For the past two weeks, we have been taking a breather in France. Spending 5 days in one place felt amazing, and where better to kick back and relax than Provence? Getting there wasn’t easy – somehow our short flight to Clermond-Ferrand followed by a train ride to Aix en Provence turned into a 12 hour ordeal… a theme which did continue somewhat for our time in France. Absolutely nothing was on time, shops didn’t open at their advertised hours, trains and buses ran on different “special” timetables which were only advised on the day… it seemed as though a lot of France was enjoying their summer holidays as well, so we just had to go with the flow.
As a result, we spent more time sunbathing on our apartment terrasse, meandering through the local markets and lingering over crepes at lunch than we did on day trips and sightseeing. This turned out to be perfect, and allowed us to soak up the charm of Aix en Provence. We were staying right near the famous Cours de Mirabeau with its spectacular fountain and line of lively cafes. Aix is nicknamed the “City of a Thousand Fountains” and although the exact number (60? 100?) can’t be agreed upon, they sure are everywhere. We stumbled upon many of them in tiny squares or small streets, as well as the larger more well taken care of features in the centre of town. We walked up a hill to Cezanne’s studio, where the famous artist painted so many of his masterpieces, and tasted olives, sundried tomatoes, cheeses and fruits in the morning markets.
We did stray a little further afield, when we made a trip to Avignon. This medieval city is beautiful, still surrounded by its old town walls and with an incredible cathedral in its midst. A short bus ride away was the magnificent Pont Du Gard. This bridge which is part of the Nimes aqueduct, is a remnant of ancient Roman times and is in fact the highest of all aqueduct bridges. Despite being built over 2000 years ago, it still towers above the Gardon river and is a World Heritage sight. As we rounded a corner, we were struck by this 3-leveled structure with its arches; an amazing feat of masonry and engineering especially considering the time in which it was built. The Romans used stone blocks carved in quarries, then attached to rope and pulley systems to construct the bridge – no mortar was used so they have held fast and not shifted in all these years. The aqueduct itself used to supply water to the whole region, with wealthy households having running water, pools and water features and the towns having a constant supply of water via fountains which also overflowed to clean the gutters and streets. A strictly monitored water usage system was in place to avoid corruption and it is estimated that each household in the area used around 1000 litres of water a day. Today that volume is more like 400.
After walking across the bridge, we had the opportunity to swim underneath it! The popular swimming spot was teeming with families, and despite not having much time I couldn’t resist a quick dip. Swimming in clear cool water and looking up to see this ancient structure above me was surreal.
The summer is well and truly in swing in France, so after our stay in Provence we packed up again and headed in search of the ocean. As our bus drove along the Promenade in Nice, we gazed at the bluest sparkling water we had ever seen. The Mediterranean is something else – so clear you can nearly see the bottom, so blue it looks like a postcard, the perfect temperature for cooling off without freezing and so salty you can float with no effort. We enjoyed a couple of lazy afternoons alternating between soaking up rays on the beach and jumping into the sea. Although there are plenty of sections of the beach owned by restaurants which rent out sun loungers and prime spots, we toughed it out with our towels in the free areas.
From Nice, it is not far to the principality of Monaco – just a 20 minute train ride. Looking for something different, we hired bicycles and rode there ourselves! And what a wonderful decision that turned out to be. There are three roads between Nice and Monaco – the Grande Corniche, the Moyenne Corniche and the Basse Corniche. As their names suggest, they are the high, middle and low roads. The Grande Corniche is apparently a hairy clifftop road, where Grace Kelly and Cary Grant drove along in “To Catch a Theif”. Grace Kelly (Princess Grace of Monaco) was also killed in a car crash near here, and there are roads and monuments dedicated to her all along the way to Monaco, as well as in the country itself. The Moyenne Corniche still involved some steep climbs, and we opted for the Basse.
Having cycled in Auckland, I have a fear of all vehicles with a motor anywhere near me whilst I’m on a bike, but here I had no reason to worry. The drivers were so considerate, waiting patiently behind us on narrow sections, driving slowly around us with a wide berth, and doing it all with a smile – not the slightest hint of irritation, rude words or gestures. Even the Basse had a few hills, but it was still a pleasant ride with the most spectacular views. As the sun shone down on us, we breathed in the fresh sea air and made plenty of stops to savour the views of gorgeous coastline, shimmering ocean and colourful villages.
When we arrived in Monaco, we all of a sudden found ourselves in an underground network of tunnels and roundabouts, from which we emerged in the middle of Monte Carlo. Since Monaco is such a small piece of land, they have to make the most of their space! We immediately felt under dressed and out of place as we realised we were right outside the casino and near the main shopping streets with their designer offerings. People were dressed as though they were attending functions, looking composed, glamorous and expensive as they wined and dined, took photos and shopped. We were sweaty, in shorts and t-shirts and wheeling bright orange hire bikes. We high-tailed it down the hill to the beach where we managed to find some (just!) affordable fast food, and did a bit of exploring before putting our bikes on the train to go back to Nice.
Our time in France has been a mixture of old-world charm, modern elegance, delicious food and wine, slow paced and full of sun. Now we head further south, to Greece!