Roading around the Riviera: South-East France

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Part 4: South-East of France

The Route

6 days travelling across the south-east of France from Andorra along the Mediterranean coast all the way to Italy. We spent our time hopping through the small villages and taking in the stunning coastal roads before taking a break for a few days in Nice.

The Highlights 

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  • Ancient castle village surrounded by two grand castle walls. It is a stunning place that has been very well preserved over time.

 

 

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  • Famous as the place where Van Gogh painted several of his paintings. You can do a walking tour around the village (for free) that takes you to all the spots where he painted his artworks. In each location there is the painting so you can directly compare what he did to the actual location. There are also several old Roman buildings such as an arena and theatre which take you back to the 1st century.

 

 

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  • Stunning place to go hiking over the cliffs to hidden beaches with crystal clear water. The beaches in Les Calanques can only be accessed by foot or by boat and there are many to choose from. Perfect place to go on a hot day.

 

 

southfrance4.jpgEating ‘Nice’ things

  • The old town in Nice is a beautiful place to wander around and try the local treats. There is a market every morning here as well as many small snack spots here and around the port.

 

 

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Monaco – Home of the Grand Prix

  • A tiny country nestled in the French Riviera between the ocean and the mountains. It really feels like the land of the rich and famous. You drive the same roads as the Formula 1 cars and the end of April is the perfect time as they have set up the spectator stands which you can drive through.

 

The Story

Day 27: Andorra → Carcassone → Argens

We had a really relaxed start in Andorra, it has been a bit of a pause from the full on travelling we have been doing, but in the afternoon we were back on the road and off to France!

Our excitement to get back on the road was stunted a little after a stop at the petrol station. We decided to fill up the tank just before leaving Andorra and make the most of this beautiful tax free country (diesel here was less than 1 euro per litre in comparison to France where it is around 1.40 euros). After filling up we turned the ignition… nothing. After 30 or so minutes of trying we finally managed to do a successful jump start and got back on the road. Hopefully Olaf holds out until after the weekend so we can get to a mechanic…

Over the mountains we drove, past the melting snow on the ski fields soon to become summer. Not the prettiest time of year on the mountain tops but we were soon into the forest where new growth was beginning to come through after the winter.

The Cité de Carcassone was our first stop back in France. Such an amazing place. It’s funny that I only know about this place from playing the board game as a kid, but I’m glad I did because I’m not sure if we would have stopped otherwise! Massive double castle walls surround the town, all the buildings are made from stone and seem frozen in time.

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While we were there an art installment was on the castle to celebrate 20 years as a UNECO World Heritage Site. At first glance it just looks like a whole lot of yellow lines and spots on the brick walls, but if you stand at one specific point the lines become circles of increasing size like a target. It’s amazing how it was put together given all of the angles on the castle walls that needed to be taken into account to make perfect circles. Very cool, and was installed just a few days before we arrived.

After we accidentally paid 16 euros for 2 local beers we headed off to Argens and set our tent up in a paddock for the night just next to the Canal du Midi.

Day 28: Argens → Nimes → Avignon → Arles

We woke to a lot of dew on grass and trees all around us and our very non-waterproof tent was only just holding up to it. But with a big day ahead we needed to be up early anyway to kick it off.

After a successful start of Olaf’s engine we were off on the way to Nimes. Nimes is a beautiful place, however out of all the places we have been it was not our top spot. The Arena and the Maison Carrée are very beautiful monuments but the old town itself wasn’t our favourite. The best part I thought was the area around the Temple de Diane just on the edge of the old town. It was a very tranquil area surrounded by the Canal with old fountains and large areas to sit with a picnic or just lie in the sun.

Just out of Nimes is the famous bridge – The Pont du Gard. It is a beautiful monument, but visiting is increadibly expensive… The cost of parking is 8.50€ per person, which we thought was ridiculous just to see a bridge from the outside, and with free parking a very long distance from the bridge the paid parking is the only option. However, you get 20 minutes free in the parking to allow you to “u-turn” out of the parking lot. The bridge is a short walk from the parking so we decided to race the clock, bolt to the bridge, see it, then bolt back. I think the 10 minutes we spent looking at it was enough. It looks kind of cool, but in the end it is a bridge.

Just before Avignon we had a quick pit stop at a supermarket. On coming back to the car we found it would not start again… As it turns out jump-starting Olaf from now on will just be routine…

After pushing Olaf through the parking it was off to Avignon. Avignon felt quite similar to Nines, a big place with big stone buildings, a few beautiful old landmarks such as the Palias des Papes, as well as some small more hidden streets. There is a famous bridge in Avignon called the Pont d’Avignon. It is famous partially because there is an old French song about dancing on the bridge that dates back to the 15th century. It is actually a bridge to nowhere as it only goes halfway across the river. Legend says that a young Shepard by the name of Bénézet came to Avignon saying he was sent by God to build a bridge there. It took 8 years to build starting in 1177 but in 1226 a siege led by Louis VIII destroyed most of the bridge. The people of Avignon illegally began trying to repair the bridge but after it was destroyed several times by flooding the bridge repair was abandoned in the 17th century, hence why it is only half a bridge.

Next stop was Arles, my favourite of the 3 towns we have stopped today. It is famous as being the place that Van Gogh painted several of his famous artworks (and also where he cut off his ear and was hospitalized). There is a really cool Van Gogh walking tour you can do (for free) around Arles. You get a map from the tourism office or online and go hunting for the locations where he did his paintings, and I’m each location there is a small plaque with the painting he did there. It’s like a bit of a treasure hunt, and amazing seeing the similarities between the 18th century paintings and the locations now.

Also in Arles are some amazing old 1st century Roman structures, in particular the arena and the theatre. As well as having a very interesting history the streets are beautiful to roam around. Very cool place.

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Day 29: Arles → Cassis → Ramatuelle → Nice

Around 7 hours of driving today heading off to Nice, via a few places on the way. First stop, Cassis for a little morning hike. In Les Calanques de Cassis there are beautiful hikes going over cliff faces to hidden beaches with crystal clear water that can only be accessed by foot or by boat. It is an amazingly stunning area but definitely not a secret spot. It was pretty busy while we were there and can imagine in summer it is nuts, but for good reason, it’s beautiful.

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After 3 or 4 hours hiking around Les Calanques National Park we took the coastal road through small towns, vineyards, hills and forests to a small village named Ramatuelle just out of Saint Tropez. It’s a very small place on top of a forest covered hill. The old stone houses are placed in a spiral formation with tiny streets tying them together. It’s a quiet retreat from the party atmosphere of it’s neighbour Saint Tropez (but with the same prices $$$).

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When we went to Sait Tropez it was packed with people rushing around the streets and fancy cars stuck in traffic. Finding a park was impossible, let alone a park we could jumpstart out of, so we decided to give it a miss and drive on to Nice. Was a great choice I think, loving Nice already.

Day 30: Nice

This morning we gave Olaf the last jumpstart of the trip (hopefully) as we took him off to the mechanic.

We spent the first half of the day having a bit of a food tour with some sight-seeing in between food stops. First stop was the market where we had this delicious pastry called an Aragostine. It was extremely crispy pastry with sweet filling similar to icing in a whole lot of different flavours; pistachio, hazelnut, cappuccino, lemon, vanilla, and a whole lot more. So good… Other features in the days menu included Pissaladière (pizza with onions, olives and anchovies – for me sounds gross but was really good), Le Pain Bagnat (salad niçoise in a sandwich) and a personal favourite – Socca (a chickpea pancake cooked in a wood oven) accompanied by a Socca Beer (Beer made from chickpeas).

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The stony beach next to the old town was a great place for a picnic, and the view from the Colline du Chateau is a stunner. This hill would also be a great spot for a picnic, but maybe we’ve consumed enough food for today.

At noon the town was shook by a massive cannon going off followed by a series of church bells. It turns out this happens every single day at noon which is pretty intense. One thing that was different today though was the horn coming from a large ship by the name of L’hermione, that happened to be docking in the port just for today. The ship is a replica of a 18th century ship that was famous for sailing to the US during the American Revolutionary War with secret information for George Washington that French reinforcements were in place to support the US, a vital contribution resulting in the US’ victory over Britain.

We took a long route back to pick up the car, along the waterfront on the Promenade des Anglais then through the town on the Promenade du Pallion. The latter is a green pathway separating the old and new town that connects the city to the ocean. Pretty cool place Nice.

Day 31: Nice

This morning we thought we would take a day trip to Monaco, but as it started to rain we decided to head back to Nice and save it for tomorrow. Instead we explored the newer part of Nice. The older part was definitely a lot more fun, here it was very tricky to get around by car, and by foot you did not have anywhere near the same relaxed atmosphere. So with that we headed back to the old town, hired a scooter (the old fashioned kind), and rode around the waterfront.

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Day 32: Nice → Èze → Monaco → Menton → Genova

Last day in the south of France before we are off to Italy!

We first headed off to a little village on top of a hill that goes by the name of Èze. It is a really beautiful spot with gorgeous outlooks over the water. Before heading off to wander around the village we went a little down the hill to Frangonard Parfumerie. Here you can get a free tour around the factory learning how the perfumes and other products are made. Its pretty crazy because the perfumers that make new fragrances have to sign a contract to say they will not drink any alcohol or eat spicy food and other regulations such as avoiding swimming in the sea because of the way it effects their sense of smell. Quite an interesting stop and ideal that it was free.

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Next it was up to the village. The small streets were beautiful to walk around, and the views over the water were stunning. It seems like a bit of a wealthy luxury getaway location, with one hotel/restaurant charging around 40€ for entrees and around 100€ for the main course. We decided just something from the bakery was best (and was delish).

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Just a short while further along the coast was Monaco. Monaco is a little like Andorra in that it is technically it’s own country, but is just the size of a large city. It is the second smallest monarchy (second to the Vatican) and also the second most densely populated sovereign state. It’s such an amazing place, very glad we waited for a sunny day to see it in it’s full glory. It’s very much a place of the rich and famous, every building is beautiful, flash cars are everywhere you look and everyone is dressed to perfection. That and the city/country is placed along the waterfront with a beautiful mountainous backdrop. Amazing.

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And of course Monaco is the home of the Grand Prix. You drive the same streets as the Formula 1 cars race, and they were setting up for it while we were there so we literally drove between the spectator stands. It brought me back to playing Gran Turismo as a kid on Playstation. Loved it. We might have driven the same roads a few times… What was crazy is that there was barely anybody on them, pretty amazing for us.

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Just before heading to Italy we had a small stop in Menton for a swim and an ice-cream. It is a stony beach like most of the beaches around this area, but is such a nice place to swim where the water is not cold, just perfectly refreshing.

Off to Italy! First impression, beautiful green mountainous landscape with a surprising number of massive greenhouses. Second impression, people are nuts on the road. There would be 3 lanes on the motorway and not a single car in front of us would be sticking to a lane. No staying in lanes, no use of indicators, just weaving around the road like its a racetrack. Hopefully we survive the next few days here!

We arrived in Genova at sunset and wandered around the streets. A few streets were covered in umbrellas as a cool kind of artwork. Looks like an amazing place, can’t wait to see it in the light tomorrow morning! And then onto the rest of Italy!

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