Arles and Tarascon, 2000 years of scenery in one day

Our last day on the Catherine was unusual  in that we sailed for Tarascon that morning. On most river cruises, the ships usually sail to their destinations in the evening or at night. The exception is if they will be sailing through especially scenic areas or are stopping at two places in the same day.  In this case, it was probably because there was comparatively little dock space at Arles or Tarascon and plenty at Avignon, as this stretch of the river was definitely not scenic, and as soon as our tour of Arles was finished, the Catherine would head back to Avignon.

Two cooling towers alongside a giant windmill, with a dam in the distance.

En route, we saw an occasional ruined castle in the distance, but more spectacular and some how sinister,  were the modern cooling towers of several nuclear plants. On the way to Avignon we had locked through at Bollene, the deepest lock on the river, there too we had seen nuclear  energy plants  near the dam. The Catherine was now close to the Rhone delta, beautiful in its own way but not a place with many docks for river boats   For this reason, Tarascon/Arles was as far south as most river cruises got, because Arles is an interesting and enjoyable stop.

The ship either descends or rises 80 ft when locking at Bollene. It is the deepest lock in Europe

As it turned out,  the  Ramblers were glad we were only at Tarascon for the afternoon. The quay, actually more of a dock led only to a dusty field as just to get to the outskirts of Tarascon was a fair distance. The shoreline on both sides held little of interest and if we had wanted to go ashore in the evening there was no place to walk close by.  We passengers disembarked onto a long boardwalk that eventually brought us to shore in a dusty field. This area of Provence generally has hot and dry summers so this was not a surprise,

As you can see, there is nothing close by this dock on the Rhone. We are close to the place where the river splits as it flows towards the sea. All the river cruises end at this spot although ships can go further.

The senior Rambler decided that he would stay on board for this tour as it seemed there would be alot of walking (there was) and it was really hot . However I was eager to see the Roman ruins of Arles which were plentiful. Arles was also one of the places Van Gogh had  painted. He spent a very productive year in Arles, before he descended in to the  madness that would eventually claim his life.

I matched up with some  other pokey people in the gentle walker group and we headed  along the boardwalk as the senior Rambler happily waved me off.  Note to spouses or partners: if they don’t want to go on  an excursion, don’t insist. You will have a much better time on your own.

After we  left  the boardwalk, we hiked to our air conditioned bus which was waiting to take us to Arles.  As it turned out, Tarascon and Arles were fairly close together however I wouldn’t want to walk there.  Arles is much larger than Tarascon, and although a little run down, has a welcoming and almost raffish air.

As the Catherine moved towards the dock, we could see the Tarascon castle with the Church of St. Martha in the distance.

Folks who didn’t go on the main excursion had a chance to stroll through Tarascon with Martin our Concierge a little later in the afternoon. They could inspect the medieval castle, the  Chateau de  Tarascon  and the Church of St. Martha. I am not sure how many went on the stroll as it was really hot by then with not alot of shade.

The Chateau de Tarascon is the quintessential   brooding castle and looms over the river. In fact, it is built right on the banks of the Rhone. Unfortunately we only got to see it as we drove by on the way to Arles.  We also glimpsed another ruined castle at Beaucaire,  the small town opposite Tarascon on the other side of the Rhone.

Tarascon’s claim to fame is that St. Martha tamed a dragon that was terrorizing the villagers in days gone by. Unfortunately for the dragon, the villagers killed him despite or perhaps because he had been tamed. Today the legend lives on as part of the town’s history.  We had to make a choice between the two towns and Arles had much more to offer.

Part of the massive Roman wall and gate at Arles

The fields we drove past as we headed towards Arles,  were sun baked and dry as the crops had been harvested already. The terrain was more open and windswept than it was further north. We weren’t too far from the Camargue, the swampy plains that lead to the sea. I wondered what had attracted so many artists here as we rode along, as there were many places more beautiful. Finally  I realized it was the amazing light. In some places, daylight seems to have special qualities which are hard to describe unless you experience it. Provence was such as place, as is Taos New Mexico.

It didn’t take long to get to our drop off point some distance from the Roman gates of Arles. There was no  room for our giant bus on the narrow streets of the historic center. Luckily the guided part of our tour was relatively short as most of us wilted rather quickly in the 93 degree heat as we trudged along.

The Romans built to last, as this amphitheater is still in use.
Poster advertising an upcoming bullfight near the amphitheater

The Roman ruins were amazing. Much of the amphitheater is still standing, has been stabilized  and  is used now for concerts and cultural events. However, it is also used for an event that the Romans would have approved of: bullfighting! Les Arlesiennes  stage two different versions, one in which the bull survives and the other where the bull is killed. A poster advertised an upcoming bullfight,  Judging by its design, it was the the kind where adventurous youth try to touch or snatch a ribbon off the bull rather than kill it. Although the amphitheater is most impressive, the Roman presence was everywhere. Some ruins had incorporated into medieval buildings while the baths, an important part of any Roman city, had been reconstructed as much as possible.

Views of the hospital from the Van Gogh tourism website The second is Van Gogh’s version. Below is mine.

After we marveled at the remains of the Roman empire scattered around the town, we headed to a more modern relic, the hospital where Vincent Van Gogh stayed after his inner demons got out of control. It is called the yellow house for obvious reasons, and has been preserved as a museum. Its courtyard, filled with flower-lined walkways has been maintained as it was during Van Gogh’s time.

My photo  of the garden after using the Waterlogue App to turn it into a water color image somewhat in the Van Gogh style.

When our little group reached the garden, we noticed a small cafe with outdoor tables in blessed shade that faced the yellow house. We watched like hawks until a table was available and pounced on it. There we enjoyed a pleasant hour talking about the things we had seen during our cruise and our travel plans on the next day .

Our good friend from South Africa, Gerda, looking very warm.

Gerda who farms near Capetown South Africa had the furthest to go while the Ramblers would not leave Avignon the next day. Instead we would stay at a B&B inside the walls for four nights.

Too soon our time was up and we headed out the gates of the walled city towards the river where our bus waited. It didn’t take long for our trip back to the Catherine and then to Avignon, where we would have time to pack for our disembarkation tomorrow.  This time we wouldn’t have to leave the ship before daylight. Instead we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and light  lunch before Marion the proprietor of our B&B sent a taxi to pick us up that afternoon. This had been a wonderful cruise, now the second part of our adventure had begun.

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