Monday, 19 September 2016

The attraction of marshes

Marshes are pretty addictive places, if you are at all claustrophobic. The skies are more or less infinite. If the marsh is big enough, you can even detect the curvature of the earth on the horizon, as you can at sea.
The Camargue is one of the most famous marshes on the planet. That is surprising given that it is not really all that big. Compared to the rest of France, it's just a postage stamp. But it has a magic pull. It produces rice, and white horses, and little black bulls, and shimmering images which are exploited by the tourist boards and poets, and it had Vincent van Gogh along to paint a picture of a bridge, which all helps.
The remarkable thing is that it was a drink manufacturer who seems to have both helped to preserve it and to promote it. One Paul Ricard who was successful enough with his pastis to buy a great chunk of it, and then fling money at it and figure out how to make it work. So at Méjane, in the middle of the marsh, he set up a domaine and that's where you can go and ride on the white horses with their sweet expressive faces and long tails, or go on a little train ride for a safari to see the flamingos, or you can just walk on a trail of a mile or so, all for free, and see for yourself how they flood the land to grow the famous riz de Camargue, or see the great Etang de Vaccares where the sea has taken so much of the land back, and where the flamingos pad about in the distance. It is brilliant.

If you head on further south, to Saintes Maries de la Mer, you can see where thousands of French folk come for their summer holidays every August in low-lying modern holiday villages, the beach divided into small paddocks, and a wide variety of ice-cream on sale along the coast road just behind a great sea wall.
In Arles, the Roman city built where the Rhone splits into two, you can luxuriate in a mass of tiny medieval alleys and lanes, with gorgeous little piazzas, and stupendous antiquities up at the top of the hill. In the evening, as when we arrived, it's quaint and charming. In the morning, as we returned, it's awash with coach parties and tour groups being harangued in French, German, English, Scottish, American, god knows what.  A lot rests on Vincent's shoulders - for instance, what else are they going to say about the hospital where he was sent by the Mayor after he'd cut off part of his ear? It's a nice cloistered building, with a dazzling flower display in the middle, some tat shops, some students trying to get past the tourists, and - well - Vincent.

Actually, they do have, on the wall in the entrance of the hospital a lovely plaque commemorating a man who really did spend his life trying to improve things for people.....

The Thermal Baths of Constantine are quite fun. A very good place to understand how hypercausts work, and with a story reminiscent of the fate of Diocletian's Palace at Split. That is to say, once the Romans had gorn, ordinary folk moved in. Turned the buildings into tenements and lived there in non-Roman merriment for a thousand years or so until some antiquarians came along and said, 'Lumme! Look here at this marble column, this bit of vaulting...' or whatever. With some diligent clearing away (too diligent, in some cases) they were able to reveal a large part of the once-thronging hot baths of the Romans.  It is pretty amazing to think that in a place where, for hundreds of years, loads of people came to bathe, sweat, laugh, flirt, wash, play, chat, whatever, for all that time, they probably thought it would go on forever! But now the place stands stripped apart, naked, dry and dusty, with no hint of water anywhere, let alone nice warm pools or slaves to scrub you down, or sweetmeats to nibble, or bottles of oil to coat your body with.  Just a few gaunt brick walls, a bit of a dome, some boilers and underfloor stuff, and some modern steel gantry walkways for idle tourists to clamber around. The info said, entry was free or very cheap when the baths were in use. Not any more.  €3, no concessions, no guidebook.

Nearby is a church built in the early 1200s for or by the Frères Pecheurs - the fishermen. It too disappeared into a domestic use for centuries, its cloister carved up into apartments, and now standing empty and unadorned, used for theatrical and arts events. We snuck in to admire its cracks and dirt, its oldness.  A de-rig team was clearing a lot of stuff out after a Tango Festival.   

Arles has also been celebrating its Rice Festival and a Photographic Festival and is about to have a Book Festival. They work hard at extending the season and making things interesting, though we met at least two other couples who (like us) were sad that the Vincent van Gogh Exhibition (his influence on other artists) had closed, with no notice of future Vincent events.   

There is so much more here to see. Various friends have (via Facebook) said how much they love it, and we'll have to come back. We have enjoyed staying in a little hotel on the other side of the river, the 'Mestre' of Arles if you like, so we have to walk across the river to get to the cafes and the rest of the historic centre. But the whole town has a real dignity and integrity... real people living and working here, and not just a picture-perfect tourist trap.

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