topics: pierrade (food), wildlife, environment, Crusades, Arles, Roman Empire, Rhône; jump to dispatch

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Rider Notes: June 6-7, 1998

Food of the Day: meat pierrade (meat cooked on heated stones)

A "pierrade" is a meal in which small strips of raw meat are cooked on an extremely hot piece of stone, a "pierre" in French, hence the name of the meal. And, since the strips are so small and the process is so individual, the meat chefs are the customers themselves. Yes, the piping hot "pierre" is brought to the table, along with the platter of viandes, and a selection of creamy condiments with which the meat is then eaten, and each person cooks the meat to his or her own tastes. This has to happen pretty quickly since the stone won't stay hot forever, but the meal should not be rushed either (it is a thick piece of rock and stays hot for more than long enough).

Person of the Day: King Louis IX, also known as Saint Louis

King of France from 1226 and 1270, Louis IX, or Saint Louis click to view a photograph, is best known for his piety (which earned him sainthood) and for having undertaken two separate crusades to recapture the Holy Land from the Saracens.

His first crusade (actually the 7th Crusade) failed miserably, leaving Louis a prisoner for four years in Palestine. However, he eventually made it back to France and had great success consolidating the French monarchy's grasp over what would later become France. He successfully negotiated treaties with the Spanish and English that netted the country the provinces of Languedoc, Anjou, Normandy, Poitou, Maine, and Touraine. Still, being pious, he was not satisfied until he launched a second crusade, some 20 years after his first. This ended badly as well. Louis died en route; he drowned crossing a stream near Tunis.

However, this final crusade did leave a legacy. Louis had ordered the construction of a walled city - Aigues-Mortes (see the Rider Notes - on the site from which he left for the Holy Land. On August 25, his feast day, there is a Festival Saint Louis in Aigues-Mortes during which the town is transported back to the 13th century and remembers Louis' departure for Jerusalem. There are pageants, medieval markets, street minstrels, fire-eaters, chivalric performances, and fireworks.

Place of the Day: the Camargue

Wedged between Arles and the sea and bounded by the two southern arms of the Rhône River - the Petit Rhône and the Grand Rhône - the Camargue is the swampy, low-lying, Rhône delta known for its otherworldly landscapes and as the location of one of Europe's best wildlife sanctuaries. click to view a photograph

Fortunately, all of the Camargue is today (and since 1970) a Regional Natural Park. This park and additional areas have also been recognized as a National Nature Reserve since 1927 particularly because of the role they play as a sanctuary for dozens of species of birds, especially migratory waterfowl like the pink flamingo and the heron. More than 95% of the Reserve - the whole of the park plus some areas, for a total of 13,117 hectares (32,412.5 acres) - is protected. This place is a bird-watcher's paradise.

In addition to all the birds, thriving within the confines of this natural wonder are plenty of fish, a growing population of wild white horses click to view a photograph, and herds, or "manades," of breeding animals (like the black bull, or "biou" as it is called in the local dialect). Local equine bull ranchers, known as "gardians," can still be seen in the area and lend it a feeling of a wild frontier. They often wear traditional costumes when they round up the bulls and make them ready for the early October "course camarguaise," or local bullfight, in which a "razeteur" (a man dressed in white) measures his strength against a bull without killing it.

The Camargue is also a productive agricultural zone known for its rice, asparagus, and "sand" wine, as well as the harvesting of reeds and the culturing of salt.

Above all, the area is a wonder of preserved natural beauty in an outstanding setting click to view a photograph of dunes, lagoons, marshes and ponds.

If you wish to learn more about the Camargue, there are a number of public and private foundations working to protect the area and educate people about it and other similar "humid zones" in the Mediterranean. Contact the

Centre d'Information du Parc
Pont Gau
13460 Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer
Tel: +33-
Fax: +33-


Réserve Nationale de Camargue
Société nationale de Protection de la Nature
La Capelière
13200 Arles
Tel: +33-
Fax: +33-

for more information about their activities as well as those of the Domaine de la Palissade, the Association la Sigoulette, the Parc ornithologique du Pont de Gau, and the Station biologique de la Tour du Valat.

Tech Fact of the Day: midges, the scourge of the Camargue

Midges are tiny insects (Ceratopogon guttipennis, of the Diptera subclass) that look like gnats, but suck blood like mosquitoes. Sometimes known as No-see-ums in the United States, they are usually found in forests or swampy marshy regions. Since they are small, quick, and fly around in swarms, they can be a terrible and itchy annoyance to intrepid bikers who tarry too long fixing flats or taking photos in their midst (see the Rider Notes).

Group Dispatch, June 6-7
picture of Padraicpicture of Ethan

With precious Internet access to capitalize upon, many farewells to make to our friends at DIA click to view a photograph, and a couple of flat tires to repair, we did not get an early start from Marseille. In fact, by the time we had finally cleared the city - not even stopping to take part in a local equivalent of Bicincittà whose path we accidentally crossed - and stopped for lunch, our watches showed that it was already after 1 p.m. With 80 km (50 mi) yet to go, we could not afford to dawdle.

Unfortunately, we had little choice. First, the raindrops began to fall, then Ethan got a flat tire, and then Padraic broke a spoke. While everyone had stopped to fix Padraic's wheel, Ethan noticed that he had gone flat again. As luck would have it, the only place we could find where we could escape the rain and make further repairs turned out to be a car wash. So, while Padraic and Ethan made their repairs click to view a photograph, Anthony washed his bike with a high-pressure hose click to view a photograph - something he has wanted to do for months. So impressed by Anthony's glittering bike, the rest of the team decided to do the same.

Our bikes cleaner than they had been in months, we set out again, only to have Padraic get a flat within a couple of kilometers/miles.

Now we began to worry about time. It was 4 p.m. and we still had 60 km (37 mi) to go. Another flat while negotiating a dirt path through a swamp slowed us down further, but fortunately the last 30 km (19 mi) turned out to be mostly flat (the terrain, not our tires) and even with a slight tailwind. We rolled into Arles just after 7.

Quickly finding a hotel, showering and changing, we were off to a restaurant in minutes and back before midnight. Anthony nearly succumbed to the siren song of a rock concert in the ancient Roman Theater, but we bungeed him to Ethan and Padraic, and they carried him back to the hotel.

The next morning was reserved for some sightseeing. Not wishing to get as late a start as the day before, Ethan, Corinne and Padraic (Anthony had already seen the sights of Arles on a previous trip) decided to keep their visits short.

The Arles of today is considered by many to be a city that has again and again successfully adapted itself to the changes of the times. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why it is a UNESCO World Heritage site visit the World Heritage Site page. Dating back to the 1st century BC, Arles, or Arelas as it was then known, was an important Roman commercial center. In 49 BC, Caesar, with whom the city had allied itself, had succeeded in defeating his rival's (Pompey's) forces in Marseille (which he then destroyed), and all attention was turned to Arles. (For more Roman history, see the dispatch from Roma.) Many of its greatest and oldest monuments - a 26,000-seat amphitheater, a 12,000-seat theater, and some eerie underground tunnels - all date from this period. In the 4th century, when Constantine was emperor, Arles again received a great deal of attention as a palace built for the emperor was erected here (of which the baths remain). However, after the collapse of the Roman Empire, Arles never quite recovered its earlier notoriety. That said, as the capital of the 10th-century Kingdom of Arles (also known as the Kingdom of Burgundy), it did not fade into oblivion. In fact, many historians claim it was one of the most pleasant cities of the Mediterranean. During the 19th and 20th centuries, it certainly attracted its fair share of beauty appreciators, two of the most famous being the painters Gauguin and Van Gogh, the latter creating more than 200 canvases in 1888 and 1889.

The BikeAbouters began their visit at the 12th-14th century Cathedral and Cloister Saint Trophime, admiring in particular the beautiful Romanesque entranceway to the Cathedral, with its magnificently carved version of the Last Judgement. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph On one side you see the saved, ready to enter heaven click to view a photograph; on the other side are the damned, already suffering on their way down to hell. click to view a photograph

From the Cathedral, we looped around to check out the major tourist attractions to the town: the Roman Theater, called today the Théâtre Antique click to view a photograph click to view a photograph (which is still used for performances, like the rock concert that had been held the night before), and the Roman amphitheater click to view a photograph click to view a photograph, now known as the Arènes (the Arena). The latter was by far the more impressive of the two. Though not nearly as big as the Coliseums and amphitheaters we have seen in El Jem and Roma, the Arena of Arles tops the other two in that it is still in use for entertainment and spectacles just as it was two thousands years ago! Bullfights - probably not that much different in tone than the gladiator fights and events of Roman times - are now held here.

After the Arena, Ethan, Corinne and Padraic headed over to check out the 1st century BC Cryptoportiques du Forum, an eerie U-shaped stretch of underground galleries and chambers. Built by the Romans as the foundation for the ancient Forum (and also as either a refuge or a storage area), these spooky basement rooms are the oldest remnants of the original Roman colony. Its vastness and dim light reminded us of the Serapeum in Saqqarah.

Once back into the sunlight, we bought a small lunch and ate it while teeter-tottering in a little Rhône-side park. click to view a photograph Then, at last we were off.

We decided not to try to ride too far today, settling for a flat pedal across the Camargue - the beautiful protected natural reserve in the area of the Rhône delta (see the Place of the Day) - to the little medieval town of Aigues-Mortes (which we later learned means "dead water").

Unfortunately we did not make very fast progress. The wind had whipped up and was now blowing in our faces. When we finally reached the Camargue, however, we were happy for the wind. Not only did it keep us cool as we peered across long stretches of beautiful green fields or into swampy alcoves at flamingoes, herons and even bulls, it helped keep the killer-midges (see the Tech Fact of the Day) off us as we pushed toward the Etang du Vaccares - the large body of water at the center of the National Reserve - and then coast. Our progress was further impeded when our road turned first to gravel, then to dirt, and finally to mud. click to view a photograph In just a few km our sparkling-clean bikes became coated with mud. Indeed, the mud gummed up our pedals and covered our wheels, making it hard to ride at all. Then of course the inevitable happened: Ethan flatted again! Luckily it was near the end of the mud path and the midges weren't too bad. Regardless, we were glad to emerge on the other side of the park almost within sight of our final destination.

Aigues-Mortes click to view a photograph itself appeared as if an apparition, a beautiful fortified city with a huge tower right in the middle of the swampy lowlands. After rolling through the front gate click to view a photograph, soaking in some of the wonderfully relaxed and festive atmosphere, and treating ourselves to huge ice cream cones, we found a nearby hotel, quickly showered and emerged ready for some sight-seeing.

For the next couple of hours we explored the little town, noting the classic 13th century medieval architecture, and the very impressive walls. click to view a photograph Built in 50 years at the command of Louis IX (also known as Saint Louis - see the Person of the Day) to commemorate his Crusaders' departure for the Holy Land (and also so that the expanded Kingdom of France could have a port on the Mediterranean), Aigues-Mortes was an important coastal lookout and bastion against maritime invasions well into the 16th century. Unfortunately, since it was late in the day, we were foiled in our attempt to visit the majestic medieval Constance tower click to view a photograph (it closed prematurely), or either of the 17th-century chapels. However, our roam around town did reveal a wonderful restaurant where we enjoyed one of our best meals of the trip, including a delicious pierrade (see the Food of the Day).

After dinner we paused for a while on the main square to enjoy the ambiance of this quaint little town and then retired to our cozy quadruple for a well-deserved night's sleep.

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