Everyone knows that Cassis is a beautiful little seaside village French people love to flock to in the warm months each summer.
We came to know Cassis as well as its much larger “work a day” neighbor – La Ciotat when we spent two weeks camping at “Le Camping” in nearby Ceyreste camping with our then two small boys, back in the the Summer of 1985. Funny that we hadn’t been back to La Ciotat since then (although we had visited Cassis a number of times since), until just a few weeks ago.
What really stands out in my memory about La Ciotat – apart from its beach being the first place where our little boys saw topless sunbathers – is our evening fishing trip taken on a local fishing boat, captained by an “local expert”.
To make a long story short – La Ciotat, being on the Mediterranean Coast, it of course has a typically Mediterranean climate – which can also mean the coastal areas being blanketed by fog on summer afternoons and evenings! Dense fog is not the ideal setting for a family fishing trip, but we’d booked the boat and by the time we reached the boat, the captain had all our items loaded onto it and assured us that he had the latest in electronic equipment so that we would be completely safe and would certainly have no problems at all in finding the best fishing spot! Somewhat reluctantly we climbed aboard and set out chugging through the stone walls of the breakwater – as the bells from the old Church struck eight times … bong… bong… bong… bong… bong… bong… bong… bong! 8pm!
Four hours later the same bells marked our return, as we thankfully chugged back into the harbor – this time there were twelve bongs! I say “thankfully” because we had spent the better part of those four hours bobbing around, somewhere in the totally fogged in Mediterranean with the Captain constantly sounding his horn, to make sure that other vessels knew we were out there, and not run into us! Adding to the sense of drama, in between sounding the horn, he was checking radio signals with a directional finder – picking up radio traffic in a variety of languages – Spanish … North African varieties … Italian etc.. etc…
Right around 1:00am, we arrived back at Le Camping, to find the gate locked for the night, so we parked the car and walked back to our rented Camper Trailer with our fish. We were all so tired, that we left the fish in its bucket on the table in the campsite and called it a night.
Around 9am, the boys woke up and ran out to check their fish. We heard them chuckling away and went to see what was happening – they told us that we’d caught a “cartoon fish”. What’s a “cartoon fish”? Why .. it’s a fish skeleton – just like in the cartoons after the cats had feasted while we were asleep – and I can confidently say that, that night, the cat(s) in Ceyreste had the most expensive cat food in all of France!
This year we arrived at the Port on a Sunday morning to find ourselves at a “Spectacle 1720” Festival where the Sunday Market usually is. The market was being held further along the beach front and we enjoyed a stroll through the Festival and then a good walk along the beachfront to the market. The port was still busy and clock still chimed every hour on the hour.
Going back to La Ciotat was like visiting an old friend – although the town had changed in all those years, it was still basically the same. The sight of kids playing on the beach took me back to those hot August days when we loaded up the car early each day and headed from Ceyreste to the beach, with the kids (and every other person in France) along the crowded beach road until we found the best spot for the day’s play.
Considering that we had been travelling to Provence for so many years, I couldn’t believe that we had never visited Fontaine de Vaucluse! Particularly since it is soooo close to Isle sur la Sorgue, which we never miss on each visit… And double-especially, since a Belgian couple highly recommended it after spending a whole day there. They were also guests at Mas Pichony (where we stayed a number of times in the days BMdeP – Before we purchased Maison des Pelerins).
As we drove into the village, it was clear why so many people speak so highly of it – after about a 10 km ride along the D25 through pretty farmland and orchards, until you cross the Sorgue River upstream and enter the deep valley where kayaking and canoeing is a popular activity.
An 800 meter walkway on the banks of the river allows visitors to walk all the way, past smaller springs and waterfalls all the way to “the source”.
October was a very pleasant time to visit – the weather was sunny and warm, but we were there at the end of “the secheresse” a very dry summer, and while the smaller springs were still gushing, the main “source” was not flowing, which gave us a wonderful opportunity to gauge the enormous opening in the cliffs where I can only imagine what it must look like on a day when up to 1.8 million cubic meters gushes through! On the way, up there we passed a number of people enjoying the beautiful surroundings while fishing or simply sitting on one of the benches pondering this amazing and slightly mysterious place where so much water just comes gushing out of the ground.
I guess they and we were not the first people to have been taken by the beauty and mystery of this closed valley – as far back as 1337, Francesco Petrarch – Italian Priest turned Poet settled in Fontaine de Vaucluse close to his good friend Philippe de Cabassolle, Bishop of Cavaillon whose Medieval Palace is perched high on the cliff overlooking the village.
The ruins of this Palace can still be seen from the village and if you like hiking, you can walk up there.
Petrarch who, with his family, came to Avignon (when he was young), following the Papal Court of Clement V during the Avignon Papacy, left the priesthood after laying eyes on a woman who is known as “Laura” and who became the subject of many of his writings – even though they had no contact. It is said that Laura was a married woman.
Much of his work was done in Fontaine de Vaucluse which he found to be an inspiring place. As far back as the 16th Century, many literary scholars and well known personalities visited this village to pay tribute to Petrarch – so it has been a well visited site for a very long time.
Today, visitors to Fontaine can take a walk back in time through the lovely Old Paper Mill and see just what went into the early production of paper in the early days of industrialism, as well as buying some of the fare of this mill.
As time passed on and World War II brought occupation and great hardship to the citizens of France. Its location at the base of a steep cliff, made Fontaine an ideal spot for the operations of the local Resistance, known as the Maquis – where hiding in the inhospitable cliffs above the village made it less than likely that they would be discovered. It’s difficult to comprehend the impact of the occupation on the lives of villagers (right throughout France), but we do get a glimpse into what their world was like.
The Musée d’Histoire, which occupies one of the old Paper Mills was opened in 1990 – and is dedicated to the what they called “the Dark Years” of occupation – after the humiliation of defeat when the Resistance Movement became active. I have just finished reading “The Citadel” by Kate Mosse which dealt with the same subject matter, although it was set in the Languedoc – an excellent book that reminds us that not so long ago, these villages and towns underwent and withstood extremely harsh times.
Just these three aspects of a very old town at the end of a closed valley in Provence are enough to stir interest and make you ponder Fontaine and its mysterious past – but there is a lot more to see and do here ..
… kayaking and canoeing, a santon museum, great hiking and rock climbing, lots of wonderful picnic spots, the Petrarch Museum, a 12th Century Romanesque church…but if you are just looking for some quiet time..