My Week (Driving) in Provence
Most of our clients prefer our cooking vacations that include all transportation. I understand why: no maps, no manual transmissions, no limits on wine with dinner, no worries! But when visiting our cooking vacations for work (or even for pleasure) sometimes a self-drive itinerary has been the only option. So here is my take on a week in Provence -- behind the wheel.
I arrived in Paris and took the TGV to Avignon. (This is easier than it sounds, but more on that another day.) Although I can "technically" drive a manual transmission, I was not willing to entertain having that struggle in addition to negotiating jet lag and unknown roads, so I requested an automatic from the rental company. That is one myth busted: there are automatic transmission rentals in France! Because the only automatic on the lot when I arrived was a Mercedes, I got upgraded. Of course, I accepted the upgrade gleefully. And yes, I took a picture of the car to send to my husband.
My first stop was Tavel and our wonderful cooking vacation Provencal Adventure. It's at a charming, beautiful B&B in a picturesque setting with a gracious, engaging hostess who also does the hands-on French cooking lessons. Christine is a gem, and truly innovative in the kitchen. I took home a jar of her red wine jam that I finished long ago but still fantasize about. But the other advantage of this cooking vacation is location, location, location. The town of Tavel is in the heart of a well-known wine producing region (Tavel rosé wines are justifiably renowned), and the famed Chateauneuf du Pape vineyards are minutes away. Sadly I did not have a chance to stop at each for a tasting (a drawback to the self-driving option), but exploring the towns and landscapes, enjoying a glass of this truly spectacular wine with lunch, was amazing. From there I journeyed a bit north to Orange. (Not "OR-ange" like we say in the US, but "oh-RAHNGE"!) I loved this city. It's known for its incredible Roman ruins, but I enjoyed its vibrancy and friendliness. I parked very near the center and had barely gotten out of the car before two elderly Frenchmen confirmed that I was allowed to park there, asked if I was a tourist, where I was from, and if they could be of assistance. I got the idea they spent most of their days meeting up in the main town square and walking around. (And thus myths 2 and 3 are busted: you can park in France, and the people are gracious and kind.)
After Orange I journeyed to Isle Sur la Sorgue, which has been described as a Provencal Venice. It is famed for its system of canals (hence the Venice comparison, although in miniature--way miniature) and its antiques market (not in any way miniature, one of the best markets in France). We do not currently offer a cooking vacation in Isle sur la Sorgue, but it is a town worth visiting and we hope to include it soon in another itinerary.
From Isle sur la Sorgue I traveled on to the Cote d'Azur, meaning I traversed pretty much the whole of Provence during my trip. I unfortunately did not have time to stop at one of my favorite Provence cooking vacations, at the Chateau de Berne, but the riviera called! Here too I found it easy to park and walk. The city centers are often closed to vehicular traffic, making life easier and more pleasant as a pedestrian. St. Tropez was a particular favorite, where I sat at an outdoor cafe for a light lunch and enjoyed the people watching.
I didn't have the benefit of a GPS--but I imagine that would make things even easier. Myth #4 busted: in France they drive on the right side of the road, just like in the US. I did have one tricky moment when I tried to refuel: I couldn't figure out how to open the little door on the gas tank. I looked everywhere in the car for some sort of switch or button, and finally used my (muddled) French to ask a kind gentleman if he could help. He came over to the car, pushed on the little door, and it opened immediately. A bit embarrassing, but it's never a bad thing to be rescued by a nice Frenchman, right?
This is not to say that a self-driving cooking vacation is right for everyone. If circumstances afford it, I usually recommend a trip without the worry. But anyone with a spirit of adventure and a bit of savoir-faire can have just as fun a time as I did driving through Provence.
See our website for more on our self-driving and full-loaded Provence cooking vacations.
By Peg Kern