A Bit of Rome in France?

Street in ArlesWe found out the hard way that the Monday after Easter is a public holiday in Franceand it’s one of the most busy travel days of the year. Regardless, we made it to our next destination of Arles. There, I was expecting to see a bunch of Roman ruins beyond the train station platform, instead my first impression was the look and smell of the abundant foliage. During the short time we’d been away in Spain, France seemed to have turned from winter grey to spring green. Above the leafy trees, we saw the top of Ferris wheel and other rides. We could hear sounds of thumping music amid smells of popcorn and cotton candy. Chris raised his arms. “It’s a fair! Can we come back here?”

“Let’s find our hotel and get rid of our packs first.”

Just beyond the park, two stone towers flanked the entrance to the walled city the Romans built when this was part of their empire.

“We’re staying in there?” Alex asked.

“Don’t worry there’s plenty of room.”

On the other side of the gates everything looked really old – tightly fitted row houses and narrow cobble stone streets. It was crawling with people drinking beer and wine. The kids smiled as songs they recognized played over the loudspeakers

“This way.” Donna yelled over the crowd.

We found a square surrounded by shops and café’s. Most had converted their front sidewalks into bars. Banquet tables and plastic chairs created a makeshift food court. Smoke plumed from a kiosk where two young men built huge gyro-type sandwiches topped with French fries. “I’m getting that!” Alex said. Donna kept pointing ahead “Later.” At another alley Donna slowed down to examine each door along the tiny street. I looked up and wondered what was holding up these buildings.

“How did you find this place?”

“The owner e-mailed me.”

“She found you?”

“I’d contacted a few other places here.” She said, shrugging her shoulders. “Maybe she got my name from them.”

* * *

A business card was tacked to one of the doors and Donna recognized the name. Jill grabbed the small brass knocker that looked like a clenched fist and rapped on the heavy wood. A pleasant looking bespectacled man answered. “Bonjour

Bonjour, we’re the Bakers.” Donna said. “I made reservations with Madeline.”

He smiled and motioned us inside. On the stone walls hung framed black and white photos illuminated by track lighting giving the place an artistic feel that for some reason made me feel better about its foundation. A huge wooden table consumed most of the room. We suddenly heard something foreign – the voice of an American.  Madeleine looked to be our age, wore glasses, and reminded me of Marcia Strassman, the actor who played Gabe Kaplan’s wife in Welcome Back Kotter. She introduced herself and her husband Eric – the man who answered the door. “He’s a master chef.” She added and my heart started beating faster than it had all day.

“Do you teach cooking classes?” I asked him.

He spoke limited English, so Madeleine answered for him. “He does, but unfortunately, he’s not scheduled to teach this week.”

Damn.

We followed Madeleine up the stone, tower-like staircase. “This is the last day of our annual festival,” she explained. “It’s a shame you didn’t arrive a day earlier, you could have seen a bull fight.” She pointed out a wall in the house that was built a thousand years ago and Chris’s face lit up – this was now the oldest building we’d stay in. At the first level she opened the door to the kid’s room. The sounds of packs dropping and voices arguing over beds dissolved as we three continued up the stairs.

“We use the honor system here” she said. “No keys”

Our room was tall and the open-beamed ceilings were supported by stone walls and a spiral staircase lead to an open loft. The recently remodeled bathroom boasted an oversized tub. Donna must have read my mind. “Don’t get too comfortable, Jeffery” she said. “We promised to take the kids back to the fair.”

To see what Arles is like please check out this Rick Steves video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vRXhfTFAYM0

NEXT: Big Fun in the Walled City

 

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