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.
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.
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.