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Impression: France - The Pleasures of Provence

Impression: France - The Pleasures of Provence

Old Aug 3rd, 2011, 10:38 AM
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Impression: France - The Pleasures of Provence

As Phil, Joe and I bid a fond au revoir to the CIty of Light, we continued the next stage of our adventure in Provence. This is thus a continuation of our first report, "Impression: France - The Paris Portion", which can be found here: http://www.fodors.com/community/euro...is-portion.cfm

PROVENCE DAY ONE - A FAST TRAIN TO THE 14TH CENTURY
Tuesday 6/14/11

Loaded with our convertible backpacks and totes filled with miscellaneous groceries (one couldn't leave the Nutella behind), we made our way down the winding staircase for the last time. It was only 6:30 in the morning and we had to open the iron gates to enter the eerily quiet cobblestone passage of Cours du Commerce St-Andre, which Phil had earlier nicknamed Diagon Alley. This old street was home to the revolutionaries. Danton lived at No. 20 and Marat ran his newspaper here before he was murdered in his bath by Charlotte Corday. Ironically, the experiments with a prototype guillotine were also conducted here (on sheep) in 1792 at the request of Dr. Guillotin. A German harpsichord maker named Tobias Schmidt had been asked by the good doctor to craft such a device and Schmidt's workshop was at No. 9. It was a little disconcerting to think about that as our voices and footsteps echoed off the stone walls, especially when we popped out on St. Germain face-to-face with the black hulking statue of Danton pointing down the street with a glare.

The Bus 87 from the Odeon/St-Germain stop to Gare de Lyon was easy-peasy, but finding our train platform was a bit confusing. This station was enormous compared to the others we had been in that week. As luck would have it, our idTGV train was on the very last track as far back as you can imagine. If we had hiked any further, we would have been in Bois de Vincennes. I was beginning to wish we'd left the Nutella behind, along with half our clothes and shoes.

The TGV was incredibly fast and especially scenic passing through Burgundy. Since we had booked the "idZen" and not the "idZap," that meant we were in the quiet section and had to keep the noise level to a minimum. I can't see how anyone could have been rowdy at that hour of the morning, anyway. It was all we could do to keep from falling asleep again and several travelers around us just gave in to the temptation.

We traveled about 440 miles in 2 ½ hours at speeds approaching close to 180 mph. The language barrier, however, created a gnawing little concern. The train destination was Marseilles and the friendly voice over the loudspeaker kept telling you in French how far from Marseilles we were at various times; what the weather and time were in Marseilles; yada yada. (At least I think that's what she was saying.) The problem was that we were going to Avignon and neither our tickets nor our itinerary said anything about Marseilles. We were absolutely sure we were on the right train, but no mention of stopping in Avignon first was ever made at any point by the voice over the speaker. By 10:15 a.m., we were growing increasingly nervous, especially after we passed the beautiful Dentelles and Mont Ventoux. It was not until the train suddenly slowed and we pulled into the station on the dot that the girl brightly announced that we had arrived in Avignon. We were barely out the door and putting our backpacks on when the train sped away so fast we were almost spinning on the platform. Yes, I'm sure they easily made the remaining 66 miles to Marseilles in half an hour.

No problems with the rental car pick-up at the Europcar office near the train station. It was a new Peugeot Bipper, a little larger than I wanted, but equipped with the requested diesel and manual transmission. (Little did we know yet that it was secretly a lemon.) I breathed a sigh of relief when the Garmin Nuvi we had loaded with the French maps was able to access our location. Phil readjusted to the stick shift immediately, though it had been years, and we were soon rollin'.

One of the coolest things about Avignon is that the heart of the medieval city is still within the 2.7-mile ring of 14th century walls (remparts). It has a population of over 88,000, which you can believe when you're in the middle of the outer urban sprawl and freeway ribbons, but entering one of the gates is like moving back in time.

After parking off rue Farruce in the Palaise de Papes garage, we popped above ground to the sight of the immense fortified palace looming over the square. I mean seriously immense. Pictures do not do this place justice unless you pay attention to the diminutive people in the foreground. You can see why it took 30 years to build. It's over 161,500 square feet and some of its 10 towers are more than 164 feet high. Then they had to keep rebuilding it after repeated sieges. Filled with treasures and pompous popes, it was a rather obvious target. The final pillaging naturally came with the Revolution and it followed the usual pattern of being a prison before becoming a museum. The palace and the entire historic center of Avignon are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

I did not plan to actually go into the palace as I had heard that it is much better on the outside. There's not much left in the once sumptuous interior other than a few frescoes and even chunks of those were cut and sold to antique dealers at one point. Plus, we only had a limited amount of time in Avignon before we had to meet our apartment owner in Bonnieux. Instead, we headed to the left up the hill to the Rocher des Doms. The winding garden paths lead up to a bluff that had been inhabited since Neolithic times.

Heading toward the famous viewpoints, we first got waylaid by the sight of cafe tables next to a shady pond with a fountain and ducks. We had started the day so early that surely lunch was in order by now. And such a delightful spot! We thus toasted our arrival in Provence with a small pichet of rosé, good sandwiches, salads and a huge ice cream parfait for Joe. Fuzzy ducklings waddled on the bank and paddled in the pond just a couple of feet away, while a little blonde boy in a bucket hat squealed in delight and tried to chase them. It was so pleasant to relax in the sun. It had averaged 66 °F the previous week in Paris and it was now climbing toward a balmy 86 °F in Avignon, so we were simply chuffed as we leaned back in our chairs and looked forward to a new week with fresh adventures.

I came down to earth after lunch, though, when I entered the nearby toilette and came face-to-face with a new, but not exactly fresh adventure. There was nothing more than a hole in the ground. No seat, no bars, no toilet paper - just two rubber footprints straddling the hole like a dance step diagram. Well, if this was a dance move, it would have been called The Hover. Thank god I had tissues in my purse -- which I made sure were well-stocked the rest of the trip. The French have been supremely civilized for eons, so why do these basic human facilities seem so third-world? (And, while we're on the subject, why do sophisticated grown men still pee on the walls and sidewalks like dogs marking fire hydrants?) Cultural mysteries. If you want to check out my expression following this experience, scroll to the photo of me with my lip curled in disgust that Phil snapped after I emerged and came to tell him about it. It's not a flattering picture, but it's funny if you know the context.

We spent a good 20 minutes walking around the bluff. I admired the gardens and statuary while Phil took pictures of the Rhone, the broken bridge of Pont St. Benezet, school children on a picnic and a wedding party on the terrace below. The cute legend is that a 12th century shepherd named Benezet heard voices telling him to build the bridge, but everyone thought the boy was addled until he miraculously lifted a giant block of stone. The villagers were so impressed by this little Samson that they formed a committee to fund the construction. Now, with the Roman Pont du Gard just a few miles away, you would think they could study the ultimate way to build a sturdy bridge, but the Avignon pont was repeatedly broken and repaired until they just gave up in the 17th century. Perhaps the Rhone is more prone to flood torrents than the Gard. At any rate, it obviously behooves the town to keep the bridge in a state of half-ruined repair now since it attracts more tourists that way. There's apparently some old nursery song associated with it, too, but neither Phil nor I had ever heard it. My mother knew it right of the bat and sang it to me over the phone: "Sur le pont d'Avignon l'on y danse tout en rond. . . ". It seems to me that "Benezet is falling down, falling down" would be more appropriate. Maybe all the dancing weakened the structure.

Back down the hill, the square was becoming increasingly active. As the tourist center, it likewise attracted charming accordion-playing buskers and annoying sundry sellers. We snapped photos of the cathedral and the carved facade of the old mint before slipping around the corner to Avignon's own version of Diagon Alley, Rue Peyrollerie.

We soon came to the Eglise St-Pierre. An interesting thing about Europe is that, when a site is considered sacred, churches are built over and over the same place for centuries (even over sites of Roman temples, which in turn were often built over Celtic holy places). In this case, the first known church dated from the 7th century and the first bishops of Avignon were buried there. It was rebuilt again in the 10th after being destroyed by the Saracens. I think the beautiful church existing today was built in the 14th century and added to up until 1854. Besides the ornate, turreted facade and beautiful paintings inside, the most unique and striking feature is the set of carved walnut Renaissance doors (16th c). Phil got a picture of the doors, but he was more interested in photographing the people at the cafe next door, L'Epicerie.

In fact, Phil was quite the flaneur the whole time we were in Avignon. He just loved it and so did I, while Joe preferred Aix-en-Provence. The old town was smaller than I anticipated and we were able to maneuver through the cobblestone streets and alleys without getting lost once. We saw medieval and Renaissance hotels (remember, that means mansions not Hiltons), Renaissance towers and the chapel of the Grey Penitents (a brotherhood of monks).

I particularly liked the looming ruined outlines of the Convent des Cordeliers with its skeletal bell tower. This is where Petrarch's muse and unrequited love, Laura, was entombed in 1348 and where the fab Ren prince, Francis I, came to meditate. At the outbreak of the Revolution, there were several confrontations between the papists and the populist patriots in a local civil war featuring mobs, murders and massacres. When a patriot named Lescuyer was lynched by papists in the Convent des Cordeliers, it caused national outrage and retaliation led to the execution of 60 people in the Tour de Glacière of the Palais de Papes. The convent was then destroyed in 1806, which I assume must be related to the Revolution, but I cannot find anything verifying that.

The convent and the Chapelle des Penitents Gris are both on Rue des Teinturiers, one of the most popular medieval streets in town due to its pedestrianized cobblestones shaded by plane trees and the waterwheels leftover from its days as the dyers' district. The cafes looked inviting and the little shops even seemed promising. Looking at our watches, though, we knew we had to turn around at the end of the street and circled back to the center of town. We promised ourselves that we would spend more time in Avignon someday. If it weren't for the traffic congestion on its outer freeways, it would be an ideal base.

As we passed through the city center, Place de l'Horloge, it was absolutely hopping with more busy cafes, shoppers and tourists. This used to be the Roman forum and then the main market in the Middle Ages. In the 19th century, it was expanded and the current theater was built, along with the town hall (always called the Hotel de Ville in French towns) which encloses the earlier 14th/15th century clock tower that gives the plaza its name.

Our memories of Avignon are fond, but it was a brief hell getting out of her tangled hair. It was mostly Helen's fault of course. That would be our GPS, which we soon named after a bossy, know-it-all acquaintance who can never get things straight. We were still adjusting to the roundabouts again, too, although it was so nice to be staying on the right side of the road, unlike our scary experiences in England three years before. Within a few days, we were loving the traffic circles as they were so well-signed and predictable in lieu of Helen's mixed messages about sudden left turns into unmarked alleys.

France doesn't have big green street signs hanging from lampposts on every corner. No, when they exist, they're attached to the walls of buildings - black, discreet, attractive and not much bigger than a piece of paper. They are hard enough to locate and read on foot, but put someone with less than 20/20 vision in a car trying to drive & navigate with Frenchmen on your tail and you've got a challenge. Fortunately, even after a couple of U-turns and being stuck on a narrow dead-end frontage road at one point, we made it to the Luberon in decent time. The scenery really improved after Beaumettes as we zipped down the D900, which would become so welcomingly familiar over the next few days.

We adored Bonnieux on sight and warmed to it further all week as we wandered its steep streets in the evenings after most of the tourists were gone. I wouldn't hesitate to stay there again, but we might also try using Goult or Menerbes as a base as we liked both of those towns just as much.

The apartment host who met us is a lovely and gracious Provencal lady named Michelle whose family has owned the home in Bonnieux for several decades. We had made been making all the arrangements with her son via e-mail for months as he speaks English somewhat proficiently. She herself speaks about as much English as I do French, but we were able to communicate well enough. She also treated Joe like a prince or her favorite grandson, practically plying him with milk and cookies.

The owners actually live in Marseilles, where the son is an intern at the hospital and maman is a retired pediatrician. The Bonnieux apartment is used as their second home on weekends. They retain the upper story and just last year began to rent the enormous space on two levels below. The apartment itself and the business of renting it to travelers both seem to be a work in progress, but a labor of love nonetheless. Michelle certainly treated us like guests sharing her home and not just customers. She even invited us to share a glass of wine with her one evening and talk for a time.

The apartment is built into the village's old stone remparts and is therefore a very rustic, cavernous space filled with antiques from Michelle's collection. The history and age of the building is unmistakable. It dates from the 12th century and once belonged to an archbishop. They have installed plumbing, electricity and lighting along the floors, but there are several chambers that are still hollow, echoing and unoccupied like the vaults of a crypt. One of them was the washroom in the middle ages and you can see where they carved funnels and drilled holes in the stone for runoff. You could fit a troop of Boy Scouts in that place and have them roast marshmallows over a fire on the stone floor, but there are currently only enough beds to sleep three.

So, we dubbed it "the cave" and Joe just loved it. It was nice to come back on hot afternoons to the cool, quiet rooms. The kitchen, bedroom and hall have expansive views over the patchwork valley, including a purple square of lavender in the distance. The shower was a bit odd - just a curtain around a hole in the floor and the showerhead on the wall. There was no rim or pan separating it from the rest of the tiled bathroom floor, so the water not contained by the curtain would flow down the steps into the kitchen. Being able to park directly in front of our apartment door was a huge bonus as even people who stay in Bonnieux hotels usually have to park in the visitor lot below the village and walk up the hill.

There was really only one major annoyance. On one of the two websites (VRBO), the apartment is listed as having a washer. The only washer is upstairs in the owner's apartment. While Michelle offered to wash our clothes when she came back that weekend, I wasn't about to have her do that and needed items sooner anyway. Instead, she gave me a big tub and I used this to hand wash everything and hang it on racks in the empty rooms. I really couldn't have handled that for more than a few days. It takes jeans and t-shirts a long time to dry in a cave.

Overall, it was an interesting lodging experience, but I was ready for a little more comfort at the end of the week. As far as an outright recommendation, think of it in terms of someone setting up a blind date between friends: "She has a wonderful personality."

Phil took a few photos, plus here are links to both of their rental sites: http://www.slowtrav.com/cl/detail.asp?l=4057
http://www.vrbo.com/294850

After exploring the town a little, we ate dinner at La Flambée. I hadn't made reservations anywhere as I didn't want the stress of having something scheduled our first night in town, so we figured a pizza place might have an open table. As we started to take seats on the narrow sidewalk, the owner directed us upstairs to the beautiful terrace instead. The panoramic views were even better than the ones from our apartment. I think Joe was the only one who ended up having pizza. Phil and I ate a very nice three course French/Italian meal and watched the swallows swooping through the valley as the sun set. Provence was looking pretty fine so far.

http://share.shutterfly.com/action/w...0CctnDVu1bs3yQ
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Old Aug 3rd, 2011, 10:53 AM
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Oops. Sorry for the typos in the report. Why do I never notice these until I hit the point-of-no-return Submit button?
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Old Aug 3rd, 2011, 11:20 AM
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Bookmarking this for leisurely read later today or first thing tomorrow.
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Old Aug 3rd, 2011, 01:29 PM
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It's been a while since we have been to Avignon and you have reminding me how much we loved that town. Thanks for the great read.
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Old Aug 3rd, 2011, 01:29 PM
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reminded...(I do the same thing with the typos).
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Old Aug 3rd, 2011, 02:06 PM
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Very nice. Know what you mean about having a crisis of faith on the train! Glad it worked out well. The Bonnieux place is so cool looking.

My vague recollection from French class is that the people who were falling down on the bridge in Avignon might have been experiencing "St. Vitus dance" jerking symptoms from one of the illnesses of the times.

More, please!
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Old Aug 3rd, 2011, 02:56 PM
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Enjoying your account immensely. That Bipper is one ugly vehicle!
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Old Aug 4th, 2011, 02:12 AM
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I totally "get it" about hte thypos, Sap!!

We ere pleasantly surprised by how much we enjoyed Avignon, after some less- than -glowing descriptions we'd read. Sounds like you had a love=hate relationship with "Helen."

i know about those showers, sounds like India! You expect them there, but ...I would have been far less gracious in my assessment of the place in Bonnieux, no matter how nice the owner!!
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Old Aug 4th, 2011, 03:58 AM
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"And, while we're on the subject, why do sophisticated grown men still pee on the walls and sidewalks like dogs marking fire hydrants?"

Heredity trumps environment.
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Old Aug 4th, 2011, 04:55 AM
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We called The Hover , the "Squatter" and it is not good for those with bad knees - almost got "locked down" once!!
I'm with you, cannot believe they still exist so plentifully!
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Old Aug 4th, 2011, 08:45 AM
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>>We called The Hover , the "Squatter"
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Old Aug 4th, 2011, 09:06 AM
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Bookmarking. Don't want to miss the next installment!
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Old Aug 4th, 2011, 09:58 AM
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Bookmarking...ditto what idh said above, didn't want to miss a minute of this trip!
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Old Aug 4th, 2011, 12:45 PM
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Well, folks. I was going to hold off posting for another day, but you've talked me into it. Be warned that I'm falling behind, though! I may bow out this weekend to catch up.

Here ya' go and thanks for all the funny comments. You really do make my day.

PROVENCE DAY TWO - CRAZY HELEN AND THE CARPENTRAS VORTEX
Wednesday 6/15/11

For the record, Helen was by far a worse navigator than I was. I know, I know, that seems hard to believe. But we in fact began to suspect that she was both devious and insane. She had this nasty little habit of taking us on random side roads until we'd made so many twists and turns that we'd lost track of where we were. Sometimes, she would tell us to turn into a driveway or a wall where no roads existed. The problem was that she was right often enough that you were never sure when to ignore her and forge ahead using the maps and your own common sense. The tug-of-war was worse the first few days until we learned how and when to assert authority. At some point we realized that the best thing to do when she began to act particularly loony was to stay calm, reboot and reset. (I wish that worked for teenagers.)

Then again, perhaps Helen was on to something. Some of those tiny side roads to nowhere were the prettiest places we saw in France. The southern part of the country, at least, is amazingly scenic and strangely unpopulated. We could drive for miles in the middle of forests, fields and vineyards and see nothing but wildlife, farm animals and an occasional tractor. (Of course, we weren't there during the August onslaught.)

Take the first morning in the Luberon for instance. On the way to Venasque, Helen screwed up immediately and took us in a 15-minute loop back to Bonnieux. While we were less than thrilled, we had to admit that, if she hadn't done that, we might have missed the lovely lavender field on the side of a country road.

After an hour and several winding, twisting mountain roads through the forest, we reached Venasque perched on the summit of a big rock. The first small parking lot we saw was full, so we followed the road further up into the town through the rampart gate. Anyone who's been to those hilltop towns might be shaking their head at this. See, medieval villages have certain characteristics that make them strategically defensible. The zigzagging, narrowing streets are completely walled in by the houses terraced up the hill and designed to thwart invaders. I must say that they work equally well at trapping modern cars. Most locals own smart cars that look exactly like the Little Tykes Cozy Coupe my daughter had when she was two. If you run out of gas in one of those things, you could probably just pick it up and carry it home.

As we turned into a passage that narrowed to about six feet, I started wishing we'd insisted on a smaller car, though that would probably leave Joe on the roof with the bags. As I voiced my thoughts out loud, the mirror on my side scraped the wall. Phil was in denial that this had happened, but fortunately the street led through another portal into an empty parking lot right outside the ramparts. We got out to admire the sweeping views and were feeling pretty smug until we turned around and saw a road that led directly up from the first parking lot. We had just looped in and out of the bulwark holes like a fat knitting needle.

We spent no more than a quarter of an hour exploring the attractive village of Venasque. It has a nice fountain, pretty cobblestone streets with pastel-colored stone walls. There was the ubiquitous cat befriended by Joe. We even stopped at a couple of artists' workshops. You can get a surprisingly good overview of these little towns in the time it would take to walk your dog. The Luberon hill villages range in population from a few hundred up to maybe 2,000. By comparison, the smallest arrondissement in Paris has a population of over 17,000. In fact, it probably takes longer to drive to these villages and find parking then it does to visit. Phil thought this was somewhat silly until he got used to the idea. Of course, he was always appeased if there was something worthwhile to photograph.

With just a few nonsensical, circuitous sidetracks through vineyards, Helen did manage to get us through the Dentelles to Vaison-la-Romaine. The Dentelles de Montmirail are a formation of limestone hills at the foot of Mont Ventoux named after the French word for lace. The word for lace of course just means little teeth. It's ridiculous, really, to pretend that they're something so delicate. "They're nothing like lace at all," I said as we caught our first clear view. "They're definitely teeth."

"No," Joe piped in from the back seat. "They're the jagged edge of a broken whiskey bottle."

Actually, for anyone familiar with the U.S. Midwest, they look exactly like the granite spikes along the Needles Highway in the Black Hills, but I doubt any Frenchman has ever set foot in South Dakota. unless some 19th century fur trapper wandered off course in a snowstorm.

I wanted to like Vaison more than any of us actually did. I was rallying for it up until the end; but the travel gods sometimes surprise us. There are places that look one way on paper, in your mind and then morph into something else as a myriad of circumstances come into play in real time. Even odder, your memories of a place can shift for better or worse. Expectation juxtaposed with reality, altered by memory. It all amalgamates into experience one way or another, I suppose.

Weeks later, Vaison-la-Romaine has come full circle with all that. I expected to like it. I was disappointed; yet I look at the photos Phil & Joe took and enjoy them enough to fondly fix the place in my mind.

We'd been driving most of the morning and it was fast approaching 90 degrees. Not wanting to deal with Helen's quirky personality, we parked in the first lot we saw, though we passed one closer on our walk down Avenue Charles de Gaulle into the center.

I don't think Vaison was all that bad in retrospect, though maybe I'm still trying too hard to like it. Historically, it's an interesting town which has developed up and down the hill in stages over the millennia. A Celtic tribe called the Voconti first settled on the hill in the 4th century B.C. to replace or supplement a Bronze Age people. The Gallo-Romans then developed an extensive colony on the lower ground on the opposite side of the river. In later centuries, the medieval town was built on the hill over the Celtic ruins for defensive purposes. After the danger of invasion had passed, the population moved down the hill again and built their houses on top of the Roman ruins, spreading from there. There are two excavation sites in the town center which began in 1907, but only a small portion of the ancient city has been uncovered. Apparently, 120 acres are still hidden under the modern city.

After a decent little lunch at the Brasserie Le Bar á Thyme, we walked around the corner to the Puymin archaeological site. We didn't feel like spending time or money for a museum at that moment, but we didn't have to. A large portion of the Roman remains are completely visible through the iron gates. I was surprised how well-preserved the foundations and columns are and Phil got some fairly good shots from the sidewalk. It seems that there were some very elaborate and sophisticated Gallo-Roman houses there with enough surviving structure that it doesn't require an excess of imagination. I think it might be interesting enough to go back someday to see both sites in their entirety, as well as the museum.

We then passed a few colorful craft stalls, touristy streets and gritty alleys before crossing the Roman bridge over the Ouveze River and beginning the ascent to the 13th century Haute-Ville. I had been looking forward to this part of Vaison, but it was a little oppressive to make the climb under the midday sun with lunch still like lead in our bellies. Plus, we had the long drive back to Bonnieux mentally hanging over our heads. The 8th-11th c. church was closed, but we continued the climb to the ruined castle of the Counts of Toulouse at the top. The steep medieval streets were atmospheric; the views were spectacular; but truthfully the photos are a better souvenir than our own hot, sweaty memories. Maybe an early morning at Vaison's colorful Tuesday market would be a better way to see the town.

On the long loop back to Bonnieux, we made two stops. Seguret was first. I had heard good things about this village and perhaps the hype, like a must-see movie, inflated my expectation. It is one of the 151 "most beautiful" villages in France, a designation requiring that a town meet certain criteria, including a population of under 2,000 and at least two listed historical sites. From our limited experience that month, most of the places seem to deserve the accolade. (I wonder what happens when a village is close to the population max and a baby is born. Do they kick the family out to retain their status?)

Our slightly disappointed impression of Seguret was of a cute little chick-flick slightly lacking in plot and character development, but I could see why it made the list. It was also about that time that Phil started comparing every Provencal village to Bonnieux. It had become his measure and, by the time we left the next week, it remained tops in his mind. (Remember, we were seeing our beloved base in the mornings and evenings when the crowds were absent and the light was good.)

By the end of the trip, we had reached a few conclusions after experimenting with our personal formula for visiting rural France. Not counting large towns, which should be given half or full days unto themselves, we mentally divided the sites into categories of villages, chateaux, wineries, caves and miscellaneous historical sites. We soon realized that we could not enjoy more than two of the same thing in one day and no more than five sites total before we reached overload. It's like sniffing perfume or tasting wine. Your brain begins to blend the experiences together and fails to make distinctions. The more you try to cram in, the less you're going to enjoy or remember. An ideal mix might be two villages and two chateaux; or one chateau, two villages and winetasting. You get the idea, but this was a hard lesson for me and I'm going to need a lot more vacation time to practice.

The other factors that affected our attitude were the amount of driving in one day (obviously) and something I'll call Afternoon Anemia. It's a southern condition that seems to infect places and people alike. By 2 or 3 pm, we were ready to retreat for a few hours into a cool hole somewhere. The colorful stone walls of the towns had faded to gray and white. The scenery was bland and the sun too bright. I began to understand firsthand the concept of siesta. As travelers with limited time, we would tend to push on, but it never really worked. I think little Seguret was probably a victim of all this that day. Provencal towns often don't get the color back in their cheeks until at least 5 p.m.

Our next stop was neighboring Gigondas. She may not be as pretty as her sister Seguret, but she's got other tricks up her sleeve. She was originally a Roman settlement named Jocunditas or "joyous place" and probably for the same reason she is so well-loved today - her vineyards. Similar to the relationship between our own Napa and Sonoma, Gigondas is the second most famous southern Rhone wine appellation after Chateauneuf-du-Pape and her prices are correspondingly much more reasonable. There are over 200 growers covering 1300 hectares (about 3,212 acres) and the AOC requires all the wines to be either red or rosé made from only Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre. More than 80 of the producers bottle the wine at their own domaine.

As California residents, Phil and I have probably been to over 200 wineries in the last 20-some years, but our experience in Gigondas was a first. Knowing there was no way we could feasibly visit more than a couple of domains that afternoon, we instead opted for one-stop shopping at the Caveau du Gigondas in the town's central square. We had never been to such a large cooperative before. Unlike a regular wine shop, they are not allowed to make any recommendations, so you need to know what you want and which producers are likely to deliver it. Moreover, they don't pour from a list of daily selections on offer, but wait for you to tell them what you want to try. This threw us off a bit since we were unfamiliar with the multiple domains on the list, but fortunately all the Gigondas wine represents the robust, full-bodied red wine we tend to prefer. I had done a little research ahead of time and so we tried the Chateau du Trignon, Domaine la Bouissiere, Domaine les Pallieres and Domaine Cabasse. We liked the first two the most.

Then a group of German men came in to the shop and immediately asked to try a wine from Domaine du Clos des Tourelles (2008). After sipping and nodding their heads in approval, they bought a case and promptly left. Impressed, Phil and I immediately said, "We'll try what they just had." It knocked our socks off. Unfortunately, shipping costs to the U.S. are unholy and we had limited room in our 20" suitcases, so we narrowed our choice down to three bottles: one Domaine la Bouissiere and two bottles of the delightful Tourelle.

Now, it's about 40 miles from Gigondas to Bonnieux. It should have taken us maybe an hour and a half to get there. I don't know what Helen was thinking, but I'm sure it took us twice that long.

Looking back, I think Helen's voice was a siren song luring us off course until we were sucked into the traffic vortex of Carpentras. There are dozens of D roads in the Luberon and many of them converge in that large town so that it resembles a spider's web. I had hoped to skirt the ring road, especially because we might be hitting late afternoon traffic; but Helen had us merrily continue on the D7 long after we should have turned off. Looking at my map, I still foolishly said, "Well, maybe she's right."

As we approached the other side of Carpentras on the ring road, Helen told us to turn left, but all we could see through the heavy traffic was a parking lot with no street sign, so we continued straight where we saw freeway markers ahead. "Turn left", she repeated just as we reached consecutive splits in the road, so we did. "Recalculating," she croaked in disapproval. You could practically see her wagging a digital finger. We must have circled around the entire town of Carpentras five times at least. Every time we came to the questionable spot, we would crane our necks to look for a sign, dodging traffic as we approached the upcoming forks in the web and had to make a split-second decision. This was by no means a normal traffic circle. There was no circle at all, but some sort of triangle with roads and dividers crossing it like a giant game of pick-up sticks. We were starting to think we would be lost forever in the Carpentras Triangle. We even tried taking different roads a couple of times, but Helen always led us back to the same mystery spot like a magnet attracted to a pole.

"Recalculating" Helen said for the umpteenth time in her snide, grating voice.

"Throw that thing out the window!" yelled Phil.

I shut her off instead. "Let's just get out of here. Anywhere. And then turn her on again to see what happens." It worked. I knew we wanted the D31 south of Monteux, so we somehow managed to find the right signs and arrive there in minutes. When I turned Helen back on, she seemed subdued and a little miffed, but she got us back to the D900 where I could shut her off again and comfortably navigate on my own.

And that's how the word "Carpentras" became an inside joke, a rich source of material that Joe mined repeatedly over the next few weeks. When Helen was up to her old antics on backroads of the Dordogne at the end of the month, Joe would gleefully say, "Now entering Carpentras."

At any rate, we were happier than usual to see Bonnieux.

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Old Aug 4th, 2011, 01:41 PM
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Ah reading of your experiences reminded me of our own "recalculating" memories, they are so persistant at times!
Once on a trip to Gordes I could have stomped on her. Rather then take us by the beautiful panoramic route she took us via the backdoor and alley ways.
Whilst heading out of Bonnieux our TomTom wanted to send us up over a hill on a goat track only fit for the best 4 wheel drives.
By the time we got to the Dordogne we had had enough and switched the TomTom off. Much more pleasant to wander the little roads for a week with a map.

Enjoying your trip reports, brings back memories of our trip to Paris, Provence and the Dordogne 2 years ago. So nice basking in the memories.
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Old Aug 4th, 2011, 01:52 PM
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LOL re your reportSap. I agree soooo much with many of your conclusions. The GPS is a godsend sometimes, and in other times, yes, you want to tell her to shut the heck up!!

And i found many of the "most beautiful villages" were just repeats of the previous villages of that title.

The vineyard drive around the Dentelles nr Vaison (a town we liked, incidentally--but we skipped the walk to the top, early June weather was much nicer than you had apparently)

After meeting the occasional rude shopkeeper, my daughter and i decided there should be a NEW category/competition,"Une des plus belles VISAGES de France" Instead of a town icon, they could have a smiley face
Maybe that will make for more pleasant facial expressions. (This was truer in Dordogne than in Provence, where i learned --from a local friend--that there is an undercurrent of dislike for the English specifically, and tourists in general.)
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Old Aug 4th, 2011, 01:56 PM
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oops, meant to say, the vineyard drive outside Vaison, was quite disappointing. I dont recall quite hat we expected, but DD kept laughing and saying, "If all we wanted to see was vineyards, we coud've just driven an hour to Napa!"
Provence held other charms and interesting places for us--but also gave me a new appreciation of the beauty right near my hometown.
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Old Aug 4th, 2011, 01:58 PM
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Our first GPS, with urgency would say "Go back". I now have a charming Aussie male-haven't named him yet...

Lovely shots!
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Old Aug 4th, 2011, 02:01 PM
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Love reliving our trips through your reports. Last September we stayed a week in a rental not far from Carpentras in Caromb, a week in Beynac and a week in Paris. We always save Paris for last as I tend to shop and don't like carrying purchases throughout France.
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Old Aug 4th, 2011, 02:01 PM
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re Spa and Nikki comment on grown men peeing on walls--the ENTIRE town of Toulouse smelled like urine!! We called it the "Yellow city" instead of the "Rose City" Maybe the wind was just blowing in an odd direction that day.
When we met the occasional rude person, DD and i laughed and thought "Attitude...from a person who lives in a place where it's ok to piss on the wall, or leave a pile of dog poop on the sidewalk!"
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