Fork in the road, flip a coin; which way to go? Heads it’s alone, tails will take you back home. Either way, you better love the journey, for you may never reach the end of the road. Except in this case, coming face to face with a huge tour bus on a one lane mountain road around a blind curve, will definitely leave one delighted we paid our respects to Mary Magdalene.
In our case, all roads have, in fact, lead to Cannes. And let me get this square right now. The correct pronunciation of this place is “Can.” As in: The little train that could: “I think I can, I think I can.” So many Americans I know insist on saying Con. Like: “Life is nothing but a big con.” Trouble is, Caen, pronounced more like Con is in Normandy, near the Normandy Beaches; whereas Cannes, pronounced Can, is on the French Riviera, on the southern and eastern edge of Provence.
Okay with that out of the way, I am delighted to report that I am drafting this blog on the terrace of my hotel “Splendid” overlooking the Yacht Harbor of Cannes. Just below us, covered with green artificial turf is Le Café New York, New York. In the distance, to my twelve o’clock, an enormous cruise ship at anchor. In the near distance is a forest of masts, of sail boats of all sizes and descriptions. To my three o’clock is the old fortress city of Cannes. That will be one of our hiking destinations for the day, that along with the Fetival des Jardins installation, as with our discovery in Grasse. The morning air is crisp, but gently so, and the sun is warm, so that staying outside with our cups of coffee noir and cappuccino, it is as if we are sitting in a perfectly air conditioned room.
Last night we had an adventure typical of our host. Hugues arranged for his companions and friends to meet him at the Carlton Hotel for drinks, and then we strolled, hiked, really across town, to a terrific restaurant that was happy to accommodate a horde of hungry travelers. There were a baker’s dozen of us to accommodate, and the restaurant did so seamlessly. And as one would expect from Hugues’ friends, everyone is a delight. We enjoyed so very much our dinner conversations as everyone was so helpful with our pronunciations and patient with our story telling. One thing, though, being from the United States, and Texas in particular, driving long distances is “nothing to us.” Driving from Milano to Arles raised a lot of eyebrows. “Yes, yes, we know we are crazy. But it is closer than driving from Dallas to Big Bend.”
Our final stop before arriving at The Splendid was the Holy Grotto of Mary Magdalene. After Jesus’ crucifixion, she, Lazarus and Martha were set adrift by the authorities in Jerusalem in a boat without a sail or rudder. They landed on the coast some days later across the estuary from Marseilles. From there they found refuge among the people, who apparently were anxious to hear of their story. As an act of penance, Mary was led to, (or discovered on her own?) an enormous grotto nestled beneath a massif that rivals that of Stone Mountain in Georgia.
There she lived the last thirty years of her life in quiet isolation. I suspect she had a worry some case of PTSD after witnessing the brutal murder of her Lord and Savior, and some have suggested, the true love of her life. The story gets interesting from there because her skeletal remains lay intact for centuries, then were discovered through sequences of events too deep into the weeds to reveal here, but the sad controversy ends up with a small container of earth which was saturated by Jesus’ blood, a leg bone and lock of hair of Mary Magdalene. The rest of her skeleton is scattered amongst robbers, conquerors, bishops and popes. It was humbling, even if one is not a “believer” to see this place. The hike reminded us of Roy’s Peak in New Zealand, but only 1/10th the distance. It is well worth the hike. The only real challenge is there are no restrooms available on sight. Luckily there are thick woods on the trail to the Grotto, so, well, you get the idea. Suffice to say people were walking quickly down the hill. If you are in the area, this is one of those must see places.
After a nice lunch at Nans-des-Pins, we watched the local arborists “pollard” the Plane trees (they look like our sycamores) in the town square. It’s the technique where they get the trees to retain a uniform height and shape.
We spent last night in Arles (I asked Julie how to pronounce this place and she sounded as if she were choking on a bone). So, get some phlegm in your throat, and start the sound, like a pirate would say “Arrgh” but end the word by saying “luh.” I kept trying to explain to our new friends last night at dinner where we had been and they were clueless until our new friend, Patrick took pity on our pronunciations and he explained it to us. Then we were warned by other friends, that he speaks with a Marseilles dialect, so it may not be a popular pronunciation.
Our quaint tiny hotel in Arles, Logis de la Muette, was surrounded by one lane “streets” we commonly call “alleys” in the United States, all of which appear to run one way away from the hotel.
We circumnavigated Arles for about thirty minutes before nudging our way to the front door. By now, the transmission on my poor Black Steed, my Fiat 500L has about 10,000 kilometers on it. Riding the clutch is simply a new way of life for me, and I learned to drive from my grandfather Carl Andrew Brannen, who was a champion clutch rider. His old Ford F150 had less than twenty thousand miles on the odometer, but after his passing, my uncle had it evaluated by a mechanic who told him the transmission and motor had about two hundred and fifty thousand miles on them and were way beyond serviceable repair.
In short, the towns of Europe are made only for locals born and raised in the neighborhood. The cities are not much friendlier. I suspect this has something to do with confusing invaders, based on the long history of warfare in this region of the world. Don’t give the enemy any help. And they don’t.
Arles has two incredibly well preserved Roman ruins both of which are still in use today: The Coliseum and the Theatre. We began our morning yesterday, walking the path of thousands of Romans from two thousand plus years ago. It is inspiring to be humbled in such a way.
We trekked to the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh museum and were treated to the Buhrle exhibit of Van Gogh work. The balance of the space was dedicated to about three floors of Alice Neel’s work. She, like Van Gogh was a tortured artist, but somehow the love came through Vincent’s work, whereas Alice’s view, in my opinion, was harsh and disturbing.
The thing that impresses me so much about Provence is that no matter where we go, we find good to excellent food, especially for dinner. We have not had a “meh” meal yet. And the wine at half of what we would pay at any restaurant in Dallas is exquisite.
The drive from Vence to Arles was about three plus hours, along the A 8 superhighway. It is a tollroad, and it is in perfect condition. Three lanes each way with trucks restricted to the right lane: very civilized and very safe. We interrupted our journey with a delightful stop in Grasse, the perfume capital of France. The region is surrounded by flower growers who tend to their crop fields with the same intensity as any wine growing region on the planet. The old town of Grasse is like the others, tiny little alleyway streets, mostly for pedestrians, and lost tourists (sorry!). We hired a personal tour guide to show us the gardens of Grasse, and we were not disappointed. There are ancient ruins, panoramic views, unique shops and of course, people watching. The good news is that much of this region was left untouched by the world wars and so, with a few exceptions, the ancient parts of the towns look much like they did at the time they were created.
Our keys to enjoying the trip so far have been to greet people with a “bonjour!” attempt to speak the language and then communicate in English as much as possible. Just about everywhere featured people who were years beyond our French capabilities with their English. Try to find out what the local food specialties are and allow the waitpersons to order for you, their favorite or their chef’s favorite dishes. They are delighted to share that information and we have not been disappointed. Our hikes throughout the day are keeping the calories at bay, and I am still comfortably wearing the clothes I started out with. My only purchase has been two chapeaux. (hats). Somehow I lost my hat from Dijon late last winter, and I purchased two in Grasse: one for summer, and one for the fall and winter.
Tonight we celebrate Hugues’ 50th Birthday and we look forward to that, as it is the reason we are here. Going with the flow and remembering to love the journey, because we may never reach the end of the road.