04/22/2016 - 04/25/2016
After the usual frantic offloading of bags at the Airbnb in Aix, we parked in a garage and set out to find dinner. Since I still had no cellular data, I selected a promising restaurant from Lonely Planet and set out to find the street. This turned out to be no simple task, as almost everyone on the street turned out to be another tourist when we asked for directions. Eventually we found Jacquou le Croquant after seemingly traversing every street in the old town three times. The staff was very friendly and brought over foam blocks for the kids to play with, which meant I spent the next half hour picking up foam blocks from under the chairs of our neighboring diners. The food wasn't unpleasant, but the cassoulet fell far short of the one we had enjoyed in Albi. After dinner we headed back to our Airbnb, whose compactness was epitomized by a WC so small that I couldn't bend over to pull up my pants without opening the door.
The next morning it was a pleasant change to find the farmers market just a block away from our apartment. The market is open every day of the week but Saturday it takes over the entire center of the old town. I had anticipated this would be one of the best markets of the trip, and we weren't disappointed. Rickety tables were laden with enormous piles of oversized fruits and vegetables. The cheese vendors had a hundred different cheeses. The sausage sellers had every conceivable size and flavor of sausage. There was clearly a very high standard applied to being permitted to have a stall at the Aix market. We maneuvered the gondola through the narrow aisles for a couple of hours, stocking up on plenty of fruit and bread for the kids.
The kids had behaved well in the crowded market so we took them to the Parc Jourdan south of the old town to play a little bit. There was a small playground and Cleo found a playmate to share her strawberries with while Spenser got a ride in a bouncy car. I found the park disappointing compared to the lush gardens of Toulouse. There was an abundance of concrete and not much in the way of activities besides the playground.
Aix old town is a beautiful place, but there are simply too many tourists there. It's hard to complain, given that we're also tourists, but there's no question that the crowds detract from the atmosphere. It feels more like an exhibit in a theme park than an actual city neighborhood. I can't even imagine what it must be like in July and August, given the throngs of people that packed the tiny area in April. After three hours we had seen every street in the old town at least twice and I decided to kill some time by getting an overpriced haircut while Mei Ling and the kids lounged at a cafe.
I'd been able to top up my data at an Orange store earlier so we didn't have trouble finding our restaurant at dinner time. The place was highly rated on TripAdvisor but we found the food mediocre. Except for the amazing market, one of our most highly anticipated stops turned out to be a bit of a wash. However, our great experiences in Toulouse and Avignon more than made up for it.
The next morning, we headed back to the market and found a very scaled-down version occupying a single square in the center of the old town. Fortunately, Mei Ling's favorite rotisserie was open for business and we were able to get some delicious roast chicken for the kids.
There was nowhere to park the Iceberg at the Airbnb without blocking the street so we decided to haul everything a couple hundred meters to the garage. Here again there wasn't a good place to load the van without blocking other cars exiting the garage, but over a few minutes I didn't see a single car leaving. I left the family and bags near the exit and retrieved the van. As luck would have it, a middle-aged French woman exited the garage right behind me and there was no room for her to pass. I waved apologetically at her and Mei Ling and I tossed the bags and kids into the Iceberg as quickly as we could. It took less than five minutes but the woman leaned on her car horn and shouted out her window at us for the entire time. I closed the van doors and blew the irate lady a kiss as we drove away from the garage and towards our next destination, the small medieval towns of the Haut Var.
The Var department of Provence is best known for St. Tropez and other highlights of the Côte d'Azur, but further inland are some of the most beautiful medieval villages in France. I had only budgeted one full day to see the area while on the way to Nice, so we tried to maintain a brisk pace to see as many towns as we could. Our first stop was Entrecasteaux, where we were able to park at the base of the town right next to the château and its beautifully maintained garden.
We spent a little time walking around the old center of the town, enjoying the ubiquitous narrow staircases and ancient sandstone buildings.
Hunger called us back to the Iceberg, where I did some quick research to locate a promising lunch spot nearby. Our first choice was unavailable which proved fortunate, as the second restaurant I called provided our best meal of the entire trip. Le Clos des Vignes was a Lonely Planet recommendation, a roadside farmhouse operated by a husband and wife team. The small indoor dining area was full when we arrived except for the table we had reserved, and we saw the usual widened eyes when our hostess realized how many potential hellions we had brought. Fortunately, the older kids stayed focused on their iPads and Spenser slept blissfully, so that we and the other diners were able to eat in peace. The food was spectacular, with tender meats cooked medium rare in delicious sauces, accompanied by the freshest and crispest grilled vegetables. The desserts were also amazing, both in presentation and flavor. As usual, Cleo charmed her way into the owner's good graces and got a little tour of the serving station. After the warm reception, fantastic food, and beautiful view of the vineyard just beyond the patio, we felt like we had experienced the epitome of Provencale farmhouse cuisine at Le Clos des Vignes.
With full stomachs we proceeded eastward to Lorgues. This small town is known for its beautiful fountains, and we were fortunate to arrive while the weekly flea market was in progress. We stayed just long enough to look around the market and take a quick swing through the tiny medieval center.
Next up was Tourtour, a tiny and windy hilltop village that we arrived at via a long and tortuous one lane road. We parked at the top of the hill where we endured the blasts of wind long enough to enjoy the views before exploring the cafe-lined main square and the old houses clinging precariously to the hillside. Despite being well off the beaten path, we were glad we had made the detour to this uniquely beautiful town.
It was already after six and I wanted to make it to our overnight stop in Seillans before dark, so we got back on the narrow, winding road and drove through two temptingly beautiful villages, Châteaudouble and Bargemon. I consoled myself with the knowledge it would only take an hour to return to Châteaudouble from Seillans the next morning. Once we arrived at Seillans, we located the Hôtel des Deux Rocs and let ourselves inside via a keypad lock. I had to make a few calls to find a restaurant that was open on a Sunday night, but eventually we found a place not far from the hotel where I was relieved to see several tables with small children. After dinner we tried on berets at the little gift shop in the restaurant.
The next morning we had a little more time to take stock of our surroundings. The Lonely Planet had been effusive in praise of the Deux Rocs, which was the main reason I deviated from our usual Airbnb pattern. I found the hotel rather plain on the outside and our room was rather cramped for the five of us. The best part was probably the pretty drawing room with period furniture. Experiencing a hotel again felt like validation of my strategy to use Airbnb wherever possible, especially considering Seillans was the most expensive overnight stay of our trip.
We strapped on the kids and spent about an hour walking around Seillans. It was another pretty village with plenty of winding lanes and stone staircases, very quiet and empty on a chilly Monday morning.
I was debating whether to return to Châteaudouble as I'd planned, or to begin the drive to Nice. In the end I decided we'd seen enough medieval villages for the time being and I wanted to make sure we had enough time to see the perfumeries in Grasse. We returned to the Iceberg for the last leg of our segment in the Haut Var.