They say that you have not experienced Provence until you have experienced the Mistral, a ferocious wind unique to Southern France, which accelerates as weather forces push the wind down the Rhône Valley – that very same valley on which the city of Arles, our second destination, finds itself rather inconveniently placed. And so, when waking on our fourth day, the tell-tale crystalline blue skies which are a commonplace characteristic of the mistral wind may have shone brightly through our three-fold bedroom windows, but the very distinctive sound of multiple shutters banging in the breeze foretold a day whose weather conditions would be far from Mediterranean calm.
Indeed as we set out from our lavish hotel (more about that later) into the maze-like streets of this characterful little French city, the complex system of roads did very little to dispel the savage Mistral wind – in fact they had quite the opposite effect, forming funnels along which the wind forced its aggressive way through, such that at every new corner, we were almost knocked sideways by a freshly zealous gust.
Mercifully, not all corners of Arles were battered by Provence’s fiercest of inhabitants, and taking shelter in the Place du Forum (on the site of the town’s old Roman forum), we were able to enjoy the full unhampered heat of the sun over a breakfast of pastries and café. And concluding therefore that these Romans must have chosen their sites strategically, we went off in search of the city’s further archeological heritage, hoping that in doing so we may dodge the Mistral leaving us to appreciate the history.
Our plan was met with little success at the first of our stops – the old Baths of Constantine – which were situated right next to the Rhône which of course was the apex of the storm. Despite this unwelcome tour partner, we were nevertheless wowed by yet another startling well-preserved example of Roman architecture, the ruins including an imposing semi-circular wall bearing the signs of the baths’ former magnificence, their size testament to their use as public baths for all of the town. It was, as ever, fascinating to see the remnants of how ingeniously the Romans had used underfloor heating to heat the water, and how masterfully they had constructed their buildings as evidenced so clearly by the strength of the leftovers still around today.
But the brilliance of Roman Arles did not end there, nor with the great amphitheatre which we had visited the previous day. Rather, just south of that great stadium, visitors to the city are literally spoilt for choice by the remains of a great Roman Theatre, whose semi-circular auditorium is still intact, and used for cultural performances to this day. For my Dominik and I, it was the less intact ruins, but the piles of rubble and stumps of columns that truly fascinated the most – like poetry in their decay, these seemingly scattered remains reminded me of the epic paintings of the Romantic age, when the adventurous young gentlemen of Britain’s most aristocratic families would set off on a grand tour of Europe to discover the very best of its classical heritage. Placing the “roman” in “romantic”, these odds and ends, still bearing the exquisite details of what once would have been stunning architectural centrepieces, made for one wondrous sight after another, and Dominik and I spent a good hour photographing obsessively, as well as reclining all over said rubble in suitably decadent poses – Tyra Banks would have been proud.
After a lunch of plump, fresh salads enjoyed in yet another safe haven from the wind (check out my foodie post tomorrow) we decided to cut our losses and fight the forces of nature no longer. Instead we couldn’t help but return to the ultimate in all-weather sancturies: our super indulgent, exquisitely chic hotel: the Hotel Particulier. Set in the sumptuous grounds of a 19th century mansion built by the Mayor of Arles on the outskirts of the city, this truly boutique of hotels (for most hotels calling themselves thus are far from it) provided the obvious shelter from the wind, and the perfect excuse for mid-trip afternoon of indulgence – for here, amongst the jasmine covered walls of the perfectly manicured courtyard garden, the wind felt reduced to a mere breeze which helped the sweet perfume of the garden’s flowers waft gently across the grounds.
Just as design has been employed so elegantly to create an atmosphere redolent of the most superb of luxuriant utopias, so too had this little garden haven managed to tame the wild savagery of the Mistral. And so it was there, next to a long perfectly turquoise pool, served glasses of wine by the perfectly manicured waiters and accompanied by the gentle sounds of trickling water, that we enjoyed the remainder of our second day in Arles – a well deserved rest before our Provence Odyssey continued.
I leave you with more photos of the superb Hotel – a real piece of paradise in the midsts of Arles’ history-soaked streets.
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- Provence Odyssey | Avignon to Arles: Day 3 – From Popes to Emperors (daily-norm.com)
- Provence Odyssey | My Journey in Paintings: From Avignon to Arles (avec le petit dejeuner) (daily-norm.com)
- Provence Odyssey | Avignon: Les Photos (daily-norm.com)