Thursday, 12 June 2014

Vaison la Romaine

Following our pattern, on the way to Vaison we had a planned visit, this time to Fontfroid Abbey, though a traffic jam for no discernible reason made us very late and a bit in fear of the dreaded French lunchtime closing which can last three hours. However, all was good. Again, this is an abbey in private ownership being restored by the family with help through various grants.

The place is quite beautiful and very well finished in the restored areas, though much of it has been embellished with stained glass and additional statues which was not done in the Cistercian tradition, where all was pure line and one statue of the Virgin and Child. Still, for the first time it was interesting to see how places such as the dormitories might have looked in their stonework and floors. Previous places have always been rather rough or even ruined.

a refectory
Lay brothers’ refectory

a nave
Nave and apse

a chapter
The Chapter House

a cloister
The beautiful cloister

There is a very large entrance court leading into the lay brothers lodgings and refectory, the cloister is well maintained especially in the garden, there is a gorgeous chapter house and behind the complex is an amazing rose garden of eleven beds and over 2000 rose bushes which were low pruned and just beginning to flower. Unfortunately, no “Fontfroid” (cold spring) that we could see; the water-ways looked very dry.

a court louis 14Courtyard 

a cloister2
  Cloister garden

a viewChurch through the cloister 

a garden                                   The rose garden
a pan garden

Panorama of the garden

We had visited Vaison la Romain for a few hours once before and really got no further than the Roman Bridge, the main street (closed for lunch) and a quick overlook of the more public parts of the excavations. So a return seemed warranted. Our hotel, the Burrhus, was right on the town square and downright peculiar.The initial entry staircase was terrifying for weak lungs and knees and the place seemed to have been built of several very old houses melded together, so one might go up a stairway, then down another and round a corner to find a room. There were lots of nooks and crannies for relaxing, a lovely terrace overlooking the main square and each room was different. Our first did not suit so they found us another with a walk in shower. The staff were most obliging with luggage and assistance but there were occasionally bewildered and apparently lost guests, at least temporarily. The place sort of grew on us.

Vaison is one of the oldest Roman towns in Provence and its history goes back way before that. But it is most famous now for lying on top of extraordinary Roman villas and public areas. Each time they construct something the excavations find a new Roman site. The town square was explored then covered again; people have to live. Even the old cathedral shows Roman columns and capitals as part of its foundations. And the marvellous old Roman bridge withstood the flash flood of 1992 which inundated the town way above its banks and killed many. It is one of the few Roman bridges still in use for traffic.

v roman bridge
The water was above the ramparts of this bridge

v flood marker
The plaque above Nick’s head shows the height of the flood in the town to the left in the previous photo

There is a high, medieval town overlooked by a fortress and the modern town where we stayed, divided by the river in its deep banks and joined by the bridge. We didn’t have the time or the breath to walk the streets of the upper town, which is steep and mostly barred to non-resident traffic. And we were somewhat restricted in our explorations of the lower town because it was scorchingly hot.

v cloche
The typical Provencal cloche on the church tower

v fortress
The huge fortress above the old town

Next morning was bright and hot and an ideal day for Le Mt Ventoux. The road up is steep and filled with cyclists making the ascent; the ultimate is to triple in one day, arriving at the summit via the three possible routes. Those coming down looked blissful as they sailed into the wind at high speed but those going up were working hard. Almost at the top they were photographed by enterprising photographers to have a record of their ascent, at a price. There were also hikers doing the road. We went by car thank you! And somehow I didn’t get many photos of cyclists.

v milepostOnly 12km to go at 7 degrees slope

v crowds
Crowds at the summit

v cyclistPushing hard for the top

v dentaillesThe Dentelles (lace) mountains

Last time on Ventoux the scree had been blindingly white but this time things looked more subdued. It may have been the storm of the previous night darkening the underlying soil so things looked a bit beige. But nothing could take away from that feeling of being on top of the world and seeing so far.

v view
The view goes on forever

v edge
Standing on the edge of the world

v summmit
The top of Le Mont Ventoux

v snow poles
Tall snow poles mark the route down

We stopped at the cafe and had a soft drink before descending to Sault for a mid-day meal. In just a few weeks the lavender will be in full bloom there. For now it is just in bud with the merest haze of purple above the grey bushes. The drive back to Vaison passed several very picturesque villages.

v Reilhanette

v brantes

The ticket for the Roman sites in Vaison includes an audioguide for the two vast Roman sites and the ancient cathedral. It was very hot and sticky weather so seeking shade as we walked was a priority. The Roman theatre was impressive, though less so when you see how much has been restored and rebuilt, but I guess that is the case for any antiquity that has been buried under newer cities. We found the map and audioguide both inadequate. Interesting bits were not even mentioned in some cases, explanations were facile and the map was extremely difficult to follow in parts.

v ancient way
The ancient way to the arena

v reconstructed theatre
The much reconstructed arena

v palestra pool
The palestra pool

v second site
Just a small part of the site

We did learn in the museum (oh blessed air-conditioning) that most internal Roman walls were constructed of rock at the base to avoid rising damp, but the remainder was rammed earth, plastered over. Now I understand why most Roman ruins seem to have a uniform low wall height; only the bases remain. The museum was small but had some nice pieces, including statues, mosaic floors and funerary masks.

v museum

v museum funerary drama mask
Funerary mask using drama figures

v museum peacock mosaicThe peacock mosaic. The duller parts are painted plaster reconstructions

v museum bust
Head of a youth

We visited the old cathedral in the afternoon, with the foundations made of old Roman columns and capitals, and dating back to 300AD in parts, with the main construction about 1100AD. A strong building with heavy buttresses to support a dome and slate roof. In the interior, a barrel vault on square columns while the altar was stone with the top recessed all over by a few inches like a very shallow sink. I hadn’t seen that before, nor the choir in the apse, the place for the canons to sit in mass, behind and well below the altar. In the old rite they would have seen the priest as he said mass with his back to the public congregation. The bishops chair was there also, but raised a little higher.

v church foundations
Roman underpinnings

v altar
The unusual choir and apse. The canons sat on the ledges at the bases of the walls

By the way, the explanation on the audioguide for the recessed altar was that it was a basin for the service of communion under both bread and wine. To me that is absolute nonsense but I stand to be corrected if anyone can confirm this.

The cloister is small and very old but still peaceful; showing its age of course and in some cases the column capitals have obviously been refurbished. There is a mystery over a scratched carving on a keystone which appears to show Christ with horns, but to my mind the carving doesn’t fit with any other art work in or around the church and may well be an old graffito. But who knows? No one, it appears.

v cloister garden v cloister

v church capitalsCapitals in the cloister

v graffito                              The graffiti like carving.

Vaison was charming, hot, surprisingly not too full of tourists (lots of bikers though) and deserving of still more time to explore the upper village. There was a lot we missed. But we can’t see everything.

Next stop: L’Isle sur la Sorgue and a week to recuperate in an apartment after all this running from place to place.

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