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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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Road trip part 2: Lyon

Lyon and I started out on bad terms.

Having settled (I thought) rather well into driving sur le continent, things became somewhat hairy on entering France’s second-largest city* at rush-hour and attempting to navigate the warren of narrow and occasionally vertiginous one-way streets in La Croix-Rousse.

After circling the area several times (sometimes on purpose, sometimes … not) in a vain attempt to find a free space on the street for anything larger than a pedal car, I eventually surrendered, sparing my increasingly frayed nerves any further strain by parking in an extortionately expensive underground car park.

And so I arrived, luggage-laden and heart still racing, at the appointed place and time to take charge of the keys for my inaugural airbnb booking – where I was faced with a totally non English-speaking friend (Cécile) of the owner with the keys to the 3rd floor apartment … and the bottom of a surprisingly steep spiral staircase.

I managed a reasonable, if stilted, conversation with Cécile (due in equal parts to a lack of language ability and actual breath on my part as we ascended), and when we reached the summit the apartment itself was lovely. I just cursed Monsieur Jacquard for having invented a weaving loom so tall it warranted such high ceilings – and hence the precipitous escaliers I was navigating – in these converted workshops. (In fact I cursed the lack of ascenseur at the time and him only later, following a visit to one of the last active workshops in Lyon – wherein I discovered his culpability.)

A series of niggling inconveniences as opposed to out-and-out catastrophe perhaps – but still, so far not the best introduction.

And then it rained.

On day 1 I felt like one of those poor souls you see traipsing around London in their £1 ponchos that let all the water in and make you sweat at the same time because you’re basically wrapping yourself in a plastic bag. Nothing stops that tourist mindset of having to get around all the ‘must-see’s – because you might never be here again, right? And so it was that I trudged resolutely around town: Nikon-pregnant in my trusty pac-a-mac; rain-sodden map in hand.

Thankfully, the ensuing days were much improved and I basked on sun-drenched (though gusty and windswept) streets, walking above the rooftops in Fourvière and passing through hidden ‘traboules’ (passageways) in the old town, discovering the Lyonnais penchant for monumental murals and ever-so-slightly-sinister puppets…

* Strictly speaking, Lyon is the largest conurbation outside of Paris, Marseille being the second largest city proper. (This, for my esteemed editorial colleagues who may feel I’m fudging the facts.)

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Road trip part 1: Burgundy

After a brief sojourn in Paris with the charmant Corinne and co at Bureau-Tarbet towers (I’m so gonna miss that awesome view of La Tour Eiffel), I set off on the next leg of my trip.

Having recovered myself after a perilous brush with the mildly terrifying rush-hour périphérique in Paris, driving was slightly stressful (general first-time-driving-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-road anxiety) but fairly straightforward on the motorways and quiet roads of Burgundy.

I made it easy for myself to start with, staying just off the motorway outside Avallon, from where I pootled around exploring some of the beautiful medieval villages of the Yonne department.

Dijon had to be on the ‘to-see’ list – capital of the region and long-time purveyor of spicy condiments, it was also apparently quite the place to be back in the day when Burgundy was an actual kingdom and everyone had a name straight out of Game of Thrones – and even more so later on when it was demoted to a Duchy and the names weren’t nearly as good.

Beaune was my last stop, right in the heart of the Route des Grands Crus. You literally drive through the middle of the vineyards – they come right up to the side of the road, making for some incredible views (though of course, my eyes were firmly on the road at all times, mum).

On arrival, just to be polite, I engaged in une petite dégustation to try out some of the local grape juice. I’m not sure my wine palate was much improved by the end of the self-guided tour (yep, they let me pour my own!), but I’m pretty sure my French was spot-on by glass no 10…