More Provence: Rugby in Nice, Eating Toulon, Cassis by boat, La Ciotat & Route des Crêtes

9 May

Our brief return to Arles was prompted by a joint project Stuart’s company has with a local waterless toilet manufacturer. Since we were in Arles last the project has moved ahead so this was a good opportunity for Stuart to review it with the French company director. 
I booked us into a chambre d’hote outside Arles in the middle of farmland, called Mas d’Isnard. Stuart liked the look of the renovated stone building on the booking website, in fact the photos don’t do it justice.

Built in 1870; until 2007 it was the family home of two sisters who were in their 80s when Gerard, the current owner bought it. No electricity, no running water or inside toilet, the mas needed a complete overhaul to bring it up to scratch for guests. A third generation stone mason Gerard did all the work himself except for some of the electrics. The aesthetic is dominated by the beautiful tones and textures of the pale stone walls, an imposing stainless steel benchtop, a few pieces of regional art and splashes of colour.

Camargue horses, father and son.

Gerard’s wife was away visiting family so we invited him to share our feu du bois pizza dinner the first night with some red wine we’d bought at Domaine L’Aqueduct. Gerard laid a beautiful table then he and Stuart went off to collect the pizza. Over our bottle, and a reinforcement Gerard had on hand, we learnt that Gerard’s father was French but his mother Spanish. That meant Gerard and I could speak freely in Spanish while he and Stuart conversed in French! Although Gerard left school at fifteen because of learning difficulties – and the family expected him to go into the seven-year stone mason apprenticeship anyway – he has a keen understanding of all levels of French politics and international sport which made for an informative evening.

Amigos rugby, Gerard and Stuart.
On our second evening we met up with Stuart’s business colleague and his Dutch wife for dinner in town. Nick and Hestor bicycle everywhere (Arles is very flat) with their toddler in a cart pulled behind. Very Dutch! The dinner was another wonderful opportunity to learn more about France. 
We took a side trip to Fontvieille and Les Baux-de-Provence hoping to walk in Les Alpilles but were side tracked by the tourist information centre’s advice and ended up on the ‘windmill walk’. The only notable features from my point of view were Daudet’s Windmill (believed to be referenced in a work by 19th century French writer Alphonse Daudet), Montauban Chateau, and nearly getting lost in a deserted paintball park. The day was redeemed by a long lunch in the sunshine and a magnificent view of Les Baux-de-Provence village. Once again a young chef ‘got’ that I only eat plants and produced a delicious avocado salad for me ‘off the menu’.

Before we left Arles we popped into the Saturday market which takes over a kilometre of the main street leading to the bridge. The first half kilometre is given over to imported cheap clothes, kitchen equipment, shoes, beds and bric a brac. It’s not until you are well into central Arles that the fresh food stalls start. We were surprised by the number of North African Muslim people living in Arles or thereabouts and, judging by street names and the ‘Medina’ we saw, many have been there for generations.

But it was time to high tail it to Allianz Riviera Stadium, Nice, for the 2:45pm kick off between legendary French rugby clubs, Toulon and Toulouse. We’d planned this with our rugby-crazy French friend, Maryse, months ago. She and Jacques drove down from Lyon and we met in the stand. Red and black Toulon supporters formed an obvious, noisy bloc, waving huge flags and blasting their horns. They shout a kind of ‘haka’ before the match which is just as intimidating as the Kiwi kind.Toulon were hosts, but because their Stade Mayol couldn’t hold the expected crowd the match was moved to Nice. On the day over 25,000 people saw Toulon convincingly beaten. The result was 12:10, improved greatly by a late try and conversion. The result was especially disappointing for me as three Toulon players on the field were Aussies; Matt Giteau, James O’Conner and Quade Cooper. Drew Mitchell was on the bench. 

Toulon were sorely disappointed too but rugby fans are not hooligans (the French have borrowed the word ‘hooligan’ – pronounced ‘ooligon’, but it is reserved for football as they say that in rugby any aggro is left on the pitch therefore there is no ooligonism in rugby). Certainly the crowd was well behaved as they left and we could not fault the free shuttle bus service from the parking. Are you reading this Cardiff?

We all drove to Toulon where we were staying for the weekend (booked when the match was to be in Toulon) and had an excellent meal in town with Maryse and Jacques. We caught up with them again next day to walk around the port and the busy Provencal market (much better than Arles’) before they headed off to Marseille and thence home.

With fine weather forecast for our final day we drove to Cassis a little west of Toulon. Cassis is an attractive, long established seaside town with an immaculate beach, small-boat marina and hillsides covered in vines running up to the steep cliffs to the west and the Calanques, the Mediterranean French equivalent of fjiords, to the west.

It was the day after Le Muguet de Mai, May 1st, when French people give a sprig of Lily of the Valley to friends, family and sometimes strangers – note mine given to me by the waitress with my coffee below.

The wind was picking up so we opted for the ‘five Calanque’ boat trip in the morning (trips are cancelled if it’s too windy), picnicking on board, then rented electric bicycles for the afternoon.
We were astonished to see how high some free climbers venture on the friable sea cliffs, some over 300 metres. The highest cliff we saw climbers attempting is only reachable by boat or on foot.

Look at the diagonal gallery in the cliff face on the left side and you will see a huddle of climbers. This seemed a fairly sensible climb to me. They would probably only bounce once before they hit the water…

Yes, there are two climbers way up there!

From the marina we cycled a loop to La Ciotat port with its super yachts and ancient stone buildings, then past wild flowers along the famous Route des Crêtes, a winding road along the coast high above Cassis. A well earned cup of tea watching petanque matches around the fountain square and it was time to head ‘home’ to our highrise apartment overlooking Toulon port for a glorious sunset.

We needed an early night as we had the 770k ‘coast to coast’ drive ahead of us – Toulon to Biarritz here we come! (Note the Corsica ferry in the photo below. They depart and arrive daily.)

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