Travels & Traditions: Lyon to Arles - #1208

BURT WOLF: In this program we sail along the Rhone River through the French district of Provence. We start in the ancient city of Lyon, which was founded by the Romans in the year 43. It is the gastronomic capital of France. Then a visit to the twin cities of Tournon and Train L’Hermitage which are connected by the oldest suspension bridge in Europe. I took a walk on it, it’s quite suspenseful. A side trip to the Pont du Gard, a 2,000 year old aqueduct built by the Romans. A stop at the Pope’s Palace in Avignon, and then our final destination, the town of Arles, which is where Vincent Van Gogh painted his most famous works.

We cruised on one of the AMAwaterway ships and got on board in the city of Lyon.


BURT WOLF: As I mentioned Lyon was founded by the ancient Romans in 43 BC. They developed their settlement on a peninsula formed by the meeting point of two great rivers --- the Rhone and the Saone.

The hill above the city is called the Fourviere --- probably a contraction of “Forum Vetus” which is Latin for Old Forum.

On the top is the church of Notre Dame, which was built in the 1870s. It’s a little flashy for some of the local residents who refer to it as the upturned elephant because of the four short towers that stick up from the corners.

Even though the subject matter is the Virgin Mary, the mosaic-covered walls and floors give the inside of the building a Moorish quality. It has become a major pilgrimage site with over a million visitors each year.

Right down the street is the excavation of two ancient Roman theatres. They were discovered during the 1930s by a group of nuns digging a garden. The larger theater was constructed in 15BC and had over 10,000 seats. If you got to perform here, it was considered an important booking for your act and a tribute to your agent’s power and influence. It was like playing the big room in Vegas.

Even today, the theatres are used to present special events.

These giant Roman amphitheaters are the earliest Roman structures outside of Rome.

At the base of the amphitheater’s hill is Lyon’s Old Town. During the 1400s,

King Louis XI of France granted Lyon the right to hold commercial fairs that brought in buyers and sellers from all over Europe. Many of the merchants who took up residence in Lyon were from Italy and the buildings have a similar look to the buildings that were constructed during the same time in Florence. In fact, Lyon’s Old Town has one of the largest collections of Renaissance buildings and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The word Renaissance literally means rebirth and in the arts it’s reference to a period in European culture that followed the Middle Ages. It was characterized by an interest in the classical knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome. In architecture the objective was to re-create the ancient classical structures of Rome. Harmony, balance and proportion were the essential elements.

At the beginning of the 1800s, Lyon was considered to be the silk capital of Europe. Over half the population of the city was involved in the weaving and dying of silk. The weavers were known as canuts and today La Maison des Canuts is a museum dedicated to the history of Lyon’s silk industry.

Our AMA cruise manager arranged for a guided tour covering the history of the textile industry in Lyon, the invention of the jacquard loom which revolutionized textile weaving and how the industry is evolving in the 21st century. In addition, the museum has a gift shop with great silk scarves and fabulous ties.

Lyon also has a unique architectural feature --- known as traboules, they are narrow covered alleys that were designed as private connections between the great family mansions. They were originally used to transport the delicate fabrics between the different producers and the dyers, and to allow private visits between the families.

During the Second World War they were conduits for the French resistance. The residents of Lyon knew the network --- the Nazi’s didn’t.

Today the traboules are still private but agreements between the owners and the Lyon Tourist Association make them available to visitors.

Many people say this is the town that invented modern French cuisine and Chef Paul Bocuse reinvented it in the 1970s. We sampled some of the signature dishes at Brassiere Le Nord. For starters, a chicken liver and foie gras mousse, roasted beet salad and a puree of cod and potatoes. The main courses were pan roasted chicken, steak in a pepper sauce and whatever the daily special is. Today it’s saddle of lamb. For dessert, a fresh fig and raspberry tart and a pineapple upside down cake with coconut ice cream.

It looks like we are all going to be here for a while. So, how about a brief musical interlude.

Hmm, that was rather out of context.

On a more appropriate note, later that afternoon our AMA guide arranged for us to visit a local boule club. Boule is the French form of what the Italians call bocce and the English call bowling.

The present form of the game as it is played in France was developed in 1907 right here in Provence. The ancient Greeks played a primitive form in which they tried to throw a stone ball as far as possible.

Then the ancient Romans came along and added the target. For some reason, many of the Kings of France decide that the common people should not play boule and the game only became a legal sport for the average citizen in the 1600s. I guess, if you were the king you wouldn’t want any of your subjects improving their stone throwing skills.

The objective is to throw all your balls and the individual or team who threw their ball closest to the target wins. Our group formed itself into a number of teams and we began playing.

Apparently, my style of play was more Italian than French and I was placed in a remedial boule class.

I had learned to play the game in Naples where certain families were allowed to run further down the filed than other families. Which was not considered appropriate either by the members of the local club or my fellow passengers.

There were two other excursions that AMA set up for us that were lots of fun. The first was a visit to a local wine maker who took us into his vineyards to see how his grapes were grown and then took us into his house to see how his wine tasted. Lots of interesting information and lots of good wine.

Our next stop was a goat farm where they made goat cheese. Goats appear to be very friendly animals that enjoy a bit of human company. We were there for about a half-hour and I saw nothing that would indicate the validity of the phrase “stubborn as a goat” or that the older goats were any cause for concern in connection with the phrase “you old goat’.



BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Five hundred years before the birth of Christ, the ancient Greeks were trading in this area. They were followed by the Ancient Romans. Romans liked to go everywhere the Greeks had been, it was that kind of relationship. 

BURT WOLF: There were three things going for this spot: it had a Big River that emptied out into the Mediterranean. It had a Small River joining up right here, which gave them the ability to go deeper inland. And it had a couple of high mountains where they could build forts to defend the area.

The twin towns of Tournon and Tain L’Hermitage face each other from opposite sides of the Rhone River. In 1825, they were linked together by the earliest suspension bridge in Europe.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Originally all suspension bridges were built with chains. And of course they were only as strong as their weakest link. Then in the middle of the 1800’s a couple of architects came up with the idea of twisting steel wires together to make a much stronger cable. That gave them the opportunity to build longer and stronger bridges. And the first one of this type built in continental Europe, was built right here.

BURT WOLF: The quiet riverside road at the edge of Tain L’Hermitage offers some of the most beautiful views of the river.

One of the city’s original gates is still standing, with its town crest and motto: strong walls make good neighbors.


BURT WOLF: The next morning our ship was deep into Provence.

Some locals like to tell you that this land came into existence when God decided to take all the best parts of the universe, that were left over after the Creation, and use them to make his own paradise. Interesting view --- It’s humble in the sense that you are working with leftovers, but awe inspiring because it’s God creating his own paradise. Typical attitude for Provence---everything here is simple, but it’s the best.

We tied up in the town of Avignon.

DAVID ALFON (ON CAMERA): The old name of the city was Avignon. The city of the wind. And here we have a very cold wind called the Mistral wind. Mistral in Provencal that means the master. And this wind is coming from the north of Europe getting cold in the Alps and crossing the Rhone Valley. But this wind is very useful because it’s pushing the clouds away. So when the Mistral is blowing, no clouds, very sunny day, very beautiful day.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): On one side of this river is the town of Avignon which belonged to the Popes. On the other side of this river is land that belonged to the king of France. And for hundreds of years they were connected by a bridge. Then in the 1600s a huge flood came down the river and knocked out half the bridge. Obviously it had to be repaired. So the Pope called up the king and said “Hi, how about fixing your bridge!?” And the king said “ha ha ha it’s not my bridge, it’s called the Pont de Avignon, the bridge of Avignon. Your town, your bridge. You fix it”. And they discussed that for a while. And today if you want to go from one side to the other, you swim.

BURT WOLF: The reason the Pope was in Avignon was because during the 1300s Rome was in such chaos that he decided that he had to get out of town and the new town he chose for the Papal Court was Avignon. That’s the Papal Palace that was built for him. It was a busy place when the Pope was there, and filled with magnificent works of art. But it was also a primary target during the French Revolution and inside there’s not much left.


BURT WOLF: The next day our AMA cruise manager arranged for us to take of tour of the Pont du Gard.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): People have been living in this area for thousands of years. But in the year one hundred twenty they became citizens of the Roman Empire. The big town in the neighborhood was Nimes and 50,000 people lived in it, which meant they needed 40,000 cubic meters of water everyday. Roman architects solved the problem by building an aqueduct that came from this spring to the center of town. The spring was always filled with water. Cause it rains a lot.

BURT WOLF: In about the year 50 AD, Roman architects began building an aqueduct to bring water from the mountains to the city of Nimes. It was an impressive structure than ran for almost 30 miles and the most spectacular part was the span over the Pont du Gard. Even today it attracts thousands of tourists. It illustrates the high level of architectural skill possessed by the ancient Romans.

The Pont du Gard passes over the normally quiet Gardon River at the bottom of a deep valley. But from time to time the Gardon floods and the water crash against the pillars that hold up the bridge. In order to protect the structure against these destructive currents the Roman architects shaped the pillars like the prow of a ship. Smart guys.

The walls of the canal were waterproofed with a type of plaster that was made from a mixture of lime, pork fat, wine and figs. Salt and pepper was added to taste. It was so effective that two thousand years later it can still be found on parts of the aqueduct.

Much of the primary work for the construction was done at the stone quarry. Each stone was cut to a particular size and shape --- then lettered to indicate which arch it was for and numbered to show the workmen where it was to be placed in the arch. Not quite a kit from IKEA but getting close.


BURT WOLF: Our next stop was the town of Arles. A lot of its ancient Roman architecture still stands and gives the town a strong sense of history. Its Roman arena was built to seat over 25,000 spectators.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Over two thousand years ago Roman architects figured out how to design a stadium so people could get into it and out of it quickly.

There was a circular walkway that went completely around the stadium. Off the walkway were stairs. 

BURT WOLF: Some of them went down to the lower seats. Some of them went to the middle seats. And some of them went up to the bleachers.

The spectators showed up regularly to see the gladiators take on the wild beasts. You can see the tunnels where the animals charged into the arena. And there’s where they posted each day’s final score ---Gladiators 2, Lions 7.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): For me the most interesting aspect of Arles is that it was the town where Vincent Van Gogh created many of his most famous works.

He arrived here in February of 1888 and in the 15 months he lived here produced over 300 paintings and drawings, including this one called The Drawbridge. I don’t think that looks anything like that. Hey Andy, are we in the right place?

This is another famous Van Gogh painting called Aliscont. It’s a walkway designed to look like Roman Burial ground. You guys are kidding right?! Van Gogh was fascinated with the challenge of painting an outdoor scene at night. And this is one of his most successful solutions. It’s called the Café at Night and you can see he’s begun to put in his famous stars. That actually looks like the café. The location scout’s getting better.

BURT WOLF: Van Gogh was born in Holland in 1853. The son of a pastor, he was serious about his religious convictions and had once worked as a lay preacher in England and Belgium.

He wanted to paint pictures that would appeal not only to the sophisticated connoisseur but to the average person. His objective was to express his own excitement about the things he painted. He painted and drew the simplest things. Things which in earlier times where not considered worthy of attention by artists.

My favorite is his room in Arles.

Van Gogh was not particularly concerned about the accuracy of his images. He used form and color to express what he felt and hoped that the viewer would feel the same thing. He had purposely given up the idea of painting as and imitation of nature.

Van Gogh longed for companionship and dreamed of a society of artists who worked together. He was able to convince the impressionist painter Paul Gauguin to join him in Arles.

Gauguin and been a successful stockbroker in Paris, though to the best our knowledge he was never involved with sub-prime mortgages. The subject matter of his most famous works were the natives of the South Sea Islands, particularly Tahiti.

The two men were very different. Gauguin had none of the Van Gogh’s modesty and sense of purpose. Gauguin was proud and had a strong ego.

It was a complex and stressful relationship and from time to time quite acrimonious. When Van Gogh died, Gauguin took it as a personal insult and never talked to Van Gogh again.

One of the AMA guides had an impressive understanding of the local architecture and she took on a fascinating tour.

GUIDE: This church is considered as the highest Romanesque church in Provence. 

BURT WOLF: It was here in the south of France, during the 1100s, that Romanesque churches began to use sculpture to express the teachings of the church.

The front of the church of St. Trophime in the center of Arles was built in the late 12th century and is one of the most outstanding examples of this style.

The front porch is shaped like a Roman triumphal arch. The field above the lintel shows Christ in His glory, surrounded by the symbols of the four evangelists.

The lion for St. Mark.

The angel for St. Mathew.

The ox for St. Luke.

And the eagle for St. John.

Below there are 12 seated figures, each representing one of the apostles.

To the left of Christ there is a row of naked figures in chains --- the dammed being dragged to hell.

On the right we see the souls of the blessed. Looking at Christ and filled with eternal bliss.

And below that, figures of the saints, each identified by their emblem.

We always hear that a picture is worth a thousand words. And these are the pictures that enforced the words of the priests. You might not remember precisely what was said in a sermon, but there’s little doubt about the message in the sculptures. The entrance to the Promised Land is here and the doors are always open.


BURT WOLF: That afternoon, we took a ride through the countryside to the village of Les Baux de Provence. It’s a pedestrian-only village next to the ruins of a 13th century castle.

DAVID ALFON (ON CAMERA): First the Prince of Hibble came here and built this village because they got a lot of enemies all over Europe. And then during the 17th century they became Protestants and the French king said to his prime minister, Richelieu, to come over there and destroy all the area and kill everybody. 

So the French Army came here and destroys all the area. So that's why you have the rooms of the castle at the top of the village. Then during the19th century an engineer came here and found the bauxite in this area. And they were mining over there to extract the bauxite and the people came here to work in the mines and they did renovation in the village. And that's why you have this very well preserved village just behind us.

BURT WOLF: Well, that’s river cruising through the south of France. For Travels & Traditions, I’m Burt Wolf.