“Beautiful Cities” – by Debbie Ambrous

IMG_0924 - CopyGordes is classified as one of the most beautiful villages of France, listed on Les Plus Beaux Villages de France website. This coveted destination is featured in movies, shown on glossy touristic brochures and considered one of the “in” villages for movie stars and others of the elite, dripping-with-money crowd.IMG_0926 - CopyJim and I parked our budget rental car down the hill from Gordes and we saw immediately to our right a Sotheby’s International real estate office with listings for the aforementioned crowd, not for the likes of us, or the other folks who shop with coupons beside us at the discount grocery outlet. The reflection in the glass window of the real estate office showed our faces covered in sticker price shock. Even the lowly can look.

We started our climb up the hill for the most photographed view. Thankfully, we had cool weather and a nice breeze. The parking places at the top fill very quickly, so we had parked below and we went with the full endurance experience. I can only imagine how uncomfortable all of this would be in high season during the heat of the summer. A massive motor home was turning in a U-turn at the top parking area, completing a miraculous feat. No summer visits for us! No motor homes on my agenda!

Then, we were there standing before the astounding view, seeing the houses of white and gray stone clinging to the hillside and wrapping their way to the top of the perched village which is crowned with a Renaissance castle and church. IMG_9302Narrow streets with cobble stones meander their way down past beautiful flowers and trees, small gardens and pools. IMG_9298We hugged each other and looked around at every possible angle, enjoying the exceptional charm of the famous village.IMG_9297The view from the phenomenal hillside is a panorama of the valley and mountains of the Luberon. The owners, lounging in the beauty of their homes and gardens, must surely see tourists atop the opposite hill, huffing and puffing back to the parking lot and motor homes narrowly avoiding the crunch of metal on stone walls. We called “Hey Ya’ll!” just in case. You wouldn’t want us to be unfriendly, would you?

This village compared to others was more uniform in appearance, especially the newer homes tucked away with their pools just beyond the hillside with the cascading beauty. Now, I’m not saying it was a cookie-cutter subdivision, but there was something about it that didn’t tug at my heart. Now, don’t get me wrong. Gordes was not awarded its place as most beautiful without good reason, and I would crawl on my knees uphill for the tiniest apartment if some generous soul would sign it over to me. Yet, would I feel at home?IMG_9310

Somehow, I just wasn’t drawn to it in comparison to other villages in France with more variation in appearance. Where were the chickens, donkeys and goats? I didn’t see any gnome ornaments in the garden, or laundry hanging from the window, or sheets flapping in the breeze on the clothesline.

Later, I found a list of general rules that stated: “All the new buildings in Gordes are made of stone and use terracotta roof tiles. No fences are allowed, only stone walls. All electrical and telephone cables have been put underground, except for some locations on the border of the commune not made already.” I’m sure this accounts for the uniform beauty of the community.

I’m all for preserving beauty. I hope you understand, but I have to get on with the story with high hopes that I am not pelted with cobble stones, or stale baguettes.

All of this reminded me of the time when Jim and I moved from Coconut Grove, Florida to Coral Gables, Florida. At the time, the lovely city of Coral, Gables, which claims to be “The City Beautiful” on its website, had many, various rules on architecture and scores of homeowner regulations. Most of the homes and gardens were polished perfection in uniform compliance. Meanwhile, basically across one street to the other side, Coconut Grove thrived with individuality, a lush, colorful treat with peacocks wandering the lanes. Some of the homes have large colorful murals on the walls facing the street, while down the street an English Tudor home seems transported from Britain. But we left this realm of creativity to cross the divide to the prim and proper for a few years. What were we thinking? We should have seen our mismatched clothing in the looking glass before we called U-Haul.

Shortly after we arrived, I cleaned the front porch of the pretty home with the traditional red barrel-tiled roof and I positioned our outdoor furniture on the large front porch with its decorative, black ironwork of swirling design which wrapped around the veranda. Our front yard was filled with hibiscus and other tropical flowers. The seat cushions on the porch daybed needed cleaning, so I took them to our walkway and grabbed the garden hose to wash them down with a small amount of liquid detergent and a brush. Sounds simple enough, right? While I was immersed in my quick cleaning job, a neighbor walked past and glared at me without returning my greeting. She quickly flipped out her cell phone. I grabbed my cushions and hurried to the front porch just in time before a community patrol car whipped around the corner to the front of the house. The evidence was gone, so he paused a minute and went on his way while I stayed inside peeking through the curtains. The seat-cushion police didn’t catch me flagrantly soaping-up the sidewalk. What could they expect from an Alabama redneck? I could have washed my dishes in the front yard instead of my flowery cushions. A friend of mine had plumbing problems, and he sent his pretty teenage daughters outside to wash the dishes with water from the garden hose at a picnic table. Now, get that picture Mr. Seat-cushion policeman! Oh, and by the way, we did move back to Coconut Grove within a few years. Just CLICK HERE to read more about the Coral Gables house where a movie was filmed before we arrived, and enjoy many stories about France.

Oh, I’m getting carried away. I’m probably just green with envy for the Sotheby listed mansions. Yet, I do love a dash of whimsy and enough freedom of expression for a person to feel happy with their personal space. Are you with me, or am I on a ledge by myself?IMG_0930 - CopyBack to Gordes which shares the title of “The City Beautiful” with Coral Gables, and each of these cities deserve all of the accolades. We went to the village of Gordes and nearby several times during our autumn visit, including a couple of days when the weather was threatening with heavy, dark clouds. I photographed Gordes and the surrounding area during this time when it was severely windy on the high plateau facing the gorgeous village. It was difficult to select only a few photos for the blog, so others will appear on Google+ and Facebook.IMG_0927 - CopyGordes has survived multiple invasions, the religious wars, the plague, two earthquakes, a bombing at the end of the Second World War and all the consequences including starvation and depopulation. Somehow, I believe it will survive my attempt at a blog story.IMG_0951 - CopyThank you kindly for visiting and please come again! Share the link with others if you would like.

“Fools for Avignon” – by Debbie Ambrous

IMG_9247-1April 1, 2016 – A few days ago when I was planting marigolds, zinnias and verbena, I heard the birds singing: “Skinny, skinny, skinny …Pretty, pretty, pretty…” No, it wasn’t an April Fool’s joke! My hearing isn’t what it used to be, but I heard the birdies’ warbling to me as I dug holes for my flowers, kneeling on the ground, wearing my big straw sunhat.

Today, only an April Fool would attempt planting flowers in Alabama with severe weather alerts of flash flooding and possible tornadoes. With one eye on the keyboard and the other on the weather channel, I thought it would be a good day to write about Avignon, the chief city of Vaucluse and gateway to Provence. Obviously, we had to visit. But husband Jim and I went there rather by accident for our first discovery of this medieval city.

October, 2015 – Our intended destination was a bit north of Avignon. We followed our Google map directions, and everything was cool until we reached the overpass, underpass, rabbit hole that dipped down and around to the major highway north. We took the correct exit number and following the Google directions we circled the round-about to the fourth exit which went into a massive shopping center parking lot. We went around again, counting the exits in case there was a rabbit-hole that we missed. In desperation, Jim took road number five which was the desperado route directly into Avignon with all lanes of drivers competing for the Grand Prix. There was no turning around. Forget it. The river was on our right, so no exits either. Purely by blind coincidence, we stumbled into an exit for the entrance to the center of medieval Avignon. I took charge of the directions for our fast track entry into the Grand Prix and shouted, “Quick! Get in the left lane and make a U-turn in the cross-over ahead. Go! Go! Go!” We drove directly into an underground parking lot, found an empty space and walked to the exit for the city. Two options with arrows pointed the way, and one sign showed a baby buggy. Remembering the rusty baby buggy sign in Oppède-le-Vieux, we chose the walk without stairs and quickly found our way directly to the front of the Palais des Papes.IMG_9252The papacy left war-torn Italy and escaped to Avignon where seven French popes ruled from 1309 to 1377. In 1348 Pope Clement VI bought the town from Joanna I of Naples. Papal control continued until 1791 during the French Revolution when it became part of France. The Italian language was spoken for many years in this area. The Palace of the Popes is the largest Gothic palace in the world with 15,000 square meters (161,458 square feet) of living space. In 1995, the Palace of the Popes, the cathedral and the Pont d’Avignon became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.IMG_9232The ramparts encircling Avignon were built by the popes in the 14th century. They are one of the finest examples of medieval fortification in existence with great strength, surmounted by battlements and 39 massive towers. Incredibly, the name of the city dates back to around the 6th century B.C.IMG_9250During the time of the grand life at the Palace, they owned their own mint. They baked a vast number of loaves of bread every day, and did you know that Pope Clement VI appointed a Great Mustard Maker to the Papal Court in Avignon? However, surprisingly, at the entrance to the Palace on the day of our visit they could not provide a brochure with information for my review before we handed over our money. They asked for my camera also! Now, you know I did not find that acceptable.IMG_9239We fled to rethink our strategy since I didn’t have all of my homework prepared for an A+ tour. At the moment I didn’t know about the Chief of Mustard, or the Italian-speaking French folk. How many kisses did they require in greeting upon an autumn day in the Place de l’Horloge square?  The answer is at least three.

A cute tourist tram was parked there in the center of the square. We rushed to catch it, but other younger legs left us behind on the baby buggy route, wobbling on the cobblestones. Another tram arrived, and we claimed seats hastily while the young crowd got their last minute sips of wine. While we sat on the bench-like seats, I thought the atmosphere seemed more Italian than French. A young man was asking the Brit folks seated behind us to change his Brit currency to euros. They dug into their pockets and couldn’t find an equivalent match except in their favor.IMG_9280 He kept bugging the ticket attendant and trying to reach into the money bag for the exchange. Annoyed and rolling his eyes, he exchanged a glance my way loaded with irritation at the guy. I felt sorry for the young man if he needed euros for the ride, or food. I suggested to him that a bank was just around the corner. He replied, “Why would I want a bank?” I explained to him like any good mother would that he could change his Brit currency at the bank. With a shrug of his shoulders, he blurted, “I have money!” Then, he walked to the front of the tram, cranked it and drove the petite tourist train across the cobbled square. Yes, he was our driver – the fellow scrounging for a money exchange and trying to dip into the money bag! Yep, it was Italy in France.

We whipped around the narrow lanes, turning in impossible angles and passing so close to street-side diners that I could examine their cuisine. A lady with zebra-striped stockings extended her legs shockingly close to our parade. I wanted to lean over and ask where she purchased her chic hosiery. Window shopping the easy way, I spied a shirt that I liked. The words – STRONG ENOUGH – were spelled out on the front. I wanted that shirt. I need the confidence it proclaims on days when I feel like a wimp inside, on days when people conspire to make an April Fool of me in October!

The driver wound our little trolley up and up for a view of the Pont d’Avignon, but he didn’t stop for photography. In fact, unlike the tour buses in Paris, he didn’t stop period. The Pont d’Avignon (Saint Benezet Bridge) is known the world over thanks to the beloved children’s song bearing the name of the bridge. If you are not familiar, I suggest that you look for it since it is a charming tune, and the French version is much sweeter than the translation to English. I thought of young children dancing on the bridge like the words in the song. Boys, girls, soldiers, dolls, frogs and gorillas dance on the bridge of Avignon. Did I leave anyone out? Oh, such fun!

The bridge was built, according to legend, by a young shepherd in the 12th century who heard voices telling him to build a bridge in Avignon. When completed in 1185, it was the only place to cross the Rhone between Lyon and the Mediterranean Sea. It is a true feat of engineering and a subject of much research. There is a new museum with multimedia displays, a super fun way to learn the eventful history.

One of the famous citizens from the 14th century was not very impressed with Avignon. The great Renaissance poet Petrarch considered papal Avignon to be a “sewer” and a place of corruption. Petrarch is credited with initiating the 14th-century Renaissance and is often called the “Father of Humanism”. There is a connection here that I should have known when I wrote about Marquis de Sade.

I found that when Petrarch was no longer a priest, he saw a woman named Laura in the Saint Claire d’Avignon church and his passion for her inspired his writings. It is thought that this Laura may have been Laura de Noves, the wife of Count Hugues de Sade (an ancestor of the Marquis de Sade). Laura, who is described as quite a looker with fair hair and dignified bearing, refused Petrarch. That’s the best I can dig up for a scandal in this story.

The day was cloudy and dismal, still spitting rain after the threat of the Mistral on the previous days. We built our energy with a relaxing meal at a street-side café while people-watching with the music of the carousel in the background. After our meal, we walked in the flow of pedestrians through the Place de l’Horloge, admiring the Gothic clock tower above the town hall and trompe l’oeil windows in a mansion.  You can CLICK for the smaller images for larger display.

IMG_9265Before our turn for the baby buggy path I saw a young female photographer spread on the ground aiming for her best shot. It could have been me on the ground in any setting from Alabama cow pastures to the sidewalks of Paris with Jim nearby playing traffic control, or pretending not to know me. Admittedly, there was one big difference! The photographer kneeling on the pavement, the subject of my photo, was young, cute and pert, not – well, you get the picture!IMG_9240I still have the tweeting of the birds, “Skinny…skinny and Pretty…pretty” to keep me company whether I wear a STRONG ENOUGH tee shirt, or not.

Come around again to travel with us!  Three kisses to ya’ll for your wonderful support.