Friday, May 17, 2013

The City of Stone and Water

For four centuries, Beaucaire was the site of one of the largest markets in the Mediterranean region. One of the information plaques on the castle grounds said that at the height of trading over 50 thousand gold francs (no idea of current exchange rates, but probably an astronomical amount for that time) were in circulation in the market stalls on either side of the Rhône. We spent some money in town for lunch, at a quai-side place called Restaurant Le Soleil, at 30 Quay General Gaulle. It was too damp to sit outside, and rather cold, so we went inside to a very warm welcome. The waiters were friendly and helpful, and happy to accommodate allergy issues, and the food was very good and very very reasonably priced. I would definitely go there again, especially for the seafood.

Mom and I had the starter of steamed sea snails and shrimp with a garlic aioli (I had Mom's share of that) and John had slices of a local cured meat, the Rosette de Lyon. The snails looked a bit too much like slugs for Mom's taste, but she did bravely eat two of the smaller ones, and then I moved most of my shrimp to her plate and took her snails. The shrimp were excellent, and I did like the snails. There was garlic in most of the main dishes, but the kitchen did a nice poached fish for Mom with steamed green beans, and John and I had grilled beef, which may have come from one of the unlucky bulls of the Camargue. Wine was included in the price, and Mom and I split a carafe of a decent local rosé. Unfortunately my last shrimp, upon being decapitated, squirted its brains all over Mom's shirt and into her wineglass, so I traded my glass for hers. I didn't finish the wine, as the shrimp-brain overtones were just a bit too much.

However, a sign on the wall had caught my eye, and I ordered a digestif of an interesting herbal liqueur made by Jean-Claude Blachère called "The Liquor of the Guardians" (referring to the horsemen who manage the herds in the Camargue). It's made of thyme and rosemary and jasmine and lavender, and is sweet and spicy, but not too sweet. It got better as the glass warmed up. I was hoping to find a bottle to take back to Tours, but may have to go to the source and order it on line. The friendly waiter brought out all sorts of bottles of other liqueurs made by that company, including an eau-de-vie with gold flakes in it. If we hadn't had to leave, we might have tried more of them ... another reason to come back to Provence! There are so many, and I will use any or all of them as an excuse to return.

We walked randomly yet purposefully up the streets to the top of the hill where the old castle and fort look out over the surrounding valleys, and the paper mill on the border of the river that, um, perfumes the air of the village. There were many women wearing headscarves here as well, and men in long coats that buttoned up the front. But the streets were pretty empty and we could wander where we wanted to without jostling anyone else. A quiet town, especially compared to the tourist-filled places we've been seeing, with stone arches connecting the streets, and plane trees shading the open plazas.

They're in the middle of renovating the castle (a process that has been going on for a hundred years or more) and it will have a sound and light show soon, and new walking paths, and a bridge over some of the ruined bits, and people in period clothes doing demonstrations and leading tours. According to the informational sign in front of the locked barbed-wire topped fence, anyway. We were just glad to be there at the top of the hill in the sunshine surrounded by the piled and fallen stones.

We're leaving Provence tomorrow morning, after having seen only a fraction of what's here. We could probably have spent the entire week in a 5-kilometer radius, exploring small towns and hidden wineries, following the sheep-carved trails up the rocky hillsides, painting the poppies and irises that charm artists past and present, and eating such good food. And we could go back to the blue of the Mediterranean, or comb the white hills in the Digne area for fossil ammonites, or search out the red cliffs of the ochre mines around Roussillon. La France tricolore, c'est bien ici en Provence.

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