01 January 2010

Le Castellet & Cassis

One of the many benefits of staying with family in the south of France is that we actually have the time and the means to act like tourists. Instead of slaving away for hours in old farmhouses (we know, we know, you feel so bad for us), we have the chance to go out in the countryside and explore some of the hundreds of cute villages of Provence.

Up first was Le Castellet. We took a trip to this little town perched on a mountain top overlooking the Var on a crystalline late December day.

We went early in the morning on a Sunday during the holiday season which meant that for the most part, we had the entire town to ourselves.

Though it was almost eerily quiet, Le Castellet showed many promising signs of life -- lots of delicious looking restaurants and artisanal shops. Unfortunately, everything was locked up tight so we have a perfect excuse for coming back another time.

Most of the structures in the town, including the church (above left) and the old city wall, are constructed from this sandy colored limestone that is extracted from the valleys nearby. The old wall was surprisingly well preserved, reaching almost entirely around the base of the village.

Meandering through the narrow, winding lanes of Le Castellet, we were frequently treated to views like this out of the many archways built into the ancient ramparts.

Besides providing stellar views, those sturdy arches are great for running through!

Lily was fascinated with this old water basin where the women of Le Castellet used to fetch water. There were a few goldfish swimming around the freezing cold and some dead ones resting on the bottom...we graciously neglected to point those out.

Like most views that look out over vineyards and the sea, the one from Le Castellet's little hill was truly a sight to behold.

After our brief visit to Le Castellet, we all decided it was time to get a little closer to that sparkling sea in the distance. We had a sunny day on our hands and we weren't going to waste a minute! So, we made our way to Cassis, a little fishing town on the Mediterranean.

Upon arrival, we were immediately taken by this place. The sea was an unbelievable shade of blue (a true "cote d'azur") and people were out in large numbers to enjoy the weather. It was nice to see a French town actually appear inhabited in the winter -- apparently not all French go into hibernation in December.

The shores of Cassis have long been popular with people in this region. Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, and Cathaginians all lived here and traded on its shores. The town was rebuilt over the ancient Roman ruins in the 17th century and over the next few centuries, continued to be popular with fishers and pleasure-seekers alike looking for a place to bask in the sun.

Cassis was a truly picturesque place with wide open pedestrian streets, trees casting dramatic shadows and vibrantly painted buildings, all made more lovely by the clearest sky imaginable. It was also surrounded by tree covered hills, dramatic limestone cliffs, and the ocean, so each little street led to a different natural wonder.

Another realllllllly nice thing about Cassis was its offering in the Patisserie Department. Over the past several months, we have been doing our best to embrace the French custom of partaking in the small joys of everyday life. One of the most integral of these small pleasures is the pastry...some of our favorites include croissant aux amandes, pain au chocolat, brioche, chaussons aux pomme, and the little beauty you see above, the macaron. Admiring the beauty of macarons is almost as enjoyable as eating them. They come in the most vibrant shades and exciting flavors.

But, let us return to that beautiful coast!!

On this particular day, happiness was definitely in the air. The French came out and did what they do best, sat in cafes and talked about life. People seemed more animated here than normal. In general the French are relatively reserved in public. However, in Cassis the spirit of the Mediterranean is definitely in the air...some people them even dared to wear colors and laugh out loud in public! Sacre bleu!

Hope you enjoyed this little tour to some of Provence's little gems. Happy Winter!