Calendal remains an endearing place to call home for a few days – close to the action, yet quiet enough, to simply sit and comfortably reflect about my days.
We started off our day heading downstairs to the spa. The hotel receptionist led us outside and downstairs into the special area. And right away learned something interesting. In Europe, hot pools are not allowed to get very warm, for reasons of conserving energy. I love the mission but I will also say I would have loved to submerge myself in water warmer than 80 degrees. The “hot pool” has a cool feature, which is that the water can shoot out of these metal jets several feet into the air. We stood underneath them for relaxing shoulder and neck massages. The other uber cool thing about this space is that the tub is next to a very large picture window that looks out at the Amphitheater. The window is made of two-way glass so passerbys cannot see in, but we could see out. I loved swimming around, just feet from Roman ruins. Then we used the hammam – which is basically a steam room, similar to a Turkish bath. A great way to feel invigorated.
We planned on getting out to the Camargue today and we eventually did. But first, I had noticed that there was a Wednesday market, which was reputed to be a smaller version of the Saturday market, which is a haven for foodies. So we obviously made it part of our morning walk. Now the market was a bit of surprise to us. At first, we saw only booths selling cheap junk – shoes, sunglasses, factory clothes, and we assumed that as we turned the corner and hit the main drag, we would see a traditional Provencal market. Well, we didn’t and the question I posed last week about “where do the French go when they need to buy ‘stuff’?” was answered. The Walmarty Marche in Arles. Tables of crap lined Blvd Emile Combe and people were eating it up like bouillabaisse. We got a kick out of the whole thing, but were also happy to keep our visit brief and get out to the Camargue.
We headed to St Marie de la Mar, which is a beach town on the Mediterranean. It was not super busy, which was nice for us, yet, I could picture it as completely hopping during the summer. Somewhat of the vibe of a laid back California beach town. Driving in, I noticed a Velo sign, which meant they rented bikes. Within minutes, we were on our mountain bikes, heading down the Digue de la Mer. It’s a two and a half meter high dike built in the 1800’s and it cuts the delta off from the sea. A 20km path that is limited to cyclists and pedestrians runs its length. It is also a protected area and people stay off the sand dunes, although there are some footpaths that lead down to the beaches.
We didn’t have any particular point we needed to get to and we were mostly getting some great exercise in before we went horseback riding. There was a lighthouse thirteen km from town, which is less than eight miles, and in theory would take 35 minutes and be no biggie. But as is often the case, there was more than met the eye. The biking on sand provided a lot of traction, so the riding was slower than we anticipated. But we had not reckoned with the mistral. Peter Mayle’s description gave us a cold slap in the face, as we biked against the wind. We were properly bundled up and comfortable on that level and we were 100% soaking up the scenery. Surrounded by marshes on both sides, admiring the windsurfers in the distance and appreciating the salt tolerant plants that have adapted to these harsh and very specific conditions – it was just us and the bike path and the wind. Being goal oriented, we went to the lighthouse, Phare de la Gacholle, which was built in 1882 and used to be operated by humans. It is now set up with solar panels to warn incoming ships of land.
We were thinking the ride back would be less strenuous with the wind at our back, but actually the wind was even a stronger force against us! It appeared as though the direction had changed a bit, but we were still soaking up the experience. Perhaps the coolest part of this whole ride was how close we got to flamingos. Lots and lots of flamingos. They were found in groups, sometimes just a handful of them, other times closer to 100 of them. So graceful, their tall legs, S shaped necks (which were often submerged in the water), and their pink feathers, a soft pastel color. When they flew, their wings spread to a handsome wingspan and some magenta pink revealed itself, as well as black feathers. I had seen these birds at zoos, yet being in their natural habitat, was both exciting and an honor. Flamingos are da bomb.
We had less than an hour to get some lunch and get up to Les Cabanes de Cacherel to greet the horses. We went to return the bikes and guess what – the bike rental establishment was closed! I am not sure the two of us will ever get it through our thick skulls that France shuts down between 12-2pm. Perhaps someday, the concept of staggering employees’ lunch hours so a business stays open will come to France, but then again, France may never go there.
At lunch, I learned yet another interesting thing about food habits in France. We went to something like the French version of a deli – trays of all sorts of local seafood dishes inside of a deli case. We asked for small amounts of two of the items, both calamari based. The server filled up a container with a lot of food and when we asked for less than he gave us, he extremely begrudgingly put a smidgen back, sealed it up, and that was that. I am not sure why the French, who are so service oriented toward patrons, have some sort of trip about giving you more deli food than you ask for. So be it – it was tasty, and we were on our way to meet our equestrian friends.
I was exuberant about the horses. Ever since I first googled pictures of the Camargue and saw pictures of white horses, galloping in the wind, their manes glowing in the famous Provence light I was clear that I needed to commune with them. The horses here today are domesticated, yet, the native breed has roamed the region, for possibly thousands of years, and are thought to be some of the oldest breeds. The wrangler made some adjustments to each horse’s saddle and matched each of the riders with a compatible horse. There were eight of us in total and in short order, we were off. The next two hours were magical. The terrain is flat, so it was a very gentle ride, although occasionally, one of our horses would trot, to catch up with one of their buddies. The Camargue is an environment that is the union of land and river and sea, making it very marshy. Some areas were muddy, some were wet, some were more solid. All of it was beautiful, but perhaps, needed a special sort of appreciation. It isn’t a dramatic region, like mountains are and land like this is often disregarded and subsequently drained, to create viable agricultural land. A lot of the Camargue is protected, and this is a good thing. I live near wetlands in Oregon and have spent time there and learned to appreciate the muck and tall reeds and flocks of birds that spread out over a wide, flat region. Speaking of the birds, the horses were right in the marshes so we got very close to the flamingos. They seem to peacefully co-exist, each getting their needs met and filling their own niche, in the ecosystem. I was staying present, holding the reigns and the saddle, but beyond that, it was very easy to sort of drift off into a daydream, becoming an extension of the horse,and believing that I too looked more beautiful in the Provencal daylight.
We eventually made our way back to Arles, and we stopped into the café in our hotel, Jardin de Calendal, to get a snack. I got a raspberry smoothie and Dan got a chocolate tart. I tasted the chocolate tart and said “this is Nutella” to which he responded “I thought it was just some bad chocolate pudding.” In reality, those two things are not mutually exclusive. I asked at the counter “tart de chocolat, Nutella?” and her face lit up and she affirmed “Oui!” OK, the 4.5 star on Yelp, Jardin de Calendal was ruled off of our dinner options.
I did a little research on TripAdvisor about dining options. Le Criquet seemed the most promising and, as it turned out, was less than a block away from home, which was nice, since the mistral was in full force now and the temperature had dropped. Le Criquet had some of the most upbeat staff and cozy feeling space of anywhere we had been. The menu focused on simple, Provencal cuisine and we selected some dishes and enjoyed watching the restaurant fill up with happy and hungry people. We each started with soup – champignons with foie gras (mushroom with duck liver) and poisson broth, something like bouillabaisse. Both incredibly nourishing.
The table we were at was adjoined with another couple tables and seated next to us was a single woman. She must have heard us speaking English since she began talking to us. She had just flown into Marseilles that day and was en route driving to a home in the country to take a personal retreat and catch up on life and knitting baby blankets for her new grandson. She was just stopping in Arles for dinner and one night of sleep. She mentioned that the narrow streets were challenging and especially because they were one way. She went down a one way street the wrong way, not realizing this, and then, a couple of cars met her halfway. Now here is the funny part. Her car had a standard transmission, and she couldn’t get the car to shift into reverse. She had driven all the way from Marseilles and hadn’t had the occasion to use reverse, and then she was stuck in a narrow assed medieval street going the wrong way and couldn’t back up. She got out and got the man in the car she was blocking to help her. He showed her that the stick shift needed to be pulled up and shifted into reverse, the opposite of all the other gears, which needed the stick shift pushed down before shifting. OK, she backed up (and didn’t hit anything), and all was good. Dan and I were roaring with laughter, knowing that we were not alone, navigating one way, narrow assed, medieval streets in Arles.
Our plats (main dishes, entrees are actually appetizers in France) arrived. Dan had bull stew. We had seen it other places and figured we should indulge in this local dish. And I had a most beautifully prepared seafood and vegetable dish. The base was a white fish, and there were also mussels and an unknown variety of shells where we picked out the meat. The plate was decorated with purple cauliflower, fennel, green zucchini, carrots and some colorful flowers — all the colors of the rainbow, accompanied with a garlic aioli. As usual, we shared our dishes to maximize the variety and the experience. Delightful!
We were both taken with Le Criquet – it was so unassuming and authentic and quite the hidden gem. The evening was chilly and we partook in a short walk around the neighborhood, breathing the clean and crisp air that the mistral brought with it and relishing the day and all the adventures that had transpired.