I might have been more disappointed to be leaving Paris after just two days last month, having spent so little time in the City of Light with my family, were we not bound for exciting new territory (to me) - Provence and Languedoc in the south of France. We did not accomplish all of our planned itinerary on this our first visit to Paris with our son, but I understood that, as with most amazing travel destinations, one always runs out of time in the City of Light before running out of things to do or places to see. Plus, I confess that riding in first class on one of France's high-speed (TGV) trains was an additional lure to make our exit from the capital in the final days of 2012.
And, after two rainy, cold days in Paris with leaden skies, we were ready for warmer temperatures and the sun. As if on queue, we awoke the morning of our departure to bright sunshine. After breakfast in the hotel, our driver, with whom we had pre-arranged our transfers while in Paris, took us from the 5th Arrondisement along the Seine past the Jardin des Plantes and across the river to the packed Gare de Lyon, from which all TGV trains to the south depart.
SOUTH TOWARDS THE SUN: On board, we found our assigned seats and grabbed lunch from the dining car, which was delicious like every meal in France. We then settled in for the comfortable, 2.5 hour trip from Paris to Avignon, covering 689 kilometers (about 428 miles) traveling at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour. As we made our way south, the Paris suburbs quickly gave way to verdant farms, medieval towns with castles and, later, to our first glimpses of the Alps.
We arrived in Avignon, one of Provence's main visitor destinations, just after lunch, exiting the modern TGV train station (which is separate from the main train station in the center of town) and grabbing our rental car. A pleasant surprise came in the form of an upgrade to a black Mercedes C-class sedan. Once my spouse had switched the navigation voice from French to English, we crossed the Rhone River that separates - administratively at least - Provence from Languedoc and drove for about 30 minutes until we reached our home for the long New Year's weekend, the lovely and beautiful medieval village of Uzès.
Arguably, there is an endless number of contenders for the title of the most beautiful village in France. Undoubtedly, Uzès would rank high on such a list. This ancient town of about 8,000 is compact, leafy, prosperous, walkable and full of great, small-town shopping and dining. The town was a major center of religious power from the sixth through the eighteenth centuries. Today, you can get a sense of its historical importance by taking the circular walk along the city's main boulevards. Physically, Uzès is a town of red tile roofs and cream-colored stone walls that overlooks a valley of forests and vineyards. And, while it's the closest location to one of the most visited examples of Roman architecture in southern France, and also a place where English is widely spoken, Uzès seems remarkably un-touristed and feels more like a great travel secret.
We discovered Uzès as a result of our first apartment rental experience using www.airbnb.com, the worldwide service that allows travelers to live like a local by staying in privately owned apartments and houses. After searching for apartments in and around Avignon, I hopefully selected a "two-bedroom, sunny flat in the charming village" of Uzès. I had read other travelers' reviews and then traded emails with the owner of the flat to assure myself that - hopefully - this would be a legitimate handing over of my Amex card number (rentals through airbnb are basically non-refundable absent extraordinary circumstances). Happily, absolutely every last detail of our rental was just as represented by the owner, Michel, who lives in Paris. Because he lives out of town, Michel had arranged for his friend in town, Monica, to meet us and get us settled. At the appointed time, we met in the parking lot of the gothic Uzès cathedral, from where Monica led us around the circular main artery to an underground car park and then to our flat, which was, in fact, a spacious and sunny, two bedroom apartment with a full kitchen and washing machine just off Place aux Herbes, the town's main square and home to a bustling, all-day Saturday market. Thanks to Monica's suggestions, we learned that just out the door were several good restaurants, as well as "super marché," a great wine store and Dechamps Phillipe, a patisserie with amazing coffee éclairs among its sinful offerings. The apartment was clean and comfortable with wireless Internet and cable tv. All of this, including the underground parking, for about $150 a night at the current dollar-euro exchange rate.
And, when we were ready to venture out, our apartment made for a great base of exploration in this part of France. Located roughly equi-distance between Avignon, Nimes and Arles, Uzès lies about 50 miles inland from where the Rhone delta empties into the Mediterranean and not far off the busy A9 motorway that connects Lyon, Montpellier and Barcelona. From this vantage point, we were able to pick a different direction each day and explore some of the highlights of this beautiful region.
After a good night's rest, our first destination was the world-famous UNESCO sight at Pont du Gard, the Roman aqueduct bridge across the River Gardon. Constructed around 19 B.C. to provide water to nearby Nimes, an important center of Roman administration, the Pont du Gard is the highest of Roman aqueducts built and today is considered by many to be the best preserved aqueduct after its urban cousin in Segovia, Spain. This structure is, well, breathtaking to behold. Amazingly preserved and intact, you can walk across the main span and climb up and across the upper span. Back down on the ground, there is an excellent, start-of-the-art museum and, during warmer weather, swimming and kayaking are available. Although my spouse and I were suitably blown away, generally, it takes a lot to impress our jaded, nearly-12-year-old son. But, in this case, the Pont du Gard managed the task very effectively.
The next day was New Year's Eve and we headed south to check out the city that had earned such a magnificent source of water. After driving through the spectacular Gorges du Gardon, which tested the steering precision of our rented Mercedes, we arrived in Nimes, the 2000-year-old capital of the Gard department of the Languedoc-Rousillon region. During Roman times, Nimes was an important stop on the Via Domitia, the ancient road that connected Italy and Spain. Today, this city of about 140,000 claims two of the finest examples of Roman Empire architecture anywhere. The city boasts a still-functioning amphitheater and it also is home to the Maison Carrée, one of the best-preserved Roman temples still in existence. After exploring both of these ancient sites, we strolled through the center of Nimes, which features a warren of pedestrian-only streets and alleys filled with shops and cafes. After a quick break, we spent the last afternoon of 2012 enjoying the Jardins de la Fontaine, Nimes' 18th century park built around the ruins of Roman baths. A highlight of this beautiful and elegant park is a ruined tower that now features an observation deck, which rewards climbers with a panoramic view of this sophisticated and interesting city, often overlooked by tourists who flock instead to nearby Avignon and Arles. Pleased with our "discovery," as the late afternoon sun began to set, we made our way back "home" to Uzès and to what would turn out to be a very quiet ringing in of the New Year. If there was partying amongst our temporary neighbors, we heard not a peep. For us, New Year's Eve 2012 involved a quiet dinner cooked with ingredients from the local market, accompanied by bread from the boulangerie down the street and some delicious wine from the nearby "magasin de vin," topped off by some of those éclairs.
THE CITY OF POPES: After saying au revoir to 2012, New Year's Day 2013 started off on a gloomy note. A quick walk around the rainy, deserted streets of Uzès the next morning confirmed that, at least in this corner of France, New Year's Day was all about staying inside. Virtually no one else was out and nearly everything was closed. What to do? Well, after a late breakfast of baguette, eggs, local preserves and chocolate, we checked online and confirmed that at least one major visitor sight in Avignon was open. So, we grabbed our umbrellas and headed north, back to the City of Popes.
Avignon today is one of Provence's most visited cities, and it features lots of hotel choices with good shopping, dining and nightlife. It sits on the left bank of the Rhone River and is one of the few cities in this part of France that retains its ramparts or ancient city walls. Much of the city's key visitor sites, including several museums, lie within these walls. But, Avignon's main claim to fame dates back several centuries to a break in the rule of the Roman Catholic Church. It's a rather complicated story involving kingdoms that no longer exist, but - as a result of a schism - the church was ruled for more than a century not from Rome, but from Avignon. Between 1309 and 1423, a series of popes (and their contenders) held court from this scenic location. Their legacy is the gothic Palais des Papes, an imposing castle that looms over the city and offers commanding views. Less palatial and more monastic, it's a rather cold and austere place and certainly bears no resemblance to the church's other, lasting seat of power in Rome. But, it made for a very atmospheric visit on a cold, January day. Adjacent to the palace is the imposing, Romanesque Cathedral of Notre Dame des Doms and, next door, the Rocher des Doms, a beautifully landscaped garden perched above the Rhone and overlooking Avignon's other signature landmark. The Pont Saint-Benezet, or Pont d'Avignon, was built in the 12th century as a series of stone arches across the river. But, repeated flooding destroyed more than half the span. And, since the 17th century, it has stood un-rebuilt, not as a means of transport, but as an iconic symbol of Avignon. In fact, the bridge inspired an old French nursery rhyme that sings of dancing on this, the original bridge to nowhere.
Back at the apartment that evening, I spent our last evening in Uzès studying the map of this region and wondering how soon we could plan our return. More directions and lots more destinations await. In the meantime, we were getting excited about the next stop on our holiday: the gorgeous capital of Cataluña that is Barcelona.