Friday, October 24, 2014

Last day in Arles

Gritty, grimy Arles turned out to be a great place to base ourselves while exploring other parts of Provence. It's small enough that you can leave it during the day and not feel like you're missing out on a lot, yet still a beautiful and character-filled place to come back "home" to. But you really need to leave a full day for Arles itself. Even though you can knock off its most important sights in an afternoon, for us its biggest attraction is the town itself, whose streets are perfect for aimless urban wandering. Some of the streets in the less touristy corners of town are so dingy, crumbly, and run-down that they almost feel like you've suddenly walked into a developing, third-world country. I especially loved walking around the town at night, when the light from the street lamps reveals cool architectural details (or neat flaws) that you might not notice during the day.

What's also interesting about Arles is that you can kind of tell when it became what Rick Steves described as a sleepy backwater in the 1700s, and how it more or less stayed that way until well into the 20th century, by the absence of the fashionable architectural styles of that period. You won't find any Baroque or Art Nouveau in Arles, for example.

Arles' famous public market

On Wednesday, our final morning in Arles, we made a point of going to the big market held every Wednesday and Saturday morning until 12:30 along the ring road that encircles the old town. We missed Saturday's market (which is supposedly the bigger of the two), but Wednesday's market was absolutely bustling with locals who had a vast array of produce, super fresh seafood, cheese, and meat to choose from. Markets like these always excite Terezia, who for the last three years in Slovakia really had to struggle to source ingredients that you can apparently find in abundance in France.

Roughly halfway up the road, though, the food part of the market ended, and the cheap household crap part of the market began. Some of this stuff looked very sketchy in that kind of 'oh, this just fell out of a truck' sort of way. One guy had a mountain of toilet paper which he was selling for a ridiculously cheap price per package. Another guy had a massive tangle of super shitty/cheap unmatched shoes - you'd have to root around in that mess for hours trying to find a matching pair, and a few people were actually doing just that.

What was also interesting about the market was that this is where we saw the biggest concentration of France's Arab/muslim immigrant community on the trip. There were definitely plenty of ethnic French people selling and buying stuff there, but you could hear a lot of Arabic languages being spoken. I suspect that with Arles being a less affluent town that perhaps it has become a more affordable place for immigrants to settle. For its size, Arles is incredibly diverse.

Secularized churches

There are a few old churches in Arles that have been turned into galleries, which I think is an awesome use for these spacious Gothic interiors. One had a photo exhibition consisting of several different photographers' (very different) portraits of France, and another went into detail about Arles' current and past urban renewal/improvement projects, from laying down the ring road in the 1800s, to a current project to build a pedestrian path along the river embankment (Arles ignores its river, and for the whole stretch along the old town there is only a big stone/concrete levee. The path they're currently building is on the river side of the levee, closer to water level.)

Funky opening hours

The French, like many European nations, are notoriously lax and unpredictable when it comes to the opening hours of shops and restaurants. In Arles we found that opening hours were even whackier and less predictable than in the big cities. As we were staying in a hotel, we had to eat out all the time, but we couldn't afford to blow tons of a money on a good French meal every night. Arles has numerous bakeries (which make good sandwiches) and crepe joints, and for some of these 'off' nights we figured we'd hit up these types of places for a cheap, take-home dinner. The problem was that unlike in bigger cities, the majority of these bakeries and crepe places were closed in the evening (in fact, the whole town seems to really zip up tight in the evenings; even on a Saturday night, the streets were deserted and everything appeared to be closed) so it was a real struggle just to find something to eat sometimes.

Restaurants kept even weirder hours. In Paris, most restaurants are closed Sundays and/or Mondays, but in Arles, we were finding that many of the restaurants that we wanted to try were also closed Tuesdays and/or Wednesdays! Some of these places were closed despite having hours posted online indicating that they should be open. I suppose this could have to do with it no longer being peak tourist season, but it was still frustrating. Many restaurants don't even post their opening hours in the front window, and a few had a handwritten note saying they were closed for the several days that we happened to be in Arles.

A final, amazing 'this will remain forever etched in our memories' meal in Arles at À Côté

We wanted our last restaurant meal in Arles to be one of those 'I'll remember this dish forever' ones, so we held out for some places on our research list that seemed the most promising. Somewhat distressingly, every damn one of those places turned out to be closed Tuesday, even when their information on the internet said they were open.

We were suddenly starting to get bummed out over the prospect of having to eat cheap sandwiches for lunch when we walked past Atelier, Arles' most prominent foodie destination, whose two-Michelin Star chef, Jean-Luc Rabanel, is said to work some serious magic in the kitchen. This guy apparently does €110 dinner menus that people reportedly drive long distances for and book well in advance. We didn't even consider this place because we knew it was super expensive and figured we probably couldn't even get a table.

But right next door, Rabanel has opened a bistro called À Côté, which offers his cooking at more affordable prices. It was open for lunch, so we took a gander at the menu and liked what we saw.

Even though it was noon and the place was empty, we were still a bit nervous about asking if we could get a table. After hesitating out front for several minutes and not being acknowledged by the host and hostess, Terezia led the way inside and asked a woman who was busy running back and forth if they were open and if we could get a table for two. Strangely, this woman turned out to be American, as she asked in flawless American English if we had a reservation. That question always leaves you with a twinge of panic when you don't have a reservation, but fortunately, when we said "no," she immediately asked whether we wanted to sit inside or outside. (For further proof of our server's curious American origin, she spoke French in a very clunky American accent.)

Starters were promising, though Terezia's was better. She ordered what turned out to be one of the best caesar salads she's ever had. The presentation was elegant, the anchovies were potently flavorful, and it came with a side of clearly homemade mayonnaise, which was truly evil but amazingly tasty.

I ordered pumpkin soup with croutons, mushrooms, and chestnuts. This was a little under seasoned, but the croutons (or crouton - it was one long, thin piece of crouton) were infused with thyme, and whenever I had a bite of the soup with a piece of crouton, the thyme really brought the flavors to life.

The main dishes, however, were wildly delicious. Terezia ordered the mussels, which were prepared with the most mind-bogglingly creative and potent array of herbs/seasoning either of us have ever encountered with a dish like this. You had all these complex layers and notes, and the overall effect was powerfully aromatic. The fresh flavor of the mussels came through nice and strong - clearly that morning's catch. But on top of that, you had these beautiful strata of flavors and accents - some delicate, some a bit more bold, but all working together to create this rich harmony of flavor. Terezia says the seasoning seemed to consist of ground almonds, parsley, garlic, parmesan, tiny bits of sausage, a hint of saffron, and probably lots of butter. This was exactly the kind of dish Terezia was hoping to have in Provence.

I ordered the braised lamb shank, which was even a cut above the one I had at Le Comptoir in Paris. This was largely due to the fact that the whole dish, sides and all, was just better conceived. The shank came in a beautifully savory sauce that was generously infused with garlic and herbs, with slightly crispy wedges of potatoes swimming around in it. The shank itself was cooked to absolute perfection: super delicate and juicy, and packed with that rich, deep, lamb-y flavor. One of those savor-every-bite kind of dishes. (And neither of our dishes needed even a touch of salt.)

The 'menu' came with a dessert, and I was less enamored with their selections. Terezia had this wonderful apple and almond tart thing with some exquisite homemade vanilla ice cream. I had the crepes suzette, which came with a scoop of lemon sorbet, but had this orange liqueur flavored syrup that I found a bit cloying.

Curiously, our American server was probably the most aloof server we'd encountered. For the entire trip, nearly all the French servers have been nothing but friendly and helpful. This woman wasn't rude, just a bit aloof or vacant, and it's kind of funny that the one not super friendly server we encountered happened to be American.

Au revoir Arles (and stupid hotel policies re: breakfast)

We both dig Arles and we would definitely stay there again as a base for exploring Provence. In some ways, it still seems to embody the mood that Van Gogh captured when he portrayed it in his paintings. And its narrow, meandering web of charmingly dilapidated streets really does remind us a lot of Italy. Maybe the near-constant buzz of people zipping around on Vespas and the easy-going, laid-back vibe of the locals helped reinforce that Italian vibe.

But next time we stay in Provence we will definitely rent an apartment. It was kind of stupid and inconvenient to stay in a hotel in Arles for five nights. We did it because this particular hotel was close to the train station and the car rental place, there was free parking, and it was on the edge of the historic part of town, making it easier to drive in and out of Arles. But the hassle involved in getting food, and some other issues, make us prefer renting an apartment, especially when staying somewhere longer than a few nights.

Also, this hotel seems to be part of an alarming trend that we noticed in France when researching B&Bs costing less than €100 per night: they charge €7-8 extra per person for breakfast. We've never encountered this in Italy, the Czech Republic, Poland, or Slovakia, but all the places we found in France were doing this, which I think is outrageously stupid. Plus, it really adds up. We obviously skipped their stupid breakfast just on principle, but that meant we had to venture out into the world and find a nearby bakery and cafe for our morning coffee/breakfast/fuel, which wasn't always so fun. But we usually wound up spending €5-7 total for the two of us on coffee/pastries, so it paid off.

At any rate, on to Avignon for the final leg of the trip.

(Click here to see all the photos from this set!)

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