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Welcome to Armchair France

 

Armchair Uzès

la Vie Quotidienne

le 14 avril 2001
Uzès, France

A wonderful castle on the Rhône...
Un beau château sur le Rhône...

Castles abound in Europe and in France. Versailles, Chenonceaux, Chantilly, Fontainebleau...around Paris and in the Loire Valley, castles are visions of loveliness. Here in the south of France, castles are a bit different. For the most part, they are ruins, victims of time, wars and crusades, and the Revolution of 1789. These castles were built in a different style, as fortified chateaux during the 13th to 16th centuries to withstand multiple invasions. The south of France (Languedoc-Rousillon, the Dordogne and the Midi-Pyrénées) is dotted with imposing structures set up on hilltops.
     A fine example of such a castle is at Tarascon. On a blustery day, with clouds scuttering across a deep blue sky, we visited good King René's castle on the east bank of the Rhône river, between Avignon and Arles.
     The site of the castle is impressive; the sights at the castle are even more impressive. Arched doors and rooms, painted ceilings, gargoyles, griffins, inset windowbanks, stained glass windows, graffiti from previous visitors (16th, 17th, 18th and, of course, 20th century) plus a collection of tapestries depicting Hannibal's 2nd century BC conquests in North Africa. Beautifully detailed, these works are hung in appropriately massive rooms to give them the viewing space they deserve.
     Atop the château is an open terrace where you can walk from edge to edge, looking straight down to the Rhône which flows right up to and past the walls below, and across the river to Beaucaire's rival castle, truly in ruins. Mont Ventoux, Mont Bousquet, the Lubéron, les Alpilles, and the Camargue are all on view from here. Quite a sight!
     The town of Tarascon itself is legendary, not only for René's castle but also for the Tarasque monster who reportedly lived in the Rhône, coming out into the town to eat children and animals until Saint Martha blessed and tamed it. Each year in late June, the Fête de Tarasque is a major celebration, and Saint Martha has her own church just across from the castle. Alphonse Daudet, that chronicler of Provence, memorialized the town in his well-loved book, Tartarin de Tarascon. If you're in the area, it's worth a visit! To see more photos of the castle, click here...

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The château at Tarascon...

and its vast, vaulted rooms.

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Mad cows and Englishmen
Vaches folles et les Anglais




It has been several months since the Mad Cow/Vache Folle uproar and, although the scare has died down, isolated cases continue to pop up in France and other European countries. Fortunately the ban on use of animal-based feed continues which can only help control this still largely unresolved epidemic. Beef sales in France are still down 15-20% from pre-Vache Folle levels, compared to nearly 40% during the height of the scare. We continue to abstain.
     Foot & Mouth/Hoof & Mouth/Fièvre Aphteuse remains forefront in the news. Outbreaks in France have been minimal (two cases, with bans contained to three northern departments) but precautions and discussions abound. As of April 12, France's bans for exports have been limited, but England and the Low Countries continue to suffer.
     What does this mean for visitors?  As far as eating goes, Foot & Mouth affects only animals; humans don't get the disease. However humans can transmit the disease, which is airborne. As a result, there are heightened security measures at entry/exit points. Re-entry to the States is fairly simple so far:  "Have you been on a farm? Do you have any agricultural products?" and away you go. A friend who recently returned to Dublin via Paris was asked to step on a sanitized mat to disinfect her shoes, but mostly given warnings of the possibility of spreading infections and shown bins for throwing away any possibly tainted goods.
     Reports from those living in Great Britain shed a different light. The number of reported cases is much higher, more than 1200. As a result, public forests, parks and footpaths have been closed, which means people can’t walk their dogs or hike in usual places. Horse racing in Ireland has been cancelled for the time being, and postponed or cut back in England. 
     A quick check with www.fromages.com, a French company that ships hundreds of varieties of fresh French cheeses to individuals and restaurants in the US, brought this report:  France is clear of all foot and mouth problems (except for three departments that are still under surveillance); consequently there are no restrictions on exporting our cheeses. If the situation changes we will, of course, immediately advise you.” Voilà!

 

Asparagus: from the field to the market
Les asperges: du champs au march
é

Alors
, asparagus are everywhere…’tis the season, vraiment! White, green, shades of violet, thick, thin…your choice, and they’re all delicious and priced to sell.
     We were lucky enough to be invited to sneak a look at how those asparagus get to market. Didier Blanc, a local vigneron et fermier, took us out very early one morning to watch the process. It was cold and threatened rain, but that didn’t stop the work from proceeding.
     The asparagus are picked every other day, in this case, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, with every available spear prodded, pulled, set into a basket, trimmed, cased, washed, sized and then brought to market, either a wholesale market or the local town marché. The nearest wholesale market, where Didier and his brother Robert bring their crop three times a week, is 20 km up the road in Saint-Pons-le-Calm, just outside of Bagnols-sur-Cèze. They also sell the bottes d’asperges, along with their delicious local wines, at the Saint-Firmin cave in Uzès on Saturdays. You can stop by for a wine tasting, some fresh asparagus and other delights of the region. It's a nice way to top off a morning at the market.
     Interestingly, asparagus fields are not eternal. In fact, they have a very short life. Once planted, asparagus take two to three years to come to proper “picking” stage, and then provide seven to eight years of very fruitful production. After that they slow to the point of being unproductive. And there’s the catch…once a field has been planted and has produced its asparagus crop (10-12 years), it can never be used for asparagus again…NEVER. A root fungus that causes any plants to die remains indefinitely in the soil, so new crops must be rotated there (except that asparagus can never again be in the rotation). When asked how a farmer could know if a field had ever had asparagus, Didier replied: “There are records kept hopefully, or one plants and finds out the hard way!” Yikes! Does this mean that someday France will run out of asparagus fields? Theoretically, yes. Get out and eat those asparagus while you still can! Il faut en profiter maintenant!

 

Working the asparagus fields...

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Didier gets the goods ready for market...

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Short takes...

Faits divers...
 

Taking the train? Maybe...
On prend le train? Peut-être...
The trains in France run on time...that is, on the time prescribed by its workers. Recent strikes have wreaked havoc across the country, starting with a mass general strike on Thursday, March 22, which bled over into the weekend in many areas. Both passenger and freight service have been affected. Up until this past week, three weeks later, "perturbations" continue, with one out of three trains sometimes out of service. How long will this last? As of Friday, April 12, the strike is officially over, but management and the unions haven't been able to come to terms on wages, retirement, and the ever-problematic 35-hour work week. There are regional groups that are threatening to continue the slowdowns. Best bet is to call ahead or visit the SNCF website at www.sncf.fr for up-to-date information.

April in Paris...museums on strike
Aussi les musées de Paris...

Since late March there have been periodic strikes by workers at many of Paris' most popular museums, including the Orsay, the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe and the Picasso. Disappointing for art-lovers! Although not constant, the shutdowns are frequent, with the Louvre being particularly affected: it was announced this week that the Museum will be closed this Easter weekend. The Rodin Museum (one of our favorites) remains open as of now. So, if you're traveling to Paris, check with your hotel's concierge for the latest information...and while you're at it, ask them about Museum Passes (not much good during a strike but perhaps it'll be resolved by the time you're there) and have them make timed reservations for you so that you can avoid any lines. It's a busy time, April in Paris...for everyone!

Easter in France
La Fête de Pâques

We're very much looking forward to Easter Sunday here in France, as we've been invited to a very special Easter celebration at a small restaurant in the Uzès countryside. (And no, we'll not be having rabbit for Easter dinner, thank you!) For pictures of this traditional feast, click here. This past weekend, for Palm Sunday, we watched as people walked to the local cathedral with their offerings of bay or olive branches, quite different from the US Catholic tradition of receiving palm branches at church. Meantime, best wishes for Easter and Passover to everyone!

 

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