I really love the vast, sprawling spaces in the USA, but there is something quite convenient about the density of Western Europe. I started my journey in Paris and a few hours later I was freezing at the bottom of the French Alps. I hopped on a train after Christmas and joined my mother in southern France that same afternoon. A few oddly-shaped castles later I settled down in Uzès, a small village in the same region, where I stayed for a few days. We made a quick trip to a Gallo-Roman town by the name of Arles, and I took the high-speed train back to Paris after a few bubbles. What I’m getting at is that it is not too arduous to experience a lot of variety in a short amount of time. Our capital can be explored in five days; give yourself another week, a good supply of cheese, then go west, or go south, you won’t regret it. There is a lot to see and today’s post is just a glance at your typical little town in one of the most relaxing part of Frenchland.
This is the fourth post in a five-parts series relating my winter trip to France in December 2010. In separate installments I posted photos of Chamonix by Night and by day, wondered where the princess was, and gave French food some thought.
This is the fourth post in this ongoing series about my winter trip to Frenchland. I posted photos of Chamonix by Night and by day, and wondered where the princess was. I’ll close this French parenthesis soon with pictures of… food, though I might sneak an addendum about planning a trip to France. Let’s be honest, going to Europe in winter isn’t the best experience. Somebody invent teleportation already.
In the header, a view of Uzès, in the Languedoc-Roussillon region, about 50 miles (80 km) from the Mediterranean sea. Here is a larger version on black. Originally Ucetia, Uzès was a small Gallo-Roman oppidum, or administrative settlement. Don’t get fooled by the tower, the beautiful edifice above is not quite a castle, per se, but The Duchy of Uzès (Le Duché d’Uzès a.k.a. The Duke’s Castle). I recommend caution with the word “Duchy”, even though you might end up using a very similar word a lot after interacting with my people.
The title of duke of Uzès is the premier title in the peerage of France, coming right after the princes of the blood (and Harry Potter I guess). After part of Languedoc was attached to royal demesne, the lords’ (and later dukes’) military skill and fealty to the Crown propelled their rise through the nobility. The title of First Duke of France fell to Uzès in 1632 (source: Wikipedia). Above and below, a paved street in the old town, in the center of Uzès, close to the castle (cars do drive there).
Twenty-one dukes have been wounded or killed as hereditary Champion of France over the centuries. The way imagine it, the duke of Uzès is probably wearing a “I’m kind of a big deal!” T-shirt nowadays.
The Uzès Cathedral was destroyed in the Albigensian Crusade, rebuilt, and destroyed again in the 16th century Wars of Religion. Rebuilt again (*sigh*) in the 17th century, it was stripped out during the French Revolution. The 11th century Romanesque Tour Fenestrelle (“Window Tower”), with its paired windows, is one of the most famous icon of the city. You can see the tower from a better angle in this photo I took the same day, or up-close in 2009 (above).
Pictured above, the vestige of the Chapelle St Geniès, a stone throw from our house, on the side of the main road to Uzès. I do miss this aspect of Europe, ruins and vestiges can often be found around the corner, in surprisingly good shape. I’m not talking about myself here.
My mother and her husband’s house, the Mas Vieux, a spectacular building overlooking miles of vineyards on the outskirt of Uzès. They worked pretty hard for the past 10 years to restore this 600 years old a house to its former glory. I really enjoy spending time there during the summer. My mother would pick a stool and kick my ass if I made the smallest historical mistake about her pride and joy, let’s wait a few more days for her to send me an executive summary.
A mas is a traditional farmhouse in the Provence region by the way. A mas was a largely self-sufficient economic unit. It was constructed of local stone, with the kitchen and room for animals on the ground floor, and bedrooms, storage places for food and often a room for raising silkworms on the upper floor. Not every farmhouse in Provence is a mas. A mas is distinct from the other traditional kind of house in Provence, the bastide, which was the home of a wealthy family (source: Wikipedia). Above, the river Eure, flowing at the bottom of Uzès. There is a beautiful, long walk to be enjoyed here.
The town lies at the source of the Eure, from where a Roman aqueduct was built in the first century BC, to supply water to the local city of Nîmes, 15 miles (25 km) away. The most famous stretch of the aqueduct is the Pont du Gard (above), which carried fresh water over splendid arches across the river Gardon. The Pont du Gard was added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites in 1985. It is the highest of all Roman aqueduct bridges and it is truly astonishing. You can’t jump from a World Heritage Site into the river, that’s frowned upon.
There are a lot of towns to visit in the Languedoc-Roussillon and Provence regions. One such city, Arles, is worth a road trip. The Rhône river forks into two branches just upstream of the city, forming the Camargue delta. Approximately a third of the Camargue is either lakes or marshland. It is home to more than 400 species of birds and an ancient breed of horses.
Arles was an important Phoenician trading port, before being taken by the Romans in 123 BC and expanded with a canal link to the Mediterranean Sea in 104 BC. It became renowned as a cultural and religious centre during the late Roman Empire. It was badly affected by the invasion of Provence by the Muslim Saracens and the Franks, who took control of the region in the 8th century. The town regained political and economic prominence in the 12th century. It became a free city governed by an elected podestat around the same time (source: Wikipedia). Above, a street in the center of Arles.
Arles possessed a number of monuments, including an amphitheater, triumphal arch, Roman circus, theatre, and a full circuit of walls. This panorama of the amphitheater above was taken in 2008 A.D. with my previous camera. This two-tiered Roman building is probably the most prominent tourist attraction in the city of Arles, which thrived in Roman times. Measuring 446 ft (136 m) in length and 358 ft (109 m) wide, the 120 arches date back to the 1st century BC. The amphitheater was capable of seating over 20,000 spectators (source: Wikipedia). Fear not, it’s not used as a parking lot nowadays. Look at the tiny cars, har har.
In Ancient Roman architecture a cryptoporticus (say that 3 times) is a covered corridor or passageway. It refers to a semi-subterranean gallery whose vaulting supports portico structures above ground and which is lit from openings at the tops of its arches. The cryptoporticus of Arles (above), dating from the 1st century BC was built as foundation for the forum, which has since been replaced by the Chapel of the Jesuit College and the City Hall. A cryptoporticus was often used as granaries. The one at Arles is, however, too damp for prolonged storage and may have served as a barracks for public slaves (source: Wikipedia). That was my urban exploration of the week, it went well.
Arles remained economically important for many years as a major port on the Rhône. In 2007 divers discovered a life-sized marble bust (above) of what archaeologists believe to be Julius Caesar, together with smaller statues of Marsyas in Hellenistic style and of the god Neptune. These discoveries can now be seen (and photographed) in the museum of ancient history, the Musée de l’Arles et de la Provence antiques, which also hosts one of the best collections of Roman sarcophagi, if you are into that sort of thing (aren’t you? AREN’T YOU?). I like scuba-diving, I like civil engineering, that was a no-brainer, really.
Thanks for making it to the end of this fact-heavy post. “Europe, where the history comes from”. Want to see more? In separate installments I posted photos of Chamonix by Night and by day, wondered where the princess was, and gave French food some thought.
Next up? French food. The title of this post? It refers to “les 4 coins de l’hexagone”, one of many fun French idioms we aren’t afraid to use on TV. The four corners means everywhere, and the hexagon is the traditional shape of France. We rock at geometry.