On A Highway Heading South Somewhere In Provence

I found it hard to think of a time when there was no road there because the trees and the tall hills and the fine views of the bogland had been arranged by wise hands for the pleasing picture they made when looked at from the road. Without a road to have them looked at from they would have a somewhat aimless if not futile aspect.
- Flann O'Brien,
The Third Policeman

Yes! Yes! YES!

Here we see a man doing something not every man gets to do: realizing a dream. A long-held dream - and literally so; I used to have actual dreams about doing this....

I rented the bike early Friday morning at the rental agency in Avignon. It was cloudy and threatening rain and the hotel concierge (Hotel Splendid; charming place - charming concierge, too) tried to persuade me to postpone the ride, but I couldn't stand to wait any longer. Anyway, I didn't want to ride in holiday-weekend traffic.

The bike was a Yamaha TW125, a dual-purpose dirt/road machine and an altogether admirable little beast; but too small and underpowered for highway riding, especially with a rider my size, as I found out as soon as I got it out on the road. It would barely run in the middle fifties (by my rough kph conversion) held wide open, and when the wind was from ahead it wouldn't even do that.

Which was a bit hairy when sharing a road with French drivers, who are - and here one national stereotype has to be admitted as all too true - entirely insane, blithely ignoring posted speed limits and passing even on blind curves. Ah well, it was what I got for trying to save a few francs; should have gotten a bigger bike, of course. But I rapidly developed a great fondness for the little Yamaha, which performed flawlessly within its envelope, and never gave any mechanical trouble whatever.

The photo above was taken by the old city walls of Arles, where I crossed the Rhône before heading south into the Camargue.

The Camargue is a huge marshy plain formed by the delta of the Rhône: over 300 square miles (depending on where you put the border, which tends to be a bit elastic) of boggy grasslands and broad coastal ponds and lagoons. A strange sort of place; what made it strangest to me, though, was that it looked exactly like some part of the southern US - east Texas, perhaps, somewhere between Corpus Christi and Beaumont, or maybe Florida or the Mississippi Gulf coast....

Some travel writers, however, have considerably overstated the "wild loneliness" of the Camargue; it is indeed an area of wide open spaces, and thinly populated compared to the busy Rhône valley, but it is by no means deserted and there are plenty of signs of human habitation - though some of the buildings, to be sure, seem to be on the verge of being reclaimed by the land.

In the middle of the Camargue, dividing it almost in two, is the great shallow windswept Etang de Vaccarès. This is the most heavily protected part of the Camargue, a national wildlife reserve; all the same, you can find a few fishing camps like this along the northern shore. (Legal or not, I couldn't say.)

The eastern shore of the Vaccarès has some authentically wild stretches, where wild ducks and flamingos work the sheltered channels between the grassy islets and along the poorly-defined and constantly shifting shoreline -


Yep. Take a closer look:

Hey, I didn't believe it either. Flamingos aren't supposed to screw around out in the wilds, for God's sake, like real birds; flamingos are supposed to have one leg and stand in rows in front of mobile homes in retirement villages, everybody knows that....

And then something even more unnatural happened:

That's right. Flying. They started flying. Enough to take years off your life.

Somewhat shaken, I rode on, picking up the smooth blacktop of D36 over near the river and turning north to return to Arles. The wind was behind me now and the little Yamaha didn't have to work so hard.

Arles has some fine Roman structures, which I didn't bother looking for; two years in Turkey and Greece left me pretty much permanently satisfied as to Roman theaters and columns and the like. I didn't go see Van Gogh's place, either, or any of the Van-Gogh-painted-here hype; Arles treated him like shit when he was alive and they've got a nerve trying to cash in on him now.

What I wanted was lunch; and after a bit of cruising around (discovering the joys of riding a motorcycle down narrow cobblestone streets; here the little DP bike came into its own) I found a lovely fine sidewalk café and had the plat du jour, which was some sort of big fish cooked in an unidentifiable but glorious sauce. An enormous black cat came up and joined me, waiting patiently for me to finish so he could have the head.

It was a big fish and very brave and the old man had a hard fight but then it was done and he sat under the big trees with the sun shining down through the leaves and he thought: I obscenity in the milk of the American publishing industry.

After lunch I rode out of Arles, pausing to gas up before heading east along D17, stopping briefly at the great abandoned 12th-century Montmajour abbey, where Van Gogh liked to come to paint and meditate.

This was serious Van Gogh country, now, and no mistaking it. It was like riding through an enormous art gallery.

Those fields, those trees, those mountains - above all that light; these photos don't begin to reproduce it. In fact I don't believe it's possible to capture that light on film; nor have I seen any other paintings that got it right - only half-mad Vincent managed to get it down. I had always assumed that his landscapes were distorted and exaggerated in some Expressionist style; now I saw that he was simply and faithfully recording what he saw. It really does look like that. This was a revelation worth coming a long way for.

The road turned up into the mountains - the Alpilles, they're called, perhaps a bit whimsically - and the scenery got truly awesome. The rock formations looked uncannily like those along the Buffalo River in northwest Arkansas.

Up by Les Baux there were nice-looking houses off down in the gorge. There was a ruined medieval city or something of the sort at the top, but the place looked crowded and I was enjoying the ride too much to stop.

Pushing on up into the Alpilles, where more weird rocky shapes thrust up against the windy sky, I had another sudden insight: this was beautiful country, but it was easy to see how a man could go insane here.... Van Gogh may have done his finest work here, but it was no place for a man like that; he probably sealed his fate when he came here.

The road climbed high over the shoulder of a big forested mountain and then dropped down, winding and twisting, toward St.-Rèmy-de-Provence, past the Roman ruins at Glanum, the little bike laid over hard on the sharp curves and blaring flat-out on the straights. St.-Rèmy itself had a slightly hokey, self-consciously quaint look about it; maybe I judged too quickly, maybe it's a perfectly wonderful place but that afternoon it was alive with tourists and people trying to sell them things and besides I kept remembering that this was where Van Gogh did his madhouse time. I rode on through as quickly as I could figure out the street layout.

West from St.-Rèmy, highway D99 passed through wooded hilly country, fine to look at when you could get a look at it. All along either side of the road, big trees had been planted at close regular intervals, their branches reaching out overhead to shade the roadway. It was a pretty effect, but it did block the view, and ensured that if you lost it and went off the road you would not have to look around for something fatal to hit. Even the French, I noticed, drove a little more carefully along through here.

Tarascon is an ancient town on the Rhône, with an impressive 13th-century castle and an interesting-looking church.

Unfortunately it also has a gigantic paper mill right down the river and when the wind is out of the south, as it was today, the stench is so bad you could close your eyes and think you were in Tulsa. I crossed the river hastily and rode through Beaucaire and turned north along the west bank of the Rhône. A little while later I was riding into Villeneuve.

Villeneuve is an attractive smallish town across the river from Avignon, built by the Popes as a retreat when they felt the need of a break from issuing bulls and counting money. It looked interesting but my butt was starting to hurt. I rode across the bridge - the new one, a big solid modern affair; with any luck it will last better than the old one - and picked my way through the streets of Avignon and turned the bike in. The nice-looking Belgian kid who ran the rental agency asked me where I'd been. "Man," he said. His English was easily as good as mine. "You did some riding, huh?"

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