Provence

IMG_0870.jpgMy apologies for the previous version of this post.  I was using an AZERTY (French) keyboard which is distinctly different from the QWERTY keyboard that I’m used to.  For those of you who tried to read it, rest assured that you weren’t losing your mind. In any case, I had to get to Marseille to pick up a Citroën which I planned to lease until November 1 when I head home.  I was excited about the car, which was a 2016 C3 diesel and proportedly got a minimum of 45 miles to the gallon.  In 2014, the Citroën C3 was awarded the most efficient small car in the world.  Why can’t I buy one in the US?  To answer this question I am able to look no further than the cabal of the US automotive industry and big oil.

The fastest (and it turned out also cheapest) way to get from Vienna to Marseille was to take a 20 hour bus trip.  No airlines flew direct except those charging 500 Euro or more, and trains required that I go back to Bratislawa, north to Prague, and then cross all of Europe.  So bus it was. Luckily we stopped a few times en route.  Each time we did I’d hop off the bus and practically run in circles, high stepping and generally moving like a mad person.  I’m sure they wondered whether I’d come down with syphillis or some such. I got a seat next to the toilet so between the smell and the constant line of people, it was annoying.  I finally moved to the front and had a much better experience.  We drove through the mountainous part of Austria in the west, then the northern part of Italy.  Unfortinately, most of the part of Italy we drove through were rather industrial.  We finally pulled into the bus station in Marseille around 430pm.  I found a bus to the airport and with some difficulty found the Citroen pickup spot about 5:30pm.

I’d planned to go straight to Aix-en-Provence from there, but didn’t have any food so I stopped at a Carrefour, the French equivalent of Walmart only better quality.  I found out that carrefour means crossroads in French.  I needed a few other things as well – car mats for one, as Citroen c3 that I’d leased didn’t come with any.  Strange, for a new car.  In any case, I got equipped and headed to Aix.  The Citroen guy had recommended finding a place to stay on the small frontage road outside of town.  On my way I discovered a lovely Jesuit monastery called Le Baum that had an ancillary building for boarders.  The rooms were small and lacked a\c, but I wish I’d taken one.  Unfortunately as with most hotels in France, the guy working at reception was leaving at 9pm.  By the time I decided to take a room he was gone.  It had been extremely hot, more than 100 F that day, and the thought of sleeping in a hot tiny room without a/c didn’t thrill me. I continued on hoping to find an inexpensive place for the night.

Unfortunately the other hotels I found were all locked. Literally.  I thought I was in a state penitenntiary as I surveyed the daunting fences encircling each place, only to be opened with a code.  I had been searching for an illusive ibis budget, going in circles for about half a hour when I got exasperated and asked at a gas station.  The young woman was just closing up and told me to wait and follow her there.  She was kind enough to lead me to the one in question, but it was a regular ibis and charged 95 per night, more than I wanted to pay.  In any case, I finally gave up and drove back toward the airport in Marseille.

On the way, as if I were in a fable about finding what you want after stopping to pursue it, I spied a dog for an ibis budget.  So I pulled off and entered the parking lot.  That was an improvement to the locked gate policy of other places.  But no receiptionist and a locked door.  Luckily I asked someone eating in front of the hotel and she kindly showed me how to use my credit card to register for a night.  Entering the place after doing so, I felt like a Japanese businessman in Tokyo.  The room was barely big enough to house the bed.  I threw my things in through the window as I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get in through the front door. Influences from my camping life.  The only saving grace was the a\c, which I finally figured out how to use.  At 830 the next am, a woman pounded on the door.  I’d hoped to sleep in as I hadn’t slept for a few days.  But no luck.  For 60 Euros per night I decided that I’d rather camp in the woods and wake up when the birds got too loud.

Please forgive my newly formed biases which are unfairly abased on a small sample size as most French are on vacation in August, which happens to be when I am here.  But for those that I have encountered at their workplace,  it seems that many would rather smoke than work.  I gues it’s the US equivalent of gone fishing or a bad day fishing is better than a good day working.  Almost all museums, stores, tourist information offices, government offices (including post offices) are closed from 12 to 2pm.  It’s in part for the ever important main meal of the day.  As a friend said, never get between the French as their food.  But it’s in part for the long awaited smoking break.  On many occasions in my 3 weeks here I’ve seen employees hunkered over their cigarettes during lunch time.  Maybe it’s my California newly acquired sensitivity to cigarette smoke (I’ve actually had it all my life), but it also seems like everyone smokes here.  Including young women and very old people.  Phillip Morris must be happy with France.

Now on to my newly formed views about the French paradox, the idea that French eat croissant and patisserie and have a low incidence of heart attacks because they drink red wine.  My theory is that they are thin because they eat incredibly slowly (I saw a woman take an hour to eat an ice cream cone) and they smoke prodigiously.  Smoking is known to cut ones appetite, and together with the snails pace of food consumption this could explain why most are rail thin.  They do exercise but most I see walk very slowly, more like meandering.  Maybe it’s because I’ve only seen those on vacation.  But I find myself having to weave through these loitering crowds of people and get annoyed tha many decide to have long conversations in the middle of the narrow streets of medieval towns.  I’m happy to finally be in the Alps there there’s more space and opportunities for real walking.

After the painfully few hours of sleep at the ibis budget, I roused myself, packed, and headed for Aix-en-Provence.  It’s a beautiful medieval city, and I enjoyed walking the narrow streets and taking pictures of churches and houses.  I’m an architecture nut. I take too many photos of buildings which I look at later and wonder what I saw in them. I spent several hours wandering the cobbled alleys before heading to St. Remy, which I heard was quite pretty. And it was.

I got my fill of toll roads on the way, which I probably have spent 100 Euro on over the course of the past few weeks.   In St Remy I walked through the small medieval town and went to the musee des Alpilles and the chapel of Jean Renaud.  The museum had some nice exhibits on life in the area, including costumes and agricultural items of interest.  St. Remy and environs had been huge seed manufacturers, if you can call seed collection and selling that.  Until the advent of Monsanto and the terminator seed, the small town had been a significant seed exporter.  In honor of their history, I bought a small tin of coloured sugar coated anise, cardamom, and other seeds.  It reminded me of a tin of candy coated violets that my uncle had given his daughter after a trip to France.

There was also an exhibit on Jean Baltu, an important painter from St Remy whose memory has been largely forgotten.   He was born in 1880, the year of Van Gough’s suicide, and was active in the painterly circles in St.Remy till his death in the 1940s.  He kept a daily journal over the course of many years which was exhibited as well as his paintings and gave important historical and personal accounts of life there. He was friends with many other important contemorary artists of the 1930s and painted beautiful portrayals of the towns most important buildings.

The Musee Estrine – Presence Van Gogh exhibit was closed by the time I discovered it, so I decided that if I came back another day I’d try to catch it.  The same was true with Monastere Saint Paul de Mausole, the monastery that Vincent checked himself into in 1878 and lived for one year.  During that time he was incredibly prolific and painted over 300 paintings, many of which were to become his masterpieces. I came back to St Remy to visited both exhibits and was quite haunted by the story of his life for many weeks to come.  It was quite sobering to learn of his incredible struggles with his belief in himself and his art, and I was really saddened that his life was extinguished at the young age of 37.  Imagine: he only painted for ten years of his life, and in that short time produced  2100 paintings, 860 of which were oil and many of which were done in the last 2 years of his life during his time in Arles and St Remy.

He continued to experiment with color, texture, shading till the end of his life. His letters to his brother Theo were particularly painful for me to read because of his humility. Not surprising that his opinion of his work was so low given the critical views expressed by art critics. Later in Arles I saw the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh Arles exhibit featuring 31 of the paintings from his Arles and St Remy period. I think he only sold one painting in his life to a friend who was doing him a favor. He often didn’t have any art supplies supplies and had to reuse his canvases to save materials. Finding models was another financial difficulty thus he often painted himself and fellow artist. Many avant guade artists including Bazille whose exhibit I saw later in Montpelie painted fellow artists for want of models. For this reason we have some nice portraits of Bazille’s closest friends  including Gaugin, Monet, and Manet.

That first day in St Remy I headed up to the Glanum ruins after visiting the village.  The triumphal arch and necropolis statue to the twins exist from the Roman period and are built atop the ruins of a Celtic settlement.  I came back another time to see the ruins of the Roman cult that worshipped the same spring that the earlier Celts had worshipped.  It was lovely to see the temple to the water dieties filled with water.  After that I headed to Les Baux and found a camping spot in the woods near Eygalieres, a quaint village.  The next day I headed back to St Remy to follow in Van Gogh’s footsteps.  After exploring his room and environs at St. Paul de Mausole, I hiked up into the Alpilles, the beautiful pine covered mountains that run through this area.  I was haunted by the fact that many of Van Gogh’s paintings of the area were the very same scenes that I saw as I walked up the hills.

I found a plaque on the wall of a stone house backing up onto the ramparts of the town that Nostadamus was born in the small village of St Remy and went on to study medicine and successfully cure the plague in many instances.  He received an excellent education for that time as well as private tutoring by his grandmother  Jewish mysticism and astrology. Apparently he spent much time as a child hiking in the Alpilles and some say they was inspired his visions and prophrecies. Catherine de Medici, who was married to King Henry II of France, read his almanacs of 1555 and invited him to court.  A few years later she made him Counselor and Physician-in-Ordinary of King Henri’s court.

I headed back to Eygalieres and was happy to discover that they were having a fete that weekend.  I returned the next day and was happy to find a market in full swing.  Not realising it was only held on Fridays, I bought less than I should have.Then I headed to Les Baux, the very interesting hilltop town where bauxite (hence the name of the town) was quarried for many years. The small medieval village, perched at the top of the hill has a lovely view of the canyon and is vey quaint. Though packed to the gills with tourists, it was still worth the visit.  The Santon Museum was particularly lovely and had many 17th century figures  made in Napoli when Provence was under the control of the King of Napoli.  Santon are local Provencal figures made in the Provence region for the nativity scene.  I went to the office of tourism there and was very glad I did. A sweet young woman told me that there was to be a bull run at Chateaurenard that evening, and also about the Santon museum in Paradou. I headed to the Carrieres de Lumieres exhibit, a multi-media presentation of Chagall’s paintings projected onto the Bauxite walls of the old quarry and set to music.  It was closed for the day, but I resolved to return.

I headed to Chateaurenard and found a place to stand along the main street. I was reminded of Hemingway’s writings about the bull runs he witnessed in Nice and other parts of Provence as I watched the chevaliers prancing back and forth.  It was about 9pm when they started, and very hard to see.  In Hemingway’s time there was no fence protecting the public from the oncoming bulls.  The comforts of modernity.  There were some very close calls.  One cowboy was thrown from his horse because of a young boy who blocked his path trying to yank the bull’s tail.  Apparently the goal is for the youngsters and whoever else is brave enough (or stupid enough) to pull on the bull’s tail and cause him to stand still.  I witnessed this once in Chateaurenard and once in Eygalieres, who were also having bull running festivals that weekend.  In general, the whole thing lasted about 30 seconds per run, with 5 or 10 minutes passing between sets.  They would run the bulls back and forth about 10 times.  I didn’t actually count though.   A few times I saw sparks fly from the hooves of both the horses and bulls.  I caught that on video.

The next day I headed to Mausanne-Les-Alpilles, a nice village at the foot of Les Baux, and had a latte while I checked my email.  The lattes in France are horrible IMHO and expensive.  I think they make cafe au lait instead.  In any case, it has cured me of coffee and espresso for past few weeks.  I explored the old part of the village and found a lavariere, a large roofed basin fed by a water spigit where women used to wash their laundry.  It was informally known as la parliament de femmes.  You can guess why.  I then headed to Chateaurenard for their annual parade featuring the chariot of the Madeleine, a horse pulled carriage covered with fruit, vegetables, and flowers grown in the area.  The festival has its origin in the 17th century and celebrates the birth of irrigation and fruit growing in the region.  Not sure who the Madeleine is.  She was the heroine of a novel by Frederic Mistral, a French writer and lexicographer of the Occitan language, who won a Nobel prize in 1904 for his poetry and faithful portrait of Povencal philology.  He was a founding member of the Felibrige and spent 20 years witing a French/Provencal dictionary.  Perhaps there is some connection between the two Madeleines.

I loved the parade and the fancy saddles of the horses in the train.  It was an impressive row of perhaps 40 horses. A man hung a lime or lemon off the back of the cart on a fishing pole and egged young children on to take the fruit.  To no avail of course.  After following the procession through the streets I watched as the participants gathered around the cart and sang traditional songs.  It was an ethnologist’s dream.

From there I headed to Avignon where I took in the beautiful walled city and palace of the pope.  As it was a Sunday, I found a spot inside the city walls and parked.  I went to a museum of sculpture and stone monuments, then  spent several hours wandering through the cobbled streets.  I decided to go to the Palais des Popes as I had 3 hours since it was open till 8:30pm.   What an amazing piece of architecture.  Actually 2 pieces.  The first palace was built on bedrock by Pope Benedict  XII, the second by Pope Clement VI known for his great support of the arts and culture.  I learned a great deal.  The audio guide, which I’ve found indispensable to the understanding of foreign museums, was excellent and gave me a good overview of the history of the Palais.  It was the papal residence in the 14th century and saw the selection of 6 popes.  I loved the palatial rooms and the few remaining details of the building structure.  It is supposedly the best example of Gothic architecture left in Europe.   I stayed in the city till 10pm or so and made my way sleepily back to my campsites which I had become accustomed to.

I woke up Monday morning and headed to Eygalieres for the Abrivado, or bull run. It was supposed to start at 11am by didn’t actually begin till 1230. Provencal time. I had arrived the day before at the appointed time as well, and ended up waiting hours. So I was a bit tired of the delays. It was nice to see it during the day, and I got the chance to be part of the action, standing in the street till the bull was almost upon us.  I snuck through the bars at the last minute.  There were some very brave young men, apparently locals, who had a fierce determination.  They succeeded in stopping the bull in the street. The bull, seemingly dazed, looked around and then trotted off toward the horses. When it was over I headed to Mouries, which happened to have a market that day.  Thrilled, I found some beautiful truly (and reasonably priced) authentic Provencal linen tablecloths and ended up buying three because they were so lovely. I walked around the town and discovered the olive oil mill, or moulin a huile d’olive.  I loved the back room which housed the old wooden screw and stone presses. There were also some photos of life at the mill in the glory days.  The room had stone floors and huge wooden beams in the ceiling.  I felt like I’d stepped back in time.

I headed to Paradou for the petite santon exhibit. Someone had painstakingly created scenes of traditional daily life in old Provence, complete with shepherds, an innkeeper, printers, bakers, washerwoman, lavender pickers, wool and linen spinners, dancers, school children and their teacher, butchers, cheese makers, the mayor, gossipers, old couples – you name it, they had it.  I had sticker shock upon entry because it was 8.50 Euro, more than I paid at the Acropolis in Athens.  However, I’m getting used to the inflated prices in France, and paid my pound of flesh.  Speaking of which, I’m spending about 30 more Euos a day here than in the other countries I’ve been this summer.  As a French friend said, don’t come to France for a cheap vacation. I’d avoide visiting till now for fear that it would break my budget.

From here I drove to Fontvielle to the Chateau de Montauban where the famous French writer Alphonse Daudet spent several summers with his cousins.  It featured an exhibit about Daudet’s novel “Lettres de mon Moulin”, the windmill in question which is located in the quaint village of Fontvielle.  The museum also presented a depiction of traditional costumes which Daudet apparently made famous in his book. Afterwards I walked to two windmills, one of which was essentially given to Daudet.

I had determined to visit Montmajour Abbey that day as it cut an imposing figure on the hill between Fontvielle and Arles. I walked up the donate steps, impressed by the colossal rock fortress.  It turns out to have been a Benedictine abbey built in the 10th century and modified over the course of the next eight centuries.  It had originally been built on an island but the land around it was filled in.  There were 6 parts to the abbey: a hermitage, a cloister, 2 monasteries, a tower, and a chapel.  It is famous for its subterranean crypt, 11th century graves carved into the rock, and the massive unfinished church.  It because an important pilgrimage site in the Middle Ages.  I enjoyed its cool vaulted crypts and the capital letters carved into the stones signifying that a master mason had carved the stone.
From there I headed to Arles and walked around the medieval walled city.  I attended the exhibit on Van Gogh that I mentioned earlier, then found a great gelato place. I spied an advertisement for a Camargue race in Arles’ beautiful Roman arena and decided to return for the spectacle, which I saw several days later to my wonderment and delight.  Young men dressed in white enter the ring with the bull and attempt to rake his horns with a metal device or remove a “coquade”, a small ribbon or string tied around each horn.   None of these practices hurt the bull, though sometimes the young men get hurt.   It’s a game of speed, agility, and timing.

The cafe scene in Arles that Van Gogh painted is located on a beautiful square with a large monument of Mistral in the center.  During Mistral’s studies in Aix, he learned about the history of Provence and became the standard bearer for Provencal independence.  In 1854, along with with 5 other Provencal poets, he founded Felibrige, a literary society for the defence of regional cultures.  Arles became the Center of Felibrige, and in 1896 Mistral founded the Museon Arlaten in Arles and brought together different ethnographic collections donated by generations of Provencals.  Sadly the museum was closed when I was there.  I had really hoped to see the costumes, furniture, work tools, objects of worship and suspicion that make up the collection.

The following day I headed to Maillane to learn more of the great Mistral.  The museum is housed in Mistral’s last home.  He was born, grew up, and died in Maillane.  The garden is full of his whimsical Occitane poetry about the land and plants of Provence.  The guide, Helene, spoke only French, but I managed to understand about 80 percent of the story of his life.  He was an incredible man and apparently answered every letter ever written to him.  He painstakingly spent 20 years writing Tresour dou Felibrige, which to date remains the richest dictionary of the Occitane language. Throughout my time in Provence, I saw statues, plaques, and memorials dedicated to Mistral.  I felt lucky to have had the chance to get to know him so intimately.  I essentially had a private tour of his home and village (I also visited his birthplace and gravestone), and went back to visit Helene and reread his ode to the plants, which as a naturalist I appreciated greatly.

After spending a few hours taking in this important personnage, I made my way to Aigues Mortes, the walled medieval city from which King Louis IX left for the 7th and 8th crusades and in whose tower the Templars were later incarcerated by Phillip the Fair (doesn’t seem fair to me) and then Protestants and Huguenots. It has a bit of a Disneyland like quality to it.  It’s very petty and touristy, and I tend to shy away from places like that.  I wanted to walk on the rampats and enter the tower, but both were closed by the time I arrived.  I headed toward Sete, a recommendation from my mom who had been there on he adventure with friends in 1959.  It was still buzzing at 930pm when I arrived, and I enjoyed walking along the canals. I decided to camp near the city, as it was a long way back to my forest home near Eygalieres.  I found a dirt road near a vineyard several miles out of town and camped alongside the road.  It was a tranquil spot until the nightlife started in the town below.  They must have been singing till 4am.  I tried to put it out of my mind but couldn’t help hearing the 80s big hair bands in my head.

The next morning I went back to Sete and walked up to Notre-Dame-de-la-Salette, the chapel on the hill overlooking the town.  My reward was gelato at Coco Mango which I’d discovered the night before.  I always got 3 scoops in France, because it’s the best deal, I can never choose just one flavour, and the scoops are so small that I’d finish one in a matter of minutes. California cuisine was I’m sure influenced by French chefs.  Not much food, and a high price.  In any case, I enjoyed the hike up to the chapel and walked down towards the sea, admiring the elegantly built homes.  It reminded me of Malibu with the bouganvillia trailing over white stucco walls.  I took my time walking back through the old city and decided to head back to Aigues Motes to explore Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

My car (or the roundabout in Aigues Mortes) had other ideas.  Just as I was about to each the old town, my tire went pop and I had to pull over.  Actually I drove another half mile till I found a hotel.  I figured that they might be able to help me.   They did, though not in the way I had initially hoped.  I described the problem and they told me they could call a tow truck.  I called Citroen Euro Pass and asked them what to do.  A tow truck driver finally arrived and put on the spare, then found a garage where I could get 2 new tires the next day in La Grande Motte.  The guy was really sweet and was from Montpelier.  The hotel owner was also very kind and I thought I would stay there if I ever returned though she said she was booked for the summer. I decided after all that to walk around the old town and found a free parking place near the cemetery.  I wandered around and found an art opening in the courtyard of the Penitent Gris chapel.  The chapel was open and I marvelled at the ornamentally decorated altar. There was some historical documents concerning the repression of the order and their revival after the French Revolution.  It was one of the most peaceful churches that I’d been in Fance and I revelled in the tranquility.

The art opening, initiated by a character from Paris named Morphee (meaning changed in French), was an interesting assortment of various artists works.  Photography, painting, drawing, spray paint art, sculpture.  Apparently there is a thriving community of artists in the tiny town.  I lingered for an hour or so and then headed to St. Maries.  It was apparently a favourite spot of Picasso, Hemingway, Mistral, and several other well known artists and writers.  I liked it.  It had a distinctly Spanish feel to me.  Both the houses which were mostly stucco and the lack of vegetation.  Thee was a haunting concert of Romani music going on at the church and I sat outside mesmorized by the sounds coming  from within. I enjoyed watching the people window shopping.  That is a big pastime in France- not actually buying anything, which must annoy merchants.

I took some photos of the moon, which was framed by the cathedral, and enjoyed the sea breeze.  Then, yawning at the lateness of the hour, I went to find a place to sleep.  I’d seen a small turnout on the road toward the village, and decided to camp there.  Unfortunately it was very wet as I was essentially sleeping in a swamp.  I woke up wet and early, as I had been told by the tow truck to get to the garage by 8:30am.  I did, only to find that they were booked till noon.  So much for diligence. I asked if they could try to fix it sooner and they said they would.  While waiting I wandered the beaches of La Grande Motte, which seems to be a giant resort fo French tourists.  It was vey new and pretty in a sterile kind of way.  I returned to find my car easy to go, and I thanked the guys profusely.

I headed to Montpelier for the Bazille exhibition which I’d missed on the previous visit there.  I loved Montpelier with its expansive square in front of the Opera house and triumphal arch at the edge of the walled portion of the city.  A true spectacle.  I found the Musee Fabre easily as it fronts onto the main square.  The exhibit on Bazille was monumental and thought-provoking.  Bazille was born in Montpelier and had studied to be a doctor as his father had wished. He always wanted to be a painter and moved to Paris to study art as he continued to do medicine.  He finally convinced his father of his ability and got the go ahead to do it full time.  According to his close friends and peers, including Gauguin, Sisley, Renoir, Manet, and Monet, he was the most talented of the group.  Seeing his paintings, I’d have to agree.

It featured a very thorough chronology of his paintings from the collections of Musee Fabre and the Louvre and National Academy of Art in Washington DC.  I was very moved and saddened by his life story.  Like many amazing artists, his life ended very young.  At the age of 28 he volunteered to fight in the Franco-Prussian war and was killed within the first days of battle.  There was a moving account of his father going on horseback to the site of the battle to bring his son’s body back for burial in Montpelier.  In the only six years he studied art, he produced some of the masterpieces of the impressionist period.  The chronological nature of the exhibit gave a stunning retrospective of the progress that he had made in the few short years of his painting career, as well as the influence that his contemporaries had on his art.  He painted some wonderful pieces of them as well, since it was expensive to find models and many artists used one another for portraiture.

There was also a related exhibit at the Hotel de Cabrieres-Sabatier d’Espeyran about the life of the haute bourgeoisie in Montpelier, including Bazille’s family, wealthy Protestants who for generations had been manufacturers of fine silver ware.  There was a very interesting distinction made between his family, which tended toward philanthropy and contributing toward social good, with the family that owned the hotel and were only interested in status and flaunting their wealth.  There was an exhibit of ladies clothing from that era (mid 1800s), as well as furnishings typical of the period.  Afterwards, I wandered around Montpelier and took in various historical buildings, the botanical garden, a street performance of break dancing,  and used McDonalds bathrooms after buying a sundae.  I walked in the park near the Arc de Triumph, enjoying the sunset on the surrounding hills.  The government of Montpelier succeeded in imposing a height limit on all buildings between the city and the sea such that once can still see the ocean from the park, a distance of six miles.

After nocturnal wanderings, I returned to my forest camp and hunkered down for the night. I was not happy about the fact that I had sprung a slow leak in my sea to summit air mattress and couldn’t find the hole for the life of me.  I had filled it full of air and tested it in several different laveieres and town fountains but to no avail.  I’m sure the locals didn’t appreciate a scruffy looking foreigner submerging their mattress into the potable water basin.  I was desperate as I’d asked 2 different bike stores is they could help me find the leak, and they said they didn’t have the equipment necessary.  I even went to a public pool hoping I could use that, but the pool guardians said they wouldn’t let me in without a bathing suit, even after I explained my purpose.  The joys of bureaucracy.

I returned to Eygalieres the next morning for their traditional festival, which began with a horse-pulled carriage and traditional dressed locals followed by horseback riders.  It was a lovely day and I enjoyed hanging out around the locals, as I’d come there almost every day for water fill up and the boulangerie, which I decided was the best in France. They had chocolate, strawberry, lemon, and fruit tarts to die for. Firm crust, substantial – not the puny overpriced ones I was to find later in Annecy and the Alps.  I ran out the main road and filmed the procession as they made their way up the hill.  No one told me they were coming from that direction – it was just intuition, which I’ve even using a lot these days.  It helps me find places to camp, the best gelatom villages and countryside to explore.  It’s basically in lieu of a travel guide.  I have one but don’t use it.  I also ask locals for suggestions.  Seems they know more than foreign travel writers.

In the afternoon I went to St Remy to visit the ruins of the ancient Glanum and Roman city built atop it.  I’d visited the triumphal arch and mausoleum before, but hadn’t had time to enter the archaeological site.  It was interesting, particularly the temple built at the site of the spring.  The Celtic-Lagurian people built an oppidum or fortified town around the spring which had healing powers.  A shrine was built to Glanis, a Gaulish God of the spring, and the Glanicae, a triad of local mother-goddesses also associated with the spring.  I think I was drawn to the site in order to connect with and pay tribute to these auspicious beings.  Most people didn’t see the Spring at all, which was covered by a marble roof.  I was intrigued by the stairs and again followed my intuition which led me to the cold spring pool filled with colourful carp.  There was another spring nearby that was similarly ignored by most people.  I found it to be the most important place and spent some time meditating on its seemingly bottomless expanse.

After communing with the beings at Glanum, I headed back to Les Baux for the carrieres-de-Lumieres exhibit showing Marc Chagall’s paintings projected onto the walls of an old bauxite quarry set to music.  I found it to be a magical event and stayed for a second time, waking through the large gallery and looking at the image from different angles.  They were to have a similar exhibit of all the impressionist painters that weekend, and I hoped to come back for it, but didn’t manage to do so.  I walked along the narrow streets of the medieval town of Les Baux one more time, savouring the simple stone buildings and magnificent views of the valley.

It was late so I headed back toward my forest spot, stopping in Eygalieres on the way to enjoy the carnival like atmosphere of their fete.  Kids screamed as they spun around scary looking roller coasters and adults played Pétanque, a form of boules where the goal is to  toss or roll hollow steel balls as close as possible to a small wooden peg.  I walked to the Main Street where several scantily clad women were singing with a backup band.  It was a spectacle indeed.  Wearily, I went back to my camp, set up my tent and gear, and fell asleep.

The next day I headed to Mouries for their market, then on to Fontvielle.  I wasn’t sure what I was doing there, till I spied people lining up outside the arena.  I walked up and asked what was happening.  It was Camargue race like the one I’d seen in Arles.  The history of this game in Provence dates back to 1402 when a race was organised for Louis II, count of Provence.  I had a really nice time at the event, sitting next to some nice women who offered me plums after I helped them retrieve a lost hat under the bleachers.  Unfortunately they and many others were smoking, so I spent much of the race trying to avoid the fumes wafting in my direction.  It was exciting watching the white clad team jump in and out of the ring.  Several times the bull followed them, leaping out of the ring into the narrow space between ring and audience.  One bull was particularly prodigious at jumping out of the arena.  I think he did so 5 times.  All in all it was a wonderful day.  I headed home happy to have seen such an unusual local tradition.  Not something I’d catch in Sunnyvale.

The next day I headed to L’isle sur la sorgue.  Unfortunately for me they were having a big street fair tha day, and parking was nonexistent and the throng of people was crushing.  I got so fed up with the lack of movement in the alleys that I found ways to circumvent the entire festival, walking on the edges of the town instead.  La sorgue is the spring that feeds the river flowing through the town.  It is the biggest spring in France and the fifth biggest in the world.  This town was depended as a quaint tourist town, and I could see why, but I’m not into crowds so I moved on after an hour or so, heading next to Gordes and Rousillons to walk the ochre trail whose color is caused by iron oxide in the sandy soil.

Gordes is a very pretty town built atop a hill, and features buildings made out of the ochre colored stone quarried from the surrounding area.  I hiked the nature trail that wound through the most colourful areas, and I enjoyed looking at the hues of yellow, orange, and red soil.  The place was swimming with tourists unfortunatley, so I took my leave after a short time and headed to Gordes, recently named one of France’s Most Beautiful Villages.  It is located amidst the rugged landscape of Luberon Regional Nature Park. Cobbled streets and golden stone houses wind their way around a mountain-top, culminating in the majestic 16th-century château. The town has been home to several celebrated French painters, including André Lhote, Marc Chagall, Jean Deyrolle, Victor Vasarely and Pol Mara, and with the sun-baked greenery and cragged rocks, it is easy to see how it could provide painterly inspiration. I enjoyed walking up and down the narrow lanes and wound my way from the top down to a spring at the bottom of the hill where a cool trickle of water sprang miraculously from the base of the rock upon which the town sits.  From there I climbed to the top to admire the beautiful view of the surrounding countryside.

From there I drove to Orange, which boasts one of the best preserved Roman theaters in the world, and one of only 3 in the world with an intact stage wall.  The theater almost suffered the fate of the castle on the hill above which was demolished by King Louis XIV of France when Orange was taken from William of Orange during the Franco Dutch war in the late 1600s.  Perhaps out of pride of association with the classical world, he spared the theater.  In the time of its use by the Roman colony after its construction in 40 BC until Christianity forbid theater as entertainment, the theater played a major role in the life of the citizens, who spent a large part of their free time there.  It was seen by Roman authorities not only as a means of spreading Roman culture to the colonies, but also as a way of distracting them from political activities. Bread and circuses.  Sounds like the current presidential race in the US.

Mime, pantomime, poetry readings and the “attelana” (a kind of farce similar to commedia dell’arte) were the dominant forms of entertainment, and often lasted all day. For the common people, who were fond of spectacular effects, magnificent stage sets became very important, as was the use of stage machinery. The entertainment offered was open to all and free of charge.  When Christianity became the official religion, the theater was closed by official edict, since the Church opposed what it regarded as uncivilized spectacles. After that, the theatre was abandoned completely. It was probably pillaged by the Visigoths  in 412, and like most Roman buildings was certainly stripped of its better stone over the centuries for reuse. It was used as a defensive post in the Middle Ages, and during the 16th-century religious wars, it became a refuge for the townspeople.

I decided to take a tour of the theater with an audio guide even though it was late in the afternoon. I didn’t have much time, maybe 1 1/2 hours, which for me was a very short museum visit.  The audio guide was very thorough in its account of the role that the theater played in the lives of the Roman colony of Arausio (or, more specifically, Colonia Julia Firma Secundanorum Arausio: “the Julian colony of Arausio established by the soldiers of the second legion”).  After exploring the theater, I had 15 minutes left to rush through the museum, and the young woman didn’t want me to go.  I literally ran inside and took photos of the explanatory signs in French to decipher later.  in the remaining sunlight I walked through the old town to the triumphal arch, which was built during the reign of the Roman leader Severan and is part of the UNESCO world heritage site along with the theater and remaining Roman buildings in the town.  It’s a lovely town and small enough to be able to comfortably walk to all the important historical sites.

From Orange I drove to Uzès, which had been recommended me by a local.  On the way I passed the Pont du Gard, an ancient Roman aqueduct crossing the Gardon River.  Unfortunately I didn’t know about it till after I’d passed it, and didn’t have time to retrace my steps and admire it.  The bridge is part of the Nîmes aqueduct, a 31 mile system built in the first century AD to carry water from a spring originating in Uzès to the Roman Colony of Nemausus (Nîmes). Because of the uneven terrain between the two points, the mostly underground aqueduct followed a long, winding route that called for a bridge across the gorge of the Gardon River. The Pont du Gard is the highest of all elevated Roman aqueducts, and, along with the Aqueduct of Segovia, one of the best preserved. It was added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites in 1985 because of its historical importance.  The bridge has three tiers of arches, standing 160 ft high. The whole aqueduct descends in height by only 56 ft over its entire length of 31 miles, while the bridge descends by a mere 1 inch, a gradient of only 1 in 3,000, reflecting the great precision that Roman engineers were able to achieve using only simple technology. The aqueduct in its day carried an estimated 44,000,000 imperial gallons of water a day to the fountains, baths and homes of the citizens of Nîmes and continued to be used in its entirety until the 6th century.  Lack of maintenance after the 4th century caused it to be increasingly clogged by mineral deposits and debris that eventually choked off the flow of water.

After the collapse of the Roman Empire and the aqueduct’s fall into disuse, the Pont du Gard remained largely intact, due to the importance of its secondary function as a toll bridge. For centuries the local lords and bishops were responsible for its upkeep, in exchange for the right to levy tolls on travellers using it to cross the river. Although some of its stones were looted and serious damage was inflicted on it in the 17th century, it attracted increasing attention starting in the 18th century, and became an important tourist destination that remains one of the most popular in southern France till this day. Since I didn’t get a chance to see it in the flesh, I had to be satisfied looking at photos of the colossal structure.

I reached Uzès around 9pm and didn’t know how lucky I was to drive through deserted streets.  I found out the next day that it becomes an unmoving snarl of largely French tourists, especially as it was one of the many French holidays.  As it was evening, I was able to find a parking place near a public fountain, which I planned to use to locate the hole in my air mattress.  After 2 frustrated attempts with no bubbles surfacing, I turned my attention to a nearby cafe and asked to use their wifi.  The owner said he doesn’t usually let people but then decided to do so, which I appreciated as it was my only way to retrieve email and news.  I may change to T-mobile in the future as I understand they have free international roaming.  The cafe was located in a centuries-old building adjoining a lovely stone courtyard, and to my surprise a band was playing good jazz.  Wow!  I asked the owner if this was a normal happening, and he said no, it was extraordinaire (en francais, bien sur).  I sat back and listened to the remaining strains of sax, stand up bass, and piano, sadly for only about 20 minutes.

So I wasn’t mooching off the generosity of the hosts, I ordered 2 very fancy meringue patisseries, and ate them with relish.  Then I talked to the sax player, who came from Montpelier and spoke English easily, and he told me about their gigs and life as a musician in this part of France.  I mentioned learning jazz piano and how much I love jazz and had an early exposure as a kid at such venues as the Monterey Jazz Festival.  After our conversation, I asked the cafe owner about a good place to camp.  He recommended the base of the hill, which turned out to be the Foret de Uzès and the place where the spring whose water was transported to Nîmes by the Roman aqueduct originated. Camping en plein air has been one of the highlights of my trip.  It brings me closer to nature (literally) and with it I seem to gain a subtle attunement.  I got a fright in the middle of the night when I heard a sploosh in the nearby stream which was much closer than I realized when I’d set up my tent.  Probably only a raccoon, though its amazing what the imagination can do, particularly at night when the visual sense field is drastically limited.

I awoke to the wonderful smell of fresh grass and well-watered trees that I’d been missing since coming to Provence 2 weeks ago.  Most of Provence is exceedingly dry, akin to the Peloponese or southern California.  So it was with great relief that I looked up to see alder trees waving their green branches overhead.  I took a walk in the valley along the river and admired the beginnings of the aqueduct to Nîmes.  I loved the cold clear water and fresh plants growing at the base of the spring, and relished in the cool air it generated.  I drove into town and got a taste of Uzès popularity with the locals.  Finally finding a spot, I walked through the old town and cobbled streets and found a nice sandwhich place that made them to order, quite a rarity in France.  Normally one buys already-prepared from the bakery, my favorite being l’italien made from a baguette with hard parmesan cheese, Prosciuto, and some arugula.  Usually made the same day, they weren’t as fresh as made to the made to order ones.  I happily munched on my baguette sandwhich and sat on the fountain with other satisfied customers.  That’s another European thing. If you order to go, it’s cheaper than eating at the restaurant tables.  And they don’t want people who order to go to linger on the premisis.  Makes sense if you want to make space for high paying customers.

It was another 95 degree day, which I’d seemed to run into all summer, including in Budapest and Vienna.  And there are still climate change deniers.  After wandering around the pretty town for a couple of hours, I left for Nîmes, first visiting San-Quentin-la-Poterie, a nearby village specializing in, you guessed it, pottery.  After a short walk I hopped in the car and sped on to Nîmes. Parking is almost impossible in this town.  As it was my second time, I found a place where I didn’t have to pay that wasn’t too far from the center.  The city derives its name from that of a spring in the Roman village when the city was home to 50,000–60,000 people. The contemporary coat of arms of the city of Nîmes includes a crocodile chained to a palm tree with the inscription COL NEM, for Colonia Nemausus, meaning the “colony” or “settlement” of Nemausus, the local Celtic god of the Volcae Arecomici. Veterans of the Roman legions who had served Julius Caesar in his Nile campaigns, at the end of fifteen years of soldiering, were given plots of land to cultivate on the plain of Nîmes. It houses several famous Roman monuments including the arena and the Maison Carree and is thus often referred to as the French Rome.  I had visited many towns on the Via Domitia, a Roman road constructed in 118 BC which connected Italy with Spain.

I found my way to the lovely Jardins de la Fontaine, and was happy to see it as I hadn’t been able to get in on my previous visit due to high winds. Located around a spring located on a lovely hillside, the 37 acre garden is divided into two sections: a French garden built in 1745 in the lower portion of the grounds which includes a restored Roman temple and nympheaum, and the Italian style garden built in 1815 consisting of narrow paths along the hillsides with native vegetation including Buxus sempervirens, Cistus, Laurus nobilis, Cercis siliquestrum, Quercus ilex, and Pinus halepensis.  The French portion of the gardens were designed and built by Jacques Philippe Mareschal, the engineer who also built the canals and major water works around the city.

After walking up to the old Roman tower overlooking the gardens, I meandered down the narrow paths to the lovely fountains which were undergoing major repairs and not functioning at present.  Then I walked to the Maison carrée (means square house), which has one of the best preserved Roman temple façades to be found in the territories of the former Roman Empire.  The history of the grand home is as follows: in about 4-7 AD,Maison carrée was dedicated or rededicated to Gaius and Lucius Caesar, grandsons and adopted heirs of Augustus who both died young. The inscription dedicating the temple to Gaius and Lucius was removed in medieval times. However, a local scholar, Jean-Francois Séguier, was able to reconstruct the inscription in 1758 from the order and number of the holes on the front frieze and architrave, to which the bronze letters had been affixed by projecting tines. According to Séguier’s reconstruction, the text of the dedication read (in translation): “To Gaius Caesar, son of Augustus, Consul; to Lucius Caesar, son of Augustus, Consul designate; to the princes of youth.”During the 19th century the temple slowly began to recover its original splendour, due to the efforts of Victor Grangent.

From there I walked to the arena and admired its splendor, as lovely as the one in Arles where I’d had the luck to watch a Camargue bull race.  Just outside are outlines of the old city walls. On my way back to the car I discovered a few new historical buildings, including the cathedral, and appreciated the general loveliness of the city.  I imagined what it would have been like had I participated in the semester long exchange program between UC Santa Cruz, my alma mater, and the university in Nimes.  I took a quarter of French at UCSC and my professor had encouraged me to join the program.  Roads not taken.

From Nimes I drove to Arles, arriving before commute traffic packed the highway.  I revisited my favorite places, including the square hosting Mistral’s statue and the Museon Aarlaten, as well as going to the Musée Réattu, which has a small collection of Picasso’s drawings from the last year of his life, as well as paitings by Arles-born painter Jacques Réattu and some other artists’ works.  The building itself was the draw for me – I had seen it last time in Arles and admired its medieval and gothic structure.  It had been the Grand Priory of the Order of Malta, built in the late 15th century.  Initially built as the seat of a commandry, the building started housing Grand Priors in 1562, and became a Grand Priory in 1615, having jurisdiction over forty-eight commandries. In September 1792, a decree by the newly formed National Convention ordered the confiscation and the sale of all the possessions of the Order of Malta in France, and the Grand Priory was sold in parts in 1793.

The building then was acquired in 27 parts between 1796 and 1827 by Jacques Réattu, who lived and worked there. Upon his death in 1833, Réattu’s daughter Élisabeth Grange inherited the building and her father’s collections. She sold both to the Municipality of Arles in 1867, in exchange of a pension, while retaining the right to live there.  On February 24, 1878, Van Gogh, who had moved to Arles three days earlier wrote about the museum in a letter to his brother Theo (original in French): “The women really are beautiful here, it’s no joke — on the other hand, the Arles museum is dreadful and a joke, and fit to be in Tarascon— there’s also a museum of antiquities, they’re genuine”  Apparently the museum’s collection was not very impressive at the time. Over time, in addition to the museum, the building has housed a mount of piety, a tobacco warehouse and a drawing school. The entire building has undergone a renovation from 1956 to 1964. It was listed as a monument historique in 1958.

I really like Arles. It’s more gritty than Nimes, more real, and full of history and living beings.  Reluctantly I left for Forcalquier where I was to stay the night with a friend of a friend.  It was dusk when I left, and after traveling only 40 miles or so my tire deflation gauge suddenly went off with a loud beep and a red exclamation point appeared ominously on the console.  When I was finally able to pull over at an “aire” (a rest stop of sorts on the toll road), a helpful woman helped me check my tire pressure. I discovered to my dismay that the 2 front tires, several days old, had both deflated by 5 or so pounds.  In addition, the tires were red hot to the touch, whereas the back 2 were cool. Alarmed, I filled them to normal pressure and continued on, arriving at the late hour of 10:15pm at Nora’s flat. She is a prolific painter living in a lovely refurbished apartment backing up onto the ramparts of the old city. As I was admonished to park at the bottom of the ramparts and walk, I trudged up several steep hills with dirty laundry and shower toiletries in hand.  She had heaps to do to prepare for her imminent return to the Bay Area, so she didn’t have much time to visit.  I was grateful for the chance to eat a normal meal, wash clothes, shower, and sleep in a real bed. In the morning I decided to leave at 10:30 am as it was clear that she needed her space.  I had hoped to stay another night but didn’t want to overstay my welcome.

In the Middle Ages, Forcalquier was the capital of Haute-Provence. At the end of the 11th century, a family of the Counts of Provence created the comté de Forcalquier which remained an independent state through the 12th century.  During this time, the town of Forcalquier minted its own currency, and its church was elevated to the status of a “concathedral”. The comté de Forcalquier grew to a power that could defy the Counts of Provence until 1195 when Gersende de Sabran, comtesse de Forcalquier, married Alfonso II, the Count of Provence. Their son inherited the two counties.
I walked up the hill near Nora’s house to an octagonal chapel, Notre Dame de Provence, where a medieval citadel once stood. The citadel was destroyed in 1601; the chapel with its panoramic view was built in 1875. It has a carillon that can be heard every Sunday morning during the summer.  Then I descended and walked a few blocks from her apartment to the oldest part of the town around the Place Saint-Michel with its Renaissance fountain (1511) and its narrow side-streets. Many doorways date to the 12th to 16th centuries.  From there I walked a few blocks to the present commercial and social center of town, the Place de Bourguet where the 12th century “concathedral” Notre Dame de l’Assumption with its bell towers stands.   Down the hill, the Cordeliers Convent was built in the 13th century by Franciscans named “cordeliers” because of their rope belts. This convent was occupied by monks continuously until the Revolution.  The Port de Cordeliers is all that remains of the town’s fortified walls.
It now houses the Universite Europenne des Senteurs et Saveurs (European University of Scents and Flavors), a private university specializing in the study of natural aromatic compounds, cosmetics, and flavorings. Founded in 2003 by entrepreneur Jacques Bardouin, the university is distinct among schools in that its teaching focuses exclusively upon raw materials of natural extraction, often those produced locally. The institution offers vocational training in agriculture and cosmetics to business and science degrees.  They also offer workshops in perfumery and aromatherapy for professionals and amateurs and exhibitions on the subject of scent for the general public, both at the Couvent des Cordeliers and abroad. Unfortunately their retail shop was closed.  A few weeks prior I had purchased some high quality essential oils in St Remy-de-Provence, so while I didn’t need any, I wanted to peruse their stock.
Luckily I made some necessary calls and emails during the few hours I was at Nora’s. I sent an email to Sea-to-Summit, the company who makes the air mattress I was having problems with. They suggested I contact the French distributor to see if they could help, and I did.  A few days later I heard back, and thankfully they were willing to take a look at it and were located in Annecy, where I was headed. I also called Citroën EuroPass and alerted them to the deflation problem I was experiencing my tires.  They suggested I go to a local Citroën dealer and recommended one. I followed their suggestion and found the dealer.  I explained the problem in French, and they told me to return after 2 days if I continued to experience the problem.
Relieved that it might be a problem common to new tires (which I’d read online), I headed north, passing Sisteron, a lovely fortified city located on a rocky outcrop on the Durance River. Its town walls and citadel enticed me to stop and explore, but I was in a rush to reach Lake Bourget. I drove through a serious hail storm with marble size ice hitting my windshield. Scared that they would split the screen, I drove as slowly as I could, passing pretty towns and finally arriving at a big mall at the south end of Lac du Bourget. I stopped at an Intersport to try to find an air mattress similar to mine in case it couldn’t be repaired, and bought a NeoAir. I have another model at home, and know it to be of good quality.  The only catch was that it wasn’t self-inflating, and as I have trouble making a good seal, I asked the salesperson to inflate it for me. I stored it in my trunk inflated, which was awkward as it took up a lot of room.
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