June 30, 2013

Pyrenees Mountain Splendor and a Beloved Catholic Shrine

 “Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.”   Kurt Vonnegut (Cat’s Cradle)

Carol writes:  We could not pass up the opportunity to take a brief turn south and take in some sightseeing in the Pyrenees Mountains before we headed up the center of France toward the Normandy coast.  Our intention is to leave France at Calais for the ferry crossing across the English Channel to Dover, England, in mid-July.  Then, after spending the rest of the summer and early fall in the UK, our general plan is to winter over in Spain and Portugal, where we hope the milder winter temperatures will be more favorable for camping.  So…in late fall, we will head to Spain by hugging the French Atlantic coast and avoiding at all cost any snowy roads near the mountainous Pyrenees border area.  Thus…it is now or never for a chance to drive through the Pyrenees Mountains.

Having lived at the foot of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado Springs for the past 23 years, we are used to splendid mountain scenery; however, we had one of those perfect sunny days on our ride into the Pyrenees that left us awe-struck at their beauty.


Patches of snow still clung to high depressions, and countless engorged waterfalls from the snow melt graced the steep ravines.  At a spectacularly beautiful stop, we traded conversation and mutual picture-taking with a group of three very friendly German motorcyclists who were on a 2-week motorbike adventure.

A few miles further we crossed the border and entered the tiny principality of Andorra, known only to us as one of the first countries (after Greece) that marches into the Olympic stadium with their very tiny contingent of athletes at every Winter Olympics. 

The incredible mountain beauty of Andorra with its very modern ski communities was immediately apparent to us.


In a mere couple of hours we had travelled along the main highway through Andorra and had crossed over the international border into Spain.  Time to get acquainted with road signs and handy informational signage in another language…

Incredible Catalonian scenery was all around us…

We camped for the night in our first Spanish campground and found it very relaxing and less hung up on regulations than the French ones.  The pool area here had no annoying fences, gates, or obligatory nasty foot washes—just a natural setting with a pool surrounded by grass and several families with kids having a good time.  Showers had all the HOT water you could want—without having to push a button every 20-30 seconds in order to keep the water flowing.  Spain was starting to grow on me…

At check-in, our young campground hostess had given us a brochure on a nearby Spanish national park that had impressive pictures of some pretty high peaks.  Our plan for the next morning was to take a drive into the park, perhaps hike a short while and take in what looked to us like magnificent scenery.  Our hostess told us it would be no problem taking our RV into the park.  After being turned back by width limitations on a narrow road leading into the park, we quickly aborted our plans to see the park.  In any case, we saw some mighty fine scenery of the edge of the park as we proceeded along our way.

As we headed north to reenter France, we travelled through several small towns that had very recently experienced a terrible flood event.  Parts of the road were washed out and lots of riverbank infrastructure had taken a huge hit.  In some places houses and businesses were partially destroyed. 


Meanwhile, the river culprit continued to rush along the side of the road in an angry and furious torrent of cloudy gray water, still clearly out of its banks.

After an hour’s detour due to a washed-out road, we were back in France heading north and stopped for the night in Lourdes, where we found out the flood was quite widespread and had occurred only 4 days ago.  We were amazed at the very quick response by French work crews who were totally immersed in repair work along our route.

LOURDES, FRANCE:  Having attended Catholic grade school, I was well acquainted with the pilgrimage site of Lourdes and had always wondered what it would be like to visit such sacred ground.  Tiny Lourdes stamped its way onto the world map in 1858 when a young peasant girl by the name of Bernadette Soubirous reported having visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary in a cave-like entrance along the Pau River.  Over the course of 18 separate visions, Bernadette claimed that the Blessed Mother told her she wished to have a church built on that spot.  Fast forward a century and a half…above the grotto visitation site there are now two splendid cathedrals, one of them partially underground.


The half-mile or so walk to the sanctuary site was lined with somewhat tacky and garish tourist shops that sold every kind of religious statue or trinket that you could imagine.  But, a rosary palace???

For me, this wasn’t quite what the Virgin Mary had in mind; nevertheless, it is a fact that religious sales serve a purpose for some and are big business.  OK, I confess that I did purchase an empty holy water vial in one of the shops so I could fill it with some Lourdes holy water for myself.

A reliquary of St. Bernadette Soubirous was located in a little side niche outside the cathedral.

The natural spring waters that flow through this holy grotto site are said to have miraculous healing powers.  The custom is to fill your water vials and containers with some of the holy water and either drink it or use it in whatever manner you wish. 

The visitation grotto…

Despite all the crass commercialism leading up to the visitation grotto, once we reached the most sacred area, there was a feeling of something special there.  Mass was just finishing up when we arrived at the grotto and so I quickly joined the line of people who were vacating the pews and heading directly into the very small grotto.  We saw nuns, priests, and pilgrims (many of them in wheelchairs) of many nationalities.  Their reverence and unshakable faith and belief in what had occurred there was quite solemn and personal.  It was not hard to get caught up in the moment, and I was glad that we had decided to visit Lourdes.

"Please go to the priests and tell them that a chapel is to be built here. Let processions come hither."  Words of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Bernadette Soubirous in 1858


June 29, 2013

Lovely Languedoc

"You can observe a lot just by watching."    Yogi Berra

 Carol writes:  After we left Provence, our ride through southern France took us to neighboring Languedoc.  The name “Languedoc” combines the French word for language (langue) with the ancient southern French dialect word for “yes”—oc.  Our visit to lovely Languedoc revolved around two cities—Albi and Carcassonne.  The low-mountain scenery on the route to Albi was a treat to the eyes, especially the clumps of yellow wildflowers in open spaces around the pine-forested areas.

We spent our first night in Languedoc in a rural municipal campground near the Gorges d’Heric, a lovely little gorge in the countryside.  Soon after we arrived, Al hiked the short trail up the gorge while I opted for some relaxation in our lovely back-to-nature campsite site under the trees.

ALBI:  In Albi, we found a tiny camping spot literally in the shadow of Ste. Cécile Cathedral, one of two city sights we wanted to visit.  Unlike most of the churches we had visited thus far, Ste. Cécile was a massive, toned-down, fortress-like structure constructed out of small red bricks. 

The original design was kept simple to appease the Cathars, a local, somewhat rebellious Christian sect that shunned flamboyance of any kind.  In the 13th century, the Catholic Pope and the French king decided that the Cathars were a little too heretical and launched a genocidal campaign to essentially wipe them out.  After the Cathars were exterminated during the Albigensian Crusades (1209-1240), two centuries later a full-blown Gothic-style entry porch was added to the original simple basic brick construction of Ste. Cécile.  For me, this obvious later addition created an eye-jarring discontinuity.

However, the inside of Ste. Cécile was amazing!  I know, you are thinking--how could one more cathedral be any more amazing than what we have already seen--but it was.  Toward the main altar, the incredible “Last Judgment” fresco from the Middle Ages, along with all the other medieval frescos that covered almost every available wall space, looked much as it did when it was created over 500 years ago. 

 The very rare, extremely ornate limestone choir screen was the second feature that distinguished this cathedral from all others.

The little side chapel that was dedicated to Ste. Cécile had the customary reliquary box situated above a lovely statue of a dying Ste. Cécile.

The second reason for our stop in Albi, birthplace of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, was for the opportunity to visit the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum, which claims to possess the world’s largest collection of his artwork.  We both really enjoyed going through a museum totally devoted to one artist.  It was interesting to see how Toulouse-Lautrec’s style evolved over his short lifetime.  The oil paintings depicting Parisian bars, brothels and cabarets were especially delightful.  There was a large collection of advertising posters which Toulouse-Lautrec painted later in his career.  These were interesting in an historic sort of way but were not as eye-popping as the Paris works.  

The walk outside of the museum led to some marvelous sculptured gardens with a lovely city view over the Tarn River.

CARCASSONNE:  The next day we headed south to visit Carcassonne, more specifically La Cité, a medieval medieval 13th century fortress city that served as the setting for the movie “Robin Hood:  Prince of Thieves” starring Kevin Costner.  The old city was surrounded by a double ringed wall.  Indeed, as we entered the Narbonne entry gate,


and proceeded up the wide path between both walls,

we felt like we were in for a real treat.

We followed the path through the inner wall gate that led into La  Cité and made a short stop in St. Nazaire Church.  This relatively simple church was notable for the fact that the Romanesque arches in the nave survived destruction by the Albigensian crusaders, who set out to destroy all Romanesque churches and replace them with Gothic ones.  The section around the altar and transepts that was destroyed was rebuilt in Gothic style, resulting in a unique blend of both styles.

As we exited the church, we entered the heart of La Cité.  Then, for us, the excitement plummeted.  Today the ancient city within the magnificent medieval walls is packed with wall-to-wall hotels, restaurants, and tourist shops. 


It was very crowded and there was nothing particularly remarkable about such a scene, except for its historic location.  We had planned to camp for the night in a nearby large parking lot in an area set aside for RVs, so we could take in the much-touted lighted night walk along the walls.  However, within sight next to the parking lot, a temporary rock concert venue with very loud sounds of a rock band practicing for what was probably going to be a concert that night, convinced us to get out of town fast.

Before we left Carcassonne, we did some calendar and map checking and decided our schedule would allow us time to dip into the Pyrenees, the mountains between France and Spain.  We wanted to see this area in summertime because it would be impassable for us in winter.  While we were at it, we both agreed that a spin through the tiny country of Andorra would be fun.  So…from Languedoc we headed for a few days in Spain and Andorra.   

“A traveler without observation is a bird without wings.”  Moslih Eddin Saadi


June 22, 2013

Perfectly Pleasant Provence

“Sur le Pont d’Avignon, on y danse on y danse…”  Lines from a 15th century French nursery rhyme

Carol writes:  As we left the Mediterranean coastline and headed north, our plan was to spend the next week in the section of France called Provence.  We were thrilled with the continuation of the warm sunny days we had been enjoying along the French Riviera.  On our first day in Provence, camped just outside of the tiny French village of Labesc, we were shocked to learn of the Black Forest Fire very near our home in Colorado Springs.  The next day was even more devastating for us when we learned that our house was in the mandatory evacuation zone and our caretaker had received evacuation orders.  These very dangerous and devastating forest fires in our state are driven by extremely dry and relentless winds that are commonplace in Colorado.  Provence is infamous for its powerful mistral winds, which blow 30-60 miles an hour about 100 days of the year.   How ironic that we were in an area also known for its tremendous winds!  Every day for the next week, until the worst of the fire danger was over, we hungrily gravitated to the Internet wherever we could find it so we could get updates on the fire evacuation zones from our local newspaper and from FB postings.  If our campground did not have Internet service, we pulled up McDonald’s locations on the GPS and headed there.   

The mistral winds of Provence start in the Alps and funnel through the Rhone Valley before they die down at the Mediterranean Sea.  It is said these winds have driven people insane (perhaps Vincent van Gogh?), but for us it meant relief from the heat and fantastic laundry days.

The Roman Empire was a huge presence in Provence and there are many ruins to prove it—some of them extremely well preserved.  In recent centuries many famous artists, such as Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cezanne, were drawn by the splendid lighting and arid climate of Provence, and they enjoyed many productive years there.

AVIGNON:  Our first stop in Provence was near Avignon at a lovely campground on the Ile de la Barthelasse, an island in the middle of the Rhone River.  Avignon has been known to me from a nursery rhyme about its famous bridge that I learned to sing in French as a young child.  That little ditty started running through my head as soon as we approached the charming wall city.

We began our visit to Avignon with a tour of the Palace of the Popes, the mighty and sumptuous temporary residence of the papacy for 94 years (1309-1403).  Nine popes ruled the Holy See from here in what were obviously very extravagant surroundings, much of it remarkably intact.
Although the rooms were not furnished, the audioguide did a good job of explaining medieval furnishings with tapestries and rugs typical in such a grand palace.  The pope’s bedroom had marvelous frescoes of hunting scenes.  Unfortunately, photographs were prohibited in any area with frescoes.

There was nothing simple or plain about the massive dining hall

or the papal chapel.

 The view from the tower was a grand one of the city.  The gilded statue of the Blessed Virgin atop the Avignon Cathedral next door made a nice backdrop for a picture from the palace tower.

Now for a walk out onto that bridge of nursery rhyme fame…  The official name of the bridge at Avignon is the St. Benezet Bridge, which in its heyday was a 22-arch masterpiece that spanned 3000 feet.  Today, only 4 arches survive and so the bridge terminates in the middle of the Rhone River.

It was a thrill to walk out as far as we could go.  There’s that nursery rhyme playing in my head again…

ORANGE, FRANCE:  With so many world-class historical sites in France, sometimes it is a hard choice whether to take that extra day to see a nearby most-exalted 3-star attraction or not.  Al asked me what I thought about seeing a Roman theater, and I made an impulsive decision that we should visit Orange to see its triumphal Roman arch and grand Roman Theater.

The great Roman arch of Orange was erected around 19 A.D., and the carving details were preserved quite well.

The Roman Theater in Orange was stupendous! It is the best preserved Roman theater in existence and the only one with its acoustic wall still standing, thus making it a fabulous musical venue to this day.  Tina Turner once performed here; she must have ‘rocked’ the place!

A magnificent restored statue of Caesar dominates the theater backdrop.

PONT DU GARD:  Now that we were getting caught up in the thrill of viewing wonderfully well-preserved Roman ruins, the next day we headed off to nearby Pont du Gard, which certainly lived up to its claim to fame as one of the most remarkable surviving Roman ruins anywhere.  Pont du Gard was part of a massive Roman aqueduct (circa 19 B.C.) that was built to provide water for Nimes, one of ancient Europe’s largest cities.  The 30-mile zigzagging route was an engineering marvel, and it is a wonder that this grandest portion, built to span the river below, has survived for 2000 years!

What a wonderful feat of engineering!  Primitive construction tools, along with rudimentary mathematics, were used to build this massive 3-tiered arched aqueduct bridge—all to carry precious water in a 4-ft wide, 6-ft deep channel at the very top.

 ARLES, FRANCE:  The next day we moved camp to the city of Arles, an important ancient travel intersection between Italy and Spain.  First on our itinerary was a visit to a well-restored and relatively intact Roman Amphitheater.

One could imagine the ancient gladiator competitions that were held here.  During competitions, sometimes merely the mood of the crowd was enough for the Roman emperor to make a decision whether the losing gladiator would be spared or be given the death sign (thumb down).

We roamed the quite passable circular hallways on two levels—a snap since the theater is a present-day entertainment venue.

We made a brief walk through St. Trophine Church--simply because Rick Steves declared that this church “sports the finest Romanesque main entrance” he has seen anywhere.  It was pretty impressive.   

We had some time to spare before hopping onto our bus back to the campground, so we took time to pay homage to Vincent van Gogh, who spent 2 years of his life in Arles where he cranked out some of his best work.  We walked a small section of the “van Gogh easel walk” along the streets van Gogh knew so we could see through his eyes the places he painted.  At each stop were photos of the final paintings for the now-and-then comparison.  The “Café at Night” venue was interesting in an historical sort of way but would have been better without the modern-day seating areas at street level.

By far, the most rewarding easel stop was the garden pictured in van Gogh’s “Garden of the Hospital in Arles.”   Obviously, the flowers have changed, but the garden design and fountain with the golden arches of the old hospital in the background haven’t changed to any extent in over 130 years.  Most likely a victim of bipolar depression, van Gogh was hospitalized here for over a year; however, he did quite well from an artistic standpoint and produced more than 100 paintings in a little hospital studio that was provided as a part of his therapy.



LES BAUX, FRANCE:  Our last stop in Provence was to visit the medieval hilltop castle ruins at Les Baux.  The modern day town of Les Baux sits at the base of this windblown spur (baux in French) on which are the haunting remains of a mighty former citadel from the Middle Ages.  At the start of the tour we passed by displays of medieval siege weaponry,


with pastoral scenes of present-day vineyards and olive groves visible in the fields below.

Dozens of rooms that once formed this fortress castle were clustered up against the natural rock faces.

The size, method of construction, and organization of the rooms reminded us of ruins we have seen from what would have been a slightly earlier Anasazi civilization in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

…no kivas here, however, instead just the remains of an ancient chapel with Gothic arches.

To our untrained eyes, this civilization was much more advanced than the Anasazis and showed evidence of a clever water catchment system (now only home to fields of poppies), constructed as a slanted stone field that caught rainwater which then flowed by means of water channels (cut into the rock face) into huge cisterns.

Pigeons were used at Les Baux as a means of communication in addition to being a source of food--just like in “Game of Thrones.”  A stone pigeon rookery that was carved directly into the rock face looked as if the birds had just left the nest.

We will always remember our week in Provence and how we were captivated by its ancient Roman and medieval history, along with its warm sunny days with strong mistral breezes.  We will not soon forget the added personal angst we experienced in Provence with knowledge of the forest fire that came so close to our treasured home.  

“You lose sight of things…and when you travel everything balances out.”     Anonymous