Today was interesting, in that it was sort of a hodge-podge of the last few things we wanted to do in the area. In the morning, we visited Les Alyscamps, a Roman necropolis turned Christian cemetery. It was creepy and eerie and beautiful all at the same time. The pathway was lined with sarcophagi and at the end, there was a building that looked like it used to be a church but was completely empty inside. It was full of pigeons and bats making weird high-pitched screeching noises. There were no lights except light coming in from dirty windows, so the whole place was dim. Needless to say, anytime a pigeon moved, I jumped, and both Chris and I were happy to go back into the sunlight.
After trying to find a way up to the Port of Augustus, one of the entry gates to the city, and failing, we had lunch (lamb and toasts with olive tapenade for me, several different kinds of fish for Chris) then headed out to visit a winery. Now, you might be thinking, “Oh, how nice, they’re finally going to experience some real French culture.” Well, you’d be right but also wrong. This wasn’t any old winery. It was (you guessed it!) a Roman winery, called Mas des Tourelles. By chance, I had read in our guidebook about this winery that makes wine exactly like the Romans did (or as close to it as possible). It is actually also a normal modern winery, but I guess about 20 years ago they discovered the remains of an ancient winery on the property and so, with the help of archaeologists, decided to try making wine the ancient way.
There are several ancient sources that describe winemaking, the most detailed being Columella, who talks about how to grow the vines, how to press the grapes, and how to actually make the wine itself. They had a small plot where they grew vines in olive trees, apparently a Roman method, as well as attached to a terrace type thing, rather than just in rows like modern vineyards. They also had a huge press which they used for the second pressing. The first pressing is done the super old-fashioned way – with feet. There was a whole video about the process, and the most awesome thing was how they make the workers wear Roman tunics. I’m thinking about coming back in September so I can help out.
We did get to taste three different wines, which were interesting and not totally out of the ordinary. We also went to check out the site, which was extensive and pretty cool. It is really amazing how little the actual process has changed – grow some grapes, squeeze out the juice, then let it sit for a while. I wonder who first thought that would be a good idea?
After Mas des Tourelles, we had the most unusual experience of the whole trip. While at Tufts, Chris had written his Master thesis on sheep economy in the Crau Plain, which is about 30 minutes from Arles. Of course we could not be so close without going to take a look, so after our wine tasting, we headed out to the plain. The Crau is still used to sheep herding today and is a totally weird landscape. The whole place is covered in stones ranging in size from small pebbles to stones as large as two fists held together. The only things that grow are scraggly grasses and thistles, which were surprising tall and menacing looking. Chris had found one of his sheep folds on the map, so we parked the car next to the highway and began the trek out into the plain. Little did we know that the fold was actually about 2 miles away from the road. So, we spent the next half an hour fighting our way through the thistles and the wind, tripping over stones to find the remains of…a Roman sheep fold. An outbuilding, then two back rooms and a large holding pen. Literally a few squares of stones in the ground. We hung around for about 5 minutes, then started the 2 mile hike back to the car.
I’m still not sure if it was exactly “worth it,” and it’s definitely not something other people do on their honeymoons, but I’m glad we did it. Most people only see the great monuments, the amphitheaters, the baths, the temples. Here was a simple sheep fold very literally in the middle of nowhere, and standing there, with the wind whipping crazily around me, it was astonishing to think that 2,000 years ago, farmers lived out here. Ordinary people trying to make a living, maybe going to a tiny nearby village for necessities, maybe, just maybe going to Arelate to do some trading. But those people, those men and women who lived with their sheep out in the middle of nowhere, they probably never went to the games in the arena, or could afford to spend a day in the baths. And that’s something a lot of people now don’t remember.
Anyway, after walking for four miles, we decided we had earned a spectacular dinner, which we ate – veal two ways (grilled and boiled in consommé) for me and sea bream with artichokes and olives for Chris, then the most amazing desserts: custard made with almond milk with poached cherries on top and cherry ice cream; and poached apricots with basil. I certainly couldn’t think of a better way to end the day. 🙂
Outside the weird church thing.
Inside the weird church thing
Another shot of the inside
Mas des Tourelles
Roman wine press!
Where they stomp the grapes by foot
Olive trees with vines growing in them
The site of the Roman winery
The Crau. Doesn’t it look like fun?!
Thistles. I accidentally brushed one with my foot and the thorn made me bleed.
“Hmmm… I think this patch of dirt looks different from all the other ones…”
Can you see the sheep fold?
We’re both so excited! (check out what the wind is doing to my hair!)