Thursday 12 May 2016

Roman remains and a 3800% increase in the wine budget, Arles to l'Ardèche

France, 2nd – 5th May 2016

We’d been told that one of the towns not too far from Mérindol, Ansouis, was one of the prettiest towns in Provence, so while we were in the neighbourhood it seemed a shame not to investigate it for ourselves.  After approaching through fields of vineyards, we reached a town full of stone cottages and lots of potted plants.  To me, it felt a little like being in the Lake District but with a French twist; the lakes were replaced with vineyards, and the constant rainclouds with beautiful sunshine.  It was pretty but being a small place there isn’t much to keep you around for long, so we continued to Arles.

Arles is the main town at the top of the Camargue, and it was a place we’d wanted to visit last November but couldn’t park due to a fairground at the aire.  This year we had more luck, so walked into the centre amidst another bought of high winds, sending our clothes flapping whilst one girl clung to her short skirt to keep from baring all to the world.  The city dates back to the Roman times and as such there’s a lot of history in the place with Roman sites aplenty to be found, but key among them are the Roman theatre and the amphitheatre that still stand proudly in the centre.  The amphitheatre has seen its share of uses, going from a place for gladiatorial combat to a fortified fortress in the Middle ages, having houses built within it and towers added for defence.  These days it’s been converted back to an amphitheatre and is mainly used for bullfighting.

The aire at Beaucaire

The motorhome parking at Arles (soon to be relocated across the river) was full to bursting and overflowing into the bus bays, so rather than spend the night here being buffeted by the wind we moved north to Beaucaire (GPS: 43.80624 4.63712, Free, Water by token).  It’s a small town with a canal running through its centre that is an offshoot of the Rhone river.  The canal was built initially for water supply purposes but now is a route for pleasure-boating with scores of house-boats moored up at the water’s edge, often double parked.  It felt like there was a bit of a divide between the boats on the west and east side of town, separated by the main road bridge over.  On the east side the boats were generally still cared for and looked like they were being lived in, but on the west side near the aire we spotted at least one empty shell of a boat rusting, and another that had sunk, with just a small section of the cabin protruding from the water.

The rather presentable east side...
...And the west!

We had another day left before our van service appointment, and a few more Roman sites to cover.  First on the list was the Pont du Gard; it’s an old Roman 3-tiered aqueduct between Nimes and Avignon that’s been well preserved.  Rather than paying to park at the site we parked at an aire at the closest town Remoulins, where you can walk in from.  It’s a few kilometres walk, so we’d probably cycle it in future as there’s a cycle path on the western road going in and bike racks at the entrance.  There are lots of places around the site where you can sit on the dry riverbed and admire the scenery or have a picnic, and you can wild swim in the river (as long as you don’t get too close to the bridge).

Camping Bagatelle
The next stop was Avignon, where we stayed at Camping Bagatelle (GPS: 43.95407 4.79778) which offers a special €8 (+€0.36 tourist tax) overnight rate for late arrivals who just want a pit stop and a service point.  Technically it was meant to be from 6pm onwards; we arrived around 4:30 but they decided to let us have the pit stop rate anyway.

A little about Avignon: for the best part of the 14th century, the Papacy moved here from Rome for the span of seven consecutive popes.  After conflict between French king Philip IV and the Church a French pope was elected, Clement V, who decided that rather than moving to Rome he would move the Papacy to Avignon.  The Papacy remained here until 1377, when Pope Gregory XI finally established himself once more in Rome.  The ancient city is definitely worth a visit, with the Pope’s palace standing proudly on its rock formations in the centre of town.  The streets are filled with restaurants, chocolatiers and sweet shops, which we somehow found the will to resist!

In the morning it was time for the motorhome service, and by some small miracle we forced our way out of bed and hit the road before 8am to drive to the garage at Le Pontet.  Le Pontet is a bit of a trek away from Avignon and there’s not really much to see in town, so we navigated to the nearest McDonalds for breakfast and spent more time than is probably socially acceptable killing time on their free WiFi; in our defence, we did go back for a second helping! After walking back across town to the garage we arrived a couple of minutes after 12pm, just in time to see the last cars leaving for lunch.  This meant we had another two hours to kill so after a fruitless effort to find a park we eventually settled for a shaded bench in a grassy area where we could do some writing.  Eventually we were reunited with our van, where the final price was cheaper than quoted due to fewer labour hours than expected, happy days!  €348 later we were on our way again, with a very important destination: Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Our freeparking spot for the night
As a wine place, the initial approach to the town is everything you’d expect.  The stony soil is home to endless vineyards, and the map at the tourist office has details for over 100 different places you can visit for wine tasting.   The tractors all appear to be on custom frameworks that allow them to ride high over the fields without damaging the vines.  The chateau was ordered to be built by Pope John XXII (hence the town name Châteauneuf-du-Pape) in 1317, but eventually ended up neglected until it was burned in 1563 during the French Wars of Religion.  You can free park right near the ruins (GPS: 44.05829 4.82858), which have views over the surrounding area and is a short walk down to the gorgeous town.  Many of the local wineries are free to visit (the tourist office can point you in the direction of a couple which don’t require appointments), and the one we visited—Domaine de Beaurenard—offers a self-guided tour of the cellars, wine presses and bottling facilities with wine tasting at the end (with the assumption that you’ll buy a bottle).  They had a family library of wine dating back to 1880, with the dusty bottles only being used at special events.

That's a lot of money in one room!

Matt and I are not normally ones for posh wine.  Back in the UK, my strategy for choosing a bottle was as follows: find the bottles on offer at half price, and then pick the prettiest label.  While we’ve been travelling this strategy has simplified further: go to a cheap supermarket, pick up a sub-€1 carton (or ‘brik’), with the occasional bottle of spumante or cava for a treat.  Most of the time this works out alright for us, as even the cheapest stuff out here is usually better than some of the rubbish in the UK.

Châteauneuf isn’t exactly your cheapest wine, and at the local wine sellers the average bottle sets you back about €20.  Of course this varies depending on the age, whether it was a good year, which winery produced it, whether you’re at a winery or a shop, and so on and so on (and if you want a posh vintage you’ll soon be paying a lot more).  The last carton we bought in Spain was €0.65/L whereas a €20 bottle works out at €26.67/L – that’s almost a 3800% price increase on our Spanish plonk!  We do like it as a special occasion wine though after Matt was given some as a thank-you present a few years ago, so after the savings we made on the van service we decided to treat ourselves and after getting a little tipsy tasting, we are now the owners of a 2011 and 2014 bottle. It’s surprising how different the same type of wine from different years and producers can be.

The town square
The chateau ruins
We’d been planning to go to the Gorges de l’Ardèche next, so moved to a stopover place (GPS: 44.30518 4.55213, max 1 night) near the start of the gorge just outside the village of Aiguéze.  It was busy with other vans and cars out for the French bank holiday, but we managed to secure ourselves a (slightly sloping) place between the trees.  It seems that with every town/village we visit in France the places just keep getting better and better and Aiguèze was no exception, with beautiful shuttered stone buildings and streets and a small path running down to the Ardèche river below.  It’s going to be very difficult to move on from France, but at least it’s an easy enough distance that we can revisit this area on holidays in the future.

Right, that’s enough for now, it’s time for us to go back to exploring and to finding an answer to the big question of the past few days: do we drink the posh wine, or do we keep it and age it?

- Jo
The Ardeche river
Overnight parking at Aiguèze

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