3 Southern France (April 8 - May12, 2005)
Prehistoric Caves 2005
Tired looking Tarascon village with its variably maintained 4-story buildings made for a quiet stopover after our big climb over the Pyrenees from eastern Andorra. Our 2 night stay to visit a couple of historical sites in this French town became a 4 night layover while we waited for the outdoor archaeological park to open for the season. And it was at Taracon that the threatened storm in Andorra finally caught up with us. Shivering, we stamped our feet for hours in the just-above-freezing temperatures at the outdoor sites and pedaled through snow flurries to get around to 2 of our 4 sightseeing opportunities in the area. Yes, it was fun to watch the fluffy flakes and its always novel to ride in snow, but we'd have preferred the other extreme that spring time weather has to offer. And though strong gusts rattling window shutters woke us in the night, the predicted 75 mile hour winds didn't develop the next day, making getting around by bike possible if unpleasant.
The big draw at Tarascon was Grotte de Niaux (ngnee'-oh),
a miles-long limestone cave complex with several hundred 12-14,000 bce wall
paintings. They were quite similar to the ones we saw in the Dordogne region of
southern France last year but Niaux was one of 'the ones that got away'. And unlike last year, the tour guides at the 2 caves
we visited here gave the tours in English because despite it being the beginning
of the French spring holiday season, no French were visiting the sights
The well-done 'archeo-park' with its reconstructed Cave Niaux paintings and demonstration areas of Magdalenian Era crafts was worth the wait. We were the first 2 visitors through the door for the season and 2 of a handful of tourists out in the snow to see their displays. The high point of the chilly park visit was actually using a spear thrower to propel a wooden spear--an ancient device that extends the throwing range from about 15' to almost 100' in the hands of the skilled. The ancient spear throwers were about a foot long and technically simple, though often finely decorated.
The nearby Grotte de la Vache (vach) cave has no paintings but
is a rich archeological excavation site for ancient domestic life finds.
Thousands of animal bones discarded during meals have been unearthed, as well as some stunning
portable art. The most enchanting and surely the most photographed piece of art
discovered at the site is a lioness
engraved on a small piece of bone.
The snow storm had passed when we headed off to Mas d'Azil, the last on our short list of caves we missed in 2004 because they were too far south. Like Grotte de la Vache, we saw no paintings at Mas d'Azil, but it too is important for its portable art. The most recent era of prehistoric European art is called Azilian in honor of the symbolically painted rocks found only at Mas d'Azil. The ordinary river pebbles with dashes of red ochre didn't look like much to us, but they were sufficient reason for the archeologist's to add another item to their timeline of prehistoric art.
Each of our days in southern France were just enough different to keep us interested, with the variations coming from the terrain, the weather, and the vegetation. As we headed east towards Italy, we left the mountains behind and rode for days through rolling hills and then spent days traversing the pancake-flat lands of the Rhone River delta along the Mediterranean. The spring weather was a wildcard every day especially when the snow-dumping and river-flooding storms rolled across the continent. Once on the coast, we only caught the edges of the storms which we felt as drizzle and high winds. One memorable day the wind was precisely at our backs for the entire day's ride (a first) and we sailed into our destination town hours early. Almost all other days were filled with crosswinds and an occasional tail or head wind.
Unlike last year when finding lodging in France was a challenge almost every night, it was readily available and permitted modest riding days of 30 to 35 miles because of its predictability. On days that we battled the wind, those 30-some miles filled the entire day. On the more wind-favorable days, we had time for visiting a museum or walking through an old town in the afternoon. The tourist sights to see in this area of southern France weren't stunning, but provided regular doses of something to direct our attention: the artifacts at the prehistory and Roman history museum in Narbonne were well presented in fresh displays; we strolled through the no-charge areas of the romanticized restoration of the hilltop fort at Carcassonne; we gasped in the medieval city of Mirepoix with its block's long arcades of massive timbers that looked like they could crumble or collapse at any moment; and we were surprised to find the square walled city of Aigues-Mortes built for the sole purpose of launching a fleet for the Crusades in such a flat and difficult to defend location. (And I later read in my book on salt that Aigues-Mortes is an important production site for its new owner, Morton Salt).
We laid over in the ancient city of Arles so as to revisit their Roman history
museum. It's housed in a modern building with a relatively modest number
of finds but 2 years ago we were captivated by their large table-top models of
Roman public structures. The finely detailed wooden scale models depicted a number of
projects in Arles, like the coliseum and hippodrome and a permanent bridge using
wooden boats as pontoons.
We were especially delighted by the several models that reflected both the finished product and the building techniques used in the construction process. Much to our surprise, the model builder was as persistent as the Roman engineers and several new models had been added to the museum's collection. The additional models removed any doubts about taking the time for this second tour of their museum. And the visit allowed us to get the road directions so as to visit the only out-of-town structure, the Barbegal Mill, that we had missed in 2003.
We'd ogled the Barbegal Mill model with its series of 14 paired water wheels which produced 4.5 toms of flour per day, but this year we actually tromped around on the hillside in its ruins. When we climbed up through the rocky ruins on the steep slope we were taken aback to see a surprisingly intact aqueduct at the top. The museum model didn't include the aqueduct and we assumed the mill was fueled by water easily diverted from adjacent river. Instead, a whole separate building project channeled water to the mill and also delivered water to the city of Arles about 5 miles away. For an economy based on slave labor, this mill is a rare example of the Roman's heavily investing in a labor-saving device and is a unique find in Europe.
Our traverse of southern France from west to east was a study in transitions, especially of the vegetation. We entered the country in early April, coming down out of the snow covered Pyrenees mountains of Andorra. Below the snow line, the Pyrenees were almost entirely exposed gray rock with clumps of dull, dark green trees. The few flat patches of cultivated land were a vibrant spring-green that looked misplaced against the grayer tones of the native rock and vegetation.
East of the Pyrenees, France looked startlingly lush with its rolling hills carpeted with cereals and other early crops. The deciduous trees were still bare, fringing the fields with their almost ghostly silhouettes. In a matter of days, spring declared itself in the trees as white blooms began loading the now wild apple and cherry trees. We discovered that the fluffy, yellow-green 'blooms' on some of the trees were actually elm seeds almost completely covering the surfaces of the branches. Patches of yellow and white began appearing on the roadbed edge as dandelions and daisies emerged. I suspect the threat of frost kept the urban plantings to a minimum as multi-colored bed of pansies were about all we saw, with an occasional cluster of tulips.
As we entered the wetlands of the Rhone delta, less interesting knee-high vegetation dominated so our eyes turned to the occasional birds, especially the snowy white egrets and the rarer sighting of a heron. Unexpectedly, what looked like runaway irises appeared here and there on the banks of roadside ditches making us wonder if there had been a beautification program some years back.
We continued our meander east and as we were leaving the
delta region the vegetation again became tall. Spring was now raging: no longer was
the backdrop greens and grays with flits of yellow and white as now the whole
palette was being used. The intense purply-pink, pea-like blooms loading down
the often planted Judas trees became a new favorite. Wisteria vines were covered
with paler purple blossoms and gave off a subtle scent. And odd bits of vetch
brought the purple tones down to the grass level. And by the first of May the
burnt-orange to red poppies were ablaze in one's and two's and occasionally in
big bunches. The emerging purple thistles made a showy contrast for the
brilliant roadside poppies
As we watched the colors intensify on the trees and on the ground during April, we also noticed the grape vines slowly coming to life. Vineyards appeared almost immediately as we entered France but the 2-3' high plants looked like lifeless stubs of gnarled oak branches stuck in the ground. They were slow to perk up but as the weeks passed, bits of green fringe emerged on the tops of the stubs, then bolder pom-pom like tuffs of yellow-tinged green took hold. It wouldn't be long before the vigor of the plants would be fully evident as they became more shrouded in leaves.
Our exploration of the secret lives of trees began last
fall in the UK as we learned the names of many trees listed in our 2 new field
guides by examining needles,
fading leaves and the remnants of nuts and seeds, often on the asphalt. Bill was
a bit skeptical about our prospects for identifying trees so early in the spring, but of course
this is when prying eyes can study the sex lives of the tree world.
"Where are the boys?" was the question as soon as a new tree flower was spotted. Other times we long pondered as to whether we were seeing the male or female part of the reproductive cycle. We were stunned to discover that even in April we were too late to see the blooms of some trees that were now already sporting the maturing seeds. We were also taken aback upon learning how many of these trees flower before sending out leaves, like the colorful Judas tree and wispy Tamarisks.
We were in southern France during their extensive spring holiday, which was more of a boon than an problem, as some tourist sights and probably a few hotels reopened for the season during this holiday. We also enjoyed the inter- and intra-city bike lanes in many of the tourist areas, areas that are on the creepy side when shut-down for the winter. The French vacationers added just the right amount of festivity to the towns: enough to make them welcoming without pricing or crowding us out as has happened before.
We had a much more positive experience with the people of France in the southern most reaches of the country than we have had in most other regions. We have accumulated many months of travel in France over the last 4 years and this is the first time we have had people offer us assistance. Several times people went out of their way to approach us when we were obviously having difficulty finding our way--something we experienced in other countries but never before in France. And we had a couple dozen people stop to inquire about our adventure, both people who saw our "de Barcelona a Istanbul" sign on the back of my bike and people who didn't see it. Some who were prompted to approach us were obviously lifelong cyclists, others were merely curious. It was refreshing to have a more normal give-and-take style of interaction with the French than we have experienced elsewhere. Perhaps it is the more laid-back, Mediterranean influence that was making them more sociable. Of course, there were still a couple doing what we label as "classical French obstructionist behavior", as when only on the third trip back to the ticket counter would the museum clerk give us the map to the other 3 museums in town on the combined ticket we had purchased from her.
Intermittent bike lanes began appearing a couple day's ride west of Marseilles and picked up again outside of the city. And a little farther east we had a series of days in which many of our miles each day were spent on bike lanes or routes . However, the nature of the accommodation for bikes was highly variable. One startling bike lane that popped up out of nowhere included a delightfully isolating 4' high hedge between us and the truck route traffic. We quickly learned that beige-tinted asphalt on the road shoulder signaled the beginning of miles of bike lane whether the characteristic white painted biker symbol appeared or not. Only 1 short section was actually posted as a signed bike route and we slowly learned that the blue and white signs encouraging motorists to share the road with bikes was a 'wink-wink, it's a bike route' icon. Another disguised 'favorable to bikes' sign was one restricting motorized bikes, motorcycles and cars from the road.
Our days were filled with outdoor sights and sounds and our evenings we too full with studying French and watching TV. We had more English news in a given week than we generally have and took-in the intense coverage of the transition of the pope, the abrupt change in government in Ecuador, and concerns about government encouraged protests against Japan backfiring and leading to a revolution in China. The coverage of the change in the guard at the Vatican was endless with our most interesting bit of revealed information being that Americans bankroll the Vatican. Apparently the Vatican's finances are in shambles because of its reliance on Americans and our now severely devalued currency. Surprisingly, it isn't the philosophical rift between the Vatican and many of the US Catholics that's draining the bank but just the weak dollar.
As we watched TV at night, judged the number of blooms seen in a day as a marker for the advance of spring and kept an eye out for bike friendly roads, we also closely monitored the price of strawberries. When Spanish strawberries first appeared in France, they were running almost $4/lb. We admired them at that price but didn't buy our first box until the price dropped below $3. Then in a matter of days the price plummeted to just over a $1/lb. I carefully bypassed the treasured French strawberries that often ran $10/lb not even wanting to know if they were delectable. I was content to go for volume with the Spanish imports and trusted that would make up for any short comings in taste. Many a night we slurped our way through a pound box of fresh strawberries for dessert.
The persistently weak dollar had us watching our spending more carefully than we liked but we were pleasantly surprised by the generally lower prices for lodging in the western corner of southern France. As we got to the more heavily trafficked areas, we checked out some of the budget motel chains near the freeways that we hadn't used before.
Last year we discovered 4 different companies in France with motel-like brands covering 3 or more price-points. Then we settled on the middle range places but decided to try some of the bottom end ones this year. They often run about $40 for 1 to 3 people and are rather like being on a ship. The double bed has a bunk bed for the third person positioned across the head-end of it, making it a bit claustrophobic. The one window tends to be small; the artificial lighting is a bit spare; and you must turn sideways to walk past the bed to move from one end of the room to the other. The bathroom is almost like being in a big plastic drum stood on end and the TV never has any non-French channels. But the prices were excellent; the beds were always pleasantly firm and unlumpy; the rooms and linen were clean; the plumbing worked well; the hot water was plentiful and we could just jockey the bikes in with us. And having paid close to $100 for rooms that didn't have all of those qualities and sometimes even had toilets mounted so close to a wall or door that they had to be sat upon sideways, these budget places looked like a steal. It would be a squeeze for 3 people but that would make these quiet, well-kept rooms competitive with less reliable accommodations in youth hostels.
As we approached the French Riviera along the eastern Mediterranean, it was again time to turn our attention from the countryside sights to the offerings of well-known cities. Marseille was a pleasant city to visit, but not a 'knock your socks off' one. The charm of St Tropez that is sought after by the rich and famous is buried in the swarm of tourists on land and all but obscured by luxury class behemoths afloat in its small harbor. But Cannes and Nice got our attention.
We had ridden to Cannes expecting to follow our Lonely Planet Guidebook's people watching instructions by looking at the "human circus pass by in all of its expensively but strangely dressed, perma-tanned, face-lifted, small-yappy-type-dog-carrying glory." Instead, the lightning storm that sidelined us about 5 miles west of Cannes made us the object of people watching. We huddled under the first significant eve offering protection from the rain while the dangerous lightning passed over us during the next hour. We seemed to provide the occupants of the parade of slow moving cars winding their way down the hillside from the distant beaches with a moment's amusement in their rain-ruined afternoon as our sight provoked a grin from within almost every car. We of course felt a bit silly and like animals in a zoo, but our worse-looking plight seemed to brighten the day of many.
We weren't as pitiful as we might have looked. Unlike all other times that we have sat out a storm, this time we had radiant heat to comfort us. The warm, sunny day had nicely heated the concrete porch upon which we sat and it released its stored heat into our bottoms during the passing storm. A shared dark chocolate bar and our history books turned the unplanned stop into a reasonably pleasant afternoon break.
Cannes had the obligatory miles and miles of backed up traffic on its roads that stalled our progress too. We first encountered the pilgrimage traffic at St Tropez, another 'playground of the rich and famous' on the Riviera and had gotten bogged down in a couple of other bouts of bumper to bumper traffic. But unlike St Tropez which seemed overwhelmed and strangled by the throngs of people, Cannes itself seemed up to the tourist challenge. Little St Tropez with it's charming and equally small port was dwarfed by the several enormous luxury cruisers docked front and center. Bigger Cannes with its bigger port was ready to receive those bulky ocean going estates with ease.
In addition to being appropriately impressed by
those outrageously expensive yachts, we were also dazzled by the almost dozen
wooden catch's from the 1920's and 1930's. These grand sailing rigs had
draped over much of their varnished wood surfaces, often with only the teak
decks still exposed. We've circled around and through many Mediterranean ports
over the last 4 years and have been blown away by the billions of dollars
moored in the water but the floating assets in Cannes' harbor was definitely a
cut above anything we had seen.
The string of 5 star hotels paralleling the nearby beachfront mirrored the wealth seen in the harbor. But even the hundred-year old grand dames were disappearing behind the draping of poster-like snap-shots from films to be screened and awarded in a week's time, making their look lean towards that of Las Vegas without the neon. As in the harbor, while looking at these huge glamorous hotels we wondered how much wealth one would have to have to be comfortable spending your money on such luxuries.
The equalizer in this glamorous frontage in Cannes was the public street gardens. Between the hotels and hotel private beaches the fabulously wealthy were diluted by the street and its green spaces. The heavily used sidewalks and narrow parks kept the ordinary public like ourselves swirled in the mix. We all looked out at the same views and all jockeyed for the same public space.
The streets and sidewalks of Cannes were packed with people
at 6 pm on this midweek day in middle season. Despite the broad openness of its
main street and sidewalks, it was hard to imagine how Cannes would absorb the
influx of people for the international film festival in a week's time. Men were
working into the evening setting up lighting and temporary buildings on the
beaches, sidewalks, and front lawns of the big hotels. And it was elbow to elbow
on the parallel shopping streets that were oozing with glamour brands.
We didn't see the spectacle of wealthy patrons in our 2 hour cruise of Cannes' 'see and be seen' area. I suspect the afternoon rain had driven them inside and that they were preparing for an evening at the restaurants, bars and casinos. The crowds on the streets instead looked like tourists like ourselves. A few of the well-heeled carried designer-named shopping bags but almost all the rest looked like spectators. But amidst the opulence, Cannes had its accessible side. There were plenty of affordable and handsome sidewalk restaurants, as well as snack bars and free beaches to serve the middleclass vacationers. This city of film festival fame was unexpectedly appealing to me. They had somehow managed to pull-off a successful blend of huge, beachfront 5-star hotels and miles of boutiques befitting a capital city (which it is not) with narrow, winding cobbled hillside streets of Old World Europe to make it a pleasant and intriguing place to visit.
Convertible and exotic cars were a common sight on the roads along the French Riviera, especially those models costing more than most of us would spend on a house. Many of the 6 digit-price-tag cars had foreign plates making us wonder if the Belgium and other northern vacationers didn't keep both a house and a car in Cannes rather than putting all those extra miles on those expensive cars to drive them south several times a year.
The French Riviera is a perfect place to drive these glamorous and sporty cars as the warm, sunny weather arrives early in the season; there are lots of narrow, windy roads for those enjoying the road feel of their finely tuned machines and, for those whose pleasure with their expensive toys is intensified by having an audience, there are sidewalks packed with heads to turn.
Cars are a more familiar luxury item to us and so we were more captivated by the less familiar, 4-storied yachts with living space on 3 levels and Jacuzzi's and jet skis adorning the sterns. And grand floral arrangements for the back deck dining table seemed to be obligatory--perhaps a signal to friends that the owners are present. A couple of the yachts we saw leaving port had a half dozen 20-something crew members in matching polo shirts and shorts on deck tending to the chores associated with getting under way. Owning and operating one of these rigs was beginning to look like running a small business, not just maintaining a boat. Looking at the assortment of luxury boats made us all the more glad that we are content with fine bikes and good gear in our panniers and that we don't need to own and maintain such opulent nests.
Yes, as one French man enjoyed saying to us in English several times: "Nice is nice." Nice is a place I could easily imagine coming back to--not for any particular reason but just because it was pleasant. Considered by some to be the capital city of the Riviera, it too revolves around the ocean front. The city planners developed an extensive system of parallel beach areas, promenades, green spaces and bike lanes. Nice's hilly topography (at the foothills of the Maritime Alps) adds dramatic panoramas to the list of stroller's and pedaler's delights. We enjoyed the prehistoric, Roman, and art museums we visited as much for the walks to and from them as what we saw once there. Bustling markets, traditional narrow streets, and touristy areas all blended together to make it an easy place to be.
And those snow-capped Maritime Alps we admired from Nice were to be our next high mountain venue. But before heading into those hills, we'd be stopping over to visit the tiny country of Monaco that's carved out of a rocky bit of the French Riviera.
Where We Are Now 6/27/05
We just arrived back in northern Italy a few days ago and are now in a favorite, bike-friendly city, Bolzano or Bozen. Just as we did all last week in the Swiss Alps, we are sweating it out in the heat wave taking the temperature into the high 90's (and it's only June.) We will spend a couple of weeks here in the Dolomiti (Dolomites) and will work our way east to Cortina through the Alps passes. This area is tops on our list of favorite places to be as it offers grand panoramas day after day, the Italian summer fruit is cheap and readily available, and the Tyrolean culture is a delightful blend of Germanic orderliness and Italian cheer.