Marseille to Lyon: Et Tout le Reste

Are here on Gilligan’s Isle! (I know I’ve made that joke before, but I couldn’t resist doing it again. Damn catchy theme songs.)  As you might have guessed, this post is not about Gilligan’s Island (though it could be, since I have a soft spot for ’50s and ’60s sitcoms. I’ve actually been on a real I Dream of Jeannie kick lately, which is pretty good if you ignore all the glaring misogyny), but is the usual sort of mop-up post I do at the end of a trip if I have enough places to write about that didn’t really fit in with my other posts.


The first of these is Chauvet Cave, or more accurately, the exact replica of the cave they’ve created 20 km away, called Caverne du Pont D’Arc. You can’t visit the actual cave due to its fragility, unless you’re a researcher, but the original is home to some of the earliest known cave drawings, which are around 30,000-32,000 years old but were only re-discovered in 1994, as a rock slide had sealed the cave off around 21,000 years ago. The replica would normally merit a post of its own, but for the fact that you can’t take photos in the cave (even though it’s a replica), so I don’t have much to show you. As soon as we worked out when we were going to be in the area, I booked tickets online, because they only do a handful of English language tours a day, and they often sell out in advance. These were €15 each. We ended up getting there about an hour before our tour, so we went to look around their museum first, mainly because I wanted to see derpy cave lion, who is featured prominently on their website. He was every bit as derpy as I was hoping, and there were some other derpy prehistoric animals as well, in addition to a short video presentation about the paleolithic people who did the drawings, and some basic information about the caves.
We finished with the museum in only about twenty minutes, so we just walked down to the cave to wait for our tour to start, along with loads of other Anglophone people. A French lady (who spoke English, obviously) gave the tour, and we were each given a pair of headphones so we could hear what she was saying, which was smart because a new group entered the cave every five minutes (there are tours in French pretty much every five minutes, but the English ones only appear to be once every two hours, which is why you should pre-book), so we would have been standing close enough to the other groups to make it difficult to hear our guide without them. Some guy tried to take a picture early on, despite everyone being told multiple times that it wasn’t allowed, and our guide politely but firmly shut him down, which I loved (and I was glad the darkness hid my smirk). The caves are pretty amazing, even in replica form (actually, especially in replica form, because I think it’s awesome that they were able to re-create the exact feel of a cave, right down to the much-appreciated cool temperature), and though the horse panel is the most famous, my favourite was actually the cave lion panel, because derpy cave lions! There are also a number of hand print drawings, some drawings of cave rhinos, cave bears, and deer; and a lot of cave bear skulls and bones (you can view photos of all the panels here). I’ve never been much for prehistory, but even I have to admit that cave drawings this old are really interesting and well worth checking out, though I was disappointed that the only thing in the shop featuring the cave lion was a notebook.
Later that day, en route to Lyon, we decided to make a pit stop at the Arnaud Soubeyran Nougat Shop and Museum, because why would I not want to chance to sample some nougat? There actually weren’t any free samples left when we arrived, but that didn’t stop me from buying quite a lot there, even at a steep €4 per hundred grams. We popped in to the small museum , which was free, and even though it was all in French, I thought it was adorable, especially the replica beehives with very characterful bees. I especially appreciated the free impeccably clean toilet (with a seat!). The nougat noir, which was really more of a brittle, was one of the most delicious candies I have ever eaten, and I highly recommend it (and I think you do get what you pay for, because their nougat was pretty much solid almonds, and when we looked at cheaper brands, you were lucky to get like ten almonds in the whole bar). We also stopped at Valrhona’s City of Chocolate, and though we didn’t visit the expensive museum of chocolate, we did stop in the shop, which had a ridiculous amount of free samples. I ate myself sick in about five minutes of arriving.
Since it seems to be the thing to do in France, we also visited some churches, including the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourviere, which was on a massive hill in Lyon that we had to take a funicular to access. Here’s a tip: there is a huge queue for the basilica funicular, but none at all for the amphitheatre one. If you take the amphitheatre one, you can easily walk to the basilica from there if you don’t mind walking up about fifty steps (I did mind, because it was a million degrees, but it was still better than queuing for like an hour). The amphitheatre was extremely meh, especially because parts of it were covered in scaffolding in preparation for a music festival that takes place there (and the museum was closed), but the church was fine, if you like that sort of thing. It had some impressive lions out front, and the walk down took us near the Musees Gadagne, so it wasn’t much of a detour from our day or anything.
On a more serious note, we also visited somewhere that was quite meaningful to me – not on account of being a church, but because my grandpa was there. As you might know, if you’ve read my other blog (which I was no longer actively posting on, but I will try to update it soon because on my recent trip home, I discovered a bunch of photos I’d never seen before (including some amazing photos of my grandma when she was a young adult) and a journal giving a day-by-day breakdown of where my grandpa was during the war. You know, the kind of stuff that would have been immensely useful when I was initially doing that blog), my grandpa served in WWII, and was stationed in Europe from late 1944-46. In addition to the letters he wrote to my grandma, I also have some of the pictures he sent her, and one of them was taken in Marseille, which I only knew because my grandpa wrote it on the back. Unfortunately, he didn’t write exactly where he was, so it took a bit of sleuthing based on the stuff in the background, but I eventually determined he was in front of the funicular at Notre Dame de la Garde, which overlooks the city. Ever since I found this photo a few years after my grandpa died, I’ve wanted to try to re-create it if I ever went to Marseille, and this was finally my chance (I have since found multiple photos of him in other locations in Marseille, but of course I only found them about a month after visiting Marseille).
The basilica has been here since the 1870s in its current form (though a church has been on this spot since the 13th century), and was actually bombed in 1944 during the battle to liberate Marseille (you can still view the scarred wall), though survived largely intact. This would have happened before my grandpa’s visit anyway, as he must have been either in late 1945 or early 1946, well after liberation. Sadly, the funicular (which looked amazing) was torn down in the 1960s (you can now either walk up (seriously a gajillion steps), take the cute little motorised “train” that rides up here, or just drive up and park at the top, which is lazily what we did), and all the walls looked different than the one my grandpa was sitting on, so it was really really hard to find the spot where he was, not to mention that the background looked completely different, because there was no funicular, and there was the addition of a lot of really tall trees that don’t seem to have been here in the 1940s. So I just had to try to take a photo in lots of different spots and hope one of them would match up. Eventually we found an information desk staffed by a nun, and though she didn’t speak much English, I showed her the original photo, and she was able to direct me to a spot near the large cross in one of the lower levels of steps near the church. I think the exact spot is now a car park, but I got as close as I could! It was just nice to be somewhere my grandpa had been when he was around my age (I kind of wish I’d brought his army jacket and put it on for the pictures, but that seemed a bit militaristic), and of course I went in the church and lit candles for him and my grandma (I’m not at all religious, but they were, and I reckon it can’t hurt!).
Finally, I feel I should talk about the elusive chichis fregis, or “fried willies.” Obviously, with a name like that, I had to try them, but as I mentioned in the Van Gogh post, there’s one particular village called L’Estaque about 10 km out of Marseille that specialises in them, with three stands opposite a little shopping street, and when we passed through, all of them were closed. Not to be deterred, I decided we needed to swing by on our way back to Marseille (we flew in and out of Marseille, so had to return anyway), and fortunately, this time they were open, though after a day of eating pastries, and knowing I had a flight ahead of me, I wasn’t inclined to eat as much as I would have done the first time we drove through. This was a shame, because the chichis fregis, though very greasy, were delicious, and the panisses were even better. The chichis fregis are like doughnuts flavoured with orange blossom water and coated in sugar, but with a very custardy interior and crisp exterior, and the panisses are made of chickpea flour, which is cooked with water to a polenta-like consistency, left to cool, and then cut into shapes and fried, which makes them more like savoury little fritters. Very good, and worth the trip, but I wish they had opening hours listed somewhere – at least on the actual stalls – so we could have avoided the disappointment the first time around! I also find it weird I didn’t at least find panisse somewhere else, since I thought it was a general south of France thing, but nope, I only spotted it in this village. Maybe I just didn’t go to the right places.
After this trip, France is still not on my list of favourite countries (I know this is probably not a common sentiment, but I much prefer Belgium to the bits of France I’ve seen. Admittedly, there’s still a lot of France I haven’t been to, and maybe those parts are better), but it’s warmed my opinion enough that I don’t think I’ll avoid it for eleven years again (I’m probably gonna need more panisses and chichis fregis at some point). I think I just need to time any future visits better so they’re not over a Sunday or in the height of summer!

Hauterives, France: Le Palais Ideal du Facteur Cheval

I love a folly, and Palais Ideal du Facteur Cheval (Postman Cheval’s Ideal Palace) is more special than the usual folly because it was the result of an artistic vision and pure determination, rather than excessive wealth.  It was built between 1879 and 1912, by, as you might have guessed, a postman named Ferdinand Cheval. As the story goes, he was out on his mail route one day when he saw a stone that was so interesting it inspired him to build this entire palace (damn, it must have been some stone!). Cheval had rather a difficult life, struggling with poverty and the deaths of his first wife, first born son, and his daughter, so the attention the palace generated was probably a rather welcome respite from his daily life, but this palace was definitely primarily a labour of love. Even after stopping construction on the palace (which Cheval worked on well into his 70s), he went on to spend eight years building a family tomb in the nearest graveyard after being told by the local authorities that he couldn’t interred in his palace (he died in 1924, aged 88).


I’m not quite sure what the commune of Hauterives was like back in Cheval’s day (it is just described as being a “rural village” in the 19th century) but nowadays it is quite a thriving tourist village, thanks entirely to the palais (people have been visiting the palace since around 1905, so it’s been a tourist attraction for a while). There is a large parking lot in the centre of Hauterives (which sure came in handy) and the village itself seems to consist mainly of cafes and tourist shops selling Palais Ideal tat. Despite the palace being THE attraction here, we somehow managed to miss the (small) sign pointing to it, and wandered around aimlessly for a bit until we found the way (it’s really not that hard though, we were probably just being dumb).
Admission to the palace is €7.50, which I thought was a bit on the expensive side for an attraction of this size, but it’s not as though we’re likely to be in the area again any time soon, and after all, it’s not every day you get to see a palace built by a postman (actually, it’s a little weird to me that they emphasise the postman angle so much. Is a mailman not supposed to be capable of being creative? Or is it just that they’re meant to be so hard at work they shouldn’t have time to build a palace?).  We were given a brochure in English that had some information about the palace, and there was more in the small museum in the form of laminated fact sheets that translated the French captions (they had fact sheets in a variety of other languages as well) which was much appreciated. The only things we couldn’t read were Cheval’s little poems, quotes, and sayings, which were hidden in and around the palace.
The palace itself, whilst not quite as big as we were expecting (it is 26 metres long and 14 metres high, which is really big for something with this many intricate carvings that was made by one man, but not very big as far as palaces go), is incredible, as you can probably see. Each facade has a different theme; Cheval began with the east facade, which took him twenty years to build. The carvings on this side include the Source of Life, an Egyptian temple, a tomb that he wanted to be buried in (until permission was refused), three giants, and a niche for his wheelbarrow. The south facade is where his favourite stones live, and the west facade has elements from different cultures coexisting, like a mosque, a Swiss chalet, a medieval castle, and a Hindu temple. The north facade was the last part of the palace to be built, and is the story of the Garden of Eden, with Adam and Eve and loads of animals. Actually, there are weird little animals, both real and fantastic, throughout the whole of his palace, which were of course my favourite part.
Though the palace doesn’t really have rooms as such, you can go in and around it. There were entranceways that led to little tunnels that were lovely and cool and contained some of the best animals, and several staircases that let us explore the upper level of the palace, which was quite nice because sometimes you’re not allowed to touch things of this nature at all, but here you could be as tactile as you wanted. So it perhaps won’t come as a surprise that Cheval’s palace is in regular need of restoration, which makes me feel a little better about the entrance fee. There is also a small lookout point, also constructed by Cheval specifically so people could have a better view of his palace (he seemed like a thoughtful guy).
The palace was great, but it was, yet again, about a million degrees and horribly sunny outside, so I was glad to step into the small museum, which in addition to containing information about Cheval’s life, also contained a series of photographs of famous people visiting the palace (Picasso was a fan), early postcards available at the palace (I wish you could still buy those designs, because they were great), and art inspired by the palace, which was mostly amazing. (There is also a clean set of non-squat toilets by the museum, which I highly recommend using before you leave if you’re driving around all day like we were, because decent toilets in this part of France are few and far between.)
The shop was also surprisingly good, with loads of (modern) postcards and prints of some of the palais-inspired paintings inside the museum (of course I bought the one with all the animals in it shown above (the trumpet turtle sold me on it), even though I’m running out of space to hang things). We did successfully resist the allure of the other tourist spots in town (they all seemed to be selling ravioli gratin, which actually sounds delicious if available in a non-meat version and not made by a tourist cafe) except for the place with a case full of cold drinks, which are oddly hard to find in France (I don’t mean in restaurants, like the classic American tourist complaint about the lack of ice, I’m talking in the supermarkets. Even the hypermarches (possibly my favourite French word to say) seemed to only have fridges for Coke products, which isn’t really want you want on a hot day, except for the small Carrefour by our hotel in Lyon that had 1.5 litre bottles of iced tea in the fridge (I gratefully chugged down a whole one of those by myself after spending an afternoon walking around in the heat and sun, but then paid the price by having to pee every five minutes or so for the rest of the night. My tiny bladder is not really my friend, especially when travelling)). We then headed slightly out of town to Cheval’s tomb, which is well sign-posted and also has a parking lot (though you can walk if you wish, which I would have been fine with if it hadn’t been in the 100s). The tomb is also great, especially the intertwined snakes on one side, though it did seem to end rather abruptly on the side with a plain wall.
I can definitely relate to Cheval and his love of slightly derpy animals, even though I don’t share his talent for palace building. He clearly must have been a very interesting and talented man, despite all the hardships in his life, and I’m really glad I got to experience his palace. 4/5 for Postman Cheval’s Ideal Palace (Jessica’s ideal palace would have a lot more shade and ice cream, but I still respect Cheval’s vision and the limitations of 19th century technology).

Lyon: Musees Gadagne

Yes, the Musees Gadagne include a puppetry museum, which I’ll get to later! But the musees consist of two museums on the same site (hence the plural) and I’ll talk about the Lyon History Museum first (saving the best for last).


Lyon, despite being several hours north of Marseille, somehow managed to be every bit as hot, and after walking around the Roman amphitheatre and church on top of a massive hill, which seem to be a feature of every French city (I’ll talk about them in a later post), I was dying for a nice, cool, indoor museum as a respite, and the Musees Gadagne neatly fit the bill. Obviously, it was the puppet museum that got me through the door, but I was perfectly happy to learn more about the history of Lyon as well – anything to kill time indoors.  Admission was €5, which included both museums and a free audio guide; probably the best deal of the trip!


I accepted the audio guide because I wasn’t sure if there would be any English translations inside the museum, but it turns out that I needn’t have worried, because the main panels in each room were translated into English, and were supplemented by excellent, extremely detailed fact sheets that gave an overview of the history surrounding the objects in each room. They were so good I barely used the audio guide.  Whoever wrote them clearly had a sense of humour, and also really loved exclamation points, as the sheets were scattered with them, even sentences that really didn’t require them (it reminded me of that Seinfeld where Elaine gets pissed off because Jake Jarmel doesn’t put an exclamation point in a note about her friend having a baby, so she inserts hundreds of them all over his book manuscript, which she was editing). Some of my favourite facts include that foreigners were allowed to travel freely in Lyon during their annual fairs, except the English, on account of their being enemies; that women evidently didn’t inspire the engravers in Lyon, because the queens in their packs of cards were flat and unattractive, whilst the jacks and kings had “fine appearance,” as the sheet put it; and that looms made different sounds based on the kind of cloth they were weaving: plain cloth went “pa-tin-taque!” and faconne (patterned) cloth went “bis-tan-claque!”


I liked that there were comfy armchairs in pretty much every room of the museum, because it meant I could take the fact sheet and plop myself into the chair for a nice leisurely read, as my feet were killing me by this point in the trip (which happens every time I’m on holiday, as I’ve said, because of my refusal to wear comfortable shoes. Not that flat sandals are uncomfortable to wear, but they don’t offer much in the way of arch support). I also liked the many derpy lions in this museum, particularly the lion chocolate which I would have eaten right then and there, had it not been in a glass case and over 100 years old.


I know a bit more about French history than the history of most other European countries, but still nowhere near as much as I know about British and American history, and my knowledge also tends to be Paris-centric, so there was a lot to learn here, though I confess I skipped some of the fact sheets towards the end (there were two or three two-sided A3 sheets per room, which is a LOT to read, even if you like reading as much as I do). I was interested to learn that Lyon didn’t entirely support the French Revolution (as the museum puts it, their opinions were opposite to what was happening in Paris: they were radical when Paris was moderate and vice versa), which ended up resulting in a siege where Lyon lost its official city of the Republic status (or whatever it was called in French – I forget the exact term). Despite this, they still had a good collection of Revolutionary artefacts, including the blade from a guillotine (but the thing that looks vaguely like some kind of horrible execution device in the photo below is just a loom)!


The museum boasted of having 31 permanent exhibition rooms, and they weren’t Lyon (lyin’, get it?) – fortunately, each one was clearly numbered so we knew where we were supposed to be going, as there were quite a lot of stairs involved (though lifts and ramps were also available for those who needed them). The most uncomfortable frustrating part was that I desperately needed the loo going in, but didn’t see one anywhere, so I kept wandering hoping one would appear. Eventually we came to a main staircase that had signs pointing to one that was up several flights of stairs, near the rooftop cafe.  After running upstairs and finding a lengthy wait there, I decided to run down to the ground floor which was also meant to have toilets. When I got down there though, I couldn’t find them anywhere, so ended up having to run all the way back up again, which was quite a trek. It was only when we were leaving that I discovered there was one on the ground floor after all, in the same room as the lockers, so bear that in mind if you visit!


There were undoubtedly a lot of things to like about the Lyon History Museum, but given how tired I was, 31 rooms was just a bit too many, especially because ultimately, my level of interest in Lyon’s history was limited. I think it would have benefited from more interactivity, which brings me to the puppetry museum, or Musee des Marionnettes, which I couldn’t wait to get to!


The puppetry museum has been recently redone, and is in the process of having more added to it, but even though it was much smaller than the Lyon History Museum, I still thought it was pretty great. We entered into a dark room with walls completely lined with the creepiest puppets, and you could stand in the middle and use a touchscreen to light up various puppets to learn their names and where and when they were made (though in some cases, like poor disturbing Krafff shown above, WHY they were made was the question I most wanted answered). There were a LOT of devil puppets in here (including the rather sweet fellow below), which was fantastic.


The next room we went in had three different screens with various puppets (or objects) sitting in front of them – when you turned a knob, a video came on explaining various aspects of puppetry; at least, that’s what I assume was going on, as the videos were all in French. I still got the gist of it from their movements, and had a lot of fun with the rather scary man-boy puppet you can see me manipulating (blurrily) above.


There was also a puppets of the world gallery, where inputting the numbers on the cases into your audio guide played recordings of the puppets telling you about themselves in the accent of their native country, and I suppose that alone made it worth having the audio guide hanging off my neck the entire time. You can see for yourself that some of these puppets were downright terrifying (Punch and Judy are bad enough, but the guy with the face in his chest takes it to a whole new level. I’m not sure what his deal was since he either didn’t have an audio track or I forgot to look).


There were also English fact sheets to read in these rooms, though these mostly contained interactive tasks for you to complete in order to learn more about the art of puppetry, rather than descriptions of the collections. You can see me treating my hand like a puppet, in preparation for getting to play with actual puppets in the last room (which is where I met my new friend as seen at the start of the post, who reminded me a bit of a less scary version of Lady Elaine Fairchilde from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood).


Sure, some (most) of the puppets were scary looking, but I was absolutely in my element. This is exactly the kind of quirky museum I love, which had been somewhat lacking thus far in our trip (there was an automata museum in Lyon, which I was dying to go to, but the website made it look very much as though it was intended for children, so I was discouraged from going. I still regret it though), and I adored all the interactivity. 4/5 for the puppet section of Musees Gadagne, and 3/5 for the Lyon history part. This is a great place to visit to escape the summer sun (or winter cold perhaps?) and enjoy learning more about puppetry and the city of Lyon (and try out some hella creepy puppets).

Avignon: Palais des Papes and Pont Saint-Benezet

And now for the Palace of the Popes, the reason we spent a night in a budget hotel in Avignon North, which as far as I can tell is basically just a giant retail park (containing an outlet of the hilariously named but revolting looking cafeteria-style restaurant chain Flunch (we were not desperate enough to eat there, but intrigued by the name, I read some of the Tripadvisor reviews of the Paris branch, which made me laugh until I cried)). I wish I could say that all those Renaissance history classes I took as an undergrad were finally paying off, but to be totally honest, I’ve forgotten most of what I learned (the Renaissance isn’t my favourite, so I wasn’t paying much attention anyway). I did have a vague recollection of the Schism of 1378 (which I had always thought of as the Great Schism, but apparently that term is more commonly applied to when the Orthodox Church split from Roman Catholicism), and the resulting anti-popes, but as I learned at the palace, Avignon wasn’t only home to two anti-popes – it was home to seven legitimate popes as well (though the “legitimacy” of medieval popes is always questionable at best anyway, since they didn’t tend to get the title based on merit). The building was originally constructed as a bishops’ palace, but after Clement V was elected pope, he refused to go to Rome, and moved the papacy to Avignon instead (he was a real piece of crap, by the way. He decided that Venetians should be sold into slavery because the Church was at war with Venice (considering they were Christian, this was shitty even by the standards of the time since white Christians were normally the only people exempt from slavery) in addition to executing a bunch of the Knights Templar and members of other fringe groups). So the palace was subsequently enlarged into what is now the largest Gothic palace in Europe, and apparently having the papacy contained beneath one giant roof really helped to consolidate the powers of the church (not that that was a good thing).


Nowadays, it is just a massive tourist attraction (one of the busiest in France), so we tried to get there as early as possible to avoid both crowds and sun (hence the grim stay in Avignon North. Staying in Avignon proper was really expensive). We were perturbed when driving into town to see a huge line for one of the parking lots, but we persevered and found signs to one with loads of spaces that was much closer to the palace. Turns out the one with all the queues was the free parking lot, whereas you had to pay for the one we found, but quite frankly, I think it was worth the 8 euros to avoid the hassle of queues and shuttle buses. Although there were already tour groups gathering outside the palace when we arrived, I think we were still early enough to avoid most of the crowds, since we were able to just walk right in and buy tickets (we had been warned that there might be large queues, but you can order online to avoid this). As there were also no modesty standards in place, since the palace is no longer a religious institution, it was already a much pleasanter experience than the Vatican (though I think I would probably have met the standards without trying, given that my sun survival technique that day was to cover as much flesh as possible without sweating to death).


Admission to the Palais des Popes was €12, but we opted for the combined ticket, which included Pont Saint-Benezet (of which more later) and was €14.50. Every ticket includes use of the “histopad;” basically an iPad with headphones that acted as an audio guide/interactive element that guided us around the building. It was actually quite useful thanks to its inclusion of a moving map, because the palace is big and kind of confusing. Each room contained a black box in the middle that you were meant to scan with your histopad in order to see the room as it would have looked back in the 14th century and open the audio commentary. There was also a treasure hunt game on the histopads where you had to find a hidden coin in each room, and this was probably my favourite part.


Even though I’m normally not keen on audio guides and the like, I did enjoy the histopads because they provided loads of information in English, the games were fun, and I also think they helped move traffic along because you only had to scan the boxes for a couple of seconds and then walk away with all the information you needed in your hands, rather than standing in front of an object label and blocking everyone’s view. There is a part of me that feels it somewhat detracted from the experience of actually being in the palace, because I spent most of the time staring at the histopad rather than actually looking at my surroundings, but most of the rooms were pretty blah, so it wasn’t as big of a deal as it may have been somewhere else. My only real beef with it was that I seemed to walk faster than it was intending me to, and sometimes I would unintentionally walk outside the zone of one of the rooms whilst the audio guide was still talking, which completely cut off the audio, and walking back into the room didn’t bring it back, so some way of at least being able to replay things you’d missed would be nice (maybe there was, but I couldn’t find it if so).


The rooms themselves are big, but not terribly impressive without the furnishings shown on the histopad, though a few do still have interesting painted walls or stone carvings. There were a handful of objects to look at in most rooms, but it seems like most of what was here is probably now in the hands of the Vatican, because the scale of the building itself was the most impressive part. To be honest, I kind of preferred this to the over-the-top opulence of the Vatican, since all that ostentation just made me resent the Church even more. The route took us all around and through the palace, and right up onto the roof (which was windy and hot simultaneously). We had to keep crisscrossing across the courtyard in the process, and I was surprised to see that it was filled with a stage and seats, apparently for some sort of music festival. While in theory I think it’s nice that these buildings are still put to some sort of practical use, in practice, the seats and scaffolding ruined the appearance of the courtyard (we would find this to be an issue in other sites in France as well), and I hate music festivals, so I don’t even feel like they were ruining the ambience for a good reason.


In the end, my favourite room was the one that featured treasured artefacts from local museums – there was some awesome stuff in here, from taxidermied animals and memento mori paintings, to that amazing set of doors painted with medieval monsters (they look like the sort of delightful creatures you sometimes find in marginalia). Other than that, as I’ve said, there wasn’t a tonne to look at, so it was probably good we had the histopads, because I can imagine this would have been a rather boring experience before they existed. I’ll give it 3/5, mainly because I feel like they did put some effort into trying to make it a positive visitor experience whilst working with the limitations of the inside of the palace in its present meh state (it’s impressive from the outside though!).


After we finished with the palace (and its multilevel gift shop), we headed over to Pont Saint-Benezet. This is a bridge across the Rhone (well, partly across the Rhone now), which its website bills as “the most famous bridge in the world;” surely one of the most egregious examples of hyperbole I’ve ever seen. Really, more famous than the Golden Gate Bridge? Or Tower Bridge? Or London Bridge, Brooklyn Bridge, the Charles Bridge in Prague or one of the other famous bridges around the world that I at least know by name? I had literally never heard of this bridge before we decided to go to Avignon, so I’m not sure what they’re talking about. Perhaps it’s more famous in Francophone countries because of the song “Sur le Pont d’Avignon” which I had also never heard of before visiting (and wasn’t terribly impressed with once I did listen to it. It is very repetitive and gets annoyingly stuck in your head).


At any rate, we turned up and were given a new set of audio guides, though these were the old-fashioned ones where you had to manually enter in each number and then hold it up to your ear whilst your arm fell asleep from holding it there, so it really paled in comparison to the wonders of the histopad. I ended up not really using the audio guide (it was way too long-winded) and just walking around the bridge, which, as you may have guessed, was built by Saint Benezet – according to legend he was a young shepherd who heard voices telling him to build a bridge (a sort of 12th century Field of Dreams I guess), but in reality he was probably just a local merchant. It was fairly useless as far as bridges go, since it was too narrow to admit carts, so could only be used by pedestrians and people on horseback, and thus wasn’t really suitable for the transport of goods. It only had that limited functionality until the 17th century, when a flood washed chunks of it away (Benezet’s body used to be kept in a chapel on the bridge, but apparently its alleged power to work miracles couldn’t prevent the flood, and it was moved to a safer location. Kind of a shame, as it would have been way more interesting with relics to look at). Today it only goes about halfway across the Rhone, which was a little unsettling. It’s a nice enough looking bridge (or half bridge) I guess, but I wish we hadn’t spent the extra €2.50 to see it and just bought some pain au chocolat with that money (not that we could have in Avignon, because once again, boulangeries were nigh on impossible to find, and only one of them was open (and didn’t sell pastries). We’d have probably had better luck with Flunch. Why have I been so misled about the prevalence of bakeries in France?), especially because it was so hot by that time I was desperate to get off the bridge and into shade. I can only give it 1.5/5, because I thought a bridge that doesn’t even span a river is “pont-less” (get it?), and the audio guides were pretty lame. If your time in Avignon is limited, I recommend skipping this and just going to the Palais des Papes, which at least offers some degree of entertainment and shade!


Arles to Saint-Remy-de-Provence: The Van Gogh Trail

I know that most people have a soft spot for Vincent Van Gogh, and I am certainly no exception. I’m staring at Cafe Terrace at Night, which hangs above my fireplace, as I type this, and my old bedroom at my parents’ house has a celestial theme, dominated by a huge copy of The Starry Night hanging above my bed. I named my life size poseable skeleton Vincent (and his pet skeleton cat is called Theo), and I can’t listen to that Don McLean song without tearing up (I completely lost it at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Like full on ugly crying in public). Hell, I even have one of his paintings tattooed on me, so I guess it’s fair to say that I take my fondness for Van Gogh further than most people, and one of the reasons I wanted to go to the south of France was to retrace his footsteps and see some of the places that inspired him.


Van Gogh moved down to Arles from Paris in 1888, hoping the climate would improve his health, and was deeply inspired by the Provencal landscape, entering a very prolific period of work. Unfortunately, when his friend Gauguin followed him down there, his mental health took a turn for the worse, and he ended up cutting off his own ear (probably, I think the jury’s still out on what exactly happened), requiring him to move into a hospital to recover. Today, Arles is home to a Van Gogh gallery of its own, but as far as I could tell, they don’t actually own any of his paintings – they just borrow some to put on their annual exhibition, which changes every year, and only contains a few of Van Gogh’s works (the rest being by other artists on a Van Gogh-inspired theme), so I decided to skip that in favour of the Van Gogh Walk, which is meant to take you past a number of Van Gogh related sites.


We drove into Arles, and obtained parking on the street. Because we hadn’t had much luck finding food that morning (I was holding out for panisse and chichi fregis from this village near Marseille, only it turned out that all the food stalls there were closed on Monday, so I ended up eating nothing), I was pretty cranky, and Arles would not improve my mood. To start with, very little was open here either, except for some super touristy cafes in the forum (everything in France appears to be shut on Sunday and Monday (and Tuesday in some cases)), so I ended up falling back on some not very nice crisps we’d bought the night before, in case of food emergency (the French do not excel in the art of the crisp, I have to say), and was still exceedingly cranky. This meant that I was unwilling to walk out to where he painted Starry Night over the Rhone (a different painting than the more famous The Starry Night), since it was far and I didn’t see much point in looking at it in broad daylight. Most of the other sites on the list also turned out to now look completely different from what Van Gogh painted, so weren’t even worth photographing. However, I was keen to see the yellow cafe portrayed in the aforementioned Cafe Terrace at Night, since I look at the painting every day.


This is still a cafe, but other than the colour, it looks very little like what Van Gogh painted, and has been turned into one of the super touristy cafes I just mentioned (it’s actually called Van Gogh Cafe), so it was quite a let down. In the end, we took a quick look at the outside of the Roman amphitheatre (which still hosts a form of bullfighting, gross) and hightailed it out of there, hoping nearby Saint-Remy-de-Provence would prove more fruitful.


Initial impressions of Saint-Remy weren’t great either, since I really had to pee by this time, and the only public toilets we could find were squat toilets that were absolutely filthy, and I was wearing sandals, so wasn’t willing to put my feet in there. I decided to hold it in until I could find somewhere more suitable (like a secluded tree), and we instead headed into the touristy centre of town to look for food. Fortunately, unlike Arles, there were appetising looking shops open, so we were able to at least get a baguette, and probably the most delicious pastry of the trip – a caramel and almond tart from a patisserie we stumbled across (and a very nice little financier type cake, but the tart was the highlight), so I was less hangry. Therefore, we decided to do the Van Gogh trail in Saint-Remy, which takes you from the centre of town up to the mental institution where Vincent voluntarily committed himself after his breakdown in Arles.


The trail itself was a bit lame, since it just consisted of pictures of Van Gogh’s work, with a brief explanation of each, plonked down at random intervals on the road to Vincent’s old hospital.  I think it would have been a lot better if the trail was actually through the places where those pictures had been painted, rather than just an ordinary street. Still, I loved seeing The Road Menders featured here, which is my favourite Van Gogh painting at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and reading the caption to Almond Blossom, which included a letter from Vincent to his mother explaining that he had painted it for his nephew, his brother Theo’s son, did make me a little choked up. This trail was mainly remarkable on account of the cicadas that are apparently everywhere in Provence, and were so noisy they actually hurt my ears (the sound also fills me with dread because it reminds me of the locust years in Cleveland, but these cicadas, whilst gross, weren’t quite as horrific, in that they didn’t actively attack my head like locusts do).


We arrived at the hospital, called Saint-Paul de Mausole and still used as a psychiatric hospital, and were asked to pay 5 euros for entry to the hospital and grounds, which of course we did, because I was most keen to see the recreation of Van Gogh’s bedroom (also I was hoping there’d be a toilet). We found this rather touching statue of Vincent holding drooping sunflowers just inside the grounds, and paid a brief visit to the hospital chapel, which contained an interesting small sound and light show in one corner that was activated after we deposited 20 cents in a box (we did it with no idea of what was actually going to happen. I was hoping for automata).


I then hightailed it out to the garden, as I had spotted a toilet sign, and indeed, there was a non-squat model out there (albeit lacking a seat and soap, but still); however, there was just one for everyone, so I had to queue for about ten minutes for my turn (with all women – I suspect the men did just find a suitable tree, like my original plan). Thus relieved, I was free to explore the gardens, which contained small patches of both lavender and sunflowers, so that I felt I was getting a bit of the Provencal experience at last (the good Provencal experience, rather than the squat toilets, cicadas, and extreme heat). Van Gogh painted the gardens here, and loved the local cypress trees, which feature in many of his paintings, like The Starry Night, which he also painted during his stay here.


Finally, we headed up to see Van Gogh’s re-created bedroom (I wasn’t clear on whether his bedroom was actually in this area of the hospital, or they’d just picked it for the re-creation because it was out of the way, but it would have been interesting to know, given that he painted variations of the view from his window twenty one times), which was filled with very wordy signs (with English translations) on what Van Gogh’s medical diagnosis may have been today (no real consensus, but possibly bipolarism). His bedroom was quite depressing, as you might expect (this wasn’t the one he famously painted, that was in Arles), and it was sort of a relief to head down into the shop, which contained a number of artworks done by current patients of the hospital in addition to the expected Van Gogh stuff (he was given a ground floor studio at the hospital, which is where he did the actual painting (he could only make sketches in his room), but I’m not sure if this is where the shop is now, or another area entirely). I think 5 euros was a little pricy for what we got (there was apparently meant to be a museum somewhere in the hospital about the period Van Gogh was living here, but we never found it if it was there. There was a small gallery near the entrance with some wooden sculptures in it, but there were no English captions and they were extremely abstract, so I’m not sure what they were meant to be), but the gardens were lovely, and I’m glad I got to see some of what Van Gogh would have experienced, so in the end it was worth it.


I don’t think the trail gave me any special insights into Van Gogh’s mental state, but seeing the cypresses and fields up close did help me better understand the composition of some of his paintings, and it’s always a pleasure to look at his work, even if it’s just mounted by the side of a busy road. It wasn’t as moving as the Van Gogh Museum was for me, but I still felt myself getting emotional at times, and I don’t regret doing it – I just wish Arles had been more fulfilling and less of a tourist trap (my advice if you have limited time would be to skip Arles and just head straight for Saint-Remy). To end on a more cheerful note, I’ll leave you with pictures of some dogs we encountered on the trail (I got really excited when the one on the left followed us for quite a while, thinking I had a new best friend, but it turned out he was just returning to his owner who worked on a building site).


Marseille: Mucem (Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations)


Even though it’s one of the easiest countries to get to from London, I have spent many years avoiding France based on the bad time I had in Paris over a decade ago (it was nothing terrible, like getting robbed or assaulted, more just a few unpleasant experiences and one or two potentially scary ones that I managed to get myself out of before anything happened). But Paris is not France any more than London is Britain (big cities tend to be more like each other rather than representative of the rest of the country), so I figured it was about time I gave it another chance. Why I decided to go to the south of France in the middle of July knowing how much I hate heat and sun is another matter altogether…let’s just say I took a temporary leave of my senses and convinced myself it wouldn’t be all that bad.


Turns out I was very, very wrong. The sun was unbelievably hot and horrible and strong, as I learned about three seconds after leaving Marseille airport. Therefore, as usual, museums would prove my salvation on this trip – even the ones that weren’t air conditioned were at least out of the sun! We spent the first night of our trip in Marseille (which also happened to be the day of the World Cup Final that France was playing in – yep, this trip was really not well thought through), and the one museum I really wanted to see there was Mucem, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations, so we slathered on the sunscreen and headed out into the merciless glare outside.


The Mucem is a fairly new museum, having only opened in 2013, and they have a complete English version of their website, so I was sure they would have English translations in the museum and the all-important air conditioning, and I was partly right (fortunately, I was entirely right about the air conditioning, which was the thing I cared about most at the time). Admission was €9.50, which included all of the exhibitions except for the temporary immersive experience, as we would learn later on. The Mucem is spread over two sites (actually, according to their website there’s a third one I didn’t know about, but it sounds like it is primarily for storage and conservation) which are connected by an elevated footbridge, so we were initially pretty confused about where to enter, and ended up circling the Saint Jean site before we spotted an entrance at the J4 building (the one covered in metal webbing), and believe me, I could have done without the extra time in the sun. Even once we got into the J4 building, we were a little unsure about where to begin, as the lobby area provided entrance to quite a few different galleries, but in the end we found our way to “Ruralities,” which appeared to be the first gallery chronologically.


This was about the history of agriculture in the Mediterranean region, and I’m sure it was quite interesting, but unfortunately only the main signage had English translations. All the object labels and smaller signs were only in French, which is certainly their prerogative, but I didn’t have much idea of what was going on as a result (I did take seven years of French between high school and university, but thanks to a series of terrible teachers, my French was never that great, and is now very very rusty indeed). I would say probably 80% of the signage in the permanent galleries is in French only, and they do offer English audio guides, but they cost extra and I didn’t know how much English was inside before going in, so we declined them. There were still some pretty great objects to look at however, particularly the collection of shaped gingerbread hiding in the back of the exhibition, and “Jesus of the Grapes.”


From here we moved on to “Connectivities,” the other permanent exhibition, which profiled six different historical port cities around the Mediterranean, and four modern cities (including Marseille), and the history of trade between them. Again, I think I would have enjoyed this quite a bit had I been able to read more of it, but there were interesting artefacts nonetheless, even though I wasn’t always completely sure what I was looking at. It did crack me up that in the sections on foreign cities, like Venice and Seville, they translated the summaries (like three sentences) into the language of that region (e.g. Italian and Spanish), but literally nothing else in the museum was in those languages. It was like they thought foreign visitors would be pleased that they could read three sentences in the museum. It somehow seemed like more of an insult than just not bothering at all.


We then headed upstairs in the J4 building to view the two main temporary art exhibitions: “Gold” and Ai Weiwei’s “Fan-Tan,” the latter of which Marcus was quite excited about, so we went in there first. “Fan-Tan” had English translations on everything, which was much appreciated, and probably why I ended up enjoying this exhibition the most. Ai Weiwei did an exhibition here because Marseille was where his father first landed on his way over from China to attend university in Paris, so he felt a certain connection with the city, and the exhibition was meant to be loosely themed around his father, who was a poet. The centrepiece was “Colored House,” which dominated the first room of the exhibition, but there were cases lining the walls to show off smaller pieces of work, and a chandelier and sculptures of the animals of the Chinese Zodiac in the last room. I think most of the pieces here were older works, but Ai Weiwei did create two artworks made of Marseille soap specifically for it (which were honestly just meh, because soap). I’m not convinced about the “everyday” objects molded out of jade series (like the anal beads, though really, I’m not judging if that’s your thing, but I feel relatively confident that there aren’t many people who use anal beads on a quotidian basis), but I quite liked the death mask of his father (which was one of the few pieces that was obviously tied to his father. There were also old racist French cartoons showing how the Chinese were portrayed at the time his father was living in France), the Marcel Duchamp inspired shoes that were impossible to walk in, and his re-creation in Lego of the time he broke an ancient Chinese pot.


“Gold” was back to mostly French again, and I’m not the keenest on gold jewellery or anything anyway, but the giant nude sculptures cast in gold were pretty good, as was the giant gold thumb. After finishing up with this, we wandered outside to the ramps that looped around the building that would ultimately take us to the footbridge over to Saint Jean Fort (which may not be for acrophobics, though I’m not overly keen on heights and I was fine with it). The walkways around the building and the footbridge were probably one of the coolest parts of the experience (not literally; the footbridge was boiling, as you might expect an exposed surface made of metal to be), because you could view the sea and the port from in between the metal webbing, and the footbridge had great views of the city as well.


We were a little worried by the time we made it to Fort Saint Jean (which was built in 1660 by Louis XIV, and was used as a fort and prison through the Second World War), because it looked like there were a few exhibitions here as well and we wanted to grab dinner and get back to the hotel before the football ended in case of any craziness (it wasn’t as full on as Paris looked, but there were people driving around sitting on top of their cars waving French flags and honking their horns until like four in the morning, so it was probably for the best that we weren’t out), and it was already around five (the museum is open until eight pm). Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), one of the exhibitions advertised in the catalogue wasn’t opening until a few days after our visit, and the immersive one wasn’t included in our ticket price (despite what the guy working there claimed, though if they were just going to immersively speak French to us, I wasn’t that bothered about it anyway since I wouldn’t understand most of it), so the only thing that was open to us was “Love from A to Z” which I thought was quite cute, despite it being almost entirely in French. I could easily figure out what thing was representing each letter, and some of the objects, like the miniature version of a love triangle and the French version of what appeared to be a Mystery Date style game, were downright adorable.


I was reluctant to leave this air conditioned gallery to go try to find food (we just ended up at a dingy small supermarket inside a mall that had almost nothing on its shelves (not even bread!) because it was Sunday and July and barely anything else was open, plus we were in a hurry), but needs must, so we made a brief trip back down through the museum gardens and out onto the cruel shadeless streets. I definitely appreciated the air conditioning in the museum, and I enjoyed what I was able to understand, but due to my lack of language skills (which is admittedly my own fault), I don’t feel I was able to get the most out of this museum. It’s a neat concept, and the buildings themselves are really cool, but I think I was hoping for a little more from such a new museum. 3/5, but I did really like “Fan-Tan,” and if you can understand French, you’ll probably like Mucem a lot!