Monday, November 29, 2010

arles and avignon

after spending a week at the chateau in ventenac we are on our own again and our first stop was the commune of arles, several hours east by train in the provence region.  this ancient roman city was packed with monuments and ancient ruins, you could throw an ancient rock in any direction and hit a piece of history.  vincent van gogh spent a year here in the late 1880's and produced over 300 paintings and drawings.

this is the skull of a monk that is on display in the church of st. trophime

our room

in the morning we walked to the train station to catch a ride to avignon

on the left bank of the rhone, avignon is a partially walled city that once replaced rome as the seat of the papacy for nearly 100 years.  many of the ramparts are still standing and visitors and locals alike walk along the ancient causeways.

the pont saint-benezet no longer spans the entirety of the rhone after partially collapsing due to flooding.  though we decided not to spend the money, visitors can still walk on the remaining portion for a fee of around 10 euros

the palace of the popes

our cozy quarters for the night

narbonne and narbonne plage

another day trip took us about a thirty minutes down the road from ventenac to the commune of narbonne.  this once wealthy port still has an exposed section of roman road in the middle of the city near the Cathedrale Saint-Just-et-Saint-Pasteur de Narbonne.  the cathedral would have been one of the largest in europe had construction not been halted due to a myriad of problems including the financial decline of the city of narbonne as a result of the silting of the port.

the completed portion of narbonne cathedral

narbonne plage is a resort town separated from narbonne proper by a limestone massif

the mediterranean was a bit too cold for swimming

the weather was beautiful when we arrived and turned to a torrential downpour by the time we had finished lunch

spelunking in minerve

on one of our days off during our stay at the chateau, our hosts let us borrow a car and take a day trip to the tiny cliffside village of minerve.  this fortress village rests at the edge of the gorges du brian overlooking a section of the river cesse just before it tunnels underground.  the water was well below the surface by the time of our visit, enabling us to walk through the enormous cave that is open at both ends.

the stone buildings of the town are almost indistinguishable from the cliffs

we found a little goat path that ran along the incredible gorges du brian

jenny standing in front of the entrance to the cave where the river cesse cuts beneath the rock.  during this time of year the water runs below the surface but at other times visitors would not be able to explore the cave without getting a little wet. 

though the cave is open at both ends, it is nearly pitch black inside
luckily we had head lamps with us and were able to do some exploring

this photo is taken using flash so in reality this area is very dark.  there were little caves branching off of the main chamber that could only be reached by climbing 

again taken with flash.  at this point jenny reminded me that the nearest hospital was about 100 kilometers away

this should give the folks at home some idea of the scale of the cave
we found a second, slightly smaller cave a few hundred meters down the riverbed that was open at both ends as well

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

spending a week in ventenac

there is a growing popularity in low budget tourism and the use of websites like and that allow travelers to connect with people all over the world and arrange to come and live in an area and work in exchange for food and lodging.  we used and found an opportunity to work at a petite chateau in a tiny village called ventenac en minervois in the south of france resting beside the canal du midi.

we spent 7 days at the house, working a few hours each day with our afternoons free to explore the region.  our hosts, sundara and david, were a couple of scottish expats that had bought the house several years ago and began hosting classical music recitals several times a year in the large salon on the main floor.  they were kind enough to loan us one of the cars during our days off and we were able to visit some of the neighboring villages and beaches.

the mansion is called la fontenille built in 1880
our room was on the second floor of the house overlooking the garden

the house is comprised of three floors including a full apartment with kitchen on the top floor

part of our job during the week involved cleaning and maintenance of the grounds

we ate three meals a day with our hosts

this is murphy

and he is probably the best cat we've ever met
there are vineyards blanketing the countryside all around the village

the canal du midi stretches 240 km, connecting the city of toulouse to the mediterranean port of sete
we helped prepare for one of the soirees held at the chateau.  a classical trio of cello, harp, and oboe were the night's entertainment

Sunday, November 21, 2010

carcassonne and flying pigs

the medieval town of carcassonne is a unesco world heritage site and a pretty impressive example of 13th century european architecture.  rick steves told us that some locals like to believe that the town got its name 1,200 years ago.  Charlemagne had besieged the town for several years and just as food was running out, a townsperson named madame carcas fed the last bits of grain to the last pig and tossed it over the wall.  charlemagne's exhausted and frustrated forces were so amazed that the town had enough food to throw a fat party pig over the wall that they decided they would never succeed in starving the people out and they ended the siege and left the town.

we stayed in converted monk's quarters called notre-dame de l'abbaye 

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

basque country: san sebastian, spain; saint-jean-de-luz, france

the basque country is a border straddling area of france and spain.  the ancestral language of the basque people, euskara, is still spoken by many basques.  euskara is the only remaining pre-indo-european language in western europe, making it one of the oldest spoken languages in europe.
we took the train to the coastal town of san sebastian, spain for a few days and then spent a night in saint-jean-de-luz, france before heading off to carcassonne.

we stayed in an awesome rooming house in the heart of old town

eusko pilota is considered the "national" sport of basque country and is taught to children starting at a very young age and even played professionally by adults.  this was the view from our window.

view from urgull hill

this 12 metre jesus was erected in 1950 to top the hill and welcome visitors to the town

most people don't eat dinner in san sebastian until around 9:00 pm

pinxtos (basque tapas) are served in nearly every bar throughout the evening.  these delicious small bites are set out on the bar for people to help themselves.  most bargoers eat one or two pinxtos (between 1 and 2 euros each) and then move on to the next bar for a drink and a few more bites.

toms tan lines

ocean lifeguard training

the beach was lined with children's sand soccer games (a popular organized sport in the cooler months)

this one is for kelley.  spicy enough for you?
chocolate croissant that would blow your mind (between the two of us, we may or may not have eaten 5 of these in 2 days) 

there is a popular surf beach in san sebastian but we didn't really see any decent waves in the time it took us to drink a bottle of wine while laying in the sand

from san sebastian it is a short train ride across the border to the tiny french town of saint-jean-de-luz

les simpsons
saint-jean-de-luz is a small beach town that is reportedly packed during the summer months but was  pretty much a ghost town while we were visiting
l'eglise saint-jean-baptiste was the wedding site of king louis XIV and the infanta of spain to seal a fragile peace between spain and france.  a pretty big claim to fame for a pretty small town.

the church displays the bones and numerous skulls of saints as holy relics