Plaisirs de France – en Anglais

It was late spring, or perhaps early summer – at least between the dawn of summer and the time when animals and humans finally adapt to the new era – that I saw the alluring offer on Spot Deal: a week at a small family run hotel in southern France with the name Villa Mon Amour en Provence

Honestly – where else is one to take one’s beloved on a wedding anniversary trip than to the hotel Villa Mon Amour en Provence? Where van Gogh’s Arles and Avignon and Cézanne’s Aix-en-Provence – as well as Pont du Gard, Uzès and the Camargue, with its white horses and the dead city, Aigues-Mortes – are within easy reach. Not to mention vineyards and outlets, olive fields and olive oil outlets, French food and sunshine and lovely landscapes.

So with that accommodation booked, the stay prepaid and the dates in place, it was only necessary to decide the itinerary and the overnight accommodation along the way.

The driving distance is 1500 km, doable over two days for one driver and passenger – which meant accommodation in the Strasbourg/Freiburg area in both directions. A small apartment in the spa town of Baden-Baden was chosen and the two nights in question prepaid.

Almost automatically, the route used the Rødby-Puttgarten ferry, the Autobahn A1 to Hamburg, the Autobahn A7 continuing via Hannover and Kassel and then the Autobahn A5 towards Baden-Baden and the German-French border near Müllheim and Mulhouse. The departure day was Saturday.

Drivers experienced in Germany immediately warn of Autobahnstaub between Hamburg and Hannover, due to longer road works, on Saturdays as well, but Google gave 8.75 hours for the trip including the ferry and delays, which seemed OK.

I would not claim that the trip was not hassle-free, but there were no accidents.

Thus, Alexej, the host of our first (and last) overnight stay, in Baden-Baden, sent a text message late Thursday night – 30 hours before departure – about plumbing problems and that he had to cancel our first overnight stay.

He suggested somewhere else and would refund our prepayment. On Friday morning, before I’d booked the ‘new’ place, Alexej said that it was fully booked. He suggested another new place that we contacted and got confirmation from shortly after.

Later, Alexej said that his bank had trouble sending the money back – it was probably the strange Danish letters in the street agddress, so the address was changed to an alphabet that also IT programs developed by American programmers without language skills can understand; the money has come back.

Unfortunately, the drivers experienced in German traffic were right in their warnings. At one point there was one car length forwards for every 5-10 minutes over a longer stretch. Lunch time disappeared at Münster, and when we reached the designated place for lunch, the delay was over three hours.

I had told Artur, the new host in Baden-Baden, that we expected to arrive at 6 to 6.30 p.m. But after the highway delays, there were a few other things that meant we first arrived at 10 p.m. The apartment was on a side road to a pedestrian street in the old town, and there is no parking there. Not that my GPS could direct us there as the access road required codes for the moving bollards blocking the road.

Finally we found a parking garage for a large department store a la Harrods – fortunately within walking distance.

We found the apartment, took the keys out of the coded locker – but we couldn’t open the door. We called Artur. “Everyone can do that,” he asserted. We are not everyone. He came and unlocked the door for us and showed us what to do.

Fortunately, we had not eaten our packed lunch, which was in a refrigerator in the car, so it was our dinner.

By 8 the following morning we were ready for departure. Down the stairs, through the main door, lock it and hang the keys in the locker. Five steps down the street towards the pedestrian street … “My wallet is up in the apartment!”

In addition to money, credit cards and passports, my wallet contained the parking ticket, so we had a problem.

Take the keys out of the locker, put them in the doorlock and – problems.

There was nothing to do but try (unsuccessfully) over and over again, and call Artur, who was asleep. He came to us within half an hour, a little angry, but opened the door. Finally, with the wallet in my pocket, we could walk to the parking garage and drive out of town.

We saw this shop window at the end of the road we lived on, shook our heads, and said, ”Non! Nous sommes pas jolie!

On Sunday I had expected to drive on the Autoroute A36 to Beaune, and from there with the A6 to Lyon, and the A7 to Orange. But no, the GPS wanted the A36 and the A42 to the south of Lyon, through traffic on péripherique sud to the A7 and then to Orange.

A small stretch of the A9 – La Languedocienne – brought us to the exit for Saint-Laurent-des-Arbres (which is actually in the Gard département, adjacent to but not in Provence), where Hotel Mon Amour de Provence is located in the town centre. A seven hour drive including lunch break.

Received from our hostess, our room key set also had the key to the main gate – but, having collected our luggage from the car we could not get the lock work several times and needed help to get from inside.

Behind the gate is a small paved courtyard with a staircase up to the first floor with five rooms, as well as hallways and living areas. Our room had a double bed, a large wardrobe, table, chairs and an ample bathroom. From the two windows there was a view over the inner courtyard and its swimming pool – maybe 5 meters wide and 15 meters long – and sunbeds and chairs.

On the bedside table was a card with instructions/exhortations on the use of the pool. Especially point three is important.

During Sunday, Alexej had sent a new text message that the plumbing problems meant that we could not stay with him on the return trip either, so Sunday evening was used to find another new accommodation option. One place fell to our liking, a Landgasthotel just outside Baden-Baden’s city centre. No problems.

Sunday night we ate at the hotel – where Christine made finer French peasant food (one evening it was a delicious beuf bourgignon), three courses, for € 25 each guest (similar to restaurant prices in France), plus any wine (you buy a bottle that lasts as long as it lasts). The dining table had seating for 10 people for communal dining, but we were alone.

Here it is worth mentioning that Christine is Française and mother of Nicolas, who owns the hotel and otherwise runs a restaurant in Skindergade in Copenhagen’s city centre (the rooms do not have numbers, but are named after various children and grandchildren – ours was called Manon). As we were a little tired after the trip, we went up to the room and read.

During the evening there was some noise and the next day someone took an early trip in the pool. It turned out that Nicolas and a friend had passed by before returning to Denmark.

We enjoyed the breakfast – bread, cheese, marmelade, muesli, coffee, but not wine – at the communal table before deciding to look at the town of Saint-Laurent-des-Arbres.

When you, like us, live in a small Danish town with about 6,000 inhabitants and a pretty lively daily life (Præstø), you realise that a town with 3,000 inhabitants has not so much to offer. A tower, the remains of the city wall, a Romanesque church, and narrow streets and barred alleys with more or less charming houses, a tabac, a real estate agent (the properties are not cheap) and the three restaurants we found (all closed: the season was over) constituted the rapidly overlooked, hard core of the town. Just as well you have the scenery, the wine and the time while the temperature sneaks up into the high 20s.

Well – when were we going to Avignon, Arles, Pont du Gard, the wineries?

On Tuesday we went to a wine outlet at Tavel (best known for rosé wines) on our way to Avignon. Tavel is not far from Saint-Laurent-des-Arbres and the outlet is on the outskirts of the village and is partly surrounded by vineyards.

With the help of a lady (one of the best who said they only spoke a little English – “un peu“) who obviously knew more than enough about wine, we got to taste four different wines – and was told that the taste difference is mostly due to the terroir, e.g. sandy or rocky soil and the various varieties of grapes (outside the outlet were 5-6 beds with different types of soil and grapes to look at).

We chose a box of biodynamic rosé (grown without artificial fertilizers) and a box of mixed rosé wines. The price for the most expensive was € 9 (DKK 70-75) per bottle, probably at least DKK 100 or more cheaper than in Denmark, if you can find them in a store here.

And no – I did not drink the wine during the tasting (you spit it out into a little sink) and thus could drive on. (You’re supposed to have two breathalysers in the car, and use them if in doubt…)

Before Avignon there is a town called Villeneuve-lez-Avignon (it is also called Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, but the one with ‘z’ is odd), where we stopped for a little late lunch.

The town is known for Fort Saint-André on a hill outside the city; the tower of Tour Philippe Le Bel, on the river toward Avignon, and the Church of Notre Dame, the last two from the 13th century, as well as the Notre-Dame-du-val-de-Bénédiction monastery.

In the central square we found an restaurant, Aubergine, where one of the owners is from the small and delightful Danish island of Ærø. She and her husband have owned Aubergine for 10-11 years. The food is highly recommended.

One afternoon is not enough for Avignon if you want to see the Pope’s Palace and Pont St-Bénézet (“Sur le pont d ‘Avignon….”), as well as everything else.

It’s easiest is to park (free) on the Villeneuve-lez-Avignon side of Pont Édouard Daladier and walk across the bridge and into Place Crillon, just inside the city wall, where everything is within easy reach (there is also a bus from the parking lot). Otherwise, it costs to park…

The Pope’s Palace is an expensive and well-visited attraction and access to the famous bridge is not free.

In the Pope’s Palace there was a strong and moving exhibition of French artist Ernest Pignon-Ernest’s pictures under the title ECCE HOMO. His works illustrate, among other things, the condition of the poor and immigrants in France and the condition of the blacks in South Africa during and because of apartheid.

He is also known for using classic motifs in contemporary reproductions, such as in 2015 for using Michelangelo’s statue Pietà as a model to celebrate (?) the 40th anniversary of the death of Italian writer, philosopher and film director Pier Paolo Pasolini; in Ernest Pignon-Ernest’s version Pasolini bears the perished Pasolini. On the morning of November 2, 1975, Pasolini was found killed on the beach at Ostia.

The Les Halles marketplace in Avignon (signposted) is free to visit, the selection of (fresh) goods far exceeds that in the similar market in Copenhagen (which is also physically smaller), and the prices are quite inviting…

We visited Avignon again a few days later. in connection with a trip to the mountain village of les Baux de Provence. Here, French geologist Pierre Berthier discovered an intriguing material in 1821, named bauxite.

Near the village lies the Carrières de Lumières, a quarry from which large white stones were carved for use in construction; the quarry is today transformed into a place with son et lumière events – the day we were there works by Vincent van Gogh as well as some older Chinese artists were projected on rock walls, ceilings, floors and the crowd, while good classical music was played. In previous months, it was Chagall and Picasso.

Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gaugin shared a studio in northern Arles – a small yellow house on Place Lamartine – for 63 days in the autumn of 1888. It was during this stay that the so-called drama in Arles took place – it was the culmination of a quarrel between the two painters and led van Gogh to cut off one ear and send it to a prostitute whom the two artists had visited.

We did not find that house, but we found the more central La Fondation Vincent van Gogh, which, in addition to conducting research and keeping archives on the painter, also exhibits a few (just a handful) of his pictures – the painter partly paid his way through life by painting and donating pictures to his creditors.

So did Georgian painter Niko Pirosmani. And the two contemporaries – (van Gogh: 1853–1890 and Pirosmani: 1862–1918) – lived poorly. Pirosmani received little recognition and was ridiculed for his naivistic painting style.

The now-closed double show,”Niko Pirosmani – Wanderer between Worlds; Vincent van Gogh: Speed & Aplomb”, was interesting because of the different styles of the painters.

In the area around Avignon, Arles and Nîmes there is something not to be missed: the 2000-year-old Roman Pont du Gard, a combined aqueduct and bridge over the Gardon River, completed about 18 BC.

There are three levels with a total height of 49 m – in the upper level the water flowed, at the lowest a bridge was made for pedestrians (you can no longer drive here, and certainly not on the other levels). The bridge is 275 m long.

The Pont du Gard was part of a 50-km-long water supply that brought water from a well close to Uzès to the Roman city of Nemausus (today Nîmes). The direct distance between the two cities is approx. 35 km. Daily, the bridge carried approx. 20,000 m³ of water. Over this stretch there is a decrease of approx. 17 m – or approx. 0.34 ‰.

From the nearby cliffs you have exhilarating views of the Gardon River and the surrounding countryside to the town of Remoulins.

A museum and an exhibition give a good impression of the Roman construction method. Among other things. the wooden forms for the arches were later used for the arches of Roman-style churches.

The Gardon River flows through the Gorges du Gardon landmark, with approx. 270 km of hiking trails.

We obviously had not had enough fresh air and wine. After our last breakfast at Villa Mon Amour en Provence in Saint-Laurent-des-Arbres, we drove for 90 minutes northwestwards to another village, Joyeuse, in Ardèche, where we were to spend the night. The trip was on a road with hairpin bends, climbs, falls and great views – through the canyons of the Gorges de la Cèze.

But first lunch, a visit to the Lablanchère cave wine cooperative outlet and then to their publicised Sentier Vigneron.

It was good that we chose that order as the cave closed 30 minutes after we bought wine, being Sunday.

First a croque monsieur and some water in a nearby café, then in the cave where we tasted the wines we had chosen in advance – and discovered that they had lowered the prices per box of six bottles by 10% to make room for the new wines. With the wine boxes in the car we went over to the overview map – for the Sentier Vigneron or Winemaker’s Trail hike.

This walk was marked as 9 km (5.5 miles) and two and a half hours, with a level difference of 80 m. What was not stated was that the level differences often happened on steep rocky slopes without many opportunities to cling to trees and the like. The paths through the vineyards and the wine terraces were good gravel or dirt paths, the connecting roads between them were paved, but then there were these steep ascents or descents that challenged the pedestrians and especially their legs.

Well, we weren’t pressed for time (the wine had been bought after all), but the timing was perhaps a little optimistic. A little tired we drove to Joyeuse (whose edge we touched on during the hike).

Somewhat larger than Saint-Laurent, this elongated town is a relatively quiet countryside town; we lived in a house on a parallel road to the main street, separated from this by a steeply descending road that led up to a hotel that was probably the city’s only quality eatery.

Our hostess, Catherine, has a background in the French Foreign Ministry, with several years of postings in Africa and a craze for various locally made objects – figurines and furniture – that now characterise her home. She assured us that the house was not built around some large and heavy wooden furniture, but it is good that we are not the ones to move them …

The next day, driving on a route nationale brought us to the A7, the Autoroute du Soleil, a little north of Montélimar, to Lyon, Mulhouse, the Rhine and Baden-Baden and via the Schwarzwaldhochstrasse to our hotel, Landgasthof Hirsch, i Geroldsau. Friendly staff, a good room with a large double bed and a large bathroom, a cozy atmosphere and quiet despite the rather well-traveled B500 right outside the door (and our windows).

An interesting experience in the restaurant gave us some insight into the Baden-Baden residents. At dinner, a married couple in the 50-70 age group sat down at the neighbouring table.

With his long, curly, white hair, round glasses and casual clothes, including bright red trousers, he was eye-catching. So was she – youthfully smart in her clothes, with tight leather trousers, big hair – maybe helped by extensions – and Botox-tight facial expressions. They greeted us pleasantly, and began to speak among themselves in the local dialect – apparently about fashion and other cultural issues.

They left the restaurant before us – greeting us again – and when we were the last we asked the waitress if there was anything special about the neighbouring couple, if they did have anything to do with fashion.

The answer was, no, they were typical of Baden-Baden residents – slightly eccentric, snobbish and culture-loving, fashionable people who undoubtedly enjoyed life, no matter the cost.

The following day, after a full breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant, we made the return trip – in rainy weather, which, more than a few roadworks, resulted in a half-hour delay on the way to Denmark …

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