Monday, October 01, 2012

Arles and me

When I first went to Arles 27 years ago, I'm not sure what I was looking for. It seemed like a good idea and my then boyfrined (now my husband) had convinced me that it would be a great place for a spring break. It set a pattern for our holidays -- generally in places which combined history and great birdwatching.
That trip introduced me to birdwatching. Pink flamingoes are remarkably easy to spot. The Camargue is where flamingoes gather in France. When flamingoes fly, they have carmine and black undersides of their wings.
Arles is also where I watched a bull fight while seated very high in a Roman arena. The experience would later fuel my first Roman book -- The Gladiator's Honour. In fact it was when I was in Arles that I thought the roman period would make a great backdrop for a romance.
We stayed at a little bed and breakfast just off the Place du Forum where you had to walk down a cold corridor to reach the toilet. This time we stayed at the Grand Hotel Nord Pinus which is also on the Place du Forum and has been around forever. Picasso used stay here along with various other celbrities. I believe the bullfighters still stay. Unlike many luxury hotels, the Nord Pinus feels unique. It retains its own unique charm and character. They have posters up of bullfights from the early 20th century as well as a collection of Marilyn Monroe phtographs in the lobby. On the first floor, you can see bits of the old forum. Our room was huge and well appointed with wrought iron furniture.
 Outside the hotel in the warm evening air. Madame had me drinking a variety of pastis as that is what you do in the early evening as you watch the world pass by. It is a summer drink. If you are very thirsty you drink it with mint and plenty of water. The almond syrup is delish and then there is the grenadine which brought back memories of long ag Shirly  Temples (but with an added kick).
Because the Place du Forum is popular, several evenings had live music (including cheesy 1970s ballads). We ate in some wonderful restuarants which I will recount tomorrow as they were truly gastronomic adventures. Arles boasts of both  1 star and 2 star Michelin restaurants and naturally we had to try them.
We flew via Southampton to Avignon on flybe. The flight was painless. Avignon's airport is probably the smallest airport I have been to. There is only one or two gates. the Southampton flight appeared to be the only schedule flight of the day. By the time, we had walked through customs, our bags were ready. We got into our hired car and headed out to Les Baux  Les Baux is considered to be one of the most beautiful villages in France. The primary attraction for me is the medieval village and ruined castle.  We had lunch there and looked about. They were doing a recreation of a medieval tournament.
Arles was also jam packed. The one problem with Arles is that the streets were laid out just after the Romans and are very confusing. Eventually we found the Nord Pinus, but this was me going on instinct from 27 years previously!
As it was a Saturday, there were a number of weddings at the City Hall and we watched various wedding parties, including one with a vintage car.
The next day, we drove into the Carmague and went birdwatching -- flamingoes, storks, grey herons, cattle egret, little egrets and snowy egrets were all spotted. Because someone was windsurfing (I don't think they were supposed to be), a flock of flamingoes was spooked and I saw them fly for the first time. They are truly spectacular in flight. We also saw the white horses of the Camargue. The white horses are techincally grey as they are born black. They are semi wild and are one of the oldest breeds in the world.  They are not shod and are known as the sea horses as they spend a great deal of time on the salt marshes. The men who work them are known as gardians and they are the French equivalent of cowboys.
We also saw the black bulls. In Carmague bull fighting, the bull is not killed. In Spanish bull fighting the bull is killed.  the last time we did this sort of thing in the Camague, it was on bicycle and God, it was tough. Apparently it was when my husband decided that he ought to marry me as I did not complain.
The next day was more birdwatching in Sts Marie de la Mer -- flamingoes, caspian terns and slender billed gulls. Sts marie have become very commercial and we didn't linger after I went swimming. Instead we went to Aigue Mortes and climbed the ramparts. This is the town St Louis built and was France's first Mediterrean port. However, because of the silting, it is no longer on the sea. The Constance tower used to have a beacon which burnt night and day. We stopped for ice cream in the main square which was excellent.
The next day was Les Alycamps in the morning. The necropolis was the In place to be buried during the early middle ages. It is now a place of ghosts and pigeons. If you go into the church at the end, you are surrounded by the sound of cooing pigeons and dung dropping. It was v spooky. In the afternoon we went to Le Crau and the nature reserve. Le crau is France's only desert. It has been used for sheep herding since time immedmorial. Pliny mentions the sheep as being particularily good to eat. The  Merino sheep arrive on Le Crau in October, have their lambs on the hay fields (created in the 16th century and they provide hay for race horses -- only hay in the world which is AOC), are moved to the coussol in Feb/March time to eat the special grass and thyme before being taken up to the Alps to summer.  It was an utterly fascinating place. the rocks which the local villagers were required to pile up so Allied planes couldn't land during WW2 are still there. We saw Europeon rollers which made the trip.
The next day was the Arles Roman museum -- absolutely fascinating.
We then flew home the next morning. Thoroughly refreshed.

I will do abotu the food tomorrow as it was truly special.


Anonymous said...

This sounds a fantastic holiday! Have you read Madam, Will You Talk by Mary Stewart? If not I'm sure you'll love it - it's set in Provence, starting in Avignon and then moving to Arles and several other places with Roman ruins (the ruins are not really part of the plot, I just remember them!). Even though it was written in the 1950s I suspect it's still very evocative of the area.

Michelle Styles said...

Yes I read Mada Will YOu Talk ages ago. I was a big Mary Stewart fan in my youth. She and Victoria Holt led the way to romance. It will be v evocative of the area. I did think the Nord Pinus had a very 1950s feel to it.
When I went 27 years ago, we had a few days in Avginon and I didn't like it nearly as much as I liked Arles so we bypassed it this time. I didn't go to Gallam (outside St Remy, although we drove passed it) but the ruins loked great there. And Arles is just great for Roman ruins. Some of the buildings (the Arena and the Ampitheatre) are still in use.