Beach Bums in Southern France

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An easy-on-the-eye train ride took us from Barcelona to Montpellier, where we would begin our exploration of the Languedoc coast of France. Our TGV whizzed past rolling fields of wheat, tiny hamlets each with its own church spire, and endless vineyards before giving way to a beautiful stretch of turquoise blue along the Mediterranean coastline.

We only had one night in Montpellier, but we’d visited there early in our travels and felt we’d seen the highlights. Our hotel, The Oceania Metropole, was a gem. Not only was it close to the train station, but it also had a lovely green oasis with a small swimming pool. There was no doubt about where we’d spend that hot August afternoon.

After breakfast and a quick tour of the impressive art collection at the Musee Fabre we caught our train to Agde where our host met us at the station. She and Michael looked like a clown car act as they pushed and pulled and reconfigured our luggage until it fit inside her Fiat 500 and still left a bit of breathing room.

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Our Airbnb was just right and perfectly priced. We were in the older part of the city - much farther from the sea than we’d thought, so we had to take a twenty-minute bus to get to the beach. However, we soon appreciated being away from the tourist villas and hotels and happily returned to our comfortable, quiet home. One evening we had an aperitif with our hosts Beatrice and Frederic, or “Betty and Frank”, as they call themselves, at their home on the floor below ours. It was a delightful hour of speaking half-English and half-French with pantomimes for clarity.

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On our first day, we headed to the closest beach, Plage de la Roquille. It was crowded, as we knew it would be, but near a low rock wall there seemed to be plenty of room to lay our towels. As we settled in we noticed a steady stream of people climbing the jetty. They would go up, look around for a while and then, seemingly satisfied, climb back down. This went on the entire time we where there, so finally we decided to have a look ourselves.

After picking our way up the rocks to a flat area, we could see another beach separated from ours by a narrow canal and another jetty. Not much to see at first - just more holidaymakers enjoying the sea and the sun. But as we looked more closely, the difference became clear. These folks were naked! And there were droves of them. No wonder there was a steady stream of gawkers.

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We were staring at the “tame end” of the private beach at the Naturist Village of Agde. An enclave famous nudity on the beach and everywhere else - including the hotels, restaurants, shops, tennis courts, and what we learned were some pretty outrageous clubs. Now we knew why families had left a wide swath of beach between themselves and the wall.

I called this picture of Plage de la Roquille “Beach Sprinkles” on our  @theseniornomads  Instagram feed because it reminded me of of cupcake toppings.

I called this picture of Plage de la Roquille “Beach Sprinkles” on our @theseniornomads Instagram feed because it reminded me of of cupcake toppings.

After a few days, and time spent on less exciting stretches of sand, we moved a short distance along the coast to Sete. This popular stop is just one of many French fishing villages that turned to tourism to make ends meet - and it may be on the verge of too much success.

The picturesque city is bisected by canals that bustle with water traffic. Fishing boats head out at dawn, ferry boats take commuters to work, and plenty of tourist boats ply the canals and harbor all day long. In the distance tankers wait their turn to enter the port and mammoth cruise ships appear before dawn and leave with a few parting blasts from their horns just before sunset. And we could watch it all from our huge Airbnb deck - one of the best stays we’ve ever had.

The view from our deck changed throughout the day depending on the traffic. After dinner we’d walk to the end of the marina to the lighthouse or along the waterfront into town.

The view from our deck changed throughout the day depending on the traffic. After dinner we’d walk to the end of the marina to the lighthouse or along the waterfront into town.

I swear, if our host hadn’t just sold this apartment we would have been tempted to buy it ourselves and call this city home. Of course, the apartment had more to do with that than the city itself - although we found the markets, the waterside promenades, bouts of sea-jousting on the canal, the nearby beaches and the old fishing port charming - the view from our place made it magical. Ironically, our host Laurence decided to move because she wanted something more tranquil - while we loved the constantly changing harbor scene and the low hum of activity along the busy streets below us.

We saw several  “Sea Jousting”  events while we were in Sete. Our favorite was a competition between young boys around 10 years old. One or both would get knocked into the water and had to get themselves to the dock to be fished out by spectators.

We saw several “Sea Jousting” events while we were in Sete. Our favorite was a competition between young boys around 10 years old. One or both would get knocked into the water and had to get themselves to the dock to be fished out by spectators.

Five days passed too quickly. We got to know our host over platters of seafood and we will miss her. We hope to return to this part of France again next year, but now it was time to turn inland to explore Roman ruins and places where Vincent Van Gogh found his final inspiration. Nimes was our first stop.

We didn’t realize how popular  bull-fighting is in Provence . In Nimes, there are tournaments between Easter and September called  Course Camarguaise  which does not end with the death of the bull.

We didn’t realize how popular bull-fighting is in Provence. In Nimes, there are tournaments between Easter and September called Course Camarguaise which does not end with the death of the bull.

Next time you put on a pair of your favorite jeans, think of Nimes. The home of Denim derived from the words Den and Nimes “from Nimes". It was here that the first sturdy indigo blue fabric was woven and, as they say, the rest is history. But more importantly, Nimes is home to one of Europes best preserved Roman arenas. It is huge, and totally dominated the center of this small, beautiful city. There is also the Maison Carre (or Square House). A well-preserved Pantheon over 2,000 years old that sits nonchalantly near the town square

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. The stairs are a favorite spot for a snack, a smoke or a WhatsApp chat. Once again, I was reminded of how very young our country is - and that’s why we continue to be amazed when we visit places where ancient artifacts are just part of everyday life.

Our Airbnb in Nimes was interesting, too. It was very near the arena, again in “the old city" - but in Nimes that seems like an oxymoron. You accessed it through two large sliding metal doors that opened into a dusty, dark garage space. Once you crossed that space, you opened another door onto a lovely little courtyard with a fruit-bearing peach tree. Our apartment opened onto this tranquil space and before long, two friendly cats came to visit. Not only was that a treat, but the place itself was also nicely decorated and the kitchen was ready for action. I was a very happy woman.

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The tourism office was nearby so we stopped in. It was a busy place but Michael managed to charm an otherwise aloof woman behind the counter, and now we had a friend in Nimes. We stopped in to get her advice every day - and she seemed genuinely happy to see us (Michael). She even helped my dear husband translate some complicated instructions he’d received by e-mail on how to get the tickets we’d purchased for an upcoming football match in Lyon.

Instead of taking a guided tour of the arena, We took in a “Spectacular” so we could see it in action. It was as touristy as our new found "concierge" warned us it would be, but the tickets were reasonable and we enjoyed a picnic dinner. The show presented a brief history of Nimes through scenic backdrops projected on the sand floor and stone walls, along with a booming voice-over (in French of course), dramatic music and a collection of about 200 overworked actors who had to quickly change from Roman Gods to Gladiators to Townsfolk to Sailors, to Sea Creatures (yes, sea creatures) and back again. Before it was over we’d seen a stampede of wild, white horses from the Camargue region, a rousing sea battle, some excellent acrobatic horseback riding, and a grande finale of blazing fireworks. Being under the night sky, witnessing a pageant (minus the gore) just like the ancient citizens of Nimes might have done made the evening worthwhile.

The show in the Roman Amphitheatre had it all. Lights, lasers, gladiators, horses, ships and dragons!

The show in the Roman Amphitheatre had it all. Lights, lasers, gladiators, horses, ships and dragons!

A highlight was a day trip by local bus to the medieval town of Uzes, located between Nimes and Avignon. This sunbaked, golden village was one of the most beautiful we’ve ever seen. We purposely went on a Saturday morning to enjoy their famous market so it was crowded with summer visitors, but if you stepped away from the main square you found yourself in quiet, cobbled streets where time stood still.

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The city sits on a hillside and is built around a castle and a cathedral that dominate the town. After a bit of an uphill walk, we rested inside the cool, dimly lit sanctuary where walls covered with ancient frescoes coexist with contemporary images of Christ and the saints. Afterward, we stopped to take in the breathtaking views across the fields of Provence.

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Meanwhile, back at the bustling market, I had to remind myself I had a very tiny kitchen waiting for me. Even so, it was hard to resist the urge to buy everything this artisan market offered; including olives, honey, wine, cheese, fish, roasting chickens, fresh bread and flaky pastries. And then there were crisp linens, lavender sachets, golden olive oil, jewelry, clothing, and wine. Lots of wine. In short, everything that Provence is known for!

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A lot of our summer so far was made up of short 5 to 7 day stays. That always sounds fun in the planning stages, as we fantasize about how many places we could visit - but in practice, especially without a car, the scheduling can become a little overwhelming. Besides that, we wanted to stay longer in almost every town we visited. Including Nimes. But it was time to move on to Arles, a city famous for hosting Vincent Van Gogh during his most prolific period.

We were given rather convoluted instructions on how to reach our Airbnb so we ended up hauling our bags right through a park scattered with Roman ruins - we’d have to go back and explore those later. After some second-guessing, and a little intuition we found the almost hidden 'impasse“ that would be our address for a few days.

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Our host, Florence, an artist who lives in Paris was there to meet us. Her Airbnb qualifies as Airbnb Plus, a designation we never use as a search filter because they are not in our budget but for some reason, this one was. We know there is a 100 point checklist of amenities plus a certain “style” quotient that needs to be met, to qualify for Plus status, and the listing has to be personally inspected and verified by an Airbnb representative. Our listing was indeed stylish and featured some of her original wall art, but we have stayed in equally charming places without the designation, so that made me feel good about our search capabilities.

In the 15 months that Van Gogh lived in Arles he finished over 300 paintings and drawings

In the 15 months that Van Gogh lived in Arles he finished over 300 paintings and drawings

We were right around the corner from yet another well preserved Roman amphitheater, but this time our attention was focused on the city’s history as a place where Van Gogh lived and worked. It is also the city where he parted company with a piece of his left ear.

We took a fascinating walking tour with an expert on Van Gogh. She took us to sites throughout the village where we’d look at the scene in front of us while looking at a copy of a painting and, with a bit of imagination, we could see almost exactly what the artist saw. It was eerie how the hospital courtyard, the narrow streets, distant vistas, and the bistro from Cafe in the Evening, still exist as they were painted over a hundred and thirty years ago. Unfortunately, the yellow house where he lived briefly with Gaugin and painted the famous Bedroom in Arles was destroyed during WWII and was never rebuilt - but his presence is everywhere.

One of several monuments to Van Gogh that show a painting in front of the scene where the artist drew his inspiration. This is the hospital where he was taken after he cut off part of his left ear.

One of several monuments to Van Gogh that show a painting in front of the scene where the artist drew his inspiration. This is the hospital where he was taken after he cut off part of his left ear.

Our time in Provence ended with an overnight in Avignon and another one-night hotel stay. This time our hotel, The Cloitre Saint-Louis was a former abbey. The tranquil courtyard featured a large, moss-covered fountain surrounded by sentinel Plane trees. Our room was in the rafters and required us to manhandle the suitcases up some stairs within the room itself, but we were comfortable - until the air conditioning didn’t work. We were able to change rooms (they moved the bags this time) and then headed out to explore the city.

This could be either the line for confession or the line to get into the Popes Palace. We skipped it.

This could be either the line for confession or the line to get into the Popes Palace. We skipped it.

There wouldn’t be time to tour the famous Popes Palace, but looking at the long line outside the entrance, we weren’t disappointed. We took our time and wandered through the maze of streets, taking in the late afternoon sunlight and sidewalk chalk colors that inspired so many artists. Then, as if by magic, we came upon the Musée Angladon, a free art museum in a charming 19th-century mansion that housed a collection regional paintings by Degas, Cezanne, Sisely, Picasso and more.

Michael’s favorite artist Sisley proved Avignon was beautiful in any season. This was one the paintings at the Musee Angladon.

Michael’s favorite artist Sisley proved Avignon was beautiful in any season. This was one the paintings at the Musee Angladon.

Beyond what we saw in this and other museums, we found dozens of galleries and art houses in every city filled with stunning today’s paintings and photographs inspired by the natural beauty of the south of France.

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We also enjoyed dozens of talented street performers, ate ice-cream at will, and had a delicious repast at a tucked-away lunch counter in the famous Avignon Les Halles (indoor food market). Plates of juicy rotisserie chicken and spicy sausages with tender roasted potatoes, a beer and a glass of Rose, and a shared slab of raspberry tart cost under $20. I believe there was a nap afterward.

Dinner was al fresco in a small side street at O'Petitapetit, a restaurant highly recommended on Trip Advisor. But that almost didn’t happen. When Michael called he was that told they had no tables available that evening. We heard the same thing from two other top picks. We decided to head to our first choice anyway, just to make sure, and if we saw something that looked good along the way we’d stop. When we actually arrived at the restaurant Michael hung back - he didn’t want to be the one to ask about a table since he was the American who called less than an hour earlier. So, I boldly walked into the very full dining room. After asking if they had a table available, a prolonged eye-sweep of the room by the less than hospitable host indicated “as we can both see Madame, we are full this evening”. So that was no. Um. “What about the two rickety tables outside?” With a shrug, she said oui, if we were so inclined. Apparently, those tables are set aside for only the most desperate diners. In any case, we were happy to sit halfway in the street on such a lovely summer evening.

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Soon the owner came to take our order, and we had a delightful chat - he, at least, seemed happy we were there. Dinner was good. I had an entire wheel of gooey roasted Camembert drizzled with preserved figs and salty lardons. Michael had an interesting French interpretation of chicken enchiladas. Then it was time for more ice cream. I don’t know what it is, but the ice cream in this part of the world is addictive.

The colors, the light, the food, the weather and a landscape that sweeps from the azure sea to hillsides striped green with vineyards and dotted with olive groves, make this part of the world a magic carpet. A place we would gladly give up three wishes to be able to visit again and again.

Cezanne’s Montagne Saite-Victorie gathered all of the colors of Provence on to one canvas.

Cezanne’s Montagne Saite-Victorie gathered all of the colors of Provence on to one canvas.

Next up - a leisurely two-week stay in Lyon, a city once renowned around the world for silk. We’ll see you there.

Thanks for following along,

Debbie and Michael Campbell

The Senior Nomads