Subject: French travelogue 8
Day 16: Gordes - Sainte Marie de la Mer. We left Gordes at 7.00am because we had a fair distance to travel and we wanted to spend some time in Les Baux-de-Provence, as well as Pont du Guard and Tarascon. The road heading into Les Baux passed through acres and acres of olive groves and vineyards. We arrived at Les Baux at 8.00am. well ahead of schedule. We drove up to the top carpark and took some photos of the ruined chateau. We then drove out through the exit, before realising what a stupid thing we had just done. We had originally driven past the ticket office before it was manned and now we had to pay 20ff to re-enter the village. Although the sun was shining, the wind was blowing strongly and it was bitterly cold. This must be the mistral wind that I have read so much about. We returned to the car for some warmer clothing. The village of Les Baux has been officially classified as One of the most beautiful villages in France. Les Baux is a pedestrian site only, and many craft shops can be seen selling Provencal products. Although Les Baux is geared towards the tourist, do not let this deter anybody from visiting this beautiful village with its wonderfully restored buildings and historic monuments. As we entered the village we immediately encountered what I thought to be a chimney. We later found out that were in fact, two chimneys, one on top of the other and they were used for heating the chateau du Roy. The building itself has long gone. It really was a pleasure wandering through the narrow medieval streets, and taking photos of the many historical buildings. Buildings like the Manville Palace, the Church of St. Vincent with the square bell tower, the strange gothic tower adjacent to St. Vincent and many many more. I wish we had more time to spend in this village or even to stay overnight, but we haven't so we must move on. Next we proceeded through the streets, with their high sided walls, leading to the ruins of the citadel. The immense size of this place is hard to describe. Some of the castle was built into living rock. A fallen arch, crumbling steps, a deserted pigeon loft, a ruined chapel and rooms that have had their origins forgotten help stir the mind into thinking what it would have been like to live in the citadel/fortress all those years ago. Their are replicas made of a catapult, used for hurling rocks at the castle walls, a battering ram for knocking down castle gates and the much feared French catapult, the Trebuchets. All these help to create the mystique of this fantastic place. Great views of the French countryside, round Les Beaux, can be had by walking along the ancient walls. We would have loved to stay longer, and even now we will have to bypass Tarascon, but we have a fair distance to travel and a lot to see. Our next stop was the Roman bridge/aqueduct, Pont-du-Gard. When you first arrive you park in the carpark and then walk past the usual array of fast food outlets and souvenir shops and, as we did, wander down to the Gardon River where there is a firm hiring out canoes. It is turning into a very hot day and so it was very pleasant to walk along the river bed where it was a lot cooler. Round the bend in the river we got our first sight of this marvellous piece of engineering. Even from this distance the sight was awesome. Eventually we had to leave the river bed and use the well trodden path that millions of tourists before us have used. To appreciate the sheer size of the aqueduct you have to stand beneath the huge arches and look skyward. I stood and wondered how the Romans, some 2000 years ago were able to build, with the limited resources available at that time, a structure so huge and so magnificent. Heck! I think it would give our engineers something to think about today. Reaching nearly 50metres, the equal of an eighteen story building, the Pont de Gard is the largest bridge/aqueduct of Roman construction, known to man. Probably most of us know that the aqueduct is constructed using three tiers. I will include some of the dimensions of these tiers The upper tier, which supports the channel which actually carries the water to Nimes, is 275 meters long and is made up of 35 arches, each approx. 5 metres wide. The channel is covered with slabs that are 1 meter wide and nearly 4 metres in length. The middle tier is 243 meters long, made up of 11 arches, ranging in width from approx. 16 metres to 20 metres. The bottom tier which is 143 meters in length, is made up of 6 arches, the widest of which is 25 metres, spans the Gardon river. I hope I didn't bore you but I hope it gives some idea about its size. Another thing that I have problems comprehending, is the obstacles that the Romans must have encountered when building the aqueduct. For instance they must have tunneled through mountains, filled in ditches and bridged valleys. One further problem which they overcame, was how to calculate the fall necessary to carry the water from the Gardon river, the 50 Km's, to Nimes. My understanding is that the course that this took was by no means in a straight line. Although walking on top of the channel is not allowed we hiked up the hill and took some photos. When we first arrived we both thought, have a quick look, take a few photos and be on our way. How wrong we were, we stayed for two hours and could have stayed longer. Even with the hundreds of tourists that were there, it is still a Must See. I said earlier that we wouldn't be stopping at Tarascon but in fact we did, only to take some photographs of the 15th century fortress, Chateau-de-Tarascon. At this stage we had to deviate from our usual way of travelling on smaller scenic roads and use the motorway. We were well behind time and we had to try and catch up. We had still quite aways to go before we arrived at Sainte Maries. Our next stop was the 13th century walled village of Aigues-Mortes. Unfortunately I don't think we did justice to this wonderful town as we were hot and tired and footsore. Aigues-Mortes, translated to English means Dead Waters I am not too sure why the town got this name, maybe because of the salt marsh on which it was built. Aigues-Mortes was founded by Louis 14th in 1241 and became a very important town serving as a port for the lucrative Mediterranean trade. The construction of the walls began in 1266 and work took approx. forty years to complete.By the time that the walls were completed the population had risen to 15,000, compared to under 3,000 that it is today. Around the perimeter of these walls there are ten gates and five towers built into the wall. The walls themselves are some 11 meters in height and 2.5 metres thick. One of the towers that was originally set apart from the walls was the beautiful and majestic Constance Tower. This tower which was completed in 1248, is an enormous, round structure, some 30 metres in height and a 6 metres in width. The tower is made up of several levels and they can be reached by a spiral staircase built within the walls. On the top of this tower there is sort of a lighthouse, but this was there not to warn ships of any danger, but to make sure that the passing vessels paid their taxes. We climbed to the top of this tower and took some great photos looking out over the salt marshes, the walls and back over the township. We walked along the ramparts and got as far as the first tower and could not go any farther as the door was locked. Apparently it was possible once, to walk the 1700 metres right the way around the walls. We were disappointed but we could do nothing about it. In the 15th century the importance of Aigues-Mortes as a port started to wane, due to the water-ways silting up, and in 1481, Marseille became the principal port. Today I believe that Aigues-Mortes is five Km's from the sea. We went for a walk through the town, window shopping but not buying and ended up at St. Louis Square. This is a pretty, sunny little square where you can have something to eat and drink under brightly coloured canvas awnings. There is a large statute of the Louis 14th. Adjacent to the square is Our Lady of the Sands church. The church can be visited but we chose not to. Also on the square is the 17th century Hotel de Ville. It was, by now getting quite late in the afternoon and we still had some distance to travel before we reached Sainte Maries. As we drove towards Sainte Maries we passed a lot of ranches, (called manades) with stables of white horses, born and bred in the salt marshlands. Although we didn't try this, there are horse safaris into the Camargue. The Camargue is a large area of salt marshland where many species of fauna (egrets, pink flamingoes and ibises)and flora (tamarisk and narcissi) abound. The safari operators, both horse and four wheel drive, have to be so careful not to upset the balance of nature. It would be so easy to spoil the natural beauty of this area, as has happened in other places round the globe. Tradition plays a big part in this region. There are still cowboys, (guardians) skilled horsemen and equally skilled with a rope, who traditionally live in thatched huts (cabanes). We entered Sainte Maries, and drove past the boat marina, the beach and the arena. The arena is where, on special occasions, they arrange bull fights. I understand that in Sainte Maries, the bull is allowed to live. I thought that I had planned everything down to the last detail, but in this town I forgot one important detail, where is the hotel situated. I knew that the hotel was not too far from the waterfront, so we drove around for a while. Rachel eventually spotted some directions on the side of a building. The hotel was a 2 star establishment, the room was small, clean, neat and tidy. Breakfast was the only meal provided, at a cost of 30ff. the staff spoke some English, but they were neither friendly nor helpful. The tariff was 300ff per room per night. There was no secure car park but free parking was available next door. Except for the attitude of the desk staff I consider the hotel good value for money. Hotel Lou Marques, rue du Vibre, Ste Maries-de-la-Mer. Phone: 0033 4 90978289 Fax: 0033 4 90977224 At 7.30pm walked down to waterfront looking for a nice quiet place for dinner. The place we chose was quiet alright, but the meals left a little to be desired. The morning dawned with dark threatening skies and very windy. Had some breakfast and headed on down to the waterfront. The wind was not only blowing sand into our faces, it was also whipping the sea into a frenzy, sending huge breakers crashing onto the shore. It was most uncomfortable and not at all a pleasant experience. Their were a few companies that operated 4 wheel drive safaris into the heart of the Camargue, thought it looked like a good idea and booked two places at a cost of 300ff. We had over a half hour to kill so we did some window shopping at a interesting out door centre. Promised ourselves to come back and have a look after the safari. We set off in a four wheel drive, short wheel base Landrover. There were six of us and a big Golden Labrador dog, sitting on hard wooden seats. Not the dog of course. At this point I would like to digress for a moment and talk about something that really annoyed us both. It is the way that some French people think that their dogs have more rights than humans. For example, when walking along the footpath, especially in Paris, you have to be extra careful where you step. People take their dogs on buses, trains and into restaurants. We saw one lady try to take her poodle into the Popes Palace in Avignon, even though a big notice clearly said - No Dogs Allowed. Some French people do exercise there dogs, while on a leash but a lot don't, and we saw three pets killed by cars. Don't get me wrong, I love dogs, we had one until recently, but she knew her place. As I have said before, we loved virtually everything we saw and did whilst in France, but this was the exception. All I will say about this Golden Labrador, it made the trip very uncomfortable. We set off and at first we stayed on well paved roads. We stopped at a paddock, where domestic bulls were grazing, and the driver started to explain some facts and show us some pictures. I glanced over at Rachel and I could tell she was thinking the same as I was - Is this what the safari is all about. Well anyway the second part of the drive was a lot better, we headed down some dirt roads and saw egrets and flamingoes We drove through the middle of some of the salt marshes. We drove very slowly, so not to disturb the wildlife too much. We also were shown some the old traditional farm houses on the Camargue. We even photographed some guardians (cowboys) working some cattle. The weather changed for the worse, started to rain rather heavily, but in a funny sort of way it was adding something to the safari. The landrover started to slip and slide from one side of the track to the other. It is funny, but we where enjoying ourselves, and we did not notice the uncomfortable seats, the dog lying all over our feet and getting tossed all round at the back. The driver took us back into town, passed the very end of the beach and at this stage the sky was the blackest I have ever seen any sky, thunder was booming like canon fire and lightening was snaking across the heavens. It was great. We took some wonderful photos and some extra special video footage. Was the trip worth it - YOU BET Luckily it stopped raining, for a while at least, and we went back to have a look at the shopping centre we were at earlier. It was going to rain again so we made a decision to purchase a pizza and chips(frites) and take them back to the hotel. We got caught in the wind and rain. Two baskets must have got blown off a balcony, and were bouncing down the road like tumbleweed. Made the hotel changed our clothes, settled down with a good book and devoured our junk food. A good night to stay indoors.

More later......... Richard (New Zealand)