It’s been almost three weeks and I am sorry for not posting sooner but I’ve been on vacation. I had a wonderful time visiting so many beautiful places in the south of France. These attractive sights included La moulin de Cougnaguet, Rocamadour, Les châteaux de Dordogne, Conques, Marcillac, Rodez, Sévérac-le-Château, Chaos de Montpellier-le-Vieux, La Couvertoirade, Le Cirque de Navacelles, Nîmes, Le Pont du Gard, Uzès, Le Moulin d’Alphonse Daudet, Les Baux-de-Provence, Avignon, Le Village des Bories et Gordes, Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, l‘Ardèche, Le Puy-en-Velay and Clermont-Ferrand.
Because my blog is mostly about places in Normandy, this is perhaps the only article I will post about my vacation. Although I was disappointed in Millau and Arles, there were other EXCEPTIONALLY BEAUTIFUL cities on my trip that made up for them.
The first stops on my trip were the Lot, Dordogne and Perigord departments. The Dordogne region has many of the finest castles and châteaux in France, often in spectacular locations, and frequently surrounded by carefully manicured gardens with far-reaching views over the Perigord countryside. Many of the castles date from the turbulent times of the 12th to 14th centuries and the wars between England and France such as Château de Montfort, Château des Milandes, Château de Castelnaud, Château de Beynac and finally, Château de Fénelon. Scenes from the film “Ever After” with Drew Barrymore were filmed here.
Conques was an important staging post on the pilgrim route between Le Puy-en-Velay and Saint Jacques de Compostelle, as well as being the center of the pilgrimage to Sainte Foy. Conques possessed one of the great Benedictine Abbeys in medieval Europe. Power and wealtth were thus joined with spiritual strength to create an extraordinary artistic whole : a Romanesque abbey church, superbly enhanced on the inside by Pierre Soulages’ stained glass, on the outside by the remarkably preserved Last Judgement sculpture on the tympanum containing 124 figures, by the treasury of religious gold work and by the golden statue of Sainte Foy. The whole village is set among the unspoiled countryside of the region, a shell-shaped dale, originally chosen by Dadon the Hermit when he retired from the world. Places such as this that evoke such feelings with such force are rare indeed.
In Rodez don’t forget to visit the 13th century Cathédrale Notre-Dame and its stunning bell-tower which interestingly stands apart from the cathedral. It was built on top of a solid 14th century tower and is 87 meters high. The tower comprises six tiers. The third tier, built in the 16th century, is decorated with large window openings with distinctive tracery; the fourth, octagonal in shape, has statues of the Apostles adorning the niches in between the window openings; the fifth is elaborately decorated with turrets, Flamboyant arcades and pinnacles; and on the top tier, which has a terrace with a balustrade, a dome and a lantern light, stands a statue of the Virgin Mary.
Who can forget the classic 1966 film “La grand vadrouille” with Bourvil and Louis de Funès ? Some of the most famous scenes were shot in Le Chaos de Montpellier-le-Vieux. Anyone remember the scene at La Porte de Mycène ?
This region is an extraordinary collection of rock formations, created by erosion and rainwater streaming over dolomite, which covers 300 acres of the Causse Noir. It was given its name by shepherds bringing their flocks from the Languedoc to summer pastures, who caught sight of this gigantic jumble of rocks which looked for all the world as if it were a vast ruined city. If one looks closely, some of the figures in the ancient stone look very familiar such as these:
Of course, there are many others. Tell me what you see.
Fortunately, the weather was sunny and warm the entire two weeks and the hotel facilities along the way were notable for their quality of service. While nearly every destination was simply spectacular, there were a few cities that I wouldn’t recommend to the worst of my enemies. These were of course Millau and Arles. Millau was exceptionally boring, unimpressive and very dirty. The narrow pavements were filled with litter, dog poop and drunk / homeless people roaming almost every street corner with their big dogs, liquor bottles, cigarettes, and beggar’s hats. I actually feared for my safety. I guess the only thing worth seeing there is le Viaduc de Millau, Vieux Moulin et Pont Lerouge, the belfry, a 12th century square tower topped by an octagonal 17th century tower on the place Emma Calvé, and perhaps the Place du Maréchal Foch, a square with 12th century arcades, one of which carries the inscription in old Occitanian : “Gara qué faras” or “Watch what you are doing !”
In La Couvertoirade there was a little bit of rain but it quickly cleared up as I entered through the north gateway. This tiny fortified town, with its striking military features, in the middle of the Causse du Larzac was once the property of the Knights Templars, under orders from the commandery at Ste-Eulalie-de-Cernon. The curtain wall was built in about 1439 by the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem (who took over possession of the causses on dissolution of the Order of the Templars). La Couvertoirade, like other villages on the Larzac plateau, rapidly became depopulated. By 1880, the village had only 362 inhabitants. A few craftsmen now live here doing enamel work, pottery and weaving.
Many of the doors in La Couvertoirade and other villages in the area are adorned with a curious dried plant, resembling a sunflower surrounded by ragged spiny leaves – this is the Carlina acanthifolia, a type of thistle known locally as the cardabelle. It has the characteristic of opening or closing according to the degree of humidity, making it the local equivalent of seaweed hung outside to forecast the weather.
I heard some bad things about Nîmes but I found them to be completely untrue. It was very clean, easy to explore and one of the best kept cities in France. I never once saw any dog poop, litter or grafitti on the streets. Les Arènes is still used today for corrida (a type of bull-fighting which does not require the matador to kill the bull) despite being built during the late 1st century. It is ranked ninth out of the twenty most significant amphitheatres discovered in Gaul; however, it is the best preserved of the Roman ones. It has 60 arcades and was built with hard limestone from Barutel.
The magnificent temple known as the Maison Carrée is the best preserved of the Roman temples still standing. It was built under Augustus’ (late 1st century BC) reign and was inspired by the Temple of Apollo in Rome. While I was there the entire building was undergoing a renovation which obscured the view of the porch and colonnade. Still, it was quite impressive. Inside they show a 3D film called “Heroes of Nîmes”.
At the top of Mont Cavalier, the city’s highest point, the Tour Magne is a remarkable vestige of the city defenses. It is a three storey polygonal tower standing 34 meters high with a MAGNIFICENT view over the city.
As one leaves the Tour Magne and heads downhill, one enters into the 18th century Jardin de la Fontaine with its beautiful terraced gardens, mirror pools, canals, statues and an impressive 2nd century building known as the Temple de Diane. Its true function is unknown but was most likely part of a vast architectural ensemble, still buried, made up of several different levels. It was occupied by the Benedictine nuns in the Middle Ages, who converted it into a church, and was destroyed during the Wars of Religion in 1577.
A particularly interesting part of the city is the view of the west front of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame-et-Saint-Castor, which still has a partly Romanesque frieze depicting scenes of the Old Testament.
Uzès was once a small Gallo-Roman oppidum, or administrative settlement. The town lies at the source of the Eure, from where a Roman aqueduct was built in the first century BC, to supply water to the local city of Nîmes, 25KM away. The most famous stretch of the aqueduct is the Pont du Gard, which carried fresh water over splendid arches across the river Gardon.
The 11th century Romanesque Tour Fenestrelle ("Window Tower"), with its paired windows, is probably the most famous icon of Uzès. Beside the tower is the Cathédrale Saint-Théodorit d'Uzès. Another spectacular site in Uzès is La Duché.
From the outside, the ducal palace appears as a feudal mas with buildings of various periods exemplifying the rise of the Uzès family. The enormous vaulted cellars date as far back as the 11th century !
Arles was just as bad if not worse than Millau ! I couldn’t believe that this town of three stars in the Michelin Green Guide could be filled with so much litter. There was trash EVERYWHERE. The garbage was almost knee-deep around the Arena. The famous Alychamps was closed, the price to enter Le Théâtre Antique was excessive, every footstep led to a pile of dog excrement, the map from the tourist office and the one in the Michelin Guide made no sense, and street names and historic markers were either missing or vandalized. Equally disturbing were the staggering number of people and cars that overwhelmed the narrow streets. Arles is only for people who have an interest in Vincent Van-Gogh. Other than that, it is a complete and total waste of time. Arles—an unsightly dump that I will work unceasingly to have UNESCO remove from their list of World Heritage Sites.
Although I speak poorly of Arles, here are a few shots of the few ancient buildings that I am glad that I saw. If you go, don’t miss the Théâtre Antique, Les Arènes, Palais Constantin, Espace Van Gogh and l’église St-Trophime with its beautifully carved doorway, an example of the late Provençal Romanesque style. The cloître of St-Trophime is most famous in Provence for the elegance of its decoration, particularly the magnificent corner pillars sculpted with large statues and low reliefs.
Between Arles and Les Baux-de-Provence, the admirers of Alphonse Daudet’s works can make a literary pilgrimage to his mill at Moulin de Daudet, the inspiration for his famous “Lettres de mon Moulin,” a charming and whimsical series of letters and tales from Provence.
Set atop a rocky plateau crowned with a ruined castle overlooking the plains to the south, Les Baux-de-Provence certainly deserves its reputation as one of the most picturesque French villages. The town is detached from the Alpille Mountains and has vertical ravines on either side of the plateau. A ruined castle and ancient houses make up a spectacular site. It was nice to relax for a little bit in the Place St-Vincent and watch all of the tourists. Thank goodness I didn’t visit during the high season !
In many ways, Avignon is the heartbeat of Provence, the center of the region’s religious, art and cultural history. On the borders of three departments (Bouches-du-Rhône, Gard and Vaucluse), Avignon stretches in all its beauty along the banks of the River Rhône. Bell towers emerge from a mass of pink roofs and the city is surrounded by ramparts, dominated by the Rocher des Doms, the majestic Cathédrale Notre-Dame des Doms and the Palais des Papes. The palace is immense and from the outside has the appearance of a citadel built straight out of rock. Its walls, flanked by ten large square towers, some more than 50 meters high, are buttressed by huge depressed arches holding up the machicolations. Don’t forget to climb the Rocher des Doms and visit the lovely garden with views toward Villeneuve-lès-Avignon and the famous St-Bénézet Bridge (also known as the Pont d’Avignon).
On the other side of Avignon is Villeneuve-lès-Avignon with its Fort et Abbaye St-André. This fort includes a Benedictine Abbey, the 12th century Romanesque Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Belvézet, and the village of St-André, of which there remain but a few walls. The fort was built in the second half of the 14 century by John the Good and Charles V. The magnificent Porte Fortifiée, flanked by twin towers, is one of the finest examples of medieval fortifications to be seen. My favorite part of the abbaye was walk through the Italian-style gardens; the upper terrace offers a lovely view of Avignon, the Rhône Valley and Mont Ventoux.
Just outside of Avignon lies village of Gordes. It is pleasant to walk through this charming town along the small paved, sometimes stepped alleyways lined with gutters defined by two rows of stone – with vaulted passageways, arcades of old, tall houses and rampart ruins. The Renaissance chateau stands on the village’s highest point. The site can best be viewed from a rock platform one kilometer from the village on the Cavaillon road.
Another great attraction in the region is Le Village des Bories just outside of Gordes. It is now a museum of rural life with 20 restored bories between 200 and 500 years old, grouped around a communal bread oven. The lager bories served as dwellings while the others served as shelter for sheep, pigs and other animals.
The site of Le Puy-en-Velay is one of the most extraordinary in France. Out of a rich plain set in a depression rise enormous peaks of volcanic origin : the highest, the St-Michel rock (or Mont d’Aiguilhe) is surmounted by a Romanesque chapel, making it even higher; the largest, Corneille rock (or Mont d’Anis) is crowned by a monumental statue of the Virgin Mary. This strange and splendid vision is complemented by a visit to the Church of Notre-Dame-du-Puy, no less strange, almost oriental, which houses the Black Virgin still venerated by numerous pilgrims. The site of Le Puy seems to have been an ancient place of pagan worship but evangelized in the 3rd century. Apparitions of the Virgin Mary and miraculous cures near a dolmen capstone (since known as the "Fever Stone") encouraged the first bishops to come and settle here, probably at the end of the 5th century.
Although not the most interesting of cities, Clermont-Ferrand has some superb elements which made it quite fascinating. The city is built on a slight rise, all that remains of a volcanic cone. The old houses built of volcanic rock in the “Black Town” huddle in the shade of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l'Assomption. It is a lovely Gothic church with a somber black color due to the lava used in its construction; it is the only major cathedral built of this particular type of stone. Another church of interest is the Basilique Notre-Dame-du-Port. Founded in the 6th century by Bishop St-Avit and burned down by the Vikings, the church was rebuilt with outstanding stylistic unity in the 11th century and 12th century. The bell towers and lava, stone roof slabs that replaced the tiles are 19th century additions. The edifice is now on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Inside, lighting is used to emphasize the details on the capitals, which are among the most famous in the Auvergne.
Well, that’s all folks ! I hope you enjoy what little I have posted here from the thousand or so photos that I took while on my trip. Let me know what you think.