Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Abbey of Senanque

This Cistercian monastery was founded in 1148 and is only a few miles from Gordes. It was established according to the ideals of the great St Bernard of Clairvaux, whose monastic reform movement stressed a life of isolation, poverty, simplicity, and prayer.  Pious reading, chanting the daily hours of the divine office, and strenuous labor filled (then as now) the monk's day.  Silence was (and still is) maintained as much as possible.  The austerity of this ascetic movement is reflected in the simplicity and purity of the unadorned architecture of the buildings. By way of contrast with the Romanesque grandeur of St-Trophime (Arles), for example, the Cistercian abbey eschews decoration, ornamentation, statues, stained glass, etc.

Senanque prospered, as did many Cistercian communities. The rigors of life in such harsh and isolated places lead the monks to practice a very frugal, deliberate, and quasi-scientific form of agriculture. Daughter houses were soon established and Senanque flourished throughout the 13th century. In the mid 1500s, however, the abbey was largely destroyed in a violent uprising. It was secularized and privatized for many years, but since 1989 it has again been home to Cistercian brothers. The monastery is renowned as a producer of much high-quality lavender.

Click here for a few pictures.


The village of Gordes (pop. 2031) is situated high up on terraced cliffs overlooking fertile valleys below. It has been inhabited since the Neolithic Era and is only a few miles away from the cluster of "bories" that we visited. It has a Renaissance chateau, charming (and steep!) narrow streets and alleys, good food, and magnificent views over the countryside below.

Click here for a few pictures.


"Bories" are drystone shelters (i.e., no mortar or cement) built by rural peasants who used the limestone they removed from their fields to build dwellings, barns, animal pens, ovens, etc.  There are over 3000 known sites in Provence alone, some of which may date back to Neolithic times. We visited a cluster of about 20-30 structures near Gordes.  These remarkable buildings are dark but quite solid and snug, built with the exterior courses of stone sloping slightly downward to help with runoff from rain or snow. There are usually two rooms for the residents and smaller adjacent enclosures for sheep, pigs, etc.  This particular village was inhabited until the beginning of the 19th century. We saw other bories in privately owned fields in the vicinity.

Click for a few pictures.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Arles:  Tauromachy and Roman History

Arles is absolutely crazy about tauromachy, the polite term for bullfighting.  They have just completed the four-day Easter feria, featuring a running of the bulls in the streets, Carmargue-style bull events (where a group of men dressed all in white try to grab a rosette from the animal's horns -- non-lethal), and Spanish-style events (definitely lethal).  The latter are now illegal in France except for a few towns that can show a very long and unbroken tradition of such events.

No animals were harmed in the making of this blog.

The archeological museum is located on the banks of the Rhone, right on the site of the ancient Roman hippodrome, the horse racing arena that could seat 20,000+ spectators.  It is a beautiful, spacious new facility with artifacts ranging from sculpture to mosaics to a recovered Roman boat to implements of everyday life.

Click here for a picture album.

Arles:  St-Trophime

Arles, situated on the banks of the Rhone,  has been settled since the Neolithic Era, but became especially important as a Roman provincial capital and trading center since the first century BCE.  Like Nimes, the colony was settled by military veterans, in this case Legion VI.  Arles still boasts a fine Roman arena (like the one at Nimes) and theater (like the one in Orange), but it is perhaps best known today as the place where Vincent Van Gogh lived starting in 1888, two years before his untimely death.

Spoiler alert:  If you are not into Romanesque sculpture, skip the picture album.  One of the principal masterpieces in Arles is the church of St-Trophime, especially the carvings on its magnificent west front and in the cloisters.  St Trophimus (3rd century CE) was the first bishop of Arles, said to have been sent here directly by St Peter and to have welcomed the Marys after their landing at Stes-Marie-de-la-Mer.  The ancient church was rebuilt in the late 11th-early 12th century, with the carved doorway completed ca. 1190. The interior consists of a very high barrel-vaulted ceiling with two smaller side aisles and a late Gothic chancel and ambulatory. A chapel in the north aisle holds countless reliquaries.  The cloister, dating from the 12th-14th century, is rich in beautiful carvings on its pillars and is regarded as one of the most beautiful in France.

For a picture album, click here.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Vaison-la-Romain and Orange

Visits to two Roman cities in one day.  In addition to the Roman ruins, Vaison-la-Romain was hosting the biggest, baddest street market I have ever seen.  Street after street full of stalls with food, clothing, implements of every kind.

The old Roman city of Orange boasts the best preserved Roman theater in the world.  The stage wall is enormous and the seating was for more than 20,000.  It is still used for opera and other outdoor performances.

Picture album.

Nimes:  Walking Tour with TZ and MK

We took a day-long walk through the old central part of Nimes with our visitors, TZ and MK.  Highlights = the Roman Arena, Imperial Temple (Maison Carree), and the Tour Magna (1st-century Roman watchtower with beautiful gardens).

Picture album.