le 14 avril 2001
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...
The château at Tarascon...
and its vast, vaulted rooms.
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
| 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
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.”
from the field to the market
asperges: du champs au marché
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.
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
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...
Didier gets the goods ready for market...
the train? Maybe...
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.
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!
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!
Want to see previous editions of Armchair Uzès? Click
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