Lemons or lemonade? Misadventure and jubilation in Arles

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Carbières d’Avignon

The first few times we were in the Luberon it was in July, since that was the only vacation time available to us. Hot afternoons and cool nights were the norm, but when we retired in 2017 and our schedule became more flexible, we were hoping for slightly cooler weather and fewer tourists. We carefully planned our four month sojourn in Europe to include two weeks in the tiny village of Saignon in the month of May. The weather was glorious! Every. Single. Day. We naively assumed that it would be forever thus. We were quickly proved wrong. In 2018 there were as many cloudy, showery days as sunny. In 2019 it was hazier and more humid. Post Covid brought us there last year in June, which was fine, but this year we stubbornly returned to our belief that May was best. Surely this year we would be back to “normal.”

As our departure date drew near I obsessively checked the weather. Every few minutes or so. It did not look good. OK, but we know how to have a good time even if the weather isn’t perfect. I mean, we are New Englanders after all. The key is in planning. Beautiful long hikes during the sunny stretches, exploring new villages, churches or museums on the gray days. What we didn’t expect was two days of constant 50 mile an hour winds. Le Mistral. “C’est très rare au mois de mai, Madame!” was a phrase I heard a lot.

An overnight trip to a city might be a good idea–a lot to see in a condensed area. But which one? We opted for Arles, a sprawling metropolis in the Rhone delta with a ton of Roman ruins,  an iconic Romanesque church, and a big UNESCO world heritage museum we had never visited! So on Tuesday morning, before the wind was too bad, we took a nice walk through the cedar forests of Carbières d’Avignon and after lunch we packed an overnight bag and headed off to Arles. The wind was getting fierce. The skies were icily clear blue and the dust blowing across the roads was blinding. Trees, swaying and bending almost to the ground, conjured up the magnificent landscapes of Van Gogh. It was awesome!

Exhilarated, and yet somewhat apprehensive, we arrived in Arles. Parking in a French city is always somewhat of an adventure, since most urban centers are pedestrian zones, and the rules for street parking, when it can be found, are somewhat quirky for foreigners. We are quite familiar with this system and for the most part approve of it. Luckily we found a huge parking lot right outside the city walls. A huge white “P” on a blue field indicated this was indeed a parking lot. There were loads of other cars. We found the meter, “horadateur”, input our car’s license number and credit card, got validated and were off. The wind was roaring mightily as we watched old ladies (older-than-me-ladies) bent at a 90 degree angle and clutching the scarves on their heads as they struggled along the quais of the Rhone.

But we were ok. We found our hotel, strolled around the Roman arena and admired the tympanum of Saint Trophime. We found the sheltered terrace of a small café and I had my first Saint Germain spritz.

Saint Germain Spritz

We then had a delicious tapas-style meal at Les Piques ou Rien . The next morning we awoke and headed back to our car, since the museum, which was to be the focus of our trip, was a little too far to walk to in the wind. We walked through the walls of the city to the lot where our car was parked and there, stretched out before us, was the biggest market we have ever seen. It seemed to sprawl for miles. And our car? Gone!

Somewhere, there may have been a sign indicating that Wednesday is market day and cars would be towed. We didn’t see it. “Ce n’est pas bien indiqué” we were told by the sympathetic Arlésiens with whom we spoke. With no police officer in sight, I addressed the friendliest-looking market vendor I could find. What to do? Go to the police station, Madame. Just follow that road, Madame. All the way, Madame. Bon courage, Madame. Well of course,  we followed the road. Ordinarily we would have found the market enchanting. This time we barely saw it. On and on we hurried, our hearts thumping. Then, across the street some official buildings appeared. La Police. Phew. We saw some people enter a door. We followed. It was the wrong police station. Go around the corner Madame, the door is there. Feeling like we were living in a novel by Kafka, we headed to the next door. Another wrong door. Finally, we got better directions. “Juste après la poste, Madame, c’est la Police Municipale que vous cherchez.” And there we found a very nice lady who probably does this thirty-five times every Wednesday.  We received no sarcastic, “boy are you stupid” remarks. Only sympathy. Forms were filled out. Identification was produced. There would be no fine. Only the towing charge. 121 euros. Well, it certainly could have been worse. Way worse. But where was the car exactly? A la fourrière, Madame. The address of the impounders was given. Vous ne pouvez pas y aller à pied. Madame. C’est trop loin. Il faut prendre un taxi. And, across the street was a taxi station. There were two taxis. Neither had a driver. On a coffee break? We waited. But the stress was getting to me. “Screw this.”  I muttered to myself as I got out my phone and my Uber app. And in five minutes our Uber driver arrived. He was charming. He sympathized about the car-towing episode, explaining that it had happened to him too, and he was born in Arles, but sometimes he forgot it was Wednesday. He was sad to be taking us to la fourrière. “Mieux que l’hôpital” I responded, remembering past misadventures.

And as the formidable gate to the impounder lot opened, there was our poor car!. We hopped in, and,  in a state of euphoric relief we headed to the museum.

The museum, “Le Musée départemental d’Arles antique” is a gem! Just beyond the city walls and on the banks of the Rhone, this contemporary museum has housed Arles’ burgeoning collection of art and artifacts from the Gallic, Greco and Roman periods since the latter years of the twentieth century. We had never been, probably because in prior visits to Arles we had been traveling by train and foot, and the summer heat was just too much for long walks. But the museum caught our attention, in large part because in 2007, after a flood in the Rhone, a Roman cargo ship emerged from the silt, perfectly intact and with its cargo and navigational tools still aboard. It became the centerpiece of this museum. And I have to tell you, it was jaw-dropping! The rest of the artifacts were also beautifully displayed and the history was well-explained. The impounded car story was already receding in our minds.


But of course, it was quickly time for lunch. Knowing us, you are not surprised. We headed back to the scene of the crime and parking very carefully,  we had a delightful outdoor lunch in the same cafe in front of which we had waited for those two taxi drivers a few hours ago.

Fortified, we triumphantly left Arles behind us. We headed up the right bank of the Rhone to the beautiful city of Uzès for our afternoon Perrier and then back to the Luberon.

The sun was setting as we gazed out of the windows of our Airbnb. Arles and Uzès were both nice. Very nice. But those hills out there. Our hills. I wouldn’t trade them.