When you think about the region of Provence in France, you probably picture colorful fields of vibrant lavender and sunflowers towering gleefully over you. Although going to the region in January didn’t afford us any lavender field instagram shots (with saturation bumped up of course; lo-fi could work), we found that things were a bit slower, a bit less crowded, and the people were a bit less hurried to shoo us on to the next thing.
It was a perfect place to reunite with our friend Mo from San Francisco. When I first moved to SF, Mo was my next door neighbor. Our friendship quickly grew from “hey, aren’t you that guy who lives…?” to “let’s host Thanksgiving for everyone who’s in town!”
If a train leaves Barcelona at 4pm going at 120 km/hr and a train leaves Paris at 1pm going 200 km/hr, when will the trains collide? Just kidding! We did all arrive in Marseilles via train, though, which was very convenient. I had been told by someone that Marseilles was a “dirty port town.” In fact, I think all three of us had low expectations for Marseilles based on other’s impressions. However, Marseilles truly exceeded all our hopes and dreams and most importantly, delivered on a random, crazy, fun New Year’s eve.
You should all know by now that food is the way to my heart, and if a restaurant has cute decorations along with delicious food, a la “food for the stomach and the eyes”, I bounce off the wall like a pinball out of excitement. It so happens that there was one such location called “Mademoiselle Cupcake” directly down the street from where we stayed. We had breakfast there two days in a row. I have no shame that I had cupcakes for breakfast. Two days in a row. My inner kid was stoked.
Walking around Marseilles’ Old Town, we wandered into several small shops. There seemed to be a creative revival in the city, with small shop-owners, designers, and street artists converging in the twisty streets. I was struck by how friendly everyone was – it reminded me of the people in Portugal.
For New Year’s eve, we booked a table at a Mexican restaurant (with the promise that it was good Mexican food from an American) and bought tickets to see the 80’s band Boney M perform. Let me just say, the restaurant was trying a little too hard to fuse “Mexican” with “French”, so the result was delicious margaritas paired with dishes like “duck quesadilla”. It’s hard to describe, so I’ll let the photo do the work:
To be fair, we all probably should have lowered our expectations from the our high Mission-favorite El Farolito taqueria. It never was a fair competition. In addition, the restaurant had a bluegrass band from the U.S. playing for entertainment. Essentially we were listening to bluegrass in a Mexican restaurant in France. It was entertaining.
Then we headed to our Boney M party. Mo knew the band because his dad had liked them at the peak of their popularity. We had played them while we were getting ready the few days before, so we would know something to sing along to. Boney M did not disappoint. Everyone at the concert knew all the words to all their songs, and everyone was dancing as you can only dance to 80’s music. My favorite snapshot of the concert was when a 12 year-old girl asked Mo to take a picture of her family – including her parents and her grandparents. I love that everyone partied together and that celebrations like this are a family affair.
We did a quick day trip to Cassis, which is a resort beach town just outside Marseille. Even though the sky was overcast, the brightly-painted buildings made the village cheerful.
We bundled up together in a motorboat to see the famous calanques, which are basically these huge canyons that cut from the coast into the land like sharp bays.
We left our trip very open, so we decided on the fly to make Avignon our new homebase for exploring the rest of the region. Avignon’s medieval city walls snake around the old town and have been very well restored, which makes it feel like you’re entering a castle when you get there.
In Avignon, we visited the Papal Palace, which was actively used in the 14th century at the height of Avignon’s heyday.
We also visited the famous incomplete bridge Pont d’Avignon. The Rhone River flooded so unpredictably over the years that part of the bridge was washed away.
Daytrip for Van Gogh, castles, and truffle hunting
The main tour I really wanted to do while I was in this region was truffle hunting. Since we needed to rent a car to do that activity (out in the rural country on someone’s farm), we decided to fit in a few more stops that required a car. First, we went to St. Remy, which is where the psychiatric hospital that Van Gogh checked himself into is located. It is still an active mental institution today, but parts of it are open to visitors to see Van Gogh’s room and the gardens where he painted.
Reading about Van Gogh’s story while standing in the place where he painted and fought for mental health and painted and fought and fought for mental health touched me very deeply. Van Gogh checked himself in, and during his tenure of a year in the institution, he painted over 142 works, including some of his most famous like Irises. His mind was tormented with mental illness, yet he found inspiration and peacefulness in nature. One quote keep re-surfacing in my head: “If I am worth anything later, I am worth something now. For wheat is wheat, even if people think it is a grass in the beginning.”
The garden, of course, was not in bloom, but I did find one tiny iris holding on for dear life in the winter cold. This made me feel Van Gogh’s isolation from the world, his struggle to be a part of society. Sadly, none of his original works that were painted here reside here. They have all been taken to various museums around the world. I couldn’t help thinking that they lose so much context being separated from this place. I thought they deserved to live here where they were created and could be understand for what they were – the creations of a man who was desperately trying to ‘right’ himself in the tumultuous sea of his life. You would never know it looking at his beautiful nature scenes.
After St Remy, we headed to Les Baux, which is a village perched on a hilltop and donned in old castle ruins. Grant was in heaven exploring the grounds, as there was no particular guided route. We all had fun climbing the castle as if it were an adult McDonald’s Playplace.
We had to rush back to the car to make it in time for our truffle hunting. About halfway to our destination, rain started spattering our windshield. By the time we made it to the farm, the rain had let up some, but it was damp and cold. This tour was still one of my favorite parts of the trip, though. The couple who runs the truffle hunting tour have vines for wine and also for olive oil. The land was passed down from the man’s grandparents, but they only discovered the plethora of truffles in the past few years. This is like striking gold!
Ok, pause. What is a truffle? It’s a fungus that only develops under very certain conditions – including a certain amount of rainfall, temperature, and soil conditions. They develop underground at the roots of trees. It is harvested for gourmet food purposes. One truffle (about the size of a quarter of the palm of my hand) easily sells for 20-50 euros. Provence is known for having truffles.
What is truffle hunting? Truffle hunting was traditionally done with pigs, but now dogs are more commonly used. When the truffle is ready to be harvested, it gives off a very specific odor that can be detected by dogs above ground. Dog owners train their dogs to recognize and like this smell. In the end, the owner takes the dogs out to the areas where the truffles are known to develop and lets the dogs literally sniff out where the truffle is. The dogs will dig, and with the help of the owner, “harvest” a truffle. It’s really neat to watch the dogs in their process of sniffing out the “ripe” truffles.
Ironically, the truffles themselves look like pieces of poop when they are unprepared. To give you an idea of how valuable they really are, though, we were outside for 30 minutes and collected something in the range of 200 euros worth of truffles (pictured below).
Afterwards, we warmed up with champagne and truffle tasting, like this cheese topped with truffle and then drizzled with truffle oil. Gahhhhh.
The most unique food made with truffles was truffle ice cream. It was creamy and delicious. There is an ice cream shop in SF that sells olive oil ice cream, and the savory/sweet combo of the truffle ice cream made me think of how the savory flavor sometimes does really well with some creaminess.
We did a wine tasting day tour with the number-one rated wine tour guide in Avignon. He was very proud of his status and bragged that he had to turn down Rick Steves because he was so full with bookings.
I had never seen vineyards like the ones in this area – which were covered in cobble stones. Apparently, this results in some pretty yummy rose wine.
A highlight of the tour was going to a winery that makes small batches of wine just as the Romans once did. The winery owner found old Roman clay pots while tilling land and decided to pay tribute by replicating the Roman wine-making process. It was really cool to see how he had researched all the different methods and processes and replicated the equipment to match. I have to admit that the taste wasn’t my favorite (tasted more like Moscatel to me, but more bitter), but it was really cool to see “history in action”. It kind of reminded me of the “living colonial farms” I visited as a kid.
We made a pitstop at the Pont du Gard to check out one of the best preserved Roman aqueducts in the world. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in Europe, it’s that Italy isn’t the only place to see Roman ruins!
Our last stop before parting ways was Aix-en-Provence, a university town, which to us seemed like a cleaner, more put-together version of Marseilles. We enjoyed eating some really good French home cooking at Fanny’s (crucial) and shopping around at fancy European stores.
One of the coolest places we stopped by was an old gothic church converted into a modern art museum. I had ADD trying to look at all the details of the building AND the paintings.
We capped off our stay with one last look at the city from the rooftop of our airbnb. (Airbnb for the win!). It was hard to say goodbye, but we had such a delightful time, that it’s hard to complain! Thanks, Mo, for coming to visit and sharing your vacation time with us!!
Carcassonne on our way home
Grant and I tacked on an extra sidetrip in France on our way back to Barcelona – Carcassonne (yes, like the board game!). The castle is superbly restored and shines gloriously from the hill over the entire city.
Again, we had fun climbing walls and exploring parts of the ruins that maybe shouldn’t have been so accessible to us (like the walls below). “Cathars”, people of a particular Christian-religious belief, once lived here before they were persecuted by the Catholic church. If you want to delve into a rather lost part of history, you should look into the Cathars!
Grant happened to catch a really good photo of me walking out of the castle, which we immediately photoshopped into this amazing mini-comic:
On that note (which hopefully made you smile!), I’ll sign off.
Do people still say ‘sign off’?