Seven Swans a Swimming…an Excursion on the Banks of the Petit Rhône
Thirty-four years ago today I was in labor screaming for an epidural and praying that my baby would be born on the 30th instead of the first of October so that her birth date would allow her to enter kindergarten early. I had a long-haired hippie country doctor in Tennessee who didn’t believe in anesthesia during child birth unless it was absolutely necessary, nor would he allow pre-natal testing for the same reason, so we didn’t know the sex of the child in advance. It was highly unusual, but I agreed to it, until the pain set in…that’s when I started screaming, “Don’t make me beg for an epidural!” that shook the whole ward. She was born not long after midnight on the first of October, but she managed to sneak into school before she turned five as I’d hoped. This all seems like many lifetimes ago and in many ways it was.
I had no clue then that this many years later I’d be living in France and having the life that we live. No, it’s not perfect and there are times I wonder why I’m still here, why I haven’t embraced the French more or why I continue to put up with the massive bureaucracy that weighs heavily on trying to accomplish anything, even the simplest of tasks.
Friday’s journey to Nîmes is a perfect example of what keeps me here. I took a TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) from Gare de Lyon and sped along at almost 300 kilometers per hour through the countryside, arriving at the destination only three hours later. The cost of the round-trip ticket was a little over €100. I plugged in and logged-on to their internal WiFi system to write emails, watch videos or whatever I wanted to do online. The bar serving basic foods and drinks was just next door. It was as comfortable as it gets.
Patty Sadauskas, who has a second home in the Languedoc-Roussillon town, picked me up at the station in a rental car so that we could travel around the region. Our goal was not only to visit the area, but to do some reconnaissance for a client seeking a property near there or in Provence.
Uzès was our first stop where we lunched, strolled around, visited real estate agencies and took property brochures. Uzès is small town of almost 9,000 inhabitants in the department of Gard, renowned for its Renaissance architecture, its history for silk, linen and licorice and with strong Roman links. Like Nîmes, its water came via the Pont du Gard aqueduct, just 25 kilometers southwest. Uzès is certainly one of the region’s most beautiful, desirable and liveable towns in the area. I understood immediately why so many people love it.
One of the things we determined while sitting under the large old trees in Place-aux-Herbes — one of the town’s main squares, anchored by a large stone fountain, bordered by cafés and surrounded by elegant buildings — that it might be as interesting to have an apartment overlooking a Place such as this as it would be to have a village house. This changed our direction a bit in our research, opening it up to consider other possibilities.
From Uzès, we detoured to Saint-Quentin-la-Poterie, a village of about 3,000 which claims to be the birth place of the inventor of reinforced concrete, Joseph Monier. That’s not the reason that the “La Poterie” was added to its name in 1886 by the then President of the French Republic, but because it’s a center of manufacturing of pottery. Since the Middle Ages, the village has produced ceramics from the high quality clay in the soil from the area and was awarded the official label as “Ville et Métiers d’Art.”
I personally found it might be a bit boring, with one ceramics shop or factory after another lining the narrow streets, with little human life, such as cafés, and virtually no greenery. It must be heaven for a potter, but if all you want to do is while away your time, this didn’t seem to be the town, so we took it off our client’s list of possibilities.
I hadn’t been to the Pont du Gard in more than 20 years, so it was next on the list. At that time, you drove up, parked near to it and walked easily around it and on it. All that has changed over the years. Now there is an elaborate set up with a big parking lot, an entry that includes a café, museum and boutique of souvenirs and a fee to enter. Once inside the entry, there is a bit of a hike to the famous aquaduct, but it’s easy and well worth it. It’s overwhelmingly beautiful and majestic, even more than you can imagine. The aquaduct was built in the first century AD to carry water over 50 kilometers (31 miles) to Nîmes, then known as the Roman colony of “Nemausus.” It crosses the Gardon River, very near the town of Vers-Pont-du-Gard (that makes sense!) and is the highest of all Roman aqueduct bridges. It is righty so on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. Just this past July, the bikers in the Tour de France crossed it…twice, once on the 23rd from and to Nîmes and again on the 24th in the direction of Gap. It must have been as exciting to be on it as a biker as it was to watch. (See a video of it here)
Saturday we had a lazy morning before setting out for the Camargue. Believe it or not, I’d never been there. This natural region south of Nîmes between the sea and the Rhône is an expanse of marshy plain covering 930 square kilometers (about 360 square miles) comprised of large briny lagoons (“étangs”) encircled by reed-covered marshes. This is an area famous for it being a haven for wild birds (over 400 species) including flamingos. It is also known for the wild white horses (known as the “Camarguais”) which roam the marshes freely and black cattle (bulls used for bull-fighting), along with lavender, glasswort, tamarisks and reeds.
First we went in the direction of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, about an hour from Nîmes, passing much of that along the way and feeling as if we’d left the planet. It certainly doesn’t look or feel like France, but it is, of course, and that’s one thing that makes France so amazing…its diverse geography. Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is considered the capital of the Camargue with a year-round population of only about 2,500, but a summer residency of up to 500,000! “Quel horreur!”
The town itself has an interesting history, dating back to the 4th-century AD. As a fishing village, this picturesque spot was made even more famous by Van Gogh who made several paintings there in 1888, and it was frequented by writer Ernest Hemingway and artist Pablo Picasso. While the parking lots were filled to capacity, we had the good fortune to find a spot not far from where the amazing odors of a restaurant wafted by as we headed to the waterfront, where hundreds, maybe thousands of boats were moored. “
Patty, THIS is where we are having lunch,” I declared as my nose led me to the door. There was only one table, having just been liberated, as it was filled with what seemed like the kind of tourists and locals who knew the best dining spot in town. The odors coming out of the kitchen were incredibly seductive. Le Jardin des Delices, run by all women, had a menu of primarily seafood, all fresh and clearly made with tender loving care. Not overly expensive, every bite was both exciting and sensual. Coupled with a crispy, white local wine, Patty and I thought we had died and gone to heaven — me with grilled sardines and roasted vegetables, she with a “marmite de poisson” of fish in a tomatoey stew. If we had walked just a short way into town and chosen one of the restaurants elbow-to-elbow with one another, it would not have been the same experience, we were sure.
As we strolled into town — sated from the glorious lunch — along the quay where the boats were moored we made a quick decision to hop on board a boat for a 1.5 hour tour into the mouth of the Petite Rhône River for 12€ each. This was our chance to get up front and close to the flora and fauna on the emerald green water of the Mediterranean in the bright sun on a temperate afternoon. It couldn’t have been more perfect in all respects, taking photo after photo of the swans (seven swimming together, just like the Christmas carol) and regal egrets, the famous white horses and the bulls, as well as the houses perched at the edge of the water, called “cabanons.”
We learned that the Camargue horses are an ancient breed and indigenous to the region, having lived wild for thousands of years here. What fascinated me most is that they aren’t born with white hair, but are born with black or brown hair on their black skin. As they grow to adulthood, they shed their dark-colored hair making way for the white until they are purely white at between 5 and 7 years of age. The boat took us to an area near the shore where a Camargue cowboy (in this case, “cowgirl”), drove in a herd of horses and bulls for us to ogle for ourselves.
Before heading home, we made a quick stop to Aigue-Mortes, a medieval city within high stone walls that have been very well preserved. The name means “dead water” or “stagnant water,” coming from the marshes and ponds that surround the village. I can’t say that this town “spoke to me” like Uzès or Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, but I did find it fascinating that they have pruned and trained their trees to be flat and square. That’s how I found the town, too: a bit too flat and square, but I’m sure that’s not the usual sentiment.
All in all, our weekend in the south was spectacularly sunny and fun and now neither one of us can wait to go back…in just about 10 days time, Patty to Nîmes and me to Nice. Meanwhile, there is plenty to do in Paris!
A la prochaine…
Adrian Leeds Group
(with Patty at Pont du Gard)
P.S. Happy 34th Birthday, Erica Simone! I’ll be at her photo exhibition Wednesday night at the Mairie of the 9th Arrondissement and hope you can join me! See the Mairie’s website for more information.
P.P.S. Join me October 5th at the American Church in Paris for the 54th annual premier expat orientation seminar, BLOOM WHERE YOU’RE PLANTED, where I will be speaking about Finding Your Perfect Paris Home. Registrations have been
extended till October 1st.
Saturday, October 5, 2019
The American Church in Paris, 65 Quai d’Orsay,
Visit Bloom in Paris to register and for more information.