Avignon to La Camargue

Avignon to La Camargue

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We depart Avignon (see Provence Part I) 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.

 

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 sketches.

 

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 gardians, 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 gardians 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 Stes. 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. 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.

 

Some Important Contact Information

 

Les
Baux Tourist Information
Office                 
(+ 33) (0)4 90 54 34 39

 

Tarascon/Beaucaire
Information                       
(+ 33) (0)4 90 91 03 52

 

Arles
Tourist Information
                                
(+ 33) (0)4 90 18 41 20


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