Overcoming some strong winds and a little bit of vertigo, Helen regales us with the beauty and adventure of walking in France. Read on to step into this story of scarily steep stairs and ancient Roman architecture begging to be explored. Laura, Community Coordinator
The blurb writers said ‘Grade D and sightseeing.’ However, they also suggested that the tough stuff would start on our journey out: we were recommended to ‘pack lightly’ as there were several steps to negotiate crossing Paris en route. They weren’t kidding about the latter, which, as an incorrigible kitchen sink traveller, I found out to my cost. However, I think they were being just a little disingenuous about the former, which we discovered on our second day of ‘real’ walking around St Remy, where Vincent Van Gogh spent a year sequestered in the St Paul de Mausole cloisters at his own request. We spent the first part of our walk clambering up a rather steep hillside, to be confronted at the top by 2 short, almost vertical rock faces complete with iron rungs and steel rope (designated a ‘via ferrata’ by our trusty guide, Alison)! As a vertigo sufferer who had declined to ascend the Tour Magne (Great Tower) in the Jardins de la Fontaine in Nimes, I was quaking in my boots. ‘Not to worry,’ thought I, ‘our oldest group member (a mere 92 years old!) and her 82-year-old friend will save my face by balking at this unforeseen barrier to our progress.’ Not a bit of it! – the pair were happy to go ahead – and, had it not been for Alison’s sensible decision to turn back, I might still be hanging there now, afraid to go further up or down …. It seems the walk notes had made no mention of this challenge (Ramblers Holidays – please note!).
So, after clambering down the way we had come, we had a very pleasant walk through trees up to a quiet road from where there was a distant view of the city of Marseille.
They certainly didn’t err with regard to the rich historic heritage of the area, however. Roman ruins there were aplenty – from the magnificent Pont du Gard aqueduct, which stretches 50 km in total (and no, we didn’t walk the full length!) and the Arena in Nimes, which in its time has been used as a bullring and a venue for the recording of various bands’ albums, including Dire Straits, to Glanum, buried for centuries until re-discovered in 1921 and one of the best-preserved Roman towns in the region; from the smaller amphitheatre in Arles and the medieval streets of St Remy de Provence to the Chartreuse Monastery in Villeneuve, there is certainly no shortage of ancient sites to visit. In fact, by the end of the holiday, many of us were declaring ourselves ‘all Roman-ed out’ for the time being. One non-Roman curiosity which some of us visited was a cave-dwelling and restaurant, which had been in the same family for 6 generations, and which included an odd collection of old farm implements all gathering dust and, in another part of the cave, 8 or 9 old vehicles, including a caleche, or carriage, from the 19th century.
There was also a wonderful farmers’ market in St Remy at the start of our walk there, and I was kicking myself later for not succumbing to temptation with some lovely linen clothing items, only to find many similar garments from the same Italian supplier at a farmers’ market in local Billericay this weekend!
Avignon itself had plenty of sights, including the wondrous Palais des Papes and, of course, the famous ‘pont’ which, in fact, doesn’t fully cross the river (a few drunken dances on it and you might end up actually in the Rhone ….). But our day of sightseeing there was plagued by the infamous mistral wind which gave the phrase ‘wind chill factor’ an altogether new meaning: in fact, we sometimes couldn’t even walk against it. Our weather could have been better, and the hotel was perhaps somewhat idiosyncratic (my bathroom light had a mind of its own and the inner courtyard filled with tall plants did stop the sun reaching rooms around it – fine in the heat of summer, but rather chilly in cool June). And where was the famous lavender? – ah, not yet out; but the poppies certainly were, and they brightened our walks and sightseeing everywhere.