A Slow Roll through Languedoc, Provence, and Basque Country: Trip Overview

We’re back in action!

After 17 months of travel limted to the Mid-Atlantic and the Caribbean, we finally made it out of the country for real. This time to Europe, to finally execute a trip that we planned for this time last year.

As noted in our previous post, our ability to execute our plan very much depended on our securing a French passe sanitaire QR code, which would demonstrate to Air France and restaurants everywhere that we were vaccinated, a prerequisite to boarding or entering. After applying in early August and waiting more than 2 weeks, we received our passes at the 11th hour. Literally. The passes arrived late in the morning of the day we flew out of IAD at 5 PM. But we had them, and the relief in having this risk mitigated really was palpable.

And the passes made all the difference. Everyone required them in France. Not just the gate agents for our domestic flight from Paris to Montpellier, and not just maitre d’s guarding the doors to indoor dining, but small restaurants serving exclusively outside, where there’s really minimal risk. And not just in the bigger towns, like Avignon, Arles, and Uzes, but in tiny hamlets like Castelnaudary, halfway between the Mediterranean and Toulouse, where we feasted on cassoulet outdoors by a canal. Even there, they required verification of vaccination via the passe sanitaire. Luckily, we were able to produce them and do everything we wanted to; no constraints.

We encountered the exact opposite in Spain – no one checked and no one cared. And despite the reference to indoor dining in France above, we only dined indoors there three times. But they checked every time. In San Sebastián, Spain, where Michelin-starred dining was our primary goal, dining was indoors each time. And each time, there was no concern and no checking. This served as an interesting contrast between EU countries. We’ll see what Italy does, when we head to Tuscany in October.

We spent most of our time on the 2-week trip in Languedoc, west of the Rhone, and in Provence, east of the Rhone, basing ourselves first in Uzès, then Gordes, and finally Sète, on the Mediterranean. The itinerary, such as it was, is depicted below, starting at the Montpellier airport and heading northeast first to Uzès, with a bunch of day trip, then to Gordes, with more forays, then to Sète, Toulouse, and finally San Sebastián on the Atlantic coast. We’d pop back up to France to fly back out of Biaritz to avoid an absurd drop fee if we returned the car we picked up in France in Spain, instead.

Although we spent the last 4 days in San Sebastián, in the Basque region of Spain, to get there from the South of France required a 7-hour drive, which is why we stopped half way in Toulouse. The black pins are places we saw during the trip, further delineated by house icons (towns where we stayed) and fork and spoon icons (typically stopover locations between home towns):

Despite all of the risks – we wouldn’t get our health passes, there would be no rental car waiting due to the crazy demand, we’d encounter issues or delays on the road and in towns – the trip went exactly as planned. Almost for the first time for us. Plus, we had awesome weather for all but one afternoon and evening.

Quick highlights from the trip are below, before more detailed posts to come.

First, 4 nights in Uzès in Languedoc, a town we were hoping was a European version of Old Town based on a lot of research last year:

Close (and really charming), but no cigar.

A day trip from Uzès to the fortified hilltop town of Lussan:

Hiking the crazy, river eroded Concluses de Lussan down the road from the little hamlet:

And another side trip to a similar aerie: La Roque-sur-Cèze:

One last evening in Uzès:

On to Gordes, by way first of a return trip to the 2000-year-old Roman aqueduct of Pont du Gard, which we first visited during our first bike trip in Europe in September of 2002:

Followed by a return trip to Avignon, home to the Antipopes, for a little stroll and some lunch in front of the Palais des Papes:

Before finally arriving in Gordes – the crown jewel of the Luberon in Provence:

The dry-set rock huts of the bories a few miles’ hike away from town:

A morning drive to Roussillon, a hilltop town near Gordes built on ochre mining (in more ways than one):

Followed by a trip to another hilltop town in the Luberon – Menerbes:

Including a really great lunch at the edge of town that included “parsley knives” (an amusing quirk of translation that we’ll explain in a subsequent post). Also, both Languedoc and Provence are massive producers of rose, which we fully exploited.

And finally, a jaunt through the abandoned hilltop town of Oppedes:

Our last night in Gordes by the chateau at the top of the town and our only spot of weather:

From Gordes, we drove south, to the Mediterranean and the fishing port town of Sète. But on the way, a stop for lunch in Arles to revisit our favorite town from our Provence bike trip almost 2 decades ago.

Same cafe, almost 20 years later!

Plus, a visit to the WolfeStreetTravel avatar in the town square. Our guy clearly had been gussied up since our last visit, compared to the image of our blog avatar.

Two nights in Sète, for which we had moderate expectations, having been described as a “gritty port town.” It was perfect, and a great, seaside contrast to the hill towns of the Luberon, so we were able to bike for miles along the sea. The Sète fishing fleet includes trawlers with piggyback Mini me boats that are deployed at sea to haul the other side of the trawl or net:

Having completed the South of France portion of the slow roll, we slow rolled to San Sebastian, Spain. But first, a stop in Toulouse, by way of Castelnaudary, the birthplace of cassoulet (which made our lunch choice there pretty easy):

And then, there was No. Time. Toulouse!

Our final destination – the gastronomic capital of the world, San Sebastián, Spain.

Where we participated in the age-old dining conflict between cheap, quick, delicious pintxos in the Old Town:

Or Michelin-starred fine dining in the outskirts:

A solid tie in this gastronomic war, in our view.

Final evening in San Sebastián:

And the trip was powerfully reminiscent of our epic Micronations Road Trip of 2017. Although we did not move every day, like we did on that trip, we had an awesome little diesel family truckster (a Citroen that looked like a sneaker this time, instead of the trundling Skoda):

And we had some awesome downtime by pools at our base-camp towns, including one in the shadow of a cathedral, exactly like the one in Carcassonne in the Micronations Road Trip

Next up: Uzès.

Categories: Basque Region, France, Languedoc, Provence, Spain, The Slow Roll: South of France+ | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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The Smallest 5 for the Big 5-O

One of us turns 50 this year. In recognition of the milestone, we’re hitting all 5 of Europe’s “microstates” in a single road trip.

What prompted a birthday trip through Europe’s microstates? An inexplicable fixation with them since our first trip to Europe in 2002, which included a leg by train from Barcelona, Spain, to Avignon, France. When we planned the trip and looked at the train route, we noticed something to the west on the map – a country we didn’t know existed was positioned between France and Spain.

A entire freakin’ country – Andorra – lurking between France and Spain.

One of us (the one with the birthday, to be clear) has been fascinated ever since, and even tried to add a side trip to Andorra to our bike trip in Catalonia in 2009. (This was overruled in favor of Cadaques, which, we think you’ll agree, was a pretty good idea when you check out that post.)

Nonetheless, the impetus to visit the microstates persisted, and the 50th birthday milestone provided a great opportunity to finally see them.

There are some tiny regions in Europe and elsewhere, but not all can be considered microstates. For example, Gibraltar, at the southwest tip of Spain, is tiny, but it’s not independent – it’s a British Overseas Territory. Luxembourg, on the other hand, is independent, but not tiny (it covers 1000 square miles). By contrast, the microstates are truly micro – most cover less than 25 square miles and none of them exceed an area of 200 square miles.

So, other than being incredibly small, what defines a microstate?

  • Independence
  • Diplomatic recognition
  • Control of territory
  • Permanent population
  • Government

Based on these characteristics, the following sovereign countries within continental Europe qualify and will be part of the trip:

  1. The Principality of Andorra (finally!)
  2. The Principality of Liechtenstein
  3. The Principality of Monaco
  4. The Most Serene Republic of San Marino
  5. The State of Vatican City

Because none of the microstates, other than Vatican City, have rail stations (particularly Andorra and Liechtenstein – Nice and Rimini are somewhat close to Monaco and San Marino), we had to forego train travel, which otherwise is the best way to get around Europe. Instead, we’re renting a car and making this a road trip.

In our planning, we had a choice:

  1. Drive directly from one microstate to another, resulting in a couple of long days of driving, but providing a couple of rest days with no driving, or
  2. Add interim destinations between some of the microstates, so that we’re never driving more than 3 or 4 hours, but we would be driving every day

We chose Option 2:

The map above depicts the following itinerary:

  • Take a redeye to Rome
  • Day 1: Vatican City
  • Day 2: Drive to San Marino
  • Day 3: Drive to Bergamo, Italy
  • Day 4: Drive to Liechtenstein
  • Day 5: Drive to Lake Lugano, Switzerland
  • Day 6: Drive to Monaco
  • Day 7: Drive to Carcassonne, France (another place we’ve wanted to visit – last stronghold of the Cathars!)
  • Day 8: Drive to Andorra
  • Day 9: Drive to Barcelona
  • Day 10: Fly back

We’ll spend every afternoon and night in the destination town / country to check things out before heading off the next morning to the next target.

Today, we’re part of the way through the tip, in Vaduz, Liechtenstein. We’ll post highlights of the trip when we get back!

Categories: Andorra, France, Italy, Liechtenstein, Micronations!, Monaco, Road Trips, San Marino, Spain, Switzerland, Vatican City | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

European Microstate Road Trip: Overview

Our epic 9-country road trip designed to hit all 5 European microstates came to an end on Sunday. Despite some initial trepidation, it turned out to be fantastic!

This was one of our best trips, in fact, despite encountering this choice little nugget on 2 of the tiny 5 from a Cadogan guide book that we used several years ago on a previous trip:

“It’s a sleazy little paradise, [Microstate X]. . . Today, the [inhabitants] have found a way to exploit every single possibility open to a grasping, sweaty-palmed pipsqueak principality. They’ve turned their lovely corner of the [region] into a single, garish supermarket. It’s a worthy competitor for Europe’s other Ruritanian craphole, [Microstate Y], which, if you’ve never been, is the first country in the world to be entirely paved over with factory outlet car parks.”

Yow! We’ll reveal which of the pipsqueak nations the Cadogan guide was referencing in subsequent posts, but we were infatuated with the tiny countries and undeterred! We persisted and planned and executed a pretty ambitious itinerary to hit all 5 microstates in a single trip.

Information on continental Europe’s 5 tiniest nations – and the characteristics that define a microstate – was previously posted here. A repost of the map with the location of each is below:

Location of the continental Europe’s five microstates

The trip was great adventure, overall – both based on the tiny countries and some of the outstanding start, stop, or stopover locations in Italy, Switzerland, France, and Spain that we included in the trip to keep driving distances practical. Our experiences in the five microstates spanned the spectrum:

  • Two exceeded our fairly modest expectations (biased in part by the pithy and brutal opinion proffered by the Cadogan guide) and we really enjoyed our visit to both
  • One was precisely as expected
  • Two were definitely not as awesome as we thought they would be – one was simply not as magnificent as we had envisioned, while the other turned out to be every bit just an outrageously expensive Disney world

These reactions will be assigned to the appropriate country in future posts, but some highlights of the tiny five are below, presented in the order in which we encountered the little buggers.

No. 1 of 5: The State of Vatican City:

Hallway of maps in the Vatican Museum

At the border between Vatican City and Rome – No. 1 complete

No. 2 of 5 – The Most Serene Republic of San Marino:

Guaita (1st Castle) on San Marino’s Mount Titano

San Marino’s town hall at sunset

View from Cesta (2nd Castle) to Guaita (1st Castle) on Mount Titano in San Marino – Microstate No. 2 complete

No. 3 of 5 and location for the Big 5-0 milestone – the Principality of Liechtenstein:

Vaduz castle from afar

and up close – No. 3 complete

4 of 5 – Principality of Monaco:

Monte Carlo casino our evening in Monaco

Above the port of Monte Carlo – No. 4 complete

And finally, No. 5 of 5 and the microstate that started it all – the Principality of Andorra:

11th-century Sant Joan de Caselles church with Lombard-style tower in Andorra

Casa de la Vall in Andorra la Vella – headquarters of the General Council of Andorra; No. 5 of 5 complete!

Before we left the US, we were a little concerned that the trip could turn out to be an arduous box-checking exercise involving too much driving and not enough time to enjoy each destination, based on the itinerary we designed:

  • Take a redeye to Rome
  • Day 1: Vatican City (1 of 5 . . .)
  • Day 2: Drive to San Marino (2 of 5 . . .)
  • Day 3: Drive to Bergamo, Italy
  • Day 4: Drive to Liechtenstein (3 of 5 . . .)
  • Day 5: Drive to Lake Lugano, Switzerland
  • Day 6: Drive to Monaco (4 of 5 . . .)
  • Day 7: Drive to Carcassonne, France
  • Day 8: Drive to Andorra (5 of 5!)
  • Day 9: Drive to Barcelona
  • Day 10: Fly back

Instead, our daily cadence ended up providing a good balance – we’d drive for a few hours each morning in our rockin’ diesel Skoda family truckster . . .

Our trusty Skoda after navigating the narrow alleyways of Bergamo on Day 3

. . . then arrive at our destination in the early afternoon to explore things, typically log some downtime in the evening at the hotel pool, then grab dinner.

Sweet pool in Carcassonne, our stopover between Monaco and Andorra

Although the trip focused on the microstates, some of the stopovers proved to be just as rewarding, including staying in a hotel that overlooked Lake Lugano in Switzerland on August 1, without realizing beforehand that this was the Swiss National Holiday – spectacular!

Fireworks over Lake Lugano to celebrate the Swiss National Holiday

We’ll post highlights of each of the five micronations plus the very cool stopover locations during the next few weeks.

Oh, and the book read as we started the trip?

Of course.

Categories: Andorra, France, Italy, Liechtenstein, Micronations!, Monaco, Road Trips, San Marino, Spain, Switzerland, Vatican City | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Barcelona, per Tercera Vegada

Best way to start your day virtually anywhere on the Iberian peninsula? Churros and doughnuts for breakfast! In this, on a fine morning in Andorra, accompanied by chocolate dipping sauce for the churros. Breakfast of champions!

Our final day of driving – here’s our route from Andorra la Vella to Barthelona:

We bookended our visit to Andorra by passing through the seats of power ruled over by both of Andorra’s original co-princes. The day before, we stopped in the home to one of the co-princes, the Count of Foix, on the trip from Carcassonne to Andorra. Today, where our route makes an abrupt turn to the east just south of Andorra, we moseyed around in Seu d’Urgell, home to the Bishop of Urgell. Not too much to see, really – not nearly as charming a town as Foix. But, here’s a view of the 12th-century Tower of Solsona, one of the three fortresses guarding the city, on the outskirts of Urgell:

Lots of cool little hill towns on the way to Barthelona – here’s Belver de Cerdanya:

By far, though, the most dramatic landmark we encountered on the way down was Montserrat (literally “the saw” in Catalan), as we neared Barthelona proper:

The mountain range is home to the Benedictine Abbey of Santa Maria de Montserrat, founded in the 11th century and still functioning today. In 1493, Christopher Columbus named the Caribbean island of Montserrat after the Virgin of Montserrat, the sanctuary of which is at the abbey.

We’d been to Barthelona a couple of times before, so instead of walking around, we spent a decent amount of the afternoon on top of our hotel, which was located right on the waterfront at the end of Las Ramblas:

Obligatory pic of Barthelona’s Gothic cathedral during our visit. We’ve used this cathedral, in particular, to contrast Gothic architecture with what we consider to be the much cooler Romanesque style:

Las Ramblas and the Columbus Monument as night falls on the last night of our microstate road trip:

One final nightcap on the sweet ass hotel rooftop before heading home the next day . . .

Micronations road trip complete!

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