Often enough, when you read about a place, or see it in the movies, you develop unrealistic expectations or preconceptions about it. Our trip to the south of France exceeded anything I could have imagined. It was fantastic and the only thing that could have made it more enjoyable would have been more time.
First, let me say that I had some trepidation about traveling with Caesar, especially in the hot weather we experienced (30-40 degrees every day, until the sun went down), but he was a trooper. He was very well behaved, aside from peeing on every famous landmark we visited. Andrew carried a pack with two large bottles of water, a bowl and drool towels everywhere we went. We made sure to be in the air conditioned car during the afternoons and found shady outdoor patios for lingering lunches.
Caesar attracts attention wherever he goes and he met many people and other dogs from all over Europe. I think he had as much fun as we did but is now enjoying the shade and cooler temperatures again.
Our adventure began at 5 (o’ bloody early) am, on Thursday. We were on the road by 6, heading to Luxemburg. We figured the drive to Avignon would take us at least 12 hours so we drove long and hard. (Our neighbor L and several of Andrew’s co-workers assured us that no sane Belgian would ever do this drive in one day). We stopped for a quick picnic and a couple of Caesar pit stops, but that was it. Surprisingly we didn’t run in to much construction at all and no traffic jams! (Unheard of).
We were actually in Avignon and at our hotel by a little after 4. The hotel was new and clean. It was basic, but all that we needed and they were very good about Caesar. (I know I’ve rambled on about the pet thing before but why in Canada is it such a crime for a dog to go to lunch with you at an outdoor patio if he’s well behaved??) We were beat from the drive and it was still very hot outside so we decided to have a siesta before we went exploring.
After our nap, we headed into Avignon for supper. The old town is surrounded by walls and the Papal Palace is one of the highlights. The roman ruins are prominent and the sense of eternity is very strong here. We found the most wonderful supper spot (which unbeknownst to us at the time, would set a trend for the entire trip). The patio was in a quiet square, right beside an ancient cathedral. Our table was literally four feet from the doors. The food was spectacular… loads of fresh veggies and excellent wine. I had beef that was melt in your mouth and Andrew had a lamb stew. Caesar had his own bowl of water, provided by the manager, and some smuggled bread dipped in Andrew’s stew. Dessert was chocolate gooey goodness. By the time we were done, the sun had set and the air was just cool enough to be comfortable for Caesar. We strolled a bit more and then hit the hay.
The next morning we set out for Les Baux-de-Provence – a city carved into the Apilles (little Alps) mountains. In true SMD style, we had many fortunate detours on our trip. The first one happened that morning when we spotted some roman ruins, outside of St-Rémy-de-Provence.
It turned out to be the triumphal arch and mausoleum at Glanum. Dating from 10 BC, the arch celebrates Caesar’s conquest of the Greeks and Gaul. Our Caesar wasn’t that impressed, but Andrew and I were. We were also impressed to learn that the olive groves across the street were the very ones Van Gogh had painted when he was staying nearby. With the mountain backdrop, it was easy to see where he got his inspiration. We strolled briefly but the sun was getting hot and the dog drooly, so we hopped back in the car and headed to Les Baux.
Les Baux is breathtaking and sees up to two million visitors a year. Andrew made a Peggy’s Cove comment as we struggled to find a parking spot outside the town. It is beautiful; the view is breathtaking, and on a Friday at the end of the high season, the crowds were bearable. At the time, I thought it wonderful, and still do, however after seeing some of the other out of the way hilltop towns, I can say that the tourism has definitely detracted from the authenticity. It didn’t detract from the wonderful views though. Caesar met lots of folks here and had an ice cream but we were running out of shade and it was time to hit the air conditioning.
We didn’t have any set plans for the afternoon, but it was about time for lunch. On our way back to town we spotted the Abbaye de Montmajour. It is an impressive structure but we weren’t sure we could go in with Caesar in tow. As we were stopped in the parking lot across the street, we spotted a little café in the shade. We asked if the dog would be alright and the waitress said he was fine, so we grabbed a corner of the patio and had another stunning view. We had some of the best thin crust pizza I’ve ever had. The rosé wine was light and refreshing and we spent a few hours lingering in the shade.
Since the afternoon was blazing hot we thought it was time for some sight-seeing by car. We decided to visit La Camargue – a nature reserve and one of Europe’s larges salt marshes. La Camargue is home to native white horses and large black bulls that are used in bull fights. We saw these as well as my first wild flamingos. There were hundreds of them… not the bright pink of the ones kept in zoos and fed food colouring, but the palest pink with bright pink under-wings that you could see when they flew. We drove past the salt flats and saw huge mountains of salt drying in the sun. We drove all the way to the tip of the delta, so we could wade in the Mediterranean. Caesar enjoyed this part the most. We had a quick beach stroll and got back in the car with a salty dog to explore the rest of the area.
On the way back to Avignon, we explored Les Alpilles further. Andrew enjoyed driving some of the hairpin curves and we saw some beautiful views of these jagged, bare rock outcroppings. By the time we got back, I was too beat to contemplate another 3 hour supper. We wanted something fast and easy … we did the unthinkable… we went for fast food. Avignon seems to have this effect on us. On our European bus tour, the only time we ever had fast food was at a McD’s in Avignon. We only had a brief lunch stop there and we spent most of it in line at the money changers (ah, the days before the Euro). We ended up grabbing McD’s and it was one of the most expensive meals we had on the trip. This time, we thought at least we’d go European and eat at a Quick. Well, it was our first and last time with Quick. If possible, it was even worse than McD’s. It filled the void and that was about it… Lessons learned.
On Saturday morning we set out for Pont du Gard. This is one of the best preserved Roman aqueducts in existence. Dating from 40-70 AD it is an impressive structure… more so when you consider what little they would have had to construct it with. We walked across the Pont and Caesar had many admires. He was very hot by the time we got to the other side. Andrew noticed that some people were wading in the water below with their dogs, so we took Caesar down for a swim. The ‘river’ was not much more than a stream, this late in the year, and Caes did his best to deplete it further. After a good swim and some great pictures we headed back to the car.
Andrew wanted to do more mountain driving. Our guide book had a recommended driving tour of the Dentelles – a rocky region known for superb Côtes-du-Rhône wine. We had purchased a detailed map of the Provence region before we left as well, and it also had much of this area marked as ‘scenic route.’ We weren’t disappointed. This drive will definitely be added to my list of great SMDs. The roads are twisty, the views are breath-taking and the wineries are indeed plentiful and good.
As luck would have it, we found another idyllic lunch spot, in a tiny town called Gigondas perched on a hill. Lunch was fantastic again and the wine was excellent again. After a long lunch we popped in to one of the many wine stores and had an impromptu tasting (mostly because the woman running the shop stopped to talk about Caesar and invited him too cool off inside). We ended up leaving with seven delicious bottles that only cost us 50 euro. We spent the rest of the afternoon winding through the mountains and stopping to admire the views.
We returned to Avignon that night and had a late supper at a patio right in front of the Papal Palace… talk about a spectacular view! Again the food was perfect and the dessert was the best yet. Caesar was again treated royally. He did however get rather upset at a busker (Caesar is scared of/hates guitars … no idea why) but even he kindly moved on and we enjoyed a wonderful meal.
Sunday morning I had one more stop I wanted to make before we headed home. Back into the mountains (which Andrew didn’t argue about), we headed to the Abbaye de Sénanque. This Abbey is featured in just about every travel photography book I own and it graces the cover of our Provence guide book. Unfortunately we had missed the lavender season as there are fields in front of the abbey which make for spectacular photos. It is still beautiful though. Nestled in a valley the large grey structure just seems to have an air of peacefulness. After taking my requisite photos, we took the scenic route back to the highway.
Back on the road we noted one very important thing – The French don’t understand how to use signal lights. Now, we’ve all been behind a blinker before … usually some little old person who put the blinker on three days ago and never remembered to shut it off. But Southern France is FULL of blinkers … then there are the ‘signal right and turn lefters,’ and the ‘what’s a signal light?’ crowd. Once we got past the frustration it was actually quite funny in its consistence.
The trek home was detoured, not by us this time, but by road construction outside of Luxemburg. So we took a different, and longer route home. We finally rolled in around 10:30. We stayed awake long enough to feed the cats and put stuff in the general direction of away and then zonked out. I’m not sure how four days of housework multiplies by 10 when you go on vacation but it seems I did laundry for an army yesterday. Now life is settled back to its routine but I’m already planning our next trip. Did we get to see everything we hoped – no. Did we see things we never expected to – yes! Will we go back – definitely!