May 28, 2015


Palimpsest. Isn't that a fine word? So many potential ways to pronunce it, the letters lined up in such an appealing, graceful, almost musical way. The bold consonants not feeling harsh, profane, or ugly the way other consonant-heavy words do. Somehow evocative of its meaning, at least to me.

You can guess, it is one of my favorite words, though it lives in my head far more than on my tongue. Learned in the context of art history, it refers to a surface drawn on, erased, redrawn, many times, creating a depth of markings, a depth of meaning. It normally refers to paper or parchment that has been worked and reworked. But more powerfully to me it speaks of cultural history, with towns, buildings, walls, fields, roads, ruins in the place of canvas, paper. With a more defining role played by nature, weather, geography than by the eraser. But still with the human hand, human creativity, human wars and successes, having the major defining role. Human cultures, year after year, generation following generation, becoming a deep part of the landscape, encompassing towns lived in for thousands of uninterrupted years, towns like Arles where my ride began, and archaeological sites like Glanum, in Les Alpilles, my goal on that day. Glanum is an archaeological site, one that continues to be studied, excavated.

Back now as as I write, at home in the US, culturally we most value the new: buildings are torn down to make way for the more modern. Stores sit empty, abandoned while new malls are built down the road. Neighborhoods are torn down for new highways. Even Grand Central Station, today a vibrant part of Manhattan, was almost destroyed in the 1970s. Very little manmade here is more than 250 years old.

Certainly, my coming from such a young country is part of the reason the palimpsest of history found in France never fails to capture my imagination, to win my heart. So laden, so rich. The many cultures, creations, technologies, hands, ideas, traditions, loves, losses, victories, defeats, successes and heartbreaks informs there what we see today.

This ride took me about 20 miles north from Arles to Glanum, into Les Alpilles, following roads to the east of Abbaye de Montmajour, where Sarah and I had ridden a few days previously, and also to the east and below Les Baux, where I visited in 2009. Look for the castle ruins at the top of the cliff. There are remnants of human habitation on this natural fortress since 6000BC though  these castle ruins date from the 10th century. What a lookout they had!

A famous site, located north of Arles at the southern edge of St. Remy, Glanum, like Ambrussom, was located on the Via Domitia, connecting Spain and Italy in the era of Julius Caesar.

But before those famous Romans, in about -150, the Greeks were here. We can still see remnants of their buildings. Before them, the Gauls lived here, with their homes, culture civilization. We see remnants of that also. To my untrained eye, formed by our young country, it is simply and completely fascinating. Settled in about -700CE, from about -500 CE to about 300 the town bustled: meals cooked, children raised, wars fought, art and music created, gardens watered: all the daily stuff of human lives. That's a very lot of layered history to these New World eyes.

I was not prepared for the magnificence of the ruined city, which is a good thing because I arrived without expectation. It is so easy to be over-prepared these days, with guidebooks, internet sites, travel columns, tv,  blogs like this one....but not this time. Wow! What a place! I won't include many photos of interpretation signs for visitors, but they were so helpful to the  imagination. I hadn't seen that before, at least not that I remember.

With our modern ability to mass produce, to use malleable synthetics, it is easy to take detail for granted, and to lose connection with the touch of the particular human hand. Here, 1500 to 2000 years ago, skilled artisans made each carving, paid personal attention to each cut in the stone. Can I prove to you that is intrinsically different than a computer generated laser made object? No. A romantic concept? Maybe. But important, I believe.

I sit, squint a little, quiet my always busy head, and easily surround myself with imagined scenes of life here hundreds of years ago.

Broom plants (genista) are native to France, so surely their yellow blooms brightened the spring then, as they do now.

The cliffs, caves overhangs and rocks were surely nearly the same, the stone that I walk on reveals ancient fossils, much older even than these ruins: surely Roman feet walked on these same fossils embedded in the limestone. As I  become deeper and deeper enmeshed in the site, the history, the carvings made by hands 2000 years ago, the markings made by the sea and the wind seem more and more intertwined.

Other visitors become ancient residents, strolling the streets, going about their business.


After spending much of my day walking and dreaming in Glanum, I got back on my bike, crossed the  road to visit the two big, famous monuments, right at the side of the road, jointly known as Les Antiques, featured in all modern guidebooks.

Then I headed back to Arles, my fascination with ancient history satisfied for that day.


  1. I am glad that you enjoyed your brush with history so much. It looks like a very interesting place indeed. You have a kindred spirit in Alison who loves to imagine the people who trod before us in the ruins which we visit. My own tendency is to admire that fantastic powers of wind, rain, volcanoes and earthquakes which continue to mould the country which human beings have inhabited for such a short period of its existence. Rather than seeing it as a new country, I view North America as an age old country with some very recent invaders.

    Your cycling adventure seems to have been very well planned and to have gone very well. I have enjoyed reading about it a lot.

    1. Funny, my site refuses my comments!

      Agreed about the silly phrase "new world" .. just couldn't think of anything better! I think those powerful natural events not only mold the country that humans live in, but the humans themselves.....

  2. You're a woman after my own heart! When visiting antiquities, I love to spend as much time as I can walking around immersing myself in the site; imagining what it was like in the day, letting the whole place and it's aura wash over me! That was a great narrative you posted, thanks for sharing!

    1. Why thank you....and bikes a great way to find them!


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