John & Rachel's 2001 Trip to France

Part Deux

Provence

When we last left you we had just gotten on the train to go from Tours to Avignon, France. Tours is about 140 miles southwest of Paris. It would have been shorter to take the regular train and cut across to the southeast, then go on down to Avignon which is in southeastern France. But it was actually quicker to take the fast TGV back to Paris, change trains at Charles de Gaulle where we had started and then go south to Avignon. Approaching Paris we saw another TGV passing by so you can see what we look like from the outside.

As we passed through CDG Airport, we were reminded of how many people in Europe smoke. The non-smoking section thing just has not caught on in France. Here is what they do with the butts.

As the train sped along we passed field after magnificent golden field of mustard. They were growing enough Grey Poupon to share at every stoplight in France. We were having the time of our lives looking at the gorgeous scenery flash by our window while the locals read or napped. It is difficult to rave too much about the TGV. You simply must experience it! The windows have three thick panes of glass so there is no wind whistling at all. Even if you whisper to your seatmate someone might overhear you. The TGV rides on tracks not shared by any other trains and they are a work of art. There is no bouncing, no swaying from side to side; nothing but a very faint low rumble of well-soundproofed air being ripped apart.

Your brain has trouble interpreting the pace of the passing world when you are three feet off the ground going 186 mph. For two hours that day I thought I was looking at sheep pass by outside and thought, boy this place sure has a lot of sheep. It suddenly dawned on me that they were white cattle! I had never seen anything go by that far away that fast, changing angle so quickly, so my brain refused to believe they were cattle 300 yards away. When it moved them closer it had to downsize them so they became sheep 100 yards away and moved past at an acceptable rate.

Their trains are quite civilized, selling wine, beer and snacks in a special car and the French are quite nonchalant about pulling out a snack from the bag they brought on board and having a glass of wine, also brown bagged, with their lunch. We envisioned our American conductors having a stroke at such behavior.

Under an increasingly gray sky it eventually began to drizzle as the ancient villages flashed by. When we arrived in Avignon after 3 1/2 hours on the train ripping the air apart the sky had cleared to a typical Provence blue. We picked up a BMW 3-series, one of the biggest cars in France, and headed just across the Rhone River by the Pont at Avignon, to their across-the-river neighbor, Villeneuve les Avignon. Here you can see a castle on the highest point in town. We checked into a hotel that was built in the 11th century (!) as a monastery and had a beautiful garden.

The next day, April 24th, we decided to follow another of the scenic driving tours from our France's Best Loved Driving Tours book and it was a peach. After stopping at the local super market to buy bread, wine and cheese, it wasn't long before we found a lovely spot up on a hill overlooking St Michel de Frigolet, a village southwest of town. Here, Rachel set up a nice lunch for us on a picnic table that may well have been made from salvaged Roman stones. Look at the size of those pieces of rock. We learned the locals made good use of many of the blocks of stone from Roman projects. Most of the coastal towns in southern France were founded by the Greeks and settled by the Romans! They built many, many cities here and made huge aqueducts all over the place to supply them with the great quantities of water the Romans so enjoyed. (For all their inventiveness they never developed soap. They bathed every day, oiled up and scraped their skin with a blade). When the ancient city of Nimes, which lies southwest of Avignon, outgrew its spring the Romans brought in water from Uzes, some 50 km away! In fact, our objective that day was a part of the aqueduct that brought water to Nimes - Pont du Gard!

Pont du Gard

Pont du Gard or Gard Bridge (it crosses the Gardon River) is the biggest and best-preserved Roman aqueduct in all of France. It is over 2,100 years old and still structurally sound. It is hard to believe you are still allowed to walk on such a historic, spectacular structure! In fact, until a few years ago you could walk on the top of it. But the winds are strong and people are not goats and they got tired of cleaning the rocks, so no more! Look how it dominates the countryside.

Pont du Gard was no longer used to carry water after about the 9th century and became a toll bridge in the Middle Ages. Since it wasn't really wide enough for big wagons, the "owners" cut away half of the columns on the second level and inadvertently seriously weakened it. Fortunately, Napoleon was as taken with the history and magnificence of this thing as we were and spent three years restoring it to its original design. Did you do the math on the age of Pont du Gard? This bridge was built slightly before the birth of Christ! And by then, Nimes was already 1200 years old! History? They've got it in spades in these parts!

To make Pont du Gard as high as necessary, the Romans actually built three aqueducts, one on top of the other. Never before had they built arches as wide as the ones at the base of Pont du Gard. This was their Space Shuttle.

The Gardon River looks innocent from here, but it regularly runs torrents and had torn out every bridge built up to then. For that reason, Pont du Gard was built on a foundation shaped like the prows of ships could part the raging waters. Every stone was cut to shape in the quarry, numbered (Roman Numerals) and lettered and brought here for assembly. You can still see other portions of this 50 kilometer (31-mile) aqueduct where it ran through tunnels, past maintenance access shafts and finally into Nimes where it flowed out into the main distribution pool. You can see the round outlets to various water mains serving different parts of the city.

The only sour note in all this magnificence was that the Romans used slave labor for all their projects. In fact, slave labor changed their society. They were such successful conquerors they were overrun with slaves. The slaves put all the free working-class Romans out of work! To placate them, the government gave them bread every day and entertained them. It was this surplus of people that made human life cheaper and cheaper which led to the violent character of the Roman games. The Romans, however, had the reputation of being quite gentle prior to all this success. Even now there is an amphitheater in the center of most towns, the majority of which are still used for concerts and such today.

St Remy

One of the most popular towns around Avignon is St Remy de Provence (to distinguish it from all the other St Remys. The section of a French atlas for towns starting with "St" is by far the biggest). St Remy lost some points with us for being so overrun with tourists I could not find a place to pull over and take a picture in the ancient, walled city, but it is a very charming looking town. Its street are lined with trees to keep it cool in the summer and there is an ancient walled city center of very upscale shops. It is the birthplace of Nostradamus (1503), known in St Remy as a great physician and elsewhere as the Royal Astrologer and famous predictor of things to come for the next 2,000 years. In his book, Centuries, he made 900 predictions set in verse. Like most prognosticators, he didn't predict when, in what order or where. Isn't it amazing he was so accurate?

Vincent Van Gogh had been living in Arles during 1888-89. In May 1889 he was voluntarily confined in the Asylum of Saint-Paul in Saint-Rémy. In this shot of a less than beautiful part of St Remy, you can see "Plane trees," which are mentioned in every guidebook and left us puzzled for days. They are a kind of tree that is cut back to stubs in the winter, then grow almost horizontally providing wonderful shade in the hot Provence summers. During this period of his life he painted two of his most notable works: Starry Night and Self-Portrait. He was released from the hospital in May 1890 and left for Auvers-sur-Oise, near Paris. He shot himself on July 27, 1890 and died two days later. At some point, Caroline of Monaco lived here, and the late Princess Diana had a place.

On April 25th, we checked out of our old monastery in Villeneuve les Avignon and drove back to St Remy to stay in The Chateau de Poussan. Right away we struck out on another portion of a scenic drive from our book. The route took us up through rocky, mountainous terrain until we ended up in the town of Les Baux en Provence, a few miles south of St Remy, built on the top of a mountain in the Alpilles, or little Alps. This is a fascinating town that was the home of the mighty lords of Baux, who in the 11th century held 72 towns (Don't you just love the history over here?). When Les Baux became known as the center of good taste and civilization, the king naturally grew tired of these qualities and in 1632, sent Welcome Wagon to wipe out the town. Here is the ruined castle from one side and from the other. The surviving residents never again lived in the houses that existed at that time. The result is two adjacent towns on the top of a small mountain; one abandoned and in ruins, and the other home to the local residents. Both are built out of the local rock and into the local rock. That there are houses up here can be very hard to see from a distance they blend so well into the rock. Some of them look very nice, but all are built to hide their nice sides. As you can tell from this view, it was easy to defend (but not when the King knocks on the door).

Every street of the ancient part of every town in southern France was built for people and horses, not cars. Les Baux en Provence is no exception. You just can't get a car in these streets, but of course the French do it all the time. They just don't drive what we think of as a car. Driving a BMW 3-series, I actually had to back and fill to make it around some city street corners in other towns. I wish I had a picture of the tiny brand of truck all the tradesmen drive over there. It will hold two very good friends and has an enclosed bed about 3' x 4' in the back. They are driven about double the speed limit and spew Gauloise butts and epithets from both front windows. But I digress!

The residents, in order to become residents, had to carve their houses out of the rock of the mountain. This lead to some spectacular views in this direction and that, and even some great places to pour boiling oil down onto the locals as a kind of "Come on up, we love strangers" message. It also produced some mighty peculiar "houses." I stumbled upon their quarry when I was exploring (guess what Rachel was doing?). It is amazing to think of these huge pieces of stone being cut out of there by hand, moved by hand and stacked up by hand. Humans have come a long way thanks to the diesel engine!

We left Les Baux laden with valuable gifts and took off across the countryside. Before much farther we saw a sign saying, "Aqueduc Romain," and an arrow. You don't have to hit me over the head! I slammed on brakes, backed up and went thataway. Just look at what we found! A Roman aqueduct out in the middle of nowhere, crossing the road as it ran across a farmer's fields! And no restrictions on climbing, touching or enjoying. Just the kind of thing our government people want to stamp out!

The flow of water was actually towards us, so let's start from the far end. We approached from behind the camera. Rachel is standing in a cut that is actually not part of the aqueduct. It was apparently cut through the top of the ridge to make travel easier. As we turn to the right, we can see the cut in the rock through which the water flowed towards us. Hold onto your chair when you view the next picture which is three pics stitched together. We are looking at the right-angle turn the channel made so it could then head out over the raised part of the aqueduct which continues here.

We walked back to the road, crossed it and followed the aqueduct along in the same direction water used to flow, finding some of the arches in good shape. I finally reached my objective; a place I could climb up where the water used to flow to the top of a portion in good condition. If you look at the edge of the water channel you can still see the material the Romans used to line the channel to make it waterproof. The formula was a secret only they knew. Some of the ingredients were lime, blood and wine!

Our long day ended with a drive down to the coast to an area known as the Camargue, a former flat coastal swamp they've made into oyster farming, then back to St Remy for dinner and bed at the chateau.

The Luberon

The next day we began what would be a week-long journey to the east, through the mountains of Le Luberon, a very scenic area of southeastern France. We stayed about 50 miles inland from the south coast, both to avoid the touristy places and to stay in the mountains about which we'd heard so much. All our guidebooks gushed about the Luberon and our favorite restauranteur in Amboise recommended we see it without knowing we already had plans to go there, so we were really looking forward to it.

We cranked up the BMW, a car of which I now understand the popularity, and headed out into rolling farms and woods, punctuated with small mountains. About midday we came upon Menerbes, a town so picturesque we just had to make a little detour. It sits on the top of a little mountain with great views of the vineyards below and nearby mountains. You can see a long way from the church on the top set among the ruins of a castle and had a great view of the nearby mountains over the roofs of the houses in town.

As we worked our way slowly east through the curvy mountain roads we passed countless olive groves, ancient walled villages always perched on the very top of a hill, and beautiful valleys surrounded by the ever-present Luberon mountains. Finally, we came to Manosque, only fifteen miles from our destination, Greoux les Bains. In GlB, we were delightfully surprised at the beautiful view from our balcony and the view from a high point late in the evening. We spent both evenings out on the balcony with its adjustable awning and flower planters watching the sunset. Starting here, we spent two nights at each stop.

Up until we checked into the Chateau de Poussan in St Remy we'd had reservations way ahead of time. But starting when we left Villeneuve les Avignon, we just looked in our Michelin Red Book for hotels in the star category we wanted that had a red symbol. This indicates it is one of Michelin's favorite hotels. Every one was a peach! We would ask the front desk people for help making a reservation and they always cheerfully phoned ahead for us. We both speak French well enough to get along, but talking on the phone without hand gestures was quite another thing!

That night we had a great dinner at a little place up the street where one man was the waiter, cook and cashier. Excellent lamb, pate and service. France, as you've probably heard, is not a place where you eat and run. We spent about two hours eating dinner each night. Also, the French table wines are cheap and quite good. In the grocery story they cost about $1 a bottle or not quite $3 a gallon. In a restaurant, a liter was about $3.50 to $4. At home wine this cheap will do you permanent damage, but in France there is really no equivalent to the miserable end of the wine spectrum we have here. In the daytime we splurged, usually buying a $4 bottle of wine for lunch! These are wines that, if you could get them at home, would cost maybe $15-25; and they don't like that ride over on the unheated and uncooled boat. As you can probably tell from all this we stayed up late, not even starting dinner until 8, and slept in most mornings, usually going out about 10 and quitting by 4. Vee vere veggy Fgrench!

The next day we stopped in to shop at the local wine cave and found it closed from 12-3. Now understand, it opens at 9 and closes for good at 6. This grueling 6-hour day is a typical French work day. We had been forced to postpone our departure from home three days because of the Easter holiday. All car rental offices were closed and I mean everywhere! And then we couldn't rent one on the Monday following Easter either. And this is Hertz, Avis, everybody! There are over twenty official holidays per year in France and no one works these days except in crucial industries like making electricity or wine. If it isn't the wine dissolving the cholesterol from their blood vessels, it's the low level of work that results in what is actually an astonishingly low rate of heart disease in France.

That day we went back to Manosque to explore what we'd read was a very interesting Vielle Ville, or original "ancient city" center. Here's the main gate into it. These ancient cities look exactly like they did 500 years ago and some of the thick wooden doors on houses are almost that old! Also, here in Manosque we found proof that the French do still eat horses. They'll tell tourists it's no longer done, but boucherie chevaline means horse butcher.

We had lunch (chicken!) on a sidewalk cafe just outside the main gate and headed back to Greoux les Bains for a cafe au lait in a cafe and the sunset from our balcony. By the way, throughout France we were astonished at the slim, trim French women. Here is a typical 45-year-old in the cafe. Virtually every French woman looked like that. I gave it a good bit of thought as to why it is so different from here and came up with this: a much higher rate of exercise from walking to shop every day and a general lack of labor-saving devices; a social stigma discouraging it and the fact that almost everyone smokes!

The girls at the front desk had done such a great job with the previous night's restaurant recommendation we asked them to come up with another for that night. They recommended a restaurant in a hotel in a little town up the road about 8 miles. The inside was charming and Phillipe treated us royally. It turned out the cook used to work in our hotel in Greoux les Bains. Another great meal, more nice people and another small improvement in our French, which got a workout in every place like this where they spoke no English at all. Rachel's little French/English dictionary was invaluable in restaurants.

Gorge du Verdon

On the 28th we left Greoux les Bains for points east. This part of the trip was to carry us through the spectacular Gorge du Verdon, the Grand Canyon of France. Look what you can do when you live in Provence and never have to worry about hail.

Moustiers St Marie, as seen from our lunch spot, was an incredibly picturesque little town which had a church way up on top of the valley, about an inch below the white cloud in the middle. The locals get their exercise climbing steps cut into the rocks to go to church. A bell has been hanging for hundreds of years from a cable running from one side of the valley to the other. We read that some of the vineyards looked exactly like they do today when the Romans arrived! It is in this area Peter Mayle who wrote A Year in Provence lived.

After a check of the local gift shops (!), we were off to the Gorge du Verdon. On the way was Lac de Ste Croix. The entrance to the canyon was spectacular and the similarity to the Grand Canyon immediately apparent. The canyon was so quiet you could hear a family chatting while having Saturday lunch outside this farm house. The canyon flattened out, then got steeper. An interesting difference between our canyons and this French one; we were free to go into this canyon and free to hike around. But from this spot and many others we heard very loud BOOMs as big rocks fell off the canyon walls and plummeted to the bottom. They said not to shout lest you kill a hiker!

We embarked upon a 20 mile, twisty, circular drive and saw some stunning country. Do you believe this is in France? This is the town of la Palud. In this picture look at the tunnel which has holes cut in its sheer wall. The local wildlife was pretty tame, but the scenery certainly wasn't. The Verdon River did all this, of course. Here you can see that driving is not a speedy affair in this country and have one last look at the Corniche Sublime on the other side of the Canyon du Verdon.

The Riviera

Our objective that day was Vence (not Venice), a town about 15 miles north of Cannes, which lies on the Mediterranean coast. Vence had one of the most beautiful and historic ancient city centers we saw. This street runs around the outside of it. The ancient city wall is on the left with buildings backing up to it. Outside the wall they were making and selling a cheesy kind of very thin pizza as fast as they could make it, and inside the Vielle Ville was the most incredible collection of markets you've ever seen. They had the most beautiful produce I'd ever seen. The French like their food fresh and shop every day. That's one reason it's better food than we have. I think the other is they just pay more attention to it because it is so important to them. Here's a market that sells every kind of spice you'd ever want and there was a different market specializing in everything you'd want to buy.

The side streets in Vence were fascinating. Narrow alley after narrow alley made you feel like you could see just how people lived hundreds of years ago. A local cathedral had one stone tablet on either side of its main entrance. An adjacent sign explained they were Roman and the left one had been inscribed in 239 AD while the right one was ten years older. Almost two thousand years old! And what does that say about the church?

The next day we drove down to Cannes. This is the less popular side of the peninsula. The other one was so incredibly jammed with people and cars there was no way to even think about stopping to take a picture. But trust me, French girls do go topless on the beach in France. And as Martha would say, it's a good thing.

Next we drove a couple miles over to St Jean Cap d'Antibes. A Cap is a small peninsula like our cape. The beach was much nicer here and there were lots of people in spite of the cool weather. We shed our sweaters in the sunshine, but that's all! The French women like their breasts exposed on the beach and I found that to be another bit of evidence supporting my conclusion that I am part French.

Aix

The next day, April 30th, it was time for the mad dash (actually quite civilized on the Autoroute at 80 mph) back towards Avignon to spend a couple nights in the little village of Meyrargues, about 12 miles north of the historic town of Aix, pronounced X. We stayed in a wonderful 10th century castle called the Chateau de Meyrargues. (When they talk about dating from a certain century, they mean when the original structure was begun and there may or may not be any part of that left.) We were quite taken with the place which was in very good repair. Here's a view of the garden from our room and the right side of the garden. The main hall had a terrific view out to the north while the beautiful dining room looked out onto the garden.

Long ago, all castles had their own chapels because it was unsafe to be in the same predictable spot each week. The Chateau de Meyrargues had an especially beautiful one, filled with period furniture. We walked through the chapel to get to our room.

Another Roman aqueduct ran right through the middle(here's a close-up - that's not a ladder; it's keeping it from falling over!) of Meyrargues and out the other end. Graveyards in France look different, too. This one in Meyrargues was typical with no grass and all crypts above ground.

The next afternoon we went down to Aix to look around the famous ancient city and stumbled upon the place where the famous French writer, Cezanne, died. Aix has a very large ancient city within it and is known as the City of a Thousand Fountains. We could see why. Every street corner has one. There was a flower market in front of the Hotel de Ville (City Hotel) whose front doors are 400 years old. The fountain in the square shows the litter of the recent influx of flower vendors who apparently were born in a barn. Aix was so beautiful even the rain didn't spoil our visit.

Avignon and home

On May 2nd, we drove over to Avignon to take the train back to Paris, arriving early enough to visit the Palais des Papes or Popes' Palace. We'll be going into the cathedral on the left in a moment. In 1305 a French Pope was elected for political reasons and he decided the seat of the Papacy should be in Avignon, both because he was French and because of unrest in Italy. The headquarters of the Catholic Church remained here, through the reigns of nine Popes, until 1403. You have a great view of the Rhone River from the front of the great cathedral next to the Palais Des Papes. No flash photos were allowed inside the cathedral so some of these pictures are a little blurry from holding the camera at such slow shutter speeds, but at least you can get an idea of what it looks like.

There were about five different chapels off to each side as you went towards the front of the church. This is the top of the previous chapel. Here's another one and its upper portion. Look at the wonderful stonework on the front of the building facing the cathedral.

It was finally time to turn in the car, wait in the station for the train and breathe some of our last lungfuls of second hand smoke before heading back to Paris. This little cutie sat in front of us and flirted much of the way north past the last of the mustard fields before we arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport. We were overcome at sadness leaving this country that has so much to offer. After a night at a hotel in the airport, good ol' AA flew us straight back to DFW the next day, closing the chapter on almost three weeks in France.

This was the first vacation of this length where at the end neither one of us was ready to go home. We just loved France. We both love our food fresh this is Mecca for fresh. We loved being able to drink excellent wines at low prices; we found the people to be very friendly and helpful, almost without exception; and, Lord, the history! I'm not sure you can understand the United States until you've seen Europe. We even decided that not working so hard or being so driven can be very good. The French reputation for high prices was inaccurate, too! We ate gourmet meal after three- to five-course gourmet meal with wine and tip for $35 for two.

The Good, The Bad and The Lovely

France is a country of artists; a female country. And it is really this that makes it so attractive. Joie de vivre is French and it means Joy of Life. They live that every day. What something looks like is more important than how well it works. Leisure time is more important than work. Family is important. The senses are used more fully here. The downside of this femininity (sorry girls) is that navigating the roads in France is a first-class, total, bitch! Even with two of us trying very hard and using an excellent Michelin Atlas, we made many wrong turns and I had a few really spectacular temper tantrums!

The roads are never numbered at intersections. Every intersection has big signposts with arrows pointing to various towns by name. Sometimes the signpost looks like a porcupine! How a local would give directions; "You go to Arles, follow signs to Avignon, then go to Menerbes, turn at the post office towards this town, etc, etc, etc." If you want to go through a part of a town and then out a hundred yards west before you turn north, you must memorize the names of the next few towns to the west so you can turn onto the right road! With many turns this gets very difficult. And it is just not possible to go around a city and take off towards another one. You must go into the very center of the city to be able to find signs towards the next one.

I am confident many people live their entire lives there and never know where they are or which direction is north. Or what town is next to which town. Just follow the signs and you'll get there. Hey, it worked for the last 3,000 years! Suffice it to say that German organization has not even got its nose in the door! And they may somehow be proud of that. But navigating is just about the only significant problem I saw.

Conclusion

I'd always assumed that the United States was the world's best country to live in, but after this visit I'm not so sure. These people don't make our money, but in exchange they all have old age pensions and very good health care. They eat well and have great transportation systems. Their country is exceedingly beautiful. They're well educated and appear very happy. So what's better than that?