The thirty-day trip we made between September 10 and October 10, 2023, was the most intense among the many we had had since we were students. It was a long-expected one. In 2021, our lifelong friend Bernard Légé had planned another itinerary for us: he and his wife Catherine, Ruth, and me. With tickets bought and reservations made, we canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Two years later, Bernard delineated a new meticulously detailed itinerary. It included places to go through what he called “the heart of France,” distances to drive each day, and affordable lodging. Mobility combined France’s TVG high-speed train, zigzagging by car 1,500 km, daily long walks through historic sites and nature, navigating in a river 100-meter below the ground, several works of contemporary architecture designed by noted architects, visits to museums, and going to two operas and one theater performances. We endorsed it without hesitation. We also added for Ruth and me a short visit to Israel.
Two days before our scheduled departure from Los Angeles, I received a phone call from Buenos Aires telling me that my ninety-seven-year-old aunt-sister, Chichi, had passed away. Flying to her burial was simply impossible. We departed with a heavy heart.
Most of the trip went as planned, yet we also had several unforeseen incidents:
A blown-up tire in the middle of the French countryside
A two-day derailing to Istanbul
A two-day hospitalization in Tel Aviv
The war in Israel started thirty-six hours after leaving family and friends.
The following visualization is chronological. Paris marked the beginning and end of our traveling from and to Los Angeles and in between our round trip to Israel.
We departed from L.A. to Paris on a non-stop, close to 11-hour flight of Air Tahiti Nui, a partner of American Airlines. To our surprise, the Tahitian airline was one of the best we ever flew: efficient, on time, with excellent service and good quality meals.
Paris welcomed us with rain. A pre-ordered taxi drove us through the city’s morning rush hour to Bernard and Catherine’s apartment near the Gare de Lyon. It was great to see them again, after five years since our last visit. They are warm people. Their place is filled with books, African art, and many paintings by our common friend, the late Romanian artist Ion Nicodim.
We have known Bernard since our students’ days at Rome’s School of Architecture. Being already a graduated civil engineer, he also graduated as an architect and, later on, as an anthropologist. We traveled together throughout Italy and the Scandinavian countries. He then married Catherine, who worked thirty years for Air France. When their children, Ninon and Clement, and our daughter Gabby were teenagers, we spent together a summer vacation in Mandelieu-La Napoule, near Cannes. In 2018, we spent a week together in Berlin.
On the same day we arrived, we went “to warm up” under the rain. We walked along the Saine, with a stop at the floating Hotel Austerlitz; we walked through Parc de Bercy and its urban farming area; we discovered the new Le Monde headquarters, completed in 2020, designed by the Norwegian Snøhetta architectural firm. We ended the day with a drink at Bonnie’s 16th-floor restaurant and bar. The next day, a shiny one, we walked by the construction site of Notre Dame, severely damaged during the 2019 fire.
Our itinerary started with the 500 km / 2-hour TVG ride to Bordeaux. As soon as we entered the city’s center, I was immediately fascinated. Its streets are filled with vitality, reinforced by about 130,000 students living there. Within a historical context that goes back to the Romans’ times, it feels young. And counting on 13,000 wine growers, it is the world’s capital of wine.
We started our journey with the Saint-André Cathedral. Although consecrated in 1096, most of what we see today was built during the 14th and 15th centuries. In complete contrast with it, our second stop was the Bordeaux Law Courts, designed by Rogers Skirt Harbour + Partners and completed in 1998. It consists of seven courtroom ‘pods’ clad in cedar wood, all standing on raised pilotis within a glass wall under an undulating copper roof. Emphasis has been on passive environmental control systems.
Crossing the River Garonne, we headed to Ilot Queyries, a courtyard apartment building providing 308 homes – including 163 for social housing – parking, commercial space, and a rooftop restaurant in an intimate urban setting with plenty of light, air, and ample collective green space. It was designed by the Dutch architectural firm MVRDV and built by Kaufman & Broad. A meaningful project for the future of housing.
Our next stop was at the Bassins de Lumières, the world’s largest digital art center, created within a former German Submarine base built during WWII. One gets immersed in darkness, surrounded by images projected of the place’s gigantic walls, and accompanied by a sound and music background.
From there, we took a long walk to the Cité du Vin, a 10-floor high cultural center intended to educate the public about wine. Designed by Paris-based architects Anouk Legendre and Nicholas Desmazières of XTU Agency XTU Architects, the building was completed in 2016.
The Pont-canal d’Agen is an aqueduct built during the mid-19th century, which at the time of its completion, was the longest navigable aqueduct in France.
The church of Ste. Pierre in Moissac, dating from 1115-30, has one of the most impressive Romanesque portals of the twelfth century. The abbey’s cloister claims to be the oldest in the world. It is endowed with 76 adorned capitals. The abbey was included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site Routes of Santiago de Compostela.
Albi’s episcopal city, with the Cathedral Sainte-Cecile, was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites for its unique architecture. The site includes the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum, dedicated to the artist, who was born in Albi.
The Soulages Museum is likely the only museum built to house 500 works of a living artist, Pierre Jean Louis Germain Soulages, 1919-2022. It was completed in 2014 and was designed by RCR Architects – Catalonian architects Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem, and Ramon Vilalta, Pritzker Price 2017 laureates. Soulages is known as “the painter in black.”
The 2,460-meter-long Millau Viaduct is a multi-span cable-stayed bridge completed in 2004. Engineer Michel Virlogeux and English architect Norman Foster designed it. It is the tallest bridge in the world, having a structural height of 336 meters (1,104 ft), equivalent to about one hundred floors, and higher than the Eiffel Tower.
Gorges du Tarn
The 53 km (33 mi) long Gorges du Tarn is a canyon formed by the Tarn River with spectacular views.
Florac is a small town that spreads along the Tarnon River. Along the way, after leaving the city, while crossing a small village, Nauviale, a tire blew up. Fortunately, I was driving at low speed, but the event stopped us and we had to modify our itinerary. The car rental company sent a truck to tow away the car and a taxi to take us to Figeac, 50 km away, where we got a new car.
During our brief stop at Figeac, we visited the Saint-Sauveaur Church, a 13th-century building.
Goufre de Pedirac
The Gouffre de Pedirac cave in the Dordogne Valley may be considered a voyage into the Earth. One descends 103 meters under the surface into a spectacular cavern with an underground river, which we navigated. You do feel like you have plunged into another space and time.
The Eyziez-de Tayac in Dordogne is home to the National Museum of Prehistory and prehistoric caves from the Upper Paleolithic, from about 40,000 to 10,000 years ago. We visited the Font de Gaume. Walking in total darkness, but for the flashlight of our guide, we could see some engravings and black and red paintings of bison and horses. One must remember that these works were done with torches as the only light source.
Royat – Puy de Dome
Puy de Dôme is a lava dome and one of the youngest volcanoes of the Massif Central region. We ascended to the top with a local train and could see from there a chain of surrounding volcanoes.
Clermont-Ferrand is a large city with a metropolitan area of about half a million inhabitants. It is listed as a “tectonic hotspot” on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Its Gothic Cathedral, built between the 13th and the 19th centuries, with black lava stone, is one of its main monuments.
Forty kilometers (25 mi) from Clermont-Ferrand is Issoire. Its main monument is the Saint-Austremoine Abbey church, built in the 13th century. Its walls are covered with multi-colored frescoes and capitals with narrative scenes.
The first time we visited Firminy was back in 1968, when, as architecture students, we wanted to see Le Corbusier’s Maison de la Culture, inaugurated in 1965. Following his seminal religious architecture, the Chapel in Ronchamp and the La Tourette Convent, he designed the Saint-Pierre Church in Firminy. Le Corbusier died in 1965, and the church was built between 1973 and 2006.
Our last driving stop was at the permaculture farm Source Dorée at St. Pierre La Palud, about 25 km from Lyon. It was of utmost interest for Ruth. The place includes an ancient house turned into a lodging place and a permaculture school. Created by Nathalie and Philippe Gaillet-Boidin, Nathalie received us and we toured the 7-hectare site (17 acres) under rain!
Bernard and Catherine’s daughter, Ninon, hosted us during our sojourn in Lyon. With her 8-year-old Camille, she received us with much warmth.
Bernard led us first to the Confluence neighborhood, a bold island of modernity on a sliver of land between two rivers. Our long walk started at the Confluence shopping center, designed by architect Jean-Paul Viguier. Nearby, we walked by the Ycone residential tower, designed by architect Jean Nouvel. From there, we moved towards two projects designed by Paris-based architects Dominique Jacob and New Zealand-born Brendan MacFarlane: the so-called Orange Cube and the Green Cube – Euronews Headquarters. Adjacent to these stands, G.L. Headquarters, designed by Studio Odile Decq.
The Austrian architectural firm Coophimmelb(l)au, led by architect Wolf D. Prix, has been known for many years for the boldness of its architecture. The Musée des Confluences is no exception. If the primary purpose was “to spur public curiosity,” it has succeeded. As a museum of knowledge, the building’s form blends the known and the unknown. The design is energy-conscious, using mainly natural ventilation and little artificial light. The museum accommodates a collection of 2.2 million objects alongside exhibition galleries and lecture rooms.
In the evening we all went to the opera, including Camile. First completed in 1831, the building became famous when architect Jean Nouvel re-designed it, between 1985 and 1993. The performer was a Catalonian singer, Sílvia Pérez Cruz, who sang in multiple styles and languages: flamenco, fado, jazz, and Latin American songs.
On our second day, we ascended to the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, built in a dominant position overlooking the city. The building, built in the 19th century, has little historical importance. By far more interesting was a visit to the nearby Roman theater built around 15 B.C.
In the afternoon, we strolled through the reconverted Hôtel-Dieu, initially founded in the 12th century, and reconnected to the city as a public space. We then visited Lyon Cathedral, dedicated to John the Baptist, completed in 1476. In the surroundings, we walked through the traboules, secret passageways in Vieux Lyon.
Our last day in Lyon was a busy one. In the morning, we went to visit the city’s magnificent botanical garden; from there, we went to see Renzo Piano’s Cité Internationale, a project that includes office and residential buildings, a hotel, a casino, a multiscreen cinema, and a museum of contemporary art. We departed back to Paris with the TVG speed train, and early the following day, we left for a Paris-Tel Aviv flight, or so we thought.
Paris 2 / Derailed to Istanbul
The flight from Paris to Tel Aviv with Turkish Airlines had a connection stop in Istanbul. Since the departure from the Charles de Gaulle airport was delayed four hours, we lost the connection and were given a replacement boarding pass twenty-four hours later. Turkish Airlines sent us to a Marriot Hotel about 35 km from the city center. The following morning, to best use our time, we decided to take a taxi to Hagia Sophia and then go directly to the airport. The 35-km ride from the hotel to the mosque took two hours, traversing one of the most chaotic urban environments I have ever seen. After spending two hours in the city, we were driven… to the wrong airport. We lost the connection for the second time. After replacing the tickets again, we took a taxi for a 200-km ride to a hotel near the Sabiha airport for a flight departing at 8:00 AM. In other words, we lost two days in Tel Aviv.
In Tel Aviv, we were warmly received by our old friends, Jacob and Hanna Kaufman, who hosted us in their apartment not far from where we used to live in Tel Aviv. Our time was tight because we planned to spend the last three days at Kibbutz Degania Bet in Galilee, where my friend, filmmaker Idan Benshalom, lives. There was little time to deal with some bureaucracies and see some family and friends.
We had dinner at Ruth’s cousin Adi and her husband Zvika; we met with Ruth’s cousin Edith and her husband Yakov; we visited our friend David Sharir’s studio and Hanna’s studio; we had dinner with our “Chamula” (gang) at Nurit Shani’s house; we met with our friend Rina Dayagi; and we visited our friends, architects Shevi and Tuvia Sagiv, at their new apartment.
On Monday, October 1, I was scheduled for a taped interview at the television studios of Channel i24news in Yaffo. We were supposed to leave for Kibbutz Degania Bet the following day, except that, during the night, I got very sick and, at 6:30 AM, I was lying at the Ichilov Hospital emergency room. The hospital reluctantly released me after two days because of our traveling schedule. Our trip to Degania Bet was canceled. We left Tel Aviv on October 5 in the afternoon, without suspecting that 36 hours later, the worst attack on Jews since the Holocaust would occur.
We returned to Bernard and Catherine’s apartment for a second four-day sojourn. In the morning, Bernard called a doctor to look at me. He came to the apartment in 45 minutes, checked me, and told me to enjoy Paris.
We started the bright day by walking along the Jardin des Plantes and the National Museum of Natural History area. Then Bernard took me to the Opéra Garnier area, and we climbed to the Galeries Lafayette’s roof to view the city. For the evening, Bernard had bought tickets to Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the Bastille Opera.
For the following day, Bernard had prepared an ambitious itinerary of contemporary architecture on the Rive Gauche’s 13th arrondissement. We started early in the morning at Jean Nouvel’s Tours Duo skyscrapers (180 and 125-metre-high), completed in 2022. The Duo 1 looks as an out-of-balance independent volume. The building received a LEED Platinum classification for sustainability. Nearby was Tour M6B 2, conceived for biodiversity, designed by architect Édouard François. Next to it, Tour Home was a twisted residential tower designed by architects Gaëlle Hamonic et Christophe Masson.
A long walk took us to the Cité du Refuge, designed by Le Corbusier et Pierre Jeanneret and built-in 1933. We then headed to the École Normale Supérieure d’Architecture, designed by architect Frédéric Borel. This work was followed by Les Grands Moulins, 1917-21, designed by Georges Wybo, and restored in 2004 by Rudy Ricciotti. Les Frigos, built in 1920, originally a refrigerated storage depot, was turned in 1985 to a building for artists.
We followed with an ice cream as time out. We continued to EP7, designed by architect Farid Azid, having a black façade conceived for media projections. After walking by the pedestrian bridge Passerelle Simone de Beauvoir, designed by architect Dietmar Feichtinger. An amazing surprise was a visit to Station F, a former Austerlitz Station rail freight depot turned into a startup campus, with a large-scale sculpture, L’Arc, by Urs Fischer. Another surprise was a poetic small chapel, Notre-Dame de la Sagesse, designed by Pierre-Lous Falaci as an homage to Le Corbusier.
Walking again by the Cité de la Mode et du design, designed by Dominique Jakob et Brendan
MacFarlane. The day was closed by going to a performance at the Théâtre de la Huchette to watch Eugène Ionesco’s The Lesson and The Bald Soprano. To crown the day, Bernard invited us to a drink at Train Bleu, a famous lounge at the Gare de Lyon.
It was late at night when we first learned about the horror perpetrated by Hamas in Israel. We were shocked. Absurdly as it may sound, we felt guilty for having left two days earlier.
The following day, we were stuck to the television, trying to understand what happened and what was going on. It was a Sunday, and Ruth had promised our friends to cook fish. With a heavy heart, we went with Catherine to a nearby market. In the afternoon, noting our state of mind, Bernard suggested a walk along the Seine. In doing so, we passed by the Quai Saint-Bernard dancing area, which we first saw in 2018.
For our last day in Paris, Bernard wanted to take us to. Fontainebleau, but couldn’t get a car rental. As an alternative, he suggested a visit to The Louvre. Although I hadn’t been there when I.M. Pei’s project was completed about thirty years ago, I didn’t feel eager to immerse myself in the crowd. The reality overwhelmed my intuition. I felt the mass of people, many taking selfies, an insult to art. So much so that I only photographed a couple of Caravaggio paintings and one El Greco, which few people were looking at.
At our departure back to Los Angeles from the Charles de Gaulle airport, paradoxically adjacent to our American Airlines gate, was an EL AL airplane headed to Tel Aviv.
Since we returned, we talked over the telephone with friends and family in Israel, getting a more personal sense of the war. Ruth’s cousin Adi, a retired colonel in the IDF, was recalled and assigned to deal with the families of the kidnapped. The grandson of our friend Jacob’s sister, a young soldier serving at the Gaza border, got a bullet in his helmet and miraculously survived.
I was reluctant to publish this at this time. It had been a positive trip, a unique learning experience, filled with masterpieces created by humans over thousands of years, in full contrast with the big darkness of the war. I decided to go for the light.