As soon as Felix saw our suitcase this morning, he went into hiding. We packed quickly, put out 3 bowls of food and 3 bowls of water, peeked under the bed to make sure Felix was ok and left on our short journey.
This morning’s destination was Vallabrègues, a small village on the Rhone, only 2 1/2 hours away…..unless it’s the start of a 3-day weekend…..which this one is. Monday’s a bank holiday….the Assumption of Mary…..and anyone not already on vacation was taking advantage of the holiday. Traffic was stop-and-go, adding another hour to the trip. Fortunately, no one was going to Vallabrègues because we lost the crowds when we left the highway and began meandering along little country roads…..finally finding ourselves on the outskirts of Vallabrègues, site of this weekend’s “Fête de la Vannerie” (Festival of the Basketry).
With an abundance of reeds growing along the Rhone river, Vallabrègues became home to master basket-weavers….at one time, it was the biggest basket-producing town in France. Every August, basket-makers from throughout France come to Vallabrègues to celebrate this remarkable history…..and this year, we’d be part of the celebration.
The road that led into town was closed…..we were directed to park our car under the shade of the plane trees lining the road and take a short walk into town. At a large park next to the town’s plaza, two outdoor cafés were serving lunch but, other than a few old carts holding reeds and baskets, there was no indication of a festival….so we continued walking through town. Baskets were strung above the narrow streets and decorated the doors and windows of the homes we passed. It was apropos….but still, no sign of a festival. We finally found the festival when we reached a campground on the edge of town…..it had been transformed into a Vannerie Village.
Women in traditional Provencal garb greeted us.
We strolled these little lanes, admiring the artistry of the vanniers, but as the temperature soared to 35°C (100°F), our energy flagged and we sought refuge in the shade of an al fresco café. After rehydrating ourselves with Perrier after Perrier, we were ready for the day’s main event….a Vanniers promenade through town.
We found a shady spot along the parade route and readied our camera as soon as we heard the sound of flutes and drums. Horse-drawn carts of vanniers, baskets and reeds rolled by, Provencal women danced by, officials with reed top hats walked by…..the parade seemed endless but, all to soon, the merriment was over.
We walked back to our car and, with only one wrong turn, drove another 15 miles to Arles…..an ancient Roman outpost that was home to Vincent Van Gogh between 1888-1889. Our hotel, L’Hôtel Régence, was ideally located just inside the old town wall on the Rhone riverfront. We checked-in, walked up three flights of stairs to a large room with a fabulous view of the Rhone!
We had skipped lunch and were, needless to say, a bit peckish so we consulted our guide books and discovered that Arles is home to Jean-Luc Rabenel, a Michelin 2-star chef. Normally, a Michelin-starred chef would be out of our price range, but Mssr Rabenel has two establishments in Arles…..a restaurant with a prix fixe 95 euro menu and a bistro that serves tapas and a 37 euro prix fixe menu. A Michelin starred chef with a 37 euro menu? We called the bistro, A Coté, and secured a reservation for 7:30 p.m. (too early for the French but just right for ravenous us).
We showered, dressed and walked through this charming city. A 5-piece band was playing in an alleyway…..not reggae, not jazz, their music was a wondrous sound somewhere in between. People crowded around this talented quintet…..clapping and dancing. We continued on through the Place de la République….while a lone guitarist was singing “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,”we marvelled at the carved facade of the St. Trophime church with it’s graphic depiction of Judgment Day.
A few blocks further on, off a small street, we found Mssr Rabenel’s restaurants side-by-side. We walked past L’Atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel and into Le Bistro A Coté……same location, same umbrellas, same waitstaff, same kitchen, same chef. Well, L’Atelier did have nicer chairs.
We were quickly seated and served a tapenade as our amuse-bouche. Famished, and with eager anticipation, we spread the olive pâté on crisp bagette slices and took our first bite of 2-star food. Expecting perfection, we were disappointed with a too salty creation. Well, perhaps it was the olives themselves….just too briny for our taste.
For our main course, Craig chose Lamb grilled with Rosemary while I opted for Seafood Risotto. No complaints…..the food was good, but not memorable. During our meal, Jean-Luc walked by….with his rugged, good looks and chef’s jacket, it was unmistakably him….it was both exciting and comforting to know that he was in charge of tonight’s meals.
“I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day” ~ Vincent Van Gogh