Study Break to Arles

Dave has been on Spring Break this week, but since his school doesn’t provide a “dead week” prior to finals, we’ve used most of the week as time for him to actually get some studying done. I still can’t believe they don’t give more time for such things. Even his classmates from other countries were perplexed as to why the program offered no dead week before finals, especially given that the class is pretty much a solid 8:30am-5:00pm every day.

However, with his upcoming round of finals, they (in)conveniently scheduled Spring Break right before the finals. Good luck relaxing on your break, students!

Le sigh.

Anyway, the weather in Montpellier had been disgusting for most of last week, which put me in a bad mood (I hate winter and the fact that it was still rainy and chilly in late April just soured me). Couple that with the fact that the responsible thing to do is use Spring Break to study for finals (and not for fun) and it’s basically the recipe for a week-long bad mood.

So, to break up some of the monotony, we thought we should plan a day trip to Provence. Looking at the weather for the rest of the week, the rain was supposed to let up on Friday afternoon and into the weekend, with Saturday even showing a high of 70 (a damn miracle, at this point). We have yet to visit Aix-en-Provence, so we figured that would be a good place to go for the day. After researching train tickets, we realized it would be just under 300€ for both of us round trip! We literally booked a round trip flight to Portugal for less than that.

Appalled at the prices, we switched up the plan and we landed on a day trip to Arles instead, which turned out to be quite lovely.

We arrived around lunchtime and were welcomed to Arles by blue skies and sunshine (hooray!), with a bit of wind, but at least sun. It was hard to care much past the fact the sun was out. I had read that there was a large market on Tuesdays and Saturdays, with Saturday’s market being quite the to do. Nervous because the article also noted the market ended around 1pm, I was sure it would be wrapping up by the time we found our way there from the train station. Luckily though, we caught the tail end and it was so worth it. It put the other markets we’ve visited to shame.

Dave and I were both mystified as to why Montpellier didn’t have something more to that scale, given that it was a much larger city than Arles. The market in Les Arceaux is the largest we’ve seen but still didn’t compare to Arles. Arles had the standard vendors, with fruits and vegetables, meats, cheeses, spices and olives, and of course the various prepared foods like rotisserie chickens, paella and other nibbles. But Arles also had gorgeous pottery, fragrant bunches of lavender, olive oils, honey, vinaigrettes and a huge assortment of handmade goods like jewelry, olivewood dishware, market bags and soaps. The non-food items at Les Arceaux (mostly belts, women’s tights and slippers) don’t really give off the same handcrafted vibe–Les Arceaux has more of a “items one might find at a Ross or Marshall’s” feel to it.

While I wish we would have arrived earlier, I was grateful we got to see a glimpse of it. I was definitely sorry I couldn’t buy produce to take home, but that would have meant lugging it around all afternoon in the warm sun, which just seemed like more of a pain than it would be worth. Sadly, with our visit to the market, I also felt my allergies coming on a bit. The winds of the afternoon (definitely more than a pleasant breeze) were kicking up all sorts of things and you could see the pollens and dust floating in the air.

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It being right in the heart of lunchtime as the market ended, and looking to get out of the wind for a bit, we wandered to find a restaurant to grab a bite to eat. In one of the reviews of Arles that I had read on the train ride over, they offered restaurant suggestions so we looked those spots up. The menus were less than interesting and after much wandering in circles looking for places off the beaten path, we settled on Le Galoubet which ended up being a fantastic find. It was off the main square, nestled in between a hotel, another restaurant and across from an ice cream shop. We ate inside, which is usually the best option to avoid cigarette smokers outside, but the outdoor seating in the front was shaded by a trellis of greenery that looked enjoyable, except for the smokers who had beaten us there.

As is the custom, menus usually offer a formula, which is simply a prix fixe menu. Most often, the prix fixe includes a choice of two courses (entree and plat, or plat and dessert) or a full, three-course, which of course is usually a better deal than ordering the items a la carte. Dave’s first course was a mackerel dish, while I opted for a salad with sun-dried tomatoes and shaved parmesan. For our plat (main), Dave had a tuna steak with some sort of Provencal salsa (tomatoes, basil, onions, herbs, etc.) which was quite tasty. I, of course, opted for the onglet du boeuf (steak). It came with a deliciously rich morel mushroom sauce. The meal was so, so tasty–the kind that you want to keep eating, even though you’re full, just because it tastes so good. I should have taken more photos to set the scene, but it was exactly as I pictured lunch in the South of France. Dave had a glass of rosé, we had a deliciously prepared meal with fresh ingredients, my meal came with a side of frites (I love frites) and we were quite clearly allowed to be at our leisure.

We left the restaurant quite content with our find, and wandered over to the colosseum. Larger than the one we visited in Nimes, it still holds bull fights as well. It looked much better preserved too. With winds kicking up and starting my allergies again, we snapped a few pictures, then decided that we might have better luck just walking around the city exploring a bit, rather than hanging out in the open areas where the wind was worse. One of the things that I wanted to see before we left was also the cafe featured in Van Gogh’s painting, Café Terrace at Night. Van Gogh lived in Arles for just over a year but painted almost 300 works while he was there. The cafe in question was located in the Place du Forum, which wasn’t far from where we’d eaten lunch, but because of the square’s popularity, it’s flanked by restaurants catering to tourists and it seemed not to have the same authentic French feeling as our restaurant did. By the time we walked around and saw the cafe (which is still painted in bright yellow and other primary colors–an ode to Van Gogh) it was already around 3pm.

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We wandered to a park off to the side of the colosseum and found an ice cream stand. We took our double scoops and found a park bench not already claimed and relaxed while we ate. The park, even though it was on a bit of a hill, had different sections of grass for lounging, with dirt paths crisscrossing through. The trees and grass areas were lined with rocks, giving them distinct boundaries against the paths, with benches placed every few meters. It was a relaxing spot to people-watch. Two ladies, who looked to be in their 70s or so, sat to our left on their bench, also enjoying ice cream cones and chirping away…a group of guys and girls, about our age, just lounging on the grass where the sun poked through the trees…a group of three of four old men sat on a bench across the way, all with their Sunday hats on. Most interesting (to me, anyway) was the handful of kids, who looked to be 12 or so, clearly trying to dress like older teens, with designer sunglasses and such, yet seemed to be playing hide-and-seek.

We finished up our ice cream and slowly made our way back to the train station to catch the 4:45pm train back to Montpellier. After buying our tickets at the station kiosk, we realized the first part of our journey wasn’t even a train ride at all– rather a bus to Tarascon, 20 minutes away. We boarded up and the ride and day of sun immediately put me to sleep. When I awoke, we were pulling into the station that looked like something out of the show, The Walking Dead. While most of the train stations we’ve seen have been in the heart of the city, or at least in a very active part, this station seemed like it was on the outskirts of town, and was mostly abandoned, with the exception of a couple of homeless guys out front. There was one woman working in a circular office booth in the station, and one security guard who accompanied the station master (whose sole purpose, it would seem, is to blow a whistle, reminding people to stay back as the train approaches). Once we got the platform, there were additional passengers waiting, which was reassuring. While most of the other stations we’ve been through at least have older model televisions announcing train schedules, Tarascon had positioned megaphone-like speakers on telephone poles to announce trains coming and going–the audio quality was on par with the old sound system at my high school football stadium, circa 1995.

As our train pulled in, we found two seats and then I was out again. I woke up about an hour later, just outside of Montpellier, where the sunshine slowly faded into dark gray clouds. Dave and I both remarked that it was sadly apropos. After a wonderful sunshiny day, we had returned to Montpellier, where the whole feel was just different. I’ve tried to figure out how to put it into words, but so far, without luck. Montpellier just feels different–blah, different.

Maybe it’s the fact that our stay here is almost up and we’re looking forward to our move to Bordeaux at the end of the month, or maybe it was that the vibe of Arles was more our speed. Either way, from the cities we’ve visited around Montpellier, especially Nimes and now Arles, we enjoy what they have to offer and the overall feeling a lot more than our own city. I think it has something to do with the student population in Montpellier and how they carry themselves, but that topic is another blog post for another day.

At any rate, Arles was quite lovely and I’m glad we went. Provence is still on our to do list, but I also realized that if I book two separate train tickets with times that line up, I can get us their for much cheaper, which is ridiculous, but whatever works, I suppose!

Now I’m off to hang the clean laundry on a drying rack while Dave uses my (Windows) computer to run a program on soil texture evaluation. Back to reality…