Our time in Cordes Sur Ciel had been one of the most amazing experiences we have ever shared together. We were expecting something a little different, but we had no idea of just how different this place really is. The four days we spent wandering the narrow streets, gazing at the view, exploring the nearby villages and soaking up the history of this town will never be forgotten. Unfortunately time marches on and the morning arrived for us to pack our bags and bid farewell. Of course that meant once more driving up the tiny cobblestoned alleyway to the front of our hotel. The day that we arrived in this town was the same day that we picked up our rental car and I could still vividly remember the sheer terror that I felt trying to navigate the unfamiliar streets in a totally unfamiliar car.
Now that we had become more familiar with the streets, it did not seem quite as daunting. I safely made it to the front door, collected our bags and said “Au Revoir” to the staff. We bounced and rocked our way back down the hill, ready for the next stage of our trip. Since Maggie had requested that we stay away from the major arterial roads this time, I asked Tom (aka “TOM TOM”) to give us a route that would avoid all the toll roads. We set off.
We had not gone very far before we realised that avoiding the toll roads might have seemed like a romantic notion, but we were then placed with the challenge of driving along diminutive back roads that were barely wider than our car. I guess that is the problem when you take a track that has only been used for walkers for thousands of years and try to convert it to a road. Our progress was painfully slow as we crept around a series of tortuous hillside tracks and squeeezed our way between barns and houses. At that rate we would not have arrived at Avignon till about mid December.
By the same token I did have to admit that the Provence countryside was beautiful. With the rolling hills and the brilliant autumn colours that were now blanketing the countryside, it was not hard to see why many foreigners are seduced by this place and end up living here. We had already met a few Australians who had made the decision to start a new life in France and their obvious enthusiasm was quite contagious.
After three hours of twisting and turning, Tom kept revising our expected arrival time in Avignon and it became evident that we would have to modify our original plan and head to the closest toll road. France has a growing network of these super highways and they do constitute a quick and efficient way to get from major centre to major centre. The only problem is that they tend to be rather boring and you do need a pocketful of coins to keep feeding the regular pay stations along the way. The nominal speed limit is 130 kph, although many drivers seem happy to drive considerably faster than that.
Soon we were flying along the relevant tollway and the kilometres finally started to tick by. I did discover that the Nissan Juke we were driving was a bit of a gutless wonder and had to be prodded and coaxed to get anywhere near the 130 kph limit. Downhills were OK, but on any sort of a climb the speed quickly dropped away.
After about 7 hours of driving my eyelids were getting heavy as we finally arrived at the famous city of Avignon. This place was actually the seat of the Catholic Popes for a period of the 14th century. The centre of the old part of town is surrounded by a huge fortified wall and the city was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995. Since we had only booked one night here we would not have much time to explore, especially as it was after dark when we finally reached the B & B we had booked. The owner said it “was easy” to get back into town and gave some handwaving directions as to where to park the car. We didn’t understand a word of it, but nodded and replied that it sounded like a good idea.
It took some degree of white knuckle maneuvering to reverse the car out of their driveway without bashing into the owner’s cars or the wall of their house. I think I almost succeeded. We had not driven the car after dark and I could not figure out if the headlights were on or off. Certainly most of the streetlights in Avignon were definitely off, making it virtually impossible to see where we were supposed to be going. I pressed my nose on the windscreen while Maggie tried to calm me down and forestall my impending nervous breakdown. It was a Saturday night and we soon found ourselves in a tight jam of cars going somewhere. Where ? We didn’t know. We couldn’t get out of the jam anyway. We followed them to wherever they were taking us.
After a series of more twists and turns we entered a huge tunnel into the Palais des Popes. Since we had read about that, it seemed a good idea. Then up another tight corkscrew ramp. (Damn those tight corkscrews made only for tiny cars and insane drivers). Finally we found a parking spot and, after about 10 minutes of juggling, managed to park the car more or less correctly. I prized my fingernails out of the steering wheel. took a deep breath and announced “Well that was interesting”.
Taking a good look around so that we would have a fair chance of finding the car again, we went in search of dinner. The centre of Avignon was buzzing and we found a likely looking Pizza Restaurant and enjoyed a passable French Italian Pizza together. Judging by the number of paparazzi photographers gathered outside the Opera House, I guess that someone famous must have been inside. I suppose I could have told them that I was part of the famous Ghostriders Cycling Group, but at that time I just wanted to get back to our bed and get some sleep.
The following morning we bade farewell to the house owner and squeezed the car back out of her driveway. Sweaty palms right from the start. Considering the challenging nature of driving in France I was just glad that we did not have to teach our teenage kids how to drive in this place. I don’t think that either us or the kids would have survived the strain.
Our first stop was at the unusual hilltop town of Roussillon. Unlike the myriad of medieval villages scattered all over France, this town stands out because it looks more Mexican or Spanish than French. All the buildings are rendered with a pink coloured ochre that is apparently obtained nearby. We had a delightful hour or so there before the busloads of tourists started arriving. Before we left I was able to observe the antics of the most self absorbed selfie taker I have ever seen. Armed with her large iPHONE and huge selfie stick she worked her way from building to building, carefully posing and photographing herself in front of every one of them. She would take a few steps, throw her head back, smile at the selfie stick and “click”, another one captured. All the time she never took her eyes from the screen ! I knew that it was time for us to leave.
We then had a sizable drive to Cassis on the Mediterranean coast. This is a beautiful town that we had stayed in back in 2013 and we were keen to see it again. The remaining drive was mostly on toll ways and should have been easy. It wasn’t. Each time you pass onto a tollway you must collect a ticket from the machine. When you leave the tollway you insert the ticket and it calculates the amount you have to pay. Since I was busy driving, each time I collected a toll ticket, I passed it straight to Maggie for safekeeping.
This system worked well until we stopped at a roadside rest station. When we got back into the car I asked Maggie if she had the ticket ready. She couldn’t find it. We searched our pockets, we searched the back seat of the car, we searched the glovebox. Just when we were about to give up, Maggie shouts “I see it”. It had fallen down between the seats. We then spent the next 10 minutes trying to reach it, before finally succeeding.
“That was a relief”, I said. “Without the ticket we would have had to pay a special penalty”. We drove to the final turnoff to Cassis and pulled in at the final pay station, retrieved ticket in hand. Just when Maggie was about to pass it to me she had an horrific realisation. “That isn’t the toll ticket, it is the parking ticket from Avignon”, she says.
At that stage I am stuck in the line of cars at the boom gate. OK, what do we do now ? I push the red emergency button. A French voice says something that I do not understand. “Do you speak English ?”, I ask. There is a long pause before the reply “Non”. I try to explain in my best Gibberish “Ticket lost”. I could have added that it was all due to my incompetent partner, but my three words of French would have made this difficult.
I think the operator must have taken pity on the elderly couple from Australia as we were only charged EUR1.4 and we were on our way again. The final few kilometres into Cassis involved some more white knuckle driving down a succession of narrow, hilly, one way streets but somehow we arrived at the correct accommodation. I let out a sigh of relief, turned off the ignition and was ready for a cup of coffee and a rest.
One of the things that Cassis is famous for is the huge sheer cliffs that drop over 400 vertical metres into the Mediterranean. The books say that these are the highest cliffs on the whole Mediterranean and they are certainly impressive. Looking at the cliffs from our window I made the mistake of asking the owner if there was any way to get to the top. He explained that there is a little road that winds its way to the very cliff face. It is called the “Route des Cretes” and it is one of the most spectacular clifftop drives anywhere in the world. Little wonder that access to this road is severely restricted.
Since we had nothing particular planned for the following day I suggested to Maggie that we could try driving the road in question. To my surprise she did not immediately veto the idea. I almost wished she had. We climbed into the car and battled our way out of town and up a tiny street with a gradient over 20%. The Nissan puffed and struggled its way up the hill. I struggled to keep my heart rate under 160. “This is not so bad”, I lied to Maggie. She wasn’t talking to me anymore.
Soon we were winding back and forth along the twisting road. Precipitous drops switched from my side of the car to Maggie’s side. And not an inch of ARMCO in sight. My speed dropped back to about 20 kph. I told Maggie that I was driving slowly for her, but in truth I was terrified. And then the rain started. I tried to turn on the windscreen wipers. Oops, that’s the indicators. I could not see where we were going, not sure if that was a good thing or bad. I have been on some hairy roads in my time. Certainly some of the roads in Nepal, Bhutan and Peru were probably more exposed, but I wasn’t driving then. I could just sit and put my life in someone else’s hands. For some reason it seemed worse when I was in charge of the vehicle.
We managed to stop at a couple of very high vantage points, but the torrential rain unfortunately meant that we could not see a thing. The road continues for about 14 km to the nearby town of La Ciotat. Although we were relieved to finally descend into the town, the torrential rain had sent rivers of water flowing down the steep streets and I was reluctant to stop in case we got swept away. Just a week earlier 20 people had been drowned in Cannes following a huge deluge of rain and I did not want to appear in the next day’s news.
We kept driving and returned to Cassis (this time along the Toll Road). We had another unfortunate incident at the toll station that I would rather not mention at this stage and we greatly relieved to arrive back at our room in one piece. It had been another “interesting” experience.