In a comment on my blog, my sister-in-law encouraged me to include the good, the bad, and the ugly. All three categories would be covered simply by describing driving in France. Good - because you are getting ever closer to amazing destinations. Generally, the passing countryside is beautiful, with rolling hills and sometimes mountains in the distance, pockets of the ubiquitous, vivid poppies of Provence growing up against crumbling rock walls, village after village of tile roofs and painted shutters, and azure skies above it all. Bad -because the road signs are confusing at best, contradictory at worst, and frequently no help whatsoever. Ditto our road maps. Distances seem to take much longer to cover than it appears they should, and there are complicated and sometimes death-defying roundabouts everywhere. Ugly - because we are frequently lost or unsure, and Wendy has no qualms about asking - or making me ask - any Tom, Dick, or Harry for directions. This could involve anything from pulling into car dealerships to grill the employees, to yelling "Limoux?" out the car window at a red light. Keep in mind that the people we are asking for help generally speak even less English than we do French, and you begin to get the picture. So far, we have always managed to eventually make it to our intended destinations.
On Tuesday morning, we found the Pont du Gard and spent a fascinating couple of hours hiking on and around this ancient Roman viaduct spanning the Rhone River. It left us scratching our heads in wonderment about its design and construction, since each stone in it apparently weighs two or three tons!
Following that came an extremely frustrating afternoon of driving from there to our B&B near Carcassonne. We had expected our driving in the south of France to be off the main routes. Well...this led to events such as unexpectedly finding ourselves careening around mountainous curves on a very narrow route to Nimes from Montpellier. In Nimes, we learned a lesson about letting oneself be directed to the "centre ville" when trying to bypass a town. We spent about an hour there trying to find our way through to the other side and a main road. We finally stopped to ask some mechanics for directions. When we told them that we did not wish to take the toll autoroute, they stared at as blankly and informed us that any other route would take about four hours. We had expected the whole afternoon's drive to take an hour or two! We obediently adjusted our thinking to taking the autoroute whenever possible, but that did not put an end to our driving misadventures for the day. Our B&B was located in a very small village outside Carcassonne, and one wrong turn took us down the streets of a village with streets so narrow that Wendy was sure that our little car would be wedged between the walls on either side. This was followed by a stop for directions - after which our car would not restart, as it had accidentally been turned off while in reverse. This was eventually put right after a cell phone call to the rental car agency by a helpful local. Our hostess at the B&B insisted that we drive back into Carcassonne to see the castle lit up at night and have a bite to eat. We did so (getting a little lost both ways, of course), then fell into bed mentally exhausted.
The next day we were better able to enjoy the charms of this huge medieval city, now housing within its ancient walls stores, restaurants, and an amazing high-end hotel. We had thoroughly enjoyed our tour, and went to use a washroom on the way out. It was an unusual-looking one with a large metal door like a freezer compartment. A sign outside said that it was cleaned and sterilized after each use. Wendy went in first; when she came out, I entered. After the door had closed behind me, I noticed the toilet seat raising by itself. The next thing I knew, the light went out and spigots in each corner of the room starting spraying across the floor. I huddled in a corner until it stopped and I could open the door, leaving with very wet, but well sterilized feet.
By late afternoon we had found our way to Arles and checked into our lovely hotel, complete with open courtyards from where you could hear birdsong at all times. The evening passed poking around town, admiring the shops full of gorgeous Provencal fabrics and viewing the Roman amphitheatre in the centre of town.
Thursday was the Fetes des Gardians and a holiday in the town. We were thoroughly entertained by this local cultural event. Men, women, children, and even babies in antique buggies paraded down a main street in elaborate traditional costumes. The "gardians" rode on beautiful white Camargue horses, carrying long wooden staffs and, sometimes, a woman ("Arlesienne") riding sidesaddle on the back. There were also bands consisting of men and women who somehow managed to play a pennywhistle held in one hand while keeping time on a bongo-like drum with the other - I can barely walk and chew gum at the same time!
The afternoon passed in searching for and visiting the hill towns of Gordes and Roussillon. Gordes is a beautiful town perched on top of a mountain and was featured in the movie "A Good Year." Roussillon is home to the world's largest ochre deposits, and all of the buildings are painted in the varying hues of ochre, from rich yellows through to oranges, pinks,and reds. The ochre cliffs here are amazing to see. On our way back to Arles, we drove through part of the Camargue, a delta area of the Rhone River, home to its famous white horses, black bulls, and flamingos. We had no luck in the flamingo department, and returned to Arles for a late dinner before climbing into bed, once more exhausted by all we've seen.
Friday we did a bit of shopping before leaving the clogged narrow streets of Arles. Our journey took us toward the Mediterranean. We decided to take the Rue Nationale cross-country rather than driving the autoroute or going along the coast. Although the trip took us six hours, it was toll-free and turned out to be an excellent choice. It was, I think, the highlight of our trip so far for our "country mouse" Wendy. The scenery was beautiful all the way, starting with rolling hills in the distance. One 50-km stretch between the cities of Draguignan and Grasse turned out to involve corkscrewing our way up and down mountainsides, driving through gorgeous towns perched on hilltops, down to deep valleys, then climbing again to heights where we were on eye-level with the mountains across from us. The vegetation seemed incongruous at times, with evergreens and palm trees growing side by side. Sadly, our amazing journey had a somewhat depressing denouement. Arriving at Antibes, amazed by the blue Mediterranean to one side and the snow-capped mountains to the other, we were reduced to crawling through rush hour traffic to Cagnes sur Mer, where we became hopelessly lost, despite the efforts of several well-meaning locals. At long last we reached our destination. Our B&B was lovely, with a pool, fountain, palm trees, gardens in back. Wendy was able to take a dip in the pool, and our kindly hosts ordered in a pizza for us so we didn't have to drive again to get dinner. And so, bon nuit.
Today is Saturday the 3rd - our last day in France. We had a lovely breakfast at our beautiful B&B, conversing with the other guests and our hosts, then spent a couple of hours relaxing in their garden and pool, having no desire to drive more than necessary in this congested area. Then came yet another harrowing and frustrating drive, this time into Nice. It has certainly changed since my last visit 31 years ago. Busy, dirty, noisy, hot, one-way streets everywhere we needed to go - and, at the end of the journey, a seedy hotel with ants in the shower and twin beds that look like hammocks. From the sublime to the ridiculous in a few short hours. I will skip the ugly details of booking a train into Italy (our only available option - 6:45 a.m.) and the ordeal of gassing up and returning our rental car. We have toured Nice on foot as much as we care to, dipped our toes in the Mediterranean, and used up our French phone card for a quick call home to hear familiar voices. Tomorrow - ITALY!