The weekend supplement to La Provence newspaper recently advertised a special for readers: an overnight, breakfast and dinner for two offered at 24 different "hotels de charme" in France for 118 euros (about $155). A deal too good to pass up. One of the hotels was in Arles, a delightful city I had been to several years ago. This was a wonderful opportunity to return and introduce Bicycle Bob to Arles as he had not been with me on the previous trip.
We arrived a few days before Easter as the town was gearing up for its big festival or Feria — namely bullfights on Easter weekend. I made the mistake of attending a bullfight on my first trip, but more about that later. The city of 50,000 stretches between the arms of the Rhone River and is the gateway to the Camargue, a large area of flat, marshy lands where rice and wheat are grown, and horses and bulls are raised. Flamingoes like to hang out in the swamps.
Arles was founded by Julius Caesar in 46 BC and is said to have the greatest number of Roman ruins after Rome. We visited them all: the Roman arena which can seat 12,000, who come to watch the bloody bullfights much as the Romans came to watch a bloodbath of Christians; the Roman theatre; the Constantine Baths, the Cryptoporticos of the Forum. The latter are spooky underground galleries which formed the substructure of the Forum. We also took in the town's church of note, the Romanesque St. Trophime with an impressive cloister, and the outstanding Arles Archeological Museum. The latter has more than 1,300 pieces of antiquity — statues, sarcophagi, pottery, jewelry, etc. — all from the Arles area. There are also 11 scale models recalling the town in its Roman heyday. Another museum we liked is the Museum Arlaten founded by the famous Provence poet, Frederic Mistral, with a collection of Provencal objects, costumes and a recreation of scenes of daily life, including the "great supper" on Christmas Eve.
My favorite Arles attraction is the Alyscamps, a long, leafy lane lined with the ruins of ancient sarcophagi. The cemetery gained importance in the early Christian period with the burial of the martyr Saint Genest. At the end of the lane is a 12th century Romanesque church.
It's easy to see why Van Gogh was inspired to paint the serenely melancholic Alyscamps. That's not all the Dutch artist painted in Arles. He came to the city in 1888 at the age of 35. Here he discovered the light that had a profound impact on him and his work. Within just a few months in Arles, he turned out some 200 paintings. Many of the Arles scenes he painted are commemorated with easels set up on the spot showing his depiction. It was also in Arles that Van Gogh cut off his ear.
As this was bullfight season, we took in an art exhibit devoted to the bull– colorful renditions of bull heads by a contemporary artist. Outside the arena we watched groups of school children being indoctrinated to the brutal bullfight culture. Bull's heads made of cloth were mounted on the ends of bicycle wheels with long handles. The "bulls" charged the children who waved red cloth mimicking bullfighters. And, we went to the Corrales, where some 30 creatures waited in large pens for a torturous death.
On my previous visit I felt I should see a bullfight. The night before the big event I had witnessed a pre-fight tradition — running of the bulls Arles style. Huge trucks arrived on the main street with a cargo of young bulls. The doors of the trucks were opened and the petrified animals were prodded down a ramp with long rods, then chased by "cowboys"' on horseback. The crowd, lots of teenagers, went wild, chasing the animals, grabbing their tails and trying to wrestle them to the ground. I took pity on the frightened, tormented animals, — beautiful, sleek, black specimens who should have been spared this sick form of entertainment.
The bullfight was far worse. I didn't last long, fleeing the horrific scene in tears. The first poor beast was the victim of a very inept fighter who failed to end the creature's life. The torture went on and on, the bull falling to the ground, then struggling to stand, then falling again. I was close enough to see the blood flowing from its wounds and mouth. The crowd jeered the bullfighter out of the ring, and someone came to put the bull out of its misery. As upsetting as the gory scene were the reactions of the blood thirsty crowd. I had to escape. Where is Brigitte Bardot? She needs to get her troops to Arles.
As one would expect, restaurants in Arles feature taureau (bull) on the menu — steaks, stews. Our best meal, however, was not bull. We enjoyed lunch at La Peniche (the barge), a restaurant I tracked down through Internet research. One of the restaurant reviewers said you needed GPS to find it. Even that would not have helped us. We knew we were close as we walked along the river quay. We even saw the restaurant mailbox, but no restaurant. Finally a jogger pointed us to a boat tied up on the other side of a bridge. When we arrived, the owner told us they had to move the boat the previous day due to reconstruction of the quay.
It was worth the extra steps. I had pheasant with a porcini mushroom sauce while Bob chose salmon croustillant, pieces of salmon enveloped in won ton wrappers and deep fried. Both delicious with high marks for presentation on trendy rectangular plates with artistic flourishes. Bob's dessert — apple also enfolded in won ton wrappers and served with a to-die-for caramel mousse and homemade ice cream — was outstanding. And, it was pleasant and soothing to dine on a boat on the river.
Out hotel, Mas de la Chapelle, was another challenge to find, hidden in the hinterlands on a one-lane dirt road. We loved it — a delightfully quirky place with several buildings surrounded by gardens, ponds, a swimming pool, statues and Grecian urn type flower pots. The main building includes a chapel built by the knights of Malta, now the setting for a bizarre type of living room with seating groups of antique furniture, giant candelabra, a strange statue of the Virgin, religious paintings, even a grand piano. Our room, Blanche (white), was spacious with a dramatic painting and drapery treatment over the bed. The window overlooked a pond full of happy, croaking frogs.
If we go back to the area, we'd be sure to stay there again.