Here is the thing about Arles: it is small enough to walk everywhere and yet large enough that there is always something going on. Usually culturally oriented to boot.
So it was last Saturday as my friend Frederique and I explored the exhibition by Vincent Lajarige at the Chapelle Sainte-Anne on the Place de la Republique. The cream stone interior of the desacralized church (dating from 1627) had sprouted a forest of Mr. Lajarige's sculptures created out of tree branches found washed up on the shores of the nearby Camargue or burnt in the scrappy forests of the Alpilles. At times lit from within, holding gold-dusted lichen, they were as stripped bare as Brancusis. Lovely.
We strolled on the quay of the Rhone with our respective dogs in hand, watching the sun as it spread into nothing. Time for the apero, or aperitif. Not a cocktail hour, it is something more, a bit of a ritual, especially here in the South of France.
Rather than mingle with the usual suspects at "Mon Bar" on the Place du Forum--the type of joint where cowboys and hunters can be found nursing their first pastis of the day at 10am--we decided to give Chez Ariane a try. It is funny how you get preconceived ideas about certain places. It is true that Ariane is a formidable character with a steely gaze peering out of a bird's nest of curls and yet we instantly felt welcome as we settled at one of the three outside tables on the sidewalk, inches away from passing cars rumbling over the cobblestones. For Frederique, a delicate type of girl, Ariane served a floral Givernay. Having asked for a red that was "earthy, terroir", I was poured a Cote du Rhone Villages from outside of Avignon that sang its own praises with a heady bouquet.
True to its "Bar à vins" origins, there was zero pressure for us to order anything to eat, but, feeling peckish, we asked for some saucisson sec from the nearby Cevennes Mountains and were delighted by the bowl full of paper thin sliced sausage, not too salty and smelling slightly of mushrooms. "There is no way we are going to eat all of that," I protested. But we did, sometimes talking, sometimes just watching the passerby already dressed for a Saturday night out. As the night came on, a string of circus lights popped on overhead, diffused by the vines dangling over our table. We could have stayed. But the apero is just that, a starter. I stepped inside to pay, listening to Ariane chat with an American couple at the bar. They were relaxed in a way that is unusual with visitors under the pressure of expectations but I realized that it was because they had found what they had come looking for, a bit of their dream of Provence. And for an hour or so, under the wine bar lights, so had we.