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.

Les Baux-en-Provence and La Carmargue

The  ruined castle and the medieval village of Les Baux are situated on a very steep, isolated island of rock high above the valley floor in the Alpilles. The region is famous for the discovery of Bauxite in 1822 and for its fine vineyards. Once a proud fief of its own, it is now a picturesque tourist destination and a favorite with hardy bikers.  We visited with TZ and MK. The village also has a small museum of "santons," locally carved figures in the costumes and activities of local peasants thatnwere used in rural households after Nativity scenes in churches were forbidden after the Revolution.

The Carmargue
is the romatic heart of Provence, a vast, marshy delta region bordering the Mediterranean at the mouth of the Rhone.  It is famous for the walled crusader city founded in the early 1200s by Louis IX (St Louis) from which he launched his two crusades, but also for its rice fields, its stocky white horses, its herds of black bulls headed for the arenas, and its seafood.  Much of the area is a regional natural park, which is where we visited a huge bird sanctuary filled with flamingos, herons, storks, etc.

Click for a few pictures.

A Walk through Nimes

Susie and I take a walk through part of the old inner city of Nimes, with stops at the Maison Carree (Roman Temple from 1 BCE), the neighboring Museum of Contemporary Art / Public Library, and the Museum of the City of Nimes (devoted mainly to the city's past history as a center for weaving denim (de Nimes) and silk.

Picture album.

Three Holy Sites:  Montmajour, St-Roman, St-Laurent

Visits to three early religious sites in our area.  The Abbey of Montajour was a Benedictine foundation from the 10th century, situated high on a limestone hill overlooking the marshes and fields (often painted by Van Gogh) above the city of Arles. There is a lower church (crypt) cut into the rock, a 12th-century upper church and cloister. Also a fascinating necropolis of graves for the monks that were cut directly into the rock.

The Abbey of St-Roman is on a huge cliff above Beaucaire with an unbelievable view of the Rhone valley. The abbey is entirely underground, cut out of the rock by "troglodyte" hermits who lived in tiny underground cells from as early as the 5th century.

is an 11th-century windowless chapel by the roadside.  No entrance for visitors.

Click here for a few pictures.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Aigues-Mortes:  Market Day and Lunch with Friends

On Sunday, we drove down to Aigues-Mortes a second time (see preceding blog post).  Today was warm and sunny (like almost every day here), so we enjoyed strolling through the extensive outdoor market and picking up a few things for our meals, including luscious local strawberries.

We spent the afternoon with David Zarka and his family, enjoying a long, slow, leisurely, and absolutely delicious lunch. Here is the course by course menu:  1. An aperitif of cold pastis, the favorite summer drink in Provence, with appetizers, 2. delicious local oysters on the half shell, 3. a salad with homemade anchovy dressing and topped with baked mussels covered with melted cheese, 4. a cold salad-like main dish of potatoes and octopus, 5. a cheese tray with three different varieties to try, 6. a "fougasse," a special flat cake made with orange blossoms, 7. coffee.  Oh, and bread and wine throughout the meal.  We had to leave a little early to catch a concert back in Nimes -- after only 4 1/2 hours at the table.  The conversation in fractured French was lively and too much fun.  Thanks David and Patrice and Family!


Aigues-Mortes:  The Fortified City of St. Louis

The town of Aigues-Mortes ("Dead Water") lies in a swampy plain on the coast of the Mediterranean. The town was founded in 1240 by Louis IX (aka, St Louis), who wanted a French seaport from which to launch the 7th crusade (1248) and 8th crusade (1270). The pious king died of dysentery in North Africa in 1270.

Because it was a planned community, the streets of Aigues-Mortes are laid out in a rectilinear grid, which is very unusual for towns of this period. The city is still guarded by the massive Constance Tower (the walls are 6 meters thick) and a four-sided city wall with multiple gates and guard towers.

For a small picture album, click here.

Tarascon and Beaucaire:  April 12

Tarascon (pop. 11,000) and Beaucaire (pop. 13,000) are twin cities connected by a bridge across the Rhone River.  Tarascon is renowned as the home of King Rene's magnificent castle (completed in 1449) and the Tarasque river monster, tamed by St Martha.  Beaucaire also has a ruined castle and a colorful canal full of pleasure boats.

Here are a few pictures.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Les Baux-de-Provence

Chateauneuf-du-Pape was the summer residence of the popes who fled the heat of Avignon for the castle on a steep hillside.  The castle and other buildings were destroyed during the wars of religion and again by fleeing Germans in 1944. The view over the Rhone to the mountains beyond is fantastic. The little town is surrounded by scores of the most famous vineyards in the world.

Les-Baux-en-Provence comprises a ruined castle and a small village sitting on top of a massive rock outcrop. Only a few people live there now, but it is a lively tourist destination. The narrow cobbled streets are crowded with souvenir shops, art galleries, cafes, and ice cream parlors. The view down the sheer cliffs into the valley below is unforgettable.

For a few pictures, click here.

The Carmargue and Ste-Maries-de-la-Mer

The area known as the Carmargue is a vast, marshy coastal region bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Much of it is protected as a nature reserve (ca. 328 square miles) and the rest is used as grazing land for the famous short stocky white horses and small, tough bulls of the Carmargue. The latter are meant for the arenas of Provence and some individual bulls become quite famous, like American rodeo bulls. Rice is grown in shallow paddies.  Birds of many species abound: more than 400 kinds, of which 180 are migratory.  There are herons, egrets, cormorants, larks, huge pink flamingos, etc. The "vin du sable" (wine produced from grapes grown in sandy salt marshes) is a specialty, as is seafood and honey.

On the coast itself, one can visit the sunny seaside port and resort town of Les Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer. Legend has it that in 40 CE, a boat carrying Mary Magdalene, Martha and her brother Lazarus, Mary the mother of James, and Mary Salome the mother of James the Greater and John landed safely on this shore. Sarah, the black servant of the two Marys was at first left behind, but Mary Salome threw her cloak upon the water to serve as a bridge for Sarah to come ashore. The two Marys and Sarah remained in Carmargue. An earlier oratory dated from the 6th century, but by the 9th century it was replaced by a fortified church which was extended into a fortress-like structure in the 12th-14th centuries as a watchtower and protection against raiding Saracens. On May 24-25, thousands of Roma (gypsies) gather from all over the world to worship and celebrate. The huge box containg relics of the two Marys is lowered from the ceiling to the chancel, and special veneration is paid to St Sarah in the crypt below the high altar.
Click here for a few pictures.

Thursday, April 10, 2014


The sleepy little town of St-Gilles (pop. 11,000) was once one of the busiest pilgrimage sites in Europe.  Christians came from near and far to venerate the remains of St-Gilles and to begin their long walk to St Iago de Compostela in northwest Spain.  The town, lying close to the mouth of the Rhone, was a bustling port for exotic goods arriving from the East and for crusaders setting off for the Holy Land. 

The center of the town was the vast abbey of St-Gilles, a beautiful 11th-12th century church that was severely damaged during the wars of religion.  Today, it is best known for the west facade preserving delicately carved scenes from the Old Testament, the life of Christ, the twelve apostles, and various allegorical images of animals.  The underground crypt is also spectacular, containing the tombs of St Gilles and the papal legate Peter Castenau,whose assassination in 1208 triggered the papal crusade against the Albigensians throughout the south of France.

The legend of St Gilles asserts that the 8th-century Greek Christian gave all his money to the poor and sailed to Provence on a rudderless raft. A rich nobleman was hunting a deer and shot at it, but St Gilles plucked the arrow from the air and saved the deer. The nobleman was so impressed that he gave his fortune to endow a new abbey on the spot.  St Gilles traveled to Rome to gain papal recognition for the abbey, and the pope donated two doors for the structure. Gilles launched the doors on the Tiber, when they floated out through the Mediterranean Sea and landed at the very time and place when Gilles returned home.

The church was largely demolished during the wars of religion, and its priests and choirboys were cast down into a 30' deep well in the crypt that one can still see.  The church interior was rebuilt, but the impressive crypt and beautiful facade survived.
Click here for pictures.

Caissargues:  Part Deux

Wednesday, April 9:  We started this bright sunny day with a stroll through the village.  It is a very quiet and friendly place about 3 miles southeast of the city of Nimes.

Click here to see a few pictures that we took on our walk.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Avignon:  April 8, 2014

On Tuesday morning we drove to Avignon, an attractive city (pop.180,000) on the banks of the Rhone.  Its chief claim to fame is that it is where the papacy was situated during the so-called "Babylonian Captivity" (1309-77) and the Great Schism (a period when there were two popes/anti-popes) lasting until 1417.  The Palais des Papes is a vast palatial complex overlooking the river.  More pictures from within to follow.  We also crossed the Rhone and ascended to Fort St-Andre, built by John the Good in the 14th century as a warning to the papal armies not to trespass on his land.
Click here for a few pictures.

April 7, 2014:  Nimes

Today we made our first foray into Nimes (pop. 128,000) which is only a few minutes from our village of Caissagues.  The city's history stretches back more than two millennia.  It was founded as a colony by Augustus Caesar and straddled an important overland trade route to Spain, the Via Domitiana.  Army veterans from the legions that conquered Egypt were given land here when they retired -- hence the city's symbol to this day, a crocodile (Egypt) chained to a palm tree.  There are many important Roman remains here, including the temple known as the Maison Carre (Square House), said to be the best preserved Roman temple in the world, and a huge coliseum (1st-2nd century CE), a twin of the one in Rome but much better preserved -- so much so that the film "Gladiator" with Russell Crowe was filmed here. (They also make delicious crepes.)
Here is a link to a little picture album -- more to come!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Caissargues / Aix-en-Provence

Hello, followers!  Susie and I are on the loose again.  This time we are enjoying a month-long home exchange with Fernand and Marie-Claire Zarka, a couple from the village of Caissargues on the outskirts of Nimes (Provence).  We are enjoying a stay in their lovely two-floor house with a beautiful back garden, complete with a blossoming cherry tree.

On our first full day here (Sunday), we drove to Aix-en-Provence in order to see the Festival du Tambourin.  Groups of about thirty -- men and women and some children, many in period costumes -- marched down the narrow winding streets and then up and down the main boulevard (Mirabeau).  At the end, they all gathered together and lifted their drums to have them and their families blessed by the priest. 

We strolled through the town all day, stopping at a flower market and a fruit and vegetable market and eating a pique-nique while people-watching from a low stone wall.  Back home in time to lounge in our garden and read.  Day 1 counts as a success!

Click here for a photo / video album.