Thursday, October 11, 2012

Provence & Cote d'Azur: Part I

If you've never had a chance to visit the South of France, and the opportunity presents itself, I'd say you should definitely go.  Of course, I tend to say this about pretty much everywhere we have visited lately, don't I?  Earlier this year, we weren't exactly sure where we were going to go to bring in Big R's 30th year.  We had played around with several different locations, and then we decided France was the perfect place.

Our tickets flew us direct from Munich to Marseille, where we would rent a car and then spend some time in Provence and down along the French Riviera.  Who could be luckier?  Oddly, it was a rather stressful trip to plan on my end.  The perfectionist in me was obsessing about making sure every detail of the trip would give Big R a birthday trip he would not soon forget.  It turns out that having the freedom of a car and being able to stay ANYWHERE in one of the most beautiful regions in the world, can be a slightly daunting, if not overwhelming, endeavor. But I tackled it and managed to find a B&B in towns both in Provence and along the coast in Cote d'Azur, and luckily they did not disappoint.

Renting a car most certainly gave us a freedom on this last trip that we had not experienced on our prior adventures.  We were able to see so much of this beautiful area of France. So much so, in fact, that I'm going to break this trip up into a few different posts. Besides, Big R managed to take over 400 pictures, and I know it's going to be difficult picking through them to share my favorites.

Our flight from Munich was at an ungodly 6:35 a.m.  Instead of staying overnight in a hotel, we decided to just get up and leave the house at 2 a.m. to drive straight to the airport.  This would have been a brilliant plan had little r decided to stay asleep.  Instead the crazy kid never went back to sleep and became a complete overtired monster for the remainder of the day...or actually, pretty much the entire trip.  Ah well, what's an adventure without a screaming toddler, right?

This early flight was intentional though because it got us to Marseille at 830 a.m. giving us literally the entire day to explore Provence.  Getting the rental car was a piece of cake.  We ended up with an Opel Corsa that was bright yellow.  Not really a color I'd prefer for my own vehicle, but it was kind of a perfect rental car - we never had trouble finding the darn thing!  It was bare bones and with the gas floored I was maybe able to push 120 kph. The speed limits on the major roadways in France are generally 130 kph, so that kept life interesting.  It also had electric windows up front and manual windows in the backseat, which meant little r spent the entire trip rolling his window down.

A couple of quick notes on driving in France.  French drivers are freaking CRAZY! Yes, it's true. They are even more crazy than the Italians.  I had read this before our trip, but I don't think I fully believed it until I started driving there.  It definitely made for a constant adventure.  The major roadways or tollroads were pretty good, but driving through towns and on side roads were pure madness.  What made them insane were all of the mopeds and motorcycles.  As if the drivers weren't enough to contend with, the two-wheeled machines need to follow no road rules.  They split lanes, drive on sidewalks, and cut you off without a flinch. Add a mass of pedestrians to this mix and you have a situation requiring some serious attention.

It's a really old part of the world, and it seems they generally just paved old roads that were traversed by foot or by horse.  This meant that driving from one town to the other often included circuitous routes.  I can't even tell you how relieved we were to have our GPS with us.  Yes, this girl who has criticized owning a GPS on many occasions, was very thankful for this as we drove through France.  Even with the GPS, we managed to get ourselves lost quite a bit.  When there are 3 right turns, it's pretty easy to pick the wrong one.  Big R and I would look at each other and say, "recalculating" every time we went the wrong way.  Fun times.

Our excursions brought us first to a small city called Arles in Provence.  It was difficult to pick exactly which town we wanted to explore in this area.  We took some notes from Rick Steves' and decided that Arles could be a compromise to seeing some Roman ruins and old French charm.  There was definitely a little of both, but we weren't as crazy about Arles as we had hoped to be.  We did manage to see quite a bit and take some great pictures while we were there though.
Roman Amphitheater in Arles d'Provence, France
Inside the walls of the Roman Amphitheater in Arles
View from the roof of the Amphitheater - unfortunately, the fog never lifted during our visit to Arles
Walking with little r through the tunnels of the Amphitheater
little r had the best mode of transportation
I loved all of the pastel colors - we saw this all throughout Provence
We grabbed a quick, but very delicious quiche and french panini from a local bakery, and got back on the road.  Our next destination was Pont du Gard, an ancient Roman aqueduct bridge that crosses the Gardon River.  Today it has been preserved and is surrounded by a national park with over seven kilometers of trails to explore.  It is an absolute marvel and a stunning site.  Big R did a great job capturing its beauty in photos.  He took quite a few in B&W, but for some reason the color photos of this amazing structure were so striking to me.
Pont du Gard - construction sometime between 19 A.D. to 60 A.D. by the Romans to carry an aqueduct
Pont du Gard crosses the Gardon River
The aqueduct crossed the river at the top of the bridge structure
View from the top of the aqueduct
After the Romans fell, the bridge remained an important way to
 levy tolls from people needing to cross the
Gardon River - little r and I got to cross the bridge for free, such nobility :) 
My favorite photograph from our visit at Pont du Gard
We left Pont du Gard and drove into the heart of Provence.  Several guide books recommended a visit to St. Remy-de-Provence, so we decided it would be a great place to grab dinner.  Along the way, we marveled at the beautiful tree-lined streets.
We decided to make a quick stop in Tarascon to discover a medieval castle described in our guide book as one that makes fairy tales.  I have to say, it was probably one of the coolest castles I've visited.  The history is a long one, but it did serve as a Palace for quite awhile, so the layout of the castle is elaborate.  It is now in the hands of the French government, which has done an incredible job preserving the original character of the castle.  They didn't try to furnish the structure, but instead designed a map to take you from room to room describing what once belonged within each of the walls.  The rest was left to your imagination.  I loved that!  For some reason this was so much fun, and much easier to visit with a 3-year-old than a castle furnished with antiques and precious items.

The castle's design definitely reminded me of a fairy tale or two
A view from inside the garden
A peak through a window in the castle
A view of the river from the castle roof
Despite being cranky, we managed a few smiles from our little man
We got back in the car and headed for St. Remy.  After hours of fighting, little r finally succumbed to sleep, and we were able to explore St. Remy at a leisurely pace while the little man rested in my arms.  The town was definitely sweet and very French. The boutique stores and architecture made for a lovely stroll.  Despite the plethora of choices for dinner, they were all situated along busy roads.  Being much more tired than we anticipated, we ended up sitting on the patio of a restaurant not far from where we parked the car.  We could have done without the street noise, but the salads were delicious and exactly what our bodies needed. Little r woke up before we finished, most likely from all of the road noise, but he was super happy to have slept and even happier to grab a few bites to eat.

Beautiful vegetable stand in St. Remy de Provence
Cute boutiques littered the street of St. Remy
Lavender pillows were the most common sight at stores throughout Provence
It was time to head to our final destination of the day, L'Isle sur la Sorgue.  This was another of the many small towns in Provence where I booked us a room for the night.  This town is not one you'll readily find in guidebooks.  In fact, it was kind of an accident that I found it at all, so I'm thinking it's one of those secrets only the locals or common vacationers know about.  While looking for affordable B&B's in Provence, I came across our hotel, and L'Isle sur la Sorgue looked like it was just about our speed.

L'Isle sur la Sorgue is known for its many antique shops and its old, but yet still functioning, water wheels all throughout the city.  It sits on the Sorgue River and it has many waterside cafes and restaurants lining the canals, with pleasant French boutiques and bakeries in the center of the old town near the church.  I knew we would probably like this little town, but I had no idea how much of a gem it would be.  The hotel was perfect.  It sat right on top of the canal where the river was dammed into a small lake.  The location of the hotel was right at the edge of a round-a-bout, which made driving to it a small challenge, but once we were there, we couldn't believe how nice the place was, especially since we paid about 60 EUR to stay there.

Mostly though, we were disappointed we had listened to the guidebooks and chose to do dinner in St. Remy.  L'Isle sur la Sorgue would have been a fabulous place to enjoy a meal, but we were stuffed.  After checking into our hotel, we knew despite how tired we were, that we needed a small walk through town to wind down our toddler.  Besides, I wanted to see the cute little town lit up by street lights.

Night view from our hotel, Les Terrasses Du Bassin, in L'Isle sur la Sorgue
Night along the Sorgue River
Streetlight reflections in the Sorgue River
Our first day in Provence was coming to a close.  It was time to put our exhausted child and our "barking dogs" to bed to rest up for more adventures to come.  We were excited to see this sweet little town in the daylight, and we were equally looking forward to our views of the Cote d'Azur.

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