Days 4/5: Arles, Baux de Provence, Avignon, Pont du Gard, Carcassonne.
Always sorry to leave Villefranche sur Mer – we hadn’t even had time for nearby Nice this trip. It’s a fine city with a lively, colourful Old Town; the handsome, palm lined Promenade des Anglaise with its grand Belle Epoque hotels; the old harbour and a superb viewpoint at Castle Hill (as it is known in English) , giving a wonderful panorama over this city by the turquoise sea. There are also good Art Museums in Nice of which we have visited the Museum of Fine Arts, Marc Chagall National Museum and the Matisse Museum. Light and glorious colour predominate.
We arrived in Arles 3 hours later at 12noon, desperate for a café (we’d just wanted to get the mileage done so no stops) and got parked easily.What a brilliant town! As a huge fan of Van Gogh, it’s been on my radar for ages and to finally walk through it’s colourful, interesting streets was a joy. It felt a very real place with beautiful old buildings, many with little windowsills filled with flowers; some looking a bit worse for wear but only adding to the charm. And then – there it was – the Café Van Gogh as it’s now known, the canary yellow café which was frequented by the artist and which he captured in ‘Café Terrace at Night.’ As a very amateur artist, I painted a copy of this, one of my favourite Van Goghs, in oils for our house. The bright yellow light of the café against the star studded sky is magical.
We were absolutely desperate for a drink so in relief, flopped down at Apostrophe cafe for a beer (for Chris) and sparkling water; unfortunately, the Café La Nuit gets terrible reviews, a real shame and it was a tad scruffy too, lots of litter below the tables. Prices all around here were quite steep all around this area, so we decided not to have food and just get something on the go later.I have to admit, we often just skip lunch and nibble on crisps and fruit.
Carry out pizza slices it was this time as we wandered through the town, following the Van Gogh Trail; ah, there was the Hospital garden where he painted some gorgeous scenes; oh… the river, which I recognised immediately from one of his Night Sky paintings.I saw a Van Gogh exhibition in Edinburgh many moons ago and was almost in tears at the sheer beauty of his work, so vibrant and textured it looked freshly painted.
He completed around 200 paintings in and around the town, some of his most famous work. Just over a year after arriving in 1888, he was in the asylum in St Remy de Provence, capturing the view from his window in the magnificent Starry Night. I went all the way to New York decades ago to see it only to find it was on loan to a Gallery in Italy! In my defence it was at a time when there was no ‘online’ info readily available and no such thing as a personal computer! I have seen it since, on another Big Apple trip and spent about an hour in a queue for the privilege but -well worth it.
Up a lovely old street and suddenly we were slap bang in front of the truly magnificent 2,000 year old Roman amphitheatre. What a superb sight and well worth the entry fee to explore the beautifully restored interior; smaller but in better shape and more impressive, I thought , than the Coliseum in Rome. Bullfighting takes place here, the first I was aware that this happened in France.
It was very hot for wandering around now, but we had one final sight to enjoy, the beautiful 12th century Eglise St Trophime with some of the most famous cloisters in Provence.
I love old churches, particularly Romanesque ones and this was a real gem with wonderful carvings.
Somehow, we managed to squeeze in a final sight by driving half an hour to Les Baux de Provence, a stunning medieval stone village, reckoned to be one of France’s most beautiful. It sits amidst the Alpilles mountains on a rocky spur topped by a 12th century ruined castle. We were lucky to arrive very late on in the afternoon, so avoided the worst of the crowds that can plague the tiny streets and ruins. The Celts(ah, our ancestors!) used the site as a fort over 2,000 years ago.Spent about an hour wandering the ruins and the village, really quite something.
An hour later and now really tired, we arrived in our accommodation for the night in the tiny hamlet of St Gervasy, just a cluster of houses. We had our own pretty little house with garden terrace, part of the owner’s beautiful and very large stone property in a larger walled garden. We had bought supplies for dinner at home, Emmental, baguette, cold meats, pickles, tomatoes, fruit, crisps and chocolate, wine – our usual fare for a quick and easy meal in. It was a little haven of peace and quiet and well placed for two sights we planned to visit first thing next day before heading for Carcassonne – the impressive Roman Aqueduct of Pont du Gard and Avignon’s 13th century Palais des Papes.
Day 4: To Carcassonne
Our hostess was a pleasant French lady who was relieved that Chris spoke the language fluently (my French is abysmal though I do try but it’s excruciating, I know that.I also tend to get my greetings mixed up through nervousness and have been known to say Bonjour in Spain and Buenos Dias in France.Dismal.) Breakfast was in the main house, a delightful spread of fresh bread, her own croissants (excellent), fruit salad, cold meats and various local cheeses, yoghurts, homemade jams – I have to say , much preferable to me these days than the huge cooked breakfasts in UK B&Bs though Chris would not agree with me there! We were stuffed full by the end of it and well set up for the day ahead.
After a cheery goodbye, a 20 min drive found us at Pont du Gard, built by the Romans in the 1st century AD and one of the best preserved aqueducts in the world. It is a World Heritage Site and is in such pristine condition, it looks as if it were built last year. I’d read that although it is free to visit, it is so difficult to park that everyone has to use the official car park which charges around 9 euros EACH for the privilege. We only planned to walk to the site and view it briefly and after a bit of a palaver and whirling round various roundabouts and checking out local roads(quite rightly, with strict No Parking), we managed to find a pull in spot on the approach road to the car park itself, where each of us took a turn to stay with the car, while the other made the 10 min walk or so to admire the site. It all seems a bit ridiculous and pathetic now and I wish we’d just relaxed and paid the money for proper parking but I’d got a bee in my bonnet about it; anyway, it was well worth all the shenanigans, really superb though it looked as if it would be over-run on a fine day and in peak season. It’s clearly a day out for families picnicking and walking the various trails. It’s not a beautiful area as such and the riverbank wasn’t wildly attractive, so once the Aqueduct was seen up close with a brief walk across the river, that was it for me. Onward to Avignon! We were not in particularly attractive countryside here but that was more than balanced by excellent historical sites.
Somehow we got parked very easily and cheaply in Avignon.I hadn’t read great things about the city overall but the main avenue we walked up towards the Palais was surprisingly pleasant.Guide books get things wrong, I know that for sure! In 10 mins we arrived at the main square, just as the heavens opened and everyone sought shelter in doorways and under large plane trees. It had the great effect of clearing the place immediately so armed with umbrellas we were able to admire the imposing Palais of pale stone and enormous scale without battling through the crowds. I hadn’t read anything great about the interior which is largely empty, so it was all about seeing the outside, taking in the towers – some 165 feet high – the steeples and overall grandeur. What a statement of power! A small garden led to lovely views over the Rhone and the very pretty bridge over the river itself, the Pont St Benezet of the song ‘Sur le Pont d’ Avignon’ fame. (However, the bridge is too narrow for people to dance in a ring; they actually danced under the bridge, not on it.) We were so taken with the bridge and its setting that we made our way down to it for a stroll across but it was ticketed entry and the ticket office was shut for some bizarre reason.
Time for (expensive) coffees in the main square, the rain having gone off , the sun shining in a clear blue sky and the crowds beginning to fill the impressive public space once more. I actually don’t mind paying over the odds for location if it looks nice and it was ideal for enjoying a final view of this famous Papal Palace. I’m very glad we included Avignon in our trip, though we hardly did the city justice. Back through the attractive Place de l’Horloge with its lovely plane trees – trees I always associate with France. More mileage to get under our belts now as it was a 2hr 45 min drive on mostly motorway to the World Heritage Site of Carcassonne.
Our first view of this fortified town – the largest fortress in Europe – took my breath away. It is absolutely magnificent and way beyond my expectations(which were high.)A fairytale city amidst some bucolic countryside.
Not easy to park as expected, but we found a spot outside the castellated walls and made our way through one of the medieval entrance gates; once inside, it was as if we had stepped back in time. Beautiful winding cobbled streets, immaculate medieval houses and always, a view of the enormous, tower – topped ramparts which completely circle the Old Town. I was in seventh heaven, we both were! We’d had a bit of a fall out on the way here, over some now totally forgotten minor nonsense(the parking palaver hadn’t helped), but our mood miraculously improved and we began talking again, so excited at what we were seeing. What a place – I just fell in love with it immediately. I’d read about crowds and endless tourists shops but it was fairly quiet and the shops looked lovely and in good taste. Of course, we had arrived when all the tourist coaches had left for the evening so the streets were relatively quiet.
The Logis des Remparts is a beautiful little B&B built into the old walls. Our room was gorgeous, tiny and full of character, low ceiling, beams, very fresh and pretty décor and a window which looked onto the walls and a tower. Absolutely perfect.
By the time we headed out for dinner, it was raining solidly. No point in traipsing down in the wet to the new town outside the walls, even though better value food was more likely, so finally opted for a bar/restaurant called Le Plo. Everywhere in the Old City was packed solid, full of young people having a great time, the sound of conversation deafening inside each place we checked out. Our choice ended up being a busy, lively bistro with a great atmosphere, where we sat at wooden tables in a downstairs bar area.Chris chose a Razor Clam type dish with garlic, cheese and lemon which was just ok; shellfish is probably not the best choice so relatively far from the sea and it was a bit rubbery. I had a decent beef stew and all served with plenty bread.I must say when I first found the photo of the razor fish (as we would call them) I thought – what in hell was THAT?
For days 1-3:
South of France/Spain Road Trip(Part 2) South of France/Spain Road Trip(Part 3) South of France/Spain Road Trip(Part 4) South of France/Spain Road Trip (Part 5) South of France/Spain Road Trip (Final)