Henry Poon's Blog

European road trip 2022 – day 6 – Arles and Avignon

We started the day in a sleepy town we couldn’t pronounce, Arles. It’s mostly known for its rich history as part of the Roman Empire. It’s main attraction is the Arles ampitheatre. The night before, we had walked by it with our bags walking to the AirBnB, but in the morning, we could see it in all its glory. It was built in 90 AD and still stands to this day. Back then, when Arles played an important role in the Roman Empire, the stadium drew massive crowds, but nowadays, Arles’ prominence is not what it once was and now the ampitheatre hosts local events. However, one local event in particular is the Feria d’Arles, a bullfighting festival. It’s hosted in mid September and we saw people posting signs for it – apparently we just missed it by a couple of days.

During the Roman times, the main rival of Arles was Marseille as a port town. Back then, the town was closer to the Mediterranean and the Romans built a series of canals to the sea, but over the centuries, the silt flowing from the river has buried the former harbour. Marseille is the bigger city today, but in that time, Arles was of considerable importance to the Romans. The leaders of Arles sided with Julius Caesar in his war against Pompey. Once Julius Caesar won and consolidated power, Marseille’s possessions were transferred to Arles. The city went into decline during the barbarian invasions that led to the fall of Rome.

For breakfast, again we found that the French, at least in this part of the country, don’t open any of their restaurants until noon. Even the places that are open, only serve drinks. This often left us hungry from morning till noon. At least for lunch, we went to La Gueule du Loup (literally translates to the Mouth of the Wolf). There we got to try a bull steak and a bull tataki (maybe a reference to the bullfighting event). Apart from the bull meat, the steak itself is prepared the standard way with a red wine sauce. Upon ordering the steak, I realized I didn’t know how to say rare in French, but the server was nice enough to explain it to me – “saignant” (the same server later also taught us how to pronounce Arles, like “arrrl”). The tataki was much more special – a blue rare bull steak with a miso/sesame sauce, mushrooms, and a black rice risotto topped with truffle oil (tataki is a Japanese culinary term, but the only thing Japanese about the dish was the use of miso and sesame). The black rice is grown locally in the region of Camargue, that Arles is a part of. They even brew beer with the rice, but the taste isn’t too different from other types of lagers.

After lunch, we headed over to Avignon, which used to be the seat of the Catholic church (as opposed to the Vatican) for 7 successive popes in the 14th century. Eventually, there was a dispute resulting both Avignon and Rome both declaring their own line of popes and for a time the papal succession had branched. The line of popes from Avignon were subsequently declared as illegitimate “antipopes” (but we like to say “bastard popes” for fun). The last antipope eventually agreed to relinquish the title and became a bishop. The popes resided in the Palais des Papes. The palace itself was both a fortress and a residence for the Avignon popes. The walls were intentionally very thick to withstand long sieges – to add on to that, the city has its own walls too.

The inside of the palace explains the long history of the Avignon Papacy along with different rooms in the palace. Like European history in general, it’s pretty tough to follow because there are so many interconnected people and events happening concurrently.

Walking around town, we stumbled upon a confectionary also selling the same calissons from Aix-en-Provence – they even had nougats too. This time, we got flavoured calissons, but they don’t taste as good as the original flavour. The nougats themselves are nice and soft.

As we headed out of the city, we got to see the massive walls surrounding it. They were built during the Avignon Papacy and deterred enemy attacks during the Hundred Year’s War. Heading further out, we also got to see a vineyard.

After a short drive, we reached Pont du Gard, the ruins of an old Roman aqueduct. It has three levels and people can walk all the way to the top if they follow a guided tour. The Grand Rhône runs through the area and people can spend time at the nearby beach or hike the trails in the greenery.

Looking closely at the bricks used to build the aqueduct, it’s amazing to see that the Romans were able to figure out how to cut each stone so precisely that they’d neatly fit together. And it’s also cool that they figured out how to ensure that the structure didn’t collapse under the load and that arches were the optimal shape to use. The keystones on the arch are still clearly visible.

For dinner, we ate at a nearby restaurant with a cozy courtyard. It was nearby the aqueduct in a small town, so we didn’t really have high expectations going in. But to our surprise, they were able to prepare a nice pizza, a salad, and razor clams (I’d never tried them before). But like many meals we had recently, we always get whiffs of cigarette smoke from some other table.

Check here to see more photos of Arles and Avignon

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