My hotel room has a view of the tiled rooftops of Arles, the southern Provence city with a history that has preserved its Celtic, Greek, Roman and Medieval heritage. Although the population is about 200,000, Arles covers 77,000 hectares, which makes it the largest township in France. I fling open the windows and look across the rooftops each morning. For quite a while. What’s not to love?
It’s mid-week market day in Arles, under sullen skies. My friend Grace and I pause for cafe au lait and brioche as light as a feather, before winding through narrow streets to the stalls spread out near the river bank.
The shoppers are out in force, despite the cloying humidity and threatening rain. Stall holders offer a vast array of olives to try before they buy – from fat and glossy green to piquant and wrinkled, flavoured with pimente or garlic.
I choose a large handful of the pimente-marinated olives, and tuck them into my bag. I’m thinking delicious thoughts of a Provencal picnic in Arles. Next it’s the fromage vendor, whose wares aren’t cheap. Tomme, or sheep’s cheese, is among the regional specialties. A good wedge of yellow cheese with the sharpness of Parmesan but a more creamy texture, costs Grace 15 euros.
Next on our list is bread, and the provencal markets usually stock dense, artisan breads rather than white baguettes. We choose a baguette of caramelised fig, and another of cheese and walnut. At 2.50 euros each, they’re reasonably priced and will keep longer than the six-hour wonders bought twice daily at every boulangerie.
The last stop is for fragrant white-fleshed nectarines. Their perfume infuses the morning air. Now laden with shopping bags, we weave our way between the stalls and shoppers as they fill their baskets with fresh vegetables and juicy figs, debate the freshness of the seafood displayed on ice and greet each other with “Bonjour! Ca va?”
The biggest market – actually it’s the largest in France – is held at the same location each Saturday, where live chickens and sheep are among the offerings, and street performers and musicians entertain the crowds.
We walk up and down and around Arles all morning, the cheese growing more pungent by the hour. By the time we have explored The Reattu Museum, where the highlights are exhibitions of Picasso and Christian La Croix, we think it’s time to zig-zag back through the maze of streets so narrow there’s enough space for one car or pedestrians, but not both. Our hotel is opposite the famous Vincent Van Gogh Cafe, which according to locals, is not a good place to dine.
We put our feet up near the pool and unwrap the bread, olives, nectarines and cheese. No knives, forks or plates. We just rip everything into chunks. A modest picnic, with a wealth of flavours. Bon appetit!
I’m doing Provence with www.backroadstouring.co.uk