Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Aigues Mortes

Before embarking on his famous but ultimately futile crusades, Saint Louis (King of France) realized that his nation didn't have a suitable Mediterranean port. The spot he chose for his new naval fortress was located in the salt marshes of the Camargue. This region was largely considered uninhabitable at the time. Cholera and pestilence were spread by mosquitoes bred in the still waters. The locals called it Aigues Mortes, meaning dead water.


Unswayed by difficulties in encouraging workers, settlers and soldiers to relocate to the region, he pressed on and re-construction of the town was completed around 1248. The fortress city was expanded by later French Kings.

Only the Constance Tower remains of Louis' original fortifications. Its thick walls are considered impregnable, perfect for a prison. Following revocation of the Treaty of Nantes, which had granted Calvinists some freedoms in Catholic France, Aigues Mortes' walls were used to imprison the protestants. The tower of Constance was duly named after a female inmate who spent 38 years in captivity.

Over time, the shifting alluvial basin of the Rhone rendered the port of Aigues Mortes unnavigable to ocean-going vessels. This, in effect, served to preserve the medieval city. Its now regarded as one of the most complete medieval naval fortresses in Europe. As such, its a huge tourist draw. The crusader armies have been replaced by legions of retirees. Instead of riding horses through the city streets, tourists can board the senior train for a guided tour in five languages.


Despite its dangerous past and touristy present, Aigues Mortes is a unique and enjoyable city. After wandering around the ramparts, it's best enjoyed with a crêpe and café in the central square right in front of the statue of Saint Louis.

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Friday, September 25, 2009

Harvest Time

The grape harvest started a few weeks ago. It was earlier than normal this year due to the odd weather conditions. We learned that spring was quite wet, but the summer months were dryer than normal. I assume that this is going to lower the yield on this years' crop. Expect your 2009 vintage Côte du Rhône wines to be more expensive, due to scarcity.

Nevertheless, the harvest continues. It doesn't just happen over a long weekend. Despite the introduction of mechanized harvesting machines, it takes time to pick all of the fields. Apparently, the new equipment is only a few decades old and just recently perfected. I cannot fathom how long it must have taken to harvest the grapes by hand. They must have needed thousands of laborers. Seems a little anti-socialist to remove so many jobs, doesn't it (see, the French are just like the Americans. No one wants to do the dirty work, and they don't like their immigrant workers either :(

The grape picking machines can hold about two tons before having to unload. The wagons are then pulled by tractor to the local cave-cooperative. At the cave, the grape varieties are stored in separate bins and then processed automatically. No grape stomping here either. Wine production is big business, and the technology applied is equivalent to the factory farms back home.

When you visit a local cave for a wine-tasting, you might have the opportunity to peek back into the work room. Don't expect to see the mashers sitting on the floor though. Much of the process actually takes place in the basement, allowing for easier delivery from the grape haulers.

The Appellation Contrôlée claims to monitor the growing and processing of the grapes for strict adherence to the tradition of making wine in the region. I wonder how seriously that can be taken given the noticeable recent advances in technology. In any case, the taste of the wine is not diminished by the robotic touch. The popularity of wine is as high as ever.
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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Customer Service Complaint #999

Europcar, you're up this time in the never-ending carousel of incompetent customer service providers. I'm willing to overlook the two hour wait for my vehicle in Paris because the busiest airport in the world was only staffed by one lone worker who had to retype every personal data field separately into three computerized forms. I might even let the 30€ diesel fuel vehicle surcharge on gasoline engine pass.

But, do not think for a moment that you are going to sneak by a 600€ up-charge for extending my contract. Why would I ever pay 50% more than the basic online rate for the privilege of driving a Ford Fiesta? The daily rate that I was told at the counter was substantially lower than the rate I was billed over one month later. Oh, yeah; and I will not pay the extra VAT on a contract that clearly stated online that it was included.

You're sneaky SOBs. It's clever how you discretely tossed by original contract when I had the vehicle renewed. It was also clever that you billed two different credit cards. Fortunately, I've got the time and the desire to get my money back!
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Country Day

Classic muscle cars, Harleys, chocolate chip cookies, straw hats and line dancing: it's Country day in Chusclan. Although the village is located in rural France, the term country is obviously means a celebration of American country life. I'd say they pretty much nailed the experience too. The only things missing were some confederate flags, a reproduction of the General Lee, and a dozen or so beer-bellied men with coozies.

Muscle Cars

Don't be fooled by France's stubborn insistence that there never were any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, they admire America culture. I could not image my home town having a France day complete with crêpes, accordion music, and classic Renaults.

Country Days in France

Despite iffy weather, a lot of visitors, including the local French branch of the Hell's Angels, drove into Chusclan. The presence of too many motorcycles so disturbed the planning committee, that they had signs directing where to park every dozen yards. Rules breakers to the end, only a handful of motos were actually parked in the proper location.

We didn't stick around for many of the festivities. An authentic chocolate brownie more than met our appetite for American nostalgi.
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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Health Care for Dogs

If only human medicine could be administered as efficiently...

We've been to the vet in Bagnols-sur-Cèze twice now. Roxy is thoroughly enjoying being an indoor/outdoor pet new that we have a large yard for her to lay in. First, we thought she picked up a fungus, which turned out to be nothing; then she got a tic. Apparently, these insects burrow under the skin, creating a cyst, and feed off the hosts blood.

Fortunately, every day after 5:00, the local vet has open visitations without an appointment. The cost of the visit is only about $35, without insurance - yes, this is also an option in France. So while everyone but Roxy would prefer to make fewer trips to the vet, at least it's not costing us an arm and a leg.
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Heading west from Bagnols-sur-Cèze and the Rhône river valley, the landscape gradually changes. Further to the west the Cévennes mountains dominate the region. On the way, small villages, like Lussan, can be found perched on small hills overlooking an arid countryside.


In many respects, the town of Lussan is like any other small village of the Gard department. It attracts a few more visitors due to its picturesque perch and proximity to Les Concluses. However, in the off-season, it reverts to a lazy town, and the many restaurants reduce their hours. On our visit, only the town hall and one crêperie were open.

However, rumor has it that the Gendarmerie, the French national police force, recently discovered a cell of Basque separatists hiding out in the community. Big news indeed for a small town.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

Les Concluses

The power of water to cut through solid rock is pretty impressive. This process, however, can take hundreds of years and can leave uneven results. Sometimes the rivers rush through narrow gorges and other times they meander around gently sloping valleys. The geologic age of the river and the type of rock have a lot to do with the results.


A few kilometers northeast of Lussan (in the Gard region of France), the Aiguillon river has unevenly cut a path through the soft limestone. This river completely dries up in the summer, making it possible to hike along the river bed and stand in the rocky shelters created by the river's swirling pools. The many large bowl-shaped indentations in the rock create an interesting hiking experience.

We descended along a trail for about 2 kilometers down to the river bed. Two short planks pass as a bridge to cross the "river." Roxy joined us on the hike. She loved exploring the rocky basin, as we listened to our echoes and searched for hidden caves among the concluses.

On the opposite side of the river, trails promise more interesting destinations. However, this requires a steep ascent over boulders and around steep cliffs. The standing rock at the end of the trail was hardly worth the extra effort. Nevertheless, it was fun watching everyone scramble over the rocks in the path.
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Grotte Madeleine

Something about human nature makes us terrible stewards of the environment.

The Grotte Madeleine would have been an incredible sight when it was first discovered by a shepherd. The light of his lantern would have revealed an spectacular cascade of sparkling concretions, drapery-like crystalline formations that were formed over thousands of years like their stalactite and stalagmite cousins. Streaks of different natural hues were made possible by the minerals naturally occurring in the stone.

Unfortunately, the cave has become a victim of it's own beauty. Today, preservationists do their best to protect the fragile underground environment, but the visitors take their toll. While descending through the cave, it's obvious that some earlier visitors walked away with natural souvenirs. The tips of many concretions are noticeably missing. Even modern visitors leave traces that damage the cave. Hot air expelled while climbing back up the steep stairs creates an environment for algae and bacteria to grow on the walls. Later, these infiltrators must be power washed off the fragile walls.

Unlike the more spectacular Aven d'Orgnac, the Madeleine cave has not yet found a means of balancing human visits with preserving the natural wonder. Although this cave is more accessible, located on the main route through the Gorge de l'Ardèche, it's less impressive. If you've visited a major cave before, I recommend skipping this tourist destination.
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Friday, September 18, 2009

Canoeing le Gorge de l'Ardèche

Though online accounts conflict, consensus on the origin of the word canoe is that it is derived from the native peoples that Columbus encountered on his first voyage to the new world. The present spelling of the word comes from the French canoë. We drop the trema in English.

I was always impressed by the stories of the early American explorers canoeing down long uncharted waterways just to see where they lead. The French explorers in particular seem to have been adept at using this native form of transportation. This shouldn't come as a surprise given its many perfect rivers for canoeing.

There are at least three waterways within an hour of our house that provide a spectacular canoeing experience: le Gardon, passing below the Pont du Gard; the Cèze; and the Ardèche, cutting through a magnificent gorge and underneath l'Pont d'Arc. I finally had a chance to paddle the latter with my friends Mark and Darcie. Although the entire course offers an 8-hour adventure, we settled on the two hour teaser.

Dozens of outfitters manage canoe trips departing from the city of Vallon Pont d'Arc. It's impossible to know which offers the best deal because no prices are prominently posted. We settled for a company offering purple boats, signed the contract and hopped on a bus down to the launch site. Based on my extensive concrete canoeing experience, I declined the 30 seconds of paddling instructions. These proved to be less than comprehensive to Mark and Darcie who were making their first canoe trip since grade school.


Fortunately, the water level was at it's lowest point of the year, so the river ran slowly and the rapids were mild. Unfortunately, this meant that we constantly had to struggle to dislodge ourselves from the shallow rocks. I also had to learn how to keep my boat facing forward as the current through the rapids frequently turned me around. The solution: paddle like hell through the fast currents. Mark and Darcie also eventually figured out their steering problems. By the end of the short journey, it was smooth sailing.

We stopped to eat lunch within sight of the Pont d'Arc, a natural rock bridge spanning over the river. Hundreds of other people also stopped here to enjoy the sight, rest on the sandy beach and swim in the refreshing river.

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

St. Tropez

St. Tropez is located on a rustic peninsula along the French Riviera. When planning the day trip along the coast, we expected to jump on the freeway and reach the small vacation town in under an hour. We had no idea that the coastal mountain range would make this destination of the rich and famous so difficult to get to. Our drive took over 2 1/2 hours, a good half hour of which was spent waiting in traffic along the only road that leads into St. Tropez. We later read in a tour guide that the best way to reach St. Tropez is by Yacht.

I could not imagine a starlet or foreign prince waiting in market day traffic or touring endlessly through back streets looking for a parking spot. Never mind the size and view from George Michael's sea-side mansion, I want to know how he avoids the local hassle.

The lifestyles of the rich and famous were made a bit clearer from the deck of a sight-seeking boat ride around the St. Tropez peninsula. Although the tour guide was committed to pointing out all the famous villas in an incoherent accent, the more impressive view was the mega-yachts moored outside the harbor. Amid the Sapphire blue waters of the Mediterranean, there's little motivation to return to the hectic land - better for your butler to do that.

St. Tropez Yachts

We were actually surprised to see so many boats docked in the harbor on a beautiful weekend. I suppose the large colorful market was enough to draw the nouveau riche port side. We only purchased a few things to eat, preferring the less classy but more affordable wares of the market in Bagnols-sur-Cèze.


Before the long adventure back over the coastal mountains, we decided to check out the famous St. Tropez beaches. Pulling up the long drive to one parking area (for which there is a fee, of course) I thought I saw a battleship in the sea. It turns out to have just been a ridiculously large private yacht painted gun-mental gray. The beach had a course white sand - quite the luxury on the typically rocky Riviera. There were quite a few beach side bars, including one that was hosting a wedding reception. Venture too far down the shore, however, and you'll find yourself on a nude beach. Not a happy site.

Despite all the hype about St. Tropez and the famous people that frequent it's beaches, it's possible to have a much more relaxing and enjoyable Mediterranean experience in the less well known town of St-Cyr-sur-Mer.
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Beach Vacation for the Common Man

On our first pass through the traffic circle we drove right past the hotel gate. By the time we realized the mistake, we were a quarter mile up the road on staring out at the beautiful beaches of Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer and La Ciotat. We hurried back down the sea-side hill, turned into the hotel's parking lot, unpacked in our rooms, and threw open the shutters. The sounds of crashing waves and the scent of the salty sea filled the rooms. Our first floor, beach view rooms were everything that was advertised. Now this is how to enjoy the Côte d'Azur.

La plage

Advice to travelers in France: if you're looking for a guaranteed pleasant hotel stay, look for the Logis endorsement. This independent rating services has not yet let us down. The Hôtel au Tapisde Sable was exactly the Mediterranean getaway that we were looking for - and only at the price of a two-star hotel.

Each morning a class of children learning to surf first took to the sea. It was pretty comical, though I doubt my skills would have been any better. Later, the more daring wind-surfers would take advantage of the morning winds. But by the time we had slept in and found pastries for breakfast, the climate was perfect for relaxing in the sun. The sea-breeze and the view from the private sunning deck at our hotel was perfect.


Relaxing isn't really my thing, so I bought a set to play paddle-ball. The concept is simple, just hit the ball back and forth trying to keep the rally going as long as possible - easier said than done. Mary and Mary Ann took turns playing with me. We tried to find the perfect surface; first, the dry sand didn't work so well; then the wet sand; and finally, out into the knee-high surf, perfect for ill-advised dives. The game seemed innocent enough, until I awoke the next day with a severe full-body muscle ache and a ridiculous sun-burn.

At night we walked along the beach promenade to find a restaurant. Seafood is, of course, the specialty. Our maitre'd on one night reminded Mark and I of the scuba instructor in "Along Came Polly" - without doubt the funniest character in that movie. He was nice enough to make a special dish for our vegan friend Darcie.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Impenetrable Fortress of Carcassonne

Located near the southwest boarder of France, Carcassonne was once an important strategic city for the Kingdom of France. The Romans first recognized the potential for the fortress at the intersection of a pass through the Pyrenees mountains and the Aude River. Around 100 BC the first Gallo-Roman fortifications were installed. Driven by various forces, including at one point the fear of internal rebellion, Carcassonne's fortifications were progressively upgraded until the city was considered impregnable.

However, by the time that Napoleon came to power warfare technology had passed Carcassonne by and the walls were ordered to be demolished. This disturbed the locals who were extremely proud of their heritage. Instead, they hired Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, an architect renown for medieval restoration, to return the city to its former splendor. The work took decades of research, and modern historians concede that Viollet-le-Duc sometimes missed the mark. The cone-shaped roofs on the towers, for example, would not have been typical in the southern climate where snows are rare and light. The result of these efforts provide one of the most authentic medieval experiences in Europe.

My sister and I had a blast wandering the ramparts, pretending to be knights and archers in defense of the city. Carcassonne has every element that you imagine in a medieval fortress: moats with drawbridges, high towers, a secure keep, and crenelated walls. I was also surprised to learn that large wooden platforms were built on the tops of some walls to provide more room and protection for archers and men operating the siege defenses, including cauldrons of boiling hot water.

Though it was admittedly fun to play the part of the crusaders, there are dark chapters in the city's history, frequently written by those soldiers said to be acting on God's behalf. In the early 13th century a crusade was called for in southern France and Catelonia. A religious sect known as the Cathars grew large enough to trouble the Catholic church. In the ensuing conflict, the tall walls of Carcassonne were not sufficient to protect the Cathars indefinitely. In a short time the Albigensian Crusades had completely eradicated the non-believers.
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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Storming a Castle

I just can't help myself. If I see a castle, I simply must find some way up to the gates, frequently to the chagrin of my companions. Not 30 minutes after telling my sister that we wouldn't be doing any hiking, I had us on the path to the fortress overlooking St-Victor-la-Coste.

"It's an easy hiking trail," I argued.

"You're not wearing flip-flops and a dress!" Nancy retorted.

Lesson learned? Doubtful. As ever, storming castles is risky business. Sometimes you lose friends and get locked in a dungeon.

picture0167 ken locked in
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Sore Feet in Barcelona

Remember those Family Circus cartoons showing the little kid's circuitous path through the neighborhood. At the end, he returns home and says something not-quite-funny like, "boy am I tired." That's the best mental image I can conjure to describe our two night stay in Barcelona.

Barcelona Map

Our "Family Circus" map might look something like this Google map. The computer estimates a total walking distance of about 36km. Not bad for two days. To be fair, we did make use of the subway, but this estimate in no way considers all of our wanderings. In all we visited the following attractions:
  1. Parque Güell - Gaudí
  2. La Rambla - Pedestrian area & historic Barcelona
  3. Maremagnm - Harbor mall
  4. L'Eixample - Modern Barcelona
  5. Casa Batlló - Gaudí
  6. Casa Milló - Gaudí
  7. La Sagrada Familla - Gaudí
  8. Parque de la Ciutadella
  9. L'arc de Triomf
  10. La grande Casiono Barcelona - lost 6€
  11. Plaque Espanya
  12. Tarantos - live Flamenco
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Monday, September 14, 2009

Gaudy or Gaudí

Architect Antoni Gaudí envisioned a built environment in much greater harmony with nature. His major works, constructed between 1884 and 1926, were ahead of their time. In fact, it's rumored that upon receiving his university degree, the regent said, "Who knows if we have given this diploma to a nut or to a genius. Time will tell." Like his contemporaries, the impressionist painters, Gaudí is highly regarded today as an architectural innovator and the earliest authority on melding nature and design.

Gaudí spent most of his life in Catalonia. He attended college in Barcelona and continued to work for wealthy patrons in the city. Visitors come to Barcelona from around the world specifically to marvel at his many lasting creations.

Our first destination upon arriving in Barcelona was the Parc Güell. The development was originally conceived as an über exclusive resort for the rich and famous. Cost overruns and a declining economy ended the commercial prospects for the park - lucky for us. It's now perhaps the biggest tourist attraction in the city. The park displays Gaudí's talent for integrating functional elements with nature. Several series of winding paths appear to grow out of hillside providing a promenade to the best views of the city. And while natural expression was Gaudí's passion, he's probably better known for the fantastic "candy land" pavilions and mosaics that greet guests to the park.

picture0194 picture0195

Though the critics and creditors may have lambasted Gaudí's works, his patrons were staunch defenders and provided their Gaudí designed homes as proof of genius. In l'Eixample neighborhood, we passed by two more masterpieces: Casa Batlló and Casa Milà. The houses exemplify the Art Nouveau style that Gaudí was pioneering. However, despite the radical curves in the facades and twisting balconies, the underlying structural systems were almost identical to the then-modern techniques being used by Burnham, Sullivan and other legendary Chicago architects. The buildings are steel framed, with self-supporting facades, and floor systems are provided by clay-tile arches spanning between steel beams.

But was seldom content to rely on the innovations of others. He spent the last decades of his life looking for architectural and structural solutions to build a cathedral of unprecedented detail and complexity. La Sagrada Familia was Gaudí's magnum opus. Begun in 1884, it will remain under construction until 2026. The facades present a continuous scene of biblical characters and symbolic local animals. Inside, the columns shoot up and branch like trees into an awe-inspiring cathedral canopy. The 18 spires project ever higher until the tower for Jesus projects 170m (560 ft) into the sky.

picture0220 picture0217

Gaudí's master plans were destroyed by anarchists during the 1938 Spanish Civil war. So architects, archaeologists and art history experts have been working side-by-side to recreate his vision. Meanwhile, modern engineering has been employed to enable the dizzying architecture. Tower cranes loom above the cathedral, lowering re-bar cages into place for the reinforced concrete columns.

However, over a century ago, Gaudí was able to solve most of the engineering challenges with contemporary building techniques. He looked for efficiency in nature and experimented with intersecting hyperbolic shapes. To find shapes that would exist in pure compression - necessary for unreinforced masonry - he created ingenious models. He understood Newton's law, "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction," and flipped his models upside down. He couldn't very well measure the compression in a block, but he could create a model with strings that only resisted tension. He added weights proportionate to the weight of his building materials to the strings until a complex but perfectly balanced form took shape. By taking a photo of the form and then flipping it upside down, Gaudí engineered a design that could be built with the most basic building materials - blocks.

Gaudí's genius had been proven in time. His understanding of aesthetics, natural shapes, and engineering principles marks him as a unique visionary. Architects would do well today to study the designs of Gaudí and become inspired to create designs that are more compatible with our environment.
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This work by Ken Maschke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.