Vacation: Day 5

This was our big road trip, my ace in the hole to convince Phil to go to southern France. Phil likes playing complicated European boardgames. On the lighter side is a tile-placing game called Carcassonne, based on a real-life walled city in France. The drive was almost 2 hours, but it was entirely on the interstates that we were pretty used to at this point. There wasn’t really a chance to get lost until we got to Carcassonne, and that was easy enough (drive towards the ancient walls). This trip also included our first stop at a French truck stop. The vending machine cappuccino was pretty good.

Here’s Phil standing in front of the city’s walls holding a game tile he brought across the Pond.
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Carcassonne is definitely a tourist town. The city is somewhat like a perpetual Renaissance fair, but set in an authentic location. It seemed like every building inside the walls housed a gift shop, restaurant or something else catering to tourists. Knowing a little about the city ahead of time, I went with two goals: 1) to find someone dressed in costume and 2) to find a copy of the board game. Check and check.

There’s a Gallo-Roman castle on one side of the city. It was updated over the centuries, especially during medieval times. It’s been used as a site for a number of movies, including “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.”

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The castle had a great audioguide done in the character of Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, the man responsible for restoring the castle more than 200 years ago. It was really amazing to explore the castle’s defenses and to learn the history of the city. Any place that has “murder holes” obviously has an interesting story behind it.

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We spent an hour or so in the castle, then went to get lunch from a sandwich shop nearby. We went back to the castle to try to find the tour of the city walls. We luckily bumped into some other Americans and found out that there was only a tour in French, so we all followed along anyway. The views of the countryside were beautiful.

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This interesting sign greeted us as we entered the rampart tour.

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The tour began to wrap up at an old arena just inside the city walls. Then we stopped outside the city’s basilica, which I was pleased to find out was founded by Dominicans.

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On the way home, we were treated with more sights of the lovely French countryside, grape vines everywhere. The castle of Carcassonne was amazing and totally worth the drive. The rampart tour was cool, but not really necessary (except to remind me again of how poor my French is, especially when it comes to ancient architectural terms). The rest of the city felt very commercial (we had the best baguettes, though, from possibly the nicest restaurateur). The drive was a little brutal. From Avignon, we drove halfway to Spain to get there! I’m so happy we went, though. One more UNESCO World Heritage Site down.

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Vacation: Day 4

On this day, we took it easy in the morning, then headed west about 30 minutes to visit the Pont du Gard.

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The site was truly stunning. The area is now somewhat like a national park in the States. It’s a beautifully preserved natural area with this stunning Roman bridge/aqueduct smack in the middle. The Romans built the Pont du Gard to carry water across the Gard river on its path from Uzes to Nimes. I read in the museum that the bridge is the tallest of any in the Roman water system. And it’s amazingly well-preserved. There’s a pedestrian bridge attached to the bottom tier that you can walk across (it’s newer than the rest of the bridge, but still a few hundred years old). The photo above was taken on the right bank after climbing up into the hills a little way.

We parked at the lot on the left bank where the visitor center is. They have cafes, gift shops, a museum and a kid’s area on that side that are kept a tasteful distance from the historical bridge. Then we tromped down the path to the river where at first you can only see the two upper tiers. That was impressive, until we got closer and were met with the full-size of the bridge. It boggled my mind to imagine people creating such a huge span two millennia ago.

We crossed the bridge to the right bank where there’s lots of hiking. You can climb the hill almost straight up so that you’re at the top of the bridge (it’s collapsed a little at the top on the other side, so the aqueduct no longer meets the left bank). Here’s Phil standing where water used to flow across the top of the bridge.

Phil at the top of the bridge on the Rive Droit

A few yards behind Phil was this very scary cave. We walked through it to my chagrin. I kept my head down and hurried through. I’m not a fan of cold, dark places that may or may not hide bats (no bats were seen).

Maybe this is how the Romans gauged the height

Hiking around the area, it was pretty common to stumble across other pieces of the aqueduct that have fallen into ruin. We climbed up on this structure that seems to be a collapsed arch.
Heather on top of ruins

The landscape of the garrigue was beautiful. The limestone deposits in the soil make for short, scrubby plants. It was amazingly lush in some areas, and then the limestone peeked through in other spots.

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We really enjoyed visiting the area. The combination of a tourist attraction plus natural surroundings made it a unique spot. The museum was extremely helpful as it was multilingual and explained in detail the history of the site (which also contains a few pre-historic caves that are still being excavated). The Romans were impressive engineers and architects! It’s amazing that this bridge has endured.

Vacation posts to resume soon

Sorry I stalled on the vacation report. We’ve been incredibly busy over here. I think our last free weekend was in April, and it doesn’t look like the next one will be until June. I expect to find some time this weekend, however, to get back to my blogging routine. A bientot!

Vacation:Days1-3

Day one: We left Houston around 1:30 p.m.
Avignon seen from Les Halles parking deck
Day two: We arrived in Paris and had to race to catch the flight to Marseille. We landed in Marseille around noon, grabbed our rental car, hightailed it to Avignon where a) we had trouble finding our apartment, b) missed our appointment with the landlord, c) had two very nice ladies in the tourist office help us by giving us a map and calling the landlord for us, then d) realized we were too tired to drive north to meet the friends we wanted to see that evening. We ate in the Place de l’Horage and then passed out.
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Day three: We toured the Palais des Papes (the Roman Catholic church was based out of Avignon for a few hundred years) and the Pont St. Benezet (of French children’s song fame, sort of like their London Bridge). Then we hopped back in the car and immediately got lost. It took about 30 minutes for us to realize we weren’t going the right direction. We had a little side jaunt through Caprentras and had to turn back to Orange, which put us off our directions. We ended up stopping in a McDonald’s parking lot – first thing we saw after giving up – and asking for help. The woman I was talking to first began explaining what to do in French then asked, “Do you speak English?” She actually showed relief when I said yes, which is when Phil noticed she was speaking Spanish to her friend. With her directions, we were able to find our destination: Chez Espinasse, aka Domaine Rouge-Bleu. I’ve read Kristin’s blog, French Word-a-Day, since I was a lonely francophile in my early days here in Houston. She inspired me to begin taking classes again (Alliance Francaise) and even to begin this blog. I was overjoyed to get to meet her. It was even more special as I’d met her husband a few weeks earlier here in Houston at a wine tasting. After much too short a visit (there are some people you know you’ll like even before meeting), we headed back to Avignon.
Palais des Papes Chapel
Pont St. Benezet
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Next installment to come! (And yes, that is the completed Auburn Camp Shirt! I wish I had it buttoned in that last photo so it wasn’t just flopping there. The buttonholes need reinforcing.)