Saturday, October 24, 2009

The slow train to insanity

Your blog reading pleasure comes at the expense of my outrageously delayed train from Grand Rapids to Chicago. We are at least two hours behind schedule due to malfunctioning signals and track-switching equipment. This has extended the four hour ride into a 10 hour ordeal. The delay is seriously encroaching on all my plans for a productive day in Chicago. Aargh!

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Who watches Judge Joe Brown?

After living in France for three months, watching American television is a real treat, even the mid-day nonsense programming. I quickly found myself invested in the dispute of a man suing his girlfriend for damages to his car. Never mind that the BBC was digging deep into the ongoing Afghanistan election debacle, I was hooked on Judge Joe Brown. Later I did feel guilty.

Like fast food, these shows are engineered to hold your attention. They also seem to have an inordinate number of commercials. Of course these are usually preceded by some upcoming teaser. In that way, you view most of the show as a series of foreshadowed events.

The commercials are telling. Apparently the target demographic at this time of day is unemployed due either to lack of education or personal injury. Sam encourages you to call now if you have been the victim of medical malpractice. Inspiring student A implores you to go back to school; if they could do it, so can you. Community college and online education seems to be big enough business to devote quite a bit of advertising capitol to the midday commercial slate.
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GRR Airport

The second leg of my transcontinental US tour was Grand Rapids, MI. My plane touched down around 8:00 on Sunday night. We deplaned onto the tarmac but only had a short walk into the terminal. At that point, I was pleasantly surprised. I had expected a small concourse, but was greeted by a very familiar scene: rows of plastic chairs, a long walkway lined with golf-related business ads and a large crowd at the baggage claim.


Stepping outside the building, I was again impressed by the modern structure confronting me. A large curved canopy extended between the parking garage across the street to the terminal building. Even though a conventional joist roof might have done the job, a cool pipe truss design emphasize the idea of the modern airport. Of course, I took lots of pictures.
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Desert Sustainability?

From the top of Camel Back mountain near Scottsdale, AZ you can view an incredible panoramic of the greater Phoenix area. In the distance, tall mountains hem in the desert valley. The city sprawls out encroaching on these natural barriers.


Closer to the rock outcropping, multi-million dollar estates take their place on manicured golf courses. Some enterprising developers have even created desert oasis’s complete with palm trees and artificial lakes. The metro area thrives and continues to grow despite current economic conditions.

Is there something wrong with this scenario? Is man meant to live in the middle of a desert? Engineering prowess has enabled us to transport water for irrigation and human use long distances from highland reservoirs. Does the fact that we can do these things justify this desert existence?


This week my brother is moving into a new home in Mesa. This community extends further into previously uninhabited areas of the desert valley. Anticipating substantial growth, speculators have invested in thousands of new homes and an extensive infrastructure. Large boulevards now seem unnecessarily large in these days before the residents have arrived. Affordable home prices promise to entice inhabitants to the new community.

The homes are large. My brothers place feels like a Mcmansion in comparison to my modest condo in downtown Chicago. The kitchen and dining room alone equal the size of my entire place. Large windows provide beautiful views of an adjacent golf course and distant mountain ridges. I can only imagine what cooling costs must be for such a home. I also reflect on the fact that temperatures were still reaching 100 degrees in late October.


It does not seem responsible to build communities and homes modeled after those in temperate regions in the middle of the southern desert. People of all communities are entitled to comfortable and affordable housing, but we ought to make adjustments that permit a more harmonious relationship with the local environment.

A small class of artisans has set up such a model community in nearby Scottsdale, called Cosanti. The architecture, by Paolo Soleri, is almost reminiscent of the desert dwellers’ in Star Wars (whose scenes were actually filmed in the deserts of Tunisia). They subsist by selling artistic goods to visitors. To some extent outcasts, there is a religious-like belief in their sustainable way of life.


Similarly, a number of native American tribes live modest lives on several southwest reservations. Despite being situated on poor lands, dictated by unsatable homesteaders, the Indians make do with limited resources. Increasingly, even they try to take advantage of anglo-american largess by opening nearby casinos. Perhaps we could learn much if we spent less time tossing dice and more time learning about their culture.

So this is the paradox of Phoenix: it’s a beautiful desert oasis with all the comforts of home, but at the cost of an entire nation’s freedom and an increasing environmental cost. I cannot help but feel that the city’s growth is unsustainable.

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Saturday, October 17, 2009

Flight of the Phoenix

Over the next three weeks, I will be back in the States attending multiple engineering conferences. My first destination was Phoenix to attend the National Council of Structural Engineering Associations annual conference. I'm on a committee about media relations and educational outreach. The conference was held well outside the city in a convention center in Fort McDowell.

My brother also lives in Scottsdale, so I was able to stay with him during the conference. It was great to see him again. Immediately before moving to France, I had attended his wedding in Phoenix.

One morning before my conference events, I went hiking up Camelback mountain - so named for the shape of the rocky profile from a distance. It is one of the steepest hiking ascents you'll find so near to civilization. With only a couple of hours to spend, I didn't even make it all the way up the 1.5 mile hike. Still, I was able to snap some panoramic views of the city.


Monday, October 12, 2009

la Cathedral d'Images

The rocky hills around les Baux de Provence have long inspired visitors to the medieval city. It's rumored that Dante's description of hell was based on the apparent cascades of jagged rocky outcroppings. Others found an immaculate strain of mineral resources in the hills. Bauxite, a principle ingredient in aluminum, is so named because of its discovery near les Baux. Some entrepreneurs were content to exploit the pure white limestone itself.


The monolithic limestone quarries are themselves inspirational architectural spaces. Massive passageways and expansive "rooms" are reminiscent of monumental Egyptian burial sites. Further considering the bright white limestone walls, reminiscent of so many churches, the mining sites are best described as cathedrals.

Within one such abandoned quarry, an artistic installation of picture and sound is on display. This year they are featuring the works of Pablo Picasso. When reading about the exhibition, I had expected something like a typical art museum - a series of still photos and solemn observers. The cathedral d'images provides a much different experience. Instead of static displays, the images constantly scroll through the vast walls of the quarry. Children dance on images projected onto the floor to dramatic tunes. The musical selection is diverse, juxtaposing the bull fighting anthems from Carmen with the serious theme from the Godfather. And yet, each selection fits the mood of the images appearing all around.

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les Baux de Provence

Legend has it that Balthazar, one of the magi that followed the star of Bethlehem, later retired to the South of France and established the community now known as les Baux de Provence. The Provencal people seem to have a knack for inserting themselves into biblical relevance. Anothe rexample is the story of les Maries de la Mer, which now famously sets the premise for Dan Brown's DaVinci Code.

Though the story of the city's founding is historically dubious, there is a legendary quality to the ruined fortress perched at the top of an imposing hill. Throughout the middle ages, les Baux de Provence exemplified the era. Devious castellas sometimes inhabited the fortress, using their might to extort the local populace. The walls were fortified to thwart marauding moors. At least twice, the castle was besieged by rival factions. Knights and troubadours promulgated the myth of chivalry and honor within the walls of the keep.

Today, the castle grounds are a sprawling museum for learning about the myths and truths of the middle ages. Little remains of the actual castle walls, having been ordered destroyed during the wars of religion. However, the installation of several replica siege machines and a thorough audio tour bring the hilltop fortress to life.

It seems that life in Les Baux was closely tied to rocky outcropping into which it was constructed. Many walls of the castle were simply carved out of the rock. Many peasants even made troglodyte homes within the soft stone. These rock walls survive where the man-made ramparts have fallen. As a result, it's interesting to note the ridges and corbels chiseled into the rock to receive wooden beams or act as washing basins. The local people even relied on the rock walls to receive water. Gutters were carved into the rock to channel water into cisterns.


Medieval life was hard on the peasantry, but court life would have lacked many of the creature comforts that we cherish today as well. The keep of the castle is a small square shaft with limited lighting and only minimal opportunity for fireplace heating. Loyalty was also hot and cold. A duke hoping to replenish the ranks of his warriors with a mercenary knight or desiring some entertainment from a troubadour might well find his wife swept away into a courtly love affair by these supposed compatriots.


Today, you're more likely to lose your wife among the maze of specialty shops in the small village. There is no permanent city to speak of, it's entire existence is based on a reputation as one of the most beautiful villages in France - and this is true.

View more photos of les Baux de Provence on my Flickr page.
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Rosés are only slightly red

The festival in Chusclan draws wine devotees from around France. Châteauneuf du Pape exports one of the most famous labels of red wine. But for a truly unique local wine, you must visit the sister cities of Lirac and Tavel, home of rosé wine preferred by kings.

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Both villages have their own unique Appellation d'Origine Controlée. However, Tavel only produces rosé wines. It's said that Louis XIV and Philip IV traveled through the region and enjoyed the wine. According to legend, the latter declared Tavel's brand of rosé the only good wine in the world.

Like most Côtes du Rhône wines, grenache, syrah and mourvedre grapes are predominately used. But whereas many rosés are simply made by blending red and white wines, that process is strictly forbidden by French A.O.Cs. Instead, the grape skins are allowed to ferment with the wine for a short period of time. In Tavel, an extra step is added to the process allowing for a more powerful flavor from the wine.

The best thing about this local variety of Rosé: you don't need to wait for a long fermentation period in the cellar.
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Chateauneuf du Pape

Though Chusclan might have a local reputation for producing quality Côte du Rhône A.O.C. wines, it is by no means as internationally renown as Châteauneuf du Pape. This small wine-obsessed village is located just a few miles outside of Avignon, home to the Popes through much of the 13th century. During their reign, wine production benefited from their Papal influence. The latest techniques were applied and the vine stock greatly improved. The modern success of Châteauneuf de Pape is still linked to Avignon and the reputation that is spread by the numerous international visitors that visit the famous walled city.

Our trip to Châteauneuf du Pape was less based on touristic interests than our own appetite for good wine. We had asked some friends to check out our local wine super-store in Chicago to see if any of the local cooperatives were represented. Only one variety was widely available: the rouge of Châteauneuf du Pape. Though white and rosé wines are also produced, the region northeast of Avignon is most well-known for its deeply colored red wine.

Upon arriving in the small village, we proceeded to the office of tourism for some help in finding wine tasting venues. A light-up board provided our answer: go in any direction. The city is littered with mini-caves (pronounced in a Mayor Quimby way, as in cod) for tastings. We set a rule to avoid those with neon signs and flashing lights.

Our first stop was already being patronized by two east-coast Americans. They intimated that their wine selection was worth the hype. We tried a few rouge samples and settled on an aged bottle that agreed with our palate. The price was 27€, previously unheard-of in our wine tasting adventures. The best quality wine in Chusclan is less than half the price. Nevertheless, we were committed.

We continued up in the direction of the castle ruins at the top of the hill. On the way, we passed an unassuming cave in a cave-like cellar: Cave due Veger. Walking through the dimly lit passages, we encountered a large group of North Americans, well into a multi-flight tasting. We were encouraged to join in. The French wine-master began a quick recap of the tasting, beginning with some light white wines. He implored us to use our imaginations to pick out the various scents and flavors in the selections. In one case, he told the story of a child describing the smell of one wine as honey-nut Cheerios. The kid was exactly right.

We were scolded repeatedly for taking wimpy whiffs and holding the glass improperly. Never touch the bulb, it warms the wine and leaves ugly smudges during a meal.

To approximate the aged taste of the wine, he explained how to slurp the wine - like whistling backwards. Be careful, though, too much gusto and you'll look decidedly uncool coughing up your sample. Done right, we learned to feel the taste from the front of our mouth to the back of our jaw. Fruits up front, tobacco-like sensations in the back. A good classic French wine, we were told, should taste like the leather from an old set of worn farm boots deep in your palate. Fruity wines are for women.

All the while, the others in our tasting company peppered our host with food pairing questions. A gentleman from Atlanta wanted to know what would go best with grilled dates wrapped in goat cheese. Not to be outdone, the women from Ontario suggested some traditional Canadian fare. As casual observers this played out hilariously as we could read the wine experts impatience with such neophytes. Suspecting that the group on a privately run excursion would pay handsomely for his wares, he played along.

The final test came when we were presented with a fruity desert wine - like an ice wine, but not produced according to those rules. We were challenged to come up with six different fruits and and one flower. Mary Ann and I successfully guessed none of them, though our generic guess of citrus did in fact describe the most prominent taste of a ruby-red grapefruit. Who cares what was in the wine, it tasted good. We left with another $30 bottle of wine from Châteauneuf du Papes.
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Celebrating Wine (day 2)

Our antique car disaster was not enough to keep us from day two of the biggest party of the year - in Chusclan. Again, our landlords insisted that we arrive in town early to see all the dancing and singing and Provencal merry-making. To our surprise, Chusclan was even busier than the day before. And even more people were wearing their old-time costumes. We had elected to go as typical tourists... in case we were stranded somewhere again.

Our first stop was at the accueil (welcome) table to buy our wine tasting glasses. For just 3.50€ we could enjoy unlimited degustation (tasting). The best, and classiest, part of the tradition is that the glasses are mounted on strings so you can wear it around your neck all day. That way you never lose any time between rounds searching for your glass.

Madame Bérard again showed us around town, making a point of directing us to the very best wine tasting stands. I think we visited the Champaign stand three times. In all there were about a half dozen different wine cooperatives represented around town. Of course we had to try them all. Now with three months of wine tasting experience, we really felt like pros swirling, slurping and making funny faces. As expected, the local wine was the best - I mean, why would you invite someone with better goods to your wine party?

All day, local residents played the part of peasants from the 1800s. I was most impressed by the guys shoeing the horses. I was a little surprised that the horses were so accommodating, allowing the smith to manhandle is massive hooves. Nearby, a faux-nun pretended to scold school children, women washed the same white linens for hours and an accordion player flipped through this collection of classic tunes.

Meanwhile a drum and whistle band was supplying the music for a troupe of dancers. Professional might have been too strong a word to describe both groups, but they certainly held the tourists' attention. The most impressive dance was performed around a pole with colored streamers flowing from the top. Each dancer grabbed a streamer and followed joined in dancing around the pole. The choreographed movements resulted in a colorful braiding - pole dancing a la 1830.

Braiding Pole Dancers

Around 3:00 the mayor announced the grape harvest. The costumed residents look their places in a parade of donkeys and dancers and processed out of town and to the nearest vineyard. The mob of tourists followed. Reaching the end of the field, the mob disbursed among the vines and began collecting grapes. Large wooden barrels were filled and mounted on the mules. The procession then returned to town to celebrate the pressing of the grapes.

Unfortunately, this local celebration did not include an grape stomping. However, the freshly squeezed grape juice was collected in a large cask and served to the brave. It actually tasted pretty good - very sweet, not much different than your highly processed supermarket variety.

See more photos of the Chusclan Vendanges de L'Histoire on my Flickr page.

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Sunday, October 11, 2009

Celebrating Chusclanaise History (day 1)

This weekend was the 11th annual Vendanges de l'Histoire in Chusclan. The autumn festival celebrates the local traditional culture associated with grape faming and provides a really good excuse to drink lots of the products of that labor. Many of the event's attractions reminded me of home: the old tractors, a petting zoo and antique cars on parade.

Our landlords were pretty committed to ensuring that we received the complete Chusclanaise experience. They reserved diner for us on both days of the party and hooked us up with a classic car ride. But most importantly, madame provided Mary Ann with an authentic provencal costume. True to the local flair, the outfit included a lavender skirt, shawl, apron and bonnet. I attempted to join in the spirit of the peasantry by wearing a knit shirt and a straw hat. I'm sure we made quite the couple.


We joined the festivities shortly before lunch. It was incredible to see so many people in the small town. For a moment we couldn't figure out how so many shops and wine tasting places managed to open over night. Then Mary Ann realized that these merchants had just set up shop in people's garages. Apparently, the city itself joined in the costuming craze.

Finally meeting up with our landlords in the place de la Mairie (city hall), we decided to enjoy an apertif and then take an early lunch (12:30). A makeshift guinguette was constructed in the public boules courts, where they were serving heaping portions of paella. This traditionally Spanish dish included a menagerie of meats and seafood mixed into spiced rice. As usual, it was better not to ask what you were eating, but just enjoy all the flavors. The second course was a plate of two giant slices of cheese. Together, Mary Ann and I finished about half of one serving. A meal, of course, would not be complete without desert (some type of apple tart) and coffee.

Completely stuffed, we waddled over to the antique cars that would be taking us on a 1 1/2 hour tour of the countryside. André had chosen for himself a 1971 French muscle car. It was unique in that the rear two tires would set at an angle to improve handling performance. As they fired up the engines, it certainly sounded like a fast sports car. Madame, Mary Ann and I, on the other hand, were seated in a 1937 Peugeot with a top speed of about 35 km/hr. We were counting on a more scenic trip.

We proceeded along the route that we typically take when going to points North. It's my favorite road in France because of the tight turns and minimal traffic. Not yet featuring any automated radar speed traps, it's a great place to channel your inner formula one driver. However, it was nice to travel at slower speeds, as I had the chance to see for the first time a chateau on the opposite bank of the Rhône. Our path took us through Pont St. Esprit and then west along a rural road that was completely new to me.

And that's when Madame Bérard told the driver that it felt like her shoes were melting from the heat emanating from the car. A few moments later, the engine began sputtering, and then we were stalled. The situation wasn't make very clear by the driver, but we soon realized that the vehicle had overheated. We were stranded. Fortunately, another of the antique drivers and his passengers were kind enough to wait with us, while the car was being worked on.

broke down

It turns out that some part of the engine had actually melted - something to do with a spool or a coil. Engine mechanics is not my specialty, but I think it had something to do with the electrical system. The driver tried repeatedly to get the engine to turn over, after making a series of small adjustments. Finally, he gave up and phoned a friend to bring over the necessary parts.

Now, keep in mind that we were all dressed in traditional garb. This is not normal attire, even for the French. We received quite a few odd glances from passersby. Realizing that we were American's someone pointed out that this wasn't a very good advertisement for French engineering. I was thinking, "if this was typical of 1930s French machinery, then it helps explain the success of the German blitzkrieg."

Meanwhile, André had returned to Chusclan in his sports car and realized that we were well behind schedule. He and the driver turned around and backtracked to our location. All the while, we waited. When our driver finally heard from his friend, it was to say that there had been some problem getting to our location. We waited some more. André arrived in his blue sports car, but with only two seats, we were still out of luck.

Needless to say, when the mystery part finally arrived, it didn't work. We ended up retracing our path back to Chusclan in a ten year old Citroen sedan - not exactly high style. How reliable is a 75-year old car? I wonder how reliable it ever was. I suppose that we had the most authentic experience, but I'll be content from now on to travel in modern comfort.

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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Running of the Bulls

Pamplona isn't the only place where you can take part in the running of the bulls. The Camargue has it's own tradition of bull running. We were lucky to catch a glimpse at le Grau de Roi.

While the camarguaise bulls are slightly smaller than your average breed, I still wouldn't want to be in it's path going full speed for any amount of time. Apparently, French teens do not share that sense of self preservation. Instead, I've learned that your goal should be to stand in the way as long as possible.


Now I suppose that they're given some measure of confidence by the presence of the Gardienne, Camargue cowboys. A top their horses and armed with long spear-ended poles, they attempt to guide the bull down the street. So the fearless spectators must also avoid being trampled by the large quarter horses.


Still seems pretty safe, right? Well, if you're lucky, the gardienne will try to head off the taureau so that it must come to a stop. That's your signal to run into the street grab onto the half tonne bull and attempt to wrestle it to the ground. It usually helps to get about a half dozen pre-teens to jump into the fray, and do not forget the one hopeless soul who will grab the tail to slow ithe bull down. Don't worry, they almost always put a cap on the horns to prevent gorging.
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Course Camarguaise

A trip to the Camargue would not be complete without an evening in the arena viewing the course camarguaise. This local type of bull-fight pits man against beast in an athletic show of speed and agility. The bull is the protagonist. Taureaus are rated throughout the season based on their performances. Based on this ranking, they receive WWF-like billing when they enter the ring. Unlike in the Spanish Corrida, the Camarguaise bulls are not harmed during the course. The band of a dozen or so tourneur, on the other hand, are applauded most vigorously when on the receiving end of the bull's charge.


The primary objective of the game is to remove from the taureaus one of three object attached dangerously to their body. The ficelle strings tied around the bull horns are the most difficult to remove. Tourneurs must make strafing runs past the taureau attempting to cut loose the ficelle with a special claw-like device. When working as a team, they are most successful when running from either side of the cow in rapid succession.


However, the taureaus are smart and always unpredictable. The bull-fighters frequently must jump out of the ring to safety. Because of the height of the ring-side boards, a small step is provided about a foot off the ground. The form of the dive seems awkward and is only successful if the tourneur is able to catch the metal railing along the first row of spectators. Amateur bull-fighters are probably at greater risk to injury attempting this "jump for safety" than inside the ring with the bull.


We happened to attend one of the season finales. This meant that only the best taureaus were in action and the stakes were highest. As the course progresses, the men are offered increasing payouts for successfully removing the ficelle. The announcer rattles off a string of dollar amounts provided by sponsors. This auctioneer-like rattle is incredibly annoying and is only disrupted on the occasion of some near catastrophe in the ring. I would have preferred some ring-side advertising and the soundtrack from Carmen.

In the end one the taurneur was named league champion and the bulls were free to return to their grazing until next season.
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Les Salins de Camargue

It's said that the Roman engineer Peccius was the first to organize the salt production efforts in the Camargue. The natural salt marshes and higher-than-normal natural salt content make the region an obvious place to harvest sea salt. In Aigues-Mortes, 500,000 tons of salt are distributed annually. While some of the process occurs naturally, capturing the quantities of salt demanded by market requires an engineered process.

First the salt is collected into vast evaporation pools. More than 45 million cubic meters of sea water must be pumped during the month of march. Throughout the spring, the evaporation process increases the concentration of salt 9-fold to 260 grams per liter. By mid-summer a thick cake begins to form on the surface of the water. The concentrated brine can grow to 20 cm thick, 9 cm of which is harvested as sea salt. The top of the cake takes on a bright red hue due to the presence of a special kind of algae which turns brighter as the salt concentration increases. Some of the algae and waste sediment can be collected and used as fertilizer, while lower quality salt is sold for road de-icing.

In September, the salt is harvested. Quality control measures ensure that the product is 99.5% pure sodium-chloride. Some salt is shipped on flat bottom barges along the shallow canals to the port, while another portion is loaded onto rail cars and sent in land. Several special bridges and conveyor systems are placed in service specifically for the once-a-year collection.

Three major brands are harvested in the Camargue, including Le Saunier de Camargue and La Baleine. Ironically, they are all owned by the same parent company. Many of these brands are widely available in the US.

Having harvested salt from these marshes for over a thousand years, the Camargue salt farmers have struck a symbiotic balance with nature. While many industrial processes pose a threat to the local ecosystem, salt farming in the Aigue-Mortes salt marsh has actually demanded preservation of the indigenous wetlands. Of course, the salt companies probably exaggerate the extent of this success. Nevertheless, it is a model living sustainably with nature.
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Port Camargue

Can you name the largest recreational port in France? Nice? Nope. Marseillies? Maybe not. The title goes to Port Camargue. Maybe only 30,000 Frechmen know the answer, but by docking their boats in the creatively engineered harbor, they set the record.

The port is located just outside le-Grau-de-roi. While the city may have historic roots tracing back to Roman times, the Port Camargue is decidedly modern. From above, the marina layout is similar to the pronged islands being built in Dubai. The land has been sculpted to maximize the amount of water-side property and boat anchorage. For those not quite wealthy enough to park their boat within feet of their vacation home, dozens of jetties are available for docking at only mostly exorbitant prices.


We had an excellent view of the harbor from our hotel, Spinaker. It was located amid several docks. It would be a great place to stay, if you had just sailed into town. Morning walks with Roxy were quite a bit more enjoyable while checking out all of the sailboats and yachts. My favorite are the catamarans. Maybe someday I'll be able to dock my own in Port Camargue.
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This work by Ken Maschke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.