Tales From The Crypt

Geneva is old.  Really old.  The Allobrogians built a fortified settlement in Geneva that was conquered by the Romans in 120 BCE.   For me, pre-Roman = old.  Located at a strategic location between Lake Geneva (Lac Leman) and the Rhone, Julius Cesar came to Geneva on his Gallic campaign in approximately  58 BCE.   From the 1st to 4th centuries, they built a large building close to where the St.-Pierre Cathedral now stands .

Under the St.-Pierre Cathedral, in the crypt is an archaeological site.  The foundations of those original buildings are still there.   You can see the layers of building.    In the photo above, you can see the original monk’s cells on the left.  Cozy.

The site is massive, with many levels.  Some of our guests missed seeing an entire part of it when they took a wrong turn.

When I went back to look for them, I stumbled upon this gentleman (or lady).  The  hole is from the excavations searching for his or her head!

With so much history piled up in one spot, they have a handy color coded system to help you determine the age of what you are seeing.  The colored sticks correspond to different time periods.  

There’s plenty of evidence of the Romans, from mosaic floors to coins to wells.

I don’t think the coins at the bottom of this cistern date from Roman times.  I tossed one in.  It couldn’t hurt.

In the 4th–5th century, as Christianity spread across the Roman Empire and the  cluster of buildings on the hill began to include places of worship.  In 443, the Burgundians (a tribe of barbarians who invaded) took over Geneva. They made Geneva one of their capitals and the city contented to develop.  The site also developed encompassing multiple uses.

By the 9th century, cluster had grown significantly and undergone fundamental changes.  Three places of worship and annexes were built in the 4th–5th centuries.  These early christian churches have been extensively excavated.  In the 7th–8th centuries, a larger cathedral was erected.  In 1000, a monumental crypt was added and the choir extended.  The bishop built a himself a residence, a palace for him to live in.  Of course he did.

 

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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).

Geneva’s Jonction

La Jonction is the point where the Rhône River and the Aarve River converge, their confluence.  The Rhône descends from the Alps (the Rhone Glacier in Valais) into the far end of Lake Geneva (Lac Léman).  The water is then filtered while passing through deep Lake Geneva, coming out the other end an even clearer, brighter blue.

The Aarve is snowmelt directly from the Alps and is still full of sediment.  Since it didn’t spend time in the lake being warmed by the sun, it is also much colder.  Last August, I dipped my finger in in.  It was over 32 degrees (0 Celsius), but not much.  Bbrrrr.  Our friends rafted down the Rhône and said that the bottom of their raft became noticeably cooler after the confluence of the Aarve at Jonction.

They can see the drastic difference in their color and sediment at the point where they meet.  I’ve heard it described as Blue Curacao next to Bailey’s Irish Cream.  After they join, the Rhone becomes greener and cloudier.

There is a lot of natural beauty in Switzerland.  If Jonction were located elsewhere, it would probably get more attention.  Here, it has to compete with stunning mountain ranges and crystal clear lakes.

Geneve/La Jonction

Geneve/La Jonction (Photo credit: silviaN)

Jonction is also a neighborhood in Geneva, located near the rivers’ confluence, one side is bordered by the Rhône and another by the Aarve. By the way, if people tell you to meet them at Jonction on a hot day, make sure to bring a swimsuit.  The Rhône side of Jonction has a giant grassy area where people picnic and sunbathe.  They jump in the river and float downstream to cool down.  Oh yeah, they also jump off of bridges.  We’ll do it again soon.

Getting Our History On At Fort L’Ecluse

On our first hike in the  Jura Mountains went through the Rhône Valley by Fort l’Écluse (or Fort de l’Écluse), near Leaz, France in the Pays de Gex.  The site has a view of the strategic route between the Jura Mountains and the Alps and has had fortifications since Roman times.

The Romans built defenses around 58 BC to protect them from the Helvetii (the nearby Swiss tribe). In the Middle Ages, the stronghold protected the Jura and was a center for goods (which the cyicist in me interprets to mean used to collect tolls or taxes).  Expanded, in the 17th century, the French used the fort to prevent French Protestants from fleeing France to Protestant Geneva after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (which permitted secularism and tolerance).

There are actually two forts on the site, the lower (inférieure in French) and upper (supérieure in French).  The Duke of Savoy and the Marquis de Vauban (during the reign of Louis XIV) built the lower fort.  When the Austrians destroyed the fort in 1815, the Savoy rebuilt it bigger and stronger.

The tower dovetails into the rock.

We got lucky, they were having a historical reenactment when we visited.  It got us admission and we saw solders living as they did in the 19th century.  Some of them were cooking.  I asked what they were making.  The “soldiers” jokingly said “nothing good.” They explained that soldier’s food wasn’t good and they were being historically accurate.  We spied a couple of bottles of wine tucked away behind some plants (also historically accurate?), so I think they had a good time anyway.

Built into the stone, the fort was surprisingly cool (which was good for them in their wool uniforms).  The reenactors were really nice and totally into it.  When I asked to take a picture with them they gladly agreed and, to my astonishment, passed me the musket.  It weighed 5 kilos (10.2 pounds)!

The upper fort (200 metres/660 feet above the lower one), was built in the 1830’s-40’s to protect the lower fort provide additional space and better views from which to control the valley.  It has a subterranean stairway with 1165 steps through the rock that connecting it to the lower fort.

Unfortunately, the upper fort is closed because it is unsafe for visitors.  They are doing restoration work on the lower fort.  We hope that when they finish, they start on the upper fort because it is an amazing site and filled with history.

We took a steep trail uphill for a half an hour to reach the upper fort.  I shouldn’t have bothered to ask the extremely portly gentleman we encountered in the lower parking lot for directions.  I’m pretty sure he hadn’t done much walking, let alone hiking, over the past 30 years.  The gentleman said the upper fort was closed, there was no reason to go up there and looked at me like I was crazy when I told him we were hiking.   We are glad we went anyway.  We were still able to see the ramparts.  Even better, they had exceptional views of  the Rhône, Saleve and the Alps, including Mont Blanc.

Fort l’Ecluse wasn’t just a customs station and border control in the 20th century.  It served as a military training center during World War I.   In the 1930’s, the fort was incorporated into French border fortifications (as part of the enormously inefficient Mangiot Line) that were intended to prevent a German invasion from Switzerland.  We all know how that worked out.

I was astounded to learn that it actually saw action during WWII.  It is so close to Geneva, I can only imagine the anxiety that Genevans must have felt.  The Defensive Sector of the Rhône, a French military organization controlled the French border with Switzerland around Geneva, controlled the fort.  In June 1940, German forces (the 3rd and 4th Panzer Divisions and the 13th Motorized Infantry Division) advanced from the north along the Rhône valley.  From June 22nd to 25th, the French force held the back the German forces advancing toward Albertville.   When France surrendered on June 25, the fort didn’t.  It held tight until directly ordered to let the Germans advance and surrender by General Charles Huntziger of the Vichy Regime.

Our First Big Hike Of The Summer

Our first Sunday back in Switzerland, the weather was supposed to be great and we were keen to hike.  He traveled last week so he wanted to sleep in.  This meant that we needed to go someplace near Geneva.  We hadn’t hiked the Jura yet and decided to give it a go.

The first weekend after we moved to Switzerland we explored the area.  Driving back from Annecy and The Museum of the Alpine Cow, we saw a giant fortress in the mountain above.  We wanted to visit it and a hike seemed like the perfect opportunity.

We were on the last mound by the river. It has a small, dark smudge on top. Those are the ruins with a statute of the Virgin Mary on top.

We started from Léaz, France (just over the border) and hiked up to the Virgin of Léaz and stunning views of the Rhone River cutting its way through the Jura Mountains.   The Virgin sits on top of sixteenth century ruins, but the spot was inhabited in Roman times (because of its defensible position.  The views were stunning, but I was careful to watch where I stepped.

We walked all the way down to the Rhone River.  Although it was a hot day, we didn’t stop for a swim (we’ll go bridge jumping into the Rhone at Junction soon enough).   The banks were muddy and we had hiking to do… a lot of it.  Uphill.

What goes up, must come down.  We went down to the Rhone, so there was nowhere left to go but up.   On the bright side, the terrain was interesting, varied and shaded (not many panoramic views).  We passed countless streams, waterfalls and channels that funneled water from the Jura into the Rhone.   The trails were okay, but I wouldn’t plan on doing the hike if it rained the previous week and the trails climb sharply.  You were warned.

We hiked up to Fort de L’Ecluse (both of them) through The Haut-Jura Regional Natural Park and down from the mountains.  As the mountains gave way to pastures and fields, we heard our first cowbells of the season.  We love the sound of cow bells ringing through a valley interrupting the background noise of gurgling creeks and chirping birds.  It is the soundtrack to a heavenly day.

One of the best parts of the hike was the wildflowers in bloom.  I snapped way too many pictures of them.

The fields were pretty gorgeous too.

So was the view.  Let summer officially begin!

Arles, Better Than New

After our whirlwind tour of France’s Côte d’Azur (Cannes, Antibes, Villefranche, Nice, Eze, the Grande Corniche, St. Paul-de-Vence, and Vence), we headed back from the coast to Provence.  Arles was a cultural and religious centre during the late Roman Empire.  During the dark ages, it fell under the control of the Muslim Saracens, the Franks and even experienced Viking raids.  The turbulence didn’t last and the town regained political and economic prominence.  For centuries Arles was a major port on the Rhône.  With the advent of the railroad in the 19th century, Arles became something of a backwater while nearby Marseille (with it’s seaport) exploded. Today, Arles is gently loved and its decay is part of its charm.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Arles is that even though it is filled with old, even ancient buildings and surrounded by history, it doesn’t stay rooted in the past.  It isn’t, nor does it want to be, a time capsule.  The ancient buildings house very current shops restaurants and exhibitions.   Arles is vibrant.  It manages to be lively and active without being stressful.  We loved its relaxed vibe.  After having been in the Cote d’Azur, it was a nice change to visit a town that had more locals than tourists.

We weren’t the only ones who fell under Arles’ spell.  Our friend, Hokie, at The Swiss Watch Blog, recommended it.  The movie Ronin was partially filmed in Arles.  It stars Jean Reno (an iconic French actor who you probably know from The Da Vinci Code, Mission: Impossible, and Hotel Rwanda) and Robert De Niro.  This caper film has wonderful cinematography an unforgettable car chase.  John Frankenheimer filmed Ronin’s shoot-out in Arles.  Vincent Van Gogh lived, painted, drank and cut off an ear here.   There are placards all over the city at sites where Arles appears in his paintings.  Who hasn’t seen the painting Cafe Terrace at Night which the cafe below?

We walked along the Rhone River from the Roman Museum into town before losing ourselves in its history and narrow alleyways.  Thanks for the recommendation Hokie.  We loved Arles.

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.”

Avignon’s Palais Des Papes

History time folks.  In the 14th century, Pope Clement  V and his court fled political turmoil in Rome, escaping to Avignon.  Clement V was French and well, where else would he go?  From 1309 to 1377 there were seven French-born popes and the papacy was not in Rome, but in Avignon.  Yep, the place with the bridge into the river, the Pont du Gard.

The Popes spent a fortune building palaces, decorating them and outfitting them with accouterments.  You can still see some of it today (and learn a little bit about the history) by touring the papal palaces.

The Papal palace was built between 1335 and 1364.

Needless to say, the Italians weren’t huge fans of the move and continually lobbied to get them back to Rome.  There was the Great Schism (which you may remember reading about in high school).  When Pope Gregory XI left Avignon and died, Rome and Avignon both elected their own popes.  These popes both excommunicated the other and tried to gain control of the church (with the accompanying revenues).  When all sides finally found a pope acceptable to all, Martin V, he established himself in Rome, ending Avignon’s time in the spotlight.

In addition to the pope pens, it is licensed sell alcohol.

 

Nursery Rhyme Time – Le Pont d’Avignon

Every child in France knows of Avignon.  It isn’t because it is a decent-sized town.  It isn’t because it has a bunch of history or housed the papacy.  It isn’t because the bridge stops in the middle of the Rhone River (it was washed away by floods and not rebuilt).  It is because of a nursery rhyme.

Just like “Ring Around the Rosie” or “London Bridge is Falling Down” it has a dance that goes with it.

The refrain goes:

Sur le pont d’Avignon (On the bridge of Avignon)

l’on y danse, l’on y danse  (we all dance there, we all dance there)

Sur le pont d’Avignon (On the bridge of Avignon)

l’on y danse tout en rond. (we all dance there in a circle)

1st Verse – Les beaux messieurs font comme ci 
et pui encore comme ca…. (The handsome young gentlemen do like this (bow)
 and then like that)

2nd Verse – Les belles dam’s font comme ci . . .
 (The beautiful young ladies do like this …(curtsying))

3rd Verse – Et les soldats font comme ci . . .
 (The brave soldiers do like this (salute)
)

4th Verse – Les cordonniers font comme ci . . .
 (The musicians do like this (play violin))

There are many more verses, but you get the idea.  Everyone is doing something with an accompanying gesture.  Someone who is a better scribe than I put them all down with instructions if you want to give it a go.

By the way, song was actually “Sous le Pont d’Avignon” (Under the Bridge of Avignon).  In medieval times, it was a happening place with cafés with dancing and other pleasure activities under the bridge’s arches of the bridge.  “Sur” means on and sounds a bit similar…

 

Wine Museum In Châteauneuf-du-Pape

When we visited the very rocky Châteauneuf-du-Pape, we stopped by the Brotte Wine Museum.  It was started in 1972 and updated in 2000.  It centers on the history of wine growing and AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée which guarantees the wines‘ origins).

The AOC designation is very important to them.  It makes their wines more recognizable and promotable (and more expensive) abroad.  For educated consumers, it makes it easier to understand what they are getting.  It also means that producers have tons of rules.  The museum had just about everything used it to work the vines or in wine making, except the AOC rule book.  I want to get my hands on a copy because I hear that they have some pretty stringent rules.  For example, the lengths of the vines are measured repeatedly during the year to ensure they don’t exceed particular lengths at different points in the year.  Some are easier to follow.  You aren’t allowed to land a flying saucer in your field…um, okay.  I think I could manage that one.

The museum displays of barrels from the Middle Ages, wine presses, old tools, baskets, equipment, old photos, plows, bottling apparatus and many other items.

People always note that they have a 4,000 litre chestnut wine barrel from the 14th century and a 16th century wine-press.  We liked some of the more us usual items, like a chain maille glove for removing insects.

We also snuck a peek through the window at their bottling operation.  It looks remarkably like a brewery’s bottling operation.

While the museum isn’t as much fun as a wine tour with Jean-Michel, it is free, informative (if you read the English pamphlets) and the old implements are pretty cool.  At the end, you are invited to taste Maison Brotte’s wines.  I think our visitors (Magglio, the Luger and Sneaky Pete) had fun and came away a bit wiser.