Thursday, November 19, 2009

Travels With Jack

Almost exactly a year ago, Jack, an old friend from California and Texas, showed up in Berlin. It was days before I was going to leave, but he was a huge help, having owned a number of bookstores, when it came to packing up my books. The tricks he showed me I am certain made the movers bless him.

This year, he again vacationed in Europe, and so he came down here just a little later than a year to the day than he did in Berlin. He had two days, and wanted to spend one in Montpellier, but the next one in a place he was obsessed with: Arles. I had no idea he had a major thing for Vincent van Gogh, but I was about to find out.

The first day, he had a simple request -- or so I thought. He wanted to go to the Mediterranean. Since he's an ex-surfer, this made sense, and I'd asked Miss Expatria about this some time ago, and she told me that, although it wasn't much of a beach, you could take a bus -- number 28 -- to its end and walk to the beach.

She may be right, but we must've done everything wrong. There was an indication that it would be possible on the sketchy transit map, but we walked in what seemed to be the right direction, which took us along a highway where people honked at us (although we were behind the barrier on the shoulder), through some fairly desolate land:

Eventually, we saw some water appear, and walked towards it, but it appears to have been one of several étangs (which the dictionary says means "pond" or "pool," neither of which word gives any indication of the size of the thing) which exist, cut off from the sea itself. There was, however, oyster cultivation going on:

It was only when I saw a plane landing at Montpellier-Mediterranée Airport that I was sure we'd gotten turned around. Which is a shame, because we had to catch a bus back into town -- they only run twice an hour -- at this point. The beach remains something I want to do, and I'm dead certain one of the more knowledgeable locals will come along to tell me where I screwed this one up.

* * *

The next day, I got up way early. We had a 9:15 train to catch to Arles, and I didn't want to miss it. And it was at the train station that I made a very interesting discovery. I ordered the tickets and was astonished at the price. In a good way: round trip for me, with a senior discount, was €10.60. Jack only paid €14.10. This was far less than I assumed I'd pay for an hour-long trip, and bodes well if I ever can get my head above water for further investigations of the countryside around me.

Which, technically, Arles isn't. It's in Provence, a far more touristed, far better-known part of France as far as most people are concerned. I'd much, much rather explore Languedoc, but there was no turning Jack and his obsession around, and when you come right down to it, I was happy to go somewhere unfamiliar for a day.

Our first stop was the market, Wednesday being market day there. It went on forever, and, at least the part I saw, seemed to be mostly Turkish and Moroccan vendors. A guy handed me a hunk of a sort of red pesto made from sun-dried tomatoes and basil and olives on a cracker, and it was fantastic. The guy next to him handed me a piece of Parmesan. The people selling olives had amazing mixtures, far more diverse than I've seen here (although to be fair I haven't really surveyed the Arab groceries over in the Figuerolles district as much as I'd like to). But all in all, it was very much like some of the Turkish markets I'd been to in Berlin.

The market was spread along the old city wall, and once we passed through the gate, we were presented with this:

I have no idea what it is, but it made for a convenient landmark. It also led us up the hill to the big landmark, a Roman arena which makes the one in Nîmes look like a toy. It's also nearly impossible to photograph, situated on the hilltop like that, not to mention the fact that it's currently undergoing massive renovations/restorations which seem designed to turn it into some Disney-esque Romanland adventure park. They already have "bullgames" in there (the bulls are teased, but not killed), which is a tradition that no doubt dates back to the Romans, but they're going to be staging gladitorial contests and have a "Roman restaurant" which no doubt will serve honeyed pork and larks with garum.

(photo: Jmalik via Wikipedia, CC 3.0 license)

From there we wandered through the town looking for the tourist office, which had Jack's Holy Grail: a one-euro pamphlet with a walking tour of all of the Arles locations van Gogh used in his paintings. This led us to stumble upon the Place de la République, and me to stare at the tympanum of the church of St. Trophime:

But for Jack, the only thing in the square was...the Night Café! The van Gogh tour has copies of the paintings paired with quotations from his letters at approximately the place where van Gogh's eye rested, and Jack must have taken 20 photos of this place over the next few hours.

We found the tourist office, finally, and got the pamphlet, which also had related tours of Roman, Medieval, and Classic Arles in it. The van Gogh tour, however, had the fewest stops, and since they were widely spaced, we could see most of the other stuff in the interim, not that Jack was much interested. One thing I insisted on, though, was going to the huge museum of Antique Arles to see the Roman stuff. There's tons of it, including an almost complete ceramic jug used to transport wine on special ships that, considering the top is cracked off, was about five feet tall. I'm not really wild about Roman art and antiquities, but I am interested in how the Romans behaved in the boonies, ever since I saw the Greco-Roman museum in Cologne with its bewildering collection of religious stuff: once they were out of reach of the old home town, the Romans adopted tons of other religions, including Mithraism and a new one called Christianity. Although the majority of the artifacts in Arles date from 100-500 AD, when it was the capital of Gaul, there is an amazing amount of Christian stuff on view.

There's also, currently, an astonishing exhibition which'll add a whopping euro to your ticket, a display of stuff that's been brought up from the waters by the north bank of the Rhône in Arles since 1988, including a truly amazing, almost photographic, portrait head of Julius Caesar. This'll be up til September 19, 2010, so go see it if you're in the neighborhood.

It was a long walk out there, and I recommend using the free shuttle bus if you intend to go and aren't driving, so I readily assented when Jack insisted we ride back into town. We got in and the bus was filled with high-school girls (and one boy), one of whom had a kid in a stroller. They tried out their English on Jack, which was all he needed to start yakking with them. When a large older woman got on and sat between us, I snapped to the fact that they were gypsies, not Moroccans as I'd thought. She did some business of handing Jack a holy medal and trying to get him to give her money, then gave me a cowry shell and made a show of pretending to lick one, urging me to do it. I have no idea what that was about, but she didn't get any money out of us, and the inside of the little bus just got more and more riotous until we decamped.

We headed to the hospital where van Gogh had committed himself, and Jack took some more photos. Then we did some more wandering, and I shot this and that, but the idea was that he had to be back at the Night Cafe when it turned dark to take some photos.

I liked the shutters, apparently. But even though it bears the scars of tourism, Arles seemed like a nice enough town. I'd like to go back and get a card that gets me into some of the areas that charge admission, particularly some of the old cloisters. But it finally got dark, and Jack had me shoot a bunch of pictures of him at the Night Café. He pestered the manager until he came up with an old menu which had fallen apart with the painting on the cover, and I almost got van Gogh's composition right here. The light and the color not so much, but, as I kept trying to get Jack to understand, he was making a painting, not taking a photograph. Me, I was taking a photograph:

Anyway, now I'm broke again, but very happy for the day out of town. I really do need to research train fares, though, because if a day in a Languedoc town could only set me back ten bucks, plus lunch and maybe a museum fee, it behooves me to get out and run around a bit more. Of course, these past few days have put me enough behind that this won't be for a while, but the possibilities are intriguing.


  1. Shurely shome mishtake ?

    Arles - river - Loire ?

    The Loire goes through Orleans, Blois and Tours on its way to the Atlantic.

    The Rhone transports the alpine snowmelt via Avignon and Arles to the Med.


  2. Fixed. I was pooped today! Thanks.

  3. Sounds like a nice little trip. Never managed to get to Arles, in fact all of Provence except Avignon remains a black hole for me.

    Another train-borne daytrip worth looking into might be Narbonne - knowing your interest in cooking, you'll flip out at Les Halles de Narbonne, one of the most astonishing indoor food markets I'd ever seen (that was in 2001, so I hope it hasn't changed). Take some budget (and a bag) for food.

  4. Hello Ed Ward-
    Well I know you're a bit down on Berlin these days (and I can see why)- I stayed there a lot from 96 to 98 and when I last went back, a year or so ago it really wasn't the same. All the magic of Pberg and Mitte completely gone- its all glossy and chi chi boutiques these days and there's no more schwartzfahren! Yeuch! One of my fondest memories was looking forward to and enjoying Blue Monday with my psychotic German Boyfriend every week!! I still have some casettes of those shows and through that ultra freezy winter of 96 -97 (minus 25 and daily news reports of old folks dying in their unheated apartments!) It just about kept me going. I have 3 questions for you...
    1) Am I imagining that you once played a version of Farmer John by The Premiers in which you can actually hear the song (rather than the very entertaining 'live version' where you can barely hear them at all?
    2) Who was it who sang 'Justine' ( AS in; Goin to the barbershop, gonna have him do me up, gotta get clean for my little Justine)
    3) What became of your record collection?
    The Ratatosk

  5. Hey, Ratatosk:

    The answer to your first two questions are "Don & Dewey." That's whose version of "Farmer John" I played, and that's who did "Justine." Both off the reissue CD that Specialty put out. Available on eMusic, among other places. Or you could do the old-fashioned thing and get a CD.

    Which is in my record collection, which is here with me in the beautiful south of France, where maybe some day I'll get a chance to do Blue Monday again. Too bad the idiot who took over Jazz Radio destroyed it and fired us all! I miss doing the show, and hearing from an old fan really makes my day!

  6. Tram to Port Marrianne then the bus that reads "Pallavas."

    You can tell it because it looks different from all the other buses. No Montpellier bus will take you to Pallavas becasue Pallavas ceceeded from Montpellier four years ago. Butt he Pallavas bus is pretty well marked.

  7. Fantastique to know it was Don and Dewey Ed- that will be my christmas resent to my self! Thanks for your response. You're damn right abt Jazz Radio Berlin- utterly rubbish without Blue Monday. Next time I'm in the south of France I'll be sure and tune into the local radio stations; Bleu Lundi ahoy! Better yet how about an internet radio version?
    PS: How/when did getting a cd come to be the old fashioned thing- the old fashioned thing is still vinyl isn't it?


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