I was actually quite sad to leave Arles because it held so much promise for a good R & R vacation but my travel plans did not leave room for changes. Yet I was also hopeful as the last three days had turned out quite well.
Our itinerary for the day was to drive across Provence, up the Gorges du Verdon and down to the French Riveria where Nice would be our final destination. Theo had planned the route the night before using a Michelin map we had bought from Arles for only 6 Euros. Prior to the trip, I had combed all the major bookstores in Singapore and was not able to find a detailed map of the region.
Provence is relatively rural with long stretches of plains between towns. As we drove along the small roads, I had the distinct impression of how people may have journeyed between towns during the Middle Ages on horseback and carriages. It didn’t seem like much has changed over the last few centuries, which was the main charm of the area.
After passing through several towns each looking almost the same as the previous, we arrived at Valensole which according to the guidebook is the center of lavender production. However the lavender bushes were still in their budding stage and will only be in full bloom in June/July. Tourists descend upon the region annually to take in the mesmerizing vision of expansive purple fields and to purchase lavender products. We found out that the dried flower has many properties, once of which is to ward moths.
Our initial intention was to stop here for lunch and buy some souvenirs but the town was eerily deserted as if everyone had to leave town suddenly. We were not able to find a hospitable place to eat so we continued on to the next town Riez. Our curiosity was piqued at the apparent desolation of the towns and could only surmount that they were either enjoying a spring break, tending to the lavender fields or have moved to the cities.
There are two routes that circumvent the gorges and as we were on a one-way trip, we chose to go with the more difficult but scenic cornice sublime route. It took us about 3 hours to ascend the mountain, cross the gorge at Pont L’Arturby and descend towards Grasse. Part of the reason for the duration taken was because we had stopped at almost every possible juncture to capture the breathtaking scenery.
At the highest point of the mountain range, we were completely immersed in the clouds and our vision was literally ‘clouded’. It was during this few minutes that I had silently regretted choosing to visit the gorge for fear of our safety. Here we are perched at the top of this mountain, trying to grapple with left hand driving on a wet and windy roads with almost zero visibility. God knows if anyone would even know if we are missing should we crash to our deaths.
We did survive that treacherous stretch and stopped for a much needed breather at Pont L’Arturby where I finally caught a glimpse of Verdon, the river responsible for carving the deepest gorge in Europe. I was overwhelmed by the sheer size of the natural wonder (I have not been to the Grand Canyon) and wonder how it could have been created by that tiny river snaking its way through the valley. If there ever was a caption for this mental picture, it would be ‘carving through seemingly insurmountable odds’.
By this time, sunlight was gradually fading and we hurried towards Grasse, world renown for its perfume production. It was a striking contrast as we left the awesome natural setting behind us and descended upon metropolitan build-up that sprawled the base of the mountain and spilled out to the Mediterranean Sea.
Grasse had obviously started as a town located midway up the mountain but have gradually grown to cover the rest of the base. Visiting it took a bit of skill as one had to navigate through the multiple levels in a zigzag manner downhill. I had hoped to visit a perfume factory but most of the stores were already calling it a day.
Unlike Provence, it is no longer possible to distinguish boundaries between the towns. There was an exponential increase in traffic volume and traffic junctions so it took more time to pass through the cities. We arrived in the principality of Cannes after leaving Grasse and steered our way through the busy road to route N6098 which rewarded with our first view of the Mediterranean Sea.
After three days of plains, farms and mountains, the sea was a welcome sight to behold so despite the time, we stopped by the side of the road. The beach, so called, was covered with pebbles which was rather peculiar. Joel was feeling much better and appreciated the opportunity to stretch his legs and throw the multi-colored pebbles into the calm sea. We even stashed away a few for our collection.
We lingered around to catch the last rays of the sun as it disappeared behind the horizons and soon the sky was a dark shade of blue marking the end of our stay in this region. I heard raves about Promenade des Anglais as the place to hang out in Nice but having hailed from a sunny island surrounded by waterfronts, it wasn’t that fantastic. But I have to agree that the Mediterranean Sea and my romance with the civilisations that had been born around it added a distinct advantage.
We had to make a few detours before we located our service apartment Citea Nice Magnan in an iffy neighborhood. Perhaps I wasn’t quite ready to experience my first big European city. Thus far we had encountered deserted towns and a general laid back mood and were now suddenly thrown into a frenzy of activity, noise and traffic.
As it was passed 9pm when we settled into our room, we decided to treat ourselves to a cozy instant meal made up of noodles, oats, porridge and soup prepared in the comforts of our very own kitchenette.