Friday, July 30, 2010

Mega recycling

Today we visited Vaison-la-Romaine, a little Provençal town north of Avignon. Why visit this little place? Well the name says it all really. It contains some really remarkable Roman ruins. There are 500 square meter villas, baths, public spaces, roads, and shops. There is also a spectacular amphitheatre. A couple of days ago we also visited Nîmes a bigger city that also contains Roman ruins, except this time it is a Coliseum like that in Rome.

Besides the Roman ruins, what do they have in common? They have pragmatically recycled their amphitheatre and coliseum into public venues for shows and concerts. Imagine seeing a musical concert in a 2000 year old amphitheatre. (By the way the acoustics are excellent, far better than many modern concert halls. ) Mind you it is rather strange to come out from the galleries and see a modern stage and lighting for the show that will go on that night.

Amphitheatre of Vaison-la-Romaine

Monday, July 26, 2010


The last few days we’ve stopped at the town of Carcassonne which still has its medieval walls intact around the old part of the city. In fact some of the walls of the town are so old that they date back to the Romans. The town is situated smack dab in the middle of a valley between two mountain ranges that permits passage from the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. This is a good place to be because everyone who went traipsing up your road had to pay a toll for the right of passage. This made the little town rather rich and sometimes caused it grief since when you have a nice rich town, on a well known road, it becomes  mighty tempting for assorted barbarians to come around to get a piece of the action.
The town of Carcassonne was first built by the Celts the Gauls to be exact, then the Romans came along and took over. By the 5th century, things were going rapidly downhill so along came your friendly neighbourhood barbarians called the Vandals. Today we still recognize their penchant your destroying things with the word vandalize. After that came the Moors from North Africa, who were kicked out by Charlemagne. Then the Cathars became the in group only to be massacred by the same bunch as the ones who did in Montsegur. Finally the French rebuilt and renovated the defences to protect against the Spanish who were not all that far away. After the French beat the Spanish, pushing back the frontier the defences were really no longer needed so the town went into decline, which was in a way a good thing since they pretty much left everything as it was. Even the Germans in WW2 didn’t destroy the town since the made it their HQ for the region. So there we are today with a medieval town with it walls intact just as they were since the Romans.

The bottom of this section of wall is the original Roman fortifications.

The Gatehouse of the major entrance way

Medieval painting of battle between Norman knights and Moors

Base of Roman walls Medieval walls were built outside of them

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Of ghosts and mountains

It's been a couple of days since the last post but we didn't have access to the Internet because the hotel's WIFI wasn't working.
In between times we crossed the Pyrenees mountains on a road that is to say the least very interesting. Five kilometers of descent in hairpin turns and a slope that defies description. Suffice to say that missing a curve would not be a good thing. After the descent you end up in a gorge where the cliff overhangs the road for most of the 11 kilometers.
Though before that we visited a mountain top castle called Montségur. For those of you who might not know the name it was the final stronghold of the Cathars, a religious group who believed that we should go back to the precepts of Jesus and live simply as the first Christians did. Of course this did not go over well with the pope or the King of France since the Cathars didn't recognize their sovereignty. A crusade was declared, yes that's right a crusade inside Europe, and the king's barons marched in with 10000 troops and of course the Inquisition in tow. They destroyed villages and pillaged the countryside. Finally the only holdout was Montségur perched on top of its lofty crag. The Cathars there held them back until finally the crusaders breached the defenses and captured the fort in March of 1244. Two hundred and twenty of the defenders were burned alive in a pit rather than renounce their faith. It is said in the records that a black pall of smoke hung around the summit for weeks after.
It is a place that has a strange melancholic feeling to it and doesn't leave you indifferent. The castle that is there now is not the original since it was torn down as well as the cathar houses that covered the summit.

-Posted from my iPhone

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Chemin des pellerins

We are sitting in a small café in the town of St-Jean Pied de Port. This is one of the staging areas for the Pilgrim's Road to Compostelle. From here it is 800 kilometers across the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain.
This little village of 1700 will see 25000 pilgrims come through their town in a year. It has been the major stopping point on the road to Compostelle since early medieval times. Everywhere you look you see seashells carved on doors and walls. These shells (the same ones as for coquilles St-Jacques) are the symbol of the pilgrimage to Compostelle and many pilgrims we saw had them tied to their backpack.

- Posted from my iPhone

Saturday, July 17, 2010


Today we visited the "Grotte de Pech-Merle » which is a cave in the region of Lot. This cave contains beautiful prehistoric cave art between 15000 and 25000 years old. These amazing pieces of art date back to the earliest humans in Europe and are surprisingly sophisticated. In one of the deepest galleries we found something positively breath taking. It is really simple, all it is is the footprint of a child in the mud of the gallery, except that this child lived 15000 years ago at the very beginning of human history. There is a complete foot print and part of other prints as if the children were dancing around. It kind of brings into focus that they were as human as we are. These are not my pictures since you are not allowed to take pictures of the cave art since a flashes would quickly degrade the pictures.

a child’s 15000 year old foot print
a bears head
Horses 24000 years old

We also visited the medieval village of St-Cirq La Popie. This is a very beautiful village perched on a limestone cliff 200 meters above the River Lot. The streets are really in three dimensions, left and right as well as up and down. The people who live there must have great leg muscles since you are continuously walking up and down steep hills.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Les Maurelles

We have been traipsing across France for almost two weeks now and we have spend the last six days in the region of Perigord and Lot. This is a region of many contrasts and great beauty. The region sits upon a plateau of limestone which is cut up with many springs, streams and rivers. It is a region of human history from the first Neanthertals and Cro-magnons to the Romans and the medieval villages and castles.
While we were here we stayed in a wonderful "gîte" called "Les Maurelles" which is situated in a small medieval village called Milhac. The proprietors of the gîte are called Erica and Philip Cabos. The gîte itself consists of a series of buildings around a centuries old house that once belonged to the notaire (notary) of the village. There are two types of lodgings here. One is the gîte, which is a kind of small apartment with a kitchen that can lodge from four to ten people depending on the one you choose. The other way is by "chambre d'hôte" which is more of what we would call a bed and breakfast. The rooms are large and comfortable and have a bathroom en suite. The welcome we received is one of the warmest we have ever had in all the time we have been traveling. They are warm hearted and always willing to help us, be it recommendations of places to visit or to point out the best way to get around on the small country roads or just a place to store our ice packs in the freezer. The typical French breakfast of baguette and coffee is copious and the bread is always fresh from that morning, delicious. There is a swimming pool and since Milhac is such a small village it is very quiet and restful.
I would highly recommend Les Maurelles for anyone who would like a great place to stay in the Perigord.

Internet site:

- Posted from my iPhone

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Macdonald's does have something here that is much better than the food. We are presently sitting in the only Macdonald's of the region, not because we love the food but because it has free WIFI after all it can't be all bad.
Today we went visiting in the region of Eyzies. This is a region of tall limestone cliffs that are riddled with caves. People have been living in them since the the very beginning of human habitation. In fact there are many houses and whole villages that have integrated the house and the caves.

We also visited a museum than contains artifacts from the caves around the region. This region contains the remains and the art of Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal man. In facts there is probably the greatest collection of cave art in the world concentrated here. In fact the world famous cave art of Lascaux is not 20 km from here, but today they are no longer open to the public because the humidity of the number of visitors was destroying the irreplaceable art. Unfortunately we were too late in the day to reserve a visit to one of the hoer caves so it will be for another day.
For those of you who might be curious about what our room looks like at "Les Morelles" here is our room and a view out of our window.

- Posted from my iPhone

Monday, July 12, 2010

Life in the medieval

Moving right along with trip we are presently sitting in the courtyard of a bistro in the medieval heart of Sarlat. This is a part of the city that is made up of small winding streets bordered by medieval buildings made of a golden colored stone. The streets a very narrow and winding and it is easy to get lost in them. Today we also visited two castles, one Castlenaud was English and the other Castle Beyac and they face each other across the Dordonrive which was the frontier between Aquitaine controlled by the English king and the rest of France.
I'll post more pictures later since at the moment my pictures are on my camera not my iPhone and since we don't have access to the Internet where we are staying it'll have to be later on.

- Posted from my iPhone

Friday, July 09, 2010

Heroes and things

Funny how one people's hero will be almost completely unknown to another. Yesterday we visited a small fortified village called Brouage. This small village was once an important salt port (where they exported salt) and had a population of 4000 which is now at 160. It was fortified during the religious wars between the Catholics and the Protestants in the 16th century but that's another story. In our case in the late 1500's was born a man called Samuel de Champlain who was baptized in the parish church of the village. In Québec he is the founding father of New France and his name is used to name streets, towns, counties, and even one of the largest lakes in the northeast. EVERYONE in Québec knows who he is and what he did. Without him, we probably wouldn't even exist. But in his home country, besides his native village, nobody has heard of him or if they have it is very vague. Different history and timeline I guess.

Today we visited La Rochelle which was, in the time of Champlain, the jumping off point for the exploration of the new world. Here are some pictures we took today.

- Posted from my iPhone