Crossing Bridges in Briançon

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Briançon is the quintessential historic European Alpine town. In fact, it is the highest town in Europe at 1,320 meters. Situated at the base of the Col de Montgenèvre and Italy a short 15 kilometers away, Briançon has been integral to the defense of France since pre-Roman times. Vauban forts were then constructed between 1721 and 1734 by the Marquis of Asfeld. No ontly was the town itself surrounded by ramparts, but four other forts were built on the hills above the city, making Briançon a stronghold unlike any other. Critical to this structure of defenses was a singular bridge that connected these forts with the city via a trail or utility road. This Pont d’Asfeld was a prominent landmark for those approaching the town from Italy. Still standing high above the Gorges of the Durance, the Pont’s construction started in 1729 and gives visitor’s a clear depiction of the historical importance of this mountain crossroads. In fact, historic images of Briançon show this distinctive structure and give the town extra beauty. With the rest of the fortifications in Briançon, the Pont was included as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.

Talking About Melons

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Today we are talking melons. That’s right, on this segment of the 2016 Tour de France, we’re skipping more touristy sites like Van Gogh’s Saint-Remy-de-Provence and Roman Glanum for melons. Particularly, the famed produce of Cavaillon. While Cavaillon is the home of all melons in general, the town and surrounding areas are most notable for their cantaloupe. This fruit was, in fact, imported from the Italian city of Cantalupo during the Avignon Papacy in the 14th century. Of course the Avignon Pope loved his cantaloupe. Only 36 kilometers away, Cavaillon took on the task. But it wasn’t until the 19th century when cantaloupe became popular, many thanks to Musketeer novelist Alexandre Dumas who loved it so much that he had it shipped in bulk to Paris. Originally grown just south of Cavaillon, the modern melons are largely grown some 24 kilometers north, in Monteux. Yet the crop’s underlining importance to the city’s fame is taken very seriously and promulgated whenever possible. Visitors are greeted by what otherwise must be considered a “giant melon” statue as they cross the Calavon River. And then there is Melon Day, which is celebrated each July and organized by none other than the Brotherhood of the Knights of the Order of the Cavaillon Melon. The melon is also prominently featured on restaurant menus in town and across the countryside. For one of the better experiences, try Cavaillon’s own 1-star Michelin Restaurant, Prevot. Here, the weekly menu features melons when in season from June through September. I can’t wait to see some of this family duo’s creative offerings with Cavaillon’s most famous contribution to society.

The Many Faces of the Izoard

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After circling down into the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, the 2017 Tour de France re-enters the Haute-Alpes and approaches Briançon from the south along the Routes des Grande Alpes once again. Where the peloton crossed the Galibier on Stage 17, now it crosses the Col d’Izoard. The Col, sitting at 2,360 meters, is one of the iconic climbs of the Tour. In total, the peloton has crossed its peak 33 times, the first being in 1922. Perhaps the most famous climbs in the world, the last two kilometers are known as the Casse Déserte, a ricky landscape with lunar reflections and large monoliths. Here, a monument stands to two of the Tour’s great champions, Fausto Coppi and Louison Bobet, which between 1949 and 1954, dominated the Col d’Izoard each of the five times it was climbed. They mirrored each other in competition and now are memorialized in honor together. This is just another reminder of the history that comes with each of these Tour de France climbs.

No Stranger in Lourmarin

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Growing up, my favorite book was Albert Camus’ The Stranger. Having just read the classic novel for the first time, my wife did not share my sentiments. While it’s been too long since I’ve picked it up, I have always had a lot of respect for Camus. The author was born in (then) French Algeria but made people’s liberation in France his passion, whether that be freedom from political or capitalistic tyranny. In 1942, The Stranger was published, followed by The Plague in 1947, and The Fall in 1956. One year later, he won the Nobel Prize in literature. The award cited “his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscious in our times.” One year after obtaining the highest honors in literature, Camus moved to the picturesque Provencal village of Lourmarin, as it reminded him of his native Algeria. Of the town, he cherished its “solemn and austere landscape despite its bewildering beauty.” In Lourmarin, he continued to play football. So when Camus died in a car crash in the north of France in 1960, his body was taken to a cemetery on the outskirts of town where he rests in true peace. Today, Lourmarin is a touristy town, but one where a literary icon remains in spirit.

Re-Counting Chateau d’If

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Marseilles is known for being the heart of the Mediterranean, but it’s most famous claim to fame is the enigmatic and sparse Chateau d’If. Indeed, visiting the former prison, 1.5 kilometers offshore, is an experience in itself. Boarding the small ferry in Marseille’s le vieux port, the vista of France’s second largest city is breathtaking. Notre-Dame de la Garde is striking on the hillside and the Cote d’Azur gleams. Surprisingly, the crowds are not stifling even in late July. I grabbed a sandwich from a local café before we boarded and we were on our way. Munching on my delicious baquette sandwich, we made a few other minor stops before we approached the destination island. I really had no idea what to expect, which was probably a good thing. The lore of Chateau d’If conjures images of dubious characters and desolate places. In reality, at least the latter is 100% true. The island, only 1/3 the size of Alcatraz, is completely barren. The fortress itself perfectly blends into the bleach white rocks. Inside, interpretive signs (in all French) usher visitors through the Chateau in the context of its most famous (faux) resident, Edmond Dantes from Alexandre Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo. I quickly understand that this place would just be another abandoned chateaux across France had it not been for Dumas. Even so, Dumas’ character instills a sense of the horror that once occupied this island. Sandwich and all, my short stay at Chateau d’If was well worth the journey.

Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation

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On the outskirts of Marseille’s south side is a living monument to post-war living. It is here, on Boulevard Michelet that renowned architect Le Corbusier erected his first large scale project, the Unité d’Habitation. Constructed in 1952, the building was intended to house those Marseillais displaced after World War II. The development pulled Corbusier’s principles of planning and society together in one building. It was intended as the ideal in communal living, where residents could live, work, sleep, and shop. On a lush green setting that departs from the chaos and density that Marseilles can be known for, Corbusier’s “vertical garden city” housed 1,600 people in largely 2-story units. Communal space was split between corridors, ground level, and even making excellent use of rooftop space. The building even features its own hotel, which still exists today, making it perhaps the only single UNESCO World Heritage Site you can actually sleep in. In fact, the building is rather accessible, inviting one in for a look around its darkened yet strangely welcoming hallways.

The Bouillabaisse of Life

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Sun, sea, and seasoning. Marseilles epitomizes all that is the Cote d’Azur, so it’s only appropriate that this seafaring center gave us one of France’s most exciting, if not metaphorical, dishes. Like most modern traditionally French dishes, bouillabaisse originated as a commoner’s meal. As fisherman returned to port, their main catch went to the restaurants and they were left with the dregs. Right on the dock, they boiled seawater and added whatever ingredients were around. Because Marseilles was the Mediterranean’s melting pot, soon all kinds of exotic spices and ingredients were added – tomatoes from South America, saffron from Greece or Asia, and whatever leftover fish abounded. In many ways, the dish came to represent Marseilles and its population. As the city grew and children prospered beyond the status of their parents, the dish rose from necessity to a comfort food. Ultimately, it became featured on restaurant menus and the rest became legend. In many ways, bouillabaisse is not even very French. For one, it uses olive oil instead of butter. For another, it is super easy to try out at home. Just add ingredients to boiling fish stock. You can add whatever you want, although the classic seafood ingredients include rockfish, crab, red mullet, eel, and red scorpion fish.

The Giant of Provence Strikes Again

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Cycling fans from around the world often travel to France with the intent of climbing the Tour’s famous peaks. It’s a category of tourism unto itself. The Giant of Provence, Mont Ventoux, is no different. At 1,912 meters high, this limestone monster dominates the surrounding landscape and beckons to be conquered. To most, even the most talented cyclists, the ride of 21.5 kilometers at an average rise of 7.5% is heinous. But perhaps cycling Ventoux is too easy for you? Maybe you look at this and want more? For those delirious enough, Ventouz Man is for you. This event, now in its second year, will be held May 29, 2016 and consist of 2 kilometers swimming, 90 kilometers cycling, and 20 kilometers running, making this about half of an Ironman. No Ironman though features such an epic stage, one that is designed to highlight the beauty of Provence and the Vaucluse Department. The event starts in Lac Piolenc just northwest of Orange. From here, the athletes will peddle their way towards Bédoin where the climb truly begins. Riding over the top of Ventoux, the road finally goes down to the ski chalet of Mont Serein. Here the cleats are exchanged for sneakers and the running begins. The 5-kilometer loop through the mountain wilderness is a nice change of pace from the exposed road at the summit, but the course is not something to be taken lightly. So, who’s ready to really experience the Giant of Provence?

The Chapel in the Lac

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The massive Lac de Serre-Ponçon is a high-mountain artificial lake that resulted from the construction of a dam to rein-in and control the erratic Durance River. Because of ruinous floods in 1843 and 1856, officials conceived of a concept to dam the river. This did not come to fruition, however, until 1960. The lake is breathtaking. With jagged mountains all around, it’s pristine mountain water shimmers. This backdrop is only made more romantic by the island Chapelle Saint-Michel. But why is this structure sitting in the middle of the lake? Amazingly, the chapel was constructed in the 12th century by nearby monks from the Abbey of Boscodon. Thankfully the chapel was built on a hill in the Durance Valley so that when the water finally reached maximum height in 1961, the water created an island and the chapel was preserved. The same could not be said for the adjacent cemetery and town that were at slightly lower elevations. The chapel is not open to visitors, but during spring, before the mountain waters have melted, the chapel is accessible on foot and makes for a surreal trek across the lake bottom.

Hail Mary …

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It seems that every Tour de France skirts some Marion Apparition site and this year’s Stage 19 checks the list. As the peloton skirts Lac de Serre-Ponçon for the second day, not far away will be the village of Saint-Étienne-le-Laus. Over a hilltop just north of town in an area known as the Valley of Kilns, is the Basilica to Our Lady of Laus, dedicated to one of the lesser known and relatively late apparitions. It was here that the Virgin Mary first appeared to Benoite Rencurel, an orphaned shepherd in May 1664. Over the next four months, Mary appeared every day with child in her arms. Benoite’s neighbor accompanied her to the grotto where Mary appeared and sought penance for her sins. It was this message that Mary had for little Benoite, one of repentance and conversion. The Vatican finally approved of the apparitions in 2008, acknowledging something that thousands of pilgrims to the site had known for centuries.

A Fontaine Moussue

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Chambéry has its Fontaine des Eléphants, but Salon-de-Provence likely tops it for the weird, wild, and wacky with its own Fontaine Moussue. Literally, the Mossy Fountain, this landmark occupies the quaint Place Crousillat, surrounded by wonderful cafes. Even though a fountain existed here since the 1500s, French sculptor Maurice Bernus created the current fountain in 1775. Originally the fountain spouted water from four faces. It was only after World War II that limestone concretions formed, followed by moss and the vegetation that naturally grew into a mushroom shape. Quite the oddity to behold, but yet another reason why Provence continues to surprise at every corner.

Skiing Serre Chevalier

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On the downside of the incomparable Galibier, the peloton glides down the Guisane Valley 1,239 meters into the ski town of La Salle-les-Alpes, home to the ski station of Serre Chevalier. Chevalier is the largest ski resort in the southern Alps with 61 lifts, 100 trails covering 250 kilometers, and 410 hectares (1,013 acres) of ski-able area. The snowpack may be low when compared to other parts of Europe with only about 388 centimeters of snow and 50 centimeter depth but a higher tree line means that the snow lasts and is protective in snowfall or high winds. Its proximity to the Italian border and the charm of its smaller resort villages means that Serre Chevalier gets a lot of business. Don’t let that scare you away though because sread out from Briançon to Monêtier-les-Bains, some thirteen kilometers in length, means that the crowds are spread out and often, the slopes are your own. The last Tour de France arrival at Serre Chevalier occurred six years ago when Andy Schleck won the stage and Cadel Evans went on to win the Yellow Jersey.

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