Dikes and Towers Part III: Provence
Provence, a region in the southeastern part of France, was the last stop in our scholastic escapades around Europe and a relaxed, sunny escape from Paris’ congestion and crowds.
The very earth in Provence reflects its cultural divergence from France’s busier areas. There, white limestone cliffs jut out beyond waving hills silvered with olive groves or lined with vineyards. Tradition permeates everything, and even time seems hesitant to spoil the splendor of the tranquility with change.
Directly after arriving in Provence, we did a business tour at the cosmetic company L’Occitane. Afterward, we headed into Aix-en-Provence, our base for the area. That evening, we ate dinner at an outdoor cafe in one of the town’s squares. The whole plaza was packed with clusters of hodgepodge tables from different restaurants; it looked like a scene from a movie.
The next day, we visited Chateau Virant, a 320-acre winery and olive farm. During our tour, we entered the chateau’s cellar, which was built in 1632, through tunnels constructed hundreds of years ago. There, oak barrels filled with Dionysus’ harvest waited patiently for their moment of perfection. Pretty cool.
In the afternoon, we went on a walking tour of Aix-en-Provence and touched the same stones that built Rome 2,000 years ago. Later, we sampled calissons, the local version of marzipan, and walked 50 minutes to buy a community of santons, Provence’s unique hand-painted terracotta nativity figurines. We ate dinner at a restaurant called La Bouchee. In its small space, we felt like flies on a French wall as the only non-French patrons. We sat in a corner taking in the genial interactions between couples and groups of friends while enjoying our yummy cheese ravioli and its truffle cream sauce. It was Jason’s favorite meal of our entire trip.
On our last day in France, we spent the morning strolling Aix-en-Provence’s famous Saturday market. There, we bought citrus fruits and scarfs while appreciating the general bazaar ambiance. We encountered bent old men with canes taking home huge bouquets of flowers, a weekly ritual probably performed most of their lives.
In the afternoon, we went to Cassis, a petite town situated picturesquely on the Mediterranean Sea. The coral, lemon, and apricot-colored cafes and shops were charming. We savored a lunch of seafood and pasta at one of these restaurants while the Mediterranean sunshine curled around us like a sleepy cat. We walked along the breezy waterfront and took a boat ride through the crevices of the coastline before heading back to Aix-en-Provence. Our flight for home departed the next morning.
Before closing this traveling trilogy, allow me to pass along two more of our French discoveries: 1. All French beaches are nude beaches whether they indicate so or not. While nothing official labeled the small beach in Cassis as “nude,” that didn’t stop the beachgoers from removing their clothing as convenience dictated. As we walked by, we saw a man pull off his swim shorts and several topless women taking an invigorating stroll together. There were kids playing soccer on this same beach, so, obviously, nudity is considered family friendly in France. Expect accordingly. 2. Despite claims to the contrary, not all of the pastries in France are amazing. Yes, you can find many fantastic bakery delicacies in France, but don’t just pop anything in your mouth expecting it to be worth the calories. Choose selectively.
This busy trip came with a significant amount of cultural revelations, including some discoveries about our own culture. With nearly 40 students in our group, cliques formed over the course of our trip where few preexisted. It was interesting and disturbing to see them develop over just two weeks. Jason and I purposefully avoided being cliquey and invited everyone to come sightseeing with us without exclusions. Come on people, cliques weren’t even cool back in high school. Haven’t we moved past that asinine elitism as adults?
We came back from Europe depleted within days of our Halloween party, a topic I will address next week without further delay.