Provence, France –
What a wonderful area of France! We again took the train from Nice to Marseille. Much of the route was along the shore of the Mediterranean Sea through the famous cities of Antibes, Cannes and Toulon although from the train, they weren’t that glamorous. We switched trains to travel on to Arles through the delta region of the Rhone River valley. The area was beautiful, mostly produce farms and rolling green hills of vineyards providing the world famous food of Provence.
We arrived at the train station on the north side of the old town and walked the short distance to the old Roman gates and watch towers of the ancient city walls. Our hotel was just behind the gate on the right (yellow). When we checked in the hotel, the lady at the desk ask if we came for the May Day celebration the next day. We told her that we were unaware that there was a celebration. She told us about the traditional May Day parade to the Church of Notre Dame and the blessing of animals and showed us where to go to watch it.
Our room was nice size, very comfortable and looked out over the city wall and the two gate towers from our room window
We spent the rest of the day exploring the old town of Arles which was a fascinating mix of ancient, medieval, old and new. The monument building to the right at the very entrance to the streets of Arles was a fountain built in tribute to Amedee Pichot by his son in 1868. The fountain split the two main streets entering the north end of Arles.
Since the streets are very narrow (most are chariot width!), most of the streets are closed off by metal poles, others are limited to one way traffic and very few are open to vehicles.
Those that are open to traffic are not wide enough for two together as this trucker found out!
One of the streets from the Pichot fountain led to the Place Du Forum, an open plaza set up with tables and canopies for eating. Surrounding the plaza (Place) were a variety of sidewalk restaurants that serviced the open plaza.
Other single or smaller restaurants with only one or two tables could be often found as we wandered around in the old city.
The old city was a very interesting blend of old (even ancient) and new. There would be a newer building with an ancient Roman doorway, or a very old stone wall with a new gate cut into it leading to a courtyard of a newer resident. Likewise a newer dwelling or room built into an ancient structure.
Yet there was a high levee topped by a walkway built out of stone that ran along the Rhone River to separate and protect the old town from the river flooding.
And down the streets next to the ancient amphitheater was the Church and Cloister of Saint Trophime built between the 12th and 15th centuries.
MAY DAY –
We got up early (at least for us) the next morning and decided to go directly to the Church of Notre Dame for the blessing of the animals rather than trying to meet up with the parade in the narrow streets of old town. We noticed that ropes with streamers of ribbons and cloth were hung for decoration across the streets where the parade was coming.
As we walked toward the church, we noticed an older woman dressed in a beautiful gown hurrying toward the church so we followed her. Sure enough she took us directly to the Church of Notre Dame.
The plaza area in front of the church was surrounded by a chained-link fence. People were beginning to gather behind it to watch the blessing of the animals. We quickly followed suit and found a good spot where we could see everything that was happening.
Then began the parade of elders starting with the ladies dressed in their finest (style of the late-1800’s) and the men with their black suits, white shirts and black hats. Then came the young women and the young ladies club with their banner, followed by the girls. Next in line came the young boys and girls.
When they had all entered and formed by the front of the church, the parade that had wound through the streets of the town started entering the plaza. Then the mothers with their small childen and babies followed quickly. The carriages were very old, in excellent condition and on obvious display with their babies. The people and their children were all standing and waiting as a carriage pulled by two white horses entered the plaza.
There were horses lined up as far as we could see on the streets through the buildings.
Next began the entrance of the individual horses and their riders. In most cases, it was young men and young women riding side-saddle behind their male, but occasionally in would be a young boy with a young lady behind him. They all filed in one horse at a time and took their place in lines eventually forming seven lines across the plaza which included over 200 horses and their riders. All of the horses were white and were said to be of a special breed used entirely around the area of Arles. Once the plaza was full, the local priest came through each line of the horses swinging their spray bulbs of holy water blessing all the horses and then the blessing was finished. All the women on the horses were helped down and the horses were ridden back out of the plaza. All the remaining people left the plaza to spend the day in the old town.
We also spent the rest of the day wandering through the town, enjoying the scenery and occasionally meeting some of the locals like the young family shown above with young daughter and baby and the mother and daughter dressed to the nines.
That evening we celebrated May Day, thanks to Mark and Christine, enjoying dinner at a small restaurant called ‘Jadin de Arts’. It was located in the chapel of an old church.
The church had been demolished and was now a garden beside the chapel. The dinner was delicious and the warm chocolate tart with liquid chocolate fudge leaking out the side was incredible!
The last day that we were in Arles, we concentrated on the old Roman part of the town. We started by walking around the outside of the old town to the ‘Porte D’Aguste’, the original entrance to Roman Arles. Attached to the gate.
A stone wall extended down to the south east corner of old town where another opening in the wall occurred. Note the graffiti on the wall. Almost all of Europe seems to be covered with it too. Except that Switzerland seems to either clean it off or make the artists??, do it! Maybe they are not bothered by it because the Swiss love their country so much that they don’t want to defile it!
As we walked through Arles, there was the old Church of Saint Julien which in no longer open to visitors and is in the process of being renovated. Behind it is the Priory of Malta holding the Museum Reattu. It is a very old church that looks like it at one time burned out the inside. Now it is a modern museum holding some pieces of art from Picasso and Reattu.
On around the northern side of Arles, we came upon an old ruin called, ‘Thermes De Constantin’, the baths of Constantine. The drawing on the left was done in the 1500’s while the baths were still used and the drawing on the right is what the baths originally looked like.
The area next to the round front (shown in the upper photo) is the hot room where the fires were built to heat the water brought in from the river. The red arch in the lower corner was the original firebox. The interior rooms of the baths are ruined; however, the short walls shown in the photo is the support for the floor. The hot water filled the area below the floor and provided the steam for the baths.
In the southeastern part of the old city just inside of the old city walls were the heart of the old Roman city and most of the ruins. The entrance to the Roman Theater was a restored wall with three openings to the theater (closed iron gates). The entire area of the theater is an archeological site and in the process of restoration. Beyond the gates was a stone walkway into the theater with stone platforms along the side, which originally held statues of the Gods. The statues have disappeared into museums.
The ‘Theater Antique’ was built by Emperor Agustus in 30 BC. It could seat 10,000 spectators. The twin columns in the foreground are the remains of the stage façade across the front of the seating area.
Arles has it’s own Collosseum; however, there they called it “The Amphitheater’ or ‘Circus’ and it was designed as a smaller version of the Collosseum of Rome seating only 20,000 people. It was completed in 90 BC and was used for entertainment by the Romans including chariot racing and Gladiator fighting. It is in much better condition than the Collosseum of Rome.
In the 5th century AD after the fall of Rome, the people of Arles used it as a shelter from the waring tribes around them and during Medieval times built over 200 houses inside the structure for protection. They added four towers to the top of the structure as fighting towers during the tribal wars. I thought that the thickness of walls of the structure was very impressive and was probably a good reason that the Amphitheater was still in such good condition. The Amphitheater is still in use today and a mock bullfight was held in it on May Day while we were there. It is now generally used for bull fights, plays and concerts.
We only had three days in Arles and were on our last leg of our trip. We could have spent a week there easily and still not have seen it all. It was so much better than Rome, fewer people, very clean and friendly. If we ever got back there I would definitely stay longer. I really enjoyed spending time looking at the old ruins that the Roman’s built.
There were two sites that we were anxious to see between Arles and Avignon. One was the medieval mountain fortress called Les Baux and the other was the ancient aqueduct built by the Romans called ‘Pont du Gard’. We took the last day of our time in Arles to make a drive north out of Arles to see both of those sites.
Les Baux –
The drive was easy and beautiful through the farms and vineyards of the Provence valley. As we neared the area of Les Baux, the area became hilly and then became several larger hills bordering on small mountains. On the largest of these, the Lords of Baux built their citadel on the rocky top of the highest peak with a bird’s eye view of their land below them. In the middle ages of the 11th century, the Lords of Baux were fierce warriors and the rulers of southern France. They (meaning their slaves) literally carved the castle out of the rock peak of the mountain.
We arrived at the base of the mountain just after the gates opened at 9 am and drove the vehicle up the one lane, switchback paved road to the base of the village. The mockup of the mountain pictured above gives an idea of the layout of the village below the peak and the castle built into the stone above.
We climbed up through the streets of village which was truly of medieval character although still inhabited villagers who’s sole income is from the tourist. All of it is still functional and livable although they no longer control the farmers and farmland below them.
At the top of village is a large plateau where once wars were fought using bows and arrows, swords and catapults (photo) to hurl stones at and over the castle walls. Originally two windmills were located there used to grind the grain that was grown on the valley floor.
The castle itself was located in and on the rock outcropping at the peak of the mountain. In the photo you can still see the outline of the castle at the top and it follows along the edge of the rock face to the location of the red flag. Along that wall is a sheer drop of over 750 feet to the valley floor.
Les Baux became part of the Provence area of France in the early 1400’s. The Lords of Les Baux did not accept the incorporation of their lands into France and struggled with the French King until the King destroyed the castle in 1483. Later the people of Les Baux became Protestants and fought against the Catholics. In 1632, Cardinal Richelieu again further demolished the castle to the condition that it is in today.
The entrance to the castle area is at the base on the left of the upper photo. The drawing at the gate indicates the original stone structure although all that is left of it is a stone shell.
Just beyond the gate was the main stone road into the castle area itself. The drawing implies what it was originally and the actual photo is what it looks like now.
This room that was cut into the solid rock was part of the structure seen in the centers of the two photos above.
Further into the castle grounds was an area that indicated the magnitude of the stone work that was involved in building the castle. The drawing of the same area indicates the typical fighting that might have occurred in that area.
Just beyond in a niche of the wall a small chapel was located and again a drawing of what it might have looked like at the time of it’s use. Significant to us was the depth into the stone that the chapel was cut and the ornate carving of the stone for the entrance and the chapel’s ceiling. The door at the back opened to stairs that were blocked off.
Near the back of the mountain was again a drawing of the main castle and a photo of the remains of it after being destroyed by the French Kings.
These photos show further destruction and the remains of the main building at the peak of the mountain. The upper castle was three stories high and the bottom floor was a huge hall with a ceiling over 20 feet high. The upper two stories were the living quarters of the Lords. It was said that the Lords were ruthless and they were known to throw people that they had captured for ransom off the top of the castle to the valley below, if the ransom wasn’t paid. These photos are from our vantage at the back of the castle from as high as we wanted to climb.
The view from the top of the mountain down the main street of the upper castle is the photo on the left and the village of the people of Les Baux in the photo to the right.
All of that and we were back to the car by 2 pm. We drove on from Les Baux to our next stop at –
Pont du Gard –
This Roman aqueduct is one of the most impressive constructions that we saw on the whole trip. It is part of an aqueduct to take water from the springs at Ezes to the city of Nimes. It was built about 50 BC and was used until the 6th century AD or about 550 years before it fell into disrepair.
The actual distance between the two sites is only 10 miles. However, the Romans aqueduct was 30 miles long taking advantage of the land to allow only a 40 foot drop in the water level over the 30 miles. The aqueduct bridge over the river Gardon, ‘Pont du Gard’ was originally ~1100 feet long and about 160 feet high (only 6 feet shorter than the Collosseum in Rome) and moved over 50 million gallons of pure spring water in 27 hours to the fountains and water system of Nimes.
The arch over the river was 80 feet wide and the widest arch ever built by the Romans. The limestone stones used in the construction were approximately 6 tons each and were cut with such precision that no masonry was used to hold the blocks together. Cement masonry was used to seal the walls and the floor of the water aqueduct. It was at the very top of the structure above the small arches.
The people on the walkway on the bridge gives you an idea of the immensity of the structure. The city off in the distance through the arch is Remouline. In the great flood of 1958, the water was flooding over top of the first tier of arches where the people are standing in the photo.
The bridge withstood the force of the water as it had withstood numerous floods in the past 2063 years! Note the triangle shaped stones at the base of the pillars that help separate the flood waters to pass through the arch openings and the thickness of the bridge walls.
I haven’t normally shown photos of the places that we have stayed on the trip, but we did think this one was quite unique. The small Hotel La Colbert was locate a couple of blocks from the train station and was another of the several excellent recommendations by Rick Steve’s travel books which we used to plan portions of our trip (the great rest was through Pat Gowen at Jade Travel).
The hotel was really fun! The bedroom was very bright with very modern pictures on the walls in a very old building. It had a small closet holding a toilet and adjoining bright colored larger closet shower and sink. It was very comfortable and clean and a fun change from many of our other accommodations. The downstairs was also bright with a colorful breakfast room filled with old antiques plus a quaint small outside patio (too windy & cool to use). The owners were very nice and accommodating.
The Palace of the Popes is one of the major attractions of Avignon and we took our time exploring it. It was a huge castle/palace of 6 different Popes (the French Popes) through the 14th century. The initial move was caused by the turmoil in Rome between warring factions and the French King moved the French Pope (Clement V) to Avignon creating the ‘Palais des Papes’.
The interior courtyard of the Palace was actually quite bare with a very large central stone paved court surrounded by the buildings shown above.
The entrance to the interior of the building was the arched doorway. We entered the rest of the palace through these doors that lead upstairs to a large empty room with vaulted ceiling.
We then realized that almost the entire palace was bare with the exception of a few wall frescoes and some sculptures.
From that part of the palace we walked into another courtyard that was covered with grass and was surrounded by other buildings. Again the rooms and the building interiors were bare although they had panels that explained the purpose of the various rooms. The also had displays holding various artifacts of the time with Popes.
As we came out on one of the room onto the upper walkways, we could look up across the courtyard to see the famous Golden Virgin Mary that stands on the pillar at the left entrance to the palace.
From there we were led down to a restored room that was a library of the palace and was now the official tourist store with the typical tourist memorabilia. From there down several flights of stairs to the exit of the palace.
Outside was the left entrance and another look of the Golden Virgin Mary. Note the touring tram at the base of the left entrance. We took that tour for a look at the rest of Palace area, the Rhone river bridge and the upper end of Avignon.
Saint Benezet Bridge was originally the only method of crossing the Rhone river except by boat. It was originally 22 arches long (3000 feet) extending from the base of the Palace of the Popes to the Tower of Philip the Fair which was the beginning of France. In 1668, it was destroyed by an ice flood except for the remaining four arches. Still standing is the original toll booth and a medieval hospital for the poor between the second and third arches.
On the tour, we also stopped by the Church of St. Pierre and it adjacent ancient ruins and gardens. It was a pleasant stop because the wind that day had been very strong and it gave us a good break out of the wind to just relax and enjoy the gardens.
On the side of one of the old buildings was some ornamentation that caught our eye.
On to Paris the next day and the last of our adventures in Europe.