Saturday to Sunday January 7-8
In November we had planned a trip south to Provence but ended up back in Maine. So, we decided to rebook in January, and thanks to our kind airbnb hosts we were able to reserve the same apartment in Avignon. With our rental car we headed out of the Netherlands, through Belgium and ended up in Domremy, France, halfway to our destination.
With Max being a huge fan of Jeanne d’Arc we had opted to tour the little village where she spent the early years of her life, actually most of her young life until she upped and left after following the voice in her head to help the French Dauphin obtain his rightful throne in 1422 .
Arriving a bit later than we had hoped due to a wintery mix of snow and ice, we did manage to find the chapel where she worshiped on Saturdays. Located just 1 mile km from her home in Domremy, the Chapelle de Bermont is now private property. The owners do offer access to the chapel when it’s opened for a few hours on Saturday; but, we had missed it.
Plus, this was our discovery of touring during January when most signs greeted us with ‘ferme’ or “closed”.
However, just knowing she had climbed the hill to enter this place of worship made our rushed trek here worth the effort.
As the afternoon morphed into evening we hightailed it back to Domremy where we had booked a room at one of the few B&Bs still offering rooms during this season. We also happened to find the one restaurant opened down the road where we met the husband-and-wife team as well as a local with pup enjoying his nightly glass of the local liqueur.
Waking up to wispy flakes sifting from the sky we enjoyed our breakfast in our room under the watchful eye of Victor Hugo who, our host said, use to stay in this inn on route from Paris to see his family in the countryside. And, no, I won’t say we slept in his room or he slept in ours…
Our host also told us Napoleon III had given this house to his mistress where she converted it into a bordello/inn due to being perfectly located right where the coach stopped to let out weary passengers.
However, what was more interesting (I know, hard to beat knowing one slept where Hugo had) centered on our host’s vast research regarding Jeanne d’Arc.
His alternative theories, such as she was the illegitimate child of the Queen Isabeau of Bavaria and Duke Louis of Orleans, intrigued us.
As a local historian he believes that the Domremy house below–not the one the tourist information promotes down the street–belonged to the d’Arcs, her family. It was located along the border stream between Champagne and the Germanic territory (hence d’Arc, or ‘bridge’). The story goes that her father was a wounded veteran and had been given the job of tax collector along the border.
Our host even escorted us to where the Arcs’ family home use to stand, another picture-worthy photo op.
The stone slab was typical of a walking bridge over a small stream, with the two stone pillars marking the respective borders.
I had heard the idea of her being the illegitimate daughter of royalty but not anything else. If you’re as big of fan of this amazing young woman as Max is, check out our host’s website: http://jeannedomremy.fr/indexhtm.
Needing to get on the road, we bade our host good-bye, scraped the car
and drove the seven hours to Avignon.
On the way we stopped at Orange where one of the best preserved theaters exists from the Roman days. It’s also where the Netherlands’ William I or William the Silent (1533-1584) became Prince of in 1544.
Once again our timing was such that the little museum/gift shop was closing in 45 minutes, yet we had enough time to scramble up to the top of tier of stadium seats (yes, I was a bit wobbly on the ascent and descent).
Gazing down onto the stage one can only imagine the thrill of attending a performance here, which they continue to do during summer months. The acoustics were excellent as was the viewing in spite of performers basically being ‘dots with limbs’ for those less wealthy patrons sitting in the higher tiers; and, for perspective, I’m the ‘dot’ standing next to the end of the stage.
Thirty minutes later we were greeted by our Airbnb hosts–Manuel waving at us from the rooftop and Pascal, his partner, knocking on our car window. For the next hour or so we were provided with all the information one needs to tour Avignon and the surrounding region while sharing a bottle of local wine. One couldn’t ask for more enthusiastic welcomers. And, they continued to send emails with excellent tips and ideas for traveling around Provence.
Monday to Friday January 9 – 13
Our days began with coffee followed by some road trips and ended back at our apartment to enjoy a bottle of wine and a simple dinner. As I’ve told several folk, we are probably the only people who toured Provence and didn’t go out for a single meal with the exception of our sandwiches at a boulangerie. At which my gallant husband turned the camera on me snapping a now familiar pose: moi et ma cafe.
Pont du Gard
One of the most impressive structures we saw was the Pont du Gard, approximately 40 minutes NW of Avignon, actually in Occitainie, the next province over. How the Romans constructed such a magnificent and exacting piece of infrastructure is mind-boggling to someone such as I who holds no knowledge of engineering except to admire a piece of art when I see one.
Composed of three graduating arches with the tippy-top being the smallest, this Romans (well, their slaves) built this edifice around 20 B.C.E. You can see on some of the arched stones the numbering system used to ensure correct placement.
We arrived just in time for the morning ‘walk’ across the top, which, thankfully was mainly through a covered ‘tunnel’, covered to keep the water pure as it flowed from the Eure spring near Uzes to the city of Nimes over a 50 km course.
Our guide indicated the water line etched into the stone near the top of the wall,
and she pointed out the red substance that was the top layer of water-proofing under which the first layer, tiles, would be placed alongside the stone wall.
Every five years or so they’d have to chop away at the heavy lime deposit caked on the interior channel, where it would take a drop of water 30 hours to travel the length of the aqueduct.
The aquaduct has been out of use since about the 6th ce. Fortunately, renovations and maintenance (such as the guy who was removing any vegetation adhering to the stone)
have resulted in a stunning historical monument where you can still imaging water flowing through this channel.
Palais des Papes
The main draw of Avignon for history buffs is the huge Palace of the popes, which was built in only 20 years between 1335 and 1355. Some say it is the largest Gothic palace in the world.
Wondering how the supreme leader of the catholics left their Roman enclave and landed in southern France, I read that it began with the French King Philip IV’s (aka Philip the Fair)
power struggle with Pope Boniface VIII. When a Gascon-born pope, Clement V, decided to move the papacy out of Rome to a Avignon, this began the rule of the Avignonese popes, on that continued for the next 70+ years until 1377.
You know how much I like connecting the dots, well I discovered Clement V and Philip IV had ties to Chinon, the place where Jeanne d’Arc first met the Dauphin in 1429. Subtract over 100 years and in Chinon key members of the Knights Templars, a Catholic military order, were accused of heresy, sexual misconduct, and blasphemy. They were arrested in 1307 and held in Chinon.
Enter the lovely Inquisition and seven years later five were burned at the stake on Paris’ Ile de la Cite (Island of the City) in the River Seine. The reason? Money. Philip IV owed a lot (the Templars also functioned as bankers); and, a way to rid himself of debt was to rid himself of the Templars. Clement V was forced to disband them but did absolve them of heresy. The trial of the Templars with Clement’s ruling is documented in the Chinon parchment, a record discovered in 2001 in the Vatican Secret Archives.
The above simplifies the complexities of how the king, the pope, and the templars became so entangled, and, it’s worth reading more for anyone interested in the details.
Back to the building whose immensity was difficult to capture as we looked back from the entrance steps to the plaza.
It was old (notice the door)
and cold and impressive.
In spite of the palace being bare it was easy to imagine the thrum of power that must have echoed around these cavernous rooms; and, audio guides provide the historical context as we wandered around. At one point the palace became a prison and then barracks in 1810 with their reducing some of the huge, stone rooms to smaller ones with wooden floors and wall dividers. In the 1900s the palace was opened to the public and restored to its original interior architecture. Definitely worth a visit.
On Tuesday we decided to head south of Avignon where we found ourselves exploring the medieval hilltop village of Las Baux. The drive was one of the most beautiful during our entire trip as every few turns revealed our destination in the distance.
Being a non-touristy month, the town was basically shuttered but didn’t preclude our strolling the narrow, cobblestone streets.
Guide books as well as a Tourist Office we had visited on our way there suggested we park at the Carrieres de Lumieres, an innovative multimedia show using abandoned caves created by mining the limestone in the 19th ce. Unfortunately this show had just closed with its 2017 opening slated for March; yet, it presented an empty parking lot and, more notably, a free one.
Yet, it also provided an opportunity for enterprising folk who were searching for treasures while we were walking through the village.
The enterprising folk had spotted a backpack sitting in the back seat, which was empty by the way. Most likely the car alarm scared them off (I only knew it had an alarm when I made the mistake of trying to open the door.) Luckily nothing was stolen (unlike our time in Baden-Baden). We reported it to the local police (actually, it’s the National Guard in that area), arranged for a tourist-gouged-replacement window the next day in Arles, visited some olive oil mills (yum!),
and, ended our day in another Provence village associated with the guy who hacked off part, or all, of one ear.
One speaks of Provence, and Van Gogh’s life and art comes to mind; so, our destination was Saint Paul de Mausole, the monastery in Saint Remy. Here he voluntarily entered in May 1889 and subsequently produced a prodigious amount of art during his 12 months’ stay. A 1km walk from the Tourist Office to the monastery is lined with free-standing plaques matching one of of the artist’s works with excerpts from letters referring to that specific painting.
Even though we couldn’t access Van Gogh’s recreated room, it was even more interesting to be in the surrounding grounds for you could stand in front of the painting then look out and actually see what Van Gogh saw (albeit the trees are now larger…).
So, in spite of the broken window we managed to happily enjoy our day and see everything we had originally planned when we set out from Avignon that morning.
Camargue Natural Parc
Provence has a designated nature reserve along its southwest coast, part of which includes a UNESCO designated biosphere reserve. With a vast amount of wetlands, this nature area has established an ornithological park where traveling birds as well as stay-at-home ones enjoy this habitat just north of Saintes Marie de la Mer.
After stopping in Arles for the window repair,
we leisurely drove another 40 minutes where we were stunned by a marvelous site of flocking feathered creatures justifiably called the pink flamingos.
And, what a hoot those are.
Although they’re majestic in their stance and stilted, elegant stalking,
I still can’t help but think of how they’d look on someone’s lawn, something my dad and some friends managed to do to an unsuspecting friend’s yard.
Walking along the trails surrounding the marsh we thought of our friends Helen and Gus who would be able to explain this marvel of the fowl world to us. Since we didn’t have their expertise we had to put up with simply looking and taking photos and videos as these boa-feathered creatures entertained us.
With our eyes seeing pink spots and picnicked stomachs full we managed to make our way back to the car and returned to Avignon. Another beautiful January day in Provence.
Pascal and Manuel echoed the quaint beauty of the Luberon, the area east of Avignon dotted with medieval villages, so our destination began in a clockwise direction as we stopped to ooh and aah.
Our five-hour adventure encompassed a mist-skimming river…
a trodden church aisle…
gum- drop trees…
colors of Provence…
and, finally some French food at, what else, a boulangerie.
Friday to Sunday January 13-15
Our last morning was spent hunting truffles as we left Avignon for a truffle market on our way north. Our attempt to join an actual truffle hunt didn’t occur due to not enough tourists signing up to make it worth the hunters while. So, the next best thing was attending Carpentras’ Friday morning market.
Having read the market spread itself over several blocks with the truffle hound folk in front of the old Hotel Dieu, we made a beeline for there only to be directed across the street where a few lonely tables stood with their vendors and an overpowering odor of fungi.
Yet, we felt something was up at our original spot, not only because it had banners announcing the selling of truffles
but also because there were a bunch of guys hovering around one another with bumpy, suspicious-looking sacs. With Max posed as a decoy, I was able to grab a shot of what, Max aptly noted, appeared to be drug deals.
This was where the professionals came to purchase this black gold, and we followed one guy across the street who animatedly but surreptitiously showed his cache to several others waiting in a cafe. And, no, I didn’t pose Max again…
After six hours of heading north we landed at our original destination just south of Strasbourg, at a small village outside of Colmar, only to find our hotel reserved via HOTELS.COM shuttered. Fortunately, there are quite a few towns around in this Alsace Lorraine wine country,
and we landed at another lovely, middle-age village complete with a stork-nest-topped chimney
and the requisite half-timbered homes.
Our hotel was practically empty so no problem securing a room for two nights and we happily settled in then found one of the few restaurants opened for dinner. Oh, and it advertised itself in quite a unique way.
The next morning we struck up conversation with a couple breakfasting next to us who told us of an exhibit in Colmar’s Unterlinden Museum. Since we hadn’t planned any sight-seeing other than to visit that city, we purchased tickets and found ourselves immersed in artifacts from the area’s early beginnings…
such as a gold bracelet from the burial site of Celtic princes during the 8th and 5th centuries…
to the famous, multi-panel altar piece painted by Matthias Gruenwald and carved by Niclaus of Haguenau 1512-1516 for Isenheim’s Monastery of St. Anthony (a model showed how it folded and unfolded while the life-size pieces were displayed in groupings)….
which influenced the German artist Otto Dix (1891-1969), a painter and printmaker who saw the altarpiece when a POW at a camp near Colmar.
Having fought during WWI Dix knew firsthand the horrors of human wars. When Hitler’s regime began promoting the honor and heroism of fighting he responded with art depicting the opposite. Consequently his art was banned but his work today yells of the tragedies of war.
In addition to his ant-war art he also painted stark and, what some call, brutal portraits, such as this one of journalist Sylvia van Harden in 1926.
A website devoted to Dix provides a wonderful anecdote regarding this painting (http://www.ottodix.org/catalog-paintings/page/4/), one that gives you a slight peek inside his mind. As I told an artist friend, I wouldn’t necessarily hang his art on my walls but I definitely love his approach.
Our last night out we spent as foodies in Kaysersberg. And, for anyone ever in this area, please, make a reservation at L’alchemille (www.lalchemille.fr). Owned and operated by a chef and his wife, they reminded us of our friend Kyle, an alumnus of the Culinary Institute of America. This chef focuses on using only local, in-season ingredients, and, man, does he whip up magic.
We arrived at 8:00p and proceeded to be wowed. As our waiter patiently and smilingly presented each dish, when we looked puzzled, he rushed to his phone to translate the ingredient into English. I felt as if we were eating in an enchanted forest with the tastes of pine and other fragrant seasonings.
As we sampled and oohed and ahhed over seven courses and a bottle of wine, I actually ate items I’d never tasted before (venison and pate).
As we were leaving they came out to say good-bye,
and, as we left the restaurant (three-and-a-half hours later!) we turned to one another in the gently falling snow and said, what an amazing way to end our road trip to France.