It all started with a message from my friend Dinah in Australia. She was planning her bucket list trip to Europe. “Can you join me in Italy at the end of September?” she wrote. “Sadly not”, I had to reply, “But where will you be at the beginning of the month?” In Provence, as it turned out. So, Provence it was.
We Eurostarred it to Paris. It’s the only way to travel, we’ve decided. And we’re going to take the train to Europe whenever we can in future. You have to put up with passport and customs on departure, but not again on arrival. There’s no luggage limitations – if you can lug it, you can take it. And when you arrive, you’re already in the middle of Paris so getting to your hotel is a breeze.
The next day (after a Parisienne dinner of coq au vin, creme brulee and cheese; followed by croissants for breakfast. Be still, my beating arteries), we got another train to Avignon.
Sur La Pont, D’Avignon
This is where I discovered my new superpower. I am brilliant at sniffing out wonderful AirBnBs that tick all the right boxes. In this case, it was bang in the centre of the old city, walking distance to everywhere. It was exquisitely presented, in that pared-back French style that no one except the French have been able to emulate. And it was steeped in history – set in the old living quarters at the back of a 12th century church.
Our host shared its story (and a bottle of wine) in the walled garden of the property on our first evening. We stayed in one of the three renovated apartments upstairs, while a restaurant and the garden occupied the ground floor. He showed us the restaurant’s storage area, carved out of a section of the church, complete with ornate arched ceilings and stained glass windows. I’ve never seen such a fancy, or historic, pantry.
We spent the next four days exploring every inch of Avignon, and many of them twice.
We toured the Palais des Papes and the Jardin des Doms; we bought cheeses and other delicacies at the amazing Marches des Halles (fresh food market); we ate at different restaurants every evening; hired bikes to explore the Ile de la Bathelasse, where we had to stop several times to consult the map and have a cold beer; and, yes, we danced on famous Pont d’Avignon.
Well, maybe we didn’t dance, but I couldn’t get that wretched song out of my head as we wandered the length of the bridge.
The old city: It’s magnificent, completely walled, and oozing character. You can wander the cobbled and tiled streets for hours without getting bowled over by mad French drivers, and there’s something new to see around every corner. Loved it.
Our wedding anniversary: We’d found an elegant garden restaurant, checked out its menu (and prices, swoon), and made a booking for lunch. We ordered Champagne as an apéritif, and told them we were celebrating our anniversaire, forgetting to add that it was our anniversaire de mariage. Our puddings arrived with another glass of Champagne, and a brace of waiters serenading us with ‘Happy Birthday’ (in French of course). Turned into a minor moment of ‘lost in translation’ but who cares. We got free champagne!
And so, after five splendid days in Avignon, we picked up a hire car (holy crap that was expensive!) to drive the hour or so east to the picturesque village of Saint Saturnin-Les-Apts, where, once again, my superpowers came into their own.
If I thought the AirBnB in Avignon was great, we were blown away by our 4-storey delight in this equally delightful village.
It started with a kitchen and dining room on the ground floor, moving up to a living room on the second floor, a couple of bedrooms and a bathroom on the third floor, and the master suite at the top, with views across the rooftops of the village.
But wait, there’s more. On the third floor, there was a door leading out to a tiered garden, carved out of the rock wall behind the house, complete with a small plunge pool. Heaven.
It was here – in the pool – we took up residence on the first afternoon with a picnic lunch and a bottle of champagne.
That was after we’d dumped our bags, oohed and aahed at our accommodation, and set off on foot to explore the village. We went to the local Spar to stock up on supplies (once they had re-opened after their two-hour lunch break – this should have been a clue to the general pace of life in Provence). I asked the Spar owner what time the bakery next door stayed open to. He looked at me strangely. “Until they run out of bread”, he said, shrugging his shoulders at my stupidity.
Four days in St Saturnin wasn’t enough. There is so much to see and do around Provence. Like the day trips we did to some of the neighbouring villages – Gordes, Lacoste, Bonnieux and L’Isle-Sur-La-Sorgue (the Venice of Provence) – each one as picture postcard beautiful as the next. And when we weren’t day-tripping, we were enjoying the always wonderful company of my friend, Dinah, and her ever-changing entourage of family and friends. It was a very happy, but all too short visit.
So, our time in Provence came to an end and we trained it back to Paris for one final night. The last 24 hours were spent in a wonderfully funky hotel – right opposite Gare du Nord – where we heard the sad news of the Queen’s Death.
We ordered two champagnes (and one creme brulee), and drank a toast to Her Majesty.