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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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.

 

We Rocked The Boat – Our Boat Trip Up The Rhine

One of the Rhine’s most renowned sections is the Rhine Gorge in Germany (aka the Middle Rhine, Rhine Valley and Romantic Rhine). Technically, this area starts in Mainz and ends in Koblenz (that area is the stretch of the river designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site).   A boat trip down the Rhine is an excellent way to see the area’s magnificent landscape, towns, vineyards, castles and fortresses.   We’d heard that the stretch between Bingen and St. Goar (which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site) was particularly beautiful.   It was.

It’s UNESCO World Heritage Site means that there are no bridges.

Castles + vineyards + valley = storybook cute   There are at least 30 castles in the 66 kilometer (41 mile) stretch from Rudesheim to Koblenz.   Why are there so many castles there?

The Rhine has been a major transport route since Roman times.  Where there is money, there are those that want a piece of it.  River barons built the castles to impose tolls on the river traffic by controlling their stretch of the river.  If boat captains didn’t pay the toll, they would be treated to “complimentary room and board” in a dungeon until they paid.

From the dock at Bingen, we could see something that looked like the Statue of Liberty.  We weren’t far off; it was Rüdesheim’s Niederwalddenkmal.  Built by Kaiser Wilhelm I from 1881-3, it commemorates the founding of the German Empire after the end of Franco-Prussian War.  Essentially, it sits near the French border and serves as a warning to France that they will get another whooping if they try to invade again (or at least that’s how it was explained to us).

The toll tower “Mäuseturm,” known as the Mouse Tower, was the first sight we saw from the boat.  The name comes from a legend in which the tower belonged to a cruel ruler who oppressed and exploited the local peasants. in his domain. During a famine, he refused to distribute any of the tower’s grain supplies to the starving peasants.   When they threatened to rebel, the ruler tricked them, telling them to wait in an empty barn for him to come with food. He ordered the doors barricaded and set fire to the barn, commenting “hear the mice squeak” (referring to their cries).  Returning to his castle, an army of mice began to swarm him.  He fled to the tower, they followed and ate him alive.  Yikes!

We barely had time to listen to the story before seeing our first ruin, the ruin of Ehrenfels Castle (Burgruine Ehrenfels).  The rapid succession continued for the rest of the trip.  Wow!  We were amazed.

Built in the early 1300’s on a strategic hilltop, is Burg Rheinstein.  Prince Frederick of Prussia bought the castle and rebuilt the castle in the 19th century.  Nearby the impressive medieval Burg Reichenstein is a now a modern hotel.

Burg Sooneck, also known as Saneck, Sonneck and Schloss Sonneck (click on the link to find out its relationship to Swiss history and the Battle of Sempach), was an infamous haunt of the river’s robber barons. The Crown Prince of Prussia, Frederick William IV, and his brothers Princes William, Charles, and Albert bought the completely derelict castle and rebuilt it as a hunting castle.

The tiny town of Niederheimbach has the 13th century Heimburg Castle and the little church called St. Mariae Himmelfahrt.

Lorch is a small town that has a lot for its size.  You can easily spot it’s church, Pfarrkirche St. Martin (Saint Martin’s Parish Church), from the water.  In the 18th century, the witch’s tower served as a sort of jail for wrongdoers and “witches”.  The Nollig ruins (Ruine Nollig on the Rheinsteig trail), overlook the town and are the remains of the old town fortifications on the rugged ridge.

Bachrach is over 1,000 years old, and I thought we were getting a little long in the tooth.  Just like the house of an octogenarian, it accumulated bits and bobs over time (the walkable city walls, 16 watchtowers, the picturesque “Malerwinkel”, the ruins of St. Werner’s Chapel).  Stahleck Castle (Burg Stahleck), one of the most photogenic castles, sits on a hill above.  It was destroyed by the French in 1689 and is now a youth hostel.  I’ve stuck him in some cheap hostels before, but never a nice one like this.

Bellinzona’s Strategic Location

Bellinzona has been a fortress since Roman times due to its strategic location.  It is located on the valley floor at the base of the great alpine passes of the St. Gotthard, San Bernardino and Lucomagno (Lukmanier).

Romans built fortifications on the spot where Castelgrande now sits.   The nearby town of Bellinzona is named not for the Italian bella (“beautiful”), but for the Latin bellum (“war”), and this truly was a medieval war zone. Several castles in Bellinzona recall a pivotal Swiss victory in 1513. With this success, the Swiss gained a toehold in Ticino.

The Duke of Milan (the Visconti family) purchased Bellinzona in 1242.  They built a new castle atop the town.  Later, their allies, the Rusconi family of Como, built Montebello up the hill.

The Swiss, invigorated by their victory over the Hapsburgs at the Battle of Sempach and wanting to protect their newly won independence decided that possessing strategic Bellinzona on the other side of the Alps would reinforce their defenses.  They began their campaign in the 1420’s.  In response, Milan’s current rulers, the powerful Sforza family, reinforced the castles and built Sasso Corbaro even further up the hill.  They also built a massive chain of fortifications that extended across the valley.

It took the Swiss about 100 years, but they won.  In 1516, Bellinzona became part of the Swiss Federation.  The Swiss did their best to ensure that they kept it.   For the next 300 years, Swiss overlords oppressed and controlled the local population.

The three castles (Castelgrande, Castello di Montebello and Castello di Sasso Corbaro) and their accompanying fortifications are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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.

Not Venice, Vence

Three kilometers up the road from St. Paul-de-Vence, through the hills northwest of Nice, past cypress and olive trees there is another beautiful, town perched on a summit.  Vence is a bit larger (and a bit more relaxed).  Although we didn’t do any shopping, its shops and art galleries are more affordable.  Locals (not only busloads of tourists) actually eat at its cafés.

Vence looks like an old medieval walled town, but underneath its ramparts it is really a Roman one. A section of the old Roman road cuts through the center of town.  The road, the Rue des Portiques ran right next to our hotel.  I couldn’t believe that nearby stones dated from the 2nd century.  Its cathedral, the Eglise de la Conversion de Saint Paul, is built on the site of a Roman temple dedicated to the god Mars.

We checked into our hotel and were astounded to learn our hotel room had a rooftop terrace.  This was our view!  I went crazy snapping pictures up there.  We explored the medieval streets, patinaed squares and admired the Provençal architecture.

In Place du Peyra, the urn-shaped Vieille Fontaine is often photographed.  I liked how the mineral content and source of the water was mounted in the ancient city wall.  It tasted pretty good too.

After spending the last two days avoiding the crowds in Cannes, Antibes, Villefranche, Nice, Eze and St. Paul-de-Vence, it was a treat to sit a cafe and eat at a restaurant with locals.  The “local” below became really friendly once our snacks were delivered.  Believe or not, the puffs were actually peanut butter flavored!  In France!  We couldn’t believe it.  It was so nice having a dog around that we got permission to give him a bit of cheese.  He even did a couple of tricks for us.

Vence’s only disappointment was that the Matisse Chapel (Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence) was closed.  If you want to visit, be sure to check the opening hours.  The nuns who run it have better things to do than cater to sweaty tourists like us.

We Took The High Road – La Grande Corniche

Three roads link Nice to Monaco.  They are called “Les Trois Corniches” which translates to the three cliffs or cliff roads.  The word comes from the word “cornice,” the decorative frieze that runs on top of buildings.   They are some of the world’s great drives.  When the rain and cruise ship passengers chased us out of Villefranche, we decided to drive the Grand Corniche.  What better time to take a drive on dangerous, cliff side road than in the rain?

The Low Corniche running out to the peninsula to St. Jean-Cap-Ferat from Villefranche-Sur-Mer

The peninsula with the Low Corniche from above

The Low Corniche (La Base Corniche or Corniche Inferieure) runs along the water, 50 meters above the Mediterranean.  It runs through Villefranche, past the entrance to the Cape Ferrat (known as the peninsula of billionaires), into Beaulieu-sur-Mer (chic Belle Epoque resort town), into Eze-Sur-Mer (from which you can hike up the Nieztsche path to the medieval hill town of Eze) and Cap d’Ail before arriving in the Principality of Monaco.

View from the Moyenne Corniche

The Middle Corniche (La Moyenne Corniche) is higher, culminating at 472 meters above sea level.   It offers impressive views of the sea and the towns above.  We took it out of Eze, going over the viaduct.  The Viaduct of Eze is known as the Bridge of the Devil.

The Viaduct of Eze on the Moyenne Corniche

Built in the early 20th century, the Moyenne Corniche is the newest of the three roads.  Even then tourists were causing congestion on the Low Corniche.

The Moyenne and Low Corniches from the Grande Corniche

We took the Grande Corniche out and drove the Middle Corniche back.   It wasn’t easy to stop for pictures though as we had to cross a lane of traffic to pull off and then get back out.  I can’t believe I’m saying this, but luckily it rained (so there wasn’t too much traffic).  It would be difficult, if not impossible, to stop like that on a busy day.

The Tete de Chien outcrop from Eze

From Eze, you can see the Tete de Chien promontory which dominates Monte-Carlo.  Princess Grace of Monaco (Grace Kelly), was killed when her car went off a cliff on the Moyenne Corniche near there in 1983.

The High Corniche (La Grande Corniche) is the highest of the three with a height of 500 meters above the sea.  It has staggering views and a historical pedigree.  It is the site of the Via Aurelia, the road used by the Romans to conquer the territory to their west (aka France).  La Grand Corniche was built by Napoleon alongside of the old Roman road.

Several movies have been filmed on the Grande Corniche.    Alfred Hitchcock filmed parts of “To Catch a Thief” starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly here.  In some scenes, you can see Eze in the background.  The James Bond film Goldeneye starts with a car chase on the Grande Corniche.  Pierce Brosnan as James Bond chases Russian female fighter pilot Xenia Onatopp‘s Ferrari, in his Aston Martin DB5.  It is also a popular spot to film car commercials (but so is Detroit).

Yep. That’s it way up there on top.

From the Grand Corniche, you can see some seriously expensive homes.  I’m pretty sure that this is Villa La Leopolda.  Built by King Leopold of Belgium (allegedly for his mistress), owned by the Agnelli family (of Fiat fame and money), Bill Gates and then by the Safra family, it was put up for sale by Edmund Safra’s widow, Lily.  Russian billionaire, Roman Abramovich, pulled out of a deal to pay $500 million dollars for it after legal troubles with the French government, losing his $36 million deposit.  Oops.

The medieval hill town of Eze and the viaduct on the Moyenne Corniche from the Grande Corniche

The Grande Corniche is so high and steep that it doesn’t go through many towns (only the hilltop village of Roquebrune).  There are hairpin turns and low guard rails (if there are guard rails).   It wasn’t a relaxing road to drive, but it was pretty freaking cool.

Cycling it…even cooler.

A Two-Minute Tour Of Antwerp

He worked the morning after the Groezrock Festival.  With afternoon flights, we didn’t have much time to enjoy Belgium.  Regardless, he wanted to see a little something on the way to the airport and we had to transfer trains in Antwerp.  He’d never been before and wanted to check it out.  We got off the train, headed to the tourist information office for a map and headed on a whirlwind walking tour of Antwerp.

Antwerp’s famous zoo is immediately outside the grand train station.  The diamond district and the Antwerp Diamond Museum are also there (Antwerp is the world’s main center for cutting and polishing diamonds).  It was an easy walk through the main shopping district to the old town.  It was a nice walk although I would have preferred a stroll and window shopping to hoofing it.  Antwerp is trendy and has tons of shops from all over.  You could spend a lot of time and money shopping there.

It was a gorgeous day and everyone was trying to take advantage of the wonderful weather.  It is in Belgium after all.   They looked like they were having a delightful time.  Passing tons of cafes, fry places, praline shops, we soooooo wanted to stop.

Unfortunately, this was the closest we got.  We had to keep moving, see the city and catch a train to get to the airport.   There was no time.  Curses!

If you look hard at the top of this picture, you can tell that only one of the two planned towers was completed. You can see it in some of the photos below.

Instead of having a wonderful Belgian beer, we went to church.  The Cathedral of Our Lady was old and pretty with a lot of paintings that we didn’t have time to properly appreciate.  They have a fair number of works by Peter Paul Rubens (whose house/studio in Antwerp is now a museum), as well as paintings by artists such as Otto van VeenJacob de Backer and Marten de Vos.  It is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Next on the list, the Grote Markt.  It’s a jewel of a main square.  It has the Brabo fountain which has a statue of a guy throwing a hand.  I’m not kidding.  Check it out.

According to legend, a mean, nasty giant controlled the nearby river traffic.  He extorted ridiculous tolls and cut a hand off hose who refused to pay.  Silvius Brabo, a Roman soldier, managed to kill the giant by cutting off his hand and throwing it in the river.  Wonderfully ornate guild houses in the Flemish Renaissance style surround the square.

Antwerp is the second largest port in Europe.  I would have loved to sit and watch the river traffic.  We could see workers readying boats for river cruises.   I think you could spend a nice afternoon strolling the river walk or taking a cruise.  Instead, we headed back to the train station.

Heading back to the train station, we passed The Steen.  Unfortunately, this is all we got to see of t’Steen, what remains of Antwerp’s old castle.  All in all, it was a wonderful little detour.  Although there were a lot of things we didn’t get to see and do in Antwerp, we are lucky to have been able to see the things we did, especially on such a nice day.

Oh yeah, we saw a Spartan too.  Rock on.

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?”

 

Pont Du Gard

Pont du Gard is an imposing viaduct built by the Romans.  Frankly, at over 2000 years old it’s amazing that it is still standing.  The engineering behind it is even more astonishing.  We’d heard that it was pretty cool from Hokie over at The Swiss Watch Blog.  When Magglio, the Luger and Sneaky Pete visited, we made a trip to check it out.

In 19 B.C., Roman emperor, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (Augustus’ son-in-law) built it.  The Pont du Gard carried water across the Gard river valley, 25 km (15.5 miles) west of Avignon.

It wasn’t an isolated piece of infrastructure.  It was part of a larger nearly 50 km (31 mi) aqueduct.  The system brought water from springs near Uzès to Nîmes (known in Roman times as Nemausus) with a slight grade.  Its 34 cm/km (1/3000) grade its entire 50 km.  Walking around, you can see other parts of this system.

It took between 800 and 1000 men about three years to build.  When it was completed, it transported 20,000 cubic meters (44 million gallons) of water daily.  Constructed without the use of mortar (bearing masonry), its stones are held together by iron clamps.  Some of the stones weigh 6 tons.  They were moved into place using a complex system winch system.  You can still see the remains of the supports for the complex scaffolding.

Not a Peugeot or a Citroen but a Mazda

As the Roman Empire declined, they began to worry more about the barbarians at the gates than maintenance of their infrastructure. Deposits filled up a majority of the channel space. It was unusable by the 9th century.  Once it wasn’t useful for delivering water, people took what they could from it, taking stones for other purposes.  It was also used as a footbridge across the river.

In the 18th century, the aqueduct was restored.  Even by this time, it was tourist attraction. Additional restorations were done under the reign of Napoleon III in the mid-19th century.  The workers carved their names in the stonework.  These aren’t the only graffiti.  The original Roman workers also carved their names.  French masons over the years have also left their markings.   It looks like way more work than a can of spray paint, but clearly lasts much longer.  I am not suggesting tagging monuments, only noting that graffiti has been around since before the birth of Christ and impressed that we can still see it.

The Pont du Gard is an amazing piece of engineering and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It is so impressive that it is easy to overlook its beautiful surroundings.  Enjoy the three-tiered series of stone arches, just don’t forget to enjoy the rest of the view.  It is a great place to take a dip, picnic or fly a kite.

You were warned