Welcome to the third installment of our 10 day Easter vacation. This is the point in the trip where we picked up a rental car from downtown Nice and drove all around the Provence Region of France. Going into this trip, I had no idea there was so much going on in the Provence region of France. I had honestly never even heard of it before. We bought Rick Steves book for the French Riveriera and half of the book was about the Provence Region. Since Rick hasn’t steered us wrong yet, we just decided to go with it and check out this great part of France. Overall, I was really impressed with this part of the trip. I was also pretty surprised that I liked it so much. But first things first, we had to made the trek from Nice to Saint-Remy.
After seeing all those swanky Italian sports cars in Monaco and the French Riviera, I really had an itch to drive something fun and FAST. I asked the French lady at the Hertz office for the best car they had. Or at least I think that’s what I asked. My French isn’t very good. But I’m pretty sure it worked. Check out this bad boy.
This was a Grade A Fiat Panda. After test driving this baby on the streets of Nice, I had to look up the stats. This baby’s 1.2 liter in-line 4 cylinder workhorse churns out a whopping 59 horsepower. That’s what I’m talking about! Italian luxury and speed, thy name is Panda. Back to reality though, I can honestly say I have never driven a slower car. I was starting to wonder if my parents Scag Cheetah riding mower has more power. If you’re wondering, I actually looked it up, and it has 32 horsepower so the Panda just beats it out. I have never been passed so much in my life. I got passed by trucks, old ladies, you name it. One time we were stuck behind a huge tractor on a back country road and I didn’t even mind. I thought to myself, “Finally! Someone is traveling at a reasonable speed!” I didn’t really compain though. It was fun to drive stick for the first time on the other side of the road and the curvy country roads had some fantastic scenery.
We hit a LOT of places during this portion of our trip. The Panda really increased our mobility and we took full advantage. Here’s a snapshot of all the towns/regions we toured/visited.
For those keeping score at home, here’s a list of the cities/places we visited in the Provence Region: Cassis, Aix-en-Provence, Saint-Remy, Les Beaux, Arles, Avignon, Nimes, Pont Du Gard, Lourmarin, and the Cotes du Rhone wine country. I guess I’ll just jump right in and drop some photos in your lap.
From Nice, we headed south towards Cassis. It was a couple hours drive but we’d been taking trains for the past week so it was nice to have some independence and get out on the open road. The French highways (Autoroutes) were really nice. They were well maintained and there was hardly ever any traffic. This is probably because they charge you a couple of Euros for every 15 minutes you spend on the road. Oh well, that’s just the cost of vacation so we didn’t get too bothered about it. Euros seem like Monopoly money anyway, so it felt like we were just playing a game.
After a few hours and 15 Euros, we made it to Cassis. Cassis is a poor man’s Saint Tropez. It’s tucked beneath really huge cliffs so it makes for some great scenery and hiking, provided you get the weather. Spoiler alert: we didn’t. Nevertheless, we had a good time walking around the small port city before the rain rolled in and followed us around.
We had a nice lunch at one of these local restaurants. Just after we sat down it started pouring rain. Luckily, we were seated under a canopy so we were safe, but so much for touring around the area. After we finished eating, we sprinted for the car so that we could meet up with Tara’s college tennis teammate, roommate, and friend.
After an hour or so, we made to Aix-en-Provence, which is pronounced “Exxon Provance”. We were saying it completely wrong until Ana enlightened us. Meet our wonderful tour guide: Ana. Tara went to college with Ana. They played on the same tennis team and even lived in the same room for a whole year. We didn’t even open our Rick Steves guidebook while we were here because we had a local showing us around. However, I did just look it up because I was curious. Rick says, “Aix-en-Provence is happily free of any obligatory turnstiles. And there’s not a single ancient site to see. It’s just a wealthy town filled with 140,000 people who know how to live well and look good.”
Even though it was pretty rainy, Ana was nice enough to walk us around the city and tell us all about the sights. Unfortunately because of the rain, we didn’t get many photos.
Ex was fun. I had a good time exploring the city and getting the low down from a local. Stay tuned for another guest appearance from Ana.
After Aix-en-Provence, we headed to our home base for the remainder of our trip: Saint-Remy. We chose Saint-Remy because it’s pretty much in the dead center of the Provence region and it had a lot of small town, local charm with great restaurants. The pictures you are about to see are from the last few hours we were in Saint-Remy. Most of our actual time here was cold and wet. Surprise Surprise.
We somehow found a local person’s home to stay in for our time in Saint-Remy. We had forgotten how we actually found this place, but it turned out to be pretty amazing. It was called Maison de Dominique, which translates to Dominique’s House. And that is exactly what it was. Tara and I had our own en suite bedroom in Dominique’s house. Dominique spoke a little bit more English than we speak French so we were able to communicate a little bit. Thank goodness we spent a ton of time learning some French basics before we left. It really came in handy with Dominique.
We ate dinner in Saint-Remy twice and spent a dry sunny morning exploring this tiny town. Other than that, we were out and about checking out the sights of the region. This small town was the perfect home base for us to explore the region.
Pont du Gard
Pont du Gard is a huge Roman Aquaduct that was built when Rome ruled the world (around 60 AD). This aquaduct is part of a 31 mile Roman-made water route from a spring at Uzes to the big city of Nimes. Most of the route is underground. This is the most impressive structure on the route by far. I was incredibly surprised with the condition of this structure. It looked near perfect. And it was HUGE. I think I remember a stat that said the Roman Coliseum was only 6 feet taller. To make it even better, this was one of the rare occasions when the sun was out.
After seeing this huge structure whose purpose was to deliver water to Nimes, it seemed only fitting that we visit Nimes as well. Next stop: Nimes
A short drive later, we arrived in historic Nimes. From 28 BC to 473 AD, Nimes was a Roman colony. And in those 500 years, the Romans were definitely busy. Nimes felt like mini Rome. There were tons of really well maintained Roman structures and virtually no crowds of tourists. So you could even argue that Nimes is better than Rome because it was far less stressful. Anyway, we still had sunny skies so we jumped right in and started exploring. First up was the Arena of Nimes.
There was a really good audio guide for this place. Check out how well it has been maintained over the years.
This place is so well maintained that it is still used today. There are bullfights twice per year and there are even concerts held here. This place was built to last!
Next up, we did a leisurely walking tour around the city. We stopped and had lunch in a popular square. The service was awful, but it was nice to sit out in the sun. Even got to enjoy some local beer.
Next up was the Fountain Garden and the Temple of Diana. I won’t bore you with their history. Just know that they were both of Roman origin and they were fun to explore. Google them if you want more information.
The sun must have given us extra energy on this day because we decided to hit up the ancient city of Les Baux after doing Pont du Gard and Nimes earlier that day. Les Baux is a medieval town perched on top of a giant rock. This location was chosen to ward off potential invaders during medieval times. Most of this place is destroyed now thanks in part to time, but also to some French king who decided it should be officially destroyed instead of maintained as a historical site. I don’t see the logic there…..
Above, you can see the remnants of the medieval town on the left and the still functioning tourist town on the right. You have to walk through the tourist town full of shops and restaurants before you get to the ruins.
One interesting thing we learned here is that pigeons were bred for food during medieval times. Of course, the best ones were used as carrier pigeons, but the rest of them were eaten and considered a delicacy I can’t imagine eating a pigeon nowadays. I also can’t imagine relying on a pigeon to deliver a message to another town. Seems like that would be incredibly unreliable.
Overal Les Baux was pretty cool. We arrived about 20 minutes before they stopped letting people inside so we had the whole town to ourselves. There were literally maybe 3 or 4 other people in the whole place. Good thing we had Mr. Steves to tell us that pro tip. After Les Baux, we decided to call it a day for sightseeing. We headed back to Saint-Remy to get some dinner and hit the sack.
Arles Saturday Market
The next morning, which was Saturday, we decided to hit up the famous Arles (pronounced Arl) market. Our knack for finding the rainiest spots came back to us as the market was a complete wash out. It was raining very hard for the entire time we were at the market. Everyone had umbrellas and it was very wet and claustrophobic. Definitely not the ideal time to visit, but the market was cool nonetheless. The scale of this market was massive. You could get anything at this place.
Despite the rain, Tara and I spent a good hour looking at everything the market had to offer. Our gameplan was to get picnic supplies for our wine country tour that we were planning to do in the afternoon.
We were able to snag some legit picnic supplies. We got a few different local cheeses, a homemade garlic spread, some homemade pesto, an assortment of small rolls for sandwiches, some Spanish cured meat, and some fresh strawberries. After braving the pouring rain at the market for an hour, we decided to skip the rest of Arles and just continue on to our driving tour of the Cotes du Rhone region.
Cotes du Rhone Wine Country
With our picnic supplies accounted for, we headed for wine country. Officially, the Cotes du Rhone wine region is everything along the Rhone river from Lyon, south to Avignon. This driving tour focused on the southern part of the region, which includes really scenic towns and wineries perched up on hillsides. After Rome fell and barbarians went around raping and pillaging, a lot of people fled to the hills for a good defensive position. That is where all these little towns came from and for the most part, they look a lot like what they did back when they were first established. Here are the towns that make up the circular route through the hills. The wineries were in or in-between these towns.
Unfortunately, as you may have guessed, the rain storm that we braved at the Arles market followed us all the way to wine country. I’m glad this was a driving tour and not a walking tour because the wind was so strong it was almost able to overpower our fearless Panda. Our perfect picnic had to be eaten in the car and the picturesque viewpoints were obstructed by fog and clouds. Hence, there aren’t a lot of pictures from this part of our trip.
The first winery we ventured to was a little off the beaten path. We had to drive 10 minutes on a semi paved road into the wilderness to find this place. And once we finally found it, there wasn’t a soul at the tasting room. There was just a post-it note on the door that said to call if you wanted service. Since we didn’t have cell phones for this trip, we just had to write this one off. It seemed like everyone in France just wrote this day off because of the cold, blistery, wet weather. If we weren’t on vacation, we definitely would have done the same thing.
The next wine cave that we visited was actually open. Wine cellar translates to cave a vin by the way. The man pouring the wine was less than enthused to see us. He did not respond to our cheerful French greeting and when Tara asked him to taste some wine (in perfect French), he rolled his eyes, laughed, and grumpily poured us a few tasting glasses. Full disclosure, it was far from perfect French, but I think she got most of the words right. Anyhow, the wine tasted great. Although to me, pretty much all wine tastes great. I am the opposite of a wine expert. I think every single wine tastes good and I can’t tell you why it tastes good. The only wine I’m not a huge fan of is sparkling white because I have a suspicion that it causes heartburn, although I still think it tastes good.
The awkward wine pouring guy would not stop staring at us so we bought a bottle of wine to break the ice and got the heck out of there. Pretty good salesmanship technique, although I’m not sure if I would go back due to the high level of awkwardness.
The next cave we found was really up in the hills. We wove through a bunch of switchbacks and really gained some altitude. This place was a lot friendlier than the last one. The nice girl gladly explained the different wines (in French) and let us have some tastes without pressuring us to buy with awkward stares. In the end, we ended up buying a small bottle of Muscat, which is a sweet dessert wine made from Muscat grapes. It was really tasty, and I had never heard of it before this trip.
After this last winery, the rain and wind decided to kick it up a notch. And since we were meeting Tara’s friend Ana for dinner that evening, we decided to cut the tour short and head back to Saint-Remy. That night, we ventured to Lourmarin to have dinner with Ana and her boyfriend Christian. We had a little trouble meeting up without cell phones, but managed to find each other in the end and had a nice evening.
We didn’t fly out until 9:30 pm on Sunday night so we had an extra day to explore before heading home. It was really handy having the car so that we weren’t carrying our whole lives around on our back. We just threw our bags in the trunk and went on exploring.
Our next stop was Avignon. Avignon’s claim to fame is that from 1309 to 1403, the Pope lived here. In the 1300s, the Catholic church packed its bags and headed to Avignon and the city got a big makeover to accomodate all of the necessities required for religion. The church added 3 miles of city walls, huge mansions for the important religious people, and a palace for the pope.
The sun was shining for a change so we leisurely walked around the town and read up on the sites. Above is the massive palace for the pope on the right. On the left is the Cathedral that was around before the Pope arrived. Below is the only bridge to cross the mighty Rhone river during the middle ages. Judging by the amount left standing, I’d bet it was built by the French.
Our walking tour ended up leading us into a cool hippy market.
The Pope even had his own Vineyard and style of wine within the city walls. They still make the wine today and you could go inside the big cathedral and buy some if you were so inclined.
Well, that’s about it. Our time in Italy and France has come to an end. From here, we drove the country roads to the Marseilles airport to save our remaining Euros from the clutches of the greedy Autoroute. We had some time to kill in the airport before going through security so we decided to enjoy our bottle of Muscat. To our surprise, not one person seemed to care that we had brought our own bottle of wine to the airport to drink. For some reason, I don’t think that would fly in an American airport Burger King. Well done France.
That’s about it for our trip. All in all, it was a great 10 days. The weather was pretty bad for over half of our time spent here, but what can you do. The scenery was still amazing and it was very cool to put some of our newly learned French to use in real life.
Au Revoir France
And last but not least, some fantastic French food. I really enjoyed the food in France. If you don’t include breakfast, it is my favorite country for food so far.