Provence and more - part 1
|Nice - Aix-en-Province - Gordes - Avignon - Les Beaux - Arles - Pont du Gard - Nimes - Monpellier -|
|Set - Camargue - Carcassonne - Andorra - Barcelona - Costa Brava - Figueras - Narbonne -|
|Marseilles - Saint Tropez - Cannes - Grasse - Monte Carlo - Saint-Paul-de-Vence - Nice|
Disclaimer: this document was written as a private letter, and turned into the text below only two years later. Same style was preserved, with cosmetic changes. There is one narrator, who stands for two authors who actually wrote it.
Here comes a long ago promised report on our journey. Introduction: There were four of us (Lev, Natalie, Alla and Julie). We rented the car from Israel - luckily, it was an automatic one, which comes with an air conditioner by default. Otherwise, I'm not sure we'd bother to make sure about an air conditioner in the car.
We are used to take air conditioners for granted, whereas in Europe they are optional. Without an air conditioner, especially this time of the year (it was September) we'd get sometimes a bit fried, so... better take care of it before you find yourself sewating in the car. We stayed in hotels, mostly in relatively cheap ones. There are a few hotel networks, of which we were recommended two: "Etap", which is more expensive, and more convenient, and "Formule-1", where all the public conveniences are in the corridor, but you will survive - there are always vacant cabines (WC & showers).
With "Etap" we had an unpleasant story. We sent them faxes to Aix and to Avignon with the number of our credit card, in order to make a reservation. We got a confirmation from Avignon, whereas Aix kept silence. We sent them two more - no answer. We called them. "Eh", -they said, "No vacant rooms", -they said. OK then, we made a reservation in "Formule-1". You can imagine how surprised we were to recieve a bill for that night from "Etap". So we sent them yet another fax, with the bill from "Formule-1" for the same night, and they sent us a refund, in francs though. Beside that, we didn't have any trouble finding a place to stay. A few times we asked at the reception to make a reservation at our next destination, and the receptionist phoned her colleagues, thus saving us from wandering and searching for a public phone. It is important to make a reservation for holidays and weekends, although some say that in France you'll find a place to stay, no matter what.
The route was planned mostly by Natalie, not without the help of the "Michelin" guide and friendly advices. For the first 10 days we were supposed to be in constant movement, and for the 4 days left - a calm stay at Cote d'Azur.
Thus, on the 9th of September 1999 (such a long time ago!) we arrived to Nice, got our car ("Citroen Saxo", would have been perfect, if it hadn't been for its trunk, in which our numerous bags didn't find much comfort) and began our trip to Aix-en-Provence , where we had a reservation in "Formule-1" (as you already know). It was a training period, during which we were getting used to the car and learning to avoid toll roads. From the airport we drove straight into a toll road No. A8, and soon after a few kilometers for 6 francs realized that it was just not worth it (like paying for WC). We learned to avoid these roads pretty fast, and only God (and maybe some French road-office clerk) knows how much money we saved on that. In addition to that, we had something to keep us busy - avoiding these roads is a kind of sports. The national roads go in parallel to the toll ones, and though they are a bit slower, you get to see much more of the surroundings. Generally, the roads and the direction signs in France are very "user friendly". As soon as you get used to them, it is easy to find your way (especially if you have a map). Most of the crossroads are built as traffic circles (except for the highways), with all the directions marked. We arrived to Aix-en-Provence by nightfall, and found our hotel without problem (by he way, these hotels are located mostly outside the city, and therefore are inaccessible without a vehicle).
In the morning we had a nice walk in Aix - this is a very nice city with alleys, fountains and all. We left Aix towards Gordes, which obviously just didn't want to be found, but once foud, it was worth all the trouble - a lovely medieval city, beautifully built into a rocky mountain. The landscape was pretty much Mediterranian.
There is an interesting touristic site next to Gordes - les Bories, where you can find mysterious old huts entirely made of stone. No one seems to know what they had been built for, and that's why they are so mysterious. We continued our trip through Fontainċ de Vaucluse, without any idea what to look for there. Later on (too late!) we found out that this was the place to eat trouts.
In the evening we arrived to Avignon. There we had a pleasant surprise - our "Etap" hotel was located next to the old city wall. We had a nice walk, but it was getting late, and we were getting tired. In the morning, we headed towards the famous Avignon Bridge (Le pont d'Avignon), a very old and a very famous bridge, two of its arcs in ruins. There is a popular French song about people dancing on the Avignon bridge, to which we listened on our way to the city. Llistening to French songs about places we were visiting was a kind of leitmotif of our trip. The bridge was very nice, we even pretended like dancing on it a bit, whereas the Popes' palace was quite disappointing to some of us. Natalie says that for all that money we could have done something better (the tickets to the palace included an unnecessary exhibition). Most of the halls of the palace exhibited empty walls, so she grumbled all the way to the two that had survived (or were rebuilt) and were pretty.
We continued to Les Baux - a village, where Paul Bertier discovered the bauxites; that's how they got their name. Later aluminium was extracted from there - isn't it hard to believe that it was only in the 20's of the XX-th century that aluminium was first extracted? The medieval village is surrounded by beautiful mountains of this wonderful mineral wealth. Besides that, we stumbled there into a pleasant surprise named Moyen Age de Lumiere - Cathedrale d'Images. It used to be an open-cast mine, the remains of which form great halls, with lots of horizontal and vertical surfaces. It is so cool (not to say cold) inside, that they give you blankets at the entrance. Anyway, there are slides of middle-age paintings screened upon the surfaces to the sound of middle-age music. It was nice to discover, especially realizing that no one of our friends knew about this - not even the "Michelin".
Inspired by our success, we drove to Arles (to the sounds of Bizet's "Arlesienne"), where we found a surprise of another kind. It was Saturday night, and the city was very busy with the corrida. As we found out later, it was a farewell corrida to a famous woman-torreador, who was about to retire (if only we had known, we'd have prepared the right aria ahead!). So the city was partying - it was loud on the streets, brass bands everywhere, happy and almost drunk faces, smells of wine and roasted beef. I liked it a lot, except for the corrida which we didn't see and didn't want to see, whereas Natalie didn't enjoy it. But then, everyone liked the asylum garden, which Van Gogh had painted in. The garden looks pretty much the same as the painting - either well preserved or well remade, and you can see that while looking on the reproduction of the painting, which is kindly posed next to the garden.
We passed another night in Avignon, (by the way, there is a free parking next to the old city walls - which we got to appreciate), and in the morning continued to Pont du Gard. It is a small city, famous for its huge Roman aqueduct. Noble, so stately and photogenic the structure appeared to be that in a fit of temper we took an enormous amount of pictures, which we didn't know what to do with afterwards.
Already tired, we arrived to Nimes, took a look at the square house (la maison caree - another ancient Roman object), but since everything else in the city was closed (Sunday after all), we went to Monpellier. And - surprise! - still Sunday, everything is closed here as well, including the tourist information office. Those dead cities remind me of our Sabbaths. We continued towards Carcassonne, where we had a reservation at "Formule-1".
By the way, at the tourist information office you can get maps for free, but only if you bother to ask for them, because only the information lady knows where they are hidden. Natalie's French appeared to be very handy - she got at the office lots of advices about how, where and why. A few times, when we lost our way, these local maps came in handy.
About Carcassonne. It was supposed to be the highlight of our trip: a very well-preserved (and accurately restored) middle-age city - with a ditch,
a double city wall, a cathedral and all that kind of stuff. Unlike most of what we planned to see on our trip, this one is located on a large touristic route, which means that tourism is probably the only way for local people to make money. There we made an appointment with our British friends, who were by chance on a holiday somewhere in the midlands of France.
By the way, French people have a saying: "Il ne faux pas mourir sans avoir vu Carcassonne" - which means that you can't die if you have never seen Carcassonne. So we listened to George Brassens' sad song about a guy, who tried to be loyal to this French saying, but didn't succeed. However, he has a song with the same melody about another guy, who dreamt of seeing a policeman's wife's navel, with the same outcome, so... you don't really have to feel too much sorry for him.
Taking a walk through the city at night was a great success. First of all, you don't stumble into tourists, and second, the city is lit at night in a very unique and romantic way.
The next morning we couldn't elbow our way through, and the general impression was different. On the other hand, we could take pictures, which we did. To tell you the truth, the photos didn't come out that well.
We had lunch there in a little restaurant. It was a funny story, which I like to tell when I hear someone complaining about the service in Israel. This was French service. A cute likeable french girl took our order - I ordered a rabbit, for a change, and even promised Natalie a bit. One by one, everyone got the dishes they ordered, except for me - no rabbit in sight. I wasn't getting worried, I understood that they needed time to catch it, to pluck it... Eventually, I lost my patience, and with the help of my own translators I asked: "Like, where's my rabbit?", and the girl said: "Eh, we're out of rabbits." "Well, why didn't you say so in the first place?" -"Oops, I forgot." Throughout the conversation she was totally calm. Well, I was lucky that my friends were kind enough to share their meals with me, so I tasted a bit from everything.
After the rabbit incident, our tense schedule urged us to continue our trip towards Andorra.