Thursday morning, May 29th, we lost our minds and thought, “Hey! Let’s drive up the side of a mountain today!” Mont Ventoux – yes, the one from The Tour de France. The summit is 1,912 m up, this mountain sports a nickname of “The Beast of Provence,” and did I mention that it gets windy at the top? As in 56 mph winds 240 days a year, and wind speeds of 200 mph have been recorded. And just because that isn’t enough fun for one day, let’s throw in a lot of bicyclists and an insanely steep/windy road with no guard rails.
We breakfasted at the B&B at 8:30 and then hit the road. As we were driving (following the GPS), we suddenly found ourselves on a toll road. Uh oh. What if we don’t have enough cash to pay for this? What if it’s pay with chip & pin credit only? Well, we were on it, so we decided to just zip along at 80 mph and take in the French countryside until we hit our exit.
When we did eventually reach our exit, we were horrified to find no toll booths with humans. Only machines. And we didn’t know which lane to get in to pay with cash. We figured the two lanes on the left were likely the French version of the Easy Pass, as cars were zipping through those lanes without slowing down much. The other lanes, we had no idea. So we just randomly picked one and drove up to the machine. Guess what language the instructions were in? But there was a slot that clearly took the tickets, and there was a slot that appeared to accept coins. A figure of 3.80 euros popped up the screen, and I scrounged through my purse for enough change to feed the machine and escape the toll booth. It worked! Thank God.
We found ourselves winding through small towns looking for the mountain. That’s right – we couldn’t find the mountain. Kind of like the time in Hawaii when we couldn’t find the volcano. How do you miss a volcano or a 1,912 m mountain? It takes talent that we clearly possess.
After tooling around the countryside for a bit, we spotted signs for Mont Ventoux, so we just followed them until we reached the base. And then we went up. And up. And up. Up through hairpin turns on tiny narrow roads, skittering around bicyclists living their Tour de France dreams. I wanted to squeeze my eyes shut. At every turn I was certain we were either going to roll backwards down the steep slope, fly over the edge to a fiery doom far below, or kill one of those cyclists. I was freaking out. Damian was loving it.
An eternity passed as we crawled up that mountain. Apparently Damian was driving too carefully for some of the other drivers on the road, because we were literally passed by four Porsches in a row flying up the road at breakneck speeds. That was a fine example of testosterone in overdrive. Luckily those idiots didn’t kill anybody that day.
Despite my doubts, we made it to the summit! There were mostly cyclists at the top, though there were a few other tourists. I was most surprised to see a tour bus up there. I have no idea how that giant beast managed to traverse such a tiny winding road. We smiled, checked out the view, bought some trinkets, snapped some photos (we’ll take your picture if you take ours!), and did not fall off the mountainside. Then we had to drive down the other side of the mountain. But I’m not going to think about that right now. I’m going to think about it later. My face pretty much says it all in this shot.
All that adventure made me hungry, because I just hadn’t eaten enough French food at that point. Our plan for the afternoon was to explore a few wineries in the Côtes du Rhône wine region, and our guide book recommended a few in a loop that began with a visit to the town of Séguret. We struck out for Séguret, planning to have lunch there before continuing on to the wineries.
This turned out to be the right choice. Séguret is a gorgeous hillside village, and once you enter (on foot) through an arch, it feels like you’ve been transported to another time period. No cars drove in this village, the narrow cobblestone streets were beautiful, and the views were breathtaking. I would love to return to Provence and stay in one of the quaint little hillside hotels of this small village.
We found a restaurant with outdoor terrace seating, Côtes Terrasse (photo below), and a view off into the French countryside. We both enjoyed a glass of white wine, salads, and small dishes of homemade vanilla & chocolate ice cream while soaking in the wonderful weather and terrific views. The food was good, but the location was the most memorable. And, in a vacation that offered little down time, those long meals really gave us a chance to pause and appreciate the culture, the views, and of course, the food.
After lunch, we struck out in search of our first stop on the wine trail, Domaine de Mourchon Winery. Secluded is the word to describe this winery. We thought it was a 5-minute walk down a small road from Séguret, but we quickly found out that was not the case. We hoofed it back to the car and discovered it was about a 10-minute drive into the middle of nowhere. Which made the views beautiful, of course.
Run by a pair of friendly Scottish dudes, it made for an interesting tasting experience. Apparently French wineries are famous for being very serious and less-than-friendly to patrons, so we liked the idea of a couple of jovial Scottish guys. We tried several wines, none of which knocked our socks off, but wine tasting is one of my favorite pass times, regardless. Our host, one of the Scottish owners, was very informative, though, so we learned a bit about the age of the vines and the effect age has on quality and taste. Obviously aging wine in a bottle improves the taste, but apparently older grape vines – and many of their vines were 60 years old and older – also improves the taste.
Just before we finished the tasting, we were overrun by 25 American tourists who had signed up for a private luncheon/tour followed by a tasting, so we got the hell out of there and moved on to our second winery: Gigondas. The guide book said we would find two women owners who were friendly and ready to pour us wine in little bottles straight from the barrel, and that sounded intriguing. If those ladies exist, they were not present at the Gigondas Winery we found. I think this may be because “Gigondas” actually refers to the southern part of the Côtes du Rhône wine region, and the winery we found may be one of many that sport that name.
In any case, the guy who served us was reserved, spoke no English, but was willing to muddle through with us anyway. We used lots of gesturing and pointing to try three deep reds, all of which were very impressive. Because we would either have to drink any wine we bought during our trip or lug it back to the USA, we only bought one bottle.
Our last stop was the Domaine de Coyeux Winery. Our Rick Steves’ guide book had this to say, “A private road winds up and up to this impossibly beautiful setting, with the best views of the Dentelles I’ve found. Olive trees frame the final approach, and Le Caveau signs lead to a modern tasting room.” Well clearly we have to go there! Getting there, not so easy. We got lost. With the GPS. When Rick says “private road,” he means “tiny road you’ll never find.” But we were tenacious! And by “tenacious” I mean that I reminded Damian repeatedly how he’d put me through the Mont-Ventoux ringer all morning, and we were going to find this place or else.
We found it. And it was amazing! The olive trees, the views, the wine – all of it. Amazing. We were the only people there, but a friendly young French guy who spoke perfect English was ready to throw wine at us and chatter with us companionably about the region, the winery, and of course the wines they have to offer. These wines were the best we tried in the region – just fantastic, and we bought two deep reds which I somehow managed to lug home to the states without incident.
On the way back to the B&B we decided to buy gas. We’d used a half tank, and we figured a full tank would be sufficient to get us through the rest of our trip. But the station we pulled into had zero attendants, and the pumps only accepted chip & pin credit cards, all of which we discovered after pulling in at the pump.
So Damian pulled a move used by my Uncle Bruce when he was in France. He got out of the car, waved some money at the guy behind us, and convinced him to use his credit card to fill up our tank in exchange for cash. The guy spoke no English, but money talks and they worked it out. We filled the tank for 30 euros and hit the road again.
We found our way back to our B&B, cleaned up, and headed out to explore Avignon. We’d seen some of the city, but we had yet to visit the star attraction, the Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes), which was built in the 1300s. Historically, this palace became home to the popes when they were attempting to escape the violence of Rome. We wandered the streets of the walled city, and eventually we found the palace. The sun was beginning to set, and the shadows climbed high up the walls of the palace. We found an outdoor restaurant where we could sit beside the palace, allowing us to enjoy the fine weather and the magical view of this historic building while we ate.
Another beautiful day in Provence. The next day we rose early to make the trek to Switzerland….