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Exploring Arles and the Carmague

Arles, a city of elegant architecture and winningly relaxed cuisine, is the genteel gateway to the Camargue, a rugged region known for its rice fields, salt marshes and similarly standout food. Alexander Lobrano is bewitched by les deux.

By Alexander Lobrano
The Baroncelli museum in Saites-Maries-de-la-Mer

Viewed from a mullioned window at the Musée Réattu, the Rhône river swells into a fecund green bend behind the stone dyke that shelters Arles. These eddying waters tell a lot about the appetites of this southern French city and the surrounding Camargue region, even before you sit down to your first meal here. Nearing the end of an 812-kilometre journey from its glacial source in the Swiss Alps, the river is as rich in nutrients as a good soup, and this explains the primal fertility of the nearby farms, orchards and pastures that have fed the ancient city for centuries.

A fortified church in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer

The presence of this powerful river also explains why the Romans lavishly rebuilt the post, founded by the Phoenicians in the 6th century BC, into one of their best-loved cities. As perhaps antiquity's most astute and assiduous geographers, they prized the town as the optimum trans-shipping point between the Mediterranean and the Rhône Valley (the Rhône was then navigable from the sea to Arles).

Because they were famously epicurean, they loved this area for reasons more sybaritic than strategic. The region's remarkable larder includes some of the world's best olive oil, excellent wines, lamb from the plains of Le Grau-du-Roi, thumbnail-sized clams called tellines, dug from the sandbanks of the Camargue marshes, fish from both the sea and the river, and a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables almost all year round.

The walls of the Roman amphitheatre in Arles

The city's good Roman bones - its magnificent 1st-century amphitheatre and the remains of its forum, for example - are part of the area's street life. The way the ruins telescope the present into the past gives the Arlesians a wry respect for all the possibilities of human folly and genius, as well as their own mortality. This particular sensibility whets their appetites, too, and perpetuates a long local history of loving good food and wine, further confirmation of which is found at the Musée Départemental Arles Antique.

This fascinating museum on the banks of the Rhône, near the former Roman Circus where chariot racing was held, displays one of the greatest ancient treasures in France - a miraculously intact wooden barge that sank some 2000 years ago. Dozens of pottery amphorae aboard, once filled with wine and oil, reveal the city's role as a major produce-trading centre.

Outside Fad'Oil restaurant, Arles

But the most delicious proof that Arles is still a Roman city, even today, is found reading its menus, the best of which are written on blackboards that change daily. They reveal that the city still eats according to the original Latin passion for simply prepared, fresh seasonal produce, a preference that actually seems very modern. In fact, the Arlesian approach to cooking often has much in common with Italian and Spanish kitchens.

There are a couple of ambitious chefs in Arles, including Jean-Luc Rabanel, who has two Michelin stars at L'Atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel, where the menus celebrate local vegetables. But the prevailing culinary logic of the region stands in contrast to the flavour-layering, sauce-building skills that define French cooking almost everywhere in Gaul. This reflexive gastronomic nonchalance is why Arles and the Camargue are among my favourite places to eat in France.

Inside the Hôtel du Cloître

I arrive on an early-summer morning at Arles' small train station after a long, drowsy journey from my home in Paris. I'm glad to stretch my legs and then briefly tempted by the shade of the terrace at the Bar France, a winningly workaday place with strong coffee and cheap pizza. But I'm after a really good meal, both as reward for an early start and to celebrate my arrival in a place I love a little more each time I visit.

So I leave my bag at the Hôtel du Cloître, a beautiful 18th-century house with edgy décor by Paris designer India Mahdavi. After walking along the rue de la République, the town's faded but pretty and still blessedly ungentrified main street, to the rue des Porcelets (street of the piglets), I arrive at Le Gibolin more than a little ready for a cold glass of same (gibolin is old-fashioned slang for wine). At that moment, Brigitte Cazalas, who has run this little bistrot à vin with her partner, chef Luc Desrousseaux, since the pair moved south from Paris, props a blackboard menu on a nearby chair and asks whether I'd like a drink. "Oh, oui, Madame!"

The dining room at Le Gibolin

A nice cool pour of one of my favourite southern French whites, a Cairanne from the Domaine de l'Oratoire Saint Martin, begins to unknot my Parisian nerves and I suddenly notice how good the sun feels on my forehead. Choosing from the brief menu is easy work, too, since artichauts à la barigoule, tiny purple-tipped artichokes braised in white wine with carrots, fresh herbs and lardons (chunks of bacon that are blanched in this recipe) is one of the most satisfying dishes in the entire Provençal kitchen. A rack of lamb with wilted baby spinach sounds good, too. But where is the lamb from? "La Plaine de Grau [the plains east of Arles]. It's so full of flavour, but also tender," Cazalas assures me. And just like the artichokes, it is.

Around me, an international crowd of gallery owners, photographers and artists chat about the latest shows in the town's museums, notably the Fondation Vincent van Gogh Arles; the Musée Réattu, a 15th-century mansion where contemporary art and photography are intriguingly juxtaposed with its collection of 17th- and 18th-century paintings; and the new Fondation LUMA contemporary art space, which has a striking tower by Frank Gehry emerging in the old railyards on the edge of town.

A street in Arles

The city's contemporary-art credentials are impressive. It has perhaps the world's best-known photography festival, the annual Les Rencontres d'Arles, and resident identity Françoise Nyssen, founding editor of Actes Sud, the acclaimed small publishing house. She was recently appointed Minister of Culture by President Macron. To prolong this agreeable eavesdropping, I order a creamy disc of perfectly aged Pélardon, a goat's cheese from the nearby Cévennes, dribbled with fruity green olive oil from Fontvieille, also close by. A perfect Provençal meal before a nap at one of my favourite French hotels.

There are two long ladders of melon-coloured light pouring through the shutters on the wall at the end of my bed when I open my eyes, so I know it's time to begin the day a second time. I order a Bière des Gardians, locally brewed from Camargue rice, at Chardon, a new wine bar-restaurant run by Québécoise sommelière Laura Vidal and her partner, British chef Harry Cummins.

Chardon's Laura Vidan and Harry Cummins

The pair met in Paris when they were working at Frenchie, one of the city's top modern bistros, and have since led an itinerant life running pop-ups around the world. Arles, though, has become their home base, and Chardon, where there is a regular rotation of visiting chefs in the kitchen, their laboratory.

"It's a great time to be in Arles, because there's a growing influx of younger creative people coming to live and work here," says Vidal, putting her finger on the quickening energy of the city's restaurant scene.

The entrance to Le Galoubet 

On a summer night in Arles, those sitting on the terrace of a vine-covered pergola at Le Galoubet, a popular bistro in town, know they're lucky to have booked one of these sought-after alfresco tables. Self-taught chef Céline Arribart's witty, contemporary French bistro cooking is the draw, as is the market-driven, €33 prix-fixe menu that changes daily. Roasted sea bass fillet on a bed of wild Camargue rice with piquillo pepper purée, capers, black olives and pickled lemon is exactly the kind of rustic but casually sophisticated food one dreams of finding in the south of France. If Le Galoubet is booked out, another address with similarly excellent modern southern French bistro cooking is L'Autruche, tucked away in a side street in the heart of town. Here, Fabien Maïllis and Ouria Zarouri offer home-style hospitality and dishes such as asparagus with baked tomatoes and a coddled egg, and cumin-spiced roast lamb and baby carrots.

Fabien Maïllis at L'Autruche

The world is so besotted by an endearing but essentially inaccurate idea of Provence as a bawdy, rough-and-tumble sort of place that I wonder if most people have actually come to prefer this dodgy folklore to the reality, which is that Provence is often elegant and rather reserved. What provokes this observation is the exquisitely refined architecture of Arles and the genteel but never stuffy atmosphere of this well-mannered town as I walk its streets on my way to the city's Wednesday morning market, which is one of the most famous in France.

Early on a summer's day, I have it almost to myself, apart from a determined brigade of old ladies with sturdy wire caddies and the apron-clad stallholders, alternately arranging their fragile, fragrant wares and stacking wooden crates in the dappled shade of the plane trees. I want to see what I should be looking for today on local menus. And I also crave the pleasure of seeing so many magnificent things to eat: glossy black cherries, fresh almonds in their fuzzy green shells, iridescent pink chapon, one of the Mediterranean's most delicious fish, on a bed of crushed ice.

Tuna tataki with broccoli purée, almonds and purslane at Le Galoubet in Arles.

On the outskirts of Arles is the Camargue, France's own Wild West, a fan of marshes, alluvial sand and sediment at the end of the Rhône that for centuries confounded the efforts of French kings to create a great Mediterranean port here. Only 10 minutes' drive beyond the city, I'm on a country road, bordered by rippling green rice fields, that leads to auberge La Chassagnette. It's part of the portfolio of stylish ventures owned by Maja Hoffmann, heiress to the Hoffmann-La Roche pharmaceutical fortune, serious contemporary art collector and founder of the Fondation LUMA in Arles.

La Chassagnette offers an exquisitely groomed vision of a Camarguaise mas (a farmhouse or small estate), with high ceilings, oak furniture, terrazzo floors and French doors leading to terraces overlooking the organic gardens and orchards. These supply chef Armand Arnal with the produce that's the essence of his original and subtle cooking. "The garden here is my font of inspiration," says Arnal, who took over the kitchen in 2006 after working for Alain Ducasse's ill-fated restaurant at the Essex House hotel in New York City. "My passion is to create dishes that reflect the terroir of the Camargue."

His produce includes ducks and rice from avant-garde farmer Bernard Pujol, who introduced the Japanese method of using ducks to eat weeds in the rice paddies instead of applying herbicide.

"Even though the Camargue has a reputation as a rugged, wild place, it's a very fragile environment," says Arnal. "I try to express this through my dishes, too, as a way of making people conscious of the importance of living in harmony with nature."

The rice fields and ducks of Bernard Poujols 

This philosophy translates at lunch to a sort of "Garden of Eden" menu with an angelic, if sly, sensuality: a velouté of bitter herbs with cucumber water; mackerel seasoned with blackberry vinegar and garnished with braised baby leeks and marinated cherries; braised sea bream with potato cream and courgettes cooked with basil; and lamb with pencil-thin carrots. The recurring theme of fruity notes of acidity punctuating fresh and impeccably cooked produce continue through dessert, an almond-milk chiboust with poached rhubarb and tarragon-brightened strawberry marmalade.

This meal is so light and refreshing, in fact, even the afternoon heat and the perfume of flowering oleanders lining the road to the Musée de la Camargue doesn't induce the usual summer langour. A visit to the museum is essential to understanding this flat, sun-blasted, once-isolated place. For centuries, life here was organised around large estates where people lived and worked collectively with gardians (cowboys), raising bulls and white Camargue horses, an ancient breed indigenous to the region. The Camargue has an enduring machismo born of the hard labour of fishing, farming, herding and working in the salt pans.

Bullfight arena at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer

The end-of-the-world character of the region hasn't been totally tamed by tourism either. In fact, its rawness is something many find mesmerising. There's a poignant appeal about the little beach town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, where there's a gypsy pilgrimage several times a year that venerates their saint, the Black Sara, whose statue is carried down to the sea in a procession with thousands of followers walking behind bearing candles.

To know the Camargue, though, you have to spend at least a night here, perhaps at the whitewashed L'Estelle en Camargue hotel on the outskirts of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. Surrounded by marshland, this well-run auberge is the perfect place to savour the unusual visual signature of the region. No, not its pink flamingos, white horses or silvery stands of reeds, but its strangely pure, pearly light, a soft but potent luminosity that is created by its proximity to the sea, low horizons and the mirror effect of the marshes and a lattice of streams.

The famed wild white horses of the Camargue. 

This light also gives the landscape a sort of eerie hyperreality. Five exquisite renderings of this effect were captured by Vincent van Gogh, who painted the Langlois bridge on the edge of Arles during his stay in the city from February 1888 to May 1889 (two of these works are in private collections, the others are in the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands, the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam).

The light isn't the only thing that makes the Camargue wild. It's also a landscape teeming with hidden life, from the trident skeins created on pond surfaces by unknown creatures swimming in their dark-green waters to the raucous chirping of invisible peeper frogs in the night. This is the soundtrack on the way home from dinner at Casa Romana, a raffish place in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer that serves bowls of richly flavoured fish soup and an excellent bourride de baudroie, a stew of monkfish, leeks, silverbeet, onions, carrots and potatoes served with aïoli. Then, a few hours later, morning is announced by a joyous racket of birdsong. This is also one of the world's great destinations for twitchers.

Velouté of bitter herbs at La Chassagnette

One day I drive through the marshes on the edge of the brackish lagoon of Étang de Vaccarès to Le Sambuc, a rice-growing town on the Rhône south of Arles, for lunch at a favourite restaurant. L'Estrambord is run by Eric Lacanaud, the friendly son of the restaurant's founder and a sincere cook who takes bashful pleasure in serving the thing many travellers crave - authentic home cooking with exclusively regional produce.

Sitting at a plastic table in the dappled shade of a vine-covered arbour, it's amusing to watch the conversation die at every table after they're served the big bowls of tellines, the tiny local clams that start each meal here. Sucking the little creatures from their shells, along with a slick of aïoli, induces a sort of trance that breaks only when the piles of shells are taken away and the next course arrives: crudités - lettuce, tomatoes and radishes - with oil-packed tuna. This is but the opening run of the €18 lunch menu, to be followed by fish of the day, maybe rouget, and a selection of meats.

The one you want is the gardiane de taureau, bull's meat braised in red wine to create an earthy sauce that goes perfectly with Camargue red rice and sautéed garlic potatoes. A tangy chèvre from Le Gard is perfect with a last glass of rosé from the nearby Domaine de Beaujeu. If you're yearning for this cooking but don't have a car, La Telline, a taxi ride from the centre of Arles, is a rustic address serving similarly excellent Camarguaise cuisine.

Outside Maison Genin

When you know and love a place, you develop what the French call habitudes when you visit. One of mine in Arles is always a farewell stop at Maison Genin, perhaps the city's best butcher, to buy a couple of its superb farandole, homemade pork sausages - for me, of course, but also for a friend who grew up in Arles and now lives in Paris. When I put my laptop bag overhead in the train, the three long, fat cured sausages wrapped in butcher's paper come tumbling out, which produces a moment of hilarity in the Paris-bound train compartment as we look for them under our seats. "Je vois que vous êtes un homme très exigeant," says the personable black-haired woman across the aisle when she hands me an errant sausage. I see that you're a very discerning man.

"J'en suis, Madame! Il faut être!" I reply, and we laugh. I am, Madame! One must be! After a few days in the Camargue, this banter is a treat. I think of the Camargue as a blunt, rustic, sinewy sort of place and Arles, by contrast, as urbane, cerebral, sensual. Rather like an improbable couple spotted on a dance floor in a passionate embrace, it's this tantalising difference that creates the perfect southern French destination.

And with that, the train jolts and hisses, and we slowly pull away from the station.

  • Author: Alexander Lobrano