Provence

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It really didn’t even feel possible that after all the vacation time we have had this year since moving to France (and entering the French school system), that May would bring even more days off from school/work.

For a traditionally Catholic country that really has become quite secular, there is still a firm respect for and recognition of religious holidays. If these days fall on a Tuesday or Thursday, then typically the Monday or Friday will be called “pont” (bridge) days which result in a 4-day weekend. As the holidays fell this year, the boys had Tuesday, Thursday and Friday off the 2nd week in May and since Wednesdays are half days and Michelin was closed those days, we left Tuesday am for Provence.

It was an easy 4 hours drive to Valliguières, a teeny tiny village in the Languedoc region of Provence, east of Montpellier that was close to several towns we had hoped to visit. Unfortunately, Tuesday was a holiday, so when we arrived to our air B&B, we were unable to find any grocery stores that were open.

As I unpacked and got us settled in, Chuck went out to find food and I sent the boys out to explore our new village for the next few days, you know, scope things out a bit, find the bakery, etc…

 

 

 

 

After just 5 minutes of “exploring”, they were back, standing at the back door. Wells said “I had to come home. There were 5 bugs, 2 dogs, 7 cats and I was hot”.

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Operation “character building” still in progress…. Wells HATES bugs!

So they dropped him off and back out they went. Wells is really not into bugs these days.

We were staying in an old house we had found on Air B&B that had been restored by a young couple living in Paris.  It felt so Provençal with the white stucco, pale stone walls and wooden beams on the ceilings- it was so charming!

 

The view from the upstairs bedroom was beautiful. Stepping outside, you could hear the church bells and roosters crowing off in the distance!

 

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The village itself was so small there was literally one little bakery, a fountain and a church.

The cats! As we drove in, we noticed several different cats, but as the day went on, we noticed they were everywhere! Up on a roof, in a window across the way, sitting up on the stone wall outside our house, it was hilarious! All different colors. It felt like they were watching us.  I’m pretty sure by the end of the week, we had counted 10 different ones just near our house.

 

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Chuck went out and scrounged up some food for dinner at the only store he could find that was open- a tiny convenience/produce market. There wasn’t much, but he was able to find the basics- bread, fruit, milk. Luckily we had brought a bunch of meat/cheese and a few other things for charcuterie that night. And wine! Thank goodness we had brought wine!

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As I had mentioned in the Portugal post, we have really missed sitting outside in the evenings so we were so thankful to have this cute little enclosed patio next to the pool with a big table for meals.

Wednesday morning, we woke up and drove to Uzés, a 20-minute drive from where we were staying. With water springs nearby, Uzés is one of the towns we would visit that played an integral role to the giant aqueduct built by the Romans in the 1st century to supply water to other nearby, bigger cities like Nîmes (more on this later).

 

 

 

WHAT an absolutely charming shady, quaint little town! There were so many cute cafes and shops throughout selling linen, lavender, soaps, spices, olives/garlic, and all kinds of other regional things!

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We ate lunch at a cafe- Le Comptoir Agriculture- and I believe this is where the boys discovered a “diabolo”. Similar to a water with flavored sirop, but with sprite instead (which they call Limonade). Why stop at sparkling water and flavored syrup when you can do sprite with syrup? More sugar! Yay! Anyhow, it’s their new thing. They saw it on the menu, someone-dared-someone to order a drink called a “diabolo” and that was it.

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Our time in Uzès was spent exploring shops and the different squares, etc. Though there is a beautiful castle and cathedral in this very old medieval town, we chose to spend our time treasure hunting instead. One cool thing is that the current owner of the castle is the 17th Duke of Uzés, and though he actually lives in Paris now, he visits this home monthly and the family flag is flown when he is in residence.

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I loved looking at the different big wooden doors along different little streets.

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Behind the church, there was an amazing view overlooking the countryside…

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On our way home- we stopped at the Haribo Museum. Before we moved to France, I’m not sure any of us were familiar with Haribo. Maybe we remembered a gold bag of gummy bears from Walgreen’s, but that was it. When I say that Haribo candy is big over here in France; it’s an understatement. It is HUGE.

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What started as a licorice and mint manufacturing company in like the 1920s or something (let’s face it, not many people visit the museum for the history); they make all kinds of gummy and licorice that is hugely popular here in Europe- especially in France, Germany, Belgium and the UK. And our kids go nuts over it. Add in some lack of routine dental cleaning and I”m sure we are in for it when we get home… 🙂

Anyhow, as we walked into the museum, we saw loads of people carrying out boxes and boxes and bags full of easily a 100 Euros+ worth of candy. It was INSANE!

The museum was ok interesting- and they give you candy to eat as you walk through and tour!

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but lets be real; it was nothing compared to the excitement of shopping in the shop at the end- every single type of Haribo candy in one store!

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this coat is covered in gummy cola bottles

 

The boys were given tokens to put in machines at the end that would fill and seal small bags of candy (more candy!) for them to take home. We had hoped that we would be able to see some of the candy actually being made (the museum was actually a production site also) but this was not open to the public 😦

On the way home, we stopped at seriously the biggest grocery I’ve been to in my life to get some groceries for the house. We were so excited to have a grill again, but this time, it worked! The sunset over the stone walls was absolutely gorgeous!

 

Thursday morning, it was a little overcast, so C and I headed out for a short hike- the village we were staying in was a popular starting point for several hiking trails- so we went out to explore. The trail we followed took us up through the village, into the Castle at the top of the hill, which has been converted into a complex of townhouses/condos and out into the countryside through lots of vineyards.

 

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That day, we drove 25 min to Nîmes, (the “French Rome”); home to lots of Roman ruins still standing today, most notably, the Arena, a large Roman amphitheater that is still used for bull fighting today!

Nîmes is so old. It became a colony around 30 BC and played a major role in water transport with an aqueduct built there to bring water from the hills to the north. One of the the most famous and notable parts of the aquaduct was the Pont du Gard, an incredibly spectacular bridge which we visited later on in our trip.

The day that we visited Nîmes, it was another French holiday, which means that most all of the stores were closed. There were some restaurants open however, so we found an Italian restaurant in the center of town and then we went to the Arena.

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What an incredible structure! It is so hard to believe that it was built in 70 AD and still in such good condition.

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On our way back to the car, we walked past the remnants of this old Roman bridge, the Ponte Auguste, a major piece of the city walls which Augustus helped construct in 15 BC! The 2 interior arches were higher to allow vehicles to enter (what kind of vehicles did they have in 15 BC?!?) and the 2 smaller entrances on the sides were for people entering on foot.

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It is unbelievable to walk past these type of structures that still sit on what is now a busy street with restaurants, grocery stores, etc.

The weather this week in Provence couldn’t have been more perfect. With temps in the low 70s, we were so happy to be able to finally put our coats away! The boys were so excited to swim in our pool, though we had our doubts about how long they would last in the water.

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There was a perfect 30 minutes where the sun was shining right on the water, but for the most part, the afternoon sun was blocked and the water was FREEZING. Shockingly, Wells was the first one in, Owen next, but poor Charlie that first day was freezing.

The next day we drove to Avignon, a little further away; maybe 30 minutes.

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We arrived around lunch time and after a quick stop into a chocolatier on our walk into the city, we found a cafe in the center square where we could sit out and have lunch. Like Uzés, Avignon’s town center was quite shady!

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Again, we didn’t explore much of Avignon’s history that day other than what we saw walking around. There is a big clock tower in the center of the square and not too far away was the giant Palace de Papes, a giant medieval fortress/palace that was home to several popes and as such, the center of the Roman Catholic Church in the 1300s. It is one of the biggest medieval Gothic buildings in Europe (wikipedia)!

 

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After lunch we headed over to Les Halles (the big produce market) but, unfortunately, it was closing time as soon as we arrived. So, next time. But in the mean time, we admired the outside- an entire wall of lush greenery. It’s hard to see it well in these pics.

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Avignon had a little bigger city feel to it, but there were still some quaint little streets and squares.

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As we were walking along, we came up upon this store selling vintage sports paraphernalia and were shocked to see this hanging out front..

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Owen was super proud to see his team’s name hanging out front! We found out later from another ex-pat that had visited Avignon a few years ago that the exact same jacket was hanging there when they visited! With a dozen or two Greenvillians living in Clermont at any given time (thanks to Michelin!), it still seemed very coincidental to see Clemson gear deep in the heart of Provence…

And, since no warm spring afternoon on vacation is complete without ice cream….

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The boys were anxious to get back into the pool, so we headed back early.

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That evening, Wells and I made dessert. On this last day of school before vacation, he was given a homework assignment to read and make the recipe for the chocolate tart that was in his French workbook….

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The finished product was delicious! And the recipe was so simple. That’s one thing I love here- the ingredients are so fresh, it only takes a few ingredients to make something so wonderful.

On Saturday morning, our last day in Provence, we got up and headed out early to visit the Pont du Gard, a giant bridge built by the Romans somewhere between ?40-60 AD as part of the aqueduct built to supply water to Nîmes. (An aqueduct is a pipeline system built to allow for the flow of water from one place to another). The Pont du Gard was a bridge that encased part of the aqueduct to allow the water to cross the Gardon River.

Before visiting the actual bridge itself, there is a welcome center which is home to a museum offering more about the history behind the bridge’s construction. We were the first ones into the museum and we had the whole thing to ourselves!

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It was dark and cool inside the museum with sounds and images of flowing water along with Roman fountains…

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And a display about the first “toilets” used by the Romans…

 

There were so many factors the Romans had to take into consideration when building the aquaduct- the entire museum was full of displays to create an image of how long and hard the Romans had to work to build such an incredible, purposeful structure! Despite the continuous labor-intensive work of diggers, blacksmiths, stone cutters, carpenters, lumbermen, quarrymen, it is estimated to have taken 15 years to build!

When considering location, they had to select the water source (Uzés) and then build to take advantage of the contour of the land to help the water to flow to its ultimate destination- Nîmes.

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The Pont du Gard is the highest in elevation of all Roman aqueducts and the most well preserved. As of 1985, it was placed on the UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites (a list of historical landmarks recognized by the UN and legally protected).

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What a magnificent structure! We couldn’t get over how fully intact this bridge was! It was fun to walk across and overlook the river below. In warmer months, people swim, kayak and picnic on the shore.

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View from the bridge

Afterwards, we debated about how to spend the last day. But since we loved Uzés so much, we went back. They have an incredible Saturday market that we’d read about and had hoped to visit.

The traffic driving in was terrible, so Charlie and I hopped out and walked to the market while Chuck and the other 2 drove around looking for parking. C and I walked around admiring all the amazing looking food and handmade things, like pottery, paintings, baskets, and other unique things.

 

We found a straw basket big enough to hold all of our other items we would buy (sausage, cheese, lavender hand soap); but the one thing we had been searching for for several months was a nice wooden board for charcuterie.

Charcuterie is such a huge part of French cuisine. Often referred to as “planches”, it’s a great option when you want to try a bunch of different things all at once.

 

There is nothing better than a wooden board full of all different kinds of cheese, meats, mustards, olives, honey, vegetables, dried fruits, bread etc. But we needed a big one and hadn’t been able to find one we liked.

In Uzés, we found a shop selling beautiful wooden boards cut from local olive trees and it took us awhile, but we finally found the perfect one. It was similar to the one below.

 

Because Uzés is pretty small, it didn’t take us long to revisit the places we’d seen previously and since the market closed at lunchtime, we sat and had a long leisurely last meal before heading back to our village and getting ready to leave the next day.

Though we feel incredibly spoiled to be surrounded by our pick of French cuisine day in and day out, a meal of tempura oysters and Vietnamese chicken salad was such a nice change for us 🙂

 

Though one thing we do miss terribly (especially the boys and I) is having a well cooked steak……

With the next morning came the end of our visit… and the end of the perfect weather! Aside from the downpour we drove through on our way back to Clermont, we also ran into the worst traffic we’ve encountered since moving to France! What should have taken 4 1/2 hours took us 7! But we were due. The traffic gods have definitely been on our side this year! These are the drives that make home really feel like home when you finally get there…. (at least our home for now)……

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