Travel log: August 1-2, 2013; France
In the French countryside, summer announces itself with a ripening of colors. Plump ears of wheat turn golden, poppies bloom, and fields deepen into varying shades of green, purple, and red. The hues are more muted compared to tropical countries, but there is something to be said for the quiet appeal of this rural landscape, dotted here and there with farmhouses, churches, and curiously round bales of wheat straw.
In the summer of 2013, Damien and I undertook a two-day ride through the south of France—from Lyon to Marseille and back, a total distance of almost 800 kilometers. A friend took us down the final leg to Marseille by car, but most of the journey was done astride a motorcycle. Among the views we passed: barley, corn, and grass fields; abandoned castle ruins; neat rows of vineyards; boulder-strewn scrubland; and sprawling fields of sunflower and lavender. We stopped by tourist draws like Balazuc and Pont du Gard, but almost three years later, it is the time spent on the road that stands out most in my memory.
Balazuc draws flocks of visitors each summer. Unsurprisingly for a tourist attraction, food here costs more than in cities and, depending what time you arrive, parking for cars can be difficult to find. But in a place as lovely as this—situated on a cliff overlooking a river—initial hassles are soon replaced by more pleasant memories. Relics from Balazuc’s medieval past include well-preserved buildings, winding paths, and picturesque archways.
For the best view, head across the bridge to the other side of the Ardèche river, from where you can take in the entire village. You can have lunch on the rocks and watch tourists below swimming and kayaking in the river, or tanning themselves on the bank.
This impressive aqueduct—a relic from the Roman Empire—ranks among the top attractions in France. Its well-preserved features belie almost 2,000 years of history, and stand as a testament to the Romans’ architectural ingenuity. Interactive exhibitions inside the museum allow visitors to relive the history of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We spent less than 24 hours in Marseille, so I have only fleeting impressions of this city: a breezy bar; dark, sloping streets; morning rush at a packed café; fresh seafood for sale along the quayside. I remember seeing a live octopus, tentacles halfway out of its tub, and wondering how you even begin cooking that.
Though we may not remember his tales, all of us must have at least heard of Alphonse Daudet and his famous windmill. The connection is misleading, because Daudet never actually lived in this windmill in Fontvieille—only popularized it through a collection of stories titled Lettres de mon moulin. There’s not much to see here (only a few plaques), but it does make for an interesting stop on a long drive.
To better acquaint me with Daudet, Damien and our friend Marjory recounted the sad tale of Monsieur Seguin’s goat. The ending took me by surprise, but I got to use a French phrase I’d recently learned: “Quel dommage.”
It isn’t often that the journey itself becomes the highlight of a trip—at least not for me. But this weekend was the exception. Damien and I punctuated the ride back to Lyon with stops to take pictures of sunflower fields, explore the remains of an old castle (him), and admire a herd of adorable cows (me). My favorite stop, though, is when we had lunch right beside a lavender field. The sun was high in the sky, the purple stalks waving in the wind. I remember hiding from passersby and giggling from the excitement of trespassing. It is a memory I revisit again and again.