We hadn’t been married a whole year yet but my wife and I had already been to Tahiti, Italy and now we found ourselves in a car in the South of France. I guess we had decided that our lives together would be more exciting as far away from home as possible. We rented our vehicle in Marseilles and to say I was terrified to be driving in a foreign country is an understatement. I speak some French and had gotten us through some transactions during our trip up to that point but the idea of reading French traffic signs and having to make judgment calls on the road in a moments notice was much more intimidating. But, alas, this was the plan and we were sticking to it!
Speaking of sticks, it’s a good thing I drove a Jeep with a standard stick shift for four years because, as it turned out, the manual transmission was all that was available and my wife had never driven one. So whether I liked it or not, I was going to master these French roads come hell or high water. Which left my wife with the task, as this was before we all had a GPS device in our pocket, of navigating our trip using a giant road map. And I do mean “giant”. The map itself, when unfurled, was bigger then her!
If you’ve ever been to the South of France then you may already know what I’m about to say, but once we got on the road, my trepidation about driving melted away. Not only was it one of the most beautiful drives I’ve ever been on, but the roads were so well maintained, they almost seemed to drive the car themselves. And just the simple fact that we were driving, on our own schedule, in our own space and could go in any direction if the urge grabbed us made it that much more exciting! We found things we never would have seen from a train.
Cassis was our first stop. Not just a town whose moniker was used in the naming of it’s own liqueur export, but a bustling little harbor community with cafes as far as the eye could see. The sun came out seemingly to say, “See?! Isn’t this a beautiful place?” We had some coffee and a pastry while we watched the boats come in and out of the inlet and we didn’t want to leave. But after we sat for long enough, we browsed the shops for a bit before heading back out on la rue.
Aix En Provence was next and wow, that was a site to see on our approach. As you drive along, you can just make out in the distance, high atop a mountain, battlements and old walls. You can tell that Aix En Provence was built where it was for strategic reasons. Once we arrived up there and started walking around the old medieval village, our excitement only amplified. The view was spectacular, the ruins were incredible and the ancient catapults were, well, just extremely cool.
Our experience in Aix en Provence made it hard to imagine that we’d find a place more magical. But Saint-Remy-de-Provence was just that. After we stopped for a glass of wine at a quaint little winery at the end of a dirt road on the outskirts of a tiny French town whose name escapes me at the moment, we pulled into St. Remy and our breath was stolen from us. St. Remy is the birthplace of Nostradamus (his namesake emblazoned on a sign for a pizza place in town where, I assume, they already know what you want before you even order) and where Vincent Van Gogh spent his final years. It was here that we indulged in Coq au Vin and Ratatouille for the very first time and both dishes were nothing short of sublime.
When we awoke the next morning, we knew our time was limited in this adorable village so we grabbed a cup of coffee and ventured into the centre ville to browse the famous Provencal marketplace they have every Wednesday. We sampled fruits and vegetables and olives and oils and breads and everything you can possibly want to sample from a French vendor. We absorbed the scene and made a solemn pact that we would some day get back to Saint-Remy-de-Provence and stay for a month.
The sadness of leaving St. Remy was only alleviated by the amazing countryside we drove through to get to our final destination: Avignon, a medieval village that is still to this day surrounded by walls and battlements. This wasn’t a bad place to mark our journey’s end. It was a bit bigger and had more for tourists to do, taking a bit of a hit in the quaintness department, but it was very interesting and beautiful in it’s own right. Alas the road had ended there. After walking around for a few hours in Avignon, I returned the rental, and we headed for the train station. If we hadn’t been heading to Paris for 6 days, we would have been inconsolable. The road trip through Provence was more beautiful, more exciting and much less intimidating than I could ever have imagined. We will do it again someday. And if you need to reach us, we’ll be in Saint-Remy-de-Provence for the entire spring.