France - Arles via London
We had a fantastic 2 night in the Royal Lancaster Hotel on Hyde Park. It is a little more expensive than what we would normally book, but it was my 65th The trip from Portugal got in late then we had a long trip from Gatwick to Blackfrairs where a very rude taxi driver picked us up. No tip for him. So, we got into our hotel at 2:00, exhausted. A late start on Easter sun day with a walk across the park to Harrods which was, we were told, open. Not so. Not that we were shopping so back to the hotel. Where there was a birthday card and a plate of petite fours how wonderful. We ate dinner in the Hotel as it has one of the best Thai restaurants in London and it was very nice (10% off for my birthday and a birthday dessert).
Up at dawn the next morning for our trip to Arles. The loveliest taxi driver, who has a birthday on Thursday and is going to celebrate in Beirut!! He says it is n ow the place to go, so good on him. Our train trip to Arles was hideous, with the train to Paris Du Lyon changing platforms so we missed the first 3 and ended up rushing for our train at Paris du Lyon, which was then 30 mins late. This will get us in to Nimes 2 mins after our train to Arles leaves. The conductor sorted it out and said the train for Arles was 10 mins late, so we should make it. We could not work out what platform we needed to be on so spent a stressful 5 minutes looking for our train. The trip to Arles was shorter than expected and with our luggage scattered across the carriage it was a rush to get off….. we left a bag behind. Carole picked us up at the station and took us to our amazing house. It is gorgeous right next door to the Arena, amphitheatre or whatever. Very cosy and well equipped. Carole is a sweety although her English is not as good as she led me to expect.
The next day short walk back to the railway station and the station master handed us our bag. How good it that? We have spent a week getting to know the town. Market day on Wednesdays and Saturdays, what a temptation to buy to much cheese, cold meat and veggies.
Sunday there was a carnival or festival for the end of winter. Everyone was out and there were people dressed up. Plastic rabbits, foxes, ravens, fish and full-sized bull, camel and Pegasus. A stage was set up outside our front door, we sat upstairs in the bedroom window and watched the fun with sandwiches and a glass of wine how fabulous. You should all come to Arles it is wonderful.
Here we are in France. I love it. We booked our tour, for when Julie joins us, we will be going around the Camargue. The man at the Tourist bureau would not let us book an afternoon tour as that would only give us 1 ½ hours for lunch, love the French. It turned out well as we had a great tour that went over time by 30 mins definitely not enough time for lunch.
Julie arrived for a short stay and as the trains are on strike she came by car, not a problem until you realised where we live is a closed precinct and a card is needed to get in, so Julie drove around with me trying to give her directions. Eventually she left the car and I walked out to meet her. I am very glad Julie is driving the roads here are extremely narrow. We got the car in to our car park, by driving the wrong way up a street. Not my best navigation.
The next morning, we were off on our tour with Sandine (Sandy) and a young bird photographer we called Coco as his name was too hard to pronounce. The weather held good and we set off to see the white horses, black bulls and pink Flamingos of the Camargue. Poor Julie had, had a headache in the morning and the only pain killer we could find were from Ross’s toothache, they were very strong, Julie spent a lot of the trip sleeping with us waking her to show her the highlights. The horses are not wild which most people think but are all owned, they are just allowed to wander an forage. The male horses are ridden by the Guardians, who look after the bulls and Horses for the farmers. We saw lots of wild birds too, especially flamingos. Sandy knows everything about the Camargue.
We get to see lots of the black bulls which are so sweet. They are very even tempered so not many get chosen for the bull fighting. Razeteurs (Camargue bullfighters) come head-to-head with Camargue bulls in this chivalrous game that requires such values as loyalty and valour from both man and beast. Skill and agility, along with a mutual respect, are key to the Camargue bullfight. Unlike with corridas (Spanish bullfights) which show the matador's name in big letters, posters publicising the course Camarguaise puts the bull's name before that of the razeteur. The name of the manade (farm) from which the bull comes is also given. The true star of the show is really the bull! From fight to fight, his qualities bring him glory and make him a sought-after animal, guaranteeing some very action-packed afternoons!
As for the razeteurs, they are just support acts, their fame being based on the reputation of the bull that they are facing. No blood is spilled in the Camargue bullfight; the Camargue bull does not come to kill, unlike his Spanish cousin! When this bull kills, which unfortunately can happen, his name is scratched from all lists! The razeteurs compete against one another to remove, as quickly as possible, the objects placed between the bull's horns. These are strings, tassels and a cockade which each earn the razeteur a cash prize upon removing it, but, before cutting and removing each of the objects with his four-bladed hook, he must first tire the bull, which, with good strong legs, often chases the razeteurs right up to the barrier. This results in the razeteurs throwing themselves several feet in the air over the barriers in order to escape the sharp and powerful horns. Sometimes, the particularly agile bulls will also jump over the barriers, making the event even more dramatic and emotional, especially for those in the first row! We see a statue of Vovo known for breaking the barriers and therefore making the fight very exciting. We also see Garlan’s statue this famous bull won best bull for three years in a row. He is retired to a local farm and we have maybe seen him as we saw the bulls in the field he is retired to.
Then a short walk around Saintes Maries de la Mer. The Church of Les Saintes Maries de la Mer experiences a few times a year, hours of intense fervour that accompany these Pilgrimages. Romanies, Manouches, Tziganes and Gitans come from the four corners of Europe and even other continents to venerate their Saint, the Black Sara. They camp on the streets, on the squares, on the beach. During eight to ten days, they are at home. The pilgrimage is also the occasion for reunions of friends and family, and most of the children are baptized in the Church of the Saints. We visited the crypt of Sara, the Patron saint of the Gypsies.
Back in Arles we had a leisurely lunch. The Tourist expert might be right about 1 ½ hours not being enough, we chat with the people next to us who advise us to see some villages close to Arles as Julie has shown an interest in acquiring property around here. Wandering back to the house we do some retail therapy and Julie fits perfectly into the LaCroix t-shirt, I wanted (to small for me) It has a stylised lady with a flamingo purse and “Its LaCroix Sweetie” on it a classic t-shirt. We also find some lavender hand cream and a few fridge magnets.
Another day another adventure and today we visit the market. Purchasing many kilos of cold meats, cheeses and pate some for Julie to take back to Dubai and some because I cannot resist. We then find belts which we all need, but do we need 4? Other handy things like covers to close our wine bottles (as if I ever leave any wine in a bottle). Then we find hats who can resist a fabulous red hat “lets buy 2”. After a lunch of cheese, pate and cold meats fresh from the market, we drive to the country.
The first village was Fontvieille we stopped outside the village to view the old Roman aqueduct. It very impressive but in great disrepair. I guess with Roman ruins all over the country it is hard to keep them all repaired. Fontvieille was a lovely village, we did not stop due to the rain. Les Baux de Provence is closed off it can only be visited on foot, cars were everywhere. We drove on and got to Saint Remy de Provence. Parking the car outside a patisserie, made vanilla slices a must (they were fabulous). The village was gorgeous lots of lovely shops and galleries. I pop into one end up talking to the artist Pascal Bouterin who was an amazingly interesting man. I have already fallen in love with one of his paintings and as he points out he is going to be the next Van Gogh or other famous French artist I would be silly to miss the opportunity to purchase while he is still fairly unknow. I say fairly as he has had exhibitions around the world and is reasonably well known. I purchase the painting.
Back in Arles we have an early dinner as we have heard there is a free series of concerts in one of the main squares. Replete with Cunard cooked in honey and lots of alcohol we stand in the square to listen to a beautiful duet cello and clarinet. The stage is set in a garden of paper roses or poppies which light up and dim during the performance. The whole thing is entrancing and mesmerising. What and experience.
I am loving France.
We walk to the markets on Wednesday and Saturday for fresh bread, cheese, pate etc. I am feeling French.
We booked another tour and went to revisit some of the places we saw with Julie. There were 3 of us a lovely Croatian girl and Ross and myself. Jean-Michael our tour guide was again just lovely. The aqueduct we visited with Julie was explained it is a double water carrier. There is a point where one stream of the water took a sharpish right-hand turn and went on to Arles the other steam went straight through the hill, split in two and was used to turn a series of mill stones. The mill was huge and built down the hill, so each stone was lower than the last. The ground flour was then shipped to Arles or Nimes. Those Romans were very smart.
We decided to take some time to visit the Hospital Van Gogh spent some time at. The stop was not actually on the tour, but we gave up time in St-Remy-de-Provence. I have already spent too much money there. The hospital grounds are just beautiful. So many flowers a lovely old church and a cloister with pansies. I can quite see why Van Gogh was at his most productive here. The flowers where everywhere, during our drive we saw fields covered in poppies, swathes of irises, lilac bushes. At one area Jean-Michael showed us Thyme fields, wild rosemary and fennel. I also found out the trees making me sneeze are Poplar (not so popular with me!!).
After van Gogh we went to Les Baux de Provence a stone town built on a mountain. We first saw it at from the look out what a view. Photos cannot do it justice. We then parked and walked around the town. Not many people live there anymore (30) the rest live down in the valley. This is because there are too many tourist, in the summer and it is impossible to get around. I cannot begin to describe how nice the town is with its tiny little streets all heading up to the castle. The hills are steep, we had to stop for a rest and an ice cream. Lavender and Thyme are my favourites.
On our way back to Arles we discussed going to Pont Du Gard the next day. Suzanna was leaving that afternoon but desperately wanted to see it. Jean – Michael said he could take us if he was not working.
Jean – Michael was not working. He took us on a private tour in his own car. We again so lovely fields of thyme and rosemary. Pont Du Gard was amazing a Roman built aqueduct to take water to Nimes it is three arches high and is wide enough to take 3, A380 nose to tail. It is absolutely breathtaking and in almost perfect condition. We spent quite some time just walking and looking. Jean- Michael then said he would take us to a canteen in Arles. He said the food was good and cheap. He was not wrong it was very much canteen food, but tasty.
On Sunday it was off to St Marie de Mere for a bull fight, a French one. In the French fighting they must take tokens off the horns of the bull and the bull is not killed. The bull is the star and gets named on the programme the razeteurs are just there to take the tokens. We set off to get there on the bus. Not sure if we were at the right place I asked a French lady, she was very sweet and said yes, we were. Her English was no good but somehow, we managed to have a conversation about whiskey. The bus arrived full and did not stop. Panic no bull fights for us. My French lady said we have a car come with us. Off we went with 2 old French ladies, Ross was worried we were being kidnapped!! Our new friends were so sweet they took us to the town by way of the tourist route showing us the horses, Bulls and Flamingos. When we got to town they could not find a park so dropped us off and asked if we wanted a lift home, we said no thinks but how lovely off them.
The bull fight was very exciting we saw 4 bulls all different, one broke the retaining wall down, one kept jumping the retaining wall, one kept just bashing it and was really angry. The razeteurs were very agile and brave. They ran from the bulls jumping over the retaining walls and hanging on to the spectator rails. That was a huge jump. The bull that kept jumping the retaining walls had everyone laughing. I think it actually won its round. It was already a champion. These bulls fight for 5 years and then retire out to the farm. We managed to get on the bus on the way home and no sooner had we taken off than a fight broke out 2 seats behind us. The bus driver had to come back and break it up. We were glad to get home at the end of the day.
The rest of our stay was visiting places in Arles. I managed to eat all my favourite French foods. The Van Gogh exhibition was great but nit so many Van Gogh as expected even in the town he did most of his painting.We also visited the famous cafe, but of all the places we ate and drank in this was the worst, living of the fame I guess.
We leave Arles soon Carole gave us a lift ot the station. She has been very good to us.