Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Two for the Road, My First Road Trip in France

One of my favorite movies is “Two for the Road”, a British romantic comedy about a couple who experiences and examines their relationship while on a road trip to Southern France.

It is one of the great classic films of all time, directed by Stanley Donen and starring Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn, who also happens to be my favorite actress. The thing that I love most about “Two for the Road” is that unlike so many romantic comedies produced by Hollywood, which tends to be cliche, and portrays an unrealistically rosy and often a fairytale-like picture of romance and life, the film depicts real elements and issues in a marriage, such as infidelity, children, and possible separation. It’s what happens after most romantic movies end … the happily or unhappily ever after.

Not only are Ms. Hepburn and Mr. Finney BRILLIANT in portraying their individual roles as a husband and wife in a torrent relationship, but the backdrop and the scenery of French countryside is absolutely stunning. It was after watching this film that my curiosity to see and explore France had peaked, and after my summer-long language program ended, my husband (then, my boyfriend) and I decided to hit the road, à la “Two for the Road”.

Happy to say, although our destination and the places we'd visted were similar, our lives did not replicate that of Mr. and Mrs. Wallace, the main characters in the movie. However, our two-week trip to Southern France was one of the most memorable (travel) experiences of my life ... our lives. It was a trip where we fell in love with each other and with France ... a love affair that has lasted over 15 years.

A beautiful little town close to the border in Western France. We drove all day from Frankfurt to get to Besançon, and by the time we'd arrived in the city, we were completely exhausted. We didn't have any hotel reservations, as we'd ventured out without any plans or even a guidebook, but luckily, we were able to find a great place, Hotel de Paris, in the center of town within a walking distance from all the sites.
As in Besançon, we'd arrived in Lyon at dusk; however, being the third largest city in France, it wasn't as easy to navigate around the city after dark. Nevertheless, we found a lovely little hotel to stay overnight, and after getting a good night's sleep, we were better prepared to explore this vibrant metropolis, which also happened to be one of the UNESCO heritage cities. We really enjoyed seeing and discovering all the historical Roman archives and sites, and we loved the food, for which Lyon is well-known.
Being that this was my first trip to France outside of Paris, and it was before the internet age when travel websites and forums were unheard of, we had very little knowledge of the country that we were visiting. We liked the idea of traveling without any fixed plans or reservations, which gave us a lot of flexibility, and we also wanted to discover and explore places that were off the beaten path. And boy, did we get what we wanted when we arrive at le Palais Ideal du Facteur Cheval (Postman Cheval's Ideal Palace)!
Born as the son of a small farmer in 1836, Ferdinand Cheval was appointed rural postman to the village of Hauterives in 1869 and died in 1924. As a self-taught builder and a visionary sculptor, he devoted 33 years of his life to building an Ideal Palace in which "all styles from all countries and all eras are mixed and join together."
The outcome is a true work of art, which is a reflection of one man's passion and dedication.
Few people have ever heard of Orange, and being one of the smallest towns in Provence, it's often overlooked by tourists who prefer the bigger and the more notable towns in the region. This is great for me and my husband, as we have a special memory and attachment to this beautiful little town, and we would hate to see it transform into another popular tourist destination in Provence.

We discovered Orange purely by coincidence. After driving all day, enjoying the French countryside and having picnics along the way, it had become too late to drive all the way down to Aix-en-Provence. We decided to stop at the first town with a hotel, and voila, the rest is history. Of course, it helped that we also found one of the most charming little hotels we'd ever stayed in, Hotel Saint Florent.
About 8 miles south of Orange near Provence's northern border is Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the summer home of the French popes of Avignon, during the 14th-century reign of Pope John XXII. Today the castle ruins overlook the vast acres of vineyards planted by the popes, the start of a regional industry that today produces some of the world's best reds as well as excellent white wines.  For us, it was a perfect place to stop for a picnic.
A beautiful and surprisingly big city filled with elegant cobblestone streets and the world's largest Gothic palace, the 14th-century Palais des Papes ... a perfect place for an evening stroll.

We'd found Pont du Gard on our way to Nimes. Then, it was just another undiscovered ancient Roman archeological site like many others in that area, all of which have been well-discovered in the last decade. It's no wonder that Pont du Gard has become one of France's most popular tourist attractions, as it is one of the best preserved ancient Roman aqueduct bridges in Western Europe. However, my husband and I will always remember it as a serenely beautiful place where we took long walks along the stream and hiked by the moonlight.
If you're on the road for 2 weeks with someone you'd just met, you're bound to butt heads at some point during the trip, and Nimes was where it all came crashing. Mind you, after 15 years, my husband and I can't even recall what it was about, but sadly, all I remember of this lovely city is my husband and I sitting in our car in front of the train station, and me contemplating on taking the train back to Frankfurt ... alone.

Happy to say, I didn't get on the train, and after what seemed to be a day long conversation outside the train station, we decided to continue on our trip ... together. Needless to say, I don't remember much of what we'd seen in Nimes, aside from seeing one of the best preserved Roman amphitheaters in the world and a near perfect Roman temple, which were in better shape than those in Rome.

We'll definitely have to return to Nimes one day to see them again.

When I'd mentioned to a friend of mine that I was contemplating on doing a road trip through France, she told me that one place that I must visit would be Montpellier. Although it's not well-known to many tourists, which I always prefer, Montpellier is a idyllic medieval university town with a picturesque old town, well-preserved ancient monuments, and beautiful winding streets that lead to small squares filled with numerous cafes. Being that Montpellier is a university town, everywhere we went, the atmosphere was vibrant and lively, and we loved passing time just sitting in the park or at one of the many outdoor cafes soaking up the local culture.
Le Saline de Giraud
If you're looking for an off-the-beaten-path experience in Southern France, Saline de Giraud is it. My husband and I'd discovered this little village near Arles after driving through what seemed to be an endless row of Mediterranean summer resorts full of holiday seekers. We wanted to get away from the tourists and find a little village close enough to the sea, and in Saline de Giraud, we found both. The only downside was that being the only tourists in town, or so seemed, it was extremely difficult to find a decent restaurant, and we were literally the only guests at Hotel la Camargue. Little did we know, the hotel restaurant turned out to be one of the most renown restaurants in the area, which goes to show, never judge a book by its creepy cover.

Nevertheless, the beaches were absolutely gorgeous, and in the wild and beautiful marshes of the Camargue Regional Nature Park, we were privy to some of the most interesting and rare species and wildlife.
When we drove into Arles late in the evening, we were not impressed by what we saw.  From what I could tell, the city seemed extremely rundown, and it was surround by a fortress which was in an even worse shape.  The streets were terribly narrow, so narrow that there wasn't even a place to park the car.  Hence, we had to drive to a large parking area outside the wall, which didn't help the first impression of the city. 

Little did we know, we had arrived in one of the most gorgeous, breathtakingly beautiful cities in France. Sometimes called the soul of Provence,  Arles is an ideal destination; so much so that during the peak tourist season, the city can feel like an amusement park or a Hollywood movie set rather than a living city.  Nevertheless, our first visit to Arles was absolutely enchanting, especially since it was few years before it was discovered by the tourism industry.

It was as if time stood still for centuries, and everywhere we went, we saw reminisce of paintings by Vincent van Gogh.  As we sat at Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, I felt as if we were transported into one of his paintings.

We also had an amazing time seeing and discovering the Roman archeological remains and sites, and enjoyed some of the tastiest meals we had on that trip.
Aix-en-Provence & Mont Saint Victoire
We knew we hit the jackpot when we arrived in Aix-en-Provence, as it epitomized everything I'd imagined Provence to be. It was easy to see why this picture perfect, sun-drenched hometown of Paul Cézanne and Émile Zola had inspired so many artists and writers, as merely sitting in one of the beautiful tree-lined town squares or at the Atelier de Cézanne, his last workshop, will get your creative juices flowing.

Fortunately, we'd also found a wonderfully charming hotel, Hotel de France, and finding the perfect hotel can really enrich the whole travel experience.

In Aix-en-Provence, we'd also discovered wonderful outdoor markets, something that was new to me at the time. France has some of the most wonderful markets, selling everything from regional produce, local delicacies, old memorabilia to beauty products. They're usually opened during certain days of the week, and it's an experience that one should not miss.

For my husband and I, it was an experience that could not be missed. One night, we'd unknowingly parked our car at one of the squares where the market was to take place the next morning.  When we'd arrive in the parking lot, we found out that our car had turned into a cheese stand ... well, not exactly, but our car was towed away to make room for a cheese vendor. Just a minor nuances of traveling, I suppose.
I'd grown up seeing numerous impressionistic paintings in books, in museums, and even took a semester of 19th Century Impressionism in college.  However, words can not describe the magnificence of seeing the actual subjects of these paintings and the surreal feeling as if you have stepped into them.

The Mont Saint Victoire is perhaps one of the most iconic impressionistic paintings of all time and without a doubt one of the greatest works of Cézanne. With rows and rows of sun-baked olive groves and emerald cypress trees, it's one of the most beautiful places we've visited in France, and we loved spending hours just hiking and exploring its stony paths and soaking in the breathtaking view.
By the time we'd arrived in Marseille, we'd seen so many beautiful places that we didn't appreciate all that the city had to offer. Throughout the trip, we visited mostly smaller cities and towns, and being a big city, Marseille seemed overwhelming and crowded.  Nevertheless, we enjoyed the food and like the lively atmosphere in the evening.
Thonon-les-Bains & Geneva
Geneva was a stopping point on our way back to Frankfurt. We'd found a charming little hotel called Duché de Savoy in Thonon-les-Bains (about 30 minute away) and decided to do a day trip to Geneva. Visiting Geneva for the second time gave me a new perspective and appreciation for the city, and we fell in love with Lac Léman (Lake Geneva), which is an absolutely stunning area between France and Switzerland. We returned to this area many times and enjoyed exploring different parts of this region as well as Southern France for many years.
a trip to remember forever


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