The start of our first full day in France came earlier than I wanted. Joel woke up at 5 am local time and couldn’t go back to sleep. After trying to catch a few more moments of rest, we finally dislodged our tired bodies from the bed at 6.30am. Between washing up and repacking our bags, we made it for the 7.30am shuttle bus leaving for the airport where we would catch the TGV heading to Aix-en-Provence. I read that trains in Europe were notoriously punctual and I wasn’t going to waste my 206 euros train ticket like this.
The skies were overcast and a slight drizzle greeted us on this cold Saturday morning. Our hotel was located in some remote industrial area with several other hotel chains, probably the only place travelers who are in transit would choose.
The success of my travel plans depended heavily on us making it for this train as I had timed our day exactly in order to make the most of the daylight. We could not afford to miss the train. However we found out to our horror that we had missed our T2 stop and ended back in T1 with only 20 minutes left to get back. The mad rush that ensued prepared us for the race across towns that characterised most of our mornings thereafter. Point to note – dispel notions of starting the day early especially with children in toll.
While I was relieved to find out that the train was miraculously delayed by 10 minutes, it meant that we might also miss the time to collect our car in Aix as the attendent may have left for lunch. I have to remind myself that there is no such thing as timing it perfectly in travel planning.
The TGV, the pride of French locomotive engineering is one of the fastest bullet trains in the world. Our 650km journey took us right through the heart of France from northern Paris to southern Aix-en-Provence in under 3.5hours. It was also not surprisingly the most costly of my tickets at 99 Euros per adult and 8.20 Euros per child below four years old.
We were allotted seats on the upper booths which awarded us really good views of the countryside as we whisked past. If your train experience is limited to the MRT, the immediate contrast that strikes you is the deafening quietness of the whole coach even though every seat was occupied. Passengers were either engaged in silent conversation or plugged into their iPods, a French novel or a morning nap.
All except Joel, of course. We managed to pass the first 30 minutes in mock civility as we breakfast over the cereals we had brought from home. After that, I whipped out my laptop so that Joel can entertain himself watching cartoons but it didn’t keep him fixated for long. The tell-tale signs of his restlessness began to surface as he started to fidget about and conversing in his usual ‘make sure everybody else can hear me’ voice. Although no one complained, I could feel their chagrin at this so-called noise pollution.
I didn’t need an invitation to bring Joel out to the next cabin which was conveniently the dining carriage. It felt less confined and Joel could monkey around while I enjoyed the scenery. Much of our journey from Paris to Lyon was marked by fields of yellow daffodils that ran for miles after miles as the TGV sped pass the countryside, with the occasional farmhouse dotting the otherwise barren landscape. It was quite mesmerising.
The first sign of modern civilization was Lyon, the third biggest city in France after Paris and Marseilles. At this point, we were halfway to Aix. After Lyon, the rural landscape gradually gave way to industrialisation and rows of wind turbines erected to harness wind energy on wind farms. We finally pulled into Aix-en-Provence at 12.30pm.
Even locating the car rental booths took a bit of skill. Thankfully the attendent had not left for lunch and we completed our transaction in a matter of minutes as she only needed to take down our passport and credit card details. Payment would be credited to the card upon return. Our three days rental bill amounted to 226 Euros.
We were pleased to be given a rather sporty silver Peugeot 207. Now would be another test of our tenacity. Theo had never driven on the ‘wrong’ side of the road before and my plans depended on him being able to do so for at least 6 days. With him concentrating on the road meant that the ardent task of navigation was left to his directionally-challenged wife.
Another immediate feature that stands out on European roads is the sheer number of roundabouts in place of U-turns, which were frankly quite confusing as there were so many exits. The highways itself were pretty straightforward to navigate and pretty soon we were feeling quite confident that we could survive this trip afterall.
Arles was designated a Roman base when southern France was conquered. As such, it contained many remnants of Roman architecture both within the town and the surrounding area. I couldn’t resist the urge to stop for a visit enroute to Italy.
Our first mission once in town was to locate our hotel without so much as a street map. We found Hotel Acacias quite by chance as we turned into the street with a sign that looked vaguely like a river. I recalled that the hotel was situated along the banks of river Rhone. In fact finding our hotels over the next few days was both a nightmare and a highlight. Nightmare as we were literally groping in the unknown and a highlight as the joy of finding our abode for the night was gratifying.
Free parking could be found by the river behind the hotel. Lots that required payment were marked with a prominent ‘Payant’. Our room for 60 euros was nicely furnished with a royal red carpet, a comfortable double bed, and a ‘walk-in’ wardrobe built between two pillars. Our room overlooked the corner of the ancient wall that once surrounded Roman Arles. Everything would have been perfect save for the carnival set up less than 500m away.
We took our late lunch at a bar next door. Pizza for 5 Euros and a coke for 2.40 Euros!! We found out later that carbonated drinks cost almost the same as a mug of beer, which is something I cannot comprehend. I guess it is more expensive to be sober than drunk in this part of the world. In the end we loaded up on bottles after bottles of 1.5 liter mineral water which ranged between 0.12 Euros to 2 Euros each. While water can be consumed from the tap, we were doubtful after seeing white sediments settling at the bottom of our cups.
The rest of the afternoon was well spent combing the town and comfortably viewing all the main attractions in about 3 hours. At the town square, we even witnessed a wedding celebration. We ended our day with a lovely stroll along the Rhone River. Arles is a delightfully pleasant town with a laid back atmosphere set amidst ancient Roman architecture and an artistic past as Vincent van Gogh spent his most prolific years here. It is akin to an open air museum without the touristy crowds.
The streets are relatively narrow and traffic very slow so it was safe for Joel to run about. Following the directions of our host, we took a five minutes drive down Les Alycamps and came upon a slightly more modern part of town. We found a Geant Casino (a large department store not unlike the Giant we have in Singapore) and various boutique outlets housed in a large shopping complex.
Dinner was in a ‘marche’ style like bistro where we chose our order from a ‘wet market’ stall and the dish prepared according to our selected cooking style. The rotund lady tending the stall was very friendly and showed us how to place our order in French. Total bill was 17.80 Euros which was much lower than my initial budget of 40 Euros per meal. Turned out that if we learnt to eat like the locals, we could save alot of money on meals.
After dinner we tried to blend into the crowd by shopping for groceries in Casino, although we were probably the only Asians within several hundred mile radius. Contrary to popular belief, prices were actually quite reasonable if I was earning Euros.