Recently returned from a week-long trip to France. I feel my long-researched itinerary worked out in the end. It took a lot of effort to put together, because of time and distance constraints. You see, unlike other European countries, France is pretty big! Even with the high speed TGV trains, day trips from Paris can take hours. Driving can take even longer, since the TGV is faster. Spending the night in a different place each day adds the checking in and out, and dealing with luggage, which adds more stress than it’s worth.
I decided to spend a day in Paris, a day in Versailles, and dedicate the rest of my time to the south of France. Found a hotel in Montpellier, very near the train station, which is essential to frequent travel. Montpellier is situated somewhat in the middle between Lyon and Carcassonne, so being based there reduced both of those trips to 2 and 1.5 hours respectively. Another day was spent in Avignon (an hour away), and a day was split between Arles and Nimes. I selected these cities by not only reading a guide book, Lonely Planet being my favorite, but also by looking at photos on Trip Advisor and Google street view.
Arles’ claim to fame is that Vincent van Gogh used to live there, and paint its cobbled streets and cafe-laden squares. It hosts the Foundation Vincent van Gogh, which displays works by other artists, inspired by van Gogh. The yellow Cafe van Gogh on the place du Forum is supposed to be reminiscent of the painting Cafe de Nuit, but I found it completely lacking in charm, crowded with tourists, with a huge, also yellow, awning to shelter the large outdoor area from the rain.
We arrived in Arles on the Monday after Easter, which is a day of bullfighting in their Roman amphitheatre, called Les Arenes. Streets were blocked off, to allow the populace a taste of the horned creatures. The bulls seemed puny by Texas standards, but they did feature impressive horns, which they pointed at every silly young man to wander in their vicinity. High school boys would bravely rush the bull, yelling, then quickly slip through the bars of the fence lining the street. Food vendors were positioned nearby, with sizzling meat, bell peppers and onions, which you could get on a bun, and cover with French fries, which here are known as “frites.”
Street bands would clog the narrow alleys, with people following and dancing to the merry tunes. The city was full of people and festive atmosphere.
The city of Nimes by comparison seemed too quiet – perhaps everyone was in Arles! Nimes has its own amphitheatre, Les Arenes, which looks a lot like the one in Arles, and also like the famous Colosseo in Rome. I checked the tourist postcards, to make sure there wasn’t a sight I was missing, but mostly the city was proud of its arena. Visited their other famed building, La Maison Carree, a 1st century temple. Admission was not free, like my guide book said, but in its defense it is an old guide book. It has also been used, according to Lonely Planet, as a meeting hall, a private residence, stable, church, and archive.
We attempted to find a place to eat before heading back to Montpellier, however, all restaurants we encountered were closed until 7 p.m. Furthermore, the menu on display frequently featured either sea food or, oddly, burgers. Ended up buying food at a grocery store, which offered pre-made salads, cheeses and salami, a variety of bread rolls, and an overwhelming abundance of sweets.