Monday, 22 October 2012

L'Occitane en Provence Fantastic Journeys

For me the past years in Provence have been spent meeting fascinating people, discovering mind blowing sites and meeting more people. All this interspersed with flying balloons, a lot, and  more recently creating my travel company. 
When I started the adventure of Kairos travel and it's luxury portal Unique Provence I was approached by the international cosmetic company L'Occitane en Provence. They had recently started a blog type website called Fantastic Provence  which was dedicated to showcasing the best of Provence in correspondence with the spirit of L'Occitane. Subjects go from food, hotels, fashion to interviews and travel ideas. They were looking for an agency who could create tours that ticked all the boxes in their vision of Provence and it seemed that I did just that. 

After a year meeting farmers, chefs, hotel managers and many more besides I can now present the tours that in my mind embody the spirit of L'Occitane en Provence. On our catalogue this year there are four tours of which two are labelled L'Occitane en Provence Fantastic Journeys.

Springtime in Provence - Luxury Small Group Guided Tour
The first is a tour taking place at the end of springtime, when the perfume rose harvest is under way. Thanks to the implication of L'Occitane we are able to visit these otherwise secret gardens, where visits from the general public would disrupt the day to day routines. In fact we won't just visit them, as spectators, but guests will be given gloves, secateurs and the straw hat of course and will be able to pick their own roses. This harvest will be kept for later, as we will make our own perfume rose water using a magnificent copper Alembic Still. Keeping with the rose theme the guests will also have the chance to create their very own bespoke perfume with a master perfumer.

Like every trip to France, food plays a great part of our journey. These are luxury tours with 4* and 5* accommodation, and so Michelin starred restaurants are on the agenda of course, but also a rustic feast in a farm, a buffet of local fare and a picnic with produce bought that very day from the colourful Provençal market of Forcalquier, not forgetting an olive oil tasting. The tour continues stopping at Abbeys and Ochre mines towards Arles, town where the Romans and Vincent Van Gogh as well as many others have left an indelible mark. From here we will visit the Camargue where our own French cowboys, Les Manadiers along with Camargue horses, bulls and pink flamingos all go to paint a vibrant picture of this fascinating land. Les Baux de Provence, one of the most beautiful villages in France is on the agenda as well and the privatisation of the Carrières de Lumières will be the bouquet finale!

Lavender and the Luberon - Luxury Small Group Guided Tour

Our second Fantastic Journey is during the Lavender season. This iconic flower is probably the most used image when promoting Provence, though its flowering season is very short. I have chosen to do only three weeks of this tour to ensure that each has the best possible conditions to admire the fields of lavender at their best. During this tour we will pick and distil our own wild lavender, and the exclusivity brought to us by L'Occitane is the access to their laboratories to create your own L'Occitane en Provence product, maybe using the essential lavender oil you distilled! Our journey will take us across the Plateau d'Albion where lavender occupies most of the landscape, and the Mont Ventoux provides a dramatic backdrop.

The second part of this tour takes us through the Luberon to St Remy de Provence, birthplace of Nostradamus and town where Vincent Van Gogh (him again!) spent time interned in the asylum at his own request. We will discover some of the jewels of Provence with the towns of Gordes, Bonnieux, Lacoste, Menerbes and Oppede le Vieux to name but a few. Guests will enjoy a relatively effortless cycle ride using electrically assisted bikes,  as well as an aperitif at the Château des Baux de Provence where we have privatised an area just for ourselves. As with all the tours, lavish meals, picnics and buffets will intersperse your voyage of discovery.

Both tours include 1 hours treatments in the L'Occitane en Provence's Spa, nearly all meals and accompanying wine and we guarantee that there are no "budget" menus. Accomodation is in the 5* hotel, Le Couvent des Minimes for the first part of each tour, and then the 4* Hotel Nord Pinus in the centre of Arles for the Springtime tour and the 4* Hotel de L'Image in the centre of St Remy de Provence for the Lavnder and Luberon Tour. There is plenty of free time for gusts to be on their own, for shopping and relaxing and as these are Small Group Tours there will never be more than 14 participants accompanied by 2 guides in two 9 seater minibuses.
Being very seasonal each tour only runs for three weeks, but if you miss the opportunity this year we also have our Unique Provence Experience in May and September for a gastronomic extravaganza from Aix en Provence to Avignon.
We are offering a free room upgrade or a 10% discount on selected tours booked before the 31st December 2012.
For more information and the complete itineraries for all of our 2013 Provence Tours including Springtime in Provence and Lavender and the Luberon visit our website
You can also read the article on the Fantastic Provence Website here

You can read more on some of the travel experiences in our tours with the following blog posts :

A University for Scents and Flavours
Forcalquier Market
Vegetable Gourmet Heaven - La Chassagnette
The Camargue, Land of Beauty Beasts and Proud Manadiers
In the Footsteps of the Lavender Pickers
Les Petites Tables, a Perfect Stop for a Healthy Lunch
The Nougat Maker of Sault
Plateau d'Albion Lavender 2012
La Provence on an Electric Bicycle
Immerse Yourself in the Carrières des Lumières 

Sunday, 14 October 2012

The Camargue, land of Beauty, Beasts and Proud Manadiers

My first experience in the Camargue was as captain of a luxury hotel barge in 1997-8 or thereabouts. 
In my mind’s eye (back then) it was a vast swamp dotted with pink flamingos, wild horses and fighting bulls.
I didn’t know about the mosquitoes at the time, but I soon found out.
In fact I didn’t know about a lot of things, I still don’t, but I’m learning every day!
Too much zoom and not very good light, but here's my flamingo picture of the day...

...and here is one that Estelle Laurent sent me, next time I'll do better!
Photo courtesy of the Manade Laurent
I was right about the flamingos and the horses but I was a bit off on the bulls. The term “fighting bulls” is wrong when referring to the bulls originally from the Camargue, they are not bred to fight. For those you have to go to Spain or Portugal and although Spanish bulls are sometimes bred in the Camargue they are not the indigenous species.
Ozmec the bull...seems like a nice chap...
Photo courtesy of the Manade Laurent
Both varieties are black or dark brown and have remained close to their wild ancestors and both are very bad tempered. The Camargue bull or the Raço di Biòu has a slightly smaller build than its Iberian cousins, and is raised as semi-wild, they are bred for meat but also for the Courses Camarguaises, more about which later.
In order to round up these semi-wild angry bulls we bring in the Camargue horse another indigenous species of the region. They are white (grey for the purists) but when they are born are various shades of brown. They turn white as they get older, around two years old. The stallions are the only ones that are ridden whilst the mares look after the foals, do the cooking and generally keep the swamp clean (Mediterranean culture and all that…)
Now I am not a horse person, I like them as animals to pet and give grass etc. but I don’t ride, in fact if there is no on off switch like on a motorbike or a car I just stay away (apart from the petting and feeding), but I have to admit that these horses have something special, they are majestic and at the same time have a look about them that makes me think of a rather camp male model, the blonde mane swishing in the wind, long blonde eyelashes, the coy but macho look, the burning stare and if they knew how to purse their lips the illusion would be complete. There is never a photo of a Camargue horse looking uninteresting, they always look “fabulous!” manes swishing in the wind, just take a look at the photos that I took and you’ll see what I mean… anyway I digress. These “fabulous” horses are used to round up the angry bulls and so now we bring in the Manadiers.

The Manadiers are the cowboys of the Camargue who run the Manades, the name given to the Camargue farms. They live for the horses and bulls, and the pride that they have for their work is impressive indeed. I went to meet Patrick and Estelle Laurent at the Manade Laurent, Les Marquises which occupies 1000 acres of land and produces mainly cattle, rice and breeds horses. The manade is deeply steeped in the family history which in their case is particularly rich.  Founded in 1944 by Paul Laurent, the Manade Laurent earned itself a place in the history of the Camargue  as Paul gave new life to the Courses Camarguaises thanks to his organisation skills and also the care and attention he gave to his animals.
3 generations of the Laurent family
Photo courtesy of the Manade Laurent
I was greeted by Estelle in full Manadier dress, hat and all, ready to leap on a horse if necessary. We started with a glass of something cool in the house, whilst she told me a bit about the history of the Manade. Every surface available was adorned with trophies, paintings and sculptures of bulls and horses testifying to the incredible legacy that this Manade has and continues to have in the Camargue. Afterwards I met Patrick, who was also dressed the part, and he described the Manades main activities and then invited me to watch the horses that they were going to use the next day, move from one paddock to another. The horses galloped towards us looking “fabulous” and then when in their new paddock gave a display of joy that was truly endearing. They galloped, jumped and kicked out their back legs for several minutes before settling down. I am a strong believer that animals reflect their owners, and these horses were the happiest I had ever seen. I have also included a photo of their 12 year old Golden Retriever who followed us wherever we went and also bears witness to the Laurent’s care and respect for their animals.
The Laurent's Golden Retriever, my kind of dog.
A full tour of the Manade takes place on a specially adapted trailer towed behind an appropriate vehicle for the discovery of the property. A horseback option is also available. As you tour you will see the bulls and horses in their semi-wild state, and you soon understand why you are not on foot! It is a fascinating insight into the world of the Camargue “Cowboys” and a culture that is maintained by the palpable pride of the Manadiers. Estelle and Patrick epitomise this culture and are the perfect hosts and guides who seem to never tire from the barrage of questions that I had for them.

Whilst on the Manade I made an interesting discovery linking another one of my partners to this wonderful travel experience. L’Occitane en Provence produce a “Sorbet Verbena” refreshing mist which thanks to its fresh lemon fragrance seems to hold the mosquitoes at bay. After a bit of research I found that herbalists have always been using Verbena as a mosquito repellent, and many recommend it as the most effective, so as well as making a product that leaves you smelling and feeling fresh, L’Occitane has unwittingly produced the ideal product for travel to any hot mossie’ infested region of the world!
There’s a scoop for you!

About the Courses Camarguaises.

I could not finish this post without explaining how the Courses Camarguaises work.
The  Courses Camarguaises which translates as the Camarguaise Races is a tradition that goes back to the 19th century but became organised and regained in popularity in the first half of the 20th century largely thanks to Paul Laurent (see above).
The Camargue Bull (Raço di Biòu) is exclusively used for these “races”. The Bull has a string wrapped around each horn the more turns depending on the quality of the bull,  another one in between his horns and two pompoms (called a Gland or Acorn) at the base of each horn, these three objects are called “les atributs”. The Bull is released into the arena and there several “raseteurs” dressed in white have to try to remove the atributs using a sort of metal comb. 

A raseteur trying to remove the "atributs" from a bull
Photo courtesy of the Manade Laurent
They have to run fast and leap over the wooden barriers to avoid being run through by the long and very sharp horns. The bulls often leap over the barriers as well, or even go straight through them. After 15 minutes the Course stops and another bull is brought in. The star of these events is the bull and the raseteurs often end up for the worse. The bulls can have careers lasting around 10 years and after they retire to the fields of the Camargue to spend the rest of their days. They are never slaughtered.

The Manade Laurent won the Biou d’Or (the highest annual award for the Camargue’s prize bull in the Courses Camarguaises) no less than 12 times.
One bull stands out from the rest, in 1976 the bull Goya won the Biou d’Or, but remained a star all his life and still is today in the memories of the fans of la Course Camarguaise! Usually the ultimate glorification for a Camargue bull is the erection of a statue in its honour after they die, and this is an honour reserved for very few. Goya’s statue was put up in the town of Beaucaire in 1984 whilst he was still alive, an ultimate homage to this apparently unique bull who participated in no less than 117 Courses Camarguaises and sent many raseteurs and spectators to the emergency units of local hospitals.
The Laurent Family in front of the statue of Goya in Beaucaire, possibly the most famous bull of all time!
Photo courtesy of the Manade Laurent
Goya was said to be intelligent, agile, cunning, feisty, wild and playful. In fact so playful that he enjoyed goring people with his horns, but “…he never over did it. Once he had gored he moved on, but he was always bang on target” He died in 1986 at the age of 22 in his pastures of the Camargue, which is a good age for a bull or for any bovine.
The Courses Camarguaises as you can see are different from Spanish Bullfighting in that the bull lives to see another day. To the question do they suffer, the defenders of this tradition will often say no, I think that do a bit when they go crashing through the wooden barriers around the arena, and sometimes when the raseteur lacks in precision his metal comb can wound the bull. But as you can see in Goya’s case, the bulls live to a ripe old age, which they wouldn’t if they were seriously damaged. And if the Courses Camarguaises didn’t exist then many Manades would stop farming them all together.
A visit to the Manade Laurent is part of the 2013 Provence small group tours by Unique Provence for the month of June when nature is at its best. Visits outside of the tours are also possible of course. This is also a perfect tour to combine with a meal at La Chassagnette, more about which you can read here.
As always, for more information contact us using the link on the right.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

The latest from UniqueProvence's photostream

DSC_0305DSC_0297Flamingo LoveDSC_1589DSC_1578DSC_1568
DSC_1503DSC_1501DSC_1496DSC_1495DSC_1477Lavender near Revest du Bion, Plateau d'Albion
Here are the latest pictures on my Flickr account. A few from my recent trip to the Camargue and some of the Jasmine harvest which has been one of the most popular blog posts to date. (Just for info I'll be visiting 10 acres of scented rose gardens tomorrow but not in flower, but if they have some pictures to give me I'll get a post up as soon as possible.)
I will be posting a new article soon (apart from the one on the roses) but have been somewhat bogged down with next years tours. But they are looking good though!

watch this space...