I spend most of the day planning the driving for our upcoming trip. This is the first extended driving trip we’ve taken in France. I’m on the Michelin site, printing directions and maps for all the legs of our coming trip:
· side trips from Nice to Villefranche and Eze
· Nice to Aix-en-Provence, with a side trip to St. Paul de Vence
· Aix to Arles
· Arles to Montpellier (IKEA)
· Montpellier to Caune-Minervois
· Caune-Minervois to Perpignan
On the Michelin site, I enter specific addresses at either end, so the directions lead directly to the place. I also print maps, at the highest level of detail Michelin has, of the destination streets. I think we’re well prepared. This turns out to be not quite correct.
Our bags are packed. Actually, our bag. We have achieved the remarkable (for us) status of having only one packed suitcase, plus one small carryon.
I go to the train station to get our tickets to Perpignan, and am excited to see only one couple in line ahead of me. Silly me.
It takes a full 25 minutes for the couple in front of me to buy their tickets, or whatever it is they’re doing. Tickets are printed, looked at, returned, printed again, discussed.
Finally, it’s my turn. Couldn’t be easier. Two tickets, one way to Perpignan, Senior Carte 50% discount. She prints the tickets, then the Mastercard. Whoops, only charged for one ticket. Has to do it again. Transaction time – 6 minutes. In the US at Penn Station in New York, maybe 30 seconds.
Our upstairs neighbors, Anne and Fraser, have appeared and we’re going to dinner together in Argeles. Fraser has a rental car. We go to Flowers restaurant, and have an excellent meal.
We get caught up to date on their project helping abandoned children in Romania, now complicated by the EU-driven announcement by the Romanian government that there are no abandoned children in their country.
Dinner conversation veers towards Bush and then quickly away. It is so well accepted by every European we’ve met that our president is incompetent that there is no longer any point to discussing it. When antipathy has reached irrelevance there is no further down to go.
The train to Perpignan takes 25 minutes. No adventures.
I made the car reservation for pickup at Budget’s in-city office, located less than 50 yards from the Gare. We get there at 8:35 am, and the office door is locked. The office, says the Budget website, opens at 7:45.
The good news is that the Budget clerk arrives a few minutes later. The bad news is he has no car for us.
He calls the Budget location near the Perpignan airport, and then drives us there (8 minute drive). While he’s gone, of course, the in-town office is locked and empty. Hertz, next door, seems to have a clerk on duty all the time. The car is a Peugeot 407, a beautiful and well equipped automobile. Getting started from the airport location is actually easier than leaving from the in-city location and we’re on our way.The trip from Perpignan to Nice is mostly on excellent highways. The speed limit is often 130 km (81mph), but I set the cruise control at 110 (68 mph), and make sure to pull back into the right lane after passing the slower trucks.We get our first indication that Michelin’s wonderful looking directions are no so wonderful. There is an amazing lack of precision and lack of specific what-to-do instructions. In the printed directions, you’re suddenly on a different route, but how did you get there? We make two wrong turns along the way, which is unusual for us and very frustrating. Pat, trying to make sense of the directions, is even more frustrated than I am. Why can’t the Michelin directions simply tell you what you’ll see and what you should then do, like the excellent Yahoo directions we use all the time in the US?The trip, which Michelin says takes 4 hours 20 minutes, actually takes 6 hours.
We made our reservation at the Boscolo Hotel because we were so impressed with the Boscolo’s New York Café and hotel in Budapest. Finding the hotel was a horror show.
We try to follow the Michelin directions into the city, which are awful. And when, after almost 45 minutes, we finally get to where we’re supposed to be, there’s no Boscolo Hotel.
We drive around in circles for another 30 minutes, praying not to get hit by the flying motor scooters which dart recklessly on both sides of our car, squeezing between lanes.
Finally, we park, illegally I’m sure, and Pat stays in the car while I walk to where our map says the hotel should be, 6 Avenue de Suède, but the door that says “6″ is boarded up.
I go next door and ask “Where is the Boscolo?”
“Down the street where it says ‘Hotel.’”
I go to the Hotel, which on closer inspection says “Park Hotel,” although the large sign says only “Park” which of course suggested a garage not a hotel. The desk clerk says it is indeed the Boscolo Park Hotel.
I’m furious, but Pat is waiting in the car, so I don’t argue about the lack of signage … yet. I have marked our car’s location on my map, and the desk clerk tells me how to drive through a tunnel and the one way streets to the hotel. It’s a 3 minute drive when you know exactly how to do it.
When Pat and I arrive to check in, I resume the discussion of the missing hotel name. The desk clerk insists it says “Boscolo.” We go outside together. She points to the tiny word Boscolo high up on a banner of the hotel … the hotel down the street, not the one we’re in, and the Boscolo logo in the carpet on the sidewalk in front of our hotel, neither vof which is remotely visible when driving by.
A Boscolo post script. When we return to Collioure, I write to Boscolo, complaining about the non-existent signage. Incredibly, I get an answer from Boscolo headquarters claiming they have spoken to their hotel manager in Nice, who says there are signs. I respond with three photos clearly showing no signs, and tell Boscolo they have a strange way of making customers want to return. They don’t answer my second email.
Herb and Marlene are in Nice for their 5th Windstar cruise, and there’s a message from Herb at the Boscolo when we arrive. We freshen up and walk to their hotel, just down the block from ours, and off we go to dinner.
Pat has known Herb and Marlene since she met them on a cruise 35 years ago, and since I came into the picture, we’ve gotten together regularly, but we haven’t seen them for over three years.
There’s lots to catch up on. We talk and laugh, probably too loudly, for two hours at dinner. We all had pasta, and it was excellent. Nice, it seems, used to be in Italy, and there are many fine Italian restaurants.
Finally, the long exhausting day having ended just fine, we collapse into bed.
But I set an alarm, to get up early to see Roger Clemens’ first game with the Yankees, who have now started to win. We have an internet connection in our room, and I watch on the computer (mlb.com TV) as the Yankees and Clemens win again.
Breakfast with Herb and Marlene in an outdoor restaurant along the Nice waterfront promenade continues the conversation from the previous night. We go back to their very nice room at the Meridian Hotel. They have to pack and get to their ship by 12:45, and we’re off on our adventures.
We start in old town Nice, where the old buildings and narrow streets are just utterly charming. There’s a large flower market which is the best we’ve ever seen. We take a casual hour to walk around and soak up the atmosphere.
Then it’s back in the car and off to Villafranche-sur-mer. We take the lowest of the three cornice roads and, on a Sunday morning, the traffic is bumper to bumper for the entire 3 mile drive. This is actually a benefit, as we can both enjoy the amazing sea view villas which line the road.
Approaching Villefranche, we’re amazed that every inch of hillside has been filled with buildings, all overlooking the spectacular Mediterranean below. We talk about returning in the off season, maybe October, and renting (or exchanging for) one of those great apartments.
We never find a parking space in the old town, so we continue on to the village of Eze, up on the middle cornice road featured in Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief and several other movies. It’s also the road where Grace Kelly, then the Princess of Monaco, died in a car crash.
Eze itself is nothing much … an old castle, now a hotel, and a garden of animal statues. We take the middle cornice road back to Nice and the trip which took 30 minutes to get there takes only 4 minutes to return.
After exploring Nice’s classic Hotel Negresto, we have a drink at an elegant bar on the beach. Picture this … brilliant sunshine … gin and tonic … Kir royal … the French Riviera.
Pat raises the camera to take a picture of the mountains along the sea, and as she does, a topless young lady pops up into the view finder.
Later, we taxi to the port and find the Windstar, but we haven’t been pre-approved, so we can’t board the ship, which is a 300 passenger cruise ship with 5 masts for sails. Herb and Marlene are found and they join us on the dock.
Herb tells story of how his camera bag was stolen at the Meridian Hotel. Marlene was sitting with the bags while Herb was off checking something. A well dressed man approached Marlene and said, “Madame, have you dropped some money?”
Marlene looks down, and there are coins on the floor. As she reaches down, the man grabs Herb’s camera bag and sets off across the lobby. Marlene sees him and starts to cry out, but Herb, returning, acts first.
“What are you doing with my camera bag,” he yells at the top of his voice. The man, passing him, hands him the camera bag and keeps going.
This all takes place in the lobby of a 4-star hotel in Nice. Pat’s rule is that every piece of luggage must be linked to a body part – arm, ankle, something – whenever you are sitting in an airport or hotel lobby. It’s a good rule.
Herb and Marlene are tired and have dinner waiting for them on the ship, so we walk back through old town, find another Italian restaurant on an ancient square, and have a quiet dinner al fresco.
We get to bed early, but we set our alarm and ask for a wakeup call at 2:50 am. Why? It’s the final episode of The Sopranos, a TV show we have followed for 7 years. We use Slingbox, and watch the end of a great series. Like everyone else, but especially because we’re watching via internet, we think the screen going black at the end is a cable interruption. But then the credits roll. A brilliant ending to a powerful show.
There are more Michelin mis-directions as we drive to the nearby hill town of St. Paul de Vence … roundabouts not mentioned … route number shifts not explained.
But we’re getting better at interpreting, interposing what Michelin has omitted, and ignoring what is obviously nonsense. We breakfast at a quintessential French village café in St. Paul, enjoying the sun-drenched views across the valley.
Our next stop is Aix-en-Provence, and getting there is not a problem. Finding old town Aix is, as expected, a little more difficult. It’s just the price you pay for searching out the places we love. It’s a price well worth it.
Parking the car is a frightening experience. Drive down three levels through the narrow lanes, looking for a space. Finally find one. Actually, it found us, a man waving as his friend was carefully extracting the car from the space.
Pat gets out to direct me into the space, while I shift gears and let the clutch out ever so slightly. With inches to spare, any lurch will be a crash. The right side of the car ends up 2 inches from a wall, and there is barely room for me to squeeze out the driver’s side.
Now all we have to do is get the car out. Won’t worry about that for a couple of hours.
Leaving the garage, I perform the digital equivalent of Hansel and Gretel’s trail of crumbs through the woods. As I turn at each intersection, I take a photo. If needed, we can look at these in reverse on the digital camera and find our way back.
The center of Aix is beautiful, with a wide boulevard shaded by arching plane trees. We choose one of the café restaurants lining the street, and order salad Nicoise. The tuna is raw chunks. I try a couple; Pat puts hers on my plate. The rest of the salad is excellent.
There are many great shops on the small streets behind the main boulevard. We realize we didn’t make a single purchase in Nice, and strive to correct that deficiency asap. We find four yellow pillows for the chairs of our new table, and I find a watch to replace the one whose strap broke.
On the way back to the garage (photos not needed), I say how wonderful it would be if the car next to us had left. The ‘gods of parking’ hear me, and the space is dutifully empty, the only empty space on the floor.
Once again, on our way to Arles, Michelin leaves out directions about switching highways, but we have learned how to interpose and ignore, so we do fine.
As expected, getting to our B&B in Arles is difficult. Michelin again omits crucial streets and landmarks, and suggests impossible turns into one way streets.
Fortunately, we have the street map (from Michelin on the web). I head into that portion of town where I think we should be, and Pat begins to see street names on the map which match the street names high up on the sides of buildings (the way they are in all European cities and towns). We find our street, get a great parking space a half block away, and find our B&B.
We’re in the oldest section of Arles, and it is charming. Our room on the second floor has high beamed ceilings, a double bed with a hard comfortable mattress, a marble sink with copper inset bowl.
Walking through Arles, Pat remembers that she didn’t get the present for Valerie she had intended to buy at present for Valerie at L’Occitane in Aix. We turn a corner and there’s L’Occitane in Arles. Pat selects lavender soap and and a small dish.
In the center of Arles, we find the square where Van Gogh painted “Starry Night,” sip a glass of red (Provence local, of course) and have dinner at one of the outdoor restaurants in the square. Once I send my steak back to be actually cooked, it is quite good.
We get a little lost winding through the empty streets on our way back, but it’s still light, we find our direction from the map, and we’re in bed early after a long but excellent day.
I get up early, make coffee as our host Geraldine had directed, and am at my laptop (wireless connection in the house) when my Skype rings and it’s my son Jon, up late in Washington DC (it’s 1:00 am there).
Jon’s web cam is one, so I can see him from this tiny back street in the Provence town of Arles as we chat about his work, our grandson Evan, and the progress of our trip. There is still something eerie about the way modern technology permits this kind of world-wide communication, so easy now, and so unheard of just a few years ago.
Geraldine puts out an excellent breakfast, with a selection of tasty breads instead of the usual baguette. She and her husband purchased the building 3 years ago, when it was, in her words, a cave. They fixed it up, added a third floor for themselves, and opened the B&B a year later.
Leaving Arles is no problem, since we had directions from Geraldine, but the Michelin directions would not have sufficed.
We drive to Montpellier, where we have a good experience at IKEA. For one thing, we arrive by car, as you’re supposed to, and not by tram as we did last year.
We quickly succumb to the domineering IKEA “follow the arrows and don’t deviate” system, and worry, when we detour to the rest rooms, moving against the arrows, that the IKEA police will come after us.
We have our 75 euro credit from last year’s debacle, and we quickly spend that and another 50 euros. After checking out, I go to customer service and am pleased to find Stephanie, who was so helpful last year. She remembers me and is thrilled that I took the opportunity to thank her.
We drive the mile to the tram station that we walked last year pushing our ‘stolen’ IKEA shopping carts, park the car, and take the modern, sleek tram into Montpellier for a delightful lunch at the creperie on the huge square. The architecture of that square is spectacular.
There’s more shopping at Galeries LaFayette and The Gap. Perhaps I should explain. Neither Key West nor Collioure offers much in the way of shopping, and we don’t have a car in either place, except when we rent one, so we have to plan our shopping opportunities very carefully. We actually had a long list for this trip, which we began preparing more than a month ago while we were still in Key West.
The drive from Montpellier to Caunes-Minervois is another frustrating exposure to the shortcomings of Michelin computer directions. We pass through Narbonne several times, until we finally abandon the instructions and simply go from town to town, following signs that actually exist instead of those Michelin thinks are there.
This works quite well. We pass through the tiny villages of Lezignan-Corbieres, Homps, La Redorte, Rieux-Minervois, and Peyriac-Minervois, and finally arrive at Caunes-Minervois. It’s a beautiful drive through the country, with farms all around. The roads narrow but not too narrow, and the other drivers are sane. No motor scooters.
We’re supposed to meet Valerie and Lorcan at 6:30 in Caunes-Minervois, in the parking lot across from the school. We arrive precisely at 6:30, but I drive right past the lot and up into the narrow, hilly road leading to the Mairie.
This is too much like Girona last year, taking a too-big car into too-small spaces. I park at the Mairie and attract a crowd – the woman who runs the grocery store, the man who runs the hotel, two other women, all trying to be helpful in French.
We decide that I’ll stay with the car and Pat will walk back down the hill to look for Valerie and Lorcan. I open my laptop on the trunk of the car. Pat says her last view of me is at the laptop, surrounded by four women.
While she’s gone, someone fetches the Irishman who runs the B&B around the corner, and he helps me turn the car around.
“Put yourself in my hands,” he says. “I was a policeman in Ireland for 25 years.”
Pat comes charging up the hill, waving her arms in triumph, Valerie and Lorcan trailing behind, and the former Irish B&B owners from Fern meet the new Irish B&B owner in Caune-Minervois.
We park in the church parking lot, squeezing into the one space available, and haul our luggage back up the hill to the house Valerie and Lorcan have exchanged for the week.
It is a perfect example of an old French village home. The first floor contains the bedroom Valerie and Lorcan are using, the second floor has a kitchen, living room, and small back terrace, the third floor a bedroom and bath for us. Our bathroom is huge, with a stand alone claw foot tub, backed by a disconcerting picture of St. Teresa of the Little Flower.
After our long day, we’re happy to sit in the pocket terrace, where we share wine and cheese (two bottles of red and two of rose) and great conversation (the Irish call it “crack”) until almost 10.
We sleep late and spend a quiet day reading, exploring the town, and talking with our friends. There’s wireless internet in the house, so we check our email.
There isn’t much to see in Caunes-Minervois. The store and the hotel we saw when we arrived are the only store and hotel in town. There’s an impressive 11th century church, an atelier with three resident artists, and the big event, a marble carving contest.
Five sculptors have each been given a huge chunk of stone. They’re still in the early stages of their work, using power saws and other tools Michelangelo never imagined.
Later, we’re told, will come the more traditional picks and hammers. We can see an emerging bull and a face on two of the blocks. The other three are thus far indecipherable.
After our quiet day, we go out to dinner. There’s just one tiny restaurant, where we have rather good hamburgers and frites. I have a dark beer that was excellent, but I can’t remember the name. For dessert, we’re offered a choice of vanilla or strawberry ice cream, which, when it arrives, turn out to be frozen Nestle cones.
Valerie and Lorcan lead us back to our car, get in with us, and direct us to the road we’ll take out of town, west toward Carcassonne, less than 20 km away, then east on the A61 toward Narbonne, and finally the A9 south toward Perpignan. Not nearly as picturesque as our trip to Caunes-Minervois, but far quicker and easier driving.
On the way, at Lorcan’s recommendation, I purchase Michelin’s Atlas Touristique for France 2007, a telephone book size tome with over 300 very detailed map pages.
Our target destination are the Auchan and Leroy Merlin stores on the outskirts of Perpignan, where we take advantage of the fact that we have a car to do shopping that is otherwise difficult. for us.
We buy a large storage box for our terrace at Leroy Merlin, and an umbrella at Auchan, along with a variety of smaller items, including a supply of printer cartridges. These items, plus our luggage and prior purchases, completely fill the car, justifying the larger Peugeot 407 I had rented for exactly this reason.
In Collioure, we use our neighbor Mike’s upper level parking space, unload the car, three trips each down the 60 steps. Better down than up. We assemble the storage box and decide we really need two. The umbrella pole is too thick for the base we have.
Taking the piece from our umbrella stand base, we drive back to Perpignan (twenty minutes), stopping on the way at Jardinland to buy three more small plants for the terrace.
We’re amazed at how easy it is to return the umbrella at Auchan. We buy a second storage box at Leroy Merlin and also find an umbrella we like with a thinner pole.
Valerie has told Pat about a great store in a town called Le Boulou. The Michelin atlas provides the route and we find the store, and make some purchases, including a plastic table cloth for the terrace and several citronella candles.
Then it’s off to Carrafours in Argeles-sur-mer for our “bulky buy it when you have a car” grocery shopping (paper goods, soda, etc.).
I decide I want a Big Mac for dinner, and we go to the MacDonald’s next to Carrefour for a decidedly un-French meal. By the way, MacDonald’s fries are better than any frites we have had in France.
To complete the trip, I return the rental car to Budget at Perpignan, leaving it parked around the corner from the office, which is supposed to be open but is not. I draw a little map showing where the car is parked, put it and the keys with the rental agreement, and throw the whole package into the bin.