4: France & Monaco
September began in Pau, France with some rest and relaxation at Emmanuel’s grandparent’s house. In Pau, we acquired our new tent from Decathlon, an excellent outdoors and camping store. We were quite excited as our new tent is much roomier than our previous one. We rented a nice little Renault Twingo, the “Disco Mobile”, and started back on the road again in search of sunny skies.
Our first stop in Provence was Carcassone. As it was early September, we noticed that many tourists had headed home which enabled us to meander the city streets freely. Carcassone was a fabulous fairy-tale like walled city dating back to the first century AD. The drive through Provence was beautiful with its rolling hills and abundant vineyards along the way. We stopped in Sete along the beach. No clouds, soft fine sand, blue waters, and no crowds – what a life!
Our next stop was Nimes, where we visited the Arenes and the Maison Carree dating back from the 2nd to 3rd centuries AD. We continued on to the Pont du Gard, where poor weather and flooding inhibited us from visiting this Roman site. Once again, we felt as if the rain was chasing us instead of us chasing the sun.
We decided to return at a later date on our way back towards Spain. Continuing on, we stopped in Arles, a quaint Romanesque city known for its Arena, as well as its paella, which seems to appear on every menu throughout the city.
Next on our drive, we drove through Cassis, the beginning of the Cote d’Azur, or the French Riviera, as it is known to the English-speaking world. We made our way to the beaches of St. Tropez where we camped for four nights in a nice quiet campsite straddled between the beach and vineyards. Gorgeous! A visit to Grimaud, a small medieval village overlooking St. Tropez is definitely worth a stop.
St. Tropez is truly the playground of the rich and famous, with Ferraris at every corner and the world’s biggest yachts docked in the harbor. Amazing! Papparazzi were ever-present, waiting for celebrity photo opportunities. Bid offered to pose for a photo, but they did not seem interested in taking his snapshot. We did not understand why. It was their loss.
After several relaxing and sunny days, we headed further east through Cannes and Nice. There, we were enchanted by the Mediterranean Sea’s crystal blue waters that make the French Riviera so famous. We stayed in Eze, camping on a mountain top cliff that provided us with an incredible view of St. Jean-Cap Ferret. There were so many beaches, we loved it here!
Monaco was mayhem with high rises that tower over each other overlooking the sea. At this point, our beach in St. Tropez was calling us back. We drove back to the beaches of Pampellone and camped for a few more nights. When you travel and you find a place you love, one needs to take advantage of it and spend serious quality time there. Who knows the next time you may be there? As for us, we are sure to venture back numerous more times.
Pont du Gard
Next on the itinerary was Aix-en-Provence. This university town is buzzing with activity and energy as half of the population consists of college students. It is filled with cute streets and fabulous fountains. We continued on through Provence and its charming villages. So colorful. As it was September, we enjoyed watching everyone harvest the grapes. Although the lavender season had taken place in July, you could still smell the lavender as if it had been cut the previous week.
We stopped in Bonnieux which used to be a papal estate with its church resting high atop the hill. Adorable streets lined with cute shops and restaurants wind up this hill overlooking Provence and its neighboring villages. On our way through Sault, another quaint village, we paused into a “maitre nougatier” and bought the most fantastic and mouth-watering nougat that we had ever put in our mouths. Heaven in a bite!
We then drove through gorges whose vibrant shades of oranges and yellows made for fantastic scenery. The drive through this valley led us to Avignon. Famous for its now-defunct bridge described in the French nursery song “Sur le pont d’Avignon”, we found the gardens at Le Palais des Papes to be quite spectacular. We then went back through Pont du Gard to see the famous aqueduct where this time we were greeted by better weather. Dating back to 19 BC, it is quite an impressive structure, having withstood several earthquakes and other natural catastrophes.
Riders needed – Ste Marie de la Mer
Once again the French landscape changed as we approached the swampy marsh lands of Les Saintes Marie de la Mer. Everywhere are ranches offering horse treks. This wildlife sanctuary, filled with flamingos and other birds, is a stop for migratory birds on their way to Africa and the southern hemisphere. We stopped in Montpellier to say hello to Emmanuel’s uncle, who took us on a great hike through the backcountry. We rambled through red desert clay and rocky hills. Fortunately, we didn’t come face to face with any wild boars as the area is famous for these animals.
We ended our visit in France for now with a visit to St. Guilhem le Desert, a quiet little village that blends into the backdrop of the mountains. It was a wonderful and pleasant ending to our time in France.