A Travellerspoint blog


Back to the Med! Marseille

We were hoping to make it to the 13th century Monastère de la Verne before its 5pm closing time, but the winding mountainous roads of the Haut Var got the best of us and we just missed the last entry. All was not lost, however, as we got some great views of the monastery from the access road. I included a short clip to illustrate what it feels like driving in the area.


We used the time we saved missing the monastery to visit the town of Collobrières, which is famous for chestnuts. We made the obligatory stop at the local chestnut showroom, where we tried unsuccessfully to understand why some chestnuts were called châtaignes and others marrons. The kids got chestnut ice cream and we resisted the urge to buy chestnut liqueur. It was still too early for dinner, so we got pizza for the kids at an incongruous food truck and explored the town for about half an hour. It was a very quiet and pretty place, with plane trees lining a shallow canal and peaceful little squares and lanes.

Fortunately we were able to get to the main coastal highway before darkness, and we had a boring and uneventful drive to Marseille. Our arrival in Marseille was complicated by the fact that there was absolutely no way to stop in front of our Airbnb without blocking the road. We had to proceed to a garage a block away and schlep the sleepy kids and suitcases all the way back. Then we had dinner to attend to, and it was already close to 10 PM. Luckily I found a Tunisian restaurant called Saf Saf not far away that turned out to be quite good, even though we were the only customers. The owner and his family were very helpful and friendly.

I had chosen the Arab quarter of Noailles in Marseille due to its central location and proximity to one of the largest city markets. The next morning the market was open but a little threadbare, which I ascribed to the fact that it was Sunday and quite chilly. However, there was a decent selection of meat, seafood, and fruits and the submersion in Franco-Arab culture was quite interesting.

We walked a few blocks more down to Quai des Belges at the Vieux Port to see the fish market, but there was no seafood in sight. We asked around and got pointed in a few different directions, but there was no sign of a fish market.

We eventually walked all the way to the end of the port on the northern side, where we were greeted by a vicious mistral that put the one we had experienced in Stes. Marie to shame. Fortunately the kids were protected by their strollers, but Mei Ling and I had to lower our heads and plow up the Quai de la Tourette through the freezing wind to the Cathédrale la Major. Here we finally found an escape from the cold, an entrance into the old Bohemian neighborhood of Le Panier. With a combination of leverage and lifting we managed to hoist the strollers all the way to the top of the hill the neighborhood is set on, while taking in the colorful cafes and graffiti along the narrow lanes.

Back at the port, we made a strong attempt to identify the best of the seafood restaurants we had walked past by examining their menus and clienteles and checking online reviews. Despite these efforts, we struck out miserably and had a completely inedible meal. Around this time I suddenly realized why there was no fish market and only a rudimentary market at Noailles. It was May 1, May Day, one of the biggest national holidays in France. It was ridiculous for me to have forgotten about May Day, considering that we had been screwed by the same holiday a year earlier in Versailles, but there you have it. Given that so much would be closed and the freezing weather, we decided to return to our apartment. That ended up being a fortunate decision, because despite having not touched the horrible lunch I was seized with a nasty stomach bug that afternoon which rendered me completely useless for the rest of the evening. Mei Ling was a good sport about eating in, but I felt badly we had lost one of our two chances to have dinner in Marseille.

Monday morning was a vast improvement in every way. It was sunny and so much warmer that we didn't need to wear our jackets at all, and everything was open. We decided we'd spend most of the afternoon in Marseille to make up for the previous day, and skip a planned stop in the neighboring fishing town of Cassis. First we got to see the Noailles market in full effect, with outdoor stalls as well as storefronts.

There was still no fish market to be found near the port, probably because no one had gone fishing on May Day, so we doubled back and ate at a seafood restaurant called Toinou Les Fruits de Mer. I hadn't planned on going because the online reviews were very mixed, but Mei Ling liked the way it looked and as usual she turned out to be right. The restaurant had an unusual set up with a self-service line for some seafood and drinks and then the option to order other seafood with the cashier. The restaurant had a seafood market outside and everything in the market was fair game to be ordered in the restaurant, which is always a good sign. We ended up with a whole platter of shellfish topped with a whole spider crab full of roe, which we washed down with white wine. It was another entry for our list of the ten best meals of the trip.

After lunch we began to walk the streets of Marseille in earnest. After exploring the wide pedestrian boulevards of the Opera district, we found our way to the Quai de Rive Neuve on the south side of the port where we had great views of the old city fortifications from below..

About fifteen minutes later we arrived at the entrance to Jardin du Pharo, which contains a pleasant park and playground at the top of a hill along with the Napoleonic Palais du Pharo. There were great views from the top of the hill of the city walls and port area.

We piled into a taxi for our last stop in Marseille, the Cathedral de la Major. The enormous zebra-striped Byzantine structure seemed more in line with a church one might see in Russia than in France. Sadly, the two southern towers were being restored and were draped in scaffolding and canvas. We sat in a cafe just by the Cathedral and stocked the kids with ice cream before the drive to Montpellier.

Here's a great travel article about Marseille.

Posted by zzlangerhans 07:24 Archived in France Tagged marseille collobrieres Comments (0)

Back to the Med! Cannes and St. Tropez

It was well into the afternoon when we arrived at our first stop of the day, Biot. This small commune is famous for glassblowing, and we stopped at one of the larger studios so the kids could see the process. Touring the showroom afterwards with the kids wanting to touch all the brightly colored bottles and flowers was nerve-wracking, but I was able to let go of them long enough to snap a couple of pictures.

We had to rush through our next stop, Antibes, because we had to meet our host in Cannes soon. We were able to take a quick spin along the seaside Promenade Amiral de Grasse and the narrow lanes of the old town before jumping back in the van and speeding off to Cannes.

Cannes proved to be another parking nightmare. We wedged the van into a highly illegal space in the old town and raced to unload the luggage and kids up into our third floor apartment. I left everyone there and began an exhausting search for a garage that would accommodate the Iceberg. Fortunately I'd learned the van's height from Toulouse so I knew to avoid the 1.8 meter limits, but the garage owners seemed to take great pleasure in printing the height limits in minuscule type that was completely unreadable from the garage entrances. That forced me to park the car in front of the garage, get out and run to the sign, and then run back to the van and drive off when the limit turned out to be 1.8. I went through this process and circled the old town about three times before eventually finding a garage I could use. I thought I'd be two miles from the apartment once I finally parked, but it turned out the wide circle I'd taken had actually brought me back fairly close to home. It was still over an hour since I'd embarked on my quest, so the first order of business was to find some dinner. We strolled down Rue Félix Faure which had a line of attractive looking canopied restaurants and eventually ended up at Astoux et Brun, where we had a very good seafood dinner.

The next morning we headed directly to Cannes' famous covered market Marché Forville, where we got fruit and sausages for the kids and Mei Ling found some delicious-looking dried morel mushrooms.

We walked down to the port to look at the yachts and then took a look at the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès, the main site of the Cannes Film Festival. Mei Ling was a little taken aback at how plain the front of the building looked with no red carpet, limos, or celebrities in sight.

There was a beautiful carousel on the Promenade just inland from the beach, so we let the kids have a couple of rides before heading to the beach itself. The public part of la Croisette beach was a little forlorn, but the kids loved it so we stuck around for a couple of hours.

After the beach, we got ice cream for the kids and then walked around Cannes for a couple more hours until it was time for dinner. We selected a higher end restaurant for dinner, which worked out OK because they had an outside table for us. The food was nicely presented but not as good as our previous night's meal.

We had a lot of stops planned on the way to St. Tropez, so the next morning we just took a quick pass through Marché Forville on the way to the parking garage. First was a beautiful town a few miles inland from Cannes called Mougins. From the parking lot at the base of town, an elevator took us up to a platform close to the old town from which we had amazing views of the countryside below.

It was still too early for lunch but we inspected the menus and reserved a table at the most promising candidate. For the next hour we meandered through the narrow alleys of the old down, which were filled with foliage and sculpture. Like St. Paul de Vence, Mougins was full of art galleries and other high end businesses that catered to wealthy tourists from the Riviera. Perhaps because of the early hour, it was far less congested with tourists and we found it to be one of the more enjoyable towns we had visited.

The coup de grace for our visit was lunch at Le Gaudinade, an awesome selection of classic French delicacies including frogs' legs, duck breast with flavorful morels, and plump snails. It was easily one of the best meals of the trip, and the owner and staff were unusually pleasant and friendly.

Glowing from a quintessential Provence lunch, we drove to the next town over, Mouans-Sartoux. Here we toured Les Jardins du MIP, lovely gardens of flowers and shrubs set against a backdrop of lush green hills. In this annex of the International Perfume Museum we had visited in Grasse, one can see and smell the plants that form the bases of the region's perfumes.

We still had a little time to spare before St. Tropez, so we made a quick stop in Fréjus. Fréjus doesn't attract many tourists compared to other towns on the Rivera, but it has an impressive cathedral and quiet winding lanes in the old town.

The rest of our day was a series of logistical nightmares. First, we got stuck in the parking lot in Frejus when the unmanned exit gate refused to accept any of my credit cards. It took half an hour to explain our problem to the disembodied voice on the other end of the intercom and understand what they wanted us to do about it. Once we arrived at the outskirts of St. Tropez, traffic on the one lane road slowed to a crawl and then stopped completely. Meanwhile, a steadily growing river of motorcycles passed the line of stationary cars on either side. It quickly became apparent that there was a motorcycle convention in town that weekend and the motorcyclists were largely preventing the cars from moving in any direction. Our GPS didn't recognize the street that our Airbnb was on, so I was using Google Maps which eventually guided us to the completely wrong location. We called and texted our hosts, but they were rather unhelpful in explaining how to find their exact location and the cellular signal was spotty at best. For the next two hours we crept back and forth along the coastal road, fruitlessly attempting to find side roads that would take us around the grueling traffic jam. After wasting most of the early evening, we finally found our Airbnb just as darkness was falling. We quickly dumped the bags and raced to Port Cogolin where we managed to find an undistinguished dinner. Interestingly, a day which had begun with one of our best mornings ended with our worst evening of the trip.

It was no coincidence that we were in St. Tropez on Saturday, the day of the weekly market. There was a surprising amount of prepared food at the market, with the highlight being open-faced sandwiches of sliced black truffle and olive oil. Between the sandwiches and some roasted quail, there was more than enough food to tide us over to a late lunch.

St. Tropez was a fun town to explore, despite the enormous crowds of bikers that clogged the market and the streets around the old port. From the northern edge of the old town we could see all the way across the Golfe de Saint-Tropez to the opposite shoreline.

We walked back through the old town until we came to the Montée de la Citadelle, which gently ascends the hillside to the hulking Citadelle de St. Tropez. It wasn't the tallest hill or the greatest castle, but it was a nice escape from all the revving Harleys below us.

The market food was wearing off so we drove across the peninsula to the beachy side of St. Tropez, where we had a light lunch at La Plage des Jumeaux. The kids played for a bit on the restaurant's private beach, but it was too cold and windy to really enjoy ourselves.

Our last stop on the St. Tropez peninsula was the walled hilltop village of Ramatuelle, which we explored for about an hour before deciding that we had best get on the road to Marseille before it got too late. More hilltop villages such as Grimaud and Gassin were tantalizingly close, but it was clear that if we dawdled too long we wouldn't make it to dinner in Marseille.

Posted by zzlangerhans 04:49 Archived in France Tagged antibes cannes st._tropez biot mougins mouans-sartoux frejus ramatuelle Comments (0)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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)

(Entries 11 - 15 of 21) Previous « Page 1 2 [3] 4 5 » Next