It's Monday morning, and we are eating outside on the gravel-covered terrasse under the spreading mulberry trees at our country hotel. It is quiet, peaceful and larks are fluting in the trees. Eventually, we brush off our croissant crumbs (creating a little snow storm of crust bits because the pastries are so crisp and flaky), and drive away to Glanum, which you've never heard of. I hadn't either.
The Romans, as they expanded outward from Rome sometime before Jesus worked his miracles, came to this area and appropriated small settlements of the Gauls and built temples, aqueducts, baths, public plazas and roadways. They were a busy lot and impressed everyone for many kilometers in every direction. Then eventually they "fell" and left behind a lot of interesting artifacts.
Here in the area of what is now Southern France, the Romans appropriated a lot of little villages and towns. One such area was a settlement called Glanum. Archeologists discovered the area in 1927 (give or take a few years), well after Vincent Van Gogh strolled around here painting pictures. It is said he never knew the site existed.
These are things we learn by touring the archeological ruins. The interpretive signs in English and French show terrifically detailed views of what is there now and how it would have looked in various time periods for more than two millenia. What they have been able to discern by seeing vague scratches and indentations on large blocks of limestone is nearly miraculous.
Some restoration of part of a temple has been done and much study made of the underground water system including lead pipes and canals beneath the ground that not only transported fresh water to public places but to homes as well. There were latrines, warm, cold and hot baths, swimming pools, springs, wells, fountains and sewer lines.
The most revelatory items I see in the little museum on site is a display of very tiny utensils made of iron. A delicate perfume box only an inch long and tapered in the shape of a fish was exquisite in its fine detail, a great contrast to all the huge stone building blocks the site was made up of. Artifacts date back about 300 years BC.
Satisfied with our tour at Glanum, we head south over a range of stubby mountains called Les Alpilles. The road winds and twists through a forested area and then reveals an escarpment in the distance that sports the ruins of a castle. Of course it does, it's France. Castles and craggy ruins crop up everywhere here. The one we are looking at is called Baux, another one of the 150 Most Beautiful French Towns.
This upswept ridge of limestone was a strategic place to integrate a castle right into the cliff face. It was sacked eventually and fell into ruin for a while. It is now a showplace for medieval weaponry and lots of fun for giggling schoolkids who dress in costumes for their day at the castle with classmates. As is true for these hilltop wonders, we are made to park down below (for 4 Euro) and walk up steep old stairways to the upper plateau where the town begins. I imagine the original people who built the place were strong and nimble as mountain goats, obviously capable of immense work.
As soon as we reach a cafe, we head in and have a salad and bread with a lot of chugging of water after having become intensely thirsty. I am getting very slowly better at asking for water, but the waiters usually look some version of exasperated, puzzled or fearful of being infected by me when I attempt to ask for a simple pitcher of water instead of bottled water. I am determined to improve my French as it is an important language, especially since I will die of thirst if I don't.
It's a hot day with clouds looming over the distant castle crags. We manage to top off finally and then leave to tour the ramparts. No sooner are we out on the upper plain of the hilltop than I unceremoniously slam my left foot into a jutting rock in the ground and basically say "ouch" and wonder if I still have my foot connected to my ankle bone. Yeah, that was painful all right. I need to scream, but I'm in France and I cannot scream in French yet, so I hold my comments for later.
I am distracted by a demonstration of a trebuchet anyway, so I get going to watch. A trebuchet is the coolest mechanical weapon ever invented because it seems so much more like a big toy than a thing with which to whack enemies. It is basically a huge windup slingshot with a counterweight that causes a long arm to fling a load of something way high up into the air and far away from the trebuchet itself. The demonstration throws a massive water balloon something like 300 yards away where it explodes with a massive splat that sets the crowd of kids cheering wildly.
The kids get to learn how to play tether ball with a large leather hackey sack on a rope, duel with cardboard swords, see other large weapons set loose on the enemy and tour the lower parts of the old castle ruins. We take a self-guided tour of the area and try to imagine the way it looked in its hey day.
A bit of shopping follows in the little town itself, but we buy nothing. The idea is that there is a market on Wednesday in San Remy that will offer better prices, so we hold off. With plenty of daylight left, we pile back into our oven-like black Peugeot and take a different road down the hill. The radio plays Euro pop and French talk radio. We zoom along a winding road through a pretty forest heading north and find ourselves lost again. But lost is good; you never know what will happen next and it's usually interesting. We get to see more of unscripted, open countryside blanketed with leafy trees, grassy meadows, wheat fields, vineyards, olive groves and tractors pulling out into onrushing traffic.
Not happy about being potentially too lost, we argue briefly about how to proceed, decide on a plan. We choose Eygalieres (I decide to corrupt the word horribly and call it Eagle Ears) as our next destination as it is listed in our guidebook as a town of "character." Character = rustic, charming and real. Its oldest area was built probably 500 years ago or more and occupies the highest promontory, the most defensible space for miles. As towns have grown, they have spread out from their upper tips to the flanking plains below. It's a sweet place to wander and I love it. I want to take it home with me.
Satisfied with the day but with my toe turning purple, I vote for going back to our pleasant hotel, Canto Cigalo, for dinner. My toe's okay, just discolored and kind of puffed up a bit, but it still fits in my shoes, so I can dress for dinner, which I do. The dinner is a cold but delicious salad made of hard boiled egg, slices of cantaloupe, lettuce, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, crisps of toast with rounds of brie on them and the ever-present French bread. I've survived in fine style, as evidenced by my vivid toe, and I am ready to think of tomorrow.
Tomorrow, two UNESCO world heritage sites are on the list.
Causes Christine Bottaro Supports
The Nature Conservancy, California State Parks, The United Way