Sunday, October 19, 2014

Moving right along: Provence (specifically, Arles)

Provence apparently hasn't gotten the memo that (at the time of writing) we're nearly a full month into autumn. When we got off the train in Arles to walk the 4-5 blocks to our hotel in the historic center of town, the weather was at least 80 fahrenheit. Lyon seemed unseasonably warm too, but Arles felt like the weather had gotten stuck somewhere back in July.

We took the TGV again, this time from Lyon to Arles, which got us there in about an hour and a half. This particular TGV train offered a slightly different experience from the one on the Paris-Lyon line. The Paris-Lyon train was probably the nicest and cleanest train we've ever ridden - a far cry from some of the trains you see in Slovakia. It was full of corporate suit (and pantsuit) types who were no doubt heading down to Lyon for an afternoon business meeting, several of whom kept getting up from their seats to strut back and forth self-importantly while talking on their smartphones in the little corridor between the cars. The train from Lyon-Arles, however, seemed to have more tourists, people visiting family, or students heading home, and the train itself was a bit older and more worn. Still a nice ride, though.

The TGV actually took us to Nimes, where we had 10 minutes to catch a connecting local train to Arles. But since the TGV pulled into Nimes about six minutes late, we had to frantically orient ourselves and figure out where the hell in the station to go. None of the departure screens mentioned any trains to Arles, so we just headed for the only train that was leaving at 12:34, whose destination was Marseille. (The tickets we'd printed out said nothing about the train being one that went to Marseille). There were no conductors on the platform to ask if this was the right train, so we literally hopped on at the last minute and hoped for the best, having no idea whether it would stop in Arles until, of course, 20-ish minutes later, when it stopped in Arles.

Anyhow: Arles.

We chose to base in Arles for the majority of our stay in Provence as it seemed like an appealing town. Out of all the popular small-to-mid-sized towns on the tourist path in the broader vicinity (Avignon, Aix-en-Provence, etc.), Arles is said to be a little rougher around the edges, a bit grittier (though not as gritty as Nimes), a bit more working class, and less polished. Rick Steves writes that Arles appeals to Italophiles, and after one stroll through the center, it's easy to see why.

After checking into our thoroughly basic and unremarkable hotel that we chose partly because they offered free parking (since we plan to rent a car for the duration of our stay in Arles to explore Provence - more on that later) - which we quickly learned does not mean that they have a garage or a parking lot, but rather, the streets around this particular block tend to have available parking that happens to be free - we took a stroll through the old town in search of a TI with a better map than what the hotel offered, and more importantly, a spot for a quick lunch.

Arles' center is - surprise, surprise - thoroughly beautiful. And what appeals to us is that it's not totally polished or faux rusticated like some of these old towns are. Many of the buildings have yet to be scrubbed of their layers of soot and grime, and the rugged exposed stonework and the chipped and peeling paint on the blue/green shutters that adorn pretty much every window in town really give Arles a romantically run-down, weathered look. The overall look and vibe reminds us a lot of towns in Italy. A few of the streets around the Roman arena have been cute-ned up a bit, but that's about it.

There's also a surprising amount of diversity for a smaller town; there appears to be a very strong Algerian/Northern African community here, which I suppose actually isn't surprising, given France's connection to the region.

But things are definitely verrrry laid back in Arles. People dress much more casually (possibly due in part to this apparent Indian summer - or whatever they call those here), they walk and move at a slower pace, and you even see these older dudes with missing teeth and pot bellies hanging out at some of the dingier cafes, who remind Terezia of the folks you see at the pub in her parents' village in Slovakia. Of course there are plenty of young, normal, 'with-it' people here, too. Seems like a mix of slightly artsy and working-class types, for the most part, though on occasion you can also spot these mafia-looking guys in tracksuits pulling up in new BMWs.

Tourists aren't overwhelming the town, either - at least not at this time of year, though you do see them ambling around. But the streets get very quiet at night - even on the weekend - and I suspect a good number of the tourists you see in the afternoon are day-trippers.

The main/central square, Place du Forum, has unfortunately been completely overrun by the outdoor seating of bad/touristy restaurants/cafes, which is too bad because it'd be nice if you could just sit on a bench and people-watch there. Still, at least it's nowhere near as bad as Place du Tertre in Montmartre. The ambiance is nice, it's picturesque and shady, and it seems like a good place for a drink or an aperitif before you head off the square to a real restaurant.

We fueled up on some decent sandwiches at a place on a small lane just off Place Paul Doumer, a less touristy spot with several cheaper food options. We also had some ice cream from a place recommended by Rick Steves called Soleileis, which turned out to be cheap but strangely horrible (though Terezia's flavors were OK). Berthillon sets the bar impossibly high.

Arles' historic area is small, and we were aware of that going in, but we are continually surprised at how quickly one can cross the entire center. For example, I'll assume that it'll take us 10 minutes to get to such-and-such square, only to find that we've already gotten there in only three.

But I have to stress that it is a beautiful town, and the narrow, winding streets seem tailor-made for aimless wandering.

After that hideous last lunch in Lyon, we really wanted to make sure that the next place we ate out at was a good one. First on our list was Le Galoubet, which, like all the places we've tried, has garnered the usual rave reviews on all the usual websites, but has also won praise from the folks at Le Fooding, a website of restaurant reviews written by French foodie types who seem to have their finger on the pulse of what's good at the moment.

The woman at the front desk of our hotel happily made a reservation for us at Le Galoubet, since pretty much everyone says you need a reservation to get a table there. She seemed to be on a first name basis with whomever it was at the other end of the line.

Despite nursing some nasty colds, our tastebuds weren't totally wiped out yet. Mine were maybe about 25% compromised, but I figured this would be a good test to see if the restaurant's food was flavorful enough to shine through.

Starters were mixed. I ordered the octopus salad, which was bland and uneventful. Terezia ordered an incredibly tasty leek salad with sardines and hazelnuts.

But the highlight was the mains. I ordered what was basically a New York strip cooked medium rare in a morel mushroom sauce. The steak was cooked to perfection - and on the rarer side - while the sauce was very subtle, but you could still get a bit of that earthy, mushroomy flavor. I'd been craving a dish like this for several days.

Terezia's dish may have been even better: cornish hen bathed in a creamy, herb-infused sauce with freshly sautéed shitake mushrooms. My god this was delicious. The hen was amazingly juicy and tender, and generous amounts of rosemary and flat-leaf parsley made this dish explosively flavorful. The potent shitakes were rich and earthy, and perfectly suited/melded with everything else.

And I should point out that neither dish needed even a pinch of salt (see rant in previous post about under seasoned food in Paris). This totally made up for that shitty lunch in Lyon, and for a couple of those shitty meals in Paris. This is the kind of food Terezia expected to find in France, and the kind of stuff she likes to cook herself: food prepared with passion by a chef who wants to emphasize and elevate the flavors, rather than mute them. None of this fussy, bland, under-seasoned crap.

Desserts were mixed: I had this chocolate thing with nougat inside and a nice caramel sauce, while Terezia had this thing that was a pile of whipped cream and broken pieces of meringue with raspberries, raspberry coulis, and red currants. I liked mine better, but Terezia's was light and refreshing, which suited the summer-like weather.

And before we were halfway through our meal, the place was full. We saw the hostess turn away at least a dozen people, so good call on the reservation.

Happily sated, we strolled back to the hotel to plot the next few days in Provence and get some much-needed sleep.

Click here to see the full set of Arles photos!

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