At the moment – we are in Provence. On Wednesday, we had one of those travel moments that becomes instant legend. Which makes at two (and still counting) of those stories on this trip so far. But that’s another blog post. Right now, I want to tell you about yesterday’s adventures.
Yesterday, we wanted to put our feet in the Mediterranean ocean. We needed a car. We’ll fast forward over the train from Arles to the bus to the airport to the car rental to getting out of town part.
We’ll pause for a moment for lunch in Martigues, a pretty little beach village at the mouth of the bay near Marseille. We were hungry and the guide book mentioned a wonderful little restaurant on one of the canals that runs through town. We found the miracle parking spot and started walking across the center Island through alleyways that was very Venice-like in age and construction. After ten minutes of ooing and aahing over the surprisingly charming passage ways, we found the restaurant.
It was perfect. It was small and cute and and promised exquisite provincial fish feasts with the magical just right glass of wine. The tables were all out on a porch over by the canal side of the street. The tables were tastefully set and the porch was all wood. Wood floor, wood lattice shading ceiling. White linens on the tables, little vases of flowers. billowing gauzy white drapes covering the corners gently fluting in the soft breeze all on this Sunday afternoon of perfect blue sky.
We’re talking Sunset Magazine perfect here. We’re talking Conde Nast Traveller Magazine Cover photo here. We’re talking the shot that clogs hundreds of Pinterest boards called “Must Eat Here!” We’re talking lightweight-Hollywood-rom/com-movie perfectly-dressed-set for the lunch where the boy and girl break up with each other due to stupid misunderstanding at the end of the second act here. The restaurant where no normal human eats at but here it is. Just sitting there in front of us.
We’re looking at this utopian restaurant, this veritable Eden of Foodie Heaven and we see that all of the tables are empty. Not some of the tables or “gosh, I hope that table finishes up in the next half hour and maybe we can nab it” kind of empty. No. On this perfect sun soaked afternoon, every single table is wide open, just waiting to be claimed.
Visions of the most surprising and delightfully perfect romantic Provence seaside meal has taken over my mind on this most perfect early afternoon as the waiter comes out to greet us. I mean there is absolutely nothing wrong with this picture until…
“I’m so sorry, do you have a reservation?”
The waiter recommends another location and we go there and we again encounter the reality that other people actually plan ahead in this world.
Let’s all just hate them for a moment.
However, the host, who first consoled us in our losses, recommend a third cafe which turned out to be – well – not the Hollywood movie set perfect but still freaking awesome food. and a nice outside table near a park at least. Okay, it was really a plaza. And there was another canal around the corner you could look at if you stretch your neck a bit.
It was all a gift to us. The walking, the finding and the looking again and seeing this village, this little echo of Venice we didn’t know existed. This is the addiction of travel. What comes next?
Back to our car and some more fast forwarding on our afternoon. The ferry across the Rhone River. The drive through Camargue National Refuge where there are giant salt mountains made in salt pans first laid out in the 14th century by monks and a huge beach with hundreds of RV’s parked out on the water’s edge and mile after mile of scrubby delta land. We saw something new around each corner. We also learned that the French feel very comfortable driving past each other at high speeds on very narrow roads.
Finally, four hours later, we throw our hands up in the air and started finding a way back to our temporary home city of Arles. Crossing the Little Rhone, we spotted a little road just over the bridge and took a sharp right.
It was again perfect. We flew past fields and listened to song birds saluting our passage. The windows down, the air fresh, all was pure joy. You could almost hear the carefree French pop jazz soundtrack as we turned corners and pulled over for other drivers to pass…
and then we came to the police car blocking a bridge over a canal. (insert the sound of a phonograph needle ripping across vintage vinyl)
We joined the the short line of cars, each waiting to talk to the policeman, to inquire about passage forward. While we waited for our turn to hear the already all too painfully obvious message, we started pulling out maps (paper and electronic) to figure out how to route around the new truth parked on that bridge.
We quickly learned we didn’t have very many options. We could go all the way back to our first turn, we could wait for the road to clear, or….
We could go follow the other five cars that had just turned left down a dirt lane next to the canal
the French appear to have a high tolerance for roads that barely carry the name
and this unpaved lane appeared to be at leased reasonably cared for
the five cars in front of us all decide to take this route so…
we did too.
After a few hundred feet, the good (as in relatively level and has gravel on it) road cut off to the left toward a farm house and away form the two parallel ruts running along the canal. I pulled off into a decision point because… well … even though every other driver is continuing on in a demented hope that their car is actually a four wheel drive in disguise, I’m concerned.
“Look,” Beloved said. “Three other cars just went down that lane.”
“Right,” I replied. “That could be three other cars totally wrong too.”
i pulled out along the good road figuring that while we might end up in someones driveway it may also be the actually through road. By the way, its difficult to step out of the herd and risk finding another way. There was security in remaining with the herd.
Of course, in very short order we found the good road ending at the farm house but we also found it was blocked with a very large gate and two very friendly and very large dogs eager to greet all the new visitors. Best of all, it also had a great place to reverse and rejoin the lemming parade of hope-grasping drivers.
At first it looked good. Or at least good enough. We’re all barreling down this long dirt lane and laughing about the situations we keep getting into when we travel and then, suddenly, the whole parade came to a complete stop. “Maybe a car got stuck,” we said. We could see a car struggling. “Maybe you could go see what is going on,” I suggested to Beloved who then walked and walked out of sight.
Well you know whats going on. We knew what was going on but hope dying is still hope.
What surprised me was how fast a mile or so of French drivers can collectively get all their cars turned around 180 degrees on a deeply rutted two lane road and start driving back toward the main road like bats out of hell or a least a dead end farming lane. Beloved barely made it back to the car in time.
I thought we were going to be there for hours but once the word started moving back down the line no one wasted any time executing that three point reversal of direction.
I was impressed.
I love the French. No muss, no fuss, just a simple and efficient acceptance of the reality that there were no magic short cuts on our way home from the beach. I did notice more then one driver pausing at the lip of the tarmac to discuss something with the police block back at the bridge.
Once we got back on the asphalt, still in slow motion parade mode, we turned on the radio and discovered that the Pharrell Williams Happy song was playing. There was nothing to do but crank it up and dance in the car.
Because you know what – it was an amazing day. How many times will anyone get gridlocked on a little French country dirt lane in our lifetime anyway? And unlocked in five minutes?