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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Van Gogh country...

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

We moved north here to St-Rémy yesterday, into charming rooms in a 19th c villa—Le Castelet des Alpilles—about ½ a km south of the old town. The camera has got misplaced, so I’ll sprinkle in some shots from the past few days. This view of Les Baux—taken from across the valley as we biked north toward St-Rémy a couple of days ago—is so cool I’m giving it space enough for you to see some detail.
Unfortunately my riding is on hold, since I evidently tore my left lumbar over the weekend. Jane and I had enjoyed one of our best rides and I noticed no problems when I went swimming later that afternoon. But the next morning I was suffering pain sufficient to all but prevent me from walking downstairs to breakfast. Ibuprofen produced only moderate relief, so yesterday I saw a physician—“Dr Phillippe Eric” as MDs advertise themselves—who, after a cursory orthopedic check, seemed to agree it was muscular. His prescription of a combination of paracetemol and something called “tramadol” (along with the familiar muscle-relaxant diclofenac sodium) has me comfortable enough to sleep and get around. So this afternoon we’ll do the “Van Gogh Walk” when Jane gets in from biking some more routes in les Alpilles. I hope I recover for the planned ride to see the Pont du Gard on Friday. (I tried to get some Vicodin but evidently the French have never heard of hydroxycontin; hard to believe, I know.)

Here are a couple of shots of our riding around Mt Ste-Victoire. I’m writing about my interpretation of Cezánne’s lifelong study of the mountain. It’s quite easy to understand his fascination, and to experience it.

Mercredi is “market day” in St-Rémy, so every square—along with the municipal parking lot—was filled with stalls of goods this morning. The wares, however, were the usual mixture of cheap clothing and housewares with a sprinkling of jewelry and food. Except for local vegetables—the garlique and artichauds looked great—I’m convinced the crap on display comes from the same suppliers in Singapore and Sri Lanka that fill the stands in the U.S. and no doubt everywhere else on the planet. I got a copy of today’s International Herald Tribune and enjoyed a cup of tea in the sunshine that’s returned, following several nights of thunderstorms violent enough to be remarkable even at home in the U.S. “Unusual weather”, as people everywhere usually say…

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Good though...

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Last evening was a typical French dining experience: too long and too late. Good though. We walked into Fontvielle—the village north of Arles where we’re staying for this leg of the trip—and chose Le Table de Meunier. The patron proved to be a clown who introduced himself as “Chierry”. At least that’s what I gathered; it sounded rather like “Jerry”. He hustled us into the garden dining area, in what he seemed proud to announce was originally the chicken coop of the house, built in 1792. Voltaire was still producing his plays in Paris. Two hours later we had long since finished eating. The women had tired and left; I was waiting for l’addition and listening to the Germans seated across the room. I thought to speak to them but changed my mind when I made a departing error. By way of expressing gratitude I shook hands with the patron and said, “Merci beaucoup, Msr Cherie”. The room erupted in laughter. Only then did I realize I’d instead pronounced the name I approximated above as cherie. I would have laughed, too, on hearing someone say, “Goodnight, Mr Dear”. I walked out, since it would have been even more embarrassing to attempt to acknowledge my error. Funny though.

Today we rode up to the citadel called Les Baux [pronounced “bow”], built in the 9th c atop one of the many limestone outcroppings—aluminum is smelted from “bauxite”—in this region called Les Alpilles (“Little Alps”). Jane bought a lavender stuffed animal we dubbed “Gustave Faux Bear” and nicknamed “Baux”. It joined the moose (acquired on our bike ride through New Hampshire about 12 years ago) in of Jane’s mesh pockets, which now contains “Baux & Errol”.

Descending to the valley again we biked north to St-Rémy. The town was Saturday-busy and the day, which had begun threatening rain, gradually brightened. The mistral wind—which prevails from the south this time of year—was coming up when we reached the archeological site of Glanum, a city built in the 8th c BCE by native Gallics (the people for whom the Romans named the region “Gaul” when they overran it 700 years later). I reflected on the fact that the original city, largely obliterated by the Romans overbuilding the site, nevertheless lasted more than three times the 200 years of U.S. history…

Weather or not...

Monday, May 26, 2008

We lost a day of cycling to rain here Sunday in what is substantially a coastal climate. Arles is only 35kms from the Mediterranean Sea, to the coast of which we drove, reaching the town of Stes-Marie-sur-la-Mer on the bouche du Rhône—the delta formed by “mouth of the Rhone river”—in time for lunch at the Hotel Thalacap, a big spa devoted to the French belief that bathing in heated seawater—Thalassotherapie—is especially good for your health. No one ever actually goes swimming in the ocean, right across the street. True, it was rather choppy and forbidding in the rain, but I’ve sampled its waters from Spain to Greece and Turkey and always enjoyed myself. Once, memorably, in a bay of the volcanic island of Lipari just off the coast of Sicily, but that was another trip.

We stopped at the Abbaye du Mt Majour on the way back, the locale for several of Van Gogh’s paintings, most dramatically his last work—“Crows over Wheatfield”—upon whose completion in 1889 he shot himself painfully in the side with a small bore pistol borrowed from his host, then walked the 8kms back to Arles, where he died.

This morning the rain had ceased but the storm front was still producing high winds and overcast, so the plan switched to hiking overland from Les Baux to St-Rémy. The marked trail begins just off the D27 below the ancient citadel, traverses the mountain and begins descending the valley toward St-Rémy, which is the locale for the sanitarium where Van Gogh spent nearly a year before moving into the home of Dr. Gachet in Arles. The sites for several of his most-reproduced works of the period—150 paintings in the 53 weeks he was a patient—are well-marked on a “Van Gogh walk” through the town. It’s a measure of the disdain for his art while he was alive that there are only three of his paintings in France, one—a study of sleeping field hands done near St-Rémy and modeled on a similar work by Manet—is in the Museé d’Orsay in Paris. It was the progressive patrons of the Chicago Art Institute at the turn of the 20th c who appreciated French impressionism. The Art Institute owns the world’s finest collection of expressionists and impressionists. Score one for the Americans.

In another indication of the character of foreign art appreciation, it was an American critic and a British curator who raised the funds in the 1950s to preserve the studio of Paul Cezánne just outside Aix-en-Provence; they formed a foundation for its maintenance and gave the building and its grounds into the care of the municipality, which now owes much of its prominence to its association with the artist, also little appreciated by his fellow citizens while he lived and worked there. What’s that saying about how we scorn the greatest among us during their lifetimes?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

L’un des plus beaux villages en France...

Friday, May 23, 2008

“One of the most beautiful villages in France” reads the sign on the road leading up to Gordes. But there’s one just like it on the approach to Roussillon. We had the chance to compare the two on our first day’s bike, beginning from our Hotel Domaine de L’Enclos—“Garden Spot”—and going past the 13th c. Augustinian Abbaye Notre Dame de Senanque. We never did find out what “Senanque” means. There are lots of hills in this part of Provence and we got to test ourselves on several grades up to 13% right away. We passed the test, but I was maxed out a couple of times and so was Jane. Descending with a disc brake—which we have on the rear wheel of the Volaes—is a real bonus in these mountains; you can ride them as long as you need to without fear of over-heating.

Did I mention we’re both riding recumbents on this trip? At Jane’s request last year, Rolf Garthus, with his design and fabricating partners, created a new “Escape” model that’s coupled; the halves of the boom-frame fit into an oversized suitcase along with the wheels. They thus travel as one of our pieces of luggage for no additional fee.

The next day was the planned assault on Mt Ventoux. I found it a real test last year. The serious part of the climb is 15kms up a continuous grade averaging 10% with occasional steeper sections and no relief for the full 1906 meters of elevation-gain; so it was no surprise when Jane reached her limit before we reached the summit. We turned back and enjoyed a leisurely lunch down in Bedoin, saving the ascent for another year.

After comic misadventures locating the shop in Avignon that had agreed to store our bike cases for the duration, we moved down to Aix-en-Provence, staying at a lovely maison d’hote (French for B&B) in Meyreuil southeast of the city. I think you’ll agree the view of Mt Ste-Victoire from the steps of the Domaine Naís was trés génial (French for “awesome”). I was especially excited about biking along the flanks of this massive upthrust of granite, made familiar to everyone who appreciates painting through the devoted work of Paul Cezánne (1839-1906), the most famous native of Aix. We rode up to Beaurecueil the next day, then east through Puylibier to Pourrieres, the views of the mountain constantly shifting with our traverse and the changing light. Seeing it now for the first time, I suddenly realized what it was Cezánne saw and exactly what he sought to convey in the more than eighty views of it he left us.

Sunday, May 25, 2008