September 1, 2014 – It’s hard to believe that today is our first full day in France. We started our day with a fantastic breakfast in the courtyard at Le Patio d’Arles. And by breakfast I mean feast – we had fresh yogurt, figs, grapes, fantastic coffee, buttery croissants, breakfast breads, baguettes with jam, and juice. Everything was fantastic.
Today was our one full day in the region, and we started off by walking into the historic section of Arles. Streets are narrow, and cars, bikes, and people share the space. Somehow it works, and cars and people are considerate of each other. Our first stop was to admire the facade of St Trophime. The church is in a little square with a fountain in the middle, and while we could see how it might get crowded in the summer it was quite quiet and peaceful when we were there.
Up next was the Theatre Antique d’Arles. We got there just when it opened, and headed inside. The space is very neat, given that it’s an old Roman theatre with two of the stage columns still standing. It’s still in use today, and the modern lighting and sound system somehow serves to highlight how old the rest of the space actually is.
Just around the corner is the Arenes d’Arles, a rather complete Roman amphitheater. We headed up to the tower first, for a great view of Arles, the surrounding countryside, and our first introduction to the strong winds that can blow down from the north. The arena is still used for shows and bull fighting, and there’s not a bad seat in the house. After exploring some of the interior corridors we headed across the street for lunch – crepes with cheese, ham and mushrooms while eating outside within view of both the arena and the theatre.
We did a quick tour of the crypt by St Trophime. After walking through the hotel and down a twisting staircase we found the now-empty crypt. It’s long, narrow, and used as storage for some random columns. Since everyone has spare Roman columns stored under their town square. We also splashed through a few puddles on our way to look through a crack in the floor, exposing another unopened level.
Our afternoon was spent in Avignon, a quick 15 minute or so train ride from Arles. Avignon is a much bigger city than Arles, complete with tree lined streets full of old buildings with beautiful wrought iron balconies.
You can’t miss the Papal Palace in Avignon – set high on a rocky outcrop, it’s massive and dominating. You can walk all throughout the palace, admiring the murals that still exist on some of the walls. Once you get to the roof you have a fantastic view of the river, as well as a chance to buy a cafe creme from the little cafeteria. We were (or, at least I was) sorely in need of a coffee break by this point, and enjoyed our drinks while relaxing on a bench on the shade.
After the palace we walked past the cathedral and through the nearby park on a hill and down to the ruined medieval bridge, Pont d’Avignon. You can pay a few euros to walk on the bridge. There’s a neat little chapel there, as well as really nice views of the shoreline. While we didn’t stay too long, it seems that quite a few people were using the bridge as a nice resting spot to get out of the town and enjoy a break in the sunshine.
My dinner plans for this trip hadn’t worked quite as expected – either things were closed for a time, or just not what we were interested in. At the center of Arles, however, there’s a little square with about half a dozen or so restaurants, all with open air dining options and good looking prix fixe menus. We picked one place called Le Bistrot Arlesien (we may have picked differently if we viewed TripAdvisor first, but it turned out fine), got a little table for two (the nice waiter spoke fantastic English, an added bonus since our attempts at French were, let’s just say, not at an adult conversational level) and decided what to order. Both of us started the meal with grilled honey-coated Camembert. Louisa went with the daily special, lamb and vegetables, while Tony tried a steak. It was cooked nicely, but we did discover that we like a little more seasoning (salt, pepper) on a steak. We finished the meal with a very good lemon tart for dessert. We also split some good red wine.
Overall we’re glad we stayed in Arles, since it’s a smaller town, very walkable, with interesting Roman history and not too many people. We definitely like the history and climate in southern France, but some of the areas just feel older / worn, with things like graffiti or animal waste omnipresent in some sections. Definitely worth a visit, and I would go back, but the area doesn’t have the same draw for us that the Alps have.