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Letter 16 (page 4)


The main focus of this trip was France. As you probably know, Lan speaks quite good French so we had no language barrier. When planning, I failed to grasp how small France is-at 547,030 km2, it is close to the combined area of Colorado and Wyoming, or about two-thirds the size of New South Wales-so we were able to see much more than I dared hope. Since it was winter, I was concerned about the limited daylight hours and cold weather so I wanted to be as far south as possible. Denver is about as far north as Madrid; the US-Canadian border is roughly level with Paris. I thought we might get to see some chateaux around Tours.

We stayed a few days in a village near Lyon with the family of Fabienne, a girl we met in Australia when she was an au pair with one of Lan’s friends. They were very kind to us as we used their house to explore the surrounding area.

Though we probably could have done the trip by train and bus, we decided to book a car to give us greater flexibility. I booked a Renault Twingo, a car I've admired for years but never actually seen. It was a blast! Just 3.4m/135" long with ABS, central locking, 1150cc, 55kW/75hp, easy cruising at 130kmh/80mph. Available with leather and a huge sunroof. So cute! If they were sold in America, I'd buy one without hesitation.

Once we were away on our own, our first stop was Orange, a city that in Roman times had 80,000 residents justifying the construction of a fine theater. There was an impromptu demonstration of the acoustics when an uninhibited tourist took the stage and burst into song! A statue of Caesar looks down on the audience from a niche near the top of the wall to remind patrons who is in charge. In fact, the Romans lost 80,000 soldiers attempting to capture the area in 105 BC but took it three years later under General Marius. The triumphal arch is the third largest still standing and its well-preserved carvings show the Rome’s army and navy vanquishing its enemies.

A short distance away is Vaucluse where a river surges out of the ground beneath a cliff and then tumbles down the hillside. My parents brought me here in 1983 and I was very keen for Lan to see it too since it is so unusual. It was well above normal flow when we saw it.

We did not book hotels figuring that since it was off-season we would have no trouble. We did. Many hotels in tourist areas are closed during winter so we drove to Avignon in the dark, something we both wanted to avoid since navigation is so much harder. The road we took became extremely narrow and twisted as we approached the town, reflecting the fact that it was probably once a goat herding route. We were exhausted by the time we found an open hotel and then a parking space. The final difficulty was merde-something a dog leaves behind, in this case, a large dog-while we were unloading the car. We had to enter the hotel in socks. Disgusting. We saw evidence of irresponsible dog ownership everywhere after that.

It was bitterly cold the following day as indeed it was for the rest of the trip. It was overcast most of the time so many of the photos here are from postcards since ours are dark and lifeless. In any case, I didn't have a helicopter available.

Civil strife in what is now Italy during the 1300s forced the Pope to get out of Rome and take up residence in Avignon. A fortified palace was built to house him though there isn't much to see inside. The bridge was far more interesting. As the story goes, a shepherd entered church during mass claiming God had told him to build a bridge over the river. The crowd laughed but someone set a test for him saying that if God had sent him, he would be able to lift a huge stone. He did; the bridge was built. First of timber but then of stone, the bridge opened in 1185 but had to be repaired after every flood. The river finally won in 1669. There is also a nursery song about the bridge.

Nearby is the magnificent Pont du Gard aqueduct. Completed about 50 AD it supplied 400 liters/second to the city of Nimes, 40 km/25 miles away. Maintenance ceased in the 4th Century with the fall of Rome and by the 9th Century, lime deposits in the channel blocked the flow. It is not nearly as long as the one Lan saw in Segovia, Spain but at 49m/160 ft it is taller.

In nearby Nimes, we saw an amphitheater similar to the Coliseum in Rome though on a smaller scale but in much better condition. It is still in use and when we arrived, there was an "International Festival of Denim". Indeed, the town was famous for its sturdy cotton cloth that became known as the fabric of Nimes and since "of" in French is "de" and they don't pronounce the last "s", we get our word "denim". The city also had a Roman temple called the "Square House"-even though it is clearly rectangular-and fine gardens with fountains, channels and small lakes dating from the 18th Century.

At Nimes we stumbled on to the Hotel Formulae 1 which was spotlessly clean, quiet and cheap. Cheap hotels in the US are cheap because they are old and nasty. The people behind this chain have obviously thought hard about what people really want in a hotel and then ruthlessly cut out everything else.

Each room sleeps two in a double bed and a third on a bunk bed above. There is a single l-o-n-g sheet folded over instead of two, a small TV and sink. There are shared toilets and showers but before you say "Yuk", let me tell you that they are largely-self cleaning. When you leave the toilet it flushes automatically. There are little jets near the floor that appear to spray disinfectant. Same for the shower but when you step out, the red light indicating "busy" stays on for a time while it runs the exhaust fan hard to clear steam. A hot air blower is mounted high on the wall as a hair dryer..

At the time, one Euro was worth almost exactly one US dollar and we paid 21-26 Euros in different cities meaning we could stay for a week in these for the price of one night in a lousy hotel in New York!

In downtown Nimes we passed a hair salon with the words Ne pas jalous painted boldly on the window. This translates as "Do not be jealous [of someone with a better haircut]" and we found it extremely amusing. Ever since we got married, Lan would say "You just being very jealous" if I offered a compliment or commented on something she had. Now we both use the French version.

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