Demystification Guru

Just because we don't understand something, doesn't mean it isn't understandable.

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Location: Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

France 2008 - Arles, May 22

Our last day in Arles. We thought we would take the bus to Aix for the day but when the alarm goes off at 6 am, we roll over and go back to sleep, thinking, we are on holiday after all. Eventually we go out for breakfast, get souvenirs and decide to take in some of the museums left on our museum pass. First, two places we visited but I forgot to write about until now.

The Musee de l'Arles Antique is all about the ancient past of Arles (as the name implies) and contains all sorts of things dug up like floor mosaics (which were stunning, by the way). I recommend a visit just for the history of it all. It was mentioned in our France for Dummies book and they said it was "a long dusty walk west of the old city". We studied our ever-present map of Old Arles and while the museum is clearly indicated, it doesn't really show how to get there, because you have to cross a major autoroute/bridge getting out of the old city. We'd walked along the wall by the Rhone a few times but once we got to the autoroute/bridge, we stopped and turned back.

This time, we carried on walking and saw there was a road under the autoroute as it turned into a bridge. We had to abandon the gentility of walking on old narrow and quieter roads and venture out into a place where pedestrians were an afterthought (if they were thought of at all, really). As avid cyclists back home, we are certainly not afraid of traffic but it is noisy and dirty. After we walked under the bridge, we passed a wine co-op which looked deserted but I suppose it only gets used in the Fall at harvest time. Then we passed a skateboard "park" which is actually noted on the map. It had one small curved ramp and it was covered in graffiti. Other than the graffiti, there was no evidence it was ever used. Now, if you wanted to encourage your young people to do their skateboarding in one controlled spot, why would you ever build something remote, ugly and small like this and put it where no one would ever go, except to spray paint on it in contempt? Talk about not involving the stakeholders.

As we rounded a bend in the road, we were startled by the modern appearance of the museum of antiquities. It is a giant blue metal structure, all angles and blank surfaces. I guess it works in its own way. But it is also isolated outside the city, with nothing else around it to see or do (unless you are a skateboarder, I suppose). It was still a ways off and as we plodded along the dusty walkway, we passed the excavation of the ancient Roman Circus which was interesting in itself to look at. When we finally got to the museum, a bus full of small children was disgorging its contents and although we beat them in to the building, they haunted us around the exhibits, their voices echoing along with their extremely loud efforts to shush each other.

Speaking of art, I also forgot to mention what was almost performance art, or at the least, social commentary art. We often would go down to the Rhone and walk along the wall from one end of the Old City to the other. One day, we spotted GOLD dog poop!
France 2008
That's right, someone had collected a nice sampling of large breed dog poop, painted it gold and then reassembled it in at least three different locations along the wall. It made me laugh out loud when I saw the first batch of it and by the time we saw the third batch, it had become apparent that someone was making a statement. I thought it was fabulous and hilarious at the same time.
France 2008
I did have to poke it with a stick to see if it was real on the inside and it was. I never knew if anyone else remarked on it or if it got written up in the local paper (was there a local paper?) but I applaud the efforts of the artist.

The next place I forgot to mention was also a bit outside of the walled city but you only had to cross the ring road boulevard to get there and it seemed more pedestrian-friendly. This was Les Alyscamps, an ancient burial ground from at least Roman times. According to my guide book, the Romans avoided the place at night so early Christians met there in secret. Vincent VanGogh also painted a picture of people strolling there in his time and there is even an "easel" set up with that painting on it, to show his vantage point (as there is at the Cafe au Nuit and the other places around Arles where VanGogh painted now famous scenes).
France 2008
What I found interesting was the apparently discarded carved stone bits outside the church. The church itself is beautifully lit and serene and seems to be in the process of renovation. So maybe what appears to be pieces of Roman columns aren't supposed to be there. Maybe they'll be taken to the Museum of Antiquities later?

So, back to May 22. We went to the Foundation VanGogh , which was NOT on our museum pass. Many of the artists shown at the Foundation were asked to do an homage to Vincent in 1988 and these works are shown here. There are also a few pieces from before and after that year, done by other artists as an homage, and collected for the Foundation. I enjoyed seeing what artists would imagine as an homage and found it quite inspirational. It is a fairly small collection which can be seen in a short time and there are many things to buy when you leave, if you want.

Finally, we went to see what was at the Musee Reattu, since it was right across the street from our hotel. The museum was named for its owner back in the late 1800s, Mr. Reattu. There are many of his paintings there - he was a classically trained figurative artist who painted large allegories, among other things. But his bigger claim to fame was that he collected work from contemporary artists such as Picasso and so there is an eclectic mix of work there, including some very modern pieces collected by the museum as it now exists. The current exhibit shows the work of the couturier Christian Lacroix from the last 20 years or so. Some of the outfits were clearly runway fantasy pieces but I enjoyed examining the workmanship and appreciated the effort that went into creating each garment.

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

France 2008 - Arles, May 21, our anniversary

Today is our 26th anniversary. We were supposed to go on our "big trip to Europe" for our 25th but this will do, now that we are here. It's a Wednesday and our map says there is another market on Wednesdays, only on a different section of the big ring road boulevard. We had already walked down that section, looking at the ancient walls of the city from the outside.
France 2008
We had also come upon one of the cemeteries of the city and spent quite a while there, quietly walking around the many above-ground mausoleums. Some graves were obviously visited frequently but others had had no one come by in years. I have not been to New Orleans but it reminded me of that cemetery style, with everything in crypts.
France 2008
This time, we decided to go straight to the market and get our breakfast there and much to our dismay, we found out this was a junk-only market with no food at all. By the time we discovered this, we were tired, cranky, and caffeine deprived so we walked back into the Old Arles and found a small "tabac" that sold cafe and croque monsieurs. I remembered croque monsieurs from my days in Belgium back on the 70s and they are still bread with some cheese and maybe something else on them. Not too exciting but better than no food.

We decided to do laundry, in spite of it being our anniversary. We had found a coin operated laundromat (laverie automatique) the previous week and had determined that we would do two laundries while we were in Arles, timing the second one so that we would have enough fresh clothes to get us through Paris and home again. This was Wednesday and our travel day to Paris was Friday so we figured it would be a good time. There really weren't enough shirts and underwear and socks to justify a full load but when you travel light, you do laundry when you can.

We got back to the laundry, after our late and unsuccessful breakfast and no one was there yet. You put your clothes in the chosen washer (a front loading machine) and then go buy the soap by hitting certain buttons on a wall mounted machine and then putting in the money it told you (30 cents). Then you choose your machine on the same gizmo and put that money in (3 Euros). Then you set your watch and go have a coffee or something in the Place Voltaire, which was very close by. By the time the laundry was done and we'd taken it back to the hotel to hang and fold, it was lunch time.

We had rediscovered where the fabric store was that I had seen on the first day we got to Arles and looked around. It was just off the Place Voltaire, heading away from the Arena and toward the old walls. After lunch (at which I fed the black Lab again), I left Peter in the Place having a glass of wine and I headed over to the fabric store where I took my time and bought 16 metres of fabric of different patterns - 2 of this, 4 of that. The woman cutting the fabric was very nice but she didn't speak any English so our conversation was a little limited. As she finished cutting the last few metres, I started looking around for a sign by the cash that said "Visa" and had a sinking feeling when I saw no such sign. I asked her if she took Visa and she looked at me surprised and said "of course not".

So I told her I would be right back with cash. She actually looked like she believed me - she didn't look worried. But I would have been worried if I were her, cutting all that fabric and then not being prepared to take plastic from an obvious tourist. Yikes. I literally ran back to the Place and found Peter chatting with some Americans. I gasped out that I needed 142 Euros and fast! He actually had the cash on him, so we didn't need to go to an instant teller.
Provencal fabrics
I ran back to the store and paid for my purchase. I was relieved that she acted as if this was normal but I was amazed at the same time. I toted my fabric back to the Place and sat while Peter introduced me to what appeared to be a mother and daughter from the States. They were good friends, as the older woman's now late husband had taught the younger woman in high school. The younger woman was a chef and she was taking a working holiday by teaching cooking at a B&B in Arles for a few months and so the older woman was staying there too. They were very pleasant, tres gentil.

We stay for a while in the Place and then make our way back to the hotel to drop off the fabric and change for dinner. We decide to go back to La Gueule du Loup for a second meal, as the first one had been so wonderful. We discover the menu is the same so we order something different and enjoy it just as much. One of our desserts had lavender flavoured ice cream in it, something we had never had before. We toast ourselves - to another year.

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Friday, June 20, 2008

France 2008 - Arles, May 20

Some more observations:

Most cars and especially larger vans have scrapes and dents down the sides. Not so much on the fenders front and rear but the sides are often bashed in. It is not surprising, given the narrow streets, many bollards and the tendency of every driver to think he or she has the right of way at all times. There are many one-way streets but people park in them (only temporarily!) and two cars often don't fit abreast. They love their mobility but maybe they don't care so much about the car. Since they don't have the road salt issue we have in Canada, they must not get rust like we do, so they don't fix up the dents so readily. Interesting.

We were sitting as is our wont, in the Place du Forum and suddenly we were invaded by Les Anglais. About a dozen loud people arrive and promptly rearrange the patio furniture. The fat and old ones sit down, the others mill about. We ask our waiter, "hey, les Anglais sont faire du bruit. Q'est que c'est ce passe?" and he replied that they had been to a wedding recently and seemed to have enjoyed the local wine.

Another Place to hang out is the Place Voltaire, cheaper than the Place du Forum and with mature trees shading it. This is where we discover that the classic Clouseau line really does work in France!

We're sitting at a table having a substantial salad (7 Euros) and white wine for lunch. We notice a black Labrador (an un-neutered male) slowly walking around the tables. No collar, a bit of white at his muzzle, lovely brown eyes. He's not casing the joint, he's just looking for likely customers. I make eye contact but he seems to know that Peter has asked me not to feed him (right then, anyway) and so he walks off. (I was going to write "wander" but he has more purpose than that.)

Eventually I decide to give him a little crumb of baguette (after we have finished our meal - that was Peter's stipulation), after I see he has not got anything from other patrons. I make eye contact again with him when he is a few tables away and he slowly but deliberately walks over. I hold out a very small piece of bread and say, "asseyez-vous". He does not seem to know "tricks" and drool slowly drips from the back of his mouth. I give him the bread anyway. He politely takes it and eats it. I give him several more tiny pieces and ask him to sit each time, but he does not. Then I hold up my now empty hands and say "c'est tout" and he sits.
France 2008
I take his photograph and he poses nicely for me. Then he gets distracted by some other people and I lean in for a close-up and I can almost hear him say "Yikes!" at the look of me, too close and with a camera in front of my face, so he gets up and moves on.
France 2008
So polite! Si gentil!

So, now for the Clouseau line:
Clouseau, seeing a man with a nice looking dog, asks, "does your dog bite?"
Man, "No."
Clouseau pats dog who snarls and bites him.
Clouseau, "I thought you said your dog did not bite!"
Man, "That's not my dog."

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

France 2008 - Arles, May 19, evening - eating out

When we got back to Arles Monday evening, we decided to try out a restaurant that Peter had noticed while we were walking one day, and which was mentioned in our "France for Dummies" guide book. Nothing is very far in Old Arles and this place was just across the big boulevard "ring road" where the market had been on Saturday. After a shower to wash off all the dirt that had blown on us from the day, we headed out only to find that this restaurant was closed. And it looked closed permanently, even though there was no sign one way or the other.

Momentarily nonplussed, Peter decided we should try out the hotel restaurant at the Jvles Cesar, as it too had been mentioned in the Dummies book and noted as one of the best restaurants on all of France, not just the south. We plodded up the road, hungry and tired and peered in the windows at the Jvles Cesar. It was only about half full and most people in there had ties on. The wait staff was dressed very properly in black and white. And the doors off the terrace where we had approached it were closed. We turned to see if we could access the restaurant from the hotel, when one of the doors opened and a waiter called out, "Bon soir, monsieur!" It turns out they had only closed the doors because of the ferocious winds and we would be more than welcome, tie or no tie.

We were seated at a nice table by the window and given menus. Descriptions of the food looked good and while expensive, it wasn't prohibitively so. We decided on the prix fixe, made our choices and ordered a bottle of wine. We had been trying to drink local wines exclusively and it is never difficult to find a delicious, reasonably priced bottle anywhere. Our waiter was quite chatty and spoke English very well. We noticed that everyone else in the room was an Anglo of some sort. The food was very good and nicely presented and when we made our choice for dessert and I selected a plate with four tiny, different things on it, they gave me extra. I'm not sure why - I think by then we had mentioned it was our 26th anniversary (in 2 days, actually) or maybe it was because I said "mmm" out loud a fair bit while downing the dessert.

I haven't been writing much about our meals but of course, we have to have three every day in restaurants of some description because the hotel does not allow you to bring food in. We have eaten breakfast several times in the hotel and it is a good one - with bread and eggs and fruit and coffee. But it seems expensive at 7 Euros each which is why we have tried the occasional cafe and croissant outside. But that isn't very satisfying, especially for me, as I like to have more at breakfast than at dinner (well, in theory, anyway). On Saturday, we had fruit and cheese at the market but (according to the map) there's only a market on Saturday and Wednesday.

Lunch can be a large and sustaining meal if you want to eat light at dinner. Most shops close down for about 2 hours from noon until 2 and the restaurants fill up. Some restaurants are only open in the morning and at lunch and some only open for the dinner crowd, so it helps to have scoped out some places ahead of time. And some restaurants are closed one or two days of the week. But there are many places to eat on Arles and if one is closed, another will be close by.

We had already had dinner once at La Gueule du Loup, as it had also been recommended by one of our books. It is a very small place with a few tables on the ground level, where you can watch the chef at work if you want. It has about 8 tables up a steep flight of ancient stone stairs and a small but attentive crew of wait staff. The menu is limited and probably changes weekly and the choices sound wonderful. And they are wonderful. Beautifully presented, interesting combinations of tastes, scrumptious.
France 2008
What we've also taken to doing, especially if we have a light lunch and are waiting for restaurants to open for dinner, is to find a cafe in the late afternoon, to while away our time until dinner. There are many of them around of course, but we seem to have settled on the cafes surrounding the Place du Forum as the best place for people watching. I am sure the Place had a more important past but now, its main claim to fame seems to be the cafe that Vincent painted one evening: Le Cafe au Nuit Right beside that cafe (now painted up in yellow to resemble the VanGogh painting) is one owned by a former bull fighter. The centre of the Place is filled with tables and chairs and different sections of them are serviced by the restaurants and cafes that line the Place. I think the clientele of the entire Place is tourists, unlike some of the other cafes in Arles that are more obviously populated by local people. But as long as it is not time for a meal, they don't seem to mind if you sit there for hours having a small pichet of wine, while you take pictures and write in your notebook.

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

France 2008 - road trip, May 19

Monday, we rented a car. We had planned on taking local transport out of Arles for the day but with train strikes making for uncertainty, we decided to splurge on renting a car. We just showed up Monday morning at the Avis place at the train station and what they had left was a mid-sized Peugeot. It turned out to be a standard transmission which is not a problem for either of us but it was also a diesel. We knew there was something tricky about starting a diesel but we figured, "how hard could it be?"

Thirty minutes in the parking lot later, we had to go ask the rental lady how to start the darned thing. (The reason it took 30 minutes is because she wasn't there when went back 5 minutes later after we first got the keys.) She took the keys, locked the car with the remote, unlocked it, got in, put the key in, put it in neutral but did NOT step on the clutch, turned the key one notch, waited for a light to come on and then turned the key a second time. We had tried a lot of that but not in that particular order.

We were off! We both enjoy driving but Peter likes the challenge of driving in foreign places (he was the one who wanted to drive on the wrong side of the road in Barbados), so I let him do the driving. Also, if he drove, that meant I got to drink at lunch. Bonus! We headed out into the Camargue, retracing part of our route from the day before with Alan. This time, we got to see horses from the comfort of an air-conditioned car with a suspension system. The day was clear and very warm but the most notable feature of the weather was the WIND. We don't have proof but we think there were sustained winds of over 50 kph and gusts much more than that. I wore a skirt and spent most of the day holding it down with both hands.

Our first stop was breakfast at a road-side cafe, where we merely had the usual cafe and croissant. There was also the usual family dog on the premises, this time sitting in the window, placidly looking around and then having a snooze. I find that most of the dogs in France are the calmest dogs I have ever seen, many of the large ones allowed to wander around without even the benefit of a collar. I don't know if it is just because all the other ones get run over or something, or maybe it is something about the French dog owners, that they are real pack leaders. But the dogs are very well behaved.

Our next stop was Aigues-Mortes, begun in 102 BC and rebuilt in the 13th century by Louis IX. It was used as the embarkation point for the Seventh and Eighth crusade and it was in our Eyewitness Guide book, so we went. Also a walled city like Old Arles, this one has the wall still all the way around it. In other respects however, it was very much like Old Arles except the streets were on a grid. By the time we got there, we were starting to think about lunch, so we just looked around a little and then pushed on.

I had been thinking of visiting Nimes since we started planning this trip, because I read in the Eyewitness book that it was where denim fabric had been invented (fabric "de Nimes", get it?). Plus, I read that Nimes was the home of many of the true Provencal fabrics and I wanted to shop! However, by the time we drove up to the outskirts and saw that it was really a huge looking modern city, and by the time we had been around about a hundred different roundabouts, each with about 5 or more exits, and we realized that we were driving along at 70 kph on the ring road, we decided to bail and not visit Nimes after all. I had seen a fabric store right in Old Arles and said to Peter, "keep going, we don't need to stop."

Our next goal was the Pont du Gard.
France 2008
How anyone can fail to be impressed by the engineering feat that is this aqueduct, I am sure I do not know. The Pont du Gard is the longest "bridge" in the 50 km long aqueduct that brought 5 million litres of water every day to the Roman city of Nimes from the source at Uz├Ęs. Some stones weigh nearly 6 tons. The slope of the 50 km water run averages 34 cm of drop for every 1 km of run. That's about 17 metres drop for the entire length of the aqueduct. And all without a slide rule or theodolite. 2000 years later, parts of it are still standing. I would love to transport the engineer responsible forward in time and show it to him now.
France 2008
You are allowed to climb up the side of the hill and look at the aqueduct from the top, where the water ran. It's wonderful.

When we got to the Pont, we had lunch first, as we were starving and there was a really nice looking restaurant right on the bank of the river. It was a little more expensive than your average restaurant but you couldn't beat the view.
France 2008
Here's Peter taking a picture of some tourists with their own camera - probably the best picture they have of their entire trip. That patio umbrella is down because of the huge winds. You just can't tell at ALL from these pictures but the wind was amazing. We spent a good couple of hours here and then moved on to Avignon.

The driving was good and there are lots of signs and we had a map, so we never got lost. We even took the toll road at one point, to get from Nimes to the Pont without having to slow down every kilometer for yet another roundabout. They are in fact really useful, those roundabouts (rond point) because you don't have an intersection with stop lights and so you just have to slow down, figure out which exit to take, merge and you're continuing on your merry way, but they do get wearing after a while if your goal is a town and not the journey.

We arrived in Avignon and decided to enter the walled city with the car, driving slowly into yet another Old Arles. We were certainly familiar with this sort of old street network as pedestrians and dodging cars, but it is another thing altogether to drive in there. We finally stopped and asked some police where we could park and they said "outside of the walls" so we drove out. Luckily, we found a long, narrow parking lot sandwiched between the river, a main ring road and the wall and it was free! It was also packed but just as we crept down the long line of cars, someone left and we pulled right into their space. AND it was right by a recently-made (as in modern and not 500 years old) pedestrian entrance in the wall.

We walked into Avignon and consulted the map in the Eyewitness Guide. We weren't on the map. The main reason to visit Avignon, other than to "danse sur le pont" as in the children's song, is to see the Palais des Papes. There were 7 French popes from 1309-77 and they built a grand place for themselves, indeed. Talk about a seat of power that let everyone else know about it. The Palais is way up on a steep hill that looks down on the river and it's built like a fortress. When we walked into Avignon, off the map, it was easy to see that we had to go UP and to our right but we weren't sure which was the best route to take.

So when we walked past a woman sitting out on her steps, having a smoke, we stopped to ask for advice. We thought we were being polite when we started by saying, "excusez moi, Madame" but apparently, she didn't think so. After Peter asked what was the best way to get up to the Palais, she didn't answer for enough time that I immediately got that she was about to make a point. Then she looked at us with contempt and said, "Bonjour." Yeah, okay, we get it. Much bad language ensued in my head but I stifled it and said, "bonJOUR" back. Dumbass. She waved in the direction of the giant and obvious mountain to our right and said something like "that-a-way", and before I could say something I'd regret, I plucked at Peter's sleeve and said, "let's go!" I was seething at the first (and almost only) rude treatment we'd had from a local but Peter had been too busy concentrating on getting his French right at the time, to notice.

Unfortunately, that set the tone for what we think about Avignon, not to mention the ostentatious display of religious power-mongering by the long-dead popes. We finally made it up the hill and there was the Palais. We went inside and whatever it cost to see the whole thing was too much for me, especially given that it was late in the afternoon and I was getting tired (and obviously cranky). So we hung around the outside in the hot sun and ferocious wind for a bit and finally I said, "let's go have a drink!"
France 2008
As the DD, Peter had to have coffee but I had a much welcomed glass of wine (okay, "whine"). We chose the patio of a very nice-looking hotel for our stop and it wasn't until after we sat down at a table at random that I noticed their planters had herbs growing in them! Lovely. I felt better right away, even if the drinks were hideously expensive and the bathroom cost 0.20 Euros to get into a stall.

We check out the map and leave the walled city by an exit right near the historic Pont d'Avignon. Peter had never been taught the song but I remember it (at least the verse) from - it must be - kindergarten or grade one, when we lived in Quebec City. The bridge doesn't go all the way across the river but it was originally built by a shepherd boy who later became Saint Benezet. It fell down a lot and by the 1600s, they stopped rebuilding it. The only access to it is through this building beside it, where you have to pay 4 Euros to go dance on it. I decide to "danse sur le trottoir" instead, and we fight out way back toward the car park against the wind. Halfway there, we notice some steps leading up to the Palais des Papes from the level of the river (we are walking along the very busy ring road outside the walls).

I figure the steps have to be blocked off at the top because everywhere else, they were charging entrance fees but we decide to climb them anyway. We finally get to the top, where the wind must be blowing at 60 kph at least and discover that we can wander around the top of the Palais des Papes and take in the terrific view of the surrounding area for free. I count the steps on the way down and discover there are exactly 200 of them. Now I feel like Avignon has been worth the visit.

By the time we get back to the car and on the road home, it is rush hour and we stop and start our way out of the city. We finally hit the open road and head back to Arles, tired and wind-blown but satisfied over-all with our road trip. We drop the car back at Avis at 6:30 pm, where the office is still open and we express our thanks to the rental lady. It is only after we get home and the Visa bill that we discover that the car has cost us $240 Cdn for the day. Of course, that included gas.

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Friday, June 13, 2008

France 2008 - the Camargue, May 18

Sunday, we went on a safari.
We bought our tickets on Saturday, while we were down at the market. We went over to the info booth and asked about seeing the Camargue. One of my stated goals on going to Provence was to pet one of the white horses in the Camargue. We had seen pamphlets about going there but there seemed to be many variations on a theme and it was a bit confusing. We asked the woman at the info place to choose for us and she said she wasn't allowed to but then she did suggest we try the one called "Gallon". We got our tickets and she phoned the company and we heard her say there were two "Anglais" to pick up Sunday morning at 9.

We arrive at the meeting spot at 8:40 and wait for 9, watching the young "gypsies" (I'm not sure if they really were gypsies or just young people hanging out) with their four large black dogs. It looked like they had spent the night in the relative shelter of the large public bandstand or gazebo near the Info Centre. One young guy take three of the dogs, one of them not on a leash, and walks over to some bushes where they can relieve themselves. The dogs seem friendly and the one not on a leash is older and wags his tail a lot. I figure how bad can these folks be, with such nice dogs?
Camargue horses
Right at 9 am, a Land Rover shows up and this man, older than we are, climbs out wearing leather pants, a leather jacket and a neck gaiter. He later explains that he had been running late so he just jumped on his motorcycle to get to where the LandRover was. His name is Alan, he is 61, he used to work for a pharmaceutical company and he speaks English, French, German and Farsi (at least).

It turns out we are the only people on this particular safari and boy are we glad because, although there are three seats on each side of the open back of the Land Rover, the only way you could fit 6 people in there would be if they were small children. We take off for the Camargue in a clash of gears, with Alan talking to us by turning right around to look at us sitting in the back of the Rover. It's a little nerve-wracking to start, with him not looking where he is driving but he isn't really driving that fast and he seems to know what he is doing. He reminds me of Lee Marvin with the short white hair, Hollywood smile and attitude.

After our initial wariness wears off and my bullshit meter dies down, we find him entertaining, straightforward and honest. He explains about bulls and bullfighting and the horses and birds but most of all, about the rice. Rice fields, rice paddies, crop rotation, wild rice, NOT organic ("biologique") rice, etc. etc. We make a detour to see a real monastery and come upon a monk in robes and rope belt, strolling down the road. I like to think it was not on cue. Alan stops to talk to him and by the conversation, it is far from a silent order and they do seem to know each other. A farmer approaches them and he has a large herding dog with him - the same size as an Anatolian shepherd but hairier. That breaks up the conversation and we move on.

Around the next bend, we see a large flock of sheep and one lamb looks right at us, its ears pink with back lighting. We travel mostly off-road but on the paved roads, we are asked to not stand up in the back and at least to pretend to have our seat belts on. I put mine on but Peter's is all tangled and he doesn't worry about it. The dirt roads are rough, with plenty of large potholes from Saturday's rain storm. I wonder if we have an accident, will he have the presence of mind to try to dive out of the open roof, or will he try to save his camera at the expense of his own life? I can see the headlines: "Canadian man killed in road accident while on holiday in France, widow has lots of nice pictures to remember him by."
Camargue horses
Alan stops at the first white horses we pass (all animals are fenced in - we never saw any real wild bulls or horses), and fetches a large bag of really stale baguette slices out of the Rover and the horses run right up to the fence looking for the familiar treat. I get to pet two of them and feed them bread and they seem completely tame and domestic. A couple of horses hang back in the field but they have foals with them. Like the Lipizzaners, the foals are born dark and turn white as they get older. I am so pleased that I got to pat some horses that I had not thought about how filthy my hands would be and how I wouldn't necessarily have access to any place I could wash. I try to keep my hands away from every other part of me.

In a little while we pass a herd of the black bovines and Alan stops to explain about bulls. The Spanish bulls weigh about 500 kilos and the horns go downwards. The Camargue bulls weigh about 300 kilos and the horns go out and upwards. The neutered ones are oxen and can be used to keep the bulls calm when they are moved from one field to another. A lot depends on the manager who rents the bulls out for the fights. He gets a reputation for more entertaining fights - or less entertaining - depending on which bulls he chooses to put in the arena. And they rent bulls because most of the bull fighting in southern France tends to be bloodless.

It's an expensive business, with matadors getting 100,000 Euros for the fight and bulls costing 10,000 Euros (or rented at 1,000 Euros for the 15 minutes of the fight). Reputation becomes everything. One local bull named Rami was particularly famous and when he died, his owner buried him on his land with a stone obelisk and a marble plaque with gold lettering. Alan took us to this grave and we saw the owner's own grave a few hundred metres away with a less ostentatious headstone than the bull.

We went to a "domaine" where they had what Alan called "an ugly arena" made of aluminum (bleachers, really). It existed for tourists and they had a little but real train to tour you around the property. We didn't go on it. They also had plenty of white horses to rent but we didn't ride them either. I wasn't concerned that we didn't ride any of the horses - I have ridden horses and prefer to do it with proper gear. All the horses we saw looked well cared for, and the bulls too. They had public washrooms and here is where I finally got to wash my horsey hands.

We stopped at Les Maries de la Mer church on the Mediterranean. It is named for the four Marys that were expelled from the holy land after Jesus died. It is another lovely Romanesque church with a lot of history. Many gypsies live at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer and beg for money or offer to read your palm or sell you things. Alan told us to beware of the gypsies stealing things and told me to wear my little backpack on my front, which I did. But we were only approached by one old woman and she only persisted through several "non, merci" with lots of smiles on our part. For all that they criticize gypsies around here, there is a monument to the 700 of them rounded up in the Camargue in the early 1940s, who were then sent off to die in Hitler's camps.

We passed quite a few other tourists and bird watchers, stopped by the side of the road. Alan would roll his window down and call out the window in an American accent, "Bone jur, bone jur, c'est tres beaucoup jolie!" He was always greatly amused by himself when he did this and frankly, it was pretty funny for us too. I finally asked him why he did this and he said he wanted them to think he was a tourist who had stolen the Land Rover.

We didn't get back to Arles until about 2pm so we surely got our money's worth from that safari. It cost 48 Euros per person for what was described as a four hour tour. I suppose with a less entertaining guide and poor weather, we might have thought it not worth quite so much but we had a great time.

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

France 2008 - Arles, May 17

Saturday, we went to the market. It was advertised right on the map of Arles, that they had a market every Saturday and Wednesday so we decided to see what there was to see. Wow! All along the Boul. des Lices was a market and the traffic was stopped. (This is part of the "ring road" that goes around Old Arles on the sides away from the river. It's all one big road but is broken into three different names.) On one side was all the food stuff and on the other side was everything else.

To have a great look at the market, go to Peter's set at Flickr and enjoy. The food side was especially impressive, with large vans where the sides opened up to vans where things were being cooked right in front of you, in one case, on giant wok-like surfaces.

We have been having breakfast at the hotel and enjoying it but thought we should try something different. On the way to the market, we stopped in the Place du Forum (where VIncent's cafe is and where we stop a lot) and had a cafe and a croissant. When you ask for a cafe you get an espresso. For any other kind of coffee, you have to specify. The shop with the cafe didn't have anything to eat but referred us two doors down to the bakery where we bought something and then went back to the cafe to eat it.

By the time we got to the market, it had been open for some time and the place was packed. But real Arlesiennes were doing their shopping and while busy, people were in constant motion so it was easy enough to wander around. So much wonderful looking food! I got hungry right away and so we stopped at different places to buy a bag of cherries, half a baguette and some soft cheese. We stepped away from the steady stream of patrons and sat on a half wall and ate our finds. Mmm.
Outfits I made that I wore in France
The other side of the street had everything but food, including a young man with three miniature goats who wasn't selling them but just using them as a draw to get you to buy outrageously priced candy to support some cause. Near the end of the line were some folks selling Provencal fabrics. I bought a few meters but worried that it wasn't "authentic". On the other hand, it was nice so who cares?

I have noticed that there seems to be a hierarchy of greeting. If you don't know someone but are introduced by someone you both know, you shake hands. If you know the person and have seen them recently, you kiss each other twice. But if you know someone and haven't seen them for a while, you kiss each other three times. This is just a theory on my part, but I like it.

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