Arles, Salin de Giraud and Puy-Sainte-Réparade
Moving on from the canal banks in Saint-Gilles, we headed next to Arles, another nearby historic Roman town also the proud owner of its own bullring arena. Unknown to us as we drove in, it was market day in Arles and most of the centre streets were given up to stalls and associated vehicles, so we got snarled up in complicated one-way traffic and constant re-routing as we threaded through. We finally made our way around to a very spacious aire on the river, specific for motorhomes and reasonably near the centre, from where we could easily walk to see the town.
It was a Saturday and a large market was in full swing, taking over most of the centre streets and almost all the commerce. We walked through the busy stalls, noting the varied produce and trying hard to follow the intensive chatter between buyers and sellers. We had a quick post office visit to buy a stamp and post a birthday card to Nicky’s sister, before escaping the market and walking through a local park. Here we saw more Roman ruins and a formal statue in a fountain, alongside planted beds that lacked all colour at this time of year.
This led on to the main event; the Arles Roman bullring, in many ways similar to that of Nîmes that we had recently visited. We circled around the impressive structure, looking into the oval where possible through the many arches, but we choose not to enter the arena on this occasion. The temperature in the town varied from too hot to very cold as we walked around, depending on whether our position was sheltered or shady, in direct sun or battered by the chilled northern winds. We left soon after with a very positive impression of the town, it being especially good to have seen it in the throes of such a hectic, market morning, perhaps the busiest and liveliest time of the week.
From here we drove deep into the Camargue region, down to the coast at a small town called Salid-de-Giraud. This was perhaps not the most obvious base, but it seemed a lot quieter and had free aires to stay in, rather than us paying for campsites in the more popular places. The town itself was laid out on a grid pattern, with wide streets made specifically for cars and parking, more in an American style than typically European. It certainly suggested that space out here was not at a premium, that land was cheap and room to spread out was the norm. This spatial openness contrasted with the tightly-knit medieval towns recently visited in a very stark and obvious manner.
We had hatched grand plans to cycle along the beach frontage to the main town of Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, where most visitors to the Camargue choose to congregate. This would have allowed us to visit the local harbours, the coastal lighthouses and to see a lot of varied terrain within the Camargue region, from marshlands and wetlands to sand dunes and grassy meadows, not to mention possibilities to spot the extensive local wildlife in-situ. Unfortunately, what followed our arrival was two full days of heavy, persistent, driving rain and high winds that spoiled our plans to cycle. We could have persisted despite the deluge, but visibility was low and the views of the coastline would have been spoiled, lost in the folds of the dull grey overcoat worn by the local weather, so we chose not to expend ourselves to such a lost cause.
We used the time to catch up on other lagging projects, from updating blog posts and sending emails to sorting out clothes and photos, all from the comfort of Benny. We had the occasional dart out to pick up fresh bread at the local boulangerie, even driving the 500 metres there on one occasion to avoid the inevitable drenching. Lazy down days can be a great healer, restorative and useful, but after the second day we began to feel a little cooped up and trapped, so we made a move onwards rather than wait out the storm. The cycle route we hoped to ride across the Camargue would have to wait until a future visit.
After our two nights of waiting out the terrible weather, we reluctantly retraced our steps back to Arles, reusing the available aire services as we passed by the town, before heading on towards Salon-de-Provence. We stopped just beyond in the small town of Pélissanne, where we parked up in the second-last space in the surprisingly full aire near the centre of town. Signage warned us that the aire would be closed in two days’ time, in anticipation of the circus coming to town, but we would surely be gone by then. The weather had cleared up with our journey north and east, so we had a quiet, slow walk around the pretty provincial town, seeing the usual town hall, church and neatly presented central streets. We then returned to Benny, cooked dinner and made plans for the coming days.
On leaving Pélissanne, we tried to visit the large town of Aix-en-Provence but were denied entry, despite our best endeavours. After much fruitless searching for anywhere to park within a walkable three miles of the town, we finally admitted defeat and retreated instead back to the soothing, easy countryside, with the quiet vow to skip any further towns unless we can reach them easily by public transport or bike. Still, another place we now have to return to the region to visit, but not by motorhome.
The whole region of Provence still seemed to be stuck in autumn, the dying, yellowed leaves remaining stubbornly adorned to the tiny branches of the prolific plane trees. Combined with an excess of ivy, mistletoe and other evergreen climbing plants, the forested hills looked positively green and alive, compared to the stark winter nakedness of previous areas we had passed through.
Our retreat from Aix-en-Provence took us to a nearby aire in the village of Puy-Sainte-Réparade, which could accommodate at least ten camping-cars, but where we were the only visitors. We parked up in the comfortable and spacious plot set adjacent to new sports pitches and a wide, fast flowing canal. We decided to walk west along the canal, to the village of Saint-Estève-Janson, around 5km away, to replace our usual town walk and to check out the local scenery. It was very cold but clear and bright, a lovely winter walking experience. We were passed by several joggers in both directions, the route an obviously popular exercise trail following the water course.
Saint-Estève-Janson was a typically pretty, neat and impeccably presented Provençal village, almost too nice, like what Provence might be like when envisaged by Disney. We enjoyed a few loops walking, ensuring we saw the Maire and the main square. We returned by mostly the same route, only cutting inland near the end to pass by the local Chateau D’Arnajon, a name on the map which turned out to be a private home, for values of ‘home’ relative to a slightly scaled down version of Chatsworth House.
The next morning we pottered around the village doing trivial jobs, until during a haircut session we noticed a screwhead tightly driven into the tread of one tyre. The tyre was still fully inflated, so the screw had not yet caused a flat, but could do at any moment. We called in to Camper Assist, our Europe wide breakdown cover, who organised a local guy to attend. He arrived less than an hour later and efficiently swapped the tyre for our spare, informed us the current cold weather spell was entirely ‘special’ and totally unprecedented, whilst also complimenting Nicky on her excellent French. We had planned to move on after one day, but we liked the aire and the sleepy village so stayed another night. We had a late afternoon walk around Puy-Sainte-Réparade centre, bought some fresh provisions and settled in to enjoy the glowing pink sunset over the tree-lined canal.