travel france's provence region
a week in provence..
could easily become a year, as Jonathan Crouch and family discover with a rental car and a late autumn break in Southern France
It seems hard to believe of a place lacking many obvious signs of self importance but in the 14th Century, Avignon became the centre of Christianity. Today, it's a sleepy French city at the end of the Cotes du Rhone Tourist Trail - and a magnet for British tourists.
The trail winds down through the vineyards that line the great River Rhone, and at its end, Avignon is the capital of an area that for centuries, has attracted both British visitors and settlers. For the former, a thriving industry has sprung up, luring us to converted farmhouses and outhouses around the area, with doors and windows in the traditional Provence blue. For many, this is a part of France that's been somewhat over-exposed through books, films and sometimes endless yawning reminiscences from friends who've "a place in the sun."
Despite this, it's time for a reappraisal, not only of Provence but of much of Southern France. Ryanair and EasyJet have been fighting each other and others to open up route after route into cheap provincial French airports. All of which means that driving yourself to the South of France makes less sense than ever before. The car rental companies have responded in kind, launching all kinds of tempting offers to make carefree French motoring an inexpensive
prospect. In my experience, these deals tend to apply to the cheapest, smallest and most basic vehicles, useless for a family with children, and copious amounts of luggage. So for this trip, we decided to test the expense of going to the other extreme and hiring the largest thing available, in this case a 9-seater Volkswagen Transporter mini-bus from Avis.
Forget Jags and Mercs, real luxury for the harassed mum or dad heading on a motoring holiday like this lies in having space - and lots of it. Not so long ago, the price of not having to squeeze your bags in the boot would have been prohibitive but Avis charged us just £ for a week with our economical air conditioned VW bus. It was car-like to drive and powerful enough to hog the outside lane on the autoroute during the usual mad dash back to the airport, and, with six of us travelling, it worked out to about £13 per person per day. Value on a par with the Ryanair Flight we used out to Montpellier (check latest prices on www.ryanair.com).
"It's time for a reappraisal, not only of Provence but of much of Southern France ."
Even if we could have found a local car hire company to rent us something so large, we probably wouldn't have beaten the Avis Deal and we'd likely have ended up with something older, slower, less comfortable and without air conditioning. All issues we knew we
wouldn't face with Avis.
So, you've booked your flight (probably to either Nice, Avignon or Montpellier). You've organised the car, and hopefully, you've sorted the accommodation (in our case, a beautifully converted old mill, 20km North East of Avignon). You're set to hit the open road. Where to? Well you have to start by spending some time in Avignon itself, if only for the shopping, the great restaurants and the pathside crepes on demand. Parking's a nightmare, but once
that's sorted, the walled city can be an enchanting place to walk around. As I said at the beginning, it was once the worldwide 'seat of Christianity' until the papacy was dragged back to Rome in the middle of the sixteenth century.
There are plenty of buildings - the Papal Palace being the most notable - that testify to this period. In building these edifices, the Catholic architects almost completely destroyed evidence of the city's thriving role in the Roman period, stealing rock from Coliseums,
temples and amphitheatres with impunity.
All too soon, its time to leave Avignon and, if you're following the Cotes du Rhone Tourist Trails, choose one of nine different routes and regions to visit, all designated by a name and a colour. We chose to concentrate on the two closest, Azur (blue) and Pourpre (purple), respectively to the East and West of Avignon. With less than an hour's drive however, we could also have checked out the sights and vineyards of Emeraude, Turquoise, Indigo, Corail, Sepia, Mauve or Safran.
For us, the highlights when driving from village to village were the frequent, charming town markets. Stalls overflow with vibrant red tomatoes, sunny yellow zuchini blossoms, deep purple egg plant, mountains of garlic bulbs and baskets upon baskets of earthy mushrooms. There are tubs filled with endless varieties of olives and cheese carts packed with speciality local cheeses. The farmers often make these by hand, sometimes wrapping the cheeses in oak or chestnut leaves, then soaking them in wine or eau-de-vie before aging.
With such diverse ingredients, you can put together a wonderful dinner menu or indeed a magnificent picnic. The latter need not be lavish. Enjoying a simple pan bagna or fougasse whilst also enjoying the Provencal countryside can be just as special. The former is a
sandwich in which the crusty bread is drizzled with olive oil before filling with tomatoes, tuna, olives anchovies and capers. Loaves of fougasse are found throughout Provence. These are mostly oblong or oval in shape and feature dough that has been slit several times and
resembles a large leaf. The slits create a crunchy crust and the loaves can be plain, topped with herbs or olives or stuffed with a filling prior to being baked.
I could go on for pages more about the people, the places, the sights and the sounds. Suffice to say that despite the over-exposure, you still need to visit. Book that flight, hire that car, sort out that farmhouse. And do it now, before you end up on that ordinary break and miss the
MOTORING HOLIDAYS IN PROVENCE
NEED TO KNOW
The place to stay: We tried: Le Vieux Moulin de Crillon (the Old Mill)
Your Transport: We tried: Avis (www.Avis.co.uk)
We tried a VW Transporter 9-seater minibus (£529 per week)
[or 778 euros including Vat, CDW & TPC insurances,
PCI/VRF, airport surcharges, 250 km per day based on 'N' car group for 7 days]