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Avignon to La Camargue
by


Professor Arnie Greenberg

We depart Avignon 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. 

Van Gogh…Arles Alycamps - click to enlarge
Van Gogh…Arles Alycamps

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 guardians, 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 guardians 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 Ste. 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.  It was from here that Louis 1X sailed off to the crusades. 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.

Contact Information

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

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

Arnie Greenberg

http://www.top-travel-ideas.com

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You can Contact Professor Arnie Greenberg at

Email:  Ultours1@gmail.com

Over the past few years, Professor Greenberg has traveled with groups to France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Budapest, Vienna, Salzburg, Prague and both Sorrento and the Bay of Naples plus most of Sicily. His tours traveled to the far reaches of the globe including Italy and most of China (Beijing -Hong Kong) and to Russia where his group cruised the waters from St.Petersburg to Moscow. 

"He took a group to Greece and another to northern Russia. In Nov 07 he took a tour group to much of India and ended his tour groups by revisiting France. He now travels with his wife and friends. They winter in Argentina or San Miguel Mexico.  His newly found spare time is taken up with his painting and writing. "I must write every day." His current work is a cautionary manual for would-be tour leaders..  "So You Want To Be A Tour Leader." 

Arnie now travels with friends. He continues writing Travel articles about unusual places but often concentrates on novel writing. Two books based on French Art will be published this year.  Keep reading his web for travel ideas.  His next novel HELLSTORM'S Folly, will be available this fall. He now lives in British Columbia.

Go to:  www.top-travel-ideas.com or contact him directly at ultours1@gmail.com.

(More about the writer.)

 
 

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