Provence, France, July 2023

3rdto 5th July – Stansted to Toulon – The flight from Stansted in the UK was pretty much as expected, awful. There seem to be systems in place at Stansted Airport to make people walk as far as possible to get on a plane, and there is a great deal of lining up to do. We paid extra to get ‘fast-tracked’ through security and immigration, but that it a relative term. It was off-putting to stand in the ‘Fast-Track’ queue and watch other people walk through the normal gates alongside us. The plane was half an hour late taking off, but it didn’t get cancelled, so that was something. We had a toasted roll on the plane, mine was too hot to touch on the outside and semi-frozen in the middle. Ah well, you get what you pay for and Ryan Air is quite cheap.

At Marseille Airport, immigration breezed us through very quickly. I really don’t think they looked at us or the passport at all, it was just stamped. The lack of any signage at all made it difficult to find the bus that took us to the Airport Station, about 4kms away, where and got on a train for Marseille. There we waited for around an hour before catching another train to Toulon.

Toulon surprised us when we exited the station to a spacious and very clean plaza. We had one long street to walk down and soon found our apartment. It was a bit of a dive, comfortable enough, but not one of our better choices, with a spiral staircase that looked like it was made in the 15th Century, a bed threatened to suffocate us we fell into it so far, and, worst of all, no toaster. On the other hand, the location was excellent, with easy access to the shopping areas, the medieval part of the city filled with plazas and cafes, and the beautiful port area. Toulon boasts that it has the prettiest harbour in Europe, and it may well do, because it is certainly attractive. It is busy too, with large sea-going ferries heading to Corsica and Sardinia. It is France’s main naval base, with the huge nuclear powered carrier Charles DeGaulle home ported there. Small cross-harbour ferries are very regular, and there appeared to be a number of marinas and resorts on the other side.

We settled in to the apartment and headed out to find some refreshment and a supermarket. We found the first one in a pretty little plaza, with a fountain bubbling away. There are plazas everywhere in the old part of the city, most filled with alfresco cafes and having a fountain of sorts. I assume the large number of fountains comes from the abundance of groundwater, the surrounding nearby mountains being limestone and therefore a good soak and storage for a water supply. We sat a little too long and enjoyed two beers, but the supermarket finally drew us away. While shopping, we met a young Australian couple who have been travelling for 7 months. They had been in Marseille and said the rioting there made it quite uncomfortable, affirming our decision to change our stay to Toulon.

The next morning, we set off to wander the plazas and beautiful walking streets of the old town. There are many grand stone buildings, including the large Opera House, and a great many medieval apartment houses, tucked into tiny alleyways. The streets are easy to walk on and clean, a rare find in Europe. Our walk took us down to the port area, where we spied the little Toulon Tourist Street Train. It looked like a bargain at 8€ each for an hour of commentary tour. It was a terrific way to get a snapshot look at Toulon, taking us along the port and explaining the various parts, the local and inter-island ferries, the naval bases and old ship building areas. We did a tour of the Mourillon Beaches, a series of four beautiful beaches that looked very inviting. We also got a good idea of the layout of the commercial and shopping districts, surprised at just how extensive the city is, and how busy, away from the relative quiet of the historical centre with its lack of cars.

Top – a strange but beautiful ending to a building
Bottom – One of the beautiful beaches

Once back at the port, we headed for a seafront restaurant offering Moulles et Frit (Mussels and Fries) in a variety of flavours. Christine chose a basil and goats cheese base while I went for a carbonara base. Two huge tureens of mussels arrived with sides of frits and bread to soak up the juices. We filled our bellies while watching the ferries come and go and the interesting passing parade of people. The rising heat sent us back home for the day, venturing forth a little later to pick up a small pizza for dinner.

Top – Moulles et Frits
Bottom – one of the big ferries to Corsica and Sardinia

On our last day, we set off to investigate the Lafayette Market, a street market that runs along Cours Lafayette for four blocks. It is mostly fresh fruit and veg, all of superb quality, and it explains why the offerings in the nearby supermarkets are so scant, with the market running in the morning six days a week. Christine did manage to find some casual shorts at the clothes stalls. We were also excited to spy a little cart, selling a local street snack called cade. We had been on the lookout because it sounded interesting. Cade is basically a thick pancake made of chickpea flour, salt and water, then fried on a hot griddle to give slightly charred surface. It was delicious and makes the perfect snack to eat while wandering the streets.

The Tourist Bureau is at the port end of Cours Lafayette and from there we bought an all day bus pass, enabling us to take the #40 bus up the mountain to the cable car station. A two car system runs up to the top of Mount Faron, 584m above the city and is part of the public transport system and so included in the all day ticket. The car was rather crowded on the way up and there were the usual gasps and concerned looks when the car first took off and bounced a little on the cable. An interesting feature was the panel of glass in the floor of the car, especially when we were passing over an area of housing. The ride certainly produced the views we were hoping for, being able to see right across the harbour to the small resort towns opposite. There are a few walk trails and eateries at the top, but little was open, except for the restaurant and café at the cable station. We just enjoyed the view over an orange juice, soaking up the cooling breeze and the scenery. The trip down was better, with only a few people in the car, so we were able to pick out the scenes we wanted to focus on.

In the afternoon, we had planned a bus ride to the beaches, but after a siesta, we emerged to find a very fresh breeze had come in, that would have been onshore, so we abandoned the idea.  We have thoroughly enjoyed our short time in Toulon and regret that we did not have longer. What we have seen of the French Riviera looks wonderful, and it could entice us back some time to explore more of this interesting coast.


6 July Toulon to Avignon – We had our first big travel error today. We got to Toulon Station with no issues and waited for a track announcement for our train to Marseille with a transfer to Avignon. When it came time to board, we headed for the gate and the lady scanned our e-tickets. No! We got a barred entry. She checked the tickets; right train so tried again. Tried to do a manual thing via the web site but no go. Finally, she called another person for assistance, who straight away noticed the problem. Our ticket was for 7th of July, not 6th of July. Damn! They suggested we head for a ticket machine or go online to see if we could change the date. Off we went, first to the ticket office where the man explained that he could not change a ticket, we needed to do it online. We went to an online machine and tried, getting some assistance to change it but it proved hopeless, the only offering was to take a 1st class ticket change for more than a new ticket would cost. We had to swallow the 68€ cost and buy new tickets. We went back to the ticket office where the man explained that he could not sell us a ticket, we had to buy it online (I’m not sure what he COULD do). With time ticking down, Christine secured two new tickets online and we headed for the gate. Just as we approached it, with 10 minutes to spare and quite a few other people, they closed the gate. That action was followed by lots of shouting and some people just pushing past the ticket inspectors towards the train. They shouted back. We found a sympathetic person who looked like she would let us get on, but again, our tickets refused to validate. Finally, after much exasperation, it was discovered that Christine had purchased tickets on another, slower train, departing from Platform C, not Platform A. We headed off towards Platform C, which required no ticket inspectors of any kind and got on the train. I am sure the French think there is a system but in reality, there is none. We have never had a ticket checked on a train in France and we probably could have saved a lot of money by just getting on the Platform C train.

Fortunately, the change of trains in Marseilles went smoothly and we were on our way to Avignon, running along the shores of Marseilles for a while. The sea was dead flat and it all looked very inviting, with lots of yachts and a couple of cruise ships in port. Hopefully, we have seen the end of the civil disturbances, although French authorities have issued warnings for July 14&15, the French National Bastille Day.

The arrival at Avignon was easy, that is, until we exited the station. We had received instructions from our host that we could catch the #5 bus from the Post Office, just inside the city walls. The city walls presented across the road from the station, the only trouble being that the station plaza had been dug up completely and a makeshift walkway led to the road, the long way round. We crossed the road, made our way back up to the gate and through the walls, which were quite spectacular but we are rather used to amazing city walls by now. We found the stop for bus 5 and settled down to wait. I saw a sign in French that I interpreted as saying the bus stop outside the station would cease to operate as of tomorrow. A local woman confirmed my reading of it, but expressed a worry that there weren’t any buses coming. Eventually, she went off to check and came back telling us that we had to move to the train station stop. We followed her, and waited a long time, before finally catching the bus. We crossed the Rhone River and the bus dropped us in the historic town of Villeneuve les Avignon at a stop right outside our accommodation. By the time we got inside, we were quite exhausted from what had been a really horrible day of travel. Wherever possible, we will stick to coach travel from now on, the cost and crazy service of the French trains being too much for us.

The apartment was very comfortable and cool, a blessing since the heat outside had risen to around 32ºC. We walked down through the village to a small market store to get something for dinner and had a beer at the Aubergine Restaurant in the Central Square. The village is very beautiful, all old stone buildings. Villeneuve les Avignon sits opposite Avignon across the Rhone River. When a bridge was finally built over the river around 1300AD a tower on the Villeneuve side controlled access and the city gained power. It became even more important when the Popes relocated from Rome to Avignon for much of the 14th Century and many Cardinals built palaces in Villeneuve. There was quite a power struggle between the King of France and the Papacy that involved the two towns as a face-off point. All this has resulted in a glorious hilltop town with some very famous buildings, the most dominant of which is the Fort of the Abbot, The Fort of Saint Andre, a huge bastion that overlooks the town. The Chartreuse, another famous complex within the town is a former Carthusian Monastery. It all made for a wonderful place to stroll, shop, and seek refreshment.

The Fort of the Abbot, Tower Phillip le Bel, antiques market

On Saturday morning, an enormous antiques market was held in the front of the town, with hundreds of sellers displaying an amazing variety of goods, from old furniture to pieces of armour and old weapons, antique jewellery, and a great many paintings. We wandered up and down the stalls, seeing many very interesting items, but fortunately, having no means of transporting anything so buying nothing. It was a good thing really.

The town square and courtyard of the Chartreuse

We spent a day in Avignon, using the bus to travel the 4kms back into the city. The bus dropped us at the Porte d’Oulle. Avignon is one of the few French cities with a medieval wall still intact and much of the city it encloses is still composed of medieval buildings. The heat was starting to climb so a tree covered line of cafes enticed us to sit for a while with an orange juice. It took two places to get served, the first woman glaring at us like we were poison and preferring to wipe down tables rather than approach us. When three young men who came in and sat down were immediately served, we took the hint and left. The next place was fine.

Nearby, a TV crew was set up and doing an interview with a woman seated at a table. There was also a ticket booth nearby and a lot of billboard posters advertising various performances of comedy, dance and theatre acts. We managed to work out that the Festival Off, an annual arts festival, was beginning the following day and promotion was in full swing. Everywhere we went, walls were smothered in advertising and groups of performers travelled around the city advertising their productions with little pop-up theatre acts. There was operatic singing, acrobatic performances, tap dancing, mime, and groups in period costume (no doubt feeling wonderful in the heat). It was endless and we had trouble refusing the numerous flyers being thrust into our hands, knowing that they would just head for the rubbish bin.

The two level carousel, a wall full of flyers for the festival and the city walls

We made our way through the city to the Place du Palais, a large plaza that is the centre piece of the old city. It is overlooked by the Palais du Popes, where seven Popes lived during 14th Century. A tourist train runs from there every half hour or so but it had already filled, so we walked back down the nearby Place de l’Horloge watching more street theatre and the marvellous carousel, the only two level carousel we have seen.

Back to the Palais du Popes, we boarded the train, finding ourselves sitting in front of a family from Sydney and so we compared travel notes. The trains are the best way of quickly touring small cities, especially medieval ones with their narrow streets. The ride took us high up the hill above the Palais du Popes to the Garden area (Jardin des Doms) to get some panoramic views of the river and beyond. We got some great views of Villeneuve across the river and the famous Bridge of Avignon, actually named Pont Saint-Benezet rather than Pont d’Avignon that the famous nursery rhyme refers to. These days, it only crosses half of the narrower arm of the Rhone, the rest of it collapsing back in the 18th Century. The train wove in and out of the walls as it moved from one feature to another and we thoroughly enjoyed an informative hour-long tour.

The Palais du Popes, remains of the Pont d’Avignon and the little tourist train

By the time the tour was over, the heat had risen to around 35ºC so it was time to seek refreshment then head home to the cool. Once again, we stopped at a place, gained the attention of a girl as we sat down and waited. We did talk briefly to an English couple and that must have put the girl off because she ignored us. So did the man that said he would be back, but preferred to clean tables. We must have the wrong clothes on or perhaps these people are still angry about the loss of the submarine contract. Who knows, but we went back to the place where we had orange juice and had a beer.

As we prepare to move on to Grenoble, under the shadow of the Alps and Mont Blanc, we look in horror at the weather forecasts, with the next three days heading up to 38ºC. We anticipated this and made sure we only took apartments with air-conditioning for the rest of our trip north to Frankfurt, our flying out destination.