Tuesday, May 14, 2013

White Rocks / Dark Ages

We were underground in limestone caverns two days ago, on a boat yesterday looking at deeply carved limestone inlets, and today we were standing on limestone towers, the Alpilles of Provence. The town and former castle/fort of Les Baux de Provence are built up the sides and top of one of the rocky ridges overlooking the valley to the south. Water must have been a problem, though they had rain gutters carved into the walkways leading to catchments, and we read that during one siege at least it took less than a month before the besieged ran out of food and water. But since before the 10th century people have been building and living there, for the view if nothing else.

There is an old ruined castle and its associated fortress walls at the top, and below are the remnants of the old village and the renovated buildings of the new one. It's an expensive place to live, at least judging from the advertisements at local real estate agencies. The shops inside the old city walls cater to the tourists, but it looked like there were apartments above the storefronts, so some of the people who work there may live there, too. There are lot of "historical reenactments" scheduled throughout the day, with swordfights and crossbow shooting, and there are ponies draped in vaguely medievalish barding that are there for rides in a circle, and there seemed to be some sort of activity area for kids because there was a lot of noise and cheering coming from that enclosed section. At least one school group was there, and tourists from all over, judging by the various languages I heard coming from the miniature speakers of the handheld audio guides people were holding to their ears.

There is a church there, and a chapel, and the bells rang out three times while we were wandering around, and we could have spent even more time exploring the ruins and the streets. There is a chapel that has been reconstructed recently, and an old graveyard where some of the plots are up for sale - just speak to the local mayor for details. You might not be able to afford a home there, but it's possible that a permanent resting place might be within the budget. Permanent, at least until the lease is up, and the plot is sold to the next family.

One of the ponies from the kid's ride corral wandered through the outer ramparts, past the trebuchets and other war machines on display - apparently they give demonstrations of rock-flinging, but we missed that. We walked past the siege engines and the ruins of a windmill and peered over the edges of the cliffs down the valleys filled with vineyards and olive groves, before going back up to climb the heights of the fortress walls.

It was a glorious day, not too hot, though the sun was made even brighter as it bounced off the white walls. The informational signs (and John's audio guide) gave us details about the lives of the people living in the castle and along the castle walls, pointing out the old watchtowers, the kitchen area, the dark rooms dug into the rock where the servants lived, and the high-ceilinged areas now missing their ceilings where the lords and ladies ate and slept. So many years have gone by, and so many feet have walked those narrow paths, that the stone of the steps is cratered into dangerous configurations. The tourist office recommends that you do not wear anything other than very sensible shoes, and we were a bit concerned about a woman in high wedge-heeled sandals as she teetered her way back down to the lower levels.

Limestone is prone to haloclasty, which is a type of honeycombed weathering created by the expansion of salt crystals in the rock. The outsides of the old towers, the ones most exposed to the weather and the winds coming from the sea, really showed that pattern. The insides were smooth and streaked with black, perhaps from centuries of cooking fires. While Mom and John climbed up to the very highest ramparts, I sat and watched the clouds go by, thinking about the passage of time.

Inside the castle rooms, you could still see old archways and the traces of once-graceful spaces. Banquets were held there, with dishes spiced with flavors from the Middle East and the Orient, and wine and olives from the fertile plains below.

A windmill ground the wheat or barley for the bread, but it must have been the work of hundreds of serfs and their patient ponies, bringing the loads of grain up from the valley floor. It must have been nice to be the local king, to stand with goblet in hand, listening to the chime of the chapel bells and watching the lines of supplies wind their way up the switchback paths to the castle walls.

We went down into the valley then, and to some of the vineyards in the area. We visited Las Mas De La Dame and tasted their wines, white and rosé and red and sparkling, and the tapenades that are made with the olives they grow. We bought a bottle each of the rosé and the white, and a bottle of the Cuvée Gourmande Red 2011 that John liked, and a small jar of green Picholine olive tapenade with ground almonds and capers.

We had lunch on the main plaza in Mausanne-les-Alpilles, the next small town over from Le Paradou, where we're staying. It's in walking distance, actually, if you want to walk for a while, but the borders of the towns meet, and the red-slashed sign showing that you're leaving one is immediately followed by the sign indicating you're entering the next. While we were walking around that town, we saw a greengrocers that looked good, with purple artichokes and green asparagus in a wooden bin beside the front door. We bought the artichokes, and some fresh shelling peas and a basket of fragrant strawberries. And a small round Rocamadour goat cheese, because Mom wanted to try one, and we didn't buy one when we were actually at Rocamadour the other day.

We stopped by another vineyard, the Mas Sainte Berthe, for another quick dégustation and another purchase, of their rosé and a deep dark red that John really liked; we're set for wine for a bit, or at least enough to last until we head up to the Champagne region and plunge headlong into another week of amazing food and drink. Mom and I walked up to the butcher's shop around the corner after we got back to the gîte and bought sausages made from the bulls bred in the marshes of the Camargue (maybe we'll see some on the hoof tomorrow!), and of pork with local green olives, and something called a crepinette, made of ground pork and pork liver mixed with spinach, wrapped in caul fat and cooked, then chilled in aspic. We'll have that sliced cold on salad, with the hot sausages and the artichokes and the green tender peas, with red wine and rosé wine and with amaretti and strawberries for dessert. Really, life is quite good.

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