France rocks!

Trip Start Jan 03, 2004
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Trip End Dec 2004


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Saturday, August 14, 2004

Sometime in the 13th century, the powerful Count of Sabran sought to strengthen control over his territory in southern France by fortifying the castle atop the hill overlooking the village of Saint Victor la Coste. For example, stone walls were built along the path that zigzagged up the hill to the castle complex. While the improved defenses deterred crusader armies from invading the surrounding area, the passing of almost 800 years was not so kind to the castle walls of Saint Victor la Coste. Our job for the past two weeks was to restore these walls, stone by stone, using indigenous materials and methods of construction.

Of course, it wasn't just us who were responsible for restoring this historic French castle. Since 1969 a French organization called La Sabranenque has been working to preserve traditional architecture in the village and actual castle of Saint Victor la Coste. La Sabranenque, which is named after the Count of Sabran, coordinates restoration projects with a group of local experts and volunteers from all over the world in a region of France rich in history and culture.

Incidentally, we first heard about La Sabranenque during our volunteer stint in Thailand earlier this year. Based on one person's rave reviews of the experience (and food), we decided we would sign up and include La Sabranenque in our round-the-world itinerary. We were not disappointed!

Saint Victor la Coste is located approximately 15 miles north of Avignon in the Rhone valley. We slept in a room of a three-story stone house constructed by volunteers in years past, worked up a good sweat each morning hauling large rocks (hence the title of this entry), feasted on delicious French country cuisine, had afternoons free to read, rest or stroll about town and spent the nights talking and playing games with other volunteers. After two weeks of intensive sightseeing and long train rides in Eastern Europe, we were most relieved to unpack our backpacks and have a place to call home.

St. Victor La Coste is a tiny town surrounded by vineyards. The area is known for its Cote de Rhone wine. The town had one small grocery store, one payphone, a tabac shop, a post office, and two bars known to us as the one on the right and the one on the left. We rarely had the need to go into town as all of our needs were provided by the kind Sabraneque staff, including the most delicious chocolate cake Jill has ever tasted and a plate of French cheeses after each meal and a carafe of wine at dinner.

The work was hard but gave us a better appreciation for medieval architecture and the painstaking process of constructing a stone wall. We can't say that we graduated or even received a passing grade in the art of stonemasonry, but it was an interesting experience nonetheless. For all those people who complain about sitting in front of a computer all day and want a workout outside their local health club, La Sabranenque may be the ticket for you. Other volunteers from Europe and the States came to La Sabranenque for such reasons and left feeling more refreshed and muscular.

Some of the highlights from our experience included a day trip one Saturday to the town of Arles. Arles is best known as the old stomping grounds of Vincent Van Gogh. The idyllic city and surrounding countryside served as inspiration for many of his works of art and the city boasts a walking tour of the "Van Gogh trail." We were also lucky to be in rural France during a midsummer meteor shower. We spent several nights lying on top of a stone rampart watching the falling stars.

What probably made the experience, however, were the other volunteers. We met all kinds of interesting people and plans are already in the works for a La Sabranque class of August '04 reunion next weekend in Paris. We can't wait to see everyone again. We will undoubtedly have plenty of stories for our next travelogue!
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