Sunday, October 4, 2015

Burning to the Foundations of Provence

The Alpilles hills of the Bouches-du-Rhône region, where Marseille is located, are covered in pines, or at least some of them are. Scorching summer Heat and high winds attract arsonists like candles do moths. Arson is derived from the Anglo-French word arsoun, itself from the Old French arsion. Marseilles may be the birthplace of the world-wide scourge of vandalism by fire--France's contribution to the origins of crime. Though it's a wonder that the pines overlooking the sweltering Riviera don't just spontaneously combust in August. 

We were on a motorcoach outbound from Emerald Princess and Marseilles' grimy port, headed for historic treasures of southern France. We first met these piney limestone hills surrounding the city, occasionally catching brief glimpses of steep-walled calanques plunging into the sea as the bus rushed along the coastline. Later, the countryside of Provence opened up to fallow, pebbly fields giving way to distant rippling mirages in the heat, then fields laden with seed-burdened sunflowers just past their peak. There was no sign of Van Gogh's ear.

It was all too brief a taste. Provence is like Tuscany in Italy, a place where people dream of the clarifying sensory experience of a simpler life in a rustic setting. Instead, we were in an air-conditioned bus rushing to meet a tight itinerary. But the sweet taste may someday bring me back for the full meal.

An ancient, but transplanted, olive tree near the Pont du Gard.

Our first stop was the Pont du Gard, a 1st century Roman aqueduct that is, after nearly 2000 years, in better shape than most of the modern city of Detroit. The aqueduct crosses the River Gardon on the way to Nîmes. I expected to see free-spirited French bathers frolicking in the river. In that I was disappointed, though the Pont offers good views in either direction down the narrow valley of the Gardon.

The foot bridge adjacent to the lowest level of arches is an 18th century addition; Alexandre Dumas lamented, "it was reserved for the eighteenth century to dishonor a monument that the barbarians of the fifth had not dared to destroy." But the water conduit had long since become too encrusted with mineral deposits to perform its original function, so the toll bridge was the only remaining aspect of the structure that was useful, and usefulness in the end is what preserved Pont du Gard through the centuries.

The water conduit at the top of the aqueduct. Mineral deposits that clogged the aqueduct after the 4th century have been removed.

Some stones on the underside of the topmost arch still bear Roman numerals designating the order of assembly. That frozen moment connected me with the humanity of its builders.

Notice the Roman numerals on the stone blocks to the left.

This phallus was probably carved as a good luck totem by the Roman workers. A more poetic (and recent) legend is that it is a cat or rabbit, thrown in disgust at the bridge by the disappointed Devil, after he helped make the bridge withstand the floods of the Gardon with the promise he'd own the first soul that crossed the bridge, which happened to be an animal. Since cats are self-centered pricks, either explanation works.
Looking north-east to the other side of the aqueduct.

We proceeded to Avignon. Surrounded by Medieval walls, with narrow streets, the old city is no place for a motor coach, and we had to park outside its gates. But before that, our driver had to navigate an impossibly narrow gap between two rows of other buses; with the mirrors pulled in there was no more space than a hand's breadth on either side. Then he proceeded to parallel park in a space only a step longer than our coach while still wedged in the gauntlet. Witness to the subsequently perfect condition of the vehicle, I will forever esteem French bus drivers.

We were stopped directly across from the Pont Saint-Bénézet, which legend has it was built after the divine inspiration of its namesake saint by the Savior. To prove his point to the skeptical local populace, the young shepherd single-handedly lifted a huge block of stone and began the construction himself. Flooding of the Rhone has not been kind to the bridge since its completion in 1185, and today only four of the original 22 arches extend halfway into the river. Perhaps the Lord wanted the bridge built at a different spot, because the other modern spans across the Rhone are doing just fine. But the effect of a wreck after half a millennium is picturesque. There may be hope for Lackawanna in 600 years.

Pont Saint-Bénézet, a bridge to nowhere. 
The outer walls of Medieval Avignon are behind my son.
Within the gate!

We had some free time to explore Medieval Avignon before our tour of the 14th century Palais des Papes, a complex that combined constitutes Europe's largest gothic building. Lavender sold in narrow alleys scented the air, its pastel hues diffuse in the sun's glare like an impressionist painting. But the wide pavements and buildings surrounding the Papal palace are blindingly white in the midday summer sun. Never have I so regretted leaving my sunglasses behind, and at a few points I had to close my eyes completely and shuffle my way like a blind man across the broader plazas. Lunch under the canvas shade of an outdoor café was blessed relief.

The world's largest Gothic structure, the Palais Neuf (r). Next to it is the Roman Catholic cathedral of Avignon (Cathédrale Notre-Dame des Doms d'Avignon). It is the seat of the Archbishop.

The picture doesn't do it justice, but glare from the pavement was so bright I had to walk the entire way to the Palais Neuf in the background with my eyes closed.

Home to seven consecutive Popes for most of the 14th century, a time when the seat of Peter in Rome was uncomfortably hot, the Palais des Papes is at once austere and immense. Though it was a gilded place in the days of the Avignon popes, the French Revolution and Napoleonic era--when it was used as an army barracks--were not kind. The interior is now virtually scrubbed clean in a way reminiscent of the once-painted-but-now-austere temples of Ancient Greece and Rome. There are a few exceptions, most notably the "House of the Deer," which has a few fascinating frescoes of everyday 14th century life. Some paintings depicting the life of St. John the Baptist remain in a chapel, but John was never one for decorum, so the vandals might not have noticed the difference from a bare wall. And, ironically, the bedchamber of the Popes survived the anticlerical Age of a Revolution largely intact.

Chapel of St. John the Baptist (l) and the Pope's bedroom (r).

"House of Deer," one of my favorites because it shows contemporary 14th century depictions of everyday life instead of attempts at the time to guess the dress of ancient Israel. It served as the office of Pope CLement VI. I had to sneak a photo (without flash).

I love Medieval doors, such Rube Goldberg-ian devices.

To the left is the cavernous chimney to the kitchens.

But everywhere else--hallways, cavernous chambers and courtyards--all decoration has been wiped away much like the pines above Marseilles. Only the bare white bones remain, but these are the clean foundations of the place, impregnable rock that can not be so easily erased by casual malice or the short span of human history.