Another short Ryan Air flight, a shuttle bus, and a train ride, and we found ourselves in the old walled city of Avignon situated on the Rhone River in Provence! This small medieval town used to home to the Popes long ago, before Rome won the papacy. The Papal Palace still stands next to the wall, a giant statute of an angel with a golden halo perched atop. We saw this structure as walked through the streets to our apartment, and again from the rooftop deck of our temporary home.
We chose to stay with a host this time, instead of renting an entire apartment, to get a little bit more interaction with French culture and to be able to ask lots of questions about how to actually go about interacting with locals. When we arrived, we met Cyrielle and her mother. Cyrielle's husband, Maxime, was away on business for a few days and her mother came into town to stay with her while he was away. Perhaps it's because she's about 6 months pregnant, or perhaps it's because she would have been by herself with 2 airbnb travelers who could very well be crazy people (we're not, I swear) in her home alone…I would have wanted someone to stay with me too! We also met her hilarious puppy, Hercule, who instantly wanted nothing more than to play with me. Hercule followed me around for 4 days waiting for me to sit down and play tug of war with one of his toys, which I liked, or my clothes, which I didn’t like so much. He was really cute!
We spent the first full day getting acquainted with little Avignon- we walked through Les Halles, one of the largest indoor farmers markets in Europe (it was really not exciting, I was hoping for a bustling market and this was not it.), the gardens of Les Palais des Papes, and outside the walls to the Pont d'Avignon, aka Pont Saint Benezet, a famous bridge that runs halfway across the Rhone, the rest was swept away in a flood an never repaired. Before we knew it, we'd basically seen the whole town! We definitely needed to find more to do with the next 3 days!
Well, we came here for the wine! So it was time to figure out how to go taste it! Chataeneuf du Pape, the mack daddy of all GSMs (Grenach/Syrah/Mourvedre), was only 10 miles north! We considered renting bikes and taking to the streets- we couldn't get pulled over for drinking and biking, could we? And it's only 10 miles, that would take about an hour- no problem! Well, it was supposed to rain, and it turns out that the ride would be more like 20 miles because we couldn’t ride on the highway and had to go the long way. Ok, that option was out. How about renting a car? Everything we found on every .com was REALLY expensive! Getting to wine country was proving to be more complicated than I thought. Just when I thought my hopes and dreams of frolicking through the galet vineyards of Chaeteaunefu du Pape were dying, Cyrielle came to the rescue.
She looked up a car rental price on EuropeCar.FR and it came out to $40 for 2 days! How is this possible? We had looked at Europecar.com and couldn't find anything under $120. The difference, she explained, is using the local ".fr" instead of the ".com". That way, we get the local prices instead of tourist prices. We gave it a shot and HOLY COW IT WORKED! What a great tip! From now on, all rentals will be done in the local web address ending!
We picked up our car the next morning, a Fiat Panda, and headed off to wine country! I was so excited I could barely sit still in the passenger seat! Our first stop was Les Caves St. Charles, caves that were built in the 12th century, for a tasting led by Mathias (pronounced Matt-ees), who has been studying wine for basically his entire life. He and his friend Guy, a master sommelier, opened the caves for tasting 3 years ago. A visit with them is the #1 rated activity on TripAdvisor in the area, and for good reason. Matthias poured us the coveted blanc, which only makes up 3% of Chateaneuf du Pape production. It's so small, in fact, that they don't even export it- they keep it all to themselves. I would too- it's delicious! He then poured us 2 "new school" Chateauneuf du Papes, and 2 "old school". These four wines were all so different I could go on forever about them. To get the point, Jake and I loved the 2003 old school bottle so much that we decided to splurge and take one back to our apartment to enjoy. The rest of the day was spent wandering the small village, waltzing in and out of tasting rooms and wineries, meeting the lovely people that lived and worked there.
Side note: something we felt immediately upon arriving in Avignon was a sense of welcome. People were happy to talk to us, happy to help us, happy to hear us struggle through ordering du baguettes sil vous plait. People didn’t make us feel like we were unwanted or in the way. And then it hit us- the phrase we'd been hearing was really true- there are the French, and there are Parisians; don't let Parisians determine how you like the French. Well, Paris never made us feel welcome and wanted. But Provence welcomed us with open arms and big smiles! Sorry Paris, you're dropping lower and lower on our list of favorites. In fact, we've come to realize that we don't really like you much at all. Ok, back to Provence…
We capped off our perfect day of wine tasting with a short walk in the rain (that wasn't cold for once!), and a drive through the typical galet covered vineyards of the area. These stones are one of the main reasons why these grape do so well- they trap the heat from the sun during the day and keep the roots warm at night, they also allow for excellent water drainage down to the deepest roots. When we got back to town we needed to find some grub! Take out was all I wanted- I was pooped after a big day. We headed to a Chinese takeout window we had seen the day before- I don't care where I am, Chinese food will always sound good. The menu was in 2 languages, French and Chinese, neither of which we speak. Also, the couple behind the counter only spoke those languages as well! Not knowing what anything was or how to say a word, we pointed at a few things and hoped for the best! Everyone smiled and laughed at the situation, they joyfully made our food and sent us on our way. We stopped in the square to see what we ended up with- little stuffed pockets that looked like Shu Mai, steamed rice, and bamboo pork in a broth. Perfect! We didn't even wait to get home to devour it, we enjoyed it there on the bench of the square as people walked there dogs and ate ice cream all around us.
Since we had the car for 2 days, we took off on another adventure the next day! Jake surprised me with the best farmers market I've ever seen! We spent the morning wandering the Uzes outdoor Saturday market taking pictures and people watching. You could get anything there- fishing rods, purses, watches, clothes, spices, cheese, flowers, meat, produce, baby toys…talk about a one stop shop! We decided that our next stop, Pont du Gard, would be even more enjoyable with a picnic lunch, so we picked up some things to take a long.
Since the Provencal people were so wonderfully nice and cheery, I had no fear ordering things in French and conversing in short broken sentences with the merchants as I purchased apples, olives, a baguette, and cheese. Our cheese buying experience was particularly fun- the couple who owned one of the dozens of cheese counters saw us eyeballing the many beautiful cheeses and came over to help. She spoke first, but of course I had no idea what she was saying. "Parle ingles" I said as I smiled. She gave me a big smile back and gestured to her jolly husband. He laughed and asked if we spoke any French at all. "Un peu", a little, I said, "but not really!". "What about Spanish? We're close to Spain, so everyone her speaks Spanish, too!" "Si! Perfecto!" Jake and I both replied! Sure, we learned Central American Spanish, not Spain Spanish, but this could work! We carried out the rest of the transaction in Spanish and he sent us off with a word of warning about our 10 month trip, "Be careful, if you eat this cheese everyday you'll get fat!" Don't I know it, buddy! He also mentioned that he new we were Americans right away by how chatty we were...I guess people really can see (or hear) Americans from a mile away!
With our picnic packed and ready, we drove 10 minutes out to Pont du Gard, an ancient Roman aqueduct bridge that was built in 1 AD and is part of a 50km structure that brought water from Uzes to Nimes. The bridge is fascinating to look at with its 3 stories of arches, and made a perfect backdrop for our picnic lunch. We enjoyed some sunshine as we wandered all over the structure before heading back to town.
For our last night in gorgeous Provence, we decided to have another picnic, this time on the roof of our apartment building. We had some leftover olives from lunch, grabbed more cheese, bread, and meat from the grocery store, and opened that bottle of 03 Chataeuneuf du Pape, and watched the sunset behind the Papal Palace. As the terracotta roofs turned dark and the palace statures began to glow, I said out loud to Jake, "I can't believe we're sitting here right now. I can't believe that we actually get to do this!" It hit me like a ton of bricks - we're on the trip of a lifetime, seeing things and meeting people and eating food and drinking wine that we would never have gotten. We've only been gone 6 weeks and we've already seen and learned so much about ourselves and the people and cultures we're meeting. I am so lucky to be able to do this and SO excited for what the next 8.5 months have in store for us!
On the advice of our host, Cyrielle, we got up early and headed to Marseille for the day before flying out of Marseille that night to head to Rome. Cyrielle said "you must see it, it is very important! You really must spend the whole day there!" We hadn't even thought about touring Marseille, but after getting a review like that, we figured we'd really be missing out if we didn't make a point to wander around for a few hours. And boy oh boy were we LET DOWN. In a word, Marseille is gross. It's a big dirty city with trash on the streets, beggars on the sidewalk, overpriced food, and not a lot to see. It probably didn't help that it was raining, too. When we arrived for the day we were looking forward to exploring. As we neared the city center at the marina, our excitement had been deflated. Instead of spending way too much money on touristy food near the marina (most other places off the tourist path were closed because it was a Sunday), we decided to indulge in some good American gluttony, McDonalds! We sat outside eating our fries, chicken sandwiches, and McFlurry for about an hour, using the free wifi to research what to do there. After our snack we walked around the marina a bit, trying to find something to do. We didn't want to walk all the way to the cathedral because we wouldn't be allowed in with our backpacks. We didn't want to ride the ferris wheel because it was raining. So we found ourselves just standing under a shiny mirrored roof next to the water, listening to a man drum on a bucket and the rain coming down 10 feet away. We admitted our defeat and retreated back to McDonalds for the wifi. Jake worked on editing pictures and I wrote for a couple more hours before getting the hell out of there to go to the airport. We learned a few things that day: 1) if someone says "you HAVE to go here or do this", realize that no, you don't. Take recommendations with a grain of salt, or at least research it before jumping in. 2) Wifi is hard to come by, use it when you can. 3) McDonalds is delicious and was definitely worth the 20 euro.
We were happy to board our flight to Rome! We loved Provence and will definitely return, but never need to see Marseille again!