Welcome to France

The drive into France was busy, and we had to take toll roads to avoid making the day more arduous. Our drives in Spain never had too much traffic, but leaving Barcelona and driving into France was busy with many semi-trucks on the road. It almost felt like being back in Nashville on I-40. The toll roads cost around 36 euros but saved us four hours; that math works for me. Spoiler alert, my credit card worked at the French toll booth!

The castle walls drifting into the landscape.

We decided to make a stop at Cite de Carcassonne, which added a little over an hour and a half to our journey. It’s an old walled city that underwent restoration in the 1800s. The castle sits outside the modern city, but it blocks it entirely as you drive toward them. The castle and ramparts are immense and a spectacular sight to behold from the proper viewing area. Unfortunately, we didn’t know where any of those areas were, so that we couldn’t get that postcard view of the entire facility. 

A view of a guard tower from the entrance

The old city seems intact inside the towering walls and now contains over a dozen gift shops ranging from cheap crap to rather nice clothing, jewelry, and crafts. There are also maybe two dozen restaurants to choose for your dining needs. We had a panini snack in a little courtyard that looked every bit of its 200 years. The bread was delicious because of course it was, it’s France. We tried to get tickets to see the inner castle rooms, but they were sold out, so we skipped it and just walked the perimeter. That turned out to be pretty cool with some great views of the towers and walls from the ramparts, so I call that a win. 

An archer’s view


Back on the road, it was another two and a half hours before we made it to Avignon. The city has a great vibe; I like it. Our apartment was just inside the old city walls in a quiet little neighborhood. The building is an old chapel built in the 1300s, while the current renovation was completed about twenty years ago. I’m sure it’s haunted, but I’m not asking any questions because I’d like to sleep at night. We are only a ten-minute walk to the eateries and shops in town, which is also where the cathedral, palace, and some of the main sights are located. A few snacks and a bottle of Champagne from the local grocery store made for a nice dinner.

I look forward to shifting gears and hanging around Avignon for the next few days. Spain was a whirlwind of sightseeing, and we needed a change of pace. We slept in, that means around 8 am, and then took our time getting ready. It was more brunch than anything else when we went out for breakfast. We aptly found a little café on a side street called Coffee and Brunch, sweet. After trying to decipher their menu, I went for it and ordered a pancake dish that looked to be a solid mix of sweet and savory. I was right. It consisted of three pancakes with an herb cheese spread, bacon, crushed fried onions, an over-medium egg, and a salad on the side. With the maple syrup poured on, it was a sweet/savory lover’s dream. What a way to begin my time in France!

Pont d’Avignon with lavendar.

We intended to wander toward the 11th-century bridge over the Rhone but were quickly sidetracked by the Papal Palace in the downtown square. The place is massive, looks fantastic, and there were no lines for entry. A tour of the palace, gardens, and the bridge we were already heading to see was 17 euros per person. The tour included an Augmented-Reality tablet and audio guide. I thought it would be lame based on ones we’ve seen at other venues, but I was wrong; it was excellent. 

The entry to the Papal Palace

The palace is stunning in size and served as the home of Catholic Popes for the 14th century. The complex has changed as different groups inhabited the buildings over time, but there is enough of the original design to make it an impressive sight. Although few are visible, some of the original frescos are intact. The AR tablet was a good mix of education and entertainment as it demonstrated what the rooms and halls would have looked like in the period, plus included some fun little games (clearly meant for video game-obsessed children, but we enjoyed them too). 

A view of Avignon from the bridge

We returned to the apartment after touring the bridge but made a pit stop at a gourmet patisserie called Patisserie Vernet. It was overpriced, especially the coffee, but the sweets were straight out of a cooking competition show, mind-blowing! The little rum cake delight I had was sublime, and I’m glad I didn’t need to take a breathalyzer after eating it because I don’t think that would’ve worked out well for me. Crystal’s chocolate creation was equally decadent, just without the booze. Then it was time for some relaxation and laundry in the apartment. Laundry on this trip is a huge deal and one of the biggest perks of using Airbnb and instant hotel-style lodging over hotels. 

So. Damn. Good

Roman Ruin Day

Pont du Gard

The day began with a relatively short drive to see the Pont du Gard, a nearly 2,000-year-old Roman aqueduct that spans the river and is massive. The tour was simple and fun, and the views spectacular. The river below the aqueduct was deep, and the water was crystal clear, allowing us to see a school of fish. Each fish had to be over two feet long and between 20-30 lbs. People were wading and kayaking in the water, and as the day was getting hotter, they both seemed like good ideas. 

The walkway allows you to cross the river and admire the aqueduct from both sides.

We did not partake as we had other plans for the afternoon. After walking around the site and admiring the impressive structure, we hopped in the car and headed north to Orange to explore more Roman stuff. The city is home to the Roman Theater of Orange which dates to the early first century, shortly after the assassination of Julius Caesar. It represents one of the largest Roman theaters still standing. The main wall is impressive, as are all Roman construction projects, and the history is as fascinating as it is varied. As different tribes conquered the region, the building has had many uses, including a neighborhood, prison, and barracks. The tour was excellent, but it was getting wicked hot, and the sun drained me. We stopped for a nice lunch in a small restaurant called Festival Café, where I had a fantastic Ceasar salad. 

A view from the cheap seats.

On our way home, we made a brief stop for wine tasting in the heart of the Châteauneuf du Pape village. We arrived just before they closed, had a fantastic tasting, and picked up some great advice on the area and its wines from the owner. Pro-tip; wine tasting is free in France by law, but you may have to make reservations at some of the more prominent places.

The day’s low point was that I started to feel a little sick. That is never a good thing when traveling, but it brings extra edginess in our current time. I had a scratchy throat and a bit of a runny nose, so I bought some Oscillococcinum at the pharmacy to try and stave off sickness. I hope it works! 

Wine Tasting Day

We started at a winery recommended to us at our tasting the day prior, and it was a good one. We drove to Chateau de la Gardine and were greeted with stunning views of the vineyards and the Rhone in the distance. After walking inside, a staff member gave us the history and boundaries of the Châteauneuf du Pape region and the family’s wine-making timeline. Then we enjoyed an extensive and delicious tasting of their wines. We liked them and decided to buy a few and have them shipped home. Shipping cost as much as a couple of bottles of Cakebread Reserve in the States, but it was worth it. Each of the wines we bought was fantastic, challenging to get back home, and would cost three times as much per bottle. Little did we know, this would turn out to be the best part of the day. 

The Rhone river has much to do with the quality of this wine region.

We needed a spot for lunch because we were approaching the 12-2 pm doldrums where restaurants in France close. We decided to skip trying something in town and find a place en route to our next winery (which was also closed until 2 pm). That plan seemed valid, but our logical stop’s village of Sarrians wasn’t quite as large as it looked on the map. Actually, it’s pretty tiny, and everything we found was closed. We walked around a bit until we found a small restaurant/bar that was open and got a table on their patio. They had a limited menu, so it was a giant cheeseburger for me and fish and chips for Crystal. While not the French cuisine experience we wanted, we were full and ready to head to the mountain wineries. 

I crafted our tour based on an online article about wine tasting along the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. The author visited several vineyards in the mountain region and raved about the winding roads, spectacular views, and fun tastings. A few of the wineries from the article were only open for appointments and tours, so we skipped to three whose websites showed daily hours and availability. 

A nice view from the winery.

The first was Château Redortier and it didn’t prove easy to find. After meandering through several country mountain “roads,” we discovered the small building on a single-lane dirt road (after backing up to let a giant wine tanker through). There were no cars and no signs of life, but we tried what appeared to be the main door, and it opened. Inside was an elderly French lady who spoke no English, but we managed to muddle our way through a tasting. One of the whites was pretty good and cheap, so we bought a bottle mostly because we felt bad about interrupting her day. 

From there, we wanted to drive to Domaine de Coyeux, which appeared to be a short drive down the mountain, wrong. The car’s navigation told us to go one way, Google wanted us to go another, and neither were updating well as we tried to see which was accurate. After Google wanted us to drive through a field of grape vines, the car finally produced a nav solution that would take us there, on real roads. Until the road we were driving abruptly closed for roadwork and what appeared to be the construction of a new bridge. With our third backtrack of the day for this one destination at hand, we decided to scrap it and move on to the next winery on the list.   

Vineyards and mountains

The drive to Domaine de Durban was less frustrating but still not easy. The winery was in a beautiful place with amazing views, but the journey wasn’t what I had built in my mind. The wine was good, and we got one bottle of white to take with us. Overall, the day was a failure outside of the first winery. Nothing I envisioned came to fruition. The drive pretty much sucked, and the wines were okay at best. While we were driving through mountainous regions with stunning views, there were no places to pull over for a photo or enjoy the scenery. The few small and ancient villages along the route were challenging to navigate and had no place to park to explore, which didn’t help. The first winery was fabulous, which is the only reason the entire day wasn’t a disaster. 

Perfect rows of vines as far as the eye can see.

On top of all of that, I was sick. My throat went from scratchy to sore, and my head felt like someone had inflated a balloon in my sinuses. I bought cough drops and drank as much fluid as possible, but things worsened. For those wondering, it wasn’t COVID. I had no fever or other telltale signs and recognized all my symptoms. I get this particular brand of cold once a year, starting with a mild sore throat that turns into a bad one for a day or two while my head gets completely congested, making me miserable for a few days. Let’s hope it doesn’t last long.

Author: Ryan Carignan

I am an automotive enthusiast, writer, and photographer; welcome to my blog!

2 thoughts

  1. Ryan you are certainly living the dream – love what you are sharing and so glad you did not get COVID…happy trails my friend.

    1. Thank you, Cindy. The trip has been amazing and one we will not forget, but we are also looking forward to being back home in a few weeks. Cheers!

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