Sunday, November 17, 2013

Provence & Côte D'Azur - 10 Days in South France Gems

When I think of our 10 day travels through Provence and Côte D'Azur, I feel that it qualifies us as stereotypical "touristy" travel agents: maximised number of sight-seeing sights with minimum loss of time and optimum use of resources (eyes roll). Included, some screw-ups in parts of what we thought was impressive planning!

It's not hard to imagine why the famed sun-soaked region of Provence are painters' favourite with so much to see, smell and taste amongst azure Mediterranean waters, cobalt blue skies, colourful flora of lavenders, sunflowers, olives, oranges and earthly ochres. 

Bear with me, for this itinerary style of post but this is exactly how we thought about it and I can recollect it in no other order!

Day 1: Arrive in Montpellier (from Barcelona)

Sleepy city at best (!) with a large student community. But a great TGV transport hub to get to from Spain and other parts of France. For us it was specifically to break the journey and hire a car for the rest of the southern france journey. 

Colourful trams and plenty of small fashion and craft ateliers. But alas no photos!

Screw up #1: How did we miss to see the grand scale Milau Viaduct, 120 km north of Montpellier? The highest bridge in the world with 7 mighty pylons was a shameful miss.

Day 2: Day trip to Camargue National Park, Les Baux and Arles

Dappled-white horses and open-armed pelicans beckoned on Day 2 at Camargue National Park. A vintage train ride through the otherwise boring marshlands included a (good) view of french cowboys (a.k.a gardians) in their leather pants and wide-rim black hats doing a marvel job at taming the wide-horn bulls. 

Next, a drive through olive groves and vineyards to the stunning stone-village of Les-Baux-de-Provence. The incredible rock formations makes this one of the most beautiful villages of France.


Our day ended at medieval Arles at a modern french restaurant and a walk along the famed rome coliseum, an amphitheatre still used for bull fights. 

Screw up #2: The day plan also included a visit to the triumphant Arch of Glanum near the village of Saint-Remy-de-Provence but we forgot to check their fall hours and hence missed to see it. Pretty fundamental!

Day 3: Leave Montpellier via L'Isle-Sur-La-Sorgue, Fontaine-de-Vaucluse & Gordes to Avignon

The Sunday morning markets of L'Isle-Sur-La-Sorgue were the largest that we've ever been to. In typical Provencal markets fashion, hundreds of stalls were overflowing with walnuts, olives, colourful baskets, children's toys, chills and bags and bags of lavender. Beware of quick chatting olive mongers which generously offer tastings but reveal the prices only after they have already prepared a sachet for you of one of their dips at 13 euros for 50gms. Whoa rip-off!

Compensating the purchase with a cheap-ish lunch we followed the river to its source in Fontaine-de-Vaucluse where one does not see a fountain! But instead, a large cave in the mountain where the river Sorgue flows out, at greater levels in summer. 

The highlight of our day was the visit to the Ochre mines in orange village of Gordes, Rousillon. In blinding shades of orange, yellow and red in this geological wonder can be explored with an easy Ochre trail that will no doubt result in pigmented soles. 

Us and the car rested at Avignon that night, to be explored on Day 4.

Day 4: Leave Avignon via Mont Ventoux, Sault & Aix-en-Provence to Cassis

The unimaginably narrow streets of Avignon old town scarred our driving desires the previous night so we circled outside the walls several times looking for a park. Not knowing that the medieval half-bridge was actually Pont D'Avignon (a.k.a. Saint Benezet Bridge) that originally had 22 arches washed away by Rhone several times. Make way for a raging river!
Visit to Palaise des Papes was no doubt very informative, but why didn't the popes leave any furniture behind? Beautiful from outside but empty on the inside.

Mont Ventoux - the most famous climb in the world's most famous bicycle race that we ascended by car, testing its gears (instead of our calves!) against the gradient. The winding road painted with names of cyclists led to a bare windswept summit with 360 views of Provence and beyond.

Screw up # 3: Determined to see Lavender fields we headed to our next destination via a long detour through Sault. The tourist officers aren't lying when they say that flowers only bloom from June to August, and we were deep into October.

The upmarket town of Aix-en-Provence was allocated 1.75 hrs. Just enough time to visit its long list of fountains, most were pretty while others quite shocking. 

We longed for a good rest and extremely pleased to find that our Cassis accommodation was actually as good as it was described.  

Day 5, Day 6 and Day 7: Cassis

The force of nature seemed to be overly biased during the fluvial erosion between the mediterranean coasts of Marseilles and Cassis. We sat quietly with our jaws dropped in the ferry tour to 8 of the most spectacular calanques (steep cliffs) from Cassis. Ports and beaches adorned the valley between the calanques. Luckily, we could access the beach by foot via a hike from Cassis - sturdy shoes saved us due to rounded boulders all along on Day 6.


Day 7, we just hung out at the cafe and in our studio all day as far as I can recollect!

Day 8: Leave Cassis via Saint-Tropez to Nice

I'm glad we visited A-listed Saint-Tropez as only a pit-stop to Nice. Although the jetset have long left this once celebrity town, the long line of luxurious yatchs definitely had an devaluing effect! Even the street cleaner had a fancy silent vacuum. More than anything it was fun to see enthusiastic old men played Pentanque at the square. 

We arrived at our Nice accommodation in the evening and called it a day after 2 serves each of Creme Brulée at dinner. 

Day 9: Day trip to Monte Carlo via Eze

Dissatisfied at being dissatisfied in Saint-Tropez (!), we headed to beguiling Monaco on Day 9 and completed our first-ever north to south of a country in a single day ;) This tiny french riviera country had more poshness than size but yet another victim of yesteryear glory.

Eze, on the other hand was medieval but had two perfumeries that figured in our to-do list: Galimard and Fragonard. The english tour at Fragonard was enjoyable and personalised (with just us two) and we were glad to just pass the fragrance test, only mistaking strawberry for lavendar! It's harder than you think.

Day 10: Day trip to Cannes and Downtown Nice

This was our last day and we still hadn't explored Nice properly. The glitzy sophisticated shores of Cannes (pronounced Canna) figured higher in the list, which turned out to be a star town indeed. Elegantly dressed locals and tourists walked fancy boulevard de La Croisette that begins at the Festivals Palace, venue of the famous Cannes Festival. 

We ended the day and our 10 day journey at the Cours Saleya area of Nice, known for its seafood restaurants and general buzz.