Southern France Rocks, Part 1
When both your manager and your producer tell you that you need a vacation, and on the very same day at that, there might be something to it. Which is why I got the hell out of town. Way out of town. All the way to the land of wine, cheese, and truffle oil, Southern France.
And what did I discover? Southern France rocks. I mean that quite literally. For all its fermented libations and aromatic vittles, the South of France is riddled with large stones assembled into great works of ancient architecture. Just take a look at the fantastic Pont du Gard, a three-tiered Roman aqueduct whose sole purpose was to transport of four foot-wide stream of water from the Fontaines d'Eure springs to what is now the city of Nîmes. Multi-ton stones cut to fit and stacked one on top of the other without the aid of steam, coal, or gasoline. Try doing that with Photoshop!
Pardon my French, but the Pont is one of the most powerful Works of Man you could hope to lay eyes on. I've wanted to see this damn thing my entire life and I did. I walked on it, I traced its waters, and I photographed it from every possible angle. If that's not real vacation satisfaction, what the f**k is?
(Click the image to see a high-res version. Keep reading for more. All images were captured with an Olympus E-30 SLR or Stylus 1030 instamatic.)
NOTE: I'll post Part 2 or this travelogue tomorrow. Then stay tuned for Monday, when I'll publish a Thanksgiving contest based on the images used throughout. Fully ten of you will win one free week of training at my esteemed video publisher lynda.com. And one of you will win a very special grand prize. You'll have to a dekeOnline member to participate. Keep an eye out for complete details!
Home base for my adventure was Rue de Teinturiers in the old walled city of Avignon, whose medieval moats are now parking spaces. For those who don't know, Avignon is the capital of France's famous Côte du Rhône. Rue de Teinturiers is lined with water wheels that still turn through the River Sorgue, a vestige from the textile industry that thrived in the 18th century. In July, Avignon bustles with Festival Off, in which every street corner and coffee shop is transformed into a performing-arts playhouse. This particular November, it bustled with many locals, leaves, and me.
You may recognize Avignon for the famous children's song that begins, "Sur le pont, d'Avignon, l'on y danse, l'on y danse." It's all about dancing in a circle on a bridge that spans the River Rhône. The bridge is too narrow for circle-dancing and it no longer spans the river. But Pont d'Avignon (better known as Pont Saint-Bénézet) lives on. Completed in 1185, it's the product of a young man (Benedict the Bridge Builder) who saw not one but three visions of God telling him to connect Avignon with its next-door neighbor Villeneuve-les-Avignon. It's a lovely structure, but God--if ever He endorsed the plan--has long since abandoned it: 18 of its 22 arches washed away nearly 500 years ago. The remaining bridge-to-nowhere is now a popular tourist attraction for dancers and non-dancers alike.
On the night of my first visit, I chanced upon the Palais des Papes. Mind you, it was not hard to find; it's the largest Gothic palace in the world. According to legend, an unpopular Pope Clement V ran afoul of Rome sometime in the early 14th century and decided Avignon was as good a place as any to set up shop. Then his successor, John XXII, decided he needed to construct a magnificent palace, presumably so God could make out the papacy's new address. Avignon reigned as The Holy See from 1309 to 1377, after which the Holy See became binocular--with one pope in Avignon and another in Rome--a disorder known as The Great Schism. I considered this as I climbed the stairs to more closely inspect the golden Jesus (atop the structure on the left). Which is when I chanced upon some rough customers smoking pot on the papal steps. And I asked myself, which of us would be first to arrive in hell?
As if one Gothic, papal palace wasn't enough, I next found myself peaking through a window of the pope's summer home, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, namesake to one of the most famous wine regions of the world. Unfortunately, unlike the Palais des Papes and Pont du Gard, the Châteauneuf did not win Napoleon's favor when he decided to renovate France's most precious historical landmarks. As a result, it lies in ruins. Behind me are broken walls and piles of rocks. But in front of me is the entire Côtes du Rhône, the city of Avignon, and Mont Ventoux, the last of which many of you may recall as the route of this year's Tour de France.
Speaking of the Tour, let's shift gears and talk about The French Paradox for a moment: How is it that the French manage to eat such rich, buttery, lard-infused foods all day long and remain thinner than flame grill hamburger-fed Americans? Is it A) the walking and biking and tiny cars, B) the reliance on organic, perishable ingredients, C) the fact everybody smokes, or D) the vast amount of wine every man, woman, and child consumes from dawn to dusk? In the end, I chose D. So what better way to celebrate my second day in France than to visit the wineries of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, stick my head in a large cask, and get drunk off the fumes? Yes, I did that and I'm proud. Now I will live forever.
Saint-Rémy is best known for Van Gogh who, after an especially boisterous fight with Gauguin, sliced away his ear (or did Gauguin do it?) and checked himself into a local asylum. But right across the street from the asylum is the site of the quarries that the ancient Romans used to build the surrounding cities. It's also the home of a 90-year-old man named Lolo whose family has lived on this property, called La Pyramide, for the last 400 years. Lolo's home is a network of caves carved by Roman slaves, and contains two millennia of history. La Pyramide boasts a minor Roman aqueduct, several Medieval armoires, and a host of collectible cars. This man gives new meaning to the word hoarder! But his watch is more accurate than mine and requires no winding, as witnessed below. Lolo has never left Saint-Rémy except to take the Trans-Siberia Railroad to China back when he was 85.
What happens when the new neighbors move in? That's a question well answered by Glanum, host to three civilizations: the Gauls, the Greeks, and the Romans, all trying to one-up each other. Healing springs gave rise to one city after another, built on the ruins of the last. These cities were covered by the road to Saint-Rémy until the early part of the 20th century, when a mudslide uncovered the top of a Hellenistic basilica. The road has since been diverted but is thought to cover still more riches. For all we know, a fourth civilization of Neanderthals once called Glanum home. It was here that I heard the words, "Non, non! Pas d'escalader, s'il vous plait!" Apparently, you're not supposed to jump all over the ruins in the name of getting that perfect shot. Désolé. Je suis tres désolé.
If I were the Prince of Monaco, my last name was Grimaldi, and I could own a picturesque hilltop village, it would be Les Baux-de-Provence. Oh wait, that's the way it is, except for the part about me. The picturesque marquisate boasts a permanent population of 443, with 1.5 million annual visitors. No cars, no skateboards, but lots of shopping. Once a center for Protestantism, Les Baux has largely given way to provençal kitsch. The valley below is said to have been the inspiration for Dante’s Purgatorio. Funny, it looked kinda pretty to me.
Some of you know that I'm left-handed. But this next morning, in the ancient city of Arles, I discovered I was something more: Leffe-handed. A coffee in one hand, a Belgian beer in another, this Breakfast of Champions would have made Kurt Vonnegut proud. No drawings of assholes here (*). Just this photograph.
And that's where I'll leave it. Start with a curse word end with a curse word I always say. Still, lots more to tell. So stay tuned for Part 2 of the saga tomorrow.