Southern France Rocks, Part 2

As promised, here’s Part 2 of my travelogue documenting my recent trek through Southern France. Home base: The Medieval walled city of Avignon, southern tip of the Côte du Rhône. Never mind for the present that I promised this post first thing Saturday and here it is Sunday night. As I always say, why do tomorrow what you can put off until the day after?

Our story takes up in Arles, where in 1888 either Gauguin or Van Gogh himself did the lacerating of the latter’s ear. But that wasn’t the only battle that took place in Arles. Back in Roman times, the town’s coliseum hosted a variety of blood sports, including gladiator matches and public dispositions of the criminal class. Alas, the only blood you’ll see there today is that of da bulls. As in Bull Fighting. Although I won’t speak to the morality of such “sport”—although I must say, one killing seems much the same as another to me, and any preference toward the sterile slaughter of steak cows strikes me as little more than bovine sexism—I like the idea that there’s at least a remote chance that the human Matador might take the fall. Meanwhile, here’s a stitched version of the inside of the Arles’ Coliseum, whose rocks have survived 2,000 years of wear.

When I paid my 6 Euros/person admittance to the coliseum, I was assured our tickets would also get us into the smaller but equally amazing Théâtre Antique. Sadly, the French (much like the vast majority of Western Europeans) don’t believe in the recent American work ethic of slaving from dawn till dusk. They actually take a break in the middle of the day, the lazy bastards! Which is why I, a sprightly citizen of the superpowerful, superdesperate U.S. of A., had to climb the sides of a spiky fence to shoot this image. As those of you who read Part 1 may recall, I regard myself as something of a professional where the climbing of ancient ruins is concerned.

In addition to the ancient Roman architecture, Arles also contains more than its fair share of Medieval junk. Like the Church of Saint Trophime. One site calls it “one of the fine achievements of Provençal Romanesque architecture.” 12th-century churches don’t do much for me, but the building’s façade is something to behold. The portal is especially entertaining. The left side shows the righteous marching into the welcoming arms of God. The right side shows the damned marching into the equally welcoming arms of Beelzebub. Click the image below to see the side I prefer. Ooh, toasty!

The delta region of Camargue is home to the finest sea salt in the world, a tribe of migrating flamingos, and a unique breed of horse. Of the three, I decided to ride a Camargue—which is to say, a horse—by the name of Hello. (I know, an English-speaking horse!) The terrain was marked by thatched-roof houses, sleepy farm animals, and delta mud up to your ankles. Which is why I followed the example of my tour guide and kept my ankles hiked up to my ass. I may have appeared ridiculous at the time, but I was spotless on my return, as shown below.

The next day, I and my companions drove north to the city of Orange (pronounced as two syllables, Oh and ranj). Below you see me, rendered as a speck, in the middle of the best-preserved Roman theater in the world, lacking only the original roof and a few mosaics. In recent years, this stage has seen the likes of Elvis Costello, Frank Zappa, and Robert Smith. But none of them compare with the early years of the Third Century, when actors rolled around entirely naked in mute pantomime. Upon learning this, I couldn’t help but wonder: Which of the aforementioned performers might have produced the most scintillating soundtrack?

After several years of art history and many episodes of the British miniseries I Claudius, I’ve become something of a fan of the Caesars, Rome’s first family of outrageous emperors. High atop the magnificent stage wall of the Théâtre Antique d’Orange (called “The finest wall in my kingdom” by Louis XIV) resides an imposing statue of Gaius Caesar Augustus, great nephew of Julius, captured here with a bird. Ever practical, the Romans designed their statues to accommodate interchangeable heads. Which makes little difference given that they all looked the same and wore identical hair styles.

Have you ever wanted to buy rare mushrooms, strangely cured hams, and unpasteurized cheeses under one roof? At the Marché Les Halles in Avignon, you can buy a draft beer while you shop at 7 o’clock in the morning, say hello to the local farmers and craftsmen, and taste any number of delicacies that would cost you an arm and a leg in The States. Each morning, with my double espresso in one hand and my Olympus E-30 in another, I shopped for breakfast, said bonjour to the local drunks, and ate more than my fair share of ham and cheese croissants. Did I mention the quiche? My gawd, these people know how to eat!

Beyond the quality of the food and the fact that Les Halles was located within five minutes of my home base on Rue de Teinturiers, the most striking attribute of this market was the vertical garden by Finnish designer Patrick Blanc. Covering the entire front wall, the garden is about as difficult to miss as the great Palais des Papes.

Speaking of the Papes, I couldn’t leave Avignon without inspecting the inside of the grandiose Popes’ Palace first hand. And when I say “inside,” I mean way inside, all the way to the popes’ bedroom, where Lord (and a few servants)-only knows what happened. It is said that the coronation of the first French pope, Clement VI, was quite a party. Held in 1342, the feast included 118 oxen, 1,033 sheep, 1,195 geese, 7,428 chickens, 39,980 eggs, 50,000 sweet tarts (not the candy), and 95,000 loaves of bread. I ask you, where the hell was the wine?

En route to the Geneva airport, I decided to stop off at the picturesque city of Annecy, known for its canals as the “Venice of France.” I saw it only at night, but it was still quite beautiful, as witnessed below. It was raining, so I stole an umbrella from the hotel, only to have it stolen from me at a bar called Captain Pub. Later, as I drank a glass of Laphroig, a friend stole another glass of Scotch for me while the bartender wasn’t looking. Upon returning wet and tipsy to the hotel, the night watchman accosted us and said, “Didn’t you have an umbrella?” Moral of the story, kids: Don’t steal.

There is of course more to tell: a stroll down the shores of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, an afternoon drinking Muscat Baumes-de-Venise in Baumes-de-Venise, and a glutinous evening eating a 6-pound half-wheel of melted cheese at La Table a Raclette. After an especially satisfying dinner at Avignon’s La Mirande, the chef took my party on a personal tour, in which he assured us that the walls contained a dead body. Who’s up for dessert?

But those tales can wait for another time. For now, I bid you a fond adieu. Dead bodies and aromatic cheeses aside, France never smelled so sweet.

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