A Week in Provence

The following is a summary of my trip that may prove useful to other tourists. Plus it has pretty pictures! 🙂

Saturday – Got into Nice and slept for a looong time.  When we got up it was dark out.  We stopped at the Monoprix supermarket below our hotel and got some cheese, a baguette, and cookies.  I was surprised at how well-lit the city was at night.  There were a lot of people around and it felt very safe.  We walked down to the Promenade des Anglais and ate our food, which was simple and delicious.  There were people sitting on the beach at night.   They also had statues lit up in pastel colors in one of the squares.

Nice at night

Sunday – Walked over to the flower/ produce market at the Cours Saleya.  It was really quite charming.  They had tons of lavender products, fresh produce, mushrooms, cheeses, candied fruits, olives, and of course flowers.  We went into the old town and came across the Fenocchio gelato place, which has an amazing variety of flavors.  I got fig, which was pretty good.

The old town was gorgeous and I loved the mosaic tiling on the dome of the cathedral.

Nice cathedral

There was an old woman singing Edith Piaf songs in one of the squares.  I hadn’t expected to like Nice so much.  We walked down to the beach and were surprised by how rocky it was.  All the stones were perfectly smooth from erosion.

After this we went back to the hotel and got ready to go to Monaco.  We thought we would need to dress up to get into the casino, but it turns out that really wasn’t necessary.  We took a train to Monaco, though we had trouble getting tickets because the machine didn’t accept large bills.  We walked up to the Exotic Garden, which is more accurately a cactus and succulent garden, and saw incredible views of the city.  Most of the museums, gardens and buses were free that day.  We also took a tour of a cave at the bottom of the gardens, which was a big mistake.  The group was huge and it took forever to walk down to the bottom of the cave, and then we had to walk all the way back up.  All this to see a few stalactites and stalagmites.

When we got out of the cave the weather had taken a turn for the worse.  We got on a very crowded bus which took us down to the water and then we walked in the rain to get to the Maritime museum, which had interesting models of ships.  After this closed we took another bus which dropped us off near the Monte Carlo casino.  It was so rainy and dark that we wound up eating in an Italian restaurant in a very upscale mall, which was actually pretty good.

We walked a short way to the casino.  It was a beautiful building, but we were surprised at how small and quiet the main rooms were – not like Las Vegas at all, or a James Bond flick for that matter.  There were some slot machines in front and only four or five tables open to the public.   They had private rooms in the back but you had to pay extra to get in there.  We watched a roulette game for a few minutes and left.

Monday – Went to a pastry shop near Garibaldi square and got an amazing lemon tart and Napoleon (they call it a mille feuille, though Rob called it a Napoleon just to see what the lady would do – she just kind of smiled).  Then we walked to the Colline du Chateau, which has incredible views of Nice.  The water was all different colors – aquamarine, dark blue, etc.  We could see the planes landing at the airport.

Also went to the Jewish cemetery, where they had the remains of Holocaust victims.   Saw the ruins of the fortress and a medieval church, and a waterfall cascading over part of the fort.  Then we walked down to Cours Saleya, where they have a flea market on Mondays.

Took the shuttle back to the airport and got a rental car from Sixt.  It was a stick shift, and though Rob had driven one once, he basically had to relearn everything.  We could barely pull out of the parking lot, and we kept stalling – it was a little scary.  It took about ten minutes just to figure out how to go in reverse.  Rob was practically a pro by the end of the trip, though.  I was the navigator and always told him where to turn on the traffic circles.

We decided to drive to Grasse, the perfume capital of the world, since it seemed like a quick trip we could do before going to our next hotel.  We decided not to do the perfume museum since we could go to some of the perfume factories for free.  Went to the Fragonard and Molinard factories – couldn’t see too much of the actual process, but the Fragonard shop was very busy.  Before we left town we stopped in a bakery and got a croissant and a Tropezienne – I had never had a Tropezienne before and it was AMAZING.

Tropezienne – the best pastry in the world!

We took the road towards Draguignan on the way back to the highway.  It took us forever to get to there – the road was so curvy and dark.  We were afraid we’d be too late for our next hotel to let us in.  Finally we got to the auto-route and drove straight to St. Remy de Provence.  The Canto Cigalo hotel was a little bit outside of town on a country road.  We checked into our room which was quite nice – everything had cicada decorations, as Canto Cigalo means song of the cicada.  Then we went out in search of a restaurant.

Tuesday – Drove to Arles in the morning.  We parked near the medieval walls and went into the old town.  Got a duck and crudite sandwich from a shop, then walked to the square where they have an obelisk from the old Roman circus.  Saw the western portal of the church of St. Trophime, which was very impressive.  Went into the cloister of St. Trophime, which was under renovation and didn’t wow us.  Later on we went into the church itself, which was dark and narrow.  The western façade is by far the most interesting thing.

St. Trophime portal

Afterwards we went to the Arles ampitheater, which is still in use.  It’s in very good condition, made of beautiful white stone, and used to serve as a fortress for medieval houses built inside.  They have bullfights here but in the Arlesien ones they don’t kill the bull.  After this we went to the nearby Roman theater, which is much less intact.

We walked through the old town to the Espace van Gogh, where the mentally ill painter was hospitalized.  They were planting flowers in the garden inside.  As we left Arles we passed Place Lamartine, where van Gogh’s yellow house used to be.  There’s just a plaque there now – it’s not a very nice part of the city.

We decided to drive around the French countryside and stop at whatever looked interesting.  We found some great stuff this way.  First we went to Montmajour Abbey, a huge structure which we had seen from a distance on our way to Arles.  This was a massive Benedictine abbey with a necropolis with tombs cut into stone – I lay down in one.  I’ve never seen a necropolis like that before.  We climbed up the tower and had an incredible view of the countryside, including some Camargue white horses.

Montmajour Abbey necropolis, as seen from the tower

After this we followed signs for a Roman aqueduct, which turned out to be the Barbegal aqueduct and mill (there weren’t any descriptions so I found this out later).  We could climb on top of the ruins, and there was a beautiful open field at the end where we heard cows mooing and sheep baaing.

We kept driving aimlessly after this and came upon some gorgeous rock formations.  It turned out we were headed towards the hilltop town of Les Baux de Provence without realizing it.  We got here after all the tourists had left, so it was empty and quiet.  The town was so amazing and unexpected – it was a whole medieval city on the side of a cliff.  The view was incredible.  We found out later that there was a ‘dead city’ here too – actually the destroyed chateau – but it was closed when we got there.  The ‘live city’ seemed very small and empty, but there were a few restaurants still open.

View from Les Baux

Wednesday – I found out they had a market in St. Remy on Wednesdays so I walked into town.  The market was very cute and had all kinds of goods, though I think I liked Nice’s market better.  There were stalls in a number of streets and squares throughout St. Remy.

Next we drove to some local sights in St. Remy.  First up was St. Paul de Mausole, the insane asylum where van Gogh stayed, which is in a very beautiful Romanesque abbey.  We saw van Gogh’s reconstructed room, some old metal tubs from the asylum, the cloister, and the beautiful garden where van Gogh painted some of his most famous works.  There were some persimmon (I think) trees dropping their fruit in the garden.  It must be even lovelier in the summer, when the lavender and irises are in bloom.  From here we walked to Les Antiques, two very well-preserved Roman structures (a triumphal arch and a mausoleum).  We also walked to the entrance to Glanum, the archaeological site of the Greco-Roman settlement, but didn’t want to take the time to go in.

Next we drove to Pont du Gard, one of the largest Roman aqueducts ever built.  It was pretty incredible.  Right next to it is a cave where they found Paleolithic remains.  We walked across the 18th-century bridge to the side where they have a museum and café.  I was starving and we got a Nutella crepe and a cheese crepe – so good!  I think in the summer you can walk across the top level of the aqueduct, but it was closed when we went.  The museum was extremely well done.  It was a multi-media experience with the sound of running water, Romans hammering and sawing, scenes from a Richard Burton movie showing how an aqueduct was made, etc.  We stayed there till it closed.  Then we walked down to the water level under the aqueduct – the river only flows under one of the arches now.  It’s a breathtaking sight.  The top level of the aqueduct is lit up at night.  Oh, and they have 1,000-year old olive trees transplanted from Spain growing nearby.

Pont du Gard

We planned to eat in one of the towns between Pont du Gard and St. Remy, but we couldn’t find anything.  We stopped in Tarascon, which has an amazing castle where you can still see the holes made by cannonballs, but we didn’t see any normal restaurants.  Went back to St. Remy and spent a long time deciding on a restaurant.  Eventually we went to Le Bistro des Alpilles.  We got there kind of late (at least, late for the St. Remy area – I think it was only after 9 pm) and they almost didn’t serve us, but finally they let us in.  I got the pot au feu (a kind of beef stew) which was very good, and a tarte tatin, which is like an apple pie only twice as delicious.

Thursday – Checked out of the hotel and drove to Avignon.  I was amazed by how intact the medieval walls are.  The old city was much larger, livelier and more impressive than I expected.  We could have easily spent a whole day just walking around.  We passed an ancient Templar chapel, then went to the Palais des Papes.  I was blown away by the immensity of the palace.  I had never been inside such a large, intact medieval structure before.  The audioguide was pretty good.  We got to see the huge dining hall and kitchen, the treasury with hidden compartments in the floor, and much more.  Most impressive were the pope’s private rooms, which are still decorated with medieval frescoes of bird cages and hunting scenes.  Unfortunately we couldn’t take pictures in there.  Those popes really knew how to live it up.

After this we went to the pont d’Avignon, or Pont St. Benezet, which we had paid extra for when we bought out tickets for the palace. I wasn’t familiar with the children’s song about this bridge, but it’s an interesting medieval structure with two chapels in the middle.  Oh, and it doesn’t go all the way across – half the bridge was washed away several centuries ago.

View of Avignon from Pont d’Avignon

Walked around the city a little more, then went back to our car – we didn’t want to arrive at our next hotel too late.  We thought we would find a cute restaurant in one of the towns between Avignon and our next hotel in Vence, but all the places we stopped in seemed practically deserted.  They had a few little bars or pizza places, that was it.  We literally looked for a restaurant for 2 ½ hours and were getting rather desperate.  Plus we needed gas, and let me just say that buying gas for a rental car in a foreign country is quite an ordeal.

Finally we got to Cannes, where we thought some places would be open late.  It was past 10 pm when we found Lou Souleou, a restaurant right on the beach, where a super friendly waiter told us their kitchen was still open!  Rob got frog legs for an appetizer, which I had never tried before – they were amazing!  Like miniature, extremely tender chicken wings.  It was one of the best dinners we had all trip.  Afterwards we drove along the water through Cannes and Antibes, saw some amazing hotels, and found our hotel in Vence.  It was pretty ugly, but it did the job.

Friday – We had wanted to check out Vence and St. Paul de Vence this morning, but there was no time.  We also didn’t get to see the Camargue National Park, which was on my list of things to do.  There’s so much to see in this area!  I definitely could have used a few weeks here.

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