The route from Montpellier to Troyes is a blur of medieval towns and amazing buildings that are in danger of become all one memory. Especially if you go the long way.
Day one was a reasonably straight forward drive from Montpellier to Avignon, once we had left the town. All that wonderful hippy bollocks about no cars can be a right pain in the bum when you are trying to get as close to your accommodation, in the heart of the medieval bit, in a car to avoid dragging your bags through the streets in 33c. It was a 12 minute walk to the Avis office and, after 45 mins of expletive laden driving in circles, I had to admit defeat and park the car a 5 minute walk away in an underground car park that had spaces 5mm bigger than the car. At the top of a hill from our Airbnb.
After a few more circles, we sprung out of the town rather like a rocket leaving the earths orbit and drove the backroads to Avignon. The only stop we made was in Uzes, a beautiful, decent sized town within striking distance of Avignon and, up until we needed some scoff, one that had never been on our radar. It is a charming place, with a huge café lined square, interesting shops and narrow streets. It was nice enough for us to pick up an estate agents brochure which was very useful the following day.
To spend less than 24 hours in Avignon is a sin and we experienced a tiny bit of what the town has to offer. Finding our Airbnb allowed us to experience parts of the town that most tourists wouldn’t get to. There was a festival on in the town (the largest contemporary arts festival in Europe), so choices are a bit limited when you try to book a room with three days lead time. We found a place ‘5 mins from the town centre, in an old farmhouse with a pool, well served by public transport’ and turned up to a house with boards over some windows, locked behind rusting gates in an area that was less than comfortable. ………….. we kept driving and pulled into a car park for a WTF moment. LuckIly, the WTF was that we had programmed the Satnav badly and whilst, the right place seemed nothing to write home about, we felt that we were less likely to get killed in our beds.
Once we were inside the walls of the garden of the place we were meant to be staying at, we were very pleasantly surprised. The very lovely Fanny had restored and decorated a rural building in an areas long since swallowed up by urban sprawl into a real hidden gem. Our room had a bath in it, a balcony and most importantly – aircon. It had been in the 30s for days and J and I had barely touched each other for days as no one likes to hold hands with a bucket of sweat.
Fanny was fantastic and on arrival gave us both a cold beer and chatted to us in French. I drank the cold beer and marvelled at how well J could turn school girl French into a reasonable conversation.
We hit a very very busy Avignon for the night and were entertained by street performers and bustling streets. We chose a place to eat that soon after we sat down had some interesting entertainment nearby: a man doing flamenco dancing on a board……… semi naked………. covered in sweat and needing a good bath. Not quite my thing, especially when eating.
We managed a few hours of sightseeing the next day, visiting the Le Palais des Papes and the famous incomplete bridge. The palace is incredible, as is the way it is organised. In the price of a ticket is an iPad type thing that not only gives you a guided tour but also a bit of VR. In many of the rooms, you point it at a symbol and the screen displays an interactive image of the room in the 14th Century. Wherever you point it, you see the wall hangings, furniture, books and roaring fires that would have once been there and it really brings things to life, so much so that I question why everywhere doesn’t have them.
The commentary played to one of my rants a bit. When I get to these most amazing religious buildings, wherever I find them in the world, I find myself having mixed feelings about the awesomeness of the achievement as well as the implications of building such things at a time when people were living in extremely harsh conditions. A clear concentration of wealth is delivered through fear of the afterlife and the words of religious establishments who are looking after their own interests.
The palace tour was great: this is the room where they counted the money; this is the room where they stored a lot of the money; in this room they decided how to collect the money; this is the one where people were tried and convicted for not giving enough money or suggesting this whole money and the afterlife thing may be a bit of a scam. The Carthars, who centred around Carcassonne, felt that worship and Christianity had nothing to do with money, rather it was all about good deeds, and the Church should not be interested in collecting so much of it……………… so Pope Innocent (you protest too much Sir!), sent an army over and killed them all. Then collected more money in the name of God.
From Montpellier to Avignon
From Avignon we went north……. ish. We had a long debate about whether to drive to near Lyon for one night, then up to Dijon for night 2, or do 4 hrs of driving in one day and have two nights in Dijon. We went for the latter and then decided to go via Vacqueyras for lunch (after a recommendation from Leslie via IG), then in search of lavender in bloom in Provence.
The recommended lunch Château in Vacqueyras was booked out so we hit the village centre and were reintroduced to the France of our childhoods: the one with surly waiters who pretend not to understand you, no matter how well you pronounce your requests, and FFS, J and I are reasonably well practiced asking for a glass of red wine! We did manage to procure a magnum of wine produced by the place we couldn’t get into from the shop across the road and this kept us going for a day or two.
The lavender hunt proved to be a bit of an epic, and from Vacqueyras we went through the hills to Sault, where we found the lovely purple fields and from there headed north to Dijon through beautiful winding roads and small villages, clinging to hillsides set amongst a huge national park. And it only added about 5 hours onto the drive (which would have been a few hours longer if we had stuck to our no toll roads rule)…….. so the last few hours of the 9 hour epic was fuelled entirely by Redbull, junk food, chewing gum (‘making intelligent people look like cows for generations’) and J reading me details of the houses we could buy around Uzes.
Avignon to Dijon
Avignon to Dijon
We arrived at our Airbnb just before 10pm, which was a small, very hot studio on the second floor of an old farmhouse on the edge of the old city, reached by the steepest stairs known to man. It was still above 30c and the room was cooled by a fan that had all the blowing power of a 70 year old man who had smoked woodbines since the age of 9. If lots of people live like this, we can see why they stay drinking in the town squares all night, rather than go home to their little sweat boxes.
Dijon is another beautiful town and on my morning run I ran along a leafy riverbank to a big, tree lined lake, then back along a canal, then through formal parks that had deer and other animals in enclosures, then through the wide boulevards of the 18 century town before finishing in the narrow streets of the medieval town. Getting all this done before breakfast is one of the upsides of running.
Dijon is very visitor friendly, with a great tourist office, who give you more information than you could ever need, has free wifi all over town and free entry to all museums and public buildings.
They also run a wine tour around the city every Thursday night for only €25. The downside is that it is only in French but, as the guy said in the tourist office, ‘the wine will taste just as good’. It was an odd evening and the first bit was spent walking around the city, stopping in front of buildings and being talked at. We think that we were being told funny stories about famous people who had come to Dijon, drank wine and done interesting or funny things. We tried to look engaged and laugh at the right moments, but they could have been saying anything.
The second bit involved going to a school, in a very old building, to be met by a leading wine expert/writer. The school was still in use, well known but closed for the summer holidays, and we were taken to one of the classrooms to drink the first wine. I got horrible flashbacks to school, where I never excelled at French (when I got 15% in an exam and came last in my class, Mr Land wrote in my report ‘A well merited result. Resents chastisement’). We were sat at a small desk covered in graffiti of boobs and ejaculating cocks, whilst drinking cremant de Bourgogne, listening to people talk and understanding 1 word in 20. The wine was good though and we met a lovely couple of architects from Switzerland to chat with after the formal bit.
We left Dijon reasonably early to drive to Troyes, meet Bridge and her gang of friends and take part in the reason for choosing this route: the two day Champagne en Fete.