Into the woods From the rhine to the rhône

I often groan at Geoff's puns but this one did make me laugh. As we were familiarising ourselves with the woodland surrounding our cabin, I spotted a shoe hanging in a small oak sapling. 'It must be a shoe-oak', Geoff decided. (For those of you from 'countries other than Australia', I should explain that 'she-oaks' are a familiar part of the Australian landscape.)

Our cabin in the woods

Our travels have taken us to a cabin in a camping ground in the rocky hills of the Gard department of France looking down on the River Cèze, a tributary of the Rhône, inhabited by Dippers and Kingfishers. There are oak trees and all sorts of other vegetation we have never seen before. Yet the landscape is strangely reminiscent of the Blue Mountains, rocky, forested, wild and much drier than Switzerland where water sprang from the ground everywhere we looked.

Sunlit arches in the rocks and 'Les gendarmes' look over La Cèze

We are oddities here. First, we came by public transport rather than drove. We caught the train to Avignon to connect with a bus to Barjac, where we were met and driven to our cabin. Alas, the bus decided to abandon the summer timetable and we found ourselves ‘forced’ to enjoy a few extra hours in Avignon. We now look forward to repeating the exercise when we retrace our steps via that town. We might even have time to walk Le Pont d’Avignon that I sang about in French classes. (We won't tell you that we resorted to eating at McDonaldÆs in Avignon. Our excuse is that itÆs hard to find a restaurant open at 5 pm.)

Second, we are not French, Belgian, Swiss or Dutch nor are we multilingual. The English-speaking world is not much represented here in this lovely nature reserve (which has more than 500 tent/cabin/mobile home sites scattered through the forest) though we did meet a Welsh couple travelling around in a Triumph TR4. My rudimentary French is getting a workout and Geoff is quick to use Google Translate. Not a bad thing.

A Dipper in the river

Summer may have ended by the bus timetable but not according to the glorious weather, which stretches on day and week. It almost seems wicked to be enjoying it so much knowing that our friends back home are enduring so much rain. I imagine Polly the cat with her ears back complaining as she has to dig in the mud yet again. It as if the world’s moisture has all flowed down under.

Note the blue sky and the empty pool at the end of the season

I need to backtrack a bit. We sent our Swissepistle a couple of weeks ago from Wil, near the German border. Leaving the Rhine behind, we boarded trains following the Rhône. They carried us to Vienne, not far from Lyon. Have you heard of Vienne? No, we hadn't either until our friend Jane told us about the wonderful first-century mosaics discovered there quite recently.

Vienne from the other side of the Rhône. The city on the hill is peaceful and pedestrian friendly but the bumper-to-bumper traffic crawling around it isn’t

We had planned to make a day trip to Lyon from our base in Vienne. Lyon has the name for the finest French gastronomy but we discovered that the real father of modern French cuisine was Fernand Point, who had a three-Michelin-star restaurant, La Pyramide, in Vienne. So we stayed put and indulged in les plats du jour with relish each day in his home town.

This pyramid, once in the centre of a second-century Roman circus used for chariot-racing, now serves as a roundabout feature. This is typical of the way Vienne has incorporated antiquities into its everyday life. We ate at this purple and pink restaurant to honour Chris's new hat bought at an antique shop after she left one a lighter shade of pink on a bus

Jane was right about the mosaics. They are housed in a beautiful new museum on the site of their discovery.

Just a few of the many beautiful mosaics from Roman times

The museum was strangely quiet. Maybe because the school holidays were over. Maybe because Vienne does not have the big name in tourism. Maybe because French tourism has taken a hit following the terrorist attacks. We found ourselves alone, or almost, in every museum and Roman site over the next few days. So the rich and layered archeology, history and culture sites, all easily accessible by foot and dotted around the ancient town, were there for our private viewing.

Alone in the cloisters built in the twelfth century

We stayed in a B&B owned and run by Béatrice. The old, gracious mansion and its garden have been in her family for generations. When Béatrice was widowed thirty years ago with five young children, she turned the house into her livelihood. When she wasn't looking after us, she was out with her horses. We will remember it as a peaceful haven where we could lie in bed and listen to the Tawny Owl calling. Again, we were the only guests.

Our B&B

Before boarding the train to Avignon, we bought cheese, bread and vegies at Vienne’s weekly market, the second-largest in France, to take with us to our woodland cabin. Once we were on the train, we settled down to eat our chocolate eclairs. Then we needed a tap to wash our sticky fingers. Every WC except one on that the lovely modern train was marked ‘Entrée Inderdit’. Apparently, they were closed for security reasons. Transport police had a strong presence on the train. When we passed through Lyon on our previous journey, heavily armed police patrolled the station. Even Vienne’s sleepy museum required visitors to have their bags searched.

This notice at a Vienne museum seems incongruous in such a lovely place. Geoff found his family running a stall in tuhe market

All that seems a long way away as we seriously wind down here in the forest. We have little idea what is happening in the outside world and waning enthusiasm to find out. We are losing ourselves in books where travel is a central theme, one about a piano tuner sent out from London to nineteenth-century Burma and another about the vagaries and history of the Hume Highway. Otherwise, we are swimming, walking, or strolling up and down to the 'superette' (a contradiction in terms) grocery shop. So not much activity to report, really, other than the effort to grab at the binoculars when an interesting bird pops by.

By the time you get this epistle we will be somewhere else other than Australia that has wifi good enough to transmit these tidings.

We hope this finds you well and dry.

Love, Chris and Geoff

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