Ever since I read Peter Mayle’s wildly funny book, A Year in Provence, I’ve wanted to visit the south of France. So we rose early and left Normandy at 6:45 AM on Tuesday, May 27th, to make the trek from the north of France to the south.
Had we been running The Amazing Race, this is the leg we would have lost. Road blocks popped up at every turn, and at one point I thought the universe must be conspiring to keep us out of Provence. Surely it was impossible that so many things could go wrong in just one day of travel.
At 6:45 AM, with protein bars in hand, we waved goodbye to the peacocks of Chateau de Pont-Rilly and set off on our drive to Caen to return our POS Avis rental car. (Dear Avis, please buy some new cars.) Damian decided that we absolutely had to fill the tank with gas, even though we’d only used a quarter of a tank. This quickly turned into mission impossible as we followed the GPS through turn after turn after turn in Caen without any evidence of a gas station. We changed coordinates to a BP, as it appeared to be the closest gas station.
We drove until the GPS announced, “You have reached your destination, on right.” Uh, what? I see a church, not a gas station. You? Maybe the nuns pump gas in Caen. Who knows?
We had tickets for a 9:00 AM SNCF train to Paris, where we were scheduled to pick up our high-speed train, the TGV, directly to Provence, and it was now after 8:30. As you might imagine, I was getting antsy. I was in favor of taking the hit on the gas. Damian was not. We kept looking for an elusive gas station.
At 8:40, we found one. I tried not to chew my fingernails off as Damian literally ran inside the station to pay (no paying at the pump!), only to learn that, if you want to pay by credit card, you need to use pumps 1 through 4. Guess which pump we were parked beside? Not 1, 2, 3 or 4. He sprinted back out, moved the car, sprinted back inside, was told in rapid French to pump the gas first, then pay, sprinted back out, pumped the gas, back in, paid for the gas, jumped back in the car, drove to the rental car office, parked the car in the lot, and literally ditched me to run to the office.
It’s 8:50. Our train was set to leave in 10 minutes. Thankfully, nobody was in the rental car office. Damian handed over the keys, and we ran to the station.
Lucky for my husband, we made the train.
The train departed, on time, but about 15 minutes into the journey, it stopped without warning. We sat there, not moving, for 20 minutes, which was enough time to get me really wound up about making our next train. Thankfully, we started moving again, and less than ninety minutes later, we hit Paris. We needed to take the metro to Gare de Lyon, the major train station with the high-speed TGV trains. It’s one metro train, a few stops, no problem. Or so we thought. When we arrived at the correct track, it was mobbed with people, and we noticed that the sign announcing the arrival of the next train was not moving off of “3 minutes.” Um, what is going on here?
An announcement came on in French, and while we couldn’t understand it, I’ll tell you what we did understand: everybody left.
Holy hell! You have got to be kidding me.
We had to catch our high-speed train, and our metro train was broken, or delayed, or whatever – that train was not going to take us to Gare de Lyon.
We went back to the map to find an alternate route. We found a route, requiring a transfer, that would take us to the train station. But we needed to hustle, so we moved fast through the underground and hopped on board our first train. Luckily, once you’re in the underground, you can go wherever you want until you exit without buying another ticket. We changed trains, rode a few more stops, and finally hit the Gare de Lyon station.
Once we arrived at Gare de Lyon, we found the train tracks and arrival/departure boards. We found our TGV train and learned that we were supposed to be in hall 2. This is when I looked up and saw a sign that said brightly, “Bienvenus au hall 1.” Great. Where the hell is hall 2?
Fortunately the French are fantastic about putting signs everywhere, and we were able to find hall 2 and our correct track. We even had about 15 minutes to scarf down some lunch, and go in search of a pharmacy, before we boarded the train. Damian was sick at this point, so when he spotted a sign for a pharmacy, he went looking for ibuprofen. To get ibuprofen in France, you have to speak to the pharmacist. You can’t just grab it off the shelf and pay for it. So he did. She asked him why he wanted the drugs (in French), he told her he had a headache (in English), and he left with a pack of 400 mg tablets.
Next, we climbed on board the train, made our way to our seats on the upper deck (two seats beside big windows facing each other), and I finally let myself exhale. Not long after, the conductor welcomed us aboard, and we were off! We were going to make it to Provence.
And then the train stopped. No idea why (I still have no idea why). An announcement in rapid French told the other passengers what to expect, and, because I couldn’t understand the message, I watched the other peoples’ faces. A couple of them laughed in a manner that said, “How ridiculous is this?” – but nobody looked alarmed or particularly put out, and nobody made a move to get off the train, so we just stayed put and tried not to freak out.
About twenty minutes later, the train started moving, and once it hit full stride (at 177 miles per hour) we rolled on to Provence without further ado.
We rocketed from the north to the south in no time flat, and when we arrived at the train station, we hopped in a cab for a short jaunt to Avignon and our bed & breakfast. The first thing I noted about Provence was the weather – it was gorgeous and sunny! Such a 180 from the rain and chill in the north.
Avignon is a walled city, which gives it a medieval feel, and the B&B we chose Le Clos de Rampart (if you click on the link, you can see pics of the room we stayed in – the blue room) is inside those walls. Our hostess, Aida, met us at the door and ushered us in, calling us “my darlings!” and just generally charming us silly. She really went above and beyond to make our stay memorable.
Our room was very spacious, with a private tiled bathroom (think French bathroom downstairs in Sunshine, fam) and windows that opened up to the garden. It was a lovely departure from the small size of our Paris hotel room.
It was around 4:00 PM, I think – after our long day traveling, we cleaned up and took the camera and a bottle of wine outside to the garden area to relax before dinner. Aida brought us a lovely tray with some wine glasses and some pistachios. She also recommended a restaurant in Avignon within walking distance, and she called to make us a reservation for 8:00, noting, “They don’t like to serve before 8:00.” Okay fine. We were used to the French dining late. We relaxed and enjoyed the pretty space and gorgeous weather while sipping wine and looking back over the photos we’d taken thus far. It was nice – we needed more moments like those.
Eventually we strolled out for dinner, winding our way through the narrow streets of Avignon, to an old water wheel that no longer functions but remains as a piece of the city’s history. We admired it for a bit, and then made our way to our restaurant, called 75. The place was beautiful, and le menu offered some interesting choices. We shared a bottle of white wine, and I started with anchovies (don’t think canned, think fresh) served over a fresh bed of mint and finely diced cucumbers, mullet with creamy risotto, and a strawberry tart to complete the meal. I can’t remember what Damian had, but he says he liked it, so we’ll just go with that.
We crashed hard that night with the windows open to the cool night air. The next day we explore Provence…..