Friday, 16 December 2005

A Tour Of Provence

I like France. Good weather. Good food. Picturesque towns and
regions. Lots of culture. Lots of activities and it's easy to get to
from the UK. The language isn't too hard to figure out either. All
together, it's a great place for a holiday. Too bad England lost it's
hold on Aquataine!

We've already been to France six times before this. We've seen parts
of Paris, Normandy, Alsace, Charante-Pitou, Garcony, Dordogne, Loire
and the Cote Azure. However, we hadn't seen Provence or the Languedoc
so this became an obvious next choice.

Joining us on this holiday were some old friends from Canada, Daniel
and Una and their five year old daughter Tiana. They had travelled with
us before on two other occasions when we visited Andalucia and Crete.

Tuesday, August 16th

Flew to Nimes on a cheap flight with Ryanair. Rental car from
Europcar was a Seat Toledo 1.9 Diesel. Ugly beast of a car! It drove
like a school bus and sounded like one too! At least it had lots of
trunk space.

We found our villa easily enough. Daniel had a GPS receiver hooked
up to a Pocket PC running Tom Tom routing software. All I had to do was
follow. We were staying just to the east of Avignon. We very carefully
chose the location in order to make it easy to tour the region. We've
made the mistake of renting villa's in the middle of no where and then
taking ages to get anywhere interesting. We were staying in the rather
flat and featureless agricultural region known as the Lower Rhone

La Nesquiere can be found down a long unpaved road past an apple
orchard. It's a large rambling property with several building and
fields. It's run by an energetic lady named Isabelle who, lucky for us,
spoke fluent English.

The Mas was divided into a couple of "houses" and we had three
double rooms at the top of one house. We shared the house with another
triple room on the ground floor which was currently occupied by a
German couple. The house had a shared kitchen and living room.

Exploring the property, I found horses, a barn, rabbits in cages and
a vineyard. Down the centre of the property ran a large brook. A bridge
crossed over it to a swimming pool and an apple orchard. Chickens
roamed all over the property and a couple of dogs and cats lazed about.
It was rustic yet charming enough.

Kids excited to try the pool. Cold!

Dinner al fresco.

Wednesday, August 17th

Lazy day. Breakfast al fresco. Jenny and Una took off to stock up
with food at the local supermarket. Unfortunately, they got lost on the
way home and didn't make it back until four hours later.

We went down to Avignon for dinner. Incredibly narrow streets!
Parking was very difficult to find so we wound up quite a ways from the
centre. We wandered around quite a bit before picking a very touristy
restaurant in the lively square in the center of town. It was great for
watching street performers. Food was so-so.

Before we left, we spent a bit of time admiring the Palace du Pape from the outside as it was all illuminated. Very imposing.

Thursday, August 18th

It was about time we got out and did some proper sightseeing. It was
almost noon by the time we were ready to leave so we decided not to go
too far. Settled on Pont du Gard.

Pont du Gard is the finest example of a Roman aquaduct in the world.
It's a UN World Heritage site. We parked on one side and walked across
it while taking lots of pictures. On the other side, we had some ice
cream and spent a lot of time at the visitors centre. There's a cinema,
museum and children's area. It's very well organised and educational.

For dinner, Jenny had heard of a good place in Carpentras so we
drove over there and found it. It was indeed good. They served all
kinds of regional specialities.

Friday, August 19th

Late nights. Late mornings. K*'s foot was hurting so I stayed home
with him while everyone else went back to Carpentras to check out the
Friday market that was on. Actually, I decided rather than stay home,
I'd go for a drive to see what some of the nearby countryside was like.

I wanted to find the closest green routes on the Michelin map. Drove
out to St Didier and I started to see lots of vineyards. The scenery
really got beautiful as I drove along the D4. Turned south on the D177
and hugged some very narrow roads with sheer drops on the way to
Gordes. Ice cream break. From there, we looped home passing through
Fountain Vacluse and Isle de la Sourge.

We spent the rest of the day at the villa except for a late run to
the supermarket to find some dinner. The theory was that if we ate at
home and got the kids to bed early, we could be out of the house
earlier the next day.

Saturday, August 20th.

We all managed to get out of the house by 9:15 heading for
Aix-en-Provence in order to catch the Saturday market. Parking was
difficult be we finally found a place and walked down to the market. It
was quite extensive. We mostly explored the food market. No surprises.
Just very fresh and visually appealing produce. Not that much variety.
We meandered the stalls and the kids were soon hungry looking at all
the food. We ended up standing around eating.

Unfortunately, the market packed up at 1pm so we didn't have a
chance see other parts of the market. We left. Daniel and Una headed to
Marseille while we decided to do a slow scenic drive home. K*'s leg was
hurting so we decided to just tour around in the car.

We drove first to Apt. The first half along the D543 was ho-hum but
it got much nicer along the D943 as we drove over the ridge of the
Luberon. Apt isn't anything to write about. We had an ice cream break
and watched a bride arrive for her wedding. I like the flair with which
many French women dress.

We continued up the D4 taking a slight detour to Roussillon. This
small hilltop village was famous for supplying ochre to the Roman
Empire. The hills and cliffs are beautiful coloured in hues from deep
brown, red to a soft yellow. It would be fabulous to walk around here
at sunset.

We continued along the windy D4 across another high ridge where we
caught glimpses of postcard Provence: stone houses nestled within
fields of lavender and orchards. Too bad we were out of season to see
the purple flowers. Still, it was a pretty place. We stopped at a
delightful picnic area just before Murs and enjoyed some nectarines we
had bought at the market.

We detoured to Vanasque and le Beaucet just to see what they were like: both small villages perched in lovely locations.

We stopped for dinner in Pernes-de-Fountaines and discovered that a
street had been blocked off and a smal fair was going on. The kids
played on the bumper cars and tried some of the stalls. Since we were
early, most restaurants weren't open so we wound up in a Chinese
restaurant: something familiar for the kids.

Sunday, August 21st

Today was largely down-time. Jenny and R* did go out to catch the
Sunday market at L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. I had a stupid accident. Poured
a brewing cup of steaming hot tea all over my left hand and scalded it
very badly. Took about eight hours before I could remove the ice pack
without feeling a searing heat blasting my skin. Escaped with only one
heat blister.

Jenny made a lovely meal. The German couple staying in the ground floor room left andthree Italians arrived.

Monday, August 22nd.

Left early for Arles. We took the scenic route driving through
Remy-de-Provence and Le-Baux-de-Provence. Remy didn't look very
interesting although Glanum might deserver a walk through. Le-Baux
would be worth walking around as the view would be excellent. But not
with kids!

We kept going to Arles and easily found parking spots within a short
walk to the amphitheatre which was our first destination. It's like a
mini Colleseum and was fun to explore. From the top of a tower, we had
a great view. It was incredibly windy though. The mistral was blowing

Afterwards, the kids were gunning for ice cream but it was lunch
time so we went to Place de Forum and found the cafe that Vincent Van
Gogh painted and made famous. Nice place but the food turned out to be
rather poor. We'll always associate bad food with that painting from
now on!

After lunch we walked through the Roman theatre but it wasn't that interesting. Little was left of the original structure.

We drove over to the museum as it sound pretty interesting. Lots of
ancient Roman artifacts and stuff about their daily life. I thought it
might interest R*. Unfortunately, there was no English descriptions of
anything and the displays were rather uninspiring.

By now, we were all pretty tired so we called it a day and drove
home. We made to detours. One to Villevenue-de-Avignon to try and get a
view of Avignon. We weren't successfull. The other was to a local
agricultural market in Vellone which was superb. It was just a gather
of all the local farmers selling their produce direct to the local
community. We stocked up on our fruit and veg and went home for dinner.

Tuesday, August 23rd

Chill out day. The girls and R* went out shopping heading to a huge
local fabric shop. Daniel, Tiana, K* and I went out heading for a
nearby cave called Grotte de Thouzon.

The grotto was small but it had some interesting forms. Nothing spectacular by any means but it kept the kids interested.

Afterwards, we headed north to find a "fresh water beach" near
Beaumes-de-Venise that was marked on the map. However, it turned out to
be nothing more than a shabby municipal campsite next to a trickle of a
river. Stuck for something to do, we went for some wine tasting in
Vacqueyras and then on to walk about the tiny hamlet of Seguret. Both
were places recommended by Isabelle.

We then headed home for a adhoc dinner with the girls.

Wednesday, August 24th

Time was running out and I decided there were two things I'd like to
still see in Provence. We drove up to Orange and toured around the
Roman amphitheatre. It's a World Heritage site due to how well
preserved it is. It holds 9000 people and is only one of three Roman
amphitheatres left that still has it's back wall still intact. The
audioguide were excellent and the kids enjoyed listening to the story
of the amphitheatre and learned about Roman theatre in general.

After lunch and an ice cream, we drove back to Avignon and did the
tour of the Palais du Pape. Again, we all had audioguides and this made
it much more interesting for the children.

Overall, I found the Palais du Pape to be very austere and lacking
in ornamentation but I gather that shouldn't be a surprise given it was
built in the 1300's. No doubt, the decor would have been much more
lavish 700 years ago. The view of Avignon from the top terasse was

After the tour we got on one those those little tourist trains that
took us about Avignon for 40 minutes. Good way to sit down and relax
for a little while.

When we got back, we found a quiet yet superb place for dinner. The
dessert was the best I had yet: peaches, figs, ice cream with sangria
and balsamic vinegar reductions.

Thursday, August 25th

The kids wanted a day at home and with not much else that I wanted
to do, I capitulated. Our travels certainly haven't been whinge-free.
Jenny went off to cruise the morning markets in Fontaine-de-Vaucluse
and L'Isle-la-Sorgue. We needed to pack up for our drive to the
campsite the next day.


Well, I can't say I'm overly impressed with Provence. It's nice all
right but not in a wow kind of way. I'm sure it is much more prettier
when the sunflowers are at their peak and the lavender fields are in
full bloom. If you're going to come to Provence, seasonal timing is

Provence is a ever changing collage of stone houses, olive groves,
vineyards, lavender fields, sunflower fields and fruit orchards nestled
in gentle valleys studded with rocky outcrops. The markets don't have a
lot of variety but the produce of the region is superb.

Most of shops were closed during our visit. At first, I just thought
I wasn't around at the right time but gradually I realised that it's
just that France shuts down in August. It makes the towns seem sleepy
and dead. Most of the festivals are earlier in the summer; catching one
would have made the place seem more alive.

The Roman heritage of Provence is outstanding so if you're
interested in antiquities and history, there's plenty to see and read
about. Of course, it's also great for art history buffs and followers
of Impressionism.

As for where to stay in Provence, I think we got it just about
right. Stay east of Avignon but west of Apt. Stay south of Carpentras
but not further than the Luberon. This puts you in a nice area from
which it's easy to tour the region. There may be prettier places in the
hinterland but then it would take longer to get anywhere.

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