In March/April/Mai 2020, the virus has stopped me travelling. Instead I listen to the stories that my home tells me.
In my former blog, I have started to talk about Eugen Diesel’s book “Philosophie am Steuer: Ein europäisches Reisbeuch” or “Philosophy at the Steering Wheel: A European Travelling Book”).
The book belonged to my dad and I have read it during the lockdown. In my former blog, I have talked about who Eugen Diesel was and how he drove to Auch in southern France. I now continue with his excursions around Auch and about his tour back to Germany, intertwining that with my own memories.
While staying with their friend in Auch, Eugen and his wife go for excursions in the south of France
In Auch, Eugen and his wife stay with their friend, and from here they go for various excursions, one of them being Pau.
In the Renaissance castle, Jeanne d’Albret gave birth to the later king of France, Henri IV (born in 1553).
We know Henri IV for the words “Paris vaut bien un messe”. He may never have spoken them out, though he adopted the catholic religion to take over the crown of France, and, luckily, he was tolerant towards other religions.
Henri IV had children from various loves, and he played with his children. When this ambassadors entered, Henri asked him: “What do you do with your children?”. I believe that Henri IV is one of the most fascinating personalities of the history of France.
In Pau, Eugen visited the castle and he was invited to the local exhibition of furnitures, cars and engines at Pau; some people believed that it was him, Eugen, that had invented the Diesel engine, though it was his father.
In 2017, my friend and I were in Pau. We visited the castle and the medieval city center.
From Pau, Eugen drove up to the Pyrenees, to the Col de Pourtalet (1795m).
(Pen drawing by Willy Widman, p. 123)
The roads are narrow, but I do not think, he had to cross many cars coming down, as the border to Spain was closed. The customs officer let Eugen take a few steps in Spain. The sky was inviting blue south of the Pyrenees (Spain), while the north (France) was covered with clouds. Eugen had to return to the clouds, to France.
The Col de Pourtalet is one of the few passes in the Pyrenees that we have not yet used to get from France to Spain. I would love to take it, once the border to Spain opens up again and the situation looks safer after the current pandemic. This is the view of the Pyrenees in the direction of the Col de Pourtalet, taken at Pau.
In Lourdes, Eugen did not dare take photos, because it is a sacred place. But then he noticed an elderly lady take photos using an expensive camera, before laying down to pray. Lourdes is an important pilgrimage site that bases on Mary having appeared to a young girl in 1858. We were in Lourdes in 2017 and visited the grotto and the Rosary Basilica from 1899. When leaving Lourdes, the boot of our car would no longer open. A miracle? No, it turned out that the strip of one of our backpacks got caught in the lock, a problem that was solved all by itself later on a bumpy road. Perhaps not a miracle, but a reminder?
In Moissac, Eugen and his wife watched a lady ring the abbey bells manually. We saw the Abbey Saint Pierre in 2017 and in 2019. It has one of the most beautiful Romanic portals that I know; here, the 24 wise men playing music are looking up to Jesus,…
… and in the the cloister we found this beautiful Petrus.
After having visited Bordeaux, Mimizan and Toulouse, Eugen and his wife left Auch to return to Germany performing a round tour to the Mediterranean Sea.
Eugen and his wife leave Auch and return to Germany via the Mediterranean Coast
Eugen drives along the Pyrenees and tries to enter Andorra. But the customs regulations (two large books in a drawer) did not say, how to handle Germans, and hence the couple was not allowed to cross the border to Andorra. Eugen and his wife continued their way in France crossing the Cerdagne, a high plateau shared by France and Spain, with one Spanish exclave called Livía. Eugen could not find the reason for Livía being a Spanish exclave surrounded by French territory. Today, we have the internet, “Dr. Google” and Wikpedia. They tell me that in 1659, Louis XIV did not know that Livía was a town. In the Treaty of the Pyrenees, he had agreed with the Spanish crown that France would integrate all the villages of the northern half of the Cerdagne/Cerdanya in France. Livía, once the capital of the Cerdagne and registered as a town, consequently stayed with Spain. If this is the reason, it could be an indication that, even as a powerful king, you may have to study the local details, before finalizing an agreement.
We were in the Cerdagne in May 2018, and we got caught in heavy snowfall, while on the way to Seu d’Urgell in Catalonia on the Spanish side.
Here we are on the road up to the Cerdagne. On the plateau, 1200-1600m, we will find some 10 to 20cm of fresh snow on the roads. We are in the mountains – “real” mountains – and even in May, the weather can be rough in the Pyrenees. My friend took the photo, while I was driving carefully; my car is a four-wheel drive.
Not far from here is the beautifully shaped sacred mountain of the Catalans, the Canigou (seen from Prades, where the road up to the Cerdagne plateau starts).
After having followed the river Têt down to the Mediterrenean Sea, Eugen stayed overnight at Collioure with the harbour and the lighthouse (“phare” in French)…
… that André Derain painted.
In the beginning of the XXth century Fauve artists around Braques, Matisse and Picasso used to meet here. Eugen enjoyed the atmosphere of this charming village with the castle and with the colorful narrow streets, and so did we in 2016.
Along the beautiful coastline, Eugen and his wife drove south from Collioure to the border between France and Spain, at the Col de Belitres.
The border to Spain was closed for Eugen and his wife, also here. The customs officer talked to Eugen’s wife, while Eugen was allowed to enter Spain, just for a few steps, to admire the landscape and the huge train station squeezed between the mountains and the sea. The small settlement, Portbou, has such a large train station, because the engineers in France and Spain had selected different gauges for their railways, as Eugen, son of an engineer, explained. The enormous train station was required for the passengers to change trains and for the goods to be reloaded.
In 2018, we were at Portbou, and felt the tragedy of this border: Here, the philosopher Walter Benjamin escaped to Spain in 1940 with a transit visa in his pocket that should allow him to emigrate to the US, but Spain had just cancelled all transit visas. Walter Benjamin was about to be sent back to France. He committed suicide and since 1994, this haunting monument has reminded us of Walter Benjamin’s tragedy.
I found a beautiful blog “The Passage to Portbou, Seeking Walter Benjamin in Catalunya”, by Martin Kalfatovic. He translated the German words facing the sea like this: “It is more difficult to honor the memory of the anonymous than that of the renowned. Historical construction is devoted to the memory of the anonymous. Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History (1940)”. Yes, in the 1940-ies, many of the “renowned” wrote history in a way that I prefer would not have happened and that I hope will never happen again – however, sometimes I am worried about our “renowned” now. Then and now, there existed and exist courageous “anonymous” that deserve to be honored.
After having seen Portbou standing at the closed border, Eugen’s next stop is Carcassone, the fortified town…
… with the charming small streets inside.
We were here in 2016. In a welcoming restaurant, we watched some Asian tourists eat the “Cassoulet”, which is a local hotpot made with sausages. It is heavy stuff for people that work in the fields all day. I was not sure, whether the Asian tourists liked the dish or just found it interesting. I had a delicious lamb dish with fine herbs.
Eugen and his wife stopped in Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer at the Mediterranean Coast in the Camargue. Three Saint Maries landed here with her Egyptian servant Sarah. This is the church that commemorates the landing of the sacred boat.
(Pen drawing by Willy Widman, p. 155)
We visited the church in 2017, under dark blue sky.
The Romani people venerate Saint Sarah, the Egyptian servant, in the crypt of this church.
In Arles, Eugen and his wife attended a bullfight. He described it in detail with the eyes of a German that did not really enjoy the elegance of the bullfighters and the killing of the bulls. The fight took place in the old Roman arena that we saw in 2017 (but without such action, fortunately, not something I would like to watch).
Still in the Camargue, Eugen and his wife stayed overnight in the small town called Les Baux which is the origin of “Bauxite” (a rock containing aluminium, needed to build cars).
The next day, they saw Nîmes with the arena and the Roman temple (called Maison Carrée). We stayed overnight at Nîmes in 2018 and admired the Roman arena with the statue of the bull fighter.
After having strolled through the city center with its narrow streets, we had a wonderful dinner (onglet steak) just across the arena, at Chez Hubert.
Not far from Nîmes is the Pont du Gard that, in Roman times, provided Nîmes (then called Nemasus) with water.
(Pen drawing by Willy Widman, p. 181)
In 2011, I was here with Ernst. This was our last sightseeing point on our last journey that we did together – we were on our way home from Morocco. I keep wonderful memories of all the travelling I have done with Ernst during our 18 years and now he travels with me in my heart.
In Avignon, Eugen and his wife visited the Palace of the Popes. With my friend, I was here in autumn 2016, when the cold mistral blew down from the mountains. This is the second courtyard of the Pope Palace built in the 14th century, when six popes resided here (and not in Rome).
Since kindergarten, I had known the Pont d’Avignon, as we had been taught the song “sur le pont d’Avignon, l’on y danse, l’on y danse… (on the bridge of Avignon, this is where you dance, this is where you dance).” Not yet understanding French, we created our own versions of the text; this was the version of the sister of my friend: “ooni Dasse, ooni Dasse”, which in Swiss German means “without cups, without cups”. The French word “danse” sounded like “Dasse” to her.
Now in my sixties, I saw this famous bridge for the first time, and I was so disappointed! Because it is not a bridge that crosses the river, as bridges ought to do, but it ends in the middle of the river Rhone. In the attached museum, we learned that it was conceived as a toll point on the Rhone and not really as a bridge for people and carriages.
Eugen and his wife drove “up” the Rhone valley, with stops at Montélimar, the city of nougat, then at Vienne, another Roman city, and finally at Lyon and Bourg.
They crossed the border between France and Germany near Huningue (close to my home city Basel) using the ferry (the three countries bridge will be rebuilt 57 years later, in 2007). The French customs officer, Eugen remembers, was easy going, whereby the German customs officer was tense and eager to fulfill his duty according to the regulations. Eugen and his wife had left France with its somewhat light-footed atmosphere and are now back in “dutiful” Germany. From now on, he wrote about his tours in Germany and to Switzerland. In Switzerland, Eugen reflected about the fact that a German writer, Friedrich von Schiller, became – in a way – the national writer for Switzerland, as he wrote his play “Wilhelm Tell” about the Swiss legendary national hero of the 13th century.
Epilog: France… like Eugen I love the French atmosphere and I long for being there again, be it just across the border or be it travelling farther
While not being allowed to cross the border to France due to the pandemic until mid-June, I enjoyed to follow Eugen Diesel and his wife through France to places that I have been to as well. I like to be in France, in the rural towns, in the restaurants that serve soigné meals, soaking in the rich cultural heritage and enjoying the French atmosphere. I wish that France will recover well, having been hit seriously by the pandemic of spring 2020 and having been churned by turmoils recently. I look forward to returning to France.
Source: Eugen Diesel, “Philosophie am Steuer: Ein europäisches Reisbeuch”, Reclam Verlag Stuttgart 1952 and my own photos from travelling to the same places.