Minding The Gap

Why were we here instead of on the highway?

While heading north towards Geneva, we got off the road and got to see the beauty of the Vaucluse department in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region of France.    It’s a good thing it was so beautiful, because our 3-4 hour drive home ended up taking over 8.

You can see why the Tour de France often rides through here.   In fact, they’re headed through there this week.  It’s near Gap and the infamous Mont Ventoux.  The views of the dams and lakes, and mountain scenery are spectacular.

Vaison-la-Romaine

Vaison-la-Romaine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At one time, Vaison-la-Romaine  (which you might remember from the post about Provence’s Ironwork Bell Towers) was the capital for the Voconce people.   It is famous for its ancient Gallo-Roman ruins including a Roman bridge.

The Roman Bridge at Vaison-la-Romaine, Vauclus...

The Roman Bridge at Vaison-la-Romaine, Vaucluse department, Provence, France Français : Le Pont romain de Vaison-la-Romaine, département de Vaucluse, Provence, France (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The bridge is one of five remaining Roman bridges in Provence. It survived a German bomb during the World War II and the Ouvèze River’s devastating floods in 1992.   Vaison has two excavated Roman districts, and an Archaeological Museum.

Stone houses in Vaison-la-Romaine, Vaucluse de...

Stone houses in Vaison-la-Romaine, Vaucluse department, Provence, France Français : Maisons de pierre á Vaison-la-Romaine, département de Vaucluse, Provence, France (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We weren’t the only ones who got off the highway and started taking side roads.  Since it was the edge of the alps, there weren’t many alternatives and the road was packed.  Ironically, it was still less crowded and moved faster than in the south of France.    We entertained ourselves by counting the number of people we saw pulled off on the side of the road answering the call of nature (over 10).

If you’re interested in a French vacation without the seemingly ever-present crowds, this is a part of France for you.  If you’re a Tour de France fan, this is also a part of France for you.  If you like simple bucolic beauty, it’s for you too.

I think the photo below is a viaduct on the Grenoble train line  (Chemin de Fer de La Mure/the Mure railway).  We saw it on the route from Orpierre (with its nice swimming hole in Les Gorges de la Méouge) to Grenoble.   It can be reached easily by road from Grenoble, or by trains on the SNCF line towards Gap.

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Our Aixperience

We visited Aix-en-Provence and saw a knife fight.   That wasn’t the only thing we saw.

After leaving the restaurant at dusk, we strolled the streets.  Some towns roll up the sidewalks after dark; Aix does not.  It is practically mandatory to walk the streets in the evening and have a drink on cafe terraces.  Yep.  Streetwalking is mandatory.  It’s especially nice because the old town (vielle ville) is car free, easy to navigate and a manageable size.

Boulevard Mirabeau (Cours Mirabeau), is a grand avenue built on the site of the former ramparts in the 17th century.   Our favorite trees in Geneva, the plane tree, line and shade  the stately boulevard.  The overhanging trees provide much-needed shade on hot summer days.  Moss covered fountains are in the center of the avenue with stately old town houses behind the wide sidewalks.

We strolled it that evening, but went back the next morning to have coffee (and a croissant)  in the legendary café, Les Deux Garcons.  Dating from 1792, many famous people have dined here including: Picasso, Churchill, Edith Piaf, André Malraux, Jean-Paul Sartre, Raimu, Alain Delon, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean CocteauSophie Marceau, Jean Reno, Hugh Grant and George Clooney.  It was a regular haunt of Paul Cezanne and Emile Zola.  I can see why.  The cappuccino was tasty and the croissant was wonderfully light.  It was a treat to sit and watch the world pass.

Being American, we like a fast pace and giant to do lists.  It is impossible to live like that in Aix.  It is a place to stop, enjoy the view and make the mundane wonderful.

Aix is known for its many and varied markets.  They have normal markets, local producers markets, flower markets, antiques markets and old book markets.  We visited the morning market at Place Richelme (there are also markets at Place de Verdun, Place de l’Hôtel de Ville and Place des Prêcheurs).  We picked up some fresh fruit and perused the many artisanal varieties of cheese, meats and breads.

 Aix-en-Provence is a university town (University of Provence Aix-Marseille) and filled with academics and students.  It also gets its fair share of aristocrats, people who are wealthy enough not to have to work and professionals.   It has a reputation for being a bit elitist.  If you are interested in Aix, it was immortalized by Peter Maille’s book “One Year in Provence.”

Like many other towns in the south of France (Arles, Orange, Vence), Aix was inhabited by the Romans.  They built thermal baths at Aix, Aquae Sextiae, around 2000 years ago.  Today you can visit the newer (18th-century hot-water baths) and modern spa built atop the old baths (you can see them from the lobby).

Van Gogh In Saint-Rémy De Provence

 

After cutting off part of his left ear in Arles, Vincent van Gogh voluntarily committed himself to Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, a psychiatric asylum in Saint-Rémy de Provence.  The year was extremely difficult for Van Gogh.  Although he was incapacitated at times,  it was also one of his most creative periods and he produced over 150 paintings during his year at Saint-Rémy.  When he was able to paint, he produced many of his best works.  His landscapes from this period are particularly groundbreaking.

As long as he remained stable, the doctors allowed Vincent to paint and he converted an adjacent cell into a studio. Initially, he was not allowed to leave the asylum grounds.  He painted what he saw from the room (minus the bars on the window).  We saw the asylum’s walled garden replete with irises, lilacs, and ivy-covered trees. Having seen Van Gogh’s paintings, it was hauntingly familiar.

Although it’s not fancy or high-tech, the exhibits teach you about Van Gogh’s life, his mental illness, how he came to Arles, his treatment there, how mental illnesses were treated at the time and his painting.  On our way out to walk the grounds, he said that Van Gogh is now his favorite painter (I’m not sure that he had one before).

Irises exemplifies Van Gogh’s trademark vivid colors and daring brush strokes.  It was one of his early paintings there.  Influenced by Japanese wood blocks, it lacks the higher tension in his later works.  He called it “the lightning conductor for my illness” because he believed that he could avoid further breakdowns by continuing to paint.  Unfortunately this was not so and after painting this, he suffered his first major “attack” at the asylum.

Irises, 1889, Getty Center, Los Angeles

Irises, 1889, Getty Center, Los Angeles (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When he was permitted to leave the grounds, he painted the nearby wheatfields, olive groves, and cypress trees of the surrounding countryside.  The Olive Trees, by Vincent Van Gogh, depicts an olive grove just outside the grounds of the asylum in Saint-Rémy.

The museum has plaques at spots where Van Gogh painted, explaining the painting and the view.  They make well-known spots easy to find.  Some spots are so iconic you immediately recognize them even without the plaques.  Seeing the olive groves or the beds of irises, we were filled with awe at Van Gogh’s ability to capture the feeling and essence of them.

Olive-trees

Olive-trees (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We went to St. Rémy not knowing what to expect.  Although it was raining to hard to see much of the town, it was a wonderful surprise and a powerful, moving experience (kind of like Van Gogh’s paintings).  It was something we will remember forever and we even learned a little something.

 

Provence’s Ironwork Bell Towers

Aix-en-Provence

Provence is windy.  During our trips to Provence, we saw a large number of wrought-iron bell towers.  Produced in Provence since the 16th century, they are unique to the region.   Once I saw my first one with The Luger on our trip to Avignon, I noticed them everywhere.

Near Les Baux

Their light and open framework allows the area’s strong winds, Le Mistral, to blow through them instead of blowing them over.  Their sound carries for miles.  They usually top the town hall or church, but can even top  a rampart gate.  Many of the towers have a strong Italian influence (which isn’t too surprising given Provence’s proximity to France and considering parts of the Côte d’Azur belonged to France at one time).

Vaison-la-Romaine

Aix-en-Provence

from the highway

Near Pont du Gard

The bellowers date from different eras, but most were built in the 17th and 19th centuries.  They were typically produced by local craftsmen.  Each designed and crafted the tower in their own particular style.  As a result, they vary dramatically in style.  Cool huh?

City Hall in Aix-en-Provence

St-Paul-de-Vence

On the way to Gap

Breaking Wind – Le Mistral

Provence was windy.  I’m not talking about a slight breeze.  I’m talking about a fierce, howling, incessant wind with giant gusts.  Provence is known for its ferocious, cold wind known locally as “Le Mistral” (or mistrau in Provençal).  It blows for days at a time, reaching speeds of 100 km/hr (62 miles/hr).  Some have described it as a hurricane with sunny weather.

WARNING! Please be careful during your visit, particularly if it is windy, especially near the edges of the cliffs, the Sarassine, the Paravelle towers and the Dunjon. Please keep an eye on your children! Culture Espaces accepts no responsibility. – Sign in Les Baux that translates into “if you get blown off the cliff it is your own fault.”

The result of an atmospheric phenomenon, it usually develops as a cold front moving down across France. Winter’s cold air piles up in the Alps before spilling over the mountaintops, down into the Rhône valley to the Mediterranean (towards Marseille).   It works to blows away clouds and moisture, providing towns like Aix-en-Provence with an average 300 sunny days a year. In our two trips to Provence, we experienced two rainy days.  Go figure.

Le Mistral is the single most important factor in shaping the Provence’s trees are  Provençal landscape.  Trees are permanently bent in the wind’s direction.  Vincent Van Gogh’s  swirling landscapes depict the the effects of the Mistral on the countryside.

Le Mistral flattens the grasses in the field, bends the top of the cypress trees and even in knocks over flower pots, tosses patio furniture around, tears the washing off the line, tosses garbage cans blocks away and pretty much sweeps away anything that isn’t tied down.    The howling wind even blows doors wide open and people off their feet!

When the Mistral blows, no one goes out unless they really have to.  People huddle indoors with their shutters battened; the streets are empty.  The wind becomes the topic of every conversation.   Legend has it that the Mistral will blow for one day, three, six, nine or even as many as twelve days.

Like the Föhn, people claim that Le Mistral can cause headaches, restlessness in children and even affect pets.  It makes everyone bad tempered and exasperated.  Some even claim that it causes mental instability, making people mad.  That was probably great for Van Gogh.

Le Mistral’s has positive effects on Provence and not just if you want to fly a kite, windsurf, or sail.  It blows stagnant waters dry and stopping disease from spreading.   Locals call it “mange fange” which translates into swamp eater. The Mistral’s winds drying effect on the area keeps the Rhône vines, including Châteauneuf-du-Pape, free of mildew (great for wine lovers).  The humidity in the air is blown away, leaving things dry and the view crystal clear (great for artists).

We Didn’t Know The Valley Of Hell Was So Beautiful, Les Baux

Near the end of our whirlwind trip through the south of France, we went to Les Baux-de-Provence near Aix (where we saw a knife fight) and Arles (where we saw the Roman ruins).  It is another adorable and charming hill town, but the real reason to go to  Les Baux is to enjoy sweeping views of the Provencal countryside from atop the ruins of its medieval citadel.   The first citadel was built in the 10th Century.  Although the lords were deposed a couple of centuries later, it didn’t stop it from becoming a cultural center and renowned for its chivalry.  When the last dynastic ruler (Alice of Baux) died, it became part of the kingdom of France.

 In the 17th century, Protestant Baux led an unsuccessful revolt against the Catholic King.  The all-powerful Cardinal Richelieu retaliated by ordering the destruction of the castle and its walls.Shortly after, the town was granted in 1642 to the Grimaldi family of Monaco.  In fact, it still belongs to them (even though it’s administered by France).  Princess Caroline of Monaco uses the title Marquise des Baux.

Having seen plenty of cute shops and art galleries in the hill towns of Eze, St. Paul-de-Vence, and Vence, we checked out a photography exhibition then headed straight for the castle.  Climbing around the ruins was cool (they even had a catapult demonstration), but the dramatic views are the real star of the show.  The rugged moonscape is the perfect place from which to survey Provence.  We watched the weather traverse the countryside, descending only when we saw rain clouds headed toward us.

The Val d’ Enfer (the Valley of Hell) is also renowned.  It allegedly inspired Dante’s poetry. Bauxite, an aluminum ore, was discovered here in 1821.  French geologist Pierre Berthier discovered it and named after the town (Les Baux).  When it’s that cute, how could you do otherwise?

Being short, I love, love, love my heels, but appropriate footwear is recommended.  She was having a devil of a time getting around the town and down the steep hill to the parking.  At least they are cute.

What’s Latin For Roman? Finding Out All About Ancient Rome In Arles

A model of Roman Arles

You can’t swing a cat in Arles without hitting Roman ruins.  I badly for anyone who wants to undertake a building project there.  They must expect to uncover Roman ruins when they start digging as they are everywhere.

They pop up on random streets and sections of viaducts decorate the middle of traffic circles!

Around 200 B.C., the Romans extended their empire into what is now southern France.  At the time, it was inhabited by the Celtic Gauls who resisted Roman domination.  Rome wanted control of the region to ensure the continuity and security of their supply lines to Spain.

In 56 B.C. Julius Caesar’s legions kicked the crap out of the Celtic Gauls.  Romans took control of the territory.   As a result, some of the most significant Roman towns outside of Italy are in the south of France.  We saw the Pont du Gard, the amphitheater and triumphal arch in Orange a month earlier when we visited with family.

The Roman Empire was huge.  We’ve seen Roman ruins in Portugal, England, Germany, and they are all over  Switzerland.  Geneva was a Roman town; there are at least two sites with ruins within a mile of our flat.  As a result, we are in danger of giving you Ruin Fatigue (a real illness) from tramping around so many of them.  The Roman ruins in Arles are some of the world’s best (a UNESCO World Heritage site) and we felt as though they were still a must-see.  We were right.  He says that they were the bomb.com.  Please bear with us.  I swear, we won’t post about them again for awhile.

Roman Museum in Arles (Musee de L’Arles Antique), is filled with models and artifacts from Provence’s Roman era.  This modern museum displays ancient artifacts from Arles.

lead bars

One of the most famous items in the museum is a copy of Venus of Arles.  Found in 1651 by workmen who were digging a well, it is a Roman copy of Greek statue (possibly the Venus of Capua).   Louis XIV liked it and snagged the lovely lady to decorate Versailles.   Post-revolution, it belongs to the Louvre.

Louis XIV thinks I’m hot!

While the objects were cool, the best part of the museum was how they put the items in context and explained the region’s role in ancient Rome.  From showing how the covering went on the amphitheater to explaining how viaducts worked.  It was Ancient Rome 101.

The amphitheater is the largest Roman building in Gaul.  Compared to the collesium in Rome, it is tiny.  Nevertheless, we’ve been to professional sporting events in much smaller venues.  They still hold bullfights there!

After seeing bullfights in Lisbon a few years back. We felt badly and rooted for the bull. Seeing what the animal went through made us wary of seeing another. Sorry. There won’t be any bullfight coverage.

During the 
middle ages, the arena was used as a fortress; people lived inside using its giant walls for protection.  There were 212 
houses and 2 churches inside!  Those were cleared out 
when restoration began in the 1800s.

My dad complains that thousands of people watch sporting events, but the opera can’t draw the same crowds or support.  The amphitheater seats 20,000.  The Theatre Antique (the theater) seats a mere 12,000.  Apparently sports were drawing larger crowds than the arts as far back as the Roman Empire.

A Knife Fight In Aix

The south of France.  Aix-en-Provence.  Sounds pretty tony, right?   We thought so to, but were willing to give it a go anyway.  It is conveniently located near the intersection of two major highways and a central point for many of the things we wanted to see on our France trip.

Driving in, we were impressed by its majestic squares, shaded avenues, mossy fountains, and elegant mansions.  We checked into our hotel and went to dinner.  We went to Place des Cardeurs because it is a big piazza with lots of restaurants to choose from and outdoor seating.  It wasn’t anything fancy (he had a pizza and I had a big salad).

Right after our food arrived, we saw a scuffle on the sidewalk between the terrace where we were eating and the restaurant.  It was a Saturday night and a bit early for a bar fight, but hey, the local culture is different everywhere.  All of a sudden, one of the combatants pulled a knife out of his pants.

Film poster for Crocodile Dundee II - Copyrigh...

Film poster for Crocodile Dundee II – Copyright 1988, Paramount Pictures (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Do you remember the scene in Crocodile Dundee where Paul Hogan says “that’s not a knife, THAT’s a knife.”  This guys knife made Paul Hogan’s look like a butter knife.  He had a machete.  What’s more, he was swinging it around.  The two guys (for the ease of explaining things, we’ll call them the Surly Drunks) jumping Mr. Machete both got slashed.  Waitstaff on the terrace borrowed cell phones and to cal the police.  By that point, we’d I’d stopped eating…for the rest of the night.

Our ringside seats. This all happened behind the vinaigre bottle. I didn’t want to attract the attention of the Surly Drunks and figured there were enough witnesses so I didn’t take any pictures.

Since it was two on one, Mr. Machete took refuge inside the restaurant.  We found out later that he was a local business owner; the area businesses clearly knew him.  The manager, servers and kitchen staff barred the door to separate (and protect) everyone until the police arrived.  The Surly Drunks outside were bleeding, possibly high, probably in shock and definitely not rational.  The Surly Drunks kept screaming for the him to come out and were talking a lot trash.  When he didn’t exit the restaurant, they tried, unsuccessfully, to force their way in.   The posse of servers, managers and cooks stopped them.  Angered by their failure, the Surly Drunks began breaking bottles and brandishing them.  They cut a cook before dropping the bottle in favor of hurling giant planters.   They threw some punches too.  He said they threw the punches like NBA players, not like hockey players.  Realizing they sucked at hand to hand combat, the Surly Drunks stopped throwing punches and started throwing chairs.

I’m not saying that police in the US always respond promptly (especially in certain neighborhoods), but we were astounded by how long it took the police to arrive in the center of town.  It took them at least 20 minutes to arrive.  Thank goodness the cooks had come out of nearby restaurants and followed the Surly Drunks so that the police could track them down.

The police arrived and went inside to interview Mr. Machete.  Paramedics came, tended to to the cook and took him away.  We’re pretty sure he had to go to the hospital for stitches because the slash on his neck was pretty ugly.

Cover of "Léon: The Professional (Theatri...

Cover via Amazon

Jean Reno plays and excellent French police officer in movies (Leon: The ProfessionalRoninThe Da Vinci Code,  French Kiss).  The police we saw didn’t appear to be as professional.   They seemed to be more like Louis de Funès in the Le Gendarme de Saint-Tropez.  I saw them put evidence (multiple bloody shirts) in an old, balled up H&M  bag.  Obviously they do not watch CSI.

Le Gendarme de Saint-Tropez

Le Gendarme de Saint-Tropez (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yep! That’s the evidence in the H&M bag. Très CSI.

Go figure.  I saw more violence in the south of France than during the years I lived in Detroit.  Have a great weekend and stay safe!

Don’t Miss A Stroll Through Avignon

We brought visitors from the US on a whirlwind trip to France where we to see as much as possible in a weekend.  The first day, we saw Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Orange.  On the second day, we saw the Pont d’Avignon, the Palais des Papes and the nearby Pont du Gard before returning home.  It was a full weekend, but worth it.  Francophiles, don’t worry, this is the first of more trips to the south of France.  We’re actually headed back tomorrow.  On our whirlwind tour of Provence, we managed a quick stroll through Avignon.  It is a charming town.  While it is best known for the Papal Palace, it’s backstreets are worth a stroll.

The Place de l’Horloge, one of Avignon’s main squares is exactly how you’d imagine a square in the south of France.  The only thing I didn’t see was the petanque (boules/bocce ball) court.  It had grand buildings, a ferris wheel and was lined with outdoor cafes.  Avignon has many squares, but part of its charm is that it is old enough to have narrow alleys leading off of them.

Signs of Avignon past as a religious center are everywhere.

The riverfront (of the Rhone River), parks and gardens of the Palais des Papes, provide welcome open and green space.

The gardens of the Palais des Papes even had a grotto…just like another mansion in California.

Oh yeah, the enormous city walls and ramparts are pretty cool too.  Just make sure to avoid falling stones.  The sign below translates to “Pedestrians do not walk along the ramparts risk of falling rocks.”

Visiting Ancient Rome In Orange, France

Magglio, the Luger and Sneaky Pete took a road trip to the south of France with us.  After stopping at Châteauneuf-du-Pape, we headed to Orange, France.  It is a town in Provence that is famous for its Roman amphitheater and its triumphal arch (Arc de Triomphe) built by Augustus.   It was a cute, convenient place to stay on the way further south.

Signs of the town’s Roman heritage are everywhere.

Just in case you weren’t informed of the city’s Roman heyday, they have these bronze medallions the sidewalks to let you know.  The pigeons did not seem suitably impressed with their home.   In the photo below, they seem to have been using this alcove for their personal loo for centuries.  That is one giant mound of pigeon poo.

The amphitheater is really well-preserved.  It is a similar size as the one in Arles, but better preserved.  It has wonderful acoustics and is still used for concerts.

We took a nice walk around the amphitheater before having dinner inside it.  Sometimes restaurants in amazing locations are gimmicky, overpriced or have bad food.  In the amphitheater, we had a wonderful meal in this amazing venue.  Amazingly, most of the people there were locals.  We couldn’t believe that we were eating inside a Roman amphitheater…very surreal and way cool.

The Luger and Sneaky Pete at the dinner table

After dinner, we took a stroll through town to see the arch of triumph.   Having done the research, this is how I explained why it was built.    Orange was a major crossroads.   People were passing through this town that once ruled over Holland and England.  In 25 A.D., in honor of the Gallic Wars, Augustus built this arch in honor of Rome’s victory in the Gallic Wars.   Essentially, it was a giant billboard that said “look what we did to these guys, do you want a piece of this?”