We depart Avignon and head
south. Our destination is Arles, but I recommend a drive slightly southwest
to St-Rémy-de-Provence and then to Les Baux. This will take the better part
of a day, unless you are really interested in the local history.
St-Rémy-de-Provence was a
favorite spot for Van Gogh, who spent a year in a local hospital nestled in
the shadow of the Alpilles. In addition, St-Rémy-de-Provence is the
birthplace of Nostradamus and famous for a 1921 archaeological discovery of
Roman ruins (Les Antiques) at Glamus, a site founded by Celts and once
occupied by the Greeks, under the trees to the south of the city. The huge
commemorative arch defines the spot where the Goths destroyed this ancient
city in 480 A.D. Nearby is an interesting memorial to Augustus’ two
grandchildren. You can walk around the extensive excavations of this
pre-Roman town, which probably was a spa during Roman times.
From here, it’s a short drive
through rocky terrain to the deserted citadel at Les Baux. This should not
be missed if you want to walk through the narrow streets of an old village
sitting atop a rocky spur and overlooking a steep ravine. The old castle and
ruined houses stand high on a rocky plateau looking down on the Val d’Enfer
(the Infernal Valley), characterized by strange windswept formations and the
legendary home of witches. It was once the home of powerful feudal lords.
Later, it was a refuge for Protestants and eventually destroyed by Louis
XIII in the 17th century. The name comes from the discovery of a substance
nearby that enables the manufacturing of aluminum: the mineral bauxite
(appropriately named after the site of Les Baux).
Today, Les Baux is filled with
tourists who walk the ancient streets in search of the many souvenirs. A
great pleasure is the view that stretches all the way to the Camargue and
illustrates the power of the site as a safe haven, easy to defend. Tourists
aside, Les Baux is a wonderful two-hour stop on the way to Arles. The
information office can provide you with details of a walking circuit high
above the modern hotels and restaurants.
Drive through Tarascon/Beaucaire.
Here, you’ll see a medieval fortress on either side of the Rhône. This was
the old entry into the region known as Languedoc. Tarascon gets its name
from Tarasque, a monster which is half-fish/half-animal with a lion’s head,
six twisted bear claws and an unhealthy appetite for women and children.
According to legend, the monster was tamed by St. Martha whose tomb is in
the crypt of the church next to the old Château of Tarascon, a good example
of military architecture. The Beaucare side has its own ruined castle
surrounded by interesting gardens. You may want to visit on a Tuesday, which
are fun market days.
Van Gogh…Arles Alycamps
|Continue on to Arles, the former capital of Gaul.
It’s very close and filled with wonders. Arles has splendidly
preserved great Roman buildings. Even today you can watch a concert
or bullfight in the 20,000 seat amphitheatre, Arenes, with its Doric
and Corinthian columns. Not bad for a city of under 50,000 people.
If you climb to the top, you have a great view of this city, the
gateway to the Camargue, and the site where the great Roman theatre
once stood. Most of it is gone now, but the site still offers
productions near the two standing windows made of ancient columns
during the Arles Festival.
Here, too, you’ll find the
Espace Van Gogh, where the master was treated when it was still a hospital.
Even his home can be seen nearby. But, be sure to visit Les Alyscamps, the
tree-lined avenue and ancient burial site like the Elysian Fields. Now
neglected somewhat, it was the subject of paintings by masters like Gauguin
and Van Gogh. It is mentioned in Dante’s Inferno. A visit to the once
imperial Constantine Palace will show you famous, well-preserved baths
dating back to the 4th century. Finally, I suggest you visit Eglise St-Trophime
with its portal of carved saints. This is a Romanesque church with Gothic
and Romanesque cloisters.
Entertainment is widely
available in Arles, where you can walk on narrow streets or wide avenues and
enjoy a large selection of good restaurants. See the wonderful Musée Reattu,
near the palace and baths. I have a soft spot for the works of sculptor
Ossip Zadkine. Look for his reclining Grande Odalisque and Picasso’s
Walk down to the water, where
boats glide up and down the peaceful Rhône and men play pétanque (boules)
under the shade trees just beyond the ancient wall.
South of the Arles, we enter La
Camargue. This is a delta of the Rhône that covers about 350,000 acres. It
is a unique region of wetlands, marshes, pastures, flamingoes and sand dunes
interspersed with rice paddies and salt flats. Roaming freely are small
Camargue horses, white and sturdy, once used to thresh grain. Cowboys, or
guardians, roam the area rounding up these Arabian-type horses and black
bulls used in their special type of bull contest (not fighting) called
course. The guardians once lived in thatched white cottages. Their skills as
horsemen have made them famous. In the spring, they perform in Arles.
Where the road meets the sea
you’ll find Ste. Maries de la Mer. This is a colorful town, especially in
spring when gypsy pilgrims come to remember the legendary arrival in 18 A.D.
of Mary Magdalene.
To the west are new beach
resorts, like La Grande-Motte and Le Grau du Roi, but I prefer the
historical town of Aigues-Mortes (Dead Waters) with its dungeon tower (Tour
de Constance) and limestone fortress walls. Once a seaport, this manmade
town located three miles from the sea was the departing point for the sixth
and disastrous eighth crusade for the king (St Louis) who died of the plague
near Tunis. Visit Aigues-Mortes for its historical value. It was from here
that Louis 1X sailed off to the crusades. There are some good restaurants.
Ask for directions at the information office at the Porte de la Gardette.
For the best choices of hotels, drive the short distance into the bustling
city of Montpellier.
Les Baux Tourist Information
Office (+ 33) (0)4 90 54 34 39
Arles Tourist Information
(+ 33) (0)4 90 18 41 20
You can Contact Professor Arnie Greenberg at:
Over the past few years, Professor
Greenberg has traveled with groups to France, Italy, Spain, Greece,
Budapest, Vienna, Salzburg, Prague and both Sorrento and the Bay of
Naples plus most of Sicily. His tours traveled to the far reaches of the
globe including Italy and most of
China (Beijing -Hong Kong) and to Russia where his group cruised the waters
from St.Petersburg to Moscow.
"He took a group to Greece and another to northern
Russia. In Nov 07 he took a tour group to much of India and ended his tour
groups by revisiting France. He now travels with his wife and friends. They
winter in Argentina or San Miguel Mexico. His newly found spare time
is taken up with his painting and writing. "I must write every day." His
current work is a cautionary manual for would-be tour leaders.. "So
You Want To Be A Tour Leader."
Arnie now travels with friends. He continues writing
Travel articles about unusual places but often concentrates on novel
writing. Two books based on French Art will be published this year.
Keep reading his web for travel ideas. His next
novel HELLSTORM'S Folly,
will be available this fall. He now
lives in British Columbia.
www.top-travel-ideas.com or contact him directly at
(More about the writer.)