Chateau Brissac

We try to plan one big splurge for each of our trips. This trip we decided it was time to fulfill one item that had been on our French to-do list from the beginning: spend the night in a chateau. Through one of her innumerable sources, Anita learned of Chateau Brissac and we were able to book an overnight stay there. This chateau is sometimes called The Giant of the Loire valley, since it has a reputation as the tallest chateau in France. You can visit its website here.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by the Marquis himself, a charming man full of energy and hospitality.  He showed us to our suite and to say it was beyond our expectations would be an understatement.  The main room, a 16th-century bedchamber, covered about 600 square feet.  Our minds boggled to think of who might have slept there in its 500 year history.


Between the bedroom and the bathroom was “my” study.  This is what a computer programmer looks like hard at work in a centuries-old castle.


The home has been inhabited by the Cossé family for over 500 years.  They were highly placed in the service of the kings of France, one of them having paid the ultimate price for that in the Revolution of 1789.  But before that, Louis XIII chose this house for one of the most dramatic scenes in French history.  The full details can be found here, but for my purposes, it is enough to say that this bedroom, down the hall from ours, was the scene of the famous, but temporary, reconciliation between Louis XIII and his mother, Marie de Medici in 1620.  Bedchambers often served as the sites of official acts and ceremonies.  According to the documentation, there were eight witnesses to the event.


Besides its sumptuous interior, the chateau is an architectural joy to behold.  It started life as a fortress, and was in the process of being converted to a residential castle when work stopped for a variety of reasons.  One of the owners a few generations ago called it a “partially finished castle built on a partially destroyed fortress.”  Returning to it after dinner, we were greeted with this view:


I got up with the sun (except that it was a gorgeous overcast day with mist lying low over the park) and took a stroll around the grounds.  Looking back to the castle, you get a feel for the magnitude of the place and its tranquility.


The “back yard” of a couple of thousand acres offered strolling, fishing, and just sitting.  There is even a track for training race horses, one of the traditional family interests.


We also discovered in conversation with the marquis that he is the host of the FAI European Hot Air Balloon Competition.  We had brought as a token of friendship a book filled with photos of the annual Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta.  He was very interested in how it differed from the Brissac event, and was delighted to recognize one of “our” balloons as also being one of “his” balloons!

So why do this kind of splurge?  It seems that Walter Benjamin had the answer.  This quote is found on the trail leading away from the castle out to the park.  My translation: The true measure of life is memory.  We will remember this visit.



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.