Friday, January 4, 2013

Provence, Day Six - Adventures in Arles

Early morning as we waited at the reception area for the manager to show up with baguettes, a guy mutters to himself, weaving, continually checking his phone as he makes his way back and forth. He neither harassed us or got too close. After a while, he became a source of amusement, in constant motion. An older man, also waiting for breakfast, lifts his head slightly towards the strange guy then twirls his finger near his own ear. We chuckled.

There'd been a wedding reception the night before—we presume a continuation of the event in Salon—and as we carried on our evening ritual of writing and reading, we'd also kept an eye on the manager, who periodically extracted bottles of wine from his office/store and attending/overseeing the celebration at the other end of the terrace. At 8:30 a.m., after waiting for a half hour, we figured the manager had stayed up late, and wouldn't be at his morning duties with any promptness. We set off, heading for a town en route where we could purchase items for breakfast.

Michele is turning into a bike tourist.
Upon leaving the campsite we immediately crossed a bridge over a rushing channel. Until then all smaller riverbeds in our travels were dry or nearly so. It's also important to note that a grey fog hovered overhead all morning providing relief. Instantly I had more energy. Michele and I stopped for coffee in the center courtyard in Eyguieres. The coffee/bar was open air and we brought our cups to a table near a fountain. I could've lingered for a while, absorbing the lassez-faire ambiance, but Patty seemed antsy. She'd already acquired baguettes and waited for us to down the caffeine.

Bulls in a field east of Arles. Bottom photo, credit: Michele
It was pleasantly cool. Well past the town, we pedaled by fields full of blackened sunflowers or fruit orchards. A couple gunshots rang out, upsetting us for a bit until we noticed hunters walking with dogs appear in the brush. The terrain was pretty flat and straight. With a tendency to let thoughts wander, we spoke up when a car appeared on the horizon.

It was in this long stretch that the fog thickened. The sky grew darker. We were all alone, and between the ominous gunshots, our thoughts drifted downhill from there. We voiced a sobering concern: could the darkness be smoke? A wildfire? I was absorbed with this brooding thought—as I'm sure Patty and Michele were too—until we came to the same conclusion. We'd smell smoke if there was fire. We all laughed, now relieved, realizing that our imaginations got the best of us. After that, we took the overcast sky for what it was: respite and relief from the intense, Provencal sun. The fog was sure to lift as the day warmed.

Annie pedaling beside Pont de Crau. Photo credit: Patty
We kept north of busier Saint Martin de Crau, trusting instincts again while we now expertly navigated back roads. Patty was especially good at it. As the sun came out, we followed irrigation channels, gushing rivers—the reason for the heavy mist. It seemed we were skirting the Camargue, to some degree. We were a hundred miles north of the famed wetland that empties into the Mediterranean.

Now on flatter roads, we cruise by bull farms, intrigued with the signage, "Toros de Combat." Then into Arles, but not before picking our way along a bike route which petered out at spectacular Pont de Crau, a Roman bridge. If it wasn't for a bystander, waving and pointing under the arch, we would have turned around. We smiled, mouthing 'Merci!" and continued, steering underneath then quickly dismounting, pushing the bikes a short way through detritus and out the other side onto a narrow path which brought us into Arles, bypassing a busy road.

It pays to laugh a lot on this adventure. Arles's ampitheatre is on the right. Photo credit: Michele
We scrambled to set up the tent at the campground as quickly as possible, amidst mosquitoes—the only place on our journey where they were a problem—and cycled the 1.5 k into central Arles. We'd arrived at the tail end of a bull fighting festival, held in the amphitheatre, so we locked the bikes and circled the structure, looking for an entrance. We wanted to explore the interior, but it was closed. Bull fighting is a serious sport in Arles; animal and human fight to the death, thus the nearby bull farms. There would be events in the amphitheatre going on throughout the day, some of which were parades and exhibitions. I hoped to see those and spare the blood, while Michele and Patty were keen to stay clear of the place altogether.

Close up of  stones in the Theatre Antique. Photo credit: Patty
Arles is full of interesting things to take in. We purchased a pass to get into a few sites. First, we walked the Theatre Antique. Not nearly as breathtaking as some theatres in Greece, it was nonetheless a grand place with good views from the top step. With reconstruction taking place, maybe they'll be able to hold outdoor events again.

Theatre Antique. A UNESCO heritage site.

Photo credit: Michele
Arles is a warren of streets. It was interesting to poke around, and with help from the map, we found our way to Saint Trophime's Church and cloisters.

Saint Trophime's exterior had a magnificent stone facade. The interior had the usual gaudy gold icons, wooden pews, but as I walked around I noticed the saintly relics: skulls and bones encased in gilded, glassed reliquaries. It was creepy. I was reminded that I seen this before in Montreal and in other places on our world trip journey.

Connected to the church, the cloisters were open to visitors. I liked the long corridors circling a courtyard...

and the beautiful stained-glass windows.

Nearby were the Cryptoportiques, accessed through the Hotel de Ville. It's a series of tunnels beneath what was once the forum. They are dank, with dripping ceilings, alcoves, small rooms, and ancient water pipes. Their use remains a mystery. They could've held slaves or been used as storage. In quirky French fashion, there was an animal scooting by at the far end of one tunnel, which when you got closer, discovered it was only a video projection of a fox running at night.

All this serious sightseeing got the best of Michele. She often need afternoon fortification. And funny thing is, she fit right in with the locals.

Everywhere we traveled, bike racks were unique.

Photo credit: Patty
After visiting roman baths and Van Gogh's recuperation place, Michele treated Patty and me to our 50th birthday dinner, a la street dining. Salads all around plus a bottle of white wine—for a change—fortified and lubricated us for an interesting ride "home."

Fuzzy photo, Patty! How come?
Giggling all the way back to our bikes, and then some, Michele, amazingly took the lead (it would be the only time) and led us through the maze of alleys and streets. I marveled at Michele's fortitude. It was also growing dark. For a moment I thought about how we didn't even have lights with us and quickly dismissed the thought. I wasn't going to worry too much; just watch out for traffic for the ten minute ride.

On the exterior of old Arles, temporary metal fencing lined a chute in the street, the whole block closed to vehicles. Policemen guarded the entrance, but let us pass the barricade as that way led to the campground. And suddenly we dodged manure piles, realizing we traveled the corridor where recently bulls had paraded down the street. I wished I'd seen the spectacle.

At some point I took the lead, now riding the sidewalk along a busier road. Street lights were a help. I talked my way through the ride, as much to keep my wits, as to track the whereabouts of my girls in crime behind me. The sidewalk dog-legged into a narrow lane over a bridge. I yelled because at the crux of the L a hole 5 feet deep could've sucked the wheel of any of our bikes. But we made it safely and a kilometer later we pulled into the campground, giggled some more, and took turns showering before dashing through mosquitoes into the tent.

Day One - Avignon
Day Two - Fontaine de Vaucluse
Day Three - Gordes, Roussillon, and Oh, Those Hills
Day Four - Saignon, Ingenuity and the Descent into Aix en Provence
Day Five - Aix en Provence to Salon
Day Six - Adventures in Arles
Day Seven - Les Baux, St. Remy
Day Eight - Tarascon Castle
Day Nine - Chateauneuf du Pape and Avignon

1 comment:

  1. Another good review of a day on your trip Annie...Glad that you weren't bothered too much throughout the trip by midges and mozzies...they can be a real pain sometimes.



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