Gordes is in the Vaucluse, surrounded by lavender fields, smelling peacefully of grandmothers and fresh air. This is basically the tourist hotspot of the region. It’s considered one of the most beautiful villages in France, and during the lavender season, this is where you’ll find everyone else in the world.

Lavender fields

The lavender is basically the image of Provence. It’s kind of what you imagine when you think about the whole region, and between June and July it’s in full bloom and the whole road network around here becomes a slow-moving tourist destination.

Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque

The nearby abbey, the Abbate Notre-Dame de Sénanque, is both a working abbey and a boutique. They sell lavender-based products made by monks: lavender honey, and lavender hand cream, and lavender essential oils – and also pear eau-de-vie, because that’s another very symbolic local product.

The view from Gordes

Anyway, this is one of those bucket-list places – you’re supposed to go to Gordes, because it’s insanely beautiful and because the lavender fields are iconic, so you should go.

I promise to start doing some hikes near Paris soon so that I can write about those and also stay vaguely healthy instead of just staying in my apartment eating all the time (I have Uber Eats here!! I couldn’t get that before!!), but right now I am very busy unpacking and decorating and combing the cat to solace her. Maybe this weekend. Maybe.

The Abbaye St Félix de Monceau

Over here in France, we’re still in lockdown. I thought about writing a post about my immediate radius, as that is the place I see the most at the moment – although the radius has now been extended to a 20km circle, rather than the 1km we had at the beginning. But then I came across some photos of a place I’ve been to a few times, and decided to write about that instead.

The St-Félix-de-Monceau abbey

This is the St-Félix-de-Monceau abbey, sitting up on the Gardiole uplands near Gigean, in Hérault. Nobody really knows when this abbey was built – it was definitely standing in 1104, and old documents put its construction date somewhere around 1025. But it’s all pretty hazy.

View from the hike

These pictures are from the second time I did this particular hike – the first time was the day after I tried CrossFit the first time and my muscles were absolutely killing me, and I Googled what I should do to make them feel better. Most of the Google results said to take ibuprofen and a hot bath, but one search result suggested a light hike, and I was in an intensely active phase then, so I did the St-Félix hike and regretted it bitterly the day after. I couldn’t even get up from the chair without levering myself up, gingerly, with lots of complaining.

A path through the forest

That day was pretty grey. These pictures, though, are from the second time. This time was different – I was with some friends, and we were all depressed and unemployed, and none of us had really done much exercise or got any sunshine in a while. I kind of nagged everyone into coming too, and we did the hike, and felt virtuous, as though it was good for us.

A little pool

Every hike you go on carries with it a certain amount of circumstance-based nostalgia; in this case, it was supposed to be the First Hike of the Depressed Unemployed, with many more to follow, but in the end everyone’s paths diverged in different ways. You can do the same hike several times, and it can be different every time: you notice different things, the weather makes different effects, and whatever you’re going through at that particular moment plays into it as well.

View from the monastery garden

And then you have this abbey that’s been there for a thousand years, looking out towards the sea in what must be a pretty similar view to how it looked back then – it makes me think about how interesting it is to be alive, just objectively. Anyway. This is a nice hike, with beautiful views. You should probably not do it if you are suffering from DOMS.

A message left by someone

And Guillaume Reau is a pauvre type.

A rocky sea

Sauve

This is the adorable village of Sauve, in the Gard department, and near Sauve is a place called la Mer des Rochers – the sea of rocks. It’s a geological formation that is described as almost lunar; I mean, that’s a bit of a leap for mankind, but I do see where they were coming from when they wrote it.

Big rocks

It looks like this. An impressive rocky terrain, with the ruins of a castle in the middle of it, and if you do the hike in the right direction you can read the story of the sea of rocks, and what the villagers thought about it.

Part of the ruins

Obviously, obviously, we did the hike backwards. I do not remember much about the story of the sea of rocks; I remember that the villagers built things to protect them from the hydra they could hear roaring underneath the stones, and that actually the sound they could hear was the river Vidourle, which goes underneath. The hydra story is better, though. Let’s go with it.

A statue with facial paralysis

I wish I remembered the story properly. It involved the villagers protecting themselves from demons, and I think there were battles. There may have been terrible omens. I don’t remember at all any more. My memory is as ruined as that castle.

Ruins and rocks

I remember the rocks, though, and the sunshine in January, and how confused we were when we started reading the signs and found ourselves at the end of the story. I don’t remember if we were any less confused when we read it forwards. Possibly not.

French Jurassic Park

In the village of Mèze, which is somewhere between Montpellier and Béziers down near the coast, there are a few noteworthy things. The Noilly-Prat vermouth cellars, for one. The Thau lagoon, for another. And the dinosaur park.

rraarrrararararrr

When I was a little kid, I saw Jurassic Park. I actually saw it in the cinema when it came out, with my family. I was really scared, and when it got to the scene where the little boy gets electrocuted and falls off the big electric fence, I was scared enough that my mother had to take me out of the cinema, and so we sat outside in the lobby and waited for my father and sister to watch the end of the movie.

ahhhrhaahrhaghghllhharrrrrararrr

Because I didn’t see the end of the movie, I thought the little boy died. I just assumed that the dinosaurs killed everyone. I also assumed that to make the film, the people who made it had done what they described in the beginning and DNA-ed up some dinosaurs so they could film it. We went home, and in my head there was just one thought. What had they done with the dinosaurs once filming was over?

nnnnnnnnnnnnnngggggggggggghhhh

I wondered where the dinosaurs would go next, now that they were free. I lay awake in bed that night, and looked at the window, and through my window I could see the T-Rex’s eye looking in at me. He was pressed right up against our house. I ran screaming into my parents’ bedroom. The next night he was back, and I did it again, and then again the night after, and so on.

shhhhh we are silent dinosaurs

After a while it became very wearing for everybody, because nobody was getting any sleep. At that point I guess I was just exhausted enough to not care if the T-Rex ate me any more, and started falling asleep in my bed again. I would still freak out if anyone talked about dinosaurs, and occasionally I would remember the T-Rex and see his eye looking at me again, and go running in to wake my parents up.

a peeled dinosaur

All that is to say that if you asked my family, they would probably say that I am the least likely person to ever go visit a dinosaur park. But I am old now – as borne out by the fact that I saw Jurassic Park in the cinema when it came out – and I no longer fear the dinosaurs, and so I walked around the dinosaur park in Mèze with a light step and joy in my heart.

ploop ploop ploop he make egg. or possibly she. that might make more sense.

Dinosaur park review: This is an amusing place, mostly just because of the fact that it exists in the first place. You learn basic dinosaur facts, and you see real dinosaur eggs, and mostly you see the big giant dinosaur models all over the place, which is quite entertaining. There are many dinosaur eggs in Mèze, which is why they made the dinosaur park in the first place. Afterwards there is also a Prehistoric Man section, which is kind of funny because there’s a Prehistoric Recreated Hut thing with a widescreen TV in there telling you the story of Prehistoric Men, and like… I don’t even have a widescreen TV, but those prehistoric dudes were all about it, I guess. Enjoy the dinosaur park with all your heart. The makers of Jurassic Park did not actually make dinosaurs, so we are safe.

The greenest green mountains

The place I’m writing about today isn’t really a place I meant to go to. I went there a couple of years ago. I’d been sent up to Grenoble for work, and just as I got to Grenoble the person I had a meeting with cancelled. So there I was, in Grenoble for a day and a night for no reason, on my own, and it was my birthday, and I was pretty freaking annoyed.

An unexpected road trip

Grenoble is a fairly interesting place, because wherever you look, there are mountains lurking. You glance down the street and there’s a snowy Alp just casually trying to hide behind the buildings. I remember once, staying in a hotel in Grenoble, getting up in the morning and looking at the sun rising over these beautiful mountains behind the city, and thinking “This would be the most spectacular view ever, if they hadn’t gone and built Grenoble in front of it”.

An astounding view ruined by Grenoble

Anyway, though, there I was in Grenoble, on my own with no possible work to do, being grouchy about having to spend my birthday alone in a hotel room ordering UberEats, and so I decided to just go somewhere. Every time I’d driven to Grenoble I’d gone past a bunch of signs to the Vercors regional park, and that seemed as good a place to visit as any.

So green!!

I went up through a little village called Sassenage, which struck me as creepy for no good reason whatsoever, and ended up in the greenest place I have ever seen. It was comically bright green, with giant rocky spurs jutting out of the green. The sky was blue and fresh and it was really hot that day, and this greenness up in the mountains was just dazzling my eyes. After a while, I stopped being grouchy.

The greenest green place ever!

It really is a cure. Anyway, it all ended up alright: I went to a bar and drank tequila with the manager for a while, and then I got sushi. So it could have been a worse birthday.

Greeeeeeen

Provins

Okay, I need to make a confession. Although I have been a sudiste for the last six years, this time is coming to an end. Next month I’m moving back home to Paris, like a goddamn traitor. Hiking in Paris is going to be a whole thing, though. I went up there this summer to buy an apartment, and did a day trip with my friend while I was at it. This post is about an adorable village not in the south of France – I can do this!

Houses in Provins

So, this is Provins. It’s a little medieval village of half-timbered houses, and it seems like it should be closer to Rouen or to Strasbourg than to Paris. But here it is, about an hour or so south-west of Paris, being adorable out in the meadows.

Eglise Sainte-Croix de Provins – this photo looks like a painting kinda

It’s funny, because with this particular friend, we have never done anything like hiking or visiting a village or even stepping outside of the périphérique before. We’ve been friends for almost twenty years (God! That’s terrifying) and 100% of that has been inside Paris, just going to bars or hanging out at apartments, or just random Parisian silliness. I only started really appreciating the outdoors once I moved to the south, and for him, it was when he learned how to drive and got a car and came to the realisation that life outside of Paris was actually a real thing.

City walls of Provins

So this is the first time in all these years that we’ve ever done anything like this, involving getting out, and walking, and being outdoors for longer than it took us to do the Marais -Grands Boulevards trek at 5am. We visited the flower garden in Provins, which is apparently famous for its roses – see! I know nothing! – and then wandered around the village and ate chips.

How adorable is Provins?

Provins is, of course, filled with weekending Parisians, wandering around the village eating chips. It’s one of those adorable villages with a little tourist train that drives around it – speaking of, did you hear about the time that some drunk dude tried to steal the tourist train in Nice? Sorry, but that is the most hilarious crime – and medieval fayres etc. It’s designed to please tourists, and please us it did.

I took this epic photo of my friend and I think this should be his album cover

I’ve been kind of reticent about moving back to Paris, in part because I was like “but nature! I need nature now! Paris is so cold and grey and I will just be indoors all the time” – which, in fairness, is still a worry. But confinement kind of kicked me into action – it felt like I’d been putting it off and waiting for no reason.

This “brasserie” sign is really cool

So I’m going back to Paris. Now I get to discover that whole region, because even though I know Paris itself pretty much by heart and blindfolded, I was one of those people who consider anything outside of 75 a barren wilderness. Turns out Paris is surrounded by forests, and by old castles, and by little villages like Provins. See, and I just thought there was St Denis. (I’m sure St Denis has its hidden gems. I will probably not be exploring it any time soon.)

The Tour César, a 12th century octagonal dungeon, with rockets?

I do feel kind of like a traitor to the south, but I’m still going to come and visit. I have friends that I love here, and if this year has taught me anything, it’s to make the most of the time you have with your friends. 2020: serving up parables right and left. Also I still have about a trillion places I’ve visited to write about, and now I get to find out about the top end of France too. I’m pretty good at Occitanie and PACA, and to a lesser extent Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes – but I have no idea at all about anything to do with the Loire, and Bourgogne-Franche-Comté and the Grand Est just sound blank in my brain. It’s about time to fix that.

I’m honestly way too excited about this.

Confinement is boring; the word “tetines” is hilarious

We’ve been confined for just over a week now, and I’m starting to get that weird sluggish feeling that comes with lockdown. That feeling where you think, “Should I even bother putting on clothes today if all I’m going to do is hang out in my house? Isn’t it a waste of clean clothes, when I could just stay cosy in pyjamas?” and where everything gets sort of grey and soft around the edges, and time starts behaving differently. On the upside, this year has been absolutely great for my cat. She loves all the extra attention.

In the old days, Before Covid, I went on a hike with a bunch of lesbians, to a place called les Tétines de Vernon, in Ardèche, a little to the west of Montélimar. We went mostly to see the tétines – haha! little boobies! – but it ended up being a pretty nice walk just generally. To get this over with and sate your curiosity, here are the little boobies:

Haha! tétines!

So… yeah, somebody’s imagination was very lurid. It’s a bit of a stretch, but I suppose if you really needed to, you could picture them as little pokey nipples or something. I feel like the person who named them would have seen all kindsa shit in a Rorschach test.

Such a great sky that day! I miss the sky!

After the little boobies, we were supposed to see a waterfall, falling into an underground cave. We were again disappointed.

No waterfall, but this is where it was supposed to be

The waterfall only happens at certain times of year, and with certain amounts of rainfall. We saw this little pond though, with a snake in the bottom. That was kind of cool.

The hike, afterwards, goes up and around, through farmland and through little wooded parts, and through a lot of blackberry bushes. We went at the exact time of year for this, and honestly I spent most of the rest of the hike eating things I was picking off plants.

Berries! i did not eat these
Apples! no comment
Vines! obviously you never touch grapes, ever, ever, so I did not eat anything here either. It was mostly just blackberries tbh

It’s so wonderful when your hike feeds you. I do know some people who go hiking and come back with bags full of wild herbs and mushrooms and nuts: I am not one of them, as I can’t really tell plants apart, and I would confidently expect to poison myself and die if I tried that. But blackberries and apples are fairly easily recognisable. The hike took us to this pretty view:

French farmland and vineyards

And also to these goats, who weren’t entirely against interacting with us, but who made it clear that they did have better things to do.

Goat: Yes? Can I help you with something?

The countryside in this area of the south of France is pretty distinctive. I think, if you were just randomly set down here, you’d be able to figure out where you were. Vineyards? Check. Garrigues? Check. Random crosses all over the place? Check. Blue skies and sweeping views? Check. Adorable little villages perched on the sides of hills?

So pretty! This is Vernon.

Check.

There’s something so familiar and unchanging about it. This is the way it’s looked, pretty much, for centuries. I have this urge towards hurrying – I always want to do everything now, right now, let’s go! We only live once and I’m getting older by the second and I don’t have time to see everything, so I need to spend every waking moment travelling around and visiting places and learning things and, and, and… Confinement really sets the brakes on me. It’s reassuring to think that these things are so solid. A few weeks or months of confinement mean nothing – it’s all going to be there when we get out.

In the meantime, I did try meditation, but it didn’t really work for me. So instead, I just hurry myself about things I can do indoors – like doing online courses, and freelancing, and watching all of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, and reading all the books, and intently following the US election (congratulations on the fall of the regime, you guys!).

I do miss outside, though.

Last weekend of freedom

Well, we got re-confined! Back to lockdown means no walkies for the present. I was originally going to write about some places I visited a while back, but instead I’m going to write about the place we went to last weekend, right before the lockdown came in on Thursday night.

Glorious autumn in St Chaptes

We weren’t really in the mood to do an epic hike, so we chose this little walk of just about 4.5km. It’s one of the easiest “hikes” we’ve ever done – just a loop around the fields and through the village, completely flat, very pleasant. It starts and ends in the village of St Chaptes, not far from Nîmes, and the hike’s goal is to visit some sculpted rocks out in the fields.

Sculpted rocks

I think I was expecting some sort of ancient sculptures, but these sculpted rocks are very modern. I curiously Googled afterwards, and found out that the artist is a man named Jean-Marc Pagès, who lives in the village.

The master of the worlds will erase those who destroy the Earth

Jean-Marc Pagès, also known as Marcus, seems to be an interesting person. Coming back to the village, we found what could only have been his studio.

Statues outside the workshop

His family has lived in St Chaptes for many generations. This is a tiny village – fewer than 2000 residents – and it’s covered in Marcus’s sculptures, full of sexual and religious imagery, with Greek and Roman and Egyptian themes. There are two churches, a Spar, a pétanque club, and what appears to be a closed-down sex club.

L’Escapade! It’s for sale, if you want a new project. A couple of holes to patch up and it’s all good.

Aside from the pétanque club, the other main attraction of St Chaptes seems to be an annual gathering of witches, which is held on the 1st November every year, but sadly cancelled this year due to Covid. According to the site, normally there’s a witch market, music and dancing, and pagan performances for all the family to enjoy. I am incredibly disappointed that it is cancelled this year, because it sounds pretty epic.

The entrance to the artist’s workshop

So it’s an interesting place. After we were done admiring St Chaptes and the art, we stopped off by the river to take a look at the intensely red ivy dripping from all the autumn trees.

These leaves were actual lipstick-red

These trees are just next to the river Gardon, where a tiny, furious waterfall rushes under a bridge.

Confinement is difficult, because you miss all of these things so much. People, and places, and the world outside – everything vanishes away, including a sense of time, and the feeling that things outside the box of your immediate surroundings are entirely relevant or real. But this is the way things are, and in the meantime, you can always make plans for when you get out. Maybe I should start a baking blog.

Olargues

Houses in Olargues

I’ve been writing about actual hikes lately, and it feels kind of weird. As though I’m actually, you know, sticking to the subject of my blog. It seems wrong. So here is the next adorable village in my Collection of Adorable French Villages: welcome to Olargues.

A street in Olargues

Olargues is up in the Haut-Languedoc regional park, about an hour’s drive from Béziers, if you’re for some reason in Béziers. Don’t go to Béziers. I mean, I guess the castle is pretty, and the bridge too, but just don’t go to Béziers. Anyway – this is supposed to be about Olargues, not Béziers. DO go to Olargues! It is a tiny little village up in the gorges – I guess they must be the Héric gorges. It’s slopy and crumbly and full of little tunnels and pathways.

Coming out of a little tunnel

Olargues has a Devil’s Bridge, built in the 12th century, so that the people from Olargues could make deals with the devil. Don’t ask me, I’m just reporting here. Ask the Olargues people. It also has a belltower, right at the top, which dongs loudly every hour and is surprising if you weren’t expecting that to happen while you were standing right. next. to. it.

Olargues belltower

You can maybe squeeze an hour or so of wandering around Olargues, and then there are the nearby gorges to explore, and a trillion beautiful hikes around the rivers and mountains. Or you can just get a picnic and eat it, looking down over the river, and baking in the sunshine. Things don’t move fast here; you can chill out as long as you want.

View from the belltower, that’s the Devil’s Bridge if you’re looking to make a pact or sell your soul or something

Afterwards, you can visit some of the other places nearby. Lamalou-les-Bains maybe, or go see some of the zillions of wine cellars nearby – Faugères, or St-Chinian, or any of the others. There are so many. We actually visited the Fontcaude abbey on our way out of Olargues, which was pretty nice but I wouldn’t recommend going there as a trip on its own or anything. If you’re passing by, though, you might as well drop in. Don’t go to Béziers though.

The Verdon Gorges

oh my god

This place has been on my bucket list ever since I first saw a photo of its implausibly turquoise water and staggeringly beautiful rocky cliffs. The problem with the gorges du Verdon is that they are a pretty far drive not only from where I live, but from any of the places I might reasonably be expected to go. It would be a good few hours in the car, and everyone I invited said they wanted to go, but not this weekend. Not next weekend either. We should do it when we have a lot of free time! We should rent an AirBnB, and actually spend a few days out there, and go kayaking! We should definitely do that. Some time. Not right now, though.

The Ste-Croix lake

So I put it off. Until last weekend, when I just couldn’t deal any more. On Thursday night, I saw my friend Tim for dinner, in the last few days before the curfew kicked in. I said I was going to the Verdon gorges on Saturday, showed him a photo, and he said “That sounds awesome. Pick me up?”

Les gorges du Verdon

Unfortunately my brain decided to give me insomnia on Friday night, so I grumpily messaged him at 7h30 in the morning to say I hadn’t slept yet, so we couldn’t go. He was cheerful and said, “Another time!” But the next night I slept! and messaged him at 8am to see what he was doing, which turned out to be watching car racing, and to see if he happened to want to go to the gorges now, immediately, this minute. Which he did!

This photo does not bring out the colour of the water which is a MIRACLE

So we drove up, and went in loops near Aix-en-Provence and then went through Valensole, with all the legendary lavender fields lying there neatly with the little round lavender bushes sleeping dormant in rows, waiting for next season. A nice thing about all the fields being lavender, rather than having horses and sheep and cows etc, is that there aren’t a lot of fences. Then we started going up. We set the GPS to Moustiers-Sainte-Marie as a guideline, and then just followed the signs that said “Gorges du Verdon” to see where the car could take us.

oh my gosh

It took us to some miraculous views, anyway. You drive up a windy mountain road – the day we went happened to be the day that every single biker gang in France also decided to visit the gorges du Verdon, which was an interesting experience; hundreds and hundreds of motorbikes all day – and there are tons of places to pull over and get out of the car and look at the view. There’s a little waterfall running down the cliff by the road at one point. None of these pictures do it justice in the slightest – the water is as turquoise as in all those super-filtered-looking photos you see when you Google “gorges du Verdon”.

After driving on that road for a while, we visited Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, which is a beautiful ancient village built over a waterfall. Then we drove to Quinson and walked along the edge of the river, on a little path that goes upwards and downwards and actually almost touches the water at one point, which of course meant that Tim had to try swimming in the river, even though it was the middle of October, shady, and about zero degrees. He survived.

the sun hits a mountain

Anyway, this is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen in my life. I am so happy I got to see it, and I am so happy that I have weird friends who are okay with me dragging them along even when it’s too early to be alive on a Sunday. If you get the opportunity to go here, go! and if you don’t, make the opportunity! Also, get a better camera, don’t just use your phone like I did.

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