Pont, Palais, et Pizza: Local Exploration

The last few weekends have been filled with less “heavy duty” traveling and have been filled with more exploring of the area around the Côte d’Azur and the Provincial region of France. Cannes is a city which itself is really cool – the beaches are gorgeous and the giant hotels and designer clothing stores along the seaside are great to stare at and dream “one day.” Looking out onto the purest blue sea water I have ever seen in my life never seems to get old. But Cannes is also situated in a beautiful region of France, close to other cities full of life, culture, and history. And they are only a short, cheap bus or train ride away.

Two weeks ago, I spent my weekend exploring several historical cities and sites in the Provincial region: Arles, Le Pont du Gard, Avignon, and Les Baux de Provence. We traveled the whole way by bus, which stopped at each city and we spent one night in Avignon. Our first stop, after a three hour bus ride, was Arles. Arles was a cute little town with an amazing market, full of locally grown produce, amazing cuisine from different cultures, handmade clothes, and CHEESE. I cannot stress the sheer amount of cheese and olives. It was incredible. If you ever go to Arles, do not buy lunch at a restaurant. Get there early enough in the afternoon to visit the market and get food from the market. Everything tastes rich and amazing. After the market, we also visited the café where Van Gogh painted his famous, “Café Terrace at Night.” Then we traversed around some amazing Ancient Roman ruins that were located in the city, which were breathtaking and made me feel less disappointed about not making it to Rome this trip.

Then we took a short, twenty minute bus ride to a nearby medieval castle. I enjoyed exploring this little castle because it brought about memories of being young and dreaming of living in a castle with dragons – not to mention I seriously felt like I should have been a character in Game of Thrones, as I stood on the roof of the castle and looked out onto the gargoyles of the castle and the crystal blue water of the river below.

And after that happy little nerd moment, it was off to another beautiful, historical landmark: Le Pont du Gard. If you remember anything about aqueducts from your middle school history classes, you’ll remember that this aqueduct was built by the Ancient Romans as well (truly the Romans were just everywhere in Europe) to carry water between a spring at Uzés to Nîmes. It is grand and gorgeous, especially with the view of the river below it. The waters in the river are also crystal clear and dozens of other tourists were down in the river, swimming or kayaking. I braved the cold water and sharp stones, myself, and waded in the shallow part of the river. It is a definite must-see in the south of France, and don’t forget to bring your swim suit!

Then we hopped back on the bus and made our way to Avignon where we spent one night in a local hotel. Driving into the city, was a fascinating sight to take in. Firstly, I saw the famous Pont d’Avignon (the famous old bridge in Avignon) as we crossed the river (on a different bridge) to get to Avignon (You may know the song: “Sur le pont d’Avignon. On y danse. On y danse. Sur le pont d’Avignon. On y danse. Tous le rond.”). The second thing I saw upon arrival in the city, is that Avignon is still surrounded by castle-like large walls that box in the city. It was quite a sight to take in as our bus driver tried to navigate the incredible tiny streets of the old city to get us to our hotel. The next morning we were up by 10:00 a.m. and were off to explore the Palais des Pâpes, which was the papal residence when Pope Clement V moved there from Rome in 1309. It was home to two popes before the papacy returned to Rome in 1377. So needless to say, this building has a lot of history. I took an audio-guided tour of the Palais, which was actually very fascinating and allowed me to take in the history of the site at my own pace and brought back some nostalgia from my AP European history days, making me wish I was a history major. All in all, Avignon is a gorgeous little city with an incredibly immense history that you must visit in the south of France.

After our tour of the Palais, we hopped back on the bus and traveled to Les Baux de Provence – an area known for its lavender fields. Unfortunately, the lavender is not in bloom until July and we went in mid-April, however the greenery and beauty of the area is no less breathtaking. First we visited the Carrières de Lumières which is a vast, cold dark cave where multimedia shows are projected onto the walls – it is an indescribable experience that I can only recommend you see for yourself. After staying for the 45 minute presentation, we headed to the Castle of the Baux de Provence, which was mostly eroded away, but the ruins were incredible to climb up and get an incredible view of the region. We also watched a catapult demonstration which was an amusing experience as well, and if the Medieval Times is a subject which interests you, or you just like incredible views, Les Baux de Provence is an excellent area.

And thus concluded my weekend exploring the Provincial region of France – there is still plenty more to see but I was content with the sites I saw. And the next weekend was another weekend of a little bit of local exploration. As I stated before, Cannes is situated in an area that has fairly easy travel access to plenty of other areas, including Italy. Since the start of my time here in France, I had heard that Italy was a short train ride away and therefore I was dying to go to Italy, just for the day, just to eat some good Italian food. And so on Saturday, that is exactly what I did. My friends and I left the Cannes train station at around 2:15 p.m. and got to Ventimiglia, Italy by four o’clock. The ride itself was beautiful since the train tracks are right on the coast, which means that we got to see the breathtaking clear blue waters and beaches of Antibes, Nice, Monte Carlo, Èze, and Menton. By the time we got to Ventimiglia, we were starving. We did a quick exploration of the small, beautiful town then sat down at a tiny restaurant where I ordered a pizza, which was amazing. It was full of cheese, basil, and olive oil and it tasted great.

After we had stuffed ourselves silly, we walked around the large market full of fresh produce, meat, and cheese. We were in awe of the vast amount of every type of food they had and how fresh everything looked – I made a mental note to come back and do some grocery shopping there. We spent another half hour window shopping then we headed to the beach, which had no sand actually. It was covered in large stones, which was a very cool site to take in, especially in juxtaposition with the blue sea water. As we relaxed on the beach, we saw a few guys with parasails and what I can really only describe as giant fans – they would take a running start with their fans blowing at full speed and their parasails strapped to their backs and then up into the sky they went! It was an incredible thing to watch and looked so fun.

After an hour on the beach, we were off to eat more food! We could not go to Italy and not eat pizza and pasta, after all. So we went to a newer restaurant called “Pasta & Basta” where we chose the type of noodle we wanted and then the type of sauce. It was mouthwatering food, and I was so full by the end of the meal I could barely finish the amazing tiramisu I ordered for dessert. And after we had stuffed ourselves to death for the second time that day, we headed back to the train station and went home.

I may have only traveled to one city that weekend, but it reminded me of all of the nearby cities and places that I can travel to for so little money, so quickly – and just for the day! Who does not want to go to Italy just to grab a bite to eat after all?

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