I promised last post that I would have another serve for UniWorld, and believe me, it’s coming, but first I should set the scene as to what our planned activities were for our last afternoon on our cruise. After returning to the ship for lunch, we made our way back out into the humid afternoon to join the buses for a visit to an olive farm, followed by a choice of either the Carrières de Lumières, a multimedia art installation inside a former quarry, or Baux du Provence, the most visited village in Provence.
We chose the hilltop village, not because we didn’t like the sound of the Carrières de Lumières, rather that the thought of spending our last afternoon in Provence shoulder to shoulder with 10,000 other people in a humid, disused quarry didn’t really feel like the way to cap things off. Bear in mind that both of these excursions weren’t free – costing €56 (about $90 AUD) per person. I’ll have more to say on UniWorld’s claims about being “the most all-inclusive cruises on the market” later, but suffice to say that we were hoping it was going to be worth it.
These excursions had to be pre-booked in advance, with final numbers closing several days earlier, but as had been the case right the way through the trip, a family group from Panama (whom we’d dubbed the “la Cucherachas” after the Spanish song about a cockroach that can’t walk) decided that they would all like to go to the Carrières de Lumières after all. The problem was, that bus was full, which meant that our bus would first have to deviate from our chosen destination to drop a bunch of them off. I’d have been interested to see how Vanessa and I would have been treated had we decided to pull the same stunt.
Both groups started their excursion at Moulin a Huile du Mas St-Jean, an olive farm and mill based in a 12th century Mas (a type of traditional Provençal farmhouse), where we were treated to a tasting of oils, olives and tapenades. Just like wine, the production of olive oil in France is controlled by strict rules as to when, where and what you can produce, and the olive oils produced on this farm conform to the strictest appellations of all, meaning the quality is second to none.
Proceedings were watched over by the farm dog, a 14 year old boy who was, in delicate terms, “entire”. Very, very, entire…
After the tasting we were taken into the olive grove next door, which is based around an old 11th century chapel, built before the hamlet of St-Jean got its own church. It’s no longer used for services, but it has been consecrated, so the two daughters from the farm both had their weddings there, just like the previous 4 generations of the family had. In fact, if you look closely at some of the buttresses you can find engraved on them the details of the family weddings.
Returning to the Mas, we next got a look inside the mill itself, where we were shown an engraving of what a traditional olive mill would have looked like, with teams of oxen driving a large crushing wheel and the oils being mixed with water for easier extraction before being distilled.
This was actually the process for this mill and many like it right up until the 1970s, when the Italians invented a mechanical method that would allow the oil to be cold extracted within 72 hours of the fruit being picked – a time frame which is now mandatory if an oil is to be called Extra Virgin.
Of course, nothing on a farm like this ever goes to waste, and the old mill wheel has now found a new lease of life, as a sign at the entrance to the mill.
There was a small shop inside where we were able to purchase oils and soaps, and after making our way to the buses we took our seats just as the skies turned a dark slate grey and a few drops of rain started to fall.
Next stop was the hilltop village of Baux de Provence, playground to jetsetters and movie stars and the most visited village in all of Provence. We first had to make our way through the heavy traffic along a very narrow and precarious stretch of road in order to drop off the PITAs (Pains In The Ass) from Panama, before we finally reached the car park at the base of the village.
Not for the first time this trip we found ourselves shunted off the bus into a hilltop village with no map, no guide, and barely an hour of free time. We started checking out some of the shops, but then the heavens opened up and we found ourselves sitting outside a bar under a couple of leaky patio umbrellas, drinking Gin and Tonics and watching the shopkeepers rush to bring in their displays before they were soaked.
Once the rain stopped we tried to make our way further up the hill, but the stream of water flowing down over the limestone cobbles was just heavy enough to make things very slippery, so we gave up, retraced our steps and waited for the bus.
Thankfully our evening meal back on the boat was the best of the entire week, and we got to share it with some friends in the air conditioned comfort of the Bar du Leopard. There was plenty of laundry and packing to do, but we did manage to take some time out to say goodbye to some of the special “dinner buddies”, Debbie and Andrew from Auckland, New Zealand and Lonn and Joan from Arizona, USA. Without these 4, our trip would not have been half as much fun as it was, and we all parted ways with open invitations to look each other up should we ever find ourselves in their neck of the woods.