Posts Tagged With: Avignon

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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Microstates! The State of Vatican City

So, we’re finally getting around to publishing posts from the “Tiniest 5 for the Big 5-0” road trip last year. We have an inordinately high level of interest in the microstates, which, although ridiculous, was nonetheless explained in our initial post on the trip planning.

Last July’s Magical Microstate Tour began with what we’re sure is the most visited tiny territory of them all – Vatican City, located within the city of Rome:

For what it’s worth, we weren’t particularly excited about Vatican City because it’s the least exotic and most known of the microstates. Our expectations in this regard were pretty much met – interesting, but certainly not fascinating.

State Synopsis

History: Starting in the 700s and continuing until the 19th century, the pope controlled a hell of a lot more than the postage stamp that Vatican City currently occupies. Although the popes began collecting properties before the 8th century, the millennium-long history of the Papal States really began with the Donation of Pepin. In the 750s, the Lombards had overrun the last remnants of the Roman Empire in Italy around Ravenna, and were demanding the submission of Rome and tribute from the Papacy. Pope Stephen II sent envoys to Pepin the Short, King of the Franks (as well as father of Charlemagne and founder of the Carolingian Empire) requesting his support in resisting the Lombards. In return for an official coronation by Pope Stephen, Pepin and his Frankish army forced the Lombard king to cede their recent Italian conquests. Pepin then conferred upon the pope these territories in 756:

The Papal States in the early 1800s, prior to Italian unification.

For more than a millennium, the Papal States occupied this chunk of Italy – waxing and waning over time, but always substantial. However, during Italian unification efforts in the 19th century, the Papal States were annexed and integrated into the secular state of Italy, leaving only the Holy See within the Vatican walls. The popes did not recognize the Italian king’s right to rule in Rome, and they refused to leave the Vatican compound in resistance of any move to integrate Vatican City.

Why it still exists: The impasse was resolved in 1929, when the Lateran Treaty between the Holy See and the Kingdom of Italy was signed by Benito Mussolini, on behalf of King Victor Emmanuel III, and by Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Gasparri for Pope Pius XI. The treaty, which became effective on June 7,1929, established the independent State of Vatican City and reaffirmed the special status of Catholicism in Italy.

Absolute size: 0.17 square miles

Relative size: Vatican City is the smallest of the five European microstates and is smaller than the City of Alexandria, at 15 square miles. Moreover, “Vatican City is the smallest state in the world by both area and population. However, formally it is not sovereign, with sovereignty being held by the Holy See.”*

Scale model of Vatican City near the entry point:

Population: 600

Capital: Yeah, it’s Vatican City, so there you go.

Government: Vatican City is an absolute elective monarchy ruled by the pope. The location we visited officially is both the State of Vatican City and The Holy See. (an entity distinct from the Holy See). The government is a rare example of a non-hereditary monarchy. (Speaking of which, Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy, read in part during the road trip, is a wildly entertaining overview of the politics and personalities of the papacy, particularly in the early middle ages when the pope were pawns of powerful families or corrupt themselves. We’ll let Wikipedia summarize the relationship between Vatican City and the Holy See: The Holy See is the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Catholic Church in Rome, the episcopal see of the Pope, and an independent sovereign entity. As an independent sovereign entity, holding the Vatican City enclave in Rome as sovereign territory, it maintains diplomatic relations with other states.

Note that we would be remiss in not recognizing that the Popes did not always lead from their enclave in Rome – seven Popes (or anti-Popes, depending on with whom you were aligned) ruled from Avignon in the 14th century (which happens to have been the start and finish of our first bike trip in Europe . . .).

Tiny nation trivia: “At several times during the Vatican’s history, popes escaped through a secret passageway. In 1277, a half-mile-long elevated covered passageway, the Passetto di Borgo, was constructed to link the Vatican with the fortified Castel Sant’Angelo on the banks of the Tiber River. It served as an escape route for popes, most notably in 1527 when it likely saved the life of Pope Clement VII during the sack of Rome. As the forces of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V rampaged through the city and murdered priests and nuns, the Swiss Guard held back the enemy long enough to allow Clement to safely reach the Castel Sant’Angelo, although 147 of the pope’s forces lost their lives in the battle.”

In the Vatican Gardens with St. Peter’s in the background:

Vatican stuff (most of the information comes from the Vatican Museum’s website:

“This monumental red porphyry sarcophagus is believed to have held the remains of Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, who died around 335 A.D. The coffin is carved with military scenes with Roman soldiers on horseback and barbarian prisoners. This very military decoration, not really suitable for a female burial, has led scholars to suppose that the sarcophagus was originally made for a male member of the Imperial family, such as Helena’s husband, Constantius Chlorus or, more probably, Constantine himself.”

Gallery of Maps with works commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII in the late 16th century. Very cool snapshots in time, with respect to the relative size and importance of Renaissance cities to one another, as well as the extent of urbanization in Europe and awareness of non-European locales.

On to the Sistine Chapel, which we really did not expect to be as small and rectangular as it is. Lisa arranged for a private tour for us, and our tour guide (who was really good) took us aside before we entered the chapel to provide us with a detailed lesson on the history of the chapel and of the individual artworks. You’re supposed to be reverent and quiet while in the chapel, so there’s no speaking. Our guide used her iPad to provide insight into the individual panels.

The whole “reverent and quiet” rule would be ignored by the packed assembly of tourists, so every 2 minutes or so, one of the guards would intone in a booming voice: “SILENCIO!” Everyone would then become quiet again. Until the rule was ignored after a bit, prompting another outburst from the guards. This resulted in a sinusoidal pattern of noise – very quiet immediately after the dire warning, then a swiftly rising crescendo of noise, peaking until the guard bellowed yet another “SILENCIO!” Then quiet, then noisy, then “SILENCIO!” then repeat. Good stuff.

We were prohibited from taking pictures as well (although we tried surreptitiously, with abysmal results . . .):

In lieu of purloined pics from us, you can take a virtual tour here, on the Vatican Museum’s website. (Note that this virtual tour will not convey the signature, sinusoidal sound effect described above . . .).

St. Peter’s Basilica

Michelangelo’s Pietà – now behind glass. In 1972 “a mentally disturbed geologist, the Hungarian-born Australian Laszlo Toth walked into the chapel and attacked the sculpture with a geologist’s hammer while shouting “I am Jesus Christ; I have risen from the dead!” With fifteen blows he removed Mary’s arm at the elbow, knocked off a chunk of her nose, and chipped one of her eyelids. Onlookers took many of the pieces of marble that flew off. Later, some pieces were returned, but many were not, including Mary’s nose, which had to be reconstructed from a block cut out of her back.”

Back outside, in St. Peter’s Square

“The Swiss Guard, recognizable by its armor and colorful Renaissance-era uniforms, has been protecting the pontiff since 1506. That’s when Pope Julius II, following in the footsteps of many European courts of the time, hired one of the Swiss mercenary forces for his personal protection. The Swiss Guard’s role in Vatican City is strictly to protect the safety of the pope. Although the world’s smallest standing army appears to be strictly ceremonial, its soldiers are extensively trained and highly skilled marksmen. And, yes, the force is entirely comprised of Swiss citizens.”

“Roman Emperor Caligula built a small circus in his mother’s gardens at the base of Vatican Hill where charioteers trained and where Nero is thought to have martyred the Christians. To crown the center of the amphitheater, Caligula had his forces transport from Egypt a pylon that had originally stood in Heliopolis. The obelisk, made of a single piece of red granite weighing more than 350 tons, was erected for an Egyptian pharaoh more than 3,000 years ago. In 1586 it was moved to its present location in St. Peter’s Square, where it does double duty as a giant sundial.”

Microstate 1 of 5 complete!

At the border (literally) of Vatican City

The Castel Sant’Angelo noted in the trivia above, spotted on the way back through Rome from Vatican City (the structure began as the Mausoleum of Hadrian):

Around Rome, mostly retracing steps taken during our brief visit before biking in Tuscany back in 2004.

Unbelievably cool retreat on the rooftop of our villa hotel to chill out for a bit late in the day:

End of the day on the way to dinner in Rome:

Categories: Italy, Micronations!, Rome/Venice/Lakes, Vatican City | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


After surrendering our bikes at the end of Day 4, we spent the next day hanging out in Avignon, home to the popesters in the 14th century, thereby supplanting Rome as the seat of Western Christianity for a hundred years. The Papal Palace still remains, as do the walls of the medieval city, which gave it a compact, intimate feel.

Seven popes and two antipopes resided in Avignon between 1309 and 1403 (the real reason we’re mentioning this, of course, is so we could use the vaguely sinister term “antipope”). The Palais des Papes was built to house and protect the popes, becoming in the process the largest Gothic palace in Europe.

A closeup of the portal on the palace church reveals that all of the religious figures around the portal were either hacked off or beheaded during the French Revolution:


From the palace, we could see the Pont d’Avignon, which spans (well, used to span, anyway) the Rhone between Avignon and Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, where we began our bike tour. It’s the inspiration for the song Sur le pont d’Avignon. The bridge was built between 1177 and 1185, then destroyed 40 years later during the Albigensian Crusade when Louis VIII of France laid siege to Avignon to purge the Cathars (we still have Carcassonne, a stronghold of the Cathars, on our list of places to visit in southern France someday. . .).

The bridge was rebuilt with 22 stone arches, which tended to collapse when the Rhone flooded. The bridge was eventually abandoned in the 17th century. The four surviving arches on the bank of the Rhone are believed to have been built in around 1345 by Pope Clement VI during the Avignon Papacy.

The town of Avignon was great – we hung out, ate roasted chestnuts (it was, after all, early October), and enjoyed the place.

We had two memorable experiences while in Avignon. The first was when Kevin was having a few beers in a bar on one of the city squares while Lisa was shopping. It was pleasant out, so he took his beer and went to sit out in the square and enjoy the afternoon. One of the waiters came out to check on him a while later, went back in to get Kevin another beer. He returned returned with two. He sat down, had a beer, and they both gawked at the cacophony of the crazy drivers honking and trying to navigate the square during what appeared to be Avignon’s rush hour. After looking bemused at the mayhem all around them while they were happily drinking beers, the waiter laughed, stood up, and declared, “Le theatre!”

The other experience involved pastis, the regional liquor of Provence. We saw the old guys in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence drinking this yellowish liquor while playing bocce and we asked them what it was. That evening in Avignon, we ordered some as an aperitif at dinner. The waiter brought two glasses of clear, amber-colored pastis out, along with a small pitcher of water. We looked at this arrangement, shrugged, and drank the pastis. It was definitely an anise liquor, and really strong.


On the ride to the airport the next morning, we struck up a conversation with the taxi driver. He asked if we had pastis while we were in Provence. We told him about our experience and asked him what the deal with the pitcher of water was. Just like the waiter the day before, he laughed. He said that you don’t drink it neat – you add whatever amount of water you need from the pitcher to dilute the pastis and make it palatable, changing its appearance in the process to a creamy yellow.

It’s supposed to look like this:


(Note that the pastis we had in Provence should not in any way be confused with another Pastis, the undisputed master of the complex and agonizing pun setup.)

Pearls 2021 08 20 Pastis














Actual travel date: October 4, 2002

Categories: Biking, France, Provence, Provence, France | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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