Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Week in Provence

France is among the most visited countries in the world. To me, the attraction lies in two factors: age and beauty. Simply being old is not enough. But aspects of France were beautiful, originally, and they have aged well. I find two periods fascinating: remnants of the Roman Empire and Medieval towns. French ministries have been repairing and reconstructing both for about 200 years.
            Provence, in southern France, draws a substantial proportion of visitors. Artists have come here for hundreds of years to paint the landscapes, the fruit and olive trees, and the neighborhoods within larger cities.
            Getting There.  My wife and I took US Airways, which offers convenient connections from Greensboro through both Charlotte and Philadelphia to Charles de Gaulle airport (CDG), outside Paris. Delta connects through Atlanta, of course. Numerous websites provide other airline schedules as well as fare comparisons. A knowledgeable travel agent, however, can save a lot of time and prevent a lot of problems.
            Travelling in France.  There is a train station inside CDG, and the rail system can take you almost anywhere in the country. Use to check schedules and buy tickets. An agent can provide route advice and often save money. Try to book far enough ahead to allow the tickets to be mailed. On this trip, neither Americans nor frustrated French could get any of the e-ticket machines in CDG to work. What normally would have been an easy transition turned into a long wait for manual service with a clerk. Train seats are assigned, but once on board, if the train is not full, I have had no difficulty moving to any seat I preferred. The high speed TGV ride from CDG to Avignon takes a little over three hours.
            Driving in France produces mixed impressions. French traffic moves in the same direction as the US. After a brief orientation, signs are understandable for Americans, even though they are in French (of course), and directions are provided at every roundabout. But traffic is often very congested and quick movements are the norm. Frankly, I would not get in a car that I was driving on French roads, and unless you are either already proficient or very brave, I would strongly suggest using public transportation or taxis. If you dare, rent a small car; streets and parking spaces are incredibly narrow. Having your own driver who speaks English as well as French is the best way to get around, and costs are not a lot more than car rental if you can share fees with a group. 
         Finding a Place to Stay.  The French Ministry of Tourism grades hotels on a scale of 1 to 4 stars.  As a point of reference, the full service Marriotts at CDG and Port de Cap d'Ail (adjacent to Monaco) are rated 4 stars. In Provence, the Best Western chain has a strong presence, and all the ones I checked were rated 3 stars.  A 2 star hotel is probably similar to an American bed and breakfast inn (although it is unlikely that breakfast will be included in the price), and at 1 star, some facilities (such as bathrooms) are likely to be shared among guests.
Selecting an American chain undermines the French experience, substituting standardization with familiar features. You may prefer the individuality and quirkiness that characterizes real French hotels. A word of caution: no matter where you stay in Provence, elevators are rare, and although many French hotels are quite attractive on the exterior due to their age, cheap furnishings are common, even at the 3 star level. The charm from age that may be initially appealing can also be undermined by allergic reactions that are endemic to very old buildings. I found such references often when searching websites, and my wife and I had some personal experiences along these lines. (A few specific lodging suggestions are offered below, in context, for particular towns.) 
Practical suggestions: Buy a 220 to 110 volt converter (at Radio Shack, for example) before you go. That way you can use your laptop and charge your cell phone. If you want to stay in touch, most cell service providers sell global cell phones, which cost no more than domestic devices. Also consider taking a small coffee maker. Few hotels provide American style coffee. Their espresso preparations yield small portions, which cost $5-$7 per cup. Even if you buy a coffee maker in France and leave it behind, it will pay for itself at those prices. My wife and I discovered this the hard way on a previous trip, when we luxuriated in a pot of coffee delivered to our room each morning. Then I realized I was paying over $35 per pot (4-5 cups). We still have the 220v Krups we bought that day, and we take it with us whenever we go back to France!
            Eating. A widely held stereotype exalts French cooking. The perception is justified, but only if you know how and where to find good food. Most serious restaurants do not open for dinner until 7:30, and prices can be quite high. If you want to eat earlier or at less expense, brasseries are open all afternoon, and they provide special ambience with outdoor seating. [Photo 01. Lunch in Aix en Provence] In these, however, I often found canned green beans, canned corn, frozen French fries, and farm-raised, low quality Atlantic salmon. Red meats tend to be tough, although the flavor is good. Chicken often tastes better than in the US. Salads and pizzas seem a pretty consistent good bet. You can improve the odds of getting good, reasonably priced food by looking at the plates of diners who have already been served, rather than relying on the menu that is posted at the entrance to the seating area. (Some specific restaurant recommendations are provided below for particular towns.) Another good alternative: pick up bread (almost always excellent) and cheese (widely varied choices) in one of the shops that occupy every street and have a picnic at your hotel. [Photo 02. Bread and Pastry Shop in Aix en Provence]
            Getting Information. Consult the Michelin red guide red for restaurants and hotels, the Michelin green guide for travel sites. I have found guides from Eyewitness Travel and Rick Steves helpful as well. Most towns have tourist centers, where personnel usually speak English.  
            My wife and I began our most recent trip in Avignon (population approximately 90,000), situated on the Rhone River. During the 14th Century, six popes resided here. They constructed a palace to house the seat of government for the Catholic Church.  [Photo 03. Palace of the Popes] This now houses a museum.
            Avignon is home to two world class restaurants, Christian Etienne ( and La Mirande ( The latter is located in a beautiful hotel, which also houses Le Marmiton, a cooking school. On this trip, we, however, stayed at the moderately-priced Best Western Hotel du Lavarin (1715 Chemin du Lavarin,,  We had taken the TGV and wanted a hotel with a location near the station. An especially accommodating staff, a small park with lawn chairs inside the gated property, as well as a good (French) restaurant adds to the attractiveness of the property.
            Pont du Gard, an aqueduct constructed by the Romans approximately 2,000 years ago is situated a short distance from Avignon. [Photo 04. Pont du Gard] It carried water from the mountains to the city of Nimes, primarily to supply the baths and sewers. (Wells supplied drinking water.) The museum provides fascinating explanations as well as relics and models, illustrating life in Roman Gaul (southern France when it was part of the Roman Empire). Vieux Moulin Pont du Gard (, a hotel and restaurant, is located on the banks of the Le Gardon River. [Photo 05. Vieux Moulin Pont du Gard] Lunch here was delightful, and I have never dined anywhere else amidst such classic scenery.
I think Nimes (population approximately 148,000) is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen. The Avenue Jean-Jaures is bisected by a canal, leading to the Jardin de la Fontaine. Construction of this beautiful park and its fountains began in the 18th Century. A long, steep walk leads to Mont Cavalier [Photo 06. Mont Cavalier], the oldest surviving Roman structure in France, constructed before the birth of Christ. You can climb through the interior steps to the top, revealing an incredible view beyond the edge of the city. The Roman amphitheater, built in the first century, A.D., has been well preserved and reconstructed. [Photo 07. Nimes Amphitheater] It originally featured gladiators fighting lions as well as each other, in grand Roman spectacle. The coliseum is still used, hosting bullfights on Saturdays and concerts and plays at various times, especially in summer.
            I am enchanted by Medieval cities. Le Beaux was carved into a mountain in the 10th century. [Photo 08. Le Baux Fortress] This fortress-town is replete with hidden entries leading to a maze of killing zones to thwart invaders. Shops and restaurants line the narrow, stone streets today. Near Provence, outside Nice, Eze, another medieval mountain town, is equally fascinating.
            The accompanying photo of the arena in Arles (population approximately 54,000) shows preservation and reconstruction of the arches in progress, with the repaired sections to the right. [Photo 09. Arena in Arles] Several other Roman buildings remain. The remnants of the Emperor Constantine’s palace date to the 4th century. The beauty of Arles drew Vincent Van Gogh, who painted over 300 works during the 15 months he lived here. A library celebrates his work, but none of his paintings remain in the city.
            We found several very good, moderately priced restaurants in Arles. Several guides recommend La Gueule du Loup (39 rue des Arenes, 04.96.96. 69). One block up, rue du Dr. Fanton is home to a cluster of inviting properties: Le 16 (#16,, Le Galoubet (#18,, and La Paillote (#28, For lodging, the Best Western Atrium hotel (1 rue Emile Fassin,, is easy to find and conveniently located for walking tours of the town; staff provided excellent service, and the hotel houses another good (French) restaurant. 
            In the ancient village of Glanum, dating from the 7th to the 4th Century B.C., the Romans built an arch to celebrate the conquest of Gaul by Caesar Augustus around 10 B.C. [Photo 10. Arch at Glanum] The arch, along with an even older mausoleum, stand in a field off a country road outside St. Remy (population approximately 10,000), where we had our most enjoyable lunch at La Terrasse au Soleil (1 Blvd. Victor Hugo, In spite of its relatively small size, the downtown section with classic buildings is lively and quite a pleasant place to visit.
            Reflections on this Trip. The age and beauty of Provence has lured travelers for generations. This visit lasted only a week, with little more than a day per site. I would spend a week or even a month at each location, if I were able. I look at stone steps and realize that hundreds- perhaps even thousands- of years of human footsteps wore down these grooves. And I imagine: Who were these people? Why did they come here? How did they live? Were they happy? I am grateful for this glimpse into their history.
My wife and I took this trip with relatives who have lived in France, driven quite a bit around the country and in towns and cities, and are fluent in the language. That makes a huge difference. Absent their companionship, we would have encountered numerous obstacles that undermine the enjoyment of travel and lead to conflicts between couples on trips.
I would consider using a travel service under normal circumstances. People who have local knowledge and contacts and can provide English-speaking guides and reliable transportation are invaluable. I would definitely go back to France (as well as other European locations) anytime I could. Stereotypes notwithstanding, my wife and I have found the people hospitable, cooperative, and friendly, the countryside and historic buildings beautiful and fascinating. Peter Mayle stayed and wrote about a year in Provence. How I envy his time here!
I am organizing another trip to this area based on the hotels and restaurants mentioned above, along with others of similar interest, which may include cooking classes. We are also looking at cruises to several destinations in Europe, with a focus on wine and fine dining, including winery tours.  Winery excursions to California, Oregon, and Washington state are in the works as well.  Let us know if you might be interested in this or any other location.  We can also create customized itineraries.  Tell us where you want to go!
John Batchelor is a free lance writer who has been reviewing restaurants and narrating occasional travels for 30 years. Send e-mail to  

No comments:

Post a Comment