For the next couple of weeks we’re welcoming a guest author to the blog — one of last year’s #TalesOnRail Artists in Residence, Jack Callahan! Jack is a writer and photographer living on the coast of Maine in the US.
For me, any trip to Europe should start in Paris. So when I received the itinerary for last year’s TalesOnRail trip, I was glad to see that the City of Light would once again be my starting point. From there, we’d explore a few of the smaller cities of France before turning east towards Switzerland: in through Geneva and on to Lucerne and then Montreux. This would be my first time to Switzerland, and so it was the back end of the itinerary that held the most interest for me. I never say no to France, but I’d been there before. Switzerland was new.
After studying abroad in Paris and returning for a 3 week visit in the interim, arriving for the TalesOnRail trip was my third time coming to France, and though I didn’t realize it at the time, it would be my first time really seeing the country beyond Paris. I’d been on day trips outside the city, on longer trips to Normandy and the Cote D’Azur, but every time I’d been in France prior to this trip with Rail Europe I had, subliminally, felt that the other parts of the country revolved around Paris like a group of picturesque planets around their magnificent sun. However, as we arrived in Avignon, the second stop on our trip after Paris, I realized that the main reason I felt this gravity towards Paris was because my itinerary had always brought me back there. Not this time.
For some reason that I can’t understand, people skip over Avignon on their trips through France. An ancient walled city, it was founded in the 6th century BC by Greeks moving up the Rhone river from Marseilles, and it wears its age well. Much of the city is immaculate, marred only by the pleasant shade and dappled sunlight coming through the trees. The network of alleyways that make up the heart of the old city are reminiscent of Paris, but in place of the Parisian wrought iron grates and balconies hang the painted shutters of Provence. It is a place where people know how to have lunch, and the leafy terraces of tables and chairs are routinely tucked under spectacular awnings or backed up against impossibly old walls draped in ivy.
In many of the old cities of the world, the place’s oldest landmarks sit genially at the end of wide boulevards or on the edge of prestigious parks. The desirability of real estate is determined by whether it has a view on these relics, and there are special traffic patterns and sidewalks built to handle the visitors that come to wander in awe through the thing’s girders and hallways, to hear tour guides tout its best features, and to take pictures.
Avignon doesn’t give it’s crown jewel that type of display. And what a crown jewel it has. Tucked away at the top of the town is the Palais des Papes, which is the largest gothic building of the middle ages and the place where 7 consecutive Popes resided during the 14th century. It often looms above you, splendid in the sunlight like another planet that’s gotten too close as it interjects between rooftops or hangs over the end of streets. But just as often it is obscured, so when you walk up through the town towards where you have been told the palace gates are, you start to imagine that it can’t be as big as you expect, because there just isn’t enough room for it.
Then you round a corner and it’s on top of you, as thick as battlements and worn from centuries of weather and winter winds. Remember how accessible those other monuments from centuries past are? Not here. It’s less a palace and more a fortress, and when you walk up to meet it there is one measly line of people waiting to walk in a side door. I didn’t go inside, because it seemed like it didn’t want me to. While other cities’ relics may blush with attention and put on a show for their audience, the way a congenial grandparent might entertain a horde of grandkids, the Palais des Papes has no interest in visitors. It sits, blind, waiting for a time when it may be needed again. It does not welcome, it does not entertain, it does not see you here in 2017 as you walk at its feet. It has seen knights lay siege to its walls, had revolutionaries execute their rivals on its towers, watched all the wealth of Christendom leave it behind to rot. It is the closest thing I’ve seen to immortality, all tucked at the upper end of a little city in France.
Despite all of its virtues, Avignon still felt like those provincial cities you happen on sometime in your travels that look too small upon your arrival, but after a few blocks of exploration you start trying to come up with reasons to live here for the rest of your life.
When I arrived in Arles, I came to the conclusion that all French cities have the same amount of charm. Paris, at first sight, seems to be brimming with it. Avignon, a more condensed place, packs it in so tightly you expect it to burst at any moment. Arles, a little city by any measure, must have already burst from how dense its charm was packed in, and against reason it continues to overflow from below like a spring.
Arles was a Roman stronghold, a history very much on display in the form of the miniature coliseum that sits at the center of town and the ruins of the Roman amphitheater just behind it. The Roman ruins attest to a glorious past, but in the middle ages the place was frequently besieged by Saracens from Spain as well as by the Vikings, and much of what had developed into the Kingdom of Arles was slowly incorporated into a growing state to the north: France. The city was a shadow of its former self by the year 900, and was under such constant threats that the amphitheater had been given watch towers and fortifications and a miniature city was constructed behind the safety of its walls.
However, Arles’ modern claim to fame draws most of its visitors, as people come to walk through a three dimensional version of the works of Van Gogh. Many of Van Gogh’s works depict Arles and were created here during a 2 year period of productivity when the artist called the city home. Many of the places Van Gogh painted have remained visible, like the “Hospital at Arles” and “Café Terrace at Night”. Unfortunately, the yellow house where he cut off his ear was destroyed by bombing in the Second World War.
After Arles, our group boarded a train for Geneva. My foray into Provence had concluded. Slowly, outside our train, the scenery began to lose its sandy, arid quality. The ground beneath the vines and the olive groves became greener, moister. The mountains smoothed to hills, the rocky outcroppings disappeared and suddenly, as if the varied topography of Provence had been a dream, we were back in the flat farmland of central France, the horizon obscured by a delicate fog.
I leaned back into my seat as the train rushed along. I took notes inn my notebook, remembering the wines I’d tried, the people I’d met, the things I wanted to read up on when I got home. Before long, the pleasant grayness outside the train had turned foreboding, and I looked up to see steep green hillsides out each window as out train wound its way, slower now, through a misty river valley. We aren’t in Paris anymore, I thought. It’s hard to know a place without seeing its countryside and France is a great example. Beyond Paris it holds so many distinct worlds: the suntanned south, the foggy farmland, the densely forested mountains of the east, and beyond.
Thunder rumbled outside audible over the sound of the train. I looked up, my window spattered with rain. Where I’d seen hillsides only moments before, brush clung to each side of a ravine our train was slinking along the bottom of, fog hanging heavy between the river and the rainstorm above. I’d started my morning in sunny Provence and now, I was sure, was closing in on Switzerland. And instead of the suddenly arriving in a different country, I was being slowly introduced to it, winding my way through the place where one country became the next. I hadn’t traveled very far, but I was worlds away from where I started.
Want to join us for our 2017 #TalesOnRail Artist in Residence trip? Applications now open! Details here.