In September, 2012, we spent a week in St Martin-deCastillon, a little town in Provence.
St Martin-de-Castillon is a picturesque hilltop town a few kilometers east of the town of Apt, the nearest sizable place; it has one café and one épicerie, a church, a few houses and not too much else. Our landlady Nicoline’s house, a converted olive oil mill, was at the bottom end of town. We were immediately taken with the green shutters and iron cross outside the front door, as well as the suitably-picturesque village.
Get away from it all in this excellent location.
Since we were leaving Italy and heading to France, it was my turn to take charge of things, given my (often theoretical) command of the language of Voltaire. We arrived in Nice about noon on a sunny day, found the car we’d reserved for the week at Hertz. I was gratified to find I didn’t often need to resort to English as the lady explained the deal and we were pleased with the car, which was actually larger than the Toyota we had in Chianti. It was a Corso, but I don’t remember the make right now. Our lodging for the next week was in a place called St Martin-de-Castillon, a tiny village about 40 miles east of Avignon. The plan was to take the A8 then the A7 most of the way, then head back east a bit to the town. This was what our hostess Nicoline recommended and given that my alternate route in Italy fostered a mass of con- Above and Below Scenery along one of our hikes with hostess Nicoline. fusion, I decided to take her advice. As in Italy, the problem at the airport was finding the expressway. It should have been simple, given the amount of signage, but we made it complicated. Then, once on the A8, the tolls began. The first péage had a woman taking money out of the machine and since I didn’t have correct change, she kindly made it for me. Tolls paid, I was ready to cruise a while, but Barb saw signs for Cannes and said, “Oh, let’s have lunch there.” I thought that could be nice. We both had visions of finding a cute little café on the dazzling water and having a civilized lunch in the sun. Wrong. Having been too cheap to buy proper guide books with maps and such, we had no idea about where anything was and though we finally stumbled onto a nice café for lunch, it was not on the water and we were not even sure if it was in Cannes at all. Still, it was dining al fresco in France and the bread was fantastic. Back on the autoroute after some casting about, we headed west. The next toll booth was unmanned, credit cards only and it didn’t take the Visa we’d been using all over. We hurriedly tried every card in the stack til we got lucky with American Express. We had one more toll booth before our exit at Cavaillon and I thought we had it knocked when I smoothly inserted the AmEx card, only to be rejected. This road took the Visa, however. I spent the next week trying to figure out how to avoid this in the future, like getting a prepaid card or something, but I was at a loss. Apparently the different autoroutes, the toll-taking, anyway, are operated by different authorities or companies or something and each takes different cards. Autres pays, autres moeurs, I suppose, but it was confusing and maddening and neither good old Rick Steves nor any of the other Dining al fresco after a long day on the road. sources mentioned this little detail. Maybe if we’d only These idyllic dinners weren’t that frequent once the weather turned cool and cloudy. bought one of those dang guidebooks….
Forqualquier Forqualquier was an easy drive and we found the market (hard to miss, since it straddled both sides of the main road through town) and then, more importantly, we found a parking space. And pretty close to the market, at that. We wandered through, taking notice of what was for sale, finally lingering too long before a cheese seller’s booth. He plied us with samples and then wouldn’t hear of our settling for a small slice and cut us a massive hunk that weighed out at about 25€! It was more cheese than we bargained for but it was certainly good. Later on in the week we read about “cheese hustlers”, vendors who charm you into a bigger cheese commitment than you’d really expected! We starting wandering anew but before we could do ourselves any more damage it started to drizzle. We started back toward some shelter when the skies opened up and we joined the crowd under the portico of the mairie. When the rain let up a bit we started toward the car, figuring it wasn’t very amusant shopping in the rain; on the way we got some instant ramen and a couple of egg rolls and hit the road again with the feeling we’d pretty much blown our picturesque Provençale market expedition! For that day, anyway.
Forqualquier, before the deluge.
Tuesday dawned cloudy, but at least not rainy; at any rate, it was that way when I finally opened the shutters about 8:30. We went for another walk with Nicoline in the area and after the walk, the weather improved sufficiently for a trip through the countryside. For some reason we headed for the country south of Apt; perhaps Nicoline recommended a few towns there or we saw it in one of the guides in the apartment.
For cartography, we relied on the map furnished by Hertz when we rented the car (a pretty darn good one it was, too) and a 40-year old map I’d acquired in France when I lived there in the ‘70’s. Not the most wonderful way to get around but between the two maps and hand-drawn maps I’d make off the internet before we left in the morning, we managed. The first place was Bonnieux, a hilltop town with some impressive drop offs and a scenic upper village surrounded by a big wall. The city and town planning in the area definitely stressed defensive arrangements, a remnant of the wars of religion that wracked the region in the 16th century. By this time the weather had improved considerably and was quite pleasant and we took advantage by having coffee at small café terrace perched on a wall the side of the road. The coffee was good and so was the scenery; while we were there we chatted with some Brits who had come up on bikes and were ready to go back home. They weren’t all that young but they certainly had better legs than we did! One of my hand-drawn wonders!
From Bonnieux we went down the road to Lacoste, which is smaller and even hillier and noted for being the site of one of the chateaux owned and occupied by local notable the Marquis de Sade. We parked on the flat land at the base of the village and hiked up. Along the way a pair on mountain bikes road up the street we were struggling up and everyone got out of the way and cheered. We reached the chateaux ruins and looked around at the outside but declined to pay 10€ each to go inside and see the ruins and some kind of art show that didn’t look too appealing. Another interesting sidelight of Lacoste – it has a campus (well, a building, really) of the Savannah College of Art and Design, which was quite a discovery in this out-of-the-way place.
Pont Julien On the way back to the main road to Apt and home we swung by the Pont Julien, a Roman bridge across the Calavon (also called the Coulon), as part of the Via Domitia. It’s one of the better-preserved Roman bridges in Provence and it’s quite interesting to stand on the bridge and wonder about all the people who used that same bridge two thousand years ago.
St. Rémy we really had only 2 more sight-seeing days in Provence, so we thought Wednesday we would see St Rémy and Arles (Van Gogh sites and much recommended, plus there was a nice market there on Wednesdays) and Thursday we would visit Avignon. We’d learned our limits on how much to attempt in a day and while the distances weren’t large, navigating the country roads was enough of a chore to wear us out. We got to St Rémy easily enough but had trouble finding the market. After the second trip skirting around the historic center I asked a lady about the market and she told us it had been cancelled because of the fair Well, zut then. That was a nuisance, as was not finding a parking space because of the damned fair so we decided to head on to Arles. It was on the road to Arles we discovered the tourist information center and got maps and all, plus free parking (the pay machine being hors de service when we arrived). The historic center of St Rémy is quaint and picturesque and full of little boutiques catering to the tourist trade, of which there was a good amount. We located a bakery selling sandwiches and got a couple for lunch, which we ate at the edge of the fair listening to a woman standing in the middle of an esplanade sing old French favorites. Then we followed the “Van Gogh trail” (a series of plaques discussing his various paintings along a back road leading to the mental hospital where he spent some time in his last years). This was interesting in a low-key way, as was the view of a few Roman ruins in the vicinity of the mental hospital, then it was on to Arles. Our visit to St Rémy worked well, mostly by blind luck, and I again reflected on the idea that having a proper guide book with maps and all would make things a whole lot easier.
Barb with lunch near the fair. Street in St Rémy tourist district.
Olive grove near asylum where Van Gogh spent a few years.
Arles In Arles, we found a parking spot at the river near the historic center. There were a few river cruise boats alongside at the quai and we fantasized a moment about taking one of those cruises, then we wandered off into the center of Arles with a vague plan to see the Roman ruins. The theatre and amphitheatre were very impressive, though we didn’t tarry overlong, and sat down for coffee at an outside table. When I ordered inside I noticed something called a “noisette” and I figured it must be a hazelnut flavored coffee, so I ordered one for Barb. Turned out it was an espresso with a little hot milk in it, turning the coffee hazelnut colored, hence the name. After coffee, we did some shopping then returned to the car and scooted north to Avignon, taking the fast road which put us right into Avignon’s five o’clock traffic as we headed east toward home. The disenchantment begins.
Left Cafe near the Roman theatre, above right. Right One of the river cruisers at the dock.
L’Isle sur La Sorgue Because we’d decided to leave a day early to avoid a panicky morning drive to Nice the day of our flight, we now had one sight-seeing day (Thursday)left in Provence. We were loathe to spend it fighting tourists in Avignon, so we heretically decided to bypass Avignon for l’Islesur-la-Sorgue, a place we’d heard about as something interesting to see and (not coincidentally) the site of a Thursday market. The market was okay but not mind-blowing; the town itself is quite nice, featuring the La Sorgue River running through town and cafés and restaurants along its banks. We ate at one of them (La Passarelle). We both had steak-frites and enjoyed it a lot, plus the setting was unbeatable.
Vénasque After this low-key visit, we were even more unwilling than ever to join the tour bus crowd at the more famous sights to our west, so we decided to run up to Vénasque, a small hill town where our friends in Paris, Sarah and Frédéric, had a weekend home. As we expected, it was a delightful town and the weather was lovely, so we spent quite a while walking around. If we’d have had enough minutes on our phone, we’d have called Sarah to find out where their house was. As it was, we walked right past it without knowing it. There were a few other tourists around, mainly a senior hiking group and a bicycle tour group.
Rousillon On the way home we went by Rousillon, which is famous for its ocher cliffs, a source for the eponymous coloring mineral which was extensively mined in the late 1800’s until the ‘30’s. Coming from Colorado, which is itself named after its landscape colors, we were less impressed than most, I guess, by the florid landscape but we liked the town and took the time for a coffee in a pleasant place.
The next morning, we hit the road, not sorry we’d decided to take a travel day to avoid panic on Saturday. Accordingly, we took the leisurely route to Juanles-Pins, going over the Montagne de Luberon and through Pertuis, a road which involved a great deal of hill-driving reminiscent of Italy -- tight curves, wonderful views, etc.
That evening we went out again for dinner and found a nice enough place outdoors on the sidewalk. Barb ordered une formule but when the salad came and it was big enough for a whole meal, she told the head waiter to cancel the rest of it. By the time we finished it was raining a bit and we walked home in the drizzle.
Before I left I drew a map from Google Maps about how to reach the hotel from the autoroute, street names and everything. Of course, on the ground, things look different – for instance, there are no street names posted where a person in a roundabout can see them. We did have an interesting ride, however, right through the middle of the beach section and the end-of-summer sidewalk sale that had the crowds out in force. This distracted us from seeing the one street sign we could have seen that would have taken us to our hotel; but, we didn’t see it and we were looking for “AC” and the local usage was “Ambassadeur”. Alors. We continued past the beach town section along the water and Barb was saying, “I think we’re leaving town,” and I was remembering my map reconnaissance and coming to the same conclusion. To avoid ending up lost in the next town, Antibes, I took the first left inland, happened on a likely-looking through street and went the other way, stumbling onto the street we were looking for moreor-less by chance. Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn now and again.
We didn’t need to leave particularly early Saturday morning so we had time for a leisurely breakfast, which was quite an affair, it turned out. AC Hotels, as well as Best Westerns, have a buffet that caters to all possible tastes – eggs and bacon and sausage for the Americans; rolls and pancetta for the Italians; croissants and pastries for the French and Nutella for everyone. The coffee was good, too, which is actually the norm in Europe and shouldn’t be a surprise.
The AC Ambassadeur is a new hotel that was spiffy in the extreme. We checked in and found our room had a view of the harbor and neighboring headlands and all in between, including the construction site next door and its several cranes. And the room was very comfortable. We were tickled pink, finding this a good transition from Nicoline’s comfortable but funky digs and whatever we would find when we got to Paris on Saturday. As soon as we squared ourselves away a bit, we headed off to look at the beach area and the sidewalk sale. Along the way we had a Nutella crepe and stopped at a seaside café for a beer, only I got something odd that looked like a neon girlie drink. So much for my panache as a flaneur on the French Riviera! That evening we went out again for dinner and found a nice enough place outdoors on the sidewalk. Barb ordered une formule but when the salad came and it was big enough for a whole meal, she told the head waiter to cancel the rest of it. By the time we finished it was raining a bit and we walked home in
I’d gotten a map the night before with instructions for getting to the autoroute, so I was feeling good about finding our way to the airport. We hadn’t gone a half mile before being diverted – the road was blocked by an accident. After a moment of panic, we found our way around it and got to the airport in plenty of time. In fact, too much time – we had to wait to check in at EasyJet and spent the time eating lunch. Then we had a good session of queuing since the line started forming early and EasyJet has firstcome, first-served seating. Leaving the South of France and headed for Paris was an exciting time, since Paris is always a thrill to visit and we were going to be there for a month!