As the song goes, “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape. You don’t spit into the wind. You don’t pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger, and you don’t . . . “ Well, we did anyhow. It’s not that we didn’t know better than to travel in France (the world’s most visited country) during the months of July and August, it’s just that the month of July is when our literary society meets annually, and this year it met in France. I won’t say much about this year’s conference except that the venue was a holiday camp lacking air-conditioning and that that the weather was exceptionally hot. Post-conference, Kay and I spent ten days in southwest France, and they are the subjects of this missive.
It was early August, a time of the year that is not only the peak season for tourism but also the time when anyone who can takes off for his annual holiday. To travel then, especially if by car, is guaranteed to expose oneself to a number of irritants.
In the past fifty years, France, as it moved out of the depressing post-war years and grew in affluence, has built a large network of motorways. They are not freeways, however, but toll roads, and the tolls are collected repeatedly and often. Nowadays, there seem to be few human toll collectors left. They have been replaced by machines that dispense tickets and collect money. These machines accept credit cards and work pretty well until occasionally they don’t. At those times drivers have to signal to cars in line behind them to back up and chose another queue. Some drivers, lacking credit cards, take an inordinate amount of time feeding coins into the machines and waiting for receipts. All this means that our highway driving felt like a stop-and-start process whose delays made us think fondly of freeways in America.
Another fond memory is of U.S. freeway rest stops. As weird as they can be at times, they are happier places than the French equivalents, which are too small, too crowded, and too poorly maintained. Plus, they often have odd and confusing layouts that make refueling and parking more challenging.
In more ordinary seasons, these circumstances would be far less irritating. It’s the intense traffic at this time of year that at times overwhelms the infrastructure.
On the subject of automobiles, there are other driving issues. The smaller French cities and towns, most of which are centuries if not millennia old, have narrow streets and limited parking, especially in the historic districts that are the ones that everyone wants to visit. Of course the difficulties of navigating and parking in these circumstances are not confined to France. They exist nearly everywhere in Europe and beyond. Istanbul can be nightmarish in these respects, so we are inured to them. Again, it is this time of year when so many are on the move and looking to experience the same things that adds to the difficulty.
So why do it? A good question since our circumstances permit us to go and come almost anytime of year. Well, my niece Amy and her husband Roland have recently relocated from Rome to the Toulouse area from where, as a pilot, Roland flies for Easy Jet. Since we would be in France anyway and not too far from Toulouse it seemed like a perfect time to visit them. Besides, Toulouse and its surrounding cities of Albi and Carcassonne have long been on my bucket list if not on Kay’s.
We rented a small Mercedes hatchback at Lyon’s principal train station. Because we’re always looking for ways to save money, we often rent cars from obscure companies. This time the company was Sixt. The car, once I was able to figure out how to drive it, was fine. I don’t know about you, but these days, when I get into a rental, I face a learning curve; each one is so different. The Mercedes has no floor-mounted shift lever. Instead it is located on the instrument panel. I was puzzled at first how to adjust the side mirrors, and Kay had difficulty with the radio. I never did figure out the cruise control, no loss really since the traffic was so heavy I couldn’t have operated it anyway. Since Kay’s iPad has Google Maps that can work like a GPS, we chose not to rent the optional GPS from the company. There was only one problem. At first, the iPad didn’t like the route we had chosen from Lyon to Toulouse and wouldn’t co-operate. It took us fifty miles on a wrong route before we realized this and had to backtrack.
Once on our chosen route, we drove past Clermont-Ferrand and then southwest and south, taking us through some very beautiful scenery in the Dordogne.
Our days spent with Amy and Roland were a highlight of our month in France. The young couple is making a very comfortable life in their new country. Their temporarily rented home is beautiful and very close to the airport from where Roland flies. Amy, whose years in Italy have made her a fine cook, created some splendid meals. Together with her, Kay and I visited Old Toulouse on the Garonne with its historic squares, monuments and museums. Another day took us to Albi, birthplace of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and the most extensive collection of the artist’s works. Most of us are familiar with Lautrec’s posters promoting Montmartre’s fin-de-siècle cabarets. They decorated the walls of our dorm rooms at college and have been reproduced all too often. But Lautrec was much more than an illustrator of posters, and to see the full extent of his short life’s work is to gain a new appreciation of him as a man and an artist.
The Lautrec collection is housed in the Palais de la Berbie (Berbie Palace), which itself is remarkable monument. The powerful Bishops of 13th-century Albi built the fortified palace as their Episcopal residence. It stands beside the enormous Cathedrale de Sainte-Cécile that dates from the same period and is built in the same style. These two buildings are paragons of the medieval religious architecture that flourished in Languedoc at the time.
Cathedral at Albi
And speaking of Languedoc, street signs in Toulouse and elsewhere are in both French and Occitan, the language of Oc, that was the medieval vernacular in the Southwest. We’ve since learned that Occitan is a living language that many people thereabouts can understand if not speak. It is taught in schools and used in certain television programming.
On the tourist trail, our biggest disappointment was the walled Cité of Carcassonne, a site I had wanted to visit for years. There is nothing wrong with the site itself; it has been beautifully restored so that the architecture and the interpretive aids give a good general idea of its history and functions. But it’s a tourist magnet, and at the time of our visit it was overrun. The narrow approach to the entrance was so packed with people we could barely get through to stand in the long line at the ticket window. Once again, as we were reminded, “timing is everything.”
Leaving our relations in Toulouse, we drove east to spend a day with friends at their elegant home in the seaside locale of Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer. There, I learned a new word. A calanque is a rocky inlet where in lieu of a beach the summer folk go to sunbathe and swim. That evening, in the nearby port town of La Ciotat, the four of us enjoyed a meal while listening to al fresco jazz.
It was getting close to the time of our departure from Lyon, and we had two more stops to make. I had visited the city of Arles once before, as a student in the early 1960s, and I have practically no memory of the occasion. Most of us think of Arles as the place where Van Gogh stayed with Gauguin and made some of his most famous paintings. Although Arles is justifiably famous for those reasons, the city has other claims to fame. Its location near the mouth of the Rhône made it a great port in Roman times. Now, a modern museum, the Arles Antique, brings that period of history to life with its busts of the emperors, ornamented sarcophagi, and models showing how the city’s ancient ruins like the amphitheater appeared when they were new. Its most striking artifact is a Roman riverboat, 31 meters long, called a chaland that had sunk two millennia ago and been raised and restored by archeologists. That painstaking process is illustrated in a short film that accompanies the display.
We had time for just one more site in our Arles afternoon, so we chose to visit the Cathédrale St-Trophime with its magnificent 12th-century façade depicting the Last Judgment and especially its famous cloister featuring exceptional Romanesque and Gothic sculptures. The cloister was an important feature of many medieval monastic churches, a place for the monks to walk and meditate protected from the world of serfs outside. Many still exist in Europe, and they are always fun to look at because while their square galleries have the same basic form, the architecture and ornament of their ceilings, interior walls, arches and pillars vary in such interesting ways.
Our final stop before returning to Lyon was the medieval Cité of Pérouges. Though not large, it is striking in its authenticity. It really looks just like it must have appeared six or seven centuries ago. Except for its roofs, which are tiled, all its buildings and streets are made of the same small stones. It is a hilltop village and was once fortified and surrounded by a wall. The gateways still exist. Nowadays, Pérouges is a tourist site with six restaurants and a small number of hotels. Our room in a 17th century building was comfortable enough, and even though it was not furnished in medieval style, there was nothing modern about it except for the bathroom fixtures and the electricity.
It’s no surprise that more people visit France than any other country. Paris is an enormous draw, of course, but so are many other regions. Preserving and enhancing French history and culture has been a national priority ever since I’ve known the country. My relationship extends back more than fifty years. I’ve had many of my most memorable and rewarding experiences in France, and I hope to have a few more in the future.