So. How’s your week been going?

If you’re a regular follower of this journal, you may have noticed that this week’s edition has been a bit slow in coming. (That’s just a rhetorical flourish, of course; no one actually reads this thing on a regular basis. Not even me.) A glance at the photo above may offer some explanation for my tardiness.

The extended family road trip that I began narrating in last week’s post — starting around the Dolomites and running through southern France, then reaching its exhausted conclusion here in sylvan Bretagne — has finally sputtered to an end; Colin and the US contingent flew back out of Paris last Saturday, and Graham and Jackie leave today to begin their follow-on photo trip in Iceland.

To give the trip its due, we did end up seeing a lot of nice things along the way — bagging some great photos, enjoying family, and drinking some lovely libations. More on all that in a little bit. I fear, though, that the trip will be remembered by all primarily for the way our steps were dogged from day one by that old devil COVID. Of the seven of us who made the trip, six were eventually infected along the way — falling out one by one, to be trussed up in rolling quarantine and endure varying levels of misery until each emerged once more to enjoy sweet liberty.

When we arrived back in Brittany on Saturday, I actually believed that by some miracle I had been spared; but that very night, the plague dragged me down as well, like a hyena with a slow wildebeest.


In a word, the expedition was fated. Sometimes they just are. The Italian leg of the trip featured the affair of Carol’s stolen phone, and the mysterious car breakdown, as mentioned in my previous post. Even the Airbnb experience, which has almost always been golden for us in the past, seemed weirdly degraded this time: including a bait-and-switch where we got an inferior accommodation to the one we paid for (at Lake Garda); bizarre difficulties getting the right instructions to access places (visualize a half dozen over-educated adults trying to game out a lockbox code that had been mangled by translation software); and more than the usual number of lodgings with insufficient linens, or crappy wifi, or no soap.

One place, near Foix, had neither sheets nor towels, but that one was on us — we’d failed to read the fine print for the rental. In that case, the owners graciously pillaged every cabinet in their home to find enough linens to get us through. Wes ended up sleeping on sheets that looked like they came from the Playboy Mansion, but hey — it worked. So, credit where it’s due.

Again, there were still plenty of shiny things to experience on this trip, many of which were covered in my last post. Where Italy and the Tyrol had offered spectacular vistas of landscape porn, France was more of a feast for the lover of ancient and medieval history. (I had, in fact, nearly decided to title this article “Ancient Days and Medieval Knights,” until I realized I was at grave risk of ending up on the writing staff of Condé Nast Traveler or something equally tragic.)

Coming out of the Dolomites, we stopped to explore this rather stunning church, Madonna della Corona, in the hills above Lake Garda.

Our first couple stops in la France were indeed devoted to the contemplation of Antiquity: the Roman theater in Orange (gallery), and the magnificent Pont du Gard, the Roman aqueduct near Nimes (gallery). Both are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

The best-preserved monument of its kind in Europe, the Roman theater in Orange dates back to the reign of Augustus, in the 1st Century AD. Beside the theater is an extensive archaeological site spanning the ruins of a large temple, dating from the 2nd Century AD and probably dedicated to the emperor. The ruins are not directly accessible to tourists, but you can easily see into them from other parts of the combined site. In the photos, you can see the columns and bits of classical entablature in the theater, the ruins of the temple, and the emperor up there in his arched niche, with a pigeon on his head. (The pigeon is not original.)

While we were in that general neck of the French woods that evening — staying in an Airbnb at a winery near Orange — we managed to pick up a couple bottles of some of the local. (Look, when you’re in France, you buy wine. I don’t make the rules.) We were especially happy with a very nice Côtes du Rhône Villages, packed with my favorite mix of grape varietals: mourvèdre, carignan, and grenache (along with syrah) — the same stew that goes into the Roussillon wines I love so much. More on that subject anon.

The target of the following day’s side trip, the Pont du Gard, is the section of the 50 kilometer aqueduct of Nîmes that spans the Gard River. The aqueduct in its entirety was built to carry water from the Eure River to the Roman colony of Nemausus (modern day Nîmes). A truly massive piece of engineering in itself, the Pont dates to roughly the same era as the Orange theater. Though it appears simple in its contours, the bridge actually boasts a fairly sophisticated design to accommodate the temperamental river it spans. You can find out more on the UNESCO website.

After basking in the reflected rays of classical beauty for a couple days, we shifted gears and headed for Collioure, a bejeweled little town on the Mediterranean near Perpignan, and an old haunt of Carol’s and mine. Sadly, some of the best aspects of the town were buried under scaffolding this time around (like I said, fated), so I didn’t take many photos; but being the generous guy I am, I can offer you a gallery that mixes in views from previous visits to show the place off a bit more effectively. Carol booked us into a really sweet — and even reasonably-priced — hotel near the water, called Le Mas des Citronniers, and asked them to get us a dinner reservation at one of the seaside restaurants. The dinner, at L’Amphitrion, was the best we had on the trip.

Coming out of Collioure the next day, we again traveled back in time — this time to Queribus, a Cathar castle perched on the mountain above the town of Maury in Occitanie.

The tale of the Cathars, a religious sect that flourished in the late middle ages in southern France and Italy, is a tragic one. Also known as the Albigensians (after the French town of Albi), the Cathars held beliefs very much at odds with the mainstream Catholicism of the time. For instance, they rejected most of the books of the Bible as inspired by Satan (ouch!); rejected the triune nature of the divinity, and believed that God had both male and female aspects; and believed in reincarnation. Fortunately, the Cathars were tolerated and treated kindly by the Catholic Church.

Hahahahaha, just kidding. Actually, the church came after the heretics with particularly bloodthirsty retribution, destroying whole congregations and laying waste to towns and cities in southern France that offered refuge to the gentle faith of the Cathars. While it’s not surprising that the mainstream church felt threatened by the Albigensians’ rejection of so much canonical doctrine, it was no doubt also galling that the heretic priests lived simply, owning no possessions; that they imposed no taxes; and that they regarded men and women as essentially equal. The devils were even vegetarian!

To try to protect themselves, some Cathar communities built fortresses on some of the most inaccessible high places in what is now the Occitanie region of France. Two of the greatest of these, Queribus and Peyrepertuse, lie within sight of one another on the heights above Maury. The gallery from our visit to the former gives you some idea of how the castle seems almost to grow straight out of the mountaintop. Imagine trying to assault that place!

Their seeming impregnability notwithstanding, however, one by one the strongholds of the Cathars were brought to ruin by the armies of the Catholic authorities. The last to fall was the castle of Montségur, in what is now Ariège, in 1244. On that occasion, 200 Cathar perfecti (priests) were burned alive in a pyre at the foot of the mountain.

Back in Maury after our visit to Queribus, we stopped in at my favorite winery, Thunevin Calvet, for a tasting. Their Roussillon reds, made with the same gorgeous mix of grapes as the bottle we bought near Orange, are as rich and sumptuous as fine chocolate. As I worked my way through the tasting, though, I couldn’t help but think of the luckless Cathars and their gruesome fate — and feel a bit guilty to be enjoying such luxury almost literally in the shadow of their destroyed community of faith.

Sometimes it takes a story like that — or even just a week of COVID misery — to remind us that even the best and most securely-founded intentions can come to ruin. The lesson? Make sure to take advantage of the good things that come your way whenever you can; you may not get the chance later.

So when I left the winery, I was carrying a magnum of their finest vintage.

P.S. I was just kidding about the pigeon on the emperor’s head. Made you look, right?

Published by Ronald Crittenden

American SciFi writer in France. Amateur historian of art and war. Tea not coffee, s'il vous plait, and don't forget to say hi to your dog for me.

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