Arles to Berlin

Les Baux de Provence

Thursday 28th July 2016

We left St. Pancras on Eurostar at 7.19am on a 6+ hours journey down to Marseilles. It was a far more relaxing way to travel than flying, and it probably, overall, didn’t take any longer.

We had a small table for two and comfy seats, definitely better than the equivalent on a plane. A light breakfast was served at about 8am as we hurtled through Kent, and lunch arrived three hours later, although by then it was midday, French time. As we travelled further south the weather improved, and after Lyon we had clear blue skies. En route we stopped only at Ashford, Lille, Lyon and Avignon before arriving in Marseilles. A nice alternative to air travel!

We picked up a hire car at the station and fought our way out of the city, After half an hour or so the traffic thinned as we went further into Provence, and the roads were quiet as we approached LesBaux-de-Provence. The landscape in the area consists of rocky cliffs and outcrops and our hotel, Le Mas D’Aigret, is set right amongst them, shaded by mature pines that house the noisiest cicadas I’ve ever heard.

The hotel’s rooms are built on, or cut into, rocky outcrops,which helps to keep them a little cooler. Our room is really cosy and the aircon works really well, thank goodness, because at 9pm tonight the air temperature was still 30 degrees.

Thanks to the idiotic Brexit vote the pound has collapsed against the Euro, so we’re looking more carefully at prices than we did previously. Tonight’s meal was gorgeous – we both had Sea Bass plus desserts. Two months ago this would have been £23 and today it’s £28, i.e. more than 20% more and worsening every day. Thanks very much, Johnson, Farage, Gove - great result! :o(

We’re thinking of going to Carrières de Lumières tomorrow, the quarry where superb Son et Lumière displays are staged. This year it’s the work of Marc Chagall.

Friday 29th July 2016

Breakfast was, of course, a very continental affair, with bread, cheese, ham, fruit and fruit juice etc. Very nice, with us sitting in the shade of some lovely trees.

Yes, Carrières de Lumières was our choice for this morning.The hotel blurb says that it’s only a 10 minute walk away, and, as so often happens, it’s a very optimistic estimate. Mind you, we made things worse by walking straight past the entrance for a good five minutes – oooops!

This year’s show features Marc Chagall. We had no idea that he’d died as recently as 1985, at a fine old age, which explained why some of the accompanying music was more modern than we’d expected. As before, the staging of the show was superb. The wall space on which the light show is projected amounts to over 7,000 square metres, and the walls are up to 16 metres high.

The colours are vibrant and the images become far more dramatic than simply standing in front of them in a museum. We found this last year as well with images from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; seeing them there isn’t nearly as impressive as seeing them enlarged and ‘close up’ on the walls of the quarry. There’s also a short accompanying show; last year it was a homage to Jacques Cousteau, and this time it was, ‘Au Pays D’Alice’, a tribute inspired by Lewis Carroll’s book.

The show runs on a loop for about half an hour, with the secondary piece lasting 8-10 minutes. When you walk through the door into thegloom of the quarry the show is already running, so when it starts again youstay there until you reach the point where you’d come in, but most people seemto stay until they’ve seen it once straight through. In fact, you could stay there all day, watching it again and again, but before long the chill of the stone around you encourages you to leave :o)

We’ll be back there on Monday evening for another treat - the re-running, one after another, of theshows from the last three years. So, we’ll see last year’s, ‘Giants of theRenaissance’ again, plus the works of the Viennese artists like Klimt and thenMonet and the Impressionists. That’ll be another couple of hours in the quarry!

We emerged into very welcome midday heat and climbed thehill to the very attractive village of Les Baux de Provence high on the nearbyhill with its ruined castle behind it. The village was full of interesting ‘crafty’ shops selling local produce, pottery, jewellery etc. and had several lovely restaurants that might draw us back in the days to come.

We paid to visit the hilltop castle – the є10 entrance fee seemed a bit steep (see above). Within the ruined walls the terrain was either uneven rock, rough gravel or steep steps, so bearing in mind my fall in Sicily we were careful and very unambitious as far as climbing towers just for the view was concerned!

By 1pm we were hot, thirsty and weary, so we headed back to the hotel for a cuppa and an afternoon by the surprisingly chilly water of the pool. We had another lovely dinner at the hotel, but might change things around a bit tomorrow. Apparently, Arles, only 18km away, has an enormous Saturday market, so we’ll skip breakfast and eat there, both snacks and lunch. We’ll bring food back to eat in the evening on the hotel’s sunny terrace.

This really is a lovely part of the world!

Saturday 30th July 2016

We’d intended to make a very early start this morning, but it was 8am when we surfaced. We skipped breakfast and headed straight for Arles, 18km and 30 minutes away.

Our objective was Arles’ Saturday market that opens at 8am. It’s allegedly the largest in France and stretches a mile from end to end. Gill had picked out a multi-storey car park for SatNav to aim at, and by the time we arrived at 9.30am it was almost full – phew!

The market is indeed huge, extending all the way down a boulevard on both sides of the road, and on one side the stalls are double-banked. We bought fresh fruit and Italian ham to replace dinner tonight, plus a bottle of semi-skimmed milk for our tea – we live well!

The range and freshness of the produce on sales was really eye-catching, and at the top end where we joined it there was also a good selection of non-perishable foods, e.g. olive oil, as well as soaps, fabrics, olive wood items, perfumes, jewellery, lavender. Further down it became more, quite literally, down-market. Unfortunately, soon after we’d arrived it had begun to rain and at times was quite heavy.

It was absolutely heaving, and after the recent killings in Nice I found myself wondering how much death and injury a car bomb might cause. Commendably, the local population was going about its normal business, undeterred.

Gill had found that there’s an exhibition of van Gogh paintings all this summer, so we hunted it down. It was in a lovely gallery with superb lighting. I’ve noticed recently how very poor lighting has been in London galleries, with spotlights so badly positioned that you have to move around and sometimes duck to avoid the reflected glare from the paintings and see them properly.

The paintings on display had mainly been loaned from Amsterdam and Ostend, and gave an excellent overall impression of the artist’s range and the way in which his artistic style had developed during the 1880s. There were two self-portraits side by side, painted only a year apart. One was in an old-fashioned, formal style that made him look like a dull but respectable businessman. A year later he painted himself in the style that we’ve come to love, with bold brushstrokes of bright colours in almost a pointilliste manner.

The gallery also had modern works by an Englishman named Glenn Brown that were far less interesting. Brown’s stated intention is to, ‘slow down the process of seeing’, but in our case he speeded it up because we walked straight through ;o) As we left we realised that not only had the rain stopped but the skies had cleared and the sun was bright and warm.

We’d planned on an early lunch, and Gill had picked up a couple of restaurants on TripAdvisor. We set off for the nearest one and arrived at 12.15pm, only just in time to take one of the outside tables. The set menu lunch consisted of three choices of main course plus a strawberry trifle, all for €15, which was very good value. The boards outside said, ‘English almost spoken’, but the cheery proprietor was much better than that and talked enthusiastically about the Camargue Rose that we’d ordered.

At the end of the meal we decided that we’d had enough of walking about and that we should go back to the hotel and lounge by the pool. By this time the heat of the sun was intense again.

This evening we’ve had our ‘picnic’ on the quiet terrace overlooking the nearby valley and we’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.

Sunday 31st July 2016

Pont du Gard and Nimes

Another early start, even though it’s Sunday and the locals seem less keen on getting up and getting on with their day!

We were at the Pont du Gard by 10am and the extensive car park was fairly quiet. This was good because I was able to choose a shady place to park so that on our return the car wouldn’t be like a furnace.

It’s an 800 yard walk to the bridge, and it gradually and tantalisingly appears through the trees as you approach. It’s an amazing structure, built in 50CE and restored a little in 1855 by Napoleon III – that’s what it said on the official plaque, but I’ll bet that he didn’t even pick up a trowel himself!

It’s three tiers high, with a roadway at the lowest level and the top tier carried water down to Nimes. Considering that it’s nearly 2,000 years old it’s in good condition. The water level in the river is pretty low at the moment, barely seeming to move at all just downstream of the bridge,and so the Gard runs through only one of the many arches. The rest of the width of the river is very rocky, with none of the piers standing directly in water,so it must have been the perfect place to bridge it. However, you’d imagine that when the winter rains pour off the nearby hills there must be quite a torrent racing through all of the arches.

Gill had hoped to swim in the river, but the water was so shallow that this clearly wasn’t possible, so I suggested that we might visit nearby Nimes. We parked in the centre, right next to the Arena, a smaller version of the Colosseum. From the outside, and in the context of the town, it’s an amazing structure, again in surprisingly good condition. We walked around it in intense heat, and decided to stop for lunch before going in.

After lunch, Gill checked on TripAdvisor and discovered that the inside of the Arena is in very poor condition. That made sense, because I’d seen signs as we walked around it that said that a major restoration programme was now in place for this year and next, with the first step being a full assessment of how to proceed. Given that, once again, the entrance fee was a hefty €10,and also because we’d seen Arles’ equivalent on our Rhone cruise last year, we decided to skip it and go to the park instead.

Gill remembered from a previous visit that the park was beautiful and was on a very steep site. When we got there it became apparent that it was going to be a bit of a challenge to get to the top in such warm weather, so we went only part way before turning back ;o)

We headed for ‘home’, and visited a nearby olive farm that makes the lovely black olive oil that we’ve been having with our dinner each night. They also make quite a few variants infused with herbs and we could taste before buying, so Gill chose one with Rosemary and Thyme and another with Ginger.

It’s our eighth wedding anniversary tomorrow and we’re celebrating with another visit to Carrières de Lumières to see the shows from the previous three seasons. Really looking forward to it!

Monday 1st August 2016

Our eighth wedding anniversary – where did the time go?!

Gill gave me one of the funniest anniversary cards I’ve ever seen. It congratulated me on being ‘the best husband in the world … and you know I’m always right’ we had a good laugh together over that :o)

I’d gone into a shop in Bromley last week to buy her a necklace, and when I discovered that it was one of a range that was on special offer I bought her a second one – well, I did have a budget :o) Luckily, she liked them both - I’m starting to get the hang of this jewellery lark!

We then spent all morning by the pool, reading. Even at 9am the air temperature was warm, and we had the place to ourselves for most of the time. At midday, knowing that we’d miss dinner tonight, we walked into Les Baux to a TripAdvisor-recommended restaurant and found the town packed with French tourists. Clearly, the place is a bit of a magnet in its own right, quite apart from Carrières de Lumières.

We had a delightful lunch on the fairly busy terrace of the restaurant, followed by ice creams from a nearby shop, before wandering back to our hotel and resuming our places by the pool. Mid-afternoon we had a bit of a crisis when a succession of wasps repeatedly targeted Gill, even when she changed sun beds. They seemed uninterested in anybody else!

We had an early supper of baguette, crisps and tea on the lovely terrace ready for an early departure to the quarry. Even though we could walk there in about 15 minutes we reckoned that walking back, on unlit country roads in pitch darkness might be a bit hazardous, so we took the car.

Luckily, we arrived near the quarry just in time to get a reasonable parking space. We were inside by 8.20pm, ready for the start 20 minutes later. The first two shows were shown with only a minute's gap between them. The first was ‘Mediterranean Journey’, featuring artists such as Monet, Renoir and Chagall, and the second was ‘Klimt and Vienna’.

There was then a 25 minute delay for people to get to the bar before ‘Giants of the Renaissance’, featuring da Vinci, Michaelangelo and Raphael, i.e. the show we first saw last year. The evening ended at 10.30pm. We were really glad we’d taken the car because the road was so dark that we’d have had trouble seeing where we were going.

Throughout, the images were fabulous, letting us see up close works that are usually at a distance or even on ceilings! The accompanying music was sensitively chosen, and at times was even moving in its context. We’ll skip next year’s show, which features Brueghel and Bosch and hope for van Gogh the year after :o)

So, that’s Provence! Tomorrow it’s back down to Marseilles airport, fly to Brussels, kill two hours, fly to Berlin Tegel and get a cab to our hotel near Friedrichstrasse. Globetrotters, eh? :o)

Monday 2nd August 2016

Three countries in one afternoon!

We took an early breakfast at our little hotel since we then had to drive down to Marseilles, filling the tank on the way, hand the car back and check in two hours ahead of our 12.40 flight to Brussels. We really did enjoy our stay here, as well as the places that we visited. The weather has been wonderful and we’ve had amazing food.

When booking this holiday back in March Gill had found that there are no direct flights from Marseilles to Berlin, so she booked a two leg flight with Air Brussels. Unfortunately, this meant a stopover of more than two hours in Brussels airport – at least we didn’t have to retrieve our luggage. Since it was now mid-afternoon we found a nice Italian restaurant in the very impressive terminal.

Our flight to Berlin was delayed until about 17.30, but at least it was only a short hop of a little over an hour. At Berlin Tegel, rather than faff around with buses and trains we took a taxi into the city. On the way Gill asked the driver why there were so many blue-painted pipes everywhere – that’s puzzled us for ages! He said that in Berlin the ground water is only two metres below the surface, and this becomes a problem when excavating prior to putting in foundations for a new building. The solution is to lead it away to the river. Without properly preparing foundations the cellar levels of buildings would fill with water, because, as he said, the centre of Berlin was once swamp.

We’re staying at the Melia hotel on Friedrichstrasse, where we’ve stayed once before. At check-in it was explained that, if you sign up with them, you can get a Buy One, Get One Free deal on breakfasts on all future visits to hotels in their chain all over the world. It was a Melia hotel that we stayed in in Mexico City when we went there after Mali’s christening.

We were uncertain what to do for an evening meal. I’d found a very German restaurant about 200 yards from the hotel, but Gill wasn’t keen when she saw their menu, so we found another restaurant next to Brecht’s ‘Berliner Ensemble’ theatre on the banks of the Spree. We’ve just come back from there having had a French meal but with a gorgeous, but expensive, dry Riesling.

Tomorrow is our only full day here, so we’re planning on taking it easy before seeing ‘Cabaret’ in the evening.

Wednesday 3rd August 2016

We must have been exhausted after yesterday because we slept for ten hours! We therefore had a late-ish breakfast.

The Melia Berlin is part of an international chain under Spanish ownership, but the breakfast offering is very northern European, so I could revel in a hot meat meal – sausages, meatballs, bacon plus a really well-cooked fried egg. Also, I thought their croissants were exceptional – very light, delightfully crisp on the outside and just moist enough inside. Together with blackberry conserve – fabulous!

Gill had two objectives today – jewellery and hairdressing! We took a tram and the underground to Hackescher Markt, where Gill has a favourite jewellery retailer, Sergio Engel. But even before we got there she found another shop nearby where she had a nice necklace custom-made. When we eventually got to Sergio Engel I suggested I should pop off to take a look at the re-building of the City Palace while she browsed and shopped.

The City Palace used to stand opposite the Cathedral, and both buildings were heavily damaged in WW2. The remains of the Cathedral were left standing, blackened and fenced off, which was how I saw it in 1968. After the fall of the Wall it was restored to its former glory. However, the City Palace suffered a disastrous fate – in 1950, in spite of howls of protest, the East German government had it blown up to make a military parade ground, Marx-Engels Platz.

On part of the site was later built the East German Parliament building, a 1970’s, bronze glass monstrosity that was in turn demolished about ten years ago. The site was left empty while arguments raged about what to do with it. I remember visiting Berlin for a conference in 2002 and seeing a shop window on Unter den Linden with large displays proposing the re-building of the Palace. It therefore took a further ten years to hold a competition to select a design, gain political permission and start raising money.

Berlin as a city is effectively bankrupt, so funds had to be found elsewhere. The total cost is estimated at 500m Euros, and about 150m is still to be found. However, in the two years since we last saw the site there has been an incredible transformation. The concrete shell of the building is now complete, and work has started to clad the exterior in red brick, just like the original. Also, an enormous amount of effort has gone into making close copies of all of the statuary and stone decoration of the exterior. In some cases this had to be done from old drawings or even contemporary photographs. Once complete, the building will be used as a concert venue, art gallery and home for the Berlin Library. I can’t wait to see it!

I dashed back to meet Gill, and we walked to Oranium, a bar/restaurant that we’ve visited often in the past. However, we just had drinks before setting off again to find a hairdresser, and were quite lucky to find one only 300 yards from our hotel. The proprietors had very little English, so I sat reading while Gill had a wash and blow-dry, just in case I was needed. Back at the hotel for 5pm we decided to go to the Melia’s tapas restaurant before going out this evening to see ‘Cabaret’.

We’ve now seen (we think) this production of Cabaret, in Berlin, five times together, and I’ve seen it once more with Sarah in 2007. A couple of the actors and musicians have been in most, if not all, of the productions, and yet this was the best we’ve ever seen. It was a really emotional evening, almost tear-jerking at times, and the audience responded strongly.

Maybe you have to be German to truly feel the impact of this show, e.g. the visceral shock of seeing the forbidden swastika on stage, the Nazi statements and violence, the forthcoming doom of people and their nation and, worst of all, the complacent optimism of the Jews that everything would be OK in the end.

We’ve never seen so many curtain calls for this show – we counted five. The cast seemed uplifted by the reaction of the audience and their performances soared as a result. It made us realise that we’ll keep on coming here to see this production for as long as it’s shown – no, seriously!

It’s an early call for us tomorrow, catching a train at Friedrichstrasse at 7.50am to catch our 9.45am flight to Gatwick. We should be home for midday. We’ve covered a lot of ground in a week and had a wonderful time! In a little over a week we’re off again, this time on a cruise to Norway with Mali and Ana. Our motto nowadays is to do as much as we can as long as we can!