Be aware of the ides of March. That’s the time when conversations turn from snow and downhill runs to sunny villages and weekend getaways…and southern France. This region, known as Provence, offers a remarkable range of springtime destinations such as Avignon, Arles and Orange.
Provence’s countryside is packed with Roman ruins, interesting towns and fine scenery. A Mediterranean weekend lies four hours south of Paris by the TGV (600F) to Avignon. This central Provence city serves as a good jumping-off point to other cities such as Arles. SNCF offers train-plus-car packages that include round trip fare and car rental…an ideal solution for short trips.
A typical weekend could be made of a series of short village hops, using either Avignon or Arles as home base. Public transportation is surprisingly good in this area. With a little planning it is easy to see the major sights without a car.
The Romans were here in force and left tons of ruins – some of the best in Europe. Seven popes and legendary artists such as Van Gogh, Cézanne and Picasso called Provence home. They all had good taste. Provence offers a splendid recipe of arid climate (but brutal winter winds known as the mistral), captivating cities, remarkably varied landscapes (from the marshy Camargue to the jutting cliffs of the Alpilles hills), and a spicy cuisine…and the locals have a contagious esprit de vivre.
The almost extravagant use of garlic, olive oil, herbs and tomatoes makes this cuisine France’s most lively. To sample it, order anything à la Provençal. Among the area’s spicy specialties are ratatouille (a thick mixture of vegetables in herb-flavored tomato sauce), brandade (a salt cod, garlic and cream mousse), aioli (a garlicky mayonnaise often served atop fresh vegetables), tapenade (a sauce of pureed olives, anchovies, tuna fish and herbs), soupe au pistou (vegetable soup with basil, garlic and cheese), and soupe à l’ail (garlic soup). Banon (wrapped in chestnut leaves) and Picodon (with a nutty taste) are the native cheeses. Provence also produces some of France’s great wines at relatively reasonable prices. Look for Châteauneuf-du-Pape (not always so reasonable), Gigondas, Hermitage, Cornas, Côte du Rhône, and Côte de Provence. If you like rosé, try the Tavel.
“The stranger who succeeds in threading its labyrinth of dirty, narrow streets will be duly rewarded.” Since these words were written of Arles in the 18th century, most of the dirty streets have disappeared, although Arles remains neither slick nor aloof. A thriving riverport city in Roman times, Arles remained so until the 18th century, when it all but disappeared from the map. After taking a beating from American bombers in World War II, Arles has made a remarkable comeback. Today, this compact city is alive with great Roman ruins, an eclectic assortment of museums, meandering pedestrian streets and squares that play hide-and-seek with visitors.
The restaurants and cafés on place du Forum serve basic food with great atmosphere. For a more serious meal, try the Hostellerie des Arènes and eat upstairs overlooking the arena (moderate, on rue du Refuge at the arena). My favorite is le Phénix, a tiny, unassuming gem that seems overwhelmed by the chi-chi restaurant next door (inexpensive, wine included, one block behind place du Forum on rue Dr. Fanton). The restaurant Lou Gardian is packed with locals, and serves regional specialties.
For strolling, focus on Arles’ compact centre-ville, which runs from the river to boulevard des Lices. If you end up in the river or on a main boulevard, you’re out of bounds. There are two tourist information centers. The one at the train station is mellow, and drivers will pass by the main tourist office on esplanade Charles de Gaulle. This is a high-powered mega-information center with more hotel reservations than tourist staff. They speak excellent English. Ask about bullfights.
Buy the “global billet” if you plan to visit more than three of Arles’ sights. It costs 33F (22F for students), gets you into all of Arles’ monuments and museums, and is valid for as many days as you need it. (Sold at all sights.)
Wednesday and Saturday Market – On these days, until 1 pm, Arles erupts into an outdoor market of fish, flowers, produce, and you-name-it. Don’t miss it and don’t just observe; buy some flowers, sample the wine, join in.
Roman Arena (Amphitheater) Two thousand years ago gladiators fought wild animals here to the delight of 25,000 screaming fans. These days, modern gladiators fight only bulls, and if you don’t mind the gore, it’s an exciting show. Be sure to do the roof walk. These were the cheap seats in Roman times, now ideal for a picnic. Walk through the inner corridors and notice the similarity to 20th-century stadium floor plans.
Bullfights (Courses Camarguais) – Occupy the same seats fans have been sitting in for 2,000 years and take in one of Arles’ greatest treats – a bullfight à la Provençal. Three classifications of bullfights take place here. The course protection is for aspiring matadors and not bloody: sort of a dodge-bull game of scraping hair off the angry bull’s nose for money. The trophée de l’avenir is the next class up, with amateur matadors. The trophée des as excellence is the real thing à la Spain: outfits, swords, spikes and the whole gory shebang. Hit a few deli’s on the way to the arena and bring in a picnic dinner. (Bullfight season is from March to October.)
Classical Theater – The high¬brow Romans came here for entertainment about 2,000 years ago, when this theater held over 7,000 people. Take a seat. Imagine sitting through a long play on the rock-hard seats.
Musée Reattu – An interesting collection of 70 Picasso drawings, some two-sided, all done in a flurry of creativity. I enjoyed the room with Henri Rousseau’s Camargue watercolors and magnetic balls display.
Arlaten – This cluttered folklore museum is filled with interesting odds and ends of Provence life. Even the employees wear the native costumes. You’ll also find shoes, hats, wigs, hundreds of old photos of unattractive women, bread cupboards, and beetle-dragon monster. If you like folklore museums, this is a must.
Museum of Christian Art – The best tomb sculpture outside Rome and a creepy basement gallery that once was a Roman forum fill this museum.
This rock-top ghost town is worth visiting for the lunar landscape alone. Get out before the mid-morning crowds hit. A 12th-century regional powerhouse, Les Baux was razed in 1632 by a paranoid Louis XIII. What remain are a reconstructed “live city,” of tourist shops and snack stands and the “dead city” ruins carved into, out of and on top of a 600-foot-high rock. Spend most of your time in the “dead city” which boasts spectacular scenery in the morning light. In the tourist-trampled live city, you’ll find artsy shops and a simple church on place St. Vincent.
Roman Ruins at Glanum
The crumbled remains of a once-thriving Roman city, Glanum was located at the crossroads of two ancient trade routes between Italy and Spain. Pass on the 22F entry fee and backtrack across the street to the free Roman arch and tower. The arch marked the entry into Glanum. The tower is a memorial to the grandsons of Emperor Augustus.
Pont du Gard
One of Europe’s great treats, this remarkable well-preserved Roman aqueduct was the missing link of a 35-mile canal that supplied 44 million gallons of water daily to Nimes. Dare to walk across the towering 160-foot-high aqueduct. Walk up the steps at the base of the aqueduct and follow the panorama signs to a great picnic site, which is always open.
Famous from the French nursery rhyme for its medieval bridge, and brooding Pope’s Palace, contemporary Avignon bustles and prospers behind its walls. During the 68 years (1309-1377) that Avignon played Franco Vaticano, it grew from an irrelevant speck on the map to its importance today as the white-collar, sophisticated city of Provence. The slick cafés and smart boutiques should tip you off right away. If you’re here in July, try to save the evenings for Avignon’s wild and woolly theater festival. The streets throng with mimes, skits, performers and visitors from around the world.
The rue de la République, place de l’Horloge, and Pope’s Palace form Avignon’s spine, from which all roads and activities radiate. The main information center is at 41, cours Jean Jaurès, which becomes rue de la République. Stroll the rue de la République, dip into café life on the place de l’Horloge, and meander the back streets. Avignon’s excellent shopping district is concentrated on the pedestrian streets just off the place de l’Horloge. Modern architecture has been well integrated into Avignon. Visit the rue de la Balance and the place du Crillon, then walk out on the wall and across the Pont Daladier for a great view back on the town.
Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes) – In 1309, Pope Clement V decided he’d had enough of unruly, aggressive Italians. So he loaded up his carts and moved to Avignon for a steady rule under a friendly king. The Catholic Church literally bought Avignon and the popes resided here until 1403. From 1377 on, there were twin popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon, causing a split in the Catholic Church which wasn’t fully resolved until 1449.
The palace is two distinct buildings, with brilliant frescoes, well-hung tapestries and remarkable floor tiles.
Petit Palais – In this palace is a superbly displayed collection of early Italian (14th- and 15th-century) painting and sculpture. All of the 350 paintings portray Christian themes. The Catholic Church was the patron of the arts in those days. Tour this museum before the Pope’s Palace to get a sense of art and life during the Avignon papacy and notice the improvement in perspective in the later paintings.
Parc de Rochers des Doms and pont St. Bénezet – This unassuming little park, located right above the cozy, 12th-century church Notre Dame des Doms, provides a panoramic view over Avignon, the Rhône river, and the vineyard-strewn countryside. Walk to the far end for a good view of the Pont St. Bénezet. This is the famous ‘…sur le pont d’Avignon’ bridge, whose construction and location were inspired by a shepherd’s religious vision. Imagine the bridge extending across to the Tower of Philippe the Fair, which was the tollgate for the bridge and marks its original length. The island that the bridge spanned is now filled with camp¬grounds.
Provence is famous for its interesting small towns. Try to find time to explore at least one of these: Uzès, an undiscovered town near the Pont du Gard, is best seen on foot leisurely, taking a long coffee break in its mellow main square (place aux Herbes). Check out the Tour Fénestrelle and the Duché d’Uzès while you’re here. Uzès is a short hop from the Pont du Gard by bus or car. Cruise up to picturesque Gordes or better yet, visit Châteauneuf-de-Pape, famous for its wine and an ideal place to taste, relax and dawdle.