After four nights in busting Paris, we were excited to board the train at Gare du Nord, and experience French country life. Prior to this trip, I had only visited Paris, and I was truly unprepared for the diverse beauty of the country. In Provence, we discovered treasures in a lively open air market, took in panoramic views of the countryside, stepped into a medieval castle tower, swam in the shadow of a Roman aqueduct, hiked among red rock formations, spotted ancient white horses and pink flamingos, and even retraced the footsteps of one of my favorite artists.
In less than four hours, we arrived at our home base in Arles, only to discover that taxis did not run on Sundays. Our wonderful farm stay owner, Pascale, offered to come pick us up herself. (Pascale also took us to the nearby Chinese buffet to get dinner, and brought us fresh bread in the morning when she realized our family was stranded without a rental car…and without food.)
Mas Petit Fourchon, a beautiful farmhouse just a short drive from the city center, had been recommended by our Rick Steves guidebook. The little cottage rental on the property became the perfect home base for our family, with sprawling grounds for the kids to explore, two friendly dogs that came by just in time for breakfast each morning, and even a saltwater pool. (Being early June, the pool was a tad crisp, but we took daily dips nonetheless. It may have raised eyebrows from the Mediterraneans, but we are from the Northwest after all.)
The next morning, we collected a rental car, and took a trip to the local Intermarche to stock our kitchenette with food for the week. One of the ways we keep travel affordable is to prepare many of our meals ourselves. I appreciated the healthy and picnic-friendly options like ready-made lentil and quinoa salads for lunches on the go. The kids thought it was funny that peanut butter, when finally located, was in the “ethnic” section.
Given our home base was just a short bus ride from Arles, we took several trips in to town, making sure to go on days when the bustling market encircling the town along the ring road was in full swing.
In addition to the market, where we picked up a few treasures and gifts to take home, we enjoyed the city walk including Old Town and the Roman Arena (amphitheater). Arles boasts some impressive monuments including a coliseum, classical theater, and cloisters.
Visiting the Musée de l’Arles et de la Provence Antiques is a must-see, and you can purchase a special combined pass that includes admission to the museum as well as access to the Roman ruins in town. The highlight of the museum for us was the fully reconstructed Gallo-Roman barge and related artifacts that were discovered in the Rhone river and have been completely reconstructed. More about the boat here.
Another highlight of Arles for me was visiting Hôtel-Dieu-Saint-Espirit (The Old Hospital of Arles) which was built in the 16th and 17th centuries. If you are a Van Gogh fan, you can visit the small museum in town or follow an extensive walking tour, but entering and enjoying the hospital garden is free for anyone wishing to pay respects to the tormented artist. The original design of the courtyard as described by Van Gogh has been preserved, and I found it to be quite moving. For a walking tour click here.
Our restaurant meals in town were a bit disappointing. I recall two overpriced and uninspired lunches in the tourist trap area of the Old Town. Given we were traveling with kids, it took all our energy to plan out our excursions, leaving us to fall back on what was available. Be sure to do some research ahead of time if you want a quality lunch spot in town. I wish I had brown-bagged it and saved 50 euro.
Les Baux-de-Provence, just a short drive from Arles, was one of our first day trips. The village itself is considered to be one of the most beautiful in France, with panoramic views of the French countryside, and for a reasonable entrance fee you can access and walk the grounds of the historic monument and castle Château des Baux circa 10th century. After enjoying the castle grounds and sweeping views, we stopped in a local café for a pick-me-up, where I tried my first and possibly last pastis. (The waitress was quite impressed, though, that I thought to order this local libation.)
Pont du Garde
Pont du Garde, another breathtaking day trip less than an hour from Arles, is a statuesque Roman aqueduct from 19 B.C. that spans a canyon over the Gardon River. Admission includes access to the grounds and wonderful trails surrounding this UNESCO world heritage site. Made of soft yellow limestone, it once supplied the city of Nimes (one of the largest cities of ancient Europe) with its water. During the peak season months you can also enjoy impressive light shows in the evening. Unfortunately we were traveling a bit too early to experience that, but we did enjoy a full day including a picnic lunch, hiking, a swim in the river, and a treat at the riverside café afterwards.
This jaunt is slightly further afield, about one hour from Arles, and we made a brief lunch stop here en route to Roussillon. (Roussillon is then about a half an hour away.) L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is a Provençal town best known for its antiques stores, weekend markets, and moss-covered waterwheels on the Sorgue river. Unfortunately, the market was just closing shop as we arrived, but I was able to quickly snag some locally made soap and honey before the vendors closed. The kids also enjoyed feeding the ducklings a bit of our baguette along the river.
Village of Roussillon
The sheer variety of the French landscape was a pleasant surprise to me, and I certainly was not expecting to find beautiful red rock formations that are akin to those in Arizona. Roussillon is a gorgeous village in the Luberon known for its ochre deposits and red soil and rocks. The town itself is very small and touristy, and we did not do much there other than buy some crepes at a café. But we enjoyed hiking through the spectacular ochre hills and taking in the stunning views and interesting natural formations.
The Camargue Regional Nature Park
Our last and final day trip was to the Camargue, between the Mediterranean Sea and the Rhône. The Camargue has been named an Important Bird Area (IBA) by BirdLife International, and hosts 400 species of birds including one of the few European habitats for the greater flamingo. (Did you know that there were flamingos in France? I didn’t. Just one of the many amazing things we discovered about this diverse country.) Another highlight was seeing some of the famous Camargue horses, an ancient breed, considered to be one of the oldest in the world. Here’s an interesting National Geographic article on the Camargue horse.
In Provence we were finally able to slow down and settle in to French life, making the perfect transition to our final destination, the French Riviera. On the Cote d’Azur, where our days started with fresh baked bread from the local boulangerie just up the cobblestone steps from our flat and ended with a long passagiata along the sea, our vacation would truly begin.
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