Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Provence - 07.12-14.09

Once again the SNCF gave us misleading information about our trip. When we arrived in Chamonix we attempted to make a reservation for Avignon for Sunday morning. This would be the longest day of train travel (6-7 hours) all the way from Chamonix to Provence. We were told there were no reservations available on the TGV from Lyon to Avignon, and we would have to take the slow train. (This part may have been true, but...) we were given an itinerary at the train station that involved four transfers to get to Avignon. However, after taking the small train out of Chamonix, we needed only one transfer to get on a train bound for Lyon. Upon arriving in Lyon it was the "slow" train to Avignon instead of the TGV. Which due to the speed of standard trains and the later departure time of the TGV only put us in Avignon a half hour later. Unfortunately, our rental car pick up was at the Avignon TGV station, and not at the regular train station. So we had to pay for the shuttle bus between the two.

With our inability to get TGV reservations with two days notice, we immediately made for the ticket counter in the TGV station to get our reservations for the ride back to Paris on our penultimate day in France. Things didn't look good when we were told RailPass holders could not get reservations for any of the trains. Then the attendant said we could get on the 3:30pm train but would have to upgrade to first class. She explained that it was a high travel day being the day after Bastille Day and many people would be returning home. We thought about traveling the next morning, but didn't want to risk missing our flight. So we paid the extra up charge for the first class reservations. (About 50 Euros per person.) We got our reservations and started making our way to the car rental area when the attendant came out and chased us down. It turns out that because we had the France RailPass, and not the Euro RailPass we had a little more privilege. She could get us 2nd class reservations on the 1:15pm train to Paris. This was not ideal as we had to drop the rental car off at 10am, but it was the best we could get.

We once again headed out to the rental car lot to pick up our car. Since the difference between an "economy" and "compact" car for three days totaled 20 Euros, we opted for the compact. I was hoping for Peugeot 207, but we were given a Renault Megame. It was cool as I had never driven a Renault before, and the handling was not bad. The diesel motor was fun to drive as well. It was also "keyless" in that it just had a credit card sized fob which was placed into the dashboard and the "start/stop" button was pressed to start or stop the car.

We got in the car and made our way to Arles where we were headquartered for the next three days. The driving was a bit confusing at first, because we didn't have the map out, and we mostly followed signs for Arles. (Which works pretty well in France.)

Once we arrived we had some problems finding our hotel and then parked the car there, checked in and went to explore. As with most other places, our first step was to visit the TI and get a map. Then we went on our way. Since it was photography week in Arles, we went to a few gallery shows of photographic work. We also checked out the church of St. Trophime which has the skulls of a few and bones of a number of saints. We walked the city a bit before deciding on a place for dinner. We picked restaurant La Boheme. It was Jennifer's favorite meal of the trip. It is also where I first learned that if you seen something on the menu as an entree in Provence and it says something like "red peppers and anchovies" or "cheve and toast" that it is going to be a salad with those items on it. It seemed like all appetizers in Provence were salads, but usually given titles like the one's above. After having a great meal, we wandered a bit more before retiring for the day.

Since we had the car, we intended to use it to visit other locations. On the next day we drove out to the Camargue, where the Rhone delta meets the Mediterranean Sea. There is a regional park there as well as some agriculture. (Most notably bulls, horses, and rice.) There are also salt farming operations as well. We drove through and got to see the sights and then managed to find out way to the sea. Since the weather was cool and windy (and a bit rainy) we opted not to go in. (We actually didn't bring our swimsuits in the car either.) The beach we found was public, and there were a lot of RVs camping there, but no too many people on the beach. We dipped our feet in the sea, and went on our way.

The next stop was the Pont du Gard. Which is a Roman Aqueduct with supposedly the largest arch the Romans ever built. There was swimming in the river, but we still didn't have our swimsuits. We toured around a bit before leaving and heading back to Arles.

After a shared pizza at a cafe, we did some of the walking tours in Arles. (Arles has three major self guided walking tours: Ancient (Roman), Medieval, and Van Gogh.) We purchased a map for one Euro at the TI and checked out the sights. It was interesting to see the locations where Van Gogh painted and how some are still very similar today. (And how some do not exist due to WWII.) Getting a little more information on some of the Roman structures in town was also nice as well. There was plenty in Arles that was built in the first century and it was pretty wild.

After touring we got the last non-reserved table at Le16. (A recommended restaurant that we really wanted to try.) We had a lovely meal there and continued our walking tour in the setting sun afterward. Then it was time for bed.

The next day we were setting out to visit some Provencal wineries. But our first stop was Terascon where we hoped to see their Tuesday market. We parked on the outskirts of town. (Driving Medieval lanes is not as fun as they make it look in the movies.) Then we started looking for the town square. We stumbled upon a road with a steel fence and many people out and about. Were they awaiting the Bastille Day Parade? I turned around to see three gentlemen wearing red pants, white shirts, and a red scarves around their necks. Then I realized the fence was too strong for people. Shortly afterward, we hear a "gunshot" and some "cowboys" ride down the street with a few bulls in tow. We were witnessing a bull run. This was way more sedate and a smaller affair than you see in Pamplona. The bulls horns we even dulled. But it was an interesting occurrence to stumble onto. After watching a few passes of the bulls we decided to be on our way.

Next stop was a winery. We randomly picked it as it appeared they would be open on Bastille Day and they would not close for lunch. (A common way of doing business in France.) We arrived at a wonderful setting of the winery built into the surrounding hills. We sampled a few wines then were disappointed to find out they did not sell wine in the US. Since we had no way of getting it home, we had to leave without making a purchase.

Our next stop was supposed to be an olive oil producer a bit farther south. On the drive we unexpectedly drove through the Alpilles mountains which was a fun and scenic ride. We eventually stopped to have lunch on the side of the road while viewing the town of Les Baux. We did not stop as the small village was overrun with tourists, and we didn't know if we had a reason to. (Having read the Wikipedia entry, I would have loved to see the trebuchet demo.) Oh well. We continued over the ridge that Les Baux is on, and down to the valley to the olive orchard. Unfortunately it appears they were not open on Bastille Day. But we had a backup plan and headed back through the mountains to reach another olive farm. There we got to sample olives and olive oil and purchased a few items to bring home with us. The owner was very friendly and modest. (The oils were award winning, but unlike the other place which was our first choice, he did not have it printed in the tourist info.)

After leaving we headed back to the hotel to prepare for the rest of our day. We dropped the car at the hotel, and went into Arles to the Arena. On Tuesdays and Thursdays they have gladiator demonstrations that are free with admission to the arena. Since we would not be around for the bull fight [They have a 'tame' version where the man has to remove ribbons from the bull's horns. They also have the violent version.] the following evening. We got into the arena and watched as a bunch of gladiators came out two at a time and sparred. Afterward, they bring kid volunteers out and teach them some moves with wooden sticks and shields. We toured the 2000 year old arena and left to finish our time in Arles.

Our goal was to watch the Bastille Day fireworks over the Rhone. We figured it would start late, as it takes a while for the sun to go down (around 10pm.) But since it was nearly 7pm and we knew a sit down meal would be at least and hour and most likely two, we opted for truck pizza. I don't know if this is a Provencal thing or South of France, or just an Arles thing. But there were plenty of pizza trucks in Arles. (Think taco trucks in LA.) So we opted for one that was on our way to the hotel. We got two pies, one four cheese, and another we are not sure about but now suspect that it may have been honey. (We got it because it had olives on it.) We brought the pizzas back to the hotel to eat and cool off a bit before heading back into town for the fireworks.

We hit the river at just the right time. We both got seats on the wall and we waited about 45 minutes or so before the fireworks started. The fireworks were fun, and everyone got a kick out of a small motorboat which also sprayed fireworks as part of the show. I was expecting something a bit more patriotic, but pretty much the crowd dispersed when the fireworks were over. We went into town a bit to watch a free concert before heading back to the hotel.

The next day we awoke early enough to check out the market before heading to Avignon to drop off the car. There was some delicious produce. We wished we had the ability to carry more olives home, but our packing was already difficult with some wine and olive oil. So we just enjoyed the sites and smells of the market and we were on our way.

We returned the car which was stressful. (As we just made it before our 10am return time.) Then I had to park it in the lot which was full, and I had to wait for someone to leave before I could park the car. Then it was a few hours of relaxing at the train station before boarding for Paris.

Pics are here.

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