Saturday, January 19, 2013

Provence, Day Eight - Tarascon Castle

After chocolate croissants and cafe au lait from a tabac/coffee joint—a smoky-filled place catering to locals who suck down an espresso and cigarette before going about their day—we retraced our steps towards the bike path. Unfortunately, jazzed as I was on caffeine, I then led us astray, merging onto a dangerous highway for a bit until we regained the quiet path.

Patty and Michele collect tomatoes from a harvested field to add to lunch fixings.
The bike path ended all too soon, however, near Saint Etienne. We opted to turn off at a roundabout, heading through neighborhoods until they gave way to farm fields. By now we'd become fairly comfortable with following the back roads, and, Michele's map displayed a network that would bring us into Tarascon—none of the roads were marked with names or route numbers, however—which often became part of the detoured wanderlust.

As long as we went north or west, the flat farmland, and indeed, the acres upon acres of fields, some harvested, others in the midst of replanting by 20-30 laborers, stooping with seedlings, were a source of delightful musings. Planting in September meant it was a second crop. I wondered if the land fed a good share of France or if produce was exported to other countries.

Farm machinery lined up along the narrow roadside. We pedal by some, but when meeting a truck slowly cruising, the driver stopped to allow us right of way. We always wave our thanks. I loved this type of bike touring, and though we headed towards a tourist attraction, it's often the roads in between that hold the unexpected, but welcome surprises that make the journey worthwhile. In the future I recollect these episodes with fondness and they become a part of my overall perception of the region.

Chateau du Tarascon and it's dry moat.
We arrive in Tarascon and ride through the city center past nice old buildings, but unfortunately the street is under construction. We head towards the Rhone River. Along the way we cruise by an outdoor market and are reminded that it's Tuesday. Tuesdays and Saturdays are common market days throughout Provence. I would've liked to stop and browse, and possibly buy souvenirs, but I suspect we have a long day ahead of us.

By now, we expertly maneuver past a roundabout and lock bikes across the street from the castle. We are hungry now. It wouldn't do to have three famished (cranky and crabby) cyclists tour Chateau du Tarascon, so we climb stairs onto the edge of the dry moat for a picnic with a view.

Inside, we discover the castle was built in the 1400s, initially used as a fortress, transformed into a palace with nice apartments, and in the 1700's used as a prison and later as a detention center. What an intriguing past!

Surprisingly, the chapel held this, uh, weird Mickey Mouse sculpture, all bones. It took me aback. It wouldn't become apparent until later, after seeing many other modern exhibits in this same fashion through out the castle, that the works represented the tragic use of the grounds as prison, juxtaposed with King Rene's earlier reign and elegant residence. And indeed, some displays were quite thought provoking, for example: a glass bowl housing a single goldfish set all alone in the center of a large room, which represented a living thing confined within walls.

We tried to follow the pamphlet numbers corresponding with rooms, but something was amiss, possibly lost in translation. For the most part we climbed in and out of rooms, and read a bit of French descriptions on entryways or objects to capture the gist of what we were looking at.

Some rooms didn't need an explanation, like two toilets whose holes looked onto the outside of the castle walls.
Michele descending a stairway.
Ascending and descending was done by circular staircases, made all the more interesting by prisoner's names carved into the stone. They were everywhere, giving one a creepy sense of the poor souls' endless years spent in confinement.

The sailors' prison room with carvings on the walls.
We were able to poke inside most every room. After a while, one looked like the other, considering each floor plan was alike with many tiny rooms having window seats. I was about to pass up a small turret room when Patty and Michele motioned for me to step inside.

A castle etched above a doorway in the sailors' room wall.
The room held sailors captive, identified by boats carved into the walls.

Fortunately, lights lit up the "drawings". Not only did it give one the feeling of the longevity of imprisonment, but also displayed common 1700s vessels: wooden ships manned by rowing slaves and propelled with square sails.

I also wondered why the sailors were housed together.

Iron grates separating fortress from King Rene's apartments.

We climbed to the roof. The day was growing hot, but the view was worth it.

I looked eastward, appreciating the gargoyle and Tarascon rooftops. Provence had become (to me) the interplay of stone, terracotta, and lavender-colored hills.

Below, the roundabout we'd looped earlier.

Across the Rhone were spectacular views of Beaucaire Castle. I wondered if it was also built in the 1400s, and at odds with Tarascon or as comrades so-to-speak, protecting the river way. We considered visiting Beaucaire, but our guide book steered us to Tarascon as one of more interest.

Keyhole view of Beaucaire Castle. I had trouble focusing the castle in the exact center.
Can you spot Annie and Michele? Photo credit: Patty

The rest of the afternoon was spent pedaling along the Rhone River, in and out of small towns, skirting a nuclear power plant, which we'd only spied from a distance, and then along quiet roads near pear orchards. We crossed the Rhone at Aramon. I was glad we pedaled the bridge's sidewalk because a large truck swept by, buffeting us. We hurriedly kept moving and only talked about it on the other side.

From there we headed inland, aiming for Villeneuve de Avignon, by entering it from north of town, thus avoiding busy roads leading to Avignon. Immediately we began climbing dry, rock studded hills. I was in my glory, happy to be ascending and descending after pedaling flat roads for most of the day. I had energy to spare and for once didn't mind that I was low on water. However, it affected Michele. We took a break, ate, and Patty gave Michele some water. Patty survives and thrives on little moisture, very much like a camel.

After seemingly going too far in one direction, we located and rehydrated at a sports complex, splashing our faces under the faucet. We were giddy with relief. I handed out pieces of chocolate—the only food item I kept stored under layers of clothing in my pannier, to keep from melting. We now knew we were still on track, only the "back road" ended up with more traffic than we had expected. Now satiated, it was an easy ride into Villeneuve to buy groceries at a little market, temporarily misjudging the roads and climbing to a castle—we laughed about that one—and eventually ended the day at a municipal park.

Day One - Avignon
Day Two - Fontaine de Vaucluse
Day Three - Gordes, Roussillon, and Oh, Those Hills
Day Four - Saignon, Ingenuity and the Descent into Aix en Provence
Day Five - Aix en Provence to Salon
Day Six - Adventures in Arles
Day Seven - Les Baux, St. Remy
Day Eight - Tarascon Castle
Day Nine - Chateauneuf du Pape and Avignon

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