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France (Sete, Avignon, Arles, Nice) 2012

Georgia & Zig

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Sunday, April 15th, train to France and Sete

We started north on the train from Barcelona and had to get off at the border of Spain/France on the coast at Cerbere. It was very windy! Decided to spend the night in Sete. At the station a guy at the car rental desk suggested Hotel National. The tourist info booth was closed.

We set off looking for the hotel and turned at the wrong street and circled, windblown, round and round the city, eventually finding it.

Hotel National was nice and the room was clean. The owner recommended restaurants on the quai but we only found one Moroccan restaurant so we circled the city again! We found a line of restaurants and had fun comparing dishes and prices. Finally picked one, Va Bene, that looked sort of like a diner. Georgia had the grilled bream and green beans which she said were delicious, and I had shrimp and tuna steak, a very nice meat with 3 different mayonnaises.

Monday and Tuesday, April 16th and 17th, Avignon

We took the train to Avignon and had interesting conversations with Fowsna and a mother with two children. The mother and children spoke no English at all and the kids were amazed that Georgia and I could converse with each other and they couldn’t understand a thing and yet I couldn’t understand them. Fowsna had excellent pronunciation and a good vocabulary. She said that she loved languages. She was plump and black and I thought she was probably from the Congo since she was wearing bright clothes and dreadlocks. She works for the government trying to help abused children of immigrants and/or illegal aliens. It sounds like a very stressful and sad job. The parents don’t want the government involved. The schools don’t want to deal with the children and the children just want to be with their families even if they are treated badly. I told her it was similar to our being foster parents and that 10 years was the limit of what we could do. She’s been doing her job for 5 years and says she feels herself burning out. She too wants to quit before becoming cynical or heartless but doesn’t know how long she can still keep getting her heart broken. She wanted to talk about the elections in France and in the U.S. She doesn’t like Sarkozy, sees him as a blowhard and not very cultured or intelligent. Not really “not intelligent” but more cunning than anything – more concerned with holding power for its own sake than for making the lives of others better. More like the reputation George Bush (and especially Dick Cheney) had in Europe. Not much concerned with civilization. “He knows the price of everything but not its value,” I’ve heard it described.

When we told her that we were democrats she got excited and had to shake our hands. She sees Obama as civilized – the antithesis of George Bush and Dick Cheney. She is also deeply suspicious of all the Republican candidates – seeing them as unconcerned about the poor and marginalized, the very people she has dedicated all her efforts to help. She is young and idealistic and I tried to warn her about the profound sadness she might be facing if she takes all the problems too much to heart. “Do what you can but leave the outcome in the hands of the good God – and limit your job to 10 years.” I wonder if she will listen.

We arrived in Avignon in the middle of what is called le Mistral, heavy winds. We’d seen choppy water on the sea but didn’t realize just how hard the wind was blowing. Evidently Provencal and the Languedoc have a season of wind, not unlike the monsoon season of rain in S.E. Asia. And we arrived right in the middle of it. As we left the train station we saw one of the ancient sycamore trees blown over. In this area of France and Spain they trim the sycamores and shape them like giant shrubs, and this one had a trunk about 3 ½ feet thick but only about 25 – 30 feet tall. I think they must do this in part to reduce wind resistance, but it didn’t work for this tree. It blew over pulling the roots up out of the ground. The trunk crushed the back of a taxi cab waiting to pick up customers, and the branches had knocked someone over on the sidewalk. I don’t know how badly hurt they were but they were being tended to by some station officials as they waited for the ambulance.

If we had not stopped for a bathroom break we might well have been the unfortunate pedestrians. Life seems to be full of such near misses.

The tourist office was down the sycamore-lined main drag. Georgia was not now terribly happy about walking under the swaying and bucking branches. We learned later that the name “Avignon” comes from an ancient pre-roman peoples (Celts of course) who named it as the “place of fierce winds.”

The tourist office booked us into a hotel the hostess assured us was “clean.” The place Georgia was interested in from the web was right across the street but the hostess assured us we would not want to stay there. “Not clean” she said. And so we set off in search of the Hotel _______. We had to circle around a large medieval church and down a twisty little one-way alley, too small for sidewalks. The city, instead, placed barriers intended to give the car something else to crash into besides the pedestrians. Very thoughtful.

The receptionist, who was also the proprietor I believe, gave us the key to room 20 and reminded us that it was on the third floor. As with so many old buildings in France or Italy there was no elevator and because all the rooms have such high ceilings each flight of stairs involved 3 smaller flights of stairs. Nine flights altogether, and Georgia was again pleading “weakness” and carrying the two bags did give me a certain balance, I guess, and so we set off. By the time we reached the summit my legs were shaking and I couldn’t catch my breath. Number 20 was at the end of the corridor in the gloom. We opened the door and were hit with a blast of air freshener. First thing was to open the window and try to air out the tiny room. The bed took up most of the room and a small end-table and chair took up the rest. The only way there could be a TV was to attach a small flat screen to the wall facing the bed. But except for the overdone air-freshener the room was clean. And then we opened the door to the bathroom. Whew! That was why the air freshener was so overdone. You expect the occasional back-ground whiff of sewer gas in France. It’s just part of the legacy of rich food and ancient plumbing, but this was too much. I knew I was going to be miserable with this smell as my background for 48 hours and we needed to wash clothes. We’d need to dry them in the bathroom and that meant carrying the smell on our backs. That was more than I could stand.

I walked back down the mountain and apologized to the proprietor that the smell in the bathroom was too bad to be bearable. She shrugged eloquently, as if to say “what do you expect from a bathroom?” but handed me the key to room 11 and said, “It is located just below room 20. You can have that room if you wish.”

I went back up the mountain and gathered up Georgia. We went to examine 11 and both agreed that it was a vast improvement with only the normal amount of “ordeur.” The room was slightly smaller because there was a stand-alone wardrobe for our clothes rather than a built in closet but that was “no problem.” We returned the key to 20. “You are satisfied?” she said, as if she could believe that anything would satisfy such a persnickety guest.

And yet before our stay was over she was almost cordial, suggesting restaurants and directing us to the supermarket and to an internet café where we could retrieve e-mail. Unfortunately somewhere between Hotel Levante in Barcelona and here my UKY credit card had stopped working. I’ll need to find out why, though it wasn’t an emergency. The Alabama Credit Union card is still working and so are both ATM cards. Still kind of irritating since we did all we could before we left to avoid such problems.

We managed to walk out on the Pont d’Avignon but it was so windy it actually blew Georgia down. She beat a hasty retreat but I pressed on holding the wrought iron handrail. That was all that kept me upright. The wind was about 75 or 80 kph.

The bridge was built between 1177 and 1188. St. Benezet, a shepherd, received a vocation from God to build a bridge over the Rhone at Avignon. He told the Bishop who asked how he could prove his call. “Ask me to do something.” The Bishop said “Place this stone as the cornerstone for the bridge.” It was a stone left over from building the palace and was too big to move. St. Benezet hoisted it up on his shoulder and carried it to the waters’ edge. “Here,” he said, and dropped it.

Sur le pont d’avignon, on y danse, on y danse.

Sur le pont d’avignon, on y danse tous en rond.


Feeling that wind, I’m not a bit surprised that they “danced all around!” They were probably being blown off their feet.

In Savannah, Georgia, we have really strong wind storms. We call them hurricanes. And in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, we have impressive windstorms too, called tornados, but NEVER have I seen a continuous straight-line windstorm under a crystal clear blue sky. We saw towering cumulus clouds forming over the Pyrenees when we slipped around them on the coast. The clouds must have soared 30 or 40,000 feet. I wonder if that huge up draft was what was causing the mistrals. In any event 80 kph winds under a clear blue sky seems really weird to a simple Georgia boy.

We visited many churches and the Palace of the Popes. Because of fighting between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines and the factional power between the cardinals in Rome, French born Pope Clement V moved in 1309 to Avignon, which was a grant city at the time protected by the French nobility and not subject to the internecine fighting in Rome. He moved the church bureaucracy to Avignon as well, and consolidated the Bishop’s palace under his control and began a massive building campaign financed by a complete overhaul of how the church collected and accounted for its money. In other words, he made the church solvent. But he and his successors discovered that as the power and wealth of the church grew and was consolidated, the influence of the church with the poor and the oppressed waned. Maybe this tension between wealth and relevance to the common people will always leave the church looking for a balance.

Anyway, St. Catherine of Siena – who could not have been closer to the heart of the people, came to see Pope Gregory XI, believing herself sent from God, to tell him that he belonged in Rome. He finally returned in 1378.

Frenchmen feel an animosity toward the church to this day. Maybe animosity is not the right word. Ordinary people seem to feel that day to day observances in church are irrelevant to their lives, though my visit to some very large cemeteries suggest that the church is still very important at certain mileposts – baptisms and funerals in particular. But the intermediate steps of confirmation, Eucharist, penance, matrimony and ordination are of no consequence. But any form of attempted input from the church in the public conversation is instantly ruled out of order. There is not only a wall between church and state now but the wall is studded with glass and barbed wire.

Perhaps the basic issue is that the world thinks we are trying to be relevant in the style of Pope John XXII – not just having input but wanting to control things in the secular world – like the everyday affairs of individual human beings. Top down control, if you will. Change the laws and you are immediately relevant.

I’m probably wrong but when I look at his namesake, John XXIII, I see someone who wanted to be relevant in a different sense – change people’s lives by spreading the gospel, not by passing new laws - change from the bottom up. Change hearts and who cares about the laws? They will take care of themselves.

The John XXII model makes us one lobbying group among many – even if a very large one. We become seen as trying to look out for our perquisites. Protecting “our property” from government taxation, for instance, and our “perks” from government encroachment. In such a world the common people are much more likely to attack our perceived wealth and try to grab some of it than to defend us as their friend and benefactor.

Depressing thoughts but we had a terrible time trying to find a church that was even open, let alone celebrating Mass. But we finally did and it was being celebrated by a young, but graying priest with two instituted seminarians? He was very charismatic and the Mass was very stately and beautiful. There were 3 nuns and 3 postulates in the congregation plus 15 or 20 laypeople – several of whom stayed after the service to pray. And we saw in another church a plaque to Josemaria Escriva , a Spanish Roman Catholic Priest, who founded Opus Dei, an organization of laypeople and priests dedicated to the teaching that everyone is called to holiness by God. The most pure form of bottom-up social change.

St. Anne’s Church was now just a large art gallery. It troubled me to see the side chapels holding only mediocre paintings. Other churches in the city were now used only occasionally for concert spaces. I don’t have any answer, but I do have the hope that the Spirit of God does blow through the Church, animating it and sometimes blowing away the cobwebs.

I made sketches of the tiles and some of the glass designs.

While in Avignon we visited the Musee Angladon. They had a wonderful Modigliani—a woman wearing a red (or pink) blouse. It was stunning and there were fifteen or twenty 4- and 5-year-olds spread out all over the floor coloring their own version of a masterpiece. I loved it. How wonderful to be able to take such an amazing patrimony for granted. There was also a very nice Sisley done in a sort of Japanese style and a Van Gogh of trains down in Arles, where we will be tomorrow. I want to try to find the places where he set up his easel.

We also visited the Musee Calvet and saw a very nice nude by David, and Chaim Soutine’s “The Idiot,” and “Decheance.” He was not familiar to me but I was very attracted to his intense, colorful, bizarre paintings. I didn’t care for the rest of the collection, but a nice glass of champagne, out of the wind, beside the quai was very refreshing.

Wednesday, April 18th, Arles

At the train station the fallen tree had been cleared away – you couldn’t tell it had ever been there. The train to Arles took only 20 minutes, so we got there before the tourist office even opened. We went looking for coffee in a pizzeria outside the old walls. It was good but expensive – 7 euros for two cups. Coffee is usually 1 euro per cup. Then we went back to the tourist office at the train station. They suggested Hotel Regence right on the bank of the Rhone just inside the walls. It was good and the proprietor marked our map for several of the locations where Van Gogh painted around town. As you can imagine Arles is very proud of their Van Gogh connection. It was evidently an important Roman city as well. There were lots of Roman ruins that had fascinated Van Gogh as well. We visited the spot near the coliseum (arena) where he painted. Up until recently the arena was used as a bull fighting ring. There is a strong Catalan connection with Spain.

We also visited the Alyscamps a Necropolis where Van Gogh had painted the Roman stone sarcophagi. In a letter to his brother, Theo, he had remarked that the falling leaves amid the strolling townsfolk in a Roman cemetery left him with a profound feeling. The people were falling leaves too and didn’t know it.
We also found the train-track location and two flower gardens, The famous Night Café, and the location on the river where he painted one of his starry night paintings.

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Georgia wasn’t feeling well so I trekked down a LONG canal past canal boats so permanently tied up to the bank that they had mailboxes and gates!

I finally came to the “Pont Van Gogh,” the very famous draw bridge he painted in vivid yellows and blues. His painting made it look much better than it did in person!
Which of the poets was it that remarked on his loves beauty far outlives her physical beauty in his creation?

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It was a long walk back to the room. Georgia was still coughing and not feeling well.
Around 8 PM when they started serving supper we went back to the pizza place but walked out after seeing the prices in the menu. (stiffing tourists) Then we found an authentic Arlesian (provencale restaurant) Le QG, www.leqgarles.com.

The proprietor/chef/waiter wanted to help us select our dishes and how to cook them so that we would not screw up his preparation. “Bon” he said every time I agreed with his suggestion. But I did order a rose’ wine from one of the local vineyards. He shrugged in the typical French “Oh well, what can you do?” Thin and dark and intense he was thrilled when Georgia said she wanted duck, canard, and I got the “Terre” dinner, “land,” as opposed to “Mare” dinner. Sort of a surf or turf variation. “Medium?” he suggested with bouncing eyebrows. “Mai oui.” I said. “Bon” he said and disappeared to reappear in a moment with a large wine bottle full of tap water and small bottle of rose’. He showed me the bottle. I agreed that it was what I’d asked for. He cut the seal and pulled out the cork. He poured some in a glass for me. I sipped it and agreed that that was wine. He then poured Georgia’s glass and filled mine, then spun on his heel and disappeared.

We sat and waited patiently, sipping our water and our wine and just chatting about the Van Gogh stops. He then reappeared with bread sticks that were truly “sticks.” About as thick as a twig, they must have been 8 or 9 inches long in little bags. “Roberts” Delicious; they were very buttery and crunchy and excellent with the rose’. And then the plates came. Oh my goodness, this was going to be a carnivorous delight! We each had one asparagus spear (delicious, but just a little more cooked than I like) and a little tart cup filled with scalloped potatoes with tiny potatoes sliced so thin they looked like a stack of white paper coins. Just the slightest hint of nutmeg. And bread, palm sized crunchy dinner rolls made with whole grains. The rest was meat – and lots of it. I had two long skewers of 2” square hunks of beef. On one skewer the beef was interspersed with quarter sized slices of sausage and the other skewer had the occasional chunk of meat covered with a quarter inch thick layer of fat. And red?! If this was “medium” then “rare” would be raw. The interiors of each chunk was warm but when I cut each chunk the blood mixed with the mushroom sauce that had been poured into the center of the plate. I was able to cut each chunk into 4 large bite sizes, and there must have been 5 chunks on each skewer. It was much more meat than we both would eat at 4 meals and that was just my skewers.

Georgia’s skewer was like my second one but she had more pieces covered with fat. “Est-ce que canard? I asked the waiter. “Yes, beef and duck” he said, “Comme ca” “like this” he said pointing at my 2nd skewer. “You wanted only duck?” he looked terribly concerned. “This is the duck” he said, pointing at the chunks covered with the layer of fat. “No, no,” we assured him, “This will be fine!” Georgia had 3 chunks of duck and 3 chunks of beef. The quantity of duck must surely have been almost all the breast of one duck.

It was all SO tender and the duck tasted so much like the beef I doubt I could have passed a blindfold test. Before long I was using the bread to sop up the mixture of blood and mushroom sauce and nibbling at the potatoes. With a meal like this I wanted to leave as much room for meat as possible.

And then he brought another plate and whispered conspiratorially to Georgia, “More duck for you.” I could have died.

When we were finished I had to apologize because I was not going to be able to get the crème brulee I had been looking forward to. “Next time.” he said. We thanked him for the magnificent meal. It cost us 51 euros and was worth every penny.
It was now 9:30 PM and Georgia was still coughing. We headed back to the hotel, which was very close-by and crashed.

Thursday, April 19th, Nice

The train didn’t leave until almost noon, so we slept in. Georgia had bought cough syrup at a pharmacy and brought antihistamines with her from the States, but they didn’t seem to be helping at all. She was now definitely feverish and the nagging cough was getting worse. It cost extra because we couldn’t get our “senior” discount, but we got direct tickets to Nice. We wouldn’t need to change trains in Marseille. I just didn’t think we were up to that.

We arrived in Nice-ville, the central part of Nice where the old town was located about 2:30 PM. The tourist office found us a good hotel near the station that could put us up for two nights. And it was having a special – only 50 euros per night plus the taxes. Georgia looked terrible. I asked about finding a doctor “un médicin” in French. I told her that we were walking and would need a doctor who spoke English. Wonderful service. The clerk said they were expecting us and we should go straight to the “Urgence” which is 10 minutes away; but our hotel was five minutes away in the opposite direction, so we went to check in first.

The area around the station was nice. It seemed more like Tunisia or Morocco than France though. The hotel was in the middle of internet/phone shops and little groceries and bars with names like “Bar Constantinople” and “Ali Baba Restaurant.” It was a little uncomfortable walking through groups of young men arguing on the sidewalk about who knows what, but the hotel was very close, and it was clean and our room was on the first floor (just up one flight of stairs, you know). After checking in we left immediately for the Urgence.

This took us in the opposite direction but again in front of the train station. Along this stretch of road were more hummus and taboli shops but also a few “sex” shops promising delights within. Under a super highway underpass, then left down a tree lined residential street with Russian names on every street corner. And then on the right were the beautiful onion domes of a Russian Orthodox Church. The placard said it was built by Czar Nicholas. It was lovely! A few more doors down the street we found the “Urgence.” Through sliding glass doors and we were in a small waiting room. At the window was a handsome, but also prematurely gray-haired young man in hospital scrubs. I told him in halting French that we didn’t speak much French but that there had been a call from the train station? “D’accord”, he said, “I speak English.” And so it began – our introduction to French medicine.

He copied Georgia’s Passport, asked if the address inside was correct. We said it was. He asked if we had a local address. We told him The Hotel Trocadero, Rm 105. He wrote that down. I tried to give him Georgia’s insurance card from the University of Kentucky. He looked at it as if it were a dead fish. “You will talk to them. You pay us.” I thought – Oh boy, we’re in trouble! Thoughts of credit card limits danced in my head.

And then he started taking down Georgia’s symptoms. Coughing and feverish with her chest hurting when she coughed. It all took 10 minutes for check in from the moment we walked through the door. He told us to wait in the waiting room. We sat. There were three others there. A man with a bandage on his hand who was called in just about the time we sat down, and a woman apparently waiting for someone being looked after and a little family group doing the same.

After 5 minutes a very old couple came through the sliding doors on their own steam. The woman was very flustered. The man was calm but walking heavily on a cane. His left arm and hand was wrapped in a large tan colored bath towel. You could just see a spot of blood forming on the surface above his hand. The old woman hurried through the doorway to talk with the admitting clerk. The old man sat down along the wall at right angles to us. He was maybe 6 feet away from me and as he sat the towel fell open revealing its awful red secret. Georgia’s not given to taking the Lord’s name in vain, but said “Oh my God, he’s lost a lot of blood.” I crossed myself.

He looked at me with a wry smile. “C’est domage.” I said, “That’s too bad.” He shrugged as if to say, “What can you expect.”

We were sure they would call him back immediately. “They’ll take him before me,” Georgia said. But then the wife flittered back into the waiting room and sat next to her husband. They had given her a 14” square hospital dressing and evidently told her to wrap that around the cut. She took the edge of the towel and started to unwind it, but sighed and stopped. We could see lots of dressings already wrapped around the cut underneath the towel. She uselessly wrapped the new dressing over the towel and passed on the word that he was to apply pressure to the cut and elevated his hand. The dressing, of course, wouldn’t even completely enclose the towel. But I was glad she didn’t try to take off the towel. I knew that would be bad.
The man never complained and only spoke soothingly to his flustered wife.

And then we were called back. I really couldn’t believe we were being seen first. First come, first served doesn’t make sense without triage, but maybe, I thought, they were treating Georgia’s complaint of chest pains as a possible heart attack. We’d now been there 20 minutes.

A pretty young nurse or nursing assistant took Georgia’s vital signs. She spoke very little English and I helped translate between Georgia and her. The only signs she took were blood pressure and temperature. Blood pressure was normal but temperature was elevated. And then an older nurse came in and asked the same questions again apparently concerned about the chest pain – and whether Georgia took any regular medication.

And then the doctor came in and asked about the chest pains too and checked the blood pressure. Then listened to her heart and lungs and announced that it was a bacterial infection, checked her throat and said, “You wait, I give you a sheet for the pharmacy.” And so we went to stand at the reception desk again. In a couple of minutes the prescription came and the admitting clerk gave me the hospital bill. We could use a credit card for the hospital but not for the doctor’s bill. I figured we were toast. But… it was only 25 euros for the hospital and 25 euros for the doctor! I was truly shocked. I took out 3 twenty euro notes from my handi-dandy money belt tucked into my pants and handed the notes to him and then…..all hell broke loose!

People were rushing around and speaking very urgently and very fast. I could understand very little but did understand that a man had collapsed. We knew immediately, of course, that it was the old man. And sure enough they rushed him through the doors half sitting, half lying on a chair with wheels. His feet were dragging on the floor but his eyes were open and his face was the color of hardwood ashes. His breathing was shallow. They rushed him into a treatment room and I saw his wife outside peering anxiously through the window in the door. She was asking no one in particular if she could come in. I motioned for her to enter and relief flooded her face. She patted my arm as I motioned to indicate which treatment room he was in. She opened the door tentatively and the admitting clerk came out and motioned for her to sit in a chair right outside the door. He squatted down in front of her and patted her hands solicitously. A grown son could not have reassured his frightened elderly mother any better. She smiled tentatively but there were still tears in her eyes.

And then he came over to me and picked up the 60 euros I’d given him, put it in a lock box and gave me my 10 euros change.

I told him in French that he was a true gentleman. He smiled wanly and wished us well.

“If you can keep your head when all those about you are losing theirs you will be a man, my son” This was a man, and I’m glad to have had my brief contact with him. When we went out the doors to find a pharmacy I looked at the time – 30 minutes. 10 minutes admission, 10 minutes wait, 10 minutes treatment. It really is no wonder they don’t want to give up their health care system.

We’d passed a pharmacy on the walk over, so we retraced our steps toward the station. The pharmacy was on the corner. You can always spot them. They have a neon green flashing cross. We gave the lady at the counter the prescription, she turned behind her and took 2 of the four boxes off a glass shelf behind her and walked toward the back of the store to call the other two prescriptions out to someone upstairs. I asked her how much everything was going to cost. Two of the meds were for aches, fever and cough. We could do without them if need be. The other two were an antibiotic for the bronchitis and prednisone to “make the antibiotic stronger.” The doctor had made that universal fist up in the air, slap your bicep symbol of potency. We needed them. Fifty- nine euros, but the analgesic and cough suppressant were only 6 of those euros so we got everything.

Then back to the hotel with a stop at one of the Tabouli stands to get a chicken Panini so Georgia could have something in her stomach when she took her pills. We still had some potato chips left so we ate some of them too. Wonderful “ancien” style chips – buttery and greasy at the same time; yellow and very salty. I quickly formed an addiction to them.

After “supper” Georgia just wanted to rest, so my bag of potato chips and I went off exploring. Plus I needed to check my email to see if Emily, my daughter, had been able to get in touch with the bank to get my Visa card working again.
I hadn’t gone very far at all – only a couple of blocks when I realized I was the only one walking along eating anything. Hard to explain, but it was definitely out of place. Lots of people eating, but in sidewalk cafes. People looked at me and my bag strangely – like seeing a man walking along drinking out of a paper bag – and suddenly I saw myself for who I was: “Hello, I’m Zig. I’m a potato chipolic.” I stuffed the unfinished bag in a trash bin.

And let me interject an observation here. Where the Spaniards (and the Lexingtonians, for that matter) have no need of public water closets, the French have them everywhere! I guess they can’t hold their coffee as well.

I walked down to the water, about 6 or 7 blocks. Lovely turquoise water – deep lapis further out and pale turquoise in close. The AZUR Cote is, of course, a perfect name for the region. The beach was very different from what I grew up with. There were thousands and thousands of round flat stones ranging in size from the size of a quarter to slightly larger than a flattened soft ball and in color from a pale white to steel gray with the darker colors predominating. The most interesting thing for a Georgia boy was the sound. Rather than the crashing and roar I was used to, here we had a crash followed by the clicking of innumerable rocks ricocheting off each other.

It must have been wave action like this that produced the conglomerations we saw on the tops of the mountains at Montserrat.

I saw that there were bus and tram lines going all over the city. I thought that would be useful info for tomorrow. It was.

Friday, April 20th, Nice

Today we wanted to visit the museums. The Chagall and the Matisse museums didn’t open until 10:00 but we couldn’t wait that long. We were up and out, afraid that we’d never get everything in. And thank goodness, or thank French doctors and pharmacies, Georgia was feeling much better. The fever was gone and the cough had subsided to a manageable “throat-clearing” sort of bark.

And so we started walking toward the Marc Chagall museum, only about 5 blocks away, but unfortunately those 5 blocks were uphill. Soon Georgia was getting tired but we found the museum. It was now 8:45. What to do for an hour and 15 minutes. There was a pretty park nearby where we saw a young mother resting while her toddlers climbed all over the playground equipment. We’d helped her carry her double stroller up a long flight of stairs. No wonder everyone we saw was slim and relatively fit. Just taking the kids for a walk involved using the stairmaster.
We started up the road toward the Matisse museum even though we knew it didn’t open until 10 A.M. either, but there were supposed to be other museums and sites near it that opened at 8:00. At the bus stop we saw that you could buy those all-day passes from the bus driver so that’s what we did, and rode in style up a mountain that would have killed us as walkers. Other passengers on the bus helped us know which stop to get off at. I’ve heard complaints about “Frenchmen” being unfriendly. I’ve not found that to be the case myself; but making an attempt to speak a few phrases in an understandable French really seems to help.

The Matisse museum shared a park with a Franciscan monastery and some excavated Roman ruins, and a public WC of course.

The monastery was open and we went in to see the glass and the frescoes painted on the walls. The gardens were more spectacular I think – a riot of color and neatly trimmed bushes and trees. And with spectacular views of the city spread out below us between the tree covered mountains, the yellow houses with red tile roofs looked like toys, and off in the distance the lapis and turquoise sea was clicking endlessly.

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We made our way to the museum and sat on the steps under the dainty little orange trees. The museum was once a house and everyone knows you can’t have a real house in Nice without orange trees, date palms and wisteria. The Matisse museum had all three in abundance.

There were also an abundance of school children. Fridays are evidently free and school groups bring their charges. Not just middle and high schoolers but the finger painting crowd and one group of 8 or 9 four year olds were absolutely charming expatiating over Matisse’s glorious child-like use of primitive shapes and colors. They understood each other perfectly! There were lots of bronze busts made in “lost wax” technique. I want to do that! There were also a number of photographs showing Matisse at work. What a courtly looking man! The photos of him closely drawing a beautiful young nude while dressed in a suit and tie betray a time long gone.

Upstairs were examples of Matisse’s stained glass and the drawings he made for the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, France, with the liturgical vestments and altar cloths as well. He believed it to be the finest work he ever did and I was pretty impressed as well.

And then we started back down the mountain to see another artist, perhaps even more committed to the idea that all art is essentially religious – an attempt to express or make visible all of the unseen but essential spirits that surround us: Marc Chagall.

But before going in we needed a little fortitude, a little smackerel as Winne the Pooh would say. How fortunate that there was an outdoor café on the museum grounds. Georgia ordered a salami sandwich on a baguette. I got a mozzarella and tomato salad with delicious little olives sprinkled all over the bed of lettuce and topped with tomato slices. Each tomato slice was topped with a ¼ inch thick slab of mozzarella, then parsley sprinkled all over and the whole thing drizzled with olive oil. Fresh, truly vine ripened tomatoes. Imagine the concept! We put tomatoes and cheese and lettuce on Georgia’s naked salami and split the sandwich. Then I added balsamic vinegar to what remained of the salad and we split that too with a wine bottle full of water to drink. Beautiful Cote d’azur sun and nowhere we had to be. Life can’t get much better than this.

The Chagall Museum is not large, but the audio guide said it was the first (and only?) museum built to house the works of a living artist. Chagall had a lot of input in the architectural design. His whole goal was to have a place where his “Biblical paintings” could be housed and kept together. Over the years other drawings and paintings have been added and all along the auditorium wall are three huge stained glass windows very much modeled on those spectacular windows he did for the Reims Cathedral. I noticed, in fact, that these windows were even signed “Chagall, Reims.” I wonder if these were studies or preparations or just additional windows using the same fabrication.

However they came to be, it is the same red and blue palette (without the green though) and the same style painting technique and the same etching away of color and adding of daubs of silver stain. They were surely done at the same time and from the same glazier.

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Because all art was truly religious and his heritage was Jewish, he expressed his religious understanding and aspiration using Biblical themes, but his work also contained astrological symbols, yogis and Russian folk beliefs. “What can we know?”, “What must we do?” and “What may we hope?” Those are the questions fundamental to being a human, and science has a worse batting average than religion in finding satisfactory answers. Art expresses the answer. That’s why Chagall’s art is full of religious symbolism.

We caught the bus to Old Town for some gelato. It’s not as good as Italian gelato but it’s a pretty good second best.

We sat on the sea wall and ogled the scantily clad (and topless!) sun worshippers and tried to decide what to do next.

There was a long, long, long stairway a hundred yard to our left that led up to the brow of a hill where the ruins of a medieval fort still dominated the skyline. Georgia said she wasn’t up to the climb but thought she saw on the map that there was another way up. “Yes,” I said “But we will have to walk 4 blocks to begin that path.” “So what,” she said, “It will be easier.” “?” I said. “How can it be easier? Both routes reach the same elevation and we will have to walk 3 times as far going your way.” “Yeah, but my way is an inclined plane.” “?” I said.

We took the long cut of course.

There was a park and a cemetery at the top. And overlooks of course. The turquoise water and red tile roofs were gorgeous. From on high the stones of the beach looked a uniform slate gray, except when the waves rolled back out and the beach sparkled.

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In the park we saw a lady practicing juggling with those bowling pin sort of things. She had a small group of approving friends encouraging her. It reminded me of the woman I’d seen on the board walk by the beach practicing on in-line skates. She was weaving very slowly in and out of a line of pylons. Both were completely involved with what they were doing. The concentration was wonderful to see. The hand movements of the one, so fast and sure, and the foot movements of the other, so slow and deliberate in their crossing and uncrossing. We humans are an amazing lot – capable of such effort.

The cemetery divided into 3 distinct sections. We found the Jewish section first and walked through it looking for a way up to the larger, presumably Christian section. But there was a wall with no opening for steps. Even the upper section of the Jewish section was ghettoized. It took forever for us to find our way into the Christian section because the gate was actually downhill from where we were. And then, though there was at least a gate, the protestant section of the Christian part was definitely set off from the Catholic section. We do slice and dice each other into different tribes, don’t we? But in the Catholic section, as in Florence, some of the tombs had stained glass in them. One was particularly fine. An art deco piece from the 1920s by G. De Cote, Lyon, 1926. The tomb was for Baron Robert Hudson, Lancaster. It was hard to see, let alone photograph the glass through the heavy grille. Wish it could have been made more accessible or at least more visible. Robert doesn’t sit in there admiring it, after all!

But the largest tomb award goes to someone who was evidently the president of the Nice Chamber of Commerce in the 1800s. A huge angel, weeping cherubs, stone flowers cascading more than 12 feet! Resplendent. That was an important guy I guess. Too bad Jesus wasn’t that important. He even got buried in an unmarked borrowed tomb.

Back down on the beach we had gelato, of course, then sat at the Castel Plage restaurant at a table on the beach rocks and sipped a Kir and sangria.

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Georgia tasted her Kir and wrinkled her nose and then my sangria. She smiled and asked me which one I liked better. Without even tasting it I knew I liked the Kir better. She was very pleased. Two ladies from Holland asked us to take their picture with their phone so they could send a picture back home to friends suffering in the cold weather. I had to be sure to get the sunbathers in the background and the blue, blue water. Schadenfreude, the Germans call it. I don’t think it needs to be joy at others’ sorrow. In the spiritual realm it’s more an appreciation of Divine Justice. I think that’s why part of the joy of heaven will be seeing what’s going on in hell – and the impassable gulf.

On the way back to the hotel we stopped at Monoprix, a large grocery store in the heart of Nice to buy a picnic supper and provisions for breakfast and the train ride to Ravenna, Italy.

Our little travel clock plays “Are you sleeping, are you sleeping, brother John, brother John?” for the alarm, but it plays so softly neither of us can hear it very well. I wanted to leave a wake-up call but couldn’t find a phone in our room. I asked the clerk and he apologized, saying that the room had been recently remodeled and the phone had been forgotten. He put one in and said they’d call us at 6 AM. Our train was to leave at 7:25 but we were less than 2 blocks away. Piece of cake.

To be continued: (in the Italy trip reports)
 
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