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One Man's View - Things Not to See in Provence

Charley Wood

The places and things you should skip, so you'll have more time for those places and things you shouldn't.

As an avid traveler and reader, travel books and guides have always been one of my favorite genres for whiling away the hours and daydreaming of places I'd like to go. However, when a vacation requiring real travel planning is on the horizon, the travel guide specific to my destination becomes mandatory reading. Green guides, blue guides, Top Things to See guides, Official guides, unofficial guides - I read them all. There seems to be an endless number of books touting lists of things to do, places to see, restaurants in which to dine, shops in which to shop, clubs in which to be entertained, museums in which to be enlightened, churches in which to be awed and inspired, and other lists I can't seem to remember at the moment.

After poring over these volumes for several days, a dull malaise seems to settle over the whole affair when I finally recognize that I'd need approximately ten times the number of days I have available to do the things I've been reading about. The aforesaid malaise descends into a funk, and I ask myself whether I should even bother. Do I really want to spend the time and money to get myself and my family to the other side of the ocean, suffer jet-lag, and endure the challenges of another language and culture, only to come home 'empty-handed'.

By 'empty-handed', I actually mean an empty trophy case. Vacation travel is very similar to a big game safari. One must return with a suitable bag of 'trophies'. Invariably, people at the office or in the neighborhood will ask if you saw Schneider's Tomb. Were you lucky enough to get tickets to the Museum of the Arcane and Obscure? Did you get a chance to eat at Grinkov's Scandinavian Fish House and Gelato Parlor? If you're unable to answer 'yes' to the above questions, the inquisitor will assume a smug "I've been there and you haven't" look and proceed to spend the next ten minutes telling you just what you've missed. He will end by extracting a solemn promise from you that if you're ever back in that neighborhood again, you will see-do-eat or visit whatever it was you missed.

There is another, even worse scenario. You're still basking in the warm post-vacation glow when someone casually asks if you enjoyed the view from the Eiffel Tower. You freeze, unable to reply. "Oh my god, you think, that was in Paris. I completely forgot about it. Must have been the two days I spent looking for Schneider's Tomb."

I'm simply saying that trying to get the most for your travel time and money is not a job for the fainthearted and certainly requires more resources and experience than the first time traveler can usually muster. The time and money wasted by the average vacationer going to see and do useless, boring, and unmemorable (don't forget expensive) things could easily be re-channeled into more productive ends. Therefore, it would seem that knowing what to avoid is every bit as important as knowing what you should see, do, eat, etc.

Having done a fair bit of traveling in Europe, my family and I have acquired an admirable list of things to be avoided - rather like battle scars - something to take a perverse pride in, and something to share with you, so that you can smugly tell yourself, "I knew better than to go there, do that, eat there, etc."

Lest you think I have a personal axe to grind with the entries on my list, I will say categorically, no, I do not. I love la Belle France and its spectacularly beautiful region of Provence and praise it enthusiastically to anyone who will stand still and listen. I've undertaken this exercise simply as an effort to save the reader his time in Provence for better things.

I've tried to be as even-handed as I know how to by using a "Ben Franklin" style balance sheet; making a list of pros and cons and seeing which wins out. I've taken into account the amount of time, effort, and money required to do-see-eat-etc. each listing and balanced that against the rewards of doing-seeing-eating-etc. that particular one.

Rating System

The use of the "Ben Franklin" balance sheet produces a range of results. Depending on how the pros and the cons weigh out, each listing will be accompanied by a rating from one star (*) to four stars. A one star means that you will have to evaluate this particular item from your own personal viewpoint.

If you collect gaudy neckties, for example, you might go against my recommendations and travel the six hours to see Ralph's Necktie Museum and leave quite satisfied that you got your time and moneys worth. A four star rating means that the entry should be avoided at all costs. If you see-go-eat-do-etc. a four star entry, shame on you and all your descendants.

I must add, also, that my list is not absolutely exhaustive. I'm quite sure that there are other "don't see/don't do" attractions in Provence. With a limit to our time and resources, however, we're been unable to make all the mistakes ourselves. I certainly welcome reader input and additions to this list

1. Fontaine de Vaucluse **

This little secluded village is buried at the bottom of a ravine in the Vaucluse Plateau. The main square is pretty enough, but the prime attraction of the village, the cave in the mountain where the River Sorgue flows from the flank of Mont Ventoux, is a real letdown.

The path from the village follows along the banks of the Sorgue toward its source. The route is littered with shops selling the kinds of cheap trinkets one normally sees at America's small town carnivals. The real downer is that you will have to compete with crowds of other tourists for the pleasure of doing this. And then there is the Fontaine, or the fountain. I have been there three times, obviously ignoring my own advice, and have yet to see the Fontaine acting like a fountain.

Somehow the river gets started somewhere in the gorge and becomes a truly beautiful little stream of the most amazing color. Although disappointed by the dismal showing of the fountain, it's quite entertaining to watch other tourists as they must also have expected - as I did - a gushing torrent. It's quite common to see people down on all fours looking under rocks, into crevices, and tugging at roots and limbs. I suppose they're looking for the elusive fountain. I want to tell them to drive five miles downstream to Isle Sur Le Sorgue, and see the river in all its majesty as it flows through the lovely little town. Isle has the best market in Provence and is a haven for excellent restaurants and real shopping. And if you like antiques, it's the mother lode.

2. The Camargue ****

The Camargue is famous for black bulls, wild horses, and pink flamingoes. If I really tried (given a period of several days), I could probably think of a more outlandish combination of things conferring fame. I couldn't, however, think of three items that could be further down my list of things to see after crossing an ocean and spending several thousand dollars. Especially, since I could visit our local zoo/farm before heading off to France and accomplish the same thing.

Take away the black bulls, the wild horses, and the flamingoes, and the Camargue is a dreary table-top-flat land of swamps and weeds. Pass.

3. Downtown Nice ***

Nice is nice and its location is spectacular, but the problem is downtown. Nice is building a new transit system. The streets are in such a mess that it is almost impossible to get around. We went through in the off season and at night. I can't imagine what it must look like in high season in midday.

If you own a palatial yacht, by all means tie up somewhere along the Promenade des Anglais and enjoy the beautiful Mediterranean seafront. If you're still navigating from behind a steering wheel, avoid Nice and go behind it up into the hills to Vence or St. Paul de Vence. Both are wonderful and offer great, if distant, views of the sea, great restaurants, shopping, history, and just plain gorgeous towns.

If you're still determined to see Nice, check out what kind of progress they're making with the transit system. We were there in the spring of '05 and it looked as if it could take years to finish.

4. The Papal Palace at Avignon ****

Empty buildings! After seeing this pile of rocks, I had to ask myself if the Popes took all the furniture when they decamped back to Rome or did the locals loot the place after the Popes left. Either way, the Papal Palace is anything but a palace. I've seen a few palaces - Versailles, Herrenchiemsee, Schonbrunn, Blenheim - and they all had furniture and art, important documents, mementos of former occupants, and other interesting things to see. The Papal Palace looked as if the repo man had just left. From an architectural perspective, it's not much to rave about either.

Avignon, however, is well worth a visit without the Palace. The Place de l'horloge, a beautiful tree lined square just south of the palace, is a great spot for a sidewalk cafe lunch. Spend the afternoon strolling by the Rhone and seeing the Pont St. Benezet. When the shops re-open about mid afternoon, try your hand at shopping on the Rue de la Republique.

5. Mondays in Provence *

No complaint here, it's just that most shops and many attractions will be closed on Mondays. You can opt to sit by the pool, read a good book while sipping the excellent local wine and save your energy for quick start on Tuesday.

Or better yet, take today to do several of the free things Provence offers up. Go see the amazing Pont Julian (built approximately 2000 years ago), walk along the spine of the Petit Luberon in the Foret de Cedre, climb to the top of the ruined castle in Saignon and contemplate the 360 degree view of the Vaucluse at your feet, or explore the castle of the Marquis de Sade in Lacoste. If you are a walker, the Luberon/Vaucluse plateau area is a paradise. There are enough fascinating hikes to keep you busy for weeks.

6. Mont Ventoux ***

I'm not quite sure what I had expected nor even why I was disappointed with this mountain. I love mountains and the folks of the Vaucluse seemed especially enamored by their local mountain. It has been one of the chief venues of the Tour de France and holds the distinction of being the westernmost massif of the Alpine chain. From afar, it appears to be snow covered even in mid summer. This mirage is the result, not of snow however, but a covering of blindingly white scree at the summit.

It all sounded fascinating and to me added up to a 'must see' place. We went. It takes about two or three hours to navigate the winding roads to and from the summit. Once you get there, the only things to see are the weather station and a mediocre gift shop. If there is any haze in the atmosphere, it also fails as a vantage point from which to see the surrounding area. My daughter Kelly, would, however, rate it as a top ten because of a candy shop set up in the parking lot. Save time and view it from a distance.


Hopefully, with some of these time-wasters pruned from your schedule, you can enjoy your vacation even more in this enchanting Shangri-la.


The Wood family from Knoxville, Tennessee successfully pursued their dream of living and traveling in Europe. Kathy, Charley and 10-year old Kelly began their fourteen-month "Grand Tour of Europe" in June 2004 and returned home in August 2005. Their trip focused on four major areas: France (33 weeks including 6+ months living in Provence), Great Britain (11 weeks), Italy (11 weeks), and the German/Austrian/Swiss Alps (6 weeks).

© Charley Wood, 2005

Note: This is not the opinion of Slow Travel. Do not email me with your complaints about this article. Post on the message board.

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