Driving Without Maps

Apt Helper

Apt Helper

Guess what? I’m on a train again, so this is the first time I’ve had since my last train ride to just sit and “do nothing.”  It’s been a busy few days!  I’ve been experiencing something that doesn’t fit into the paradigm that I always thought was true: time flies when you’re having fun.  Many times in the past, I’ve felt like time has whizzed right by when I’ve been having fun.  This week, however, I’ve been having a ton of fun, but it seems like I’ve been traveling for ages.  I’m not sure how to explain that one.  Clearly time drags at its slowest when you’re dreadfully bored, and maybe the difference here is that I’ve been squeezing a ton of variety into my schedule these last few days, so looking back makes my arrival in Nice seem like a week ago.  In reality it was only three days ago.  But, hey, I’m not complaining!  I definitely feel like I’m getting my money’s worth out of this vacation.

So, to pick up where I left off.  The train ride from Marseille to Nice was a series of fantastic coastal views interrupted by more than a few tunnels.  After arriving in Nice, I somewhat painfully found my way to the youth hostel, which is quite a few kilometers north of the town center.  Google maps was incapable of pinpointing anything more than the street the hostel was on, but when I got there I figured I could find it by looking at house numbers.  Climbing lots of steep hills with the full weight of my backpack and the rather hot Mediterranean sun, I became fairly drenched with perspiration.  To frustrate things, the ascending street numbers magically skipped the exact number I was looking for and started descending again.  I made my way back to the bottom of the hill to search another option, and failing that, I broke down and called up the hostel.  They were just another 100 meters further up the hill than I had gone, but bless them, they came and picked me up.  The hostel was a pretty interesting conversion of an old monastery, and it was not without its charm.  It had nice views of the city below and the sea beyond.  The place was under a bit of construction though, which took away from it a bit.  One interesting thing is that it appears to be entirely run by British people and almost nobody was speaking French.

I had several hours before church would start, so I dropped off my things and headed back to town.  With a rare burst of ingenuity, I decided to hop back on a train for the short ride to Monaco.  My Eurail pass works in such a way that I can use it as much as I want within a midnight-midnight period.  I have 5 days on my pass, so rather than try to visit Monaco in the morning, it made more sense to go during a day I had already used on my pass.  To make a long story short, I only got about 1 ½ hours to visit Monte Carlo, but I’m very glad I went.  It really is an amazingly improbably city.  I’m not sure who originally looked at the inhospitably steep cliffs and thought, “This would be the perfect place to build a city,” but they succeeded in building something that looks like it would fit into a fantasy novel.  After noticing the fantastic setting of the city, it wasn’t long until I noticed the fabled evidence of wealth.  Within the short time I walked around, I saw more exotic cars than I saw at the New York Auto Show.  Oh, and there were quite a few floating tributes to unrestrained hedonism too.

I rushed back up about 1,500 steps to the train station, rendering moot my earlier shower, only to find out that I had misread the train schedule.  The train I thought I’d catch actually ran only on Saturdays.  The schedule said only on Samdi, which my still-struggling brain thought was the word for Sunday (Dimache is the correct word, but “Samdi” sounds so much closer to “Sunday”)  Anyway,  I had to wait an extra half hour, which in turn made me about 15 minutes late for church.  I arrived just as they were finishing the last song, but I got to hear the entire message.  The entire service was conducted, to my amazement, in English.  It seemed a bit anemic, probably like most borderline new-evangelical churches, but it was nice none-the-less to meet some Christians and eat some free food after the service!  A Scottish guy named Will Smith (no joke) invited me to stop at a café and have a drink, so I followed him through one of the main streets in town.  Seeing as he was a Christian, I was a bit surprised that he ordered a beer.  We talked for about an hour before heading down towards the old part of town where we sat and ordered another drink.  (this time, he ordered a diet coke)  He was an interesting person to talk to, though I wonder just where he is spiritually.  A bit ironically, he has family that lives in New Hampshire, and has been there a few times.  Anyway, by this point it was getting late, so I took the tramway back up to the closest stop to my hostel, walked back up the long hills, took another shower, and finally went to bed.

The next morning, I stocked up on a few bowls of cereal from the breakfast that was included with my stay.  I headed back into town and indulged in a quick peripatetic tour of Massena, the beach, and Vieux Nice, the old part of town where delightfully random streets created a maze of narrow crevices through ochre-colored buildings.  It was already an hour past when I was scheduled to pick up my car, so I got back on the tram to head back to the train station.  The electric tram is very modern, worthy of a place in Disneyworld.  Parts of its tracks are laid in a lush green lawn, making it the “greenest” tram I’ve ever seen.

I picked up my car at Hertz, gladly paid to upgrade it to a Mercedes that included navigation, and drove back to the hostel to pick up my bags.  Just on the short drive back to the hostel, I learned that the navigation system could not be trusted.  It tried having me go up a street that was only for the tram, which could have been the cause for some unwelcome adventure had I decided to obey it.  I more or less found the hostel by memory of my walks there.  I took some time at the hostel to figure out where I was driving and secure a reservation for the night in a town called Frejus.  Before long I was on my way to a frustrating 20 minutes of moronic guidance by the navigation that brought me promptly to every 4-foot-wide, dead-end alley in Nice.  Finally, seemingly by chance, I found my way onto a highway and drove in the correct direction for about 5 miles when I had to pay €2 to get off the highway and start heading north.  I decided to stop at a Carrefour (a Wal-Mart of sorts) to buy some food for lunch.  It must have been the only commercial center in a hundred square miles, because the place was mobbed with people.  I started chuckling at the irony of ending up straightaway in a very American, cheerless mega-box store.  What happened to the quaint, hedge-lined country roads?  I grabbed some fruit and water and headed for one of about 50 checkout lanes with long lines of shoppers.  The place may actually be more like a Costco.  Well, I spied a lane with nobody in it, so I darted over, only to be asked for my “pass.”  I guess they have express checkout lanes for those who are willing to pay for it!  Another difference here: they provide no bags.  I guess it is a bit like Costco.

Eventually, I found my way (amazingly even with the help of my navigation system!) into the back country roads where I found great satisfaction in the serpentine roads that made their way up and into the mountains.  Here is where I learned just how crazy some French drivers are.  I decided to give it my Le Mans best, zipping around hairpins until my tires squealed, but within minutes I had a guy driving a delivery van swerving impatiently on my bumper!  I give him my props!

I came to my first destination, the small town of Vence Saint-Paul.  I had been told that this was a charming, hillside, Medieval village, but after hopping out of my car and walking around a couple of blocks, I realized I must be in the wrong place.  I was already running rather late and couldn’t easily find a tourist office, so I just continued to the village of Grasse, the perfume capital of the world.  This town is also built along a steep hillside, and though I saw several inviting streets, I had a terrible time finding parking.  I had heard that you can visit one of several places that allow you to create your own perfume, and I thought this could be a perfect gift for my sister’s birthday–something small and easily portable for my travels, but also something unique and meaningful.  I finally found one of the perfume factories, parked my car, and went in just in time for a tour.  Well, being in French, it was mostly a waste of time for me, and my biggest disappointment was to learn that creating your own perfume was quite expensive, required a reservation (available for tomorrow, they said!), and took about 1 ½ hours!  So I just searched through their selections and found something that I hope Lydia likes.

By now it was early evening, so I drove back down to the seaside village of Frejus and Saint-Raphael.  I had another hour or so of daylight left, so I tooled around for a while until I finally found some parking.  Frejus, like every town I’ve seen thus far, possesses the charming cobbled squares with fountains and awning-covered corner cafes that I’ve found to be the norm in France.  When it came time to finally find my hostel, I found the navigation to be particularly frustrating.  I used my iPhone to search Google maps, but none of the nearly street names I found were listed in the car’s navigation system.  Finally, I saw that the hostel was not far from a hospital, and though the hospital’s street name was not listed in the GPS, the hospital was under points of interest.  Exasperatingly, after I entered the hospital as the destination, it then listed the street name as the destination!  Well, from here I could find my way to the hostel, which was situated at the end of a dirt road past a park featuring the ruined remains of an ancient Roman aqueduct.  The hostel was rather full and my bed looked like it hadn’t been changed, but it was the cheapest place I’ve stayed in so far.  I ate a dinner of a yogurt and some salt-free bread I had purchased at a grocery store (note to self, pay attention to the label! Salt-free = taste-free).  I struck up an engaging conversation with a lady from Antibles and she told me about some places to visit for my drive through Provence.  Finally, I went to bed and coped with the symphony of snoring until I fell asleep.

I could see around a bit better in the morning light, and I determined that the place had its charm.  It was a grand stone building, with typically thick walls and large, shuttered windows.  Outside, a pleasant row of trees provided shade for some picnic tables where we ate breakfast.  The overall setting was pretty nice; it would have been a better experience if the place was kept a bit cleaner.

I left the hostel and drove to a small town called Agay where I was rewarded with some stunning coves and brilliantly-clear water that lived up to the area’s name of Cote d’Azure.  Much of the drive through Agay reminded me of any prosperous beach resort community in America, with lovely golf courses, bike paths, and lots of small beaches.  I stopped at one that looked to be a bit quieter than the rest and found out why.  Though the walk down went through some lovely trees and it opened up onto a very nice sandy stretch, the sand quickly turned to a beach completely of smooth stones.  Not exactly the stuff for building sand castles.  It was still very pretty, and the stones were uniformly smooth, perfect for skipping.  A few hundred meters out was an island with some sort of old fortress standing sentinel in the bay.  I took off my sandals and felt the pleasant waters of the Mediterranean for my first time, wading up to my knees.

Back in the car, I drove through the busy vacation town of Saint Raphael and headed straight to Aix-en-Provence.  I’ve heard that this is a lovely city, not to be missed, and I’m glad I didn’t.  I drove throughout the center of town, finally finding a spot to park (I’ve found this to be a perennial challenge), and I walked down a fabulous shady street until I found a café that served free WiFi in addition to a nice 3-course lunch for under 20 Euros.  Unfortunately, I only had enough coin cash on me to feed the parking meter for an hour, so by the time I was done lunch, and updating face book, I had to head straight back to the car, hoping that I didn’t get a parking ticket for the 30 minutes I had gone over.  Fortunately, there was no ticket, and I left town for another small town aptly-named, Apt (sorry, couldn’t resist yet another pun).

Apt is set between Aix-en-Provence and Avignon, and features what is becoming less of a novelty to me: ancient cobbled streets, charming cafes, fountains, etc.  While less novel, I don’t cease to enjoy it, and I decided to take my time to perambulate it’s streets.  I wandered out of the center of town and into what I guess are some more residential parts, where the shops faded and curious doors and tiny windows interrupted ancient stone walls.  I’m amazed at how much graffiti is in France–it seems to be everywhere.  Even here among these streets that seemed redolent with history, I noticed some alleys with “urban art.”

I came around a corner to find a 10-year-old boy bounce-kicking a soccer ball off a wall.  He must have thought I was lost because he asked me what I was looking for as I walked by.  I told him in my broken French that I was just taking photos, but that I was heading back to my car on the other side of town.    Clearly bored, he made it his mission to help me find my car and chatted with me as we made our way back through the town.  I guessed he was from a fairly meager existence, but he made all kinds of outlandish claims about everything we passed: pointing out a large flat-screen TV as the same as his, claiming his parents had a Ferrari, that sort of thing.  His eyes got wide when he saw my Mercedes and even wider when I pulled out my iPhone.  He seemed concerned that I like his town, asking me a couple of times if I liked Apt.  I told him I had to get going, but he strongly disapproved.  My next hostel was in a town at least an hour away.  He finally talked me into visiting les Jardins Publique before I left, so I followed him to a pleasant but not terribly remarkable public park.  It was a bit endearing to follow this eager boy around his town, carrying his well-worn soccer ball everywhere he went, greeting with familiarity nearly everyone we passed.  This was his town, and he was proud of it.  The whole experience seemed more like something I’d expect to find in a place like Mexico.

Finally leaving Apt about 45 minutes later than I had planned, I decided that I’d do better to try for a hostel in a town less than half the distance from where I was supposed to be headed.  This would give me the added advantage of a shorter drive to Marseille in the morning.  So, I headed for Fontaine du Vauclusse.  I drove through the tiny town right at dusk and noticed that in addition to the normal charm of shady traffic circles and inviting sidewalk cafes, a lovely river flowed through the center.  I found the hostel without any trouble, not even attempting to use the navigation.  I had been unsuccessful at reaching the hostel by phone, and I sincerely hoped there was room for me.  Indeed I ended up sharing a dorm room for 9 with only one other person.  This hostel had much more charm and was much cleaner than the previous night’s.  Also in a what looked like a large old stone farmhouse, this hostel had a nice view of the surrounding cliffs.  The setting was the most tranquil I’ve had thus far, and I sat down in the courtyard under a starry night to write a few postcards.

I visited the town after a pleasant breakfast, and benefited from the early hour with easy, free parking.  I remembered having read about this town in one of my guide books.  It is famous as the source of the Sourge River.  I took the 20-minute walk up to the source which was long past the prime gushing flow that can be seen early in Spring.  It was still an interesting walk with high, pocked cliffs on either side.  An intriguing looking castle/fortress commanded a precipitous peak on the opposite side of the valley.  Most remarkable to me was how utterly clear the water was.  The river was also lush with bright green plants, and as the sunlight filtered through the trees, the water looked brilliantly green.  I thumbed through a book at a souvenir shop and saw that the source, which I had seen as just a clear, blue pool in a cave, is actually the top of a several hundred meter deep shaft.  When the spring is at its full flow, the waters gush out of the cave about 30-40 feet higher than where it rests during the summer.  There are a series of secondary feeds that keep the river flowing with plenty of water during this time of the year.  I walked up to one of these, where the water seemed to be boiling right out of some thick bushes.

After a very relaxing walk through town, I hopped back in the car and drove to Marseille. I made it into the city in plenty of time to return the car, but I had a lot of difficulty finding where the Hertz car return was located.  For brevity’s sake, I’ll just say that the car rental system at the Marseille train station is NOT terribly convenient.  I finally got to the counter about a minute before it would have cost me an extra day.

Well, that pretty much brings me up to where I now sit, riding a train headed for Barcelona.  I had to transfer trains in Montpellier, and I find it interesting to compare the “First Class” cabin of the Spanish Train to that of the TGV.  It looks like it was probably first class in 1968, but hasn’t been maintained since!  It doesn’t have electric power at the seat, so I can’t keep my laptop plugged in, which means I’m starting to run low on my battery.  The terrain is changing outside the window.  Things are starting to look more dry, and we’ve passed through some interesting villages with lovely canals, people fishing in rivers, and kids jumping of bridges into the water.  For now, it’s time to shut the laptop down and look into finding lodging for tonight.  I’ll catch back up again on my train ride back to France, I’m sure!

One Response to “Driving Without Maps”

  1. sandrar Says:

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

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