Under The Sun of Provence-Sous Le Soleil Provençal

Trip Start Jun 19, 2009
Trip End Jun 28, 2009

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Flag of France  , Provence,
Saturday, June 20, 2009

France: Population 65,073,482 in 2009 (19th in the world)
643,427 sq. km. (slightly smaller than Texas)
Years Visited: 1993,1997,2000, 2006
GDP per capita: USD $33,334 (Source: Int'l Monetary Fund, 2009)
Exchange Rate: 1 Euro = $1.40 USD

Let The Race Begin! - L'Aéroport Roissy-Charles de Gaulle - Paris

Landing 15 minutes ahead of schedule, I quickly exited the plane on a mission to change my train ticket to an earlier departure at 8:21 AM for my first pit stop: Orange, located 557 km/346 miles south of Paris. I looked at my watch and realized I had less than one hour allotted for this task. If successful, I would be arriving in Orange two hours ahead of schedule, and that would translate to more time for touring and shopping.

But where to go?

I spotted an African-French female employee at the airport baggage claim area and immediately inquired, "Excusez-moi, madame, mais pourriez-vous me dire où je peux trouver la gare SNCF dans cet aéroport?" (Excuse me, ma'am, but could you tell me where to find the train station at this airport?)
"Certainement, monsieur," (Of course, sir) and then she continued to tell me to exit through customs, turn right, and walk straight for another 15-20 minutes to an area between Terminals 2C and 2F, and voilà, the train station would magically appear. Or so it seems...
With my carry-on in hand, I briskly jogged, dodging past groups of slowly ambulating passengers, some of whom were looking up at the signs and monitors with perplexed expressions, trying to find their way around the convoluted labyrinth of Charles de Gaulle Airport. Continuing to look at my watch like I was running in the half-marathon this past January, I noticed that the countdown was well under way; only another 45 minutes until the departure of the TGV bullet train to the south of France.

While racing across two behemoth terminals, I started to see signs directing me to "Gare SNCF" (Train Station). Before departing for Paris, I had already pre-purchased a ticket online at home with the flexibility of changing the departure time (of course for a fee of 10€). But I still had to print it out, and confronted by the many red, yellow, and green ticket dispensing machines at the train station, I now had to select the right one. OK, let's try the yellow machine since it's the closest one.

Rapidly maneuvering through the touch screen all in French with the pseudo-familiarity of the system, I was asked for the référence du dossier (confirmation number) of my ticket. Then, it asked me to swipe my credit card; however, there was a huge problem. Although I was allowed to pay with my American Express online back home, the machine did not accept it now. I then tried reswiping my AmEx card again anyway, but to no avail. The ticket was flashing tauntingly on the screen wanting to be printed, only if I would purchase it again with acceptable cards like my Visa or Mastercard! Unbelievable. Not only could I not retrieve my pre-purchased ticket because of the lack of acceptance of a certain credit card, but if I wanted it, I would also have to pay the whole amount again! Looking at my watch, I had but 20 minutes before the TGV pulled out of the station. I tried the red and green machines. The same thing.

This must be a mistake, I thought. Noticing my protracted time dealing with the machine, the quiet elderly French couple behind me began to ask if I needed any help.
"Non merci," I replied. "Le problème est que ces kiosques-ci n'acceptent pas la carte de crédit que j'ai employée pour acheter mon billet en ligne. Que dois-je faire en ce moment?" (The problem is that these machines won't accept the credit card that I used to purchase the ticket on line. What should I do now?). They shrugged their shoulders.
I thought about speaking to a ticket agent, but I saw the long line of tourists snaking from the ticket counter to outside the station, mostly consisting of Americans, all seeming wearied and drained from their trans-Atlantic flights. Ten minutes until the train departure.

At this point, I decided to stand in line, in hopes of just retrieving my pre-purchased ticket in time for my original departure at 9:25AM. I had given up hope of departing earlier. The line painstakingly inched every 2-3 minutes closer to the counter, but there was still a multitude of people in front of me. Finally, when I approached the counter, it was already 10 minutes before departure. I quickly summarized my credit card problem in French to the blonde employee, and then she replied,
"Bien qu'on puisse employer la carte Américan Express en ligne pour acheter les billets, on ne peut pas l'employer ici aux kiosques." (Although American Express can be used to make ticket purchases on line, it can't be used here at the ticket dispensing machines)
Yeah, tell me something new. I then explained to her that had tourists been given that information ahead of time, they could have avoided unnecessary delays by easily using other credit cards.

REMINDER: Leave your American Express at home when traveling to France. On the other hand, Visa and Mastercard are widely accepted.

Slicing Through The French Countryside on the TGV

Sitting on the upper deck in Car 2, Seat 82 in first class, I began to wind down after all that stressful commotion at the airport. Hey, where are the refreshments?, I wondered. Unlike first class travel on the Shinkansen (新幹線) bullet train in Japan or on Norway's Norges Statsbaner (Norwegian Rail), 1st class travel on the French TGV high speed train (Train à Grande Vitesse) means no refreshment cart pushed to your seat. In fact, there were no complimentary treats on this train. I remember being served some snacks even in 2nd class PeruRail from the Inca village of Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu last October.

TIP: Book a first-class TGV seat only if you want some peace and quiet. Otherwise, there is no significant additive advantage over second class.

Well, at least Continental Airlines had taken good care of me in Business Class on the way to France with a smörgåsbord of entrées and drinks. I was well fed and well rested in the spacious, reclinable seat. The next thing to do now was to relax and enjoy the alluring French countryside passing by in a nebulous haze at a speed of 300 km/hr (186 miles/hr). I put on Mozart's melodious Piano Concerto #26 in D, K. 537 on my iPod Touch,  took out my netbook, and began to jot down some thoughts. At first, the landscape was flat and uninteresting outside of Paris. But as the train headed southeast towards Burgundy, the undulating hills, clotted with symmetrical rows of vineyards, seemed to dance before my eyes to the hauntingly beautiful music of Mozart. The visual and auditory experiences were so complementary to each other - nature at its most classical form of expression. The small pastoral villages with dry-stone churches, quickly appearing and disappearing in the window as this modern train lanced through the landscape at tremendous speed, seemed to pulsate to the traditional rhythm of France's heartland.

In less than 2 hours and 395 km/246 miles later, the TGV train pulled into Gare Part Dieu station in Lyon (France's second largest city on the Rhône and Saône Rivers, and the third largest French-speaking city in the world after Paris and Montréal). I had almost one hour to quickly grab a bite at the train station. It was a pity I did not have any extra time for dining in Lyon, as this city is considered as the French capital of gastronomy, due to the prevalence of France's finest chefs throughout the city as well as its juxtaposition between two reputable wine-growing regions: Beaujolais to the North and the Côtes du Rhône to the South. At least, I was going biking in the Côtes du Rhône region, so I would still have a chance to appreciate that fine assortment of wine, I thought.

On The Road Again

Connecting to the slower TER train (Transport Express Régional) on my pilgrimage to Orange, I noticed that beyond the borders of Lyon, no more English was spoken on the overhead speakers. I was now so far deep in the countryside that everything was monolingual. I also started to notice a little variation in the French accent, a country twang, if you will, used by fellow passengers. It was not as pronounced and striking as the distinctive Southern accent audible among people from the Gulf Coast in the US.

Chugging along, the train stopped at smaller and more remote, emptier train stations as it made its way to Orange. One or two villagers would sit on the platform in the intense sun of midday, waving at passengers on the train, as if they were the official receptionists to the village. I waved back from the tiny, quiet upper deck first class compartment where I was the only soul. The train then followed along the course of the Rhône River, and here and there, dramatic stone citadels and fortresses were seen perched on craggy hilltops. The red tile roofs and bright pastel colored walls of most houses along the tracks radiated a brilliant warmth akin to the colors of Italian coastal towns on the Mediterranean Sea.

Orange - Traces of Roman Antiquity

At last at 2:36PM, the train pulled into a small, one-platform station with the inscription "ORANGE." The name of this town of nearly 27,000 people has nothing to do with the fruit, but its name has some far-reaching connections with the name of the Republican county in southern California, the principal river in South Africa, and it has given its name to the Dutch royal house.

Brief History

The name Orange is derived from the ancient tribe Arausio, which inhabited this area in 1000 BC. However, it was not until 36 BC, when Julius Caesar rewarded the veterans from the 2nd Galician Legion this territory as their retirement settlement, that the population suddenly swelled to 100,000 people. Its urban development led to the construction of a temple, sports stadium, amphitheater, baths complex, and all of a sudden, Orange became a recognizable town in the Roman Empire. During the Middle Ages, this town evolved into one of the chief cultural centers, as it was the homebase for traveling entertainers of lyric poetry, called troubadours, across Europe. In the 16th century, it passed through inheritance to William the Silent (1533-1584), the architect of Dutch independence from Spain in the Eighty Years' War (1568-1648), who adopted the title Prince of Orange-Nassau. Hence to this day, the national color of the Netherlands is based on the name of this French town, Orange.

I was given instructions by the tour operator to check into a hotel called Hotel de Provence right next to the station. Turning on my portable, hand-held bike GPS, I quickly got oriented and instantly found the hotel 200 ft away from the station.

I entered and met Mme (Madame) Verbe, a very convivial woman who ran this hotel. I introduced myself and was given a nice welcome in French as if I were being expected. She then unfolded a map of this small town and made some important recommendations as to where to go for historical sites and where to dine. After dropping my carry-on in my room, I was given a more in-depth virtual tour of the town as Mme Verbe pointed out things to me. I specifically asked for the location of some stores selling nice clothes and shoes, bike jerseys, and oh, the new 3GS unlocked iPhones that just came out the day before in both America and France. I had done some research on the internet and learned that Apple submitted to French anti-competitive laws and allowed the legal sale of unlocked iPhones, of which the second generation models could possibly cost 300-600€. I was interested in finding out how much the newest 3GS was selling for.

"Monsieur, vous pouvez vous renseigner ici" (Well sir, you can ask here), as she pointed to a cell carrier outlet called Orange Télécom on Rue de la République, a 10-minute stroll from the hotel along the deserted, sleepy avenue Frédéric Mistral. In stark contrast to this morning's bustling commotion at the airport, the atmosphere here seemed more relaxing, meditative, as life seemed to move by very slowly in this corner of the country. There were elderly people sitting in the shades with their canes, watching the one or two pedestrians strolling by on a big, empty avenue. Some store windows were closed for an afternoon siesta. Was I in France or Mexico? If people went to France only to visit Paris, they would get a very askewed, imprecise impression of what life in France is really like. The heart of this country is nestled in the villages tucked away on the rolling hills far from Paris. And it is part of my trip to find out more about the strong traditions, cultures, and history of France.

After an unsuccessful attempt at getting an unlocked iPhone 3GS (due to unavailability),  I left Orange Télécom and walked further, then found myself facing a display of very nice leather shoes in the store window. It was a small store, called Chaussures Prestige, run by an elderly gentleman on Rue Caristie. Although it was siesta time, the store was still open for business. I entered and was given the kind of special attention I would not get back home in the big fancy department stores. The gentleman meticulously measured my foot size and rushed to put on several shoes to my liking. I finally chose some black leather shoes with a very refined, classic design, which he highly recommended. Proceeding to check out, the store owner curiously asked where I was from.

"Je suis de Houston" (I'm from Houston), I responded.
Immediately, he broke out in excitement, "Oh, vous voulez dire que vous êtes venu des États-Unis?" (You mean to say you're from the US?)
He then added, "J'ai un frère qui habite aussi au Téxas, mais je ne sais pas où exactement." (I have a brother who also lives in Texas, but I don't know exactly where). "Quand je lui téléphone, je compose l'indicatif 7-1-3..." (When I call him, I dial the area code 713...)
Immediately, I told him that 713 was one of the three area codes for the city of Houston. He went on to share stories of his family with me, that his brother had left this tiny, sleepy town of Orange and immigrated to the US many decades ago and had been working in metropolitan Houston as a computer engineer. He would rarely come back to Orange for a visit, now that he had children and grandchildren born on Texas soil. But the store owner felt that deep down, his brother's heart belonged to the proud culture and tradition of this tiny town nestled in a quiet corner of southern France, in the heartland of Provence.

Strolling along the throbbing town center later, at Place de la République, dominated by crowded outdoor cafés, I stopped in several shops to check out some suits and shirts, and afterwards relaxed at a shaded café for some café noisette (a French espresso with a drop of cream) and a pastry. Earlier when I was buying some shirts in a small store Marie Claire, I was chatting with a woman in her mid-30's, who was managing the place with her small children still in elementary school. The kids had just gotten out of school, and they rushed to the store to help their mother out. Some of them had yet to begin English courses. She was looking forward to getting more help from them once school would be over at the beginning of July. And in a month, the family was looking forward to taking a vacation together on the seaside in the South of France, not too far from Orange. I wished the kids a safe summer and a fun-filled family vacation. It was personable encounters like these that already made this town charming.

The evening was topped by my dining outdoors in the shadows of the Théâtre Antique (the 2,000 year old Roman Theater) at Le Restaurant du Théâtre right on the wide square Place des Frères Mounet. The sheer, massive 100 ft high deep ochre stone wall of the amphitheater was bathed in a soft illumination against the twilight firmament, as I savored one of the specialties of the region: a filet de lieu (grilled pollock, a type of cod) sprinkled with a creamy saffron-mushroom sauce served with white wine. After dinner, I crossed the street and bought a ticket to watch a French musical, Emilie Jolie, performed right in the 2,000 year-old theater. It was breathtaking climbing the steep stone stairs to find a seat high up to appreciate the gorgeous sunset, the grandiose masonry and Roman architecture of this 9,000-10,000 seat theater, the clear acoustics, and the overwhelming anachronistic experience of witnessing a modern musical staged in this venue of two millennia.

Tomorrow would begin the bike ride across the enchanting landscape of Provence....

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