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motorway aires: 11

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motorway aires[1]
Tavel nord aire, A9 auto route:
giant sundials



The Nef Solaire from the north, showing the scale of the monumental Tavel sundial
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new! Cathedrale Saint-Gatien at Tours  Cathedrale Saint-Gatien at Tours

Romanesque churches and cathedrals in south-west France updated: Romanesque churches and cathedrals in south-west France

 the perpendicular or English style of cathedral  Manchester cathedral

the fire at the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris
the fire at the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris
cathedral giants - Amiens and Beauvais

Stone tracery in church and cathedral construction illustrated
stone in church and cathedral construction

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fortified churches, mostly in Les Landes

cathedral labyrinths and mazes in France
using metal in gothic cathedral construction

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cathedral destruction during the French revolution, subsidiary page to Germans in France

Click for an introduction to cathedrals and stained glass in France.

on first arriving in France - driving
France is not England
paying at the péage (toll station)

Click for motorways and motorway aires in France.

Transbordeur bridges in France and the world 2: focus on Portugalete, Chicago, Rochefort-Martrou
Gustave Eiffel’s first work: the Eiffel passerelle, Bordeaux
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France’s western isles: Ile de Ré
France’s western iles: Ile d’Oleron

Ile de France, Paris: in the context of Abelard and of French cathedrals
short biography of Pierre (Peter) Abelard

Marianne - a French national symbol, with French definitive stamps

la Belle Epoque
Grand Palais, Paris

Click to go to pages about Art Deco at

Click to go to 'the highest, longest: the viaduct de Millau'

Pic du Midi - observing stars clearly, A64
Carcassonne, A61: world heritage fortified city

Space City, Toulouse

the French umbrella & Aurillac

50 years old: Citroën DS
the Citroën 2CV: a French motoring icon

the forest as seen by Francois Mauriac, and today
Les Landes, places and playtime
roundabout art of Les Landes

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bastide towns
mardi gras! carnival in Basque country
country life in France: the poultry fair

what a hair cut! m & french pop/rock

Tour de France 2023s

Le Tour de France: cycling tactics illustrated

New translation, the Magna Carta


Motorway aires are designed to provide a suitable environment for relaxing, refreshing and recovering during the long, hard journeys. As well as facilities of often dubious nature, picnic tables and seats, a telephone kiosk, there are often optional extras such as a play area or a display related to some local interest or event.

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Tavel nord aire, A9 and its sundials

The Nef Solaire from the north, showing the scale of the monumental Tavel sundial
From the north, showing the scale of the monumental Tavel sundial.
Note the circular illustration of the zodiac on the ground. [Photo composite]

The Nef Solaire from the south, showing different parts of this multiple sundial structure
From the south, showing different parts of this multiple sundial structure

The busy A9 autoroute between Orange and Nimes leads to the western stretch of the French Mediterranean coast. The southbound Tavel aire is dominated, not by the service station, shop and café clustered at the base of a small hill, but by the structure visible from the motorway : the asymmetric, futuristic yet mathematical and educational monumental sculpture - an enormous set of sundials, the Nef Solaire : the Solar Ship or Nave. This edifice is like huge sailing ship, or a cavernous cathedral. It is built of four white concrete sail-like structures, butted one against another with the highest point 17 metres high. In all there are five sundials : three vertical ones on three of the four ‘sails’, and two horizontal ones (on the ground) for morning and afternoon.


Morning horizontal sundial [taken in the afternoon, so the shadow does not mark the actual solar time] on the Nef Solaire, Tavel
Morning horizontal sundial
[taken in the afternoon, so the shadow does not mark the actual solar time]

As well as the five dials, there are two gnomons [that’s the stick bit, also known as a style] which throw shadows on the various sundials. At any time of day, at least two of the dials are active - one horizontal and one vertical.

Built in 1993, the sundials are surrounded by Mediterranean garrigue planting - olives, pines and poplars, together with strong-smelling rosemary and thyme. The main originators were sculptor Odile Mir, gnomonist Denis Savoie, and engineer Robert Queudot.

The afternoon horizontal sundial [afternoon gnomon on the left], part of the Nef Solaire, Tavel
The afternoon horizontal sundial.
This detail shows the shadow from the afternoon gnomon
[on the left] marking just after 16.00 solar time.
Note the shadow time is marked on both the ground and the sail.
This time would need to be converted to match the equivalent clock time.

The enormous sundials are set to Universal Time [UT], which is the same as Greenwich Mean Time [GMT]. However, the Tavel sundial is not on the same longitude as Greenwich. The solar time at Tavel is GMT plus 18 minutes 45 seconds.
[Click for detailed information on converting the solar time as indicated by these sundials, into clock time as shown on a watch.]

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Information plaques at the Nef Solaire, Tavel

Mounted on knee-high blocks around the sundial are information plaques, some of which give instructions on how to correct the time provided by the sundials into clock (civil) time. Unfortunately, the plaques are only in French.

There are also other panels that describe the history of different sundials since early times. Here are translations of the French text for those panels:

Panel about the gnomon sundialGnomon
This primitive sundial functions with an obelisque or stick planted vertically in the ground, the shadow of which marks the time of day. The gnomon was used from earliest antiquity by practically all ancient peoples. Despite its imprecision, it served [...] to make astronomic measurements.
Panel about the scaphe sundialScaphé - sphère creuse - hémisphère
This type of sundial dates from the 3rd century BC, it was made by the Greeks and Romans. The scaphé was most often in a hemispherical or conical form. The time between sunrise and sunset was divided into 12 equal parts, whatever the season. This resulted in a variable length or an hour, for France a hour would be 40 minutes in winter and 80 minutes in summer.
Panel about the tall or pole sundialTall sundial - pole sundial
During the Renaissance there appeared portable sundials of several types - the shepherd’s watch, the astronomer’s ring. The orientation of the pole sundial depends on the the position of the Sun through the day.
Panel about the analemmatic sundialAnalemmatic sundial
First described by Francis Vauzelard in 1640, the Analemmatic sundial has an elliptic shape. It functions with a vertical style, which is moved according to the month. Later, it was simplified and extended to work in with different longitudes (different orientations) and latitudes (different inclinations).
Panel about the polar style sundial Polar style sundial
Towards the 18th century, there appeared a flat sundial equipped with an inclined style that pointed towards the Pole star. Already known to the Arabs for at least two centuries, this arrangement brought and important improvement - the indication of the hours remained the same all year round, unlike for previous sundials. This type of sundial had several variations and could include curves to indicate the solstices and equinoxes.
Panel about the canonical dialCanonical dial
This sundial appeared on church facades during the 18th century. It was in the form of a circle (or more often a semi-circle) divided into six, eight or twelve equal sections. There were no numbers. At the centre of the dial, a horizontal stick threw a shadow which showed the prayer hours.
[Sundials bridged the gap between art science, and varied considerably. A dial may be labelled, for example, with Prime,Tierce, Sext, None, Vespers.]
Panel about the two-wire sundialTwo-wire sundial
Invented in 1922 by a German mathematician, Hugo Michnik, the two-wire sundial is rather special. The hour is indicated by the intersection of the shadows of two wires, set at different heights and which are perpendicular to one another. This makes possible having a constant interval of 15° between each hour line.

There are examples of other types of sundial included in the outdoor displays at the Cité de l’espace - Space City - at Toulouse.

marker at Tavel aire page

As well as being a sundial, the structure at Tavel aire includes a ring of illustrations showing how the signs of the zodiac relate to constellations.

The Earth revolves around the Sun in just over 365 days. From here on Earth, it appears that that the Sun moves relative to the stars. The constellations amongst which the Sun appears to traverse successively are the constellations of the zodiac. There are twelve constellations, decided because the related stars, when joined up like dots, apparently make outlines that have some relation to constellation’s name. Thus, at the Spring Equinox (20 March), the Sun appears to traverse before the constellation of Pisces; at the Summer Solstice (21 June) before the constellation of Gemini, and so on.

Zodiac constellation - Gemini
Zodiac constellation - Gemini

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How to reach the Tavel nord motorway aire

sketch map of Tavel north aire on the A9 autoroute,between junctions at Remoulins and Roquemaure, Orange and Nimes

The Tavel North aire reviewed on this page is accessible from both directions of the A9 autoroute, from the northbound direction by a connecting road tunnel between the two sides. The aire on the southbound side of the autoroute also has fuel, shop, a café. [ has not yet visited Tavel Sud].

The Tavel aires are in Département 84 - Vaucluse.

marker at Tavel aire page

Time, the sun and clocks

Sun time is different from clock time.
For a sundial at any place on the Earth, noon [12 midday, 12 p.m.] is when the sun passes the local meridian line [line of longitude]. This is when the sun is highest in the sky for that place and that day of the year. It is also when shadows are at their shortest. But the amount of clock time between that noon and the next noon will probably differ.

A clock or a watch marks the same amount of time, 24 hours, passing between one noon and the next, whatever the time of year. Clocks and watches show a mean or average time that ignores the real slight differences in day length through the year, and also ignores the fact that a day is not exactly 24 hours long, nor a year exactly 365 days long. (A year is, in fact, 365 ¼ days long.) Thus, solar time can be faster or slower than clock time.

Small differences between the length of day for sundial [solar] time and clock/mean time gradually compound to become larger differences between the two types of time at some periods of the year.

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Varying day lengths

Day lengths vary for three main reasons:

  1. Obliquity: the Earth’s axis of rotation is tilted [inclined] as it circles the Sun, so the Equator is not parallel to the orbit of the Earth around the Sun. The angle of this tilt is called the angle of obliquity. This angle measures 23°26'. This means that the plane of the Earth’s equator is inclined relative to the plane of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun.

    Because of the inclination, the Sun is at its highest point (overhead) in the sky [at the time known as noon] at different latitudes, at different times of the year. The higher the Sun reaches, the longer that day lasts. All this also means that the length of daylight varies according to the latitude of the observer.
Diagram showing the seasons as the Earth progresses around the Sun

The inclination of the Earth results in the seasons. In the Northern hemisphere, the Sun is high at noon in June (summer) and low on the horizon in December (winter). This is reversed in the Southern hemisphere, where the Sun is high at noon in December (summer)and low on the horizon in June (winter). At the Equator, the length of day hardly varies throughout the year. Because of this, the length of daylight time differs during the year, being shorter in winter when the sun is low and so above the horizon for a smaller part of a day, and longer in summer when the sun is above the horizon for more of a day.

    Diagram showing the Earth's inclination, and some lines of latitude.

  1. Eccentricity: the Earth’s orbit around the Sun not a circle, but an ellipse. Thus the apparent motion of the Sun varies throughout the year, with the Sun appearing to move fastest when the Earth is closest to the Sun in winter, and slower in summer when it is further away. [The sun is closest to Earth on 3rd January - 91.3 million miles/147.5 million km, this is the perihelion; the sun is furthest away on 4th July - 94.4 million miles/152 million km, this is the aphelion.] The Sun’s gravity pulls on the Earth harder when the Earth is closer to it. This pull increases the Earth’s speed by about 20 miles per hour. To put this in context, The Earth orbits the Sun at an average speed of 18 ½ miles per second, or 67,000 miles per hour. [Detailed explication: 2-page .pdf.]

    The longest solar day is 19th December, it is 24 hours, 28 seconds long. The shortest day is 14th September and is 23 hours, 59 minutes and 38 seconds long.

These two differences between solar time and clock time are corrected by using the Equation of Time, or EOT. [The EOT is usually presented as a table, or as a graph, of calculated differences between solar and clock time.]

The following diagram is a graphical presentation of how solar time differs from clock (mean) time during a year, with the components caused by eccentricity (the Earth’s eliptic orbit) and obliquity (the tilt of the Earth).

    Diagram showing the differences between solar and clock time, including the components due to eccentricity and obliquity

    1. Differences because of your longitude
      A further difference in time results from the Sun passing at its highest point at different moments consecutively as it goes round the Earth. The Sun moves from East to West in the Northern Hemisphere, thus noon for someone in London, England actually occurs before someone in Bristol, although both cities are in the same country and the same time zone. Bristol is 2 ° 35' west of Greenwich, and so noon at Bristol is a little over 10 minutes later than noon at Greenwich [15° longitude = 1 hour; 1° longitude = 4 minutes time].

      Longitudes are imaginary half-circles running around the world, starting at the North Pole and ending at the South Pole. Thus London and Bristol are at different longitudes, although they are at a roughly similar latitude (distance from the Equator). The Sun passes over longitudes consecutively as the Earth completes its daily rotation on its axis.

      In the days before clocks were able run accurately, public sundials, like those to be seen on church facades, were used to reset the clocks.

      Before the Industrial Revolution in Britain, there was no particular need for clocks in different towns to show exactly the same time. Each town ran on its own time, based on the town’s longitude - this determines when noon [the Sun’s highest point in the sky during a day] occurs at any location.

      The introduction of railway transport stretching from one end of Britain to the other, and related communications brought by the telegraph, changed that. It became necessary for all railway stations, and so all towns, to run on the same time, which was first known as Railway Time, first introduced in 1845. Thus towns gradually came to use a standardised time - Greenwich Mean Time [GMT] , based on the longitude that passes through Greenwich, south London. GMT is now called Universal Time [UT].

    Other, lesser reasons for variation in the length of a day are:

    1. The earth spins at an irregular rate around its axis of rotation.

    2. The earth ‘wobbles’ on its axis.[6]

    marker at Tavel aire page

    Clock time - Mean time

    A clock measures a day assumed to be the same length - 24 hours - every day of the year, despite day lengths varying through out the year [see varying days lengths]. This is Mean Time, where all days are taken to last exactly 24 hours.

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    Summer time

    When Summer Time - Daylight Saving Time - adds an hour to the standard time, there are three reasons why a watch or clock does not show the same time as that shown by almost any sundial [these differences are described in more detail in other sections of this web page]:

    1. By assuming the days are all the same length. Because of the effect of the Earth’s inclination (tilt) and its elliptical orbit, a day’s length can vary by up to about 15 minutes. The Equation of Time corrects for these differences.

    2. By not being on the local standard meridian. The Greenwich Meridian running through South London at Greenwich is probably the most famous, but each time zone has its meridian on which the local time is based. The sundials at the Tavel Aire are marked according to Universal Time, based on the Standard Meridian [or longitude] , which is the Greenwich Meridian at 0°.

      However, France uses Central European Time, based of the meridian of 15°E that passes through Prague. Therefore for these sundials, an hour has to be added to convert to Central European Time.
      (There is a 4 minute variation for every 1° you are east or west of your designated standard meridian. Because Clock Time is an average or mean time, no allowance is made for this smaller variation from the actual time at the standard meridian.)

    3. Because of the hour added as required for Summer Time/Daylight Saving, there can be a further 60 minutes difference.

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Telling the time using a sundial

On a sundial, a stick is called a gnomon casts its shadow on a marked dial. Where the shadow falls on the dial gives the solar time for that particular latitude and longitude.

The length of the shadow the gnomon varies throughout the year, being long in winter and short in summer. A sundial marked with curves, called diurnal arcs, can indicate the seasons, as well as the time (shown by the position of the shadow).

marker at Tavel aire page

To convert sundial time to clock [civil/legal] time

  1. During Summer/Daylight Saving Time, add one hour to the sundial time.

  2. Add a correction for the variation in the length of the solar day. This correction is called the Equation of Time [EOT]. This is included in the correction shown by the Tableau de corrections (table of corrections) plaque at the Tavel aire.

  3. Add a correction for not being on the same longitude as the Standard Meridian for the local time zone. In the case of the sundials at the Tavel Aire, you add 18 minutes 48 seconds. The standard meridian for France being the Greenwich Meridian - 0° longitude.
Plaque showing a table of corrections for the Nef Solaire at Tavel, A9

Table of corrections for the Nef Solaire sundials at Tavel, A9
[based on the Equation of Time]
 1st - 2nd45 mins 1st - 28th38 min 1st - 2nd31 min
 3rd - 4th46 min29th - 31st39 min 3rd - 5th30 min
5th - 7th 47 minJune 6th - 9th29 min
 8th - 9th48 min 1st - 4th39 min10th - 12th28 min
10th -12th49 min 5th - 9th40 min

13th - 17th

27 min
13th - 14th50 min10th - 14th41 min18th - 23rd26 min
15th - 17th51 min15th - 19th42 min24th - 31st25 min
18th - 21st52 min20th - 23rd43 minNovember
22nd - 25th53 min24th - 28th44 min 1st - 14th25 min
26th - 30th54 min29th - 30th45 min15th - 18th26 min
31st55 minJuly19th - 22nd27 min
February1st - 3rd45 min23th - 26th28 min
 1st - 23rd55 min4th - 9th46 min27th - 29th29 min
23rd - 28th 54 min10th - 19th47 min30th30 min
March20th - 31st48 minDecember
 1st 54 minAugust 1st30 min
 2nd - 6th53 min 1st48 min 2nd - 4th31 min
 7th - 10th52 min 2nd - 10th47 min 5th - 6th32 min
11th -13th51 min11th - 15th46 min7th - 8th33 min
14th - 17th50 min16th - 20th45 min9th - 11th34 min
18th - 20th49 min21st - 24th44 min12th- 13th35 min
21st - 24th48 min25th - 27th43 min14th - 15th36 min
25th - 27th47 min28th - 31st42 min16th - 17th37 min
28th - 30th46 minSeptember18th - 19th38 min
31st45 min 1st - 3rd41 min20th - 21st39 min
April 4th - 6th40 min21st - 23rd40 min
 1st - 3rd43 min 7th - 9th39 min24th - 25th41 min
 4th - 6th44 min10th - 11th38 min26th - 27th42 min
 7th - 10th43 min12th - 14th37 min28th - 29th43 min
11th - 14th42 min15th - 17th36 min30th - 31st44 min
15th - 18th41 min18th - 20th35 min  
19th - 23rd40 min21st - 23rd34 min  
24th - 29th39 min24th - 26th33 min  
30th38 min27th - 29th32 min  
  30th31 min  

On the 10th of July, you have seen the shadow at 14 hours on one of the sundials. Being during the Summer Time period, you must add one hour. Thus, the clock time is 15 hr 47 (3.47 pm).
On the 27 February, you read 11 hr on one of the sundials. The table indicates a correction of 54 minutes. Thus the clock time is 11 hr 54 (11.54 am).


marker at Tavel aire page

Why a sundial is more accurate than a clock or watch

A sundial is a scientific instrument calibrated for a specific latitude. It uses the natural motions of the earth around the sun to find local solar time at each instant. Clocks keep mean time, which is the average solar time for a broad 15° longitudinal section of the earth known as a Time Zone. While convenient to running modern businesses, clocks give us only a coarse approximation of local solar time.

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Some facts and figures

    The Nef Solaire:
  • Construction date: 1992 - 1993
  • Height: 17 metres/56 feet
  • Weight: total 240 tonnes, each ‘sail’: 60 tonnes
  • Precision: within 30 seconds
  • Latitude: x = 44° 00' 30" North
  • Longitude: y = 4° 42' 0 "East

    Sundials in the world:
  • Largest: Currently, this is the Samrat Yantra (Supreme Instrument) at Jaipur, in India.
    Built in 1724, 27m./89ft high, 45 m./148 ft wide, 0.4 ha/1 acre ground area
  • Pajala, Sweden, circular 38 m./42 yards diameter [link to webcam]
  • Carefree, Arizona: 27 m./90 ft diameter, gnomon 19 m./62 ft high, 1959
  • Disney World in Orlando, Florida, 36 m./119ft diameter
  • Singleton, NSW, Australia: largest monolithic sundial
  • Lloydminster, Canada: dial 60m/197ft diameter
    [Note that there are many “world’s largest sundial”. Like American presidents, title-holding sundials keep their title, even when they have been superceded by bigger sundials.


Bibliography and useful links

  • Le nef solaire de Tavel - by the Montpellier Education Authority. The pages are in French and mostly provide the text and images of the plaques at the Tavel Nord aire.
  • Detailed explanation on the Equation of Time and why sundial time differs from clock time depending on the time of year. Also how the Equation of time is calculated.
    Daily sun data: a detailed table for the current Equation of Time.
  • Comprehensive site on the Analemma, or why and how the sun does not appear at the same height in the sky each noon. Introduction and eight further pages, with diagrams and animations.

end notes

  1. aire: in this context, an area —
    aire de loisirs: recreation area;
    aire de pique-nique: picnic area;
    aire de repos: rest area;
    aire de services: services , motorway (GB) or freeway (US) service station.

  2. Gnomonist or dialist: one who constructs dials to show the hour of the day by the shadow of a gnomon.

  3. Each time zone in the world is based on a local standard meridian, a particular longitude. For Universal Time [UT], also known as Greenwich Mean Time, the meridian is 0°. For Central European Time, which is one hour in advance of UT, the local standard meridian is 15°E, which runs through Prague.

  4. Angles between two lines, or angles describing the size of the segment of a circle, are measured in degrees, minutes and seconds - °, ', ".
    Time is measured in hours, minutes and seconds - hr, '," or hr, min, sec.
    Minutes and seconds of arc [as measurements of an angle are often labelled] are not the same as the minutes and seconds as used to measure and describe time.
    The Earth rotates on its axis approximately once every 24 hours. That is, the Earth rotates 360 degrees [360°] once in 24 hours. So in one hour, the Earth rotates (360 / 24) degrees or 15°. In one minute of time, the Earth rotates (15 / 60) degrees or ¼°. This is more usually wrtten as 15 minutes, or 15', of arc. This is not the same as the amount of time in one quarter of an hour, which is also labelled as 15 minutes.

  5. The term day lengths can refer to two different things : the approximately twenty-four hour day, or the time of daylight.

  6. “The moon, moreover, has a wobble in its orbit. This wobble doesn’t affect relative sea level, but it does drive a cycle in tidal ranges. It pushes tides higher and higher for nine years and then increasingly lower for nine years. Every 18.6 years, the “lunar-nodal cycle” adds five centimeters (two inches) to high tides along the Atlantic coast.” [Quoted from]

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on first arriving in France - driving motorway aires, introduction
travelling by rail to and within France individual aires                                             
A75 autoroute from Clermont-Ferrand to Béziers and its aires Les Pyrénées, A64 Poey de Lascar, A64
A89 autoroute from Bordeaux to Clermont-Ferrand and beyond - aires Pic du Midi, A64
Hastingues, A64
Dunes, A62
Mas d’Agenais, A62
A7 - aires on the busy A7 autoroute from Lyons to Marseille Pech Loubat, A61
Port-Lauragais, A61
Mas d’Agenais, A62
Garonne, A62
A9- aires on the motorway to Spain Ayguesvives, A61
Renneville, A61
Catalan village, A9
Tavel, A9
A62 - aires on the autoroute of two seas three aires on the canal du midi, A61 Lozay, A10
Poitou-Charente, A10
A65 : the autoroute de Gascogne, from Langon to Pau Carcassonne, A61 Les Bréguières, A8
A64 and A61 - aires on the other autoroute of two seas  
A83 motorway in Poitou-Charentes - aires A63: the French Wild West, Bordeaux to the Spanish border - formerly the N10
A837 motorway in Poitou-Charentes - aires A20 - aires on the Occitane autoroute, from Brive to Montauban
A42 and A40 motorways - aires from Lyon to Switzerland and Italy A87 motorway and its aires in Poitou-Charentes

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