The Big Apple was left behind on a Monday evening red-eye. Our hearts were heavy because Nkwe Pirelli, black kitty with white murder mittens, had not stayed behind before and our caring tendrils would stretch thin across the ocean. We flew into the night and landed in a rainy Paris the following dawn. Our first priority after reaching our departure terminal was to acquire coffee, croissants and a flan, which were ludicrously delicious as expected, even at an airport.

Our second and southbound flight was just over an hour long and the captain promised good weather on arrival, sounding satisfied to affirm the South’s reputation. This was great news as the forecast had given us much concern. It would not last, but the promise held that day and we landed at Nice Côte d’Azur on a partially sunny late morning. My heart began beating a symphony. This is the airport of my youth, where my dad was stationed for a while, working for airlines. We used to go watch planes take off and in those days, long before 9/11, he could talk to le chef d’escale, the Station Manager, and take me along just about anywhere in the airport. For better and worse, security then was a much looser concept than it is today. He once got me to fly jump seat on a Caravelle to the capital and the pilots stunned me by spreading opaque newspaper pages across the windshield to protect from the fierce stratospheric sun.

Nice Côte d’Azur Airport

Our bags recovered uneventfully, we strolled towards the car rental counters and claimed our wheels, which unfortunately turned out to be a Nissan import instead of the French Renault or Peugeot I had hoped for, and worse, was much larger than the reservation system had led me to believe. The crossover-size monster was going to guzzle gas—a stinging issue given the astronomically high price of gas in France at that time—and was definitely not optimally nimble for narrow French roads and parking garages, but at least we had a ride. We had nicknamed our Chamonix car “the Cow” for similar reasons, and soon into this drive, our six-gear manual transmission rental was rebranded as “the Ox”.

Hitting the road before noon after having connected Google Maps (nickname “Heather”) to the car’s Android Auto, we realized we had time to kill before our check-in in Provence so we risked a detour to investigate mimosa-covered hills, famous in the region. We were arriving on the tail end of the blooming season but after driving into l’arrière-pays or the countryside, on a steeply winding road above Mandelieu-La Napoule, we found a trail, rather busy but leading straight into the yellow forest.

Even a bit past its prime, the mimosa was splendid and filled the air with a delightful perfume. We walked slowly as clouds drifted back in and Marie got acquainted with the marvels and mysteries of a new biome. Then it was time to push on and we drove down the hills, hopped onto the A8 highway and headed west as the rain caught up with our day.

Magnificent mimosa

The French driving style, as Marie puts it, is “assertive” to say the least. Yet a highway drive usually yields an enjoyable experience. People actually respect rules and speed limits. Trucks stick exclusively to the right lane unless having to pass one another, but never-ever venture in the left lane. Cars only use the left lane to pass, then they fold back into the center lane or even the right one. No one zigzags across all three lanes at twice the traffic speed as seen daily in the States, most vehicles drive around the speed limit or slower, local speed restrictions are adhered to, so are construction signs.

Smaller roads are a different story. There, one drives fast, close and tight. However, no one honks (larger cities like Paris might be a different story) and there are no potholes. And despite the somewhat frantic driving style on often dizzyingly narrow streets, the French actually learn to drive and it shows. For what it’s worth, in our twelve days in France and many hundreds of kilometers driven on all kinds of roadways, we did not witness an accident or see the remains of one, nor did we even get a Google Maps warning of slowdown ahead caused by a crash. Driving in the States, that box is checked three or four times on any given day. Granted it is a tough comparison given the delta in population density, city size and other variables, but French roads are busy too!

The country has pretty much done away with traffic lights and stop signs outside of city centers, using roundabouts as the cornerstone of its road system. This makes for a more fluid—if not faster—traffic flow. As mentioned, rural French roads are often oppressively narrow and meeting traffic head-on requires nerves of steel and a good sense of one’s car dimensions, along with the occasional trip onto the shoulder. On even smaller roads, there simply isn’t enough space for two vehicles to fit side by side, so one must pull over or even back up, a maneuver usually acknowledged with a waive of the hand.

We arrived in Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume in mid-afternoon. Located east of the Sainte-Victoire and Sainte-Baume mountains at about equal distance from each, Saint-Maximin is a small town on rural land that probably serves as a haven for daily commuters to Aix-en-Provence. Like most European towns, its heart is a small maze of minuscule streets. As will soon be visible in the galleries, I love those very much and have photographed them extensively in every town and village we went to.

We stopped to grab essentials at a supermarché—illy ground espresso (we had brought our trusted Bialetti stovetop), milk, local wine, bread, butter, and dinner; all dirt-cheap, all top-quality. Then we reached our destination on one of these menacingly tight streets, grateful not to have met an oncoming car, picked-up our Airbnb key in the gate’s lockbox in true twenty-first century fashion, drove up a steep alley escorted by an endearing little dog with blue eyes, passed our hosts’ very nice stone house and parked in front of a small cottage. The weather was still soggy but right at our feet and next to the cottage, tucked against a small outcropping with a few parasol pines at the top, were thym, lavender, rosemary and laurel. We took deep breaths. We had arrived.

The stone house of our hosts

The following morning, after coffee and croissants, we decided to use another rainy day to visit Aix and reserve upcoming good weather for excursions further out. Aix was only a half-hour away and Marie swears she saw a couple of wild boars on the side of the highway. It was and remains hard to believe because those had become all but extinct in my youth, but it appears sangliers were indeed reintroduced and are causing trouble. Someone should call Astérix and Obélix.

In Aix, I treated myself to a first pilgrimage to my school, the College Rocher-du-Dragon, and my sister’s, the Château Double. Only Aix manages such cool school names. Then we drove by our old house Les Lavandes on a hill, well outside of town. I’m not even sure the house still bears that name. That was in the seventies—we had rented not owned, of course, but arriving from a very small apartment and its tiny garden in Antibes, the villa and adjacent hill, lavender field and orchard were so vast, they felt like the promised land. The day of this visit though, the house was shuttered and appeared unoccupied, but a peacock was patrolling the grounds and gave us proof of life when we arrived. The following drive along the idyllic Chemin de la Tour du Pey Blanc where I learned to drive our VW Kombi and Beetle revealed that little has changed, even after so long, it is quite puzzling.

Les Lavandes, villa of dreams soon to be crushed (Photo Marie Viljoen)

Later, having parked in the city center near la Rotonde, we explored the old town. Aix wears its Latin name well and there are fountains everywhere, small and big, chirping cheerfully and unaware of the fateful passage of time. I checked out rue de la Glacière where the Club Alpin Français used to hold its Thursday night meeting to let members sign up for weekend rock-climbing or hiking outings in the area.

One of the many fountains of Aix


Cour Mirabeau, or as my coolest sister would have phrased it in her early teenage years «On s’est fait un Cour»

We were hungry but found out that there was no way to grab a bite in mid-afternoon, most restaurants having shut or unwilling to serve until dinner. As a revenge, we bought a few boxes of Calissons, a local delicacy. We then headed back towards Saint-Maximin the long way, a small road right at the foot of Sainte-Victoire’s superb southern face. The light can be magical in Provence and Cézanne has painted the mountain over and over again, but the weather remained wet that afternoon and the light was flat. We’d have to come back.

Sainte-Victoire on a grey day

On our second day in Provence, I made a mistake. I wanted to show Marie the Camargue, low lying region near the Rhone’s estuary which is famous for its pink flamingos, wild horses and bulls. I decided to aim for les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer and walk around there. Given the name, I might have been biased. However the ocean turned out to be murky and looking very much like the North Atlantic would around New York. Trails were flooded or muddy from excessive rain and while we did spot flamingos, the swampy area was infested with swarms of mosquitoes so thick they drew a dark undulating patch in the air. We had lunch in a tourist joint along the water and were awarded the slowest service we had ever experienced.

The pink flamingos of Camargue, ignoring my camera

In hindsight, I should have chosen Aigues-Mortes and its pink salt marshes. More history and architecture there, and maybe fewer skeeters. As I cleaned my muddy boots to get back in the Ox, I might have whispered an expletive or two. Private irreverence.

But already, we had set our sights on one of Provence’s jewels, les Calanques. That would be the following day’s expedition and I hoped to redeem my tourist guide credibility.

«Retour aux Sources» Series

Want to read the entire series of stories? Start here

Already reading sequentially?
Previous story:
Next story: