A Travellerspoint blog


The Visit to Avignon

Okay, not the summer in Provence, but most of a week

Avignon, Provence (south of France)--Monday- Thursday

On Monday, the weather was warm and sunny, so I wandered about. I had my map in hand, and enjoyed walking through all the small side streets; there seems to have been a surprise around every corner.

On the advice of the hotel, I had lunch on a plaza away from the touristy centre, and enjoyed fish and rice in the warm sunny air.

In the afternoon, I took the week’s only English language walking tour sponsored by the Tourism Board. Our guide spoke English, but with such a heavy French accent it was difficult at times to understand her.

She helped us to understand the difference between the mediaeval and the 18th century age of the Republic, simply by looking at the architecture. Essentially, Avignon was the home of the Papacy for 100 years (in the 1300s). But when the Popes returned to Italy, Avignon remained a Papal state, and not part of the kingdom of France at all.

With the French revolution, most of the Church’s holdings were confiscated, and much of the medieval buildings destroyed. It out with the old and in with the new, French Republic style.

What was preserved was the magnificent Palace of the Popes; built when popes and cardinals needed new buildings, residences and chapels. Bringing the Papacy to Avignon was an economic engine to construction, arts and textiles. When the Papacy returned to Rome, Avignon’s prominence remained.

Tuesday, mailed home package of Starbucks mugs, trinkets and my last very warm turtleneck sweater (don’t think I’ll need that anymore).

It was rainy and cool, but little wind. Again I walked the city, this time following several self guided walking tours. I toured the museum home of Doucat, a French collector who had several impressionist paintings. There was an opera playing that night, and I obtained tickets: Romeo & Juliet, sung in French, of course.

When the rain subsided, I toured the famous half bridge, and treated myself to a sorbet as I walked. When the rain started once more, I went to Notre Dame Cathedral adjacent to the Palace of the Popes. As I walked into the dark, gothic Church, I noticed a vested priest; so I followed him into a small chapel. On the Altar was the Blessed Sacrament, exposed in the Monstrance, with lit candles: it was time for Vespers. I stayed and could follow along the format, but was hopeless with the language. I hummed the tunes and chants, and at the conclusion the priest gave us Benediction. There were two youngish (mid-30s) nuns, but the rest of the congregation were men.

Though it was closing, one of the nuns from Vespers recognised me and let me into the Chapel of Pope John XXII. There I saw some stunning vestments and a beautiful private chapel. It seemed a perfect ending to the day, and I went outside to the rain and a deserted square; deserted that is, but for a young German guitarist singing his heart out in English in the rain. He was quite good, so I bought his CD; a much smarter way to support one’s self than people tossing you pennies.

This was my van guided tour group to see the sights and monuments around Provence. Imagine when my guide, David, showed up in a Mercedes-Benz with two very nice Korean ladies in the back seat. I asked him if he was taking us to the tour bus, and he replied he was the four bus! Well, okay then! I could seriously get used to this; everyone else was on the van.

Our first stop was to the Roman Aqueduct, Pont du Gard, constructed in about 100BC, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Besides being beautifully constructed, it was extremely functional and well engineered. Rome wanted the native people to see their engineering prowess, to intimidate them; it still works today. When the Roman troops left, the barbarians came and the Dark Ages swept over, it would be over 1,000 before the engineering skills were regained to build something similar.

Of course, in the Rhône Valley, Rome left but the troops did not. This area was an area that retired soldiers (after 20 years of bearing arms for Rome) were given their pension and a plot of land. This is what Trip Advisor had to say about it:

David then took us to Sainte Remi, a small village where Vincent Van Gogh spent several years painting. It was at this point that he realised that he health was not good, and committed himself to an asylum (he suffered from manic-depression and epilepsy). Because he had committed himself voluntarily, he was allowed to go out during the day, and he did so. We passed through the olive grove where he painted several of his works.

Sainte Remi is also famous for their market on Wednesdays, and we browsed through the stalls, sampling olive oil, breads, etc. One of the ladies bought a whole quart of strawberries, and continued to share all day long. I love Provence strawberries!

We also walked past a house where the Marquis de Sade lived during his bouts of escape from the Paris prison, and then past where Nostradamus lived in the Jewish Quarter. Oddly, in his lifetime, he was best known as the personal physician to King Louis XVI; whereas we know him best today because of his late life dabbling in astronomy.

Then it was to a Chateau des Baux, a fortress city on a hill, which for centuries dominated the area. Once you see the photographs, you’ll understand why it was impregnable until modern warfare in the 16th century enabled a successful siege against it. It was an area of mining: first for limestone, then for baxault (sp) (used in making aluminum), and now for tourists. One of the highlights was the chapel hewn into the rock.

Arles was next, an ancient city which had the foresight to back Julius Caesar against General Pompey. Caesar won, of course, and Arles became a major Roman hub, eventually having a coliseum, a forum, the largest baths in Gaul and a hippodrome for racing chariots. We saw the Yellow Cafe which Van Gogh painted, along with several other of his sites. Arles is where Van Gogh first settled, but was chased out, due to his cantankerous nature.

As David drove, I asked how this former Australian had ended up in Provence, France. As it turns out, he has lived all over, including 3 years in San Francisco. He trained in wines, becoming a sommelier. But though a highly skilled profession in a nation passionate about wine, he moved on to being a tour guide, as this is what pays the rent.

He also likes the ideals of the French revolution of equality; where no one is too rich and no one is too poor. It was fascinating to hear the perspective of someone not French in origin, but who chose to live here, and who embraces both the ideals and culture of France.

Finally, it was back to the Avignon area, where we went to a chocolate factory, and engaged in pairing chocolate with wine; a perfect ending to the day!

Ciao, Provence!

Posted by stbrides 07:21 Archived in France Comments (0)

From Paris to Bayeaux, Normandy

Friday through Sunday--D-Day Beaches


From Paris to Bayeaux, Normandy: Friday through Sunday
Friday: I had a noonish train, so rose early, packed and had my breakfast. I stored my bags, and walked the two blocks to the Louvre for one final visit. My Fast Pass got me right in about the time they openned. I’ve already posted some of the pictures on Facebook.

Upon exit, I came upon the underground shopping mall, and found a Starbucks where I could not resist the temptation to purchase a Paris City Mug for me and Erin (our Starbucks aficionado secretary/nurse with her own growing collection of City Mugs). They had a Post Office and an Apple Store; both of which I visited.

Soon, far sooner than I had wished, it was time to collect my bags and get to the Station. I took the train to Bayeaux in Normandy, which was about 2 hours away. For this part of the journey, I was in Second Class, and they had these little compartments instead of a central aisle; I think it was an old coach.

At Bayeaux, I shared a cab with another American couple. Normandy is crawling with visiting Americans, and everywhere one sees waving American flags. Regardless of what you may have heard, in Normandy, the French love Americans, Brits and Canadians; but especially Americans. There are American flags everywhere; I sensed that this was not merely the Tourism Office dictating this, but was a heart-felt sentiment on the part of people. They have not forgotten what the Allied Forces did for them nearly 60 years ago.

I was told that after the landings and the war, the area returned to being a sleepy farming community. Then about 15 years after the war, Americans, Brits and Canadians began returning. This is understandable, for after the horrors that one can experience in war, it takes quite some time for one to revisit the site of painful memories. My father’s sentiments perhaps echo that of so many of the Greatest Generation when he said in response to my questioning: Son, I’ve spent most of my life since then trying to forget what I experienced; why would you wish me to dredge it all up now?

But now, we flock to Normandy; even we who were not there on D-Day.

I checked into the Hotel Churchill, which is a small, tidy 3 star hotel in the heart of town, and where sister Debbie and hubby Steve stayed last summer. It was cold, windy and rainy. The rain came down in earnest, so I found an English pub with American and Union Jacks flying, and took shelter and slaked my thirst.

The rain subsiding, I found the Bayeaux Tapestry, a World UNESCO Site, and took the tour. This is a 70 meter long tapestry from the 12th (I think) century, telling the story in 58 panels of the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The craftsmanship was amazing, but the history even more so. This was told from the point of view of William the Conqueror; of how King Edward sent Prince Harold over to convey to William of Normandy (nicknamed ‘the Bastard’) that he was to be King of England upon Edward’s death. Harold did so, got captured, swore an oath of loyalty to William, then returned to England, where he promptly had himself crowned as King of England.

William would not settle for this, of course, so mounted an army to unseat the Usurper Harold. It was all settled in 1066, when Harold was defeated at the Battle of Hastings. And so William the Bastard became William the Conqueror.

For some reason, this simple transformation of nomenclature made me ponder on the difference between the circumstances of one’s birth, and the life we make of what we’ve been given to work with. How many people with fine pedigrees waste their lives? How many of ignominious or difficult beginnings go on to transform one’s life, legacy and perhaps even the world?

The Cathedral was right there, and I made a tour through. Of course, it’s called Notre Dame, as France at this time had a great devotion to Our Lady. This was a late Norman/early Gothic church. Touching was the side Chapel devoted to all those who lost their lives at the D-Day landings. As I finished my tour, the organist started rehearsing; a perfect close to my time.

After lighting a candle for all in my Parish and family and friends, I went to dinner.

Dinner was a simple yet elegant restaurant minutes from the hotel; I had the Salade Normandie, Fish from the Pot (a fish stew made of shrimp, white fish, salmon and veggies) finished off with a slice of chocolate cake; yes, I treated myself!

Then it was home to the Churchill to settle in and get ready for the next day.

Saturday: Today was the reason I had come to Bayeaux, Normandy: to take the tour of the D-Day invasion. After what we would call a continental breakfast, I went to meet the tour, which departed at 0815. We were on a bus with about 14 of us, and our tour guide/driver was a retired French Marine. I fell in with a young American who turned out to be a US Army doctor, stationed in Washington, but TAD to Landstuhl, Germany for a month. Phil was good company as we treked over the sights, and spoke of our own experiences. Of course, the most sombre aspect of the tour was the American Cemetery, which is painstakingly maintained even to this day. We both agreed that this was a very good use of our tax dollars. In the Chapel, which is at the heart of the Cemetery, I paused for prayer: the Lord’s Prayer, three Hail Mary’s and a blessing upon the dead. Both Christian and Jewish symbols were present, and the Christian inscription was from the Book of Common Prayer.

The movie references were The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan. I was pleased to know that no actual grave-sites were used in the filming, as this would have been disrespectful to the memory of the fallen. Instead, markers were set up for the movie set, and dismantled after.

This brought back memories of visiting the American Cemetery in Tunis, Tunisia, North Africa during my Kearsarge Med Cruise of 2000. It was a little green slice of America, made holy by the ultimate sacrifice of our men and women in uniform when the world was threatened by an encroaching darkness and evil.

Though unseen by most Americans, it is comforting to know that we as a nation still honour and remember their sacrifice by the continual care given to the final resting place of so many.

Though sombre and thought provoking, the day was not a dismal ending. Phil and I fell into company with about five Irishmen, who insisted on finding not only a pub, but an Irish pub at that. Soon, the close of the day was filled with Guinness, Stella Artois banter and joking. They went off to find the European football match broadcast from Wembley Stadium in England, and I went off to pack.

Sunday: I awoke early, as I had made the mistake of booking an early train to Paris. Breakfast was the usual croissant, meat and cheese, hard boiled egg and coffee. It seems not so very much by American standards, but I find it surprisingly filling and lasting.

I met a woman from Indianapolis whom I recognise from the restaurant from Friday night, and we fell into conversation. It turns out we were on the same train to Paris, so we shared a cab and were seat-mates for the journey; me saying prayers and dozing.

At Sainte Lazare station I looked for a cab to Station de Lyon, and ended up sharing a cab with a family from New Mexico. I had a layover of about 3 hours, so had lunch, listened to a new CD of choral music I had purchased at Norwich Cathedral, and read a book on the Marines in WWII Pacific.

In Paris I boarded my high speed train for Avignon, in the south of France. I love these high speed trains, whipping through the countryside; and it’s amazing how quickly the city gives way to countryside, and how much land is agricultural. I recall reading of the European Union, and France’s disagreements with it: chiefly the subsidies given to farmers, to keep the countryside agricultural and viable. I side with France on this one!

My hotel is centrally located on the Plaza, an easy walk to the pedestrian heart of the city.

Posted by stbrides 23:59 Archived in France Comments (0)

Paris--Tuesday through Thursday

London to Paris--Par le vous English?

rain 52 °F

Paris--Tuesday through Thursday

Hallo, Paris! Bonjour! Vive la France!

I was up early, had my last Full English Breakfast, then took a cab to S. Pancras International, where I caught the Eurostar (bullet train) under the English Channel to Parish. I had a full window seat, as recommended by the website: the Man in Seat 61. It was incredibly smooth and fast (speeds up to 300KPH); none of the clickety-clack or rocking back and forth.

I was in Paris in about 2 hours, 15 minutes, took a cab to my Hotel, in the 1st District, most centrally located, and a two block walk to the Louvre.

It was cold and rainy. I walked about to get myself oriented, walked along the Right Bank of the Seine River, and couldn’t believe I was in Paris. I don’t even SPEAK French; what am I doing here?

Finally, on the Eurostar, I had broken out the iPad and plugged in my earbuds to listen to some French phrases, only to discover that what I was listening to were French carols! I quickly consulted iBook’s Lonely Planet guide, which gave me some good phrases laid out phonetically (basically, forget trying to figure out how things should sound by looking at the phrase; just memorise how they are supposed to sound!). That and sister Debbie’s advice on French manners was going to have to do for this American in Paris.

This was my first time in Paris, and definitely outside my comfort zone. It’s far more comfortable to be travelling in a group (which we all do and have done), and someone else speaks the language, makes the arrangements, etc. I was deep into the solo part of sabbatical journey. I began with one of my sisters, Robin, and will end it with the company of Navy chum Kevin, sister Debbie and dear friends Fr Michael & Elizabeth Pumphrey. So, this is all balanced by companions and solo time.

But this part is the solo part. Stephen the Hermit; solo in the middle of Paris.

This makes me ponder what God has in store for me in Paris; not merely being the proverbial American in Paris (which I would listen to later in the evening). It’s not merely new experiences; as beneficial as these are for any attentive traveller.

But what will God say to me here? I’m aware that some of these questions may not reveal answers in the midst of my journeys; but only subsequently, days or weeks later. I’m finding it helpful to have a few days’ lag on the blog; not only because sometimes the day is filled with activities and shooting and then transferring photos, but because my heart and mind don’t necessarily process everything on the same day.

Though I didn’t plan it this way (remember my quote: if you want to hear God laugh, tell Him your plans?), train travel is meditative, and allows me the opportunity to think out-loud on the keyboard.

Wednesday in Paris
The day broke cool but sunny. I took the Metro to the Eiffel Tower (yes, braved the subway; out of my comfort zone again).

I hadn’t planned well enough in advance, and the Fast Pass tickets were not available. But I was determined to go all the way to the top, regardless.

Some of you will recognise my internal schedule at work here; once I have it in my mind to do something, once it is scheduled, I’m going to do it; even if it turns out to be not so good an idea after all, and I’m fully aware of it as my carefully scripted plan is unfolding. This was one of these times.

The line was daunting, but I persevered. After 1 hour and 45 minutes, I was at the first level; 30 minutes later, at the top. Of course, it was windy and cold, and I was starving for lunch along with everyone else. Still the views were spectacular. Another item on my Bucket List checked. Like Ellis Island in NYC, I’m glad I went; but I won’t go up again, no matter how many times I wonder past or raise my camera to get yet another shot of it.

I found a good way to get MY picture taken: spot a couple taking pictures of one another (always spot the guy with a big Nikon or Canon), and ask if they’d like me to shoot them together. Then I ask the guy or gal with the big camera to shoot me, which they are happy to do. It simply doesn’t work to point the camera at yourself, like you see folk doing with their iPhones.

After about half an hour, I was done.

Like I say, I’m glad I went up, but this was very touristy, and it shot a big hole in the day. I walked the entire way back to the 1st District along the Seine, coming upon the American Cathedral.

In perhaps a metaphor for the American Church in general, it was closed for prayer and meditation, but in the gymnasium below, there was a martial arts class in progress.

Along the Seine, I came upon the cleanest free public toilet in Paris. After every use, the door closes, it self flushes and disinfects itself, and the floor is washed. Naturally, I had to try this out, if only for the experience.

After a refresher break at my hotel, and with tired feet and joints that were crying out for Motrin, I went to dinner at a sidewalk cafe on the Plaza of Joan of Arc. I found a single table (they all face out to the street so you can people watch and make comments), and had a glass of wine and a quiche.

It was so calming and quintessentially Parisian that I found myself staying longer than I had planned. Finally, I looked at my watch, realised it was past 9.30PM (though still very light), and reluctantly paid my bill and returned to the room to download more photos.

Today I took a walking guided tour. Tyler, our young 20s something guide from Philadelphia, had his BA in French literature and culture, so was the perfect guide. We walked all over central Paris, and he gave us history, monument information, etc.

It was marred only by an Ugly American; basically loud, rude and arrogant (oh, and wealthy; he made sure we all knew about that). Still, even he couldn’t mar the entire tour.

I had a late lunch, my major meal of the day. It had increasingly turned cold and rainy, so I ate indoors. Of course, I had to have escargot and fillet of duck, both of which were excellent. Then it was home to pack and get an early bed; I had plans for my last morning in Paris!

Posted by stbrides 10:17 Archived in France Comments (0)

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