Pont du Gard

Pont du Gard

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Ash & car Travel

Today, Tuesday, there were hopes the volcanic ash would be less of a danger and air travel would resume, but new eruptions threw a monkey wrench into that plan. We are waiting and hoping the skies will open up and let us come home in one week.
We just returned from a road trip through Provence by rental car. Miss Barbara was a bit concerned about my driving because of the congestion, crazy motorcyclists, and the bizillion cars all over everywhere. All valid concerns! But, we forged ahead and rented the car from the airport which is about 3 miles from our apartment, then took off on the A8 Autoroute which is very similar to the US freeways, except better and also a toll road. Travel on the A8 is easy, the road is nicely maintained, well marked and fast with an average speed of 110 to 130 kmh, or about 68 to 81 mph. We drove from Nice to Avignon in less than 2 hours at a cost of 20 Euros. Our car was a compact diesel Renault which sped along quite nicely and was not so small as some cars on the road. We took a side road thorough the French countryside through Cavillion, into the mountains through Gordes to the Abbaye Senanque. You have probably seen photos of the Abbaye with long rows of lavender in bloom but we were a little early for the lavender, probably a good thing since it would have been mobbed with tourists! Provence is a major perfume producer so there are many farms growing flowers, herbs and spices. Gordes is a village perched on the top of a mountain with houses built into the side of the cliff, quite beautiful. Our next stop was Avignon, and the Palais des Papes, a sort of mini Vatican on the Rhone river, which was a medieval fortress city built by the Popes to escape the wars in Rome built between 1309 and 1377. The old city is still surrounded by walls and the Palais is quite remarkable condition. The popes had imported many of the great painters of the period to decorate the palace, but most of the frescoes and other art works have been lost to time. We found an Etap hotel after surviving driving through the narrow streets. This hotel was fairly new, 54 Euros a night which is on the cheap side, but clean and modern. The amenities were meager and the room was odd in that it had a queen bed with a bunk bed above (the colors were bright pink and gray, odd). Only two towels were provided, no phone and two very small bars of soap. But it was clean! On Sunday morning we drove to Orange, again through the French countryside, lots of vineyards, fruit trees, and small towns. The fields are lush and green, while the grape vines are just starting to sprout. Did I mention that we tried to sample wines from each area we were in?
Orange is a wonderful mid size town with Roman origins dating back to BC. Although mainly known for the Theatre Antique d'Orange, still in use today, the best preserved of the entire Roman empire in Europe. The town is also known for the Orange dynasty where William of Orange and the Dutch Royal family started. Next stop Pont du Gard to see the tallest of all Roman aqueducts, part of an engineering project to bring water 31 miles from Uzes to Nimes, very impressive engineering for 19BC, the large stone blocks fit so perfectly no mortar was required.
This is also the picture used on the 5 euros. Next we drove to Nimes, another ancient Roman city with well preserved arena still used for bull fighting. Nimes is where the blue fabric known as denim is from De Nimes! We had planned to stay in Nimes but the traffic on a Sunday afternoon was very crazy, no place to park, a bizillion tourists all over, so we escaped and headed for Arles. Arles is another ancient Roman town with the obligatory theatre and arena, both still used today. Arles is very close to the Camargue, one of Europe's major wetlands, home to bull, and cattle ranching, and the local cowboys. We spent the night is a nice older hotel with a phone and more than two towels, and a very nice lady who ran the place. As always we took off walking to see the sights, and to purchase more refrigerator magnets. From Arles, we took the local roads to Tarascon, home of the legendary man eater the Tarasque, reputed to be an armadillo with a lions head. At some time St. Martha killed the Tarasque and brought peace to the world. In Tarascon, the fairy tale castle of the good King Rene can be visited (for a fee). One of the feudal castles that dots the Rhone River, built in the 15th century, and surrounded by a moat, is quite impressive. The good King promoted peace, encouraged art and culture. Next stop St Remy-de-Provence, another small town with a Greco-Roman heritage, but mostly known as the asylum where Vincent Van Gogh spent some time after mutilating his ear. You can still walk the paths near the asylum where Van Gogh painted many of his famous pictures, and recognize the landscapes. From St Remy we drove through more of the French countryside towards Aix en Provence and then back to Nice. Feeling very confident about driving, we decided to take the local roads from Cannes along the coast back to Nice. I had always pictured the coast towns such as Cannes, Antibes, Beauliue Sur Mer as picturesque villages dotted along the coast, but the reality is the entire Cote D,Azure is one long inhabited area with lots of people and traffic. A lot of traffic, in small congested roads and motorcyclists riding in between the cars, racing to the next stop light; heaven forbid you should tarry at the stop light, the French love their horns! But, we made it back safe, no scratches on the car, Barbara needed a glass of wine to calm her nerves, but otherwise a great trip. (It was no wonder, Michael ran a red light in Cannes!)Not true, I stopped then carefully proceeded through the light after the honking started.

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