Firstly thanks to all those that wrote comments on the last blog. It’s actually really good to be in this place of interest and able to write a few stories again.
Over the years Sylvia and I have travelled quite a lot and Sylvia has lived in Australia, Singapore and the US, as well as New Zealand. For me to actually sort of move to another country, apart from a year in Australia in the 70s, is a new deal. Setting up in France and not speaking the language is quite an interesting experience. In the past I’ve managed to make my way around the world by ‘pointing and paying’ but here it is a little different doing things like joining the gym, opening a bank account, finding a physiotherapist to work on my recently broken Achilles, and also last but not least at the new French lessons (poor teacher). I have found everybody so far to be really friendly and helpful even though I don’t speak the language and have to drag out my phone and use Google translate, but with a smile and a laugh we seem to be able to get there in the end.
It’s becoming pretty obvious I haven’t travelled for a while as on a number of occasions I have gone to the wrong side of the car, and on one occasion even got in and had a brief moment of ‘where did the steering wheel go?’.
Sunday 12 September 2021
It’s a sunny day as we head northeast to Avignon, about 45 mins from where we live. I noticed on the map a place called Tarascon, on the Rhone River, and we decided to take a look at it. We crossed the Rhone and drove through the town past some of the rather picturesque canals, stacked with many boats.
The road led us across the river again to the Chateau of Tarascon. More of a fort than a Chateau it was knocked up by the princes of Anjou at the start of the 15th century. Complete with a moat, thirty plus rooms, and a few battle scars from when, in 1652, Prince Fronde had a crack at it. It is apparently one of the most beautiful medieval castles in France. We took a look through – the self-guided tour was well set up, leading us through, I think, most of the rooms in the place. Although the layout was pretty much the same on each level the ceilings were often different, some stone and some wood. Some rooms had art (well I think it was art) displayed in them. Like most forts it eventually lost its importance. From the 18th century until 1926 the place was used as a prison. Eventually after climbing many stone spiral stairs we ended up on the roof, from which there are great views across the city with its huge cement works and other industry, and of course some other old fortifications.
From the roof the the spiral stairs led us down through the parts we hadn’t seen. The castle surrounds a courtyard, obviously built that way to let light in from all sides. There is also a dungeon, which we were denied access to.
From there we followed the river until we reached Avignon. First used as a fortress by the Romans in the 1st century, then then modified over the years. In the 13th century double walls were erected to protect the locals from the king of France, Louis the eighth, but in 1266 he fronted up and took over the place, filled in the moat and had a lot of the fortress pulled down. But then a few years later the people of Avignon erected new walls 30 to 40 m beyond the previous ruins. In 1309 Pope Clement V moved the papacy from Rome to Avignon and decided to extend the city walls further to protect the city from the many bands of bad buggers that roamed the Rhone valley back then. (4300m of walls still stand today). During that period the 11,000 sqm Palace for the popes was constructed, along with a cathedral next door. It is interesting that all the stone for the city and its walls came from across the river. From what I can establish there were some six Popes that lived there before the papacy returning to Rome in the 1400’s.
We parked in the underground car park and headed into the large courtyard alongside the castle, where we took a seat at one of the many restaurant tables in the square enjoying a relaxing lunch and some people watching. We saw a train coming and going pulled by a small tractor and towing carriages with tourists on board so we decided to give it a go. It turned out to be quite a good way to see the place including a commentary in a language of one’s choice on the plastic head phones, which gave a good history as it weaved its way through the narrow streets, up high from where one can see more forts on the other side of the river, eventually taking us outside the walls and past the famous Pont D’Avignon (Avignon bridge) before heading back into the fort again. After the tour we took a stroll to the city square outside the Palace D’Avignon (City Hall) before heading home having had a really interesting day out.
Tuesday September 14 2021
I had said to Sylvia when Ifirst arrived “it looks like they get some flooding around here from the size of the ditches on the road sides”. She said that they say “if it rains really heavy stay where you are as the roads can flood”.
I was about to leave the gym at Vauvert (about 15kms from home) and was chatting to someone under the canopy when heavy rain came through – as heavy as I had seen in Singapore. Within minutes there was ponding around the place then it stopped, so I headed to the car and drove down to a local restaurant, Le Cartel, with its friendly staff, which I frequent quite often.
It poured down! I sat in the car for a little while, waiting for it to ease. Lightening was hitting the lightening rods on nearby buildings as the storm got more intense. Eventually I made it into the restaurant, where the power was off but the staff were very accommodating, and I sat and waited out the storm. Part of the carpark turned into a lake; luckily I had parked on the high ground. Sirens wailed around the area as emergency services went to assist people. After a couple of hours the rain stopped, the power came back on and I had some lunch, which I thought would give the traffic a chance to clear. Apparently there had been 95mm of rain or 6 months worth in two hours. The sky cleared a bit so I decided to head home. I got a few kms down the D135, a local road, and the traffic going in my direction was stationary. After waiting a while I headed back, then north, trying to find a way through. I found a road with little traffic on and forded a few ponds to then come to a road closed sign. All the other roads were clogged with traffic so I headed back to the D135 and sat in the car with the line moving a car length every now and again probably only from people turning around and heading back. After a very long time and a bit of map study I headed back to Vauvert, through the town to some high ground. Even there the road had taken a hammering with big wash outs and in one place I had to drive along the footpath to avoid a deep pond. Avoiding obstacles and heading through a couple of small towns I eventually made it home 3 hours after leaving Vauvert. I was really lucky I had stopped at the Le Cartel as roads had turned to rivers, the local canal had overflowed and many cars were washed off the road. One still sits parked across a roadside drain.
Arriving home the house was fine apart from no power as the mains had tripped out. The local road is covered in stones washed out of the vineyards, to the point in places it looks like a truck has been up and laid shingle on top of the seal.
Friday 17 September 2021
Every year at the Nimes Arena, which was constructed by the Romans in 70 BC and is apparently the best kept of any of the Roman era arenas, they hold a bull fighting carnival over several days. This is apparently the only one left in France where they actually kill the bulls. Having seen these events dramatised in movies I thought I had better go along and see the real thing. I was lucky to get a seat in the front row. Arriving early, having walked through the carnival beginning outside the stadium, I watched the crowd filter in, people bringing cushions and drinks, and the guy next to me me lighting up a Cuban Cigar. The crowd was about 50-50 men and woman. Men walked along the lower wall carrying large trays of drinks and snacks. Sand on the arena floor was clean and the sand raked smooth with two oval white lines painted on the sand. A brass band played high up on the terraces at the east end of the arena.
Before the start time of 5.30pm the stadium was pretty full and on time a parade of all the participants (bulls excluded) takes place. Two women on horseback lead the parade, next are some solid looking horses wearing a large mustard-coloured heavy cape, then men on foot followed by a couple of two-horse teams with a swingle tree rigged up behind them.
Then the action begins: to tire the bull out matadors with pink capes set themselves up at three points around the arena behind a barrier offset from the arena wall with a gap too small for the bull to get through. The gates open at the east end of the arena and a black bull comes out of the tunnel and looks around as if to say “what are all these stupid people looking at!”. A man comes out from behind the barrier and waves his pink cape, the bull charges, the man runs back behind the barrier as the man at the next barrier runs out with his pink cape, the bull charges and so it goes on until the bull tires a bit, then the pink cape men take it in turns to play matador with the man holding the cape out and stepping aside as the bull charges.
Then out come a couple of the leather-clad horses, this time blind folded. The bull charges the horse, sometimes getting its head under the horse and lifting the front or back legs off the ground. As this is happening the rider, carrying a lance with a short spike on the end, plunges it into the back of the bull around the shoulder area. The men with the capes then run around to draw the bull away from the horse. This is repeated a few times; the horses never flinch.
Next men with no capes run across the arena to the bull and try to lunge two colourful darts complete with barbs into the back of the bull above the shoulder, jumping aside as they do it to avoid the bull’s horns. These now hang off and must be rather uncomfortable as the bull runs around being challenged by the pink capes.
The bull is now running a bit low on energy and it’s time for the matador, complete with red cape and chest puffed out, and looking like a cock strutting his stuff around the arena. He bows to the officials at the west end of the arena then tosses his hat on the ground and begins waving his cape at the bull. The bull comes in as fast as he can, head down at the red cape, the matador steps aside and struts around as the crowd cheers. After a lot of this the matador is handed a sword from the side and continues to torment the bull. Eventually as the bull charges he side steps and lunges the sword down between the bull’s shoulder-blades, I presume aiming for the heart with his fine meter-plus long sword. From what i witnessed if this is done well the bull dies pretty much straight away. If not the bull is still slowly running around being distracted by the pink capes while the matador goes to the sideline and is handed another sword. He then lunges at the bull, the sword entering the back of the neck and the bull drops like a concrete block. The crowd goes wild, people standing and cheering as the Matador takes a bow, walking around the ring; people throw him flowers and hats and various other objects. The flowers are kept and the rest are thrown back. At the same time people rush out through the tunnel with buckets, shovels and rakes collecting the bloodied sand, raking over the sand so that it’s nice and smooth for the next challenge. While this is happening the team of horses come out and attach a chain to the balls horns and drag it from the stadium quite quickly. The next challenge is underway. There were six bull fights that night with three matadors taking part. Each fight was similar to the last one and I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the bulls. It’s been a tradition in this part of the world for hundreds of years so one has to respect that as part of the local culture but I probably won’t be going back to see another bull fight any time soon. Well it was in someways quite an interesting experience.
Saturday 18 September 2021
Today was the annual grape harvest day at Royal Canin’s head office and factory. About 130 adults and 50 kids turned up to help pick the acre of grapes. The harvest was apparently smaller than usual as a frost had hit the area earlier in season. The quality was, they reckon, very good though. In less than two hours the 2.2 ton of grapes were picked and we were enjoying a BBQ and some of last years wine. It was great to meet some of the many people Sylvia works with and observe the compound next door where Royal Canin keeps some of the worlds best cared for cats and dogs. They are looked after in this compound where they are all fed with the various Royal Canin products to ensure the product is to the highest standard a pet can eat. For helping out we were given a case of wine from last year’s harvest – a nice drop it is too.
The harvest over, Sylvia and I headed to Aigues-Mortes, a walled city near the coast. In the 13th Century, King Louis IV was looking for a port to dispatch his crusades from. His son, Phillip III the Bold, built the walled city over thirty years and it still stands today. It’s a really nice place to visit with small shops, cafes and restaurants, narrow streets and few cars allowed to enter. With 1.6 km of walls overlooking the salt flats and the Mediterranean it’s a place we are sure we will visit frequently.
Sunday 19 September 2021
We took a drive to Saint Guilhem le Desert. Situated on the west side of the edge of the Herault river, a town of under 300 people. It was established as a monastery in 806 by Saint Guilhem and being an out of the way place has survived pretty much intact. It’s a rather unique little town that is built in a gully with the creek running under the houses and is full of small cave-type shops at street level with the houses on top. A town square with restaurants and good food turned out to be a great place to have lunch. It’s only a couple of hundred meters from the top to the bottom of the town but very intriguing how the buildings have almost been weaved together making it an interesting place. After lunch we followed the road up the river though the arid countryside in this part of France. There were a number of dykes along the river and even what looked like a power station.