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Road trip part 3: Provence

Ahhhhh, Provence.

The warmth. The light. The laid-back-to-the-point-of-horizontal pace of life. The inexplicable (but very welcome) surge in sightings of des beaux hommes…

I arrived in Avignon as the early evening sun mellowed the quaint cobbled streets of the old walled city. That’s quaint in the sense of exceedingly narrow in places, as the pained squeaking of tyres against both kerbs attested during my attempt to navigate some of the back streets. But hurrah for Sundays and public holidays – free parking for my entire stay after the trials, tribulations and expense of Lyon!

Avignon is famous for two things… the Pont St-Bénézet – which isn’t actually a bridge anymore, so you’re essentially paying to walk halfway across the river and back again, failing to achieve even the most basic of bridge-based objectives (in fact, pretty much bridge 101 really); and the Palais des Papes – an enormous gothic palace dating from the 14th century when Avignon was the site of the Papal seat. Six generations of pontiffs splashed an eye-popping chunk of change on the best architects and craftsmen of the day to build, amend and extend it – you know, to really make the place their own. I bet it looked impressive on the cover of Medieval Home & Garden.

I discovered a third attraction not listed in the guidebooks however, which totally blew my mind: a double-decker merry-go-round. I KNOW, right?! A.Mazeballs. It’s bad enough I was born before ball-pools were a thing, but a merry-go-round on two levels? With actual stairs? Kids these days have it SO good.

Aix-en-Provence continued the beautiful old city vibe, this time with a bit of mini-Champs-Élysées glamour in the form of the Cours Mirabeau, a wide and rather splendid tree-lined avenue leading climactically to a huge fountain – tainted only by the overpriced stalls touting tat to tourists.

The ‘proper’ markets here were the best so far though – mouth-watering produce and vivid colour-bursts of flowers set against a backdrop of magnificent buildings in the old city’s squares. I could have wandered them for hours. In fact, I did.

I’m a sucker for a bit of old-school art, so I was in my element heading out to the Bibémus quarries where Cézanne painted so prolifically; to Arles where Van Gogh did some of his best work (visited on a total whim, and all the more stunning because of it); and popping into Antibes for a whistle-stop tour of the Picasso museum in the former Château Grimaldi where he lived and painted for a short time.

The vibrancy and clarity of colour in that special Southern light I’d read about is almost tangible, and I could totally see why it captured the imagination of so many artists. Arles was by far my favourite of the three – quainter than a teeny tiny teaset on a hand-crocheted doily in the chintz-lined window of an antique shop in the picturesque village of qu’aint-s’ville. Plus it had a really cute cat.

And so my road trip approached its end as I set off along the coastal route from Antibes, bound for my home for the coming few weeks (and hopefully months) in Nice…

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