June 2, Bellingham
May 28, Capestang
This is the last day in the south of France. We've had a hectic couple of days with last minute additions to our itinerary. On top of that, a 24-hour bug came for a call further disrupting our plans. Every traveler should remember that plans are only approximations of what actually happens. They are usually created in a state of euphoria and extreme optimism. Reality loves to play games with plans. It can sometimes get to the level of the forces of light versus the dark forces. What we found was the delightful experience of unexpected events. In the last two days, we "accidently" met up with a book author who has been a source of much of the material we have been exploring on this trip. The "coincidence" required that we be at a the small hilltop village in the Pyrennes on a particular day within a small window of time.
So now it is time to head for the train station. The TGV takes only 4 hours to get from the Med to Paris and the flight home. Back in Bellingham Sunday.
May 24, Saintes Maries de la Mer
This photo shouldn't have happened. It resulted despite fighting ridiculous traffic jams on one of France's more popular holidays going to one of France's more popular seaside resorts. There appeared to be 10 zillion people in this small fishing village and resort. All of them wanting to witness the annual parade of the Black Madonna through the town square.
The Black Madonna is Sainte Sarah, reported daughter of Mary Magdalene, and she is very, very, venerated in this region of France. The picture also happened because I took several “wrong” turns that resulted in my popping into the press corps and local dignitary area of the procession by “accident.” Not one to look the proverbial gift horse in the mouth, I found myself roughly 15 feet from the church door used for the Madonna’s appearance. I had no press badge, but went unquestioned by the local crowd managers anyway. I thought if need be I could claim I was from a Paris daily, or perhaps they knew I was from the Northwest Citizen. At least that’s what I told myself to explain my acceptability.
I did have to wait two hours and I had at least one conversation in my very poor French, but I didn’t want to be noticed too much, so I just hovered around the likely path, looking “press-like.” The final appearance of the Madonna caused a dual wave of French humanity. One wave came from her selected route. People were pushed back from the procession exiting the church. The other wave came from the crowd behind me, pressing to get closer.
The resulting outcome is a rare photo for me, being in the right place at the right time.
May 22, Sainte-Baume Grotto
On your knees!” That could well be the name of a game played between kings and the Catholic Church during the late 1st and early 2nd millenniums. The monarch playing the game had to “walk” on his or her knees up a long, steep and painfully rocky path to a religious shrine. In exchange for this act of submission, the monarch was granted the church’s imprimatur to hold power, dodge ex-communication or otherwise stay out of trouble. There were certainly other political and economic factors in play around holding kingly power, but it is the visual image of “knee-ambulation” that I relate to most.
Sainte-Baume Grotto is one of those places that has a very long, very steep, sharp-pebbly, knee destroying path. By managing to navigate it myself (on my feet), I felt I at least deserved a minor title for my success. The Grotto is noted as the cave where Mary Magdalene spent the last 30 years of her life in seclusion, nurtured and sustained only by angels. The Grotto is located high up a sheer limestone massif near Marseille, France. The area is awesomely beautiful. It is also noted for being harshly frigid in winter. The first monastery was established in 415 AD, and with the possible exception of the period during and immediately after the French Revolution, it has been maintained as a holy shrine worthy of the only female disciple.
May 20, Montsegur Castle
May 18, On the road from Montpellier to Lourdes
I am now convinced that the French have a serious disorder in their transportation psyche. The limited access divided highways that are equivalent to our interstate highways have some of the best technology I've experienced, anywhere. This includes well engineered on/off ramps, road signs and even pavement striping that informs the driver about safe following distances. By contrast, I-5 in Bellingham might be considered a poorly designed and maintained secondary road. However, there sanity ends and France's road psychosis begins. Maximum speed limits are 81 mph for cars and 56 mph for trucks. All the trucks we encountered seem to really adhere to the limit. The bulk of the cars are definitely going faster than 80. That speed difference leads to some charming passing and tailgating behavior. The French driver clearly feels a sense of rebellion and liberation when on the highway.
Unlike the major highways, the streets in cities and towns were designed and built before the wheel was invented, probably by very small people who couldn't flnd flat paving stones. I'm sure they used some animal that moves erratically, such as rabbits, to lay out the streets. I can't imagine streets that are narrower, windier and more rife with parked vehicles and other obstacles. Fuel is around $8 per gallon. All of these factors add up to very small cars, that can go very fast on a small amount of fuel which operated by repressed drivers.
One other thing. The pedestrian is king. If someone even looks like they might cross the street, drivers immediately come to an abrupt halt. I'm not sure I trust the behavior to be universal...best to look both ways.
May 16, Leaving Chartres
(see photo at bottom of article)
The Chartres Cathedral and indeed the town itself are amazing places. For me personally, the cathedral emanates an incredible energy. I've had similar experiences at the Taj Mahal and Angkor Wat. These are special places that transcend human imperfection and exalt the spirit. That feeling is one I hope to have close to home in Bellingham, as I think about the positive things we can do and build in our own community.
The insert in the photo of the cathedral is of one of the rosette windows. That is the same window seen in the photo of the exterior. Chartres Cathedral reportedly has the largest number of medieval (12th and 13th century) stained glass panels in the world. While many other gothic cathedrals have perished, Chartres and its windows have remained mostly intact for 800 years, through religious purges, revolutions and two World Wars. So no matter what your religious beliefs are, it is a very special place.
As Dick Conoboy commented, dealing with the Paris "Retro" can be quite challenging. We left Chartres at 6:30 this morning. We had to return to Paris, arriving at one train station (Gare de Montparnasse) and depart from another (Gare de Lyon). That in-between trip was by taxi rather than Metro and cost roughly $35 for 4 of us versus the Metro's $8. But we avoided the agony of another baggage obstacle course and saved our bodies and minds in exchange. The finishing touch was the high-speed train (TGV) ride to the south of France which took only 3.5 hours to cover.
May 15, Chartres, France
With the volcanic activity and security events over the last few weeks, I would not have been surprised if our arrival in France had been delayed. Quite the opposite happened in fact. Traffic to Seattle was mastered by the HOV lane, airport security was efficient, polite and a breeze. Yes, government bureaucracies can earn and deserve our praise! There were no delays in departure or arrival times and French immigration and customs were fast and hassle free. The only complaint - you guessed it, airline food. My recommendation - stock up on nuts and power bars. Perhaps Costco could be convinced to open an airport discount snack food counter. They could make a mint 😊
On the other hand what occured between the airport and our checkin at the hotel in Chartres was worthy of the Keystone Cops or the Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight. We chose to use trains and the famous Paris Metro to make the two-plus hour trip from Charles De Gaulle airport to Chartres. We had previously experienced this kind of getting around town versus traveling on surface transportation such as cabs and busses. The lesson from those trips is that trains and Metro are much preferred, time wise, ecology wise and cost wise. The only problem is the lack of escalators in the Paris Metro. There are lots of stairs and if you are dragging an excessive amount of roll-on baggage.....well, we looked like a bucket brigade hauling bags up and down seemingly endless sets of stairs. Several of our friends traveling with us had forgotten the advice of limiting themselves to one small roll-on plus a backpack. We also encountered a contraption that resembled a guillotine on its side. These are automatic gates at Metro ticket control points. Insert your ticket and, voila! the guillotine opens. Your must dash through or you could be bisected. Most of us are quick enough, except of course when pulling two roll-ons, carrying a backpack and a camera bag or a purse, and a coat. Three local inhabitants of Paris blessedly looked the other way, but I swear I heard snickers in French. (Snickers are good for air travel as well.) In ancient times, pilgrims often encountered travails and tests including having to approach their destination on their knees. That sounds easier than hauling luggage through the Metro.
Today is about visiting the Chartres Cathdral. To me, it is a must-see if you ever get to France.
May 12. Bellingham, WA.
With rare exception my non-business travels have been about experiencing new people and places combined with a bit of adventure and relaxation. One exception was a trip to Cambodia in 2006 to dedicate a school. That school, The Bellingham Community School, was constructed in a rural village with the help of many individuals, organizations and businesses here in Bellingham. On that unique trip my wife and I were accompanied by a teacher, three students, and some friends, parents, and grandparents; some of the helpful many. It was physically and emotionally challenging, it was not about relaxing. It was very fulfilling, however, and a remarkable learning adventure for all of us.
Another exception is at hand this week. This time the journey is to France. It is part vacation and part pilgrimage. The itinerary is heavily concentrated in the Languedoc region of southern France, the former home of the Cathars and Knights Templar. There are a dozen of us on this journey. We are starting at Chartres Cathedral outside Paris this weekend. From there we travel to the little village of Capestang in Languedoc. Like many of the region’s towns, it is relatively young. That just means a “new” house was constructed sometime before the Big Bang. The region is filled with historic towns and castles, many dating to pre-Roman times. The area is also noted for important sacred sites and festivals, a number related to Mary Magdalene, who exiled and taught there after the Crucifixion. There is both an outer and an inner nature about this trip. I will try to bring a bit of both to this blog over the coming days in place of my regular column. I hope this way you will enjoy the trip a bit yourself.