I am sitting at Calendal, a cute little hotel in Arles, a modest sized town in Provence, only miles from the Mediterranean Sea.
We woke up in Gordes and not that it mattered much, because we were checking out anyway, but there was no electricity in our home. It didn’t even make sense to call Aileen, plus, she said we must check out by 10am, so she can clean the home right away, so soon enough, she shall discover what’s up. Out of sheer curiosity, I wonder when it will be working again.
The melon we got at the farm stand was eyeing us and I hoped it had ripened properly over the last few days. I was prepared to have an anti-climactic experience, since it was the end of the growing season, and I suspected that there wasn’t enough sun for the sugars to develop. But no, the melon was perfectly ripe and juicy and wonderful and honestly, perhaps the best melon I have ever tasted. Oregon summers just don’t get hot enough to make the best peppers, tomatoes, corn and melons (although that is in the process of changing). Anyway, I had read that the vegetables in Provence taste better than a lot of other places, because they have been baked by the sun. And how true it is. So, if you have occasion to get to Provence in the late summer or early fall, please do yourself a favor and get yourself a melon. It is an
We packed up and started our day with a power walk through the back roads of Gordes and took the side path that we had discovered earlier that led us into the village itself. Gordes has its weekly market on Tuesday mornings and we for sure wanted to be part of it. We didn’t get far, before the shopping began! I saw a nougat booth and wanted to get some nougat to bring home as gifts. In general, I don’t like it – WAY too sweet for me, but the vendor (the husband of the woman who made it) had samples out and it was not overly sweet. So, my friends at home will enjoy it and I got a little piece (OK, another big piece) to enjoy here. Also, I learned the nougat is basically egg white with honey (with whatever other added ingredients in the nuts and fruit department). So assuming the honey is used in modest quantities, it could be considered a health food, dense in nutrients.
The next booth sold scarves. Cashmere, made from mountain goats in India. I am not sure what the connection to Provence was and we just assumed that imports were allowed. Scarves are part of the basic apparel of the French. I brought my fair share from home and Dan wanted one to enjoy wearing. It was a bit of a science to learn how to tie a scarf in the stylish French manner. It involved folding it in four, the long way, then in uneven halves the other way, and twisting the loop on one side and incorporating the ends through the loop, in a very particular way. Again, I saw that the French pay a lot of attention to “ze details – très importante.
Some more strolling and some tapenade jars later (at this point, enough jars had been acquired to fill up the empty suitcase I brought with me) and we were back at our home and ready to roll. Yet, I was a woman with a mission, and I was intent on getting in the pool before we moseyed on down the road. It was on the brisk side and my heart got a pumpin’ doing a few laps. But mission accomplished. I felt more or less reconciled with our lodging choice for the Luberon.
Visiting Roussillon was a must do for us. It is a bucolic village like so many others here, but what sets it apart, is that there were mining operations that went on there a couple centuries ago. These operations revealed the ochre in the soil, which is red. The mineral was mined and sold abroad, and the result is that the old quarries now look like someone took a piece of northern Arizona and southern Utah, and plopped it smack down in Provence. Really, it’s a total trip. The buildings in Roussillon are all red. The buildings are made with the same white limestone that the rest of the area uses. But the ochre is made into a pain, and a coat is applied on the outside of the limestone. And it is required that all buildings use the ochre paint.
The village is atop a hill and at the edge of the village, a path begins and descends into the canyons. The plants have started to grow back over the years, as the earth doesn’t like to be bare, and it’s working hard to heal from the effects of being ripped open. The plants are indicative of a temperate region and so one can see oaks and walnut and chestnut trees in abundance. Combine plants that would grow in a Napa Valley landscape, with the rock formations of the desert regions of the Rocky Mountains, and you have a very special and awe inspiring landscape. The ochre quarry I saw today is a snapshot in time, and over time, it will be green again. Totally worthwhile, visit it if you can, it’s worth going out of your way to do so.
As bittersweet as it was to leave the Luberon (we decided to skip the museum about the ochre and pigments), Arles was calling us. We both knew it is very nice to arrive in a town early enough in the day, to actually walk around and get the lay of the land, so the first full day can go full steam ahead. Getting to Arles was mostly uneventful, well, mostly. Once we got in the town, we were reliant on Ms. Google to get us to Calendal, which is very close to the Amphitheater, a Roman ruin. She took us around the street that hugs the Amphitheater and there were gates set up blocking it, I think because there were people out there selling their wares. So we turned off to find an alternative route. Ms. Google rerouted us and we were back to navigating these roads that were built when Jesus was a baby. She told us to go forward at one point, and Dan showed me the sign down the alley saying not to enter, it was one way, the other way. Not seeing another simple option, I said “well, just go down there anyway, it’s only one block, we’ll get through it before anyone notices.” We were halfway down, when two cars turned on the street and were coming toward us. So now Dan needed to maneuver the car backwards until we got out of the alley and we could figure out what else to do. It was a tight squeeze, but he did it quite well and the other cars got past us. Unfortunately, we kept backing up and, then all of a sudden, heard a smash, and realized we had backed into a parked car. We got out to inspect the situation. The other car was not damaged at all, but our bumper (which was made of fiberglass, not rubber) was smashed with a nice dimple. It was one of those things that was not that large in size, but could end up costing beaucoup buckaroonies and it had me concerned.
I asked Dan if he is going to tell Avis, and he said “no, they will notice it and it’s their responsibility to do so. Maybe we can get some black paint for it.” Later on, out of the blue, he said “actually, I am going to tell Avis. I have insurance through American Express that will cover the damage.” This stimulated some interesting conversation about emotions of guilt or otherwise and how one can choose to employ the art of omission or employ full disclosure as it suits them. And from there we discussed whether one can justify why either one of those is a wise and the right strategy for the moment.
We were out and about after parking our car (the hotel uses a parking garage about a ten block drive from the hotel, although as the crow flies, it’s a lot closer) and we did a preliminary run through of Old Town. Hotel de Ville, Église St-Trophime, Cloître St-Trophine, Téeatre Antique, Les Arènes (Amphitheater), and scoping out a casual place for dinner. Dan had heard Paul McCartney play at Les Arènes during a prior visit to Arles and he shared some of what that experience was like with me. Sounded like a very cool experience!
We had a little time to unwind at the hotel before dinner. Our room was a bit funky, but charming. Very Provencal, with its light yellow walls and green accents, with pattered curtains and pictures of flowers adorning the walls. The best thing was that our room connected to an entire other room with two more beds, so our space was actually pretty huge. Since I brought enough clothes with me to sink a boat, I was happy about this. The hotel has a spa as part of it, which was the deciding factor in staying here. The spa has four rooms – a steam room, a room with a hot water bath, a room with a cold water bath, and a room for body care treatments. We needed to make an appointment for when we wanted to use it and then have one of the staff accompany us there. Not knowing how our day would unfold tomorrow, we opted for an 8am spa visit, knowing we would start our day off right.
L’Autruche is a restaurant we found in the Lonely Planet. The mood is casual and the food is well prepared, with a lot of vegetables. A creamed parsnip dish with a soft boiled egg (better than it sounds!), a saffron risotto with tender white fish, and some other tasty dishes keep us satisfied. I think we found a gem for Arles. I am not sure what it means, but most of the diners were English speaking. We wondered if the restaurant was dependent on tourists flowing through, night after night. I am still not sure I get the business model of most French restaurants. Even a casual restaurant, takes two hours to serve dinner, so they get very little turnover. And for the size of many of them, I would be surprised if they are cooking for more than 30 people a night. Doing the math, we were just having a hard time figuring out how the typical restaurant stays afloat. But they seem to.
The Rhone River that starts in the Central Massif and flows through Lyon also flows through Arles. It heads south and spreads out into the marshes and flows into the sea. It is this area south of Arles that is called the Camargue, where the flamingos and wild horses live. I suggested a walk along the river for our evening exercise. Both of us had left our heavy coats in the room, but still had long sleeved clothing and a light coat. Now, it was not unreasonably cold (mid 40’s), but as we walked along the river, the wind really started picking up. Peter Mayle talks about Le Mistral blowing down the Rhone and we were walking in Peter’s footsteps at that moment. The wind originates from the northwest and blows south through the Rhone Valley down to the Camargue, bringing cold air to the region. I kind of liked it and figured if I walked fast enough, I would actually warm up. However, Dan suggested that we get off the river and walk instead through Old Town. Just like that, we were sheltered from the mistral and our walk became a lot more pleasant. The town is very quiet by 10pm, and I have to say, it’s sort of magical to wander these narrow, cobblestone streets, with nobody else in sight. Sort of like being in my own fairytale.