Born in Tunbridge Wells (Kent, England), and raised in a village in Sussex, Angela Billows and her husband, artist Jake Paltenghi, have had a home in the medieval town of Tarascon for eight years and have lived there full time for four. Angela works as a costume designer for film and television…and blogs about her life in Provence at Provence Calling. Like its sister city Beaucaire, just over the Rhône, Tarascon is close to Arles, Avignon and St. Remy, but remains undiscovered by many Provençale travelers. Angela recently gave us an insiders’ guide to Beaucaire here; now she takes us around Tarascon to share some of her favorite addresses.
People often ask how it is that we came to live here. The answer is that I had friends who lived outside St. Remy, whom I used to visit. One day over a glass of wine, I was saying how much I would like to buy a house nearby, not thinking for a minute that I would be able to afford one. My friend suggested I should look in Tarascon, as it was about 1/3rd the price of a house in one of the popular towns like St. Remy (15 kms away), Maussane (17 kms), or Uzès (35 kms)—all of them well-known destinations for visitors. Tarascon, however, has somehow missed its mark on the tourist map, and yet it sits in the heart of Provence--at the apex of the “golden triangle” of Arles, Avignon and Nimes.
Things were quite different in earlier times when the Popes lived up the Rhone in Avignon (1309 – 1377) and built their Palais des Papes: The French Cardinals didn’t back the election of Pope Urban VI in Rome and elected instead Clement VII; setting him up in Avignon. Two consecutive popes reigned on until 1423, causing what is known as the Great Western Papal Schism.
In 1449, Le Bon Roi René or Good King Rene, the last ruler of Provence, chose Tarascon for one of his homes and built the maginificent castle on the banks of the river. It was lovingly restored in the last century and the vastness of it--it has an apothecary garden within its walls--still causes wonder today. You can walk through the grand ceremonial halls, peer into what was once the privy and tempt vertigo on top of the ramparts as you look down on the ancient steeples and roofs of the town on one side and the river on the other. Château de Tarascon, 04 90 91 01 93. From April 1 to September 30, the chateau is open every day, from 9 am to 7 pm.
Opposite the castle is the Église Collégiale Ste. Marthe (St Martha's Collegiate Church), which dates to the 12th century and is supposedly where St. Martha is buried. It was believed that she came to Provence by boat, arriving in the Camargue (Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer) with Mary Magdelene, Lazarus and other Saints to spread the word of Christ. Martha travelled inland to Tarascon where at the time, a monster-- half beast half fish called the Tarasque--was terrorizing the locals. The story says that she managed to tame the monster and tied him up with her girdle, enabling the townsfolk to kill him. She died in 68 AD and her relics were kept safe until they were found and enshrined in the Church in 1187. The church is open from 8 am to 6 p.m. Place de la Concorde, 04-90-91-09-50.
Tarascon became an important place of worship with many pilgrims and Kings coming to the town to pay homage to St Martha and up until the Revolution, the town had as many as 15 convents. A lot of these have since been adapted for other uses and some became grand private houses or hôtel particuliers as they are called in French.
One of these is the now the headquarters of Souleïado and also houses their museum and a shop. In the museum you’ll see the collection of rare and old Provencal fabrics and costumes, and learn how they were printed with wooden blocks and cylindrical copper plates. In the shop, you can buy Souleïado clothing, shoes, bags and linens made with their iconic fabric. A recent addition to the store is the Ciergerie des Prémontrés, traditional artisinal candlemakers who supply many of the local churches. There is also a salon de thé and you can sit in the beautiful courtyard and enjoy a cup of tea or coffee with a pastry and muse on times gone by. Souleïado , 39 rue Proudhon, 04-90-91-08-80.
Further on down the same street is another former church, this one dating from the 15th century and rebuilt in 1825 to become a theatre. It burnt down and was rebuilt in 1888, with a Rococo-Oornamental 19th century European-style façade of stone-carved cherubs. It was again renovated 100 years later (1989) and has been entertaining people with its repertoire of comedy, opera, drama and musical evenings during winter months ever since. Theatre Municipal, 2 rue Eugène Pelletan, 04-90-91-51-02.
Opposite the theatre is the Le Theatre Restaurant. The food is traditional Provençale, made from ingredients such as taureau (bull meat), local goats cheese and black Camargue rice. The owner and chef, Ariana Guilmain, uses only locally sourced organic produce and most of the vegetables come from her own garden. In the summer you can eat out on the patio but make sure to book if you want to eat on a theatre night. Le Theatre, 4, rue Eugene Pelletan, 04-90-91-41-44.
Outside the city walls in the train station square (Place Colonel Berruier) are a number of other restaurants. My favourite is Le Terminus, which serves Provencal fare such as pieds et paquets (lamb trotters and tripe tied into a ‘package’ a local delicacy) and brandade a la morue (salt cod in a white sauce). Menus start at €9.50, definitely a bargain! And for the film buffs amongst you, the restaurant is part of the Terminus Hotel (though under different ownership), whose lobby appeared in the very-entertaining film Parlez-Moi de la Pluie (Let It Rain) by Agnes Jaoui, filmed in and around Tarascon. It’s worth watching if you live in or are planning a trip to the area. Le Terminus, 6, place Colonel Berrurier, 04-90-96-53-01.
As our spare room has become The Artist’s studio, our guests often stay at Hotel Provence, just a few minutes from our house. We like to join them for breakfast or a bottle of rosé on the terrace in the evening. The owners are friendly and helpful. Rooms begin at €69 for two people or €85 for a room with a terrace. Hotel Provence, 7 Boulevard Victor Hugo, 04- 90-91-06-43
Another lovely place to stay is Rue du Château where for €75 (single) or €85 – €95 (double), you can stay in the heart of the old town in a hotel dating to the 16th century. The B&B has five bedrooms and Martine Lavraison is very welcoming and generous with local information. We stayed here when we were buying our house. Don’t forget to tell her I sent you! Rue du Château B&B, 24 Rue du Château, 04-90-91-09-99, email@example.com
My favourite thing about Tarascon is the Tuesday market, which, in my opinion, is one of the best around. You can get everything you want here, from olivewood spoons and spatulas to fabrics, shoes and, of course, food. I buy most of my week’s food from the market, getting it directly from the producers themselves and paying non-tourist prices!
In May there’s a flower market (Foire aux Fleurs), where plants are sold all the way down the main street. On the last weekend in June (June 22 - 25, 2012), there’s the four-day La Fête de la Tarasque, which celebrates the myth of the Tarasque and the history of Good King René. On the third weekend in August is Les Médiévales, with pageantry, jousting, falconry and fireworks.
So next time you’re driving past Tarascon, why not explore a little, get lost among the the Medieval cobbled streets and stop for a bite to eat?
The Tarascon Tourist Office is at Le Panoramique, Avenue de la Republique, 04-90-91-03-52.
While Angela and Jake are traveling, as they are now, their home in Tarascon is available for rent, by the week or month. For info, click here.
Photos: Tarascon from the Château. Cobbled streets. The B&B called Rue du Château. Gardens inside the Château walls. Poster for the film shot partly in Tarascon. The Theatre Municipal. Van Gogh's "Painter on the Road to Tarascon," from 1888. A classic Souleiado fabric pattern.