Three of us were discussing how to get to Nice for our upcoming sailing trip. Direct flights to Nice were prohibitively expensive. Flights to Paris were cheaper, so we were comparing train options vs flights from there. And then I said, “How about a road trip?”
I was a little surprised, and very pleased, at my friends’ enthusiasm.
I took on the task of itinerary and lodging for the three days we allocated to the journey. Mary Ann requested a stop at the Chateau de Chambord, otherwise it was up to me to get us to Nice.
I studied the map and searched for hotels in likely stopping places. Everything was so expensive! Then I tried AirBnB. Soon I’d compiled a set of options for each of our nights, first in Bourges, second in Avignon, and third near Grasse in the mountains overlooking the Med. Mary Ann and Eleanor each voted on the options for each night and I booked the winners: A separate apartment in a house near Bourges, a canal barge in Avignon, and a separate house in the mountains near Grasse.
Mary Ann handled the car rental, and Eleanor was to pay for the fuel and meals on the road, so we’d all spend similar amounts and balance it out at the end.
We convened at Newark airport along with our friend Bob who was going early to visit with his daughter. Typically, the gate area became rather crowded and we found ourselves standing waiting for the flight to begin boarding. A disturbance over in the seating area turned out to be a man who’d collapsed after standing up. People gathered around him, and there seemed to be blood on the floor. A woman in an airline uniform got on the radio, and shortly two police officers turned up. Meanwhile the man on the floor was making noises and behaving oddly. The officers moved people away and moved rows of seats into a corral.
From our angle, we clearly saw a man carrying a hard-sided briefcase approach them, kneel down, and accept a dark object that an officer had removed from the fallen man’s clothing. Briefcase man secured the object. This is when we became certain the fallen man was an air marshal. Another man in a Hawaiian shirt who I’d noticed at security because I liked his backpack, stood nearby overseeing proceedings in a proprietary way.
Meanwhile, our boarding time came and went. Announcements were sparse, perhaps because anyone paying attention could see what was going on. EMTs came with a rolling chair–not a wheelchair, but a high-backed ridged chair used to move people down stairs. They tried to get the man onto it. He fought, clearly confused. They struggled. They finally subdued him and strapped him to the chair. Then they took him to the gate.
Huh? He’s going on the flight?
Of course not. They took him outside and down to the tarmac to a waiting ambulance.
As we boarded the plane at last we wondered if our flight had no air marshal now, or if the guy in the hawaiian shirt was the replacement. Perhaps that was part of the delay–finding someone to fly to Paris.
We’ll never know, but it certainly put an interesting twist on the start of our trip.
Paris and Environs
Eight or so hours later we shuffled off the plane and meandered through miles of corridors to clear French customs and immigration. We lost Eleanor for a bit when she found a shorter line after existing the restroom. But reconnected at baggage claim where all of our stuff arrived.
We said au revoir, bientôt to Bob and went hunting for our car rental agency. Paperwork and keys in hand, we dragged our luggage out to the parking lot and crammed it in–the agent had recommended an upgrade when she looked at our bags. Wise woman.
I was taking first driving shift. I got the car turned on and fired up its navigation system.
It was in German. We worked our way through the menus–all auf Deutsch–looking for a language setting. My high school German is very stale, and I’d been studying French exclusively in preparation for this trip. I might even have been able to cope with a French navigator, but the German was too much after an eight hour flight.
And then our rental agent happened to walk by and got to save the day again. It wasn’t clear that she actually knew what to do, but it occurred to her that user profiles were a thing. She had me create a new user profile and in that process I was allowed to select my language choice. Wow.
I searched for Chambord and our now English speaking navigator promptly provided directions. We were off.
Traffic was heavy, and madame navigator took us through Paris, not to the Peripherique as I would have expected. It was interesting, even scenic, but nerve wracking. Finally we were out the other side of town and on a highway. An hour passed, maybe more, I was in a sleep deprived groove. But we needed a break. So we pulled into a rest stop, topped off the fuel tank, and parked over by the cafe. It was the middle of the day and not very busy. We bought croissants and coffees and studied a map on the wall.
Alarms that had been starting to hum in the back of my mind became full claxons as I looked at where we were. West and north of Paris. Chambord is west and south of Paris. Down in the Loire. Shit.
We found the toilets, then went back out to the car and I searched again for Chambord. Of course there’s more than one! This time I entered Chateau de Chambord. Viola! I shuddered silently at another two hours of driving to make up for my error. And I apologized to my friends, who were gracious.
Off we went, backtracking for a bit then turning on to a south-bound road.
We drove into the parking lot at Chambord some time after 2:00. It felt good to stretch our legs over to the chateau and sprawling exterior facilities. We visited the museum and shop, and sat down to eat a realy, albeit late, lunch of composed salads and wine. In the end, none of us felt up to touring the chateau. I didn’t mind, having been there with Meghann, but I felt bad that my navigation error meant my friends weren’t up for it either. Perhaps we’re all getting too old for the “arrive in Europe and keep going” rule I used to live by.
I’d picked Bourges for that night because it got us further south along our route, not for any tourism objective. I knew we’d be tired, and we needed to move on fairly early the next day.
I plugged in the address of our first AirBnB and Mary Ann took over the driving. We hummed along on highways for a couple hours, until Madame navigator signaled an exit. Mary Ann followed directions right up until Madame wanted us to take a dirt road between cultivated fields. I fired up Google maps and searched for the address. It was in a suburban neighborhood on the other side of the fields. We could see that the exit we’d taken was the nearest, and also that it wasn’t entirely clear what road would get us there. So we drove around a little until we found a paved one going in the right direction.
Then came the search for provisions. We wanted to pick up some cheese and wine, just some light food for supper. We circled around in the area near our lodging, but all we found was a bar. Eleanor even went in and ask if there was a market nearby. She got vague directions (well, maybe just directions in French). We tried to follow them, but no luck. Finally, exhausted, we gave up and found our way to the house.
We were met by a diminutive woman who was all smiles and bienvienues and not a word of English. She showed us into the apartment, pointing out the amenities. I realized she was asking if we would use the third bed–there were two singles and a double. I said yes. We all needed some space by that time. So she went away and came back with sheets and made it up. Meanwhile, we were locating plug adapters and pajamas in our luggage.
Our hostess told us breakfast would be on the patio and we agreed on a time. And then she left us alone.
The apartment was attached to the hostess’s house. That third bed, that I took, was next to a locked door and clearly tucked in under a staircase. I could hear someone walking up and down a few times. We had two rooms, although there was no door between them. Eleanor’s full bed and my single were in one room, along with a crib. Mary Ann’s bed was in the main room next to the little dining table. A sofa and chair faced a television. An upright piano stood near the front door. The back corner was the “kitchen” with a sink and refrigerator, but no hot plate. Just an electric kettle. The modern bathroom with its fancy shower had been a draw on the website. But the only thing on the shower that worked was the hand-held. The fixed overhead and side jets did not. Heck, my shower at home is better!
We turned on the TV and settled on a French baking competition, where the hosts visited boulangeries and tasted their baguettes and whatever product they considered their speciality, and then had them create a new item using a specific, challenging, ingredient. It was soothing for our exhausted minds, even though we understood maybe one word in five.
Eleanor and I had both bought sandwiches back in Newark, just in case the airline food was awful. And we both still had them. Throwing caution regarding refrigeration to the wind, we ate them for dinner. Mary Ann refused our offers to share, she had some snacks of her own.
We were up and dressed, finishing packing when our hostess knocked. She guided us to breakfast–around the main house, along a garden path, and into an enclosed patio where a table was set for three. She brought use baguettes and croissants, coffee, jams, and butter from the adjacent kitchen. We dined with a view of the swimming pool, available for our use were we there in a warmer season, and the jungle of a garden. When we had had our fill of really good breads, we walked around the garden, and discovered that the property was enormous and housed a landscaping business. A separate building by the pool appeared to be the office. If our French, or our hostess’s English, were better we would have learned more about it.
Back in the car, we made another attempt at provisions and found the local market, just a little further along than we’d had the energy to venture last night. We made up for the lack with bottles of wine, water, cheese, grapes, and other snacks. And then we set off for Avignon.
This was a straight drive of 564 kilometers. About half way along we were itching for a break, so we ventured off the highway and into a small town. Google showed us a couple restaurants near where we found parking. We liked the look of one that was in an alley off of a pedestrian-only street in a very old part of town. We found it easily enough and were welcomed by the mildly surprised to see Americans hostess.
My belief that it’s nearly impossible to find a bad meal in France held true. The restaurant clearly catered mostly to local business people, but it offered a lovely lunch and pleasant house wine. Fortified, we made our way back to the car, taking a few photos of the old buildings as we went. And then we got back on the highway for the final stretch to Avignon.
Talk about traffic!
Despite my having mapped the address and even used VR street view to walk the streets near it, I knew finding our barge was going to be a challenge. For one thing, the street images in my VR app (Wander), and on Google (which is what Wander uses), don’t go there. It’s a tiny stretch of road next to the river, tucked behind a hospital. The map is not exactly sure where the address really is. For another, I had an email from our host saying he’d been called away to Belgium, so would not be there to greet us, but a friend would be available. Call her.
The AirBnB listing had directions that I’d read before, and read aloud now for all to hear. We simply couldn’t find the street. We got close, though. We knew it had to be on the other side of this restaurant, but we couldn’t find the road to get there. I called our host’s friend.
She spoke in rapid fire French. I spoke in very slow, uncertain French. The people having cocktails on a patio overlooking the river and street where we’d stopped listened to me with great interest. I got the idea that she was coming to meet us, but also that we had to try again. Back in the car, everyone! We were sure the people having cocktails were glad to see us go.
Back around I went, onto the busy street, up to the bridge, across it to where I could turn around and go back, then left and look for the correct street. We tried a street that hadn’t looked right the previous two times, but turned out to be. It went down and around an came to an end beside the river at a hedge of bushes and trees. There was the other side of the restaurant through the trees. And no sooner were we out of the car than another car pulled in and a woman got out, waving in greeting.
She showed us the overgrown gangway that stretched from the road through the trees to the barge, and how to unlock the gate. She gave us a very quick tour of the boat, including the huge bowl of tiramisu in the refrigerator that she declared “pour vous.” She introduced us to the cat, and then she was gone. I got the distinct impression she was hurrying back to her job.
Mary Ann and I were charmed by the barge, Eleanor not so much. We’d known that the bed situation wasn’t the best, but the novelty of being on the river had won us over. One cabin had bunk beds, the other had a full bed, and there was a couch. Rather than take a bunk bed, Eleanor opted for the couch. Mary Ann took the lower bunk, so I took the full bed. The decor was nautical shabby, quirky antique. A desk in the main saloon held architectural drawings, including diagrams of the boat. There were shelves of books and fascinating nicknacks, antique hats, nautical fixtures, and a crazy selection of oddities. I suspected I’d either like our host, for be creeped out by him. I also realized that he lived on the boat, in a locked rear cabin. I had not realized we would be with him, were he in the country.
The woman had shown us how to open the hatch to the deck. We took the bowl of tiramisu and our wine and cheese, and gin and tonic, topsides and made it our dinner watching the sunset on the river.
Aix en Provence and Points East
My one desired site on the road trip was the Roquefavour Aqueduct near Aix en Provence. I also wanted to see Aix, but my tour via VR had shown me that to really visit it, you need to stay a couple days and walk it. We didn’t have time for that, but the aqueduct was within our reach.
We left the barge as we’d found it, having washed the tiramisu bowl. I did regret not having time to tour Avignon’s castle, but that, too would require a longer stay than we’d budgeted on this trip. So we headed southeast toward Aix.
Madame navigator was being cooperative, guiding us to the area of the aqueduct successfully, until we came to a closed road. Of course Madame could not have known about a temporary closure. And so Madame could not help us go around it. We used her map, plus Google, to find an alternate and got to the base of the massive stone construction. Stopping required pulling across and off of a moderately busy two-lane road. No problem, although Eleanor was concerned.
We walked under the aqueduct over to the river, taking photos and enjoying the country air. We could see how stones jutting out at various levels had provided supports for work platforms to build the levels above. It must have been fascinating to see.
Back in the car, we retraced our route and stopped at a farm market for some fresh produce and other goodies. Then I drove us down into Aix and through town. It was thronged with people and cars. My last vestiges of stopping for a short walk evaporated as I looked for the right road to get out of town going east. I missed it, and thinking of our day one debacle, turned around and found the right route as promptly as I could.
Callian and Grasse
Our third AirBnB was in the tiny town of Callian in the mountains west of Grasse. We’d picked it because it’s name is “Maison grand jardin”–house of the big garden. Our host Eric called as we were nearing Callian to ask when we’d arrive. Good thing, because when I told him we were thirty minutes away, he said “oh! See you very soon!”
Yes, he spoke English.
Eric welcomed us with open arms when I pulled up next to la maison. He showed us into the guest house, with its full kitchen, small living room, and two bedrooms. We dragged in the luggage and got comfortable for a couple hours of immobile rest. I wasn’t in the mood for a nap, so I walked back out onto the patio to look around. Le jardin was indeed grand. Eric was out there puttering, so I wandered over and he happily showed me around his vegetable patch where a few last tomatoes were still on the vine. He took me into the greenhouse where he had citrus trees and flowers. And back toward the guest house we stopped by an enormous fig tree full of fruit. He urged me to help myself. He pointed out the main house and introduced his partner who was doing some kind of construction chore in their backyard, which was screened from the guest house and garden by trees. It was clear that the AirBnB was all Eric’s responsibility. His partner was cordial, but not eager to chat.
Back in the house I urged Mary Ann, a gardener, to go look around, which she did.
Eric asked our dinner plans and happily recommended a couple options. We settled on Chez Hugo in neighboring Sellians–one of the hilltop fortified towns common in the area. We went a little early so that we had daylight to find it. The mountain roads provided spectacular views of the peaks all around, but I was definitely glad to see where I was going. Approaching the town, I spotted a parking space beside the road where several other cars were parked. So I squeezed our mini SUV into it. My passengers had to get out so that I could squeeze the passenger side right up against a railing, but that was good because they helped me position the car not too close to the others.
We walked on up the hill into the town and spotted the restaurant, which was not yet open. So we walked on up into the narrow, stone streets between high stone walls. There were photo ops around every corner. Most of the buildings were homes and we could hear families preparing dinner, windows open wide to the pleasant evening. This was the France we’d come to see. We wandered back down and found an open gift shop run by an Englishman. I bought a small olive wood olive dish.
Chez Hugo–in fact, Hugo the chef’s mother–welcomed us with an outdoor table overlooking the road down the hill. A couple with a pair of big, friendly dogs took the table next to us. Our hostess told us a bit of their family history between taking our orders and seeing that we were well served.
We rolled back down to the car to find a note under the windshield wiper. The scrawled French was beyond my comprehension in the dark, after that dinner. The next morning I showed it to Eric and he seemed annoyed on behalf of his countryman. It said we had parked blocking something, illegally. But we were sure we had not. He said not to worry about it.
We thanked Eric for his hospitality and hit the road for Grasse. We were due at the marina to board our sailboats in the afternoon, but first we wanted to visit one of the perfume companies in France’s perfume capital. We selected Fragonard because they were relatively easy to find, although finding the entrance to the parking lot was a little less obvious.
We signed up for an English language tour and saw how flowers are laid out on trays of lard–or was it beeswax?–to extract fragrance, and how the valuable scents are stored and packaged. Like so many such tours, much of what we saw was reproduction for our eyes, not the real manufacturing facility. But it was entertaining and the young British woman leading us was charming. Of course we ended in the shop. Of course we all bought things.
And we got back in the car for the final leg of our road trip. At the marina in Golfe-Juan we found an adjacent large, mostly empty parking lot. So we left the car and set out on foot to look for the charter company office. Or our boats. Eleanor recalled that the charter company office was at an address in town, but she could not find it, and we were not sure if it was an actual office, or just a mailing address. Experience told us that most charter companies had their main presence near their boats. She called, but got no answer. And as we looked around at the offices in the marina, we saw that they were all closed for lunch. Duh.
Eventually we got directions to where the charter company’s boats live–at the very end of a long seawall. Or rather, that’s where my boat was. Mary Ann and Eleanor’s was in another place, close to the street. We separated to take our luggage to our boats, and then met back up to make a grocery run for their boat. I thought I’d be able to pick up some of the fresh provisions I needed for my boat, too, but it turned out we were picking up their order at a warehouse, not a store. So we loaded their food into the rental and took it back to the marina. At that point my crew was arriving and I had to work with them on check out and provisions, so I left the car with Mary Ann to return and officially end our road trip.
The next part of the trip is another adventure entirely!