A rest stop in Bourges

Travel can be surprising.  Like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.  Today we’ll see the first of two consecutive nights of amazement.

We had planned our trip to include a night in Brissac-Quincé, about which more tomorrow, but it’s a fairly long drive from Arles, so we decided to have a simple layover in Bourges, a city large enough to have a good supply of lodging and food, and close enough to our next destination to achieve the goal of not being exhausted arriving at either location.

We pulled up to our bed-and-breakfast in Bourges and were delighted with the “drive-up” experience:


The name derives from that of the current owners, Gilles and Sophie Oustalet.  The house was originally the home of a family who owned the factory that employed 200 workers making railroad car axles.  Those owners were justifiably proud of their enterprise, and made that clear in the stained glass windows in the stairwell:


I bet this is your first time to see stained glass windows of railroad axle parts!

The bedroom we enjoyed was spacious and comfortable.


The Oustalets are models of complete hosts, including having a wonderful garden from which come the flowers that decorate their home and some of the food we had for breakfast (six different jams, all homemade from homegrown produce).


Besides being made utterly welcome by the hosts themselves, we were also greeted by the third member of their family still living at home, Eliot.


I found Eliot to be an unusual name for a French dog and asked Gilles about it.  Gilles told me with a Gallic shrug that he couldn’t think of any other name starting with E, so Eliot it is.  That didn’t quite satisfy me so I asked why E was so important.  It seems that the French national dog registry (something like the AKC) established naming rules in the mid-20th century, requiring (or suggesting, depending on whom you ask) that all dogs born in a given year have names starting with a given letter.  So if I had been on top of my game, I’d have known immediately that Eliot is nine years old.  We had a great stay and will recommend it to anyone who asks.  But hurry–the Oustalets are ready to move on with the next phase of their life, travel, so if you’re interested in buying L’Oustal, let them know.


South of Arles

Today we headed into marshland. Before arriving in this area I had not realized that this is rice country. I grew up in rice country in southeast Texas, so on our drive from Arles to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, I had the oddest feeling of disorientation. I felt right at home, even though I knew where I was. People who haven’t experience rice country don’t know the meaning of the word “flat”.


The town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is like many seaside resorts, with vacation homes and great views of the Mediterranean.


I took advantage of the opportunity to get on top of the tallest building in the area, the local church. What I didn’t do was check the time. Do you realize how long it takes them to play the noon-time prayer when you’re standing just a few yards away from the bells?!!


But oh, the view is so worth it. I have our friend Jean-Marcel to thank for this. When he was visiting Albuquerque from Paris we asked him what not to miss, and he said the view from the top of the church was a must.


Besides the seafront property, the ornithological park is a great stop. The storks almost eat out of your hand, nesting just a few feet from the walking path.

And who doesn’t love flamingos? Okay, time for true confessions. Until I started preparing for this trip, I never thought about what the word “flamingo” would be without that “o”. Then when I saw a writeup in French about les flamants, I knew the word flamant meant “flaming” in English and how appropriate that was for flamingos. Duh.

On a nice windy day (remember the mistral discussion?), they tend to face into the wind to keep warm, so the wind blows right over their feathers. And at nap time their necks take a very characteristic curve to position their heads to rest comfortably on their backs.


But then when something happens, the guards go on full alert.


Our visit to Arles is over. We have a long drive tomorrow, so don’t expect to hear from me. We’ll be sleeping over in Bourges so as to arrive in Brissac at the earliest checkin time possible.


North of Arles

Our first stop today was at one of the most impressive of all the vestiges of the Roman empire in France (“Gaul” in ancient times), the incredible Pont du Gard. This is a section of the aqueduct that brought water to Nimes during its heyday as the epitome of the Pax Romana during the first few centuries AD. The structure is second in height, by only six feet, to only the Colosseum in Rome among remaining structures from that era.


This closeup of one of the arches shows the forward thinking of the builders. The stones that stuck out were used to support scaffolding during construction, and were left in place because they anticipated the need for maintenance.

After lunch, we headed up to Nimes. A fact little known in the US, where denim blue jeans are often believed to be the brainchild of Levi Strauss, is that denim originated in Nimes. The French phrase de Nimes means “from Nimes” and is pronounced “deneem“, with a slight accent on the second syllable.

Besides being surprised at the association with denim, I was also surprised at the association with bullfighting. One of the finest-preserved Roman arenas is still in use today as a “bull gaming” center.


Just a block away from the arena you can by your own matador outfit.


On the plaza in front of the arena is a statue of Christian Montcouquiol (Nimeño II), a beloved French matador who lost his last bullfight and died two years later, in 1991.


In the center of town is the famous “Maison Carré” (Square House), a pre-christian era house of worship built in honor of Augustus Caesar who was a major sponsor of Nimes and who helped establish it as a major center of Roman influence in ancient Gaul. The house stood near one end of the Nimes Forum, like all forums the center of intellectual and business life in Roman cities.


Tomorrow we head south to the marshes on the coast. We understand there are a few thousand flamingos expecting us, and maybe some white horses.

East of Arles

Today we took a little exploration drive east of Arles. Our first stop was Les Baux de Provence, one of France’s “perched villages”. You can see from this photo taken from across the valley how they came to be known as “perched”.


I confess that we didn’t make it all the way to that topmost fortress, having spent way too much time wandering through the little lanes like this one.


From Les Baux we continued east to Saint Remy, where we meandered the streets
for a while, discovering that the cicada is quite an object of focus in this region. It is considered the bringer of good fortune, and its summertime chirping is a source of joy to the inhabitants of the region. And all my childhood I just thought its discarded shell was good for scaring girls. This display was hanging outside a little boutique; the larges cicada on the rack is about a foot long.


We stopped at a randomly chosen cafe for an afternoon snack and I noticed the Hotel Gounod on the nearby street corner. That name means only one thing to me, since the Gounod Sanctus was probably the first piece of classical sacred music I ever heard.  But I just assumed there might be other Gounod families, maybe in the hotel business. But as it happens, this is in fact the hotel that the composer Gounod occupied when he composed his opera Mireille in 1863. At that time it was the Hotel Villa Verte, and was later renamed to capitalize on his fame. The French seem to have invented the idea of advertising the fact that “so and so slept here.”


We contined on to our final stop, Aix-En-Provence. Along the way we passed through miles of tree-lined country roads like this. In case the trees seem a little tilted, that’s not entirely camera perspective. We’re in mistral country. The mistral is a wind that must be experienced to believe. Here’s a great article about it.


In Aix, we parked and made our way through lovely clean lanes like this


to the wide boulevard Cours Mirabeau, which is home to some of the old roman fountains that Aix is famous for. Who knows how long this moss has been growing here?


Across the street from our chosen dinner spot were these two guys, holding up the balcony, but with cushioning towels on their heads.


The restaurant itself was named Les Deux Garçons (The Two Guys).  I was hoping it would be sort of an homage to their neighbors pictured above, but no.  It seems two guys bought it in 1840 and named it after themselves.  It became one of the centers for artistic and literary companionship.  Among others, the artist Paul Cezanne and the writer Emile Zola idled away many hours here, having attended school together in the neighborhood.  As Anita and I were reading the list of names of luminaries who met here, I found myself saying “I’ve read him, I’ve seen his art, I’ve heard his music, I’ve seen his films…”  And finally, after a nice squid dinner, we feasted on a hot fudge sundae.  Life is good.


Tomorrow, the tallest water pipe you ever saw and the land of bluejeans.

Market Day in Provence

We awoke this morning to weekly market day that had transformed the parking lot across the street into a riot of color and aroma. There were foods of so many sorts: sausages, olives, something we decided were “tomato hamburgers”, and handbags to carry it all home in. This happens every Saturday in Arles. We could live like that (as customers, that is!).

We went from there to the Musée Departemental Arles Antique, where we learned about this city that had been a Roman metropolis beginning before the birth of Christ. This model shows the arena and the amphitheatre, both of which are still in use today, although for different purposes. Just above the oval of the arena and the semicircle of the amphitheatre you can see the Forum. Today it is simply a town square called Place du Forum, which houses a variety of restaurants. If you choose the Tavern of the Forum and talk nicely to the right waiter, you can sit in the same seat that Rick Steves sat at. (If the name Rick Steves is new to you, just go to a good book store, find the travel section, and count the number of yellow and blue guidebooks. They’re his.) But I digress. Beyond the city center was the “cirque”, a center for racing. If you’ve seen the famous chariot race in the movie Ben Hur, you get the idea.


The museum is justifiably proud of a remarkable artifact from Roman times. A 30-meter long barge (chaland) that had been discovered at the bottom of the Rhone in 2004. It apparently sank around the beginning of the first millenium AD in the process of delivering limestone slabs. It was painstakingly recovered and preserved and has been on display since only 2017.


After an education into the very ancient, we went looking for the very modern new museum being built by LUMA, a foundation established to preserve and protect the arts in Arles. The building is designed by architect Frank Gehry (also designer of the new Louis Vuitton Foundation Museum in Paris). This photo shows it is still a work in progress, but it has made enough progress that you’ll recognize it when you come to see it for yourself.


And finally, on the way back to the apartment, we encountered a friendly game of petanque in a working-class neighborhood. Unfamiliar with petanque? It’s the French version of a hundred different versions of games with the same objective: get your ball (or horseshoe or curling stone) closer to the target than your opponent’s. The first picture shows how close you can get (the target is the small ball). The second photo shows what happens when your opponent is as good as you and goes next. The brass-colored ball has just struck the silver-colored ball after being tossed from about twenty feet away.

They were very cordial and invited me to play, but I declined, claiming my
preference for photography, not wanting to reveal my novice standing.



Alright now, study this sketch carefully because there is a quiz below it.


Quiz: Multiple choice, choose all that are valid:
Who is the first person who comes to mind on seeing this sketch:
1. Indiana Jones (AKA Harrison Ford)
2. John Wayne
3. Yours truly
4. All the above

If you chose number 4, you can claim your winnings on the way out.

The sketch was made by one of the artists at the famous Place du Tertre a couple hundred yards from the Basilica of the Sacred Heart (Sacre Coeur) on the butte of Montmartre in the north of Paris. The artist himself saw me as Indiana Jones (not the
first time for that, actually, due to the hat), and one of his colleagues saw me as John Wayne. And since beauty is in the eye of the beholder, who am I to say who is right?


Since 1772 this square has been a center of activity for visual artists. The current waiting list for rights to set up an easel is ten years long. Among well-known artists with an assocation to this square you’ll find such names as Van Gogh, Modigliani, Picasso, and Pissarro. So when you go and have your own portrait done, just imagine who your own artist might be in the future.  But follow the tips of travel experts and negotiate the fee before the sitting.

Art is omnipresent in Montmartre. Sadly, we couldn’t visit the Salvador Dali space
because it was under renovation. But on our way to lunch at our old neighborhood
restaurant next door to the apartment we lived in for four weeks in 2013, we passed one of my own favorite sculptures, Le Passe-Muraille, based on a story by Marcel Aymé about a man who could walk through walls.


The basilica was constructed just after the French-Prussian war of 1870 as an act of gratitude by the nation for divine preservation of the city. The interior is consecrated space, with no photos allowed (yeah, right, tell that to the people sneaking clandestine photos with their smartphones).


We are pleased to report that the transportation unions were true to their
promise to keep the trains running today. We had a non-eventful, restful 2
1/2 hour drive from Paris to Avignon, where we rented a car and drove to
Arles, where we will spend the next four days.

Springtime in Paris

Ah, April!  The time for love to blossom in the city of love and light.  This kind of scene repeats itself often enough to remind us why Paris is such an icon of romanticism.


The sun came out today and began to warm things up.  We were able to put the Eiffel Tower in its proper springtime context.


Okay, in the spirit of full disclosure, this tree is what is commonly referred to as an “early bloomer”.  We found about three like this.  The most common view of the Eiffel tower would look like this:


It was cold.  Everyone was bundled up, as you can see.  Maybe we’ll move Anita’s birthday before our next birthday trip.  Or take our next trip on MY birthday.

But that didn’t keep people from coming out and enjoying the sunshine.  This little tyke was celebrating his birthday with a well-stocked picnic and dedicated photographer.


One more Eiffel Tower photo before leaving Paris.  Near the Alma bridge is a replica of the flame on The Statue of Liberty, placed there to memorialize Princess Diana, who died in a car accident nearby.  And in case you’re wondering why the connection to Lady Liberty, remember that she is the work of the French Sculptor August Bartholdi.

Tomorrow we’re giving the striking transportation workers a chance to prove their worth, taking the high speed TGV train (a redundant term,  I guess, since “TGV” means “high speed train”) to Avignon, where we rent a car and drive to Arles.  Wish us luck.


Museums of Paris

The rain caught up with us today, so it was mostly an indoor day.  But if beauty is important to you, Paris isn’t a bad place to be indoors.  The only thing is, many of the indoor exhibitions are “no photos allowed” experiences.  So we’ll dance around that as much as possible.

I started my day with jet lag.  Having learned “reframing” from my life coach wife, I can tell you that jet lag has one very strong benefit–when you want to get up before dawn to take a sunrise picture, it’s no big deal because you’ve already been up for three hours anyway.  I wanted a photo of the Louvre with a glorious sunrise coming up behind it, but taking outdoor photos, one is always at the mercy of the elements.  One thing I did notice: there’s not a big crowd and precious little vehicular traffic at dawn.


Being here before spring really breaks out gives one a chance to see details not otherwise visible.  For example, if you’ve seen many photos from Paris, you may have noticed the local penchant for trimming trees in a very rectangular shape.  It’s not my intent to open a big debate over whether that’s good or bad, but I did notice the interesting multi-level structure visible when there are no leaves to get in the way.  When I turned my back on the Louvre itself, I found this:


We waited for the rest of the civilized world to wake up and went to The Petit Palais for two exhibits-The Dutch in Paris and Pastels: from Degas to Redon.  We specifically wanted to see the story of the Dutch masters in Paris because from here we go to Arles, where Vincent Van Gogh lived out his days after leaving Paris.  Alas, no photos of the exhibit, but the grounds of the Petit Palais are lovely.


The entry door to the palace is crowned by a rendering of a ship tossed on a stormy sea, with the motto of the City of Paris.  In Latin, it says Fluctuat nec Mergitur; the English translation is generally given as “Tossed by the waves but doesn’t sink.”  Remember that the next time you read about terrorist attacks or transportation strikes or populist demonstrations here.


And from the Little Palace we go to the Royal Palace (Le Palais Royal), which for some time was the official residence of the kings of France.  The original court of honor had been used as a parking lot until 1985, when a no-holds-barred artist named Daniel Buren converted it into “Les Deux Plateaux“, a multi-purpose installation that has, like much challenging art, generated more heat than light.  The palace itself now serves as the home of the State Council, established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1799 to advise the government, roughly equivalent to the National Security Council in the U.S.


According to the weather forecast, the rain has moved out for a while.  Tomorrow we intend to spend the day in our original stomping grounds, the Montmartre district.