Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Driving around Provence, days 1 & 2: Les-Baux-de-Provence, St-Remy-de-Provence, Pont du Gard and Uzès

Our hotel in Arles lies at the northwestern edge of the old town, directly across the street from the Rhone River, and right next to one of the remaining parts of the old medieval wall. On the other side of that wall is a park with trees and grass and whatnot. Unfortunately, a traveling carnival with several of those flashy, spin-cycle death rides has been set up in this park. The medieval wall and some trees prevent us from seeing it, but one of the carnival rides has a bleeping, electronic, instrumental version of Jingle Bells playing on a constant loop, and it's on the verge of driving me completely f-ing insane.


When planning our time in Provence we quickly realized that there was no way we could rely on public transportation to visit all the places and things we wanted to see. Buses to some of these sights run from Arles in the summer months only, and Provence's local public transit is really only set up for commuting. So, it became apparent that we'd need to rent a car if we wanted to really explore the region, and we picked up our rental (a tiny, black Peugeot 108) Saturday morning.

Day 1: Les Baux-de-Provence and St-Remy-de-Provence

We decided to dip our toes in the pool of driving in Provence by first going to Les Baux-de-Provence, which is about a half hour drive west of Arles.

Les Baux is many things: it's a ruined medieval hill-top castle that shelters an adjoining village, both of which are nestled in/surrounded by a massive gorge set in the Alpilles Mountains, a low-lying range of trippy limestone rock formations. Among the trees, bulbous and cylindrical rocky outcroppings dramatically give way to steep, sheer, deadly cliffs, all shaped, sculpted, and smoothed by millennia of Mistral winds and rain. So, even though the castle/village is the main draw, when you go to Les Baux you really have to take in the entire jaw-droppingly stunning surroundings.

Les Baux from below.

The village is a medieval warren of steep, narrow, winding, cobblestoned lanes lined with old, weathered, exposed stone buildings. Once you get to the top of the village, you start seeing the ruins and encounter things like a portion of a wall with a beautiful, still-intact Renaissance-era window.

When you're in the castle compound, you can see just how much of it was embedded in the steep limestone outcroppings and cliffs. There are still a few remnants of old buildings, like the occasional Gothic arch, an old chapel, a room that was used for entertaining guests, and several worn, steep stairways leading to high platforms that were once guard towers.

The panoramic views are, of course, breathtaking. To the south you've got a green valley of olive groves, and to the north, and everywhere else, really, you've got all of these wildly beautiful limestone formations.

Les Baux was built in the 1200s by the Lords of Baux, whose kings traced their lineage back to King Balthazar, which is why their coat of arms bore the star of Bethlehem. The Baux kings spent much of their reign battling for control over Provence, and they apparently had a mean streak, as they were known for making some of their prisoners jump off the highest castle walls/cliffs. But it wasn't until later in the 1600s when the castle met its tragic fate. At that time it had become a center of Protestantism, and Cardinal Richelieu had it destroyed.

After tromping around the castle and the village, it's pretty much mandatory that you drive the switch-back road up into the hills above Les Baux for some amazing views over the castle/village and the surrounding scenery. At some points the road slices dramatically right through the massive rocks, which looks very cool. There are places where you can pull over to gawk at the views, as well as a series of hiking trails that traverse the terrain.


About a half hour north of Les Baux, on the other side of the Alpilles, is St-Remy-de-Provence, the town where Van Gogh spent time in a psychiatric facility after lopping off his ear. These days it's mentioned by Rick Steves and other tourist books as being a picturesque historic Provencal town worth visiting. I've also heard from people via blogs and travel message boards who use St. Remy as a base while exploring Provence. Its close proximity to Les Baux made going there a no-brainer.

But, while St. Remy is certainly nice, we found it a bit too polished and yuppified for our tastes. It seems to cater to the pink sweaters tied over the shoulders with khakis and deck shoes crowd; the kind of place where middle-aged housewives buy lavender-themed decorations for their living rooms, or where the weeds growing out of the grout between the stonework were strategically planted, rather than simply allowed to exist out of neglect or apathy. While St. Remy is certainly not a Disney Land-esque tourist trap (like Italy's San Gimignano), it seems to lack the grit, character, and diversity of Arles.

St. Remy's cathedral's somewhat bizarre neoclassical exterior has clearly been scrubbed to a sheen, but the interior is a different story. The walls are covered in centuries of soot and grime, and the place gave off a neat, melancholy vibe. The only place in town where dirt has been allowed to accumulate.

But we did manage to find some decent ice cream there, as well as some good, strong coffee that we could order to-go (a rarity in non-Starbucks coffee places in France).

Just outside of St. Remy are the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Glanum. You can find some random bits of Roman clutter there, like a triumphal arch just off the road. There's a whole park where you can pay to see stuff that's been excavated.

We returned to Arles on the road through Les Baux so we could experience the mesmerizing rocky scenery again.

For dinner we had a cheap pizza and salad at an Italian-ish place on Place Paul Doumer. The pizza and salad were decent, but the ambience in the summery weather was perfect.

(Click here to see more photos of Les Baux and St. Remy!)

Day 2: Pont du Gard and Uzès 

For our next trip we ventured further out, this time to Pont du Gard, the massive Roman aqueduct bridge that crosses the Gardon River, about a 45-minute drive northwest from Arles. Built in the 1st century AD, the aqueduct supplied water to the Roman city of Nimes (Nemausus) from a spring in Uzès, a small hill town about 10 miles (as the crow flies) north of Nimes.

Pont du Gard is pretty stunning to see in person. First of all, it's huge. And beautiful. The surrounding natural scenery, not to mention the river itself and its natural rocky embankments, all make for a beautiful setting. You can scale steep, rocky trails on either side of the river for some awesome views of the bridge. In summer you can apparently swim in the river. I imagine the whole place gets mobbed, but it would be very cool to be able to swim under the Pont du Gard.

And this thing represents an amazing feat of engineering. Very little mortar or clamps were used to make the bridge. The arches are largely supported by their weight, shape, and the resulting friction, which is kind of mind-boggling. The water traveled across the bridge via a canal along the very top level. Even though the distance from Uzès to Nimes wasn't so great, the entire aqueduct takes an extremely long, meandering path so that the water could flow freely at a slightly downhill angle.

The canal along the top of the bridge in which the water flowed.

After tromping around the bridge, we had a cheap lunch at the cafe of the super sleek visitor center, and then breezed through the museum, which goes into detail about the construction of the bridge and the aqueduct (most of which consisted of underground tunnels).


Given that the medieval hill town of Uzès is a fairly short and straightforward drive northwest from Pont du Gard, we thought we'd check the place out. Besides, it made thematic sense, since Uzès provided the source of the water for the aqueduct.

Uzès seems to be a little overlooked by tourists and the popular tourist guides, and we're not entirely sure why, since we were pleasantly surprised by what we found there. It is a bit off the usual tourist path in Provence, so that could partly explain it.

Fortunately, Uzès doesn't seem to be polished or yuppified like St. Remy, but it's also not as gritty or diverse as Arles. The place really just seems to be... French.

After driving around the attractive, tree-lined ring road that circles the historic town center a couple of times in search of parking, we finally found a spot and ventured in. The streets were of the usual cobblestoned, medieval variety - all striking, exposed stonework and layers of grit and faded writing on walls from shops that closed decades ago. But, the streets were weirdly deserted. There wasn't a soul around, save for the odd cat.

That is, until we stumbled into the main square, a large, irregularly shaped space lined by picturesque buildings and shade-giving trees, where it looked as if the whole town had converged. A big part of the square was given over to an arts and crafts market, with vendors at tables selling handmade jewelry, scarves, art, and other stuff. All the outdoor seating areas were filled with French-speaking people leisurely eating lunch. Though there were a few tourists ambling around, I mostly heard French spoken here.

Not far from the square is this massive, imposingly tall fortress, whose crenelated defensive tower can be seen from a distance when approaching the town. When you enter the compound you're hit with a variety of architectural styles, from Gothic to neoclassical, but we didn't go in, as admission was 18 euros per person, which is a silly amount to charge. I mean, the Louvre doesn't even charge that much.

At any rate, Uzès turned out to be a totally worthwhile add-on to our Pont du Gard trip, and the drive back to Arles was a breeze (and really scenic at times).

(Click here to see more photos of Pont du Gard and Uzès!)

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