We enjoyed the many sides of Provence…the ancient cities, the Rhone River and Valley, the Apilles, foothills of the Alps, the flatlands and salt marshes, the Wine Country, the bustling port of Marseilles…so many different experiences in a small area and a short period of time. This post is about Arles, Les Baux, St Remy, and the Rhone wine country. There will be more about the Camargue later.
We arrived in Arles after dark, and had a bit of a hard time finding the gate to the old city. We pulled over near a roundabout on Place Lamartine with a fountain in the center. Turns out, the gate was just on the opposite side of the fountain, but we couldn’t see it! We must have driven around that circle 5 times before we finally said, “DUH!” Our wonderful little hotel, the Regence, with only 16 rooms, is right on the river. Who knew that for such a low price (60€,) we could enjoy both convenient free parking and a view over the Rhone from our bed? http://www.hotel-regence.com/us/http://www.hotel-regence.com/us/
We felt really lucky as we watched boatloads (literally) of tourists each morning coming from the barges docked just steps from our front door. We walked along the river, then to the Place du Forum and Place de la République to check out the old town center and café scene. With high season in the past, we felt as if we had the entire city to ourselves, at least until bus or barge tours crossed through the squares the next day. We walked in Van Gogh’s footsteps, on the river and in the squares. Seeing the Café la Nuit in real time and space was enjoyable, especially because I spent hours staring at a print of the painting hanging in the kitchen of my first apartment. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Night_Caf%C3%A9
The first day we just enjoyed exploring Arles. The church of St. Triomphe and the cool and slightly creepy Criptoportiques –the Roman arches underneath the Forum–reminded us of the long and diverse history in this part of the world. At the church, after enjoying the very special Romanesque arched entrance depicting stories and lessons from both Christian and Hebrew bibles and classical mythology, we visited the cloisters, where we ran into a few hikers stopping here along the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela and wished them “Buen Camino.” Then on to the classical theatre and the Roman Arena, dating back to the 1st Century BC. After a terrific dinner of Soupe de Poisson, which was just what I needed to treat the terrible cold I was battling (no worries, I won the battle, gladiator that I am). We went to bed early planning to visit Les Baux and St. Remy the next day.
The midievil town of Les Baux was really special—I hope the photos give you some idea of the drama of this setting. The castle ruins, high up on the hill, overlook the incredibly green and fertile Rhone Valley. Very beautiful. And another excuse to climb up to a high spot for pictures and bragging rights! After a special lunch of Provencal lamb and ratatouille back in the village (it’s said the flavor is so good because the lamb is seasoned “on the hoof” as the sheep graze on herbs and lavender, and eat grasses from the salt marshes). On the way out, we stopped at the Carriere des Lumieres—a cave just outside Les Baux with projected images of artworks on the quarry walls. It was, um, interesting. Ray described it as “trippy.” I think that’s the perfect word. If you missed the 60’s, this attraction may give you a little taste of what it was like.
Then, we continued on to St. Remy. The drive was quite lovely, with great long stretches of road bordered on both sides by plane trees, just starting to show their golden fall colors. After walking in Vincent Van Gogh’s footsteps in Arles, we thought St. Remy might feel a bit redundant. But visiting the Monastery of St. Paul and the mental hospital where he was treated in St. Rémy, where he completed over 140 paintings and 100 drawings in just a year (1889-1890) was very special. The setting is peaceful and serene. It was moving to walk in the same gardens and groves that soothed and inspired the tormented genius. It’s easy to believe that he was happiest here, with nothing but his art, quiet gardens and the ever-changing Provencal landscape to sooth the soul. I can’t wait to try some paintings and pastels inspired by the photos I took here. Homage to a beloved artist.
The next day was the vineyard and wine tasting tour. I will let Ray tell you more about the wines, but will post a couple of photos here. The Cotes de Rhone area has some breathtakingly beautiful scenery, and we were so glad that the sun came out for us right after noon. The vineyard Domaine Coyeaux is located in one of the most picturesque spots I have ever been. If the wine wasn’t good, I wouldn’t have cared, really. But it was really very good, and we tasted and bought a Baume de Venise there to enjoy later with our friends in Marseilles. Even if you are not a wine aficionado, anyone would enjoy the scenic drive through the mountains, across the Col de la Chaine mountain pass, circling the Dentelles de Montmirail peaks on a sunny autumn day.
After returning to Arles, we had a special dinner prepared by the well-known chef Jean-Luc Rabanel at A Côté. We thought his restaurants would be too pricey, but the chef has now consolidated his higher-end and casual restaurant’s menus for mid-week and off-season tourism, so it was very affordable. The weather was warm enough, with the help of propane heaters, to enjoy our meal outside on the quaint stone-paved patio in the fragrant night air. I had pissaladeire and brandade, traditional Provencal peasant food. There, we planned our next move, which was to visit the Camargue delta of the Rhone, where rice fields, salt marshes, and a Regional Nature Park right outside of Arles offer a gorgeous landscape and wildlife experience away from the cities. More to come about that. Meanwhile, click on the thumbnails above to enlarge and toggle through our photos from Arles and the Rhone Valley.