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.