We found the hotel relatively easily. It is a converted farm house and has a very interesting character. The owner / manager, Frank and his wife Catherine are very pleasant. There are a great number of rooms here which suggests that French farmers had exceptionally large families. The food in the dining room was enjoyable and the house wine was quite pleasant. We remain convinced that our Australian wines offer excellent value for money as compared to anything that we have found so far in Europe.
After checking in, we drove the last 3 km into the town of Arles. I was a little startled by my first impressions of the towns in this area. This was my first sighting of a French provincial town and it was immediately obvious how the French had taken their culture and architecture with them to their colonies. The streetscapes (especially where there were trees ) looked exactly like the larger towns in Vietnam. I could imagine myself driving into Baria or Saigon. It was quite surreal and I took a couple of photos to show the boys back home to see what they think. These streetscapes brought back a number of unexpected memories.
Arles is one of the cities in France that was settled by the Romans as they moved west through Europe conquering the Gauls. Two of the most interesting sites were the amphitheatre and the colloseum. The amphitheatre is partly ruined but still used for outdoor events. The colloseum is smaller than the one in Rome, but is in much better condition. It seated 20,000 people and is now used for bullfights. Its use now is a bit different from its original one of feeding Christians to the lions, but is still quite blood thirsty.
We had another ride on the little local tourist train and a walk around town before heading back to the hotel for our rather late dinner. (It was 11 pm when we finally finished coffee but as it was my birthday, I was quite happy to enjoy the evening. The only problem was that I was so tired that I kept falling asleep at the table.
We were glad of a slightly later start on Wednesday as everyone else wanted to go to the laundromat in town. Jill & I had a lovely sleep in until we got up for breakfast at 10.30 ready to go sight seeing at 11.00 am. The others had found that it was market day in Arles and wanted to spend the day looking at it. We agreed that Jill & I would take the van and go and see some of the places that we had planned.
We took the road to Nimes past flooded rice fields that looked as though they were laser levelled. We were later leaving than we had intended so we bypassed by the town and drove straight to the Pont Du Gard. This is the intact remains of a three tiered aqueduct, built around 50 AD, that carried water to Nimes. It is a remarkable piece of engineering and the fifth most visited tourist site in France. We walked along the riverside and across the road bridge on the bottom tier of the aqueduct.
After that we decided that the next thing on the itinerary should be a vieit to the city of Orange. This is the place of origin of the House of Orange – including the Dutch royal family (I think?). We zapped up the Autoroute for 30 km or so and then just followed the signs to the ‘Centreville’ . One of the things that we wanted to see was the ‘Arc de Triumph. This is a bit like the well known one in Paris and was built by the Roman Emporer Augustus around the time of Christ as a celebration of the Roman victory over the Gauls. We found it in the centre of a roundabout and as we were in the middle of a traffic jam we had a good chance to see it without leaving the car.
We found a car park and walked around to see the antique Roman theater. The one in Orange is special because it is the only one in Europe (and only one of three in the world ) that still has the entire real wall behind the stage intact. The audio guide that was included with our ticket not only gave us a good description of the theater, but also a lot of information about life in Roman times. We spent an hour their even though it was getting very hot in the sun.
From here, we headed back skirting around Avignon and driving back to Arles through a couple of pretty villages. We met up with the others who had spent a good day in the markets at Arles and who were waiting for us in a cafe where we had dinner.
On the Thursday we arranged for an early breakfast which in typical French style took twice as long as we would normally taken. Perhaps even breakfast is to be enjoyed over time in France!
We took the back road to a village called Fonteveille suffering the wrath of French motorists, who up until now Maureen thought were lovely and another driver who was mostly on the wrong side of the road. We stopped to look at an old abbey and then drove through the narrow village streets and little shops, bakeries and butchers shops.
We spent a lot of time at a little village of Les Baux des Provence. This is an old fortress town that is approached through a narrow entrance in the craggy limestone cliffs. This tiny place has a population of only 440 people and has a series of narrow streets that cling to the steep cliffs. The shops are obviously set up for tourists – all selling a variety of products associated with Provence, however they look very cute in the narrow cobblestone streets. There are some good views from the top of the vertical escarpments. At the end of the main street is the entrance to the ruined castle.
This little town has three claims to fame. The first is that it is the original home of the Grimaldi family who now rule Monaco. Secondly it gives it name to Bauxite (the ore of Aluminium). Long exhausted by now, bauxite was originally mined here in the early 1800’s. Thirdly this is the place where Mary lost her glasses. She was going to the loo (a good European squatter) and while bending forward to pull pull down her pants, her glasses fell off her nose onto the porcelaine toilet base and as she looked on in horror, watched them slide right down the hole of thc long drop bog into the place of lost and forgotten souls. Although we had a good laugh at her expense, we were quite pleased that she hadn’t lost her false teeth. Fortunately she had a second pair with her.
We drove on to Avignon for lunch and a look at its two principal attractions – The Pont d’Avignon and the Palace of the Popes.
The Pont (Bridge) is the famous one that we learned about in kindergarten in the song ‘Sur le Pont d’Avignon, l’enfant dance’ etc. It originally had 23 arches and crossed the Rhone River to connect Avignon with another town on the other side. As a result of flood damage and time, only three arches now remain. A tiny chapel sits on the remaining part of the bridge.
The Palais de Papes is a largely empty palace that was used by the papacy in the 1400’s during a period of instability in Rome. At this time there seems to have been three popes as there was quite a schism in the church as the power of the merchants and families like the Medici’s began to rise. I think that the Medici’s actually appointed one of the popes.
The palace dominates Avignon. It was the home of three popes and our tour took us through the palace and the Pope’s personal quarters. It looked very bleak to me although it may have been a more appealing place when furnished. The most impressive thing in the palace was the dining hall and kitchen. The dining hall would have been 200 feet long and a rounded ceiling perhaps 40 feet in height. The kitchen was a big stone room about 30 feet square. Its roof tapered up to the top of the tower for perhaps 100 feet. In medieval days beasts were cooked on a spit on fires burning on the floor. The tapering tower formed a chimney to let the smoke out.
We drove back to the hotel via St Remy which is a pretty town except in the late afternoon traffic we couldn’t find the pretty part. We gave up after a couple of circuits and headed back to our hotel. We refueled the van and had another little reminder of some cultural differences with Australia. There in the service station were bottles of wine for sale. They may have been rather ordinary wines at a price of â‚¬2 or â‚¬3 but this was only a little more than bottled water. And on sale at a service station as well! After dinner we settled our account at the hotel so that we could get away for an early train to Paris on Friday morning.
I am finishing this while travelling tg Paris on the TGV train at 300 km per hour. I always thought that I was a fast mover! Next stop (and update) Paris.