After our 3 day beach break in Hyeres, we headed back to Provence, this time to Arles. The drive was easy, and with clear instructions from our hotel we found Hotel Regence as well as a parking spot right in front. Hotel Regence was another 2 star hotel that suited are needs nicely. Good size room, air conditioned, clean, easy walk (most everything in Arles in walkable), plenty of free parking nearby (except on market days when parking was scarce), inside the old city but just (easy to get in and out), helpful staff and a good value at 55€. We arrived around noon and the room was not yet ready, so we dropped our bags and went for lunch. Place Voltaire is right around the corner and a great place for an inexpensive lunch and also for late afternoon drinks. The bars/café’s in this square display the multicultural nature of Arles. The square comes with plenty of outside seating, lots of shade from big trees, and even a resident Black Lab that hangs out there all day. Arles has an Italian feel to it, and the prices for house wine in these local cafes were among the cheapest we encountered on our trip ( 5€ for .50 cl). After lunch we checked in then made the long walk to the History museum. It’s somewhat out of the way, but we found it a great place to start, especially all the models showing what the city had looked like in its Roman prime. We bought the Global Pass (covering most sights in Arles) for €13.50. After the museum we went to the Roman Theatre and enjoyed a peaceful visit. Like the arena in Arles, the Theatre is still used today.
Now hot and a little tired it was back to Place Voltaire for some wine, then a siesta, and then dinner on Place Forum. Many of the places here have a touristy feel, but the scene was active and fit our mood. We had a dinner at l’Apostrophe Café (formula menu Quiche, Lasagna, and Profiteroles for 14 €). The Lasagna was very good. A fair value meal. We lingered in the square with our wine before calling it a night.
Friday June 5th: The next morning we hopped on the train to Avignon. Decided on the train for 3 reasons. 1) We like train travel in Europe and this was an easy one. 2) I wasn’t all that keen on dealing with traffic around Avignon. 3) I wanted to be able to linger in the squares and café’s in Avignon and have wine. We arrived in Avignon around 11:00 and made our way to the Petit Palais Museum. This was a very enjoyable visit, with some interesting art (including a nice Bottacelli and a really interesting piece where Mary is dueling with the devil, each holding a child’s hand. To my eye it looked as if Mary was holding a big club and was getting ready to clobber the devil. The local guide in the museum, seeing our interest and amazement at the thought of Mary clubbing the devil, explained that the club was in fact meant to be a staff (i.e. like Moses carried). As the museum was not busy, the guide took us to look out the windows at various views, helping explain the sites. It was an enjoyable chat (one of those unexpected moments that add depth to a city visit). When we left the Petit Palais it was pouring rain. So we pulled on our rain jackets and made our way to the Papal Palace. A simply massive structure. The tour, with audio guide was interesting, but after a while we turned off the audio and just wandered. Sadly the building is essentially empty, so you get the sense of size and power, but it was difficult to picture what it really looked like. We emerged from the Palace around 13:45 and found a nice little restaurant (La Pause Gourmand) in a nearby square. Outside seating in the square, plenty of natural shade (rain had stopped), and very nice meal. Debbie had entrecote with mixed vegetables and salad for 9 € and I had a Crepe Complet with a nice salad for 8.50 €. We split a chocolate éclair and .50 cl of Rose wine, then 2 expresso. Total bill was a reasonable 28€. After lunch we headed off to Pont d’Avignon. The highlight for me was standing near the end of the bridge and looking back at the city. Debbie, having been raised singing “Sur le Pont d’avignon” smiled from ear to ear as we strolled out onto the bridge. Touristy, yes, but still a nice moment. We wandered back into Avignon and had more wine in place l’Horoge, simply watching people stroll by. In Avignon we saw (by far) the most North American tourists. Avignon has a nice vibe to it, and I wouldn’t hesitate to spend more time there. There were many nice looking restaurants and plenty of shops. Around 17:30 we caught the train back to Arles, as we had reservations at Bistrot de Vins for 21:00. Dinner was very nice, with a simple menu and a wonderful and reasonable wine list. We sat next to a couple from Colorado, and ended up closing the restaurant around 12:30. A nice little spot, with friendly service.
Saturday morning was market day in Arles. What a wonderful market. We spent several hours wandering through the market. By far the biggest market we visited on our trip. Around noon, we bought a rotisserie chicken, specialty bread (fougras?), a small bag of cherries, and a bag of Italian almond biscuits. We wandered back to our hotel, climbed the wall overlooking the Rhone and found a bench. As we spread our food and began to eat, numerous locals out walking would smile and say “bon appetite.” Again such a small thing, but the instinctive desire to extend these wishes to total strangers speaks volumes about the French culture. We were touched. After a siesta we picked up on our Arles sightseeing (Cultural Museum, Church and Cloisters…can’t recall Church name but it was on a huge square), stopped and watched a wedding party move from Hotel de Ville (Civil Service first) to the Church, then a long visit to the Arena. Dinner that evening was great find. We went to La Cuisine de Comptoir just off Place Forum. The place was filled with University students and young staff. This restaurant features Tartine ( a cross between Pizza and Bruschetta). It comes with soup or a salad (we had the large green salads). Debbie had smoked salmon Tartine and I had a combo of tomatoes, mozzarella, fresh basil and olive oil. The salad and Tartine combo’s were less than 10€! With a nice bottle of wine and two desserts the total bill was 38€. Highly recommended (note they stop serving fairly early…around 21:30).
Sunday June 7th: We decided it was time to make another visit to La Carmague. This time we avoided the route to Ste. Maries. We took D 36 to D 37 which ran alongside Etang de Vacusses, and then followed the signs for Salin de Grimaud. The scenery was so different and a quiet secluded drive. We stopped many times and saw at least 150 Flamingo’s and all sorts of other birds. We arrived in Salin de Grimaud, running quite low on gas. Thankfully there was a 24/7 self serve and our Canadian Visa (with Pin) worked. We stopped at the Tourist centre and asked where we might picnic (we still had all sorts of food from the Arles market). Told that the beach was nice we set off to find it. And what a find! The road narrowed and ran through the huge salt marshes, alongside the salt harvesting ponds. As we got to the end of the road, the largest sand beach we’ve seen in Europe came into sight. It simply went for miles. And to our surprise, everyone just drove out onto the beach and found a spot to park. The beach (back from the sea) was very firm. So we pulled in, found a nice spot and enjoyed our picnic lunch watching the sea and all the folks sunbathing and fishing by the sea. Off to our left there were many campers, clearly set up for a while. We’d never experienced anything like this (another slice of modern day France), and we stayed for a couple of hours. Coming back from the beach we took a tour of the Salt works at the Ecomuseum in Salin de Geraud. From there we made our way back to Arles following the coast. This was a very enjoyable and relaxing day, and we felt gave us a deeper appreciation of La Carmague. Well worth it! Back in Arles we found a little place for Pizza and then called it a night (our last in Arles)