I had heard of the beauty of Provence of course, I just never realised just how damned fabulous it was until I witnessed it for myself this June.
We flew to Nice on easyJet and stayed three days with a good friend of ours called Anna in her Cannes apartment, before picking up our Fiat 500 convertible and taking the scenic route to Aix-en-Provence. The B-route would take us to Grasse, up to the Verdun Gorge and down again to Aix.
In the three days prior to that, we had wined and dined in sophisticated Cannes, strolled around lively Antibes, clambered up to the simply stunning mediaeval village of Eze plus rubbed shoulders and sipped cocktails with the somebodies that frequented extravagant Cap Ferrat. We had done Monte Carlo and Nice previously and would save St Tropez for another time.
This was the first time that I had driven on the right for nine years – my only previous experience had been in another Fiat, in Northern Sardinia. I don’t know who was more nervous out of me and Rania, my non-driving map-reader, empathiser and good wife. Rolling along at a steady forty KMH, I eventually stopped grabbing for the gear stick with my left hand and got into the groove.
First stop Grasse, where we joined a free tour at Fragonard perfumery, one of several in town. When I said free, most people naturally then felt obligated to purchase some scented goodies in the expansive (and expensive) shop, conveniently situated at the end of the tour. We were no exception, the tour ending up costing €75, but at least Rania had some wares to show for it.
For my part, I felt suitably educated for the outlay, now knowing how much time it took a ‘Nose’ to be sufficiently qualified to produce a new range of scent (fifteen years being the norm). A tad too late for yours truly to retrain, but it certainly was a top-paying gig for those with the foresight and the bucks to get into that line of business. The likes of J-Lo and Gaga obviously had done crash courses, or maybe they are just incredibly gifted!!?
After a quick pit stop we were on our way again. The day was glorious, just perfect for having the roof down. We soon found ourselves cork-screwing up hairpin bends and along narrow roads as we edged closer to Europe’s largest gorge.
We slalomed through villages, stopping briefly in one leafy backwater to see what was going on, as everybody seemed to be out of their houses. It was a special Sunday; we had stumbled across the village fete. Most of the throng seemed to be spectating a pétanque (boules) match between men and women, young and old – serious business in these parts. Bad form for a would be blogger, but I cannot remember the name of the picturesque settlement. I will plump for the French equivalent of Aylesbury, seeing as they had a duck pond.
Time was getting on, so as the hôtel de ville clock struck two, it was a signal for us to be on our way. The human navigator indicated we had plenty more climbing to do and up we headed. At last, after another forty-five minutes twisting and turning, we saw a sign for Verdun. Half an hour later we were there.
Although the river was on the low side, the gorge was spectacular. You could see for miles around and looking over the precipitous edge gave us both a bout of vertigo. It was obvious where the name Verdun came from, the area being abundantly verdant.
Hopping back into the car, we headed down the short distance to a dam to walk across its width. The view from the bridge was equally stunning – and to think that I had never heard of the place until a day before when Anna suggested it worth a detour.
The gorge was vast and we only had time to stop at one side of it – another view for another trip.
I had been lulled into a false sense of being on a downward spiral. No chance, it was back up for us, if anything the road becoming narrower, the bends sharper and the driver and his mate more nervy as the drop became steeper by the minute. Thank goodness for the perfect weather – doing this journey in the wet did not bear thinking about.
After what seemed an age we finally peaked and started the descent. This was actually more hair-raising than the ascent as now you looked straight down into the abyss as opposed to across it. When a chain of monster bikes zoomed past us at full throttle, we shuddered some more.
About thirty minutes into our careful drive down, I asserted that I didn’t think we would get to Aix before nine. The decision was made to stop en-route for our evening meal. This we did at a restaurant with a view of the lake at the base of the gorge.
On another occasion, we could have stopped for hours in the lovely surroundings, but only had about an hour’s daylight left. I was itching to get off the mountain before it became pitch black.
After following the lake and river for thirty-five KM or so whilst watching the alluring sunset, we reached the highway. This was the main route into Aix, the capital of the region. It was now full on darkness and by now I had forgotten all my own advice of being ultra cautious and sticking to the speed limit religiously. I felt like James Bond in his Aston Martin, having mastered a pretty challenging drive. I was now in total control of my vehicle and confident enough to get the most possible out of its tiny engine.
It was gone ten when we pulled into the outskirts of our destination city. We had printed directions from the Internet, but they were soon discarded after a couple of wrong turns left us totally disorientated. With the car getting a little fractious and Summertime Jazz forcibly switched off, we then drove around fairly aimlessly for twenty minutes, before stumbling upon the right road.
Three U-turns and an aborted attempt to go the wrong way down a one-way street later, we somehow found ourselves at the gates of l’Hôtel Le Manoir where we were booked for three nights. What a relief that was, I can tell you!
The hotel was a former convent made of the honey-coloured stone so typical of the region. There was just time for a quick ablution before taking the short walk to a nearby square, still buzzing with life at 11.30.
Aix is a university town, officially part of the Marseille campus and a sought after seat of learning I would imagine. Most of the faculty membership seemed to be wedged into that compact bar lined square that night. Just the one beer for us tonight as tomorrow we would be exploring the famed villages of Provence……..