“When God created the sun, the earth, the mountains and the water and put them in place, he took a little piece of each to make a paradise and thus Provence was born.”
Maussane Les Alpilles
We always said on this trip that if we found somewhere we really liked, we would stay for a while…and we finally found that somewhere in the form of Maussane Les Alpilles in Provence. It is not a big, touristy place that everyone will have heard of, but it was exactly what we were looking for. Maybe it was timing, since we had spent all summer moving around and were ready to stay put for a while. Maybe it was the weather, since the boiling hot temperatures had eased off making it a lot more comfortable. Maybe it was just the fact that the peak season had ended and everywhere was a lot quieter. Or maybe it was the location of the campsite, five minutes walk away from the main town square. Whatever the reason, and probably it was a combination of all of these factors, as soon as we walked into this lovely town we all knew this was the place!
Maussane Les Alpilles is only small, but it is big enough to have a few shops and restaurants and a bit of life to it. So many small towns we have come through have really been nothing more than a collection of houses and a boulangerie*, or have been too big and spread out so that they had no clear heart. Maussane was different.
(*So passionate are the French about their fresh bread that in villages where there is no boulangerie, we have even seen vending machines containing baguettes! Imagine that – you pull up alongside, pop your Euro in and take out your baguette! Fantastic!)
The town is strung out along one main street, with the town square and ancient church in the centre. Here you will find a collection of the stately and ubiquitous plane trees that seem to border virtually every street and fill every square around here, giving wonderful shade wherever you go. Under these are the giant parasols and canopies of a handful of restaurants and an enormous decorative fountain. This is the heart of Maussane, where locals and tourists alike stop for lunch or coffee and to relax in its tranquil atmosphere.
What we loved about being in Maussane was that the small municipal campsite on which we stayed is so close to the centre of the town. The campsite office doubles up as the tourist information centre and the shops, restaurants and town square are less than five minutes’ walk away. This is incredibly rare – usually the campsite is on the very outskirts of town, a considerable walk (or even a drive) away from the shops and restaurants.
The Rhythm of Town Life
All this meant that we were able to get into the rhythm of town life and Maussane really felt like it became our home for a while. Every day started with the church bells signalling that it was 7am. We all loved hearing the gentle sound of the bells punctuating our days and I even stopped wearing my watch for a while as I had no need for it. Hearing the bells is one of the things we missed when we finally moved on.
Thursday was market day, when Place Henri Giraud was buzzing with life; full of colour, conversation and delicious local foods. We would walk up there in the morning to get a freshly roasted chicken and potatoes for lunch, along with some fruit, vegetables, bread and maybe some delicious fresh goat’s cheese, local cured meat or sweet treats. Everywhere here you could buy a kind of goat’s cheese that I haven’t seen before – it has no rind and is just formed into a small mound, so fresh and soft that it almost squeaked when you ate it and with a delicate flavour and creamy texture: heavenly!
On Sundays the shops shut at midday and the restaurants were filled with families spilling out of the church and enjoying lunch together in the town square. Every day the bakeries would open early (about 7:30am) and we would often walk into town in the morning to get fresh croissants for breakfast or a baguette for lunch. We soon found our favourite bakery that made the most delicious Epi baguettes and would walk to the far end of town for the chance to enjoy its crispy crust and soft interior once again. The bakeries (and other shops) would close for a few hours in the early afternoon and open again later so that you could pick up bread for your evening meal – in France, bread accompanies EVERY meal (see my note above*)
The town also has a fabulously well stocked Spar shop with a fresh meat counter, a charcuterie, a fishmonger and the most incredible fruit and veg shop I think I have ever seen. Not only did they sell an inspiring range of different fruits and vegetables, but multiple varieties of each one as well; dozens of varieties of tomatoes, mushrooms, apples, lettuce and even of the humble cauliflower, where you could choose between the pointed green variety, purple, yellow or plain old white! And then for some products you could also choose to buy second grade a lower cost, if you were happy with a less uniform shape and imperfect skin. Why do we so often not get that choice in the UK? And why have dedicated fruit and veg shops all but disappeared from our towns and cities?
Being stationary in one place for a while also allowed us to concentrate more on education, since as well as having fun as a family, that is one of our main responsibilities during this year. The campsite had a communal room near to the office that they called the library. It had lots of books in different languages that fellow campers had left and which we borrowed whilst we were there, plus children’s toys and games and a big television, although we never saw it in use. More crucially for us, it had tables and chairs. This meant that it was possible for one of us to do education back at the caravan and one in the library, particularly when it was too windy or cold to be outside.
That is not to say that our education sessions always took place sitting at a table. We would regularly do reading and discussion of books sitting on the swings in the little playground, or times tables practice bouncing a ball to one another on the tennis courts. We have found that our girls like to be moving whilst they talk or listen and so have tried to incorporate this into our teaching styles.
The campsite also had a tennis court which was free to use and they would even lend out racquets and a ball, so we managed to have a few games ourselves and give the girls their first tennis lessons, which was enormous fun for all of us. And when Andy and I played, we had very willing ball girls to run around after us when the ball went out of play!
A Special Art Day
At the girls’ old school they used to have ‘Art Week’ once a year and, in the same vein, they had a very special ‘Art Day’ whilst we were in Maussane, courtesy of two fellow caravanners who we met there.
We got chatting to Nick and Eileen as soon as they arrived on the site. Like us, they were heading south into Spain for the winter but, unlike us, they had done the same the year before and so we picked their brains about good campsites and different places to visit. Eileen’s background is in sewing and she had bags and bags of fabrics, trimmings and needlework supplies with her. She asked whether the girls would like to do some sewing and then offered to help them make something one afternoon. Nick liked drawing and suggested that he could do something with the girls too. So the next day they made heart shaped wall hangings in the morning with Eileen, sewing them all together themselves and adding beads, sequins and some cord to hang them up. Then in the afternoon Nick taught them how to draw faces and do caricatures. He had even prepared templates for them and took them very patiently through each of the stages, teaching them all about the proportions of the face and how to distort these in a caricature. The girls loved it! I think it was nice for them to have someone else teaching them and they also had a lot of fun.
Nick and Eileen – if you are reading this, thank you so much! We were overwhelmed by the generosity with which you gave your time and materials and the patience you had in guiding and teaching the girls. They will never forget the ‘Art day’ they had with you! And Andy and I also appreciated the time you gave us to ourselves!
Another thing we experienced in Provence was the Mistral. This strong wind blows from the northwest, off the mountains and down the Rhône valley, blasting Provence with an icy cold wind, sometimes for days at a time. It is so significant here that the campsite map even had an arrow showing the direction from which it would come so that you could pitch your tent/caravan/awning accordingly to avoid the worst of it. There were substantial hedges around the site that acted as windbreaks, but when it came it tugged at our awning, buffeted the caravan and chilled us to the bone!
Practicing our French
The staff in the campsite office spoke a little English, but mostly we had to converse with them in French, as we did in shops and restaurants in the town. In tourist towns most people speak a good level of English, but in a small town like Maussane, you really do have to make more of an effort to speak French. This was great for us because we wanted an opportunity to do this and by the time we left, we had all added a good number of words and phrases to our vocabulary. It was wonderful to see the girls go into the bakery and ask for what they wanted without any help from us; or go to the office on their own to ask (in French) for a token for the washing machine. We also got to know the staff quite well and would have conversations with them about what we were doing, where we had been out to that day and so on. We very much enjoyed the feeling of satisfaction that came with successfully having a conversation with someone in a different language and were spurred on to try and do more.
All in all, I will remember our month in Provence as one of the happiest so far on our trip. We loved getting to know the town, the people here and the local area. We loved practicing our French and shopping at the local market. We loved the clear azure skies and the elegant Cypress trees. But above all, we loved the slower pace of life here. Maussane has a main road right though its centre, but there was hardly ever any traffic on it. No-one seemed to be in a hurry and everyone smiled and said ‘Bonjour’ when you passed them. In fact, I would say that during our time here we all started to walk a little slower. We stopped more often to appreciate the beauty around us. And we were all more than a little sad to leave. But, the weather was getting colder and the Mistral was blowing stronger, summer was giving way to autumn and Spain was calling us…
Things to do around Maussane Les Alpilles
We found Maussane to be a great location from which to explore a huge area of western Provence. It is close to St Remy de Provence and not far from Avignon, Nimes and Arles. We did some hiking, went canoeing, drove out to the coast and saw flamingoes in the Camargue, followed the Van Gogh trail in Arles, saw lots of Roman sites including arenas and theatres that are still in use, the magnificent Pont du Gard, delightful Uzès and even the HARIBO museum!
Read about some of the days out we had whilst we were here:
– On the Van Gogh trail in Arles
– A walk from Maussane Les Alpilles to Les Baux
– Canoeing on the River Gardon (and under the Pont du Gard)
– Spotting flamingoes and horses in the Camargue
– A hymn to slowness – Roussillon and the ochre footpath
– HARIBO museum
– Pont du Gard