In August 2013, Sylvie and I rented a tiny Renault Twingo and zoomed through 1500kms of Provence and the French Riviera. With no fixed agenda and stopping only for cheese and wine, we’d sleep in the car and wake to views of billionaire yachts and the luminous Côte d’Azur.
If you’re thinking of exploring the south of France, then I dedicate this post to you, mon ami.
The nauseating smell of hot plastic made my head spin, and for a moment I literally had no idea what was going on or why I was back in the car. But as the gargantuan globules of rain plonked angrily off the roof, a wet and blurry memory of us sprinting to our rented Renault Twingo played through my mind.
I looked to my right to find Sylvie sprawled out with her legs strategically placed in cubbyholes and drink holders, her pink inflatable pillow perfectly cupping her head like a giant marshmallow. She opened her eyes and smiled as the hilarity of our circumstance set in, before erupting into a fit of giggles. It wasn’t exactly what we’d had in mind when we planned our road-trip-camping-adventure in the south of France. Still, like they say, it’s not an adventure unless you’re miserable.
Jurassic Storms in Avignon
Like a frail old lady, Avignon constantly reminds you of how old it is. A mighty, 800-year-old wall surrounds the city, and the skyline is a puzzle of sand-stoned bell towers and château turrets like you find on the labels of dusty bottles of Bordeaux. A narrow alleyway funneled us in passed men and women wearing Macbeth costumes and smoking strong cigarettes outside of theatre fire exits. But I wasn’t interested in the theatrical festivities that take over Avignon every summer; I wanted to discover its restaurants and street life, the joie de vivre that my hero Keith Floyd talked of with such great affection.
He lived here, you know, in a classic Provençal country home, complete with the region’s traditional butterscotch stonework and sun-bleached-green window shutters. It was here that old Floydy boy, the swashbuckling, bow-tie-wearing cook enjoyed his last few extravagant years. In fact, it was Floyd that first inspired me to explore this region and taught me of its fertile vineyards and seasonal approach to cooking – the herbes de Provence and Côtes du Rhône reds.
Having grown quite attached to our new rental-car-come-home, Sylvie and I decided to take note of our guide book’s recommendation, setting off in cavalier style with a plan to discover the city of Aix en Provence – “the hub of all things Provence”. The motorways swarmed with little Peugeots and Citroens, immaculately kept and loaded up ready for a wonderful week on the French Riviera. If I were French, I wouldn’t leave the country for my holidays either.
Local radio blasting, we reveled in the freedom that the open road and no fixed agenda brings. We sang along in faux-French accents and argued over which places we should see next, Monaco being a consistent source of friction. “It’s just a tourist trap,” I would moan, “what about discovering the peasants’ Provence, the real Riviera?” Nothing could have prepared me for what we would soon discover.
Aix en Provence, the Hub of Provence
Entering Aix en Provence via a tree-lined carriageway, we were greeted with marble facades and apartment blocks with doormen, gold plaques and elegant black lettering. In fact, it took us about ten minutes of walking through the leafy streets and water sprinklers before I saw anything that reflected my vision of what the “hub of Provence” would look like.
A few windy streets later and we were in a lively little market square that was ever so slightly too familiar for a place I had never been to before. An old man with a slick side parting and shiny leather shoes walked slowly and deliberately up and down the market stalls. He walked with his hands firmly clasped behind his back, stopping to pick up giant red peppers, waxy courgettes and muddy bunches of skinny little carrots, squeezing them and sniffing them, like some kind of vegetable sheriff. Sylvie dived in, tasting the artisan breads with olive pastes and crumbly cheese, and again I saw people handling fruit and veg, bouncing it in their hands to feel the weight, sniffing and hunting out the best of the bunch.
It suddenly dawned on me that this was Marché Place Richelme, the market old Floydy boy took me to in one of his ground-breaking cookery shows. He had explained how the French are different from the British, that they aren’t afraid to touch and squeeze and smell the market’s produce. In fact, if they don’t, then they could risk looking like they don’t trust their own judgement. It’s about saving face, being discerning and being selective about what they eat. I love the relationship the French have with what they eat.
It was this very market that Floyd explained was the market of all markets – the blue print for the world’s food markets as we know them today. How could you not be enamored by that? I was in love……and hungry.
We invested in a quiche Loraine and took it in a greasy brown paper bag to a little courtyard. We sat on a doorstep and took in the sights and sounds of a giant water fountain as it shot liquid diamonds into the powder-blue-sky. I tore it into two parts as a waft of old cheese and salty bacon filled my senses and gave me that warm fuzzy feeling you get when you walk into a good bakery. It wasn’t quite the peasants’ Provence I was chasing, but it would certainly do.
Riviera Wild & The Hunt for The Côte d’Azur
As we zoomed down the autoroutes, Sylvie grew increasingly impatient. “I just want to get to the sea already!” We’d seen a picture of the calanques de Cassis, steep cliffs plunging into sheltered coves of intense blue sea. A few songs later and a small fortune in toll fees, and we were there. There’s no mistaking where the Côte d’Azur (the blue coast) gets its name. The light bounces off the ocean and over saturates everything in sight, like a bottle of spilt blue ink over the Mars-red soil and rocks.
We got lucky in Cassis and found a little camping spot surrounded by shoulder-height bushes blossoming with pink and white petals. Cross-legged on our wafer-thin camping mats, we indulged in a feast of cheese, oven-warm bread and giant Provençal tomatoes. I uncorked a bottle of Canredon, a red from the Languedoc region, and we glugged it down out of white plastic cups whilst trying to pick out the different flavours and aromas. It was paradise.
Later, as the sun set over the Riviera we strolled down narrow streets towards the harbour, dodging couples demolishing pots of muscles and seafood pasta dishes on tiny tables in the streets. Bronzed angels in white flowing dresses showed off their jewelry, reluctantly wrapping it up in tiny paper bags and swapping it for money from flocks of passers-by. “This place is magical,” Sylvie whispered as we watched a waiter float majestically toward a table with ten plates of smoking grilled fish balanced in his hands and arms.
This became our daily routine: get up, drive somewhere awesome, buy cheese and wine, find a place to sleep, eat, drink and sleep. One day we had croissants and coffee for breakfast in St. Topez, quiche and ice-cold cans of Amstel for lunch in Cannes, coffee in the pastel streets of Nice, and still managed to make it to Monaco in time for dinner. It was whimsical and glamorous and dirty and delicious.
Purple Haze in the Alpes de Haute Provence
We didn’t want to leave the Riviera. It was an endless utopia and I just wanted to keep exploring and indulging. But the clock was ticking and we were desperate to see the lavender roads before flying back to London.
As soon as you leave the coast the mountains swoop you up into leafy heavens, with dramatic views over the glowing Mediterranean Sea. The only car on the road, we zipped along, stopping at every viewpoint to take photos of the Alps as they stretched out for an eternity in front of us. We stayed at an alpine-fresh campsite in the tiny little Romanesque village of Forcalquier, which I would thoroughly recommend, and another campsite which catered to rock climbers and hardcore campers who looked as if they were staying for the whole summer. And as I packed away our little tent and sat on the ground to enjoy my last café au lait and croissants, I fantasised about selling everything I owned so I could return and do the same. Just la route, la vin et Provence!
Are you planning a trip to the south of France? Interested in Provence and the French Riviera? Please feel free to ask me your travel questions in the comments below, or via Twitter – I’m ALWAYS happy to talk about the south of France!