Demystification Guru

Just because we don't understand something, doesn't mean it isn't understandable.

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Location: Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Sunday, June 15, 2008

France 2008 - road trip, May 19

Monday, we rented a car. We had planned on taking local transport out of Arles for the day but with train strikes making for uncertainty, we decided to splurge on renting a car. We just showed up Monday morning at the Avis place at the train station and what they had left was a mid-sized Peugeot. It turned out to be a standard transmission which is not a problem for either of us but it was also a diesel. We knew there was something tricky about starting a diesel but we figured, "how hard could it be?"

Thirty minutes in the parking lot later, we had to go ask the rental lady how to start the darned thing. (The reason it took 30 minutes is because she wasn't there when went back 5 minutes later after we first got the keys.) She took the keys, locked the car with the remote, unlocked it, got in, put the key in, put it in neutral but did NOT step on the clutch, turned the key one notch, waited for a light to come on and then turned the key a second time. We had tried a lot of that but not in that particular order.

We were off! We both enjoy driving but Peter likes the challenge of driving in foreign places (he was the one who wanted to drive on the wrong side of the road in Barbados), so I let him do the driving. Also, if he drove, that meant I got to drink at lunch. Bonus! We headed out into the Camargue, retracing part of our route from the day before with Alan. This time, we got to see horses from the comfort of an air-conditioned car with a suspension system. The day was clear and very warm but the most notable feature of the weather was the WIND. We don't have proof but we think there were sustained winds of over 50 kph and gusts much more than that. I wore a skirt and spent most of the day holding it down with both hands.

Our first stop was breakfast at a road-side cafe, where we merely had the usual cafe and croissant. There was also the usual family dog on the premises, this time sitting in the window, placidly looking around and then having a snooze. I find that most of the dogs in France are the calmest dogs I have ever seen, many of the large ones allowed to wander around without even the benefit of a collar. I don't know if it is just because all the other ones get run over or something, or maybe it is something about the French dog owners, that they are real pack leaders. But the dogs are very well behaved.

Our next stop was Aigues-Mortes, begun in 102 BC and rebuilt in the 13th century by Louis IX. It was used as the embarkation point for the Seventh and Eighth crusade and it was in our Eyewitness Guide book, so we went. Also a walled city like Old Arles, this one has the wall still all the way around it. In other respects however, it was very much like Old Arles except the streets were on a grid. By the time we got there, we were starting to think about lunch, so we just looked around a little and then pushed on.

I had been thinking of visiting Nimes since we started planning this trip, because I read in the Eyewitness book that it was where denim fabric had been invented (fabric "de Nimes", get it?). Plus, I read that Nimes was the home of many of the true Provencal fabrics and I wanted to shop! However, by the time we drove up to the outskirts and saw that it was really a huge looking modern city, and by the time we had been around about a hundred different roundabouts, each with about 5 or more exits, and we realized that we were driving along at 70 kph on the ring road, we decided to bail and not visit Nimes after all. I had seen a fabric store right in Old Arles and said to Peter, "keep going, we don't need to stop."

Our next goal was the Pont du Gard.
France 2008
How anyone can fail to be impressed by the engineering feat that is this aqueduct, I am sure I do not know. The Pont du Gard is the longest "bridge" in the 50 km long aqueduct that brought 5 million litres of water every day to the Roman city of Nimes from the source at Uzès. Some stones weigh nearly 6 tons. The slope of the 50 km water run averages 34 cm of drop for every 1 km of run. That's about 17 metres drop for the entire length of the aqueduct. And all without a slide rule or theodolite. 2000 years later, parts of it are still standing. I would love to transport the engineer responsible forward in time and show it to him now.
France 2008
You are allowed to climb up the side of the hill and look at the aqueduct from the top, where the water ran. It's wonderful.

When we got to the Pont, we had lunch first, as we were starving and there was a really nice looking restaurant right on the bank of the river. It was a little more expensive than your average restaurant but you couldn't beat the view.
France 2008
Here's Peter taking a picture of some tourists with their own camera - probably the best picture they have of their entire trip. That patio umbrella is down because of the huge winds. You just can't tell at ALL from these pictures but the wind was amazing. We spent a good couple of hours here and then moved on to Avignon.

The driving was good and there are lots of signs and we had a map, so we never got lost. We even took the toll road at one point, to get from Nimes to the Pont without having to slow down every kilometer for yet another roundabout. They are in fact really useful, those roundabouts (rond point) because you don't have an intersection with stop lights and so you just have to slow down, figure out which exit to take, merge and you're continuing on your merry way, but they do get wearing after a while if your goal is a town and not the journey.

We arrived in Avignon and decided to enter the walled city with the car, driving slowly into yet another Old Arles. We were certainly familiar with this sort of old street network as pedestrians and dodging cars, but it is another thing altogether to drive in there. We finally stopped and asked some police where we could park and they said "outside of the walls" so we drove out. Luckily, we found a long, narrow parking lot sandwiched between the river, a main ring road and the wall and it was free! It was also packed but just as we crept down the long line of cars, someone left and we pulled right into their space. AND it was right by a recently-made (as in modern and not 500 years old) pedestrian entrance in the wall.

We walked into Avignon and consulted the map in the Eyewitness Guide. We weren't on the map. The main reason to visit Avignon, other than to "danse sur le pont" as in the children's song, is to see the Palais des Papes. There were 7 French popes from 1309-77 and they built a grand place for themselves, indeed. Talk about a seat of power that let everyone else know about it. The Palais is way up on a steep hill that looks down on the river and it's built like a fortress. When we walked into Avignon, off the map, it was easy to see that we had to go UP and to our right but we weren't sure which was the best route to take.

So when we walked past a woman sitting out on her steps, having a smoke, we stopped to ask for advice. We thought we were being polite when we started by saying, "excusez moi, Madame" but apparently, she didn't think so. After Peter asked what was the best way to get up to the Palais, she didn't answer for enough time that I immediately got that she was about to make a point. Then she looked at us with contempt and said, "Bonjour." Yeah, okay, we get it. Much bad language ensued in my head but I stifled it and said, "bonJOUR" back. Dumbass. She waved in the direction of the giant and obvious mountain to our right and said something like "that-a-way", and before I could say something I'd regret, I plucked at Peter's sleeve and said, "let's go!" I was seething at the first (and almost only) rude treatment we'd had from a local but Peter had been too busy concentrating on getting his French right at the time, to notice.

Unfortunately, that set the tone for what we think about Avignon, not to mention the ostentatious display of religious power-mongering by the long-dead popes. We finally made it up the hill and there was the Palais. We went inside and whatever it cost to see the whole thing was too much for me, especially given that it was late in the afternoon and I was getting tired (and obviously cranky). So we hung around the outside in the hot sun and ferocious wind for a bit and finally I said, "let's go have a drink!"
France 2008
As the DD, Peter had to have coffee but I had a much welcomed glass of wine (okay, "whine"). We chose the patio of a very nice-looking hotel for our stop and it wasn't until after we sat down at a table at random that I noticed their planters had herbs growing in them! Lovely. I felt better right away, even if the drinks were hideously expensive and the bathroom cost 0.20 Euros to get into a stall.

We check out the map and leave the walled city by an exit right near the historic Pont d'Avignon. Peter had never been taught the song but I remember it (at least the verse) from - it must be - kindergarten or grade one, when we lived in Quebec City. The bridge doesn't go all the way across the river but it was originally built by a shepherd boy who later became Saint Benezet. It fell down a lot and by the 1600s, they stopped rebuilding it. The only access to it is through this building beside it, where you have to pay 4 Euros to go dance on it. I decide to "danse sur le trottoir" instead, and we fight out way back toward the car park against the wind. Halfway there, we notice some steps leading up to the Palais des Papes from the level of the river (we are walking along the very busy ring road outside the walls).

I figure the steps have to be blocked off at the top because everywhere else, they were charging entrance fees but we decide to climb them anyway. We finally get to the top, where the wind must be blowing at 60 kph at least and discover that we can wander around the top of the Palais des Papes and take in the terrific view of the surrounding area for free. I count the steps on the way down and discover there are exactly 200 of them. Now I feel like Avignon has been worth the visit.

By the time we get back to the car and on the road home, it is rush hour and we stop and start our way out of the city. We finally hit the open road and head back to Arles, tired and wind-blown but satisfied over-all with our road trip. We drop the car back at Avis at 6:30 pm, where the office is still open and we express our thanks to the rental lady. It is only after we get home and the Visa bill that we discover that the car has cost us $240 Cdn for the day. Of course, that included gas.

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2 Comments:

Blogger bikerider said...

We ought to point out that the car-starting fiasco wasn't because it was diesel vs. gas. Somehow I buggered up the security feature with the key as I got in (I was playing with it) and I never got any indication from the dash that it was being 'recognized'. When the gal came over and I explained, she shut the door and locked and then unlocked the car, explaining that reset things. When she inserted and turned the key, the dashboard lit up with all sorts of lights, including the diesel's, "wait for the glowplug" light.

Ce n'était pas de ma faute, really ... :)

8:13 PM, June 15, 2008  
Blogger JuliaR said...

I didn't think it was either of our faults. I think the Avis people should explain these things before they go on a coffee break.

10:03 AM, June 16, 2008  

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