Via Portbou in Catalonia to Valence, another ancient Roman city in France

In November 2018 we spent three weeks near Tarragona. Now I tell you about the last stage on our way north and home, starting from Cadaqués to Valence in France, with a commemoration stop in Portbou (Catalonia).


Portbo, the small city next to the border with France, reminds of the drama of Walter Benjamin

Portbou was the scene of the dramatic death of the German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin in autumn 1940. We stopped in Portbou to commerate him. Walter Benjamin succeeded in crossing the border from France to Franconian Spain. He and a group of Jews intended to travel on to Lissabon and then to the US. But Franconian Spain had just changed the law and would not let the group continue to Lissabon without a valid confirmation that they were allowed to leave France. Which, of course, they did not have. Benjamin committed suicide, and the rest of the group could then travel on to Lissabon. This monument called Passatges reminds us of that drama: Stairs lead into the sea.

At the bottom there is this thought of Benjamin: “Schwerer ist es, das Gedächtnis des Namenlosen zu ehren als das der Berühmten. Dem Gedächtnis der Namenlosen ist die historische Konstruktion geweiht.”  This has been taken from Benjamin’s thoughts about the term “history”. This is the translation: “It is more difficult to honor the memory of the anonymous persons than that of the famous. To the memory of the anonymous the historical construction has been dedicated.” For me, these thoughts are difficult to understand. Yes, the flow of history is told to us as the series of deeds by famous actors, but in addition it is the result of many more actors that remained anonymous. Is it that, what Benjamin had in mind?

What touched me was to be again confronted with the sadest part of German history. I hope that nothing like that will happen again. The monument was erected with support of Germany in 1994.


Growing wine on steep slopes above the Mediterranean Sea

We cross the border to France and drive through the steep vineyards of Banyuls. It must be tough to grow wine here. Along the road, we come across a small wine shop, where I buy a bottle of Mourvèdre from Collioure.


Valence – an ancient city with some charming corners

After a quiet night in the sober, but practical IBIS hotel of Valencia, we park our car under the Champs de Mars or Mars Field.

Emerging from under the ground we find this heart of Valence.

It carries the hashtag #moncoeurvalence. Sorry, we are not selfie addicts (the hashtag suggests to make selfies here). We enter the old city center, as seen through the heart.

We slender through streets and enjoy the busy market – everything looks tempting here. Then we walk over to the cathedral behind the market.

The Romansque cathedral St. Apollinaire collapsed in the 17th century, but has been reconstructed true to the original. Inside are three naves of almost the same height…

… and the colours of the windows are reflecting mysteriously on the wall.

It was here that in the 12th century, Barbarossa married Beatrix, the heir of Burgundy.

The only construction left from the cloister behind the cathedral is the so-called “Le Pendentif”, erected in renaissance style in 1548. It is the tomb of a capitular.

We stroll through the narrow streets.

The House of Heads or La Maison de Têtes has been built by a university professor in 1530, as a plate explains. Its style is characteristic for the transition from late gotic to renaissance.

French style squares or plazas are always inviting with their trees and restaurants. It is just a bit cold now.

Valence strives to be clean, but how did we say forty years ago at university: “French planning is more French than planning”. I really could not find, where I could take the sack, in case I had  a dog, be it small or tall… but I love the humor that guided the author of this plate.

Never have I seen this street sign before – surfboards are forbidden here, only that! Bicycles, rollerblades, everything else is allowed – or am I mistaken?

We leave Valence and head north following the vineyards of the Côte du Rhone. In the Saint Joseph area, I take a foto of the vineyard of one of my favourite wine growers, Chapoutier.

In Serrières, we park our car to eat a a sandwich. When we come back, some Gilets Jaunes with their motor cycles have filled up the parking. They tell us that they like the Swiss and show to me, how to get out of my parking lot amidst their motor cycles without damaging one of them. Some four hours later we are back in Monthey in Switzerland to share a night with our friends that allowed us once more to stay in their apartment in Catalonia. We look back at another wonderful trip.



  • Thomas Schröder: “Katalonien”, Michael Müller Verlag, Erlangen 2015
  • Thorsten Droste: “Romanische Kunst in Frankreich”, DuMont Kunstreiseführer, Köln 1992
  • Thorsten Droste: “Provence”, Dumont Kunst-Reiseführer, Köln 2011

On the road at Pontgibaud near Clermont-Ferrand and the volcanos

End of October 2018 we are on the road again. Our target is Spain. Clermont-Ferrand is located at about half the distance between Basel and the Pyrenées. We selected Pontgibaud close to the motorway to stay overnight. We discovered a nice small hotel and a nice small town stretched along the Sioule river. It counts some 800 inhabitants.

The Hotel de la Poste has just opened, because the owner expects spontaneous guests that get stuck in the snow announced. It snowed slightly, when we arrived.

We have dinner – I eat braised calf cheek – a plain and excellent meal.

In the morning, we find the sky covered, but there is no snowfall. We walk around the small town built using the black volcanic stones of the area . The dormant volcanos called “Puy” are not far. This is the townhall or hotel de ville ornated with the black volcanic stone.

This house with its watch tower has been built in the 15th century. 

In pre-Roman, Roman and medieval times, lead was retrieved in the area. This might have been the reason for fortifying the town and buliding  the castle (Source: Städtische Wirtschaft im Mittelalter). The inhabitants of Pontgibaud are called Gibaldipontins.

From the town fortification, the city gate is left.

Across the gate starts the park of the Castle.

The Castle was built in the 12th and 15th century. 

The park – now slightly powdered with snow – overlooks the small town with the church Saint Benoît from the 13th century.

We say good-bye to this friendly small town and leave for the Val d’Aran in the Pyrenées. After having arrived in the Pyrenées in the evening, we hear that in Clermont-Ferrand traffic had been halted by a heavy blizzard. Good for the Hotel de la Poste at Pontgibaud that might now be full of guests that got stuck in the blizzard and decided to stop their journey.

On the road in France visiting some of my favourite castles in the Loire Valley

Some 25 years ago I visited the Loire Valley in France and I enjoyed it so much that now, in April 2017, I went back to see the ONE castle: Chenonceau that has been shaped by six ladies. In addition we explored four other royal castles: Charles VIII’s Amboise, François I’s Chambord, and Louis XII’s Blois. We have selected a room in the small hotel Anne de Bretagne in Blois – close to the Château de Blois and close to the castles we want to visit.


Chenonceau – crossing the river Cher with “a certain springing lightness”

Henry James travelled through France in the 1880’s and he wrote: “Chenonceaux is not large… Henry II., on ascending the throne, presented it… to… Diana of Poitiers…  Catherine de Medici… turned her out of doors… (and) devoted herself to making the place more completely unique…  If a certain springing lightness is the characteristic of Chenonceaux… nothing can confirm this expression better than the strange, unexpected movement with which… it carries itself across the river… the aspect of the whole thing is delightful.” Look at the “certain springing lightness”, as Henry James describes it in his A little tour in France. 

It was the wife of Charles VII’s chamberlain, Tom Bohier, who built the main castle, while leaving the tower of the former mill. Her name was Katherine.

Diane de Potiers then added the bridge, and she set up this garden named after her.

Diane de Poitiers kept herself fit by swimming in the river Cher – she was attractive for king Henry II, though she was 20 years older than him. Diane had to leave Chenonceau, when Henry II died. Catherine de Medici wanted Chenonceau for herself and added the galleries on top of the bridge giving space for some of her festivities:

It is worth to visit the castle inside. It is furnished, adorned with tapestry and beautifully decorated with flowers.


The widow if Henry III, Louise de Lorraine, lived here and two more ladies (Mmes Dupin and Pelouze) saved Chenonceau for today. In all it was six ladies shaping Chenonceau.

The Auberge du Bon Laboureur is located close to the Château de Chenonceau. Let me quote Henry James from around 1880: “(From Chenonceau) we took our way back to the Bon Laboureur, and waited in the little inn-parlour for a late train to Tours. We were not impatient, for we had an excellent dinner to occupy us; and even after we had dined we were still content to sit awhile and exchange remarks upon the superior civilisation of France. Where else, at a village inn, should we have fared so well? Where else should we have sat down to our refreshment without condescension? … At the little inn at Chenonceaux the cuisine was not only excellent, but the service was graceful. We were waited on by mademoiselle and her mamma;… she uncorked for us a bottle of Vouvray mousseux. We were very comfortable, very genial…” The Bon Laboureur is no longer just a “little inn”, but a four star hotel with all amenities. A long tradition!

Now it was not the right time for us to stop in the “Bon Laboureur”. I remember having had an excellent meal here 25 years ago. Later we enjoyed a nice dinner with local specialties in the Le Castelet in Blois.


Charles VIII’s Amboise – a great sight above the river Loire

Amboise is a beautiful small town on the river Loire topped by its royal château.

The French kings acquired the castle in the late 15th century. Poor Charles VIII hit his head in Amboise and died from that (1498). His wife, Anne de Bretagne, then married his cousin, Louis XII who followed on the throne. The windows on the left hand wing below show vertical gothic arches dating back to around 1500. The right hand wing is Renaissance, as the vertical lines on the windows underline – the Renaissance king François I also stayed in Amboise.

The Hubertus chapel is the place where Leonardo da Vinci has been buried. Invited by François I, he spent his last years in France.


François I’s Chambord – royal grandeur at its best

The Renaissance king François I built the castle of Chambord as a hunting lodge. It is the largest castle in the Loire valley. A royal hunting lodge!

The rooftop is full of small towers. From the balcony, the ladies could watch the hunting activities of the king and his entourage.

Leonardo da Vinci conceived this famous double spiral staircase that links the floors.

Inside there is some furniture and tapestry. This is Henry IV, the first king of the Bourbon family. He is dressed in a practical way – he had to fight for his kingdom.

Louis XIV, Henri VI’s grand-son, is dressed luxuriously. We admire all the ties that the Roi Soleil (Sun King) wore – they must have been impractical for walking…


Louis XII’s Blois – gloomy scene for the murder of Henry de Guise

The statue of Louis XII welcomes the visitors of the royal Château de Blois. Around 1500 he made Blois his favourite residence.

The brick construction of Louis XII with the attached chapel choir are mainly of gothic style.

François I also stayed in Blois. He added the Renaissance wing with the master piece, the staircase.

The sign of François I, the salamander, ornates the staircase (and many more places in the Blois castle).

It was in the Renaissance wing where the French king Henri III murdered his cousin, Henri de Guise (1588).

It is a windy and chilly day today. Some ten degrees outside. The castle is cold inside. I am shivering and I cannot imagine that it has been very comfortable to live here in winter time.

Let us look back to Blois with its castle and its church Saint-Nicolas and to the river Loire. Let us say good-bye to the Loire Valley.

Our next target is l’Hospitalet de l’Infant in Spain (or more precisely in Catalonia) with a short stopover in Millau (south of France).

(Sources: Michelin Guide de Tourisme: “Châteaux de la Loire”, 1985 and “Loire-Tal”, DK Dorlingkindersley 2015/2016). 

France: Detour to Châteauneuf du Pape

15th of November 2016. After a day in Avignon, we drive back to Switzerland with a detour to Châteauneuf du Pape which is just some 20 minutes away from Avignon.

This is the château or castle of Châteauneuf du Pape. Hm, I am disappointed. For the excellent wine that is produced here, I had expected a majestic castle. And I find this small castle.


The first consuls and treasurers of Châteauneuf du Pape from 1756-1790 indicate an old tradition.


In the small village with the French charm, we buy a bottle of Châteauneuf du Pape: Le Vieux Donjon by Michel Lucien.


We have two espressos in a restaurant that is closed – this is French charm. The lady owner tells us the route to explore more vineyards – and we follow her advice. Here are some impressions from our explorations – vineyards in autumn colour.



Then we leave the vineyards, continue our way to Orange, catch the motorway and drive directly to Monthey in Switzerland. We stop quickly in France to buy what we need to cook Spaghetti. We share the meal with our friends and have one of the bottles from Montsant. There is so much to tell – we had wonderful late autumn days in Catalonia and in France.


France: Stopover in Avignon with the famous bridge and the Pope Palace

13th of November 2016. Our days in Hospitalet de l’Infant are over. We pack, throw our last postcards into the yellow mailbox and leave for France. Not without forgetting to switch off the water of  our friends’ apartment – which means we have to return one more time to close the apartment properly.

We have decided to travel through the Rhone valley, to stop two nights in Avignon and spend a day here. The famous bridge – le Pont d’Avignon – and the Pope Palace are worth a visit, and we look forward to strolling through the city inside the intact defensive town walls.

We decide to make it easy for us and book a room in the IBIS hotel right in front of the city wall. Here we can also park our car.


At the Place de l’Horloge we have dinner in a small restaurant across the Theatre and the Townhall. It is clear and cold in Avignon – the mistral wind is blowing down from the mountains.



Le Pont d’Avignon – ending in the middle of the river

The next morning we start our visit with THE bridge, le Pont d’Avignon.


I am utterly disappointed: The bridge is not finished, it ends in the middle of the Rhone river! Well, in the museum I learn that this was not really a bridge, but a toll station built in the 12th century to tax salt and agricultural products traveling by boat. This is the legend: A shepherd had a vision that told him to build this bridge. The people of Avignon laughed at him and asked him to throw a piece of rock into the water. He did so. This was a miracle that convinced the people to build the bridge. At that time, there were large sandbanks. They disappeared in the 15th century, as the water level rose, resulting in the bridge to end in the middle of the river. All this is well explained in the museum attached to the bridge.

This is another view of the bridge with the chapel St. Nikolas.


We all know the song related with the bridge: “Sur le pont d’Avignon, l’on y danse, l’on y danse, sur le pont d’Avignon, l’on y danse tout au rond.” We learnt this song in kindergarden, long before we knew French. Not understanding the words, we created Swiss German versions – the one  of Ursula’s sister went: “Sur le pont d’Avignon, oni Dasse, oni Dasse…” (with “oni Dasse” she took a phonetic representation for “on y danse”. It means “without cups” in Swiss German…).


The song already existed around 1500. The words then were: “Sur le pont d’Avignon, on y passe, et repasse.” In 1843 the words went like this: “Sur le pont d’Avignon, tout le monde y danse, danse,…, tout le monde y danse en rond.”


The Pope Palace

On the rock above the Rhone river, the Pope Palace was built in the 14th century. Yes, a palace for the Pope, not in Rome, but in Avignon. Six popes resided here from 1309 to 1377.


The first pope was Clément the V. In all seven popes resided in Avignon until 1377. They were the “real” popes, as there was no other pope in Rome.


In 1378 the catholic church was divided (schisma of the Occident). One pope resided in Rome and a second pope in Avignon. Two such alternative popes reigned in Avignon. Then matters were settled at the council of Constance in 1417. From now there was just one pope governing the reunified occidental catholic church, and this one pope was in Rome.  The former Pope Palace was used by high officials of the church. In the days of Napoleon, the palace became a military casern. In the 20th century it was renovated and is now a UNESCO world heritage. This is all explained in the museum of the Pope Palace.

All the popes of Avignon embellished their palace. This is the view of the second courtyard.


There was a safe built into the ground of one of the back offices – the tiles looked like the other tiles on the ground. Nevertheless the safe was robbed twice. I would have thought that this safe is safe, but presumably someone betrayed the secret.


The main church is now a museum.


The Swiss Guard seems to have protected the pope already in the 14th century.



Musée du Petit Palais

From the Pope Palace, we can see the Musée du Petit Palais which is our next destination.


The Musée du Petit Palais hosts an exhibition about the evolution of sacral painting in Northern Italy from around 1300 to 1500. It is based on the collection of Marquis Campana (1808-1880).

This is a fragment of a Crucifix painted by the School of Berlingheri in the middle of the 13th century.  Christ seems to be far away and solemn.


A long series of paintings culminates with “Maria and the Child” by Sandro Botticelli from around 1500. Life and love is in the face of Maria. This is Renaissance.



Rounding off the day

To round off the day, we visit the park “Rocher des Doms” behind the Pope Palace enjoying the view of the Rhone river and the fields.


After an apéro in the Café d’Opéra, we stroll through the small streets of Avignon and visit the dyers’ street lined up along the creek (teinturiers).


In November, it is already night around six pm. We have dinner in the friendly restaurant La Fontaine. We get ready to travel back to Switzerland with a small detour to the vineyards of Southern Côte du Rhone, just north of Avignon.


On the way to Spain – second stop in charming Collioure

We are on our way to Spain again in October 2016. We first stopped in Le Puy en Velay, the gorgeous pilgrim town perched on basalt needles. We stopped a second time in charming Collioure near the French border with Spain, in the Languedoc-Roussillon.

We drive south through the hills of the Auvergne – huge bridges swing over the valleys – always a great scenery. Then the highway winds down. Cypresses and pine trees are welcoming us. The rain has stopped, the sun shines. The temperatures are warmer and my jeans are too hot. We arrive in the Mediterranean climate.


Our hotel of charm, Casa Païral, tucked away in a tiny dead street

In Collioure we now have selected a hotel of charm and “Relais de Silence”, the Casa Païral. Indeed, after several turns we find it tucked away in the tiny dead end street Rue du Pasteur. I enter with our car and stop in front of the gate. After having unloaded our luggage, I have to leave this narrow dead end street backwards – I had beads of perspiration on my forehead.


The hotel is quite a contrast to the sober IBIS hotel from last night. We immediately feel at home.



Charming Collioure at night

It is already late. We stroll along the harbour. The fortified church “Eglise Notre Dames des Anges” has been built by Vauban in the 17th century, when he planned to change Collioure into a garnison town (as this region has become part of the French empire in the 17th century). The clock tower looks like a light house.


There are quite a few restaurants at this central square. We have fish at Casa Leon. We love sea fish, when we are close to the sea.



Collioure inspired the fauvism artists in 1905

On an early morning walk we follow the tracks of Henri Matisse and André Derain. They came to Collioure in 1905 to paint fauvism art.


Fauvism art gives priority to the color that creates the visual impression of the painting.


We gather some memories in the narrow streets of Collioure. Colorfully painted houses,…


… flowers all over,…


… and a great view of the Mediterranean Sea with the small chapel on the small island St. Vicent.


Once again we look back to the harbour that the waves play with.



Farther south to Spain

We say good-bye to Collioure and drive south following the sinuous street along the Côte de Vermeille.


We enter Spain, follow the coast for some more time and then turn towards Barcelona and Hospitalet del’Infant.


On the road to Spain – first stop in gorgeous Le Puy en Velay in France

It is end of October 2016. With Ursula I load my car once more and we head off to Spain, with stop overs in France: First stop in Le Puy en Velay in the Haute-Loire and second stop in Collioure near the border with Spain.

Let me start with Le Puy en Velay. To stop here was Ursula’s idea. She promised a pilgrimage town perched on three basalt needles and a Unesco World Heritage. I am curious and agree.


Our hotel IBIS in Le Puy en Velay – very functional and easy to find 

The weather is rainy and chilly. We do not feel like searching for a hotel and take the IBIS hotel that comes up on our side of the main street, just where the old city centre starts. IBIS is a sober and practical French invention. We park our car in a locked garage and then move into a small room with two excellent beds (recently renovated). In the morning, we find a self service breakfast “fridge” with a self service Zumex machine that produces fresh orange juice. The coffee machine makes excellent coffee. All very convenient.


Discovering Le Puy en Velay – evening walk to the old town with the cathedral overlooking it

In the dizzling rain we slender through the charming old town.


The houses are partially made from basalt stones. The cat is a perfect match.


Le Puy en Velay is famous for its green lentils, black sheep (agneau noir du Velay), Verveine liqueur and lace making (dentelles de Puy).


To reach the main gate of the Cathedral Notre Dame du Puy en Velay, pilgrims have to walk up this cobbled narrow street.


The gate receives the pilgrims like the womb of a mother. From here they look back to the town and the surrounding hills.


The cathedral is Romanesque from the 11/12th century. The main nave is topped with three octogonal cupolas, supported by additional arches.


The Black Madonna sits in the choir. She is venerated here. The black head in the middle of her coat is Jesus looking out.


When Annunciation falls on Good Friday, the Jubilee of Le Puy en Velay is celebrated. Last time in 2016, next time in 2157.

St. James welcomes the pilgrims. His hat is adorned with a conch.


We round off the evening with green lentils from Le Puy en Velay. I try a glass of the famous Verveine liqueur of Le Puy en Velay – it tastes a bit like medicine to me.


Morning excursion to the famous cloister of the Cathedral Notre Dame du Puy en Velay

The next morning we visit the famous cloister of the Cathedral.


The columns are decorated with beautiful capitals. I particularly like the pigeons.


In the chapel of the cloister we find this representation of the crucification from 1200.


Then we look back and say good-bye to Le Puy en Velay.


We now drive south to Collioure in the Languedoc-Roussillon near the border of France with Spain.