One of France’s most beautiful villages
France . . . Provence . . . I’m sure that conjures up all kinds of images of Côte du Rhône wine, Avignon, Nice, beaches on the Côte D’Azur, and others. No . . . we’re going to stop just short of that tourist paradise. Provence is such a rich area of history, art, architecture, and natural beauty, you don’t have to go any further south and waste all your dollars in those expensive tourist traps.
Provence has so much to offer: The ‘Cowboys of the Camargue’; the Pont du Gard, the amazing aqua-duct – three levels of a stone structure about 50 metres (160 feet) high and 275 metres long to carry water over 50 km, built by the Romans without any mortar. The Roman Arena in Arles; the Roman cargo vessel raised from the depths of the Rhône River; or have a drink or something to eat at Vincent Van Gogh’s starry night cafe; fields of lavender; perfume factories and so on. But just go a little further, down in the southeast corner of France, at the western entrance to the Verdon Gorge (Gorge du Verdon) and you discover the village of Moustiers Sainte Marie.
As we drove further east past miles of lavender fields, we could see the village of Moustiers Sainte Marie nestled on a shelf beneath some huge cliffs, towering over the village, appearing as either a guardian or a protector. The road continued to rise as we approached closer, eventually arriving at our little Chambre d’Hôte (B&B), the Hotel la Clos des Iris, at the lower outskirts of the town. Just a small village, just over 700 people, dating back to the fifth century, when monks founded a monastery there, expanding into the 12th and 13th century, until plague and wars from the Counts of Provence ravaged the population in the 14th century. Because of its location in the mountains, and a spring that flowed out of the mountain, the use of hydraulic-based industries in the 16th century expanded the development with paper factories, tanneries, pottery workshops and mills. Eventually, this developed into the production of special porcelain which became famous as the Faienceries de Mousterie de Saint Marie. This production boom ended in 1875, but was revived again in 1925, when a man called Marcel Provence revived the ceramic and porcelain industry by convincing about twenty kilns to relight their trade to the delight of the locals and tourists alike.
The village is situated on platform terraces a hundred or so metres up the side of the mountains, built with enough steep streets that I probably couldn’t manage them today. Other than the faience porcelain, the most famous thing about this village is a huge star, a 1.25 metre (just over 4 feet) gilded gold star, suspended on a chain between the two huge cliffs. The chain runs from one mountain peak to another, 225 (over 700 feet) long. Legend says that during the Crusades, the knight Bozon de Blacas was held prisoner by the Saracens, and while in captivity, he vowed that if he was able to return, he would hang a star over the village in honour of St. Mary. No one knows how he hung the first one, but it has been replaced several times over the years.
Once we managed to climb up the hill each day (a killer!), the village was a quiet, pleasant place with an abundance of restaurants, bars and tourist gift shops. As we enjoyed a drink one day at the Belvedere bar, we found the waiter in the bar was from Whistler, back in BC, and he worked there in the summer. – small world!
Each time we paused to enjoy the ambiance, we were surrounded by the constant buzz of the cicadas. Sometimes it became so loud, you could hardly hear anything else. The cicadas (Cigale) were a big thing in this village, and rather than get angry with them, they turned them into another tourist attraction! Every tourist gift shop, hotel, restaurant or bar had racks of the usual postcards, kid’s toys, fridge magnets and other items, all with a cicada design built into them. Even the beautiful Provence fabrics, tablecloths, and other souvenirs were stylized cicada prints.
As it happened (believe me, it was planned precisely!) the day we arrived in Moustier Sainte Marie, was our 50th wedding anniversary for Diana and I. So, of course, we had to have an anniversary dinner at a nice restaurant. We picked the Relais Hotel and Restaurant for this occasion, which had a some excellent selections on the menu.
I won’t go into detail about the food, which was wonderful, topped off with a Côte du Rhône wine, a Chateau Mont Edon 2012, Chateau Neuf du Pape. It wasn’t as good as I thought it should be, French wines don’t excite me too much, especially when they cost about four or five times as much and don’t taste as good as a lovely Australian or Spanish Shiraz we get at home.
Just a quick note on wines . . . we also took a ‘wine tour’ while in Provence, at a noted Chateau Neuf du Pape wine location, which included lectures on varieties, ‘terroir’, tours of wineries, finishing with a lovely meal at a gorgeous restaurant with all of the appropriate wine pairings, etc.. Again, I was not impressed, but then again, I guess I’m not a ‘wine snob’ . . . I just know what I like or don’t like! I think the difference is the French are so concerned with ‘terroir’, and not only which family, which winery, but which side of the hill the grapes were harvested from. I start by asking what is the variety? Everyone has their preferences.
I guess what I am saying is: When you plan to travel to some location, do your research, find out what’s there, not just the obvious tourist choices that are advertised so much, read up on the history and other traveler’s opinions and comments. But . . . the most important thing to remember . . . get out and see the world!
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