Dry stone architecture is about as old as mankind. Anywhere stone is abundant, people have built habitations with it for mellenia. It’s common the world over.

But to be able to drive down the road (or dirt path), and see these abandoned structures through the brush is fascinating. And if you’re doing it at dusk, it’s downright spooky.

The hillsides around Gordes are covered in scrubby, rocky terrain, with olive and oak trees and underbrush. Almost everywhere you turn you see dry stone walls, some newer, most old and decrepit, marking off ancient boundary lines, sheep pens, paths, and more. And if you look long enough, you begin to see structures–some standing (and some impressively large), some partially collapsed, some piles of rubble.

My curiosity piqued by my own explorations at dusk and dawn, I went to the local Bories Village. In the early 1970s, this old village, abandoned at the beginning of the 19th century, was restored. Most tourist attractions in the world focus on historic locations originally reserved for the rich and powerful: palaces, mansions, grand cathedrals, political buildings, etc. This one focuses on the hardscrabble life of the common rural villager, and attracts 100,000 visitors a year. (And the odd thing is: with no souvenir shop, you can’t buy a thing there.)

There isn’t a lot of information about what life was like for the inhabitants of these huts, save for a few household and farming implements. But you can gather a lot from observation: the soot and creosote coating the interior walls of the houses indicate a lot of smoke, coughing, and lung cancer.  Even in the hot sunshine, the interior of the buildings was very cool (and some were damp with ground seepage), so it must have been freezing in the winter, especially with the howling Mistral winds. They probably had a lot of welts on their heads from bumping them on the low doorways, and a lot of bruised or crushed fingers from laying so much stone.

As much as the silent history enclosed within these ubiquitous walls and structures, I was fascinated by their shape, the inward curve of the walls, the rugged poetry of their lines, the indelible weight of time.

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A little street shooting at Fontaine de Vaucluse, Provence, France. The texture of aged stucco and stone are part of the charm of the area (and, indeed, of any part of the world that builds with these materials). Add to that a young lady whose clothing choices match the surroundings, and a few flowers, and you’ve got a picture.

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The hill towns are beautiful here, perched over the Luberon Valley. The narrow streets make for some interesting driving and enjoyable exploring. Here are a few images to give you a flavor of the countryside.

Roussillon has been a protected village since the 1940s, when further development was banned. One of the most photogenic villages, and the most colorful, the streets are crowded with people taking snapshots. It is famous for its quarry of ochre and red pigments used in paints around the world.

This is Bonnieux, less famous (and thus less touristy), but also beautiful. We spent a good long while in the cemetery at the top of the hill, enjoying the breeze, the quiet, and the view.

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One of the few places I’ve always wanted to go to in France was Provence. Probably inspired by of VanGogh and Matisse, their descriptions of the light and color of the region (and the sunshine and warmth) have always been at the back of my mind.
I must say, I haven’t been disappointed. The landscape is an interesting mix of arid and green. It smells of pine forest and thyme. The historic hill towns and valley vistas are delightful to explore. And the mix of sunshine with a constant breeze makes for a climate (at least at this time of year) that really agrees with me.
The one drawback, in my opinion, is that it is overrun with tourists (like me). To avoid the onslaught of tour buses and souvenir shopping crouds, I like to photograph early in the morning, or later in the afternoon or evening. At those times, the towns and countryside seem almost deserted, and those who are out and about live and work here. And the light is lovely.
Here are some night shots from this past week.

A wierd photo, you say? Well, thank you very much. Isn’t the moon and sky beautiful? And the light on the metal shopping carts? I couldn’t pass it up, in the parking lot of a Super U. Don’t ever expect to be able to shop for anything past 8pm in France. Most places close even earlier.

This is Gordes, the hill town just up the road from where we are staying. It is listed as one of the most beautiful places in France by someone or other, and they weren’t lying. It’s pretty impressive. My favorite parts are where you can see the remains of the rear walls of old homes, carved out of the sandstone. I love to explore.

A stone wall and gite. The stone walls here are almost as impressive as in the Yorkshire Dales. (The Yorkshire Dales? Enough about the Dales already!)

A borie (actually a replica). These abound in the hills where we are staying, and visited at night by moonlight are fascinating and spooky. I hope to explore more; you can read about them here.

The pool and garden at our little hotel.

And another strange image from our hotel.

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Some images from the walled city of Carcasonne, France.

It seemed pretty odd to me that this kid, sitting in an oversized wheelchair, would be intentionally sticking his head into a plastic bag. Had his parents never taught him to never stick his head into a plastic bag for fear of suffocating? Was he suicidal? That’s how it appeared. Until I noticed a little later that inside the bag is a 2 liter bottle of soda pop.

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In Bratislava we stayed with an amateur winemaker named Imrich. When he had his house built in the Little Carpathian Mountains, an ancient wine-growing region (with its beginnings in Roman times) near Bratislava, he designed a small wine-making cellar as well. An engineer by day, and a jazz musician by night for many years, he loves his wine.

As he gave us a tour in a mix of Slovak and English, he pulled out a folder and opened it up. Inside he kept poems, songs, and stories about wine. He read one to us, interpreted by his daughter Monika, comparing wine to a woman. What a delight to spend time with a man of such good humor, who loves his craft not just for its end product, but for its poetry as well.

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One of our hosts in Spain is this gentleman, Peter. He is a sweet man, softspoken, always smiling when he greets you. His wife says he looks Greek here, which makes sense, since his parents were Greek and English. He hasn’t lived in the UK for over 35 years, and yet his favorite memory of his time there was a holiday he took in the Yorkshire Dales. His wife groans whenever we mention our time in the Dales, and says with her Dutch accent, “Not the Yorkshire Dales! Three or four times a year Peter tells me this story about his holiday in the Yorkshire Dales. Always the Dales!” And he smiles.

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I mentioned earlier that the Eiffel Tower was even more impressive in person than I’d imagined, and that it lived up to its reputation as an icon, and did not disappoint. I would have to say this of two other things I’ve seen so far on this trip: the paintings of VanGogh, and the island citadel of Mt St Michel. VanGogh’s paintings are far better in person, the colors much richer and brighter than their reproductions, and stumbling upon them in the Musee d’Orsay was a delight that brought tears to my eyes.
Then there’s Mt St Michel. I’d heard of it before, but knew nothing more of it than that it was an abbey/cathedral situated on a rock off the French coast. And that Michael Kenna had been given special access to the place and created incredible images there.

When we saw the spire of Mt St Michel from a distance of several miles, this dark, spiky lump on the horizon, it immediately was impressive. So unexpected was it that we all let out exclamations in the car. As we drove toward it, it slowly began to tower over the cow and sheep pastures and bay (and parking lot) that surrounded it.

The tour was well worth the time, as we were able to see the insides of the abbey, cathedral, the village, the columns and arches that undergird the abbey, etc. The light inside the buildings was fantastic, as well, making me wish I could orchestrate a portrait session of some sort there.

Like so many places we’ve visited, it only makes me want to read up more on my European history. We were told that, during the 100 Years’ War between England and France, Mt St Michel was the only part of northern France that did not fall into the hands of the English, in spite of a 30 year siege.

It is, somewhat like the Cimitierre Perre Lechez, a place right out of a fantasy novel or sci-fi flick. Its similarities to Edoras and Minis Tirith in The Lord of the Rings was unmistakable.
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  • April 30, 2008 - 2:39 am

    alicia marie - that is absolutely breathtaking….amazing pictures, as always, cousin!

  • May 1, 2008 - 6:57 pm

    Clinton James - That is one amazing shot. Is that infrared

  • May 2, 2008 - 11:19 am

    FritzPhoto - Thanks, Clinton. I wish I could shoot infrared, but mz 5D will not. This image I have worked on in Photoshop to create the image I had envisioned when I shot it.

  • September 6, 2008 - 3:06 pm

    neenja_mastah - Beautiful Fritz. This was my favorite place in France. 🙂

We’re in Spain at the moment, spending some quiet time catching up on things. I’m doing a lot of editing from our time in France, and even some from England.

Today’s post includes a few images from St Malo, a ‘pirate city’ on the west coast of France. We spent an afternoon there with our friends the Drouets, walking the walled city, watching the rapidly rising tide, ducking the rain. Above, an image of the little castle on the rocks off the shore of the main city. This little archipeligo of rocks and castle was accessible by foot when we arrived, and within no time, the water rose and everyone made their way up on the walls of the fortified city. I ran rather quickly back to a vantage point and shot swiftly when I saw this little patch of sun highlight the fort.

An image with clear Cartier Bresson undertones. Or overtones. I don’t know which.

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  • April 28, 2008 - 3:38 am

    Jen - those are amazing photos… especially the first one. 🙂

The Eiffel Tower is, of course, the icon of Paris, and perhaps of all of France. More often than not, icons of that sort don’t really stand up to much scrutiny in person. However, I must say, the Eiffel Tower is actually quite impressive in person. Its graceful and massive lines, especially the base arches, are quite lovely. And when the sun goes down, and the lights go on, well, you can’t help but kiss the person next to you.
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