There aren’t too many tracks out of Rognonas and the one that leads to Arles is a road well-travelled. Mistral was up and down here like a fiddler’s elbow; largely on his way to Avignon, apart from his childhood travels to a hitherto unknown school at Frigolet. Russell doesn’t like Frigolet; claims it’s brash and tawdry or other suchlike adjectives that I’ve made a point of dismissing from my mind. It’s also, apparently, not old enough. Later, he’ll tell me he doesn’t like Mistral either. Ha! Guess what I’ve got for his birthday.
We seem to be passing along the Arles road so frequently these days that even my companion feels finally grounded so I make an unexpected left turn down the lane that leads to the perfume museum. Although I want to purchase some Eau de Violette, the main purpose of this detour is to visit the gardens which are cloaked in a myriad of bees and butterflies. It smells nice too. The place looks particularly lovely today as it’s still dressed in the dreamcatchers that were part of yesterday’s wedding decorations. We wander along, searching hopefully for Russell’s bride who, it seems, has already run away.
And after this, and a minor incident involving the front of the hire car and a large boulder, we traverse a few more kilometres along the D570 before taking another left turn to my favourite venue in Provence: Chapelle St Gabrielle. Reader, you don’t need me to tell you about this place: it appears so many times in Donald and also in The Road that Runs. I’m slightly anxious. I want Russell to love Provence but I especially want him to embrace this place and all its conspiratorial history. He’s off doing that striding business again and I’m just sitting and soaking the goodness. Then he’s back: ‘I’m sorry, but this can’t be your favourite place any more’, he claims. And pourquoi pas? ‘Because it’s MY favourite place’. Oh deep joy. What fun we’ll have later with a couple of bottles of wine and an exchange of research. We know how to live.
And so to Arles. Again. This time we park at the top of town where I’m able to suggest a backwards glance at the place where the Yellow House once stood. The railway bridge, replete with running train, is as it was when Gauguin and Vincent passed their heady nine weeks just below. I hope certain people will be glad of a chauffeur, with a useful smattering of French, who also knows about this place because, let me tell you, not many people do. And the good folk of Arles have done nothing to mark the site, let alone commemorate it in any useful way. The only reason I know about it is because I once passed a day in this town with the partner who cannot be named; a man who, inordinately temperamental , verging on the downright moody, is the most wonderful guide one might hope for. He also knows the best places to eat.
We head off to the amphitheatre, which seems to please the American no end. It’s so hot. I sit on a bench where they once watched gladiators and recall another time I was here with that crowd from Trowbridge. It was hot that day too and a couple of men were painting the wooden barriers behind which the brave matadors hide. Suddenly, a large rat appeared in the arena and we shouted a warning. One of the decorators entered with his paint cloth and, treating the vermin as a small bull, began the matador’s dance to much cheering. After a while, he got fed up and hit the rat over the head with a shovel.
Russell wants to visit the Roman Theatre and I don’t. It’s my least favourite place. I don’t know why – it seems full of glaring concrete to me. His opinion is that it’s like a Roman junk store and we’d better get some lunch toute de suite. Good plan, although we manage to get a bit lost on the way: geographically, historically, spiritually and all other permutations. Eventually, he picks a place in a shady square but I’m hot, bothered and put off by the blackboard that advertises fish and chips. Not going there. Sulking. We go next door where I order a risotto of mussels and tellines (clams). I forgot to mention that Russell is the slowest eater in the whole universe. Well, there were so many bloody tellines requiring shell removal that the American had finished his lunch before I was even done with the preparation of mine. Lunch was superb. Of course, we’d already agreed not to have pudding. But then the waiter arrived and announced desert of the day was – Isles Flottantes! My most favourite thing to eat in the whole world. Even the waiter looked delighted at the expression on my face.
Finally, full of shellfish and raw egg, we must visit the Thermes of Constantine. Up the hill, down another, along this lane. Phone him up, Russell – maybe he’s still in the bath and it’s shut. So now, Constantine’s baths assume the mantle of my most hated place in Provence. Who cares. The travelling companion is happy and we were able to walk back along the Rhône. And later, a late afternoon in the pool, a bottle of the pink stuff and an infusion of bonhomie.