Arles Weekend Trip: A Four Day car trip to Arles and Environs from Barcelona
It started as a joke. A couple of friends and I are on a silly WhatsApp group where we good-naturedly mock each other.
“We have so much fun together here we should go on a trip.” quipped one.
“Ha – yes, why not, I could do these dates.” wrote the other.
“I will drive.” I volunteered “but I am not researching.”
I shot down Aix En-Provence for being too obvious and everyone gushing over it. (I’ve never liked Goliath, always firmly team David.)
“So where then?” they asked.
One of them has a brother who is a photographer and has an exhibition in Arles. Arles, it turns out is somewhat of an artists hub. A rare French rural town that doesn’t rely on tourists buying lavender soap (although it is available in abundant quantities on every cobbled street). Or that some deceased male artist once painted something there. Though again, Van Gogh painted Café Terrace at Night at a Cafe in Arles, now unimaginatively renamed Le Café Van Gogh. No, Arles is a town that is still alive and creative.
We were led to Maison Volver, a habitable hotel by Booking.com which couldn’t possibly have the 4 stars it advertised. On a return visit, we would definitely splurge and stay at the newly opened Hotel Arlatan, a swirl of patterns and colour.
Day 1 – Drive from Barcelona to Arles
On our first evening, we stumbled across Le Galoubet. We had the presence of mind to reserve a table for later and spent the whole evening being smug while we sipped our Bordeaux and watched French locals being turned away for lack of tables. Le Galoubet is meaty and saucy. The breast of pork with crackling and melting fat is served with a tablespoon of cabbage for a 300g chunk of meat. Their homemade barbeque sauce is almost black in hue, with star anise humming through it. France is for lovers and lovers of dessert. So although I normally can’t be convinced into dessert, I order the poached pear with warm chocolate cake and ice cream. Should I ever remain toothless, poached pears will see me through.
Day 2 Arles – Avignon – Gordes
Running late to breakfast and finding my two friends there, showered, shiny and sated from breakfast. I sheepishly confess that I have a difficult relationship with time in that, I am forever chasing it while it slips through my fingers. I get behind the wheel of our rental and we head to Avignon, a 45-minute drive and home to the papacy for almost 70 years. We have the first and only good coffee of our trip at Tulipe Cafe. Where we are served by a young man who is a doppelganger for a young James Spader, complete with the sweeping fringe that he flicks with a ducking movement of his neck. “Your English is incredible.” we enthuse in unison “Where are you from?” “Brooklyn,” he answers.
The South of France is known for its distinctive patterns. And every town has a few Souleiado stores, with well-made cotton clothes. I am partial to the Bridgette Bardot, A-line dress, although the colour “does not flatter my skin tone” declares one of my party. I reluctantly leave it.
Lunch is in the courtyard at Violette Restaurant. The setting is fit for a film. We are seated under an ancient chestnut tree, festooned with strings of light bulbs. A warm wind is kicking up dust, tousling our hair and activating a hitherto unknown hay fever in two of us.
After an initial giggle over the English translation of the menu: “Beet Carpaccio, Sheeps Bushes and Dame de Shanghai (chiken salad) true to its reputation.” We tentatively order, wondering if Violette is like one of those people that you meet that is ridiculously good-looking but you lose interest in immediately because they are equally dull. But no – the dishes we order are solid. Albeit France priced. My Royan’s Ravioli with pesto is 20€. It’s the desserts at Violette that seduce us. We order 3. A Saint Marcelin with a green salad. (Ah France, so sophisticated.) French toast with caramelized apples and custard – again that stewed fruit. I ask after the strawberries in the Pavlova – do they have any flavour? Is it too early? The server understands my concern and assures me I will not be disappointed. So I pavlova away.
Post-lunch coffees dispatched. We clamber back into the car and meander our way to the town of Gordes. A stop that has been recommended by the itinerary ChatGPT has conceived for us. It is an old stone town, attached to the side of a hill, like a medieval barnacle. It’s breathtaking on the drive up but dull once we park and have a short wander through. Nothing notable to report.
Dinner is at the Vietnamese adjacent to the hotel. It is convenient but unremarkable except for the fact that it has only one waiter who appears to be the son of the older man who is in the kitchen. Somehow, they manage to feed a full restaurant and no one seems to be put out by the delay.
Day 3 Arles – Les Baux de Provence – Saint Remy de Provence
After paying too much for a basic hotel breakfast, I sneak out in search of something better for breakfast. I settle on Le Bar a Thym mostly because the bar is being (wo)manned by a matriarch with a short grey crop. Men heading off to work in business suits chat and make jokes with her. In turn, she takes their money with a wry look and they tell her she can keep the change. Truthfully, I may be misremembering, maybe she doesn’t give them change.
On the road again, we climb into Les Baux de Provence. The mountains are visual cousins of our Catalan Montserrat. The town is a like a rabbit hutch of winding cobblestone alleys. If it was interesting once, now it is just shop after shop selling cheeses and truffled things, truffled pasta, truffled salt, and caramels. We enjoy a 45 exploration and then head to the former salt mines Bassins des Lumières.
I have been to Team Lab in Japan and it blew my mind. Subsequently, I haven’t had the inclination to do any of the immersive shows in Europe. However, I am one of three. We can’t stay for the Tin Tin exhibition which seems to be the highlight and settle for the Vermeer / Mondrian one. We are delighted by the experience, even me. The former Salt Mines are vast, high and deep. Cool dampness speaks to being inside the earth, swallowed up – away from the light and smells of the outside. We might have lingered were it not for our lunch reservation at Château: La Table d’Estoublon..
The countryside I drive through is silly pretty. Groves of olive trees – which so far, so familiar – but there are flowers planted amongst them and stone walls placed just so. It seems that even the coarsest person could be bewitched into creating in these corners.
Lunch is at a Château: La Table d’Estoublon. Stunning. We are once more placed beneath an ancient chestnut. But this time, there is a sturdy wooden bench that has been built around the considerable girth of the giant tree. The servers are suited and stiff. The customers are in soft-flowing materials and they are all French. We seem to be the only non-French to have found our way here. One of the dishes features corn.
“Corn?” I ask the waiter puzzled.
“Yes, corn,” he answers.
“But…it’s April.” I continue, flummoxed.
“Yes, it’s April! You’ve heard of frozen corn surely.” teases one of my friends.
Yes – of course I have but with a kitchen the size of a small yacht, and enough aluminium surfaces to skate on, I can’t quite believe that not everything served here is in season.
The dishes here are closer to how I remember French food. Saucy and creamy in equal parts. Liberal use of soft herbs. My asparagus dish with grapefruit has three different shades of purple with blossoms from borage to chives. All edible and tasting of the furry petals that they are. The strongest dish is an incongruous mash riddled with chives, dill and chervil. If you were kidnapped, blindfolded with a bag over your head, you would know you were in France when chervil turned up in your food. (You would also know you have been kidnapped by sophisticated people.)
Early evening, we head off to Saint Remy de Provence. Pale yellow stone houses and delightful boutiques. The highlight for me is an artisan shop that specializes in candied fruit – Lilamand Confiserie. The usual, orange slices but unusual ones like cactus fruits, strawberries and whole baby pineapples. I settle on chocolate-covered orange peel because I am a grown-up now.
The three of us enjoy an Orangina (glass bottle) in the square in front of the obligatory children’s carousel that every French town possesses.
That night the cheese shop we have been stalking since our arrival finally opens. We install ourselves at a tiny outside table in front of Les Fromagères. Another matriarch presides over this place. Burly and aproned, we wait until she finishes her glass of wine with a customer. We leave it to her to pick 6 kinds of cheese for us and a selection of local charcuterie. The three of us descend upon it like we haven’t been eating through France for the past four days.
I explain the anecdote about how one must never take the nose (tip) of the brie for oneself as it is the height of ungenerous barbarity.
That evening each of us retreats to our rooms with a punnet of organic strawberries that we have been instructed not to wash! The greengrocer earlier holding a strawberry up in his visibly dirty fingers to explain, underlining even that the tender flesh of a real strawberry will soak up all the water and leach out its delicate flavour. So I don’t. “Hey, were your strawberries salty?” one of my friends asks sarcastically the next day.
Day 4 – Arles to Barcelona
We have our first coffee in mismatched china cups at Rotissore et Sommeil. I take my friends to Le Bar a Thym making sure to get an olive and anchovy fougasse from the award-winning Boulangerie Soulier next door. Even those two carb sceptics can’t resist its chewy crispy siren call. I share.
I insist we stop at Marius Fabre soap shop where I buy too much. The architect collector amongst us herds us towards the Luma, an undulating metal building that recently made Arles its home. Possibly Arles is banking on the Bilbao effect. The highlight of the building is the indoor slides (yes, adults are allowed to have a go and yes, I had a go.) The grounds behind the building house a cafe with a stunning mosaic floor that will impress even those of us who live amongst Gaudi.
Lunch is at Volubilis. A Moroccan restaurant run by a woman with women cooking in the kitchen. The mutton tagine with prunes and quails eggs is the dish we all fight over. Although the chicken with the couscous, vegetables with tomatoey chicken broth to ladle on top is a close second. We eat outside with a view of the amphitheatre. Though service is slow it is one of the best meals we have had.
There is an obligatory stop at a French hypermarket where we stock up on jams and debate the pros and cons of buying cheese for the 4-hour drive back.
I drive as if I am being pursued by evil henchmen, which is my standard setting. The two of them take turns to remind me that they will not be sharing my speeding tickets so I had better take my foot off the gas. We marvel that we have had a great time and we are an excellent travel throuple and we should do it again. And I haven’t heard from them since.
A Four-Day Trip to Arles and Environ
Maison Volver (The hotel we stayed in.)
8 Rue de la Cavalerie, 13200 Arles
Hotel Artalan (The hotel we wished we had stayed in.)
20, rue du Sauvage, 13200 Arles
Where we ate:
18 rue du Docteur Fanton, Arles
7 rue des trois faucons, 84000 Avignon
Restaurant Le Violette
5 Rue Violette, Avignon
La Table d’Estoublon
Route de Maussane
20 Rue de la Commune
Sant Remy de Provence
30 Avenue de la Republique, 1300 Arles
66 Rue de la République, Arles
Volubilis (Moroccan Restaurant)
53 Rue Voltaire