France 2016 - Sunday, October 09 - Arles Amphitheatre, Pont du Gard

Day 10: City of the Popes, Arles, and Avignon

Head to the beautiful town of Arles, ancient capital of Gaul and follow in the footsteps of Vincent Van Gogh during an orientation tour.  Next, see the greatest of the Roman remains, the incredible three-tiered Pont du Gard.  See the remaining arches of the 12th century Pont Saint-Bénézet, the Pont d'Avignon of the famous song and walk through the medieval battlements to the town centre, dominated by the fortified Papal Palace.  The rest of your day is at leisure.  Hotel: Avignon Grand Hotel, Avignon.  Buffet Breakfast.


We went on an optional day trip excursion to Arles today.  We mustered at the Jules Cesar hotel.  There was a story to the city with regards to Cesar but I don’t remember it.  It was the ancient capital of Gaul.  Maybe this was where Cesar garrisoned troops.  Here in this part of France there is something called ‘The Mistral’, a strong wind which essentially blows constantly from the snowy Alps to the warm Mediterranean.  People were bundled up like they were going on an arctic expedition, but I wore pants and a t-shirt.  Sure it was cold, sure the wind was severe but again, I can observe the cold without really feeling it in a way that I just can’t with heat.  I was fine and others marveled at it.  Apparently The Mistral always comes in threes, be it three hours, three days, three months… three years, apparently in olden times The Mistral could be considered a mitigating factor in crimes of passion.  I could see that.  

Today was a good day, a day when I posted on Facebook that I’d ‘walked with the ancients today’.  The highlight for me in Arles was the Roman amphitheater which is still used today for (among other things) bull fights in either the traditional Spanish style where they kill the bull, or in the Course Camarguaise style where they try to pluck a gold tassel from between the bull’s horn.  I prefer this way.  I was offended at the red fence around the interior of the arena where the matadors could retreat too if they got into trouble.  Unfair.  If you’re going to fight an animal to the death, at least have the decency to do it on fair terms where the bull has as much chance of killing the matador as the other way around.  Otherwise you’re just torturing a defenseless animal for the amusement of a crowd and pretending to be any more enlightened than when Roman gladiators battled to the death for the blood lusting entertainment of the crowd thousands of years earlier in the very same arena.  

I touched the cold stone, closed my eyes and lowered my head in reverence.  Two hundred centuries before I was born this structure had been standing and in use.  How many centuries after I am gone will it persist in amusement at my impermanence?  There’s something magical about touching ancience.  It makes me think of a scene in Star Trek: First Contact when Data and Picard have a conversation about how different an experience it is to actually touch a thing than to just see it in a picture or from any distance.  It’s magical to be able to actually touch something that’s been around for so long, and that has seen so many people like me come and go.

In the amphitheatre I followed a cat.  I saw it and I approached it to take pictures, but then when it left it did so slowly, and I followed it as long as I could through tunnels and doorways.  It merowed at me several times as it walked away, and I missed my cats.  I am always wary of them possibly being strays so I don’t want to actually try to touch them, but based on the pictures I took Joyce assured me that it surely appeared well fed enough to be a kept cat as opposed to a stray.  I see a lot of cats.  I like cats.  I want a dog as well.  There were other ruins there was well near the amphitheatre, but they were fenced off and were no longer used for anything.  It was still interesting to see what was left behind after the ‘recycling’ of the materials for other things over the centuries.  

A building which is now the town hall, had an amazing multi-arch ceiling which gave it an amazing amount of open space inside.  The guide told us that it still wasn’t known exactly which stone was the true keystone, so they had to be sure to repair ones that failed and fell out as soon as they did.

We then had a tour focused on Van Gogh.  I’m generally not big into artists, but Van Gogh is famous enough that it was an interesting tour.  Our local guide told us that he spent a bunch of time here and died there in the end.  Apparently he was something of an undesirable in Provence at the time, and when his art started becoming a bit desirable people came back to Arles to collect all of the artwork which had been left there.  Some were portraits of their relative which they didn’t like, in other cases they were sketches he’d left in payment for his bar or restaurant tab.  

We saw the mental hospital garden which he painted, though it was in the middle of being pulled up for winter planting.  We also saw a restaurant which he painted.  The guide we had was fine, she was an older woman and was typically adequate and knowledgeable, but nothing special.  She made a point of telling us that the café depicted in Van Gogh’s painting was expensive and of low quality, that they rested on that notoriety alone.  I appreciated that.  She also pointed out that it was only now painted yellow since it appeared yellow in the painting, but was not originally.  She explained that it only appeared yellow in the painting due to it being lit by streetlights and was originally a different colour.  

I like taking pictures of statues and paintings with exposed breasts.  I’m a man-child.

Joyce and I got a little lost after the tour ended as we tried to find our way back to the old mental hospital where we knew public bathrooms were.  In the end we gave up and made our way out to the main street and pottied and dashed again.  The place where we sat down we only then noticed Ronald and his wife sitting behind me, and they reported that the salads were very big.  As we left after Joyce had used the bathroom, I saw Mark eating Daube bull stew either at the same restaurant or the one beside it, I’m not sure.  If it was the same one he must have been right behind Ronald and Irene.  He made the obligatory joke about it being the bull that lost.  We went into another store where I found the a sticker, having found a bottle opener at a side street souvenir shop earlier, and I again saw the same either the sticker or bottle opener I was still looking for, and I saw those same porno magazines.   I’m not going to go out of my way to look for them, but I think I’m resolved to my intention of buying one out of curiosity next chance I see them, Joyce or no Joyce.  If nothing else it would certainly be an interesting souvenir.

Next after Arles was a big deal.  We went to the Pont du Gard, a three level roman aqueduct, and the second largest surviving aqueduct structure in Europe.   It was truly an amazing site to see, definitely something worth coming out all this way for.  It looked basically straight, but it had something like an eighteenth of a degree gradient, with a meter by meter wide tube which carried something thousands of litres a second over fifty kilometers from the mountains down into their garrison at Nimes.  Twenty centuries old, and the capacity of that structure wasn’t duplicated by more modern engineers until the fifties.  Absolutely amazing.  

We walked along a parallel bridge right beside it which was more like a hundred years old and we were able to look up at it in amazement.  I asked Mark how they fed it at the source, what structure you’d find if you went to the very end of it, which is something I’ve always wondered about these aqueducts.  He told me that at the end there would have been a large holding tank that fed directly into it, and that many smaller streams would be redirected into that holding tank to allow for a constant supply.  Amazing.  My best guess had been that you’d just run the aqueduct directly into the flow of a large river, but of course I realized after I learned the truth that there would be no large rivers up in the mountains to feed into it, rivers all start out an innumerable small streams up in the mountains and only aggregate into larger rivers as they get lower and lower.   Apparently the original structure still exists up in the mountains.  I’d love to see it someday.  

It was a real treat to see that, a real walk with the ancients moment, or ‘#insightmoment’ as Mark kept urging us to post online, which I never did.  Joyce had apparently already seen the Pont du Gard and figured I’d really enjoy it.  She was right.  She’s seen a lot of what we’re doing on this trip, but from different sides and in different seasons, and shown different thing altogether in the same places.  From now on however, we’re moving on to places she’s never seen before.  Maybe it’s being from a place where there are no structures left around from more than a few hundred years ago, but it’s something so special to see.  It’s… humbling.  It gives sympathy for those from previous eras who had to look at the aqueducts or the pyramids and wonder what gods among men created these marvels far beyond anything they could even dream of doing.  It makes me wonder what we’ll leave behind for future humans to marvel at if they’re lucky enough to survive the catastrophe we are creating to leave for them.  Plastic, I suppose.

Apparently, long before the aqueduct stopped working altogether, the flow was severely compromised by communities along the way tapping into it, you know since it was there and all.  Also, I always figured that it was just a sort of open topped sluiceway, but it was in fact completely covered over and made watertight with some sort of fat and grease concoction.  Absolutely amazing.  Mark pointed out the stones which jutted out for maintenance, as well as that there was no mortar, that it was all just well fitted stone.  I felt good about how in ‘Arrival’ I wrote that the only surviving structures of the Squiddies was their unmortared stone tunnels.

There were a number of very old cars there on the side we arrived to first, around ten or so, and not too long after the Model T era.  They must have been having some sort of owner’s club gathering.

We saw olive trees whose trunks looked like twisted up licorice.  Apparently sometime in the recent past there was a severe frost which killed off all the olive trees.  Was it the fifties Mark said?  Olive trees don’t die outright when they’re cut apparently, instead they grow back from the roots and all the smaller new trunks converge and twist around each other, creating a remarkable looking tree like I described later on with enough time.  The one we saw and which I had Joyce take a picture of me with had a plaque stating that this particular one was known to be over four hundred years old.

We walked on to the visitor centre on the other side of the bridge, and by now I was feeling remarkably nauseous.  I was worried that I’d eaten something which was poisoning me.  I bought a giant water when Joyce got a chocolate covered strawberry ice cream bar, and as soon as we got back on the bus I had my anti-nausea pills, and eventually I felt okay again.  At this point I had to start rationing my anti-nausea pills.  I’d been using them too liberally to allow me to read and write while travelling in the bus.  With all the beer and cream I’d been drinking and eating, I’d likewise begun to need to ration my tums supply.

I felt better after my pills and getting back on the bus.  Before going back to the hotel, we got off of the bus on the other side of the Avignon central walled city from our hotel, and our bus went on to wait for us there while Mark walked us through it back to the hotel.  That way we could leave most of our stuff on the bus and pick it up on our way back up to our room after the walk through town.  Avignon was apparently the centre of that pope schism I remember hearing about in my audio history courses in the middle ages.  Avignon is apparently where the other popes went.  The word Avignon makes me think of Shakespeare, but I’m pretty sure I’m thinking of something else I can’t quite come up with as long as Avignon is still in the front of my mind.  

We saw the pope’s residence, a fortress really.  Avignon exists where the river Rhone divides into two legs around a large island before rejoining.  There’s a remnant of a bridge spanning the island that only goes halfway across the river on the walled city side.  Apparently at some point this past year the river was so high that they had to cancel river cruises and reimburse would be passengers.  I found Avignon remarkably peaceful and pleasant.  I could see myself living here.  It was of course again just another walled city, but they do all have their uniqueties.  I could see myself having a modest getaway in this part of the world and thoroughly enjoying it.  In my dream life where I’m a successful and respected writer, I’d have a home here where I retreated to for two or three months when I needed to put the finishing touches on the latest novel I’d been working on.

After showing us the pope’s palace, Mark led us through the old town (which is always the touristy part), and back through to our hotel.  We asked him to recommend a place to eat.  Joyce and I hadn’t had much sleep the night before, and we planned on having a relatively early dinner after getting back to the hotel, and then turning in early afterwards.  He recommended one place, and not only was it too expensive, but it didn’t open until 730.  He recommended another for us.  We wanted to go to a place that had the local specialty ‘daube’, a beef stew cooked for 24 hours, and he assured us this other place he recommended would have it.

We went back to our hotel, freshened up, and headed back out.  I led us back to where Joyce saw some tablecloths she wanted to buy on the far side of the old town, and on the way back we stopped in several places looking for stickers and bottle openers for me, and oddly never found any.  This city where we spent three nights, no luck anywhere.  There were certainly a plethora of tourist shops, but I couldn’t find anywhere the particular things I was looking for.  Giving up, we proceeded to the suggested restaurant, and I wanted to sit outside.  

Joyce thought it would be too cold to sit outside, but decided not to mention this when I’d said back at the hotel that I intended to sit outside.  Restaurants are always so hot inside, especially after you’ve eaten and drank some, and they crank the heat because everyone else things it’s cold out.

One server came out and gave us a menus, a young woman with short white hair.  We were the only ones sitting outside.  At one point a guy walking by said something rather aggressively in French, and when we clearly didn’t understand he said ‘give me money?’ quite abruptly.  We said we didn’t have any.  He then proceeded to make the same demand of everyone he passed on the street as he went on.  He acted as though everyone owed him money and he was trying to collect.  

Eventually a male server came out to take our order.  Having believed I’d figured out the beer thing, I ordered the blonde of a beer brand I wasn’t familiar with, as well as onion soup to start (still chasing the cheese on the bottom dragon), and the daube.  I must have gotten one of the last ones, one or two other people form our group were able to get it at that restaurant, but we learned the next day that they had run out of it.  Joyce ordered warm goat cheese salad and penne with tomato basil and olive sauce, as well as wine for herself.  Although the onion soup did not have cheese on the bottom, it was very good nonetheless.  It was thicker and more like a stew, and came in a bread bowl.  The only chees which came with it was grated parmesan or something in a ramekin on the side.  I ate the soup, scooped out all of the soft bread with the spoon, and then wound up eating the entire soup bowl while I waited for the next thing to come.  

The beer was not what I hoped, it was also quite fruity.  It wasn’t so much as the 1664 Blanc, but still too fruity for my taste.  Joyce tried it and she liked it enough, so I let her drink it and ordered a standard 1664 and Joyce had another wine.  My daube was quite exquisite, big hunks of smoky beef in a thick stew broth with carrots and potato and salty black olives which tasted kind of kalamata-y, with a side of pesto sauce over a thick egg noodle.  

Every interaction we had with the staff was with a different person.  I ordered a crème brulée and that was the last we heard from them, the very last time anyone came out.  They were obviously busy inside, but I made eye contact with staff several times and for like half an hour, none of them ever came out.  Joyce was cold and frustrated, and eventually we resolved to just leave if they couldn’t be bothered enough to attend to us and get paid.  So we dined and dashed on a one hundred euro bill.  Joyce figures the restaurant culture is sufficiently different here that the servers probably didn’t have to eat the cost, and that they all probably thought we were someone else’s problem, but still.  I really didn’t feel great about it.  I wouldn’t say I outright regret it per se, but it’s something I’ve never done before and I certainly don’t feel great about it.