Saturday 2nd June 2018
Its great to be back in the land of the hearty “Bonjour!” This morning, out on an exceptionally fine dog walk, Alf and I encountered a number of fellow dog walkers and runners, which helped me, practice my friendly, quick fire “Bonjour!” I even managed to progress to an amicable, acknowledging nod of the head and a “Monsieur” in reply when the friendly citizens of Maussane-les-Alpilles beat me to the draw.
That is where we are, firmly embedded in the Alpilles National Park and have been now since Wednesday, when we met up with Huw and Bethan. Never has four days been full of so much chatting! We saw them briefly at Wendy’s father’s funeral in January but haven’t really had a chance to talk with them since we went for a meal with them on the Gower last summer. They have been touring the south of France for the last three weeks and it was good to hear of their adventures and of places to remember for future trips.
On Thursday the four of us planned to visit the town of Arles a thirty-minute bus ride away. We had checked the timetables, double checked with the staff at the reception (which doubled as the villages Tourist Information Office) that it would be OK to take Alf and got to the bus stop a quarter of an hour early for the 1141 bus to Arles. We didn’t want to miss it as the next bus wasn’t until 1341! We waited and waited but the bus didn’t show. The church clock chimed noon and we walked forlornly back to see the Tourist Information girls. They rang the bus company and couldn’t shed any light on the disappointing no-show of the 1141 but did find out that only small dogs, that can be carried, are allowed on the bus and then only at the driver’s discretion. Oh no! What if we manage to catch the 1310 bus into Arles and then the driver of the only bus back at 1800 decides that Alf is not getting on? Huw the Hero comes up with a cunning plan during our despondent stroll around the village – he volunteers that he is happy to drive us all, in their van, into Arles tomorrow! Now what are we going to do with the rest of today?
The Alpilles are a chain of small limestone hills that loom over the village. Loom is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, loiter might be a better description. However their brilliant white peaks glistened like snow in the sunshine and demanded further inspection. Armed with a screenshot of a possible circular walk we strolled towards ‘them there hills’. The path took us alongside a ‘gaudre’, an irrigation brook, under an aqueduct, across a golf course and into the Alpilles. From the top of the first peak we saw in the distance the outline of a castle on a rocky bluff, complete with ruined tower and a bright red flag flying.
Time for a ‘deviation’, we were off to storm the castle. Across a few more hills, skirted around the foot of the cliffs and at the top of a long flight of steps there was a small wooden door. Ducking through the door and there was not just a castle but also a complete fortified village. The village of Les Baux-de-Provence. It was a little gem. It has been completely restored over the last thirty years or so and the houses are now mainly chocolate, soap, lavender and linen shops, restaurants and cafes. We spent a very pleasant hour exploring its nooks and crannies but baulked at buying tickets to the castle as it was getting late.
An interesting side note (well I think it is!) is that Les Baux-de-Provence gives its name to bauxite, aluminium ore, as a geologist first discovered it here in 1821. The signs of bauxite quarrying are still visible in the cliffs below the village.
Friday, the showers and thunder we had been dodging to and from Les Baux had gone and it was bright sunshine and hot as Huw the Hero parked up on the Rhone quayside, opposite Arles old town.
Arles had been in my sights for some time due to its wealth of Roman History and ties to the life and works of Vincent van Gogh. It didn’t disappoint. Arles sided with Julius Caeser in his civil war with Pompey and as a result became the centre of administration for the western Roman Empire for the next 300 years. It is littered with remarkable Roman remains
Armed with an ‘access all areas’ ticket we did the lot…
The 12thCentury Saint Trophime Cloisters – not Roman, but Trophime allegedly was bishop of Arles in 250 AD and in mediaeval times was considered more highly than the apostles.
The 17thCentury Town Hall built over the crypts that underpinned the Forum
The 1stCentury Amphitheatre that is still used to stage bull fights and concerts. It used to seat 21,000 people but now, due to 2,000 years of the inhabitants ‘quarrying’ the stone, seats only 12,000.
The Roman Theatre, built a century before the amphitheatre, which was also looted for stone, of the original 27 columns only two remain.
And the baths of Constantine, built during the reign of the first Christian Emperor in the 4thCentury, they were one of the first communal baths to be built outside Rome.
Exploring these antiquities involved the four of us working as a tag team. The short-sighted burghers of Arles don’t want dogs to appreciate a bit of culture, so Alf was banished to the pavement. This meant that one of us would stay outside with him and the first to finish the tour would then become the dog minder.
In between visiting these we gabbed some lunch at a pavement bistro overlooking the amphitheatre and visited some of the spots made famous by van Gogh’ painting. He was at his peak, creatively during his time in Arles (1888 – 89) and it was where he was hospitalised following his infamous ‘close shave’. It was surprisingly moving to visit the hospital and see the garden he painted. We also stopped at the ‘Café-terasse, Place du Forum’ and walked up and down the ‘rive gauche’ embankment looking for the site of ‘Starry Night’, humming Don McLean as we did so.
It was an epic day and we rounded it off in style by dining in Maussane’s village square, under the trees, as darkness fell.
Trogir is still my favourite town so far, but if you haven’t been to Les Baux or to Arles, you must put them on your list to visit.
Today has been a day for pottering, the washing has been done and hung out to dry (we received a yellow card from the campsite for daring to tie a washing line to a tree), the toilet has been emptied, the blog has been written (almost), a little bit of light shopping has been completed and the delights of Camping Les Romarins have been enjoyed.
We say our good byes to Huw and Bethan tomorrow as we go our separate ways. We will have stayed here for four nights the longest so far on this trip and I am getting itchy feet – now where did I put that anti-fungal powder?