Friday, 25 July 2008

A week in Provence

Driving from Catalonia to Provence was interesting, most notably because of the number of similarities between the two regions. For one thing the flags of both are very similar, both with red stripes on a yellow background. The native languages of the two regions are also very similar, and I’m told that Provencal and Catalonian are actually almost mutually comprehensible. Of course the big difference is that Catalan is actually the functioning, used language of Catalonia. Provencal is effectively a dead regional language, now only used for scholarly purposes (and, we noticed, on street signs in some of the city centres of the region). The French were just better at enforcing language conformity I guess.

We began the French section of our trip in Montpellier, a university town on the southern French coast. The city isn’t technically or historically part of Provence, but rather the province of Languedoc. We actually didn’t find Montpellier to be very interesting, but that may have a bit to do with the fact that our hotel was terrible and far from the city centre. We did however drive out to the town of Carcassone to the West of Montpellier, a middle ages fortified city that has been remarkably preserved. That was definitely very cool, even if it did remind me of Epcot Center a bit (I could have done without all the kids running around with plastic swords and knight’s helmets). It was a stunningly beautiful city though.

From Montpellier we drove North to proper Provence, stopping at the Roman acqueduct Pont du Gard. It was definitely impressive; the tallest aqueduct ever built by the Romans, bringing water to the nearby town of Nimes. I had actually never seen a Roman aqueduct before so that was pretty exciting, especially being able to climb to the top and see where the water came through. It really gives you an appreciation for the remarkable feat of engineering these structures were. Over the centuries, while modern bridges have been washed away in floods or eroded by the elements, the aqueduct has stood firm.

We then continued on to Avignon, the jewel in the crown of Provence. This remarkable walled city was probably my favourite part of the trip. The medeival city walls are intact and in pristine condition all the way around the town. At the centre is the imposing Palais de Papes, the residence of the Roman Catholic popes for most of the 14th century. During this period Avignon was the centre of Roman Catholicism, until the schism when there were two popes, when it was the centre for those countries recognizing the Avignon pope. Being inside the palace you really get the sense of how much this was both a religious and military stronghold. In fact defence seemed to be of paramount impotence for the city in general. Not surprising considering that Avignon was nominally a papal territory until about 1800, only then becoming technically part of France.

From there it was on to Arles, a town which had monumental importance in the Roman empire, situated as it was on the Aurelian way which led from Italy to Spain. We didn’t waste much time heading straight to the coliseum, a remarkably intact structure dating from the first century AD. It’s actually in such good shape that they still have bull fights inside it. We bought tickets to what we thought was just admission to look at the inside of the coliseum but then realized we had actually bought tickets for a bull fight. I perhaps would have been a bit morally conflicted about purchasing a ticket for a bull fight, but considering we had already bought them unwittingly we figured there was no harm in watching. It was pretty interesting. Bull fighting is quite popular in Provence (but not elsewhere in France), where they have their own Provencal style in which multiple bull fighters enter the ring and try to grab rings off the bull’s horns without getting skewered. Seems like it would get kind of boring to watch after awhile. Here’s a video we took.



We then drove on to Aix-En-Provence, a charming town to the North of Marseille. It’s quite wealthy, which was apparent immediately on arrival, and had a pretty good nightlife scene for a town so small. This was the capital of Provence for many years while it was an independent region, although unfortunately there isn’t much to see in Aix for a history lover. It was a great place to have some nice dinners though. My friends enjoyed it for this reason.

Our last stop before heading down to the French Riviera was Marseille, France’s second-largest city. I had to do a little arm-twisting to convince my friends that we should visit it, as everyone’s been telling them it’s dirty and dangerous and not worth seeing. I can report however that this is far from the case, and my friends agreed by the end of our day there. The old port section has been cleaned up and is stunningly beautiful. It’s really amazing to see because this port is in the exact same form it was in when Greek traders first set up a colony here in the 6th century BC. Marseille now has the honour of being the oldest city I’ve ever visited.

But we did go around the rest of the city a bit as well, and it’s definitely a gritty, real city (quite different from the other Provencal cities we’ve visited on this trip). I can definitely see where there’s such a strong yearning among Marseilais for the city to host an Olympics. Having just come from Barcelona, you could see how the Olympic formula that transformed Barcelona in 1992 could easily work in Marseille. Right now the harbour and seafront are kind of a mess, particularly the section between the old port and the Cathedrale de la Major (pictured). If they could transform this waterfront area as successfully as Barcelona did theirs, Marseille could come to enjoy a very different reputation than it has currently. Although I have to say I somewhat enjoyed seeing the city in all its saltiness, particularly when I recognized spots from the French Connection movies.

Now we’re off to the Cote D’Azur, driving along the coast and making our first stop in St. Tropez, playground for the rich and famous. I don’t think we can even afford to eat there so I think all we’ll be doing is making anthropological observations. Onward!

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