provence day 5: avignon

Papal Palace in the background

Thursday was our last day with Sujata, and we spent it in Avignon.  Every year, thousands of thespians descend on Avignon for its annual theater festival, with which our visit just happened to coincide.  Oh. Yay.  It was packed and the street performers weren't shy.  But I'd still return to Avignon, with its thick medieval ramparts, imposing papal palace, and shady plane trees, just not in the middle of July.


We spent the day the same as we'd spent the others.  Eating.  Drinking.  Shopping.  Wandering.  Joey and Sujata bemoaning my excessive photography habit.  By the end of the day when we deposited Sujata at the train station, we were sad to see her go, but I'm pretty sure she'd had enough of Joey's driving and my camera.  She'd made a great traveling companion over the last ten days, and hopefully she'll be willing to brave us again for another fun vacation.

Although it was Bastille Day, Joey and I were both tired and crabby, so we crashed back at the cottage.  The next morning we were up early to check-out; a simple process made infinitely more difficult by the language barrier and Vauvenargues' lack of ATM.  But everything worked itself out, we dropped off the rental car and boarded the first of many trains for the long trip to Santa Margherita Ligure. 
(Don't worry, I narrowed them down after we returned to Abuja).  

provence day 4: the luberon and the lavender

Wednesday was lavender day.  Or it was supposed to be.  I assumed that all of Provence would just be full of lavender.  That the train would suddenly round a corner and you'd see nothing but fields of purple.  This is not the case.  Aix-en-Provence is actually too far south for lavender, so we really had to search for it.

We began our hunt in a darling little village called Lourmarin.  As we parked the car it began to rain,
so we ducked into a dark and cozy cafe to wait it out.  In between down- pours we found the Chateau de Lourmarin, a huge old castle with a wine cave underneath.  After sampling every wine in the cave, we wove our way through the Luberon all day, stopping for "degustation" (wine tasting) and trying to find one field of purple.  I could have explored every town where we stopped to ask for directions to the lavender.  Each one was more picturesque than the next; they say some see Paris through rose-colored glasses, but I saw the Luberon through rose (and Cotes du Rhone and Burgundy) filled glasses for sure.  Several hours later, after many miles of forests, vineyards, sunflowers, wine, laughs (especially after one of the cellar masters asked Sujata if she worked for us), and even more complaints about Joey's driving, we finally found the lavender.  I couldn't believe how good it smelled when I rolled down my window.

Our light heads soon turned into heavy stomachs, and after an entire day in the car, with shaky knees and sighs of relief, we returned to the cottage and piled out of the car.  While Sujata napped, Joey wished for his pillow but accompanied me to finally explore the tiny town where we'd been staying all week.  It didn't take long to walk through Vauvenargues (pronounced Voo-ven-ahg) and find the 17th-century Chateau of Vauvenargues, burial site of Pablo Picasso.

Chateau of Vauvenargues
We employed our cottage kitchen one more time that night, cooking chicken and pasta in a delicious pancetta, arrabiatta sauce.  Exhausted and thorougly defeated, Joey passed out early at the cottage while Sujata and I wandered back down to Vauvenargues to investigate the sounds of the pre-Bastille Day celebration heard from our patio.  Upon realizing we would have stood out like sore thumbs at the celebration, we wandered back to Picasso's chateau under the moonlight.  It was so. creepy.  We both swore we heard a ghost's cackle, and ran full-speed back to our cottage.  We woke poor Joey up to calm us down, then Sujata and I talked long after he fell back asleep, until we were too tired to let any ghosts keep us awake either.

provence day 3: cassis and arles

Early Tuesday morning we drove to Cassis.  And I thought Marseille was breathtaking.  Maybe I'm partial to quaint little towns, especially after brushing shoulders with all the tourists in France's second-largest city the entire day before, but even though it's only a few kilometers away from Marseille, the tiny village of Cassis with its brightly colored buildings and pretty little fishing boats was now my new favorite place. 

After devouring an assortment of fresh pastries from the bakery (seriously, can someone tell me how the French stay so skinny?), we took a boat tour of the Calanques.  We were the first people on the boat and so excited to grab a seat right up front.  Then the captain came out and said "Le Douche."  This apparently means, "You will take a shower if you sit there."  We all figured a little seaspray never hurt anybody and sat tight.

The stark contrast of the white limestone cliffs and deep blue water was overshadowed by the hilarity of our predicament.  I really can't think of the last time I even came close to laughing so hard.  Our boat tour was straight out of an amusement park water ride, or maybe in Sujata's case, a wet t-shirt contest.  I almost peed my pants when, after half an hour of just getting soaked, the boat hit a huge wake and sent Sujata flying out of her seat.  It still makes me laugh out loud to think about it.  We returned to shore, soaking wet, salty, and more than a little seasick in my case.  While we dried off under the sun, we ate our slightly salty and soggy lunch (we had optimistically brought a picnic on the boat) and Sujata and I entertained ourselves with inappropriate remarks about the inappropriate fat ladies baring it all on the topless beach.

Joey drove the hilly and winding rode back to our cottage.  I suppose he should have known better than to rent a stick shift with two outspoken women in the car, and maybe Sujata and I could have complained less considering the driving conditions.  But with our stomachs already on strike after the bumpy boat ride, Sujata and I kept Joey informed of this fact at every hairpin turn.  It was a fun ride for all and definitely time for a nap.

Look familiar?
A few hours later, refreshed after naps and showers, we headed to Arles for the evening.  Arles was remarkably more muted than Cassis but still full of history and beauty.  We saw the spot where Van Gogh painted his famous Cafe Terrace at Night and some wonderfully old Roman ruins, including baths from the era of Constantine and an even older arena that is still in use today.

I could have spent days more exploring all the nooks and crannies of Arles.  I became terribly disconcerted when my camera battery flashed red, though much to the delight of my traveling companions.  Joey exclaimed, "I get my wife back!" Sujata concurred.  Given I took over 2,000 pictures on our vacation, I think they may have had a point.  Plus the slight sprinkle had turned into more of a steady rain, so we decided to head back to Aix-en-Provence for sushi.  After Sujata and I enjoyed a few too many lychee kir royales, Joey patiently drove us home to sleep it off for our next excursion.  Tomorrow was lavender day!

provence: marseille

The next morning we rode the bus back to the train station to pick up our rental car.  This occasion marked just one of the many times we were so thankful to have Sujata along for more than just entertainment value when her fluent French saved us from getting screwed on the car rental.  We piled into our little car, cranked up the tunes - I'm not going to lie that I was beyond excited to hear Britney Spears on the radio for the first time in months - and drove to Marseille.

After about half an hour of winding down through the imposing limestone walls of Provence, we caught our first view of the Mediterranean.  I know I've said it before, but there is something so thrilling to me about the water.  The sun shined hot and shimmered over the pure blue water and I declared I wasn't leaving.  Marseille reminded me very much of the town where Joey and I got married, with its rows of sailboats and terra cotta roofs.  It felt amazing to be back on the scenic riviera, even if it was the French side.  So we walked, I took too many pictures, and we walked some more.

Notre-Dame de la Garde on the horizon
After an already long day of trudging through the crowded seaside town in the thick July heat (and trying, unsuccessfully, to find a new pair of shoes), we climbed up what Joey will swear is the steepest hill in the world, only to be met with many stairs and another hill on top of that.  Finally, we reached the beautiful Notre-Dame de la Garde, which, in all fairness to my husband, sits at the highest natural point in Marseille at 532 feet above sea level.  When Sujata remarked that the view was worth the climb, an exhausted, sweating Joey remarked, "Whose side are you on, anyway?!"

With a sweaty, crabby Joey overlooking Marseille.  I climbed the hill with one shoe hanging off my foot so I don't know what his problem is.
Gradually we made our way back down to the sea, where we found a cafe in the shade.  I decided to try the kelly-green drink I'd seen all over Paris, "Get 27."  I quickly discovered the reason Sujata had warned me not to bother.  I might as well have been drinking Scope on the rocks.  My throat still seizes up when I think about it.  Ew.

We found a darling little cafe overlooking the boardwalk for dinner.  I feasted on mussels and french fries, while Joey stuffed himself with bouilabaisse.  Then, completely stuffed and worn out, we walked back to the car and returned to our little cottage to pass out.

provence: aix-en-provence

Joey came home from work yesterday and said, "You updated your blog!"  Then he frowned and said, "You went from Paris straight to Des Moines."

Write. Your. Own. Blog.

So I'll go back to Paris, where early Sunday morning Joey, Sujata, and I caught the high-speed train to Aix-en-Provence (pronounced "X").  While hurrying through the train station, my sweet husband rolled his suitcase over my sandal and the strap snapped.  My favorite travel shoes, the most comfortable, the most versatile, and most importantly, my only pair of travel shoes were immediately shot.  I flipped out but we were late so with a huff I shuffled my dangling shoe hurriedly to our train.

Joey and Sujata outside the train station in Paris.  Sujata dubbed Joey, "Gay Don Johnson," or "GDJ" for short, to show her fondness for his jacket.
The train was full of colorful characters, including an unsolicited translation of "ham and cheese" from a guy who then deliberately sat on Joey's hand and a woman who squatted in front of our seats.  Don't worry if this has you raising an eyebrow and thinking, "WTF?"  We couldn't explain it either, but by the time the lady squatted (she even put her arms out in front of her to balance), we were laughing so hard we had doubled over in tears.  Then Sujata and I spent the rest of the four-hour trip torturing Joey with girl talk.  Craig/Tex better watch out: I'm pretty sure Joey's still plotting his revenge for ditching him with the two of us for five days.

Our plan was to rent a car at the train station and take day trips from our cottage right outside Aix-en-Provence.  Unfortunately almost everything in France closes on Sunday, including the car rental (who vacations on Sunday, seriously?), so we had to wait an hour for the proprietor of our cottage to pick us up (the high speed train station is situated a several kilometers from town).  In the meantime we entertained ourselves with perverse translations on the train station restaurant menu.  "Salty softness," anyone? (Or a quiche, same thing.)

Finally, Nathalie picked us up and drove us through the gorgeous, rolling, bright green and limestone foothills to Aix-en-Provence.  She dropped us off at the breathtaking La Rotonde fountain, which also happened to be the beginning of the outdoor market, and arranged to return in a few hours to take us to her cottage.  While I waddled in my broken shoe and took a thousand pictures, Joey and Sujata shopped.  They bought fresh bread, homemade sausages, cheese and raspberry jam, ripe peaches and figs.  They even found white truffles.

La Rotonde fountain in Aix-en-Provence

It was markedly hotter than Paris, so after sweating through the market we proceeded to cool off with some pastis for Joey and Sujata and local rose for me.  Then we had to try some ice cream on our way to the little grocery store where we found an entire wall of wine under eight euro.  Amazing.  The three of us left with seven bottles and a bottle of Ricard, among a few other essential items, and slowly meandered back to our pick-up point.  In the meantime we tried to tour the inside of a church, which quickly proved a bad idea with our wine bottles clanging together louder than the bells.  We giggled our way to the fountain.
Upon our arrival at our cottage, we were all thrilled to find it clean and bright and nestled in the most gorgeous valley of Montagne Sainte-Victoire with an incredible view and even more incredible sunset.  That night we feasted on our purchases from the market followed by homemade, white truffle gnocchi.  And several bottles of wine.  I believe the French have a saying about living life like that. Joie de vivre, amen.