Journal for Group Trip to Southern France, Fall 2016
My usual plan is to schedule a single trip for a year, but since I had organized a trip to New Zealand for February and March of this year, I thought that it would be appropriate to put together a trip to southern France. This country has suffered through some Islamic terrorist issues, but doing some careful itinerary designing and working with several agencies to assist me in making sure that we would be safe in our journey, I went ahead and put this trip together.
I like my trips to be around two weeks long. The time it takes to get to the site and return have to be figured in and because I attempt to reduce the number of hotel check-ins to a minimum, I carefully design the itinerary to reflect that. I was lucky in that I contacted several river cruise companies and found the best cruise to be Avalon, which is under the Globus umbrella. As many of my potential clients have used either Avalon or Globus in the past and are members of Journeys Club, we could avail ourselves of some discounts for the first part of the trip – a cruise down the Saône and Rhône rivers.
I scheduled my group to meet in Chalon-sur-Saône. As many of the other passengers on this river cruise who were not in my group met in Paris and then traveled to Chalon to board the ship, I chose to get my group to Chalon a day early to spend that time getting familiar with a town in the southern part of Burgundy. This extra time also was beneficial to get our internal clocks on French time (which is six hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time).
Again, I prevailed on the expert advice of Lynne Erikson, my travel professional at Dolphin Vacations, who assisted me in contacting Globus, made most of the flight arrangements, and also put me in contact with Europe Express. This company, based in Bothell, Washington, provided the expertise to assist me in designing the five-day extension following the week cruise. This included the two hotels we used as well as ground transportation; the coach driver, René; and the guides that gave us the detailed insight into the places we visited. I commend them for their expertise and will use their services in the future.
29-30 September 201
Our overnight flight for the Grand Rapids group included a flight from Grand Rapids to Detroit where we waited for our international flight that got us to Charles deGaulle airport in Paris. Then, after some searching, we were able to find the TGV terminal and got on the right train to Lyon. Our comfortable first-class seats (although we were facing the rear of the train) gave us a great view of the passing scenery as we worked our way south at up to 320 kilometers per hour (200 mph!). We saw some villages with thatched roof houses that appeared to be made out of poured concrete that had either a light pink or orange caste. When we got to Lyon, we had to hustle to get our bags off and find the F platform for the final leg of the trip, a local train that took us to Chalon-sur-Saône. We were lucky to find a helpful person who directed us to a stairway that led to the right platform. We boarded the train just in time (we got onto a second-class car) and our bags were piled in the middle of the aisle because there was nowhere else to put them. We departed this slower train (still about 80 mph) in Chalon and quickly found our hotel (Le Sainte Georges).
After check-in, we found a Turkish restaurant that was open and ate an early dinner. As most restaurants in France do not open until 6 or later, our choices were quite limited. We then walked down to the Saône and found Poetry II which had just docked at Quai Gambetta. The passengers already on board (they had just completed the upriver trip from Arles) would be departing the following morning, so we could not board. As the weather was pleasant, we wandered about Chalon and found the Denon Museum as well as well as the Musée Nicéphore Niépce that we intended to visit the next day. I began “collecting” images of the various coats-of-arms of the various cities we would visit. These are prominently displayed as bronzes in the pavement.
1 October 2016
RAIN! What if it continues to rain for the entire trip? I had not scheduled for that (Il pleut averse!). When the rain let up, we found a nice restaurant (Picadilly) for lunch and then went exploring this southern Burgundy city of 45,000. The main attractions were the cathedral that had an interesting fountain arrangement in the square facing it, the Musée Denon, and Musée Nicéphore Niépce. Vivant Denon was a writer and artist in the early 19th century and had built a wing to the Louvre. His art collection was primarily pre-nineteenth century art, but he also collected Bronze and Iron Age artifacts as well as Gallo-Roman bronzes. Niépce was the inventor of the camera and the museum dedicated to him had a full collection of cameras from the beginning of photography to fairly modern ones. We also saw some good examples of half-timber homes from medieval construction.
The Chicago contingent of four joined us and we boarded Poeetry II right at 4PM, after an interesting taxi/van ride from the hotel with our luggage piled on top of us. The sky had cleared in time for an orientation welcome with a modified lifeboat drill (keep in mind that the depth of the Saône and Rhône rivers is seldom over one’s head, so if the ship would sink, passengers could walk ashore!)
The ship got underway as we headed to the dining room for dinner, heading south (downstream) on the Saône, passing this interesting flower arrangement on the shore.
2 October 2016
We awoke and the ship was already docked in Tournus, which is in the southwest corner of Burgundy. I found the coffee machine in the lounge and had several Cappuccino before breakfast. Then we went on a walking tour of this town of 6000. Many of the buildings had been built between 1050 and 1780, although some buildings pre-dated even this time frame. The narrow and crooked streets reminded us of the history of this interesting town. I happen to enjoy visiting various churches and comparing the architecture and accoutrements in them. The variegated stone in the Romanesque arches reminded me of the churches in Tuscany and the column capitals were very interesting.
The ship got underway while we were afoot and we boarded coaches for Mâcon, 38 kilometers downriver on the Saône. This is good because rather than spend two or three hours going from one town to the other, a short coach ride means that we can do a two-fer and see both Tournus and Mâcon the same day. This means that passengers should make sure that they have their cameras and any extra clothing with them when they leave the ship. Optional tours were scheduled here but we did not sign up for any. This town of 34,000 is particularly known for the wine that comes from the vineyards that surround it. I am especially partial to Pouilly-Fuissé! The distinctive church (former cathedral) is Saint-Vincent.
Mâcon is the birthplace of Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869), a poet and statesman who did much of the groundwork that set up the Second Republic. Symbolically, it was the continuation of the French tricolore flag. He said in 1848, the year of violent revolution all through Europe: “I spoke as a citizen earlier, well! Now, listen to me, your Foreign Minister. If I remove the tricolor, know it, you will remove from me half the external force of France! Because Europe knows the flag of his defeats and of our victories in the flag of the Republic and of the Empire. By seeing the red flag, they’ll see the flag of a party! This is the flag of France, it is the flag of our victorious armies, it is the flag of our triumphs that must be addressed before Europe. France and the tricolor is the same thought, the same prestige, even terror, if necessary for our enemies! Consider how much blood you would have to make for another flag fame! Citizens, for me, the red flag, I am not adopting it, and I’ll tell you why I am against with all the strength of my patriotism. It’s that the tricolor has toured the world with the Republic and the Empire with your freedoms and your glory, and the red flag was that around the Champs-de-Mars, dragged into the people’s blood.”
Before dinner, we were entertained by locals who demonstrated different kinds of cheeses from happy cows and also mustards. We were surprised as Poetry II left the pier how shallow the water was as the long-legged birds were walking, not swimming. This meant that there was a definite channel for ships.
3 October 2016
We awoke in Trevoux, a northern suburb of Lyon as we had moved about 45 kilometers south of Mâcon. We definitely are in the Beaujolais region so I can assume that we will be treated to that wine for dinner tonight. Unfortunately, we did not have time to visit this town of 6700, but I took several pictures from the ship. Here is a magnificent church. As we continued toward Lyon, the Cruise Director gave a late morning and very humorous and informative capsulization history of France from pre-historic times to the present in one hour. Heck, it took me an entire semester to get this material to my students. The gist of his presentation was that the leaders who were very tall (Charlemagne and Charles deGaulle) and those who were very short (Louis XIV and Napoleon) had a lot to do with consolidating power, while the middle height people didn’t do much (Jacques Chirac and François Hollande). He also described the 35-hour work week, so French take either Monday or Friday off making those days good for city travel because traffic is much lighter. Poetry II docked in Lyon and we boarded buses for a riding and walking tour of some of the sites of France’s third-largest city. Our dock area at Place Nautique (Quai Rambaud) was near the Confluences (the point where the Saône empties into the Rhône River, so our bus negotiated the bridges on our way up to the top of Hill of Fourvière to visit the cathedral there. Our guide called it the “upside-down elephant” because there were towers on all four corners.
As we continued toward Lyon, the Cruise Director gave a late morning and very humorous and informative capsulization history of France from pre-historic times to the present in one hour. Heck, it took me an entire semester to get this material to my students. The gist of his presentation was that the leaders who were very tall (Charlemagne and Charles deGaulle) and those who were very short (Louis XIV and Napoleon) had a lot to do with consolidating power, while the middle height people didn’t do much (Jacques Chirac and François Hollande). He also described the 35-hour work week, so French take either Monday or Friday off making those days good for city travel because traffic is much lighter. We were treated to a panorama of the entire city from that windy height and then we entered the Basilica and were amazed at the amount of mosaics that covered the walls, ceiling, and even the floor.
From there, we went to Ancien Ville and explored some of the secret passageways (traboules) that had been originally designed between courtyards and through buildings to provide safe and efficient passage for silk workers to get their wares to and from market safely.
The word “traboules” is a corruption of the Latin trans-ambulare which means ‘pass-through’ and they first appeared in the 4th century. During World War II, they were used to hide Resistance members.
Our guide took us to a soap store and a cookie store.
For dinner aboard ship, Connie and I had elected to take advantage of the Bistro. This was a great experience in fine dining as there were three waiters for 20 guests and the choices we were given were even more numerous than the many on the regular dinner menu.
4 October 2016
This was our “free” day. There was an optional tour to a silk factory and les Halles. Connie and I walked to the Confluence as we are docked on Presqu’île. We had the opportunity to view at close range the unique architecture along the river. This included “La Sucrière,” an art center that had two silos, one named “Gauche” and the other “Droite.”
Taking commercial buildings and using them for other purposes was interesting. The truly fascinating architecture was Musée Confluences that was almost on the tip of Presqu’île. It appeared to be designed by Frank Gehry, but was actually an Austrian firm.
I was fascinated by a small bus/van that was driverless that appeared to run along a magnetic track that was beneath the pavement. I didn’t attempt to “test” it by standing in front of it to see if it would swerve or stop.
Afternoon optional tours of the Beaujolais winery and a tour of ‘les Pierre Dorees’ as well as a tour of Perouges, a medieval town gave some time to do some shopping at the nearby mall. Tom shared some of his Chardonnay that he had purchased on the wine tour and I was amazed because it was so much better than any other Chardonnay I had sampled before.
The ship operates on a very tight time schedule, so the late afternoon lecture on “impressions of the French” ended right on time as the speaker left the ship, the gangway was lifted, and Poetry II got underway, leaving the Saône and entering the Rhône and almost immediately entered Pierre-Bénite Lock, dropping 12 meters while we were at dinner. If passengers are late getting back aboard ship or there are ship propulsion issues and the ship arrives at a particular later than the scheduled entrance, there will be a long delay as other vessels will take the place of the tardy vessel. Then the vessels in the lock are lowered and proceed forward. There might be vessels going upriver and must enter the lock from the other side and the lock fill to the higher level, open the gates, they move through, and only then can the late vessel enter the lock to go through the process again.
5 October 2016
We awoke in Tournon (not the same as Tournus which is on the Saône and which we visited several days earlier). We are now officially out of Burgundy. Again, a medieval history with a 10th century castle (Saint-Just) as one of the highlights of this city as it juts out of a rock outcropping. The narrow crooked streets have become commonplace to us now. Our guide pointed out the under-eave treatment that was a sign of wealth.
A market visit and walk past the Tower of the Virgin. We stopped by the 14th century Collegiate Church of St. Julien with excellent frescoes, then we stopped by Lycée Gabriel Faure. This is a public school, “preparing for life of man and citizen student entrusted to it.” There was a “no smoking” sign on the fence surrounding the campus and as we stood there, classes were dismissed and a group of students rushed across the narrow street and lighted up!
This town is separated from the town of Tain and l’Hermitage vineyards by the Rhône River but a suspension bridge connects them. That meant that we did not get a chance to sample either this famous wine or Valrhona chocolates. Tom ran across the bridge but no one on the left bank could speak enough English to help him. Connie and I decided to do some scouting on our own. Because the sandstone used in the houses and other buildings is quite soft (as stone goes), the builders put a layer of plaster on the outside walls. The section that we visited had a lot of bare stones, not very well-dressed kids playing outside who should have been in school, very narrow unkempt streets with toys strewn everywhere, and even a dirty mattress in the middle of the road. We could see dead-end alleys leading to a steep hill full of trash. We were in the Muslim section of the town.
When we returned to Quay Farconnet, the ship was gone, having begun the trip to Viviers, our next stop. It would have to negotiate two more locks and then meet us somewhere just upriver from Viviers in the Ardeche region. We boarded busses and headed south on a scenic road (D86) parallel to the Rhône. We saw a ruined castle along the way.
Castles were considered a nobility danger to royal consolidation to Louis XIII, so he had his minions destroy most of them in the mid-17th century. When we got to the meeting place, no Poetry II. One of the lock gates was malfunctioning, so some of us climbed up to the little village, that I am assuming was Châteaubourge. Definitely not a normal tourist stop so that gave us a better flavor of this town.
Note the name of the café, “Trois Platanes.” We had been told over and over that when Napoleon was Emperor, he had his soldiers plant plane trees on all major thoroughfares so that his soldiers could march in the shade. Unfortunately, as I write this, there is a major infestation of these trees (Ceratocystis platani) that was accidentally introduced in 1944 when American troops disembarked in Provence as their wooden munitions boxes were infected. Here is a small stand of plane trees in Châteeaubourge. The species is related to our sycamore.
Some of us took advantage of tours of various parts of the ship. Because of my Navy background as a “ship driver,” I am particularly interested in navigation and propulsion, so I went up to the pilot house with the Captain. Although his English was not that good, I gained a good sense of the ship capabilities. The ship has two Caterpillar Diesel engines that power four screws on steerable pods so there is no need for a rudder. The bow thruster is a single post that descends below the hull of the ship and can be directed either to port or starboard. Three of us were in the pilothouse when the Captain walked out to talk to a member of the crew. At that time, we were stationary in a lock but then the ship began to move and I was tempted to take control of the steering. Then I saw the Second Captain (Executive Officer) using a steering mechanism in a box on the port side where he could see how close the ship was to the side of the Logis-Neuf Lock. A bit further downstream, we passed the Cruas nuclear power plant. This is one of 58 plants that generate 63.3 GWe (gigawatts – electrical) or 416 billion KWh (Kilowatt hours) of power which is 77% of France’s total energy output.
In early December 2016, there was concern that some inferior parts might compromise the safety of the nuclear plants.
Poetry II docked in Viviers in the late afternoon. This is a small walled town with a population less than 4000. The key site is the Cathedral of Saint-Vincent, under construction from the 12th to the 18th century, so the architecture reflects these time changes. This is the oldest French cathedral still in use. The Gobelin tapestries were amazing. The apse
and the inlaid altar were very impressive! Our local guide showed us the high water marks from different floods on a door jamb. The narrow cobblestone streets with buttressed walls were very interesting.
We returned to Poetry II for dinner and were then entertained by a crew show during which various crew members put together funny skits.
6 October 2016
During the night, the ship docked in Avignon. The optional excursions (Pont du Gard/Uzes in the morning and Châteauneuf du Pape in the afternoon) were coordinated so that those who went on those tours still got their half-day tour of Avignon. The two most visited sites are the Palace of the Popes and Pont Saint-Benezet. Our tour took us by bus to the old city walls
near the Palace, which is the largest Gothic palace in the world with 15,000 square meters of living space (equivalent to four Gothic cathedrals). Built in less than 20 years, beginning in 1335, primarily by two popes (Benedict XII and his successor Clement VI). A total of seven French popes lived there until 1376, in what we historians have called the “Babylonian Captivity”. As the building spanned both Romanesque and Gothic periods, both architectural styles are present in what are called the Old Palace and the New Palace. Although only 25 rooms were available to tourists, we checked out both palaces with walls three meters thick (I guess it was used as a fortress). We saw the ceremonial halls, the courtroom, the consistory, and viewed the courtyard between the two palaces from above
and on the ground.
In one of the chambers, our guide maneuvered himself into the center of the room and began to sing to us in counter-tenor voice. Here is the haunting song.
[SF0363Avignon.Canto.mov. Make the word “song” the “trigger” for this video.] There was at least a four-second delay from one end of the chamber to the other. I took quite a few pictures in this very impressive structure, but can’t show them here.
We also entered the Gothic St-Didier Church After the tour ended, Connie and I walked the mile along the Rhône to Pont Saint-Benezet, supposedly the best-known bridge in the world.
After lunch, most of our group boarded coaches for the optional excursion to a Châteauneuf-du-Pape winery (Domaine Pierre Usseglio et Fils). To get more information on this particular winery, click on wine. We listened to explanation of the various wines that were presented to us, then came “the pour.” There were little buckets to spit into, but most of us just swallowed and then waited for the next wine and explanation.
It is not just the vines that make the wine, but the “terroir” (which is the combination of soil, wind, proper sunlight, certain temperatures for both day and night for the various seasons, and here at Usseglio, the placement of sandstone rocks which held heat in the air and the soil during the cool nights. )
We visited the vineyards and then got an overlook of the town of Châteauneuf-du-Pape at the Donjon (keep).
Note the sign behind the person in red: “Stoning prohibited under penalty of prosecution.” We then entered this quaint village and were amazed at the number of caves that were there to allow wine tasting and purchase.
By the time we returned, the crêpes demonstration was over, but the Captain got underway and we sailed up to and past the bridge so that we could get a lot of pictures from many different angles. This bridge was originally built with 22 arches going from the left bank (where the palaces were), across an island (Île de Piot) in the middle of the river, and to the right bank. This was one of the first bridges to span the Rhône so it was commercially and strategically important. However, because of attacks on the city and many river floods, the majority of the spans collapses. Supposedly Louis XIV was one of the last people to cross the bridge before its collapse. Now all that is left are the four iconic arches.
The guitar entertainment in the lounge obviously was totally entertaining.
7 October 2016
We traveled overnight and arrived in Arles, around 6AM. At 8:30, Connie and I went on one of our optional tours to an olive oil processing factory and Les Baux. We saw the fastidiously clean processing that is used to take olives off the trees and convert them into oil.
Les Baux, a commune only 22 kilometers south of Avignon and 15 kilometers north of Arles in the Bouches-du-Rhône department of Provence (now called Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur as the number of French regions has been consolidated). This commune has fewer than 500 inhabitants but was interesting with a medieval ruined castle. Its name comes down to us as the source of bauxite (the ore for aluminum) when it was discovered in 1821. In the Provençal dialect, baus means cliff. The history of the settlements goes back to 6000BC, but the Celts worked the limestone cliffs before Christ. Influenced by Greek culture from Arles and later Roman, the locals built the castle that became a haven for Protestants. I found a window in what remains of the castle that has an inscription above the window: “Post Tenebras Lux 1571,” which translates into “after darkness, light 1571.”
This is a Calvinist motto. As a result, Louis XIII destroyed the castle. The town had the typical Medieval narrow streets with paving stones.
In the afternoon, we got a tour of Arles. Here is a mix of Roman and VanGogh with a lot of Medieval thrown in for good measure. The ancient entrance got us into the easily walkable town. The Amphitheater was the
main attraction in this city of more than 50,000.
Our guide took us into the Hôtel de Ville (city hall) and showed us the unique construction of the ceiling. I thought that this building looked more impressive
than the Grand Rapids city hall, (although ours is a great Owens Skidmore minimalist design). We visited Maison de Santé where VanGogh checked himself in to after cutting off most of his ear with a razor. The comparison of the actual site with his interpretation was haunting.
On Rue Frederic Mistral (we will come across this person again when we get to Cassis), we passed by Café Van Gogh, that was crowded with other curious tourists. Was this where he spent his non-painting time drinking absinthe along with other artists? We don’t know.
Van Gogh also painted a “yellow house” which is no longer standing. However, behind the yellow house, he included a four-story building that is still standing.
Some of us spent some time in Musée Réattu on the bank of the Rhône, with its small but impressive collection of Réattu’s paintings, 57 drawings by Picasso, one impressive sculpture, and other artists. On key streets, there were trail markers locating VanGogh’s usual hauntings.
After returning to Poetry II, the ship got underway further down the Rhône into the Camargues. Unfortunately, there was minimal explanation as we cruised south on the Grand Rhône (the river splits into two and the very flat marshy delta area between the two streams is the Camargue). I had hoped to see the famous white Camargue horses, the Provençal cowboys, the black bulls that are bred here for the Arles bullfights, and the pink flamingoes, but all we saw was a lot of high vegetation along the river. We returned to Arles and docked for the night.
8 October 2016
Today, we prepared to leave the confines and comfort of the ship while in Arles. We had special tags to put on our checked bags and place them outside our staterooms precisely at 8:15. There were different groups leaving at different times and John-Luc, the Cruise Director, left with one of the groups going to Cannes. We waited in the lounge and our bus and Europe Express agent came precisely at 9. All of the checked bags were in the lobby as even the Captain picked up bags from the lower level and brought them to the lobby. As Quay Lamartine was so high, the bags had to be schlepped up a narrow ladder to the sundeck and then onto the pier.
We boarded a 45-passenger bus (a bit of overkill as there were only 13 of us) and drove the 32 kilometers to Nîmes with our able driver, René. We had several detours once we got there because there was road construction and when our “step-on” guide, Edith Borgniet, arrived, she suggested that we take our hand luggage and walk the two blocks to the hotel and René would figure out how to get the bus closer to offload our bags. Since the hotel did not have our rooms ready, we secured what we didn’t want to carry and Edith took us through the Esplanade Charles-de-Gaulle the five blocks to the Arena.
The fountain “Rivers of the World” was in Square du 11 Novembre 1918 nearby.
After the fall of Rome, like many other settlements, Nîmes fell into disrepair. Charles Martel (grandfather of Charlemagne) fought a battle near here against the Umayyads (who were allied with the local Gallo-Roman and Gothic nobility) in 736. Feudal times continued the downturn of Nîmes until the reign of Louis IX (Saint Louis). The amphitheater became home to many who lived in the lower parts of the structure beneath the risers.
We inspected the seal of the city, with a crocodile and palm tree,
traveled down the typical Medieval narrow streets
something more than a mile on our way to another Roman building, Cathedral Nôtre-Dame et St-Castor, and Tour de l’Horloge. We stopped at the nearby bistro for the first beer of the day. The mandatory visit to the main Marché to see what was being set out for today’s dinner. From there, Edith took us for a kilometer
to the famous Maison Carrée.
This was as impressive as I could imagine. From there, we walked about one kilometer to Jardin de la Fontaine. This is the terminus for the water that the Roman engineers designed the famous aqueduct (in orange on map below) that began where the spring at Uzes came to the surface, then was designed to travel past the Pont du Gard crossing the Gardon River, then continuing to Nîmes, always downhill,
a distance of 50 kilometers. This garden, situated where the aqueduct was available to the citizens of Nîmes, was extremely well done, with statues,
Nîmes, Jardin de la Fontaine Nîmes, Temple of Diana in Jardin
the Temple of Diana, and Tour Magne, a dry-stone tower that was one of 14 towers imbedded in the protective wall around the central city.
Remember that Nîmes is also known historically for its textiles. Cloth was named “serge de Nîmes” from which is derived the term “denim.”
For dinner, Tom and John found a Greek restaurant, Les Cyclades, and when we went there (not too far from our hotel as we were all bushed from having walked about five miles), gauche Americans that we were, we were the first patrons for the evening. Connie and I were in our element, describing the food and helping everyone order with lots of laughs.
9 October 2016
It was entirely appropriate that after going through the Jardin de la Fontaine that we should inspect Pont du Gard. After checking out of our hotel, René was ready for us and we loaded the coach for the trip that would first take us to the famous aqueduct. Our guide, Isabelle Lafinistre, joined us before we left Nîmes. When we arrived at the site, she first took us through the extremely interesting museum that elaborately described how the Romans designed and built the complex aqueduct from the spring at Uzes to Nîmes, including the bridging of the Flumen Gard (now called Gardon). There were scale models, short videos, maps, and other artifacts that captivated my group so that I had difficulty getting them to the actual site. For example, here was a four-hole toilet.
We joined up for a group photo in front of an ancient olive tree before the bridge. Then Isabelle took us on a short path that is not on the normal itinerary for tourists to the other side of the bridge where we had the chance to get the best view of the construction.
A more recently constructed walkway next to the bridge allows people to get right up to it. Imagine my surprise when I saw this inscription that someone had carved.
The entire project is quite amazing – a true engineering feat!
We tore ourselves away, boarded the coach, and headed north and east, crossing the Rhône to the city of Orange (say it with two syllables: “Or-ónge”). Isabelle warned me that it was a small town and we might have difficulty finding a place to eat lunch. Our first stop was at the Triumphal Arch. Not as large as the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, but much older (reign of Augustus 27BC-AD14) yet very well preserved with some obvious restoration work in the mid-19th century. I saw some holes that apparently were made by medieval archers who did not appreciate historical relics.
René took us near the Roman Forum and most of our group settled in at La Grotte d’Auguste, which looked like a natural cave, until I saw electric lights jutting out of the walls. So how did they bury the electrical wires? After lunch, Isabelle joined us again and took us to the Roman Forum and the ancient theater.
Although the town of 45,000 was began about 35BC and the Forum and Arch are very visible, I was surprised how wide open most of the rest of the city was. In 1924, the city was inundated by a major flood that reached about 5 ½ feet above street level.
We visited the Hôtel de Ville and the cathedral and by that time, my group was truly flagging. René showed up with the coach, we said our adieus to Isabelle, and traveled south to Aix-en-Provence. He got us to our hotel, MGallery Grand Hôtel Roi René around 5 (no relation to our driver, but there was a 15th century King René of Anjou, also was René I of Naples, Duke of Lorraine, Duke of Anjou, Count of Provence, Count of Piedmont, titular King of Jerusalem and Aragon, and brother-in-law of Charles VII – he brought muscat grapevines to Provence. I am familiar with “La Cheminée du roi René” a woodwind suite by Darius Milhaud.)
10 October 2016
Several weeks before the trip began, our guide for the next three days, Dominique Barte, had contacted Europe Express and requested that I change the sequence of my itinerary because the museum that I had suggested we visit in Marseille was open on Monday while Musée Granet was open on Tuesday. So today, we head for Marseille.
This city was originally settled by ancient Greeks who called it Massalia (Μασσαλια) in an area that had been inhabited for 30,000 years and with Neolithic brick buildings dating back to 6000BC. Ideally located because of a protected cove that was fed by a freshwater stream and protected by two rocky promontories, it functioned primarily as a trading city with the interior on the Rhône River. Traders took the local wine, salted pork and fish, coral, cork, and medicinal plants all the way to the Baltic Sea. Under siege by Julius Caesar, it was on the Via Domita (the road to Spain). In 49BC, it finally came under Roman control. Legend states that Mary Magdelene evangelized Marseille. Although it was not under the control of the growing French monarchy until the end of the 17th century, Louis XIV personally led an army to force it back into the royal fold.
The Old Port is now used for restaurants, offices, and a private new, while the new port – Port de la Joliette – has the means to load and offload container ships.
Our trip there took 35 minutes
and we stopped at the Old Port to take pictures of Château d’If, an island in the harbor that played a role in Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo. Our 45-passenger coach then negotiated the narrow streets up to Nôtre Dame de la Garde to get a panoramic view of the city from the highest point.
I counted 120 steps from where René parked the bus to the entrance to the basilica. The building is classified as Neo-Byzantine, although the lower part is Romanesque and carved from the rock it sits on. The Camponile has a 37-foot statue of the Madonna and Child made of copper covered with gold leaf. Locals call her “la bonne mère” the good mother) as she stands guard and protects the city.
The green limestone creating the horizontal stripes (reminds me of the Duomo in Florence) is being subjected to atmospheric corrosion as well as from candle smoke and bullet damage during World War Two. The interior is covered with mosaics: floor, walls, and ceiling.
There are ship models hanging all through the interior, reminding the supplicants of Marseille’s source of wealth. Because we spent so long in the basilica, we did not stop to walk La Canabière but drove through this shopping district. We did stop at Palais Longchamp which was built to house the museum of fine arts and that of natural history, but did not enter it.
Completed in 1869, it was designed by the same architect who created Nôtre-Dame de la Garde. The names of all the great artists are incised into the exterior walls.
Dominique then got us into a walking marathon after René left us by the north side of Old Port at Place du Mazeau. After walking by the InterContinental Hôtel Lieu
which was converted from a hospital in 2016, we began climbing into a residential area, where we saw a poorer part of the city, including a recreation center for the homeless.
In the old Panier quarter, we entered La Vieille Charité, a former almshouse, which is now a museum and cultural center. Our next stop was Fort Saint-Jean and from there to MuCEM (Museum of European & Mediterranean Civilizations.
The architecture was astounding how this was put together. We then walked very slowly to the bus past the cathedral.
After our return to our hotel, we relaxed in the courtyard with our coats on and shared a few bottles of wine.
After that, we returned to Cours Mirabeau for a nice dinner. Again, coming back to the hotel along the narrow street with the uneven pavement, we had to be careful. There seemed to be more people out and about tonight.
11 October 2016
Today, Dominique took us on a walking tour of Aix-en-Provence. This city of just under 150,000 was founded in 123BC by a Roman Consul. Later it was occupied by Visigoths and then Franks and Lombards, until the Saracens took it for six years. They were driven out by Charles Martel in 737. It passed to the royal crown in 1487.
We began our walk from the hotel but as the morning went on, the group stretched out as on previous days. The pace that Dominique set up was not that strenuous, but sometimes one person would want to see something that was of interest and then fall back. The city is fascinating. Cours Mirabeau has a variety of restaurants and shops and as it is strictly pedestrian, it reminds me of Las Ramblas in Barcelona. Increasingly, European cities are restricting auto traffic to increase rambling by both residents and tourists.
Of course, I had to take a picture of King René as our hotel was on a street named for him. Nearby was the famous brasserie “Les Deux Garçons. Made famous by Paul Cézanne, who often spent part of the period from 4-7PM here with his good friend Émile Zolá, it also was frequented by Pablo Picasso, Winston Churchill, Edith Piaf, André Malraux, Jean-Paul Sartre, Alain Delon, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Cocteau, Jean Reno, Hugh Grant, and George Clooney. Most of them have left some memento of their attendance.
Of course, this is a real tourist trap, with high prices and supposedly uppity waiters.
Speaking of Cézanne, if you look carefully where you are walking around the city center and sometimes away from it, you will see bronze markers imbedded in the paving stones, showing where he had traveled around Aix.
The city is steeped in history and the proud residents announce with small plaques some of the provenance of their particular buildings.
Here is the proud owner of a home from the mid-18th century.
We entered Old Town and walked down Butcher Street. (Look at the street sign on the building on the left in the photo below!),
stopped in Place d’Albertas, watched the people purchasing vegetables in Place Richelme, saw the Bureau de Poste, Hôtel de Ville and its clock tower, a flower market, and an interesting liberation plaque dedicated to the Americans who in August 1944 freed the city from German troops.
Dominique’s destination in Old Town was the Parish Cathédrale Saint-Sauveur that is crammed into a residential area. Like so many other churches in France, this has a mix of architectural styles as it took 70 years to complete. The original building was Romanesque but Gothic chapels were added and I was able to locate the 5th century Merovingian sarcophagus in the apse. The dome was definitely Renaissance but supported by original Roman columns.
I found several locals enjoying un tasse café at an outdoor nearby Archbishop’s café.
René met us with the coach on Rue Jean Jaurès and we went uphill to Avenue Paul Cézanne to Atelier Cézanne. We probably could have walked, but everyone appreciated the 1.5 kilometer ride. We were on a strict time schedule, because admission is strictly controlled to keep the numbers inside at a minimum to be able to appreciate the details. Although there are no paintings by him here, many of his brushes and props are set up.
The very large north window gave Cézanne the natural light he demanded. When we reluctantly left as another tour group had arrived, Dominique and René gave us an unexpected treat. Although I had not put it on the itinerary, René drove us to get a better view of Montagne Sainte-Victoire. Cézanne painted it from his atelier, but in 2016, too many buildings and mature trees blocked the view.
We passed Cézanne’s home that was partway to the mountain
for many photos. René then drove us back to Aix, letting us off near Rue Cardinale which is close to Musée Granet. When I designed the itinerary, knowing that some might not want to do yet another museum, I scheduled the visit to Granet near the end of the day and as the museum is only four blocks from our hotel, those who did not want to go there, could go back to the hotel. Dominique purchased tickets for those who wanted to visit both the museum and Saint-Jean-de-Malte.
This former church was originally a chapel of the Knights Hospitalier of the Order of Malta and was built in the 13th century in what was then the outskirts of Aix. During the French Revolution, the church was severely vandalized and it wasn’t resurrected as a parish church until the 19th century. It now houses an amazingly rich collection of Picasso paintings as well as Delacroix’s The Crucifiction and other great paintings and some interesting stained glass windows. After we went through that collection, we walked the block to Musée Granet to see that collection. Opened originally in 1838 and enlarged three times, this museum includes Flemish paintings; a Rembrandt self-portrait; two Rubens paintings; one by the Le Nain brothers; Rigaud; Chardin; David; Ingres; nine Cézanne paintings; a Picasso; a Leger; one each by Giacometti, Mondrian, Klee, and several others. There is a long-standing temporary exhibit from the Fondation Jean et Suzanne Planque, art dealers, who showed over 180 Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artworksThere are several Giacometti sculptures. See the official site for more details. http://www.museegranet-aixenprovence.fr/nc/accueil.html
After that great experience, we walked back to the hotel and sampled a few more wines before going out to dinner. It is definitely getting more chilly now.
12 October 2016
Our last full day in France and Dominique and René were with us as traveled to the Mediterranean coast once again, but this time to Cassis, a fishing village that has retained its charm. Cassis traces its lineage to the Romans, but the Greeks might have been here earlier as well. During the Middle Ages, the town was owned by different individuals and in 1443 was ruled by the bishop of Marseille. In the middle of the 16th century, King Charles V of Spain captured and pillaged Cassis. Further troubles occurred with the Great Plague of 1720. This bubonic plague was brought from the Levant by a merchant ship and it killed about 100,000 people in southern France. This area was a haven for pirates for the next century. It was near here (Toulon) that Napoleon landed in his Hundred-Days Campaign in 1814. Today, fishing, tourism, and wine production are the main sources of income. Cassis received the Appellation d’Origine Controlée in 1936, the first in the region with the most prominent wines being whites and rosés.
Frederc Mistral, the Nobel Prize-winning author and defender of provençal language and traditions, said: “Qu-a vist Paris, se noun a vist Cassis, pou dire, ‘n’ai rèn vist’” (He who has seen Paris but not Cassis can say, ‘I haven’t seen anything.’”)
As we approached the town, Dominique suggested that we take the coach up to a high promontory overlooking Cassis and the harbor. The road is part of Corniche des Crêtes, a bicycle trail from Marseille through Cassis to La Ciotat, a grueling exercise in endurance. This is known as Cap Canaille and is about 1300 feet above sea level.
At this windy vantage point, Dominique took another group photo before René dropped us off in the main square. We explored the market place, sampled pastis, olives, gelato and other goodies.
The palace was clearly visible, but it was clouding over and the wind came up.
We met at noon at Cheminée du Roi René (king René’s fireplace) as it was nice and warm there and then walked along the quay to eat our great fish lunch at L’Oustau de la Mar. I convinced Dominique and René to eat with us.
We then walked down to find our boat to visit the Calanques and I found the Cassis seal.
As the wind was getting testy, the pilot informed us that we would only be able to visit three of the five originally scheduled Calanques. The rock had been quarried for many years for such projects as the sidewalls of the Suez Canal, but the French government made the entire area into a national park and that stopped the work.
After we got off the boat, we wandered about Cassis for a couple of hours. I found the Musée d’Arts et Traditions Populaires that was located in an 18th century former presbytery. We were back to Aix by 5. We wished both René and Dominique a great life and everyone contributed to their largesse. The two made the last four days truly more enjoyable as they went beyond what was contracted to please us.
13 October 2016
When we got down for breakfast, the dining room was closed off and dimmed. We all had enjoyed the great selection of food offered every morning. Then breakfast bags mysteriously appeared and everyone ate what he or she wanted and then boarded the coach (but with someone other than René driving). It was raining (how propitious that it rained the day we boarded the ship in Chalon-sur-Saône and this final morning as we traveled to the Marseille airport!)
The driver could not get beyond a certain point because of potential terrorism, so we rolled our bags the 200 or so meters to the terminal entrance. Some had difficulty getting their boarding passes, but eventually everyone got checked in and we all made our sequence of flights, after saying “Adieu!” to everyone. Another great trip under our belts as we begin thinking of the next one.