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Report 582: An Independent Driving Tour of Europe - 2001

By JaniceB from Ontario, Canada, Spring 2001

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Page 14 of 15: Roquebrune, Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne, Troo, France

Jun 13, 2001 20:02

Well, this will probably be our last message from on the road. We have only three more nights here in Europe before heading home. I think sending these messages has been as much fun for us as it has (I hope) been for you! In fact, I’ll bet Mom and Dad get their own computer pretty soon!

Now, let me bring you up to date on the last week of our adventures.

We left Monterosso early the next morning and snaked back out of the hills of the Cinque Terre. Our plan was to drive again on the Autostrada north into France along the Cote d’Azur. This highway is non-stop tunnels. If we went through one, we went through a hundred. This is no exaggeration. The countryside is beautiful in between tunnels. But, when you consider the alternative -- driving up and down those snaky roads -- Mom was just as glad to keep the tunnels.

We reached the French Riviera by early afternoon and checked into our hotel in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, just outside of Monte Carlo. The hotel has a very unFrench name: Hotel Westminster. Our room looked over the Mediterranean Sea and the hotel had a spectacularly beautiful garden of roses and cacti and bougainvillea and other semi-tropical plants clinging to the hillside over the blue, blue sea. What a place.

That afternoon, we drove the one kilometer into the town/country of Monaco and spent the afternoon walking around the old city outside the Grimaldi Palace. We also watched a short tourist movie about the history of Monaco. It was really quite interesting.

I also found it quite ironic that Dad loved this hotel location. When we were planning this trip, he specifically told me we should stay away from urban locations. I had planned two nights in Roquebrunne, but changed it because of his preferences. What did he tell me when we arrived here, but that he’d love to spend several days here. Too bad! What was really too bad was that on Friday, the day we left Roquebrune, Dad put his back out schlepping the luggage down to the car. His immediate thought was: “Oh, no. Dr. G. isn’t even in the office today!” [Hope you’re reading this, Dr. G. Dad’s back is some better, but he’s going to need an appointment when he gets home!]

That morning we drove on along the French Riviera (lots of villas, expensive cars, and palm trees) and on into Provence. We were headed for the town of Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, a town located near Avignon.

Provence, a famous district of southern France, is somewhat arid to our eyes, has many rocky outcrops and escarpments and vineyard after vineyard after orchard (apricots, pears, lemons, etc) after olive grove after more vineyards. It’s quite beautiful, especially around Avignon.

Before we went to our hotel, we made a slight detour to visit Les-Baux-de-Provence, the location of a medieval ruin. This ancient village and fortress is located at the top of one of those rocky hills (actually, the tail end of the mountain range known as the Alpilles). It was extremely windy and I had a lot of pebbles in my teeth by the end of our visit. However, it was a remarkable place. Apparently, one of the episodes in its history includes destruction because it was a stronghold of the Protestants during the religious wars.

The next morning we visited another ancient location almost at the foot of the Baux hill, a ruined town named Glanum. Glanum was originally the site of a Celtic settlement and is so named because they worshipped a god named Glani there. This was about the 7th century BCE. A few hundred years later, the town became a Greek settlement and, by about 300 BCE, it was taken over by the Romans. It was during this time that it had its heyday. However, the barbarians (early French, I presume) destroyed it in the 4th century CE and eventually it was covered with earth. It was not really rediscovered again until about 1921. Today, you can tour the ruins and see the remains of the town. However, if you’ve seen something like Jerash in Jordan, as I have, these ruins are nothing to write home about.

Our hotel in Isle-sur-Sorgue, was quite modern (about 1960’s, we thought) but was located directly on the River Sorgue. Lots of ducks. This is a remarkable town. The river flows into town. It flows through the town. It flows out of the town. It flows around the town. There are many different branches. We had a lovely supper in an outdoor cafe that was right on the edge of the water (quiche and salad). We never really figured out if the river was coming or going, but it sure was interesting. It really reminded Dad of Venice, except the water was crystal clear and flowing very quickly.

We spent the rest of our afternoon washing our clothes. But not in the river!

The next day was a long one.

We were headed north to the beautiful Dordogne area of France, but stopped first at the Pont-de-Gard not far from Avignon. Pond-de-Gard was discovered and somewhat restored at least 200 years ago. It is the largest remaining stretch of Roman aqueduct in the world. Dad was mesmerized. It is very impressive. It spans a medium sized river -- about 150 feet wide -- but the aqueduct was very high and spans the river’s valley. It was designed to carry fresh water over 35 miles to the Roman city of Nimes and dropped 1 foot for every 300 feet it travelled. Truly fascinating.

The rest of the day was spent driving on small, twisty back roads through very rugged country (the story of Mom’s life). It was beautiful! One stop we made was to visit the tiny village that has a museum of French Protestant resistance that took place during the 1500’s. Unfortunately, we arrived a few minutes after noon -- it was closed for their mid-day break. The story of our lives! So we kept driving.

We finally reached our destination at about 7:30 pm. Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne is a tiny village deep in the French countryside in the Massif Central -- a very hilly region. We stayed for three nights at Chateau d’Arnac (a few km north of town), a real fairytale castle. It was built orginally in the 11th century, and rebuilt in the 15th century. It has turrets, an incredible spiral staircase with stone steps that are extremely hollowed out by use; you can hardly walk on them. Our room was on the third floor -- up the spiral steps (Mom made one trip a day) and looked out over the pond, seven geese, three cats, four kittens and one pregnant dog. Sheep and pigs were elsewhere. The owner is English and gave a really English breakfast of bacon and eggs! We rejoiced.

Our first day we had reservations to visit La Grotte de Font-de-Gaume, a cave with ancient cave paintings. They only allow 200 visitors a day due to our steamy breath and germy hands which contribute to the deterioration of the paintings. As we headed slowly toward the cave, we savoured the fabulous countryside, admiring the numerous castles and chateaux. Then, we quite unexpectedly noticed a long rock ridge running along the valley through which we were driving. It was high up the rock face and there seemed to be people standing on the rock edge itself. We starting wondering what it was. Maybe an archeological site! Then we realized the people weren't working, just standing there. So we decided to check it out.

As we approached the location on very narrow roads, I noticed a a small sign indicating it was the site of troglodyte dwellings. These, for the uninformed, are cave dwellings. We decided to learn more and spent a fascinating hour learning about how people have lived on this barren rock ridge for centuries, if not millennia. Some of the more recent residents included, our friends, the Protestant Resisters. Earlier residents included people who organized an incredible warning system. They had positions located down the valley and could, using horns, send in about five minutes a warning signal over 18 km to let their people in the valley know that the Vikings were coming and give them time to reach safety in the rock dwellings! This is the largest troglodyte location in the world. It is over one kilometer long, five levels in height and had over 100 dwellings. It is definitely worth visiting: La Roche Saint-Cristophe.

We did finally make it to the cave drawings at the Font-de-Gaume. They were also fascinating and included beautiful drawings of many bison and deer. It was moving to try to imagine the effort the artists took to create these masterpieces. The people who run the cave believe they were made 14,000 years ago. Whenever it was, it took true artists. As I mentioned earlier, visitors to this cave are very restricted. We were not permitted to touch the walls and certainly not the paintings. About once a year, they use some kind of antibiotic to disinfect the cave. They expect that this cave will be closed to visitors altogether sometime in the not too distant future. I’m glad we had the chance to visit it.

The next morning, after descending the scoopy stone staircase, and walking carefully through the goose poop to the car, we drove to yet another cave. This time, Mom waited in the car while Dad and I visited the Gouffre de Padirac. Mom knew she’d had enough of dark enclosed spaces and too many stairs. She read her book and had a nap in the car while she waited.

The Padirac cave is actually a gynormous sinkhole, at the bottom of which is a spectacular underground river. The sink has existed for thousands of years. It is 35 meters across (about 100 feet) and about 100 meters deep (a meter is about a yard). After Dad and I walked down the 455 stairs to the bottom (we could have taken an elevator, but wanted to feel the distance), we walked about 400 meters into the cave along the river. At this point, we joined other tourists in small boats that were poled like gondolas in Venice. The guide poled us along the river another half a kilometer (we’re guessing at this distance) where we disembarked and were led through the caverns. They are nothing less than unbelievable. The largest cavern could hold an entire cathedral. It is huge. The stalagmites and stalactites are larger than you can imagine. I won’t event try to remember the measurements. We returned again by way of the boats and then wimped out and took the elevators back up to the surface. Dad noted that, while the Font-de-Gaume artists were wonderful, they were nothing to compare to The Artist Who created this masterpiece.

This whole region is full of tiny villages perched precariously on rock faces, sometimes built right into them. Everywhere we turned, we saw further marvels. Words fail.

Today we left our fairytale castle with regret and drove further north into the Loire Valley, a region famous for its elegant chateaux and vineyards. Tonight and tomorrow night we’re staying at Chateau de la Voute, a 15th century chateau that is much more elegant than the previous castle. Our room’s theme is Napoleon, and we actually have a two-bedroom suite. This means I don’t need to listen to anyone’s snoring but my own. As soon as we finish this message, we’re going to head back to our very elegant B&B and, tomorrow we’ll tour at least one of the most famous chateaux in the region.

One last note. We forgot to tell you about a frightening sight we saw in Germany just by the Ludwig castles. We were driving past them, back to our hotel when we stopped to watch some parasailers. One was flying much higher than the other and, just as we watched, he made a quick turn and seemed to lose all the air from one side of his parasail. He began to spin and careen out of control and fell very rapidly. It only took moments, but all we could do was cry out: “Oh, oh, oh, he’s falling”. Just as we instinctively prayed that the Lord would save him, he fell behind a hillside and then we caught a brief sight of a parachute. We think he made it down safely, although perhaps with some injuries. We were quite shaken by this experience. It was horrifying I don’t think Mom plans to parasail too soon.

That’s all for now. I’ll make a final report when we return home this weekend. Five weeks have passed by quickly but wonderfully.

Love to all.

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