We drove the rest of the Riviera coastal road to St. Tropez, which included much of the beautiful scenery you might imagine. Traffic was not as bad as I imagined.
All in all, southern France is a wonderland of experiences, from the quiet and meaningful, to the crowded and surreal, from the ancient and overloaded, to the stunning yet sublime. Prepare to be amazed, if you make it here. It is easy to see why this is the most visited country on the most visited continent.
Our stop in Antibes included finding a beautiful beach, studying dozens of Picasso drawings and paintings close up at the Picasso Museum, walking the sea ramparts, wandering through a packed Provencal market, roaming more medieval streets, looking at the yachts of millionaires and billionaires, and getting as close as I’ll ever get to a St. Tropez tan.
Needless to say, we had a great time in Antibes and would recommend it over Nice as a base to see the Riviera hotspots. Nice and Monaco are only minutes away by train, after all.
On the way to our hotel in Antebes, we stopped for a few hours in Nice. I was pleasantly surprised; after hearing so much about the terrible French Riviera traffic, getting from Monaco to Nice was easier than expected. We would have never made it without Giselle, our name for our rented Skoda GPS.
We walked through the old town and the Saturday afternoon market. The rocky beach was a highlight, as was a beautiful, long, grassy park that runs through the center of the city. Nice is a little grittier than Monaco, but with families out enjoying some brief afternoon sunshine, it is also a little more down-to-earth, too.
You know you are in a place full of stinking rich people when your photo of the Lamborghini and Ferrari is almost photo-bombed by a Bugatti passing in front.
Monaco is surreal, clean, packed with people and cars, vertical, over-signed, pretty, and, unfortunately for us today, wet, because it rained almost all of the time we were outside. (No hailstones, however, thankfully.)
We could easily spend another week here. Free of big cities for day or so, you start to relax in a deeper way, thanks to the winding roads of the Vaucluse region and the postcard-perfect scenes waiting for you at the next corner.
When we felt the need to people-watch, we ducked in the towns of Apt and L’Isle-Sur-la-Sorgue for an ice cream or pastis.
One of the advantages of staying far out of town in Provence is that you can just run into relatively obscure things that you read about in books about the region. Not 100 feet from our doorstep on a short hike, we came across this borie, hidden in the trees. Bories are limestone slab buildings made without mortar, including a stone roof, and have been made in the region for 4,000 years or so. Today, they are sometimes used to store tools or for shelter during a storm.
Speaking of storms, we experienced four separate hailstorms in a one hour period. All of the cars in the area scrambled to get under whatever kind of protection they could find. The odd thing for me is that they lasted so long. I’m used to a few minutes of hail, but one of them went on for more than 20 minutes. The ground was an inch deep in hail around us, for a while, before it melted.
In the heart of the Luberon, we scampered up the tiny roads to the hilltop, red ochre village of Roussillon.
Thankfully, we arrived after the tourists had vanished back to their buses, so our dinner had a more natural, French feel to it. Walking back to the car through medieval streets, we emerged to a stunning sight of the cliffs fully exposed to the sunset.
Well, the roast chicken didn’t make it to the Cotes du Rhone region. I got hungry, and we devoured it during a rest stop along the road on the way to Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Delicious!
Unable to find the winery we wanted to visit there, we moved on to Vision La Romaine, at the top of a driving tour that would take us through the best of the Cotes du Rhone region and into the heart of the Luberon. Somewhere on the backroads between Malaucene and Le Barroux, we came across some of the most beautiful scenery of the trip thus far: vast fields of wildflowers in bloom, sweeping down hillsides and crossing vast valleys between vineyards to emerge on the other side and give way to craggy, pointed ridges.
It was one of the market days in Aix-en-Provence, so we headed south to pick up some picnic supplies. We never did find the flower market, but the produce and spice market provided a feast for the senses.
Armed with half of a roast chicken and what may be described as “roast chicken juice dripped sliced potatoes,” we headed north into the Cotes du Rhone region to locate some wine.
Having viewed the Pont du Gard and watched the movie in the museum, showing the path of the water from its source, we naturally wanted to see its destination, the ancient city of Nimes.
After rubbing the nose of the crocodile for luck, we took in the many sites, including the Roman Arena, the Maison Carree, Temple of Diana, and various fountains and medieval back-streets. Most tourists do not come to Nimes, so it felt like we had the place to ourselves.
As the “must see” tourist destination in southern France, the Pont du Gard lived up to the hype. Even though we arrived on a day featuring thousands of school children and some type of band performing environmental songs (over and over), the majesty of the site drown out most of the distractions.
This aqueduct, completed in 50 AD, was part of an system used to convey spring water more than 30 miles to the important Roman city of Nimes, making possible large water installations, like baths and fountains, in a place without a river.
Due south and sea-side of where we are staying in Jouques, the confident hamlet of Cassis can’t decide if it is part of Provence or the Riviera. Or maybe it is happy existing in both worlds.
Kath and I enjoyed a lovely sea-themed meal beside the docks, watching the people on their evening stroll and the cliffs above Cassis grow redder as the sun sank behind our shoulders.
After a couple of hours birdwatching in the salt marshes of the Carmague, we slipped into Arles at sunset, later than we hoped to be but still hoping for a decent meal on a quiet Monday night.
We didn’t ever find the meal (oven-cooked pizza made-to-order in a van, anyone?) , but we did discover the city where Van Gogh did his best work wrapped in the colors of sunset, back-lit against a dramatic, stormy sky. Strolling past the Roman forum and theater and wandering beside the Rhone River, watching the sun paint the sky in soothing pinks and violets, we got a sense of what the great artist saw in the place.
Maybe it was the inability to find a parking space anywhere near the town, or the hundreds of tourists disgourging from tour buses and clogging the tiny streets, but I found Les Beux, a medieval fortress and town north of Arles, disappointing.
Once we wandered back into the surrounding countryside, the magic of Provence returned, particularly when viewing the remains of the Roman aqueduct that once provided water to Arles and surveying the surrounding olive groves.
A couple of winding hours (and a picnic) beyond Rings, we entered the Grand Canyon of Europe, the Canyon of Verdon.
Nothing around this place prepares you for the gorgeous ribbon of blue winding gracefully through such ancient, glacier-carved rock. A thin road clings to both sides of the canyon, tempting you to stop every few kilometers and peek out over the side.
Just down the road from Jouques, where we are staying, we stumbled into Rians, a picturesque village featuring a majestic church (almost a mini-cathedral) and two 12-century towers.
There is nothing about it in our guidebooks, and we appeared to be the only outsiders there on a sleepy Sunday. We got to experience that increasing rare feeling of discovery while traveling, especially while watching some old-timers play a few rounds of boules.
We arrived in Avignon at dusk, after an adventure trying to find a place that both sold diesel and took cash. This might be the best time to arrive, as the light was a beautiful pink on the Pont du Avignon (St. Benezet’s Bridge) and the Palace of the Popes.
Provence is as lovely as we had heard. We arrived on a perfect, warm, sunny day and checked in to a small rental home near Jouques, slightly below the Luberon region.
The photo above features Bonnieux, taken from the adjacent village of Lacoste, while sipping on a vin rouge and cafe au lait at a cafe table we picked out using Google Street View last weekend.
Katherine and I took the good advice from a friend and spent the day exploring various châteaus in the Hautes-Corbieres region of southwestern France.
There are châteaus spread throughout the mountainous area south of Carcassonne, which gained fame in the time of the Cathar religious sect of the 13th century and were fortified by French kings, when this area was part of the border with Spain.
We particularly enjoyed climbing to the top of the Château de Peyrepertuse, near the village of Duilhac. The wind blew fierce and cold, but we braved the elements to take in the unparalleled views that stretched nearly to Spain.
Tonight, we are staying in Aix-en-Provence, preparing to take possession of a small farmhouse on the outskirts of a Provence village. Here’s hoping the renter’s English is better than our French!
After three flights, a long drive, and about 24 of constant travel, Katherine and I arrived in Carcassonne this afternoon, relatively unphased. A jewel of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, Carcassonne features beautiful architecture and a well-trodden tourist trail through the old, recreated La Cite.