Saturday in Avignon
We did not start our adventures until 9:30 am, at which time Dominique gave us our “whisperers,” which is what she calls the receivers we used in the previous tour. I think that’s pretty charming.
We loaded onto a bus that could carry 50 people- with the smallest amount of leg room – comparable to uncomfortable airplane seats. At least we could spread out and each get a window if we wanted.
As we drove, we saw hundreds of olive trees as well as what looked like silvery leafed aspens.
We drove to Arles, where hundreds (possibly many many more) people were there to celebrate the Feria du Riz Festival with music and children baiting small bulls whose horns were corked so no one got hurt. The music that we heard was Spanish, we saw enormous pans of paella being cooked on the street, and the weekly huge Provencal market.
Arles is a city at the mouth of the Rhône River in the Provence region of southern France. It was first settled in the 7th century BC, as Thêlinê, by the Greek colonists who had founded Marseilles. Arles later became a provincial capital of ancient Rome, so there are many remains from that era, including Arles Amphitheatre. There are very ancient buildings with ornate carvings and statues, including at least two magnificent churches.
Arles is famed for inspiring the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, who was there for 15 months in the late 1800’s. During that time, he produced more than 600 paintings portraying the town. We saw the café that Van Gogh painted, as well as where the yellow house where he lived used to be…
Dominique explained that the only marshy area in France is in Provence, which is where rice is grown. This Saturday was the first of two days of a celebration of the rice harvest.
There is a strong Spanish influence, since Provence is close to the Spanish border. Not only is paella a local dish, they also have Spanish bullfights in the Roman arena. In these bullfights, the bull is killed. In the more gentle bullfights, men and children get in an enclosed run and wave at small bulls whose horns are corked. In these bullfights, the bulls are the stars and are not harmed.
Then we were given two hours to enjoy walking through the ancient city and the market. This market was enormous (for those of you in Madison, Wisconsin, it took up a good half of the Capitol Square). We only saw less than a quarter of the market, where vendors sell clothing (light cotton from Italy that feels and looks like rayon), soaps, mattresses (!), colorful woven baskets, lavender (this is the place where much lavender is grown)- and then lots of different spices, olives, sausages, nougats, bakery goods, cooked meats and raw meats for sale, flowers, all sorts of vegetables, jams, tapenades- it was overwhelming.
One of our number needed a skirt and found one, we tasted different nougats (and purchased some from a charming young woman who was selling 3 + 1 and wanted to know how to say that in English: buy three and get one free). I’ve never had nougat before and it was delicious- particularly one studded with different kinds of nuts. Yum!
We found a lovely shop that sold rice and lavender products: soap, cookies, chocolate, sachets, loose lavender, jams- anything you can imagine that could possibly have lavender in it.
It was in the mid 90’s with comparable humidity, but sunny with an infrequent breeze. We have at least four people with leg or foot problems, one frail but feisty woman who seems to have come with a younger neighbor who holds her arm as she walks- a very differently abled group than our 14 in the earlier tour. The Paris five (as we call ourselves) are amazed and somewhat disheartened at the pace- and also the group leader.
This is a very different tour than I experienced in the northern France tour. The pace is very slow and Dominique shares very little information or history of the city. Later, we five determined that Dominique’s role was simply as a group leader, responsible for keeping us organized and getting us to predetermined locations. “Experts” will give us information when we go to museums or historic buildings.
Caroline really spoiled us for any other guide, because she served as group leader, tour guide and expert.
I have to admit that when I signed up for these tours, I fully expected a leisurely time seeing sights and having some small explanations about them- which is exactly what this southern France tour appears to be. The northern France tour was almost over rich with history, details, information, and moved at a very fast clip. Having experienced that, I now long for much more information and history- which we haven’t received so far.
We had lunch near the Rhone river (just not in sight of it). Again, it was very drawn out- a good two hours and definitely not my favorite meal. It began with two large chunks of different types of Feta cheese (I don’t eat cheese), and olive tamponade (a Provençal dish consisting of puréed or finely chopped olives, capers, and olive oil)- which I didn’t like, and six leaves of Romaine with dressing. I ate the last. Our lunch was rice and some white fish covered with some cream sauce. Since I generally eat fish with my lemon, this was just all right. Oh, and 6 green beans.
Dessert was some white fluffy ice cream with some caramel and a small slice of what I think was gingerbread (definitely not the quality that my son Seth makes). Ho hum.
But the conversation with the couple across from me was lovely. Everyone has incredible stories and enormous amounts of travel under their belts. It’s fun to learn about their lives and their travel experiences. For example, this couple attends college courses only for seniors (meeting 2 hours a week for 10 weeks on every topic imaginable). I wasn’t aware that this even existed. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the name of the college. I’ll have to ask them about it again.
Also, so far everyone I’ve met shares my political views (terror and disbelief about Trump) so that makes it pretty copacetic.
And please don’t worry that I’m not getting fed, because food is plentiful and, with few exceptions such as this lunch, excellent.
After lunch we got back on the bus to drive to the Pont du Gard, where an ancient three-tiered Roman aqueduct spans the Gardon river. The aqueduct was built over 2000 years ago, in 19 BC, by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, the son-in-law of Augustus. Two tiers still stand.
The intrepid five climbed the many stairs to what we thought would bring us to the first tier of the aqueduct- where we expected that we could walk on it. It was disappointing to do all that work only to discover that access to the aqueduct was locked.
We also went into a museum about how the aqueduct piped water into Nimes, providing over 30,000 m³ of water each day to supply its population with baths, public fountains and other aquatic features. These are shown in several vivid reproductions.
The Romans used pressurized water that went into wooden and lead pipes. The museum shows all of the brilliant engineering and construction used to create and maintain the aqueduct.
Finally, back to Avignon, where the intrepid five (I invited Mary but she was exhausted) went back into the old city to buy something for dinner. We brought it back (sandwich for me, bread, cheese and wine for the others) and had a lovely impromptu picnic in Joan’s room. There was a lot of stimulating conversation, because LaDonna is very knowledgeable about politics, French government, Native Americans, Mormons, etc.- and Joan added her knowledge as well.
They met working with the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, whose mission is “to advance and share knowledge of the human experience through archaeological research, education programs, and partnerships with American Indians.” http://www.crowcanyon.org
Tomorrow we don’t begin until 10:30!!! When we asked why so very late, Dominique explained that we could only get a reservation with a guide to take us through the Palace of the Popes for 11:30.