Chris Davenport leads a team of skiers up a steep peak in the Antarctic Peninsula.
Do the popes live in a palace? Avignon, Arles and Van Gogh's Provence
Fresco from the Stag Room in the Palace of the Popes, Avignon
Holy frugality! Here's the list of victuals for the coronation of the 14th century Avignon pope Clement VI: 95,000 loaves of bread, 50,000 tarts, 39,890 eggs, 7,428 chickens, 3,043 fowl, 1,500 capons, 1,195 geese, 1,023 sheep, 914 kids, six hundredweight of almonds, two hundredweight of sugar, 118 oxen, 101 calves, 69 hundredweight of bacon and 60 pigs. I can feel the sin of gluttony coming on just reading about such a spread.
Were the popes ever terribly modest? Not if their Avignon contingent was any guide. The papacy relocated to the French town when another Clement, No 5, refused to move to Rome - and presumably not just because he was too full. Their new quarters, Avignon's seemingly endless Palace of the Popes, were not only the stage for enormous feasts like that above but were decorated with the most elaborate frescoes and housed collections of exotic beasts sent by princes from foreign lands.
Statue inside the Palace of the Popes, Avignon
Many of those magnificent frescoes, painstaking precursors of wallpaper, were lost to fire or trashed by revolutionary troops but some were startlingly well preserved under layers of military paint. Frescoes were often meant to remind the elite of their pastimes, when they weren't actually enjoying them, and in the Stag Room, for example, against a backdrop of trees and fruit-laden bushes, we spy upon a hawker luring birds and animals to their deaths with false calls and decoys, a hunter loosing a ferret upon a rabbit and fishermen around a pool full of pike and other species.
The meticulous skill of the depiction is evident but good fresco-painters were also in demand for their speed. In making a fresco, paint is applied to wet mortar (the word "fresco" means fresh in Italian), a tattoo-like method that allows the paint to sink in deeply and the resulting work to last for centuries but that also gives the painter only seven hours or so in which to work - probably less in the shimmering Provençal heat.
You should visit the Palace of the Popes if you find yourself in now somewhat sleepy Avignon. The unwashed, variously ranked ecclesiastical and other folk you imagine once thronging every corner may be gone, along with those frescoes and other fine adornments, but the vast cluster of buildings still give you a vivid impression of what life in a medieval palace must have been like.
Lazy but pretty
Ninette and her owner, M Florent
Truffles were exactly the kind of thing I imagined one of those well-padded popes popping into his mouth but in fact the delicacy had fallen out of favour in medieval times. Then, when they were hunted, pigs were often used, although they were wont to eat the prize. When I tried the culinary pursuit around Avignon, where the fungus is abundant, all the sniffing was done by a dog, Ninette - a lazy creature, according to her owner, Monsieur Florent, but pretty and with the added advantage of presumably not favouring shaved truffle on her Pal or whatever is the French equivalent.
You need very little, in a material sense, to be a truffle hunter: a dog (or well-fed pig), a small truffle pick and a truffle bag. On the other hand, you also need a sense honed over a lifetime for reading truffle signs. One of those signs is the brulé, a patch of grass "burned" by the truffle's powerful truffle emanations.
"Fille! Fille! Fille!" Ninette may have been lazy but she became excited enough when, spurred towards a brulé by M Florent's repetitive cries, she whined the presence of a truffle. She had soon dug the precious fungal chunk from the soil and, surprisingly for an animal that is supposedly not a natural truffle-fancier, proceeded to slobber all over it. That's not something they tell you about in the top restaurants. When M Florent rescued it from her, I hoped, recalling stories of huge truffle payoffs, he might give it to me but he slipped it into his little black bag soon enough.
Galerie Huit interior
Bloodied in the truffle hunt, I passed next on my tour of lesser-known Provence through Arles, an almost funereal town in winter (come in July, instead, for the renowned photography festival) mercifully enlivened by my stay at an establishment called Galerie Huit. For anyone, like me, who habitually shudders at the union of any kind of hiredaccommodation and "art", a few days at this restored 17th-century mansion should act as a sort of therapy.
Julia de Bierre, the author and curator who owns the gallery-cum-lodgings, has scoured Arles and beyond to decorate each room in a different period style. Mine, Barbentane, through the accumulation of countless telling little objets genuinely seemed to transport me to a Provence of several centuries ago - so much so that I could almost ignore the club music throbbing through the walls from somewhere on a Saturday night.
And so to endings. One of Arles' most famous residents, Vincent van Gogh, made something of a nuisance of himself here. His neighbours, sick of his drunken and demented behaviour (it was in Arles that he chopped off his ear) chased him out of town, and the artist next had himself interned in an asylum in the nearby village of St-Rémy de Provence.
Alamy, Jean-Bernard Carillet
Van Gogh fell in love with the light and colours of Provence
The hospital, St Paul de Mausolé, remains in part a refuge for mental patients but you can still, fascinatingly, visit it and see some of the real-life scenes that Van Gogh turned into such startling paintings. The Dutchman loved the colours and light in this part of France, and he inspired other painters to follow him. Indeed, St-Rémy remains something of an artists' colony, albeit one turning out a lot of kitsch these days if the storefronts are any guide.
Yet, although Van Gogh might have inspired much of the town's prosperity, he enjoyed no riches himself. Astoundingly, he sold only one painting in a lifetime that he himself cut short, some months after his stay at St-Rémy, at the age of 37.
It's the saddest story but, recalling it here, it's also one also tinged with beauty.
Simon travelled to Provence with the assistance of a number of regional tourism agencies. For more information on Vaucluse visit Provence Guide. Information on the Bouches du Rhône is available at Visit Provence.
For deals and discounts on accommodation, restaurants and attractions in Provence Alpes Côte d'Azur visit 52sunsations.com.