Three footnotes to France

 

NiceRoadSignWelcome to Part 1 of an occasional series of armchair travel snippets, brief moments along the way that are memorable because they were teachable or funny or even a mini history lesson. I think of them as travel footnotes, not on the itinerary, but sometimes the best part of the trip. 

I get a lot of questions about our willingness to travel independently and especially DRIVE in Europe. First, let me say we have only driven in France and Italy, where they drive on the right (as opposed to the UK where they drive on the left). Driving in another country is always a little unnerving. Highway signage is very much like it is in the US, but of course in another langusge. Speed limits and distances are posted in kilometers, not miles. But that’s just s bit of math. Parking, however, is always an adventure. After riding around the same block several times in Antibes, France, we did what so many others had and just parked on the sidewalk.

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But, there are times when the independence of car travel on your own is a real advantsge. Since our first visit to Provence when we toured the remains of the Roman coliseum in Arles, I have been struck by the number and sophistication of those ruins. First, they demonstrate how far the Roman Empire reached (It was everywhere!) and, second, the ruins show how much the Romans knew what they were doing when they were building.

Pont Julien, originally built in 3 B.C., is perfectly preserved and remained in use until a neighboring bridge was built in 2005! Now it’s reserved for pedestrians and cyclists. This bridge is not a big tourist destination; we noticed it on a map of the area the night before we would be driving nearby and decided to try to find it.

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Can you imagine the Roman soldiers marching across this bridge?

We stopped here after our visit to Chateau Sercy.  Pont Julien was built on the Via Domitia, a Roman road connecting Italy and Spain through what was then a Roman province, now Roussillon, Languedoc, and Provence in southern France. There is a modest parking area and some low-key signage, but perhaps most importantly Pont Julien is simply a part of the larger, country landscape, much as it was when it was built. While we were there, walking the bridge and taking photos, I was thinking about the Roman soldiers crossing this bridge, their carts of supplies and animals rumbling over the stones, in a time before this was even France. Imagine! 

Terrible timing in Aix

Our timing to visit Aix en Provence was terrible. We were there on a busy market day, the traffic was awful, we couldn’t find parking, and pretty soon Steve and I were both snapping at each other. (Which happens from time to time when you spend days in a car in a foreign country!)

We really wanted to visit Paul Cezanne’s studio in Aix. It’s out of the way in a residential neighborhood (which turned out to be very congested). We decided we’d skip the old town crowds and limit our visit to the studio. Even this scaled back plan was a challenge. Aix is very busy with narrow streets and modern traffic. We got as close as we could, parked in a hospital’s public lot, and walked the rest of the way.  We were hot & cranky and I wondered if Cezanne’s studio would be worth it.

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This is the studio Cezanne had specially built for his needs. The door used to move large canvases in & out is just to the right in this photo. The centerpiece here is one of his easels.

It was amazing! Cezanne’s studio is as he left it a few days before he died in 1906. His brushes and paints, easels and props are as he left them.

A little background is important. Cezanne knew this would likely be his last studio and had it built to suit his needs. The first floor had basic living quarters and the second floor — essentially one large room — was his studio. The artist even had a slim, vertical door built into one corner to allow him to move large canvases in and out.  

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Cezanne’s studiuo as he left it, days before he died. 

In October of 1906 the artist was working outside, a few miles away, painting one of his favorite subjects, Mont Sainte Victoire. An exceptionally cold, wet storm moved in, yet he continued to work. When he finally decided to return to the studio, the chill had already gripped him. He collapsed and died a few days later. After his death his family simply locked the studio. Later a writer acquired the space, but only used the first floor. Cezanne’s studio remained untouched. Eventually the property was put on the marketplasce, but a group of Americans, realizing the studio was still just as Cezanne left it, bought the space to preserve it. It remains today in its 1906 state.  

What happened at Versailles after the revolution?

I visited Versailles with my son on our first trip to Paris; my daughter was there as part of a school tour. We thought it was just “meh.” Big, crowded, and lots of lines. However, by 2018 my husband and I had been to France a few more times and Steve thought it was time for him to visit this French landmark. It helped that we were comfortable taking the train there ourselves, thus skipping the tour bus my son and I had taken, an experience I was anxious to avoid repeating.

We thought it would be important to “skip the lines” at the chateau so Steve researched tours. The one that appealed to both of us was described as an inside look at the King and Queen’s apartments. But, we got so much more! What we thought would be a 45-minute tour of private rooms was actually 2-1/2 hours with a Versailles curator. There were only about 15 of us in the group, making it easy to see the rooms and ask questions. The curator was a charming, and obviusly knowledgeable historian committed to educating us about the fine points of 17th and 18th century court life. He didn’t just point out this antique and that chandelier.

For example, drinking glasses were not left on the dining table. If a guest desired a drink, he or she signaled the footman posted behind the guest’s chair (one was assigned to each diner) for the beverage and then the footman took the glass back. Can you say pampered?

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We all hear about the Hall of Mirrors, the gardens, and the exquisite furnishings, but what happened at Versailles after the revolution? Most of the furnishings were sold off. The new government was desperate for money. (I didn’t learn that in history class, did you?). When we visited the King’s grand and gold library, the guide pointed out this commode was acquired post-revolution by one of the Rothschilds. During WWII when the Germans confiscated the best of European art and antiques, the commode was acquired by Hermann Goring. It has only recently been returned to Versailles (“Thanks be to God,” as the curator said.) That has been the story of many if not most of the palace furnishngs. Versailles was literally stripped of everything worth money and those treasures have only trickled back. They continue to track them down & buy them back.

And here’s my lesson from Versailles: some sights are well worth a second, closer look. You always lesarn something new.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this bit of armchair travel. And I hope you have joined the ranks of the newly vaccinated, or at least have it on your calendar. Thanks for stopping by.

PS: Here’s a bit of serendipity. This picture of my favorite Parisian square, Place Dauphine, popped up on Instagram the other day. Have a great day!

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