I needn't have worried. She loved Arles. So did I.
I'd been there once before, the previous year; but only briefly, passing through on a motorcycle. It felt odd, in fact, when I tried to orient myself; everything looked so different on foot.
We found a great room right away, with a balcony overlooking a little square or rather trapezoid; there were even flowering vines to beautify the view and fill the room with scent and muck up my sinuses. The price was remarkably low, too; Arles turned out to be quite a reasonable town, especially for one that gets so much tourist traffic.
We were there primarily because Phyllis wanted to see some Roman ruins. Arles was definitely the place for that, though "ruins" wasn't quite the word; the big arena in the middle of town wasn't at all ruined, but still very much a going concern, used for all sorts of events.
The poster on the gate in the background, for example, advertised a bullfight to be held the following weekend. Bullfighting, as practiced in Spanish-speaking countries, has never done anything for me - on the contrary, it seems to me an exercise in non-consensual sadism - but the French version is something else again. French bullfighters don't kill the bull, or harm him at all; the object is rather to snatch little ribbons off the bull's horns.
"Fight", in fact, really isn't the word for what the French bullfighter does; he goes into the ring unarmed. The bull, on the other hand, has his full natural armament. Oh, they put some silly little balls on the tips of his horns to make them a bit less lethal; but any rodeo clown can tell you a bull doesn't need his horns to stomp a mudhole in your ass. And the bulls of the Camargue are enormous beasts, who spend most of their lives knee-deep in mud and water; so when you get one of them on the dry hard ground of an arena, he can move like a Tomahawk missile. They are absolutely fearless and incredibly aggressive; I've seen a photo, taken in the Arles arena, of a bull climbing the barrier and pursuing his prey right up into the bleachers.
The French bullfighter, in other words, is quite a special breed, and I give him my unreserved admiration - even while wondering if he shouldn't seek psychiatric help. I wished we could have stayed around to see the event. Especially after learning that there was also to be a Gypsy Kings concert that same weekend....
The arena wasn't the only Roman structure in Arles, though; there was also a theater. Or what was left of one; the theater came much closer to qualifying as "ruins."
There was much more to Arles, though, than ancient stonework. We had a fine time just wandering around the crooked narrow streets, or along the river, where men sat talking -
- or watching them play boules in the little park just outside the old walls.
Something else was happening in Arles that weekend, something the Roman inhabitants would have recognized immediately: the circus was in town!
This old church - if that's what it was; it looked like a church - we found down near the river. We never learned the name, or when it was built. We were developing history overload; we had begun to deliberately ignore dates and background, and simply enjoy old structures for their own sake. It wasn't a conscious decision; it was just something we found ourselves doing.
This church, for example, was obviously quite old and probably of great historic importance; and I could probably find a guidebook at the library that would tell me all about it, and then I could put all the information in here, and impress everybody with my education. But in fact we didn't know anything about it and still don't. All we knew was that it was a peaceful sort of place, and nice to look at. (Especially in the moonlight. I didn't succeed in getting a photo of that, though.)
It had quite a commanding position, too, up above the old walls - which seemed to be a mixture of Roman and medieval; no doubt succeeding generations and rulers added on to the fortifications, Arles being a town of obvious strategic importance given its location on the lower Rhine.
Down at the foot of the walls, on Saturday morning, they were holding the usual weekend market.
We could have spent all day looking at the flowers and other fascinating things, but we had something else in mind....
NEXT: THE CAMARGUE AND THE SEA
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