Paris to The Cote d'Azur, Part 3

June 18 - July 3, 2001
By Lewis Nolan

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Speedy Jumps To Trip Segments:

Part 1: Memphis to Paris, Sights of Paris
Part 2: Dijon, Chalon-sur-Soane, Cruising the Soane River, Macon, Lyon, Vienne
Part 3: Cruising the Rhone River through Provence, Tournon, Viviers, Avignon, Arles
Part 4: Aix-en-Provence, Cote d'Azur, Juan-les-Pins, Monaco, Antibes, Nice to Memphis
Photo Album

Quick Jumps To Points of Interest in This Segment:

Tournon
Viviers
Avignon
Arles

June 26, 2001, Tuesday, 7 a.m. - In Tournon

We awoke in the beautiful town of Tournon in the Ardeche region, having arrived about 3 a.m. We had already decided to pass on the optional ride on an old-time, narrow gauge train to the Doux Valley Gorges and slept later than usual. Our tour director, Katell Le Bourdonnec, had located a bike rental shop a short walk from the quay and we were looking forward to pedaling around and exploring the medieval town of Tournon. Oddly, Katell (our candidate for France's "Marianne" symbol of a charming young woman) told us she had been asked to locate many places for boat passengers; but we were the first who wanted bike rental shops. We attributed that to the age of most passengers, the busy schedule of activities and unwillingness of some to step outside the security that comes from being in a large group in a strange land and a strange tongue. There were 56 who took the train excursion and who ended up being dirtied by soot from the smoke belching steam locomotive.

Tournon's claim to fame is the production of St. Joseph Wine, a Cotes-de-Rhone appellation that I'm not familiar with but has supposedly been famous for centuries. The town's bike lanes alongside busy streets and the Rhone River make it a great place to cycle. We rented our bikes at Cycles Mallarte, owned by Jean-Marc Mallarte. I got the idea from the quality of the equipment he sold and the number of customers who looked like very serious riders, that Jean-Marc is probably a onetime famous cyclist. He has his own website at www.mallarte.com. His English seemed to be no better than my French, but with sign language we managed to communicate. Betty and I rented two mountain bikes in reasonable condition
Betty rides by Rhone River in Tournon
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for 100 Francs - about $5 each for half a day. That was cheap compared to what we've paid elsewhere. When we returned the bikes a couple of hours later, we bought a souvenir bike cap for me and some cycling socks for our son. Jean-Marc amazed us with his kindness by giving us a gift of two plastic water bottles imprinted with his store's logo.

We pedaled around Tournon (pop. 10,000) and saw the castle and a school for neatly dressed adolescents that was still in session. We rode down the extremely narrow and twisting streets lined with shops and along the river promenade. I happened to be wearing a yellow golf shirt that day and enjoyed telling some of our cruise-mates that I hoped to be recruited for the upcoming Tour de France. Sadly for the French team, they missed their chance and another American, Lance Armstrong, won for the third straight time.

The vineyards around Tournon have been cultivated for 2,000 years. The town carries the name of the ducal family who founded it sometime before 814. Tournon was part of the Kingdom of Burgundy and Provence before it was incorporated into the kingdom of France in 1318. Tournon's castle is perched 100 feet up on a rocky peak near the river's edge. The castle was built pre-15th Century and was much later turned into a prison that functioned until 1926. It now houses a museum, which we did not visit. We will always remember Tournon for two things. One was the great bike ride. The other was an exquisitely beautiful and delicious Rum Baba bought in a patisserie on the Town Square. The pastry was swimming in a paper container of rum, the real kind.

We sailed from Tournon about 1 p.m., headed downstream to Viviers and Provence. After an excellent lunch of fish and chips, Betty and I took the tour of the kitchen. The chef, an Austrian who previously worked seven years in Denver, has four assistants and a shiny, stainless steel, commercial kitchen with two walk-in freezers. The kitchen is below the restaurant floor so the food servers must carry the plates up and down broad, carpeted steps. I quickly learned from the beleaguered chef why the fish dishes I've had at dinner every day have been so tasteless. French law forbids the boat (and presumably other commercial restaurants) from freezing any fresh fish. So all the fish the boat buys - with the curious exception of salmon - is frozen. Typically, a week's supply of food is bought at a time and delivered to the ship in Avignon. Pre-mixed, frozen dough is among the purchases, but the ship's convection ovens bake it fresh every day. Given the supply pattern that contravenes every chef's desire to buy fresh foods every day, I think the food was remarkably good under the circumstances.

From time to time, the chef can buy certain fresh foods at other stops if supplies run low. But the menus are planned at Grand Circle's headquarters in Switzerland. It seems unfair that the reputation of the ship's chef is so dependent on the menu variety and the quality of ingredients over which has so little control. We didn't know it at the time of the tour, but the chef must have known he was in big trouble since the kitchen atmosphere during our tour seemed strained and a bit tense.

June 26, 2001, Tuesday, 6 p.m. - In Viviers

We were finishing an early dinner when we docked at Viviers, just as several recreational boaters were securing their craft in a small, adjacent marina. Dining room service was terrible that evening. Our table and a couple of others didn't get served until nearly everybody else in the dining room had finished. There is a rumor afoot that a Grand Circle executive was coming in to deal with staffers who were not doing their jobs properly. Gossip and bad news travels fast on a ship and the speculation was that the chef's head might roll.

Viviers (pronounced viv-ee-yay, as in "hooray") is a medieval village that has withstood the ravages of architectural progress.The old part of the village, said to be one of the best preserved in France, rises sharply up a very steep hillside.
Viviers' hillside rooftops
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The steep grade likely made the upper town easier to defend when it was built several hundred years ago. But the difficulty of ascending the cobblestone-lined lanes caused about half our walking party of 70 to give it up before we reached the top, where fortress walls once protected a monastic order. Our guide was not aware of any attacking force successfully climbing almost straight up 200 or so feet from the side facing the river to the plateau's top and breaching the stone walls.

A spectacular view of the village's red tile roofs, the Rhone and the valley awaits those who make the climb to the summit. Also awaiting is the Cathedral of St. Vincent, which was consecrated in 1119 and still serves residents of the upper village. With dusk falling by the time we reached it, the Gothic and Romanesque building was closed. Some of the stucco-like buildings of the upper town beneath have been occupied since the 15th Century. A few sport TV satellite dishes from their rooftops. Living in those cramped, hillside quarters had no appeal to us. The steep, twisting streets built for passage in medieval times are 8 or so feet wide. The buildings are 3 and 4 stories high, contain no air conditioning and few modern conveniences. There are no gardens or even grass, only occasional window boxes of the ever-present, red geraniums. Just a view of your neighbors' gray walls and windows left open to catch a cooling breeze. The contrasts in height and the brightness of the red tile roofs made for a picturesque sight. But I thought that living there would only be a step or two above living in Folsum Prison.

The well-worn cobblestones on the steep streets must be treacherous in times of snow or ice. But the lower town, built on the river plain in more modern times, looks to be quite livable for those who like very small towns.

It was nearly dark by the time our walking party arrived back at the boat. We were asleep when the boat pulled out of Viviers at 3 a.m. and headed deeper into the heart of Provence, to Avignon.

July 27, 2001, Wednesday - In Avignon

We arrived at Avignon at breakfast time and were quickly captivated by the beauty of the place. It was one of the most important cities in Europe and seat of the Papacy for most of the 14th Century. It is now the capital of the Provence Region and is in the Vacluse District. Our clear-voiced tour director, Katell, led the crew and passengers who wanted to sing in a delightful rendition of the children's song, "Sur la Pont d'Avignon." Afterwards all passengers were presented with certificates attesting they had passed the famous, fallen-down bridge over the Rhone.

The Pont St.-Benezet was built following a heavenly vision of the shepherd Benezet in 1177 that commanded that the bridge be built across the mighty river. It had 22 graceful arches. In 1226, the bridge was destroyed - for the first time - when the army of Louis VIII attacked Avignon to oust the followers of the heretical Albigensian theology. It was subsequently rebuilt and badly damaged or destroyed several times. The bridge was reduced to its present 4 arches by severe flooding in 1669.

Avignon's main claim to fame is Le Palais Des Papes, the papal palace. It was built in stages following the acceptance by Pope Clement V of France of Philip the Fair's invitation to relocate the papal court from Rome to Avignon.
Betty at Avignon's fortified Papal Palace
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Some church scholars refer to the move as the later day "Babylonian Captivity." Avignon was the seat of Western Christianity during the stewardship of Popes Clement V (1309), Jean XXII (1316), Benoit XII (1334), Clement VI (1348), Innocent VI (1352), Urbain V (1362), Gregoire XI (1370), Clement VII (1378) and Benoit XIII (1394-1409). The last two Avignon popes served during the Grand Schism, when competing claimants to Peter's Seat were also serving in Rome. The schism ended in 1417 with the Council of Constance and universally accepted election of Martin V, who kept Rome as his headquarters. Avignon remained under papal control until 1791, when it returned to France at the time of the Revolution.

Avignon enjoyed a building spree during its eight decades of hosting nine popes and their large staffs. There was a magnificent, fortified palace built behind massive walls to protect the pope from rival factions within the church as well as France's enemies. Also, there were many structures required to support the Holy See and to provide living quarters and services for ecclesiastical officials, their servants and various hangers-on. Every cardinal rated a Cathedral. That resulted in Avignon having 14 beautiful Cathedrals - a number far beyond the one or two a city of that size would normally have.
Given the Catholic Church's moral decay of the day that led to the Reformation, it is not surprising that one then-contemporary historian called Avignon a "sewer where all the filth of the universe has gathered."

But today, Avignon is a cultural and visual delight. It was Betty's No. 1 favorite of the trip and my No. 2 (after Arles). It is famous today for its "Papalines," a confectionary delicacy made with sugar and liqueur. Wine fanciers around the world salute it for Chateuneuf-du-pape, a red wine produced from grapes grown in nearby vineyards and sold in the Palace gift shop at prices far below those in Memphis. We enjoyed walking around the Palace walls and lush gardens.
Betty by town wall at Avignon
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A self-guided, audiocassette tour was good. We saw where the Popes had hid their treasureunder large stones in the room and where they donned their papal robes. We also saw several frescoes that partly escaped the looting and rampaging of the French Revolutionaries. We were told that only two of the nine French Popes had been buried in Avignon. But the 300-year-old remains of those two were dug up and thrown into the Rhone River during the spasm of anger against the nobility that gripped France during the Revolution of the late 1700s. "Vive l'Empereur!" the same revolutionaries would shout a few years later when Napoleon assumed far greater power than the French kings ever had.

We enjoyed walking around the ancient town and admiring its old churches, convents and other structures. Avignon's town center just outside the Palace walls has a gaily-decorated carousel. Near it was a cart selling inexpensive, hand-made jewelry featuring tiny flowers of Provence encased in clear resin. Betty bought a couple of bracelets and started a small run when she showed them to our fellow passengers. We also found a tiny shop on a sidestreet that sold brightly colored fabrics of Provence (yellows, greens and blues, with the stress on sunflower yellow). The proprietor and his wife made the fabric into napkins, placemats, tableclothes, potholders, baby apparel and other useful items. Betty bought a bunch of gifts there, sent some fellow passengers to the shop and then returned later to buy more. The proprietor was so pleased with his surge in business from Betty's "PR" that he presented her with several items at no charge. Some made terrific gifts and others now grace our table.

We walked back to the ship to have lunch and to drop off our purchases. We had a delicious meal of onion soup and salad, the result of what we learned had been that morning's shakeup of the kitchen staff. The Swiss-based, corporate chef of Grand Circle was now in charge of the kitchen until a replacement for the discharged Austrian chef could be hired. There was a cheese tasting aboard ship that afternoon and later a fine meal that included steak and salmon. We again passed on the entertainment in the lounge that evening. We also missed the previous night's show by the crew that included the display by one young man of a "full Monty." During the night, the ship pulled briefly away from the quay so another riverboat could be properly berthed. The passengers on the German boat had to walk across our topside deck to get to shore, the only time we had alongside moorings. I was impressed with the German vessel's topside equipment that included exercise bicycles.

June 28, 2001, Thursday - In Arles

We were still asleep when the M/S Ravel quietly pulled away from the quay at 4:30 a.m. and headed downstream for the last stop at the town of Arles in marshy region in the South of France called The Camargue. It was amazing how silently the ship ran, with absolutely no motion. Although longer than a football field, the vessel's wake is only a fraction of the broad-shouldered wake left by commercial towboats on the Mississippi River. On the more narrow, upper reaches of the Soane River, the smallish but relentless wake created a suction effect on the shoreline, pulling the water first back then releasing it in a wave of energy that washed back ashore.

We arrived at Arles about 8 a.m. and were greeted by the Mistral, the brisk wind that blows across the Mediterranean from North Africa. The wind was stiff enough for small whitecaps to form in the broad Rhone River, probably
Lewis in Arles arena
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20-mph with higher gusts. The stone quay where we moored was close to the old Roman ruins, which are surrounded by shops that cater to tourists. A few steps away from the mooring is a city park, where retirees and other men who perhaps have the day off gather to play petanque, a French game that is played with fist-sized steel balls and is a sort of a cross between bowling and shuffleboard.

Arles was my favorite place of the trip. Indeed, its appeal for me surpassed the fascinating places we visited a decade earlier in Brittany, the Loire Valley and even Normandy and its battlefield beaches. Seven of its structures - some dating back 2,000 years - are on the UNESCO List of World Heritage Monuments. The Greeks settled Arles as early as 6 BC and under the Romans it became one of the most important settlements of Gaul, providing grain for most of the Western Empire. Julius Caesar established it in the 1st Century as a colony for former members of the Roman Legion, much like the upstream town of Vienne. Not far from Marseilles and less than 20 miles from the Mediterranean, Arles quickly became a crucial river port and shipbuilding center for the Romans. The Emperor Constantine (the first Roman emperor to embrace Christianity) built a palace in Arles; the ruins of his gigantic bathhouse still stand. For a few years at the end of the 4th Century, Arles was the capital of Gaul, Britain and Spain.

Arles has one of the largest surviving amphitheaters in France, built in 90 AD to accommodate 26,000 for gladiator fights and other spectacles. The arena is 136 meters long, 107 meters
across and 21 meters high. It is about half the size of Rome's Coliseum, which was built between 72 and 80 AD. The popularity and importance of gladiatorial combats rapidly led to the construction of other amphitheaters in population centers throughout the Western Empire. A brochure on the Arles arena says it ranks 20th in size among the Roman amphitheaters.

A Roman amphitheater is nothing more than an elaborate staging area, ingeniously designed to allow fast, safe and easy movement of both spectators and wild beasts. The one at Arles has 10 levels, linked by an elaborate system of circular galleries, stairways and horizontal passageways. Under the dirt floor of the arena were a multitude
Lewis overlooks galleries
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of walls and beams in the basement, which provided space required for the machinery and scenery used in the spectacle.

It was the site of combats paid for by rich individuals or municipal magistrates, whose careers sometimes depended on such acts of generosity. They would hire somebody like Marcus Julius Olympius, an agent for a troupe of gladiators whose funeral steele still survives in Arles. Each troupe had several categories of fighters, distinguished by their costumes and weapons. They would be as equally matched as possible and usually fight to the death. Some troupe members were criminals or captives condemned to death or hard labor; those who survived five years were released. But more often, the gladiator troupes consisted of volunteers attracted by the prize money, glory and danger. The parallels between the gladiators and their 20th Century counterparts of the boxing rings and football stadiums are frequently noted.

Following the fall of the Roman Empire, the Arles amphitheater was gradually transformed into a medieval fortress. A little town was built within its walls, including a public square in the center of the arena and a chapel that housed the relics of St. Genest, a local martyr. But starting in the neoclassical age of the 18th Century, there was a series of initiatives to do away with the encroaching housing and other buildings. By 1830, the arena was again in use - for bullfighting.

Today, restoration continues. The structure has been patched in places and bleacher-like, steel and wood seats have been installed over some of the limestone slabs where Romans once cheered. Noted bullfighters now draw the cheers and crowds to their bloody work. It is remarkable that the arena is still the site of bloodsports after 2,000 years. The dirt here has absorbed a lot of blood and the limestone has seen a lot of death. My first thought was repugnance at the "modernization" of the ancient amphitheater. But upon reflection, its present use is practical, produces revenue and probably ensures local support for preservation of the magnificent structure.

We spent more than an hour happily exploring the arena and its warren of galleries and stone chambers. Nearby are the ruins of a smaller structure that hasn't been nearly as well preserved, the Roman Theater that once seated 10,000. A single column rises above the ruins to give an idea of the grandeur the structure once held. There is a small section of modern,
Betty at Theater ruins in Arles
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bleacher seats overlooking the ancient, stone stage that points to its occasional use. Chunks of broken columns and frieze repose on the grass in ragged rows. The comfort facility on the site is a porta-potty like structure that contains the only Turkish toilet I've seen with running water. Thankfully, this was the only facility of that outmoded style I saw on this trip.

Also nearby are the ruins of Constantine's Baths. Still visible are the ends of clay pipes that once provided hot water from the basement stoves. Again and again, I marveled at how such hallmarks of a long-gone civilization have at least partly survived the ravages of man, weather and time. Equally awe-inspiring are the remarkably well preserved St. Trophime Cathedral and Cloister buildings. These stone structures were built in the 11th and 12th Centuries, blending Gothic and Romanesque architecture. Their floors are of well-worn, pavement slabs. Their walls are decorated with stained glass and huge tapestries picturing Biblical scenes. The atmosphere within is cool, dim and quiet - imparting a wonderful sense of peace and presence of God.

Behind some very old, jail-like iron bars inside the Cathedral is a collection of several dozen reliquaries. Each is about the size of a breadbox and contains one or more body parts of early Christian Saints. Among them are St. Sebastian and St. Trophime. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Sebastian is believed to have been killed about 288 BC in Rome during the persecution of Christians by the Emperor Diocletian. "According to legend, he was born in Gaul, went to Rome and joined the army of the Emperor Carinus, later becoming a captain under Diocletian. When it was discovered that he was a Christian who had converted many soldiers, Sebastian was ordered to be killed by arrows. The archers left him for dead, but a Christian widow nursed him back to health. He then presented himself before Diocletian, who condemned him to death by beating. Another pious woman, who dreamed that Sebastian told her to bury his remains near the catacombs, found his body, thrown into a sewer. His relics are believed to be in the basilica of St. Sebastiano on the Appian Way, to which many pilgrims were attracted in the Middle Ages. Sebastian's martyrdom was a favorite subject of Renaissance artists. . .the saint is usually shown as a handsome youth pierced by arrows." How some of his bones found their way to Arles - deep in the heart of his birthplace of Gaul - might be explained by further reading.

Britannica is silent on St. Trophime, but a brochure from the medieval cloister adjacent to St. Trophime Cathedral says he was the first bishop of Arles. It also says that in the 9th Century, the cult of St. Trophime blurred the bishop with the Apostle Paul's disciple of the same name. The cult promoted the belief that the saint
Reliquaries contain bones of Saints
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was close to Christ and evangelized Provence and he replaced St. Steven as the protector of Arles in the 12th Century. While the relics of both Trophime and Sebastian are on display, the setting is a place of worship and not a museum. As the saying goes, "with faith, no explanations are necessary. Without faith, none will suffice." However, I wish I could have talked to an English-speaking Priest or other authority about the Saints and their relics.

Some of the reliquaries appear to be plated with gold and some appear to be made of bronze. Some have small windows so the faithful can see the bones within. It was creepy but very interesting to see these relics that have been kept for so many centuries, providing a once-living continuum between Christians separated by nearly 2,000 years. A guide told one tour group that in the Middle Ages, desiccated corpses of several saints that had been dead for centuries were suspended on ropes high above the alter. On special days, the corpses would be lowered for the faithful to view.

The adjacent St. Trophime Cloister claims to be one of the most beautiful in this country of beautiful cloisters. Its quiet, covered walkways are well worn and surround a volley-ball-court sized, square of manicured grass, which on the day of our visit attracted four students of college age. Dark and gloomy befitting of the age, the walkway's outboard columns of carved limestone depict half-sized, religious figures. The inboard walls are carved to depict religious scenes of both the old and new Testaments. Built to house the clerical canons/rectors of the cathedral in the 11th Century, the Cloister was intended to provide a communal life of prayer. However, there is no evidence that an appreciable number of the wealthy monks gave up their private residences in favor of dormitory-style living.

By the 12th Century, Arles had become the second largest city in Provence, with a population of 15,000-to-20,000. In theory, it was the capital of the "Kingdom of Arles" and a hotbed of building activity by the Orders of the Knights Hospitalier and the Knights Templar. But in the 13th Century, Arles began to decline in importance as the counts of Provence abandoned the city in favor of Aix. Over the next century,
Lewis in St. Trophime Cloister
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the papacy established its headquarters upstream at Avignon and the horrors of the Black Death started the disease's deadly sweep across Europe. It wasn't until 1390 that work on the Cloisters' southern and eastern galleries was complete.

Outside the entrance to the Cloisters is a sunny square that on this day served as a workplace for an artist, who painted while on his knees. His efforts provided an interesting, modern-day counterpoint to the art of the medieval and Roman builders. But while he attracted dozens of tourists to patiently stand and watch him work in the heat, my preference favored the shady cool of the Cloisters and Cathedral.

Arles was the home for a time of the great pre-impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh. A museum in his honor is near the amphitheater. The outskirts of town is the site of a bridge that formed the subject of one of his greatest paintings, "The Bridge at Arles." The hot yellows, blues and greens of the vegetation and sky of Provence are reflected in the fabrics and burned into the paintings of Van Gogh. Betty purchased some additional fabric and also a tiny, handcrafted Nativity set at a shop near the amphitheater. The inch-high, hand-painted, baked clay figurines of Joseph, Mary and Baby Jesus were made in the shop for about half of the price of similar ones sold at gift stores. Betty also bought neckties for me and our son, Casey, that were patterned after Van Gogh's "Starry Night."

After we had pretty well covered the main shopping areas and explored the Roman structures of Arles, we headed back to the boat after a long day in the hot sun and wind of Provence. But we noticed that the tour staff was serving an awful-tasting French drink called "pastis" and teaching some of the passengers how to play petanque at the park near the ship. I couldn't resist learning to play the game of skill. Tour director Gerard of Belgium explained how the game is played with three, fist-sized, steel balls. The idea is to get your ball closer to the "pig" (a plastic or rubber ball the size of a golf ball that is tossed 6-to-10 meters away from the players' throwing line) than the ball of your opponent. It's OK to toss your heavy ball at your opponent's ball to knock it away. In individual play, the first to reach 13 points win. It's more complicated with team play.

With a full day of riding on a bus facing us, we retired soon after a good dinner. We were sorry that the cruise portion of our trip had come to end. It was a great ride and we had a wonderful time, learned a lot and had some terrific experiences.

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