Monday, December 01, 2014

the arrival

I have to say, a European trip in December requires a bit of stamina. It's not a put-your-feet-up-and-exhale type of journey. You have to brace yourself, first for the shocking reality that the sun does set even earlier in Europe than in the US and secondly -- you just never can tell about weather.

If the French Mediterranean coast boasts 300 days of sunshine per year, I have to think the 65 rainy days are crowded into winter months. It's been raining in and around Marseille for more than a week now and today, my flight from Paris landed into a densely clouded covered terrain.

Train stations are not happy places on winter days. Unless you find yourself a cafe bar, you're going to be standing and you're going to be cold. Especially if you're going on no sleep and on some frivolous impulse, you took off your warm sweater and buried it in the suitcase. I had half an hour to kill -- just enough time to buy a ticket, to catch the view out onto the city...

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...but not enough time to sit down and -- how's this for an idea -- eat something substantial. (That early morning pain au chocolat is but a memory. I'm hungry!)

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The train ride to Arles is short -- less than an hour. I keep dozing off and of course I worry that I will sleep right through the stop. I'm relieved as I get off with a handful of commuters in this town of about 50,000.

Now Arles. Or, you could say -- why Arles? And here's where my travel patterns are admittedly strange. My answer would be -- why not? Requirements for a destination to make it onto my itinerary are scattered and maybe a little random. I like small towns rather than big cities. I'll scratch off a destination if I cannot find a lovely and affordable place to stay. I want to look forward to my nightly returns. Sure, I like towns that have an interesting history, architecture, regional personality, but I don't need a lot of it. I like to walk and I want good, inexpensive food to be readily available. There, you see? Arles fits the bill.

A word about this place: it's on the River Rhone.

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This is Europe's major (dare I say THE major?) river and the southern-most bridge over it is in fact in Arles. If you follow the river even further south, toward the sea, it branches and creates a delta and the lowlands around it (think horses and gritty terrain) are known as the Camargue -- sort of like Texas, only without the ego.

But you may have heard of Arles in a different context. This is where Van Gogh lived for a little over a year and this is where he and Gauguin painted and fought, and this is where Van Gogh took his ear off. Van Gogh worked furiously here --  perhaps 300 canvases and sketches can be traced to Arles. None of them are here right now. But Arles is where you will find the ghost of Van Gogh and it is worth searching for it as you walk the streets of this old town.

Arles also has important relics that date back to the Roman Empire. You will surely see those in my photos.

My B&B is quite good. (It's called Le Patio D'Arles, which you pronounce Le Pah-see-o Darl, which I think is kind of funny.) I'm greeted with a glass of wine and a plate of cookies -- such a nice welcome to a very weary (and hungry!) traveler.

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The one thing to note is that the B&B is actually across the river from the center of town. This has two consequences: first, you'll be seeing a lot of photos of the river, because I'm crossing it a lot.

Secondly, on this arrival day, I'm too tired to make two trips into town and so I skip heading out again for dinner and eat a baguette stuffed with eggplant and artichokes in my room, accompanied by the usual great and very cheap rose wine from Provence.

But that's my evening for you. Earlier, I did devote some hours to exploring the city, just as the wet, brooding skies began to clear.

Over the river...

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...and into town. I walked. A lot. It's not a tough place to navigate and everywhere you turn, you find both the ruins of that splendid Roman past and, too, traces of Van Gogh. Just a handful of photos, to give you an idea of what it's like to stroll through this very quiet in December place.

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(90AD  two-tiered Amphitheater, with add-on Medieval towers)

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(climb those towers and you get The View)

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Is it late afternoon or early evening when the last traces of the sun disappear?  It happens just after four, when the mothers are picking up their children from day care and from school.

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They stop to shop. At the bakery for bread...

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(this is to tease Ed, who loves Napoleons; I buy my baguette sandwich here) the grocers for the usual needed items (the dog comes along, of course).

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(I pick up Badoit mineral water and the rose wine)

I'm lucky with the weather. It seems the rains are packing up and heading inland, toward central Europe. The highs here are near 50F/10C, the lows are in near 40F/4C. I can live with that!

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Even as I really should catch up on sleep!

the travel, part 2

Flying out of Madison to very distant places is never a straight arrow trip. You have to connect. For me, the obvious choices are Detroit or Minneapolis. (Other hubs are too congested with too many delays.) And I like both! These airports are where I change my mindset -- from here to there, across the ocean and then on the return, from there to here.

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(leaving Minneapolis)

If I draw a line down the middle of the page and on the left -- list all the ocean crossings that are hassle free and on the right -- all the ones that would drive even a laid-back sloth crazy, this set of connections definitely has to go to the left. (I do not count such small details as a fire in the galley on the ocean crossing because, after all, we did not have to divert. The flight attendants reached for the extinguisher in plenty of time and the smoke in the cabin had a pleasant aroma of burnt sugar.)

Okay: over the ocean, and I'm in Europe.

Paris is a pass-through airport for me today, but oh, is it easy to love the minutes here, despite the fact that it's an insanely busy place with long lines and hold ups at every turn. Why the great affection? Well obviously for that first taste of pain au chocolat. I know, I know: it's a tiny blimp -- a nanosecond of bliss in the scheme of things. But it portends of great things ahead! Even as a very young solo traveler, I would alight here and think -- wow, I'm inches away from those wonderful bread products! And despite the tiredness, I would smile and smile.

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From Paris, in just a few minutes, I'll catch the flight to Marseille. I'm not pausing in that great Mediterranean port. That would be a repetition of last December's trip to France. Contrary to what Ed will tell you, I do have  a little bit of curiosity for the new. Even in December.

So from Marseille, I'll take a train into the heart of Provence and away from the sea. First stop for me (two nights only) will be in Arles.

(to be continued)