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Trip Report Provence & Cote D'Azur 2011 - The What Would Stu Do Tour

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We took our first trip to southern France in late June of 2011. Stu Dudley was kind enough to share his 30 page itinerary with me during the planning stages and has offered so much advice to others on this forum, the I constantly found myself telling my travel companions "Well, Stu says....." Thus it was dubbed the "What Would Stu Do" Tour.

Stu, if you're reading, please know that this is a huge compliment!

In the next few posts, I'll give you the lowdown on our 10 day journey. Here's the setup:

DH & myself (in our 40's) and another couple, traveling together for the first time. Actually our first time ever traveling with another couple. We've been to Europe several times, this is the first time to southern France. So we packed a lot in. Many of you will think too much. But I considered this the "overview" tour, I know now why Stu and his wife have gone back so many times!

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    Getting There

    We departed Iowa and flew to Geneva, Switzerland via Chicago and Brussels. Due to a delay in Chicago, we missed our connection in Brussels so had a 5 hour delay there. So in order to add a country to my country list, we took the train from the airport to the downtown area and had lunch. Didn't have a chance to see much, but put a check beside Belgium! Once we arrived in Geneva, we proceeded to Hertz to pick up the rental car. This was the first almost snafu....apparently since we didn't call to let them know our flight would be delayed they didn't hold a car for us. After a few minutes and a couple of phone calls they gave us what was a available -- which was an upgrade to a small Nissan Quashqai SUV. That ended up being a very good thing because even tho we all only brought 22in suitcases and a carry on, I'm not quite sure our luggage would have fit in a smaller car.

    We hooked up the Garmin and headed for our first overnight in Annecy, which was chosen because it is only 30 minutes south and we didn't want to drive too far after 15 hours of flying. A very good choice. It took a few circles around the city, but we finally found the Allobroges hotel and checked in around 3 pm, exhausted, but determined not to crash until after dinner.

    A bit about Allobroges-- I thought it was a great value for the money (around $150 I think). Our room was larger than normal European standards, very clean and good ac. It was on the front of the hotel, so it was a wee bit noisy but we were so tired it didn't really matter much. I would stay there again, as it is easily within walking distance to the lake and many restaurants.

    We did a quick walk to the lake and then found a place that we could have an early dinner. A nice dinner, our first bottle of rose and creme brulee for dessert and another short walk past the lake and we were ready to turn in early.

    The next morning each couple did our own thing, planning to meet back at 11 am to check out and head to our next destination. DH & I found a bakery with fresh croissants and pain chocolate, grabbed some juice and had a lovely breakfast by the lake. At that point, Annecy was still a finalist for the 2018 Winter Olympics. We did our favorite thing, which is just to walk around and for me to take photos when we stumbled upon our first market. Oh my lord in heaven, it was amazing. The smells, the colors, the photo opportunities! We didn't have too much time, but grabbed some cheese, sausage and bread for a picnic on the way to Avignon.

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    Day 2
    Our time in Annecy was too short, but onward we must go. Our next destination was Le Cadran Solaire, our b&b in Graveson, which is just south of Avignon.

    http://www.hotel-en-provence.com/uk/index.php

    We found Avignon without incident, bu the Garmin took us on a very convoluted route from Avignon to Graveson. Once we realized we were close, we stopped at an abbaye outside of Tarascon for a quick peaceful stretch of our legs and then found Le Cadran Solaire.

    Our travel partners had a lovely large room on the front of the hotel, ours was on the side and was substantially smaller (also cheaper) but did have a private terrace. The place is very clean and the proprietors, Jean Claude and Elise, were very gracious and helpful. Breakfasts were served daily on the front terrace and consisted of fresh croissants, great in season fruit, and cereals. I will have to say I wasn't overly thrilled with our room though. It was very small and dark. The linens were tired and the toiletries were cheap. There was an insanely rough sisal carpet on the floor. AC didn't work particularly well so it was pretty stuffy too. No TV, no alarm clock neither of which was a big deal. So add the good and bad together and I would say it was average overall. Note, I do think my travel partners would probably rate it higher based upon their room.

    That night we went to St. Remy which was only about 15 minutes away. We went to a restaurant, whose name I forget, based upon a recommendation. Unfortunately, were all very disappointed with our meals. Such is life.

    More tomorrow

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    re last paragrpah, Sferfguso, I was disappointed with two recommended restaurants in St Remy, both on the main road circling the old part of town. One was recommended in "Provence Byways" book and i wrote to the author to tell her it didnt deserve a positive mention.
    The first night in town, we just explored, and found a brasserie we had never heard of or read about it. It was terrific. Wished we'd gone back every night instead of trusting others' opinions.

    Different strokes for different folks. I had the opposite impression to you after a week in Provence--i couldn't image why anyone would return there over and over and over, inclduing some of my good friends. Italy, on the other hand... (-: No rights or wrongs....just different experiences.

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    How funny. During our 3 nights in St. Remy in 2005 we ate in a restaurant someone local recommended. Didn't care for it either!

    It's funny, that I've quoted Stu Dudley so often, DH is familiar with the name. In San Francisco, he said 'now would Stu Dudley go to this place'.

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    Stu is a household name for us, too.

    I'm pretty sure he's in London right now, but will likely be amused to see his name in lights when he gets back.

    Looking forward to more, sferguso. We would like to return again and again to Provence, as well -- but would probably focus primarily on the Luberon and Rhone wine region, with perhaps a few days near Nice to add something new.

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    Day 3

    Day 3 started at the Pope's Palace in Avignon. Upon the advice of Jean Claude at the B&B, we arrived early and parked just inside the wall that surrounded the city. Little did we know that was about a 20 minute walk to the palace. Now this wouldn't have been such a big deal but the parking meter could only be plugged for 2 hours, so once we figured out we wanted to stay there for lunch we had to go back and then back again...you get the picture. I found the Palace itself to be just ok, yes it is HUGE and it is amazing it was built in under 20 years, but there frankly wasn't that much to see. An audio guide was included in the price of admission to help you visualize what would have been in all of the empty spaces.

    We avoided the touristy restaurants near the palace and instead found a great place back near the car where we dined on tartines, salad and desserts. I had a brie melted on toasted country bread with honey and walnuts. So simple, yet so good!

    From Avignon, we headed to the Pont du Gard. I have to say, I wasn't really sure what to expect even though I had read about it in numerous guidebooks. Well, all four of us found it magnificent. A true engineering marvel. There's no admission charge to see it, but we did have to pay 15 Euro to park. If I were to go again, I'd love to have done a canoe trip down the river (there appears to be tours) or would have made it a picnic destination.

    We had dinner that night in Beaucaire which wasn't far from our b&b. We found that there isn't much happening in Beaucaire, nor are there many restaurants, so we ended up with a very average dinner.

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    Day 4 - My favorite in Provence

    Sunday brought the mother of all markets at Isle sur la Sorgue. As Stu suggested, we got there early, about the time it opened. The market just kept going and going and going. We separated from our friends, agreeing to meet up at 11am with picnic provisions. I was so busy taking photos and marveling at everything you could buy, that I actually didn't buy anything! My husband secured a couple of kinds of sausage, some cheese, bread and fruit. By 11, it was getting substantially more crowded (and hot) so we departed. For the record, I could have made a day of that alone.

    From there we drove to the Abbaye de Senanque. Not much to see, but good for a few beautiful photos. They had just replanted the lavender in front of the abbaye, so it was a bit sparse, but there was a couple of fields that were more established on the way in.

    From there we were on to Gordes, where we found a park for our picnic lunch. Note, the swiss army knife that I took along (packed in the luggage of course) came in very handy on these picnics. The picnic lunches were a great way to save a little bit of money and sample the goodies from the market. We walked around Gordes a bit, but didn't spend a substantial amount of time there.

    Back in the car and on the road to Roussillon. Found a winery along the way, so stopped there first, sampled and bought some wine. When we arrive in Roussillon, we parked at the bottom of hill as Stu suggested. Walked up to the village and paid a small fee to walk the ochre trail, which was beautiful. Unfortunately it was around 4 pm and very hot, so none of us were up for much of a hike. If I were to do it again, I would have made this a morning excursion and hiked a bit more, because it was absolutely beautiful. It looked a bit like Sedona, AZ. So instead we took a break in the village and had some ice cream.

    Next stop Bonnieux. Note at some points on this day we were ignoring the Garmin, as she would tend to take us on less direct routes. At this point I was driving. It made me a bit nervous because I wasn't terribly comfortable with a six speed manual transmission, especially on the narrow, winding road. But I was determined to do my share of the driving. So imagine my surprise when we pull into Bonnieux and a policeman in the middle of the road starts shouting at me (in French, of course). I repeat "no francais" several times, but he just keeps yelling. Finally he motions at me to pull over. Oh jeez. But then he storms over, reaches in the vehicle and turns off the lights and motions for me to move on. Sooo, I guess you're not supposed to have daytime running lights on? Anyway, welcome to Bonnieux. We ended up parking and walking up to an old church that overlooks the valley, taking a few photos and then heading out.

    Final stop of the day was Loumarin. First we sat in the small plaza and had a drink and then we wandered around a looked for a place for dinner. We settled on an italian place that had a courtyard. We were only the second group to be seated and I found it odd he put us at the table right beside the entrance. So this courtyard is covered in pea gravel. And when we first sit down, I think I can faintly smell cat pee, but didn't think much of it. So we order. And then DH says to me, do you smell something? And then we start to look around near our table and it is evident that the neighborhood cats are using our corner of the courtyard as a litter box. By this time we have already ordered. The waiter is already very inattentive to us. I didn't think there was any way to asked to be moved without making a scene, so we stayed there. And I think it could have been the best meal in the world and all I would have tasted was cat pee. The service ended up being terrible and the food was only average, so we stiffed the waiter (same guy who seated us), something we NEVER do. What would you have done? Needless to say, we're not having good luck with dinners.

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    Correction to Day 3

    We did so much on this dang trip, the even I can't remember it all! We did not have dinner in Beaucaire that night, we ate in Nime.

    After the Pont du Gard, we continued the Roman ruins theme and headed to Nimes to see the Roman coliseum. Since it was late in the day we practically had the place to ourselves. An audio guide is also included in this admission price. It's amazing to learn the history of the place, and nice to see that it is still in use as a concert venue today.

    From there we walked down to look at the Roman temple, also amazingly preserved. We had asked for a recommendation on the best pizza in Nime and received a suggestion for a very nice restaurant. Pizza was good. But our dinner track record continues when my husband accidentally tips over the olive oil bottle, which then crashes into one of our friend's water glass and glass flies everywhere. I am uber embarrassed, but the staff cleaned it up quickly and professionally and even cooked our friends another half pizza free of charge. Nice touch.

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    Day 5
    Day 5 was primarily spent in Les Baux, which was a delightful surprise. We drove the back way into Les Baux coming through the "Valley of Death". Here's a good description of the setting from Wikipedia: It has a spectacular position in the Alpilles mountains, set atop a rocky outcrop crowned with a ruined castle overlooking the plains to the south.

    Now ruins usually aren't usually my thing, but I have to say I found this really interesting. There was more left of the castle than I expected and the audioguide help you to visualize the different parts of the castle. The scenery from above is spectacular as well. There's an hour long program, in french, on the catapult. One of our travel companions participated in the program to attempt to launch something. In any language the program was longer than it needed to be :) Again it was a rather warm day, and when you are essentially on top of a rock mountain, it can get very hot. So I would highly recommend wearing a hat and taking sunscreen. Back near the entrance there is a 3D presentation of an aerial view of the area. I got motion sick watching it, but if that's your thing I think it was well done and worth 10-15 minutes to see it. After our visit, which was probably at least 2 hours, we wandered back into the town where we found a great little restaurant that served omelettes and a simple salad. A perfect lunch to end our visit in a very nice town.

    From there we stopped at another winery and did a quick tasting. Interestingly, we found everyone in France to be very kind, with the exception of the policeman in Bonnieux, and the two men who were serving in the wineries at which we stopped. They just seemed like they were doing us a favor to let us taste their wines. Note, we did buy at both places, as we understand that is kind of expected.

    We ended this day with the dinner in Beaucaire, which I originally posted on Day 3.

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    Day 6
    We departed Graveson for Nice today. On the way, we stopped in Aix for lunch and and a leisurely stroll down the Cours Mirabeau. We had a bit of trouble finding parking, but finally lucked out when somebody left a parking spot. We quickly learned why -- it was market day! Yay! More pictures!

    Finally we made our way to the Cours Mirabeau and just did some general wandering around, stepping into the occasional shop. Lunch was at the famous Deaux Garcon. I don't recall what we ate, but I think it was just ok and overpriced. The atmosphere would have been a bit better, but they were setting up for a concert in the middle of the avenue and decided to do sound checks during lunch.

    That's all we saw of Aix, I think it seems like a city I'd like to go back to and see more.

    We continued on to Nice, arriving late afternoon. We did get just a wee bit lost when we missed an exit, but quickly got back on track and ended up finding our hotel without incident. Based upon Stu's recommendation, we chose the Windsor. It fit within our budget and they were willing to reserve a parking spot for us. Another uh-oh moment upon check in -- they only had us down for 2 nights. But luckily I was able to produce our confirmation e-mail which showed three. I believe that resulted in an upgrade for us. We both had very spacious rooms overlooking the courtyard, nice large bathrooms. The place was very clean and the staff was very helpful. They also let you pay in US dollars rather than Euros, thus avoiding the foreign transaction fee on your credit card (at least I think that was a good deal for me, please let me know if there is more to that than I understood!)

    So we immediately had to head to the beach and found it an easily walkable 10 minutes away. We were all surprised to find that the beach was all large rocks (that hurt your feet!) but the water was blue and beautiful. We walked over to the marina and gawked at the mega yachts and then to Place Garibaldi where we found an outdoor restaurant for dinner. Did I mention that we ate every single meal of our trip outdoors? Every one. Anyway, I had one of the best hot fudge sundae concoctions of my life for dessert that night, so it was a perfect ending to the day.

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    Day 7
    This was another long day that will make some of you shake your head :)

    Didn't do the breakfast at the hotel since there was a nice bakery just a block away. Grabbed some fresh croissants and pain chocolat and took it to a park to eat. Note that everything we did in Nice was on foot, once the car was parked it stayed parked. From there we had to make a quick trip back to the hotel, as one of of us, had to put on a clean pair of shorts due to sitting in warm chocolate chips that had fallen out of his pastry. As you might imagine, the rest of us got a really good laugh out of it. We head north to the train station with the goal of catching the train that stops at several towns along the Riviera. I hadn't researched the train in advance, so we went to the tourist information location at the train station to figure out what we were looking for. Then we got in the line to purchase train tickets. The lines were kind of long, but we had fun visiting with 4 college girls from the states who were having quite an adventure. Tickets in hand, our first stop was Ville Franche sur la Mer. This was a destination chosen by one of our travel companions. The nice thing about this village is that it has a sand beach, much nicer for the little kids. We didn't find the rest of the village terribly charming, so quickly got back on the train and headed for Monte Carlo.

    What can you say about Monte Carlo besides Wow? We were there 2 days before Prince Albert's wedding so everything was being painted and spruced up around the casino. We wandered around and ooohed and ahhed at the fancy cars and yachts while waiting for the casino to open. We were slightly disappointed to learn that you can basically only get into the lobby without paying to get on to the gaming floor. Oh well. Our friends stayed in Monte Carlo and we decided to go on to Menton. Menton supposedly has some beautiful gardens, but this too, I had not really researched in advance so when we arrived we learned that you really cannot get there on foot. There was one that may have been a 30 minute walk, but it looked like it was going to rain so we decided not to chance it. Back to the train and on to Ventimiglia, Italy, the last stop on the train. What a charming town! Little old italian couples sitting out on their park benches, the most beautiful children you've ever seen being pushed in their strollers, and of course, gelato! Again, we just wandered around for a while and took some photos but when we were certain it was going to rain we headed back to the train. And rain it did. So hard that they had to stop the train for about a half hour. Our friends were in a cafe in Monte Carlo and said it hailed there.

    I think we finally made it back to Nice around 7:30 pm. Thankfully the weather had cleared. We headed down to Rue Massena and decided on La Pizza. We both thought it was great pizza and decently priced. The only downside is that you are packed in tight in the outside seating.

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    Day 8
    This was our last day in Nice. We started by heading to the Cours Saleya flower market. While a lovely market, I didn't think the flowers were any better than any other market I had seen in the previous week. So we kind of just passed through. I wanted to go to the park that overlooks the city. Planned purposely for the morning when our legs were fresh, I assumed it would be a gazillion steps to the top. Much to our delight, there is a free elevator that takes you to the top! FREE! Superb views of the city spread out below from every direction. On the way down we stopped at a beautiful cemetery and eventually ended up in the old town. We wandered into a few churches, an exhibition of antique musical instruments and a very cool 17th century pharmacy. And then we did a little bit of shopping, the first shopping of the trip.

    After lunch, we headed back to our hotel and along the way, we ran into the sculpture park and garden -- The Promenade des Arts. There's a very cool square head sculpture there that is actually a seven story building. If you like sculpture, be sure to check it out.

    Back at the Windsor, I decided to check out the pool. That didn't last long because I found out it wasn't heated and was freezing. So instead I just enjoyed a book in the garden for a while.

    We were determined to make our final dinner a good one. So we wandered Rue Massena checking out menus, watching for restaurants with a crowd. Finally we landed at La Maison du Marie where we had the best dinner of the trip. It was pricey (probably around $125 for 2) but a perfect ending to our last day in Nice.

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    Last Day
    We left Nice and the Riveria with so many things unseen -- the Russian Orthodox Church, the Matisse Museum, the Rothschild estate, the Menton garden, St. Paul de Vence. So there will be a return trip if all goes well.

    But reality beckons, so we loaded up to make our way back to Geneva where our flight would depart the next day. The drive was about 6 hours but we were in no huge hurry to get to our airport hotel so we decided to stop at Orange which was about the half way point. Here we saw the Roman theatre, also still in use today. Can you even imagine seeing something like Phantom of the Opera (it was a coming attraction) at a venue like that? Amazing.

    DH decided to get brave at our final lunch and ordered beef tartare. Raw beef served with a raw egg yolk on top. The rest of us could hardly watch him eat it. He said it was ok, but probably would not order again.

    As we got closer to Geneva, the terrain was beautiful so that kept the long drive interesting. After a comical three loops through the airport, we finally found the ETAP hotel, checked in and unloaded our bags and then went to return the rental car. We were able to take a free shuttle back to our hotel. The ETAP is about as basic as it gets but it was clean. Sadly, the only place open in the mall across the street to eat was McDonalds, so that was our farewell meal.

    A few additional notes in summary that others may find helpful:
    - We rented from Hertz. The total cost of the rental for 9 days was around $700, but that included 3 drivers. I thought the extra cost for the extra drivers was well worth it. In addition, I bought the rental car insurance from American Express for $24.95.

    -Gas for our vehicle was $350. Our credit cards rarely worked at the gas pumps, but we could take them inside and they would work.

    -Tolls were approximately $200 -I didn't quite expect that much.

    -Admission fees for the various sites that I mentioned seemed reasonable. I don't think there was any single admission over 15 Euro. If you plan to go to several of those roman ruins, I think there may be a pass you can buy that applies to several of them.

    -I used the iPad to do a Shutterfly blog during the trip. And once I realized somebody beside my mom was reading it, I felt pressure to keep it up. Unfortunately I found that Shutterfly and iPad don't work incredibly well together. Next time, I'll research to see other options.

    -I also used Shutterfly to make a custom photobook and was very pleased with those results. Here's the link to the share site, the photobook can be accessed from the Photos/Videos tab.

    http://fergusonsinprovence2011.shutterfly.com

    It was without a doubt, a fantastic trip. We very much enjoyed traveling with our friends and felt like we covered an incredible amount of territory and saw so much in a short period of time. But I don't know that we'd do anything differently, which is a good feeling.

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    Enjoyed rest of your report. We had a similar experience in Lourmarin--a town we didn't much care for, and didnt "feel" any charm from. Too sanitized. And the one place we stopped for tea may have been where you had dinner. Indifferent bordering on rude server. There was a courtyard there, but it was not yet officially open, as dinner hadnt started.

    I recall first time in Nice being shocked by the rocky pebbley beach. had been expecting golden soft sands....NOT!!

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    thanks for the great "warts and all " report, fergus.

    nice to see your positive attitude shining through even the not so good bits.

    shame you didn't get to see a performance at Orange - the men of the choir I was in many years ago actually performed in it in Rigoletto and we "girls" got to sing in a Mahler symphony. it was a terrific experience just to be in it let alone sing in it!

    apart from Aix, where else would you like to see more of?

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    You were certainly busy, but sounds like a great trip - perhaps whets your appetite for more. We visited Avignon for a day last year and[ for future reference?] parked on the island in the river for free with shuttle bus to the walls of the city.

    Calinurse, everyone is different. We love France, and perhaps it depends on where you went first. We had two weeks in Italy last year and really enjoyed it, probably will go back sometime, but at the moment we love France. Each to his own. I sometimes think that places get so much hype that it is hard to meet people's expectations. We stay in rentals and only eat in restaurants perhaps twice a week, so less chance of disappointment.

    When we visited the amphitheatre in Orange, there was a rehearsal and lots of men in tunics and sandals. Quite an impressive place. Also liked the Arc de Triomphe[ not Paris!!]- can you imagine driving around that on your way to work?

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    Love your photos! The yellow and purple flowers are gorgeous.

    Was the market going on when you were in Ventimiglia? It's huge and parking is a "bear" so I expect you got to see the town without hordes of people.

    Hub and I based in Menton last time and really enjoyed it. I've heard it referred to as "Monte Carlo Lite"! Good bus service along there also.

    Italy has my heart but DH and I were just beginning to explore France South. Thanks for bringing back some memories.

    My goodness petrol and tolls were high!

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    Annhig~ if we return we plan to get an apartment in Nice and visit places to the east on the train line: Antibes, St. Tropes and Grasse. No car! Not sure I would choose Provence again at this stage, but maybe when we are retired and have more time to take it a bit slower.

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