My first trip to Europe was a bike trip in Provence. I was living in Dallas at the time (1991) and I’m not sure what made me take the leap of faith to head off on my own. I do recall that I learned about the bike company–Europeds–through an ad in the back of one of the many travel magazines I’ve read over the years. It sounded perfect–10 days in Provence, starting in a small village just north of Avignon. Since this was well before the days of being able to research and book online, I had to rely on my Dallas travel agent to book my flight to Paris and a hotel in Avignon before I met up with the bike group. (As an aside a co-worker suggested one of the travel guides for finding a hotel in Paris and I lucked into a beautiful little hotel on the left bank near the botanical gardens where I stayed my last night before returning to the States.)
I can still clearly remember staggering off the plane in CDG airport and finding an extremely helpful travel assistant who told me (in perfect English) how to take the subway to the Gare d’Lyon and get the TGV for Avignon. I had taken a French conversational class before my trip and it was enough to get me to the train station, buy a sandwich and water along with my ticket to Avignon.
The four hour trip flew by and in between naps I marveled at the beautiful countryside; the red roofed villages, the charolais grazing on the hillsides. I probably arrived late afternoon and think I took a cab from the station to my hotel on the edge of the Place de l’Horloge. In my father’s words my room wasn’t big enough to swing a cat; something of a cross between a garret and the bunkhouse I stayed in on a trip to the boundary waters. But it didn’t matter. As I strolled around the Place and picked out a restaurant with outdoor seating (the rule rather than the exception for most French and Italian restaurants) I thought I had died and gone to heaven. It was beautiful and peaceful and for the first time I learned how much I enjoyed the pace of European meals–no one up in your face asking “How is it?”, trying to get you to leave so that they can rapidly serve some more customers. After dinner I walked some more, then quickly crashed after being up for 30 hours.
The next day I had coffee and croissants, walked to the Palais de Pape, took some photos then caught a local train north to the small village where I was meeting the bike group. They turned out to be a great group and I kept in touch with many of them for several years. Plus our guide was the owner of the company and a professed Francophile who had extensive knowledge of Provence. He took us to many places off the beaten path from a Picasso museum to a museum of the native Provencal fabric. Our itinerary took us through Vaison a la Roman and its Roman ruins, L’Isle sur la Sorgue, Fontaine de-Vaucluse, Gordes, Les Baux, St. Remy, Tarascon, the Pont du Gard, finishing in Arles. We stopped at numerous small vineyards and caves (and have to say the biking and wine tasting are challenging), picnicked along the way–my favorite spot being a park in Fontaine de Vaucluse at the source of the Sorgue, and cooled off with beers in little village squares watching the locals play boules.
I came home talking constantly about how much I loved Provence and wanted to go back but then I went to Italy and fell in love with it. In late winter 2015 my sister and I were having a glass of wine on a cold winter’s night that the topic of Provence came up again and she asked if I could put together a trip to the places we’d been. We thought we would go back to Paris after Provence but then I suggested that we expand the trip to the Cote d’Azur which is only a couple of hours from where we planned to stay near Avignon. The original plan was to drop our rental car off in Nice then fly back to Paris but seeing how close we would be to Italy, the trip morphed (surprise, surprise) from just France into France and Italy; the latter consisting of 4 days near Lucca and Pisa, then 5 days in Florence.
The Cote d’Azur and Italy are topics for other blogs but here is my travel journal from Provence in which I’ve inserted comments about the differences from 20 years ago. Unfortunately today the peace and beauty and friendly locals have changed to crowds, noise, insane traffic, and locals who seem to hate tourists (and in some respects I can’t blame them.) And I apologize in advance to my sister for my criticism of her navigation skills. She’s a great person but reading a map is not in her skill set.
Day 1- 2
September 4, 2015
The first 30 hours of traveling were OK if wearing but things started going downhill as the train got to Lyon. After we had been stopped for nearly 30 minutes I went to the lower level of our car. Initially all I could find out was that there was trouble on the tracks. Luckily a nice lady found the conductor who got, Sue, me and two guys from Dallas on another train.
After getting in to Avignon an hour late, we found Hertz and then the fun began. We found our way to Villeneuve and came within a block of the hotel but then, I got us hopelessly lost going the wrong direction. We finally stopped at a restaurant but when I got out of the car to ask a guy for directions, I forgot to set the brake and the car rolled into a wall creasing the bumper. [Comment to readers: The hotel had sent me a ‘map’ via e-mail but if you missed the unmarked turn to the hotel it was all over.]
The guy very kindly called the hotel and got directions but by the time we found it, I was so tired, stressed and frustrated, I blew up at the concierge because, contrary to the information online, there was no parking, our room was up 4 flights of stone stairs and was tiny with no real bathroom.
[Comment to readers: I’ve learned the hard way that hotels do not always look the way they appear online.]
We did manage to shower and dress, then lucked in to the best part of Villeneuve–a little restaurant in the main square called La Salamandre and I blew 67 euros on my cc for dinner, feeling guilty because of my accident. But it was a wonderful dinner–3 courses and a bottle of wine that we took back to the hotel and finished over the next 3 nights. The food was great but what made it special was the waiter/owner who was super friendly and nice.
When we went back to the hotel, we were locked out but luckily another couple was leaving and let us in. We sat in the main patio area and had more wine and smokes, giggling helplessly over the events of the day, finding out the next morning that it was a no smoking area.
September 5, 2015
The plan for the day was to drive through L’Isle sur la Sorgue to the Senanque Abbaye, then Gordes and the area near Bonnieux where I wanted to visit a vineyard. I immediately got us lost, heading north out of Villeneuve instead of south. A pharmacist in a little town got us headed back into Avignon, then it was another half hour of insane traffic trying to find the road to Gordes. [Comment to readers: I remember riding on quiet country roads with little or no traffic but those apparently don’t exist anymore. Driving is enough to give the unwary heart palpitations much less being on one of these roads biking.]
We got to the Senanque Abbaye without any problems. It was lovely but more touristy then I expected. [And I’ll write more about this and other abbeys and cathedrals in another post.]
From the Abbaye, we drove into Gordes, parked and walked around. [We stayed here for two nights on my first trip, at a lovely hotel on the edge of town overlooking the valley. I saw the hotel as we walked around and remember a wonderful meal there.]
I then drove us to Roussillon which I decided was one of my favorite places in the area. We walked through the town, taking pictures and stopping in shops, then had a beer and wine at a little café on the square. As you can see the colors of both the town and the surrounding hills are gorgeous.
We had planned to stop at a vineyard near Bonnieux but it was already late afternoon by then and I was nervous about getting through the Avignon traffic. We managed OK though, getting back to the hotel around 6:00 pm. After cleaning up we went to Le Salamandre. It was too cool and windy to sit outside and we didn’t get a chance to talk to our little guy who was running in and out and seemed surprised to see us inside.
September 6, 2015
I managed to get us to L’Isle sur la Sorgue in decent time, parking on the outskirts of town which like every other place in Provence was utterly packed–and that has been the biggest disappointment, the crowds, the rudeness, the total lack of the peace that I remembered.
We fought our way to the center, admiring the river and the true Provencal wares (among the junk) stopping for a beer and a RR break. I think Sue enjoyed it but I was also disappointed that we couldn’t find the water wheels and the town seemed to have lost its charm. [On my first trip our group rode in here one Sunday, parked our bikes and among other things bought food and wine for our picnic that was in a park at the headwaters of the Sorgue River. I still have a collage of pictures from the trip including one of me in front of the water wheels. Still can’t figure out how we missed them.]
We drove from there to the Abbaye Saint Michel de Frigolet with just a couple of hiccups. It was lovely as were the grounds and the mountain area around it. [On my bike trip, we stopped here on our ride from the Pont du Gard to our hotel in St. Remy and it was just as I remembered it.]
Surprisingly we found our way fairly easily through Tarascon and Beauclaire and got on the right road to the Pont du Gard. Despite the crowds I was still awestruck and it was a definite high point to sit at Les Terrasses having a glass of wine like so many years ago.
[I have a similar picture of our bike group sitting at a large table on this same terrace so many years ago.]
We had no trouble getting back to Villeneuve and did our usual routine of dinner at Le Salamandre and a smoke on the patio. (And Sue may be right that we may have to start a 12 step program for drinking and smoking.) Sadly our little guy wasn’t working that night but dinner was still great.
September 7, 2015
Day 5 seemed to be a case of accidentally saving the best for last. We drove to Les Baux without any problems and went to the Carrieres Lumieres first. Wow!! Words can’t describe the experience, like being inside art while listening to amazing music. I was slightly disappointed that the show had changed from the Impressionists to art of the Renaissance but it was still beautiful and one of the few places in Provence where people actually stopped and experienced the event. It’s not to be missed and both my sister and I wish we’d bought one of the videos.
[I’ve told dozens of people about my first experience at the Carrieres Lumieres and they’ve always looked at me like I had two heads. But even then when they had to rely on a slide show rather than today’s electronics, it was incredible. At that time it was a show of the cathedrals of France.]
We wandered around Les Baux then drove back to St. Remy stopping first at a beautiful vineyard, Mas de Les Dame, buying a bottle of rose after doing a tasting. In St. Remy we sat at an outside café and shared a huge delicious salad then walked around the town.
We got on a different road heading out of St. Remy but ultimately found our way to the right one and to Avignon. We parked across the bridge and walked through the area near the Palais des Papes but didn’t linger. [And here was one of my biggest disappointments. Both the area near the Palais and the Place were hugely crowded, dirty and noisy; not the beautiful quiet place I remember.]
Our last night at La Salamandre was super fun –although my tuna and rice was a bit bland. Our little guy was the only one working so didn’t stop to chat until there were just a few people left. Then he brought us each a free glass of wine. In the interim we talked to another couple and enjoyed ourselves immensely. When he could finally stop to talk I said I would be writing a good review for Tripadvisor. We thanked him for his kindness and he basically said it was easy with nice people. When we stood to leave, he asked, “Where’s my kiss?” and we did the traditional French kiss. A girl can dream……
[Post trip comment: I was shocked at the number of American fast food restaurants all through this area (and you know who they are) and it seemed to me that there were far more overweight people, especially young people, than before. So my question is why would you ever eat at an American fast food place with restaurants like La Salamandre. More on that in another blog.]