It became a race against time, as darkness descended with over 100k’s to go and the campsite closing at 9pm things were looking good for sleeping in the car, that was until I realised that Hamish could do in excess of 160k’s/hr. The best thing about driving in Europe is the fact there seems to be no speed limit, now I have driven on the Autobahn in Germany where cars speed past you like you are standing still, despite doing 150k/h, however that trend seems to be the same everywhere. There appears to be no road traps and there are certainly no police, so when you see a sign saying 100k to your next destination it is sometimes only 40mins away, magic!
Arriving in Avignon at 8.50pm we had snuck in with 10 minutes to spare (we should have stopped for that beer as I suggested!), by the time we had negotiated a tent space using our best French (even though the guy behind the counter spoke perfect English) it was dark, which would make for some interesting erection activity (one reason I enjoy camping is the flagrant use of the word erection that accompanies it). It would also seem our friend had put our tents in quite possibly the worst site available, quite an achievement for a campsite consisting of ant hills and rock hard dust on which to erect your tents, so we figured why rush, it will be a lot more interesting to attempt, not only in the dark, but also after a few beers … waking the next morning I was not surprised to note I had managed to put the tent in a patch of nettles.
Avignon is a beautiful town, situated on the Rhone River it was the Papal home from 1309 to 1377 when the church was run out of Rome, as a result there is a heavily fortified old town, complete with protective wall and tight cobbled streets, and a mini Vatican left as a reminder (what takes some countries hundreds of years to complete the Catholic Church managed to do in well under 70 … money much???). Avignon is also home to the famous Pont D’Avignon, one of the longest bridges in Europe until it fell into the Rhone and is now immortalised in the famous nursery rhyme (so famous I don't actually know it). We spent a couple of relaxing days here, wandering the streets, eating cheese and baguettes on the river, drinking red wine, basically taking in all the delights on offer in Provonce.
Our next stop on the run was Arles, a town I visited when I first left home by pure accident that turned out to be one of those rare places you stumble across, where you can easily return, lucky as that is exactly what I was about to do. Arles is famous for a few things, the Roman amphitheatre, which is still in use for bull fighting and featured in the film Ronin starring Robert De Niro, however, it was largely put on the map by Vincent Van Gough, via his paintings and being the town where he was committed after chopping his ear off and mailing it to a friend as a result of too much absythne consumption. Vincent (that’s what he prefers to be called by his mates) spent the latter part of his life painting in Arles, including the famous Café by Night, The Bedroom, The Hospital Gardens and the self-portrait with the bandage around his head. In fact there is a self-guided tour available, which marks out each of these paintings (and others) and you are able to stand in the very spot he painted. Now I am no art aficionado but I know what I like and the impressionists are it, so to have the opportunity to eat in the actual Night Café (and take a few of the table cloths as a memento), stand in the hospital gardens and climb on the wooden bridge upon which the old women were crossing is pretty special. Fortunately Arles also remains off many tourist routes so it is not too over run by large bus groups, though it can be a docking point for the wealthy who spend their summer cruising up the Rhone drinking wine and lounging in their on deck spa as we cheese baguette eating paupers wave them by. If you do ever get to the south of France however, definitely take the time to come and see Arles, in fact if you are not pressed for time, you could easily spend days here eating good food and drinking wine whilst writing your memoirs.
Our next stop was the French Riviera, playground of the rich and famous, in keeping in tune with that theme we camped half way between Cannes and Nice, perfectly positioned to make the most of what the Cote D’Azure has to offer. First port of call was the red carpet in Cannes and some beach time outside the famous theatre, unless you are looking to drop a few grand shopping in designer stores there is not much more to do here so we jetted over for an afternoon/evening of wine and cheese on the pebbles in Nice to watch the sunset go down. Nice is an amazing city, it was beautiful when I did this same route 4 years ago, however much work has been done to remove traffic from the centre of town and it is now even more inviting than before. We spent the evening wandering the streets taking in the atmosphere with cafes and restaurants all spilling onto the sidewalk, that was until we finally got back on to the campsite and found we had to be out the next day, despite advising them at 9am and again at 11am we wished to stay, they thought it best we leave, which was fine but to find this out at 11pm and a few beers into what was looking to be a good night was not ideal. Now, up until I had my snowboard stolen in Les Arcs, I had never encountered the rude French stereotype, however, since that fateful eve in the Alps, it would seem the entire nation of France has turned against me, particularly those working in accommodation provision. Not only did the lady providing me with the news I had to pack up my tent tomorrow not give a sh*t, she was quite indignant that I had in fact never advised her colleague of the fact we wished to stay. Upon checking out it would seem I was not the only person having to deal with this level of service as one English family were not allowed to leave the campsite because they had stolen knob off the cooker in their apartment. As the lady proclaimed to the girl behind the counter “why on earth would I want to steal a knob off the cooker! I have my own at home”, the French reply? “Well perhaps you need more, or you broke it”.
When we finally managed to leave the campsite we drove the stunning coast road over to Monte Carlo for gambling and shoulder rubbing with the high end of town. Parking our hotel room for the night on the side of the road (who says I don’t show the ladies a good time!) we settled in for some cocktails at Café Paris and waited for the Casino to open. After a couple of glasses of what I am sure NASA use in the space program, we managed to stagger our way up the stairs and into the famous gambling den, which is more a museum than the bawdy type of casinos we are used to in Australia. The place drips with gold, amazing paintings adorn the walls and huge chandeliers dangle over head as people drop thousands of euros per hand, a bit rich for my blood but I did manage to win €100 on the pokies and €125 on black jack before I came back after a few later in the night and blew it all.
Waking in the car the next morning the first thing I noticed is that someone had somehow managed to get in during the night and: a) steal the money from my pockets, b) empty an ash tray in my mouth and c) break my thongs! As a result it was time for a driver change, so Chesty stepped up to the plate and took us over to the beautiful seaside town of Mentone for lunch, before driving us into Italy. Unfortunately the attack of the previous night had me so upset that I slept the whole way, so I can’t really provide much of an update here. Next stop Verona …