Prior to this trip, I had never set foot in the South of France. Given that it is such a renowned region and close to home, I find this strange and somewhat of an anomaly in my travels. If I had to give a reason I would point to a combination of family ties to other parts of the Mediterranean and my desire since leaving home to venture as far away from the UK as possible.
Now with small family in toe, while the need to travel has not dimmed, the desire to go so far has momentarily diminished. The South of France therefore seemed a perfect place for a late winter road trip. Marseille to Nice via Provence, the Cote d’Azure and much else besides.
“Provence” has an undeniable ring to it. A name which conjures up images of picture-perfect French villages, lavender and castles. A region of great history. It is this latter string which drew us to base ourselves in the city of Arles. Founded by the Phoenicians, built up by the Romans and finished off by the French.
On completion of a late night flight, confused drive on and off and on and off the same slip road, parking screw up and labouring lug of small children and gear up uphill streets (travel with kids is rewarding but rarely a breeze), we arrived at our guesthouse, knocked out and then awoke in a remarkable place.
The guesthouse was a lovingly restored 16th century town-house - all heavy stonework and hard wood furnishing - situated at the heart of the old town. Stepping out on our first venture, we turned right, up a winding cobbled street and were stopped in our tracks by a near complete Roman amphitheatre. Startling. We headed straight in.
Built in 90 AD with capacity crowd of some 20,000 it is one hell of a structure. Like many an ancient building that has survived to our times, it has done so in large part due to its continued use. To this day, it is a working stadium for the local form of bull fighting. Climbing up the steep steps, we entered the stands and peered down at the sandy stage of bloodshed, past and present. I could only imagine the atmosphere created by the thronging crowds packing this tight, high, almost claustrophobic arena. Climbing up the steps to the parapet, the elevation gave us a wonderful view of Roman remains, medieval town and countryside beyond.
Around the corner resides the remains of the Roman theatre. At first sight little seems to be intact, until a new angle and innovative explanations bring it to life; stage, stands, theatrics and all. I am not certain the toddlers understood the gravity of the place, but certainly enjoyed crawling all over the gallery steps and remnants of the stage.
Arles' Roman structures are a gem, but the town proved to have much more to it. Trips out were sandwiched with walks through the medieval streets to town squares, monasteries and churches, talks with friendly locals and meals at delicious restaurants. Strange as it may sound, I particularly enjoyed an hour spent at the local playground. In the shadow of the Roman defensive walls on a sunny Sunday afternoon, it was wonderful to see the small ones interacting with the local kids and watch the whole scene of local family life unfold.
Quite simply, Arles proved to be one of my favourite places in France.
CHATEAU DES BAUX ET SAN REMY
We spent a day meandering around the countryside at the heart of Provence. A peaceful, pretty place of gentle hills and agriculture, occasionally punctuated by some unexpected, large French industrial project (I would hazard a guess that French politics includes a fare serving of local pork-barrel politics). We made two main stops, one exceeded our expectations, the other did not.
The former was the castle of Les Baux-de-Provence. Built in the 10th century, expanded through its 16th century heyday and destroyed in the 17th on the orders of Louis XIII, it occupies a towering defensive position atop a rock acropolis which dominates the surrounding countryside. It is a real crawl around ruin, that gets better and better the further you explore. A medieval village clings to its foot, and guides the way up to the front gates. The lower bailey comes complete with replica trebuchet and leads up to the castle proper, all ragged high ruins. Given its dilapidated state, it does a good job of retaining its grandeur and is a top-class climbing frame.
In all this, I should not fail to mention the phenomenal views. Every so often, a break in the wall or high point gave sight of rising, craggy land behind falling away to flat plains in front. A 360 degree panorama of Provence.
Our second stopping place was San Remy de Provence. Drawn by tales of family trips in the 60’s and a famed reputation, it left me feeling a little short changed. The town is pretty enough, with its outer ring of tree lined boulevard and tight-knitted inner old town, but somehow did not catch my imagination. The highlight was watching a game of proper-old man petanque in the town square.
That about sums it up.
Nestled in a large bend of the river Rhone, Avignon is the most famed site in Provence. It did not disappoint. It is surrounded by formidable 13th century walls. In what looks with hindsight as an act of cultural vandalism, so many cities tore down their walls in the 19th and 20th century to make way for progress and wider roads. Avignon is a happy exception, providing the visitor with a sense of discovery as you enter through one of the high gates into the streets within. We enjoyed our exploration leading up to some very civilized French dining in a grand square.
The main draw of Avignon is the Palais des Papes, an immense medieval gothic Papal castle and palace in one. It was the seat of the Roman church for much of the fourteenth century and, after the papacy returned to Rome, a couple of anti-Popes as well.
The scale of the place is very impressive, a reminder of the wealth sucked from the masses by the church. So much for living a simple life above the trappings of earthly things. Quite eerily the place is devoid of furnishings, having been stripped out long ago when the Avignon Popes were a thing of the past. This only provides resonance to the echoey shell and more room for small children to run amok in.
We climbed up the winding staircases all the way to the parapets. As was fast becoming a pattern in Provence, we were greeted by more memorable panoramics from the top. The city, bending, wide river and countryside leading out to the barren slopes of Mount Ventoux.
Our final stop was out to the famous medieval bridge across the Rhone. Rather unhelpfully, much of it fell into the river and it now ends part of the way across the mighty flows. This makes it somewhat of an oddity and an interesting place for a stroll. Best of all are the views back across to the city.
PONT DU GARD
Standing proud after nearly 2000 years, the Pont du Gard is exemplary evidence of the ingenuity of the Romans or, to be more specific, its engineers. The crowning glory of a 50 km system which provided constant flowing water to Nimes, the Pont du Gard is a giant bridge and aqueduct in one. It is the largest surviving Roman structure, standing the best part of 50 m high, crossing and dominating a sharp ravine of the Gardon.
Walking up to it, I was gob smacked. Rarely in my life have I seen anything manmade that is so impressive. Like the amphitheatre in Arles, it has survived through its continued usefulness. For centuries it was the main bridge over the river, maintained by those who benefited from the tolls charged to whoever wished to cross over the rushing river.
It was a great feeling to walk onto the bridge, staring up at the rows of arches overhead and drop to the water below. Firmly on my ‘to-do’ list is to return in summer and free swim beneath this lingering throwback to glories past.
This was a fitting finale to our swift tour of Provence. Onto the Carmargue and then the Cote De Azure…