Out and About in France: Provence

14 Mar

Pardon the recent barrage of blog posts, but I’m finally getting caught up.

The last weekend in February, we USCers took a weekend trip together to Provence. Being the first part of France I saw in 2004 and also revisited in 2007, Provence has a very special place in my heart. I was really looking forward to going back. And everyone was excited for a little southern sunshine and warmth. Heck, I even left my winter coat at home and just brought my sweatshirt.

Shortly after the TGV departed from the Gare de Lyon, a woman and her young son (maybe 5?) sat across from us. The woman was confused because the seats she had reserved were already taken by other people in our group. After examining her ticket, she realized that she had accidentally booked the wrong day. “Maman a fait une bêtise,” she repeatedly told her son, whilst clearly distraught. She told her son to sit still while she went to find the conductor and explain the situation to him (the train had already started moving).

Her son, who happened to be named Grégory, became visibly distressed when his mom left. His eyes welled up with tears as he wistfully let out a “Maman…” — fortunately, he didn’t break down crying. When Maman reappeared, his face lit up and he exclaimed, “Maman!” They spent much of the ride reading little French stories and colouring, briefly interrupted when Grégory announced “Je vais vomir,” and was rushed to the bathroom (fortunately for us). His mother had warned him that he might throw up after she spotted him licking the window.

At any rate, Grégory’s antics aside, it was nice watching the French countryside go by from the train. The rolling hills, pastures, forests, picturesque villages, mountains… There’s also a point when you can tell that you’ve definitely passed from the North into the South. They’re like two different worlds. We arrived in a sunny but windy Avignon. We would later discover that the city’s name derives from a Gaulish phrase meaning “City of the violent wind.”

Upon arrival, we had some free time for lunch, so I led some of my friends to my favourite place in Avignon, the Rocher des Doms, a cave-like rock formation in a beautiful park. The underside of the rock contains a fountain, while the top provides an excellent view of the area. We got some sandwiches and ate at a picnic table sheltered from the Mistral.

After lunch, we had a guided tour of the Palais des Papes with Mirek, our friendly and enthusiastic tour guide.  I never found the interior of the palace to be particularly interesting, and since I hadn’t slept much the night before, I found myself struggling to stay awake. Later on, the group split up and some of us checked out a local wine store before heading to the Pont d’Avignon, which, unfortunately, had already closed.

I’ve been to Avignon three times and still haven’t danced on that bloody bridge.

Anyway, it was nice to sit near the bridge and enjoy the sunset. Funny, because the last time I was in Avignon, there was a spectacular sunset — which I was unable to enjoy while desperately searching for my couchsurfing host.

We hesitated on where to eat dinner, but eventually settled on a pretty mediocre place… My pizza was filling, at any rate. I just hate paying so much money for a meal and then not really liking my food. But Europe is overpriced in every aspect, I guess. As for our hotel in Avignon, I was pleasantly surprised by how nice it was. Right across from the Palais des Papes, it had a wonderful old atmosphere and some of the rooms had spacious four-post beds (not mine).

The next morning, we left for the Pont du Gard. The weather was gorgeous — sunshine, no wind, and temperatures in the 60s (which felt like the 70s at times!) I was particularly excited about going to the Pont du Gard because I hadn’t had a chance to see it again in 2007, but I remembered how beautiful the area was. My memory did not disappoint me.

A 2,000-year old Roman aqueduct surrounded by lush rolling hills and beautiful, blue-green water… what more can you ask for? I didn’t even need my sweater with all that sunshine. We had a brief tour of the acqueduct, including passage through the top level, where I hit my head on the low ceiling. Ow. Afterwards, I attempted to navigate through some of the hiking trails in the adjacent hills, but decided to be safe and descend back towards the river.

On the river bank, I simply lounged, reflected, and enjoyed the warmth. For a moment, I was able to feel the wonder and happiness of my first trip to France again.

I would have liked to spend the entire day there and have a picnic, but we had to continue on to Arles. Another place we visited back in 2004, it was interesting to see a lot of the sites again — the Roman amphitheatre, the theatre ruins, the obelisk. There was an interesting event going on around the obelisk — some kind of art exhibit where people were serving super-cheap crepes and beverages, which were to be eaten on comfortable chairs and couches arranged on the plaza. We also discovered the “Espace Van Gogh,” which contained a very attractive flower garden.

We all agreed that we had been given too much time in Arles. There isn’t really that much to do, and our tour of the amphitheatre was rather short as well. But it was simply a prelude to the real highlight of the day — one of my other favourite places from my first trip to France — Les Baux de Provence.

Despite its touristy atmosphere, Les Baux really is a beauty. The Medieval cobblestone streets, the castle ruins… but most of all, the breathtaking view of the southern French countryside. As you look out over it all from the top of the castle, there’s something in the southern air blowing across your face that moves you, I think. At the risk of sounding cucul, I’d even say that you can feel thousands of years of history in that wind.

While I enjoyed watching the southern light turn to dusk, I think we all felt a little rushed at Les Baux. It would have been nice to spend more time there, but we had to head to Aix for our hotel and dinner.

And boy did dinner deliver.

Graciously paid for by USC, my meal consisted of a tomato stuffed with mozarella cheese, an amazing leg of lamb with mashed potatoes, and a deathly delicious chocolate moelleux. It was arguably one of the most delicious and satisfying meals of my life.

Our hotel in Aix was also really nice. I guess our USC tuition does have its benefits.

The next morning, we had a walking tour of Aix (under some drizzle, unfortunately) which culminated at Cézanne’s studio outside the city. We returned to the town to hit up the great market and to try some cookies at La Cure Gourmande, which happen to be ridiculously good (fortunately, I’ve discovered a store in Bercy Village). I think Aix is a more attractive place in the spring and summer when the tree-lined Cours Mirabeau is in its full glory, but it’s a nice town nonetheless. There’s something truly authentic and truly Provençal about the city. Its lack of famous landmarks has actually spared it from the encroachment of tourism.

We took the train from Aix to Marseille, in order to take the TGV back to Paris. It was nice to see the Mediterranean, albeit briefly, from the train. We had some downtime at Marseille-St-Charles, so I went outside the station for the requisite view of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde:

Marseille may be a ghetto, but it brought back good memories from 2007. I wonder how my couchsurfing hosts and their plethora of pets are doing these days.

Finally, the photographs:


Pont du Gard & Arles

Les Baux

Aix & Marseille

Je viens du Sud, et par tous les chemins j’y reviens…


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