We left the Burgundy region with fantasies of a future return on our mind (they might involve a house with a large kitchen, friends, and a much deeper dive into the abundant wine this beautiful area has to offer). Settling in behind one of four wheels for the first time since Mexico (this time me instead of Drew in the drivers seat) we plotted a route south that would give us maximum countryside and minimum tolls. It was in this way that we proceeded into Provence!
Seven hours and some truly beautiful scenes of rural France later, I maneuvered our manual vehicle gingerly into a parking spot right outside the Hotel Porte de Camargue in the town of Arles, where we planned to stay for the night. It was the first time we’d been in a hotel in months, and between that, being in the notoriously fancy south of France and driving in a car, it felt like we were experiencing an entirely different kind of European vacation! We left our things in our little room (complete with mini shampoo bottles and blessed, powerful and rare AC) and ventured across the Rhone river on foot into town.
Arles is most famous for inspiring the work of Van Gogh, including the iconic Café Terrace at Night that I, and most everyone else I know, had hanging in poster form in their college dorm room. The cafe remains and is quite tacky, but the rest of the town was utterly romantic, sultry with an incoming summer evening.
We strolled to a small restaurant on a side alley, where the heat of the day had begun to recede, and ate open faced sandwiches alongside a refreshing sparkling white wine on a table in the street. After dinner, we left our phones off in our pockets and took to the streets by feel. Back down at the river’s edge, we were struck by the scene: it was the more realistic, 2019 version of Starry Night Over the Rhône, another of Van Gogh’s exceptional works completed here in 1888 (he was actually only in Arles for about a year, but produced more than 300 pieces of art in that time).
We slept and enjoyed the luxury of a breakfast buffet the next morning, all too disappointed to have to push onwards. At this point, our freewheeling approach to travel was curtailed somewhat by a 90-day limit in the Schengen zone and a flight we had to catch in Milan at the end of the month. So, we packed up and drove east, stopping about 30 minutes later at the Carrières de Lumières in Les Baux-de-Provence. This is an immersive multimedia art experience located inside an old stone quarry. On exhibit at that time was a collection of Van Gogh paintings, and Japanese art, each set to a eclectic soundtrack and projected in high definition against the walls of this enormous quarry. My descriptions – which would largely amount to “IT WAS VERY COOL” – would never adequately convey the scene, so I’ll let these videos and a few snaps do the talking:
Later that afternoon, we stopped in at the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque, which is a stunning and remote Catholic abbey that has housed monks on and off since the 12th century. Today, the monks who live there grow lavender and keep honeybees to make a living.
Just beyond the abbey, we stopped at the highly photogenic hillside town of Gordes, and after that, Roussillon, another beautiful settlement known for its pink hues, derived from the ochre geological formations upon which it sits.
The next morning, we drove to Bedoin, the town that serves as basecamp for cycle climbers of Mont Ventoux. For the uninitiated (and I was), this mountain is one of the more coveted bike rides in Europe for road cyclists. From what I can tell, it goes up, up, up, you fist pump at the top, and then you come down down down. I’ll let Drew do it more justice momentarily. While he huffed and puffed, I walked around daintily in some lavender fields, thus thoroughly occupying our respective gender roles for the day.
Drew here – I’m thrilled that I had the chance to climb Mont Ventoux, the Giant of Provence! This is a bucket-list climb for any cyclist who likes climbing, and it didn’t disappoint. You gain 5,000 feet in one continuous 13-mile pitch, which wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the six straight miles at or above 9 percent grade right in the middle of the route. That part was difficult. Fortunately there’s a water refill spot after that. You really have the feeling of climbing a mountain, from the gentle, agricultural foothills, through the steep pine forest, and out into a lunar landscape high above the treeline. The last mile is an 11 percent grade, but you can see the summit so close so morale is high. I was so stoked by the time I reached the summit; it was very moving. And the descent back down is a blast.
We left Bedoin later that afternoon, heading in the direction of Marseille. We identified a campground somewhat north of the city, which turned out to be one of our favorites of our entire trip so far! In addition to having a small pool and cheerful outdoor bar area, we happened to arrive on paella night. We dined on some spicy rice (which will forever remind us happily of our wedding!) and plotted our Marseille explorations for the following day!