On Saturday morning September 24th, we awoke at the early hour of 6 am for our weekend in Provence. Some parts of our trip to France had been planned months before and carefully organized and well thought out. We peppered these moments evenly throughout the trip. But we were sure to leave lots of time for spontaneity. Deciding where to run off to for the weekend has been one of the most delightful parts of this adventure. This past weekend we chose to visit a very beautiful part of Southern France known as Provence. Provence stretches East to West from the River Rhone to Nice and North to South from the Alps to the Mediterranean. We decided to base ourselves in Arles for the weekend. We are big admirers of the work of the Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh lived little more than two years in Provence, but his fame as a painter is largely a result of what he painted there. He lived in Arles from February 1888 to May 1889, and then in Saint-Remy from May 1889 until May 1890. So we woke at 6 am to catch an early train to Arles. Watching the sunrise as we sped past the seaside villages of the Mediterranean Sea and the olive trees full with fruit was a nice start. We arrived and checked into the Hotel D’Arlatan. We knew our hotel was built on the site of the old Roman Baths but we had no idea that the lobby had a plexi-glass floor revealing the excavation site of the original Roman foundation of the building. It was really amazing. We spent the day exploring the city.
We enjoyed a lovely lunch of Salade Provencale in the Place de la Forum listening to American standards played on Spanish brass. The influence of the Spaniards is felt the moment you enter Arles. The weather, the food , the music and the Bulls. They are all a little bit Spanish. The Roman Amphitheatre in Arles, Des Arenas, still hosts Bullfighting much to the delight of the locals. I love the beautiful Black Bull of the Camargue. The paintings and drawings of the bull are beautiful. The taunting, maming and killing of the bull? Not so much. But luckily, there is no bullfight scheduled for this weekend, so we get to enjoy all the acoutrement without any of the blood.
Later in the afternoon, we stroll down cobbled lanes admiring the brightly painted doors and shutters. We stopped by for a lazy ride on the Arles Carousel. Payton rode Le Taureau. We cannot help but be charmed by the dogs and cats of France. The dogs seem so happy and full of personality. It is no wonder that French dogs have faces like people. They ride trains like people and eat at restaurants like people. They even cross the street like people. I have never seen a happier animal than the French dog. The cats in France are big and clean and confident. They seem to be working behind the scenes to make sure everything is running smoothly. Keep up the good work French cats!
We found several famous sites that Van Gogh painted like the hospital gardens and the night cafe. The city of Arles is very proud of their connection to Van Gogh. Even though there is not one actual Van Gogh painting in the city of Arles (they cannot afford to buy one), they have something just as priceless: the light. In the evening in Arle, at dusk, the most ethereal light kisses the people and flowers and buildings in its path. This light returns in another form at dawn, like liquid gold being poured over everything. I could not capture it completely with my camera. But Vincent managed to do a pretty good job with his paints.
We also squeezed in a dip in the pool, a little Provencal nap and a trip to the Cloister in Arles that dates back to the 12th century. All before dinner! We enjoyed a lovely dinner that evening at Les Jardin des Arts outside in the gardens. We talked about Van Gogh and Gaugin and Provence, the kids ordered banana splits. It was dreamy.
Day two in Arles started early as well. We wanted to see the countryside and some other towns and villages in Les Alpilles. We hopped into the Range Rover with our tour guide Jean-Michele and two new friends, Carol and Diane from Ohio! Our first stop was the remains of a Roman Aquaduct. We learned about how the Romans manipulated the water for irrigation and hydro-mechanics. We stood on the site of an ancient Roman Mill and looked out over the gold and green patchwork of hay and rice fields. We saw olives heavy on the branch waiting to be made in oil. No pesticides are used. The French tie a plastic bottle with a little sugar water in the bottom tied to each olive tree and that seems to do the trick. We drove past castles and farms with soil still purple from the Lavender harvest. We saw the beautiful white horses of the Camargue, strong and noble animals. We stopped in the little village of Maussanne for cafe and cups of chocolate with the locals in the square while the beautiful bells rang out their welcome. Jean Michele told us that they love the bulls in Maussanne as well, but they do not hurt the bull here, they just run around and play with them until someone goes to the hospital. My favorite part of the trip had to be the mountain top village of Les Baux. It was fascinating and enchanting.
That afternoon we had a beautiful lunch of Camarguese Pizza (with fried eggs on top) and Provencal Omelettes with pommes frittes at an outdoor cafe near Des Arenas. We sat and ate and drank. We watched people walk by. We watched a cat pose in the window above a shop. Afterwards we toured the Arena and the Roman Theatre. They were both fabulous and unbelievable. We had time for a dip in the pool and a long nap back at the hotel. A late dinner of Tagliatelle Pistou and Camembert Salade with local honey hit the spot before our evening stroll through the city.
Monday morning we woke at nine am and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at the hotel. Then we grabbed our sketch pads and wandered all over town to capture some of our favorite sites on paper just like our good friend Vincent. It was a wonderful weekend in Provence full of magic, surprises, good food and great company.