We hit the road to see some new places. Well, new to us, but not to the Romans or anyone else in Provence.
We started out for Pont du Gard and Nimes, but took a wrong turn and continued to Arles instead. Larry, who was driving, was fine with the change. If you don’t get lost, you’re not traveling hard enough.
Arles is where Van Gogh went in search of the colors of the south. It is a colorful place, and when we rolled into town, it was one of its more colorful days. The market was in full swing.
We didn’t spend much time with the market, even though it was full of vegetables and fish and exotic food, because we had been marketed out at Vaison-la-Romaine the day before.
We did, however, go to the Arles tourist office to get a city map. The woman at the counter said there was an exhibit of several Van Gogh paintings. She showed us where. She showed us other Van Gogh sites on the map, too.
Of course we couldn’t keep them straight, and so it took a few tries to find the art exhibition. We stopped at a couple of spots before we found the works on display at Fondation Vincent Van Gogh.
It’s only since Joanna took me to a Van Gogh exhibition at the Hermitage branch in Amsterdam that I have been able to appreciate Van Gogh. Before that, I had only been looking at prints of his work.
You have to see the real thing, stand to one side and see the paint rise off the canvas, get close to see how he breaks the colors into short pixelated strokes, then step back to watch everything blend. If you think about all that hard enough, like how did he do it, how did he get it, you can imagine that you’re going crazy too.
Arles, like most old European towns, has winding narrow streets, old churches, and great doorways, including one flanked by baroque Bernini-style helical columns. One of the motives to travel is to breathe the air in these places.
We took lunch at a small restaurant called L’Autruche, The Ostrich, on a narrow side street. We all ordered the lamb and had it with the local wine.
(Editor’s note: The red wine at lunch was made only with Grenache grapes. Joanna)
Arles is fun, a bit touristy, but still full of commercial streets and places where people live, and isn’t just tourist hotels. There are little silhouettes set into the sidewalk of a figure wearing a floppy hat and carrying an easel, as if to say, “Van Gogh walked here.”
We strolled around Arles, or maybe were blown around by the mistral, which was ferocious. It wasn’t so bad in the narrow old streets, but when we came out to the plaza around the ancient arena, it was too much.
We got a couple of snapshots of arches and then ducked into an alley for cover from the wind.
Thursday Larry reviewed the directions of Pont du Gard and found where we had missed our connection the day before. We were supposed to take the first toll road, A7, for one exit and then get onto A9.
The pont is a high bridge across a huge gorge with a small river called the Gardon. It is part of an aqueduct that carried water from a mountain source to the city of Nimes.
The pont is made of arches upon arches three levels high. It is really remarkable to walk around a bend and suddenly see the Pont du Gard.
To get to the pont, you walk up a slope past another ancient site, a large, shallow cave that seems to have been inhabited in the remote past. You can’t go in, but you can see the areas of the cave floor where researchers have been digging.
You can cross the pont on a walkway next to the second level of arches. I don’t know if the structure is modern or part of the original. The arches are next to the walk.
The mistral has been blowing for days. Wednesday and Thursday have been the worst of it. Cars hit by sidewinds swerved on the highway.
It has also made us much colder than we expected to be.
The mistral blew so hard when we were on the pont that it gave me flashbacks to the Golden Gate Bridge. I didn’t get the same sense of Hitchcock-style vertigo, but I held my hat in my hand.
We entered from the right bank, and when we got across, we came to a steep set of stairs running up a hillside. We opted out of that part.
It was very interesting to get so close to the stonework during the crossing. The bridge is made of huge limestone blocks. Those at the top were lifted more than 150 feet into the air. That would have been done with ropes and wooden engines powered by men and animals.
The pont was built sometime in the middle of the first century, so the Roman arches have stood for almost 2,000 years.
One feature that I found curious is a series of projecting stones. Every second or third course up the side of the pont, a block extends a couple of feet out from the wall. I don’t know if that is decorative or if it served some purpose during construction.
Nimes was packed when we got there. It took a while to find a place to park, for instance.
Nimes is a little less tourist-oriented than Arles is, and that makes it even more interesting to see. Frequently a large door to the street would be open, and we could look in to see a sun-drenched courtyard.
The streets are full of young people. Not because life in town is particularly lethal to people over 40, but because there are several universities in Nimes.
The cafes are full of students. And wonder of wonders, the mistral tapered off by the time we got into the city. We actually sat at a sidewalk cafe for coffee and pastis.
The cathedral nave is undergoing renovation so we couldn’t go inside or see much from the open door, except for three stained glass windows glowing over the sanctuary.
There is a wooden platform attached to one side of the belfry. Maybe that’s where they poured the boiling oil when the heretics attacked.
Maybe as God’s way of compensating for our disappointment over the closed cathedral, a group of monks in dark robes and baseball caps walked by.
One (unfortunately not in a cap) posed for Joanna.
Equal time for pagans, of course. The Maison Carree is a Roman temple dedicated to two dead nephews of Augustus Caesar in the first decade of the first century A.D.
According to Wikipedia, it is “one of the best preserved Roman temple façades to be found in the territory of the former Roman Empire and the only completely preserved temple of the ancient world.”
Dinners over the past couple of days have been unusual by American standards. Wednesday night we had smoked sausage in a tomato sauce with onion. Claude, who gave Larry the recipe, said it originated in the island or Reunion off the coast of Africa.
It was best with the addition of a hot chili sauce. It’s good that we ate it over white rice because that can cool off the tongue.
Thursday Larry put together a sauce of rabbit with mushrooms that went with a pasta that looked like oversize rotini. This wasn’t a red sauce, although there may have been some tomato in it.
Wine flows in this part of the world. We have been having the white from Domaine la Garrigue in Vaqueyras as an aperitif. The wines with our meals have included a couple of reds, whose names escape me, and the Eddie Feraud Chateauneuf du Pape.
Twice now I have enjoyed them too much and that makes me snore all night long. I may be keeping other people in the house awake. I’m not sure. I was asleep at the time.
Good night, all.