Monday, April 30, 2007

Sur le pont d'Avignon?

Or is it sous le pont? Even this bedrock belief is now being challenged by historians - small wonder the world is in such a mess - but it seems that dancing on the bridge is considered to have been most unlikely and the rhyme most probably referred to dancing under, or sous the bridge. Phooey. Quick as I learn something, they change it.
another city that has"belonged" to several different nations during it's history and even had a brief period as an independent republic, is where it is because of the Rocher des Doms (Dom's Rock), a great chunk of rock rising from the left bank of the river Rhone. It is likely that the Celts used the rock for a defensive position sometime BC and it has been coveted by all and sundry since then.
To cut to the chase, the current city houses about 90,000 people within its walls with a total of about 1/4 million in the immediate urban area. The city walls, which are almost intact, are several miles in length and grafted right into Dom's Rock. Several gateways pierce the wall and the interior contains both vehicular areas and pedestrian only areas. The "big rides" are contained in two large squares, adjacent to each other at the north end of town. More about them later - first, the famous bridge.
Another great piece of salesmanship if ever I saw one! In reality the bridge is only a bit of bridge and is actually the Pont St Bénezet and not the bridge of
Avignon. In fact, since 1668 when much of the bridge collapsed in a flood, only four of the original 22 arches have ever been maintained, the other 18 have slowly crumbled away and the city simply gave up the battle. The original bridge ran from the city wall across the first part of the river onto the Ile de Barthelasse and then across the other leg of the river to Villeneuve les Avignon. The bridge had two chapels along its length and one of these is preserved and can be seen in the picture. The municipal camp site that we stayed at in Avignon was on the Ile de Barthelasse at the top left hand corner of the picture.

Back to the city.
The major attraction in Avignon is the Palais des Papes, or the Palace of the Popes, shown below about the center of the picture

This massive building, about 3-1/2 acres of
floor space, was built during the 14th century during the period that the Papal residence was moved to Avignon from Rome due to unrest and turmoil in that city. Seven Popes held court in Avignon during this time

To the left of the Popes Palace stands the Cathedrale Notre Dame des Doms. Orininally built in the 12th century, the cathedral was modified in the 14th and 17th centuries, with the gilded St. Mary statue being added in the 19th century. The statue grouping in front the church dates from the 16th century. Opposite the Popes Palace is the Papal Mint which is decorated with detailed and exotic stonework. As one might expect, the whole area was rife with tourist paraphernalia including the ever present sidewalk cafe, mime artists, cute little gas powered trains for the really idle and of course, lots of vendors of largely irrelevant souvenirs.
At the opposite end of this huge square is the Petit
Palais, the original and more modest Papal home that has long since been converted into a museum. The highest point of Dom's rock has been made into a garden which provided space for more restaurants where a succulent hot dog and fries can be enjoyed for a paltry $10.00. There are some nice ducks on the garden pond - 25 minutes to the pound at 325 would be my guess.

The south end of the Popes pad. Notice on the restaurant menu that an omlette is only 12 Euros ($17.00) while a salad is a mere 11.50 Euros ($15.50)!

The southwest corner exit of Palais square leads directly to the other main attraction, the Place d'Horloge. The building on the right is the Papal Mint and some of the decorative sculptures can be seen
Place d'Horloge - Clock Square - is a second large square and is almost completely filled with sidewalk cafe clutter. Sadly, this has morphed from the traditional pleasant and casual arrangements of chairs and tables into a permanent looking array of feeding pens into which sidewalk hustlers were busily herding hapless tourists.

Hotel de Ville - City Hall - is the primary anchor for the square. Practically every city in France has its own Hotel de Ville but a distinguishing feature of the Avignon version is a clock tower complete with a fancy clock

Although the Town Hall was not built until 1845, it's construction incorporated a 14th century clock tower. Each hour, life size figures known as jacquemarts, get busy and strike the hours

The second significant building in the square is the Theatre (Theater :-)). Each July, the city bulges with visitors to the Independent Film Festival centered on the Theater

As for the rest of Avignon, inside the walls or outside, it is pretty much just another city - choked with cars and starved for parking. For us, it was a pleasant relief to move on into the countryside and leave thecruch of the city behind.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Another walled city...

We were in need of groceries and decided to go to Pernes Les Fontaines, another small town not far from Velleron. This was our third or fourth foray into a grocery store and we decided to unmask the "milk mystery" once and for all.
Since we had left England, we had had great difficulty finding fresh milk in any grocery store and, when we did come across
some, it was usually just a small display of dubious organic stuff, completely lacking in residual antibiotics and other zesty additives. Thus, with our trusty phrasebook in hand, we chose an Auchon Hypermarket as our research target.
The result? It turns out that a clever piece of social engineering has been laid on the French populace and, like it or not, appears to have met with total acceptance. There is no fresh milk anymore. ALL milk, except the occasional stash of organic, is UHT (Ultra High Temperature) processed and appears in mountainous stacks at various place in the store, but never in, or near a cooler. It is sold in 1 liter plastic or cardboard containers at the equivalent of about $2.25 per gallon and usually has a "Use by" date three or four months into the future. We had no problems with the flavor (too bad, I suppose, if we did) and, being able to store a couple of gallons on board in a closet, turned out to be quite a boon. The organic milk was typically 2-1/2 times the cost of the UHT product.
To produce UHT milk, fresh milk is heated to 275
degrees F for 1 to 2 seconds. This kills the spores that normally spoil the milk in a day or so at room temperature. Acceptance has been very limited in the US although many food products - McDonalds McFlurries for example - are made using UHT milk.
Interestingly, because the life of fresh milk is so short, milk distribution is a national security
consideration and, in the US, numerous small and inefficient dairies are maintained across the country, aided by subsidies and similar, to ensure widespread availability of the product in the event of catastrophic transportation disruptions. Europe has removed this consideration from their security situation since UHT milk can be stockpiled almost anywhere for up to nine months with no need for refrigeration. Quite a coup.
Anyway, we were in Pernes. The Les Fontaines flourish was added only in 1936 after it was realized that since around 1850, various people had built as many a forty fountains around town. Some of the wall entrance portal date back to the 13th century while the clock tower, other parts of the wall and various residences trace their origins from various dates from the 14th to the 18th century.

The Nesque River runs through Pernes and parks, recreation areas and walks have been built alongside

A well-oiled wedding party was making its way haphazardly through town on their way to a further celebration in a local hostelry

Friday, April 27, 2007


We were scheduled to meet up with another potential RV exchange couple in a tiny town (less than 3,000 population) called Velleron in the region Provence-Alpes-Cote-d'Azur. The folks that we met were originally from Australia (him) and Germany (her) although they have lived in Velleron for the past 35 years in the 200 year old house shown here.
Our visitees invited us to join them for dinner at the house - soon to be a restaurant - of a friend of theirs who was anxious to practice his culinary skills. Well, if a cosmopolitan group was required, this one didn't do too badly. Present were a couple of real estate developers from Boston, USA, a plump German businessman from Munich with his trophy wife who seemed game for anything (and anybody), the ex-Australian and the ex-German, the wannabe Chef Udu and his long suffering wife, their "consultant" over whom they fawned ceaselessly and us two weirdoes. Also present was a dog that kept the kitchen and table area clear of scraps and a couple of cats that behaved like FDA inspectors, taste checking many of the numerous ingredients gracing the kitchen table. Yummy.
Dinner itself was like something out of Alice in Wonderland - seven courses, only a couple of which we recognized, and such blazing service that the whole meal was over in less than five hours. Even so, by then it was too late to go out to eat so we went to bed confused and hungry.
The restaurant Chez Udu was due to open in June, Chef Udu having just exited the real estate business in a hurry to take up arms against the local authorities who, annoyingly, were insisting on various code compliances. Overall, an experience to be remembered.
Not a whole lot else goes on in Velleron it seems. A daily market does take place each evening on the edge of town and, as we wandered through it, we concluded that this provided one last chance for local growers to get top Euro for all their produce that had been rejected by supermarket buyers - nothing exceptional and generally very expensive.
One final highlight we were unable to avoid, was a local art show in the castle with some paintings and quilts on display. A real white-knuckler.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Rhone Valley and Montelimar

When my siblings and I were in the age range of seven to ten years in the aftermath of WWII, candy rationing in England was eased and exciting new treats began to appear in the candy store. Among these delights was nougat - nuggat as we, the great unwashed called it, NooGah as it was known to the gentry. These soft white joys came in wax paper wrappers bearing the name Montelimar Nougat. Imagine my adrenaline rush then, when Montelimar loomed into view - could this be THE Montelimar, the home town of this sumptuous delicacy? Indeed it was. Using locally grown almonds and honey along with pistachios, sugar, vanilla and whipped egg whites, nougat has been manufactured in Montelimar since the seventeenth century. Serving a local market for 200 plus years, nougat only really took off in the 1930s with the advent of paid vacations, an increase in automobiles and the concomitant annual rush to the sun along one of the main routes - the N7 through Montelimar. National and international markets quickly developed and nougat was finally on the world stage. Then, DISASTER! In 1968 the Autoroute (French Interstate) was finished, completely bypassing Montelimar, and the industry collapsed with the failure of more than 150 businesses. Of the 15 or so that survived, some are still churning along and we planned to seize this opportunity to ingratiate ourselves with the grandkids and at the same time support local industry. We dropped this idea rapidly when we discovered that a four ounce slab of the sticky stuff was a whopping $15.00! So much for nostalgia.
The landscape from northern France southward as far as the Rhone Valley had changed subtly over the last few days. Gone were the gently rolling and colorful fields of wheat and rape seed of the Picardy and Champagne-Ardenne departments, gone too, the vineyards of the northern Burgundy area where the land had become too steep for regular plowing. The terrain in the Montelimar and Lyon area consisted of smaller arable valleys with fairly rugged and non-productive hills surrounding them. The only "crops" seen on many of these rises were ancient castles and churches, a testament to 2000 years of raping and pillaging.
Beyond nougat, Montelimar did
not seem to offer much in the way of tourist wonders, rather it appears to be touted as a base from which trips can be taken to see interesting things and places. Of course, it had the usual complement of squares, narrow streets, closed for lunch stores and sidewalk eateries, some of which are shown here. We camped overnight between Montelimar and Lyon (France's second largest city) in a Dutch owned campsite way up in the hills.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


Chalon-sur-Saône, a town of about 70,000 people, is a significant port even though it is slap bang in the middle of France. In the 1700's the 73 mile long Canal Du Centre was built, connecting the Saône River to the Loire River and completing a waterway from the Mediterranean to the English Channel. The old town has its share of squares, narrow streets and relaxed sidewalk cafes. Claiming to be the birthplace of photography in 1822, there is a museum of photography and cameras and Kodak actually has a plant in town.
Along with every other town we visited, the place shuts down for 1-1/2 to 2 hours each day for lunch. Stores, Banks, Post Offices, everything except bars and restaurants all shut up tight and moreover, the further south we traveled, the longer the lunch breaks became. In need of a couple of tools, we eventually tracked down a Lowes like DIY store, a French chain called Projet. Arriving around midday, we were perplexed to find the store closed, doors locked, shutters rolled down and the parking lot empty. With noses pressed to a window it was possible to read the store hours: 9:00 am until 12:15 pm then again from 1:45 pm until 5:00 pm. Stunning – imagine clearing a store the size of a Home Depot twice a day and performing all of the unlocking and locking procedures twice. This is worse than England was thirty years ago when most stores closed for an hour at lunchtime. Too bad that this closure coincided with the lunch time of working folk, although I suppose, it has the advantage of keeping those pesky customers out so at least the storekeepers are not overly inconvenienced.
The Gothic Cathédrale Saint-Vincent faces onto the main square in town. Begun in the 13th century the building was restored in the mid-19th century having been seriously vandalized during the French Revolution. Over the centuries, Chalon has been the site of 10 church councils, the first of which was called by Charlemagne in 813.
As a comforting point of reference, we did find a branch of that fine American institution, McDonalds, right in the center of the modern downtown. In common with all of the Golden Arch restaurants we encountered, there were the ubiquitous sidewalk tables for the consumption of Le Big Macs and Fries.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Salieu, somewhere in Burgundy

Salieu is a little town on the N6 road in the Burgundy region of France. The N roads are National roads (Routes Nationale), radiating from Paris, laid out and built by Napolean's gang in about 1813. Functionally, they are fairly much the equivalent of the US Highway system built in the 1920's and '30's - generally pleasant and low stress to drive on. In this part of France, mile after mile of these roads are tree lined, turning an otherwise boring landscape with hot, squint producing sunshine into pleasant and relatively cool avenues.
A developing condition on these, and the lesser D roads, is the spread of the roundabout, a sickness apparently contracted from the British. There are now thousands of them across France and Italy with hundreds more being constructed - "Attention - Carrefour Modifee" - as we passed along. In general, the roundabouts accomplish their purpose of regulating traffic at crossroads and they are certainly a low cost solution both in terms of construction and maintenance. That said, they do pretty much kill the concept of a through road.
Perhaps in a typical tiny European car, negotiating such traffic tamers might be exhilarating, driving a low power, 5 speed stick-shift van this is definitely not so! In cases where the roundabout could be entered without actually stopping, second gear was required for the creep around the island. If a full stop was required, first gear was necessary to get going again. Exiting the roundabout and working up through the gears, it was depressing how frequently the GPS announced another roundabout in 800 yards just as the gearbox was about to be slipped into fifth.
The Basilica of Saint Andoche dominates the central square of Salieu. This Abbey Church was originally built around 1130 and has been completely restored in the last ten years. Currently, restoration work is underway in other parts of Salieu with buildings and streets being refurbished using traditional materials and adhering to
the original (or previous) design. Great for tourists, probably OK with residents but certainly a damper on industry and commerce.
We actually found a parking spot in Salieu and after our walkabout we tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to have lunch in the Hotel Lion d'Or. Most menu items contained words that were not in our dictionary and the language skills of the staff were poorer even than ours. We ended up, each with different foul tasting dishes, which we poked at politely, paid and left. We then comforted ourselves with a nice cheese sandwich back in Heidi, the little RV that could.

Travel on to Avallon

One of the resource books that we used to find our way around, mentioned a municipal camp site at Avallon, France, which we decided to check out. After numerous gyrations around town we finally tracked it down only to find it closed because the entry road had fallen into the river. We ended up abandoning the town and finally found a rest area 10 or fifteen miles further on. However, in the morning, being in a better humor, we decided to go back check it out a little more.
Avallon, like so many other ancient towns all across Europe, is built on a rock, expressly to provide some defense against the numerous marauders that happened by over the last two thousand years or so. Apparently, this scheme was less than foolproof since the place changed hands frequently, being controlled at various times by Celts, Romans, local Kings, Goths, regional Dukes, national Monarchies and so on. Finally, it seems, the locals decided to simply go with the flow and concentrated on making biscuits and gingerbread instead of fighting invaders and thus the town is still more or less intact and reasonably peaceful.
As usual, we parked outside of town and walked in, climbing up through steep terraces criss-crossed by walkways and peppered with tiny vegetable gardens. Many of the houses we passed had canine security guards, and no two houses were alike.
The town itself is unremarkable for the region - the central church, St Lazare, dates from the 12th century while the clock-tower over the gated entry is eleventh century.

Strangely, although we observed very few French people wearing hats, most towns that we visited had one or more hat stores of a caliber that would only be found in the largest of cities in the US. I wonder if closet hat-wearing is a popular diversion in France?
Try getting this one by city hall planners. The little sliver of sloping ground between these two roads has been completely consumed by a custom structure maximizing the use of the space.
Finally, here is a snap of the terraced homes, outbuilding, walkways and garden allotments crammed into every square foot of usable land.