Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 19, 2017

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The Palais des Papes is a complex of churches, castles and parks unlike anything else in Europe.

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Mood lighting

Provence's sun sets the scene for a theatrical trip through France

When Paul Cézanne, the great Post-Impressionist painter, was asked by admirers from Paris why he lived in rustic Provence, he looked at them startled and said, “The air! The light! The wind!” Visiting Cézanne’s home region in Southeast France this past spring, I, too, was seduced by all three: the fresh air, the clear light but, most of all, the wind that blows nonstop, ensuring 140 cloudless days of sunshine every year.

And these aren’t generic breezes. As any local will tell you, Provence, which stretches along the eastern half of the French Mediterranean coast from the rivière Rhône to the Alps, boasts dozens of winds known since antiquity, each with its own character and seasonal habits. While the winter mistral is the most famous and headstrong, there’s also the tempestuous sirocco (which brings the “blood rain,” a result of the reddish dust carried from Africa); the peppy gregale; the spry tramontane; the humid levant... but, you get the idea.

I certainly did, squinting in the sunlight as an unidentified breeze tousled my hair and tugged at my shirt. I was visiting a largely intact Roman amphitheatre (arenes-arles.com) in the city of Arles, an important centre close to the Rhône River in the heart of historic Provence. As I circled the exterior of the immense two-storey arena, thinking of the gladiators and beasts who fought inside, I came across a doorway from 94CE with a billboard advertising, of all things, an upcoming bullfight.

Experiencing a moment of cultural confusion, I bemusedly took in the large bull in the ad, a patriotic animal with a rosette in France’s national colours between its horns. Leaping away from the bull was a man in fancy dress described by the French text as a raseteur, though he looked like a matador to me. Just then, I was distracted by a flag fighting the morning current on a pole opposite the arena. Its yellow and red stripes looked familiar, but hardly French, a question my guide, Pierrette Nouet, quickly cleared up for me.

“It’s the flag of Provence, but also the Catalan flag,” she said. “The same flag they fly in the region of Catalonia in Spain.” Before I could ask why Arles shared a flag with Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, some 500 kilometres west, Paolo, an eavesdropping workman, revealed that the two areas have more in common.

“It’s the labech today,” he said, nodding at the flapping flag. “A good fishing wind. In the Catalan language, it’s called the llebeig.”

Pierrette waited as I digested the information and then added, “All of the names we use are nearly identical, you see; that’s why in Catalonia, they talk about winds like the tramuntana and mestral.”

Good old Provence

As Pierrette and Paolo compared meteorological terms, I realized Provence’s celebrated winds were batting away my assumptions about the French character. If, like me, your mental picture of France involves chic scarves, consommé and streetlamps glowing on the foggy Champs-Élysées, it’s time you let Provence’s whirling sirocco widen your horizons.

The largest country in Western Europe, France has always united a diverse collection of regions, of which Provence is the oldest, with a history that far precedes French citizenship.

Colonized by the Ancient Greeks (the region’s largest city, Marseille, was once the port of Massalia), made a province by Rome (hence “Provence”) and then long overseen by the Spanish kingdom of Catalonia, Provence only came under the sway of French kings in the late 15th century. It had been ruled since the Renaissance by a collection of local counts and bishops who filled the hilly landscape with cathedrals and châteaux while their subjects tended sunflower and lavender fields speaking a dialect of langue d’oc or Occitan, an old Mediterranean language related to Catalan.

Today, everyone in Provence speaks French and the region is indisputably part of the national conversation, particularly in August, when the rest of the country descends en masse to holiday on its beaches. But Provence has maintained a strong cultural identity, especially in its interior and among the half-million locals who still speak the Provençal dialect of langue d’oc, an almost lost language of romance.

Arles is no bull

The focus of my trip, the city of Arles sits inland on a low hill 90 kilometres east of Marseille (now connected to Paris via a four-hour, high-speed rail line). A compact city that contains entire epochs of architecture, it’s famous for its medieval centre and many Roman ruins. It’s also near the Camargue delta, created by the Rhône River where it meets the sea. If you look south from the city ramparts past scores of red-tile roofs, you’ll spy the Parc Naturel Régional de Camargue (parc-camargue.fr), one of Europe’s best wildlife areas.

A living repository of Provence’s enduring traditions, Arles is stuffed with curiosities. After my day guided by Pierrette, I strolled the narrow streets listening to the wind whisper around looming homes, discovered tiny, gem-like parks thronged with players of pétanque (a kind of bowls very popular in Provence) and indulged my new interest in bullfighting memorabilia.

Arles, it turns out, is Provence’s bullfighting centre, with bouts taking place inside the 2000-seat Roman arena I had visited earlier. While the days of bread and circuses may continue, Provence’s bullfights differ from Spain’s, and are theoretically bloodless affairs in which the goal is to snatch a rosette lodged in the bull’s horns.

Scattered throughout Arles’ medieval centre are the Roman ruins and monuments, some of the finest outside Italy. The earliest — the arena and nearby theatre — date back to Julius Caesar (50BC), while the baths of the Emperor Constantine are part of a second golden age 300 years later. Many antiquities, along with a Roman barge recovered from the Rhône, are on display at the Musée de l'Arles et de la Provence Antiques (Avenue de la 1ère Divison Française Libre; www.arles-antique.cg13.fr; admission €8; closed Tuesdays).

Food and wine

After the collapse of Rome, Arles had to wait until the 12th century to reassert its role as a leading Mediterranean centre. The beautiful Church of Saint-Trophime (Place de la Republique) was built during the era and is one of Provence's major Romanesque draws. Standing before it, I tried to imagine the then unknown artist Vincent van Gogh on his first visit in 1888. Overwhelmed, he burst into tears and spent the rest of his brief, tormented life making masterpieces in Arles. Once heard to remark that art’s "whole future lies in the skies of the South of France” — he painted Sunflowers underneath it — Van Gogh’s work depicts many locations you can still find around town. His style may even seem less frenziedly expressionistic when you consider the influence of Provence’s winds.

While there are no collections of Van Gogh’s work to see in Arles, you can visit the dingy brasserie he frequented in Place du Forum, Arles’ main square. Better bets are the many fine cafés and restaurants throughout the city, two of which, the inexpensive Le Plaza (28 rue du Docteur Fanton) and the reserve-ahead L’Atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel (7 Rue des Carmes; rabanel.com; closed Mondays and Tuesdays), come widely recommended.

Whenever I decided to search for my next meal, I just followed my nose, keeping a lookout for the billowing canopies of outdoor bistros and waiters’ blowing aprons. Provence’s cuisine is distinctly Mediterranean and staples include aioli, tapenade and bouillabaisse, the classic seafood stew. Be sure to try the local Côtes du Rhône wines or a glass of Pernod, the region’s signature aperitif made out of aniseed.

A religious experience

Arles provides a good base from which to explore Provence’s charming villages, either by rental car, bus or even taxi. Popular destinations include the café-lined Saint Rémy de Provence (20 minutes away) and L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, 83 kilometres north, famous for its antique shops, markets and working waterwheels.

Only 36 kilometres away lies Avignon, which joined France in 1791. A longtime surrogate for Holy Rome during centuries of nomadic papal intrigue, it was the residence of seven popes and boasts the Palais des Papes (Place du Palais; www.palais-des-papes.com; admission from €10.50), a fortified ecclesiastical complex of churches, castles, plazas and parks that’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and unlike anything else in Europe. There’s also the Pont Saint Bénezet or Pont d’Avignon, a medieval bridge known to every inhabitant of France (and Quebec) through the children’s folk song it inspired. (Admission to the bridge €4.50; to the palace and bridge from €13).

I also went on a day trip to Aix-en-Provence, 77 kilometres east. With a population of 142,000, the “city of fountains” is a busy, but elegant place, lined with plane trees waving in the wind. When I arrived, it was being gussied up to celebrate Marseille and Provence’s status as Europe’s 2013 Capital of Culture, an honour bestowed by the EU that presages a multimillion euro binge on new museums, festivals and cultural events (go to mp2013.fr for details).

Aix-en-Provence was the home of wind-loving Paul Cézanne, who built a studio ensuring a view of his favourite subject, the peak of Mont Sainte-Victoire; he painted it 87 times. Visiting his Atelier Cézanne (9 avenue Paul Cézanne; atelier-cezanne.com/aix-en-provence.html), I found it much as he must have left it. The window was open and the wind was rustling loose papers in homage to the master. In the garden outside, a nightingale was singing.

Cézanne’s favourite of all of Provence’s winds was the one you’re likely to befriend if you visit in summer, when temperatures reach above 30°C. Lingering into September, the wind is known in the Occitan language as “the maiden’s caress,” a soothing ocean breeze said to epitomize the embrace of a virgin. Each day in the August heat, Cézanne would wait for it to appear in the late afternoon before beginning his painting; visit this summer and you’ll surely see pétanque players regarding the skies as they wait for it too.

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Comments

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  1. On September 6, 2013, may delory said:
    There is nothing quite as special as a visit to a church. I always try to visit as many Holy places as I can manage when I travel. Avignon is on my "wish" list. Thank you for a most informative and exciting travel article. Twitter account: Geotravel

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