Provence

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Vastness, Vin, and Van Gogh

The Provence of our experience wasn't the tourist circuit. The boatyard at Port Napoleon is the place the boat spent the winter and we spent nearly a month there in each of our visits. For two miles out from the yard, there's nothing but river and farmland, and when you finally reach a town, it's a nearly anonymous one. But a rental car gave us more mobility than we normally have, and we got a chance to experience the contradictions of Provence: empty, flat landscapes for miles, and then old villages so filled up that there's nowhere to put a car. Farmer's markets and sprawling suburban superstores. Cowboys driving cattle in the Camargue and Indians tweeting Van Gogh pics back to Mumbai.

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Camargue bulls
The iconic Camargue bull might be indigenous to the region, or it might have been imported by Attila the Hun. These animals are revered, raced, fought, and yes, eaten. The Camargue also sustains a stocky white horse that manages to find its way onto postcards without ending up in crockpots.
Flamingoes
King Louis IX (now Saint Louis) wanted to finance a crusade to Jerusalem in the 13th century, so he built a major port in the Camargue for the export of salt. But he wasn't the first to exploit the marsh's abundance of salt. Flamingoes, when you catch them in the right season, liven the landscape with their neon feathers and their cartoon profiles.
Martigues
Martigues is a conglomeration of two banks alongside a lake and an island in the middle. It's been around since the Romans settled in the fifth century BC, but it's largely undiscovered by foreign tourists. We wouldn't have found it ourselves if we didn't have a rental-car related errand that took us there. It's a hospitable place, and a microcosm of much of what we like about France.
Arles
To those knowledgeable about art (not us), a walk through Arles is a walk through a Van Gogh painting. Many of the most famous places are kept faithful to the way they looked when Van Gogh put them on canvas, down to the colors. The paintings themselves, alas, are elsewhere. But the 1st-century Roman arena is still there and seats 21,000 for the many events that take place during the year. Among the most famous, the Camargue-style bullfight, in which both bull and toreador are reusable.
Pont d'Avignon
This is the famous Pont d'Avignon of song, where on y danse. Its real name is Pont St-Benezet for the now-sainted shepherd who is said to have laid its original, impossibly-heavy stone foundation.
Papal Palace at Avignon
For 70 years, Christiandom was overseen by what is now known as the Avignon Papacy. Unhappy with governance from Rome, somehow they elected a Frenchman as pope, and the papal quarters was moved to church-owned land in Avignon. The French popes held power through the nomination of French cardinals (who elect popes) and apparently were trying to debase the papacy more than the Italians had done. At some point, there were two popes, one in Rome and the one in Avignon, who was considered the anti-pope. This is the Banquet Hall of the papal palace, a building that was expended several times and in several styles during the Avignon rule.
Confit
The food shops in Provence are a feast for the eyes, even if you never open your mouth. Here is a display of fruits confits, or crystallized, jellied fruits. They're almost too pretty to eat.
Calanque Sormiou
The calanques are France's answer to Norway's fjords, large limestone ridges stretching aloft. It's a dreamlike setting for anchoring overnight. Second Wind is a blurry dot in the distance.