It was now October 19 and we had just finished an incredible day of driving around the Gorges du Verdon, with a feeling of having the roads around Provence mostly to ourselves. We filled up the gas tank with many euros and continued the drive.
Sadly, we found fewer of the stunning winding roads we had found the day before, but it was still great scenery. The first real stop was for a late lunch in Moustiers. Unfortunately lunchtime is strictly 12 to 1:30 in these parts, and after trying a dozen potential cafes we retired to the car, opened a packet of dry crackers, and continued our journey a little grumpy. Given the whole town is on a 45 degree slope, walking around it to find food was actually quite frustrating work.
The next grey area on Google Maps turned out to be a massive nuclear facility – and heavily guarded. It seems so strange to us clean kiwis that the French could put this in the middle of some of their most beautiful countryside. Between that and the heavy artillery, it was a little different and eye-opening for us.
We had heard good things about our next accommodation, though our own research should have prevailed. Sadly, it was a disaster. Lumieres was a nice enough town, but its main hotel was totally weird. Hotellerie Notre Dame de Lumieres was a converted convent. That probably should have struck as a warning. The grounds were ok, but the buildings contained dark narrow passages something akin to a mental hospital, with the security to top it off. Worst of all the whole place smelt of formaldehyde, old nun, and boiled cabbage. The staff were creepy, and after about ten minutes we decided we’d spend as little time as possible there, shortening our stay from two nights to one. Looks alright from the outside!
Fortunately the neighbouring hill town, Goult, had a bunch of little restaurants around the main square, so we could get out of our sterile prison and dine on superb French food once more.
Luckily things picked up the next day when it started with many delicious pastry snacks and coffee sourced by Em in Goult, before we hit the road again with no destination in mind for that evening. Along the way we stopped at a number of the hill towns throughout the region. Roussillon was notably famous for its red cliffs and also had some cool shops. At its peak, 17 tints of ochre were mined in the area. We didn’t see any mines, but between the cliffs and ochre buildings it provided a few good photo opportunities before the rain started.
Gordes was one of the more picturesque hill towns overlooking many acres of vineyard, where the buildings were very much built into the slopes. I was despatched from the car to take a few more photos while Em continued the iPad hunt for accommodation for that evening.
We drove through the impressive viaduct above Fontaine and had our first stop in L’Isle sur la Sorgue, which was a slightly more established Provençal town, where we came back to the following day to enjoy the weekly market. By this stage in the late afternoon it was really about time we found a place for the night. After parking up to make a call to a random pick Em made off the internet, getting confused & making a few unplanned detours, and driving a stunning golden-leaved stretch of road, we eventually made it to a small B&B in the middle of nowhere.
Domaine de Fontbelle, between Rhone, Alpilles and Durance, turned out to be another cracker with its orchard, stables, well designed rooms and very friendly and helpful owners. They had been to NZ the year before and wondered why we had bothered to come to Provence, proclaiming their enjoyment of our homeland, while we filled them in on our enjoyment of theirs. We settled in and our hosts recommended Restaurant la cuisine au Planet in nearby Fontvielle.
Once we finally found it (google maps and really small towns are not the best of friends), Restaurant la cuisine au Planet was tucked into a tiny little house with a small room housing six or so tables, and run by a mother (serving) and son (cooking) team. The three course meal turned out to be the best meal of my life. I know this blog has often focused a little too much on food, but this meal deserves to be written up in all its glory.
Who knows what we missed out on as foie gras featured heavily on the menu, but both of us had done our dash on foie gras that night. For that reason we both started with Croustillant de chèvre chaud – the goat’s cheese salad. This essentially consisted of three goats cheese cigars wrapped in filo pastry on a bed of lettuce and carrot. Simple but delicious.
Next the mains, and the standout dish. Again so simple: a duck breast with potatoes and courgette, which as usual sounds much better in French – Margret de canard entier au miel et romarin. I wish I knew how it was possible to get such strong flavours into a single dish. Absolute perfection. Em became quite sick of me harping on about how good it was. Not that Em did badly, her beef was also up there, but the duck was something else and I do worry that I will never eat anything quite like it again (nice worry to have I guess).
We both finished, totally spent, on the Douceur au chocolat et sa quenelle glacee – incredible chocolate stuff.
It was actually the most expensive meal of our entire trip (though good relative to similar in Auckland), but fortunately it was also the best. Thank you Restaurant la cuisine au Planet – we will never forget you.
After sleeping off our dinners, the next day we headed back to L’Isle sur la Sorgue to see its famed Saturday market. There is no doubt the French do the best markets. We purchased some staple items – baguette, brie, caramelised onion and salami – for a simple dinner that night (again thinking about food) and ate tasty crepes before the torrential rain put a slightly early end to everyone’s Saturday morning routine.
Next it was on to the ancient hill town of Les Baux di Provence. We (lazily) didn’t bother to indulge in its history and instead just enjoyed wandering around. On the way home we stopped in Saint Remy (famous for its connections to Van Gogh), as recommended by our hosts, and headed back to enjoy our last night in the awesome little B&B.
Now it was time to start the journey north to Paris. We set off early for Avignon as our stop there was sadly to be very brief… We parked underneath the famous Palace of the Pope and skirted its walls given we did not have enough time to venture inside. A brief walk around the middle of town was managed before the rain (and dodging dodgy Romanian girls trying to get people to give them money for their fake deaf school) took us back to the car to journey north to Lyon.
Lyon was our first and thankfully last experience of big city traffic in France. A few interesting manoeuvres (multiple rivers plus one way streets are a nightmare!) eventually saw us deposit our Chevrolet Orlando back to Hertz in one piece.
We taxied to the kooky College Hotel in the old centre of town (yes, it is decorated like an old school, but a little overpriced). We managed to cram a good bit of wandering in the very short time we had, including taking a funicular ride to take in the view. Lyon is seriously underrated and certainly on the list of cities to spend more time in. It also provided my first, and last, experience of andouillette, traditional tripe sausage.
The great thing about France thus far is that we were so unplanned for it that we really didn’t have any expectations. We’d heard a few stories and stereotypes, yet we were buzzing to find how much we enjoyed it and how everything just took us by surprise. We weren’t so unplanned that we missed things – maybe even to the contrary, in that it meant we branched out and did whatever took our fancy, resulting in some pearlers in accommodation, sights & general experiences.