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Trip Report Southern France, in the Footsteps of Thomas Jefferson

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I recently returned from a solo trip to Southern France, where I explored many of the places visited by Thomas Jefferson, U.S. Minister to France, in March 1787. These sites included the Rhone Valley Wine Appellations of Cairanne, Rasteau, Gigondas, and Vacqueryras; Medieval Avignon; and Roman sites at Nîmes, Orange, Vienne, and Lyon. My approach to this trip report is pretty simple: to identify the places I visited; and to provide some brief information about each place, transportation details (including trains, schedules, and cost), and places where I stayed and—in some cases—ate.

Wednesday, September 28 – Avignon
My flight from Washington-Dulles arrived at Aéroport Charles de Gaulle a full hour early, at 6:00a. I had pre-booked a discount PREM ticket on TGV #6113 to Avignon, which was scheduled to depart from Paris Gare de Lyon at 12:37p. My early arrival allowed me to enjoy a leisurely morning in Paris, so I took the RER Line B train from the Aéroport Charles de Gaulle 1 station to Saint Michel-Notre Dame (10€). I walked over to Place Maubert in the Latin Quarter, where I enjoyed a café crème at Café du Metro and a warm croissant at Eric Kayser on Rue Monge. I followed this with a short bus ride to Place de la Bastille and a walk along the nearby Promenade Plantée, an elevated linear park built on top of an obsolete railway viaduct in the 12th Arrondissement. I had my luggage with me, but I travel light, so altogether I enjoyed a delightful morning in Paris.

Gare de Lyon was a short walk from the Promenade, so I arrived with plenty of time to catch my 12:37p train to Avignon. TGV #6113 arrived at the Avignon TGV station about 15 minutes late at 3:30p. On my last trip to this lovely Medieval city, a free bus shuttled travelers between the Avignon TGV station and Gare d’Avignon-Centre next to the downtown area. But I soon learned there was no longer such a bus, so I bought a 1.40€ ticket and took a local bus into town (driving a most circuitous route with a number of stops along the way). I checked into the Ibis Avignon Centre Gare (41 Cours Jean Jaurés), just a few steps away from the train station, where I had booked a three-night stay (100.21€ per night). I spent the rest of the day exploring the back streets of Avignon and climbing up to the Doms Garden on the grounds of the Palais des Papes (Pope’s Palace). This public garden sits high above the Rhone River with fantastic views over the old city, the river, and the Rhone plains all the way to Mont Ventoux.

Thursday, September 29 – Avignon Wine Tour
Today I embarked on an all-day wine tour with François Marcou of Avignon Wine Tour ( www.avignon-wine-tour.com/ ). This particular tour, which François offers for 110€ on Thursdays, explores the Rhone Valley Appellations of Cairanne, Rasteau, Gigondas, and Vacqueryras northeast of Avignon. All of François’ tours receive rave reviews on TripAdvisor, are recommended by Rick Steves, and are well worth the money if you want to learn about and experience the wine appellations of Provence and the Rhone Valley. During the day François, another couple from Minnesota, and I visited four wineries: Domaine de la Présidente (Sainte-Cécile-les-Vignes), Cave de Cairanne (Cairanne), Le Moulin de la Gardette (Gigondas), and Caveau du Vacqueyras (Vacqueyras). We also enjoyed a delightful lunch outdoors at Le Tourne Au Verre in Cairanne (about 17€ apiece). François was knowledgeable, entertaining, and a delight to spend the day with! Highly recommended!

Friday, September 30 – Nîmes
Today I embarked on my exploration of several Roman sites in southern France. I caught the 8:30a regional train (TER) from Avignon-Centre to Nîmes, a 30-minute trip (9.90€ each way). While there is a staffed ticket desk at Gare d’Avignon-Centre, the touch-screen ticket machines are easy to use, have an English option, and accepted my chipped Chase Visa card. In Nîmes, I walked a few blocks to the Maison Carrée, roughly in the center of town. Literally meaning “square house” in French, the Maison Carrée was built around 2 AD and is arguably the best preserved Roman temple anywhere in the world. It was adored by Thomas Jefferson, who had first read about the structure in Andrea Palladio’s The Four Books of Architecture. In a September 20, 1785 letter to his friend James Madison, Jefferson wrote, “We took for our model [for the Virginia state capitol in Richmond] what is called the Maison quarrée of Nismes, one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful and precious morsel of architecture left us by antiquity.” Two years later, during his trip across southern France, Jefferson finally visited the ancient temple. On March 20, 1787, he wrote: “Here I am, Madam, gazing at the Maison quarrée, like a lover at his mistress…. From Lyons to Nismes I have been nourished with the remains of Roman grandeur.” The structure was thoroughly restored between 2006-2011, and today is a fabulous example of 1st Century Roman architecture.

Just a few feet from the Maison Carrée is the Office de Tourisme de Nîmes (Tourist Office, 6 Rue Auguste), where I picked up a map of a walking tour through old Nîmes. Once I reached the Place du Marché, I left the tour route and walked one block south to the Arènes de Nîmes (Arena of Nîmes). Built around 70 AD, the arena is one of the largest surviving amphitheaters in Roman Gaul. A ticket to visit the Arena only is 10€; there is also a 12€ ticket that includes the Arena, entry to a film inside the Maison Carrée, and the Tour Magne—a Roman tower on a hill just north of the city. I elected the 10€ ticket, and spent about two hours exploring the ancient Arena from top to bottom. Highly recommended!

It’s about a 15 minute walk from the Nîmes train station to the Maison Carrée—which incidentally passes directly by the Arena—and maybe a 7 minute walk from the Arena back to the train station. I had a goat cheese salad and carafe of Rosé at a small café in the shadow of the Arena, then caught the 12:51p TER back to Avignon. I spent the remainder of the day exploring and shopping for gifts in Avignon. I also dined “on the cheap” while in Avignon, opting either for inexpensive crepes or baguette sandwiches.

Saturday, October 1 – Orange and Vienne
Sometimes the best laid plans just don’t work out. My destination today was Vienne, about a two-hour train ride north of Avignon along the Rhone River. En route I would stop in Orange and visit two ancient Roman sites—the Triumphal Arch and Roman Theatre—before continuing on to Vienne. Sadly, concerns with security have forced train stations in France to remove their luggage storage facilities, and I did not want to walk around Orange with my suitcase in tow. So I had to revise my plan: the Ibis Avignon Centre Gare was happy to stow my luggage for the morning, and the frequency of regional trains between Marseilles and Lyon gave me several good options for getting from Avignon to Orange, back to Avignon, and then on to Vienne. Surprisingly, I was also able to purchase same-day discounted train tickets for all three journeys, so off I went.

I departed on the first leg of today’s journey at 8:21a for the 14-minute train ride from Avignon-Centre to Orange (4.80€). By 9:00a I was standing in front of the Arc de Triomphe d’Orange (Triumphal Arch of Orange), a Roman monument built during the reign of Augustus (27 BC - AD 14). The site is a 20-minute walk across town from the train station, Gare d’Orange. From the arch, I walked back into town to the Office du Tourisme (5 Cours Aristide Briand), where I picked up a good street map. Finally, I walked for another ten minutes to the Théâtre Antique d’Orange (Roman Theatre). This magnificent theatre, built early in the 1st century AD, is one of the best preserved of all Roman theatres, owing specifically to the surviving Scaenae frons (permanent architectural background of a Roman theatre stage), though now mostly stripped of its once elaborate decoration. Entrance to the theatre, which includes an audio guide and entry to the adjacent Musée d’Art et d’Historie (Museum of Art and History), is 9.50€.

Thomas Jefferson wrote both about the triumphal arch and theatre to Madame de Tessé during his March 20, 1787 visit: “At Orange too, I thought of you. I was sure you had seen with pleasure, the sublime triumphal arch of Marius at the entrance of the city. I went then to the Arenae. Would you believe, Madam, that in this eighteenth century, in France, under the reign of Louis XVI. they are at this moment pulling down the circular wall of this superb remain, to pave a road?”

Fortunately, restoration of the theatre was begun in 1825, and the ancient structure still hosts events and performances to this day. Sitting again in the shadow of a superb Roman site, I ate lunch at a lovely café just across the street from the theatre.

I made my 1:38p train (4.80€) back to Avignon with time to spare, retrieved my luggage from the Ibis Avignon Centre Gare, and returned to the station for the 2:21p train to Vienne (23.80€). Booking a hotel next door to the Avignon train station proved to be a very good choice. The train arrived in Vienne on time at 4:17p, and after a five-minute walk I was checking in to the Grand Hotel de la Poste (47 Cours Romestang, 88.80€ per night). After a short walk around the old town of Vienne, I enjoyed a nice, moderately priced dinner at Octave (61 Cours Romestang), just a block from the hotel. This modern restaurant, which featured a variety of Lyonnaise, Provençal, and Alsatian dishes, reminded me a bit of what a French version of Applebee’s might look like. A tarte flambé and glass of red wine totaled just 15.50€.

Sunday, October 2 – Vienne and Lyon
Today was devoted to several Roman sites at Vienne. And since it was the first Sunday of the month, all the sites and museums were free! The first stop of the day was the Théâtre antique de Vienne (Roman Theatre), built sometime around 40-50 AD and completely rebuilt in the early 20th Century. The theatre is carved out of a hillside above the city, offering a fantastic view of Vienne and the Rhone River Valley beyond.

Sitting smack in the middle of old town Vienne is the Temple d’Auguste et de Livie (Temple of Augustus and Livia), a Roman structure built in 37 AD. Jefferson, who visited Vienne on March 20, 1787, called this temple “The Pretorian palace” and mistakenly attributed it to Charlemagne in the 5th Century AD. Still, he wrote that it was “comparable for it’s fine proportions to the Maison quarrée” in Nîmes.

Across the Rhone River from Vienne is the Musée Gallo-Romain, where the remains of Saint-Romain-en-Gal are being uncovered and displayed. The ancient Roman town flourished from about 30 BC until the 3rd Century AD, when it was abandoned and forgotten. It was rediscovered in 1968, and is now undergoing careful archeological excavation and preservation. The museum displays several amazing mosaics uncovered at the site, including elaborate floor and wall decorations. Behind the museum is the site of the town, where you can walk the old Roman streets, see remains of warehouses, thermal baths, and elaborate peristyles, and visualize working class Romans who inhabited the place over 2,000 years ago. An amazing and must-see site.

The last site I visited on my walk back across the river to the train station was the Jardin du 8 Mai 1945 (8 May 1945 Garden), dedicated to Victory in Europe (V-E) Day. Here I came across the Voie Romaine, a section of an ancient Roman road uncovered in 1895. What was most amazing about this find were the wheel ruts from ancient wagons, still clearly visible in the stone pavers! The garden, just a couple of blocks from Gare de Vienne, is well worth a visit and a nice place to sit down and relax.

From Vienne, I caught the 2:19p regional train to Lyon (5.40€), arriving at Lyon Part Dieu at 2:40p. I navigated to the nearby Part-Dieu metro station, purchased a couple of metro tickets (1.80€ each), and made my way to Place Bellecour in central Lyon (Line B to Saxe-Gambetta, transferring to Line D to Bellecour). My hotel, the Mercure Lyon Centre Beaux Arts, was a block north of here (73-75 rue President Edouard Herriot, 114.90€ per night including breakfast).

After checking in and dropping off my luggage, I set off to visit one more Roman site—the last of my trip. The Théâtre Romain de Lyon (Roman Theatre of Lyon) sits near the top of Fourviere Hill. Towering above the city of Lyon and the River Saône, the ancient theatre was built around 15 BC. On March 9, 1787, Jefferson wrote, “LYONS. There are some feeble remains here of an amphitheatre of 200. feet diameter.” In fact, the ruins were largely buried until the 19th early 20th Century, when the theatre and a smaller Odeon adjacent to it were excavated and reconstructed. Both ruins sit in a public park called the Théâtres Romains, and there is no fee for admission. There is also an excellent Museum of Gallo-Roman Civilization adjacent to the site, but it was too late in the day for a separate visit (4.00€, free admission every Thursday). The best way to access the site is via funicular from the Vieux Lyon metro station. Take the line toward Saint-Just (1.80€ each direction).

Tonight was my first dinner splurge of the trip, with a visit to Le Sud, Lyon’s latest Paul Bocuse brasserie (11 place Antonin Poncet). Situated along the Rhone River, the food and setting could not have been more pleasant. I started with a Kir royale, selected the Menu Du Dimanche (Menu for Sunday)—which included an entrée and plat—and added a carafe of Côte du Rhône red wine. The dinner bill came to 56.10€.

Monday, October 3 – Lyon and Paris
I spent Monday morning exploring the narrow back streets and Traboules (secret passageways) of Vieux Lyon (Old Lyon) before retrieving my luggage from the hotel and taking the metro back to Part Dieu. Visit the Office du Tourisme in Pace Bellecour for a good map of the Traboules and other architectural highlights of Vieux Lyon.

At Lyon Part Dieu, I boarded TGV #6620, bound for Paris Gare de Lyon, at 2:04p. My PREM ticket, purchased back on July 20, was about $40 US. Arriving in Paris on time at 4:07p, I caught Bus #63 to the Latin Quarter and Hotel Saint Jacques (35, rue des Ecoles, 150€ per night). Dinner tonight was at Le Petit Prince de Paris, just around the corner from my hotel (12 Rue de Lanneau). This was my third visit to this moderately priced restaurant in the 5th Arrondissement, and I was not disappointed. I once again chose the night’s prix fixe menu, selecting an entrée and plat, along with a 50cl carafe of the house red wine. The total dinner bill came to 39€.

Tuesday, October 4 – Paris
My itinerary for today was quite modest, as my wife and I have visited Paris over half a dozen times and we’ve been to most of the main museums and tourist sites. Still, I had one last Jefferson site to visit: the Hotel de Salm and adjacent statue of Jefferson near the Solférino pedestrian bridge over the River Seine. The lovely domed building, which has housed the seat of the Legion of Honor since 1804, significantly influenced the design of Jefferson’s own home at Monticello. On March 20, 1787, he wrote, “While at Paris, I was violently smitten with the hotel de Salm, and used to go to the Thuileries almost daily to look at it.” Other stops today were the Eiffel Tower, the Rue Cler street market, and Cathédrale Notre Dame.

Among the food highlights for the day were Chocolat Blanc Chaud at Angelina (226 Rue de Rivoli, 1st Arrondissement), a delicious lunchtime crepe from L’Avant Comptoir (3 Carrefour de l’Odeon, 6th Arrondissement), and an exquisite vanilla tarte from Pierre Hermé (72 rue Bonaparte, 6th Arrondissement). Finally, dinner was another splurge; I joined my nephew and his girlfriend, who both now live in Paris, for an excellent meal at Le Petit Pontoise (12 Rue de Lanneau, 5th Arrondissement). We dined on cassolette d’escargots (snail casserole), poélée de crevettes (fresh shrimp), parmentier de canard et foie gras poêlé (duck and foie gras), caille rotie aux raisins (roasted quail), and noix de saint-jacques a la provencale (scallops provencale)—all expertly prepared and delicious! The food was accompanied by a bottle of Gigondas, a lovely red wine from the region I had visited on my Avignon Wine Tour. At 157€, this was definitely the splurge of the trip!

Wednesday, October 5 – Home
All great trips must come to an end, and today was that day for me. I took the RER Line B train back to Charles de Gaulle airport (10€), and my flight was in the air by 12:25p. For those of you who choose to take the RER from downtown to the airport, it took almost exactly 1h10m door-to-door, from Hotel Saint Jacques to the United check-in counter at CDG.

Please feel free to ask me questions. As you can see, I have pretty much kept to the basics. I do have to add that it was at times emotional to stand in front of places which Thomas Jefferson had visited and written about over 200 years ago. While so much has changed, these 2000-year-old Roman sites still offer powerful connections to the past.

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