In the middle of the night, right outside our hotel grounds, there is a cackling, grunting creature that begins calling loudly. We have no idea what it is and have wracked our brains trying to imagine what it could be. Maybe devil bird with a microphone and sound system, a Tasmanian Devil run amok, a large choking cat. We sleep restlessly, with strange dreams. In the morning, the sound has ceased and we shuffle downstairs to the front desk. We approach the desk.
"Oui," the proprietor responds dryly, lifting his eyebrow.
"We hear a loud noise in the middle of the night. C'est quoi?"
"C'est une petite grenouille," he answers. It is a little frog. He is showing us his fingertips pushed together and indicating something the size of a ping-pong ball.
"No!" we are astonished. The devil we imagined these past three nights, based on the racket, is a frog?
The monsieur nods slowly. He has answered our question. So, a frog. Of all things.
The monsieur wishes us a bonne journee, so we depart the hotel and begin our trek northwest, bound for Pont du Gard, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The weather is changing, turning to overcast and unsettled; we are wearing our jackets and have brought our umbrellas. We negotiate dozens of traffic circles and gradually decipher more and more traffic signs. It's a challenge and we're glad there are two of us, one to drive and the other to read maps and navigate. We have to drive through Tarascon, which is not too much of a problem except that there is a lot of road construction. This town borders the Rhone river, a major artery in the southern part of the country, and it's wide like the Missouri River. Charmingly, two huge chateaux face each other right at that junction of river and highway, serving once again to lever our minds back in time to the Middle Ages and beyond.
I remind my driver to keep his eyes on the road instead of all the castles and cool things distracting him in the distance. He complies and we emerge from the snarl of detours and traffic diversions intact. We continue on our way, taking the most direct route possible, which is a two-lane country road. Then, abruptly we are there.
"There" is a very large parking lot made to accommodate several hundred cars, but only a few are there. Parking costs 15 euro, but it turns out to be the entry fee also. So, we walk along a broad sidewalk under the darkening skies and mulberry trees. Now there is a lazy but not stagnant river off to our right and then... and then...there is a long three-tiered bridge stretching from way over to the left to way across the ravine through which the river flows. There are dozens of symmetrical arches, an elegant and incredible remnant of Roman times. We ooh and aaah quite a bit, noticing we cannot really tell how big the bridge is. Then we see people walking on the lower tier and they look like little ants. Oh. It's pretty big.
This is the Pont du Gard, a bridge built to transport water high above the river as part of a long aqueduct. Immediately a lot of questions form: How old is it, how was it built, why was it built, how many people did it take to build it, how long did it take, where did the stone come from? and on and on. It is very easy to cross the bridge and it would be very easy to jump off if you were so inclined. There are no guard rails, just a polite request not to jump or to clamber on the lower portions of the bridge. So, we stroll across, encountering dozens and scores of other visitors speaking languages from everywhere, including Americans who, of course, clamber on the lower portions of the bridge and yell, "okay, take my picture now!" to their friends. None of them jump off the bridge, to my relief. No other group yells or ignores signs.
There is a fantastic new museum on the left bank that answers every one of my questions and more. We learn about the Roman engineering system, building bridges, building aqueducts, and on and on. It's really fascinating, a fabulous museum that is a must-see.
Finally, we have learned enough for one day about building bridges out of stone and recross the bridge to look for food. A very large terrasse with a cafe presents itself and we sit. I order for us both after we have consulted the menu. Oops.
My choice is delicious, a veal pate enveloped in a flaky crust to start and then a potato and fish casserole topped with cheese. His is much more challenging. It has round things with tentacles and is bright yellow. At least there is some risotto. He looks very distressed as tentacles are a dreaded bit of seafood anatomy he does not tolerate well at all. I entreat him with bits of my veal and my potato casserole. He is wounded and I am again frustrated with my French. I promise to do better. He says he will be okay and takes bites of his yellow squid-like mystery food and gazes at the immensely impressive Pont du Gard in the distance, which helps. Finally, our meal is over and we make a plan.
The next stop is Avignon, where the famous pont, or bridge, is but we plan to see the Palace of the Popes. The palace and then the bridge and city walls were built about 700 years ago and then changed this way and that by various reigning individuals. The spectacular structure is now a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Palace housed two different popes during the middle ages, in succession, and they each had their turn in designing and building onto the structure.
We arrive in Avignon on a busy city thoroughfare and see the old walls of the city with their guard towers and crenulations. It takes a little bit of looking, but we find a parking spot and begin our walk across the old part of town to the main attraction we want to see. Rounding a corner, we see the Palace, which is gigantic, a gothic palace and surrounding region.
There is a broad open plaza in front of the Palace and its facing building, which is lesser in size but grand in design.
We take a walk around the perimeter of the area, negotiating a few narrow streets, some steep stairs and a few areas we are pleasantly surprised by including a hill-top park that has a grotto, fountain and pretty shaded lawn. The most impressive and beautiful surprise is a cobbled street bordered by the immense tower walls of the palace. They stand on solid rock and seem to organically rise up, becoming organized somehow and geometric as the rock-turned-wall shoots up into the sky. A graceful archway acts as a low buttress and bridge overhead and nearby stone buildings create an echoing street that is fantastic with sound and music. An accordion player entertains passersby (pointing to his hat on the ground that he wishes were full of money).
A place like this bears lingering in and looking at for a while. You don't run up to it, snap a shot and then rush off to another site. It commands attention. So, we sit and look for a while as we take a snack break and rest.
Hours later, after returning home, changing clothes and going out, we find Ax, a restaurant recommended by the man at the information desk in San Remy. Remembering the yellow squid-like mystery food at lunch, I do not venture a guess on any dinner items for my husband. I have filet of anchovies in olive oil and seasonings with mint pate to start and then a very light fettuccine dish with fava beans, peas and other fresh veggies cooked briefly and lightly. He ends up happy with his meal, and we are both nicely tired.
Tomorrow is market day in San Remy, and I'm thinking about gifts.
Causes Christine Bottaro Supports
The Nature Conservancy, California State Parks, The United Way