Today we got up early to head toward Provence. We were fed, packed, and out the door by 8:30. The Beauregards gave us complete directions and even a map and assured us it would take no more than 5 or 6 hours. Hah!! Maybe those were French metric hours! Including several stops for gas, stretching, and a quick bite to eat (at the "Restaurant Rapide"), it took us 8 hours to get to our next B&B, Le Mistral. Although, the last 20 minutes were spent crawling up the narrow, twisting road to the top of the mountain to get to the tiny town of Ventabren. We forgot that today was Sunday and that everything would be closed; we only had a few Francs left (oops), so we kept looking for a place to get more. We charged our lunch and gas and finally found a "change station" at an oasis on the tollway ("peage le autoroute"). Would you believe they wouldn't take traveler's checques? Only cash - between us we had $8, so we got F39. That meant we had about F120. When we got off the tollway, the toll was F104!!! Whew!! Later we found out the tollway takes credit cards!
Anyway, we are now at the top of a mountain that overlooks the Mediterranean on one side, Aix-en-Provence on another, and a 2,000 year old Roman aqueduct on another. Our hostess is Lynn McDonald - a transplanted Californian who has been here 20 years. Her house is incredibly charming - each guest room is a different color (we are in the Jeune - yellow - room), with beautiful finishings, knickknacks, pictures, and lots of books. She greeted us with wine on the terrace on the roof! What a view! And it is almost 80 degrees out; what a change from up north. She is so nice and is helping us plan what to do for the next few days.
We are now relaxing prior to walking "20 meters" to the only restaurant open in the town on Sunday night (although Lynn said we could have pizza sent up from Aix). The restaurant was literally in a cave; it used to be a wine cellar cut right into the side of the mountain. We had smoked salmon, magret de canards avec pommes, beef slices, fish soup, and crème caramel. We were the only ones there! Guess there's not much eating out on a Sunday night in Ventabren.
Monday, June 26
We were awakened by a loud pounding outside our window (shuttered closed of course!). Who had the nerve to pound so early? Uh oh...it's 8:20...we slept about 11 hours in our super comfortable king-sized bed.
We got ready quickly and went up to the rooftop "terasse" for breakfast.
Wow! Full sunlight, freshly squeezed orange juice, juicy strawberries, croissants, etc., with yummy jams de Provence (3 kinds), and café au lait. It was like heaven!
Today, we're off to Cassis, a fishing village on the sea. After about an hour on the road we arrived, parked the car, found a bank, and the Office de Tourisme to get a map. What a beautiful town. Cafes on the port, wonderful small shops, a lighthouse ("phare"), walking trails, and a beautiful park with a lake and gardens.
We went down to the beach and discovered that it (like many in France) was a topless beach! Wendy said she felt foolish and out of place being (basically) the only woman there with her top on, so, whoosh! Off it came.
Then we strolled on the promenade and had some extraordinary sorbet at a Haagen Daz store! It was served to us by a waitress as we sat on the terrace. Wayne had a beautiful plate with 3 kinds of sorbet and a peach and kiwi slices, all in raspberry sauce. Wendy had lemon sorbet in Sprite. The total bill was exactly F100 ($20); a bit pricey for "ice cream", but it was our dejeuner. By then it was 4:00; we walked a little more and headed back to Ventabren.
Lynn greeted us with juice, wine, olives, sausage, and the best merengue kisses with chocolate chips. As we sat and ate, we discussed where to go for dinner! Wayne didn't want to go to Aix and then have to drive back in the dark (Lynn had suggested a 10:00 reservation!!!). So we decided to eat in a restaurant halfway down the mountain in Roquefavour. The Hotel Arquier is situated right next to the aqueduct! And we ate on the terrace right next to the river.
The ambience was awesome, and the food was even better! Wendy had a tomato stuffed with veggies; Wayne had celery and carrot coulis (French for "mooshed up stuff") with shrimp in some kind of sauce. Next, Wendy had salmon coulis with mussels and rice; Wayne had the most delicious fillet de bouef ever!..with little onions on the side. We skipped the cheese course (as always) and Wendy had profiteroles; Wayne had lemon sorbet. Incroyable! And it was only $80! Go figure. Then a short drive back up the hill, just as it was getting dark, and into our comfy bed.
More about Ventabren: The quiet here rivals that at Bryce Canyon in Utah. In the a.m., you can hear the roosters crowing in the valley. This is a case of life imitating art - to us, the town is so beautiful, it looks like a movie set. But it is real. Each "house" (though they have separate doors, all residences on each block are connected) has different colored shutters and window boxes with beautiful and the lavender (grown here) is everywhere.
Much more colorful then around Vitry-aux-Loges.
At each intersection of the narrow cobblestone streets there are flower boxes, and many of the buildings are covered with ivy and the sky is a deep "Provence bleu"!!
Tuesday, June 27
Today we visit Aix!
Breakfast is again on the terrace - fresh fruits and melons, hot chocolate, jus de raisin (grape juice), and a basket of assorted baked goodies - just for the two of us! Then we drove into Aix. Wow! It's huge - and watch out for the major rotunde (rotary) in the centre ville; it's clogged with cars and buses, and, just like in National Lampoon's European Vacation - once you're in it, it's hard to get out! Especially when buses are blocking the street you need to exit on. But we finally got out and made it to the parking garage. And this was something new to us: when you pull in you get a ticket, date and time stamped. When you are ready to leave, before you get your car, you put the ticket in the machine and it tells you how much you owe. You put in the money and get your ticket back. You then have eight minutes to get to your car and drive to the exit where you insert the paid-up ticket (what happens if you take 9 minutes?). This town also looks like it's right out of a movie set - narrow cobblestone streets (with narrow cars to match, and lots of mopeds and motorcycles zooming by); old buildings with stores on the ground level and apartments above (avec shutters, of course!), and lots of statues and fountains and plazas and churches. The police sirens go "DO do Do do Do do" just like in those old movies.
It was in the 80s again and clear. A perfect day. We went into many, many stores and bought lots of stuff. There was a farmers' market with clothes and fresh produce; magnifique! We had lunch from 1:30 - 2:30, then more lemonade and Scweppe's tonic at La Deux Garcons at 5:00. This restaurant was founded in 1792! Definitely the place to sit and watch the world go by.
Finally dragged ourselves home at 6:00 just as our shopping bags broke!
Side note: The French. The people here are all so friendly. When you walk into a store it's "Bonjour Madame, Bonjour Monsieur", and when you buy something it's "Merci Madame", and when they bring your food or your purchase, they actually say "Voila!" (Sacre bleu!!!!), and when you leave it's "Au revoir Madame, Monsieur". And very helpful when you ask questions or for directions. And they love their dogs - so many people have dogs with them, either on a leash, no leash, or carrying them. Many poodles (but of course), but also many other kinds. And they are allowed in the stores; even the restaurants! And, we've determined, that there are French men and French women whose sole job it is to go around all day carrying bread! They have it in their bike baskets, on their mopeds, under their arms while walking... at all times of the day. They're always walking around with the bread!!!
And, when you are driving, there are signs at each major intersection (though the roads themselves are not well marked), and the signs generally look like this: one arm will say "Paris" and the other (opposite way) arm will say "Autre Directions". Meaning "go this way to get to Paris and go that way for everything else"!. No matter where we were driving, we always turned toward "autre directions" and got where we wanted to go. How do they do it, those crafty French!
For dinner we ate at La Petite Auberge back in Ventabren, this time 50 feet from our room, overlooking the valley. Starting off, they brought a selection of entrees (their version of hors d'oeuvres), including breaded sardines, mushrooms marinated in Provençale oil, marinated and grilled red peppers, calamari in marinade, tapenade, salmon spread, ratatouille, a seafood crepe, breaded zucchini, and a popover! Then, Wendy had a tian of fish mousse and Wayne had chicken a la Petite Auberge (with piped out potatoes around the edge of the plate). Both were accompanied by great vegetables. For dessert Wendy had tarte tatin avec crème anglaise; Wayne had charlotte au chocolate. Yum!! Then a short walk back to Le Mistral. What a day!!!
Tuesday, June 28
We woke up so stuffed we changed our plans for the day; decided to go to Les Baux au Provence where eating would not be the focus of the day - history would. Another sunny breakfast on the terrace and off we went into the mountains.
An hour later, we arrived at les Baux - a middle ages town built into the mountainside.
Except for all the great shops and snack spots, we could have been in the 12th century! It was beautiful, though very hot. We walked through the ruins: castle, hospital, dungeon, eglise; saw catapults, etc., and incredible views. The stores had wonderful fabrics, pottery, olive oil, nad postcards.
We stopped for lunch at a café / bistro. Wendy had a salade Nicoise, Wayne had bifteck. The waiter brought a pan of water for a customer's dog at the next table. Then, around 4:00, we headed for Arles - another town with lots of old ruins, and the place where van Gogh did much of his work. We saw a first century coliseum that is still used for bullfighting.
Also, some more old churches and parts of walls, etc. We took a ride on a petit train, so we got to sightsee and relax. The driver also gave a commentary as we went through the narrow streets (in French of course!). He would talk for about 30 seconds and Wayne would ask "What did he say?", and Wendy would translate, like "There's an old building over there"!!! It was a great tour. After 2 1/2 hours, including a stop at a McDonald's where we saw a birthday party and checked out the "Royale with Cheese", and lots more shopping, we headed home. Lynn had told us that there was a great pizza "place" right at the foot of the mountain leading to Ventabren. The place was a trailer and we would have certainly turned our noses up at that if we were home, but, what the hey. As we pulled into the "lot", the radio was playing the Blues Brothers singing "I Need You". We ordered a "super" - jambon, olives, mozzarella, and champignons. They cooked it over a real wood fire. We took it back home and ate on the terrace as we watched the sun set behind the distant hills. Glorious!
Wednesday, June 28
Another awesome day!!! We started out by finally exploring the Roquefavour aqueduct which we had been driving past each day.
We drove halfway down the mountain and took a side road for about 1/2 mile. Then a sign said "to view the aqueduct, parking was obligatory", so we left the car and started off on foot. We could not actually see the aqueduct from this location. There was a main path and many side paths, and no signs, so we kept walking and walking and hoping we were on the right one and it was getting hotter and hotter, and after about 30 minutes we rounded a corner and there it was! We were at the TOP of the aqueduct! It was built around 2,000 years ago by the Romans and restored in the 1840s. Awesome! Then we started back. To make it go faster Wendy sang "99 bottles of beer on the wall" in French and, just to be safe, she started at 300! She got down to 250, but the walk took longer than that sounds. Then we drove to the bottom of the aqueduct and explored it more from there. Looking up to the top, it is so massive.
Then, back in the car for the ride to Moustiers Sainte Marie (another town built into the side of a mountain!), famous for its pottery. This place looks just like Switzerland (according to Wendy) with the river running through town.
We ate lunch at La Bastide de Moustiers. It overlooks the valley on one side and the sheer rock walls and mountains on the other. Just as we sat down at our table on the terrace.....
....it started to rain, so the staff opened up big umbrellas to cover everyone. The mist and thunder made it so ethereal!
There is no choice to the menu; they bring out whatever they have cooked. For firsts, they brought a green salad with a tart stuffed with potatoes and pears and herbs. We were full, but soldiered on! Next up was a small tomato stuffed with a squash mixture and a small squash stuffed with a tomato mixture! Wayne took a pass, but Wendy said it was good. Then, thin slices of beef with 8" pea pods and the sweetest carrots ever. By now we were on our second glass of wine (Wendy) and second bottle of Schweppes (Wayne). Then the fromage course (Wayne passed again). It looked and smelled like fromage de vomit. Then dessert: pain perdue, which is French toast! With it was a bowl of grapefruit and orange slices and some peach sorbet. Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. Wendy finished with coffee. Did we mention the pace was relaxed? The meal lasted 2 1/2 hours! So romantic!
Then we explored Moustiers. As we walked we realized that there was a church halfway up the mountain, so we had to climb. Actually, there were stairs all the way up, but it was rather steep and we were rather stuffed. More incredible views!
Then we left and drove to a beautiful, large lake. We went down to it and did the obligatory toe dip. By then it was almost 5:00 so we started back. We did fine for the first 45 minutes, then we made a wrong turn somewhere and drove through a little town called Mosaic de Provence. We saw some old men sitting on a bench. About 20 minutes later we came to a little town called...yes! Mosaic de Provence! Same town!!! We had driven in a big circle! The old men were still there, so we kind of ducked down as we drove past. We had a map, but it didn't seem to agree with reality! After some intense discussion, we took a road heading west (directly into the sun), sang the Gilligan's Island song and prayed. We went through some narrow roads which looked as if they hadn't seen a vehicle since Louis XIV was a toddler. We came to towns that weren't on the map! Kept following the "Autre directions" signs. Finally we found a road that was on the map, and took it to the A8 and home - at 8:30!!!! Though we weren't hungry yet, we wanted to get a sandwich from a little restaurant in town, but it was closed, so we finished last night's pizza (which was probably a smart thing to do). Then we packed and went to sleep. At about 4:30 am we were up; neither of us could sleep. So we quietly went out onto the terrace and looked at the stars. Magnificent!!!!