A Travellerspoint blog

September 2016

Back to the Med! Nice and Monaco

I had visited the famous perfumeries of Grasse as a child with my parents, and I thought it might be a fun stop for Mei Ling and Cleo. I had vague memories of seeing the actual process of manufacturing perfumes, but when we arrived at Molinard it was clear the emphasis was on retail. There was a display of various pieces of copper equipment, but it was more like a museum than a functioning factory. Mei Ling considered making some gift purchases until I did some online research and showed her the prices in the showroom were double those on Amazon.
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We also checked out the International Perfume Museum in Grasse, which the kids enjoyed due to some of the interactive displays. Overall, however, the design of the exhibits seemed slipshod and a lot of things just didn't work. After about an hour and a half we'd had enough and dragged the kids back out. The old town in Grasse was small with a pretty central square, but lost its charm about a block away from the square in any direction. We headed back to the van, regretting that we hadn't spent the rest of the morning returning to Châteaudouble.
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Our last stop before Nice was St. Paul-de-Vence, a fortified hilltop village filled with art galleries and other high end shops catering to wealthy tourists on day trips from the Côte d'Azur. The older kids were sleeping so we had to bring the gondola, which limited us to a certain extent in the routes we could take. It was an immaculately clean, pretty village with loads of ivy and other greenery that had a warm aesthetic effect against the white masonry buildings. There were beautiful views over the rocky countryside as well. As in Aix-en-Provence, the legions of visitors and numerous shops and cafes projected the aura of a theme park that made me nostalgic for lovely but quiet villages like Venasque and Tourtour. I didn't get a good shot of St. Paul-de-Vence from the road so I threw in a picture I ripped from this article.
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It was early evening by the time we rolled into Nice. This was our first big city since Toulouse and the crush of traffic on the Promenade des Anglais came as a shock after the quiet hamlets of the Luberon and Haut Var. I had picked an Airbnb slightly north of the Vieille Ville and we were rewarded with a parking place big enough for the Iceberg just a few yards from the apartment. We checked in, thankful for a working elevator, and then went to meet some friends of Mei Ling from her Chinese blog network. I wasn't thrilled about eating in a pizzeria the night we arrived in one of the more famous seafood cities in France, but the kids ate well and it was nice to socialize with other people for a change.
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Tuesday morning we walked to the Vieille Ville to check out the markets. The fish market was surprisingly small and the produce market on Cours Saleya didn't stand up well against the huge farmers markets we had become used to. I was disappointed, since I'd spent a month in Nice in the 90's and remembered a much more vibrant market scene. Perhaps things had changed, or perhaps my memory was playing tricks on me.
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We had a huge day planned with several stops on the way to Monaco so we settled for sandwiches and croissants on the way back to the van. Our first stop was Villefranche-sur-Mer, a coastal village with a citadel just outside of Nice. The lanes running north south were all staircases while narrow streets ran east west between faded pastel houses. Close to the water we encountered the covered, lantern-lit Rue Obscure. At the water's edge were numerous cafes with views of the Bay of Villefranche.
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Southwest of the old town was the Citadelle Saint-Elme. It was a steep climb but we were rewarded with beautiful gardens and views of the bay and surrounding hillside.
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My GPS guided us up a narrow serpentine road to the Moyenne Corniche, the middle of the three famous roads that follow the French coastline between Nice and Monaco. Our goal was the famous medieval town of Èze, but getting there was half the fun as we pulled over to take in the famous views of the Mediterranean.
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Once we reached Èze, we had the unusual problem of being completely unable to find a place to park. There was a decent-sized parking lot at the entrance to the town which was full, with numerous cars circling around fruitlessly as no one was leaving. We drove up and down the main road a couple of times and saw nothing that didn't seem like it would lead to a towing or a boot. The only turn-off inside the town was a road leading uphill marked Col d'Èze, which didn't look very promising in terms of finding parking within walking distance of the old town. When I looked it up later, I discovered that this would actually have been a good choice as the road led to a parking lot with a free shuttle down to the village and free admission to the Jardin Exotique at the top of the village. At the time we had no idea, so eventually we decided to head onward to Monaco and try Èze again on the way home.

Monaco had its own Jardin Exotique which I'd heard good things about, so we found the closest parking garage and descended about eight levels into the mountainside without finding a parking spot. Just as we concluded we had been Èze'd, we found the one empty spot in the entire structure and wrangled the Iceberg into it. The Jardin was well worth the effort of parking, a magnificent and sprawling collection of cacti and other greenery with an intricate collection of walkways with amazing views over Monaco and the Mediterranean.
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From the Jardin we took a city bus along a winding route through Monaco, eventually ending up in its walled old town Le Rocher, improbably perched on the plateau of a rocky peninsula and surrounded by cliffs. It didn't take long to explore the tiny neighborhood, as all roads led to Le Palais Princier. The open square in front of the royal palace was ringed with beautiful, classical buildings and there were great views over the harbor.
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We walked down the Rampe de la Major to a quiet neighborhood near the port, where we encountered an incongruous sculpture of a Lion Man having relations with a Snake Woman in the middle of a park. It seemed to be a favorite for kids to climb on.
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The walk to Monte Carlo was more arduous than it appeared on the map and we stopped for a snack at La Marée, an extraordinarily expensive seafood restaurant with great views of the port. I was able to put together a meal that didn't completely obliterate my checking account as we Googled the various yachts below. The champion turned out to be the current eighth largest in the world.
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The casino was off limits because of the kids, and we weren't dressed well enough to go inside anyway. Instead we admired the architecture of the casino and the adjacent Hotel de Paris, and enjoyed the pristine Sky Sculpture within the well-manicured Place du Casino.
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Getting back to the car was something of a struggle as it took a long time to locate the bus stop, an even longer time for a bus to arrive, and an eternity to reach the garage as we inadvertently took the bus going back to Le Rocher. By the time we'd maneuvered the Iceberg out of the eight level garage we were eager to get back to Èze for dinner. Fortunately, there was no problem parking in the late evening and we disembarked in search of a restaurant in the old town. Èze was one of the steepest of the coastal villages, and practically every step was either uphill or downhill. Unfortunately we'd decided to bring Spenser's stroller which magnified the annoyance of the constant staircases.
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We were never able to find an appropriate restaurant in the old town. The one place that was open and had an available table turned out to be a Michelin two star when we arrived. Even we aren't crazy enough to bring three babies into that kind of restaurant. We ended up in a small restaurant on the main road that had average food and way below average service, so it was after 10 by the time we finally escaped. We made a beeline back to Nice and crashed.

We hadn't spent much time in Nice itself so the next day we decided not to rush out of town after checking out of our Airbnb. We walked a few blocks up Boulevard Jean Jaurès for a closer look at La Tête Carrée library, which I had noticed while driving the previous day. From the street this looks like a massive avant garde sculpture of a man's head mostly encased in a cube, but in fact it's a functional seven story office building and library. What appears to be a flat metal surface of the cube is actually an aluminum mesh which permits full visibility from the inside.
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We crossed the boulevard and ambled around the narrow lanes and pretty squares of the old town, then found the elevator to the top of Castle Hill just off the Quai des États-Unis. Castle Hill is the highest point in Nice and the former site of the Château de Nice, now in ruins. There were amazing views of Nice and the Baie des Anges, and a great playground for Cleo with a pirate ship theme.
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We spent some time in the park hunting for a 19th century artificial waterfall whose exact location no one seemed to know. Even after we heard its sound it took another fifteen minutes to find it at the bottom of a narrow staircase behind the cafe. It was a no go for strollers and Cleo was sleeping so I went down alone to be sure we weren't missing anything, and it really wasn't anything special.
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We stopped for lunch at a restaurant in the old town that looked much better than it actually was. On the way back to the van we encountered another beautiful playground on the narrow strip between Avenue Félix Faure and Boulevard Jean Jaurès. This one had a sea creatures theme and was full of creative and fun structures for the kids to climb. Cleo and Ian were both awake at this point so we let them clamber on the wooden turtles and whales to their heart's content.
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Eventually the kids tired themselves out and we bid a late afternoon departure to Nice. We had to be in Cannes by the early evening and there were still a couple of stops to make.

Posted by zzlangerhans 14:57 Archived in France Tagged nice monaco eze villefranche-sur-mer grasse Comments (0)

Back to the Med! Aix-en-Provence and the Haut-Var

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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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We spent a little time walking around the old center of the town, enjoying the ubiquitous narrow staircases and ancient sandstone buildings.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

Posted by zzlangerhans 16:12 Archived in France Tagged aix-en-provence entrecasteaux haut-var lorgues seillans tourtour Comments (0)

Back to the Med! Avignon and western Provence part III

There weren't any can't-miss markets on Thursday so we used the morning to explore our home base of Avignon, which we had neglected up to that point. Our first stop was Les Halles, the daily indoor market right next door to us. The offerings were very fresh and colorful, especially the seafood. We shared a seafood platter and local white wine at a tiny restaurant inside the market, complemented by roast beef and pasta we had bought at other stalls.
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After a quick pass through the flea market outside, we wandered around the narrow roads and scenic squares of the old town, eventually finding ourselves at the massive Palais des Papes. We chose to continue exploring rather than tie ourselves up with a tour of the interior, and walked through the old city walls for a view of the famous Pont d'Avignon.
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We retrieved the Iceberg and crossed the Rhône to Villeneuve-lès-Avignon and the Fort Saint-André. The hilltop fort and ancient abbey within contain beautiful gardens and boast magnificent views of Avignon.
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One attraction in Provence that seemed to keep coming up in my research was Carrières de Lumières, an old quarry that has been converted into an underground multimedia exhibit displaying the work of famous artists. I wasn't sure what to expect, but given the buzz about the place it seemed worth the short trip to the tiny medieval town of Baux. Parking was unusually difficult, so we had to walk about a quarter mile along the roadside past some interesting rock formations to the quarry entrance.
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Unfortunately, we found the show itself to be very disappointing. The chambers inside the quarry were impressively cavernous, but the large numbers of people inside made the atmosphere more like a train station. Projectors beamed Chagall onto the walls, with some crudely animated elements in the paintings. The same sequence of animations plays over and over again on the different walls while instrumental music tinkles in the background. We were bored after about five minutes, but stuck around for another ten so Cleo could run around and play with her shadow on the walls. Perhaps it's a pleasant experience for art devotees, but I had the feeling most people endorse it out of a sense of obligation, like the Louvre.

All was not lost in Baux, however, as there was still the town to explore. There was yet another steep ascent to the usual collection of touristy shops and restaurants that we bypassed to tour the Château des Baux at the top. We made an exception to our usual practice of not entering the sights, and it proved to be a good choice as the castle ruins were very scenic and the views over the countryside were spectacular. Another highlight of the Château are the functional medieval weapons, such as a trebuchet which was being demonstrated just as we arrived.
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Our visit to Baux was cut short by rain and we plowed back to Avignon for a dinner that was mostly memorable for the two large dogs that had free rein in the tiny restaurant. Experienced scavengers, they made beelines for the kids and were rewarded with plenty of dropped food.

Friday morning it was time to say au revoir to Avignon. We had packed up the night before so as not to be late to the famous Friday market at Carpentras. Taking the shuttle bus to the free parking lot outside the walls with the three kids and all the bags was a little frenetic, but we pulled it off and soon we were cruising away from Avignon for the last time.

We had had some difficult parking jobs at the farmers markets, but nothing prepared us for Carpentras. Part of the problem was that I had run out of cellular data so that while I still had GPS, I didn't have any navigation. I was still able to locate the old town fairly easily, but all the parking on the nearest main street was filled. I turned down a side street and found myself forced into a series of right angle turns only to find myself at a dead end. There was a tiny cul-de-sac filled with parked cars and it took me about ten minutes to gingerly turn the Iceberg 180 degrees. On my very last reverse before freedom I heard the now-familiar crack of a brake light housing, this time on the other side. At least that meant there weren't any more brake lights to crack. I retraced our path as quickly as I could down the narrow streets, praying that I wouldn't come face to face with another car making the same mistake I had. Eventually we found a way back to the main street, but we had to drive another fifteen minutes before we eventually found a place to park far from the center.

The market lived up to its reputation, a sprawling and bustling display of local produce and crafts that took over two hours to negotiate. The older kids split a whole grilled rabbit while relaxing in the gondola. Mei Ling and I raised some eyebrows walking around the market eating green onions as if they were apples.
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After the market, we had two more stops in the Luberon on the way to Aix-en-Provence. First came the tiny village of Bonnieux, which had its own Friday market that we arrived too late to visit. We still made the climb to the old church at the top of the town where we had some of the best views yet of the Luberon.
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We drove southeast to Ansouis, another tiny medieval village that I had targeted mainly due to its proximity to the famous ice cream parlor L'Art Glacier. It was a short climb up empty streets to the Chateau, and we didn't linger since I wasn't sure the ice cream parlor would stay open as long as advertised. After a few wrong turns, we eventually found L'Art Glacier a couple of miles away. The enormous selection of unusual flavors and appealing outdoor setting left us happy we'd made the effort.
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Less than an hour later, we found ourselves in one of our most anticipated stops of the road trip, Aix-en-Provence.

Posted by zzlangerhans 15:05 Archived in France Comments (0)

Back to the Med! Avignon and western Provence part II

Tuesday's market was in Vaison-la-Romaine, not far from the area we had covered the previous day. This pretty town spans both banks of the river Ouvèze, and contains some well-preserved Roman ruins. The market was in the modern town on the northern bank and sprawled down several side streets so that even after two hours we weren't sure we had seen everything.
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We crossed an ancient bridge to the old town, known as the Cité Médiévale, where we were greeted with the familiar sight of a steep cobblestone road heading uphill. We pressed ahead but were stopped short of the hilltop château and its vaunted views as the road turned into a rocky dirt path that would have been decidedly unfriendly to our strollers. Instead we elected to have a very good lunch on the outdoor patio of La Fête en Provence.
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The road took us all the way to the top of the hill at our next stop, Venasque, which spared us from having to use all our newly-acquired calories to push the strollers. The kids arose from their naps just in time to blow off some energy at a pretty playground just outside the walls of the old town. Inside the walls, there were only a few streets to explore. The ancient houses were draped in vines and wisteria. We found a small cafe in the central square where we enjoyed some of the local specialty, cherry juice.
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Our last stop of the day before dinner was Gordes, the town we had fallen short of two days earlier. Most of Gordes spills down a hillside and the old town is filled with staircases, so the strollers limited the amount of exploration we could accomplish. We satisfied ourselves by walking around the imposing 16th century castle and a few side streets. On the way out of town was a roadside vantage point with a great view of the town.
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I mulled over dinner choices for a while, mainly using TripAdvisor, and eventually settled on Le Carré d'Herbes back in L'Isle sur la Sorgue. We enjoyed revisiting the lovely river town in the quiet late afternoon without the mobs of market shoppers, and the dinner was one of the ten best of our trip.
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We got turned around leaving the restaurant in the darkness and had to walk three quarters of the way around the island to find the Iceberg. It was late once we got back and I decided to look for a parking spot outside our building. Surprisingly, I found one that was just large enough for the van and a friendly guy on the street helped me back in. Unfortunately during one of the many switches between going forward and reversing into the spot, I stepped on the wrong pedal and backed the Iceberg into the corner of a metal barricade. I was rewarded with the loud crack of a plastic brake light housing. Once parked, I inspected the damage and convinced myself that the rental company might not notice the crack when I dropped off the van. As I carried Ian across the street he pointed at the van and exclaimed in a horrified voice "Look! Broken!" In spite of the sour ending, our fourth day in the Avignon area had been a solid success.

The next day we headed west across the Rhone and back into Languedoc. The Wednesday market in the medieval town of Uzès occupied a spacious central square, which made it easier to navigate with the strollers. It was one of the better markets we had been to for cheese and fruits, as well as gourmet delicacies. There were also plenty of sidewalk cafes, and we were able to self-cater a late breakfast from the market with drinks at a cafe.
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Uzès was a pleasant town to explore as well, with smooth cobblestone streets winding between ancient buildings of beige sandstone. Outside of the town's castle, Le Duché, Cleo suddenly announced she had to pee. Not seeing any cafes or other obvious bathroom locations nearby, Mei Ling took Cleo behind a parked car. Cleo doesn't control her bladder very well yet. The proprietress of a flower shop overheard us discussing the plan and came over to take us to task for letting Cleo pee in the street. Then she made a big show of coming out with a bucket of water and pouring it over Cleo's little puddle, ignoring three or four large piles of dog feces on the way.
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Unfortunately, the highly-recommended medieval garden was closed at the time we were in Uzès. Here's a beautifully written article about the city I came across while doing my research.

We moved on to another small village with a long name, La Roque-sur-Cèze. We wisely chose to forgo the strollers and climbed the irregular cobblestones up to the top of the rocky hill the town is perched on. We absorbed the atmosphere and views and then polished off our remaining purchases from the Uzès market at the bank of the Cèze.
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After the picnic we took a fifteen minute walk down a dirt path to Les Cascades du Sautadet, a small area of shallow rapids and dipping pools in the Cèze. The waters have a reputation for being dangerous, so swimming was out of the question. I was so nervous about the kids slipping into one of the many cracks between the rocks I could barely snap a couple of quick pictures.
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We doubled back to the river Gardon, southeast of Uzès, to explore the enormous Roman aqueduct at Pont du Gard. It's a very touristy spot, with a large visitor center and parking lot set about a fifteen minute walk from the aqueduct itself. The reward for the kids was the chance to wade in the river and toss pebbles in every direction.
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We played around at Pont du Gard for quite a while, so by the time we had changed the kids and gotten back to the car it was already time for dinner. I'd planned to see some of the Roman ruins at Nîmes but by the time we arrived it was dark and we decided to just go ahead and eat. The food at the restaurant we chose was decent but nothing special. At one point I had to lunge for one of the kids who was about to do something unspeakable and my hand slapped Mei Ling's glass, which splattered red wine onto the matte beige wall next to us. Fortunately we saved the glass from falling and the waitress didn't seem to notice the interesting new design on the wall. It was another long day and late night for us in the Avignon area.

Posted by zzlangerhans 18:25 Archived in France Comments (0)

Back to the Med! Avignon and western Provence part I

Our goal for our stay in Avignon was to visit a different farmer's market every day of the week and to explore as many of the surrounding small towns as we could. That meant getting up every day at seven and getting on the road by nine, since the Provence markets generally close around one in the afternoon and are often losing steam by noon. Saturday morning we took a quick spin through Avignon's own weekly farmer's market but found it rather sparse, so we soon got on the road to the famous Saturday market in Arles.
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The Arles market lived up to its reputation, boasting stalls laden with fresh vegetables, various types of meats and sausages, and cheeses along a lengthy street in the center of town. We betrayed our inexperience by dawdling too long at the beginning. By the time we reached the second half of the market, the vendors were already starting to pack up. Nevertheless, it was a great introduction to the farmer's markets of Provence.
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We'd managed to consume enough snacks and samples at the market to keep the wolves of hunger at bay, so when we passed a small playground on the way into the old town we allowed the kids to have a little fun. We ended up having a little fun ourselves as well.
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The most famous sight in Arles' old town is the well-preserved two thousand-year-old amphitheatre, which is still used for bullfights and dramatic performances. The rest of the old town was pleasant enough but we didn't find anything that caused us to regret not having made Arles an overnight destination.
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From Arles, we continued southward into the Camargue. This unique wetland is full of activities like boat rides and horseback trails for normal travelers, but I had struggled to find a way to experience it with the three little ones. Eventually I settled on the Parc Ornithologique du Pont De Gau, a large bird sanctuary, and it proved to be a good choice. We enjoyed walking the trails and looking at the huge flocks of flamingos that call the park their home.
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The coastal village of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is the capital of the Camargue, and one of the few places there large enough to call itself a town. The population swells from 2500 to 50000 in the summer (thanks Wikipedia), but the streets seemed far short of capacity on this gusty April evening. This was our first experience coming face to face with the icy Mistral, and it was memorable. When the wind picked up, we felt like chunks of playdough being rolled by giant hands. We learned quickly to keep both hands on the strollers, or the Mistral would have taken our kids for a long unaccompanied ride down the main avenue. Despite the windy chill, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer had plenty of stores and restaurants open for business and we picked up some jams and sausage for breakfast the next morning. We were fortunate to squeeze into the only available table at the Lonely Planet recommendation Ô Pica Pica, where we had another of our best meals of the trip. Fresh sea urchin, whelks, and grilled fish right at the shore where it was caught. It doesn't get much better than that.
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It was long after nightfall when we got back to Avignon. I struggled to navigate the narrow Les Halles garage adjacent to our building without ripping the sides of the Iceberg, and decided that parking in the outdoor lot outside the walls was worth the walk.

Sunday morning we rose early again, fed the kids, and made the half hour drive to L'Isle sur la Sorgue. The lots dedicated to the weekly market were already full so we spent another twenty minutes on side streets attempting to find a parking spot that wouldn't be likely to get the Iceberg booted or towed. The town gets its name from its location on an island formed by a split in the river Sorgue. The old town and the market are on the island, although over the years the town has expanded and the vast majority of inhabitants live outside the island. L'Isle sur la Sorgue is a fixture on the tourist circuit because of numerous preserved water wheels as well as an enormous number of antique dealers. The market was naturally crowded but had an excellent variety of produce and crafts. We bought a cantaloupe that the vendor kindly sliced for us so the kids could eat it messily as we progressed through the stalls. One highlight was a large seafood stall where we bought and ate violets, a species of sea squirt with a leathery shell. The vendor cut the shells for us so we could eat the bright orange meat, which had a strong taste of iodine.
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Back in the Iceberg, we had a bad moment when I found myself unable to move the vehicle in any direction. It felt as though the wheels were caught on some huge obstruction but despite examining the van from every angle I couldn't see anything touching any wheel. I was actually considering calling for roadside assistance when I realized that the automatic parking brake hadn't disengaged because I hadn't fastened my seatbelt. I sheepishly pulled onto the road and we continued eastward to Saignon. Saignon was our first town in Parc Luberon, a large, natural area in the Provence hinterland filled with ancient, well-preserved villages. We didn't spend much time in Saignon since the medieval town was small and we couldn't take the kids up to the main attraction, the Rocher de Bellevue. No one seems to know what role this tall, layered rock with stone fortifications played in the ancient town. In the end I left Mei Ling with the kids and climbed the steep stairs up the rock to the flat crest, from which I had great views of the surrounding valley.
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Our next stop was Ménerbes, a town made famous by the books of Peter Mayle. We hadn't read the books, so we were just there for its reputation as a pretty medieval town. Mei Ling was enchanted by the purple wisteria flowers that seemed to hang from every eave. At the top of the hill we found Maison de la Truffe et du Vin, an interesting establishment that is part restaurant, part gourmet store, part tasting room. A lush, manicured garden in the back overlooked the valley. We bought a couple of Ice Bags, sturdy collapsible bags that could be filled with ice and water to keep wine chilled at a picnic.
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Having departed Ménerbes, we found ourselves close to La Forêt des Cèdres. This unusual little forest is composed almost entirely of cedar trees that grew from seeds brought back by a local who had traveled to Moroccco. The quiet paths provided a restful counterpoint to the strenuous climbs in Saignon and Ménerbes.
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I had hoped to make it to Gordes but it was getting late and it seemed more prudent to ensure a dinner reservation, given that I was unsure how many restaurants would be open on a Sunday in shoulder season. I was surprised to get a table at a well-regarded farmhouse restaurant outside of Gordes. The small dining room seemed very formal and the hosts' eyes seemed to widen as we brought in the kids and Spenser's stroller. The kids were a little rambunctious although manageable during the meal and in the end had befriended the hosts and the diners at the other occupied table in the restaurant. I wish I could say the meal matched the setting but unfortunately it was forgettable. However, we returned to Avignon with a feeling of success thanks to the market and the three towns we had been able to visit.
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Based on my research the best Monday market was in Bédoin, forty minutes northeast. By this time, a lot of the produce was starting to look familiar and we even recognized some of the vendors from Arles and L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. The crafts at Bédoin were more impressive, especially some brightly colored pottery from the neighboring hamlet of Crestet.
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There didn't seem to be anything in Bédoin to justify roaming around outside the market so we headed west to Gigondas, a small village in the Côtes du Rhône best known for red wine. We started off in the sunny central square, where we tasted a few wines at the local Caveau.
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As usual, seeing the rest of the town required climbing a steep hill. We were rewarded at the top by a solitary church, a small vineyard, and the requisite beautiful views of the surrounding countryside.
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We moved on to another nearby wine town, Chateauneuf-du-Pape. We didn't spend very long here as the town was less bucolic than the others and the afternoon had become chilly.
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We were very close to our base in Avignon at this point and decided to head home. We tried to do some strolling around Avignon but the sharp wind took the fun out of it, so we called around and eventually found a restaurant that was open on a Monday. Dinner was good but not memorable enough to record the name of the restaurant. Fortunately we'd already taken care of the parking so we only had to walk a couple of blocks through the gusty evening.

Posted by zzlangerhans 22:17 Archived in France Comments (0)

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