At the onset of fall, Mary Jean and I had the good fortune of participating in a Dartmouth Alumni Travel program cruise to the “Islands and Rivieras” of the Mediterranean. Cruise participants included about 15 travelers affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution travel program and 11 Dartmouth alumni and their wives. I served as one of two “study leaders,” the other being Aneta Georgievska-Shine of the University of Maryland. I offered three lectures on “The Mediterranean,” “Christian Sacred Spaces,” and “Sex, Faith and Fratricide in the South of France” (an account of the Albigensian Crusade). Aneta spoke about the art and artists of Provence. The travelers were all intellectually curious and appear to have enjoyed the intellectual content.
On October 6, we arrived early in the morning in Barcelona. While most of the travelers departed for home that day (or for a one day post-cruise tour of the city), Mary Jean and I found our rental car and headed north to Provence. This is the one region of France in which we have never resided, so our plan was to locate a one-month house rental for next year, finding the best village and home. Our three days on the ground in Provence were a special treat.
What follows is a brief narrative of our travels, punctuated by a pictorial record.
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 29
Flights arrived at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport where we were met by agents for Gohagan Travels, the firm that manages our trip for Dartmouth. We were then transported to Rome’s port, Civitavecchia, where our ship, the Variety Voyager, waited. (Here are pictures of the ship snapped later on in Marseilles port):
This is a small vessel, with only 36 cabins, affording the possibility of entering ports closed to larger vessels. It also offers the feeling of sailing on a private yacht. I love being on ships (having worked on them all through college summers), and I confess that our luncheons out on the rear deck with the white wake churning the blue Mediterranean behind us was a seafaring highlight for me.
With the Dartmouth group seated together at several tables, dinner was our chance to meet our fellow travelers. The eleven Dartmouth couples included Dartmouth men from the era when Dartmouth was still an all male school (classes represented ranged from 1953 to 1972) ). A special treat: at least one of the travelers, Peter Rufleth ‘72 had been a student of mine during my first years at Dartmouth. Here’s a photo from a few days on with all of us:
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 30
Sailing at 7 pm, we awoke next morning in Porto Cervo on the northeast tip of Sardinia’s Costa Smeralda (Emerald Coast). One of the attractions of this trip was the opportunity to get to both Sardinia and Corsica, which we had never visited. Guided by the knowledgeable British expat, Robert, we bussed across the rocky and maquis-covered landscape. Maquis is a dense growth of waxy, water-retaining evergreen shrubs and small trees. The next day I would lecture on the historic agricultural poverty of much of the Mediterranean, where scorching summer weather and mountainous terrain have limited farming over the centuries, a reality quite in contrast to the wealthy contemporary beach resorts and pleasure ports that we today associate with the region.
Our destination was one of the many Nuarghic fortresses that dot the Sardinian countryside. These were created by a bronze-age people that populated the island before yielding to the Romans and others. Here’s a view of the site:
We lunched on the ship as it traversed the fifteen miles of the straits of Corsica to Bonifacio on the southern end of that island. Here’s a shot of the massive limestone cliffs that line the shore:
In Bonifacio, we were met by another fine guide, a British expat named Suzanne, who took us on a walking tour of the medieval city. Here are some photos of this fascinating site, to which I would gladly return in the future for a longer stay:
That’s Suzanne in the floppy hat. Note, too, the French signage. We are now in a Department of France. The odd bridging structures below are cisterns that collect scarce rainwater and channel it to storage tanks. High on a cliff top, Bonifacio is a city that has withstood numerous sieges thanks to such clever devices.
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 1
Overnight took us to back to the mainland and the port of Livorno, from where the travelers divided into two groups, one bound for Florence, and a second to Pisa and Lucca. This was a hard choice for me since I had been to Florence and Pisa but not Lucca. Nevertheless, Florence, with all its treasures, won out. Here are some snapshots of this delightful return visit.
Florence from across the Arno:
Of course, the beautiful Duomo.
And its dome
Two days later on, I would lecture on Christian Sacred Spaces, discussing the cosmology and theology underlying the many Christian churches and cathedrals we would visit. Time constraints prevented me from mentioning my favorite anecdote about this dome, so let me do so here. The dome’s designer and builder, Brunelleschi, won the commission with a secret plan to build this vast dome without the wood supports (centering) ordinarily used during construction. Challenged by the other contenders as to how he was going to do this, Brunelleschi placed an egg on the table and asked if any of them they could make it stand on end without support. When no one said they could, Brunelleschi smashed the egg’s end on the table, thus standing it up. “That’s not fair,” said one of the contestants. “If we knew that was permissible we could have done it.” To this Brunelleschi replied, “And if you knew how I would build the dome without supports you could have won the job.”
Here’s the baptisty with its bronze “Gates of Paradise” doors, recounting episodes from the Bible.
Even though our guide had pre-purchased tickets, we stood on line for nearly an hour to enter the Accademia museum. But, as always, it was more than worth the wait. Here is an uncompleted Michelangelo Pieta:
And here, the David:
One mark of Michelangelo’s genius is his recognition that to be realistic when seen from below, David’s proportions would have to be skewed from the normal. To lend depth to the pupils of his eyes, they are heart shaped:
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 2, 2016
The following day we awoke in the port of La Spezia. The original plan was to board smaller boats (tenders) to visit several of the five towns of the Cinque Terre that are hard to reach by land. But rough seas ruled that out, so two visits by van (a full day trip that included Portofino and a more limited one to Porto Venere and the Cinque Terre town of Monterosso) were on offer. With a lecture to prepare and limited tolerance for a day in a van, we chose the former.
Our visit began with Porto Venere. Named after Venus, this is an exquisite village with a small but impressive gothic church. Like all the Cinque Terre towns, this is a riot of colors and tall buildings necessitated by the scarcity of square footage. Some photos.
Here a focacceria (pasta) shop displaying its wares as an impressive curtain.
A lovely street-side Madonna:
Saint Peters church:
One of the mercantile specialties of the region is local black marble, striated with beige. The baptismal font of St. Peters is a masterwork of this stone:
Following Porto Venere, we drove to Monterosso, the entry town to the Cinque Terre. This is divided into the Old Town and a modern seaside resort.
The Old Town:
As we were strolling, we came upon a demonstration by a right wing, anti-immigrant Italian party. The poster, “Enough Clandestine (Immigrants)” is a sad illustration of the nativist reaction gripping the world today:
Here the modern town with its beautiful plage:
MONDAY, OCTOBER 3, 2016
This morning we awoke in Nice, France. This of course, is the site of the July 14 Jihadist terrorist truck attack that resulted in the death of 86 people and injured 434. That our cruise numbers are down by a half, from 72 to 36 reflects travelers’ wariness about returning to Nice.
I am proud of those in our group that chose to surmount fear. And Nice is always worth the visit. Having paved over a meager river, Nice now vaunts a lovely park that stretches inland from the sea. Here’s one view:
Our guide took us on a walking tour of Vieux Nice.
One stop was the beautiful Chapelle de Sainte Rita. Zoom in and note the wound on Rita’s forehead, one consequence of her martyrdom.
A food-favorite of Nice are Mediterranean sandwiches known as Pan Bagnat. Here’s a selection:
Nice’s historic wealth is reflected in this early merchant’s home, with a bas-relief of Adam and Eve:
Our tour ends at Nice plage:
Standing on the Quai des États-Unis, we looked westward to the Promenade des Anglais, where the July massacre took place. Our guide remarked that the Promenade was so disturbing for her to visit that she still couldn’t go there.
(I wonder to this day why French authorities did not install heavy barricades to auto or truck entry to the Promenade, knowing that this was a possible site of terrorist attack and that vehicles had already been used in Israel for mass murder. I also wonder why there were no police present at the Bataclan concert hall last November when it was clear that Isis had announced its intention of targeting such “corrupt” Western dance and concert halls.)
Following a luncheon on the Voyager and transfer of location, the ship docked in Monaco. We had visited this tiny kingdom previously, but I was taken back when one of our fellow travelers expressed his disgust at the sheer plutocracy of this 500-acre nation.
Here’s a hilltop view of almost the entirety of the nation, which backs up against mountains that belong to France.
Here, the neo-Byzantine cathedral of Mary Majeure
that houses the tomb of Princess Grace:
(NOTE: I recently had a chance to re-view “High Noon,” the 1952 film starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly, directed by Fred Zinnemann, with music by Dmitri Tiomkin. I regard this film, with its deep but non-obvious political import, as one of the very finest, if not the finest film ever made. Grace Kelly as Gary Cooper’s bride (and savior) is magnificent. She earned her renown for this film alone.)
TUESDAY, OCTOBER 4, MARSEILLE AND AIX-EN-PROVENCE
We last saw Marseille in 2010 when, stranded in Tunisia by the eruption of the Icelandic volcano that grounded air travel, we hopped a Tunisian ferry to this Mediterranean port. We have always thought as this as a grubby city, but clearly that’s changing. The port glistens with new skyscrapers and cultural centers (including the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations.). Our afternoon tour made us eager to return.
Morning began with a short bus trip to Aix. This must be one of the most beautiful cities in France. Here’s a modern shopping area:
And here is a lovely rotonde:
Markets line the streets near the center of the city. A collection of chanterelle mushrooms on offer:
And here, cepes:
In my lecture on Christian sacred spaces, I mentioned the dazzling combination of Romanesque and Gothic forms in Aix’s Saint Sauveur cathedral:
At the close of our walking tour, we stopped for coffee in the Café des Deux Garçons. Only later, reading Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, did I learn of the fame of this Aix institution.
Afternoon took us back to Marseilles for a bus tour of the city that culminated in a ride along the seashore, where we stopped briefly in the old port that has recently been graced by this remarkable pavilion, a shelter by Foster and Partners architects (note how it reflects the scene around it):
As we motored along the port, we stopped briefly at this monument to all those from Asia (“The Army of the East”) and North Africa who sacrificed for France, and to those, as well, who fell in Indochina (Vietnam). Marseilles mirrors all of France’s terrible and sometimes ill-considered twentieth century wars, to which this sad and seemingly forgotten monument bears witness.
Our tour ended with a visit to the impressive neo-Romanesque Notre Dame de La Garde basilica that stands on a pinnacle high above the sea.
Here the sweeping view of Marseilles harbor from the basilica:
WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 5
During several of Mary Jean’s foreign study programs in Toulouse, we visited Carcassone with students, so this morning’s tour was a bit of déjà vu. Nevertheless, this remains one of the most beautiful historic sites in France, and it has been further improved in terms of museum facilities, restaurants. Carcassone always “vaut le visite.” Some images:
Particularly noteworthy was lunch (along with several fellow travelers) at the Auberge de Dame Carcas which offered one of the best cassoulet casseroles I’ve ever had.
Strolling out of the city, we passed a candy store with some enchanting confections. Here’s a selection:
Some really “sweet” peas:
And here some “giant” strawberries:
After lunch, as we bussed to the Abbey of Fontfroide, I delivered my third lecture. It dealt with the Cathar heresy and the Albigensian crusade. The crusade itself was initiated by the killing of a papal legate from Fontfroide, and Carcassone was one of the first cities besieged by the crusaders. It was thus a privilege to be able to recount the causes and events of a crusade whose landmarks were all around us.
Fontfroide, which to the best of our recollection we have never visited before, is a tranquil reminder of the beauty of medieval monastic architecture. Now in private hands and no longer a religious center, it is remarkably well preserved.
Here’s a stunning window in the abbey church
And here a pieta in carved wood:
The day ended back at the ship with the captain’s dinner. In speaking with our captain, Andreas Siniotis, I mentioned that as a college student I had worked summers on steamships and that my first ship (in 1961) was the S.S. America, which sailed from New York to Southampton, England, Le Havre, France, and back. “That’s fascinating,” said the captain. “The first ship I worked on in 1968 as a junior officer right out of the maritime academy was the S.S. Australis.” He informed me that this was purchased in 1964 by Chandris Lines, a Greek shipping firm, to transport Greek emigrants to Australia. The Australis had been the S.S. America. So the captain and I each took our first cruise on the same vessel. Small world indeed!
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 6
Morning brought arrival at Barcelona where all the travelers went their separate ways. For us it was to a rental car and a drive 500 kilometers up the autoroute to the small village of Saignon in France. Over many years and many of Mary Jean’s foreign study programs, we have resided in most parts of France: Paris, the Loire Valley, Brittany, Lyon, and Toulouse. But we never lived in Provence. Now retired, we hope to spent a month next year renting a home in this region made so famous by Peter Mayle in his hilarious A Year in Provence and other books. Thus, we decided to take advantage of our presence in Europe to survey house rental possibilities before committing ourselves to one town or one residence. Saignon:
Saignon was not our first choice for lodging. Mary Jean has knee problems and this mountaintop village has no level streets. But our first choice, Lourmarin, was hosting a conference on its most famous resident, Albert Camus, and all the hotels were “complets,” so Saignon it had to be.
In fact, as these images show, it was a happy choice, since Saignon is a beautiful mirror of Provence.
During our three-day stay, we reconnoitered surrounding villages, retuning each evening to Saignon. Since it was unwise to drive the winding and steep mountain roads at night after a wine-accompanied meal, we dined each night at the one open restaurant in Saignon, the Comptoir (Counter) of Balthazar. Questioned about the meaning of the restaurant’s name, its owner Michel, a fellow about my age, told us that he bought the restaurant with that name but never understood its meaning. Nevertheless, he and his chef wife clearly understood Provençal cuisine. Our three meals here were one of the highlights of our trip.
And we found our rental: in Lourmarin. With the help of the Office de Tourisme, we found a villa large enough to house us with both children and their families next spring. It is near the center of this charming village, where Albert Camus spent the years just before his tragic auto-accident death at age 47. Here are several views of Lourmarin:
In the course of our visit, we were able to briefly attend a conference devoted to Camus, and we were able to hear a fascinating paper on Camus’ politics
As we drove out of Lourmarin on our way to Saignon, we stopped at a small cemetery where we were able to find Camus’ grave:
Many years ago, Mary Jean and I co-taught a course on “Ethics and Existentialism.” We were reminded that Camus has always been one of our intellectual heroes. You can imagine, therefore, how pleased we were to be able to conclude our trip in a village he so loved. We look forward to our return.