Leaving the Cote d'Azur to make our way to Provence, we took the scenic route through Le Grand Canyon du Verdon, considered to be Europe's prettiest canyon at 15 miles long and almost half a mile deep. At the bottom, a river the color of jade winds throughout. Before reaching the canyon we had a fun stop by turning in at a sign indicating a cheese seller. Driving down an increasingly rutted, dirt road about half a mile, we finally reached a run down farm with animals everywhere - dogs were everywhere, cows, goats, and rabbits behind fences, and a movie worthy farmer selling large amounts of cheese to a couple of men. Nathan managed to get across to the farmer that he'd like some goat cheese, and off we trundled into the cheese room, where it was clear to me that I would not be eating any of the cheese we bought (but Nathan said it tasted fabulous). Our farmer was so sure that we understood his language that he kept up a rapid fire speech the entire time of our visit, little of which we actually understood. I really wish I'd taken the camera out of the car and asked the farmer for a picture. I'm pretty sure it would have been one of our more treasured trip photos.
To unwind from the excitement of the cheese farm, we slowly drove along the rim of the canyon, stopping off at the scenic viewpoints to gaze at the river below. One stop was along the Pont d'Artuby, the highest bridge in Europe. I had no idea France had such wonders as a Grand Canyon and a highest bridge. My mental picture of France is made up of the famous structures in Paris, goat cheese, baguettes and croissants, and stripy shirts and berets. Sadly, I never saw anyone wearing a stripy shirt, but there were quite a few berets.
At the end of the canyon is a most beautiful lake, Lac du Ste Croix, with a glowing, green color. We'd read that there were kayaks and paddle boats to rent here, but had already discussed continuing on to our destination, the village of Moustiers Ste Marie for a wander, then on to Aix-en-Provence. That was until we reached the lake and saw that we could paddle a ways up into the canyon. The colors were too inviting, and we needed to absorb a bit of nature. Our one hour paddle up into the canyon was, for me, a trip highlight. The area is absolutely stunning, and I wished we were able to do a full, canyon rafting trip. Unfortunately, there is whitewater in the canyon, so the rafting trips were out for me right now.
We took another break in the village of Moustiers Ste Marie and found ourselves surprised yet again. The village is set among mountain peaks with waterfalls and a stream running through the middle of town, a chapel set high up into the cliffs (a 30 minute, steep walk uphill that we did not do), and flower covered shops selling the town's claim to fame, faience pottery, a delicate, pretty style. Intending to do just a quick walk thru town (much like our intention to just drive by Lac du Ste Croix), we slowed down and enjoyed the quiet atmosphere...and ate crepes.
And finally, we reached Aix-en-Provence, a bustling, yet charming, town filled with university students. We happened onto a small restaurant with a set menu, Ze Bistro, and this meal is now one of Nathan's all time favorites. With only ten or so tables, we were fortunate that they could fit us in on a Friday evening. If you're in Aix-en-Provence and looking for a great meal, Ze Bistro is our recommendation. By good fortune, Aix-en-Provence's amazing market was the following day, so we had the morning to explore it before checking out of our hotel and continuing on our trip through Provence. This was our first market of the trip and marked the start of seeking out towns having their daily markets. The French markets are so different from our Italian ones, which I do enjoy...but, quite frankly, the French markets are far classier. With our markets in Italy, generally I wade through and past dozens of tacky stands to find that one gem. In France, it's hard to pass up a single stall. Aix-en-Provence combined a large food market, filled with sausages, cheeses, and spices, with an antique market (oh, how I love vintage, French linens!), and then the ubiquitous stalls selling straw, market bags, beautiful pottery, interesting jewelry, and provencal fabrics. Needless to say, we spent a little more time than planned in the market, and by the time we finished, both of us had feet too tired to do anymore exploring of the town. Time to hit the road again.