Day 14 of the Tour de France 2008: The riders left Nîmes bound for Digne-les-Bains, which hosted a stage for the 11th time in race history. Early, along the way the riders crossed the Rhône. Digne’s geological position, at the transition between the high plains of Provence and the Alps, puts it at the center of an area remarkably rich in fossils. But for the biker, it's a steady climb from the Rhône into the foothills of the Alps and the thermal baths that await the end of the day. Bypassing Avignon and Orange to the north and Arles, Aix-en-Provence and Marseilles to the south, the Tour crossed Provence.
Digne-les-Bains sits beside the fast-flowing river Bléone and is surrounded by heavily forested, steep, mountainous country -- good for hiking and biking where you can find a road. The town has a compact center, with some habitations scattered about. For many years Digne has been a primary center of the lavender trade in France. Victor Hugo's novel Les Misérables begins in Digne.
La Patrimoine religieux: Roman infrastructure and culture made evangelization of the country an early reality. The discovery at Notre Dame du Bourg of several fragments of marble sarcophagi, suggests that a substantial portion of the city's Roman elite converted to Christianity. Digne was evangelized by Saints Domninus and Vincentius who came from Africa in the second half of the fourth century with Saint Marcellinus, the Apostle of Embrun in Gaul (start point for days 15 and 17 in 2008), and the town became the center of a diocese. The relics of the three, who preached throughout the Dauphiné are found in Digne (April 20th is the feast day). Bishops who succeeded them promoted the construction of chapels in the hills surrounding the city. In the IV century, Saint Vincent, the first Bishop of Digne (d. 380AD), appears to have built a small church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Look for Saint Vincent Stars in Digne’s jewelry and craft shops. Often mounted in gold or silver, these black limestone stars are fossil remains.
Located at the crossroads of three valleys, Digne, Dinia, became a significant stopping point on the long trade route from to the Alps to the plains, paricularly for the salt trade. At the ford there (later a bridge), Dinia enters history. Pliny the Younger calls it the capital of the Bodiontici (or Brondiontii), a tribe conquered by Augustus in 14 BC. The Roman Dinia was a new development, in all probability in the valley of Mardaric, around Notre Dame du Bourg. The current cathedral lies on the walls of an older structure. Notre Dame retains a remarkable marble altar and Merovingian châpiteaux from that earlier time. Roman era marble is also reused in the belfry. Long-held tradition attributes the construction of the present church to Charlemagne, when his reign brought about an era of peace. Closer observation, however, suggests that the current building dates from the 13th century. Thus, the remains of the building below it must be the earlier church of Charlemagne's patronage. http://www.mairie-dignelesbains.fr/nuit_temps.html
The use of hot springs in Digne (les-Bains) has a history dating to Antiquity. The baths lost popularity after the Romans departed. The modern baths, rebuilt by the municipality starting in 1975 and opened in 1982, are still on the aptly named river Eaux-Chaudes, 3 km southeast of the town. Eight hot springs (and one that is cold), flow from the Saint Pancrace cliffs. The water, found at 42°C (107°F), contains sulfur, calcic (lime and calcium), a strong dose of other minerals and are lightly radioactive. The baths are supposed to be good for respiratory problems (Radon) and rheumatism. http://www.beyond.fr/villages/digne.html (10 pictures, too)
Embrun possesses a noted place of pilgrimage, Notre-Dame d'Embrun, where Charlemagne erected a basilica, visited by Pope Leo III and Kings Henry II and Louis XVIII. Louis XI was wont to wear in his cap a leaden image of Notre-Dame d'Embrun. Speaking of Antiquity and Embrun (as we were above), Embrun is not technically a Gallo-Roman settlement. Although Saint Marcellinus' church (Cathedral Notre-Dame-du-Réal) is thought to be built on the foundations of a Roman temple, Ebrodunum was in fact known first to the Greeks. Ebrodunum was in the country (pays) of the Caturiges, and on the border of the tribal home of the Vocontii. Tradition ascribes the evangelization of Embrun to Saints Nazarius and Celsus, martyrs under Emperor Nero. Another dozen or so bishops of Embrun became Saints, along with other persons from there who died elsewhere. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06378a.htm
Today Embrun (Hautes-Alpes department in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region in southeastern France) sits between Gap and Briançon on the river Durance. All three cities at various times have been featured on the Tour. The town of Embrun sits next to a large manmade impoundment, Lac de Serre-Ponçon, the largest artificial lake in Europe. The city pearches upon a cliff-top plateau (the Roc - Roque) overlooking the upper Durance river just before it flows into the Lac (au pied du Mont-Guillaume).
Nearby: Grenoble -- Die, Gap & Briançon -- Voiron