At the end of April, Greg had his first business trip since joining the OECD. I was delighted to learn that it was to be in Aix-en-Provence as seeing Provence has always been a long held wish of mine. I quickly invited myself along:).
We travelled by TGV which I was intrigued to try. We found it was a lot like Via, but faster which isn't necessarily a good thing as the blurry landscape inspires naseau! However, a top speed of over 300 km/hour it got us down south in only 3 hours.
The hotel, booked by Greg's work was fairly nondescript, but with an excellent downtown location. Greg headed off to work and I headed off to tour. As Aix centre ville is quite compact, I decided to eschew maps and itineraries and simply follow my nose....it turned out to be a delightful way to look around. I ended up on a tour of the Saint Sauveur cloisters, all in French. I had a smilar experience in the Tapestry Museum were a kindly gaurd asked me if I knew much about tapestries, then proceeded with a lengthy and delightful discourse on French history, language, travels etc....again all in French! I found the people of Aix to be undeterred by English speakers-they must figure we'll catch up with them eventually. The weather was hot and sunny and my favorite part of the day was sitting in a busy square eating lunch and people watching in the sun.....a few glasses of local wine and my contentment was complete!
That evening Greg and I went to a venerable old cafe frequented by Cezanne and friends, and then for an evening stroll. Aix comes alive at night, with cafes spilling onto the sidewalks and people on their evening walks clogging the narrow streets. It was a wonderful party atmosphere.
The next day, with work duties complete, we drove to nearby Avignon, the capitol of the Provence area. At first it appeared like any other city with the highway littered with shopping malls and billboards; however as we drove along the Rhone we suddenly saw the magestic Palais du Papes and fabled Pont d'Avignon in the distance. It felt as if we were driving into a fairy tale.
Our B&B turned out to be equally delightful. It is an old provencale farmhouse located on the Ile de Barthelasse, an island in the Rhone. Despite being a mere hop, skip and jump from Avignon, the Ile retains a rural charm so refreshing after the big city hustle of Paris. The hosts (fellow refugees from Paris) had completely renovated the house, and were thrilled but amazed that Greg used the pool (it was about 20 degrees C, warm for Canucks!!). The other guests were equally friendly and we spent a wonderful evening drinking champagne and discussing life them.
The next day we hopped in the car and headed to the Chateauneuf-du-Papes wine region. We learned that the wine is so expensive because the entire region is only about 50 hectares big; several grape varieties are grown, and most wines are a blend of these. We did an informative tasting in a cave that had been owned by the same family since the 1500's (!!!) and picked up a special (read pricey) bottle for our anniversary.
We next drove the prettiest 10 km's I have ever seen to the village of Orange. The scenery featured charming villas, olive trees, vineyards and poppies blowing in the wind. Orange had been an important Roman city, and boasts several ruins including an intact theatre that is still in use today. We toured the theatre, and ate lunch at a restaurant laid out beside its ancient wall.
The next morning we borrowed our hosts bikes to go on a wonderful ride around Ile de Barthelasse. It was literally a breathe of fresh air for this city mouse. Were we ever to move to Avignon, I would live on the Ile (although I hear it is prone to flooding!) We said goodbye to all our new friends, and finished out our time with a tour -and a dance- on the Pont d'Avignon. We learned that the origin of the song is from the guingettes, or dance halls, that used to line the Rhone.
'Sur le pont d'Avignon, on y danser, on y danser!'