Today, we drove to the Provincial town of Arles. Arles is very similar to Orange, in that it also has many Roman runes. Our main stop was Les Arenes (The Arena). This Roman amphitheatre is oval in structure, with many rows of tiered seating. Built in the first or second century AD, it holds about 20000 spectators. It was originally built to host chariot races and fights often with wild animals, slaves and gladiators pitted against each other. The fights were very often until one or the other dies.
The amphitheatre is still used today for bull fighting, although the aim now is to capture the ribbon ties to the bull’s horns, and not to kill the bull. If you climb to the top of the theatre, you can see a fantastic view past the town and across the Rhone (be careful – the stairs are very steep).
The artist, van Gogh lived in Arles for a few years, in particular he spent time there in hospital when he was suffering from depression (this is where he cut his ear off). There are exhibitions and museums dedicated to him.
Arles is at the edge of the Camargue, the large delta of the Rhone, a large area of nature reserve. There are huge areas of wetlands, covered on pink flamingo’s. It is very reminiscent of the Langebaan Lagoon wetlands, but on a larger scale.
The Camargue is also the home of the famous Camargue horses, small horses slightly larger than ponies. If you drive down the reserve, you will find many horse farms, offering horse riding per hour or per day. Although we didn’t manage to go riding, it is definitely on the agenda for our next trip.
The main road through the Camargue terminates in the sea-side town of Stes-Maries de la Mer. This little town is populated by many restaurants and shops selling bright umbrella’s, children’s buckets and spade and inflatable rafts. It was the first time we had seen the Mediterranean sea, so we had to put our feet in the water. The water was lovely and warm, however the sand was very silty and fine, much finer that the beaches in Cape Town.
We would love to have spent the day on the beach; however we had a long drive back to Avignon. (We did have time to have a drink on one of the many sea-front café’s!)
Next time we are in the Camargue, we will spend a night or two at Stes-Maries, and make sure to spend at least one afternoon horse riding.
On the way back, we chanced upon the Perfume Museum, where we spend some time learning the history of perfume, and we able to smell about 50 different essential oils.
The Pont de Gard is an old Roman aqueduct which was build around 19BC. That is over 2000 years ago. The aqueduct is now in the middle of a nature park, with lovely paths meandering through the greenery. If you walk down to the river, there are loads of places where you can sit on the bank and have a picnic. Unfortunately when we arrived it was raining, so we had our picnic in the car in the parking lot!
Fortunately the rain stopped and we were able to walk down to the bridge. The walk is only about five minutes from the car park. The bridge is very grand-looking in the pictures, but far more so in real life. It is built as three sets of arches. The first is about 20m high (you can walk across at this level), the second level is also 20m, and the final level is 5m high. The water course would have moved through the top level. The total length of the bridge is about 265m. It was quite intimidating to see this hugh bridge towering above me. If you look carefully at the pic on the right, you can see how huge the bridge is compared to the people below. You are standing on the first level, and looking up at the second and third levels.
The total length of the watercourse is about 50km, with a gradient if 1:3000, which means a total drop of only 15m through the entire journey. That is absolutely amazing engineering for the time. You are able to go and visit remains of the actual aqueduct itself, but it was too far a walk for today, so maybe next time.
There is also a visitor’s centre with a small museum and gift shop etc. It takes about one hour to get there from Avignon, but it is well worth it (The area is now a UNESCO World Heritage Centre).
Today I did something I have never done before. Lois and I went for a ride in a four-seater aeroplane. We saw the brochure last night at the hotel and thought “why not!”, so off we went. We took off from the Avignon airport (which is basically a small building and a single runway).
The cabin of the plane is about the size of a mini, and the engine is probably not much bigger (I am still partially convinced that the engine is just a really long elastic band). The plane honestly needed about 100m runway to take off, and a bit longer to land.
The trip was fantastic, we flew really low over the whole area, giving me a wonderful opportunity to see the landscape from above and to take some great photos. We opted for the shortest trip –which is about 25 minutes. The longest trip is about 1 ½ hours, and goes all the way to Marseilles.
Here are some vineyards; they are all over the area. The bright yellow in the middle is actually a sunflower field.
A hilltop fortified village, of which there are many. You can literally have a several hundred meter drop out of your bedroom window. No sneaking out at night!
This is the centre of Avignon, clearly dominated by the Papal Palace. Building started in 1305, when the papal court moved from Rome to Avignon. In the second picture, you can see the town square as well.
The bridge on the right is the remains of the famous bridge "Le Pont St Benezet". This famous bridge was built between 1171 and 1185, with an original span of 900 m. See this post for more details.
Finally, our landing and a quick pic of us at our aeroplane. It is not often that I get to sit in the front! The trip is expensive, but I really encourage you to do it – it was worth every cent.
We could not drive through the village of Chateauneuf du Pape without stopping for a wine tasting of their world-renown wines. While the village itself is very small, there are many wine farms and tasting ‘caves’ (cellar) in and around the village.
We tried to use the local version of the Platter’s wine guide, but without any success. So we parked in the village and walked into two caves at random. In France, you do not taste wine according to a varietals, but rather according to a vintage. Each farm in an area makes basically the same blend of wine, according to a set of very complicated appellation rules’. This means that when tasting, you will not taste a cabernet or a shiraz, but rather a 2001 or 2002.
The first cave turned out to be the local tourist centre, and while the wines very good, I did have a sense of ‘shunting the tourists through’ without much attention.
Our experience at the second was very different. The proprietor did not speak any English, and we spoke very bad French, but this did not seem to be a problem to any of us. We had a lovely tasting of some superb wines. We learned all about the ageing process, what goes into the blends, and even ended up discussing the use of sulphar in the wine – all in French! This was with much gesturing and scribbling on paper. It was a fantastic tasting, and we even managed to buy some non-appellation wines at a really good price.
While the wines we tasted were really fantastic, the good French wines are very expensive, even in France. The cheaper Chateauneuf du Pape wines started at about 20 euros, which is about R160. For R160 you can get some really fantastic wines.
Of interest is that in France the farms pay tax on the wine depending on how many capsules are used. So when you taste wine there are no capsules on the bottles. These are only added when you buy the wine. Hence the farm does not pay tax on wine used for tastings.
Today we went to visit the historical town of Orange, home to many Roman relics. Orange gets its name from the German House of Nassau, the House of Orange which ruled since the 12 century. It was ceded to France in 1713.
Of particular interest to us was the Theatre Antique, a Roman theatre which was probably built during the reign of Augustus Caesar (27 BC – AD 14).
This theatre, which is still in use today, contains the only remaining Roman complete stage wall in the world. It is about 103m wide and 37m high. The theatre is built in a semi-circle, with many tiers of raised seating looking down at the stage. Tickets for the shows cost several hundred euros. Of interest is the statue of Caesar that you can see in the photo. The head is removable, so it could be easily modified to suit the Caesar that was currently ruling without having to build an entire new status.
Orange also contains its own Arc de Triomphe (The Triumphant Arc), which was built 100’s of years before the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Built around 20 BC, it commemorates Julias Caeser’s victories during the Gallic Wars.