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

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