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Cruising gently along the Rhone

Cruising gently along the Rhone

Part One – Arles to Vienne

‭T‬ravelling with Midland Mainlines meant we arrived at St Pancras in good time for the mid-morning Eurostar to Paris‭, ‬Gare du Nord‭.  ‬What should then have been a quick ride to Gare de Lyon seemed to take an age‭; ‬Parisian traffic was as bad as I remembered it‭ ‬from my last visit decades ago‭.  ‬What it did do was to give us plenty of time to spot‭ ‬‘Frexit’‭ ‬signs everywhere‭!  ‬What have we started‭?‬

I had never travelled on one of France’s TGV super-fast trains and I must say I was impressed‭.  ‬The only difference between them and our proposed HS2‭ ‬trains is that the French system runs mostly through open countryside‭.  ‬What seemed a blink of the eye‭, ‬or maybe because I slept most of the way‭,‬‭ ‬the journey from Gare de Lyon to Avignon was the quickest‭, ‬most comfortable train ride I have ever experienced‭.‬

Our water-borne home for the next week‭, ‬MV Lord Byron‭, ‬was moored about a hundred yards‭, ‬or should I say metres downstream of Avignon’s famous broken bridge where for some reason‭ ‬‘l’on y dense tout en rond’‭. (‬‘Everyone is dancing in a circle’‭).  ‬The story behind this ancient bridge is that it was half demolished in a flood and when no one bothered to repair it‭, ‬it became a tourist attraction‭, ‬helped no doubt by a children’s song‭. ‬Known officially as the Saint-Bénézet Bridge or Pont d’Avignon‭, ‬originally the bridge was 899‭ ‬metres long with 22‭ ‬arches‭; ‬but in 1226‭ ‬it was almost totally destroyed by Louis VIII‭, ‬and many subsequent floods‭.  ‬Attempts at restoration failed and the bridge has been a ruin since the 17th century‭.‬

The city was by a Gallic tribe and later settled in turn by the Romans‭, ‬Goths Saracens‭, ‬Franks and the Holy Roman Empire‭.  ‬Avignon’s 15th century city wall still keeps traffic to a walking pace‭, ‬protecting the sumptuous remains of the Papal Palace‭.  ‬Commissioned during the so-called Avignon Papacy when a total of seven popes reigned from Avignon‭, ‬far away from trouble in Rome‭, ‬it combines two buildings‭ ‬‮–‬‭ ‬the old Palace of Benedict XII which sits on top of the impregnable Rocher des Doms‭, ‬and the‭ ‬‘New’‭ ‬Palace of Clement VI‭.  ‬After the death of Clement VI‭, ‬the papacy eventually after much argument‭, ‬reverted to Rome‭. ‬Remains of brightly coloured frescos adorn the chapel walls where musicians and singers are still attracted by the perfect acoustics‭. ‬The rest of the medieval city is immaculately preserved within the surrounding walls‭; ‬pavement cafes‭, ‬restaurants and colourful shops‭ ‬selling lavender-based products will tempt even the most blasé visitor‭, ‬for here is a town designed for strollers‭.‬

An evening cruise took us downstream to Arles‭.  ‬Here we were following in the footsteps of Vincent van Gogh‭.  ‬He came to this Provençal town‭, ‬seeking its better light than Paris‭, ‬using the region for many of his well-known works‭. ‬He started almost immediately with‭ ‬‘Starry night’‭, ‬the riverside view he spotted on leaving the train‭.  ‬All around Arles it is easy to imagine him sitting outside places like his favourite‭ ‬‘yellow’‭ ‬café‭, ‬or enjoying the tiny walled garden hidden away behind another of his watering holes‭.  ‬Hopefully he soon found the light he was after‭, ‬but he wouldn’t have been so lucky if he came with us‭ ‬‮–‬‭ ‬it rained cats and dogs‭, ‬fortunately the only serious rain for the whole trip‭.‬

The Pont Saint-Benezet, also known as the Pont D’Avignon, is a famous medieval bridge in Avignon

Mental problems led to the eccentric ear-severing incident and he spent time in the local hospital‭.  ‬Learning of plans to put him in an asylum he took himself off to nearby Saint-Rémy-de-Provence where he continued to paint‭.  ‬It was here that he produced some of his most renowned outdoor pictures‭, ‬such as the‭ ‬‘iris’‭, ‬or his sunflower studies and mountain views of les alpilles‭, ‬the bauxite limestone ridge above St Rémy‭.‬

Long before van Gogh came to Arles‭, ‬the Romans made it the administrative centre for the lower Rhône Valley‭.  ‬The town has an open-air Roman theatre still capable of accommodating thousands of spectators in the remarkably well preserved auditorium‭, ‬and close by almost hidden amongst narrow back streets‭, ‬the arena can still be used for bull fights‭.  ‬In the Provençal form of bull fighting‭, ‬the bull is not killed and has a number of rosettes tied to various parts of his body‭.  ‬These must be snatched before the‭ ‬bull can attack the participants‭, ‬who often come off rather badly for their efforts‭.  ‬

Coaches took us a few miles to the west‭, ‬beyond the Rhône to the Pont du Gard‭.  ‬This amazing feat of Roman engineering carries water across the River Gard carrying water from the Fontaine d’Eure to the city of Nîmes 20‭ ‬km away‭.  ‬Although this city which had over 60,000‭ ‬citizens was only 20‭ ‬km away‭, ‬due to the rough terrain the aqueduct had to travel about 50km‭.  ‬Even so‭, ‬the difference between the start and finish was a mere 2.5‭ ‬centimetres‭, ‬in order to allow the water flow gradually into the wells and fountains of Nîmes‭.  ‬The three tiered aqueduct was built without mortar with each stone interlocking like pieces of Lego‭, ‬miraculously without any significant loss of water‭.‬

From the Lord Byron moored overnight back at Avignon‭, ‬coaches took us into the Ardèche Gorges‭, ‬a deep-cut ravine cut by a 30km meandering stretch of the River Doux to the west of Tournon‭, ‬a small riverside town above Valence‭. ‬

The Doux has cut its way through massive layers of limestone‭, ‬not unlike a series of cliffs like our High Tor as it towers above‭ ‬Matlock‭.  ‬Starting at the village of Lavas the river runs east in sharp twists and turns‭, ‬flowing downstream until it comes to‭ ‬Aiguèz‭.  ‬A scenic motor road making even more torturous meanders‭, ‬runs hundreds of feet above the river‭, ‬following the line of the gorge‭, ‬with view-points colonised by feral goats waiting for hand-outs‭.‬

Two tiered Roman ampitheatre is probably the most prominent tourist attraction of the city in Arles

During the war‭, ‬resistance groups created hideaways in the impenetrable shrub-covered moorland plateau‭, ‬at one time hiding Jews‭ ‬fleeing from persecution‭.  ‬During much earlier times‭, ‬ancient Cro-Magnon peoples made their homes in many of the caves lining the cliffs‭.  ‬One of the caves used by these early settlers‭, ‬now called the Madeleine‭, ‬is within easy access of the Nature Reserve‭ ‬Information Centre‭, ‬about half way along the gorge‭.   ‬It serves as a good introduction to the reserve‭, ‬and an interactive display shows how the gorge was formed and describes the impact of human beings on the area‭. ‬Stunning views of the ravine can be enjoyed from an easily accessible observation deck‭.  ‬Further upstream and close by the road‭, ‬the river has carved its way through the‭ ‬rock to form a natural arch known as the Pont d’Arc‭.‬

Following a night moored at Tournon we passed through three massive locks‭, ‬travelling upstream along the Rhône as far as Vienne‭.‬‭  ‬This ancient Roman stronghold was established by the famous Julius Caesar‭, ‬but even before his time it was the capital city of‭ ‬the Allobroges tribe‭, ‬whose chieftain’s‭  ‬sons were described by Caesar himself as‭ ‬‘men of outstanding courage’‭.  ‬Like its ex-Roman sister cities‭, ‬it still has a steeply tiered theatre‭, ‬the setting for countless plays and displays‭.  ‬Unfortunately it was closed during our visit‭, ‬with the French equivalent of JCB diggers helping repair the ravages of time‭.  ‬

From the solid remains of palatial Roman villas dotted around Vienne’s back streets‭, ‬it is easy to imagine the place in its hey-day‭.  ‬One of the best remains stands in the centre of a quiet square‭ ‬just off the Rue Joseph Brenier‭; ‬this is the almost complete Temple of Augustus and Livia‭, ‬the deified Roman Emperor Augustus and his wife Livia‭.  ‬The temple is open on three sides‭; ‬originally there was a statue of the emperor in front of the closed rear side‭.   ‬Slightly away from the north side‭, ‬a modern sculpture of a metal cow makes the hint of a sacrificial offering‭. ‬


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