From Avignon to Cassis, with a few stops in between

A low-key day

After our wine tasting adventure, we elected to see more of what Avignon had to offer for a day. The city is not large, with roughly 100,000 people, less than 20,000 living inside the old medieval city walls. We found a park above the Papal Palace that provided fantastic views of the city and the palace. It would’ve been an excellent place for a picnic lunch if there hadn’t been a school field trip group occupying the space that day. Hundreds of grade-school kids made things a little too noisy for a peaceful snack. The park is a fantastic place to relax during the day and has several areas that would make great spots for events and gatherings, minus the screaming kids, of course.  

A view of Pont d’Avignon from above

After the park, Crystal led the way through the narrow streets we had yet to explore to find the remnants of the silk trade section of the city. She read about it on a website, and we figured it would be an excellent way to explore more of the town. The former silk trade area was fun with a different feeling than others. There were very funky shops and art galleries, an abandoned cathedral, and the remnants of a mill complete with a water wheel. It was nice to walk around a new area, giving us a different feel of this diverse little city. 

Papal Palace buttress and stone

Being our last night in town, and with me still feeling under the weather, we were lazy for dinner and walked down the street to an Irish pub. It was good pub food with tasty fish and chips and perfectly poured Guinness. I’ve heard Guinness is good for you, so I was eager to partake. As usual, a creamy pint of Guinness did make me feel better. The cold medicine I picked up at the local pharmacy was also doing its thing, so I suppose you could debate whether my improvements were because of the medication or the Guinness. My vote will always be for Guinness.

Arles

We grabbed coffee at McDonald’s this morning because it was the only place in town where we could get a large coffee to go. Fun fact, McDonald’s in France sells croissants, Macarons, and other pastries. With our apartment cleaned up, we checked out and hit the road. 

Entrance to the city and the start of the climb.

Our first stop for the day was Les Baux-de-Provence to see the medieval city at the top of a cliff. It was about 45-minutes away and an easy drive. The approach to the area was beautiful, but it didn’t give a good idea of how imposing the fortress was. We read that it’s one of Europe’s most intact medieval cities, and I believe it. The fortress sits on a high bluff and is in an excellent strategic location for the ancient trade routes it once protected. 

Just one of the many commanding views from the fortress.

We parked outside the city because cars aren’t allowed, mainly because very few streets could accommodate them, nor is there anywhere to park. Once we caught our breath from climbing to the top, we were rewarded with spectacular views of the surrounding landscape, cliffs, very nice houses, and vineyards. We also got the special treat, for me anyway, of a vintage car rally. There must be at least one street you can maneuver a vehicle up because we encountered a fantastic display of a dozen vintage cars. The group included a Citroen DS, 2CV, a Lancia Fulvia, Mercedes SL, and some obscure French cars from the 60s. They were participants in a road rally making a brief stop in the city. After a few quick photos, the owners returned to fire them up and head off to their next destination. It is always a treat to see vintage cars on the road instead of in a garage; bravo! I was also impressed by the lack of puddles of oil on the ground after they all left. Either they hadn’t been there very long, or the owners keep them in tip-top condition.

The city has a fortress complete with a medieval battering ram and a functioning trebuchet, but you had to pay to tour that area, and we didn’t feel like paying for the slightly better view. We popped in a few shops occupying the city and picked up some Christmas presents. Then it was time for lunch at a fantastic little hole-in-the-wall named Café du Bouchon Rouge. We each had a massive salad with customary French bread that filled us up and left me ready for a nap. With our bellies full, it was time to head back to the car and drive to Arles for our next stay. 

Our arrival to the city was less than spectacular as the town looked pretty rough. The highlight was filling up the car, 94 euros for a little over 40 liters of diesel, and a car wash. The automatic car washes here are different. It is essentially the drive-through automatic car wash you see at many gas stations, but not in a building. And because it doesn’t have an enclosure, you get out of the car for the process. The robot did a great job cleaning the wheels and drying the vehicle. 

The robot car wash experience.

After a slight wrong turn from Google, we found our hotel and the public parking area we had to use for the night. Our hotel was not bougie in any way. It was pretty basic, but it was cheap and advertised to have free parking. The fine print shows free “street” parking… always read the fine print; again. A lovely group of people ran the hotel and were super friendly. While not the fanciest place, it ended up being a good place for us for the night.  

Plaza de la Republique, the main square of Arles.

We got settled and walked across the bridge into the old city. The area along the river is, ah, interesting. Once we made it a block or two from the river, we found some cool squares and Roman ruins, a few shops, and plenty of places to eat. We stumbled upon a square that was hosting, by our count, three weddings. A few cars were outside the churches waiting for the wedding couples, including a sweet VW van with several customizations. Then it was off to check out the Roman Colosseum and amphitheater. The amphitheater is much smaller and less complete than the one in Orange, and the colosseum is much smaller than the one in Rome, but they are worth checking out in their own right.

We grabbed some ice cream and coffee at a cute café in the old Roman main square, which also happens to be where Van Gogh painted Le Cafe Le Soir. After realizing that little factoid, we pulled up the Van Goh walking tour of the city and visited two other sites where he set up his easel and painted a masterpiece. The highlight of Arles, for sure. 

Me taking a photo of people taking a photo of the thing.

I still wasn’t feeling great, better but not normal, so we walked back to the hotel for an early night. The medicine is working; I should be back to normal in another day. 

Aix-en-Provence

The trip from Arles to Aix-en-Provence was quick and easy, and our Airbnb host agreed to meet us at noon for early check-in. The apartment was great, although we discovered it didn’t have AC, which I missed in the listing (fine print got me again). There are a couple of fans, and it’s relatively cool at night, so it wasn’t an issue. Plus, I finally feel pretty close to normal!

Fountains galore in Aix-en-Provence

After getting situated and unpacked, we decided to walk downtown and check out the city. The walk downtown wasn’t bad because it was downhill or, according to Google, “mostly flat….” How they determined the walk could be labeled this way is a mystery because there is nothing flat about the road between the apartment and downtown. “Mostly flat” became a running joke for the trip; it still makes me laugh. We saw many major sights without issue and got a bonus when we arrived at the Museum Granet. It was the first Sunday of the month, which meant free admission! The museum held some beautiful sculptures and paintings and was a great stop. 

A statue on almost every corner.

After walking around and seeing dozens of the famous fountains the city offers, it was time for food. We had some bruschetta pizzas and drinks in a bustling square before returning to the apartment to relax and do laundry. 

Whit Monday

With no schedule for the day, we slept in a bit and were lazy getting ready in the morning. We agreed on a plan to get breakfast/brunch and then wander around the city for a bit to see if there were any cool squares or buildings yet to discover. 

I love how the sculpture’s leg extends below the frame; an amazing detail.

It was “Whit Monday” so many places we sought for brunch were closed, but we found a real gem. When searching for dinner the night before, Crystal saw a restaurant that was only open during the day and looked like it would be a great breakfast spot. After wandering through a few squares to find it again, we saw the bronze wild boar statue and knew it was the spot. 

The restaurant’s name was Le Pain Quotidien, and it was excellent. We later learned that it is part of an international chain, but that didn’t prevent it from being awesome. The organic, farm-to-table theme made for a super fresh, healthy, and delicious breakfast. Oh yeah, and the bread was fantastic. I could start my day there a few times weekly with no problem. It also looked like a great place to hang out and work while nursing a giant coffee or working through a pot of tea. 

A quintessential French cafe.

Once we were done, we set off in no particular direction to no specific destination. We stumbled upon a square that Crystal wanted to see. It was a cool area surrounding a large government building with several cafes and high-end shops around the square. The ground in front of the building had large glass panels to show ancient ruins under the sidewalk. It was very well done and quite enjoyable. I mentioned a park I had seen on the map earlier, so we set off to find it. Park Jardine looked like an excellent spot to walk to, find some shade to sit, and do one of our favorite activities, people watch. Under normal circumstances, I guarantee that would be true, but not for us. The park was closed for a craft/antique fair with a 12 euro per person admission fee. We felt that was ridiculous since we had no plans to purchase anything, so we plopped down on the only bench in the shade and watched people go in and out of the fair for a bit. 

Always watching.

As the sun began to steal our shade, we meandered back into the central part of the city until we decided it was time to go back to the apartment. Crystal got some rest because she didn’t feel that great (no, I did not get her sick); I dialed up some Big Bang Theory on Netflix and edited photos to catch up. 

We walked down to Le Quatre for dinner because their Google reviews showed a truffle linguini that Crystal would love. We got seated and reviewed the menu to find they had nothing on the current menu that resembled anything in the Google reviews. We ordered a few over-priced tapas, only one of which I liked, and I got possibly the worst gin martini ever. Dessert was an interesting Crème Brule with anise; good, but it couldn’t save the meal. We struck out on dinner that night, but the visit to Aix-en-Provence was a winner.

Cassis

Clean-up and check-out of the apartment were easy and smooth. We maintained our strategy of staying off toll roads to get to Cassis, which meant about an hour and 15 minutes of travel. A decision I would regret before we even got out of town. We hit construction, traffic, delays, and so many small villages and roundabouts that I just about had it. The only positive of the route was that Crystal had great views of Montagne Sainte-Victoire, which towered above Aix-en-Provence and was beautifully captured by Cézanne.

Getting into Cassis was easy, and we quickly found our way to a parking lot just across from the apartment we would rent. It was packed, so we ventured to another lot on the other side of the downtown area but only a 10-minute walk. Cassis is not large. 

It’s even prettier in real life.

We parked the car and walked toward the water, desperate for some food since we hadn’t eaten yet. We found a super little bistro that looked like a winner until we saw their prices. This restaurant didn’t have a water view but charged total beach gouging prices. Instead, we walked next door to an incredible little pizza joint, Casa Roma Pizza al Taglio, and had a couple of great slices of pizza and two drinks for less than a salad at the other place. The owner’s brother has a similar pizza place in Miami, and if it’s anywhere near as good as this one, get there now!

Cassis began as a fishing village, and its history is honored everywhere.

With some food in us, we explored the waterfront a little more. Cassis is tiny, and you can walk from one side of the harbor to the other in less than 20 minutes, probably more like ten at a brisk pace. We explored the side streets and shops to see what was there and found some coffee as my “caffeine-low” light flashed. We settled on a chain place we saw in Aix-en-Provence called Amorino. Our new guilty pleasure is the affogato, coffee over ice cream. Hot damn, that is delicious!

After waiting for the keys, we finally got checked into the Airbnb and decided to go to the beach. We didn’t want to lay in the sun for hours, only to go to the beach and jump in the water to say we were there. I loved it and didn’t want to get out of the ocean. It was not warm; the first few steps into the sea were quite chilly, but I just dove in, and it was great. After floating around in the waves and watching the interesting people frolic on the beach, I returned to the shore to warm up.

The beach was great, but we returned to the apartment before getting too much sun exposure. Crystal made reservations at a restaurant our host said was good, so we cleaned ourselves up and prepared for a nice meal. The seafood was excellent, but the sunset was underwhelming at best. Overall, the little village of Cassis is now one of my favorite spots to relax and chill. I used to know it only as an obscure Porsche color from the 80s and early 90s; now, I know it as a fantastic place to escape and relax.

Our next stop will be for one night in Cannes, and then on to Nice!

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