~stay where there are songs~

May 1st, 2008


I have been reading several travel and food writers lately, for pleasure, but also with a secret fantasy of being one I think. A. J. Liebling’s Between Meals, Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste, M.F.K. Fisher’s Two Towns in Provence, and Sybille Bedford’s Pleasures and Landscapes are all on my night table at the moment.

we stayed in the cleric residency of a 13th century cloister, Hotel Le Cloitre. the view from our bathroom was magical, when the sun rose the birds went crazy, flying in and out of the cloister belfry.

Ms. Bedford was a friend’s friend, and recommended to me. Her voice is funny and wise and clearly voluptuary. She opens a 1961 essay called The Quality of Travel thusly,

A part, a large part, of traveling is an engagement of the ego v. the world…. The world is hydra headed, as old as the rocks and as changing as the sea, enmeshed inextricably in its ways. The ego wants to arrive at places safely and on time. It wants to be provided with entertainment, color, quiet, strong coffee, strong drink, matches it can strike, and change for a large paper note…It wants to find everything just as it expected, only rather better. It also wants to find the unexpected, but it wants that to be manageable.


We learned much about our traveler-egos on this trip, through mostly wonderful and one horrid experience. First, though we are taking in an absurd amount of landscape in a short time (out of a kind of necessity, we are country shopping of a sort), we are not so concerned about “doing” the “must dos.” Second, given the necessity of choosing, wild open spaces trump even the most gorgeous human-dreamt atmospheres. Good to know.

the celebrity insect of provence, and lovely of song, the cicada.

We stayed in Arles, the town Van Gogh made famous via numerous paintings, and scandalized with one severed earlobe (23 December 1888, wrapped in newspaper and given to Arles prostitute Rachel, with these instructions: “keep this object carefully.”)

Arles townspeople called Van Gogh fou roux, or “redheaded madman,” and signed a petition to have his house seized while he was stuck in an asylum. Now they sell his pictures–of the famous Arles café, and his quarters there, and the wild olive trees, and yes, even his self-portrait with bandaged ear–on everything from, well just everything.


The town itself is charming, built around Roman ruins including a very fine amphitheater, the 26,000-seat Arènes, built in the 1st century AD for circuses and gladiator combat. Sunday afternoon bullfights are held here, and when we arrived on May 1st, the town was hosting its L’Arlesienne competition here too.

A woman is elected as essentially the queen of Arles, and to hold this title she must be between 16 and 23 years, she must speak the Provencal dialect, and agree to remain single during her three-year reign.


One version of Van Gogh’s L’Arlesienne (Madame Ginoux) sold for over 40 million at Christie’s a couple years back. I say one, because he painted her picture (and others, from memory) over and over while in the asylum at Saint-Rémy.

I’m not sure if they were contestants, or past L’Arlesienne, or just ladies in traditional dress, but there were many gals wandering the streets in long skirts, shawls, and very distinctive caps.

the portraits of past L’Arlesienne lined the square.

Arles is also the gateway to the Camargue Rhone delta, which we explored a bit. This marshland is interesting for its wildlife: black camarguais bulls, white camarguais ponies, and…pink flamingos. It is home to a whole mess of birds: ducks, geese, seagulls, terns, egrets, herons, even eagles, and les flamants roses, of course. It is also interesting for the communities of cowboys (gardiens), gypsies (gitans), fishermen (pêcheurs). (The title of this missive is a gypsy proverb, a contender was “You can’t stop a whore, even with a hundred earlobes, ah…horses.”)


We just missed the gypsy feast of Mary-Jacobe (May 24th-25th), in Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer. Hundreds of thousands of gypsies come to pay homage to Sarah-la-Kali (Black Sarah), the patron saint of the gypsies and Egyptian handmaiden of the Three Marys (Mary Magdalene, Mary Jacobe and Mary Salome), who accompanied them (and the resurrected Lazarus) on the journey to France after Jesus’ death.
Her relics are carried down to the sea to be blessed before being returned to their home in the church where her statue has been kissed so often that the black paint has worn away in places.

Spain got its Flamenco from the Camargue gypsies (so I’ve read), so here is famous guitarist Manitas de Plata, just because. Plus Ali, doing his “Black Sarah.”


After a stop at the local outdoor market (picnic provisions in hand) we carried on down the coast toward Spain nearly to Carcassonne and discovered…why no one talks about going to this part of the coast. It is a dire over-developed condo land by the sea, which features a correctional facility, prompting the invention of the Cicada Scale of Enchantment™. Five Cicadas is dinner on the terrace of Venasque (coming up–day three), One Cicada is…Penitentiaryville.


We made the best of it by dipping our toes in the Mediterranean sea, collecting a few shells, and hightailing it to the lovely Nimes. Later in Narbonne we found a spot to dine on a whole Loup de mer (Sea Bass), under a dangling pig’s leg (please note thoughtful silver drippings cup).

Later still we watched the amazing aerodynamic flight of swallowtails and in a moment of inspired chivalry, Ali knocked a beautiful pod from a tree, a specimen for my (as he calls it) “nature collection.”


2 Responses to “~stay where there are songs~”

  1. Habib says:

    The white horse in Arles seems to be looking at you knowingly. You have a special gift to communicate with animals and children.
    XO D

  2. kim says:

    on the phone last night my Grandma Edith said despairingly, “oh dear! my granddaughter has sparrows for friends!” she was responding to my stories about feeding the birds on my balcony here in Isolationville (aka Neuchatel). they wake me up now asking for breakfast in a language I understand without effort!
    as you know, my Grandpa Boone raises pigeons and she is terrified of birds, which always struck me as curious.

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