We left Barcelona early in the morning in order to catch a train to the Provence. Provence is a region in southeast France consisting of small hill towns and vineyards fanning out from the Mediterranean coast. One of Provence's better known assets is the famed Cotes du Rhone wine district (the Rhone River runs through the middle of Provence). We chose the small town of Arles as our home base within the region. To get to Arles we needed to travel over six hours from Barcelona and switch trains three times. This would prove to be an eventful and long six hours. A couple of hours into the trip we had an unexpected delay at a train station near the Spanish/French border. After sitting on the motionless train for over a half an hour, we started noticing people getting off the train and successfully purchasing drinks and food inside the train station. Not one to be left out, I decided to give this a shot. After all, we had no reason to believe that the delay would let up anytime soon. As I was standing in the train station restaurant forty yards from the train ordering a bottle of water (and contemplating whether to get the grilled cheese sandwich), I heard some faint train whistles in the distance. I peaked through the restaurant window and noticed that there were no longer hordes of impatient passengers smoking cigarettes next to the stalled train. It suddenly hit me that, with a whistle's notice, my train was about to take off without me. Worse yet, Stephanie was onboard. I grabbed my bottle of water and ran as fast as I could through the station, down the stairs, under the train tracks, and up the stairs to my train. The train doors were all shut and the train was pulling away. This was suboptimal! Out of fear for how Stephanie would react to my knucklehead move (i.e. missing the train), I jumped on the first step I saw and tugged at door handle with all my might. Opening the door of a moving train proved to be more difficult than initially anticipated, especially while holding a large bottle of water in one hand. After a few desperate tugs I finally managed to leap inside the train. I made it...and managed to eclipse one knucklehead move (i.e. almost missing the train) with another knucklehead move (i.e. jumping on a moving train). Several lessons were learned from this escapade.
The hits kept on coming as we hopped on our connecting train over the French border and we were joined in our compartment by an old Spanish couple, a young Japanese girl, and a Frenchman (sounds like the beginning of a bad joke). The old Spanish couple was freaking out about whether they had boarded the correct train and was yapping loudly in Spanish and looking at each of us for confirmation. In an effort to be helpful (and put an end to the obnoxious yapping) I spoke to the couple in Spanish and let them know that it was indeed the correct train and that Stephanie and I had to make a connection at their ultimate destination - a town called Avignon. Letting this couple know that I spoke Spanish was my third big mistake of the day (getting off the previous train was the first and jumping on a moving train was the second). I spent the next two hours hearing about their lack of train travel experience, the sibling they were visiting in France, how they worked in a hospital near Valencia, and so on and so forth. Steph immediately appreciated the predicament I had gotten myself into and she pretended not to understand or speak any Spanish whatsoever - she kept her nose in a magazine the entire time I was conversing with the couple. The Spanish couple was initially quite nice, but later turned out to be a bit forward, pushy, and, ultimately, annoying. The lady was easy to converse with, but the old man was a big time mumbler. He was so bad that for at least a half an hour I couldn't figure out if he was speaking to me in Spanish (at first, I was convinced it was Catalan). Fortunately, the old man didn't require much in the way of responses in order to enjoy our conversation. At each train stop the couple would frantically ask me to translate the announcement over the intercom (which was in French) and inquired whether we had arrived at Avignon, and at each train stop I had to remind them that I didn't speak French and that I would let them know when I thought we were in Avignon. I could tell that Steph was eating all this up. After one particularly long announcement, the nice Frenchman next to us translated in broken English that a train in front of us had hit some cattle and that we would need to get off at the next stop in order to take a bus around the stalled train. When I translated the message in Spanish to the old couple, they freaked out. After calming down a bit, the old lady emphatically declared that since we were all four heading in the same direction, that the four of us would travel the rest of the way to Avignon together. This was less than ideal! Stephanie and I now had to maneuver through this train detour with our overly emotional adopted grandparents in tow. They stuck to us like glue when we got off the train and as we tried to investigate where to board the bus. The old man kept walking up to strangers and mumbling "Avignon" over and over. When someone in the station would try to explain to him how to get to Avignon (in French, of course), the old man would shrug his shoulders and pout his lips - remember, he only spoke Spanish (a virtually incoherent version). After watching this irritating show play out a few times, I asked Steph to stay with our adopted Spanish grandparents for a few minutes while I figured out what we needed to do. After some light investigative work, the four of us eventually boarded our detour bus. After a thirty minute bus ride together, Stephanie and I made sure that our grandparents boarded the correct and final train to Avignon, and we, in turn, made our way to Arles. Fortunately, Steph and I were able to skip the connection at Avignon and find a more direct route to Arles. Despite some friendly "goodbyes," no addresses, phone numbers, or tears were exchanged with our adopted grandparents.
Days 1-4, Provence:
Arles, our home base in Provence, is small town near the Mediterranean situated along the Rhone River. The city is said to have been relatively important within the Roman Empire and, as a result, has a few remaining Roman ruins sprinkled around town. One of the town's biggest claims to fame is its association with the painter Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh painted over two hundred works during a 12 month span while living in Arles. At the end of this prolific stint, he cut off his ear and was hospitalized in a neighboring town.
Our stay in Provence was pretty mellow, lots of strolling and people watching. We kicked off our stay in Arles with a visit to their Ancient History Museum, which gives you some perspective for how the city looked when it was part of the Roman Empire. After the museum, we walked by the Roman Arena and open air theatre - two of the best preserved Roman ruins in Arles. Later, we walked along the Rhone River, which was so windy that we nearly fell over (several times). All in all, it took us a full day to walk around Arles and get the layout of the city. The town was really cool but also quite small. We knew we had to do a bit of exploring outside of Arles to stay entertained for four days.
We spent one of our days visiting a neighboring town called Avignon - the capital of the Cotes du Rhone wine district. Avignon felt quite a bit larger than Arles, but, oddly enough, didn't seem to have as much going on. The main sight in Avignon is the Palace of the Popes. Here's a little trivia knowledge that some of you history buffs may actually find interesting: In the beginning of the 14th century a freshly elected French pope moved the headquarters of the Catholic Church from Rome to Avignon (France). The Catholic Church bought the town of Avignon and popes resided there for about a hundred years. Later, for 35 years or so, there were two popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon. The rival popes were eventually consolidated back in Rome at the beginning of the 15th century. Extremely useful knowledge to keep in your back pocket. The Palace of the Popes in Avignon served as the administrative center for the Church and is also where the pope lived. The building was very impressive from the outside, but excruciatingly boring on the inside (there was no furniture, just empty rooms). I wonder if a freshly elected Texan pope could move the Catholic Church from Rome to Texas - food for thought. (Dad, please don't send us an email with how/why this is technically impossible)
For my birthday, we decided to hike from a town called St. Remy to another town called Les Baux. We had read that the hike was really cool - through rolling hills and vineyards. Unfortunately, once in St. Remy, we discovered that the hiking path was temporarily closed due to a drought/fire watch. Instead of hiking, we spent the rest of the afternoon walking around St. Remy. The town was really small, so we did the walk a number of times. No complaints - I spent my birthday with Steph, lazily walking around a small town in the south of France. Good times.