Mont Ventoux & the Côtes du Rhône Wine Region (Day 8)

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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.

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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.

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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.

Grrr.

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.

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Another beautiful day in Provence. The next day we rose early to make the trek to Switzerland….

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Pont du Gard, Arles, Les Baux-de-Provence (Day 7)

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In my last post, I originally announced that we would summit Mont Ventoux on day 7. That was a mistake. We had planned to do just that on the morning of Wednesday, May 28th, but, with the advice of our bed & breakfast hostess, Aida, we flipped our days around and opted to explore Pont du Gard, Arles, and Les Baux-de-Provence instead.

We started the day at 9:00 AM with a breakfast including flaky croissants (I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to eat one in the US again), four types of jam, cheese, yogurt and coffee. There were no other guests staying at the B&B at the time, so we ate by ourselves. Well, Aida kept us company, chattering away, laughing often, gesturing wildly with her hands – she’s an energetic fireball of a lady. She’s tiny – there’s no way she weighs more than 100 pounds – but she’s a spitfire. Tons of personality in one itty bitty little package.

After breakfast, Aida kindly offered to drive us to the rental car office. We rented from Europcar this time, and the lady who helped us was a riot. After we complained about our previous rental experience with Avis, she gave us a conspiratorial look and said in her heavy French accent, “Oh, Avis.” Cracked me up. The rental agreement was fairly complex, because we decided to drive from Provence to Switzerland (the alternative was 3 trains and a full day of travel) after using the car to explore Provence. There’s a stiff penalty for dropping a rental car in a different country, but it was worth it. We also opted to pre-pay for a full tank of gas so that we could bring the car in with an empty tank. Getting gas in a foreign country – not the easiest task! I didn’t want a repeat of the Great Gas Station Chase in Caen. The challenge then became this: can we push the car into the rental agency in Switzerland on fumes?

We got the car (no error codes!) and set off to explore Provence. We began by visiting Pont du Gard, which is an ancient Roman aqueduct bridge. (That’s us in front of Pont du Gard in the photo above.) It was built in the 1st century AD. Let me say that again – the 1st century. I had literally never touched anything that old in my life. It’s massive and jaw-dropping to behold, and, much like the cathedrals, I found it unbelievable that such a structure could have been constructed by humans without the help of modern machinery. The weather in Provence was gorgeous that day, and we enjoyed walking around in the sunshine, admiring the water and the structure that spans it.

Afterward, we drove to the city of Arles. I found Arles to be a beautiful French city, with lovely streets, abundant windowsill flowers, lots of outdoor eateries, and lots of charm. We visited the ancient Roman amphitheater first, and I felt like I was transported straight into “Gladiator.” Walking around the ancient arena, built by the Romans around the 1st century AD, brought to mind thoughts of the battles that were fought while the crowd cheered from their seats. I read a plaque that noted the coliseum was constructed in such a way that people of different classes could enter and exit without ever meeting. The place might have given me the creeps, except there were elementary-school children being given a lesson in “combat” in the pit. Fake armor, wooden shields and swords, and instructors firing off instructions in rapid French. I wanted to join in, but I didn’t want to get taken down by a 3rd grader.

Lunch time! We chose le menu at an adorable restaurant called Au Brin de Thym. We couldn’t really understand our waiter or the menu, so we just asked for le menu specials of the day. It was the right choice. The meal began with artfully arranged, impossibly thin cold zucchini slices topped with Parmesan cheese and olive oil. The main course featured a whole fish served with colorful vegetables. Its eye was looking right at me. Luckily, we’d had fish fileted table-side in the past, so we knew what to do. And it was heavenly good – so tender and delicious and fresh, even if it did give me the evil eye the whole time. Dessert was a white cheese with jam for Damian and a fresh apple tart for me. We only had one glass of wine each to compliment the meal, because I didn’t want to fall asleep before visiting one more place.

Les Baux-de-Provence was our next destination, and it may be my favorite French village. Set high up in the hillside, the views from the castle ruins that top the town are staggering and breathtaking. If you can get up there. We walked through the town proper and enjoyed the beauty and charm of the cobblestones, narrow lanes, and little shops. Then we bought tickets to tour the ancient castle ruins all the way at the top. The stairs to reach the highest points were so worn by visitors over the centuries that they sloped in dangerously. Signs everywhere announced “danger!” in many different languages. But we decided to brave the steps and make our way to the top. The view was worth the trek. Spectacular. This is us at the top:

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I don’t know what the hell I was thinking with those shoes.

After a full day of exploration, we were wiped out. We chose to visit a local market to buy cheese, bread, wine and fruit to enjoy at the B&B rather than heading back out for a big dinner. It was a lovely and mellow way to cap off a wonderful day in Provence.

 

On to Provence! (Day 6)

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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.

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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…..