So, I read an article this morning about the most beautiful small towns in France and saw that I visited 4 of the 17 when I’ve done a tour in 2003 (the four being Villafranche sur Mer, Annecy, Gordes, Roussillon. And I thought it’s time to share about all the beautiful places I saw way back then with you. It was my second solo tour. France is a vast country with many many beautiful places and diversity in the different regions. It was the year when I lived in Leiden, in the Netherlands, for my studies in Dutch literature. So a two-week holiday in June before I returned to South Africa, sounded like a good idea. Earlier that year I visited Paris for a few days, and was hooked on the French culture, language. I felt at home (maybe because of my French Huguenot genes…). So it was a natural choice that I should go back and see and experience more.
As with each travel experience, the planning of the route, is part of the fun. My decision was to see as many as possible regions. The result – long train trips! But it was all worthwhile. I also did not have a digital camera at that time, so I had to scan these photos to be able to share it with you!
Rien ne développe l’intelligence comme les voyages.French novelist Émile Zola
Travel broadens the mind.
Two things stood out for me during this trip. There was a excruciating heat wave at the time, AND there was a railway strike. Every time I went to another district, I hoped it would get cooler, but it never did… The strike influenced some of my travels, but not too much. Things like these actually made it more memorable… I will never forget my first ice cold Hoegaarden (my favourite white beer at the time) I had at the pub in Ambiose…. the first of many to try to cool down.
You will see that most of the places were off-the-beaten track. The list below is in the order of the route I took:
1. Ambiose (Loire)
The Loire Valley has a very distinct feel about it, mainly because of the beautiful chateaus found here. Each little small town has their own chateau. The other thing I remember about being in this area… I had to finish one of my assignments for my studies in Leiden. In those days it was only possible to work at internet cafe’s and had to find some in the first two small towns, and try to work with the difficult french keyboard… Fortunately all ended well and I got quite a good mark for this assignment!
The Loire is of course also well-known for it’s great wine. Unfortunately I did not really have the time or the transport to visit the wine farms.
2. Saumur (Loire)
The rivers in the Loire valley are spectacular.
3. La Rochelle
And then I got to La Rochelle, totally something different! It’s a beautiful port town/city. It was the only time in Europe that I saw people living on the streets, and I saw twice blood flowing from a knife fight. It was quite a shock to me and I realised that Stellenbosch is like a little “bubble” in South Africa. Although South Africa’s crime rate is sky high, I’ve never seen such violence in person… And also not since…
4. I’le d’Aix
From La Rochelle I took a boat to I’le d’Aix. Napoleon built a fort nearby this island (Fort Boyard), so the boat went to the fort first before docking at the small island of about 1 square km. The decision to cycle to see most of the island was great. Cars (except for service vehicles) are prohibited and people move around on foot or by bicycle.
5. Sarlat (Dordogne)
The next area I visited was the Dordogne valley. It was here that the railway strike started to influence my travels. On the way to Sarlat, the train stopped at Bergerac… I still had quite a bit to go before reaching Sarlat. Fortunately another small train arrived later who took the few of us to Sarlat. After two evenings in Sarlat, I went to the train station to buy a ticket for the next leg of my journey – quite a long stretch to Avignon. And then I was told that there were no trains because of the strike. The next day neither, but then there would have been a bus to the next town, from where I could get the train. I was devastated, my booking was made for a nice hotel in Avignon… But then I realised that I should make the best of it and hired a bicycle for the day. I cycled to some of the small towns in the region, and stumbled on the stunning town La Roque Gageac. What a beauty!
6. La Roque Gageac
Picture perfect La Roque Gageac… A day I will always remember. I had to buy a hat, while cycling, the heat started to get the best of me. That straw hat I bought here I still wear very regularly… After 18 years! I couldn’t make the way back to Sarlat (the heat!) and had to hitch-hike. A guy with a small van stopped to take me and the bicycle back to Sarlat. He couldn’t speak a word of English, but understood that the bicycle needed to get with me in the van! 🙂
7. Avignon (Provence)
Avignon had so much to see and to do. The best was the Fete de la Musique (a national annual music festival). The atmosphere was great, music concerts all over the place, a lot of street musicians, but also more formal concerts. All for free! And a combination of classical, jazz, and France folk music.
I wanted to see some of the nearby smaller towns in Provence. There were no busses or other easy transport to these towns, so a small moped did the thing to do a one day excursion to see the following four towns (8-11). It was one of the most memorable days of my life! Beautiful places, rushing from one town to the other to see as many as possible in one day. I had to be back in Avignon at a certain time. When I got to the outskirts, I got a puncture and had to walk all the way back with the moped. The owner was waiting for me, stressed and mad about the puncture… I think I had to pay the costs for repairs 🙂 Read more about this day in the next blog post!