A girlfriend with whom I share a forty-year-plus friendship visited me in France in October. I was excited to see her after a long hiatus.
My friend flew from San Francisco to Paris and then took the high-speed train to Montpellier. When my grandson and I picked her up at the train station, she had been up about 24 hours. Consequently, she was a tired puppy! I gave her a light supper and she went straight to bed.
The only event planned the next day was a long talk session! We had so much to catch up on. Her husband had died unexpectedly five months before my husband died. Living four hours apart, we’d never had a face-to-face opportunity to share our experiences as widows as well as how our lives had evolved after losing our husbands.
Welcome to My World
The following day, we took some walks while we talked. I was eager to show her my neighborhood and meet a few neighbors as we caught up on each other’s news.
We had dinner with my son, his wife, and their two teenagers. The time with them was brief since they were headed to Costa Rica for a two-week vacation early the next day. But that also meant we would have the use of their home (four doors away) if we wanted room to spread out.
We then joined my daughter-in-law’s parents, who graciously offered to take us sightseeing for a few days. On the way there, we detoured to La Grande-Motte, a seacoast resort town, for a lovely lunch and a promenade along the sea.
Built in the ’60s, the buildings of La Grande-Motte intentionally suggest pyramids or Mexico’s pre-Columbian temples. This architectural theme, repeated in high-rise apartments, always reminds me of the Mayan ruins in Mexico I once visited. Even today, the architecture is considered unique in Europe.
After lunch, we headed to our hosts’ home in Sainte-Anastasie, a small commune about an hour from Castelnau-le-Lez, where I live. My room was on the second floor of their beautiful four-story restored stone house, while my friend stayed in a small cottage on their property. Somehow, I could communicate with my French-speaking hosts in fractured French while my friend spoke to them in Spanish.
Aigues-Mortes Walled City
Our first outing was to Aigues-Mortes, a bastide, the French word for a walled city. Also translated from French, aigues mortes means dead or stagnant water. Given the surrounding marshes, the name is understandable. Centuries after it was founded by the Romans in 102 BC, the walled city became the starting point for the Seventh and Eighth Crusades.
Today, about 8,800 people live within the walled city, whose streets are laid out like a grid. In addition to residences, dozens of shops and restaurants are inside the walled town.
I had spent hours wandering around the shops on an earlier visit, so on this occasion, my friend and I focused on an annual event attended by hundreds of people: the Fête Votive. Temporary, coliseum-like seating was set up at the entrance to the walled city. The seats were filled by hundreds of viewers watching various sporting events, including bullfighting. There was even a bull run, but we missed that.
Avignon, the City of Popes
The following day, we went to Avignon, a first-time visit for me. Avignon is simply spectacular. Victor Hugo described the city to his wife: "Arriving in Avignon in a fine autumn sunset is an admirable thing. Autumn, sunset, and Avignon form three harmonies.”
Excavation evidence indicates Avignon was founded some 5,000 years ago. Beginning in the 14th century, Popes fled to Avignon, and the palace of the popes (Le Palais des Papes) was built. It is one of the largest medieval Gothic structures in the world; hence, the informal name of Avignon is the “City of Popes.”
We parked and took a petite ferry over to Avignon. The free ferry runs continuously and holds up to ten people. We docked just on the other side of the bridge.
The walls of the city extend about 2.5 miles (4 km). After walking for nearly 3 hours and covering only a tiny part of the historic site, we hopped on the Tourist Train, a string of cars pulled by a motorized vehicle made to look like a train.
Our Feet Gave Out
The ride took the better part of an hour, and we could see much more of the city than on foot. We passed modern and ancient structures, museums, cathedrals, stunning mountaintop views, and wooded areas. Even after the train ride, I felt we had seen only a fraction of Avignon’s beauty and historic sites.
But I did notice that the Hotel Avignon is right in the center of the walled city. I promised myself that someday I would return, stay at the hotel, and walk in Avignon every day of my visit until I had done the historic site justice.
Pont du Gard
On our way home to Castelnau-le-Lez the following day, we stopped at Pont du Gard. Built during the reigns of Claudius and Nero around AD 50, the Pont du Gard is an aqueduct bridge that provided water for five centuries to Nimes, a nearby urban area. The aqueduct has an average descent of about 10 inches per half mile (25 cm per kilometer), an amazing engineering feat even by today’s standards.
But the history of the area around Pont du Gard goes back even further. The nearby Salpêtrière Cave provided shelter to hunters and gatherers almost 20,000 years ago. Now that’s ancient!
After returning home, we had a day free. We decided to borrow the family car and drive to Palavas-les-Flots, another seacoast resort town, about 20 miles away. After much deliberation, we picked one of the many restaurants to have lunch. A combination of sightseeing, shopping, eating, and touring a World War I museum wore us out. We returned to Castelnau-le-Lez for a night’s rest before heading to Paris.
We traveled quite comfortably on a high-speed train for the three-and-half-hour trip to Paris. Our apartment was within walking distance of the train station, although we didn’t know that until the cab driver dropped us off. (We gave him a good tip since the fare was so small.)
My girlfriend had booked a two-bedroom luxury apartment in Paris. We were confident we were at the correct address, but we struggled to unlock the doors to get in. The security system was complex by my standards—which is to say, the insertion of a key into a keyhole, and a turn of the key to open the door.
Not so here. Fortunately, my girlfriend is very patient. Once inside, the exceptionally well-appointed unit offset our frustration with getting in. We had everything a guest could need, from cotton swabs in the bathroom to a bottle of chilled wine in the refrigerator with a welcome note. There was no question we would be comfortable.
Our apartment also came with a printed guide to restaurants within walking distance. Before we left Paris, we had eaten at three of them. They were excellent and were wonderfully convenient at the end of a long day of sightseeing.
Montmartre Tour with a Singing Guide
On our first day in Paris, we took a walking tour of Montmartre with a singing guide. I recognized Edith Piaf’s songs and loved hearing about her life in a poor area of Paris. Now the area houses only the very wealthy.
The highlight of our Paris trip was a visit to the Orsay Museum (Musée d’Orsay). You can take a virtual tour of the museum here. Our tour guide was knowledgeable and delightfully entertaining. She explained the history and development of the expressionist art movement by showing us the paintings of Monet, Manet, Renoir, Pissarro, and my favorite, Van Gogh.
How Van Gogh Suffered
When our tour guide moved on to the next room, I hated to leave The Starry Night, a famous Van Gogh painting. I found the painting mesmerizing.
When I returned to our apartment that night, I listened to Don McLean sing “Vincent,” the tribute he wrote to Van Gogh. Watching slides of each of Van Gogh’s paintings as I listened carefully to the lyrics moved me to tears.
Endings Are Also Beginnings
My girlfriend’s visit ended with a celebratory dinner in Paris. She flew to the San Francisco Bay Area the next day, while I took the high-speed train back to Montpellier. When I arrived, I snagged one of only two available cabs and was home twenty minutes later.
Safely back in bed that night, I started thinking about our next get-together. A trip to Scotland? I’d love to go back.
(Cover photo courtesy of Canva)