I felt like I have barely slowed down in the last three days. Our days have been filled with hiking, making food, driving around the south of France, talking, debating, and listening to music, punctuated by brief stretches of silence gazing into the endless mountains or the blue, blue surf of the Mediterranean sea. But here is a bit of free time, before we check out for the night, so I will try my best to recount our trip thus far.
Two days ago, we drove out of Lyon as a party of three, joined by our friend Lele, who is a friend from college and from Chicago. We’ve been planning this trip in France for a while to coincide with his vacation, and thus far, it has been quite memorable! We met him at Part-Dieu, which is Lyon’s main TGV station, and breezed on south for a few hours, exchanging stories and updates from Chicago, until we came to the Pont du Gard.
I had been researching this Roman-age aqueduct since I realized it lay on the road between Lyon and our first destination of Perpignan. It was an absolutely thrilling experience to see in person this kind of historical monument, which is so austere in its beauty but simple in its function – it was built as a part of a 50 kilometer aqueduct carrying water to the city of Nîmes, and bridges a wide gap over a river, and has survived first as a toll bridge and now as a UNESCO world heritage site. Some of the things we have seen in the world improve with intimacy – the closer you get, the more you are awed and moved by the structure you see before your eyes and feel under your fingers. Others, most notably for us like the Taj Mahal, are almost better seen from afar, like a scene out of a storybook or a dream. The Pont du Gard is one of those former structures, and walking across the bridge that was built parallel to it, dipping our feet in the river beneath it, and climbing the hillside paths on either side that bring you so close you can touch the stones of the arches truly makes you realize that you are standing in the presence of something that has been here for nearly a thousand years and will perhaps be here for a thousand more.
After a satisfying time tramping all over the Pont du Gard, we sped on our way, and by 8 pm, arrived in Rivesaltes, a small village outside of Perpignan, more than 400 kilometers southwest of Lyon. Our Airbnb is a street-level apartment in the very historic old part of town with winding streets so tight you can’t get a car into some of them, with a terrace overlooking the Agly River (great name, eh?) and some truly lovely sunsets. The next morning, Rivesaltes looked a little more alert, its old and narrow streets considerably more populated and stores a little bit more open! We enjoyed a brunch of omelettes, fruit, and fresh croissants before heading out to the Pyrenees. Perpignan, the biggest city around, is the most southwestern city in France before you hit the Spanish border. Immediately to the west of Perpignan is the small town of Prades, in the foothills of the Pyrenees that cup the minute country of Andorra and otherwise demarcate the legal difference between Spain and France. I say legal difference, because heading out to Prades, we could already see the influence of Catalonia, the northeast region of Spain which has been in some years vocal for a secession. Perpignan flies the flag of both Catalonia and France. Towns and streets are named both in Catalan and in French (Prades and Prada), and the names of some landmarks bear undeniably Catalan-sounding names. We were on our way to hike around Prades and visit the Abbaye (Abbey) Saint-Michel de Cuxa (pronounced “cusha”), which Steve had explored many years ago on his first trip to France.
This time, he brought us back for the views, and they were stunning. Mont Canigou, the highest peak in the region, was often swathed in clouds, but occasionally, we could see its snow-streaked peak above us. We followed a paved road that quickly petered out into gravel and then grass, tracing its way across a farmer’s property. We erroneously cut across his land and orchard of fruit trees while trying to follow a path up into the mountains, finally ducking under a fence to get out, pursued by an indignant sheepdog who was more vocal than confrontational. From there on out, though, it was smooth sailing, walking along a sun-dappled path alongside a mountainous canal that gave clear, very cold water. We meandered along the path, enjoying from time to time absolutely breathtaking views of the valley below and also equally aerial views of the hills and mountains that lay above. Finally, we took a trail that sloped downward and emerged to find the abbey. It was a very old but peaceful place, with well-kept crypts, a broad and beautiful cloister, and an austere chapel. We bought a bottle of the wine made at the abbey, which Steve and I finished off tonight, and found a clearing just off the main road that leads to the abbey to sit and relax for a bit. I made some quick sketches of both the abbey’s bell tower and the peaks of the Pyrenees before we gathered our belongings and walked back along the road to Prades. We encountered a farmer and his herd of sheep, holding up admittedly meager traffic at a bridge as he ushered them across. He had two merry sheepdogs or border collies with wagging tongues and tails that at his command harried the sheep who were lagging on the opposite hill, still munching on grass. I took several photos, and briefly entertained the thought that our little Stella, who is a corgi mix, probably had ancestors who were raised for this kind of farm work! We were back in town in no time at all and enjoyed a beer and some food at a brasserie in Prades before driving back to Rivesaltes.
Today, we were determined to make an earlier start to the day. We took a scenic detour north this time, driving from Rivesaltes/Perpignan to Narbonne, which sits directly north of here on the Mediterranean coast. Along the way, we could see the most lovely hills and mountains on our left and the sparkling blue of the ocean on our right; there was a very lively breeze that robbed some of the warmth from even noontime and rocked our car as we made our way to Narbonne. Once there, we parked in the historical center and set off to investigate the Cathedral of Saint-Just and Saint-Pasteur, the half-finished cathedral of Narbonne. It is a beautiful, grand cathedral much bigger than even the Aix Cathedral, but while the altar end is well-finished, the opposite end is abruptly truncated, and ends in some walls and arches that are the mere bones of a cathedral without any roof or supporting buttresses. It is haunting to look at, and its unfinished nature was the result of a number of crises in the 13th century including the Black Plague. It also abuts the Via Domitia, the great Roman road that connected France to Italy, and the consuls in charge of Narbonne forbade them to tear down part of the wall in order to complete the grand cathedral. Just next to it is the Archbishop’s Palace, which is built out of part of the ancient Roman wall, and contains multiple beautiful gardens and terraces, and a tall, stately bell tower. For lunch, we found a café outside the cathedral and hôtel de ville (town hall) that served Narbonnaise mussels (mussels steamed open in a tomato coulis with garlic). It was extremely satisfying and fortifying! From that vantage point, we could also see the open patch in the square where a piece of the Via Domitia had been excavated, exposing irregular, polished stones that formed a path several feet below the current level of the square. To finish off the afternoon, we climbed the bell tower and braved the incredibly cold winds to find a very picturesque view of Narbonne. From this vantage point, we could very well admire the elegant arches and flying buttresses of the cathedral, as well as the river that ran through the city. At the very top of the bell tower, we found a nest of four, fuzzy baby chicks and their mother, a gold-colored hawk who visited briefly with a dead mouse in its claws, before leaving again, upset with its uninvited houseguests.
On our way home, we stopped by the Carrefour (France’s answer to Walmart) for a few supplies and also the empty parking lot afforded by the large complex so that Lele and I could take a crack at driving a manual transmission! Steve learned many years ago, but for both Lele and I, it was a new experience. Mostly one that consisted of stalling while you’re trying to get into first gear five thousand times. It is extremely satisfying to get right, however, and understand better how you can manipulate the sensitive clutch, brake, and gas pedals to smoothly start, stop and switch between gears. It is also quite humbling, of course, as it is much easier to screw up than it is to get right! I felt like I was learning how to drive for the first time.
When we came back, we fired up the grill that sat outside on our balcony, and as the sun set, the three of us worked as a team to create a lovely barbecue. Steve manipulated the grill and set up the carbon wood and lighter fluid gel, while Lele prepped steaks and chicken breasts, and I cut up peppers and zucchini. We enjoyed our meal with some wine, and finished the whole thing with a walk around town before sitting down with our computers for the night.
Tomorrow, we will get up even earlier and head out to Carcassonne, a medieval city to the west of Narbonne, about an hour and a half’s drive from Rivesaltes. Perhaps in the next few days, we will also hike a little more in the awesome Pyrenees, visit some hot baths, and maybe even kayak down some gorges before leaving France for Barcelona. With Lele’s arrival, life in France has taken on a slightly faster pace, and it is very interesting to see the experience of travel through his eyes. I’m tired, but oddly energetic just from recounting and thinking about all the things we’ve done in the past few days. Sleep will help us recover a little, as long as construction work doesn’t start next door at 8 am the way it did today, and we will be even more ready to see all that southern France offers. Pictures will follow, slowly but surely.