Une Semaine en Provence
It was hard to shake the feeling that tourism in the Riviera wasn’t made for the likes of me. The direct line from the grand tours of the 18th century to the cruise tours of the 21st doesn’t stop at my petit bourgeois station. But thanks to the wonders of DodgyJet, anyone can gatecrash this high-rollers’ party. Fly into Nice at bargain prices and you’re ten minutes’ walk from Nice-St-Augustin on the Riviera line, where for the price of an Edinburgh to Glasgow return you can travel past the Italian border and back, getting on and off wherever you like. Thanks to this unexpected bargain we spent two hours in Monaco for a total cost of €0.00, which is exactly the right amount on both counts. Even a hotel in Cannes can be less than a British B&B if you don’t rock up in the middle of the Film Festival.
Which frees you to enjoy all the stuff that attracted the rich to the area in the first place: the azure sea, the houses perched on cliff faces, the pebbly beaches ridiculously unsuited to sunbathing. Most of all, we enjoyed being hot—HOT—for the first time since Vienna. It was 30 degrees and sunny all week, except for the thunderstorms in the evenings that cleared the air. I wore sandals, on principle.
We’d hoped to spend most of our week in the Provence countryside rather than the Riviera, but flying into Nice meant less of that; we didn’t even have time to stop in Marseilles. But we still got the chance to see Aix-en-Provence, Orange, Carpentras, and especially Avignon.
I’ve never read much about Provence; not even the obvious bestseller. All I’d ever read by Peter Mayle was Where Did I Come From?, and that didn’t feature any checked tablecloths or plaster cicadas. Consequently, I knew very little about Avignon apart from that song about its surly pontiff. But after reading about the city’s intact medieval walls I had to see it. Popes and bridges are a dime a dozen, but crenellated turrets are always worth the trip.
The “big fucking wall thing”, as one drunk American so eloquently put it, lived up to its promise: four kilometres of crinkled stone surrounding dozens of meandering pokey streets. Even better was the Popes’ Palace, where several of them lived in the 14th century: a huge Gothic pile tossed together in twenty years with nary a crane or bulldozer in sight. And on the other side of the Rhône, spying on all of this, were the crinkly turrets of St. André’s Fort in the town of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, where the French kept an eye on the papal enclave until they took it over in the Revolution.
It was enough history to keep the most hysterical history buff happy, but only a short hop away were Orange (of “William of” fame), with its enormous Roman theatre with intact wall, the quiet Provençal streets of Carpentras (especially when you arrive half an hour after the weekly market has ended, just in time to see all the vendors pack up and leave), and Aix-en-Provence, a university town where we ate our best meal of the trip. I had to force it down over the protests of my bowels, which were reacting violently to the worst meal of the trip, but I wasn’t passing up my second-last chance at a plat du jour and bottle of Bordeaux.
Along the way we encountered busking accordionists who followed us around Avignon playing the entire repertoire of Frank Sinatra; more poodles than you could doodle from your noodle; and gendarmes who had even less idea than us what to do with the brand new US passport we’d found on the TGV and handed in to them to be reunited with its owner. All that, and the worst hotel in Europe: the Hotel de Scunge, with faded chenille carpet on the walls, an old TV plugged into a socket that wasn’t wired in, and a combination bathroom/broom closet with no internal lighting that was located at the furthest point from the windows—which in turn had been jammed open to run power cables to the speakers on the balcony, for the purpose of playing accordion music (non-Sinatra) to the outdoor bar until two o’clock in the morning.
That was the exception, thank Dieu, although even our otherwise-excellent hotel in Avignon had a funny smell in the bathroom. I wondered if the drains were feeding into a medieval crypt and giving us a whiff of rotting popes.
Still, what’s a dodgy bathroom or two when you’ve got surroundings like this. Mesdames et messieurs, l’escargot rapide présente fièrement:
Very nice. (No, not Nice. Nice!)
Added by BT on 13 July 2005.
J. noted that we were doing the Biscuit Tour of Southern France:
Nice biscuits are, in classic Aussie fashion, no longer pronounced “neece” but “nyce” (or should that be “noyce”), and Monte Carlo comes out as a cross between Python and Frida.
Added by Rory on 13 July 2005.