Southern France is not meant for people who stick faithfully to their trip itineraries. My father and I learned this last summer when we pulled into Arles in our rented Citro"en. Warm, peach-colored Arles, the town made famous by Vincent Van Gogh paintings. It just wouldn't squeeze itself into our one-day time allotment.
In fact, this whole delta region, where the Rhone River empties into the Mediterranean Sea, needs to be lingered over for at least a week or two.
The Romans left a legacy of architecture here, some almost perfectly preserved. Poplar trees and vineyards line the country roads. And then there is the Camargue, the southernmost part of the delta, a marsh and meadow region known as France's ``wild west,'' where cowboys herd cattle and Gypsies loiter in town squares.
There are at least three rewarding day trips to be made from Arles, all within a 45 minute drive:
North of Arles, in Avignon, is the magnificent Palace of the Popes -- shining limestone on the outside, cobalt blue frescoes inside. It's grand: tall, long, spacious. Tours in English are available, explaining why the Popes moved their home here from Italy in the 14th century and why the palace was built in two distinct styles -- one lavish, the other quite plain.
South of Arles, at the mouth of the Rhone, lie the marshes and meadows of the Camargue, with a long sand beach, Plage de Piemanon, to reward you when you reach the sea. (Most French beaches are pebble, so take the sand opportunity here -- it may not come again!) The Camargue will be special to nature lovers because it is a natural habitat for flamingoes. You can watch them from the side of the road as they stand knee-deep in water, raking for food with their feet.
N^imes, off to the northwest, is a third excursion worth taking. This city is a showcase of Roman buildings. The arena, in great shape, is still used for bullfights, outdoor concerts, and theater productions. But I fell in love with the Maison Carr'ee, a Roman temple from the 1st century BC. The Michelin guide on Provence calls it the best-preserved of all Roman temples still standing. (That guidebook is a must for this country.)
N^imes is bigger than Arles. It's a real city, with apartment towers and major stores. The size factor caused a little difference of opinion between my father and me. He thinks N^imes is the best base camp for the area, because the shopping is so good. But I prefer Arles -- it's more centrally located, it's right on the Rhone, and it's small enough to feel at home in after one day.
What did it matter that we couldn't find a single store in Arles that specialized in the crafts of the area? (I ended up doing most of my gift shopping in the northern city of Lyon, anyway.) But we did find a lovely little hotel called Lou Gardianoun, which made all the difference.
It's not in the city proper, but just over the river, at 15 rue Noguier in the area known as Trinquetaille (telephone  93-66-28). Every item needed for outings can be found in a cluster of shops around the corner: a bakery (the baker displays dough sculptures of horses and cows in his shop window), fruit and grocery stores, and a drugstore that sells Michelin maps.
The proprietor, Daniel Portas, takes special care of his guests. For instance, he kindly advised me, in very slow French, of a cobbler who could repair my walking shoes within the hour. Should you have difficulty understanding the menu, his waiters (family members, including himself), are happy to translate -- with a quack, quack here for duck and an oink, oink there for pork. His restaurant specializes in regional dishes, which tend to be substantial and heavy. The meals are fun the first few times aro und but tiresome after a while.
We each paid 160 francs ($17.44) a night for a room with two twin beds, a full, modern bath, and breakfast and dinner included. Everything was spotless, charming, and quiet. Being a 10-minute walk from the center of Arles, the Lou Gardianoun is less expensive than a hotel in town. But the walk is no drawback. Following the river promenade and then crossing the bridge is a quiet way to enter Arles's narrow streets lined with outdoor caf'es. In the morning, the view of Arles from Tranquetaille is C'ezanne -like. The pale light makes everything pastel -- the water, the row houses stacked up the hillside, the red-tile roofs.
It takes about two days to explore Arles itself. The main sights are the Roman amphitheater, classical theater (almost in ruins and very romantic looking), the St. Trophime Cloisters (the west entrance is studded with a multitude of carved figures), and museums: the Museum of Pagan and Christian Art, and the R'eattu Museum. A book of tickets that includes all of these sights, and more, can be bought at any of the monuments.
The R'eattu is small but impressive. I spent a long time there, viewing a collection of works from the late Middle Ages to present day -- a big time span, but the art objects seem wonderfully connected to each other. Quite apart is an exhibit of 70 Picasso drawings. Arles was a favorite spot for him, and he drew these sketches explicitly for the people of the town.
Arles is especially connected with another artist, Vincent Van Gogh. Beginning in 1888, Van Gogh spent 15 months here, painting more than 300 canvases, including ``Sunflowers,'' the ``Arl'esienne,'' and market and country life in brilliant colors. This was a tormented period in his life. It was here that, after quarrelsome times with his friend Paul Gauguin, Van Gogh cut off his right ear -- and then painted his well-known ``Self-Portrait.''
A map of Van Gogh's painting sites and home is included in the free general booklet on Arles, available at the tourist office in the center of town, on Boulevard des Lices.