Exploring Provence

Arles has been an excellent base for our adventures around Provence, and into the edges of Languedoc and Côte d'Azur. We have found enough nature, culture, history, and food to keep us very happy and very busy.

The train system here is pleasant enough, but that said, we enjoy the independence of having a car and the different kinds of adventures you encounter with one, so we have chosen to rent a car for a few days at a time twice in our stay. Navigating tight streets, figuring out French road signs, dealing with rental agencies with obscure hours, and finding our way to small villages we would never otherwise have seen - it's all part of the experience.

Two of our favorite excursions have been of the outdoor-exercise-nature variety. The first was hiking in the Parc National des Calanques outside of Marseilles. The calanques are the steep-walled inlets along the Mediterranean coast in this area, and they make for some stunning hiking. The rock is all off-white, and the water is clear and turquoise. The green shrubs that grow on the hillsides were flowering in pretty pinks and purples for our visit.

We drove through Marseilles and up into its suburbs, down narrow streets with no signs that made us wonder if we could possibly be on the right track, until we found a parking lot where other people were getting ready for rock climbing, which seemed promising. The trail led up to the crest of a hill, and then down into the calanque to the edge of the Mediterranean. During the summer, people rent cottages here, and you can rent boats, as well.

For us it was a brief rest by the water, then back up the trail. We continued up to the top of the ridgeline and were rewarded with some beautiful views. All in all, highly recommended.

The other outdoorsy highlight was our trip to the Camargue, the huge wetlands area to the south of Arles. The Rhone splits into two branches just north of Arles, and the Camargue fills the space between them. The area is known for its wild, white horses (many are now domesticated), bulls, and impressive bird population, including flamingos!

Many people choose to explore the Camargue on horseback or bike - we went with the latter. The wetlands are too big really for the casual rider (like me) to do a full loop around in a day, so instead we chose a route along the Digue à la Mer - a dyke that runs between the wetlands and the ocean. It was 26 km roundtrip, and proved quite tough riding at times, but the scenery was gorgeous. The colors of the plants in the wetlands were unexpected to me - many reds and oranges mixed in with the greens and tans. It wasn't possible to get really close to the flamingoes, but we saw many from a hundred feet away, and many, many more further off.

The town we used as our base for exploring the Camargue was Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, a seaside resort town. We happened to come on market day, and enjoyed wandering through it. The town is dominated by a large, fortified church, that was unfortunately closed for renovations. We found some great food, though, including an amazing blueberry tart from a cute coffee shop.

Another highlight in Arles's backyard is the Montmajour Abbey, visible in the distance from town. We visited on our very first sightseeing trip from Arles.

The shot of our shoes shows our view looking town from the top of the tower - the edges hang over and inexplicably have openings so you can see right down to the ground! Those grave-shaped cutouts in the rocks are just that - that photo is looking down from the tower onto the burial ground that was carved out of the rock.

The next day, with visiting friends in tow, we ventured a little further afield to the Alpilles, an area of low mountains known for its wine and quaint villages. The rest of the area around Arles is quite flat, being part of the Rhone delta, so you can see these mountains rising up from a distance.

We set out with the purpose of finding a winery, but on our way found Les Baux-de-Provence, a cool, Medieval town and castle set on a rocky outcropping.

We couldn't quite figure out a way to the castle from the town, so we continued on to wine tasting at a pretty vineyard called Mas de la Dame, which had some very tasty rosé and reds.

Mas de la Dame

The Alpilles is also known from Vincent Van Gogh's paintings from his time at the asylum in Saint Rémy de Provence, on the northern edge of the region. We walked around the town that evening and found it very nice, but did not have time for further exploration or a visit to the asylum.

One of the most awesome things about the south of France to me is its ancient history. Almost every city was part of the Roman Empire, and some can trace their history back to Greek times and further. One grand example of the Romans' lasting imprint on the area is the Pont du Gard - an impressive, three-tier section of the aqueduct that ran from Uzès to Nîmes.

You could easily spend several hours at the Pont du Gard, though we gave ourselves just a couple. You can park on either side of the river and walk across the lowest tier of the aqueduct, and you can also hike up either side to get a view from the top. For an extra charge, you can even go inside the water channel on the top level, though we skipped this. You can also go down to the river to get a view from below, and during the summer, people swim and boat in the river.

The visitor center's impressive, and rather unusual, museum also should not be missed. It covers not just the engineering of the aqueduct, but the Roman civilization of that time and the role of water in their "art of living." It has several interactive exhibits, and everything is written in four languages.

After a visit to the Pont du Gard, a stop in Uzès is all but mandatory. Its location on a hilltop produces lovely views, and we found its architecture somewhat Italian-feeling, including a cool bell tower reminiscent of the Leaning Tower of Pisa (in its design - it isn't leaning) and a town square bordered by arcades.

We also fell in love with these ceramic birds from the shop across from our lunch, and I totally intend to buy them for my future house someday.

Uzes

If we had a bit more time here, I would have loved to see more of the area's cities. We visited Aix-en-Provence one evening, and found it a fun and funny place, with lots of bars and an apparent effort to appeal to Americans - we found a bagel shop and a frozen yogurt store called California Bliss. I also visited Avignon for an evening once, but did not make it to the Palais des Papes or the famous Pont d'Avignon. Nîmes has also been calling to me with its cool Roman arena (where Gladiator was filmed!) and Maison Carrée. With such a wealth of things to see and do, we could have easily spent 2 months here!

With less than one week left to go, though, we are super excited to be fitting in one last trip this weekend - Nice and Monaco! And then it's, "À bientôt, France!"