Friday, 20 December 2013

PROVENCE: THE RELAXING COUNTRYSIDE




Provence - Pont du Gard
This entry is part of "France: From Paris to the Riviera" series...

We kicked off our honeymoon in the romance capital of the world (Paris), we then traveled to the middle of France and found ourselves immersed in a completely different atmosphere...

Detailed Itinerary: (what ended up happening) 

DAYS 1-7: Paris
...
DAY 8: Paris to Avignon, Palais des Papes
DAY 9: Avignon day trip to Pont du Gard + Uzès
DAY 10: Arles (+ Sunday Market), train to French Riviera
...
DAYS 11-15: French Riviera








DAY 8: AVIGNON, PALAIS DES PAPES
September 5th, 2013 - Sunny

SNCF high speed train - Gare de Lyon Paris Avignon cafes Avignon through old stained glass Palais Des Papes - Avignon Avignon River View
It was finally time to say goodbye to the city which captured our hearts from day 1 as we couldn't believe that 7 days had passed already.  Once again we took our time in the morning to enjoy our breakfasts and finished up packing our luggage (aka threw everything into our suitcases in under 30 seconds).  Next destination: Avignon, Provence!

Our high speed train departed at "Gare de Lyon" station, and it was connected to the metro system which simplified our transfer.  It was so easy and efficient the whole process took less than 30 minutes... at J's insistence we left the apartment extra early so we had plenty of time to kill at the station.  In fact we arrived at Gare de Lyon so early our train wasn't even assigned a departure platform yet lol! (For some reason train departure boards in France often don't indicate the departing platform until minutes before the train arrives... unlike air travel... I don't know why)

Rolling Hills France This was our virgin voyage traveling on high speed rail and we had no idea what to expect.  We bought our train tickets online exactly 90 days in advance for the best deal (feel free to ask me in the comments below for further details) and it only cost 25 euros per person.  Our economy seats were comparable to business class seats on plane travel (I've never been on business class flights before but I would imagine that they were similar).  The train departed on time and we knew we left Paris as the scenery drastically changed from the graffiti-infested inner city to gentle rolling hills.
  
The train cabin was surprisingly quiet considering we were traveling at 300 km/hr.  I spent the next 2.5 hrs researching and booking our accommodation for the next 2 nights on my iPhone.  Compared to Iceland France's 3G coverage was inferior because mobile internet was intermittent at best (EDGE most of the way).  We emerged from our TGV train refreshed (again J slept like a baby the entire way) and we had our "homelessness" situation rectified.  Avignon TGV station was about a 10-minute bus ride from the city center (Gare d'Avignon-Center is for regional trains DO NOT CONFUSE THE TWO).  We followed the line of passengers to the appropriate bus stop and the bus ride was simple/inexpensive.  The bus dropped us off shortly after entering the city wall at the post office (final stop) and our hotel was only 150 meters away.
 
We wasted no time once we settled into our hotel room and found a local pub still opened for business for lunch (it was 3PM).  As we walked down a main avenue toward Avignon's main tourist attraction "Palais des Papes" we immediately recognized some differences between Paris and Avignon: Avignon was much more casual in terms of both dress codes and culture... and it was a lot more French as very few locals spoke English lol.  The 20 minute walk towards our destination took us through countless open-air cafes and patisseries on ancient cobble-stone streets... until we reached a spacious square and behind it stood an imposing structure "Palais des Papes".
Inside Palais des Papes - Avignon
For some odd reason we had a tough time locating the entrance to this UNESCO historic site.  A one time fortress and palace, Palais des Papes served as the official residence of popes during the 14th century.  Once inside we were self-guided through 2 or 3 pre-designed routes and we toured the basement treasury all the way up to the palace guard towers.  Even though most rooms were vacant with very little furniture and/or relics, the audio guide did a fantastic job educating and recreating the palace's ancient glory. (I highly recommend the audio guide for a few extra euros because without it the palace would be nothing but boring/giant empty rooms).  Once near the top, this ancient catholic relic also provided a marvelous view of the old Avignon city as it basically dwarfed over this entire walled city.    
Avignon streets
Another 2.5 hours later we reemerged from the dim palace and the unrelentless sun had started to give way and transitioned to a warm loving glow.  With only a couple hours of daylight left we hiked to the nearby "Rocher des Doms" suggested by other travelers on Tripadvisor".  The ancient winding streets of Avignon did their best to prevent us from reaching our destination, but at last we found ourselves admiring the surrounding scenery after only a few minor setbacks (damn you Avignon streets maze!).  Rocher des Doms was a spacious park situated at the top of the cliffs above the river Rhone, where we enjoyed a breathtaking view of the surrounding countryside of Rhone Valley.  We basked in the warm setting sun of Provence until a couple of park officials notified us of park closure at 7PM.  

Like a couple of well organized travelers we decided to stop for dinner at a highly rated restaurant called "La Fourchette" without a reservation.  With our dumb luck and my limited charm I was able to secure a table at this packed establishment with a simple "comment ca va?".  J later told me that the lovely elder hostess (owner? mother of the owner?) told the wait staff to make room because it was "simply too cute" how I asked about how she was doing... hahaha.  We retired for the night after having one of the most romantic meals of the trip.
 


DAY 9: PONT DU GARD, UZES
September 6th, 2013 - Sunny

Pont du Gard Pont du Gard Uzes street Uzes Uzes streets Provence Countryside Uzes Street Scenes
The most ideal method of travel around Provence was to drive.  However, since I could not drive manual transmission we were not prepared to shell out triple cost for an automatic transmission vehicle.  Instead we decided to attempt the "near impossible" by traveling by bus to Pont du Gard!

The central bus station was about 200 meters from Gare d'Avignon-Center tucked underneath a near empty building.  The bus station itself was dim lit, relatively quiet, graffiti-filled, and downright scary in certain places (a French ghetto?)FYI: A bus station official told us that the station was being renovated/moved later that week.  There were about 20 or so people in queue for the A15 bus, and by their spoken language most of whom were tourists.  Fares were only 1.50 euros for a 45 minute bus ride to Pont du Gard, and the yellow Edgard coach was more than comfortable for such journey.

Many school kids hopped on the bus along the way at small villages, and it was a treat to look outside to see the Provence countryside - some of which was neatly organized into countless rows of perfectly-aligned grapevines that extended beyond the horizon.  We reached our destination at a big turnabout and 3/4 of the passengers vacated the bus for Pont du Gard.  We promptly checked the bus schedule posted at the bus stop since buses ran extremely infrequent (~every 2 hrs).  Luckily it was still early in the morning and the sun was still half-asleep (18-20 degrees?) which made the 15 minute walk from the bus stop tolerable.

Gardon River Pont du Gard The visitor center at Pont du Gard had just opened when we reached the ticket booth, and needless to say the facility was nearly empty since we were probably one of the first visitors of the day there.  The door to the mini-museum was unlocked so we started our Pont du Gard adventure by learning about the engineering and history of not just Pont du Gard, but the surrounding Roman aqueduct system.  By the time we returned to the visitor center it was significantly more populated than when we first arrived.  A leisure 5-minute walk down the well paved path later, a majestic 3-tiered aqueduct dominated the entire landscape.  It was particularly awe-inspiring that this ancient structure was built almost 2000 years ago!  We crossed the Gardon River via the lower tier of Pont du Gard (which also served as a bridge) where I spent some time photographing this UNESCO monument from different perspectives along the river's edge.

After a 2-3 hour stop over at Pont du Gard we found ourselves once again at the traffic circle waiting for our bus.  Instead of returning to Avignon we decided to push forward to visit Uzès on the A15 (toward the Alès direction).  To be honest I had no idea what to expect from Uzès because I didn't think we would have time to visit another town after Pont du Gard (but I remembered Uzès being recommended on a few travel forums).  I was slightly worried upon reaching Uzès because the town was so tiny and the next bus weren't scheduled to depart for another 4 hours!
Streets of Uzes
On first impression Uzès was small but a very picturesque town.  Streets and buildings were well maintained yet its rustic countryside atmosphere was kept intact.  We wondered aimlessly down streets and alleyways until we arrived at a giant square flanked by countless cafes and restaurants.  How was it possible for such a small town to sustain so many food establishments?!  We enjoyed a beautiful lunch along with a couple glasses of Provence wine.  Refreshed and motivated (to work off the foie gras salad lol), we directed ourselves to the tourist information center (Thanks Google Maps!) where we were provided a map along with a suggested route for a self-guided walking tour. 

Medieval castle in Uzes As we walked past the various attractions indicated on the walking tour map, we passed Uzès' city hall, a perfectly kept medieval castle, and a small church with a leaning tower similar to the one in Italy (just way smaller)... all within 1.5 hours by foot!  It seemed like every corner we turned in this petite village of Uzès we were greeted with another unique photo opportunity.  As I feasted on Uzès with my camera we were eventually led back to the giant square where we first began our walking tour.  Surprisingly, the once packed restaurants that lined the square were still full of patrons long past lunchtime.  We had no intentions of stopping by these restaurants until J spotted a colorful sign that read "Artisan Gelato"... since it was another boiling day she received little opposition from me when she proceeded to order a beautifully arranged dessert art.  15 euros later we slowly made our way back to the bus stop via winding alleyways.

Uzes streets It felt like the entire town was trying to catch the bus because there were about a hundred other locals waiting at the bus stop... until J (being her usual observant self) noticed that most people at the bus stop were students.  (I would have to say I had a hard time judging the age of many French people... male or female... because they all dress so fashionably mature and everyone in France are so damn beautiful).  I began to worry that we might miss our bus because it would fill up before we could hop on, but luckily most students seemed to take the bus toward Nimes instead.  When the A15 (Avignon) bus arrived everyone was able to get on... however, the bus filled up as it traveled towards Avignon and there were a few stranded tourists at the Pont du Gard stop (eek... a 2 hour wait!).

We were so exhausted from our fulfilling day trip that by the time we returned to Avignon all we wanted to do was... nothing.  We quickly purchased a bottle of cheap wine at the supermarket Carrefour along with a couple of sandwiches at a random street-side cafe, and utilized our hotel bed as a giant dining table :) 
 


DAY 10: ARLES
September 7, 2013 - Cloudy + Sunny

Arles Colosseum Empty streets of Arles Arles street Arles Arles Market
As a fan of Vincent Van Gogh I had originally planned to stay in Arles instead of Avignon (Starry Night).  However, since we only had a limited amount of time in Provence it would've been a logistical nightmare if we had stayed in Arles.  We were due to depart for the riviera later in the afternoon (~3 PM) so we had an opportunity to visit Arles in the morning.  As an added bonus it was Arles' famous Saturday market that day. 

Arles street Unfortunately since it was the weekend regional trains were operating at a reduced schedule, and the only train that worked out for us was due to depart Gare d'Avignon at 6:30 AM...  so for the first and only time on this trip we were forced to set our alarms and woke up early for a 15 minute train ride.


The train arrived on time and the streets were empty with most locals still asleep.  Since we had some time to kill we decided to walk into town instead of waiting for the shuttle bus = a wise decision because it only took us 5 minutes haha (I guess the map wasn't to scale).  Aside from a few city workers unloading crowd control metal barriers (for the market?) and an opened boulangerie, the town was completely silent.  With a fresh warm baguette in our hands we embarked on another aimless journey on foot around the town of Arles. 

Compared to the cities/towns/villages we had visited previously in France, Arles was slightly dirtier and not as well maintained compared to the rest; streets were often unevenly paved with minor potholes scattered throughout.  Despite of minor cosmetic blemishes Arles struck me as a true blue collar city with its own unique flavor, not just another tourism-oriented town.  We navigated through crammed streets and alleyways until we reached the center of town: a small Roman coliseum/amphitheatre!

The miniature coliseum was definitely a scaled-down version when compared to the famous coliseum in Rome, but this well-maintained 2-tiered structure was still a behemoth compared to the surrounding residences/shops.  Unlike Rome's Coliseum Arles' amphitheatre still served as the city's arena and it continued to host public events... in fact there were promotions for bull fights later that day!


As the sun peaked through the clouds the town slowly awoke from its sleepy stupor and residents began pouring onto the streets.  We walked past yet another ancient Roman relic - Arles Roman Theater but it was obvious that its glory days were well behind it as only a few stone columns remained in this open-air theater.  Furthermore, these ancient columns were surrounded by modern audio-visual equipments (perhaps for an event in the evening?), and I saw little value of pursuing a decent perspective for photographing this monument.  

Arles Market fruits By about 9:30 AM the entire town was filled with pedestrians and the crowd grew thicker as we approached one of Arles' main avenue.  I was aware that it was Arles' market day on Saturdays, but I did not expect the market to be of such great scale! (I thought it would be of similar size as the market we attended in Paris).  The avenue was off-limits to automobiles and vendors were set up on both sides of the road!  Vendors seemed to be organized into specific sections of the market depending on the goods sold... we began our market experience at the produce section filled with a multitude of fresh local fruits and vegetables.  We continued down the market for a healthy amount of time (15 minutes?) and we passed various vendors selling produces, meats, cheeses, wines, hot foods, clothing, linens, cheap electronics, all the way to pots and pans.  Since we had no intentions of purchasing 10 year old Ricky Martin CDs we decided to double back to the food section.  

Arles Market spices Once back at the foods section we were dizzied by the vast array of aromas from pizza all the way to paella... which was convenient since it was close to lunch time haha.  With our fresh pizza and paella in our hands, we went to a few fruit vendors for some figs and grapes (prices varied quite a bit between vendors so it might be a wise idea to visit a few vendors before buying).  We also saw a 5L (which is a little bit over a gallon for you Yankees :) plastic jug of wine for a grand total of..... 10 euros! (you think boxed wines were classy? think again lol!).  Needless to say logic (aka my wife) stopped me from purchasing such volume of alcohol.  We also saw live rabbits and frogs available for purchase (probably not as pets) and it disturbed J a little bit.  With our stomachs growling, we found an empty park bench near a merry-go-round and went to town on our food conquests and life was awesome.

Arles streets We wondered around town for another hour and encountered many friendly locals who directed us to a photography exhibit that was scattered around town (because I had a DSLR around my neck?).  In order to get to one exhibit we had to walk through a local bookstore, and as we walked through a hallway J jumped in shock... apparently the same hallway also led to a spa/sauna and according to J there were a few oversized ladies in the nude!  Our time in Arles had to be cut short as we rushed back to the train station for Avignon, and from there we embarked on the next chapter of our honeymoon - The French Riviera!



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