Anybody who knows my (wonderful) wife knows that she loves to plan. Parties, dinners, outfits. If the event is happening 9 months from now, she's been planning for 3. Back when we were dating we had a discussion about our top destinations for travel. We both agreed that a tour of France was the top desired destination, and that travelling there before we had kids would be ideal. Since that day, Hillary was planning our trip to France. When we married, we set up a long term budget plan that allocated money for travelling (among all the other important things too) -- since naturally Hillary had already planned a net cost for the trip. As time progressed we set the general date for Fall of 2014. Hillary's extensive experience in booking travel said that Christmas 2013 would be the right time to start booking flights and rooms for a Fall 2014 trip. So come Christmas we started looking at flights. Turns out that flights and rooms where significantly less expensive for March 2014 than for September 2014, so we decide to change our timeline (a chronic planner's worst nightmare). Hillary went into planning overdrive and setup flights, rooms, dinner reservations, and a general itinerary. Come late February Hillary had the big ideas planned and it was my turn to figure out the logistics. Train schedules, bus fares, rental car agreements. Then came March 18, 2014.
This is the story of our dream vacation.
This is Panda's 2nd trip to France. Our stuffed animal is more well traveled than most humans...
We flew overnight from DC to Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris and made our way to the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse or Train of Great Velocity) station attached to the airport. After finding the right platform and boarding our train (easier said than done when you speak very little of the language and don't know any of the city names), we enjoyed the 3 hour ride through the serene countryside while finishing up plans for our first destination, Avignon. Once at the Avignon TGV station, we found our bus, got off at the right stop, and strolled down Avignon's main road, Rue de la République. At the end of the rue we found the main square, and just off the square our 161 sq. ft. apartment.
The view from our apartment. Just to the right is the main square, just to the left is the Palais des Papes.
We spent the rest of the day wandering around Avignon and getting to know the feel of the town. The next day we set out sight-seeing. Avignon is most famous for being the seat of the Catholic Papacy for much of the 14th Century. The palace in which the 7 successive popes lived, le Palais des Papes, survived the French Revolution by serving as a jail and barracks and is also right off the main square -- in fact, Rue de la République and the main square where built (bulldozing the peasant homes that where there) so that the city might appear more majestic to those visiting the papacy.
Morning sun shines as the golden virgin watches restaurants setup tables in the church's square.
Hillary and golden virgin enjoying a beautiful spring day.
That's some good flying buttress right there.
Avignon is also in a central location within the region of Provence. From here we were able to drive ("Um hunny, what do you think that road sign means?") to other destinations in the region. Provence is steeped in a tumultuous history, frequently being captured, liberated, and recaptured over the past 3 millennia. Parts of Provence feel very French, while others are distinctly Italian, Spanish, Roman, or Gothic. The first place we drove to was Pont du Gard, the highest Roman aquaduct bridge ever built. Constructed in the 1st Century BC, it's also one of the most well preserved.
Nerd alert: Note the ledges and notches built into the design to make scaffolding for maintenance easier.
After Pont du Gard we headed to the city of Arles. At the fall of the Roman Republic and the founding of the Empire, Arles was rewarded greatly for siding with Julius Ceasar during the civil war against Pompey. They were given an ampitheater, arena (which is still used for bull fights today!), aquaducts, and plenty of housing for the booming city. Much of this construction still remains today, in what is now a quiet, quaint town.
What you don't have a 2000 year old arena outside your home?
Panda, held captive in the slaves' quarters, awaits his turn for gladiatorial glory.
Arles was also home to Vincent Van Gogh in 1888 (and is forever home to his left ear) until he committed himself to an asylum in neighboring Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. The city has placards in the sidewalk detailing a walking tour of the city, focusing on sites which Van Gogh is famous for painting.
Follow the yellow bricks to see the sights of the Fou Roux.
Garden of the Hospital in Arles, site of the so named Van Gogh painting.
From Arles, we proceeded to drive into the Camargue, home of over 400 species of bird, an eponymous horse breed, and miles upon miles of shallow lakes and marshland. The Camargue is the delta of the Rhone river into the Mediterranean Sea and at almost 400 sq. miles is the largest river delta in Europe.
Our route through the Camargue didn't actually take us to the Mediterranean Sea, just around the river delta. However, after missing one of the turns on our scenic drive, we found ourselves arriving at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, an idyllic sea town known for it's ancient churches, beautiful coastline, and oh yea, the thousands of Romani gypsies who pilgrim there during the summer. Yes, I said, "sea town." This will be forever known as the time we accidentally drove to the Mediterranean.
Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is a beautiful mixture of Spanish, French, and Italian influences. Quintessential Mediterranean town.
Oops, I knew I should have turned left back there.
We will return shortly (promise!) with Part 2: In Vino Veritas!