Sunday, January 25, 2009


Tolls in France are something else. On the way down from Strasbourg to Lyon, we paid a highway toll of €38. That is nearly $80 in Australian terms. So don't complain about the paltry $3 and $4 tolls in the capital cities guys! Today's was much more modest at €3.90.

As we do not have town maps for all the places we visit, I have been downloading directions from address to address with Earth Google. They vary in correctness!! Today's directions to our hotel in Arles had instructions like, go 46 m turn right into ... go 121 m turn left into ... go 62 m. So I knew we were going to be in for an interesting arrival. We turned off a fairly major local thoroughfare and immediately found ourselves navigating tiny lanes (could hardly be called streets). Twisting and turning with very tight turns, but we found the hotel no problem! Michael however has refused to drive these back streets and we realise why everyone has very small cars.

On the subject of small cars, Michael has been fascinated by what he calls the self propelled armchair - for those of you unfamiliar with what he is referring to - click here. They are everywhere and yes, do closely resemble something you would put in your lounge room!

We are staying at Hotel de l'Amphitheatre. Once we have booked in to our room and carried the bags up three flights of stairs - the last one a very tight spiral staircase that hugs the wall, we leave to have a look at the Roman Amphitheatre that is only 250m from our hotel.

It is so hard to describe what it is like to walk up a tight little street with the facade of such a huge structure filling the space that is in front of you. You come out from the end of the street to a large square that surrounds the amphitheatre, setting it a little apart from the surrounding buildings. This amphitheatre has a very interesting past. It was originally constructed at the end of the first century (90AD), has 60 arches and could seat 20,000 people on 34 tiers to watch gladiators or animal fights. Then, in the Middle Ages when the city of Arles was under threat, it became a fortress and a total of 212 houses and 2 churches were built inside the structure forming a fortress. Even though it is huge, it is still very hard to understand how this many structures could have been fitted inside!

And then around to the Roman Theatre. Not as big as the one in Lyon, it is still impressive in that it still sits amongst other ruins from this time. Listed on the UNESCO Heritage List, there are two columns and part of a lintel standing in-situ. The tiers and stage as well as the chorus are still used for performances every year.

We had walked down from the Roman Theatre to have a look at the Cathedral - St Trophime d'Arles . There was a huge crowd outside with a guide talking in French. We went and looked through St Annes Chapel while they dispersed. When we went back across the square and went in to the Cathedral, we realised that the crowd was a choir who were now rehearsing. It was very uplifting as the acoustics are brilliant (and there were some very very good singers!). Maria soon realised as many people poured in to the Cathedral that there was going to be a Mass and decided to stay. Turns out, it was a big day - celebrating the Conversion of St Paulo the Apostle and was being celebrated by Bishop Mgr Christophe Dufour. Along with the Bishop (who is Bishop of two dioceses - Arles and Aix-de-Provence), there were 46 other priests, acolytes and altar boys. There was also a procession of relics and much, much incense. One and a half hours later, I left as they started to hand out yet another A4 4page sheet!

Amongst some of the worshippers were men and women in traditional Arlesian dress. They stand apart from the others at Mass only visually. They mingle with everyone and the women seem taller with their high hairdos and their distinctive headwear. They are a source of interest to a lot of people and once outside in the square, there are many people trying to discreetly (though not all) take a photo.

Dinner at Chez Ariane:
Starter: we shared a Petite Charcuterie (home made pate, sausage (salami), chorizo, cornichons, jamon (smoked ham).
Entree: Soup de legumes aux panais et grains de sesame
Mains: Saucisse de Montbelliard aux lentilles, salade verte (local beef and pork sausage with lentils and a green salad) Michael
Saute d'Agneau, gratin de pommes de terre, salade verte (lamb stew, potato casserole and a green salad) Maria

There is no way to describe this meal and do it justice. It was just sublime. All the dishes were spiced - all different and very complementary. The lamb was flavoured with anise (hey - don't knock it till you try it), the potato casserole with nutmeg (very much like the one I make) and the lentils with bay leaves.

After our sumptuous meal, we returned to our hotel whereby I (Michael) decided to venture out to take some night photos. Eight bells and all are well. I proceed with camera and tripod into the night which is cool, overcast and comfortable. The streets are quiet, with the exception of the muted footfalls from those few folk walking their pooches. There is a gent who is urinating against a wall! Ah.... France.....

I continue onto the Theatre; hidden by a veil of darkness and silencing any further performance. I press on to the Amphitheatre where its former glory, of inglorious events, shimmers under the radiance of incandescent lamps.

The camera, set to 'manual', is secured to the tripod; shutter speed adjusted at 1/10th p/sec. and F-stop set for 3.5 exposure setting [click]... nice shot of the SW side. I move the camera to photograph the NW aspect of the Amphitheatre. I adjust the shutter speed to 1/30th p/sec. and F-stop a 3.5 exposure setting [click]... nice shot. I move to the northern portico, with previous camera setting maintained [click]... not a bad shot. I then proceed to another area when.... rain! No droplet, wind or any form of precipitous warning. It was as though Jupiter decided to upend an urn of water; I was drenched in seconds as were any further nocturnal ambitions! Back to the dry and warmth of the hotel.

We had always planned to try to keep in touch with the various family members. We bought a laptop equipped with a good camera and microphone and have downloaded Skype. It is paying off as we finally manage to get Gen on line and then succeed in reaching Antony. We had previously been able to video link with my brother Michael in NY and had made phone calls home to the two mothers. Gotta love this new technology. Our handle is mtcar0 for those on Skype who want to keep in touch!

This morning (Monday) we started with breakfast at the Hotel. It is reported in some of the travel sites as the best breakfast in Arles and we are not disappointed. Generous portions of morning breads and pastries are accompanied by really good coffee and the best preserves (including, Gor & Judy, a fantastic cumquat marmalade) we have tasted in Europe. It is still raining - quite heavily and very persistently. We plan to spend the morning at the Musée departmental de l’Arles antique. Not only out of the weather, this museum that focusses on the early development of Arles is truly fascinating.

The Museum has a collection that is mind blowing. Michael wanders in a daze - it is fascinating to watch him, looking at this, then that , then back to this again! There is the best collection of roman artefacts that we have seen to date. Lots of items of daily life as well as others reflecting health ad medicine, religion and religious practice and death and the rememberence of the dead. There are wonderful examples of aristocratic life and their trappings including richly detailed mosaics and detailed life size and larger busts and statues as well as sarcophegus. They also have detailed architectural examples, freizes and plinths. We spend a good couple of hours here and as we leave the third school group with their giggling teenagers (who cannot possibly understand the enormity of what they are to see) arrive. By the way, the statue of Diana that resides in the Louvre in Paris was found here. We have to accept the copy that looks out over the River Rhone from inside the museum! The diorama models are also remarkable.

Still in the rain, we are off to the Alycamps - the Roman and early Christian necropolis on the edge of the old town. It was too wet and slippery for me over the uneven ground, so I'll retire and let Michael tell you what he found!

Emperor, your sword won't help you out
Sceptre and crown are worthless here
I've taken you by the hand
For you must come to my dance!

from the 'Totentanz Textbook' - anonymous: Heidelberg Blockbuch, ca. 1460

One could be excused for assuming a day, like today; wet, dark and pendulous, should be ripe for an adventurous sojourn into a cemetery....Yes, sir! However, not just any cemetery, but an ancient late Roman/early Christian necropolis: Alyscamps.
As an interesting aside, the name Alyscamps is a corruption of the Latin, Elysian Fields which were coincidentally referred to by Dante in his Inferno... could this be suggestive? It was pouring with rain, the roads slick and awkward; and as we neared our destination the downpour abated to a drizzle. On arriving at the necropolis, Maria decided to renege on this visit as her feet were starting to ache. So, suiting up with a jacket, hat, camera and storm-stick I ventured through the heavy, wrought iron gates of Alyscamps.

My first impression, after negotiating the ticket booth, was one of utter silence with just a twinge of foreboding.... Upon entering this sanctorum, you first set foot upon the remains of the Via Aurelia, which was one of the main thoroughfares of ancient Arles. This thoroughfare has an uneven and broken surface, and being wet required a modicum of vigilance. The slight drizzle combined with the steel grey sky, encouraged the green from the surrounding foliage, mildew and lichen to reflect an element of iridescence (.... and this is not the product of an over imaginative mind!)
On either side of the Aurelian are marble and limestone sarcophagi, cremation graves, cippus and mausoleums which are now (regrettably) empty. Many of these recepticles are complete, whereas other yawn in their decrepidness. As I continued, my amazement mounted when I realised these recepticals of death have been keeping sentinal for over 2000 years. The remains of this necropolis, is just a minor representation of the original cemetery!

As you follow this sombre road, you will notice the inscriptions and epitaphs gradually change from the paganistic to polytheistic - the new religion: Christianity. Emperor Constantine certainly new how to embrace a new power base. The tower of the early Christian church, St Honorat, looms ahead of like the prow of a ship. Ahead of this aged though impressive structure lay an excavated pit, exposing early Christian sarcophagi which had been buried two deep. Skirting either side of this unearthed area are the remains of shrines, to whatever deity or Saint. The entrance into the church is quite macabre, and my interest and enthusiasm increased.
On crossing the threshold, all that can be heard is the tick-tick-tick of water drops smacking into their respective pools of reflection. A scuffing of shoes upon the dusty surface, heralds the cacaphony from the flapping of pidgeon wings. Startled, and senses honed to the gloom silence once again settles over this place. Tick-tick-tick. Looking up towards this once venerable ceiling, I can only marvel at the wonderful architecture. Tick-tick-tick. Now for the crypt....

In reflection, I can understand how those early Gothic novelists, such as Horace Walpole and Clara Reeve, derived inspiration for their respective creations.
Dinner tonight is at a local brasserie/restaurant. Nice enough (Beef Carpaccio as entree for Michael, Scampi flavoured with Pastis accompanied by Risotto and seasonal veges for both and profiteroles each), it is nothing on previous meals. The best thing is that it is opposite the Amphitheatre! Not much choice - everything closed here on Mondays - just like home!!

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