May 18 – Martigues and Arles

L’Etang de Berre

We were steadily working our way to Provence and closing the gap on our friends Carol and Jack.  They had found a lovely spot at a place called Massane Plage between Istres and Martigues.

Messane Plage
View of the bay at Messane Plage

The village was on the side of L’Etang de Berre, a large lake close to the Mediterranean.  There was nothing very exciting about the location but with the lovely sunny weather it was very relaxing.  We did manage some nice shots of the lake at sundown.

Etang de Berre
Sunset bay

After a riotous evening with our friends we all decided to visit a small village a short bus ride away.  Next day, we gathered with our backpacks and bus fares to discover – no bus as it was a public holiday!  Quick re-think and Clyde drove us there with Jack navigating.  St Mitre les Remparts is a village with a history as it was invaded during the war.  There is a memorial to a young girl who was executed for her part in the resistence.  We met a lovely French gentleman who wanted to show us his garden and enjoyed coffee in the town square.  It was a very pleasant little place in which to while away a couple of hours.

Les Mitres des Remparts
The wash house
Garden proudly displayed

Next day, Carol and Jack departed with a recommendation that we should visit Martigues.  This time we were successful and managed to catch the bus.  Once again, we paid a euro each for a 40 minute journey.


Martigues is a charming small town comprised of 3 villages(districts) separated by water.  One side of the town faces the Mediterranean and the other overlooks the Etang de Berre.  It is known as the Venice of Provence.  The house fronts in the centre are brightly coloured and the town is crossed by a succession of bridges that span the canals linking lake and sea.

Coloured houses alongside canal

The town has long been favoured by artists for the colours, light and water.  The Place Mirabeau is a group of superb houses built for the bourgeoisie with its own fountain.

Homes for the Bourgeoisie
More posh gaffs!

There is a free ferry to take you across the short stretches of water which we enjoyed, if only for the turbulent ride as it crossed the wake of an outgoing vessel!

View from free ferry
Old and new

There is still a fishing trade here and there is a bronze statue by the marina showing a fisherman and his wife from days gone by.  We saw the genuine article en route to the Tourist Information office.  It was late morning and a fisherman was busy winding up his nets on the quayside.

Bronze statue of fisherfolk

The church in the L’Ile district was worth a visit for the lovely organ and colourful interior.

Fabulous organ in St Madeleine Church
La Madeleine Church in the L’Ile District

We had a very enjoyable day there and treated ourselves to a light lunch at a pavement café whilst we watched the world go by.


Apparently, we had not seen enough Roman remains, so Arles was the next must see destination.  According to the Rough Guide to France, Arles ranks high among southern France’s loveliest cities.  It was originally a Celtic settlement and later became the Roman capital of Gaul, Britain and Spain.  The city has a lovely small town feel to it and all the main Roman sites are central to the modern city.  On our first day we went in by bus from the village where we were staying.  The following day we returned but there was a massive market all along the Boulevard Georges Clemenceau, where the bus terminates, and we ended up on the other side of the Rhone.  We should have alighted at the stop before the terminus – obviously, we would know that!  It was not a problem as we just stayed on the bus until it made the return trip and jumped off with the locals.

We were given a tourist map when we booked into the campsite and it enabled us to decide what we wanted to see.  There is a combined ticked available from the tourist office so, for €12 each we could visit 4 monuments and 2 museums.  Pretty good value compared with Orange.  We had been given some advice by the Dutch couple on the pitch behind us and decided not to pay an extra €9 each to enter the Van Gogh museum as there are only a few of his works and a much larger Paul Nash exhibition.  It would have been interesting but starts to get a bit costly.  Anyway, I digress.

Opposite the tourist information office there is a lovely shady park which takes you through to the Roman theatre and then it is a short walk to the amphitheatre.  It was a pleasant place to enjoy our sandwiches later.

Our first port of call was the Roman Amphitheatre, known as Les Arenes.  It is enormous, 136m by 107m, and would have held 21000 spectators.  There are still two tiers of 60 arches standing and you can climb steps up to the tower for a spectacular view over the city and the amphitheatre itself.

Looking down from the cheap seats. Children below learning t be gladiators

When we visited, there was a school party being taught the finer points of being a gladiator which added an element of interest to the place.  It also gave an idea of the scale of the place.

View from the street
More street view

I was particularly struck by the way the streets around it are built in a fan shape radiating outwards.  It was particularly visible from the top.  There is also a view towards the mighty Rhone.  In the Middle Ages, the arena became a fortress, sheltering over 200 dwellings.  That gives an indication of its size.

View down from the amphitheatre
Modern life amongst history
Top of the amphitheatre looking down on the arches
Arches from below
Rear passageway

We also visited the Roman Theatre which is not as impressive as that in Orange.  However, it was still of interest and there were a few bits worthy of viewing.  Like the theatre in Orange and the amphitheatre in Arles, the Roman Theatre here is used for occasional performances and there is a lovely modern light gantry over the two remaining columns.

Roman Theatre stage
Stage with modern touch!

The Cloisters of St Trophime were included on our ticket so we paid a visit.  The actual cloisters were interesting with corridors from the 12th and 14th centuries but there was an exhibition of modern art which was not so special.  St Trophime’s church was a gloomy place which did not excite us much.

St Trophime
St Trophime Cloisters
St Trophime courtyard

We enjoyed a wander around the busy streets of the old town to complete our day and had an ice cream in an ice cream parlour.  Clyde’s was enormous because my command of French let me down!  I didn’t need to bother really as the helpful chap serving us spoke perfect English.  However, I do think it is courteous to speak a bit of the local language where possible.

Next day we returned to finish what we had started.  We caught the bus again but as it was Saturday, it did not go to the stop on Boulevard Georges Clemenceau as it was full of market stalls.  We found ourselves heading across the Rhone to the residential area!  After a tour around the region on the bus, we finally returned to the old town and alighted with the locals.  Phew!

The market was enormous and stretched right along the boulevard.  We enjoyed looking at a wide variety of goods and local foods and treated ourselves to a pastry and some lemons.  As we were going to be in town for a while in the heat, we did not want to buy anything perishable.  We also find we are lugging our cameras, sandwiches, water etc…..We really enjoyed the atmosphere and soaked it up before heading to our destination for the day.

Our destination for today was the Musee Reattu which is a contemporary art museum on the banks of the Rhone.  It is housed in an interesting old building and there was some interesting art work and photographic studies but, not as impressive as we had expected. The views out over the Rhone were splendid.


Our next destination was to be the Archaeological Museum of Arles.  By this time it had become seriously hot and the museum was a very long walk to the other side of Arles so, we decided to save it for another visit and to take a look at the Roman thermal baths instead.  They were interesting in as much as the Roman culture of maintaining class distinction was set aside here.  The citizens would enter the baths naked and therefore class was not so obvious. The really wealthy folk had their own bathing facilities at their out of town villas of course.  There is enough left to give an idea of the scale of the baths and to see how the underground heating system worked.

Archway over baths
Exterior wall still standing

It was now mid afternoon and we returned to the appropriate boulevard to catch the bus home.  We were surprised at how quickly the market had disappeared.  The cars were all parked as usual, buses were coming and going and there was no sign there had ever been a market.


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