From Provence to Barcelona and back


April 19, 2000

10am - We are in six, four grown up and two young girls, on a brand new seven seat van (it is on lease), with all the baggages, we are close but comfortable. We are heading toward Ventimiglia with an undetermined destination between Cannes and Barcellona (and to Barcelona we are determined to arrive ...). Around 1 pm, we reach Aix-en-Provence, an active and elegant town, even slighlty too crowded for our taste. At the Office du Turisme 2, Place du Génèral de Gaulle, di fronte al celebre Cours Mirabeau , they propose us an accomodation in a not too central, but pretty cheap hotel Arc Hotel - route de Nice - 40, Avenue H.Malacrida, sortie Autoroute 8, a sud est dal centro, vicino al Cours Gambetta . The town can wait, we prefer to breathe the air of the famous Provenzal country, along the route Cézanne and toward the preferred mountain of the painter, Sainte Victoire mountain.
We turn around the southern side of the mountain and we reach Vauvenargue, a village that had been loved by another famous painter, Pablo Picasso, who here bought a whole castle and there chose to be buried. The castle is a propertiy of Picasso's heirs and closed to the public, but very attractive from the outside.

The massif St. Victoire
from South

It is a pity that we have already reserved the hotel in Aix. Here in Vauvenargue we discover a small and agreeable hotel Hotel Au Moulin de Provence - tel 42660222 , where the cooking is fine and the air even better. The owner, Yves, is just a bit crazy and entertains us with his problems of hotel keeper in his approximate and amusing Italian.

The castle of Pablo Picasso
in Vauvenargue
April 20  

From Aix-en-Provence we start our trip toward Barcelona and we soon reach Catalonia. Colors have not changed very much, but the sounds are much different. We have never heard the Catalan language and it does sound unusual. We stop for lunch in Perpignan. The sun shines on us in this spring afternoon, while the castle ( le castillet ) is reflected in the channel and we sit down in a cafè on the Quai Vauban and have rich sandwiches and drinks.
And then on the road again, toward the capital city... Who knows if we will find a place for the night during the holy week, in Barcelona, classical Easter destination of so many globetrotters. Besides this, April 23 (Easter Sunday) is the day of St. George (St. Jorde), patron of the nation (well, right, Catalonia is really a nation), with great feast and book exposition. We leave the highway at Matarò, on the coast north of Barcelona. Bad choice, it is worst than Cornigliano (a smoky industrial district in our hometown, Genoa, Italy). We soon learn that there is no chance to find lodging in Barcelona, at least not at our pocket level, and, after varied mishaps, we are addressed and find a place in Grenollers Hotel Iris, Avda. Sant Esteve, 92 , a small town situated twenty kilometers from Barcelona.

Perpignan, le Castillet
and the channel

In the evening we are on the rambla , and, after strolling a bit, we dine in Placa Rejal, where a waiter that looks like Walter Matthau (unbelievable how many waiters resemble WM..) brings us the patatas bravas .

April 21
The Sagrada Familia: 
Gaudì and Subirachs 

In a splendid spring day, we immerse ourselves in the Barcelona of Antoni Gaudi. We climb to the towers of the Sagrada Familia, the imposing expiatory temple, since a long time and (perhaps) forever in construction. The front side is the work of the master and inventor and represents scenes of the Nativity. The back side is decorated with scenes of the Passion, a work by Subirachs, a contemporary Catalan sculptor. Also this work is really notable, according to my personal taste. Please put the mouse over the picture on the left to see the front and rear sculptures of the temple, then click on it if you want to learn more.

Park Guell
Park Guell

Since the sun is really great, we decide to go for a visit to the park Guell, also a work by Gaudì, where we sunbathe sitting on the richly decorated benches . click on the thumbnail to enter a store in Barcellona on Holy Friday
We had planned to spend the afternoon strolling around and watching shop windows, but unfortunately on holy Friday (Easter Friday, commemorating Christ's death), shops are closed in Catalonia; so we are left with a visit to the Gothic quartier ( Barrio Gotico )

click on the thumbnail to enter
a store in Barcelona on Holy Friday

In front of the cathedral, on wooden stands, women sell Mediterranean herbs, olive and laurel, oregano and marjoram. Later, while we are drinking the sangria, in the Carrer de Ferran , there passes the Holy Friday procession. Men carry an image of the holy Mary with the dead Christ in her arms, the Pity, on their shoulders. A hooded figure (from the gait and slenderness of the forms it is probably a woman) follows, bent under a black cross she is bearing. The procession is accompanied by Catalan songs and lamentations, which travel across alleys and roads and create a particular atmosphere.

April 22
The Sierra of Cadì
The Sierra of Cadì 

Departure at dawn (around 9 am) from Grenollers for the Pyrenees. The day is just slightly cloudier than yesterday, but it always looks like spring. We reach the pass Collado de Toses (1800 m or 5900 ft) and the view that appears in front of us leaves no doubt the Pyrenees are really serious mountains. After the pass, the road goes down; we cruise along the Sierra of Cadì (a national park) between Bellver de Cerdanya and the Seu of Urguell

As soon as we cross the border of Andorra, we find ourselves plunged in huge market. This microscopic Catalan Switzerland (its surface is roughly 1/8 of our smallest region, the Aosta Valley) has an extremely simple fiscal system: no taxes, in all case, and for any reason. Here goods and money are precisely exchanged: the value of the money against the value of things. This is the paradise of private banking and of free commerce. Unfortunately (or luckily) we do not feel like shopping and we speed up away from the capital city (La Vella); besides, it is impossible to find a parking place there. We stop at a gasoline pump and we are not suprised the gas is so cheap (less a half than in Italy). We fill the tank and drive on.

Almost by chance, we reach La Massana, 1240 m (4000 ft), chief town of one of the seven parishes that compose the country, and there we quickly find lodging Hotel Roselles, La Massana . Andorra was a joint feudal possession of the Bishops of Urgell and of the Earls of Foix. Later, the latter (the earls) lost their noble title, in favor of the King of France, who was replaced in turn by the President of the French Republic. The country is now governed by a Council elected by the population, but the bishop of Urguell and the French President (currently Monsieur Chirac) remain the state chiefs. The whole country is located higher than 1000 meters (3200 ft) upon sea level, with mountains and sceneries that would deserve a longer staying. While the sky starts to cover up with threatening clouds, we go for a brief excursion toward Aldosa, a slightly more elevated fraction (1253 m asl, 4100 ft) from where one can enjoy a larger view of the valley. Andorra is crossed by many rivers, called the Valiras. Under our eyes, the North Valira flows, on its way to join to the East Valira; then the two together meet with the Great Valira. In Aldosa we find how to spend the evening at a restaurant called Borda dels Padrins , which means something as "The Grandparents' Farmhouse". The cuisine is excellent, even if the foreign languages we know are not helpful here to understand the menu and we cannot avoid some mistake between goat and pig.

April 23

It is Easter Sunday and it snows. We depart bravely toward France across the Post of Envalina (2407 m , 7900 ft) and the Pas of Casas (2000 m, 6400 ft). There is no alternative road, the snow is dense and high, and the average speed is 10 km per hour. We get to Aix-les-thermes, which is located much lower, but the weather has not improved. There, we face an option: should we continue in the direction of Foix along the sure state road or risk taking a smaller street, much shorter, but winding up again toward the tempestuous mountains? We choose the risk and the choice is winning. Nevertheless, although the Col de Chiaoula is only at 1400 m (4600 ft) of altitude, the persistent and continuous snowing makes the road rather clammy and our driver (MA) is obliged to give proof of his ability and cold blood again. After the pass, the view is magnificent, with large forests of dark firs and larches, with the new tender green leaves, which, toward the top, turn into white. We pass through the land of the Cathars and we reach the state road again, just in time to give a quick glance (from the highway) to the famous strengthened citadel of Carcassonne.
It is almost evening by now, when we arrive in Nimes and start searching for a shelter for the night. Nothing to do, both downtown and in the ashen and flat outskirts, where one can find a significant representative of almost every European and international hotel chain, all rooms are sold out. We resort to phone Yves in Vauvenargues, which is pretty close, and luckily he is well glad to accomodate us at his Moulin de Provence (see above). I have already mentioned his peculiar hospitality and his exceedingly rich cooking. I sacrifice myself to his souffles .

Apr 24
climbing toward Sainte Victoire top
... climbing towards
Mount St. Victoire

After nine almost continuos hours in a car, we are fed up with it, it is time to use our legs. We climb to the top of Montagne Saint Victoire (Holy Victory Mount) by the path of Plaideurs The path is indicated by a pale green sign and starts behind the parking lot under the Moulin de Provence, after crossing a small bridge . The air is clear and fizzy (can you believe that yesterday it was snowing?) and the slope steep, through a rich Mediterranean flora. When we get to the top, we contemplate the awesome scarp down the South mountain slope. We begin the crossing of the crest under a tense and clean wind, and, leaping from stone to stone, finally reach the Cross ( Croix de Provence ), standing 19 meters tall on an ample plinth.
We are at 915 meters of altitude (3000 ft), and the sight spaces on a wide open panorama, to the West, toward Marseille and the sea, two blues artificial little ponds are visible, farther a vast lagoon, called Etang de Beurre (Butter Pool), and opposite to that, to the North East, the white peaks of the Alps.

We descend from the cross and reach a little church, the Chapelle Notre Dame de la Victoire and a small oratory. The origin of these buildings is extremely old: it is said that the church was built on the place where an ancient temple rose, a temple erected by the Roman Mario to celebrate his victory over the Teutons. The little girls are very disappointed: there are no drinks or candies for sale; only a stand of religious images and souvenirs.
The way down along the path of the Venturiers G.R. 9 white and red sign , the classical trail, is straight and monotonous. When we arrive to the bottom of the valley, we still have to walk two kilometers along an excavated road, also used as a jogging track, that runs along the stream and brings us back to Vauvenargue.

And here we are, our last evening of vacation. Before sleeping, the spring air comes in, through the half open window, and I listen to a beautiful concert, kindly offered by the very famous Provenzal nightingales. What a pity I feel sooo sleepy...

versante Sud della montagna Saint Victoire
The scarp down
the South slope
of Mount Sainte Victoire

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© Carla Marchetti
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