Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Freeway-Free in France: Paleolithic Art and Mystery

20161222_175622cropThe Dordogne area of southwestern France is rife with sandstone caverns, many of which hold spectacular displays of calcite formations, and several of which hold samples of Paleolithic art, most preserved unseen for over 20,000 years because the entrances to the caves collapsed, cutting off access.

We first went to Peche-Merle, where the art and other man-made markings have been dated back to about 28,000 years.  Here one is allowed to descend into the actual cave, which has been artfully illuminated to simulate torchlight on the drawings.  The calcite formations are dramatic – curtains and columns and needles and disks and strange formations that look like children’s toys – a spinning top, a set of marbles.  All done by seepage of water through the calcite.

 Most of the drawings are linear evocations of mammoths, deer, and aurochs with one sweeping line outlining trunk, tusks, head, hump, and tail.  There is one very clear image of a cave bear scratched into a wall with some relief effect due to the bumps in the wall.  There are several partial hand prints.  There is one image of a man who appears to be pierced by spears (images of people, we learned, are very rare in Paleolithic art.). And at the end there was a spectacular image of two horses, both with small heads, black fore quarters, and black spots on the rest of the body for an Appaloosa effect, the most complete and vivid picture in the cave.  We tried to imagine how these pictures were created, by artists using pigment made from burnt clay, stamping or brushing or even blowing the colors painstakingly onto the wall.  The how of doing it is hard to imagine, the why is a complete mystery.

The next day we went to Lascaux II. Fifty years ago  my group of American students was among the last visitors to the original cave, as it was closed to the public in 1963, the year I was there.  The re-creation, however, does a much better job of recreating the sense of being in a cave, the mystery and unknowability of the purpose and practice of the artists, and the general overall experience than, say, the digital recreation of Alta Mira in Spain that  I saw two years ago (See my blog post from 2014). Again, one descends underground, into a cavern whose dimensions and irregularities are within one centimeter of the original cave.  The paintings have been recreated copying the original pigments and techniques.  And what paintings! Horses walk, trot, and gallop in a frieze, herded (maybe) or protected (maybe) or stampeded (maybe) by several gigantic bulls. There is a delicate drawing of a deer with intricate antlers alone on one wall.  There is a procession of ponies.  There are ibexes with sweeping horns.  There is one animal which seems to combine features of several others.  And many of these animals are carefully and realistically shaded and colored, unlike the outlined figures of Peche Merle.  They are beautiful.  No one knows, or can ever know, what they mean.

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Freeway Free in France: Grappling with Griselda (the GPS Lady)

20161222_175841map1We have a French road map courtesy of AAA.  Three out of four of us have the same road map.   If you want to get to point A, the map is useful for finding out some waypoints along the way, since signposts in the French countryside mostly point just to the next town, not to the next major town.  The road numbers on the map almost never match any of the road numbers you actually see on the road signs, so that’s no help.

On the map, toll roads are blue with red borders, divided highways are yellow with red borders, “Principal roads” are red, “main roads” are yellow, and there are some grey roads.  There are large areas which seem to have no roads, but that is not the case.

20161222_175841docmap2We have a GPS which came with our car.  We had some interesting trips in the first few days, because it seemed to have been preset to avoid toll roads and major highways at all costs.  We saw a lot of red roads (they have striping, shoulders, left turn lanes, and lots of roundabouts) and yellow roads (center striping, no left turn lanes, fewer roundabouts, no shoulders, and grey roads (no striping, no shoulders, stop signs, just room for two midsize cards to get past each other) and a fair set of the invisible roads, which are basically one-lane roads bordered by very solid stone walls where you just have to pray there is no one coming around the next curve.

By the time we had wrestled with Griselda the GPS lady for a few days, we were ready to take matters into our own hands and get on the toll road in order to get to Peche Merle, the prehistoric cave where the only English language tour was going to depart at 10.  We ignored Griselda and set off for A20, the toll road.  Bad move.  Little did we know that in this case Griselda was right:  the toll road took us way out of our way and we narrowly made it to our destination on time (helped by DB’s having mistakenly (she says) told us 10 when our actual tour was at 10:30).  We found that W’s smart phone, though not connected to the Internet, could be set using the hotel Wifi and subsequently gave us excellent access to Google Maps, so we had a cross check.  On our return, we found that what had taken us an hour and a half using our “common sense” was reduced to under an hour using Griselda ‘s and Google’s byroads.

The next morning we set off again, this time feeling confident in Griselda’s advice, but common sense began to worry when she insisted on taking us northeast when the old-technology map showed we needed to be going almost due west.  We stopped and checked. Turned out Griselda operates by names of towns, not tourist attractions, and “Lascaux” per Griselda was a little town halfway to Tours. We reprogrammed her for the TOWN closest to the Cave de Lascaux where we wanted to go, and off we went, threading our way through tiny lanes that looked more like sidewalks, twisting through villages almost too small to have names, until we finally regained the yellow road which led to our goal.  We were so delighted to regain center striping!

For the rest of our trip, we made use of Griselda, Google, AND the paper map.  Of course, once we were alert to the foibles of each, we had no discord between them.

Freeway Free in France: Awesome Albi

 

I had always wanted to go to Albi ever since in college I saw a poster a roommate had, which looked almost other worldly in its having no relation whatsoever to my ideas of Romanesque or Gothic cathedrals. Somehow I missed Albi when I was a student traveler, and when I saw that a small detour could take us there, all it took was to point out that Albi is also the home of the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum to convince my travel mates to make a stop.

20160912_024628docAlbi did not disappoint.  The cathedral of Ste Cecile is the largest brick building in the world.  Brick, not stone, not concrete. It rises from the central plaza in Albi at the side of the Rhone River like some kind of fantasy, all smooth curves and unbroken surfaces. Only slits for Windows.  Towers that just keep on going.  Our first glimpse had us tripping over our jaws. We walked around from the back of the church looking for the entrance, and found a welcoming Gothic/Baroque carnival of white stone at the top of marble steps leading into the brick fantasy. 20160912_030001doc

Our guidebooks told us that the original cathedral had been build with an uneasy eye to the local Albigensian sect, a group which had been declared heretic by the Pope, but was thriving in Albi.  The new bishop designed his cathedral as much as a defensible fortress as a place of worship, just in case the local heretics got rebellious.  Only a hundred years after the completion of the vertical cathedral had the welcoming entrance been added.

Once inside, our jaws dropped again. If Escher had combined with Joan Miro and Provençal fabric designers to color the interior of this building, they might have come up with something like this – a riot of pattern and geometry in bright reds, yellows, greens, and blues, ending in arched recesses painted in equally diverse designs, one a yellow sun on a blue field decked with stars, another twining with ivy, etc.  september-2016-239doc

Most cathedrals draw your eye to the front with a representation of Jesus triumphant at the right hand of God with Mary beaming proudly and all the apostles lined up.
  How sissified.  Ste Cecilia devotes the entire wall to a representation of the Last Judgement, with the apostles, yes, lined up, and then maybe 1/5th of the available space devoted to the saved, in order of rank, with the clergy first, Archbishops and bishops leading, followed by virtuous royalty, and then by the hoi polloi, many of whom have the list of their good and bad deeds hanging in book form around their necks.  Some of the dead are still rising from their graves, while the ones who are not saved are already beginning to writhe.  The bottom third of the space shows most graphically what kind of punishment awaits the greedy, the lustful, the proud, the gluttonous, the envious, and the slothful. But where is Anger?  And where is Christ sitting in judgment?  Oops – the Bishops wanted to expand the nave and create a special chapel for themselves, so Christ and the Angry sinners made way for a nicely arched door behind the altar.

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After touring the cathedral (a well arranged and narrated audio tour takes about an hour) we went for another outdoor lunch at the Clos de Ste. Cecile, in an former school behind the cathedral.  Excellent.  More Foie Gras, more goat cheese, more dried duck breast, more walnuts.  20160912_042141web

Then we started on the Toulouse Lautrec museum. This is the worlds largest collection of TL, but much of it is devoted to sketches and preliminary studies for the works we have seen in the Musee d’Orsay.  Still a lot of information.

We finished our trip with a short stroll around the Bishop’s Garden, a formal boxwood arrangement whose floral elements are changed regularly to reflect the theme of the season. Oddly, this season’s theme was a tribute to Joan Miro, so the floral elements reflected the colors of his painting in non-symmetrical arrangements. Quite interesting once you figured out what they were trying to do.

So far, no hassles, no arguments, no breakdowns, and nothing but sunny (though a bit over-warm) weather. Cross fingers.

Freeway Free in France: Golden Carcasonne

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The city of Carcasonne is a World Heritage site, a well preserved/restored medieval castle and keep perched above a river in southern Languedoc.  The castle was originally built to protect villagers, merchants and serfs from raiders who plagued the Mediterranean coast from Africa, but later the attackers included Charlemagne, who laid siege to the town for months, and after that crusaders led by (later St.) Louis IX of France against the Cathars  (AKA Albigensians), who had been labeled as heretics by the pope.  Tolerance has not been much of a feature of Christianity in historic times, it seems.20160911_075143web

Carcasonne was in ruins after centuries of decay, when an Victorian- era architect/achaeologist who had been involved in the restoration of Notre Dame in Paris took an interest in restoring the city.  His first proposal was modest, aiming to restore only a portion of the site, but public response was so positive that he aimed higher and took on the whole site.  The result is amazing. Two fortified walls circle the city, there is a tournament ground for jousting and swordplay, the old lord’s castle is almost intact, and at the same time there is a thriving village of 200 households living within the keep, mostly occupied in tending to the thousands of tourists who flock here in the summer.

We arrived noonish after a lovely drive through Languedoc’s vineyards.  After a quick lunch we started on the castle tour/ battlement walk.  There was fascinating history in every room and great views from every arrow slot and murder hole.  Then we ventured into the church, with its gothic rose window, and caught a concert of traditional Provençal ballads sung by two white- clad ethereal women accompanied by a harpist and base player.  The plaintive plainsong- style music echoed amazingly in the old church.

We dined in an open patio at a restaurant recommended by one of the travel writers admired by both Winifred and Dianne, the Auberge de Lice.  We agreed that we had each enjoyed the best meal ever for 80 euros – three delectable courses beautifully presented  divided among four people, and an excellent bottle of local red wine. After dinner we walked along the exterior battlements, lit at intervals by recessed lights with the effect of torches.  As we walked back to our hotel across the 13th century bridge, the castle shone golden behind us.  It was magical.20160911_121923web

Trivia note:  Carcasonne played a major supporting role in “Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves” appearing as the village of Nottingham and Prince John’s castle.

Freeway Free in France: Medieval Memories in Aigues Mortes

 

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We spent most of Day 5 in Aigues Mortes ( “Dead Waters” in Provençal), a town which was extensively fortified by Louis IX (later St Louis) back when he was extending his kingdom south and needed a Mediterranean port.  Unfortunately, the port location was badly chosen, the harbor kept silting up, and eventually Louis conquered enough of Provence to make Marseilles his lead port, leaving Aigues Mortes to molder neglected at the end of a rather barren peninsula.

 20160910_035659docNeglect means no development, so the medieval town, with its defensive wall, royal apartments, and battlements are all pretty much intact, despite some quarrying of the walls to build more modern edifices (pig sties, sheep pens, etc.). Later when the Huguenots were being suppressed by Henry II, a number of them were imprisoned here until they would renounce their heresy. Some stayed for 35 years until finally freed by Louis XV.  Still later, imported Italian workers being exploited in the nearby saltworks were cruelly suppressed by the French authorities – some striking artworks made of salt crystals commemorate the injustice.allyson-and-friends-070web

 

 

The day was quite warm, but a nice breeze off the sea and a number of displays, educational materials, and art projects located in cool interior rooms make our tour of the battlements very pleasant. We stopped for ice cream on the way out of town, and Chantal located a boulangerie which sold fougasse, a kind of Provencale specialty bread  made with olive oil, olives, and bacon bits, which I had heard about and wanted to try.  Yummy greasy flaky rich.

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That evening the five of us went out for a seafood dinner at a little harbor town near Lunel.  On a Saturday night the place was jumping, with each outdoor restaurant competing with the next in loudness and variety of bands (mariachi, hip hop, rock, all going noisily at each other across the canal.). It was not exactly the quiet atmospheric dinner we had expected, but it was certainly a change of pace. 

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Freeway Free in France: Rockin’ with the Romans

20160909_071609docStill in Arles

After our homage to Vincent, we switched back about two millenia to the time when Pompey was conquering the southern Mediterranean, just before he was recalled to Rome to help put down the slave rebellion led by Spartacus.  He helped establish the fort we visited yesterday at Ambrussum, but it was Augustus Caesar who visited a few assassinations and de-throneings later and established the Arena and the theatre, both of which are still in use.

20160909_055112docWe started off with a stop in the 12th century at the Cloistre de St. Trophies, a cool and calm spot right off the main square. The cloister included many  statues which had been so badly eroded you could hardly make them out, but a few that had been sheltered are very human and evocative.   Then we walked along the wall of the city overlooking the Rhone, well culverted against flooding, admiring an old Romanesque church which had been converted during the Revolution to a union hall for shepherds, a large domed building which was the remains of a steam bath built by Constantine, and a number of long views down the river to unnamed castles and fortifications in the distance.20160909_065114doc

The Arena was being set up for a cordillera that evening (that’s a kind of bloodless Provençal bullfight). In exploring the arcades,  we entered into a sort of human Whack-a-mole game.  DB had decided not to do the river walk but instead to meet us at a garden after our Arena visit.  C and I somehow got separated from WB, and we next spotted her halfway around the arena as we waved from the tower.  Ten minutes of brisk walking through the arcades later we arrived at where she had been, but no WB.

20160909_071525web Scanning the arena, we spotted her in the Tower!  Heading back to the tower, I heard my name called.  It was DB, AWOL from the garden, who had just seen WB at the base of the tower.  “I’ll meet you at the entrance to the tower, ” she said.  By the time we got there, WB  was back a quarter of the way around the arena, and DB was nowhere to be seen.  And so on. We finally joined forces and made our last tourist stop at the old Roman theatre, much pillaged (as was the Arena) for building materials over the years, but now set up for open air musical and theatrical performances. We tested the acoustics and found them sadly lacking compared to Ephesus in Turkey or the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City. allyson-and-friends-063web

Travel Tip:  Arles is a busy city as well as a tourist stop.  It is also home to many festivals throughout the year, attracting still more people.  If you are arriving by car, try to get there early in the day, and find a parking place by going off the main road through the center city (Preferably downhill – you’ll appreciate that after exploring all day!)  Once you have a parking place, the next stop could be the Office de Tourisme de Arles, conveniently located on the Blvd. des Lices, near the Theatre Antique. Here you will find excellent maps of the center city, friendly advice about getting around, and zillions of beautiful postcards.  Enjoy!

The Sound Track of My Life (LATC Nov 2, 2016)

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“I feel like I’ve been listening to the sound track of my life”, my sister sighed blissfully.  We were side by side on the bus riding home from Sir Paul McCartney’s concert opening Sacramento’s Golden One Arena.20161004_190914doc

For two and a half hours Sir Paul had delivered the goods:  a heavy dose of Beatles tunes ranging from “Love Me Do” to “Let It Be”, and some songs from the Wings years, and some which post-dated Wings.  The audience of over 15,000 had happily sung along  with “Obla-di, Obla-da” and endless repetitions of “la la la lalalala, lalalala, Hey Jude”.

Thanks to giant Viewtronics screens which zeroed in on the musicians, it didn’t matter that our seats were in the absolute last row of the highest level, and that the actual performers appeared to be the size of ants crawling on a stage the size of a postage stamp far below.  Our aerie gave us a great view of the audience participation (arms and lights waving in synch to the music all around the arena) and the special effects (rear-projection screens, animations, laser beams roaming the audience,  confetti shot from cannons, fireworks going off in rhythm with the music from the front of the stage.)  It was a far cry from my previous rock concert, which involved maybe 2000 people at the San Jose Civic Auditorium to see a rising bad-boy British band called the Rolling Stones.

What my sister said was true for her.  One of her most vivid memories is of the Beatles first performance on the Ed Sullivan show, when her scream at their appearance caused me, emptying the dishwasher, to drop and break our father’s favorite coffee mug. When she was thirteen, my forgiving father had taken her and three of her friends to a Beatles concert at the Cow Palace, taking turns lifting his quartet of  hysterical 13-year-olds on his shoulders so they could see .  She remembers exactly where she was when she heard the news, as an earlier generation remembers where they were when Kennedy was shot, and a later generation remembers the day the Challenger exploded.  “In My Life” was one of the introductory songs played at her wedding.

For me the Beatles would also be on the sound track, but there would be others also.  Earlier on the track I’d include the Mormon Tabernacle choir whose broadcast from Temple Square filled our house each Sunday morning, as did the Metropolitan Opera broadcast on Saturday.  I’d include the scores of  Rogers and Hammerstein, and Gilbert and Sullivan.  I’d make room  for Dorothy Shay and her Park Avenue Hillbillies, a corny old vinyl set which as kids we played over and over again on our console record player with the automatic changer.

Later there would be folk music from Joan Baez and Judy Collins, and the rough poetry of Bob Dylan (now Nobel Laureate – who knew!) And still later the epic movie music of John Williams: the themes from “Star Wars” and “E.T” and “Indiana Jones” and “Superman.”

And maybe at the end I’d come back to the Beatles:

Ob la di ob la da life goes on bra / La la how the life goes on

Ob la di ob la da life goes on bra / La la how the life goes on

 

 

Freeway Free in France: Ambling around Arles in Vincent’s Footsteps

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This morning DM was picked up at 9″30 by her Swiss cousin and his wife who happen to live about a half hour from Lunel.  Right afterward the remaining four of us set out for Arles, known for its Roman ruins and former resident Vincent Van Gogh.  We saw a lot of both.

vvgoghfondOnce we got to Arles and rather miraculously found a free parking space that I could maneuver into, we headed first for the Bureau Touristique for city maps, and then, at WB’s insistence, went first to the Fondation de Vincent Van Gogh, which was sponsoring a special exhibit of Arles’ favorite summer tourist. C scoffed “This isn’t Paris!  There will be no queue!” But there was one, and a twenty minute wait for tickets.  Rather than retrace steps, we shifted our plan of saving the nice air conditioned museum for later in the afternoon and plunged into three rooms of I would say B-level van Gogh’s on loan not from the Rijksmuseum but a less prestigious Vincent van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. 20160909_030921doc

The only well known work on view was the one of fishing boats on the beach.  It is a beautiful work.  There were a couple of others that I wouldn’t mind having on my wall, and a couple that I would NOT want to display  too dark and foreboding. Once out of the museum (including an ascent to La Terrace, with a wonderful view over the rooftops of Arles) we discovered we were starving.  We tried a couple of places with recommendations from Michelin and Routiere but found them with no available places, and ended up rather serendipitously at la Cafe de la Nuit, which was famously painted by Van Gogh, and which I had used as a focus point for one of my Lamaze experiences.  The lunch was better than expected, service snail like, but the locale could not be beat!

We rounded out our VvG experiences with a visit to l’Espace Van Gogh, which is the asylum to which he repaired after falling out with Gauguin and cutting off his ear.  It is a lovely enclosed space with a garden that blends the formal French garden with an Impressionistic flair. It is now a tourist center with one of the world’s greatest collections of postcards, and tour groups ebbing and flowing constantly.  I had to wonder whether the current buildings are painted as they were when Van Gogh was there or painted as he painted them (not necessarily the same.) Then we started our Roman ramblings. Maybe it would be good to consign that part of the day to a separate email.

Freeway-free in France: the Arches of Languedoc

p1030020docFrom Lunel:

We began the day at 6:30 with an early light breakfast of coffee and fruit, then set out for a shortish hike to the old Roman bridge and assorted ruins at Ambusson. This bridge was famously painted by Courbet.  The old fort is nothing but ramparts and a few walls, but from its height one can see 360 degrees around Languedoc (that’s where we are, just across the border from Provence). Then we went to the musee, where we got to try on authentic Gallo-Roman couture, and see lots more pictures of the famous bridge in less and greater stages of deterioration over the centuries. september-2016-024web

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We came back for brunch a la Mediterranee. Lots of leftover quiche, three kinds of soft camembertish cheeses, delicious seedy whole wheat bread, lots of fruit.  Then to the medieval town of Sommiere, with another Roman bridge which is still used by cars and pedestrians to cross the river.  Six of its arches span the water; the other 11 are now land-locked. The river is herded into a narrower channel than in BC times, but periodically floods to its own old level, culverts and levies not withstanding, which means that there are lots of high water markers VERY high on the medieval walls. The old arches are now used for shop fronts and storage chambers along the medieval square. september-2016-055

By the time we had hiked up to the castle on the hill it was after noon and quite warm, so 0ur next stop was a glacier by the river, where there was shade, a pleasant breeze, and 10 flavors of gelato to choose from.  We watched the swans in the river and pondered thoughts of the old Romans who built so well. What would they think of their bridges now?

Travel tip:  Phone service while in France.

20160908_083351webWe had been told in the US that we could easily swap out the SIM cards in our phones for one which would give us cheap European internet, wireless, and phone capability.  We headed for the SFN store in the local Intermarche, where after over an hour of effort by the two very polite and patient clerks, it was clear that NONE of the five phones DM, WB and I had between us would accept data from the SFN SIM card.  Fortunately, I had received a “Welcome to Paris” phone text message from Verizon encouraging me to call if there was any problem, and both DB and I were soon  set up with $40/month international roaming data plans (which we could have easily set up in the US in advance, but thought the local SIM cards would be more flexible.)  WB opted for purchasing a cheap flip phone so she could make calls and text – it turned out having both types of service was very handy depending on what kind of coverage was available in which areas we traveled.

Moral: Technology is never as easy as advertised. Make alternate plans.

 

 

Freeway-Free in France:La Vie en Rose in Provence

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Note: this begins a series of entries about my three-week journey with my three friends in south-west France and Paris.  DM is on the left, DBat the end of the table in a striped blouse that will become familiar, then myself (AJ) and WB in her trademark blue camp shirt on the right.

The four of us  did not exactly plan to be freeway-free during our three-week adventure tour of France, but the  GPS system in our rental car made the decision for us:  Apparently the GPS had been pre-programmed to avoid toll roads, and despite all our efforts we could not figure out how to over-ride this command.  We wound our way from Marseilles on frontage roads and two lane back roads,  through olive orchards and vineyards and past fruit stands and old stone churches and through innumerable roundabouts until we made it to my friend ‘s charming small cottage  in Lunel, with vegetables and flowers growing profusely front and back and three bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs for the four of us to share.
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We had a delightful dinner al fresco in the back garden – local melon and prosciutto and olives, tomatoes from the garden, rose wine from the local vigneron, two kinds of quiche made from goat cheese and local vegetables, and lots of lively conversation.   We had all read Peter Mayle’s “A Year in Provence” in advance of our trip, and felt we were living inside the book.

If you sit on the left side of the plane flying into Marseilles and have good weather, you will have  a spectacular view of snow- topped Mt. Cervix in the Italian Alps just over the French border.

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