It was a pleasant day for driving. After my stop in Arles, I was touring around the countryside in the Provence region of southern France. I had stopped for lunch at a country restaurant which I happened upon by chance. It was a Sunday and they were setting up for Sunday brunch. I sat outside on the terrace, making repeated visits to the gourmet buffet until I was stuffed. Everything was amazingly fresh and tasty.
A few kilometers down the road from the restaurant I drove under a bridge. As I came out the other side I noticed a cascade of water behind me. What was that? A car?
What is it doing there? Who parked it? Is it a joke? Vandalism?
Or is that what they use for a car wash in Provence?
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“Can you recommend a good place for dinner?” I asked Georges, the nice man behind the counter at the Hotel du Forum. I had just rolled into Arles, France after checking out the King’s second homes and managed to finally get to the hotel despite having a lot of trouble navigating through the narrow, old lanes in the heart of the ancient Roman town.
“Don’t go to any of the cafes or restaurants on the Place du Forum (the main square in town),” replied Georges. “They cater to the tourist crowd and are crowded, over-priced, and the food is not good.” Georges then gave me directions to a small street a couple of blocks away that had four small restaurants catering to the locals and the foodies in the know.
This was the kind of advice I liked to hear when traveling. Although it can be nice to sit in the main square of a European town on a spring or summer evening and people-watch, if you want good food you have to seek out other, out of the way places. I ventured in to two of the recommended restaurants during my stay in Arles, and had some of the best food I have ever had in France. It wasn’t cheap, but the freshness, preparation, and excellent taste of the food was worth the expense.
To a traveler, Arles, France is known mainly for two things: Van Gogh’s visit and the Romans.
Van Gogh moved to Arles in February 1888, hoping that the sunshine of Provence would help him feel better. Considering that he subsisted on bread and coffee, and excessive amounts of tobacco and absinthe, it’s doubtful that going to the south of France would make a difference.
Art critics contend that he painted his best work in Arles, including a famous painting called “Café Terrace at Night” of a café that he frequented. This café still stands today on the Place du Forum square, across from the Hotel du Forum where I stayed. He painted the café in a bright yellow color, although it wasn’t actually yellow at the time. Of course, today it is indeed yellow, and is called the Van Gogh café (what else?). I saw crowds of tourists stop by this café every day to hear the story of Van Gogh in Arles.
Apart from his art, Van Gogh is famous for cutting off his ear in a psychotic episode while in Arles. He had suffered from mental illness for years, possibly influenced by syphilis contracted from frequent brothel visits. What I didn’t see in Arles was the brothel where van Gogh is thought to have delivered his severed ear. Accounts differ; one says that he gave it to a prostitute to guard it for him, another that it was given to the brothel’s doorman. Either way I don’t think it was meant as a tip.
The Romans captured the town from the Phoenicians in 123 BC. Back then Arles was much closer to the sea and a canal was built to the Mediterranean Sea. For hundreds of years it was an important port and capital of the Roman Prefecture of the Gauls.
Among other things, the Romans built a theatre, a colesseum, and a bath house, the ruins of which can all be visited today. The old town is quite small and one can easily walk between the Roman sites and visit each one in an afternoon using a single museum pass. (Go here to see the ampitheater in Caesarea, Israel).
To escape the heat I went underground to experience the cryptoporticus, built in the first century BC. The cryptoporticus is a covered corridor or passageway, used as a semi-subterranean gallery whose vaulting supported portico structures aboveground. Because the subterranean parts were cooler, they were used to store perishable food and also included food stalls.
Today, the cryptoporticus is about 20 feet underground due to the building up of the town over the centuries. Some of the areas may have been used to house or confine slaves. It was kind of spooky down there, like being in an enormous cellar.
Back at the Van Gogh café on the Place du Forum to rest my feet, I had a cappuccino and ordered some soup. As I dipped my spoon into the broth, a strange object bobbed up and down in the large bowl. Is it a strangely carved potato? I don’t think so. Hey, wait!
“Garcon de cafe, il ya une oreille dans ma soupe!”
Imagine you’re the King of France. You have a nice house in Paris, although it requires a lot of upkeep. You need a place to meet up with your favorite mistress, a place where your wife can’t find you. You also need a place to hang out with the boys on the weekend and go hunting. What should you do?
The love nest for the mistress is a more urgent need than the hunting lodge, so first you dispatch your minister of extracurricular affairs to search for a suitable place. He finds a great chateau in a good location in the Loire Valley south of Paris. It’s not too far from the city, so taking the royal carriage ride for a long weekend is doable. However, it’s not so close that the wife will tag along.
The chateau the minister found is called Chenonceau. King Francis I seized it from its owners in 1535 due to unpaid debts to the French crown. After King Francis I died in 1547, his son Henry II gave the chateau as a gift to his favorite mistress, Diane de Poitiers.
The place needed some work, so Diane commissioned an architect to expand the chateau to span the River Cher. She also oversaw the planting of extensive and intricate gardens.
Unfortunately for Diane, Henry II was critically injured in a jousting tournament in 1559. His widow Catherine de Medici wouldn’t let Diane see the king, despite Henry’s repeated calls for her on his deathbed. After his death, Catherine got payback and forced Diane to trade Chenonceau for another place, probably in a lesser part of town.
Diane must have been quite a babe for her time. She was married at the age of 15 to a guy who was 54 years old. Of course, he died before her, and she became the mistress of the king when she was 35 and Henry II was only 16!
Diane was so beautiful that she was immortalized in sculpture and paintings, sometimes shown topless or completely naked. She was rumored to drink a potion containing gold in order to preserve her youthful good looks. In 2009, French scientists dug up her remains and determined that she indeed had high levels of gold in her hair. This might have killed her. There is no fountain of youth…
The hunting lodge for Francis I was built from 1519 to 1547. It was named Chambord and became the largest chateau in the Loire Valley.
Chambord was designed to look like a magnificent castle, although it was never used for actual defense. It has 440 rooms, 282 fireplaces, and 84 staircases. Imagine the size of the staff to take care of such a place! But when you’re the King of France and you need a little shack in the woods to show off to your rivals such as Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire and the King of Spain, cost is no object.
One of the architectural highlights of Chambord is the spectacular double helix, open staircase that is the centerpiece of the château. Some scholars think Leonardo Da Vinci designed the staircase.
The two helices ascend the three floors without ever meeting, illuminated from above by a light source at the highest point of the château. So if your mistress was going down the staircase, and your wife was coming up the staircase at the same time, they wouldn’t see each other! Brilliant!
King François I didn’t spend much time at Chambord, only visiting for short hunting trips. The château was not practical to live in on a longer-term basis for the King and his court. The massive rooms, open windows and high ceilings meant heating the place was impractical. Because the château was not surrounded by a village or estate, there was no immediate source of food other than game. This meant that all food had to be brought in with the hunting party, which could include as many as 2,000 people (including all of the servants and entourage members).
After Francis I died, the chateau was abandoned for a very long time, until it was used as the inspiration for the Beast’s castle in the Disney classic “Beauty and the Beast.”
After visiting the towns of Giverny, Rouen, and Honfleur I swung southwest past Caen towards the coast. I’d always wanted to visit the iconic Mont Saint-Michel. It was a little out of the way of my intended path towards the chateaux of the Loire Valley, but I figured it was worth the detour.
Mont Saint-Michel is on a tiny island one kilometer off the French coast near the town of Avranches. The island, which consists of only 247 acres and 44 permanent residents, is basically a big rock 300 meters high that is enveloped by the tide of the Atlantic Ocean twice per day. When the tide is out, the barren tidal flats spread all around the island for hundreds of meters.
The island was fortified in ancient times since it was so easy to defend due to the tides. If attackers couldn’t breach the walls at low tide, the rapidly advancing tide drowned them before they could retreat to the mainland.
A monastery was built on the rock in the eighth century and an abbey was added in the eleventh century. A small village grew up along the lower portions of the rock to provide for the pilgrims that visited in the middle ages. Later, the island was used as a prison.
Today the island is reachable by a special causeway road from the mainland to support the three million visitors who make the trek each year. After a scenic drive through the rural French coastal flat lands, I pulled my car into a large, modern parking lot. I joined the queue of mostly Japanese tourists outside the obligatory visitor’s center and waited for the bus.
After a short ride on the causeway to the end of the road, my crowd of tourists disembarked and started walking the rest of the way to the island via a sidewalk. The view of Mont St. Michel at this point was stunning. Everyone pulled out their cameras for the photo opportunity.
After taking a few snaps I continued walking. Thirty meters farther I stopped to take another photo. As I pressed the shutter and heard the camera click, something smacked me in the back of the head. Whaaccckk!!
It almost knocked me off my feet. I whirled around to see what had happened.
I had been assaulted by a Camera Nerd.
If you’ve been anywhere as a traveler you’ve seen the type. He was an American middle-aged guy with a paunch and a beard. He was dressed in tourist khaki polyester pants with eighteen pockets. He had hiking boots, a baseball cap, a fanny pack, and a cell phone in a holder on his belt. His sunglasses were on a string around his neck. His fishing vest had thirty-six pockets, most of which were empty.
But the thing that distinguishes Camera Nerd is his camera. He is of the expert opinion that bigger is better, and the biggest is the best.
This Camera Nerd had a camera as big as his head, and a telephoto zoom lens as big as a loaf of bread. Like me, he had decided to take a splendid photo of Mont Saint-Michel at just this spot. Unlike me, while he was looking through his massive telephoto lens, this dude KEPT WALKING FORWARD!
Who does that? He’s in a crowd, seriously limits his field of view, and keeps walking.
“Dude! Watch where you’re going! You just smacked me in the back of the head with your lens!’ I yelled.
“Oh, sorry.” He said and kept walking. He was already intensely focused on lining up his next shot.
I stumbled through the gates of the village and walked ever upward towards the abbey. There is only one road in the village, called Grande Rue (big street). Cafes, shops, and hotels crowd the tiny pedestrian street. The views of the surrounding tidal flats from the top of the rock are tremendous.
I decided to skip the tour of the abbey and just relax at various points along the high walls. I could see groups of people hiking across the tidal flats toward another island in the bay. I wondered when the tide would come in.
Outside the gate, I saw one of the groups come in from the flats. There were about 20 grade school age children with their teacher. All of them had walked barefoot in the mud.
The kids, and especially the young boys, had big grins on their faces as they washed their feet with a hose before piling into a couple of vans. Mud was everywhere.
That would have been my kind of school field trip.
Traveling on the French Autoroutes is similar to driving on other freeways in Europe. The roads are not as nice as the Autobahn in Germany, but better than the Autostradas in Italy. They have lots of tollbooths and the toll charges add up to a lot of baguettes. They also appear to have speed cameras, although I never noticed any on the roads.
I only know this now because I keep getting “administrative charges” showing up on my credit card account from Sixt, the car rental company I used on my France trip. Sixt charges me 18 euros every time they get notified that I did something wrong while renting their car. I’ve received four of these in the past month.
I’m slowly getting these tickets in the mail from the French road authorities. They want 45 euros for each ticket from me at first, escalating to 180 euros each over time. One of the tickets cited me for going 138 km/hr in a 130 km/hr zone. The 130 km/hr speed is the standard speed limit on the Autoroute. My excessive speed of 8 km/hr over the speed limit is approximately 5 mph.
Give me a break! This is on the freeway! Almost everyone was driving faster than me. If they send tickets to all of those drivers, think of the administrative machine and revenue generating/wealth redistribution system they have designed. Those French socialists!
I’m still struggling with my European GPS (go here for a tale of my inadvertent Swiss mountain climbing expedition in a Mini). One time my GPS sent me through the back roads of the French countryside to my next destination, instead of via the Autoroute. It was nice for a while, until I got to a road closed due to construction. I was in the middle of the back of beyond, in terms of the Loire Valley.
To recover from the closed road, the GPS sent me down one lane roads, gravel roads, and farmer’s lanes until eventually (OK, it was actually a couple of hours) I ended up back at a main road. When I looked at the map later, I could have done the whole trip on freeways. I am going to take a sledge hammer to that GPS someday.
(If you want to leave the driving to someone else, such as to and from an airport in Europe, try Blacklane Limousines).
On my way towards Normandy I stopped at a gas station to get something to drink. When I came back out to my car I saw this:
Thanks, dude. You’ve blocked me in. What were you thinking? I can’t even get my car door open!
I was getting steamed. Who parks like that? What an idiot!
I had to wait for the truck driver to come back to his (or her) vehicle. I decided to stand in the way and confront him, silently, because if he knew I was American he would probably let loose a slew of French vulgarities at me.
After ten minutes I saw a young guy in overalls come out of the store. He had a cup of coffee and a candy bar. I planted my feet and took up as much of the sidewalk as I could in front of my car, so as to partially block the path to the truck. He was looking down at his coffee as he walked, until he got a few feet from me. He noticed that I was in the way and looked up, into my eyes.
I gave him my Angry Eyes, pointedly looked at his park job, then stared back at him. I didn’t say a word.
He slightly grinned, smirked, and ducked around me without speaking. He hopped into his truck. I gave him the French single finger salute as he drove away. It made me feel better.
Back on the road. Let’s go to Mont Saint-Michel.
Travel Stories from Around the World by Steve Skabrat