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Trip Report Trip Report: Arles, Dordogne and Paris, June-July 2014

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After our sojourn in Amsterdam and Antwerp (http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/trip-report-amsterdam-and-antwerp-may-june-2014.cfm ), we took the train to Brussels where we caught the TGV to Marseille and then on to Arles. It sounds complicated but the transfers were seamless and with enough time to eliminate anxiety. We left Antwerp at 9 a.m. and were in Arles by 5:10 p.m. But I almost forgot to get the train ticket from Marseille to Arles machine validated. We purchased the tickets through the Belgian rail system because the sncf.com site refused to accept the validity of the request. The cost for the tickets, ordered 3 months ahead of time, was 153€ for two fares including cancellation insurance. We could specify different locations to pick up the tickets and we specified the Amsterdam Centraal Station, knowing that we would be there quite frequently. We had to pay another 5€ as a service charge at the counter.

From the Arles train station there is a free shuttle into town, which presumably follows a prescribed route on a regular basis, but during our week in Arles we glimpsed it only once and could not figure out its schedule. It really did not matter for us, because our apartment was in the center of town—a stone’s throw from the place du Forum, the heart of tourist Arles—and a ten minute walk to the free parking available just outside the old town wall on the way to the train station. We rented a car on our third day in Arles, so going back to the train station was of no interest to us.

The apartment we rented through Airbnb was fine. The kitchen could have used a few more pots and a decent chopping knife—the miniature dull cleaver was not very good on parsley. There was a washing machine which meant that we could do our laundry without having to wait for the cycle to be over and later hand it up to dry. The bedroom was very narrow, and my wife felt that the bed was not a full size double. But the bedroom had an enormous amount of storage space where we found a drying rack for the clothes. We also had to purchase toilet paper as there was only a partial roll in the apartment. We never met the host, he left clear directions on how to get the keys, and at the end of our stay we left them where we found them. The apartment had no AC and no view. It wrapped itself around three sides of an air shaft, and it was quiet. It would have been tight for more than a couple. I can’t find it listed currently on Airbnb, but for anyone looking at another time, Alexandre Adrien is the name of the host. We paid $775 for a week.

We rented a car with Autoeurope in Arles for our stay in France, returning it when we left the Dordogne. The actual rental agency was Europcar, located quite a distance from the center of town—a good 20 minutes walk—but not at the train station, which meant that we did not pay the train station or airport pick-up fee. We paid $440 for a 28 day rental, carrying the CDW on our Visa card and not counting the road tax applied to the first ten days of the rental. The car was a 4-door Toyota Yaris which felt underpowered but held 2 carry-ons plus a large basket in its trunk after some experimentation with the space: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca/14479077198/in/set-72157623094971409/ .

We liked Arles. Every morning we would get up, go to the patisserie closest to the place du Forum, buy a palmier and sit at the café at the end of the square to have our coffee. Then we would start our day of tourism. We did the standard tourist stuff, were impressed by the underground forum, liked the arena, enjoyed the carvings in the cloister of St Trophime, found the archeological museum fantastic, especially since that now have a Gallo-Roman barge on display (preserved like the Vasa in Stockholm). I think that the Alyscamp can be by-passed with little loss, although it offers some nice photographic opportunities. The Saturday market is a must, and we enjoyed shopping for food in Arles and have a few meals in the apartment. The new van Gogh museum is not overwhelming, particularly after seeing quite a few van Gogh paintings in the Netherlands. We attended a nice concert in a concert hall that once was a church.

After we picked up the car, we did some excursions in the area, and saw less than originally planned; we’ll have to go back. The Camargue is interesting—there is a Camargue museum which is a converted farmstead. The walk out to toward the watery section of the Camargue is in full sun and can be very hot. We learned that wheat and other grains can be gown in the Camargue if rice is included in the rotation; the flooded rice fields push the rising salt water table back down, long enough to grow grains for a season or two. Farther toward les Saintes Maries de la Mer there is a bird sanctuary where various birds can be observed, particularly flocks of flamingos. The sanctuary almost feels like a zoo, especially close to the entrance—the raptors are caged—and I suspect that they feed the free birds regularly to attract them to the location. Les Saintes Maries de la Mer has become an uninteresting seaside resort, at least when we were there. Aigues Mortes has more architectural interest. Going back to Arles took us forever, because it turned out that we were in the Camargue on a long weekend and we joined every one else in going back to town.

Tarascon has a nice old town and an impressive medieval castle. It is somewhat of a maze, and once it starts, it is difficult to exit if the legs are tired. Anyone having problems with stairs should not do the tour. Most of the rooms are empty although described as the king’s bedchamber etc. with the exception of the rooms that were used to hold prisoners. While not furnished, these rooms have extensive graffiti of names and objects that the prisoners carved into the walls. We drove back to Arles detouring through the Alpilles. We did not have a chance to get to les Baux, but had an impressive view of it from an overlook—next time, maybe.

The drive to Nîmes is longer. The maison carrée is interesting from the outside. There is nothing inside. As we were prepared to pay to go inside the cashier warned us that it’s only a movie, all in French (she must have heard us speaking in English), and of interest mainly to the school children who were going in as part of a class trip. There is also an 18th century garden built around water works which is nice—that’s where we picnicked. A walk up the hill leads to the remains of a medieval tower that offers a view over Nîmes, but holds little interest otherwise. It’s a nice view but not an essential one in that the important historical buildings are not very visible—one sees a sea of roofs. https://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca/14795159061. The old town is perhaps more interesting than those in smaller towns in that the commercial businesses are not oriented toward tourism—it gives a different feel to the town.

Uzès was a surprise. We happened to be there on market day, which greatly enhances the feel of the town. The town has been beautifully preserved or reconstructed, a striking contrast to Arles. In Arles, except for most of the place du Forum, the place de la République, and the areas around the arena, is a little run down. This has its charm—it’s not Disneyfied—and its frustrations. One sees buildings that clearly have age and were important residences at one time which have no explanation as to what they were historically. I’m used to an old core like Périgueux, where there is an effort to place identifying plaques on important historical building giving the age and original ownership, and where the old town is marked for a self-guided tour of its architecture. Nothing like that in Arles. Uzès is in between. Its historical preservation started when a building on one of the main squares collapsed about 50 years ago, killing several persons. It was then established that many buildings were precarious and a determined program of preservation was begun. We now see the result. We also visited Saint Quentin-la-poterie nearby, and discovered that by being a traditional pottery village prices for contemporary production were stratospheric. But it has an interesting pottery museum.

We need to go back to the Languedoc/Provence area, but will probably choose to stay in different towns as bases, not because we did not like Arles, but because we might as well change the scenery.

We had some good meals in Arles, including home-cooked ones. Le Criquet was very good, with traditional cooking (67€ for two, a bourride and one menu plus wine) https://plus.google.com/113601407559183703922/about?gl=us&hl=en . A side note: the nearby Hotel le Calendal offers free computer access for the price of a cup of coffee for non-residents. Less memorable was the meal at le Bistrot à côté for 88€ including a 5€ supplement to the 29€ menu for lobster that was so-so. The restaurant gets very mixed reviews on Trip Advisor.

These are the pictures mostly from this trip of this part of the Provence:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca/14795404864/in/set-72157624404539441/

We left Arles for Carcassonne, passing by Saint Guilhem-le-désert which is a plus beau village well located at the head of a valley. It must be heavily touristed as someone asked where all the tourists were when I took my photographs. Most striking for me were the clay down spouts. Most of the commercial enterprises are restaurants and stores selling tourist items. Which is also true of the cité of Carcassonne. The last time we were there was in 1967, and aside from its walls, the cité itself is by-and-large a disappointment. The cathedral has some nice stained glass and the fortress had a very interesting exhibit about Viollet-le-Duc. We arrived in Carcassonne in the late afternoon, walked up to the cité, ate in the lower town, went back to the cité the next morning, had a late lunch at its base and then drove off to the Dordogne. I do not think that we needed to spend more time there.

We stayed at the Hotel Astoria, which is close to the railroad station. Luckily trains were on strike, so we did not hear a constant rush of trains during the night. We stayed in their annex. The room had no AC but a fan which died at 8 a.m. Prices of hotels in France have gone up. This one cost 68€ for a room with an en suite bathroom (some rooms are cheaper with the bathroom down the hall). My impression is that restaurant prices have not risen as much. The hotel recommended La Divine Comédie for a cassoulet, and while the restaurant offers pizza, its cassoulet was very good (17.50€ for an enormous cassoulet and 34€ for the entire meal for the two of us). We found a good light lunch at the base of the cité. It is located after crossing the old bridge, on the right side facing the water. It has a large covered terrace and is part of a building that identifies itself as a B&B which appears to be more of a hostel.

These are the pictures from the Languedoc: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca/sets/72157645955097003/show

This set contains the pictures of Carcassonne: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca/14628495177/in/set-72157623877915948

This was probably our last trip to the Dordogne. We have been going there for about 15 years, staying in our house in the Périgord vert , and we finally decided to sell it. It went fast: we put it on the market in the summer of 2013, accepted an offer in February 2014 and signed off on the house on July 15. I figure that there is nothing left in our bucket for the Dordogne, even if we did not see absolutely everything. There are some minor sitesI would have liked to visit, and my wife would have liked to go back to Fénélon, but our schedule did not allow it. We had more visitors this year than in any other year, and in between we had to clean out the house, which took place over four afternoons. Depending on the interests of our visitors we went back to the following places: Rouffignac for its caves, and while we waited for our friends who toured the cave discovered that the church has some items of interest, Brantôme, Périgueux for its market, la Vésunna and a meal in l’Essentiel—my wife’s favorite restaurant in the Dordogne—the Marqueyssac gardens and then Domme for the traditional view of the valley, Saint Geniès for its stone roofs and its chapel murals, Saint Amand de Coly, Sarlat, Saint Jean-de-Côle, and we also visited Rocamadour, not seen by us since 1972. We stopped in Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère for lunch one day, and had an incredible 11€ meal at the Restaurant de la Poste. I may have missed some stops, but this gives a sense of what we did to revisit familiar sites.

Rocamadour has a new set of pilgrims—tourists—and the entire old town is devoted to that. I do not think that the site deserves more than a couple of hours. The original pilgrimage sites are interesting: a beautiful new organ in one chapel built like the prow of a ship, and the black madonna which yielded some curious pictures for me: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca/14812086731/in/photostream/ and right click for the next picture taken 10 minutes later. Compare the gauzy image at the base of the madonna.

We ate unsurprisingly well in the Dordogne. We had an anniversary meal at Le Grand Bleu (161€ for two), a birthday meal at l’Essentiel (229€ for four), a great lunch (for its price) in the Restaurant de la Poste, another fine lunch at le Saint-Front in Périgueux, and a final meal in La Cuisine (60€ for two, including two apéritifs and wine) in Thiviers. I am now disappointed by the standard tourist fare in Sarlat. I used to think that l’Auberge de Mirandol was fine for what it was, but now I feel that it has gone downhill. We tried another similar restaurant next door which presumably had good recommendations and the food was OK but not anything to recommend it.

The 11€ menu deserves a list. It was a three course meal, starting with an aumonière, followed by a roasted caille with a garlic cream sauce, and finally a tiramisu with strawberries. Wine and coffee were extra. In l´Essentiel, the first course was two raw oysters in gelée on a bed of crab meat and topped with a slice of scallop and the whole surrounded by foam—well conceived and delicious. In La Cuisine I had the tenderest kidneys ever. Generally I find that kidneys, like liver, tend to harden as they cook, which is why I prefer both rosé. But in this instance the whole kidney was absolutely tender. We were the only patrons in the restaurant that evening because France was playing in the World Cup. I asked the owner/chef how he achieved that and he replied: “sous vide.”

I have too many pictures of the Dordogne for a single album. If interested this is the entire collection of my Dordogne pictures: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca/collections/72157624827253292/ By adding “/show” and then striking the “return” key to any album URL (opening “Périgord noir”, for example), one should get the slide show that Flickr would like us to forget but which gives the titles of each picture as it appears on the screen.

We returned the car in Limoges. We were supposed to drop it off by 11:30 but I asked the agent if we could leave our luggage in the office as our train was not until 4 p.m. That was not allowed, but she let us keep the car until we were ready to leave without charging us for an extra day. It gave us the opportunity to visit again the Musée municipal de l'Evêché which has a wonderful collection of Medieval enamels and nice archeological finds (https://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca/14694888256/in/set-72157623276890499 and subsequent pictures). This museum and the porcelain museum which we also saw when we dropped off visitors at the train station have been extensively re-done, with the porcelain museum receiving a large modern addition in the back. Both museum (the municipal one is free) are definitely worth a visit.

We took the train to Paris, 30€ for the two of us, ordered three months in advance.

In Paris we stayed with friends, as usual. They drove us one day to Montford l’Amaury where we visited Ravel’s house, it was an usual guided tour with a one-of-a-kind museum guide, at least if you are a Francophone. We had a good bistrot lunch near the church, where it started pouring buckets, but fortunately the rain stopped for the main attraction, Alvar Aalto’s Maison Louis-Carré which is fully furnished with its original furniture—only the staff quarters are not to be visited. https://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca/14804545852/in/set-72157623316531799 for pictures of this outing.

We also did our annual park and garden walk with my cousins. This time it was mainly the parc André Citroên, which unfortunately is in dire need of restoration. The water basins were empty, with plants pushing through the waterproof membrane in some instances. We had hoped to take the balloon ride which is highly recommended by our friends, but the weather did not cooperate and all rides were cancelled. The musée Balzac in Passy was somewhat disappointing except for a wonderful collection of the wooden block prints used to illustrate the novels. We also saw the 1900 exhibit in the Petit Palais—somewhat of a disappointment except for the room with the art nouveau objects. We basically decompressed in Paris, taking it easy, doing a tour of lesser known passages and spending time with friends.

The one good restaurant meal was at the table d’Aligre which specializes in seafood (110€ for two). The Petit Palais restaurant is pretty much like museum eateries in any major city, but the setting is nicer than many in that it faces a nice inner garden. During our garden tour we ate a local bistro for 66€ for four. I think that I had steak tartare, which is pretty much the same everywhere as long as it does not have an off taste in the meat.

For Paris we went to NYC via Dublin. In New York we stayed in Brooklyn the entire time. It was family time, although we did visit the Brooklyn Botanical Garden one day where we came upon a hawk having his meal on a tree branch not more than 20 feet from us. https://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca/14547748399/in/photostream/ right click for more pictures. And these are my NYC pictures: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca/sets/72157623088372713/show

We arrived home at 2 a.m. on July 16, after a four hour delay because of bad weather in NYC.

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