The beautiful little mediaeval town of Aigues Mortes sits flat on the marshland known as La Petite Camargue. The name Aigues Mortes derives from the old French “Ayga Mortas” which means “dead waters”. First mention of the town is made in a 10th century document.
The old town is considered one of the purest extant examples of 13th century military architecture. Surrounded by 1, 650 metres of walls, six metres thick, it was designed to be impregnable.
The Port of Aigues Mortes was rebuilt by Louis IX in the 13th century and at the time it was only Mediterranean port. Both the Seventh Crusade (1248) and the Eighth Crusade (1270) embarked from here.
Modern Aigues Mortes retains all the might, beauty and charm of the old town, while offering a great of restaurants, cafés and shops. One of its most popular shops is the bright yellow confiserie La Cure Gourmande, which sells everything the 21st century sweet-tooth could desire and much more besides.
Head south from Arles to Les Bouches de Rhône (the mouths of the River Rhône) on the Mediterranean coast and you’ll cross the wild, lonely and beautiful Camargue.
At 930 square kilometres, La Camargue is the largest river delta in Western Europe. It is a vast flat expanse, cut off from the sea by long banks of sand and covered with étangs (salt lagoons) and marshes of thick reeds.
The area is rich in flora and fauna. Lavendar, glasswort, tamarisk and reeds flourish here. More than 400 species of birds make their home on the Camargue and it is one of only a few European habitats for the greater flamingo, the elegant pink fowl that has become an emblem of the region. Insects abound, especially mosquitoes (the most ferocious, it said, in France, if not the world). The white horses and black bulls which symbolise La Camargue roam freely across the endless marshlands.
Humans have cultivated the Camargue since time began and its outer edges are criss-crossed with drains, dykes, rice paddies and salt pans. Local Gardiens, or cowboys, break and ride the white horses. They rear sheep and train the black bulls for export to Spain.
820 square kilometres around the central lagoon were officially established as the Parc Naturel Régional de Camargue in 1970, providing some of the most natural and most protected territory in all of Europe. A roadside museum gives background on flora, fauna, and the history of the area.
When the Romans took possession of Arles in 123 BC, they surrounded it with walls and developed it into a major city with all the trappings of civilisation, including an amphitheatre, a triumphal arch, a circus, and a theatre. As it was close to the sea at that time, it was also an important port.
Arles reached its peak in the 4th and 5th century when it served as the Roman Emperor’s military campaign headquarters. Renowned as a cultural and religious centre, in the last days of the Empire, it was Constantine’s favourite city.
Between the 5th and the 11th century Arles saw a period of turmoil and decline. However, it rose again to economic and political prominence in the 12th century and in 1178 the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa was crowned there. It became a free city at the same time and remained so until the French Revolution in 1789.
Arles is also famous for its connection to the painter Vincent Van Gogh who arrived in the town on February 21, 1888. Over 300 works document the time he spent here, including many of his most famous, like Café de Nuit, The Yellow Room, Starry Night over the Rhone and L’Arlesienne. During this period, Van Gogh’s mental health deteriorated and his behaviour became more and more eccentric until finally, after he severed his ear, he was committed to the Old Hospital of Arles.
As Arles is on the route of the famous Jacques de Compostelle, pilgrims have been visiting the city since the 15th century.
Ancient Rome, Van Gogh’s world, 21st century France – it’s all there to be explored in Arles.
Set in a lush, fragrant and verdant valley, Saint Rémy de Provence is one of the region’s “must sees”.
It sits on the site of one of the oldest archaeological sites in Europe. Traces of the ancient city of Glanum, founded in the 3rd century BC by the Romans are still visible, including the Triumphal Arch, which was feature of many Roman settlements.
Saint Rémy’s most famous son was undoubtedly the prophet Michel de Nostrodame or Nostrodamus who was born in Saint Rémy in 1503. After working initially as apothecary, or doctor, in 1555 he published a collection of prophecies among which were suggested threats to the family of the King, Henri II. They caught the attention of the Queen, Catherine de Medici and Nostrodamus was summoned to court where he was put to work writing horoscopes for the Royal children. By the time his death in 1566, Nostrodamus was the Counsellor and Physician-in-ordinary to the young King Charles X. Throughout history Nostrodamus has attracted many followers. He is credited with predicting many significant worlds events including the Fire of London, the rise of Napoleon and Hitler, the death of Princess Diana and September 11.
Because of its picturesque scenery and its extraordinary light, Saint Rémy attracted many artists. The most famous of these was Vincent Van Gogh, who produced more than 150 works which featured Saint Rémy and its surrounds. During his time in Saint Remy he was treated at the psychiatric centre of the Monastery of Saint Paul de Mausole.
Today the narrow streets of Saint Rémy are lined with lovely old houses, beautifully restored. They open into shady squares with fountains. There are elegant restaurants and boutiques stocked with all kinds of wonderful things, including clothes, homewares and produce, all with the unmistakeable stamp of the South of France.
Founded in 35 BC as a Roman colony, the city of Arausio, or Orange as it is now known, was named after the local Celtic water god.
Ancient Orange was Rome in miniature, with a similar layout and the same public buildings, including a theatre, a temple complex an arch and a forum.
In the 4th century, Orange became a Bishopric, ruled by a Catholic Bishop and a small university was established here. In the 12th century the town was ruled by the Counts of Baux, then in 14th by the Counts of Chalon.
When William the Silent, Count of Nassau, with estates in the Netherlands, inherited the title Prince of Orange in 1544, the Principality was incorporated into the House of Orange-Nassau. Under William Orange found itself embroiled in both the Wars of Religion and the Eighty Years War. William was assassinated in Delft in 1584 and in 1618, his son Maurice became Prince of Orange. Under Maurice the independent Dutch Republic, which later became the Netherlands, was born. It is still ruled by the House of Orange-Nassau, it still holds the princely title of Orange and of course, its national colour is orange.
The last great son of the Principality of Orange in France was the famous William III, who invaded England in 1688 to depose James II and become King of England, Scotland and Ireland. He ruled jointly with his wife Mary until 1694 and is best known as William of Orange.
Orange remained part of scattered Nassau holdings until it was captured by the forces of Louis XIV in 1672 during the Franco-Dutch War and was finally ceded to France in 1713 under the Treaty of Utrecht.
Following the French Revolution of 1789, Orange was absorbed into the French département of Drôme, then Bouches du Rhône, then finally Vaucluse.
Built by the Romans in the first century AD, Le Pont du Gard is one of the world’s most remarkable bridges. It is also one of the great masterpieces of Roman architecture and engineering.
Le Pont Du Gard originally formed part of a 50 kilometres aqueduct which ran from Uzès, across the River Gardon, to Nimes. Until 9th century the aqueduct carried some 200 litres of water a day into the town, for the fountains, baths and sanitation systems that formed an essential part of contemporary Roman life. The bridge also served as thoroughfare across the river.
From a distance the bridge is an impressive sight. 50 metres high with two tiers of arches, its balance, symmetry and sheer might are awe inspiring. Up close, it is even more impressive. The bridge is made of massive stone blocks, hewn probably in off-site quarries and hauled into place. Each block is marked with the (now worn) Roman numerals that enabled those ancient engineers to fit them together, like pieces of a jigsaw, to make the marvel that is Le Pont Du Gard.
Le Pont Du Gard is no longer used as a bridge and its top tier is no longer accessible. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985 and is now one of France’s most visited tourist attractions.
The Musée du Pont Du Gard explains how the aqueduct functioned, the genius of Roman engineering, the importance of water in Roman culture and the Roman legacy, in terms of sanitation and water, to modern times. It is amazing!
Once upon a time, so the story goes, Sir Raymond D’Avignon, Lord of Roussillon married a beautiful and spirited lady named Sirmonda. He took her back to his home in Provence and they settled down to live happily ever after.
Among Raymond’s vassals was a certain tall, dark, impossibly handsome and charming young man named Guillaume. He was enchanted by the beautiful Sirmonda and soon, she too, fell under his spell. Their love was doomed but irresistible.
Inevitably, Raymond learned of the affair. His fury was terrible and his revenge worse. He invited the unsuspecting Guillaume out hunting and in the depths of the forest, killed him. Not content with dispatching his rival he cut out his heart and took it back to his castle where commanded his chefs to cook and serve it to Sirmonda. When she had eaten it, he told her the shocking truth. The distraught Sirmonda ran to the high cliff nearby and threw herself onto the plain below. The blood seeped slowly into the Roussillon soil and stained it a deep red.
Since that day, it is said, Sirmonda’s blood has coloured the town – all of its buildings are tinged with shades of red, from brightest crimson to softest rose.
While Science attributes the red earth of Roussillon to the rich deposit of ochre (the richest in the world, in fact), it cannot explain how or it happens to be there.
At the summit of a perilously steep cone of rock, surrounded by plains of rolling Luberon farmland, in the South of France, is the “village perché” (literally, the perched village) of Gordes.
Viewed from an equally perilous (and unfenced!!!) cliff top on the approaching road, Gordes is absolutely breathtaking. Its church and its 500-year-old castle dominate the skyline. Tiers of bleached stone dwellings spill down the hillsides below.
Gordes centres around a quiet, village square, shaded by the church. Steep, narrow streets lead away from it, always downwards. Views of the sunlit countryside below, come and go, framed between the dark buildings, like the glimpses of distant paradise often seen in the background of classical paintings.
Along with sunshine, bright blue skies, terra cotta roofs, bleached stone and landscapes of faded green, lavender is a symbol of Provence.
The name lavender derives from the Latin verb lavare, and in turn from the French laver, to wash. Since Roman times it has been widely used as a perfume, a cleanser, a disinfectant and a cosmetic. The first aromatherapists, believing that bad smells attracted illness and evils, while good smells brought health and happiness, burned lavendar to scent and purify the air. When the Black Death ravaged Provence in the 18th century, it was used widely to cleanse homes and hospitals. Roman beauties used lavender water and oils to soften their skins and ward off wrinkles and later, their European sisters followed suit.
The production of lavender was an arduous business, especially as the best, fine lavender grew only at a high altitude, in steep and rugged territory. Handling the tough plants with course stalks and leaves required special protective clothing not to mention a naturally strong back for the constant stooping and lifting. Processing too, was an arduous business, in hot and dangerous conditions.
To highlight and celebrate the story of lavender in Provence, Georges Lincélé founded the Lavender Museum, in a traditional farmhouse, in Coustelet, in the heart of the Luberon National Park.
The lavender Museum tells the story of the people who have grown, picked and processed Lavender in the region. It also traces the development of processes of production. There are wonderful displays of clothing, machinery and photos.
The Museum shop offers an irresistible range of lavender products, including washes, soaps, oils, creams, teas and honeys.
To Sydneysiders, Vaucluse is an exclusive harbourside suburb. To Melbournians it is a Catholic enclave on highly desirable hilltop. To the French, though, Vaucluse is a mysterious spring in a village, in a hidden valley in the Luberon region of the south of France.
One of the world’s largest springs, La Fontaine de Vaucluse, as it is properly known, comes from deep underground. Nobody has ever been able to find its exact source, although many have tried. Jacques Cousteau came close, back in the 1950s, when, equipped with his latest submarine inventions, he tried to reach the bottom of the bassin, or pool. But in the end, even he failed. Since then a probe successfully reached its sandy bed and measured the depth at 308 metres. But still, the actual source of the spring remains a secret.
During the dry season, La Fontaine de Vaucluse is a small round pool, of an extraordinary blue, at the foot the surrounding cliffs. But when heavy rains fall, it becomes a real fountain, shooting 52, 000 litres of water skyward every second.
La Fontaine de Vaucluse feed the River Sorgue, whose waters are crystal clear at the source but soon turn a vivid emerald.
The day I visited La Fontaine de Vaucluse, it was raining ferociously. Thunder was booming around the valley. Water was racing down the hillsides in swift unruly streams and pouring through the village streets. Tragically, after I had battled for what seemed like an eternity up a muddy track, to get within what had to be seconds from the legendary ”fontaine”, I was turned back by a chap in a high viz vest who informed me apologetically that it was “trop dangéreux” to go any further.
It was disappointing and at the time I almost cried. But I did feel that even if I hadn’t seen it, I had felt the force of the mighty Fontaine de Vaucluse.
Furthermore, the village of Fontaine de Vaucluse has a fascinating museum, ambient cafes and restaurants overlooking the Sorgue, as well as some interesting boutiques.