“As soon as we leave the urban condition behind us, we confront newness and the profoundly unfamiliar. “ Rem Koolhaas
As I drove home from the end of my first women’s only slow travel tour this year, I thought to myself that youth is not a prerequisite for adventure. Originally, this tour was sold out, but at the last minute two women canceled because they were still anxious about traveling, which left four, ages 60 to 79. I hoped that as we unraveled the threads that bound us together as women, we would become good traveling companions, and maybe even friends. Slow travel allows you to gather unexpected experiences and unique memories, often transforming a simple trip into a life-changing holiday.
Journal Excerpts from A Women’s Only 12 Day Slow Travel Adventure in Occitanie and Provence –
Maybe it was the full moon, or mercury in retrograde, or just the way things go these days, but it seemed like everything that could go wrong did yesterday. I arrived in Toulouse driving an enormous 9-seater passenger van to pick up Suzanne at her hotel, someone I knew (though not very well) from Washington, but there was no way to get to her! All of the streets were blocked by police cars. Police were everywhere, some even dressed in riot gear. We telephoned back and forth for an hour, because I kept being sent in another direction by the gendarmes. I must have driven around Place Wilson for an hour until we finally found each other. Suzanne was noticeably tired after having wheeled her suitcase through the city with a cast on one wrist after having broken it 3 weeks before. She’d had surgery to install a metal plate in the shape of a fork to keep it together.
I thought I’d given myself enough time to then get to the airport to pick up Linda, from Arizona, but with an hour spent trying to pick up Suzanne, I knew I’d be late. To complicate matters, Linda doesn’t have a mobile phone, so I couldn’t call her. I dashed to the airport only to discover her plane would be an hour late! After a pause at an airport café, Linda’s plane finally arrived, but not Linda! I had her name on a chalkboard, and kept going up to women who were standing around looking lost, but still no Linda. Baggage claim emptied. What to do? Go to Albi and wait for her to send me an email? Tell her to take the train? I was just about ready to leave with Suzanne when she came up behind me, having recognized my hair from behind. Phew,,,I breathed an audible sigh of relief.
Finally on the road to Albi. We were three hours late when we arrived at L’Autre Rives, a beautiful B&B in the heart of the city, and had a dinner reservation in 1/2 an hour! After we did an abbreviated check-in with the lovely and stylish Isabelle Martial, I collected Suzanne and Linda, and we walked into the old city center across the Cantepau bridge that offers a beautiful view. In the distance we could see the Pont Vieux, an ancient bridge still in use, dating from 1040, with characteristic arches and a drawbridge at each end. Behind the bridge on a rocky knoll loomed the largest brick cathedral in the world, Sainte-Cécile. We had a fabulous dinner overlooking the cathedral at La Planque de l’Éveque.
The next morning we were off to St. Antonin Noble Val, a charming village at the bottom of the Tarn Gorge. A nice slow travel day.
We meandered through the farmers’ market along the winding, cobbled streets, had lunch at a local brasserie, then returned to Albi to pick up Mary Ann and Carolyn, friends from Florida touring together, at the train station in the late afternoon. We dined at Le Clos de Saint-Cécile in their tree-shaded courtyard, a welcomed respite since the temperature had risen to 95 degrees by noon.
After a delicious breakfast on the patio the next morning, which included homemade yogurt, confitures, croissants, and chouquettes (little puffed choux pastry delights) we drove to Cordes-sur-Ciel, a beautiful hilltop village that rises above the Cérou Valley. Mary Ann, a wonderful water color artist, brought a few of books she creates and sells on Etsy for us to see.
The small train that would have taken us to the top of Cordes was not running, though I was told it did run on Mondays. Neither Suzanne, Linda, Mary Ann nor Carolyn wanted, or were able to, make the steep climb up the ancient streets. In January, Linda had surgery on her right leg. Carolyne had hurt her ankle, and was using walking sticks, and Mary Ann had a pacemaker. This was going to be a very slow travel tour. We sat down at an outdoor café to talk about what else we might do. Suzanne got up to use the cafe’s bathroom after ordering something to drink. A few minutes later I received a text from her saying she needed help. Puzzled, I went into the bathroom and found her sprawled on the floor, holding her wrist saying she thought she’d re-!broken it! She had missed the step coming out of the stall. A young woman materialized out of thin air, and called the pompiers d’urgence (emergency fire fighters) for me. I helped Suzanne off the floor, and back to the outside table.
A waitress brought her ice and 10 minutes later the pompiers arrived, swarming around her. They decided she need to go to the hospital to have an X-ray. They expected she’d be there a few hours. Before we left another woman had fallen in the bathroom, having missed the same step, but France is not a litigious country, so it’s highly unlikely anything will be done.
We drove to another village, but the entrance to it was blocked off by barriers, so we returned to the B&B and relaxed by the pool and read until Suzanne finally called at 4 in the afternoon. She’d been in the ER for 6 hours. After the X-ray it was determined her wrist was indeed broken again.
We had a leisurely day in Lautrec, visited one of my favorite woad boutiques, the precursor to indigo dye. The woman who dyes everything for the boutique took us down to her atelier and showed us how she does her dyeing process. I
had only met her husband last year so it was nice to meet her and learn about her new class offerings. We had lunch at a funky, but very good restaurant called, Chez Plum. While out on the patio a young man walked in with some friends, and sat down at the next table. Linda said he looked like the man from the Renoir painting called “The Luncheon of the Boating Party.” He wore an orange linen shirt, a boater hat, and sported a gray and brown beard. She kept staring at him throughout lunch, completely smitten. Just before we left the patio Linda asked Suzanne to go up to him and ask to take his photo. We all watched his reaction (and his friend’s) as he donned his hat and posed for her. Linda said she was going to put the photo in a heart shaped frame when she returned home.
We stayed in Albi for most of the day, visiting the Lautrec Museum which also had an exhibit of Degas, walked around the Berbie Palace gardens, and visited the Saint Cécile cathedral. From a wall in Albi I copied down a Lautrec saying. “ Je boirai du lait quand les vaches brouteront du raisin.” I will drink milk when cows graze on grapes.”
We left Albi and drove to Pézanas, the charming city where the French playwright, Molière lived.,then wandered the old part of town, had lunch, dipped into a few boutiques, and rummaged through a few antique shops.
We then left for Le Prieuré La Madeleine, our next B&B in Malaucène, and then crossed the stunning Viaduc de Millau, designed by Sir Norman Foster.
Just before the Avignon bridge, Google maps went crazy, and we ended up traversing the Rhone River 3 times! Suzanne quickly downloaded WAZE, a much better app I now have, and we finally made it to the priory 3 hours late again! We’re staying at a gorgeous 12th century priory below the shadow of Mt. Ventoux. The 2 men who run the B&B are an absolutely delightful couple, Bruno and Olivier. They couldn’t have been more welcoming. Once we unpacked the car, they showed us to our rooms, then Bruno kindly parked the van for me, which he did every day upon our return.
A late dinner at a recently selected Gault et Millau restaurant in Malaucène, L’atelier de la Ferme. Since Malaucène is at the foot of Mont Ventoux, it is slowly filling up with serious cyclists awaiting the Tour de France.
The next morning we drove to the farmers’ market in Eygalières. Had a delicious lunch at a charming restaurant run by a nice grandmother and her granddaughter called, Chez Paulette. On the way back to Malaucène we stopped in St. Remy de Provence, the magical capital of Les Alpilles.
In the early evening we enjoyed an alfresco meal at the priory on one the plane tree-shaded terraces.
Today we spent the day in Uzès, its Saturday market the best in the Gard department. In the afternoon we took a cooking class at Le Pistou, with the ebullient chef, Petra Carter.
We made stuffed courgette flowers, tapenade, Jerusalem artichokes, aubergine relish, and a beautiful twisted sun ray olive tart.
When finished we sat around the table and ate what we’d cooked. We all had fun and arrived at the priory in the evening.
Sunday is usually a quiet day, but we didn’t want to miss the L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue antique and farmer’s market. When we arrived it wasn’t crowded at all, but by 11 it was brimming with shoppers. We were all hot and somewhat cranky after being turned away by a handful of restaurants which wouldn’t add a chair to any of their tables, but were finally seated by separating ourselves into twos and threes,
Another day’s drive through the countryside past the hilltop village of Venasque to the charming village of Roussillon renowned for its rich ochre deposits.
After roaming through the village we stopped in a few art galleries, and were joined for lunch by two of Mary Ann’s friends who were there on a painting holiday.
Dinner was in the village of Le Crestet, dominated by the dizzying, 9th century ruins of one of the oldest castles in the area. The small medieval village contains steep cobbled streets accessible on foot, passages under vaults, and stone arches, and a handful of renaissance residences admirably restored.
The drive up the one lane road was treacherous in the large van. There were turns I couldn’t quite make and had to back up, then go forward again. Once parked, the walkway to the restaurant curved up centuries-worn cobbles, then up a steep flight of stairs to the top terrace. The sunset views of the plain of Ouvèze, the Dentelles de Montmirail, and Mont Ventoux were spectacular, as was the meal.
The waiter, Eric, was much needed comic relief as he sang and danced between courses. The trip down from the restaurant in the dark was even more dangerous than the road down from the castle, but we had guardian angels to guide us, a very kind stranger and the owner of the restaurant whose family we learned had lived there for generations.
Everyone but Suzanne spent the day in Pernes -les -Fontaines, a village I’ve driven by, but never stopped in. There are over 50 fountains to see on a walking route, very old, enormous plane trees, and some good restaurants. It’s touted as an arts & crafts village.
You can find the ateliers by following yellow suns painted on the ground. We met a wonderful artist who uses only colored pencils to create beautiful landscapes.
Our last evening was spent in Bédoin. We had dinner at Lily et Paul, a charming courtyard restaurant. It was decided the following day I would drop Carolyne and Mary Ann back in Bédoin while I drove Linda to Uzès for her next tour. Suzanne stayed at the priory to finish some work on her computer, then took a taxi to meet us. Once back in Bédoin I found Carolyn and Mary Ann tucked away into a small restaurant finishing up a quintessential American meal of hamburgers, fries and cokes.
I gathered the remainder of my group and resettled at the Coeur de Provence Auberge in the Provençal village of Caromb.
Suzanne and I for 1 night, Mary Ann and Carolyn for 2. Suzanne and I left early in the morning for Toulouse. It was an easy trip, but the city center was a nightmare of traffic and people again. I had to circle Place Wilson twice before I could find a place to drop Suzanne off with her luggage so she wouldn’t have to walk far with 2 suitcases now and a healing re-broken wrist.
By the end of this tour I had I discovered a lot about these women, as each day revealed a little bit more about their lives. We only spoke about politics until we discovered which side we were on, then respected each other’s choice, agreeing it’s more important to bridge divides between different backgrounds, than create them.
I reminded myself that in every challenging situation there is always the opportunity for something new, and wonderful to occur, and that women share a special friendship that is deeply complex, and overflowing with nuance – there are few bonds more beautiful or rewarding. I have heard from Mary Ann, Carolyn and Suzanne. Linda is still on tour and will return home this week. And Isabelle just sent everyone the recipe for her delicious Chouquettes.
L’Autres Rives, Albi – https://lautrerives.com/
Le Prieuré La Madalène – https://prieurelamadelene.com/
Le Coeur de Provence , Caromb – https://www.facebook.com/lecoeurdeprovence
Blue Vase Books, by Mary Ann Miller are available on Etsy. Her lovely Provence book is sold out, but is being reprinted.