In April 1990, my dad, M, my sister and I took a trip to the south of France (I was 23). My dad arranged the trip with a group called “Friends of France” where you stay in a French residence with a family, not a hotel and not a bed & breakfast. On April 13th, we drove to our first accommodation located near Beziers. It was a large country chateau surrounded by hundreds of acres of vineyards. The chateau had beautiful grounds and landscaping.
On April 14, we familiarized ourselves with the town of Bezier. We enjoyed crepes for lunch, and visited the town’s cathedral. We noticed that the French people bring their dogs into restaurants with them, after a look around the dining room, they quietly stretch out under the table and nap. After an hour’s drive south, we stopped at a beach town on the Mediterranean called Valras Plage, and had dinner at a café.
Our lodgings were very comfortable, but much different then what Americans are used to. The ceilings of our rooms were 15-feet high and since the weather was chilly (50 degrees & windy), any heat produced from the tiny steam radiator went straight up. Ergo, it was cold and damp. We had separate bedrooms but had to share a tiny bathroom.
Because it was cool and a little damp, the towels never seemed to get 100% dry (or the carpet in the bathroom). The hot water was very limited, so short showers were in the best interest of everyone involved (our dad trained us from a young age to take short showers). In the mornings, we were given a typical French breakfast of coffee and croissants.
On April 15th (Easter), we visited the restored walled fortress city of Carcassonne. It was a nippy 50 degrees and windy. M wore her yellow rain slicker, and my sister can be spotted in the red rain slicker. We parked nearby and entered via a restored narrow gate. Inside were winding cobblestone streets, trendy shops and a very expensive hotel. We walked to the walls and saw how well protected the defenders were as they hid behind heavy stone blocks as they fought off any potential invader. Outside the wall was a restored catapult used in medieval times to hurl large rocks or even dead animals into a city under siege.
After touring Carcassonne, we drove to Saint Hilaire Abbey for their Easter service. The entire mass was chanted in Latin by the 30 or so resident monks; there was no music. It was a uniquely beautiful event for all of us. My dad captured some of the experience on his video camera. We drove through the coastal town of Narbonne where we saw the nets and pens in the Mediterranean Sea where they were commercially growing oysters and mussels.
On April 16th, we drove to Nîmes through Montpellier, which is very beautiful and tropical. Our next accommodation was on a country farm located near the village of Cavaillon. We had a two-story building all to ourselves with lots of space. The building had very thick stonewalls. It also had a piano, which M tried to play. One night, the mistral wind blew ferociously and we had to close the large, wooden shutters that covered the windows. The wind howled all night but with the thick stonewalls and the heavy wooden shutters we didn’t feel much.
The host family invited us to dinner, and we had the impression everyone was very nice (none of them spoke English). The more the wine flowed, the better we were able to communicate. Their food and wine was delicious.
At this point, M was ready for us to venture out on our own. We three took the car and headed into town to find a restaurant for dinner. We relied on our high school French to order our meal, which was delicious. From this comfortable and spacious farm house we took several day trips out to see memorable sights. On April 18th, we visited the city of Avignon, where the Popes of the Catholic Church ruled during the Great Schism in the Middle Ages. Their palace is beautifully maintained. We also visited the Pont of Avignon–the partial bridge across the Rhone River. It dates from the 12th Century. Avignon had numerous small restaurants, which served good food in a very French atmosphere.
On April 19th, we visited Aix-en-Provence. We found a good wine shop and did some shopping for souvenirs. We also finally found a leather coat for my sister and then went to a cafeteria for lunch. Dad insisted on having the cous-cous, even after M warned him he shouldn’t. Again, M proved to be right.
Another historic town we visited was Arles where the Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh spent a few years of his short life painting the rich scenery. We walked around this town and had lunch. My sister and I had a favorite lunch entrée throughout the trip: a warm baguette with ham and a dab of butter.
While in France, we used a “modern” device called a video camera. It was heavy, and we took turns carrying “the football” as we called it. He gave us this 2-hour video on DVD recently, and it really proved invaluable in piecing together everywhere we had been.
My dad & M planned a very enjoyable and memorable trip. The Provence region of France is very special and has a rich cultural history (art, religion, wine, etc.). Reading the book “A Year In Provence” by Peter Mayle brought back a lot of memories.