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trip report:: southern Provence and SW France

trip report:: southern Provence and SW France

Sep 15th, 2005, 03:01 PM
Original Poster
Join Date: Oct 2003
Posts: 185
trip report:: southern Provence and SW France

My DH and I just returned from our greatly overplanned trip. I want to thank all of you wonderful people who took the time to assist us and to help others in the planning stages.

A little background on us: We've been going to Europe each summer for the last 10 yrs. This was the 1st time that we went at the end of August and not at the end of June.

We're healthy, active -not geriatric types in our early 60s (getting less early every year!). We enjoy beautiful and unique landscape, history, architecture, good food (definitely not gourmet-more country style). With my food restrictions and DH being a fussy eater, you'll not find much gastronomic observations here.

We began our trip with a return visit to Gemenos, about 40 min. E. of Marseilles and 30 min. from Cassis in Provence. The Relais de la Magdeleine was a favorite spot of ours 2 yrs. ago and we were not disappointed this year. The inn is at the edge of the village. It makes a good base for exploring the nearby mountains-St. Baume and the coast.

On our first full day there we visited the medieval hilltop village of Castellet which is very charming and affords beautiful views. Our next stop was Cadieres. This is a pretty village but not worth going out of the way. Our favorite stop of the day was the coastal town of Sanary. It's between Cassis and St. Tropez. From descriptions that I've read, it is a less expensive version of St. Tropez. We love Cassis but Sanary had the advantage of not being very hilly. Shopping, dining along an extensive waterfront and watching the harbor activities while enjoying a lovely lunch in an outdoor cafe was great. Coloful, plant filled alleys lined with shops and restaurants made for interesting ambling. The waterfront was extensive and inviting to explore. Another plus for us is that they have great sorbet!

We did drive through the town of Bandol- don't bother. It was extremely crowded and very tacky.

Our last mission of the day was to find a couple of pretty wineries to photograph and do tastings. I was looking for photos to use to do some watercolors. I'm very amateurish but really enjoy this hobby. Unfortunately, we didn't find what we were looking for and headed back to Gemenos. That evening we again enjoyed a lovely meal on the terrace at the inn. They serve very leisurely and beautifully presented 4 course meals nightly. Their desserts were fabulous- chocolate concoctions that make you pucker!

On day 3 we left Gemenos just before 10am enroute to Collioure which I absolutely loved. We stopped in Pezenas and enjoyed lunch in the medieval center which provided great ambiance. We really enjoyed the architecture. After lunch we toured around and it was time to continue on.

We drove through Beziers but didn't stop. We prefer smaller towns. It appeared to be an interesting area if you just wanted to shop. We prefer sightseeing.

The last stop of the day was Fort de Salses. This was truly amazing. It's I believe a 13th c. Cathar fortress that's absolutely immense. It was originally started by the Spanish who incorporated a lot of the Moorish influence in the construction. Although the tour was in French only, it still was fascinating. In this area, which is very Catalan, many speak Spanish as well as Catalan and French. I speak some Spanish and the guide gave me some info. in spanish that I could share with DH.

Finally, we arrived in Collioure around 7:30. It was a long day but when we saw this town we came alive. It's a charming, artsy, historic, seaside town with loads of atmosphere. It's lively without being oppressive. We found a Catalan restaurant where the owner filled us in on the local history. The food was perfect for us. Catalan salads, pesto pasta and Sangria. Not very French but a nice change for us.
We leisurely walked around the whole town which is beautifully lit up at night. As this had been a popular artist colony, 20 copies of paintings by Matisse, Dufy, Picasso, etc. were displayed around the sites where the artists painted them.

Our hotel, the Casa Pairal was set back from the lively streets. It was quiet and perfectly located near the heart of the activity. We felt it was a tremendous value for the money. At E85 night, we had a stand up shower, a/c, a pool and perfect location. This is not a gorgeous hotel but it was fine. It also cost about 1/3 of what most of our others cost and I would certainly recommend it.

The next morning we found a boulangerie where we bought some croissants and pan au chocolate and brought these to a little outdoor seaside cafe where they served us coffees as we watched the water. A light fog encompassed the town and was magical. This was heaven.

We explored the town in daylight and then decided to visit the 11th c. hilltop town of Castelnou. This is a tiny, stone village that is not touristy at all. We found a small restaurant that served delightful menus. We tried to get the menus most days. They were almost always wonderful and great values. We sat in front of an open window with large, open shutters and just looked out on the Midi Pyrenees. It was very special. Here, as in several other restaurants we enjoyed the mixed grill platters. The accompaniements were truly delicious. Dessert was not. DH had ice cream- safe and I had something that tasted like bitter cottage cheese with honey and almonds. Oh well, I saved some calories on this choice!

The rest of our day was leisurely as we relaxed around the pool and went out to 1 of the seaside restaurants for dinner.

The next day was a tough day. We began in Collioure and ended in Carcassonne. I'll describe this in a future report.

sha is offline  
Sep 15th, 2005, 05:10 PM
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 6,562
Please do continue your report. I'm very interested as I'm planning a trip to the area. But even if I weren't, it's very interesting to hear about some areas that don't seem to get covered very much (at least on this board). I'd also like to know how you felt about traveling in August? Everyone seems to say to avoid it - go in June or July if you have to go in summer. So how did you like August? Is it more crowded, hotter, etc than earlier in the summer?
isabel is offline  
Sep 15th, 2005, 05:36 PM
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Posts: 1,765
Enjoying your report. Looking forward to more, as I would love to see SW France someday.
Sue4 is offline  
Sep 15th, 2005, 07:59 PM
Join Date: Dec 2003
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I'm glad to hear that the Relais de la Magdeleine is still good--we loved it.

Thanks for the comments about Sanary--that's a new one, and it sounds very much worth visiting.

Looking forward to the rest of your report.
Underhill is offline  
Sep 15th, 2005, 08:10 PM
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 41,704
Castelnou was one of our favorite stops.
We loved the Cathar country.. there's a biik that came out last you on the Cathars but was too expensive and the British France has an article in the coming issue.
I always recommend the casa Pariel though some are disappointed because the photos make it seem lusher than what it is. Late in August is a good time to go, few strikes, weather super.
We're in our early 70s and never tire of the country. Welcome back!
cigalechanta is online now  
Sep 15th, 2005, 09:04 PM
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Posts: 45,650
isabel: Do avoid August unless you are inured to hordes of tourists, traffic jams, and general unpleasantness. It's a beautiful part of Europe, to be sure, but it's SO much better enjoyed outside of the main tourist season.
StCirq is offline  
Sep 16th, 2005, 04:43 AM
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 6,562
StCirq -I do know that things are generally more pleasant outside of the main tourist season. In fact the trip to this area (probably Barcelona to Nice) is being planned for next March. The reason I asked about August is that my only two travel opportunities each year are March (about 10 days, this year hoping to get 13) and July/August, when I have much more time. For the past 5 years I've gone to Europe in July and, while I find it more crowded than March certainly, it hasn't been that awful. One year we went to Ireland in August and it was not crowded at all. So for next summer I'm thinking of August, rather than July, but wondering if there's a significant difference in those two months. So many people on this board say 'don't go in August', but I can't seem to get an answer as to whether they mean don't go in summer, or if they mean August specifically. So your opinion would be much appreciated.
isabel is offline  
Sep 16th, 2005, 07:46 AM
Join Date: Dec 2003
Posts: 409
I think that the summer travel question depends perhaps a bit on what you want to do. I've been to France in July and August and have encountered crowds when I went to places that naturally attracted them! At the same time, because I often just like living in the countryside, biking and absorbing the local culture, I have found that pursuing that kind of experience is quite manageable in southern France in the summer. I found myself biking on so many roads last August where I wouldn't see a car for hours. We were pretty much able to dine in whatever restaurants we wanted to, although it was important to make reservations.

I think that traveling there outside the high travel season would be wonderful and one could much more easily, say, drive to the Mediterranean from Provence without encountering too much traffic. My schedule doesn't really permit me to go in May (someday I want to go back and see the poppies in May!) or October (when I would rather go), but I am really pleased with what I gain in traveling to France even in the high season.
letour is offline  
Sep 16th, 2005, 08:56 AM
Join Date: Sep 2005
Posts: 6,818
For, who else, St. Cirq: (sorry to get a bit off subject here by referring to The Dordogne)

You were posting under another name if I recall (on the now terminally screwed-up AOL boards), Madame something or other..and you one time recommended a "country, family" restaurant just a bit north of the Lascaux caves..small town of La Chapelle, "La Table de Terroir"...took your suggestion and went there for Sunday lunch six (!) years ago, 1999....wonderful experience. Just wanted to finally thank you. We also found a similar place near Conques (in the Lot region), fairly isolated village of Almon les Junies, "Frerrieres"...excellent Sunday lunch, too.
Thanks again..happy to see you and your intriguing writing style on these boards.
Stu T.
tower is offline  

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