Our journey from Italy to France was our first time flying in Europe. We heard that it is fairly easy and cheap. So, after a few hours of sleep, we set out at 9:15 a.m. to catch a plane departing at 12:15 p.m. In any other situation, this is plenty of time.

As grateful as we have been for public transportation, we’ve also been at its mercy. Trains are slow or late, and make a lot of stops. We arrive at platforms all the time without a clue as to when the next train is going to depart — leaving us waiting up to an hour sometimes or sprinting through train doors as they close.

Unfortunately for us, the train to the airport was pushing our time and patience. The first train didn’t end up coming until after 9:45, and stopped about every 5 minutes, and the second train was almost 15 minutes late! Forget the 2-hour before departure rule, we showed up at the Flumincio Airport in Rome at 11:30. Boarding closed at 11:35.

With a little blonde charm, the airport attendees rushed us through security and the baggage check and promised the plane wouldn’t leave without us.

Of course, our terminal and gate were the last ones. We looked like an odd pair running, — no — sprinting through the airport. Cori had a giant sweater and jeans on and Jordan was wearing a tank top and colorful skirt. Obviously the weather here has confused us immensely.

The flight between Rome and Nice was just a hop across the Mediterranean Sea. The airport in Nice is right on the water, and it felt like we were going to land in it. Right when the pavement appeared we touched down, landing with blue skies on a sunny day. A sigh of relief. The rain hasn’t found us since we left Chianti.

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With a population of 320,000 in its city center, Nice is a pile of red-rock houses on the coast. Homes dotted all the way up the hills to the French Alps just beyond its city limits. These outside neighborhoods bring the population to just over a million.

After getting turned around in the maze of Nice’s streets, a girl walked us to the bottom of the hill where our hostel was located. A hill is an understatement, though. Cori left Jordan waiting with luggage at the bottom as she trekked all the way up this mountain just to make sure our hostel was actually up there. Jordan felt as if Cori was gone forever. Again. Alone, with no ID, money or keys.

The hostel itself was beautiful. Villa St.Exupery was a former monastery that overlooked the entire city of Nice, all the way to the sea. Through our open window blew a nice ocean breeze. We shared this room with 10 other co-eds, our largest number of roommates yet. And it smelled like it. (If you’re going to book a bed in a hostel soon, we recommend an all-female dorm. Boys smell.)

When we arrived we immediately turned around and headed down to the coast for dinner and some seaside people watching. Colorful buildings greeted us on all sides.

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In the morning, we hopped on a train to the neighboring coastal town of Cannes, the nearest sandy beach just seven miles down the west coast. All we wanted was the sun to scorch our skin, fry our faces and bleach our hair. We found the nearest public beach and set up camp for a few hours, not complaining about a little sunburn.

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As you probably know, most of France’s beaches are nude or topless. It’s definitely an odd culture to us, and most of the people who had their tops off were women over the age of 60. The ones that don’t give a shit if you’re ogling their breasts or not. But most of the kids and everyone else around didn’t even seem to notice.

Cannes’ beach is also loaded with hagglers. Men selling hats, scarves, sunscreen, bracelets and umbrellas. There was even a woman offering massages on the beach (which was weird, and we later learned it was also illegal).

On the other side of the Alps we spotted a storm slowly rolling toward the coast. We ducked inland for a beer and a walk to the top of some of Cannes’ hills overlooking the coastal city.

While the French Riviera sun emblazoned our skin, we caught the train back to Nice just in time to cook a dinner and enjoy happy hour.

As if five hours of sun wasn’t enough for us, the next day we woke up, slipped on our swimsuits again and headed for another beach day, this time to the west of Nice. (Most people travel to other coastal cities for beaches because Nice is a rock beach).

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We took a bus that hugged the ridges and mountains of the coast all the way to Monaco, our surprise 9th country! According to the French, Moanco is the smallest country in Europe…although we made need to fact check that. Technically we already walked around the entire perimeter of a country once on this trip when we took a wrong turn and canvassed the entire outside of the walled Vatican City.

Once in Monaco, we walked around the prince’s gardens and stopped for some gelato (our lunch, yet again).

Our naiveté led us to believe there was a beach here, but it was mostly just ports and yachts. Following the sun and clear blue skies, we headed back down the east coast of the French Riviera to the village of Ville Franche, a smaller, rocky beach at the bottom of a giant mountain that a few of our guy roommates from Montana recommended.

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Again, we let the sun scorch our skin, fry our faces and bleach our hair until sunset.

After cooking ourselves a meal, we enjoyed yet another happy hour and talked with other hostel-goers for the rest of the night. We met a girl named Heather, who was practically Cori’s twin. They talked endlessly of documentaries and public relations and swapped a few book names and favorite authors until we finally turned to our rooms, greeted by half a dozen snoring roommates.

In the morning, we took a free walking tour with a few other people from our hostel. Heather came with us, along with an awesome “Nice expert” and Villa St. Exupery employee, James.

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We spent the afternoon cruising through the fruit and flower market, the old town and all the way up to a park on the top of a mountain overlooking the coast.

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Those living in the French Riviera have been more than warm and kind to us, although this language barrier has probably been the toughest. French people don’t speak English to you unless you ask. We’ve learned how to say, “Do you speak English?” in every country we’ve traveled to so far, probably deterring us from a lot of painful rejections from locals.

Right at sunset, we arrived in Avignon, a small city in Provence. After dropping off our bags at the hostel, we wandered up and down the streets. Since it was late and the sun was just setting, people were scarce, and it felt like we had walked into a storybook with no characters yet; it was just us.

 

Tall, gorgeous buildings rose on either side of us in neutral earth tones under a pastel-colored sky. Then the stone wall of the city was on our right as we walked along the inside of the city limits. All the buildings were adorned with beautiful 17th and 18th century architectural features.

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Avignon is a walled city, with giant stone pillars and lookouts that stretch 5 kilometers around the tiny city. Avignon used to be the home of the Pope back in it’s heyday. In the 14th Century, due to wars in Italy and other parts of Europe, the Pope was no longer safe in Rome so he relocated to Avignon and built a giant stone fortress around him not letting anyone within its walls. It held a high real estate price.

In the center of the town, we visited the Papal Palace, where seven different popes resided in Avignon throughout the war years. It overshadowed much of the rest of the city. Back in the day, the Pope was seen as one of the highest-regarded officials (not that he isn’t today) and the position carried a lot of weight across all of Europe.

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But the French king wanted to remind him who was boss around here, so he built a rather impressive French castle just on the other side of the Rhone River.

Avignon is surrounded by the Rhone River, one of the largest rivers in France that stretches all the way from Switzerland and empties into the Mediterranean. It has two arms; Avignon rests as an island right in the middle. We visited the Pont d’ Avignon, a bridge that once served as the only bridge across the Rhone River between Lyon and the Mediterranean but was later destroyed due to weather. It still stands, ominously ending in the center of the river; a bridge to nowhere.

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Starving and willing to eat the crumbs off the ground, we found ourselves face-to-face with a French menu in a much-too-fancy local restaurant on the west end of town. With not a single person speaking English, we pointedto the first thing that looked remotely appetizing on the menu. Somehow we ended up with an amazing dinner. Jordan had poitrine de veau confite aux senteurs (veal with mashed potatoes) and rinsed it down with red wine while Cori ate risotto cremeux de homard (risotto and lobster, shown below) paired with white wine. That was hands down our favorite meal so far, and it better be…our wallets felt it.

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After a morning walk around the entire city, we took a tour with two older Brazillian couples out to some of Avignon’s neighbors. Our first stop was in Orange, an old Roman town now holding just 3,000 people. It’s known for its antique theater and Triumphant Arch, a feature in most Roman colonies to remind them of the Empire’s victories.

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(Fun fact: A lot of Roman cities contain four things: an arch, a forum, a theater for entertainment and a bath, all traditional fixtures that tie all Roman cities throughout Europe together.) It was in nearly perfect condition after being built in 20 B.C. We think it’s the oldest thing we’ve ever seen. The antique theater was marvelous. It was built in the first century and still holds concerts in it today.

But the real reason we went on this tour was to go to a wine-tasting in the South of France, upstaging our usual patronage to Whole Foods wine-tastings on Fridays. Avignon is known for its vineyards. One of the more popular wines, Chateauneuf-du-Pape (this means “New Castle of the Pope”…when the city got too crowded, he moved out to the countryside for some peace and quiet) is not too far outside of Avignon. You can actually see the city in the distance. After traveling through miles of farm fields and old French towns (the fields alternate between wheat one year and sunflowers another; when we were there it was a wheat year) we arrived at the 8,000 acres of the vineyard near the valley of Provence’s tallest mountain (Fun fact: this mountain is frequently climbed by cyclists in the Tour d’France).

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The weather was nothing but blue skies and luminous sunshine, but one step outside, you’d think we were stepping into a hurricane. With winds reaching 90 kilometers an hour, Avignon and much of the South of France is home to what is called the Mistral. Meaning “masterly” in French, the wind is a strong, cold regional wind that comes from the North and accelerates through the Rhone valley all the way to the coast of the Mediterranean.

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The Mistral lies a heavy hand on the South of France, altering every little detail. Bell towers are left as skeletons out in the open due to the wind blowing the stones right off steeples. Even the French Riviera crops are kept extremely short with heavy thickets of Cyprus trees in between fields because the wind will sweep the crops right out of the ground.

The Mistral was literally knocking us over. It pushed Cori down some stairs and left Jordan grasping for the nearest railing. Probably not the best day to wear dresses… All over Avignon, we battled the Mistral, just walking 10 meters was quite the feat.

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We were told that the Mistral lasts in multiples of threes. It lasts for either for one day, three days, or up to six days. We were currently on day two of what seemed to be a three day cycle, but it was the strongest it had ever been this year.

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After braving the wind, we stepped into an old winery, with barrels larger than the both of us together. The smell was so sweet and promising. We wanted to bottle it up and take it home with us (pun intended).

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Chateauneuf-du-Pape is an extremely unique vineyard. When the Pope moved to Avignon, one of the first things he longed for was a summer home away from his cramped city and for some good wine. So he built a vineyard for himself and called it home in the hot months of France. In Chateauneuf-du-Pape (the name of both the vineyard and the small town), there are over 300 winemakers in a town of only about 2,000 people. The winery we went to makes mostly red wine (about 93%) and about 7% of white whine, but since white grapes are so sparse, they don’t export their white wine outside of France.

There, a wine master taught us how to tell if wine is good, how to read its age and the differences between the grapes as well as the soils used to plant each. You know if a bottle of wine is actually from Chateauneuf-du-Pape by it’s label and seal. It is the seal of the Vatican, with the two keys of Saint Peter. So, you can say we drank wine endorsed by the Pope himself. Holy wine.

At Chateauneuf-du-Pape, they use four soils, Rhone river pebbles, sand, limestone and sandstone. The Rhone river rocks heat the ground and keep the crops warm during colder nights. The 8,000 acres are picked in September by hand and take all of three weeks to do. Doesn’t sound like too bad of a job, does it?

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The differences in wines usually come from the soil its planted in, but at Chateauneuf-du-Pape they have 13 types of grapes to combine with all the different types of soil, allowing for thousands of combinations. Some of the grapes are ONLY found in the South of France, such as La Counoise and Le Cinsaultare, giving the wines made here a unique and rare taste.

The winemaker poured us three different glasses of wine. A fruity white wine from 2011, a dry red wine from 2009 and another red wine from 2005. Each drop was as good as the last. Speaking of the last drop, the French have a common legend that if you are poured the last drop of wine from a bottle, you will be married within the year. Our wine master jokingly told us that he should have been married 45 times by now.

With our bellies full of delicious wine (honestly, we could’ve had five more glasses), we ended our vineyard tour and headed back to Avignon for dinner at a bistro that specializes in a popular plate in France known as tartine, its basically toasted bread with melted cheese and vegetables on top. Right up our alley.

We’ve found our time spent in countrysides and smaller towns our most favorable experiences, always leaving begrudgingly and wishing for just one more day in the quieter towns and rolling hills of Europe. If we could have it our way we’d just bounce from small town to small town everywhere in Europe.

Next stop: Barcelona via a train that smells like we’re sitting in Goliath’s armpit.

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Always craving spontaneity (and for some French teenagers to shower),

C&J

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