Spring Break: Cannes, Cinque Terre & Provence

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SPRING BREAK — 

Notes on our trip to Cannes, the Cinque Terre and Provence

March 28, 2007       San Francisco - Dallas - London

I picked up the rental car last night.  Initially I thought we would just take our own car to SFO and leave it in a long-term parking lot.  SFO has a number of private lots that are less expensive than the airport lots, but they still run about $8-9 daily, so the cost after a two week trip would be about $140.  For an early morning flight, it makes sense to stay at a nearby airport hotel - for about $149 they offer overnight accommodation and free parking for up to 2 weeks and have a free early morning shuttle to the airport.  However, with our flight departing just before 11 AM, the deal I found with Budget (using Orbitz), at $37 one-way, made better sense.  For our return trip, we'll be using National - its more expensive from SFO, $72 one-way, including all the extra airport fees, but we'll be getting back close to midnight so the options are limited, and the total round-trip is still less than if we left our car!

Weekday traffic into San Francisco is usually pretty heavy, so I tried to allow plenty of time to get there.  But by the time we dropped off the car and got to the check-in line it was only an hour before flight time - OK by me, but cutting it way too close for Teresa - especially since the line was longer than for a Disneyland ride and moved at a snail's pace! Only one line for all the various destinations - not very efficient!  Of course, being something of a big-mouth, I felt obliged to point out to anyone who would listen that in most airports outside the U.S., each destination has its own line. Fortunately, with the clock ticking, the airline ticket agents finally starting calling out for those passengers whose flights were leaving the soonest, including ours.  So in the end, we made it through security and to the gate just as our flight was beginning to board.  "Not to worry," I exclaimed, "plenty of time to spare," as Teresa shot me a dirty look!      

Fortunately, the flight itself was uneventful.  Teresa, across the aisle from me, befriended her seatmate and engaged in an intense conversation for nearly three hours.  In Dallas we hung around the gate waiting for our overnight connection to London. Although the flight was nearly full, we were fortunate to have an empty seat between us!  The ten hour flight passed relatively quickly as we intermittently dozed and watched movies on our seatbacks!  

March 29, 2007       London - Nice

This was a very long day. We got in at 10 AM, and after collecting our bags, headed straight to the British Airways desk.  Our next flight wasn't scheduled to leave for Nice until 7 PM, so we wanted to change to an earlier departure.

Unfortunately, the only other fligts to Nice were from Heathrow and, being tired, it seemed like too much trouble to try to make our way there.  Gatwick and Heathrow are at the opposite ends of London - to get to Heathrow you have to go in to central London, then head back out.  So we decided to bide our time and try to relax.   

As the day passed, it was a decision we began to regret.  Nine hours later we had explored every shop in the airport.  Then suddenly, as 7 PM drew near, the monitors announced that our flight was delayed!  By the time we got to Nice we were exhausted!  We dragged our bags across the airport parking lot to our hotel, checked-in and promptly collapsed into bed.

March 30, 2007       Nice - Cannes

The Etap hotel by the Nice airport, where we stayed, is part of Accor, a French company that also owns Motel 6 and Red Roof Inn. It's a budget chain with spartan but clean accommodations.  All rooms are the same with one queen and one single bed.  With the Euro now at $1.35 U.S., European travel is becoming prohibitively expensive and France has always been among the most expensive places.  So for those nights where you just need a place to crash, check out Etap online and book ahead (http://www.accorhotels.com/).  The rate for two is about €50, U.S. $68.   

The public bus to the Nice train station was just outside the hotel so after snatching some coffee from a vending machine, we quickly dragged our bags and butts on board and settled in for the short ride.  There's a bus to Cannes, but the trains leave almost every hour and for €10 are quicker and more comfortable. After stopping for directions at the tourist office by the Cannes station, we hopped on another bus and in only a few minutes were at the entrance to the college.  With anxious anticipation we introduced ourselves at the desk and asked for Katie to be paged as she had directed.  No response.  We paged her again.  They called her room.  No answer.  Another fruitless page!   

After hanging out in the main courtyard for about half an hour, we suddenly recognized the sweet sound of our daughter's voice in the distance. Moments later she materialized, then loudly exclaimed "My parents are here!!"  After many hugs and kisses she profusely apologized for not hearing her page, and up we went to see her room. 

What a beautiful location!  It's a small campus, located right by the Mediterranean, with a large slogan out front that proclaims: FRENCH FOR FOREIGNERS.  Katie advised us that the campus used to be a tuberculosis sanitarium before the college bought it, and that its rumored to be haunted!  After a tour of the campus and a quick bite to eat at the student grill, Katie led us back (on foot) to the center of town to show us around.  She led us through narrow streets past quaint shops and bakeries filled with mouth-watering pastries, then past the waterfront to the Palais des Festivals, the convention hall on the Boulevard de la Croisette where the film festival is held each May.  Later, while walking back, we checked out some of the terrific looking restaurants along the beach.  

That evening, Katie took us to a restaurant that she said was popular with her fellow students.  It was a very French version of an Italian restaurant. We figured it must be good because it was packed with people, and in fact, we ended up having a fantastic meal.

March 31, 2007       Cannes - Nice - Genoa - Riomaggiore

After staying overnight in a dorm room at the college, we got an early start and shortly after 10 AM we were en route to Italy.  An extremely large contingent of Italian students completely filled the train and we found our assigned seats taken!  However with some strategic scowling, I was able to quickly evict the interlopers and we got settled in for the three and a half hour ride.   

In Genoa we transferred to the much slower milk run and made our way to the Cinque Terre (C.T.) arriving in Riomaggiore, the southernmost of the five towns, at about 4 PM.  Exiting the station, we stopped at the information desk and bought day passes for the park.  (The towns of the C.T. and surrounding trails have been designated as a national park by the Italian government, so access is tightly controlled and admission passes are needed. You can check it out at http://www.parconazionale5terre.it/. )  A 200 meter tunnel led from the station to the town's main street, which is built on a hillside and extends upward at a 45º angle.  Although the map to our hotel indicated a relatively short walk, about 4K, the road went straight up, so we decided to wait for the bus, getting to the hotel, Il Borgo di Campi (http://www.borgodicampi.it/)at about 6:30 PM.

The hotel consisted of more than a dozen brightly colored bungalow-type buildings overlooking the Mediterranean.  Clinging to the cliffside, they were connected to the main building (at the top) by a series of narrow walkways that zigzagged down a terrace toward the ocean.  After settling in to our suite, we uncorked a bottle of wine and returned to the nearby terrace to admire the stunning view.  The sky had been overcast since our arrival and as dusk approached a light drizzle began to fall.  With darkness eventually surrounding us, we made our way back to the main building and entered the warm interior of the smallish restaurant.  There, with the owner doubling as our waiter, we enjoyed a relaxing meal of fresh bread, salad and pasta.

April 1, 2007       Riomaggiore - Manarola - Corniglia - Vernazza - Monterosso al Mare

We awakened to the drumbeat of heavy rain.  A glance out the window told us we had a problem - we hadn't brought any rain gear, optimistic that we'd find good weather!  Our discussion regarding our planned hike was brief:  Rain or shine we were here and hanging around inside all day was not an option!  We climbed the two hundred steps to the main road to catch the bus and off we went!  Approaching the main entrance to the Sentiero Azzuro (Blue Trail) we were surprised to see plenty of other determined hikers! 

The first part of the trail, Riomaggiore to Manarola, was the easiest.  The trail followed the shoreline several hundred feet above the water, but since it was flat and easy to navigate we got to Manarola in less than 30 minutes.  In Manarola, however, we were dismayed to hear that the next stretch of the trail, to Corniglia, was closed due to a landslide.  "Just take the bus!" we were told by a well-meaning park official.  Katie's response was emphatic: "I didn't come halfway round the world to ride a stinkin' bus!"  There's an alternative, said the official, but its very hard! 

Undeterred, we took the alternative, the high trail #6.  For the first hour, this mostly empty trail led us along a series of switchbacks, steadily rising ever-higher into the surrounding hills.  When we finally arrived in the hill town of Volastra, the rain had stopped but we were sweating heavily from the humidity.  From Volastra we followed the trail horizontally for the next hour and a half with the ocean off in the distance and beneath us.  It was very satisfying to make it to Corniglia, and after resting briefly we returned to the main trail and continued on to Vernazza.   

Approaching Vernazza, the trail became more crowded and our progress began to slow.  By the time the sun came out an hour later, we were feeling fatigued and were quite relieved to finally make it to Vernazza.   

Vernazza was buzzing with activity, much more so than the other towns we had passed through.  We followed the main street down to the waterfront with its striking clock tower, browsing the shops and checking out the offerings of local olive oils, pestos and wines.  An hour later, our legs aching, we all agreed that we'd had enough hiking for the day and caught the train to the last town, Monterosso al Mare, less than a ten minute ride.

The train dropped us right in front of the beach, so we spent the next hour strolling in the sun along the beachfront walkway. Compared to the other towns, Monterosso felt much larger and more touristy.  As it was late in the afternoon, nearly 6 PM, we decided to grab the southbound train back to Riomaggiore, then made our way by bus back to the hotel. 

That evening, we ate dinner in the restaurant of a hotel just down the road from ours.  Although the meal was standard Italian fare - bread, salad, pasta and wine, what was amusing was being served by the elderly Italian gentleman who kept wandering off and forgetting to tell his elderly wife, the chef, what we ordered!  She finally got annoyed and came out of the kitchen to our table to check out these erratic Americans! 

April 2, 2007       Riomaggiore - La Spezia - Genoa - Nice

Because getting to Riomaggiore on the slow train from Genoa had taken so long, we decided to take an alternate route back via the nearby town of La Spezia.  Our host informed us that from the stop near our hotel, the bus to La Spezia would only be a short jaunt, perhaps 30 minutes.  As promised, the bus materialized and we hopped on board.  Wanting to be sure we were heading in the right direction, I asked the young Italian driver if his bus stopped at the La Spezia train station.  At first he seemed to be ignoring me, then he finally turned toward me, scowled, and sharply exclaimed "You are in Italy - you must speak Italian!"  And with that, he turned away and we drove off! 

As the bus headed into the hills along the twisting and turning road I stood at the front of the bus for several minutes, wondering how to pay the fare and how much it was.  It was clear that the driver was in no mood to be helpful.  Teresa finally leaned over to me and whispered, "Don't worry, he's not going to let us get by without paying.  Just wait."  So I finally sat down near the front.   

A few minutes went by, and suddenly I realized I was breaking out in a sweat and starting to feel nauseous. Oh my God!  I was getting motion sickness!  How much further was it, I frantically thought.  I tried to breath deeply and catch some fresh air out the window, but within moments I could feel the telltale signs of hyper-ventilation and my hands and feet began to tingle!  It was at this precise moment that the driver decided to turn toward me and demand the fare!  I stood and quickly tossed a handful of coins into the little dish and he grabbed what he needed, saying in broken English, "I tell you when we at train station." 

I slipped back into my seat, and as I willed myself not to throw up, I heard Katie say to Teresa "I think Dad's getting sick!"  One glance at my gray-green pallor and she knew it was true, and began to rummage through her backpack for a bag.  The handful of Italian grandmas sitting at the back of the bus began to twitter excitedly, and I could hear their whispers... mal, mal, mal!  How embarrassing!     Just when it seemed I could no longer hold on, the bus ground to a halt and the driver proclaimed "Train station here!"  I quickly rose, staggered out to the sidewalk and hunched over a bench, trying to stop the swirling sensation.  After a few minutes my head began to clear and we followed the signs directing us to the station.  Once there, we bought our tickets, and in short order we boarded the express train for Genoa.   

The remainder of the trip was uneventful.  We arrived in Nice at about 5 PM and checked into the Little Palace, a quiet, well-kept hotel (http://www.interhotelnice.com/) only three blocks from the train station and less than a half mile from the Promenade des Anglais.  After settling in, we walked down to the beach and strolled along the promenade, checking out the fancy shops and restaurants.  Later that evening we bought some cheese and crackers and wine to take back to the hotel, then we called it a night. 

April 3, 2007       Nice - Rousillon

We picked up our car at the rental kiosk by the train station, carefully studied the road map provided to us, then wasted no time in hitting the road.  Within minutes we had sped by the airport and seemed to be on our way!  Suddenly we hit our first ronde-point!  A ronde-point is the French version of the roundabout, or rotary as they are called in New England.  Coming off the ronde-point the scenery began to look very familiar and we became nervous -  were we heading back into Nice??  

Katie studied the map carefully and quickly decided that she wasn't sure.  Spotting a gas station/convenience store, we pulled over and Katie smoothly asked the clerk for directions. (In French - I was so proud of her!)  When she assured us we were going the right way we resumed our journey.  Once again, uncertainty began to gnaw at us, and once again, we pulled over.  This time it was small cottage with a large sign in front marked Touriste.  After a very intense discussion with an extremely pleasant but only marginally helpful woman, we determined that we were in fact, still heading the right way.  We got back on the road, route N202, then we drove... and drove... and drove.   

We passed by several small towns that had been marked for us on the map, Puget-Thenièrs, then Entrevaux.  Meanwhile, the sky began to cloud over then grew ominously dark, and soon we found ourselves peering at the road through blowing sheets of rain! Yikes! 

Driving through the downpour we spotted a sign pointing to Digne-les-Bains and felt reassured that we were still on track.  When we passed the town of Barrême, we switched to route N85, and as the clouds lifted, we spotted the town in the distance. 

Entering Digne-les-Bains we collectively congratulated ourselves for figuring it all out!  Then we hit a ronde-point.  And then another!  Moments later we were completely confused and turned around!  Luckily, at that precise moment, a tourist information kiosk materialized before us and we ground to a halt right in front of it!  

No problem we were told!  Just take THAT road over there!  Go past Mallemoisson, then follow the signs to Manosque, Forcalquier, Apt, Les Chêne, and VOILA!! - You are in Rousillon!  

And it worked!  At 4:30 PM, we were in the heart of Rousillon parked in front of another tourist information kiosk. A single telephone call later and we were on our way to meet Claire Chemery, owner and hostess of Poterie de Pierroux, a unique combination of bed and breakfast and pottery studio. (You can check out her website at http://www.pierroux.fr/index.html.  Its pretty cool!)   

The apartment she provided us was quintessential Provence, right down to the exposed ceiling beams, vibrant throw rugs covering a tile floor, and curtains of colorful multihued fabrics.  And after inviting us to share several glasses of wine in her traditional Provençal kitchen, she was also kind enough to show us the pottery studio, where her husband Alain Briffa, gave us a demonstration of his amazing artistry!  

Later that evening Claire gave us directions to a nearby restaurant, just a short walk away.  But when we got there it appeared so non-descript we weren't sure if we had found the right place.  And when we entered, we found the proprietor and his family seated around a table apparently just finishing their own dinner!  We felt like we had barged into someone's home!  However the proprietor quickly rose and politely greeted us, then accompanied us to an anteroom while his family finished their meal.  There he spoke with us at length.  It was a fascinating conversation during which we found ourselves comparing our life in America with his life in Provence.  When he finally returned us to the dining area we found ourselves admiring a magnificent wood-paneled room with a vaulted ceiling and a spectacular rustic stone fireplace.  

The meal itself was served leisurely in several courses: an appetizer first, then a salad, the main course, and finally the dessert.  It was our first authentic Provençal meal and it was exactly as we had imagined it would be!  The presentation was perfect and the meal was served unhurried without regard to time.  It was a genuinely relaxing experience. 

April 4, 2007       Rousillon - Gordes - L'Isle sur La Sorgue  

We joined Claire and the other guests for breakfast in the solarium attached to the kitchen of the main house. In addition to coffee and baguettes there was fresh fruit, granola cereal and local preserves.  After returning to our room, we reviewed our plans for the day.  With such nice accommodations it made sense to stay put for another night, so we decided to stay in the vicinity and tour Rousillon as well as some of the surrounding towns.   

Our first stop was the center of Rousillon.  We quickly discovered that Rousillon is an artist's enclave well-known for its ceramics and painting, as well as a destination for art students who take classes at the local conservatory.  The area is also famous for the ochre pigments in the local soil that were a popular post-war export for many years.  Apparently the town entered a period of decline during the early 1960's as the demand for ochre declined, but was then revitalized in the seventies and eighties as it developed into a gathering place for local artisans. 

All of the buildings and many if the streets in Rousillon contain ochre.  Its a reddish-brown pigment that dominates the town - its everywhere!  (Its hard to describe so check out the photos.)  We wandered through numerous shops, many of which were attached to artists' studios in the rear.  By noon, we were ready to move on, so we hopped into the car and made our way to Gordes.  Gordes is a fortress-like town that is perched on a hillside, and as you draw nearer it eventually dominates the horizon.  In contrast to Rousillon, all of the streets and buildings in Gordes were composed of a greyish-white stone - very different!  From, Gordes we made our way to L'Isle sur La Sorgue.  The name literally means the island on the Sorgue River.  The center of the town sits atop a network of canals, some hidden and some clearly visible.  Its somewhat reminiscent of Amsterdam or perhaps Venice to a lesser degree.  The most conspicuous feature, however, are the waterwheels. They date back several centuries and were used at one time to power local industry. I don't know how many there are, but in wandering the town you can't miss them - they're quite cool! 

We returned to Rousillon in late afternoon.  Claire had gone to nearby Apt to run some errands, so we sought Alain's advice on where to eat.  Ah, he exclaimed, La Petit Ecole!  The Little Schoolhouse!  Yes, it was once a school, he explained, but now it is an excellent restaurant.  He called to make a reservation for us.  It was, in fact, very small, with seating for perhaps twenty or so, and the décor included various teaching-related items that referenced its history.  Once again, we enjoyed an elaborate meal consisting of several courses served in relaxing and intimate setting.

April 5, 2007       Rousillon - Vaison La Romaine 

After breakfast we bade farewell to Claire and hit the road for Vaison la Romaine.  This town is in the heart of the northern wine region adjacent to Mont Ventoux.  In his Provence guide, Rick Steves describes a driving tour through the wine country with stops in towns such as Seguret, Gigondas, Crestet and several others.   

By the time we got to Vaison it was early afternoon and the local tourist office was closed for lunch.  We wandered around the area nearby then settled on a small outdoor restaurant for a light lunch.  When we returned, they provided a catalog of local B&B's then called for us to check availability.  Yes, she had a room available, the owner confirmed.  How many of us were there, and were there any children?  Katie took the phone and explained that "Oui, we are a couple with a child but I am the child!"  We all had a good laugh over this!   

The directions were a little tricky and we went back and forth several times down the same road until we found the obscure turnoff and eventually came across a somewhat isolated but striking home on several acres with a spectacular view of the valley. As it was getting later in the day, we unloaded our bags, checked the map, then set off in the direction of the Route des Vins, the Wine Road.  

Our first stop, the town of Séguret, was very quiet - in fact we wondered if any of the wineries were even open.  With Good Friday being tomorrow perhaps the locals had all closed up shop and were busy preparing for Easter!  However, a small sign pointed to the Domaine de Mourchon winery, so we followed the winding road to a small parking lot.  

When we entered the smallish, recently constructed building, we were met by an older gray-haired gentleman who, much to our surprise, immediately greeted us in English!   

"You speak English!" exclaimed Teresa.   

"Of course I speak English," he said, "I'm from Scotland!"

As there were no other visitors, he chatted us up and immediately began to explain the operations of the winery.  When Teresa asked if he was the winemaker, he replied "Oh no, I'm just the apprentice!" 

It wasn't until he led us down a winding steel staircase to see the underground fermentation chambers that it dawned on us that he wasn't just the apprentice -  he was actually Walter McKinlay, the owner!  As he showed us around, he explained that he had set up the operation as a family business after buying the vineyards only nine years ago.  And he was particularly proud that his wine had achieved national recognition after less than a decade of production!  

Walter explained in great detail the wine-making process and also described the astonishingly intrusive French bureaucracy that dictates to the wineries what grapes they can grow and which wines they can produce, as well as the sophisticated marketing process he has undertaken to promote his wines in the U.S.  At the end of the tour he provided tastings of his favorite wines, and of course we purchased several bottles. (You can check out his website at  http://www.domainedemourchon.com/

After leaving Domaine de Mourchon, we drove several miles to the nearby Domaine des Girasols, a winery that was mentioned by name in Rick Steves' guide.   We sampled several of that winery's recent vintages and chatted with Françoise, daughter of the owner.  I asked her about Rick Steves and she told us that although his tour groups come by regularly she hadn't seen him in person for quite awhile. 

It was getting late in the day and we were getting hungry, so we returned to Vaison.  The restaurants were not yet open so we strolled by the Roman ruins that are located right by the town's center.  We had a late dinner at Le Tournesol, another Rick Steves' recommendation, then called it a day and headed back to our B&B.     

April 6, 2007       Vaison La Romaine - Carpentras - Avignon

We had been waiting all week for the Carpentras market which is supposed to be one of the largest and well-known in the area, so we tried to hustle today.  We had a pleasant breakfast out on the deck of our host's home overlooking the valley, then piled our stuff into our car and hit the road for Carpentras.  We had been told that the market started early and would wrap up by noon, so when we arrived by 10:45 AM we were not really surprised by the throng of shoppers some of whom were already heading off toting bags full of goodies.  We passed through a portal in the stone wall that surrounds the old part of town and found ourselves in a dense crowd of shoppers and vendors lining the maze-like streets.  Teresa's attention was captured by one merchant in particular who was operating a large rotisserie on which he was roasting poultry and vegetables - the scent of barbeque and spices was enticing!  It was incredibly greasy but looked delicious -  Teresa was going to buy a whole chicken to share later for a picnic lunch but decided to hold off until we were done shopping.  We followed the stalls up and down the winding streets, admiring tantalizing baked goods, fresh-picked fruits and an assortment of local crafts and clothing.  We passed by an older, somewhat wizened gentleman dressed in rural garb as he handed out pungent slivers of cheese sliced from a giant wheel of the stuff!  

An hour later, as the market was winding down, we returned to the rotisserie to find that the chickens were all gone and the vendor was busy packing up!  Alas - no roasted chicken for lunch - we were crestfallen!  We returned to our car and after studying our map, maneuvered our way to the main road and headed for Avignon. 

As we approached Avignon, the traffic became quite heavy, and we found ourselves in a traffic jam as we entered the city. We had thought that it might be quiet with Easter weekend approaching but we were obviously mistaken.  We circled around then drove through the old walled part of the city looking for the tourist information.  We needed a place to stay and hoped they could help us out.  Instead, they referred us to a list of hotels marked on a whiteboard and told us to call them ourselves.  But without a cell phone we couldn't do much. 

After arguing among ourselves over what to do for a place to stay, we stopped at an Étap hotel by the train station and Teresa and Katie went in to ask for help.  A young man, obviously quite busy, was behind the desk checking in customers.  Although he had no rooms, he quickly pulled out a phone book and began to call various other hotels in the area to search for a room for us!  After about twenty minutes, he located a small hotel on the other side of the river from the old city in the suburb of Les Anglais and reserved a room for us.  Armed with his directions, we quickly made our way to Le Petit Manoir, a smallish but charming hotel in a somewhat pastoral setting where we were provided a room with a patio that overlooked a swimming pool surrounding by fruit trees in full blossom!  So we uncorked a bottle of red wine, pulled out some of the cheese we had bought in Carpentras, and spent a couple of hours outside in the late afternoon sun - drinking, snacking and relaxing.  

As the sun was setting, we took a walk around the neighborhood to find a place for dinner.  No luck.  So we hopped in the car and as we drove back toward town we suddenly spotted a somewhat empty but quaint Italian restaurant near the river.  An older gentleman (who bore a remarkable resemblance to Tommy Lee Jones) greeted and seated us, and as we were ordering Teresa commented that he spoke excellent English without a French accent!  "Of course," he replied, "that's because I'm Italian!"  Pleased by her astute observation, he then provided each of us a complimentary aperitif with our dinner, and smiled broadly when Katie responded with Gratzie rather than Merci!     

April 7, 2007       Avignon 

I'm sure there are many sites well worth seeing in Avignon, but more than anything this city is known for the Palace of Popes.  The palace is clearly a huge tourist attraction and it has its own massive underground parking garage that you enter (by car) through the Porte du Rocher.  There is an interior stairwell that leads up several flights of stairs following which you emerge into an expansive square that is in front of the palace.

It was during the fourteenth century that Avignon displaced Rome as the seat of the Catholic Church, and this shift eventually led to a schism within the church that resulted in two competing popes, one here and one in Rome.  Over the course of the hundred-odd years the Pope resided in Avignon, a massive structure was constructed incrementally to house the Pope's well-populated administration.   

We determined that the best way to tour the palace was to rent the audiodisc player offered at the entrance, and to simply follow the numerical sequences as posted throughout the buildings.  The narrative was quite interesting although the interior of the palace has virtually nothing preserved that is of historical interest - what little interior décor that exists is simply a reconstruction based on (questionable) historical descriptions. 

We spent about two hours wandering the palace, then exited and pulled out our Rick Steves' Provence guide and tried to follow a couple of his numbered walking tours through the heart of the old city.  Using the guide we identified several landmarks, none of which seemed especially impressive.  And because it was mid-Saturday afternoon (and the day before Easter) many places of potential interest to us were closed for the day, including Les Halles, the multi-level concrete behemoth built in the 1970's that serves as the local marketplace. 

So we decided to call it a day and returned to our hotel where we again spent several hours enjoying our local wine purchases and relaxing out on the patio.  Later in the evening we returned to the city for dinner.  Unfortunately the restaurant we chose, although packed with people and having a very interesting menu, turned out to be quite disappointing.  The food was mediocre and for the first time we felt like we were rushed through our meal. 

April 8, 2007       Avignon - Arles - Aix-en-Provence 

Today was Easter Sunday and as soon as we were all awake, Teresa presented an Easter basket to Katie just as she always does at home.  Since her favorite Easter candy is Reese's peanut butter eggs, Katie's first comment was something along the lines of "Well I guess I won't be getting Reese's peanut butter eggs in my basket this year!"  She then proceeded to pull the basket apart and her eyes widened as the first items she withdrew were a handful of Reese's peanut butter eggs.  "Where did you get these?" she exclaimed.  "I brought them from home!" Teresa replied with a huge smile.   

Later in the morning we hit the road for Arles.  Originally we had not planned to spend much time here figuring that there wouldn't be much to do or see on Easter Sunday.  Knowing that our time was running out we wanted to have a quick look around then drive down to the Camargue, a salt-water marsh that forms the delta of the Rhone River where it flows into the Mediterranean. 

When we arrived in Arles we were surprised to find the center of the town packed with parked cars.  They were everywhere - along the main streets, the side streets and even jammed into alleyways.  And yet there seemed to be only a handful of people.  Since they were all moving in the same direction we followed them, coming across a carousel that provided our first clue that there was something unusual going on.  Walking a little further, the street suddenly opened into a large open square filled with what looked to be the entire populace, and a huge structure resembling Rome's Coliseum as the backdrop.  Large banners adorned this weathered building and touted the Féria de Pâques, an Arles festival that annually marks the start of the bullfighting season!  With the ticket-waving citizenry surging toward the arched entrances we deduced that a show was about to begin. 

This being Easter Sunday, we were truly amazed at the abundance of open shops and stalls, all filled with some of the most unusual merchandise we had yet seen.  (To see what I mean, check out the bird-shaped pottery on the photo page.)  We wandered until we eventually stumbled across the Place du Forum which was crammed with tent-covered enclosures and ringed with huge vats of simmering food, and waiters serving massive quantities of golden saffron mussel and chicken paella to hordes of apparently ravenous festival-goers.  Not able to resist the prospect of mounds of food stacked so high, we shoved our way through the crowd until we finally secured three seats under a congested tent.  We weren't disappointed!  After waiting patiently for several minutes, three mouth-watering platters of paella materialized before us and we all dug in! 

After letting our meal digest, we got moving and immediately spotted another large crowd lining the street for a parade (at least that's what we thought).  Moving closer to check it out, we were startled by a sudden ruckus, then suddenly several very large bulls came charging down the street chased by a bunch of runners!  Shades of Pamplona!  It was the running of the bulls - the local version!  Except instead of the bulls chasing the runners, the runners were chasing the bulls!  (Less dangerous I guess!) 

Escaping the crowd, we wandered down to the river where we sat on the levy and took in the scenery.  It was late in the afternoon when we returned to the car and made our way to Aix-en-Provence for our last night together.   

April 9, 2007      Aix-en-Provence - Cannes - Nice

We packed our bags carefully this morning for the journey home, California for Teresa and I, Cannes for Katie.  Since Easter Monday is a French holiday we anticipated a quiet day, figuring that we would hit the A8 Autoroute by mid-afternoon and speed back to Cannes for a pleasant farewell dinner before heading off to the Nice airport. 

After checking out of our hotel we drove into the center of Aix-en-Provence to have a look around.  Aix is primarily an upscale college town with a broad boulevard, the Cours Mirabeau, running through the center.  We parked along Rue Victor Hugo, not far from the landmark Rotunde fountain, then made our way up the Cours Mirabeau. 

Following our Rick Steves' guide we first strolled through the Mazarin Quarter, an old and not very impressive residential neighborhood to the south, then crossed over into the old town to the north.  We visited the open-air market at Place Richelme where Teresa bought a jar of lavender honey and a liter of local olive oil, then stopped at a hole-in-the-wall kebab shop and grabbed a quick bite to eat.   

On returning to the car, Teresa first noticed her jacket laying on the road next to the passenger door - very odd!  Moments later I spotted the smashed window on the driver's side!  We popped the trunk then stared in disbelief at the empty compartment!  Everything was gone!  We were stunned!!  We had been robbed in broad daylight right on the town's main thoroughfare!!  How brazen was that?  

We stood there in a daze trying to gather our thoughts.  What should we do?  Where should we start?  The police.  We had to call the police!   

While Teresa stayed by the car, Katie and I briskly walked over to the tourist information office by the Rotunde fountain that we had passed earlier.  When we explained what had happened, the sympathetic young woman on duty insisted that we proceed to the local police station to file a report, providing us with directions.  We returned to the car and quickly found the station, however the officer on duty informed us that we must report the theft to the National Police and provided additional directions. 

We were feeling overwhelmed as we entered the imposing National Police building.  Katie briefly explained our predicament to the uniformed officer on duty (in fluent French, of course) and we were advised to take a seat.  Eventually we were greeted by a younger plainclothes officer who, after guiding us to his office, listened carefully to our story.  He gathered the sordid details then efficiently prepared and printed a report on his computer and advised us that we would be contacted if anything was recovered, however unlikely.  We thanked him and left feeling dejected.   

It was late in the day.  We found the Autoroute and headed in the direction of Nice and Cannes.  Teresa and Katie passed some time by making a list of everything they could think of that had been stolen, but I had only a faint hope that our insurance might cover it.  When we arrived back at the college it was after 9 PM - too late to have our planned farewell dinner.  We promised Katie that we would put funds into her bank account as soon as we got home so that she could start replacing her lost stuff.  Then we said our tearful goodbyes and made our way to the airport in Nice. 

We dropped the car off at Budget along with a copy of the police report, then walked over to the nearby Étap hotel and checked in.  Since there wasn't much to do and we weren't ready for bed, we wandered over to the bar in the hotel next door and drowned our sorrows with a bottle of (very nice) red wine!  (What else?  We were still in France!)   

We knew tomorrow would be a tough day.            

April 10, 2007     Nice - London - San Francisco 

We were up early after a restless night.  We carefully packed our single small blue carry-on suitcase - we had left it in Katie's dorm room - with our few remaining possessions: two bottles of Domain de Mourchon, Cotes Du Rhône Villages Seguret; one bottle of Domaine de Girasols Vielles Vignes, Cotes Du Rhône Villages Rasteau; one liter of Chateau Virant Huile D'Olive D'Aix-en-Provence; one small jar of Miel de Lavande (lavender honey) purchased at the outdoor market in Aix-en-Provence; four small canvas pouches labeled Herbes de Provence; one small container of Sel de Mer (sea salt) from the Camargue; AND as an added bonus:  one cheap bottle of G. Landrillat Cotes Du Rhône (Vaucluse) for which we had paid three Euro and had fully intended to consume before leaving France. We also carried with us two colorful tablecloths that Teresa had bought at the Saturday market in Carpentras.  

We walked over to the terminal check-in where Teresa relayed our sad tale to the agent as explanation for our lack of luggage. (It was the first of many tellings that day.)  However, since our carry-on contained liquids prohibited by security, we had to check it.  We boarded empty-handed and Teresa joked that if the baggage handlers weren't careful, the airline would end up with a mess of salad dressing in the hold!  On take-off she stared out the airplane window transfixed as we first flew over the Alps and then above the French countryside toward England.

Arriving in London we had to go through security again, explaining once more why we had no luggage.  Fortunately the layover was short, a little more than an hour, and soon we were enroute back to the U.S.  Arriving in Dallas several hours later, we explained to security, again, why we had no bags! 

When we finally arrived in San Francisco it was almost midnight, and we had been traveling for nearly 24 hours.  After picking up a rental car we quickly hit the road, and two hours later, exhausted, we collapsed into bed!

April 22, 2007     AFTERWORD

posted by Teresa

THE TIME WE MET A HANDSOME FRENCH POLICEMAN

The blue suitcase was like a Barbie suitcase that little girls take to slumber parties!  There was pretty much a salad dressing in it -- wine, herbs of Provence, honey and some olive oil, all protected with a donated pillow and blanket from American Airlines.  I was going to return them on the way home BUT.....in the interest of getting the salad dressing home intact I decided AA would want to donate them.  Scott dragging the "Barbie" bag and me combing my hair with a plastic fork just like Ariel (the Little Mermaid), made for quite the spectacle.  We were asked at EVERY airline counter "Where's your stuff?." After delivering the story we were both promptly frisked EVERY time.

The trip was wonderful!  Losing our stuff was too bad but it by no means defined the trip. This adventure was about hiking on a terraced mountain overlooking the Mediterranean sea.  It was about having the opportunity to observe what a competent young woman our daughter has become.  (Its remarkable that she is ours!)  

Eating Provence:  the bread, the wine, did I mention the bread?  It was all terrific and it would be a shame to remember it as the time we got ripped off in France.  Instead, we will remember it as the time we met a very handsome French policeman!

It was an excellent adventure.