Italy vs France

As with several pieces I’ve written, this one starts with my friend-from-first-grade Nancy. She said that she and her cousin Kathy had picked Provence as the destination for their 2015 annual hiking trip. I immediately started making a mental list of all the wonderful places they must see, but when I got to Saint-Remy-de-Provence, I suddenly felt a pang of what I will call homesickness.  Twenty years ago, if you had told me I’d be living outside the US for half the year, the country would have been a toss-up between France and Italy, and Saint-Remy would have been my French Orvieto.  I hadn’t been back since 2008, and the chance to meet Nancy and Kathy in Avignon before their hiking started was the perfect excuse to revisit my second most favorite area of the world.

Alan, being much more of a traveller than I am, threw himself into the task of making the drive there as interesting as possible, and armed with actual paper maps (remember them????) and a little help from Google, planned what turned out to be THE most wonderful ride of my life.  When it comes to car travel, I have the Short Attention Span Syndrome, whereby no matter how blindingly beautiful the scenery is, I get bored after a half hour. But the genius in Alan’s route was that the scenery changed every half hour…..and it changed dramatically. We had everything from a mountain pass with snow showers at the highest point, to a dry, lunar-like landscape, to forests starting to show their Fall colors, to rolling farm land, to an off-season ski resort getting ready for the coming crowds, to calm lakes, to a small section of the Grand Canyon of the Verdon River.

The only bad part of the ride was the very uncomfortable half-hour we had trying to hug the side of a frighteningly steep mountain on an incredibly narrow road….parts of which were partially washed out. Alan is a VERY good driver, and even he couldn’t bear to look down. And of course, once you got on the road, there was no getting off. All I will say about that particular half hour is that we definitely were NOT bored.

But the frightening road was our fault for being on it in the first place. The other roads? As soon as we crossed the border from Italy into France, it was a different world. The surfaces were smooth, the road-sides clean, the vegetation neatly trimmed. It was seriously UN-Italian.

That night we stayed in Moustiers-Ste-Marie – an absolutely beautiful little French town. Let me warn you right now…..by the end of this piece, you’re going to be so tired of that phrase: “an absolutely beautiful little French town”, because our whole trip was going from one absolutely beautiful little French town to another absolutely beautiful little French town.

Just as our harrowing mountain ride was the exception to “the most beautiful ride of my life”, so the outskirts of Avignon were the only exception to our “absolutely beautiful little French town” experience. They basically looked like the outskirts of most American towns of that size. But once you get inside the walls, Avignon is lovely – beautifully maintained buildings and tree-line streets everywhere. And as I believe I’ve mentioned before – NO ONE tree-lines like the French.

So we had a great couple of days with Nancy and Kathy. In Avignon itself, we of course went to the Palais des Papes – the palace where the Popes hung out for almost 100 years in the 1300’s.   And then we took them to some of the places they wouldn’t be seeing on their hiking trip. Hiking trips can’t go everywhere, so while they were going to Chateauneuf-du-Pape and a couple of the Luberon towns Peter Mayle made famous in his book “A Year in Provence”, we took them to the Pont-du-Gard (built by the Romans in the first century AD),

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Saint-Remy-de-Provence (as mentioned — my personal favorite town in the area and home of the monastery Saint-Paul de Mausole, where Van Gogh painted many of his most famous works after committing himself following The Ear Incident), and Isle sur-la-Sorgue (an absolutely beautiful little French town with a small river running through it.)

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I guess I needn’t tell you that we ate and drank VERY well.

After they went off hiking, we embarked on our true mission: rose’ wine. Picture my hierarchy of wine like an ice cream sundae. Wine in general would be the ice cream, a crisp, dry rose’ is the chocolate sauce, a Provencal rose’ is the sprinkled nuts, a rose’ from Bandol is the whipped cream, and Domaine Tempier is the cherry on top — my #1 most favorite wine. It’s over my usual wine budget in the US – WHEN you can find it, which is almost never. I considered this the perfect opportunity to go to The Source, which I figured had to be cheaper than in the US, and my goal was to hot-foot it back to Italy with a case or two of Domaine Tempier stowed in the trunk.

I had picked the nearby town of Le Cadiere d’Azur to stay, because it was quite close to the winery. It turned out to be – not surprising – an absolutely beautiful little French town.

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And so we set off to procure my treasured wine. Except that when we entered the winery, there was only a bottle of their Bandol red displayed. And that’s when we learned the cost of having your favorite type of wine become popular: they had sold out of it. This was the first week in October, and Domaine Tempier had NO rose’ left….had not had any since August, in fact. The next available rose’ would be their release in the Spring. And they weren’t the only producer to be sold out. Now I know that there are many, many worse things in this world than having your favorite wine be sold out…..let’s think Syria or Boko Haram……but it was disappointing.

However, we managed to drink and buy some of the “sprinkled nuts” and “whipped cream” level wines, and of course, we got to visit a lot of absolutely beautiful little French towns…..such as Le Beausset – a town we’d never heard of and probably won’t ever see again. We wandered in, searching for lunch, and found the place with red umbrellas in the photo.

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It could not have been a more pleasant and welcoming piazza. This setting was not done for the benefit of tourist, because this is not a tourist town.  It was done for its inhabitants. ALL of the piazze we saw in all the absolutely beautiful little French towns were welcoming. I could not help but compare them to Orvieto’s poor mistreated Piazza della Repubblica:

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I’m showing you last year’s photo of it because – and I know this is hard to believe — it is even less attractive this year. This is a piazza almost all tourists go through in an important “tourist town”. One can only dream of what it might look like in the hands of the French…..