November 2010

leaving L’Isle sur la Sorgue – with regrets, with unfinished business – to Arles – featuring J. THE ANTIPRODUCT & Van Gogh’s own pharmacie – to Les Saintes Maries de la Mer & welcome Abrivado

Leaving L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue was again difficult, because of course we’d not really got to know our hosts, C. B. and M.-C. R. And we hadn’t really got to know our town, but we spent the morning, until midday, scooting around, over the canals and past the water-wheels, using the internet access at Geco, waiting for Q.’s photos to be printed. For some reason they had not been already. And checking out the small market, produce and clothes, which we’d not expected to find.

C. was due to meet us at midday. We scurried home, having earlier packed and cleared out and cleaned; having also had the mischance of breaking one of those silly under-table glass shelves, part of the outdoor suite, which we’d not actually used, because of the mistral, had only moved in order to clean.

Trepidation, then, that there’d be an additional cost on top of our rental for the breakage. C., when he arrived, was wonderfully understanding. We got to talking. He seemed in no hurry to shoot off. Turned out he is a professional musician, trumpeter and singer. We talked about Rene Char. Also turned out he knew someone who knows Mme Char well and he promised to ask, having not himself heard about the closure of the Rene Char museum.

C.’s saving up to buy a music venue. He said to me, Next time you come, bring a play!

Possibly as far-fetched for me as for him, a rugby fan, coming to NZ for the World Cup.

We visited Arles on the way to our next stop, Les Maries de la Mer. Arles, why? Our guide-book recommended the Fondation Van Gogh, on the Arenes, Arles’s own arena, like Nimes’s. We circled the Arenes. Descended the hill to Hotel de Ville. Saw the extraordinary carved facade of St. Trophime. But the Fondation was not to be found.

Transpired that it had closed. A week before. Is there a wave of closures of sites of cultural interest preceding us?

We took an espresso, and walked through the really charming lanes of Arles, again, down as far at the Rhone, then back. Just really sucking in the atmosphere. Lively. Happy. Not like Carpentras. After having made those notes about Gallic vs. Ligurian culture, more Ligurian. Happier. And better style. Possibly even than Avignon. Lots of young people around. Hanging. Lots of schools and colleges and institutes of higher learning. And bands of students moving in schools like dark fish.

Straight through to Maries de la Mer. Not far. Our first glimpses of flamingos and Camargue grey horses, en masse, since stable after stable offer rides to tourists – a major industry. And the particular architecture of the houses of the gardiens, thatched cabins, with thick mud walls. The latter presumed.

The street whereon our hotel was situated proved impossible to find. Because it was impossible to drive, completely closed, we found after several fraught circuits of the town, for resurfacing.

We walked in, met the man. The man showed us the room. Pokey. We made excuses. He made none for the difficulty of getting in. And did not offer us free parking, but a pay per night of seven euros. Not much, but we felt put out, which he wouldn’t in the least recognise. His first line to us had in fact been, There’s works out the front.


I feel like writing, Typically.

From place to place, hotel to hotel, down the front, and ringing around trying to find a room. Those available were vomit-making in style, if cheap enough – sub 100, the night – or else nausea-inducing in price. Our last port of call, where we have ended up, the Abrivada. A corner room, a carousel out the window. Sunset. And an excellent dinner of local oysters, from L’Etang de Tau, fish caught fresh, a sort of Alfonsino, called a Rouge; and a stew of local beef, a la Gardienne. Accompanying wine, from Arles. Nice sec. The best service we’ve had in France. Young guys but serious about the business.

Q. got the menu enfant, fries and bun-less burger, salad. Haha! he said. Not much salad! Followed by caramel ice-cream.

An altogether different place in so short a time travelling. Inside tonight, because the mistral may have subsided, but the mosquitoes are out.

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le Pont du Gard, les Arènes et les deux carrés de Nîmes with notes regarding a spectacular taxonomy or the common root of the popular degradations of pornography, acting and public victimisation in gladiatorial spectacle, in the round, while art & religion prefer the square! &, of course, the origin of blue jeans, because they did not, as some of you might believe, on the evidence of these snaps, simply fall from the sky

On the way to le Pont du Gard, I sucked up a La Jaunie into my windpipe. Not a pleasant thing, since they’re pure liquorice root. It was stuck in the folds of my vocal cords, so it felt, until it dissolved. Quite hot.

Pont du Gard looked from the guide like it was going to be another French money-making operation, now a ‘great place to spend the day, with a new complex – museum, cafes, boutique, cinema – set in extensive grounds, with a playground for the children and picnic areas, walking tracks, blah blah.’ I just wanted to see the aqueduct. So on approach, knew that the 15 Euros requested to park would be the first in a line of extortions. But no. The parking fee included the access to the film, museums and so on.

We took a bite in the warmest weather we’ve had so far in the South, Q. a crepe salee, meaning savoury, and hotdog, meaning wrapped around two Salzburger sausages with ketchup, J. and I the cheapest espressos we’ve had, 1.50 each, and a pain-au-raisin. Cafe and creperie share the same counter, but when I asked for coffees, I was referred to the cafe side, a matter of sliding two feet to the right. Coffee tasted burnt. Nevertheless.

On the short walk to the river, I tried to take a snap of a very angry snake. Larger than a grass snake. It lunged at me and escaped from the camera into a gap between stones in a wall.

The aqueduct represents the remains of a 50 km stretch extending to Nimes, over that length a drop of 17 m. Astounding accuracy. It was big and impressive and a marvel of Roman engineering. It gave us an opportunity to watch the swallows wheeling out and back, through the arches, weaving. And the pigeons, hanging off the side until allowed to enter their roosts by those already ensconced.

The museum turned out to be the best use of audio-visual tech we’ve seen, with nothing, however, to indicate it was open. A door that happened to be unlocked into a darkened room. It was evocative, atmospheric, involving the ears as much if not more than the eyes. Displays centred on Roman plumbing, with examples of lead pipes, impressed with the welders’ seals, faucets and taps, pumps, and models showing how supply was circulated and distributed, within a house, a city, how water was carried across a landscape. Audio stations, beyond the environmental sounds specific to each display, gave contemporary reports, for instance, Seneca to Lucilius: ‘Now that spic-and-span bathing establishments have been devised, men are really fouler than of yore.’ His point being that no civilized Roman would deign to step on anything but marble, ergo the moral decadence of the Romans.

Above, a kids’ museum was also surprisingly good.

In Nimes we parked down three levels, linked by an narrow spiral ramp, disconcertingly lit with vertical fluoros in white, blue and red, on Rabbit floor. We found Notre-Dame-de-St.-Castor austere, large, nothing special, except from the outside, where its square basic tower caught the sun. Came across La Chapelle St. Eugenie, also of the twelfth century, from which the snaps of a column decorated with a geometric pattern.

Les Arenes are the best preserved of any in Europe, smaller than the Collosseum, built a decade after, under the aegis of Augustus. The audioguide informed us of the Greeks’ establishment of a major port at Marseilles, the Roman entry into the area being in order to aid the Greeks against the incursions of the indigenous Celtic-Ligurian peoples. Under Augustus, son of Julius, Provence became a colony, a province of Rome, hence the name.

I had not previously understood that the arena developed from the putting of two stages together, two semi-circular amphitheatre. In some ways, the history of Roman entertainment including the decline of gladiatorial spectacle mirrors that of live theatre, of which it is a precursor, mirrored in many of the attitudes to putting flesh on show. But, in its most gratuitously bloodthirsty incarnation, the Midday sessions of disposing of criminals by public dismemberment, and other forms of spectacular victimisation, resembles rather the excesses of pornography; which again, cannot be entirely disentangled from good clean viewing fun for all the family.

Seneca wrote with the Midday shows in mind: ‘In the morning they throw men to bears and lions. At noon they throw them to the audience.’ A sense of what popular entertainment is really about. Also, gladiatorial spectacle was an urban phenomenon. With the barbarian threats the cities retreated into themselves. The slow attrition of the Roman civitas brought it to material poverty as well as poverty as an ideal.

Around the fourth century the spectacle ceased to be staged probably for lack of money and professional competence as for any moral reasons. In broad strokes, you might overlay this story of the loss of the idea of the city onto what is happening to the city in our own era under the pressure of displacement of communication technologies.

The Maison Carree was, as has been typical of our timing, under repair, its facade hidden behind scaffolding. We visited Sir Norman Foster’s Carre d’Art, a house for modern art, with reading- and study-rooms, a shop and space for temporary exhibitions.

Out the front punk kids messed around; out the back hip-hoppers were practising moves; and in the roof cafe, more of Nimes youth felt quite comfortable just hanging out, possibly because it was kind of grotty, modern-grot. I enjoyed my coffee made with espresso in a glass, two-thirds cream from a can and choco sprinkles. I’d asked the fifties-cool waiter what those people were drinking. He’d looked at me as if to say, Are you kidding?! A cappuccino of course!

The exhibition was patchy. Works by our friend Miquel Barcelo. And the artist featured at the Pompidou, whose name I can’t recall. Odd curatorial choices. So I made an arty snap of the lockers.

The receptionist stopped us on the way in. In a very thick accent, she said, No entry without tickets. How much? I asked. Free, she answered. But you have to have them. And you can’t take the scooter in, indicating Q.’s scooter strapped on his shoulder.

I asked if we could leave it with her. This apparently was the right thing to ask. She nodded, smiled slyly and proceeded to tear from a book the required tickets.

Form accomplished, just inside the door to the exhibition, our tickets were checked. Glancingly. (See earlier note re: French arrogance is not.)

Home via Beaucaire and Tarascon, which face each other over the Rhone, each with their crenellated, machicolated castle towers. Got lost in Chateaurenard. A bit. Losing a bit of time. And the sun going down across the scrubby flats, the garrigue. But finally finding our way out and over the Durance. Whence a short run on familiar ground to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. Well, first to Super-U gas-station to top-up just in case the pumps run out. These strikes! Footage on TV of rubbish piling up on the streets of Marseilles, having to be cleared by emergency sanitary workers.

Lucky we didn’t head there. Nimes, I must add, as note to self, is the original source of the cloth that became known as denim, exported to the American South to clothe slaves: de Nimes, i.e. from Nimes. And Nimes itself takes its name from the Greek name of a god of springs, those that first attracted settlers.

Baguettes still oven-warm from our local Frometeria. And pesto pasta, with left-over pork. The pasta here tastes better. The bread’s delicious. The butter’s the best. Tonight’s wine, Les Cardinalices, Cotes du Rhone, 2009, is OK.

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Notre Dame des Anges, Isle sur la Sorgue, Roussillon et Ménerbes

Planning forward to Barcelona, we failed to follow the advice of our SFR salesman, who’d sold us the SIM Card, which was to go to McDonalds’s, buy a coffee, and use the free WIFI there; we sought out GecoSystem, Espace Internet, an island of geekery, on the island, clear perspex seating and the special arrogance of those whose livelihood relies on computer know-how: and used the contact the B. family had in Le Puy recommended of Friendly Rentals for accommodation in Barcelona. Sent an email. The site didn’t work for us. Now, we’ll have to go back to Geco or succumb to McD’s to receive the reply.

A note on so-called French arrogance: it’s not. Unwelcoming sometimes. Stony-faced. And playing dumb, withholding information. But only seemingly out of a kind of pedantry, a preciosity about the question; as if to imply that the information given will only ever be as good as the way it is asked for.

And this off-putting reserve about practical matters, an idealism. Taken to extremes in strangely inappropriate circumstances. We were following a car home this evening, when it had to stop to allow another vehicle to turn off. Rather than simply braking and coming to a stop, hazard lights came on. Or, consider the overstatement surrounding the strikes. Today, every service we might have required was available to us: food, information offices, ticket boxes for tourist sites. We didn’t need gasole – diesel – because we’d taken the queues at petrol stations to be a warning.

One wonders at F.’s self-description as ‘Latin.’ The context was the difference between the two cities we’d encountered travelling from Berlin to Paris. We Latins smoking, dropping paper, here and everywhere. But the French are not the Italians, and a town like Carpentras, had Italians lived there, would not have projected that reserve, that tightness, that vaguely depressed air. One wonders where it is from? And experiences the frustration in communication of not understanding what is operating under the conversation, what cultural code is not being adhered to. Consider our Fat Tires bike tour guide’s joke that the waggle of the finger is more powerful for the French than any number of Anglo-Saxon expletives. It constitutes the absolute injunction. A joke which succeeds because it is true.

We travelled to Roussillon, ochre village, sitting on a red hill of glauconite, left by seas of 110 million years before, mixtures of quartz and oxidised iron-like stuff. A rusty hill, worn away, as we saw on the Chaussee des Geants, into runnels, gorges and pinnacles, from cream to blood red. We went via Goult. Which looked very pleasant. In the lee of the hill, out of the mistral, the sunlight felt warm at last.

Rousillon attracts sheep-like tourists in stupid numbers. A flock followed us. Seemed to be looking for something and restless, could not settle, as if not finding it. Up hills, down lanes and alleys, all over the town, with closed shutters, as if the locals were hunkered down, lunching for the duration. Made for not the most enjoyable visit. The presence of the tourists not the absence of the locals.

The Sentier des Ocres was fun. A walk in the rust. Even the firs’ trunks were ochred. And the white giant, white whale, of Mt. Ventoux was visible in the distance. A distance subject to variation, now closer and closer, as the day progressed.

A sudden gust shook the chestnuts from the tree above us. One spiky fruit landed on Q.’s shoulder, raising red welts. Another in the list of freakish mischances.

Roussillon is also where Sam Beckett holed up for a year in an attic. Worse places to do so. But nowhere could we find the attic marked.

On the way out of the town, we thought to search for La Chaussee des Geants, not realising we’d walked it, and circled Roussillon through the vinyards several times before we found out from a police woman.

Menerbes straddles a ridge at the base of the Montagne du Luberon, another part of the Petit Luberon. You’ve got to like a town that welcomes you with covered troughs to water the horses. The place was in fact entirely lovable. And empty of tourists. This is allegedly a rare thing. Perhaps to do with the time we got there, magic hour, more or less. Long shadows of Menerbes out towards Gordes and Roussillon, on the other side, the green-sided hills, and a valley full of vines here as many shades of red and gold as the ochres of Roussillon.

Home late again. J. excelled herself with pork, apple, marinated garlic, Provencal herbs, roast fennel bulb, creamed potatoes and French green beans, shoestring beans, and the famous tapenade, and beetroot. I ate the last of my Venetian chilis. The wine is Luberon: Alidon, Cave du Luberon, 2009. White like all I’ve named. But today we picked up at the Maison de la Truffe et du Vin in Menerbes a bottle of Domaine du Coulet Rouge, Cabernet, 2006, from the Vaucluse, as strong as fortified wine, which we might open to have with cheese, bouchons de chevre, later.

Q.’s watching of all things Lord of the Rings. For J.’s English fix, I managed to find a Vanity Fair. On the subject of language, it’s surprising how many of the people we encounter, whether booking an hotel, as today, for Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer, speak no English. You might suggest this is affectation, that they do but choose not to. No. French service culture, for tourists, particularly, is remarkably under-developed.

The only operators who have been forward in coming forward with inflicting their hard sell on us in English have been stall-holders in markets, perhaps because they are representing only themselves, and working for their own livelihood, rather than organisations or institutions. Another aspect in which France bears similarities to NZ pre-free-market revolution.

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Les Baux dans les Alpilles, les Antiques et l’hôpital psychiatrique de Saint-Paul-de-Mausole (la Maison de Santé de Saint-Paul) à Saint Rémy de Provence

Les Baux, the mistral blasting over it, where it rises out of the surrounding countryside, after St. Remy, in the Alpilles, under a cloudless, hazeless, pellucid and intensely blue sky, offered another of those heart-racingly exciting moments, expected, as in we’d seen photos, unexpected, because of how it was to have climbed onto a plateau, be driving between groves of olives and vinyards, in alternation, and recognise, to see it ‘at last,’ as they say, in all its attendant resplendent unrecognisablility. You ask yourself, Does it look like the photograph? Answer: Yes, of course, exactly like it. Then why is it nothing like the photograph? Reality appends its signature excess. Naturally.

What that excess does is not simply to escape or transcend the limited distant view, the precursive mental image or media image. The question might be: Is the inability of reality to be represented an essential inability? Does inimitable mean unrepresentable?

It reminds me of Wilde’s Critic as Artist, who recreates according to the medium of the critique the work of art under consideration. The critic’s imitation becomes a kind of anti-representation, since it is critical. And it enacts from the inside out what is essential about the work. How it works. This enacting concords with the proximity of critique and analysis.

An enactment, analytical, critical, is representational. Particularly in terms of theatrical representation. Theatre as the art of representation par excellence.

To invoke the theatrical in Samuel Weber’s critical view is not only to summon shadows in a cave and does not just necessarily imply the dialectic between real and imitation, but also involves place, placement, placing. In terms of the where from, in regard to the where to, and also the convocation of both where to and where from in a sense of indissociable place, outside of speech, a place for acting, where time has passed, is passing and will pass. And as such, a place of memory. Of the memory of the individual. Why? Because it is the individual whose point of view is implicit in this sense of place from which a world, with all its times, extends.

How can the place transcend the place of which it is the photograph? The photograph represents this place with its point of view. The paradox only becomes apparent with the difference in point of view, not the difference between representation and reality.

Reality’s excess comes out of the sense of a place that it can, like the best representation, or art, have, upon it, as well as ‘chastely,’ an infinite number of points of view. It can suffer the most banal as well as the most sophisticated interpretation, critique, or analysis.

Les Baux confirmed this sense of the inimitable. White sandstone escarpment perforated with windows. Q. said, That’s the best house ever. It was the side of the Chateau we were looking at. Its side that was sculpted from a quarry in use since 60 BC. And against and into which the rooms of the castle nestled. Little left after the seventeenth century destruction because of acts of disloyalty against the French king, under the Lords of Baux, whose lineage had by then died out. The castle was demolished symbolically and the people were fined.

When the mineral bauxite was found in the area, it took its name from a place that was all but deserted. Now, a number of what are called ‘artisanal’ businesses occupy Les Baux, sweets, olive oils, wines from the region, as well as soaps, and good-looking restaurants, creperies, cafes, and auberges.

We explored the Chateau, without the impedimenta of audio-guides. The wind though milder than yesterday was no less violent, threatening to take us off this promontory bodily at times. We saw the impluvium, a tiled area for collecting rainwater and directing it into a reservoir, climbed up onto towers, looked out at the marvelous vistas, where land and sky were smeared together by distance, were repeatedly forced down low to escape the mistral, or behind sheltering buttresses of stone, always bearing the evidence of human use, runnels for water cut into the rock, shelves, cupboards, kennels, stables, chapels, handles wherefrom tools were hung on hooks, the whole complement of uses a community could make of the space on top of the escarpment borne witness to in the stone, drilled, hewn, cut, chiselled, sculpted, quarried and built up again in blocks, sealed after openings and doorways had lost their use, like the oldest parts of the chateau, the Roman arches, bricked up and reclaimed as walls to the chapel.

You wished you might see it how it had been. And at the entry there had been the cute chapel we entered where people were crouched in the dark watching the documentary Provence from the Sky, aerial footage of the area, especially the piece of it these people were on, albeit that outside, impossibly occluded by the darkness, the exigencies of cinema, not least, the tonal shift in colour, the occasion for which was, as J. pointed out, that the projector lamp needed to be replaced, was yellowing. So it said on the screen. I couldn’t stay and watch it after that. Laughing too hard.

Starving, we went down and picnicked in the car again. And then went up again to buy lots of lollies at the store right inside the village.

We hurried back to Glanum, an important archeological site: the most complete Gallo-Grecian, Gallo-Roman village in France, ruins concentrated around a freshwater spring. It was too late to get in. But we could walk around the victory arch commemorative of the Roman conquest of Marseilles and a mausoleum, a decorated tower, thought to have been erected to remember the grandsons of Augustus, a deified emperor.

Over the road, we could visit the asylum where Vincent Van Gogh painted a lot, was dowsed under cold water a lot, walked in the gardens a lot, where there’s a ‘reconstructed room’ from his St. Remy period, which doesn’t amount to much, apart from lousy art direction, a beautiful cloister, a room with two dunking baths, a garden, a shop, selling Van Gogh stuff and art from the art therapy programmes still being run at what is a working psychiatric institution. How much more fun Van Gogh would have going mad now!

The rooms set up to museum-itise him, are lacking in imagination, but for that all the more affecting. As if the lack of imagination in the way he was treated with his epilepsy and toxin poisoning – including too much smoking, coffee and absinthe – were carried over into the pathetic lack of imagination with which this place were set up. Sad.

Home through the magic light of magic hour in Provence light. The plain trees bordering the road on the long straight into Cavaillon utterly magical.

Past queues at petrol stations. Tomorrow general strike. Seems more serious than in its incarnations and mobilisations so far. Unions are said to be blocking the major airports outside of Paris. We saw footage of bonfires beside highways.

Best Super-U tortellini ever. With a chardonnay from Orange.

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sign of the great poet René Char in his home town, at market, Gordes, Frédéric’s Mistral & rain

The Sunday market in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue gets two Parasol d’Or, Golden Umbrellas, from the Syndicat des Commercants des Marches de Provence, Union of Market Merchants of Provence, more than any other market. It stretched today right the way down the river bounding one side of the old town and extended into its centre, making sense of the phrase ‘Doing the rounds,’ ‘Faire la tournee,’ as in, Thank you Madam for giving me a try of your creamed chili sauce, extra hot, but I am doing the rounds of the market, or making a circuit, and may choose to return, although it is unlikely, because your sauce does not impress me. It is not as hot as you claimed.

The market possibly exceeds that of Amboise for variety of products on offer, from regional handicraft, wines, local cheeses and sausages, to Italian shoes. Here as in Amboise there were enormous pans, like woks, with rounded bases, of paella; there were also woks of Chinese food. Knives seem to be very popular, an entire stall; bedwear is also a speciality of the area, quilts, and tablewear, cloths, embroidered mats; rolls of ‘traditional’ tablecloth material, either cloth or plastic, in blue and yellow patterns of wheat and lavender.

It is interesting how many of the foodstuffs seem to be engineered to offend, the sausages that look as though they’ve been dug up, or recently buried, like dog turds, the cheeses that have rotted, magotty and black-molded, or been dropped down chimneys and rolled in soot, that smell like they might have been. Even the fresh meats and vegetables left sitting out in the sun, wilting, attracting flies. However the prevailing sensation today was… cold. The brilliant air freezing out the sun with its icy blasts, and in the sun, the mistral somehow evicting the heat. Excoriating the bones, evacuating the spirit. A wind sharp enough and a blade that fine to strip images from off retinas.

J. was taken for a ride by the tapenade-maker’s daughter. We said yes to a spoonful of marinated garlic in Provencal herbs and yes to the olivade, black, without anchovies. A great dollop of tapenade dumped in the box. To which one wanted to say, TOO MUCH! But too late. Weighed up it came to over twenty euros. Tapenade for ever. Ripped off… However, it is probably the best tapenade I’ve ever tasted. Light and mousse-like. A salty-savoury chocolate ganache. Olived. And the garlic. Delicious, not a hint of the sharpness of the wind, with a rumour that it would keep away any maladies brought on by the mistral, as if a traditional Provencal preventative against agues and fevers, colds and flus.

With excessive tapenade and goat’s milk cheeses and new slippers, made in Italy, we returned home for lunch. Our Loft trapping sun outside the front door. Q. made coffee.

I read Rene Char. Thinking, What sort of contretemps could Mme. Char have had with the municipality to remove the Char museum? Had she wanted more money than they had?

We took a car-trip up to Gordes. Not far. And before leaving L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue found more market! Antiquey stalls our town is famous for. And every seller boasted a coffee-grinder. Most by Peugeot. I’d conceived a hankering for one, since the last of our coffee was in beans.

We shopped around. Clearly the manual grinder has become a collectible. There were some cool models. I especially liked the geared ones for semi-commercial quantities. And the metal ones in the shape of rubbish-bins. Coloured grinders. Metal. Wood. The first we’d seen ended up being the best value, at twenty euros, not even the cost of the tapenade.

With magic grinding box, we set forth decisively once more. And discovered why Gordes is the hang-out of film and beautiful people in these parts. It looks out for miles over the patchwork of lavender and vines. And in its uniform pale stone, with its twelfth century chateau, is perfectly photogenic. Like the people it is said to attract.

Here the next weather event: rain. Freezing, hardening the wind. We retreated to where we’d paid three Euros to leave our car. And went over the hill to Senarque Monastery, Cistercian, which sits at the bottom of a chasm, facing onto fields of lavender bushes clumped in rows, pressed mud paths inbetween. And we couldn’t get out. So I only know that’s what it is, looks like, because we stopped halfway up, in a passing bay, so I could look down on what the guides consistently describe as a stark and splendid place.

Stopping at the Lavender Museum, we learnt the all-important difference between Fine Lavender and Lavandine, from representatives of the Lincele family, ‘producers and distillers of fine lavender for many generations on the Vaucluse hills… a plant which has a existed for a thousand years.’ Lavandine is a high-yield clone. Fine Lavender ‘grows on the arid mountains of Provence above an altitude of 800 metres.’ While Spike Lavender is little used in France – very ‘campho-rated,’ its perfume too strong. But there was something wrong with the way the info was given. It sounded like an argument in favour of Lavandine. Was it intended to stress that with lower oil yields and against the economic odds the Provencals were fighting the good and moral fight for medicinally efficacious and naturally propagating Fine Lavender? The story was repeated several times, made a point of, from cultivation, to harvesting, to distilling, that Fine Lavender is… not Lavandine. A curious contender for self-deprecation as self-inflation. We heard a talk, saw a movie, and passed through a room full of various sorts of stills, wood-burning, water-cooled, and steam, mobile, or in place, converted from fruit-distilleries, and purpose built, most of polished up copper, some like inverted tear-drops, and a thing called a lavender concrete maker, specifically intended for lavender going into soap. I think. The smell so pervasive. So heady. In the film, you wondered why the men opening the steaming thing full of lavender didn’t fall over with the fumes and pass out in unison. Then the shop. Samples of oils and room-sprays and eau-de-colognes being sprayed around, soaps and energising lotions for legs, feet-invigorating stuff, an after-shaving-skin-fury-calming emollient.

Home to test-grind coffee. Q.’s new metier overseeing the process from bean to expression. And lentil stew with pork-chops, a modified soup, mashed-potato side. Sort of cassoulet. J. cited its Provencal credentials. A second bottle of the very good Demoiselles Coiffees, aka girls with haircuts.

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Barcelo at Palais des Papes (cf. Murakami at Versailles) Avignon & Musee Calvert preceded by some notes on losing the thread

This writing has by now turned into an Exquisite Corpse. I feel as if I’ve lost the thread I thought I was following leaving NZ, arriving HK, that I’d thought would be most durable, to do with the sense both of place and of displacement, the latter a function of the saturating of experience with mediated images, of information and communication technologies, which tend towards advertising, as the governing interest in their relentless encroachment. The difference between capital and advertising being then analogous to that between force and power. But I say I’ve lost this thread?

Do I mean like a thesis I have had to revise? Certainly, since Paris, I have not stopped to consider the relationship between place and advertising. And this has had to do with this relationship passing from being phenomenally present, as it were, one apparent in experience, as a screen, through which or before which what happens happens, or underlying, as a prior cultural knowledge or studium would, the point, or punctum, of experience. I am trying to say that although this relationship is there – as a cultural expectation – it has simply not been, since we’ve been in France, of paramount interest. Which is interesting in itself. In Berlin, there were the aporia surrounding the absence that is the Wall. An angle from which to consider the way the city advertises itself or represents itself against what one saw there, felt there. In Berlin, with the additional influence of having friends there, offering their interpretations, their points of view.

In Paris, and from Paris to here, I would say that the ‘postmodern’ line of questioning of the sense of place takes second place to a more old-fashioned sort of template, offered by the city, a daguerrotype, restated by the people, the media, and given in experience: to do with race and class, primarily, and the problems of assimilation of primarily Arab and African populations to the ideals of citizenship as stated from the Revolution. Going with this, the strikes that have been such a feature of our stay here. The co-opting of students by the unions to protest against the raising of the retirement age to 62. Here, it seems, old-fashioned politics prevail over the media concoction of ads and commercial interests.

We didn’t get to Villeneuve-Les-Avignon today because the bridge we would have taken was closed to cars by a march in demonstration that stretched right around half of Avignon itself, outside the old city walls. (Where in NZ there’d be a certain fear attached to and circumspection surrounding using the word ‘revolution,’ here the amplified marching song explicitly demanded revolution.) But this meant that a lot of people were put off entering the old city, and we had no queues to get in to see the Palace of the Popes, Palais des Papes. There was a delay in getting in but it was due to an ambulance blocking the entry. A visitor overcome by hunger? a jumper?

The ticket lady gave us the choice of chips or chips. Chips, however, were more expensive. So it became a difficult choice. Because chips with salt, and a further two toppings, cost more than salt with chips, with the same two further options of toppings.

We took the chips, paid the higher price, came out with a Passport to Avignon, knowing it’s always a dodgy thing having a Passport: what it usually means in France is reduced ticket price, the complete opposite of a free ‘pass,’ on the entry fee to additional monuments, museums, locations of interest, beyond that primarily stated. Our passports gave us access to the Palais des Papes, the Petit Palais, the exhibition inside the former, currently of works by Miquel Barcelo, and two other museums… But, beyond allowing us into the grand Palais, it was difficult, despite the ticket lady’s lengthy explanations, to know what else it was good for.

This time we accepted the offer of free audioguides – here perhaps insert an analysis of mediation by technologically effectuated commentary? – and imbibed a lot of information – ideologically inflected? – flatly delivered in Standard English, annoying, the apparatus heavy, one ear burning after a short time. Because with the handheld device comes the compulsion to use it, to key in the reference number for the place one is in. At. 3, for the big bare courtyard, first stop, explaining why the Papacy came to Avignon – or, as it was later put, why Rome was in Avignon… for almost two hundred years! In all the explanations there was no mention of the Anti-Popes. An ideologically inspired omission? Seems that, generally, over the period preceding Avignon’s Rome-yness, the Papacy was peripatetic. I can’t say I learnt a lot apart from that. Except perhaps from the ‘informative’ list of provisions for the Papal crowning. Outrageous numbers of animals, chickens, over 60, 000 eggs, and on and on. And the way animals were stacked on turning spits, tiered, it appeared, according to size. The smallest turning high above the beef carcasses, the boars, but no mention made of how the spit-roasters ascended to the little ones furthest from the fire. And were they naked when they made the ascent? Up ladders past tiers and tiers of turning browning beasts, bare, sooty, red and running with animal grease. Is that how it was done?

The painted rooms were wonderful. The papal bedroom a wonderland of curling vines, evocative of excessive consumption of local wines. Italian artists imported to deal with the tricky issue of perspective representation in the Pontiff’s library. Decorated, incongruously, with a forest and images of hunting and fishing. A man releasing a ferret. Three fishermen using net, line, spear, around a trough depicted with broad perspectival white borders. The magic of realistic representation let down by the relative scale of the symbolic space fished: hardly as large as a swimming pool. Children bathing. Oddly grey-coloured. As if schematic. Falconry. All with this lovely Rousseauean background of dense generic naive trees.

In the ‘high’ kitchen where the spit-roasting took place, mention was made of the squinches, allowing the transition from the four-sided room to the octagonal chimney. I snapped a squinch to show.

In the Grande Chapelle, we encountered the work of Miquel Barcelo, a native of Majorca. It didn’t take long for the work to grow on us. Memorable works of art. A Bacon crippled boy. A Giacometti burnt matchstick. And masks everywhere. Hung, so the blurb read, in Barcelo’s words, on the hooks left after Picasso’s last major exhibition here.

The final room on our tour, a vast vaulted hall divided by five columns, the wonder that it was directly below the Grande Chapelle.

We retreated from the Mistral into the car for our picnic. The demonstration had gone.

Back into Avignon to visit the Musee Calvert’s excellent collection, especially of Flemish, German and Dutch pre-renaissance art. I snapped some, in order of appearance: a polychromatic nude by Pierre Ambrogiani, painted in 1953; a detail of two men, by Pierre Journau; from upstairs, a painting depicting the Eden episodes, with animals fantastically anthropomorphised and expressing human emotions, and people in heaven having a hard time of it, looking like they’re in a celestial washing-machine in the clouds stuck on spin, this by Anon., circa sixteenth century, Flanders; a Louis David; a partial frame of the work by Charles-Hippolyte-Emile Lecomte-Vernet, for the tights-wearing youth with ear pressed against the wall, remembered by Balthus; the painted bust of the boy dates from the fifteenth century and is by Francesco Laurana; two gold wall-papered scenes of titillatory and fervid religious violence, German, fifteenth century; a detail of a stage scene, a show on a raised board, with backstage worker accepting a stool to use as a prop, by Pieter Brueghel junior; a Resurrection of Christ by Johann Koerbecke, 1456-1457, included because of the guy holding his friend’s nose and for it being the only work by this artist held by a French museum, the others presumably at home in Westphalia.

On our release from the Calvert Museum, we thought we’d take the long way around back to the car. Turned a corner, and suddenly a throng of extremely well-dressed Avignonians, thronging, with shopping bags on their arms. The road barred to traffic. Saturday afternoon.

Everybody seemingly in a hundred mile radius had donned their best duds and flocked to the shopping district of Avignon. It looked so like a special occasion I asked the fluoro-vested guy operating the gate to allow buses through what was up. Noone here, he said. But no, I said. We were here earlier and then there was noone here. Now everyone is here. And they’re looking at us like we could at least have made an effort and coordinated our outfits.

It’s always like this. But today, there’s noone here. Because it’s cold, he said.

Muscles cooked in their shells served on rice with vegetables and turkey meat, cooked by Q. and J. Wine, again very good, a Luberon, appellation Luberon controlee, L’Aiguebrun, 2009. The green glass with these images in relief around its neck: a pyramid-roofed tower beside a tall yew or poplar.

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expectations of a home, hopes for a theatre in L’Isle sur la Sorgue & access barred to Carpentras’s magic portal, but Super U

An exasperating morning, meeting the elusive M.-C., with whom all communication and arrangements re our accommodation prior to our arrival had occurred. She arrived with C., bearing bags of pastries and breads – breakfast -, shook hands with J. and I, grabbed Q. firmly by the shoulders and kissed him on both cheeks, 1, 2, 3. He explained to us later that he had been mentally prepared, having witnessed men doing the same thing when meeting in our local bar in Paris. He knew not to stop, he said. Presumably, after the 1 and 2.

The toilet does not work, I said. Both M.-C. and C. rushed in immediately to see to the problem, C. pulling the lid from the cistern, while M.-C. remonstrated with him for not informing her earlier that it didn’t work. He’s a handy-man, I said. Sometimes, M.-C. came back. And the shower is missing its screen. So water tends to pour out and flood the toilet. Did you know about this? M.-C. to C. Yes, he answered. Perhaps we can go to Mr. Bricolage and get a new shower handpiece.

They made a rush for the door. I caught C. and told him about the lack of a plug for the sink. M.-C. had already left the ‘Loft,’ too far away to tell him off again. (A ‘loft’ is apparently a studio here, since ours is on the ground floor.)

Within 30 minutes they were back, both handily fixing things, she with a new shower fitting, he with plugs and chains for the sink. When everything was fixed – there were no guarantees about halting the deluge from the shower – they were ready to leave. What time on Thursday do you go? M.-C. asked. When I said we intended to spend a night in the Camargue, I was told it was so close we should really do it from here. In fact, the place had no one letting it for the next few days after our week. We should stay. Make day-trips to the Camargue. Even Carcassonne is only three hours away. Why would you need to stop along the way and spend a night?

We agreed to meet Thursday, before midday. Would call if we were going to stay longer. So. Till Thursday! Yes. Because we also need to give you the money. No mention had been made of the rent. And the discussion about the security deposit we’d had via internet had simply been forgotten. The initial sum mentioned then had been 1000 Euros. A relief. But we’ve now gone around to paying nothing at all until we leave.

Of course, M.-C. left her glasses behind. Not that she and C. were in a rush to leave. Not that there was any embarrassment about basic amenities in the ‘loft’ not working. A manner, merely, of going about things. Perfectly friendly and pleasant, amiable, but entirely and exasperatingly impractical. Not even that: not meeting on the same level as regards the practicalities and formalities of renting out their property. Nothing signed. Nothing questioned. They’d not thought twice about letting out a place that didn’t work, in the most basic way of having working plumbing.

L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue was settled by the Celts, in the fourth century or so BC. The Romans followed. In the era of the barbarians, retreat was made into the swamp where the town is now. Over the next millennium and a half, the town became islanded, and the river was harvested first for fish and second for energy, turning dozens of wheels. In the middle-ages the wheels connected to millwheels. In the renaissance, they powered weaving machines. In the eighteenth century, silk was made here.

The town became a refuge for Jews and ‘transparents’ – gypsies, and others – like other cities existing between sea and land, Venice, particularly. It was tolerant of alterity.

We did a circuit of the town. Bumbled into the church, retreated. It turned out to be a funeral service. Picked up sandwiches and ate them near waterwheels turning, but turning into air. The impression gained was that L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue trades off its picturesque qualities, the canals running through it, the water clear and clean, with cafes and restaurants proliferating on their banks. The water level is kept constant by various gates and locks enabling steps to be built right down to the level of the water. It also has a reputation for trade in antiques. A major internationally renowned antiques fair takes place here annually around Easter. At present, the ‘antiques’ trade seems to consist rather in decorative furniture and objets d’art than in historic artifacts. Otherwise the trade is in soaps and frou-frou. Aprons, bed-clothes, cushion-covers, quilts. And beds, sofas and garden structures like giant bird-cages made out of wrought-iron. Pergolas.

Circling back around the outside of the town we walked through the students striking. Hard to know whether opportunistic or politically motivated. By this time, midday. The town had shut. Even the church locked up.

We drive out to Carpentras nearby. A town of over 30, 000, with the oldest synagogue in France, sitting on fourth century foundations. The Porte Juive turned out to be cordoned off for public works. It was the gate through which Jews would enter and come out Christians. On its outside, a picture, allegedly, of rats circling the earth. The market that had attracted us in the first place was long over, finishing at 13:00. St. Seraphien like a warehouse of God, vast, open – post reform – and decaying.

We ran into M.-C. outside her shop and told her she’d left her glasses at the Loft.

On the way home, we stopped at Super-U, a giant supermarket. J.’s promised land. And stocked up on delicacies for the week. For tonight, rolled stuffed turkey. We passed on the black radish and deciphering the thousand milk-based products. But bought more cheeses. A pate en croute. Balls of spinach and meat. Mussels in their shells. Bulk pork chops. Fennel bulbs. Boiled beetroots in vacuum packs. Wine, this Demoiselles Coiffee from Ventoux, 2009, I’m drinking now. And the Verveine, a digestif we missed out on in Le Puy.

Q. found the Matrix Reloaded. After last night’s Tour de Montparnasse Inferno, a French Flying High, very funny send-up movie, a holiday in English. But why is Neo wearing a Jesuit frock?

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slowing our fall into the bright haze: Le Puy en Velay to Isle sur la Sorgue

Coffee at a place of torrefacture, which, although it sounds like bull or some heinous process you’d subject bodies to, is coffee-roasting. A Costa-Rican. The proprietor, middle-aged, stood in front of his laptop with his banker, justifying the expenditure on green-beans. And that was Colombian… I heard him say. Not the best roast. But at least caffeinated.

Back to our lady of the fly-blown buns, whom we’d visited the night before for a loaf of bread. This time for breakfast croissants, a fougasse and sausage-meat in pastry to do the most criminal thing you can do with food in France, black looks from all directions, eat on the street.

Through the park, past the menagery in cages, goats, pigeons, wild deer native to the region, called daim, to the museum. The gruff reception guy informed us that they would be closing in 50 minutes, at midday. No need to ask why.

Le Puy is mamoth capital of the world, it seems. Even those bits, skull and other bits, found in Siberia, are shipped here for analysis. While the area has its own as well. Its own prehistory of bears, mamoths, mastadons, sabre-tooth tigers, giant hyenas, lynxs, and so on, also documented in cave-drawings. The most touching of the exhibits were those of young mamoths, seven-and-half or so months old, one with fur, thick and red, still on it, the other, trunk intact, fur-less and flat, the leathery skin turned ebony.

The other exhibitions featured bits off and discovered during renovations to the Cathedral. And a room of treasures cleared from the rooms occupied presently by the much-advertised mamoth exhibition. The Christian relics from the area, although not mamoth-aged, made you wonder at the richness of the region, material and somehow also spiritual. Upstairs this was further attested to by the giant canvases on religious themes and the models of the Black Virgin. Downstairs, attached to the mamoth exhibition, a room set aside for Venus images. Big-breasted, heavy-bellied, bubble-arsed. Fertility statuary. How the Virgin descends from these I can’t say.

We were cleared out by officious grey-coated men minutes before twelve midday telling us to hurry. Why? I asked. Is it lunchtime? Not amused, they did not relent.

Outside the familiar presence of police, shutting down roads, diverting traffic from road-blocks. Protests blocking the key intersections on the ring road. Key for us, since at the bottom of our road to the Chateau de Polignac which we’d intended to visit before heading away. This is the keep on a plateau of magma, as high as the needles we’d already climbed, a kilometre away, back around the north.

I had a halfway amusing conversation with our Hotel receptionist, who said she had no political opinion. Except at home she did. I asked if she was in agreement with the unions. She said, What do you expect? I am a directrice at the Hotel. With the strikes there are no trains, no planes, and no petrol, since transportation of petrol and gas is being targeted. The first part of this was laughing. The second was not.

As before, we were impressed with the number of youths protesting, unemployed, it seemed. And when you looked, you were struck how many floors of the buildings around were up for rent. The boys with their buzz-cuts, sitting beering at any hour, at places like the Bar des Colonnes, faintly Eastern European, a sixties building with concrete columns mimicking those of antiquity. Le Puy is depressed. On a day, grey and bone-chilling like today, depressive. You can’t help feeling sorry for it. These riches at its heart, tended night and day by nuns, priests, and various other, secular custodians, which don’t mean anything today. As they don’t draw tourists in sufficient numbers to make for an industry.

But there is also that to Le Puy which comes from being capital of a Department. Historic capital. The people are wise to it. They recognise the downside, laugh at it and are cynical, both. They understand irony.

It was sad to leave Le Puy. It is incomparable, finally. Geologically and in terms of a legacy that dates to the very earliest era of Christianity.

We squeezed our little C3 through the passageway out of the garage, onto the street, in the opposite direction to the protestors, and Polignac, noting, along the way, the Swastikas painted on a wall. The skinheads of Le Puy resemble those in the paintings of Attila Georg-Luckacs.

Not far away, after stocking up on Gasole, paid with card, we left the main route to visit La Cascade de la Beaume, by Solignac. A waterfall, far enough from the road, and far enough from the busy routes, to make us worry as we left our car to walk the 20 m, that ended up meaning 20 minutes not metres, to La Cascade, that we might return to find it without tyres, wheels, or worse. A lovely bushwalk among the nettles. A sign, when we got there, read not to pollute, water serving village.

The legend of La Beaume has it that in feudal times, the daughter of the Lord of La Beaume wandered so long in the forest that she went mad. She glimpsed a devil in the trees and was about to leap into the Loire ‘when neighbours founded her.’

The devil she thought she’d seen was a young goatherd sent to find her. He fell in love with her. Her madness not abated, word circulated that an amount of cold water on the head of a lunatic might cure him.

The young goatherd contrived to bring her to the edge of the waterfall. He had her look over its edge, telling her she would receive a vision of the Virgin if she did. Together they leapt off.

The Virgin slowed their fall. (This is like another story we heard about the needle of St. Michel, wherefrom a young girl leapt and was miraculously saved; leapt again, and was likewise saved; tried a third time, and, pushing it, crashed into the ground in front of the crowd who’d gathered to witness the miracle.) She slowed their fall.

Quite cured, the daughter of the Lord of La Beaume married the goatherd. How could her father stand in the way of a miracle? And this is the story of how a lowly goatherd became the Lord of La Beaume.

We regained the main road. Passed from Auvergne to Ardeche Departments. The temperature fell to six degrees celsius. We came to the Ardeche gorge and the road told us we were descending a gradient of ten degrees. Ten degrees. Down and down we went. The sun searing away the cloud, the hills hazy with light. A bright sea light around us. The temperature rose from six to sixteen degrees, making up the same amount as the gradient we were descending.

When finally we were at the river Ardeche, it was eighteen degrees. The trees gave way to scrublands.

Leaving the gorge at Aubenas, the landscape took on a dry and Southern aspect, such as you might expect of Spain. And the light changed again. Bright AND hazy.

We stopped outside Montelimar to buy some of its famous nougat. Fresh, deliciously soft, and flavoured with local honey.

L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue was full of traffic, full of life, as unlike Le Puy as you could imagine, hot despite the Mistral. My cellphone service had decided to be difficult so I had to rely on the kindness of a local ladies’ fashion outlet to make the call to M.-C., from whom we are letting our accommodation. C., her husband I presumed, answered and told me that in the time it took us to find the address, he would be able to contact her to meet us there.

It took hours. The map was useless. I harassed a number of locals. But eventually we found it. Further locals were coopted into playing a role in the narrative. But it came down to us not being able to contact them and them not being able to contact us. All we could do was hope we were in the right place.

A false start, arms raised in exaggerated welcome, when the bemused cardriver happened to be merely passing through, past us, to a house at the back of the cul-de-sac. Finally, C. arrived. Mme M.-C. had had to work. He let us in to the place we’d gathered from long minutes staring at it was our so-called ‘Loft,’ a studio outbuilding, behind a locked gate and wall, beside which we’d parked the car, on the ground floor. It looked like a sort of breeze-block motel-unit from the outside, except unloved, the garden rough and untended.

Inside, it proved to be enormous. The metal-frame frontdoor opening up on a living-room possibly ten by ten metres, beside it the breakfast bar, beyond that, the kitchen, and further beyond both, the kingsize bedroom, dressing-room corridor, with built-in washing-machine, and Turkish-styled bathroom. Or is it, Turkish-style? There’s a fireplace, the opening of which is roughly three-by-five feet, to confuse the standards of measurement. A massive sofa, with hardly room to sit, covered in so many cushions. Balinese screen. Sidelamp in shape of Buddha-head. Modern canvases, one with Amities on it, the other reading, Bonjour Vous! The kitchen has a zinc bench. Slate tiles beside stove. All usable surfaces and things but every thing and surface covered with things that have no function except as decoration. Barstools that no human could sit on, backs in the shape of flames. It’s like a Bond fantasy love retreat. For show. But useful for some lateral purpose, which we have not yet ascertained.

Leading to the obligatory visit to the supermarket. An excellent marinara with beetroot and lettuce salad. (You buy the former boiled here, not skinned. It’s always sweet and never woody.) A wine around 5 Euros: Vignoble Eyport, Bourgogne Chardonnay, 2008.

It may seem bourgeois naming the wine, but, since Moulins, I’ve realised I love the bourgeois. They can be happy. Quite apart from being complacent. Le Puy really misses them. In this, perhaps it is more like a New Zealand town. Not necessarily simply poor and depressed, but also poor and uncultured and depressed. Of course, in Le Puy religion compensates for the lack of culture. For everything that is lacking in fact. Is this the meaning of religious solace?

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inside Our Lady & up Saint Michel: the view from the top du Puy en Velay

Le Puy is still fantastic, despite today’s dull weather, dull light, chilliness. Sucked in again by the offer of breakfast at Hotel Bristol. It was a buffet, as the receptionist had said, but one comprising nothing hot, and nothing cooked, apart from boiled eggs. Which, when cracked out of their shells, were stinky. J. saved me from eating them. Pointing to the distinct green to grey tinge around the outside of the yolk. Cereals, choco and cornflake. Crusty bread. Brioche loaf, which looked like sponge-cake. Croissants, tiny ones. Noisettes, sealed in plastic. Mini pains-au-chocolat. Ham, six slices on the whole buffet, under a perspex cover, with butters and cheeses in foiled pottles, and yoghurt and puree of some kind of fruit, one hoped. Coffee, tea, hot chocos, came out of a machine. The redeeming item of degustation, grapefruit and orange juice in glass dispensers.

Out into the morning no earlier than usual, we determined to climb the needle rock to the chapel of Saint Michel. When we got there it was already ten before midday. The ticket lady helpfully warned us we had only ten minutes before it closed for lunch. It? Closed?

Which reminds me that I have left out the sight of young adults lying down in the road in extravagant protest at the raising of the retirement age by two years. In other words, the young and bored showing off and being silly, fellow-travelling on the excuse of the protests by the unions. Yes. The road was closed, the one ringing the old town, and police sirens were ringing, traffic was being diverted. What fun! Almost joined them for a lie down.

Being a tourist, however, without union representation, you don’t have strikes. Tourists, however, ought to go out on strike at some of the major touristic sites we’ve visited, or tried to visit. Notre Dame de Paris being a prime candidate.

Down the hill we went, determining instead to climb first to Notre Dame de France, the metal terracotta-coloured Virgin with her miraculous metal boy on her arm who looks out – in actually a very specific direction, into the cloister of the Cathedral, as we discovered – over the town. The cloister was also shut for lunch.

We ended up circumnavigating the Virgin on her needle, meeting secondary school students leaving for – what else? but – lunch, many of them no sooner out the gate than they were busting out the fags. Finally found our way up. Her back entrance. Lest her virginity ever be in doubt.

Inside her cast metal skin – the melted-down cannons of Sebastapol – a tightly spiralling staircase took us up three landings, where, on each, there were small windows, cut out, hinged, so you might open your little door, peer out and close it again. J. said it was like being inside an Advent Calendar. Who needs the Statue of Liberty? Same construction method, sections of thick cast iron bolted together on the inside.

Descending, we ran into an Australian family, taking a course similar to ours but in reverse: Spain, Barcelona, overland through France, to Paris. We had lunch together and the children ran madly around the square where once the guillotine had stood, playing tag.

On the way we discovered another pilgrimage site we’d missed before, a small chapel dedicated to St. Clair, with a square beside it, magic, or a Magic Square, tiled into the square, this very clever acrostic:


It was translated into French as, Les roues, les travaux, il tient. I don’t know how to translate this. Because I’m not sure what it means.

St. Michel, when we’d made it up the over 200 steps, was another, like the Cathedral, of those religious sites warmed – literally – by its own mystery. Much of the chapel dates to the tenth century. It was built on to accommodate the growing number of pilgrims. The kind guide offered to show us the treasures uncovered during restoration work after the depredations of particularly the nineteenth century, when, allegedly, it was painted over in yellow, and chipped away at without regard for the wall-paintings; add to this, of course, or subtract from it, since it was probably the stratum that the paint was intended to cover, the chipping intended to remove, layers of soot from candles over a thousand years, and the grease of hands, and whatever else might accumulate over such a long period. It had been quite black, our guide said.

She showed us a crucifix made of olive wood. Beautifully simple. Christ as the wood itself, arms out-stretched. A thousand years old. A piece of stone from the first apparition of Saint Michel in Italy. An ivory box. A round box the crucifix had been inside, with a Spanish name. A silver cruciform box, nothing in it. Fabric, woven in patterns, fine fabric, Byzantine in provenance. She pointed all this out with her torch. Then moved on to the images in the arched vault. In which the sabots the people wore and the excellence of the horses are worth mentioning.

She showed us the stone that had come from fifteen kilometres away to make the pillars. The stone of the dolmen, a wall beside the unique side nave. The floor as it had been a thousand years ago and as it had been a mere nine hundred years ago. And the capitals of the pillars, ornamented with animals, including rabbits, bears, or dogs – there was some confusion – leaves, and some of a celtic design, using interlace. The deliberate quotation of styles that were native to distant lands made me think that that also went towards the idea of their preciousness, that distance for people who didn’t easily travel equalled wealth, as did the very height of the pinnacle on which the chapel sits, for people who didn’t fly. The formula: distance = wealth. Conquering distance, whether vertically or horizontally, being a godlike quality.

We made it down, and up, to the Cathedral’s cloister and sacristy before they too closed, closed again, this time for the evening, which starts at 1700 hours. The Sacristy was a shop. We visited the Cloisters, which, although reputed to be some of the most beautiful in Europe, were peaceful, interesting in terms of variation in capitals, and featured an amusingly grotesque frieze under the eves, on the inside, showing ectoplasm coming out the mouths of maids and demonic faces and chimaera of various sorts, but were most striking for being the object of the giant metal Madonna and her Ward’s gaze.

We returned to the Sacristy shop to shop and had a conversation with the shopkeeper. Her husband, it turned out, owns the Hotel Bristol building, not the business. She confirmed the narrowness of the garage entry, saying that the local authority wouldn’t let a new entrance be made from the rear. She tried to help us out with suggestions of places to dine, but in the end, after returning to the warmth of our hotel room, with the A-Team on, over-dubbed in French, we decided to stay in, visited the supermarket for cold chicken and salads, and dined in.

After the A-Team, a show waxing nostalgic about the TV shows of the 80s in France. Hard to know if A-Team part of same nostalgia or general programming.

Note: stopped in at a church with an unprepossessing facade between Cathedral and Hotel. Inside it turned out to be one of the richest we’d visited. Beautiful canvases and frescos by Guy Francis, a painter who studied in Italy, but had returned to his birthplace, Le Puy. Ornate gilt side chapels and high altar, the latter ascending into the vault painted by Guy Francis. Women were busy polishing the gold. It smelt of polish. A special service tonight for Notre Dame. The painting behind the altar was quite remarkable. The figures cut out in complete chiaroscuro.

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des Moulins au Puy

Le Puy-en-Velay is fantastic. Fantastic! But first we have to leave Moulins.

As he’d promised, F. had prepared for us a personalised itinerary, not the dense action-packed one he’d threatened, but a number of what are called bonnes addresses, sticky-noted onto a Moulins tourist guide. The Grand Cafe came first, for breakfast, once we were checked-out, Q. pulled from a mere inch or so of water in the bath, because the water had been turned off, for the work of refurbishment to continue, for which he was compensated by a most concerned proprietress with a jam doughnut from the breakfast spread; once we’d walked up and down the now transformed streets, from eerily empty and spookily silent to, in the daytime, a seemingly thriving commercial town, small and burgherish, but jolly. Once we’d walked up and down the town trying to find it. Once there, it was too late for breakfast. The owner suggested buying croissants and eating them there. So we did. From the nearby supermarket. Putting crumbs all over the place. Established in 1900, the Grand has been running continuously. Classic turn-of-century interior.

We visited the church at the bottom of town before finally buying Q. his obsessed-over La Poste satchel at the la grande Poste, the big one, as advised by the little bureau de Poste. Where the woman had given me that special disgusted-to-serve-you expression, reserved for time-wasting foreigners. On the way back to Hotel de Paris, we also visited the cathedral, situated behind a thirteenth century castle keep, called by the King, the ‘mal-coiffed,’ a name which had apparently stuck. The tower had been used by the Nazi occupiers as a prison. The cathedral rose to a great height and had a few good paintings and very fine renaissance wooden sculptures. The outside had recently been worked on. Pristine historic monument.

The road out was easily found and soon we were in fields of dry maize crops, and turned over dark brown earth in fields without fences: gradations of sand and straw tones through to browns varying light to dark in the hazy sunlight. A85 took us gradually up and up. Until we were in cloud. And although being told by our France book to stop and check the view, did not. There wouldn’t have been any.

The temperature sat at around 20 degrees throughout the journey, and, leaving Clemont-Ferrand, the sun came out. Stayed out. For our descent past the fantasy of these volcanic spires, the first with a picture-book castle keep on it, white and crenellated at the top, a town, it seemed, nestled around the base of the rocky outcrop. Again, the awe of scale. Just as, coming into Le Puy proper, the eye-blinking fantasy of seeing what really is unbelievable: a church sitting on a massive finger of rock, Saint Michel; a Madonna, above the town, Notre Dame de France, visible from everywhere on her pinnacle; another white statue of Saint Joseph, similarly on a pedestal jutting metres above the surrounding buildings. The Hotel Bristol garage gave us a clearance of perhaps two inches either side of our wing mirrors, but we got in. J. driving. And the room sunlit with big windows out onto a courtyard garden. A bathroom with the best pressure we’ve had since Paris.

Sleepy after our evening drinking everything F. could throw at us – except the Framboise, which had been in the frigo a little too long, and tasted like anti-freeze anyway, and the Old Prune, a cognac made from prunes, both of which were poured like lemonades, both of which we had to ditch, either of which would have had us out cold – we lay around for a while before our exploration of the town. The Cathedral has that element essential to the aesthetic appreciation of religious buildings: it is mysterious. Some of it dates back to the twelfth century. Reminiscent of San Marco’s Basilica, for its six domes and Byzantine styling. But austere inside, shadowy, redolent of incense, religious personages, nuns and priests busy all around, praying, lighting candles, making up altars like extra beds, and the great mystery, the black Madonna, Notre Dame du Puy. She is a replica of the one that was destroyed during the Revolution. But she is extraordinarily, mysteriously powerful, in her dresses of real lace, a speciality of the area. While large oils depict her in procession in the Renaissance. And a second such figure is found in the side chapel.

We got as far as the gate to the rocky spire where the terracotta giant Madonna stands – made from melted down guns from Sebastapol – at sunset, too late to climb up. Tomorrow.

A frustrating trawl through the town looking for food. Succombed to pizza at a plain pub-like brasserie where at least they had booth seating. It was in fact very tasty. With a big salad of iceberg, green lentils, corn, potatoes, egg, fresh dried herbs, and lardons – fatty chunks of bacon. Lentil country, this.

on tour

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