“There are only two days left on our Viking River Cruise to Lyon and Provence,” I said to my sister N, who was my traveling companion for an 8-day voyage on the River Rhône. It was the end of the week and we would be visiting Arles, a picturesque city in Southern Provence known not only for Vincent Van Gogh’s famously painted Arles’ people, streets and gardens; but for its bulls, or should I say bull fights, which continue to attract spectators today.
Per my previous posts, the Viking team invited me on its French river cruise this past May.*
An historic walkabout in Arles
”Voila,” said our guide Isabel as she greeted us. “We have perfect weather conditions for our walk. The sun is shining bright. Allez!”
We strolled along the Grand Rhône towards the entrance to Old Town. “Lions are the symbol of Arles. They are a symbol of power and strength,” said Isabel. “There is more than 2000 years of history here. Much is being restored.” She mentioned that all towns along the Rhône were bombed during World War II and noted the bullet holes in the limestone.
Van Gogh and his Arles paintings
One cannot visit Arles without hearing about Vincent Van Gogh. “Van Gogh went to the south of France for the weather. He rented the yellow house,” said Isabel, pointing to the street that the painter once called home. While the house is no longer there, plaques throughout Old Town provide details about Van Gogh’s artwork.
Further into Old Town we had an opportunity to go inside the courtyard of the Hôtel-Dieu where Van Gogh came to the hospital after cutting off part of his ear. The interior is depicted in Van Gogh’s popular L’Espace garden. Inside there is a cultural center filled with souvenir shops of everything Van Gogh.
Bring on the bulls
Like other cities along the Rhône, Roman influence can be found in Arles’ architecture. “The Colosseum in Arles was used for bull fights during the Roman Empire,” said Isabel. She directed us to sit on the stones while she explained the age-old custom.
“The lower level seats were the best seats where the important people sat. The poor sat up top,” said Isabel. “Bull fighting is a local tradition here and ladies dressed in their finest when attending. They still do have bull fights now. Bulls are not killed afterwards. This year there will be seven bulls at the bull fight on July 3. Ah-shucks – we were two months too early. Bet it would be a blast to see a real bull fight in the Arles Colosseum.
Shopping around Arles
N and I stayed in Old Town for the afternoon to meander around the narrow streets, do some shopping and grab a bite to eat. “We don’t need to go back to the boucherie,” I said to N. “That one taste of bull sausage was enough for me during our morning tour.”
Instead we went to a shop that sold sea salt where I dropped a few euros on salty souvenirs. Why is Arles known for its sea salt? Isabel said that there is a high content of salt in the soil from the seaside. So Arlesian farmers plant rice to get the salt out of the soil. That’s why they produce sea salt. Unfortunately I didn’t realize how heavy sea salt is to carry home in my suitcase. BIG mistake!
Lunch at a local bistro
We stopped at le Mistral for lunch. Anywhere you turn in Old Town Arles, or any town in Provence for that matter, there are small bistros with fabulous fresh food at reasonable prices. We dined on a delicious Alpilles salad with slices of crusty baguette on the side. Of course, wine is the accompanying beverage of choice when in France. It was so good, so good, so good.
The hours flew by and before long it was time to walk back to the Viking Hemming. There was a beautiful sunset that evening as we set sail.
We were headed to Avignon, our last port on the cruise. A splendid week would soon be coming to an end.
* Disclosure of Material Connection: This is a “sponsored post.” Viking Cruises provided me with a complimentary press trip on the Viking River Cruise to Lyon & Provence. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will be good for my readers.