Monday, August 9, 2010

On the road (Europe 2010): St. Guilhem-le-Desert, Collioure, St. Jean de Fos

The past three days have been spent further exploring places within day-trip range of Pouzolles. Yesterday went swimming near St. Guilhem-le-Desert, spent the day before in Colliure, near the Spanish border. The day before that, visited St. Guilhem-le-Desert for the first time. Today leaving Pouzolles for Paris and the trip home. Details to follow as I get time to write.

St. Guilhem-le-Desert is a well preserved medieval town with a monastery as its centerpiece. The town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is on the list of "The Most Beautiful Villages of France." Hadn't really intended to go, but stopped off on the way to somewhere else, lured by a sign referring to Pont du Diable, or "The Devil's Bridge," about which I knew nothing.

There is a substantial parking lot and remarkably modern and well equipped visitors' center above the bridge (selling local produce and with a wine-tasting bar, information center, gift shop, and clean toilets), a fair walk from the bridge  itself (which is not visible until you're right on top of it). Having parked, not sure what to expect, I was reminded of stories of people lining up in the old Soviet Union to buy things without knowing what was for sale, simply on the assumption that it would be something worth having if people were lining up for it (which wasn't always true, I've been told). The medieval arched bridge just outside town is rather spectacularly sited in a gorge. It turned out to be worth a look.

Doing a little research, I see there are "devil bridges" all over Europe. They are typically medieval and built in places remote or difficult of access requiring considerable technical skill to complete. A variety of legends attach to them, but they are usually said to have been built with the help of the devil--or, sometimes, in spite of the devil's attempts to thwart their construction. This one, spanning a deep gorge cut by the Herault River, was built in the early 11th century by Benedictines to connect the abbeys at Aniane and Saint Guilhem-le-Desert. It is part of the Way of St. James (El Camino de Santiago in Spanish, Chemin de St. Jacques in French) pilgrimage route to Spain, the medieval road to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, where the remains of St. James are said to be buried.

Two days later, we came back, this time lured by the swimming and kayaking. It was great fun jumping off the rocks along the gorge into the deep, cool water--deliciously cool. I dived from rocks perhaps 10 feet high. The local children happily jump from places two or three times higher. A few daredevils were jumping from nooks still higher in the rocks. The water must be at least 30 or 40 feet deep. Look again at the photo of the bridge above. Notice the boy in mid-air just to the left of the bridge support. He's jumping down to the level of the kayaks.

After swimming and kayaking, visited the town next door, St. Jean de Fos (there sure are a lot of saints and a lot of towns named after them in France), which happened to be having a pottery festival. Many potters live and work in the town. There was a wide variety on offer, mostly new work, but one or two vendors were selling antique pottery. I was tempted by old cheese cups--little glazed clay pots with holes in them for separating curds and whey, They were beautiful little sculptures, but what was I really going to do with these things? I resisted.

Colliure was beautiful. I wanted to see this little resort town nearly on the Spanish border because I have seen so many paintings of it--painted by Matissse, Derain, Dufy, Braque, Picasso, Foujita, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and others. It's easy to see what attracted them all--the beautiful beaches, the cafés overlooking the bay, the excursion ships, the fortifications, and the vineyards terraced on the hills above the town. Everywhere you look is a picture. The town's centerpiece is the lighthouse converted into a church (pictured). Parking is tough, but it's worth the walk into town.

In Colliure, had some of the best ice cream I've ever had in my life. I had a scoop of vanilla with a scoop of violet on top--and it really tasted of violets. Rich, creamy, and powerfully flavored. Everything they had was delicious--I sampled a few other flavors. The shop is called Saveurs d'Antan. If you happen to read this and find yourself in Colliure, look for it.

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