The Joy of Arriving John Pye | Posted: 09 March 2015
Self-guided walking holidays in Provence
Self-guided walking holidays in Provence
Self-guided walking holidays in Provence

Inntraveller, John Pye, tells of some quintessentially French episodes during his walking holiday with us To the Pont du Gard...

Whoever coined the cliché, “It’s better to travel than to arrive”, obviously never travelled on a budget airline.

It is true that incidental things observed or experienced on the way can be what makes a walking holiday memorable. But it is also true that the exertion of a walk brings a nice sense of entitlement to indulgence and idle pleasure at the end of it. This is a little tribute to the incidental pleasures of a walking holiday To the Pont du Gard and to the joy of arriving.

Joan and I arrived at the Hotel Château d’Arpaillargues by taxi, so we were not strictly speaking entitled to indulge ourselves. But it had been quite a long day travelling, so I did what I usually do after a long walk: I lounged on the enormous bed in our vast, cool, château room and idly contemplated the ceiling, which was a very, very long way away. I then considered the distant bathroom door, which was four inches thick with huge, cast-iron hinges and a massive lock. What had they done with the moat and portcullis, I wondered.

Joan, for her part, was reading the hotel information, which was helpfully provided in English. She read some of it aloud to me: “Veritable place of the regional gastronomy, our restaurant... is ideal to savour in family or with friends a haute cuisine in a place full of history. Coming from notorious restaurants, our chef Victor Dos Santos will prepare you gastronomic dishes which will wake up your sensual pleasures.”

That evening in the château’s pleasant courtyard, despite his dubious history, Victor did us proud. I will not bore you with the details. Suffice it to say that our sensual pleasures were woken up.

Our next arrival, at Collias, was in the blazing heat of mid-afternoon. You walk down into Collias from the ridge above, because it nestles by a bridge over the river. Unlike the imposing appearance of the château in Arpaillargues, Hostellerie le Castellas presents itself modestly, just a door in a wall down a narrow side-street. You expect it to be small but it opens out like a Tardis inside. In fact, the hotel comprises a number of buildings knocked together on adjacent streets surrounding a secluded terrace, courtyard and pool.

The rooms look out on to an inner oasis which is full of shady greenery, and on the upper terrace there is a bar where amazing cocktails are served in the evening. Weather permitting, meals are taken on the middle terrace, which is full of real trees growing through artificial grass, while the small pool occupies the lower terrace. Our room was comfortable but quirkily decorated and, when I contemplated the ceiling, I saw gold stars on a blue background.

I never met the chef, but his food is colourful, inventive and tasty. Joan said she had never eaten so many flowers. At some point I think I ate a tomato covered in chocolate. A Michelin star, to go with the stars on the ceiling, cannot be far away. The service was attentive.

I did meet the Sommelier, a large man with a walrus moustache. We first saw him, moustache bristling with mortification, negligently vacuuming up the leaves in the courtyard restaurant. I got the feeling that this was a task that he thought beneath him.

Related Holidays

Walking to the Pont du Gard

What better focus for a leisurely walking holiday through the idyllic landscapes of Provence than arrival at the remarkable Pont du Gard. The cuisine on this holiday is exceptional, and the Roman aqueduct a veritable feast for the eyes!

More about our self-guided walking holidays in Provence >

He was trying to do it without actually looking at the machine he was wielding, with the result that he often barged it noisily into the furniture. I am sure that if I had drawn his attention to it, he would have done an exaggerated double-take, as if the thing had furtively attached itself to his arm while he was thinking about something else. Later, at dinner, he reappeared, exuding suave professionalism and bonhomie, proudly brandishing the wine list.

On our last evening, I pleased him by asking him to choose us a wine that was just a little more expensive. He recommended a pure Syrah. His moustache positively twinkled as he uncorked it with a flourish. It made a satisfying plop.

“That is one of the nicest sounds on the planet,” I said. “Yes,”  he said, “but not in a church.”

Next day, we walked to the Pont du Gard and then on to Castillon-du-Gard. Castillon rises from the plain as you pass orchards and vineyards, and the final approach is up steep, uneven steps through a blissfully cool overarching tunnel of trees. You arrive, blinking in the light, near a café and a church.

Hostellerie le Vieux Castillon* is another hotel that hides its light under a bushel with its unassuming entrance down a side street. Inside there are hidden vastnesses of perfectly-pointed golden sandstone masonry, and, with flights of steps leading up and down from terraces on different levels and bridges over narrow alleys, it feels as if you have stepped into one of those Escher etchings, but done in colour. In the large pool area half a flight of steps leads nowhere up a ruined wall and there’s a stunning view over the surrounding landscape. There was an end-of-season quiet about the place and it gave us a restful end to the holiday.

On the morning of our final day we strolled out of the village down a residential lane. As the properties thinned out, we began to hear the tinkling of bells and an occasional whistle. “Must be a herd of goats up ahead,”  I said. The lane joined a tarmac road at the foot of the hill, and there we saw a temporary sign on the verge which said “Chasse en Cours”. By it stood two armed men in bright orange jackets.

Two big dogs with alert, eager faces and lolling tongues, burst out of the undergrowth into the lane and looked at one of the men, who whistled and waved them away. They plunged, tails wagging, back into the foliage, the bells at their collars tinkling.

It was obvious that the two hunters had done this many times before. They carried their rifles slung over their shoulders with nonchalant familiarity; they barely glanced at us as we passed. I sensed from their manner that they thought their little sign and bright jackets absolved them of responsibility. It was now up to us walkers, and the drivers of the cars that occasionally hurtled along the tarmac road, to take any precautions necessary to avoid their bullets.

“Didn’t you see the sign?”  they would say, accusingly, as we bled out by the roadside.

We scuttled across the road and down a lane between vineyards, with a strange itch between the shoulder blades. On our return to the hotel we lounged about reading till dinner. I was disappointed not to find sanglier (wild boar) on the menu, for that is what they were hunting in that narrow strip of uncultivated greenery so close to human habitation.

I made up for it by having two desserts.

*PLEASE NOTE – since John wrote his entertaining piece, we have replaced the Hostellerie le Vieux Castillon with the charming La Bégude Saint Pierre.

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