Thursday morning we woke up to minus 3 degrees and a very thick frost, so thick that our waste water had frozen, a clear indication it was time to head South. As we were already on the A75 (and more importantly it was toll free) we took advantage and followed it down towards Montpellier. Our goal for the day was the Pont Du Gard and this meant we needed to circumnavigate Montpellier. We went around, through, into, you name it and Sat Nav seemed to find it worth a look. If anywhere needs a toll then its Montpellier – we would happily have paid to avoid the tour around the centre if we could. Despite driving around most of the city we didn’t see anything that made us want to stop, the more we see the cities the more we agree to avoid them. Our next choice was whether to take one of our usual amble along routes or go mad and pay a toll. We took the later, ok so it is against our general rule but rules are there for breaking and we needed to experience a trip on a paid toll road (our excuse and we will stick to it).
We both fully admit we didn’t know the Pont Du Gard was anywhere near to our route and are now eternally grateful for the tip off. “That’s some gutter” was Iain’s description, possibly ‘magnificent‘ paints a truer picture. In two days we have visited two bridges built 2000 years apart and they have both been breathtaking, I now worry we are becoming bridge anoraks! The Pont Du Gard has three tiers of arches, standing 160 ft high, the bridge descends by a mere 0.98 inches, a gradient of only 1 in 3,000. It was built between 40 and 60 AD, that in itself is unbelievable when you are walking across, how can something built nearly 2000 years ago still be standing. We benefited again from visiting in winter, a few hardy souls wandering around but no crowds. We were able to walk to the viewpoint to look over the whole viaduct, luckily (height phobia) we weren’t able to walk across the top as you need to pre-book. It cost €18 for us to visit, the price is for a vehicle and up to 5 people, for just us two a little steep but you can also spend a good part of a day in the 15 acres of parkland which is designed to show the history of Mediterranean agriculture. Not sure why but I had in my mind that a 2000 year old Roman aqueduct would be something you were able to view from a reasonable distance. That we were able to walk freely on it and if we had been brave enough to we could have walked across the top is amazing.
Our next planned stop was the campsite at Avignon that had kindly been recommended. As we neared the city we were of the same mind that it looked way too busy and maybe we would head on to Vaucluse via the ring-road. As we agreed we saw the sign for Toutes Directions passing by and missed the turn, yet again finding ourselves city centre bound. For people that do not like cities in any way we seem to manage to drive into them with alarming regularity. Luckily our negative turned into a positive as we drove alongside the ramparts with a clear view of the Palais De Papes and the cathedral. We thought about changing our plans again and stopping but we have agreed we cannot visit everything so Avignon will have to make do with a passing glance this trip. We are becoming aware that to get even half way around Europe we will have to pick and choose our stops carefully or we wont even make Greece at this rate.
Instead of Avignon we were on the way to Fontaine De Vaucluse, as our first proper stop in Provence. The village is at the bottom of a 750 ft cliff and has the biggest spring in France (fifth largest in the world). We found an aire just 2 minutes walk from the village centre, no one there but us and a ton of mist and rain. This place is obviously a tourist mecca, the village centre was a mass of cafes, hotels and restaurants. The spring water thunders through the village, it is actually hard to hear yourself speak with the noise. The walk out to the spring source is about a mile and lined all the way by kiosks, souvenir shops and snacks bars. At the end of the path there is a slight climb over to see the cave entrance to the spring. We didn’t attempt it, way too slippy and both of us in trainers, common sense won out for a change. Above the village stands the ruined château from the 14 th century, skinny little passageways run up the hill to the castle with houses perched on the side of the hill, at one point the houses are literally slipping off the hill and held up with a mass of scaffolding. One of those places you can imagine not being able to move in on a good day but worth visiting whether its busy or quiet.
Provence is proving to be everything I had hoped and more. The villages are picture perfect, as are the houses and farms, mile after mile of vineyards, olive groves and lavender farms and views we could only have imagined over to the snow-covered Alps. We made a stop at Greoux Le Bains as it seemed to be pretty much the centre of region. We found the municipal aire in the centre of the village, we couldn’t work out how to get in, you seriously need a degree in barrier management in some of these places. Eventually a lovely French man popped out of his monster van in slippers – despite the rain. He proceeded to walk us around the whole process of getting in and out, with tickets, payments etc explaining it all in very slow and loud French and lots of arm waving. He gave a good demonstration as 5 minutes later we were in and parked up and heading down to thermal spa. The troglodytic hot spring water comes out of the ground at 42 degrees. It is a massive building with what seemed like hundred of treatment rooms and spa pools. We wandered around for a bit but decided against the special offer of 6 treatments for €160, slightly over budget for this weeks spending :).
Instead we headed into the village where yet another Knights Templar castle sits atop the hill with alleys running down to small streets than fan out over the hill. This was probably one of the most lively places we have come across. The town PA system was pelting out Christmas songs, the shops were all open and their were plenty of people out shopping or sat outside the cafes with their coffee. Every town we visit we do the “we could live here” and “this is our favourite so far” conversations. We are being spoiled with the number of amazing places we have managed to see in the last 5 weeks but Greoux really is somewhere quite special.
The week was nearly endeth so it was a timely that the rain came as we were about to commence the big camper clean. We decided to head for the only campsite we could find open in Provence at Taradeau, which turned out to be a good site just a couple of miles outside of town. The van has been emptied, swept, cleaned, polished and sprayed and is now fragrant and inviting. We had accumulated more washing than the average housing estate so thought it would be a good idea to make use of campsite washers and driers as they were cheaper than the launderette and we now have clean clothes a plenty. We were also both overly excited at the thought of decent showers, well that bubble has been well and truly burst with tepid showers and the hated no loo seat facilities :(.
This morning the sunshine was back with the blue skies, as the van-work was all done we walked into Vidauban, expecting nothing much as its Sunday. Wrong as usual, another town PA system in use, this time though it’s euro-trash pop music blaring out, all the shops are open, a good market running around the alleys and the town square is in full swing with some sort of cycling event. We thought Provence may be a bit overly touristy but to be fair we have found the opposite in a lot of places. Vidauban doesn’t appear to have anything purely for tourists in the way of attractions or souvenir and gift shops and its none the worse for it, but no its not somewhere I want to live – I still want to live in Greoux! :).
Tomorrow morning we intend to finally leave France behind and head into Italy. Over the last five weeks France has exceeded all our expectations, we were thinking of it as somewhere we needed to transit but now fully understand why for so many its a destination. Without a doubt we will be coming back in the future, there is so much we still want to see and do. For now its onwards to Italy, as usual our plans are flexible, which translates to ‘we have no idea where we are going’!