France is full of walking paths. If you look at a sufficiently detailed map of the country, you’ll see that it’s absolutely crisscrossed with them over its entire length and breadth. I honestly don’t know how I struck upon the idea to walk from Arles to Aix in 4 days along the GR (Grande randonnée) 653A. I can’t say that it’s a storied route, though it does follow the ancient Via Aurelia and is part of the St-Jacques-de-Compostelle pilgrimage trail, which is kinda neat. It doesn’t run through the most spectacular scenery or anything. But it does connect two cities that I longed to see, promised a taste of off-the-beaten-path village life, and would take me through the quietly lovely Provençal countryside that I’d admired in paintings my whole life. So why not, eh?
I’d planned a short first day – under 20 km – to leave plenty of time for getting lost. You know me.
I said my goodbyes to my dear sweet AirBnB host in Arles. Just as I was turning away she put her hand on my shoulder, looked me earnestly in the eye, and said, “Stay happy…stay happy.”
I mean, what do you say to that?? I smiled brightly and thanked her, but could just as easily have broken down in her arms. It was touch and go there.
My day started with a big slog along a gross highway out of Arles. A handful of times, passing cars honked at me for reasons unknown. I wasn’t in their way. I thought maybe there was something wrong with my backpack, but several checks revealed nothing. I was completely mystified until one guy, presumably just a little more desperate than the others, enlightened me. He honked, then turned around, pulled over, and rolled down his window. Here’s the gist of our conversation:
DUDE: Where are you going? Do you need a ride?
ME: I’m going to Paradou, but I prefer to walk, thanks.
DUDE: Can I meet you in Paradou, then? I want to take you out.
ME: Oh um no thanks. I’m married.
DUDE: Hahaha! I don’t believe you. Let me take you out.
DUDE: Let me be honest. I find you very charming. I want to take you out. (And so on back and forth until he finally gave up.)
NO MEANS NO, LOSER. I don’t give a rat’s ass whether you believe my (true, as it happens, though I don’t have a ring) excuse for not going out with you, that should have been the final word. Ugh. He was at least the one and only jerk I encountered on my entire trip through this area that everyone had promised would be crawling with jerks, but still. Also, I’m pretty sure I could have beaten him up. BUT STILL. I felt hunted every time I was near a road after that. Stay happy, indeed.
Anyway! My mood improved significantly when the path veered away from the road and followed alongside a broken-down fence that separated me from a mildly spooky forest. I had little interest in investigating further until I spotted a crumbling old ruined building. A chapel, maybe? Well. The fence was in bad shape anyway…there was no one around to yell at me…I hopped the fence and investigated. It was super neat, perhaps a 6 on the creepiness scale thanks mostly to the surrounding forest. Not much to report, but you know how I am with these things. I later learned that it’s part of a large, centuries-old religious complex of some sort that charges a very high admission rate. Ooooops.
I got thoroughly lost shortly after that, when I entered the Parc naturel régional des Alpilles. This end of the park is full of paths, it turns out, most of them unmarked. At every fork in the trail I would look around hopefully for the red and white marker of the GR, until I’d eventually just pick whichever direction seemed likeliest. To my great surprise, this method soon led me to the ruins of a Roman aqueduct. Of all things! Just sitting there in the middle of an olive grove! I climbed gleefully on top of it and ate a merry snack, shouting out greetings to the occasional equestrian trotting past. And then as I dusted off my hands and got up to leave, I caught a glimpse of my GR marker just a few metres away!
I lost the trail again almost immediately, of course, but it was a nice moment there to know that I was where I was supposed to be.
I eventually gave up on the GR and found my own way to Paradou. There was a canal at the south end of the park that led directly where I needed to go, and it didn’t matter which trail I took so long as I could follow that landmark. I arrived early and scoped out the tiny little village until it was time to check in with my AirBnB. The hosts, warm and friendly as ever, were delighted to have a Canadian visitor, because their daughter lives in Montreal. (Echoes of Vitrolles! Perhaps a pattern is emerging…) I still have her business card, and will not forget my solemn promise to visit her restaurant next time I’m in town.
I bought some supper things, and on the way back, found myself sneaking into an olive grove to watch the sunset. Perfect way to end the day. The moon and Venus put on a spectacular show in the sun’s dying light (which a cell phone camera could never do justice to). The constellations started glimmering into existence just behind them – Orion and Cassiopeia as bright as anything – until, with darkness setting in, the shooting stars came out and told me it was time to head back. I had a long walk the next day.